The Time I Met Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut had been invited to speak at my university and my English professor arranged a little meet-and-greet with Vonnegut after his speech. This little private reception ended up being a line of students, each of us waiting our turn to shake this literary legend’s hand and ask him a question. What was I supposed to ask Kurt Vonnegut? I had read Slaughterhouse-Five and Galapagos, but what about those books was worth a question? Would I look stupid if I asked about something that should have been plainly obvious to any half-witted reader?


I had come unprepared for this. In my mind, the reception was going to be Vonnegut sipping a glass of wine amidst of a circle of students, talking about writing and maybe answering the questions a few of the braver students might have the courage to ask. I was hoping to be a bystander, a silent witness soaking it all in so that one day I could tell people about the time I met Kurt Vonnegut. I didn’t think I’d have to shake his hand and  come up with a smart question.

My anxiety grew as my turn neared. It was too late to drop out of the line without drawing attention to myself. At the last moment, it came to me. A decent, safe question.

“What was it like seeing your book made into a movie?” I asked as he steadied my trembling hand with a handshake.

He then gave me this look I’ll never forget, a look that said, “That was the stupidest, most inane question anyone has ever asked me.” It was a look of bewilderment mixed with disdain.

I had brought with me my copy of Slaughterhouse-Five that I wanted him to sign, but after this, there was no way I could come up with the courage to ask for that favor. I held the book to my chest as a shield (Vonnegut protecting me from Vonnegut) not knowing what to do next. He didn’t answer the question. The awkward moment lingered, and he finally shook his head in disappointment as if to say, “you have one question and this is the question you ask me?” He looked to the next person in line, and I meekly shuffled out of the way. I retreated to the back of the room, further disheartened by the enlightened conversation between Vonnegut and the next student in line.

Years later, I would come to see my experience as a wasted opportunity. It was as if I had traveled all the way to the Oracle of Delphi and asked, “What do you think about this rotten weather we’ve been having?” If I were to go back to that reception with Vonnegut and do it again, this is the question I might ask: How does a writer allay the self-doubt and fear of rejection that constantly gnaws away at the ego? But then again, maybe there’s no answer to this question either.

Beauty Matters

mona ace

You’re one of fifty-two people who mill about in a large room.  Each of you holds a playing card against your forehead.  No one knows their own card, but you can see each other’s.  The goal of this little game is to pair off with the highest card possible, but to accomplish this, your request for partnership has to be accepted by the other.  Of course the Aces and Kings are the most popular and they pretty much know right away that they’re the cream of the crop.  It’s instant mutual acceptance when an Ace requests to partner with another Ace.  It works fairly quickly with the Kings as well.  By the time this experiment is over, for the most part, Aces have paired with Aces, tens with tens, sixes with sixes, and twos with twos.

It must be kind of depressing being a two, being the last in the room to find a partner, watching all the high cards go, then the middle ones, and experiencing the horrible realization that you’re the low card that no one wants to pair with.

Research has shown this is how couples typically pair off in the real world.  Hot women tend to be with hot guys.  Sevens with sevens.  Twos with twos.  Through the process of assessing interest and receiving rejections, we get a pretty good gauge of where we stand relative to others, and we choose our partner accordingly.

The popular belief is that beauty is subjective—beauty is in the eye of the beholder—but really, we all hold similar opinions as to who we consider physically beautiful.  Even people in one culture can easily pick out beauty in another culture.  We are hard wired to perceive beauty.

So we do our best to enhance ourselves, to add value to our card.   We’ll diet and exercise to maintain the best proportions or wear makeup to project the illusion of youth.  We do this because it’s necessary to attract a partner with the most sexual allure.  We value other traits too, but physical beauty reigns supreme.  Talents can add to one’s overall allure but it’s more like one suit value trumping another.  Adding a Harvard degree to a killer body might make you the Ace of Hearts to the Ace of Clubs.  In other words, talent, charm, and intellect can increase the value of your suit, but not your pip value.

We often talk about the shallowness of physical beauty and how real beauty is something within, and there is a certain internal beauty we do admire.  It’s this internal beauty that makes a close friend or relative loveable in a heartwarming kind of way, but this kind of beauty doesn’t translate to romantic attraction.  They are two distinct kinds of beauty—one endears us to many friends and the other excites a potential romantic partner.

So can a Six ever make it with an Ace?  It happens but it’s not common.  If we’re slightly devious, we’ll try some sleight of hand.  Alcohol to level the playing field.  The use of power and/or intimidation.  Money.


Our stories, myths and legends try to convince the lower valued cards to hold out hope and that maybe in some perfect universe, Marisa Tomei might be attracted to short, stocky, bald men.


The lesson that many of our most cherished love stories attempt to drive home is that  inner beauty is everything.  But in what fairy tale is Prince Charming a three hundred pound oaf with big ears and acne?  The truth is, most fairy tales and stories are populated by pretty heroes and ugly villains.

So what about the twos and threes?  What is their destiny?  To become witches?   Criminals?  Is this what we expect from less physically attractive people?  With constant rejection and low societal expectations, wouldn’t a two or three naturally come to resent the world?  I’m sure at some point we’ve all felt that sinking feeling of being the last man or woman standing in the room—it sucks—but we all haven’t faced this rejection on a day-to-day basis.  This rejection does not come from only potential sexual mates.  Pulchronomics, which studies the economics of beauty, shows us prettier people earn more money than their plain counterparts.  Handsome children earn more attention from teachers.  It’s no wonder that criminals tend to be uglier than most.

Obviously, being ugly does not make one a criminal just like being depressed doesn’t cause someone to commit suicide.  There is, however, a striking correlation, and I wonder if we fully consider and appreciate the consequences of being physically unattractive and receiving constant rejection.

What we do tend to do is ridicule those who are preoccupied with their looks.  But in a world where looks has a greater bearing on future success than education, a focus on primping actually seems to be the smarter path to take.

This being said, we also tend to overvalue the benefits of beauty in relation to overall happiness.  Perhaps being the perpetual object of desire makes it easier to engage in extra-marital affairs, which can lead to painful divorces, breakups, or love triangles.  Perhaps the promiscuity associated with Hollywood is less indicative of the loose morals of show business and more the result of extraordinarily beautiful people constantly in the midst of each other.

So what’s the lesson?  Obviously beauty matters more than it seems appropriate to acknowledge.  But the more important question is what can we change?  Do we try to make the not-so-physically attractive more eye-appealing and encourage vanity?  Or do we try to change the perception and importance of beauty?  Can we really transform something that is hard-wired within us?

I think it would be nice if we could occasionally ask for a reshuffling of the deck.

Barn Tavern (Part Two)

If you don’t want to feel completely lost, please read part one.

Barn Tavern

“You can answer that if you need to,” she says.

Pete puts the phone on the bar top.  “No.  It’s ok.”  He wishes Roxanne would put her hand back on his leg, but she’s focused on her drink, taking exploratory sips.  A true novice.

“So, I’m here from out of town,” she says.  “Milwaukee to be exact.  I’ve been stuck at a trade conference all day.  I really don’t want to go back to my hotel room and sit there by myself, you know, watching Law and Order all night.  So, how does dancing sound?”

“Sounds good, but I’m not much of a dancer.  Bad leg.”

“We don’t have to dance.”  She puts her hand back on his knee.

He wants her right now, and as she massages his knee he remembers Janie Whitlock and how she let him put his hand up her shirt when they were sixteen and passionate about everything that didn’t involve school.  He didn’t ask.  He just did it because it felt right.  He had approached from behind and wrapped his arms around her waist.  Her body relaxed and her head went limp as it tilted back and slightly to the side.  He kissed her neck while his hands climbed up her body her closer and then he had both hands under her bra massaging her breasts.  Maybe that’s not exactly how it happened, the sights and sounds blurred by time, but he knows he remembers the feeling just right.

“I had an accident a few years back,” he tells Roxanne.  “Ran into a tree trying to avoid a plastic bag floating across the road.  I thought it was a dog.  I get around good now, but dancing’s asking a bit much.  But I am proud to say the bag is fine.”

Roxanne laughs.  She swivels her stool until she’s completely facing him.  Her drink is empty.  So is his bottle of beer.  He has a two-fisted hold on it even as it’s sandwiched between his legs.

“Let’s order something fun,” she says.

He orders her a Long Island iced tea and a beer for himself.

“Beer is boring,” she says.

But it’s cheaper.  “I’m a man of the bottle, remember?”  He does some mental mathematics, which is considerably tougher now after his sixth beer.  He wonders how he’s going to pull it off, the bill.  The phone vibrates again. He’s not so hopeful this time.  It’s a text from his wife.  It reads, “I took $40 from your wallet.  Nicole needed it 4 school.  Home soon?” 

Roxanne rotates to face the bar again as the bartender prepares her drink.

“That bag bankrupted me,” Pete says to regain her attention.

“I bet.”

“No, really.  I had to file for bankruptcy.  I was between jobs.  No insurance.  All my credit cards, gone.  Do you know what it’s like to have absolutely nothing?”

Roxanne leans into him and says softly, “You always have something.”

He can see down her blouse.  She’s about an 8.  He hopes he’ll get a better look, but the bartender ruins the moment by sliding the drinks under their noses.  She leans back in her stool.

Pete says, “I used to be a middle linebacker.  I was good.  Played a little in college.  I was quick when I had my legs at full strength.  But I quit when my uncle died.  Kind of a second father to me.  Cancer.”   Why is he talking about this?  “I still miss him.”

She puts a hand on his shoulder, which makes him want to cry.

“You know, this place really used to be a barn,” Pete says.


He imagines what it would be like with Roxanne, putting his arms around her and kissing her neck and crawling his hands over her skin.  “Like real animals.  My friend Janie had horses.  We’d ride them—there was nothing around here back then.  It was real peaceful.  But that was a long time ago.  She used to train horses.  Thoroughbreds.”

“You’re not that old.”

“No, I’m not.  But with this gimpy leg I sure feel like it.”  He’s blowing it, he knows.

She leans back.  “I’m sorry.  I really am.  I’m sure it’s tough.”

She’s not smiling anymore and he wishes he could bring it back, wishes that she would lean forward again and give him another eyeful.  What will it take for her to invite him back to her hotel room?  They both finish off their drinks.

“Another round?” he asks.

She thinks about it.  “Sure, but this one’s on me.  I insist.”  She tosses her credit card on the bar.

Pete gets another text message.  This one’s from Rick: “Sorry dude cant bail u out this time.”

Nearby, a spirited game of darts is underway, the intensity ratcheted up by a stern looking man with a brown crewcut and gray sideburns.  The man’s berating his younger opponent for not taking the game more seriously.

Pete’s phone vibrates again, but he doesn’t look at it because he feels like he’s neglecting Roxanne.  “Enough about me,” he says to her.  “What about you?”

She swivels back to him.  “What do you want to know?”

“You said you’re here for some kind of conference.  What do you do?”



“Credit cards.  I work for a bank.  We’re starting—”

“Banks.  That’s twisted.  My business scars your foot while yours basically guts me.”  The beer is going down much faster now.

“It’s just a job for me.  To pay the bills.  It’s nothing personal.  I don’t even like my job.”

“My job’s really pretty pointless.  I mean, I show up, but come on, do they really think I can tell if things are going good better than a computer can?  I supervise a system so automated I’m the only live person left.  Nobody notices when I’m there.  No one cares if I’m not.  I bet you have no idea what that’s like.”

“I do.”

“I’ve gotta piss.”  He’s been putting off his trip to the bathroom mainly because he doesn’t want Roxanne to see him walk, fearing that she might attribute his stagger to drunkenness rather than just a bum leg.  Or vice versa.  He’s true too drunk to tell what he’s really afraid of.  But he can’t hold it.  He also can’t resist taking the opportunity to look at his phone.  Another text from his wife: I like it when you’re here.  I like it when you’re here on time.  He trips on the leg of a stool at the far end of the bar and twizzles on his good leg, coming out of his spin without falling only by collapsing onto the foosball table.  There’s no going back, he thinks.

He has to forge a path to the restroom by squeezing between sweaty bodies until he reaches a clearing near the dart boards.  He pauses to let the more fiery of the competitors toss a triple twenty.  Pete remembers the days when the guys used to call him “Mr. Max” because of his ability to nail the triple twenties and score frequent maximums.  Pete sees a possibility.

…to be continued

Barn Tavern

Barn Tavern

Pete swirls the last swallow of beer remaining in the bottle.  He’s done with this place.  Even though it’s got the same name, the bar isn’t the same under the new ownership.  The Barn Tavern used to be a barn, but now the haystacks framing the doorway and the scarecrow painfully pinned to the wall, its legs straddling the dartboard, are more like offensive jokes at the expense of the building’s heritage.  The new owners have also changed the sign outside, capitalizing the “N” in “barn” and setting it slightly askew so that it looks like Bar ‘N’ Tavern, which is redundant and stupid and leads Pete to think there’s no way this place is going to last more than a few months.

“This place really used to be a barn,” Pete informs the bartender whose shaggy beard doesn’t even begin to hide his youth.

“That’s what they say.”  The bartender’s arms are shaved so that the Dylan verse tattooed on each forearm is clearly legible.  His right arm says, “behind every beautiful thing there’s some kind of pain” while the left counters with “he not busy being born is busy dying.”

“No, really,” Pete insists.  “I grew up around here.  Me and Janie Whitlock used to make out back there where the restrooms are.  She used to train Thoroughbreds.”

The bartender smiles and nods before quickly turning his attention to the pair of young women who are seated a couple stools down.  Pete doesn’t like this new bartender.  He’s too young and probably thinks the ink on his arms marks him as a deep thinker.  And, to top it off, he’s effectively ended Pete’s night, having slid the totaled tab under Pete’s nose just a few minutes before.

The 10 p.m. crowd, consisting mostly of guests from the new hotel just down the road, has replaced the regulars.  Pete’s ready to go.  He pulls out his wallet and is stunned when he finds it empty, the forty dollars he withdrew from the bank last Friday, gone.  He searches the slits and pockets of his wallet, pulling out receipts, coupons and free membership cards that clutter it.  No cash.  He panics.

In an extended moment of pathetic desperation, he totals the value of the coupons.  A buy-one-get-one-free deal at IHOP.  At least a seven dollar value.  Five dollars off a full service car wash.  Three dollars off a large bucket of golf balls at Shady Oaks Driving Range.  A forty-cent-off coupon on a twelve-pack of toilet paper.  Everyone needs toilet paper.  A coupon for two free tacos, whose value is increased by the “no purchase necessary” clause advertised in bold letters.  In total, his fifteen dollars and forty cents worth of coupons might be a fair exchange for his ten-dollar tab.  He’s almost seriously considering offering this when he notices the bartender and the two women staring at him, sharing little giggles.  Pete quickly folds the coupons and stuffs them back into the wallet.  A stupid idea.  And what the hell happened to his forty dollars?

He pulls out his phone and is in the middle of sending a pleading text message to his buddy Ray when a woman seats herself on the stool next to his.  She wears glasses.  Pete digs chicks with glasses.  The woman is taking in the ambiance of the place, and he hopes her eyes will eventually settle on him.

When they do, he says, “Hey.  I’m Pete.”

“I’m Roxanne.”

“Really?  You’re the third Roxanne I’ve met today!”  She’s only the first Roxanne he’s met in the past month, but he’s put a lot of thought into this line while toiling through boredom at the plant.  The genius of it is that the woman is immediately grouped in with two other nondescript women, and motivated by the prideful desire to stand out above the unremarkable Roxannes, she’ll try to impress him.  Eventually she’ll rationalize that she’s doing this because she likes him.  This plan has worked a thousand times in his imagination.

She smiles.  “I bet I’m the best Roxanne you’ll ever meet.”

He takes the last swig of his beer then smiles.  “We’ll see.”

She scans the liquor bottles lining the shelves.  “I don’t know what to get,” she says.  “I’m not someone who usually comes to bars.”

“And I’m not someone who usually leaves bars.”

She laughs.  “So what would you recommend for a novice like me?”

“Well, do you want something smooth and fruity or something strong and hard that will put you on your back?”

“Stop!” she says cutely.  She touches his arm, which causes the hair on it to stand up and his body to tense.

He waves to the bartender.  “Get this lady a Cape Cod,” he calls out.

The bartender comes over.  “Sure thing.  Same tab?” the bearded bartender asks.

Now Pete’s screwed.  He knows it.  “Yeah.  You can put it on my tab.”

“So, Mr. Pete,” says Roxanne, looking completely invested, “what do you do besides never leaving bars?”

“I’m a man of the bottle.  Seriously.  I’m a manager at a bottle plant.”  This isn’t completely untrue.  What he manages is to remove the defective bottles from the line.  Actually, the machine does that automatically, but he has to supervise it and make sure the machine, which operates at the precision of something like 1/1000 mm, is properly sorting the good bottles from the bad ones.  Basically, his job is not needed and he keeps it only because when the bottle plant opened here a few years ago, the company promised the city it would maintain a certain number of employees in exchange for even more lucrative tax breaks.  But really, if he calls in sick, no one fills his spot.  He’s been sick a lot this year.

“So, what exactly do you do there besides down a few when no one’s looking?” she asks.

The bartender slides her drink in front of her.

“We make the bottle, not the booze.”  He lifts his empty beer bottle for her to inspect.  “You see this.  This is glass.  It is one-hundred percent reusable and doesn’t decompose.  You can’t say that about plastic or anything else.”

She crosses her legs.  She has nice ones, he thinks.  He also thinks she’s being flirtatious until she takes off her sandal and shows him the long scar on the inside of her right foot.  “I got this from a stepping on a broken bottle.”

“That’s quite a scar.  Thanks for showing it to me.”

She blushes.  “Sorry about that.  It’s not something I usually show people.  But since you mentioned your connection to bottles…”

The bartender brings him another Budweiser.  He must have misinterpreted Pete’s raising of the bottle for Roxanne to inspect as a request for another.  Pete’s really got to do something about this issue of a tab.

“There are other parts of me that make up for the parts that are scarred,”  Roxanne says, breaking a silence that was gaining momentum.

“We’re all scarred in one way or another,” he says, thinking he’ll sound deep and empathetic, but the words feel cold and hollow.

She excuses herself to go the bathroom.  Pete takes the opportunity to pull out his cell phone and send a flurry of text messages to loyal friends who might be able to rescue him by coming to the bar and covering his tab.

When Roxanne walks back from the restroom, she seems more lustrous, and Pete’s trying to figure out what exactly she did to herself.  She walks with confidence, he notices.  He stuffs his phone into his pocket.

She puts her hand on his leg to brace herself as she climbs onto her stool, but she leaves it there even after she’s seated.

“Do you like to dance?” she asks.

Before he can answer, his phone vibrates.

“You’re buzzing.  Maybe that means we should go.”  She laughs nervously.

We?  He nonchalantly pulls out his phone.  He hopes it’s Ray, Juan, or even Tony replying to his texts.  It’s not.  It’s his wife.

click to continue reading



“Whatever you do, no climbing any trees while I’m gone,” my mother had said before she left the house to go shopping.  The simple warning had slipped out of her mouth, fallen to the floor, wiggled through the carpet, squeezed behind the TV set, crawled up the wall, wafted over my head out the window, and caught up with me thirty minutes later as I was shimmying up the largest oak tree in my neighborhood.

Dressed in my Spiderman suit—which were really pajamas with sleeves that no longer reached my wrists and tattered bottoms that extended just beyond my knees—I stopped just as I reached a broad, upwardly expanding limb.  I watched in wonderment as Steven carefully eased himself away from the trunk, avoiding prickly branches as he neared the end of the limb.  His Superman suit fit him perfectly, and the falling sun cast a phosphorescent glow on the red cape tied neatly around his neck.

“I don’t think I’m supposed to be climbing trees,” I called out as I made the critical mistake of looking down.

Steven remained focused on the branch supporting his broad chest.  “You don’t have to.  I just want to see how high I can get.  I’m Superman, remember?”

I looked up.  We weren’t even halfway to the top, but we were higher than I had ever climbed.  I timidly followed my friend out onto the limb, hugging it securely and ignoring the pricks on my forearms and ankles.

I had a sinking feeling.  With our combined weight the branch bent until it was nearly horizontal.  But it didn’t break.  Steven sat upright and flung his cape proudly over his shoulder.  He watched with compassionate concern as my fragile frame inched closer to him.  A semi-circle grin rounded out my elated face, and I was beginning to maneuver myself upright, to sit beside greatness, when I heard the crack.  The geometry on my face reversed itself as I whipped my head around to see what had happened.  The limb remained securely attached to its trunk, but my reaction had been too abrupt, and I lost my balance.  The world flipped as I swung around the limb, my arms flailing but catching nothing but empty air.  My legs, though quivering, held strong, and I hung upside down staring at the hard ground that awaited my head.  I cried out in fear.

“Grab my hand,” said Steven.  I strained my neck to find his silhouette framed in a flare of sunlight.  Reaching out my arm, I swung it until I found his hand.  My fingers wrapped around his, and I sighed in relief as I began to be pulled upright.

What happened next was one of those rare unexplainables, like biting into a salad fork or poking an eye while putting on a t-shirt.  My feet suddenly lost their grip, and though I tried to hang on to Steven’s hand, I flew—miraculously feet first—toward the ground.  Impact sent a violent shock throughout my entire body.  Pain had no identity, but it overtook me.  I squeezed my eyes and rolled on the ground in anguish.  I needed my mother to absorb my pitiful groans.  Burying my head in the ground, I let the tears puddle beneath the bridge of my nose.  It was my own fault.  I couldn’t let Steven see this—my defeat.

Even as I suppressed my barking breaths, they lingered, orbiting around my head.  After what must have been almost a minute, I took a deep breath and held it, but the gasps continued.  I realized they weren’t my own.  I cautiously lifted my head, and my eyes climbed the tree and followed the limb to the red cape firmly in the grasp of prickly branches.  Dangling several feet below, his head in the noose of the cape, was Steven.  His strong fingers struggled to untie the knot around his neck.  His legs thrashed the air as raspy whimpers escaped his throat.  My tears hardened as I watched in horror.  I was going be in trouble if my mom found out where I’d been.

Months later, standing on the stage in front of my classmates, I accepted the wooden, shield-shaped plaque amidst the chorus of cheers.  My mom had taken off work to be there for that day, and my eyes teared when I saw her smiling proudly at me from the back of the auditorium.

I stood uncomfortably beside the principal of our school as he gave my little hand a firm shake.  He put his hand on my shoulder and spoke into the microphone.  “Steven Keller wanted to fly like Superman, and for a brief time he did.  He was a model student and this award, in his memory, is given to a student who best exhibits exemplary behavior.  You should be very proud, son.”  He handed me the award and pushed me forward to the front of the stage to accept the applause.

I didn’t know what “exemplary” meant at the time, but in my mind it was something horrid.  My refusal to speak since Steven’s accident had been mistaken for good behavior.  Exemplary behavior.

But to this day, every time I hear the word, I remember the scared little kid who ran home and cowered in his bedroom while his friend dangled from a tree.

I Confess. I Cheated.


You’re in school taking the most important and hardest class you’ll ever take.  There’s a lot of pressure because if you make an A you’ll be guaranteed a job.  A B might get you the job depending on how everyone else in the class does.  But you’re pretty confident because you’ve worked harder than your classmates.

First test you make a B.  A few of your classmates make Cs and Ds but the majority make As, and you wonder how they did that.  Soon, you hear that one of your classmates has a copy of all the semester’s tests, obtained perhaps by cleverly hacking into the professor’s computer.  The ones who are cheating ask if you’d like to come over and “study” with them for the next test.  You decline because you don’t want to be a cheater.

You study more than you did for the last test because you know you have to just to keep up.  You end up with a B plus.  They make As again.  They’re contacted by job recruiters.  You are not.  Even some of the ones who made Cs and Ds on the first test are now making As, moving you closer to the bottom of the pack.  You’d like to tell on them, but you have no proof.  Besides, that would really tick off the whole group, and they pretty much detest you anyway for your goody-two-shoes routine.

You do what you have to.  You join them.  You make your A.  You get the job.  You’re financially independent and so happy about that.  You get married and have kids, whose piano and tennis lessons you can pay for thanks to that good job.  Your family is happy.  No regrets.  You and your college buddies laugh about that class years later.

Now you’ve got this great job in a tight economy.  Again, you’re working your butt off, eating lunches at your desk, never taking sick days or personal days, yet the productivity of your co-workers is surpassing your own.  You know they’re cutting corners, backdating documents, shredding customer complaints and doing what they can to stay a step ahead of the curve.  One misstep and they could be fired.  They know that.  You know that.  At the same time, you know that management tacitly condones this behavior as long as they don’t make an obvious blunder that forces management’s hand.  You have a family and hate taking risks especially when it comes down to your livelihood.  However, you wonder that if you can’t keep up with the pack and their inflated numbers, you might lose your job.   You give up vacations, work on holidays, extend your work week to eighty hours just to do what your co-workers claim they do in a forty hour week.  You have your integrity.  You keep up this pace for twenty years, put your kids through college, watch them have families of their own, and finally you retire.

When you look back, you wonder what it would have been like to spend just a little more time with your kids?  You regret not spending more, because when it comes down to it, isn’t the family the most important thing?  You feel bitter at the rest of the world who seems happier than you with fewer wrinkles around the eyes.  They never faced the consequences of their misdeeds.  Or were they really misdeeds?  You wonder if making three follow up calls and fibbing on the required fourth would have made that much of a difference.

We face these kinds of tough decisions every day, sometimes without even considering the moral and ethical significance.  Cheating and getting ahead is the easy decision.  Choosing not to cheat is the tough one.  However, cheating does, after all, imply getting a competitive advantage.  What if you are at a competitive disadvantage if you don’t cheat because everybody else is?  It’s easy to justify it in our own heads when we are pursuing our goals to be successful and respected.

Let’s be honest.  What we all want is to be successful.  Society puts pressure on us to be successful.  In our culture, success is measured by the acquisition of things.  A businessman who nets one million dollars is more successful than one who nets a hundred thousand dollars.  No one asks to compare their bookkeeping or business practices.  An NBA superstar who has five championship rings is more successful than one who doesn’t have any.  Even successful parents are ones who produce successful children, children who are able to obtain a lot of things and money.  Sometimes we need to see ourselves as successful.

It’s time for me to come clean.  I am a Scrabble cheater when it comes to games played on my mobile device.  At first I just played against a friend at work against whom I racked up a record of twenty wins and no losses.  I branched out and began playing other players online.  I’d lose a few games here and there, but I was much more serious about the game than ninety-five percent of the other people that I played, so that in itself gave me an advantage.  There was one guy I liked to play.  We’d have close games but I’d win about eighty percent of the time.  Then his average score suddenly shot up by sixty points.  I’d been playing long enough to know the difference between making good use of the board and pulling insane words out of nowhere, and not just crazy two or three-letter goofy words like ZO and ZA that every Scrabble player with a hundred games under his belt begins to know.  These were words like ALUNITES or HODJAS or ORIGAN (no, not “origin” or “Oregon” but “origan”, in botany, another name for marjoram).  I didn’t want to directly accuse him of cheating but I sent him a message that said, “Are you a Muslim botanist and chemist?” to which he replied, “No.  Someone just played these words against me once, and I remembered them.”

Whatever.  I knew he was cheating.  It’s easy to hop onto the internet and use an anagram solver, and no one on the other side can ever prove it.  He started beating me.  It made me mad.  I watched my win/loss record fall below ninety percent, not that it really matters since no one but me ever looks at it.

So then, I started doing it, using the anagram solvers.  I started to beat him again.  And it felt good.   I didn’t feel guilty about it.  If that’s the way he wants to play, that’s the way I’ll play, I told myself.

The point of all this is not to suggest that cheating is the proper way to go but merely how easy it is to justify to ourselves that not only is cheating the better way but also the vital way.  There is an insane pressure placed on us from birth to succeed, and although many of us are brought up in the Christian tradition of humility and charity, we all know that piety and moral purity are not the main criteria society considers when labeling a person a success.

Since we are social beings, how others see us is so important to how we define and view ourselves.  We want others to like us and we naturally hide our flaws.

So now we come to Lance Armstrong.  Of course I had to watch his interview with Oprah.  I genuinely feel bad for him not because I sympathize with what he did but because I can only imagine how painful the fall from the top to the thorny pit of despair must be.  The truth is, we’ve all been in his situation.  You might say my Scrabble example is nothing like Lance Armstrong because there was nothing really at stake.  But really, that makes my actions even more preposterous.  The only thing at stake was my own vanity.

I’ve talked to some who might understand why he cheated, but cannot tolerate the way he viciously went after the people who accused him of cheating.  Anyone who has had an affair and is trying to hide it will scorch the earth before they reveal their lie.  It’s not noble or right.  It’s just a desperate attempt to stay above everything and scrape and claw at whatever might catch before the inevitable avalanche sends us tumbling down the mountain.  The deeper and more important the lie, the more people we are willing to hurt to protect it.  The way I see it, a man at his worst is usually no worse than most men.

To be clear, I’m not excusing Lance Armstrong’s behavior.  His titles should be stripped, a ban implemented, and his legend in the sport of racing tarnished.  But I don’t hate him either.  I’m just considering the reality that Lance Armstrong, like us all, is human.  Perhaps that is the biggest disappointment.




Dragging with her the gossip queen
She slips away to hidden space along the edge
Where whispers are suppressed by industrial woosh
And where webs are weaved
And transgressors trapped
And where ears sneak into seismic cracks
This is the real business
Salt and pepper to the filet of mundane
 Can you believe
    No way, no how
    It’s the truth
    Here’s the proof
    Maybe it’s something misunderstood
    But how can it be, how can it be
    It is, it is

The shame of secrets spilled
From voices
from voices I know
Nowhere better to follow the show
Than from behind a thin sheet of drywall

Let me tell you something…something about what they said
As I…As I heard it all.