Sunday, April 22, 2012

writer's block? maybe ... maybe not ...

I am stumped as to what to write today.

Maybe this is what is referred to as “writer’s block.” I am not sure. I do not feel blocked. I just do not feel inspired. Nothing has caught my attention long enough or affected me deep enough to capture my thoughts and compel me to write.

A few weeks ago, I planned that this week would be a post about trust. I even asked others what was their opinion about the topic. However, to do that topic justice would require more time to delve into my personal point of view, to structure the content and flow, to define the arguments and agreements, and to create the hook. Then, of course, there is the necessary action… to write.

I totally get that writing a blog involves one very important action: writing. What I don’t know is what one does when one is not feeling up to it, or when not feeling inspired. What does one do when there is nothing interesting to say? Nothing? That doesn’t seem right. There should be something to write about.

It’s not as if my life has stopped being interesting in one week; it’s just that my life has been, well, my simple life this past week. Nothing major happened. I read. I ate. I went to a few meetings. I went to therapy. I hiked. Nothing really that amounts to good writing material.

*     *     *     *     *

Speaking of hiking, I went on one yesterday at Bear Mountain. It’s about 45 minutes North West of New York City. It is amazing to take a quick drive and literally be climbing up into the trees and vistas. The sounds of the city far behind you and the sounds of the breeze, birds, crunching pine needles and your own breath filling your eardrums.

The hike was challenging and fun. By the end, my head felt clear and I was happy. Victor was very happy to be there. He easily climbed the mountain. It was a bit exhausting to climb it. This particular hike was part of several training hikes that my friend, Kirk, and I are doing in preparation for a week long hike in the Smokey Mountains.

That hike, which will happen in May, will give me some good writing material. I intend to take lots of pictures, and post about the daily activities, mostly how it felt, what I saw, heard, and ate; and what I learned and experienced along the trail. The purpose of this journey is to push myself physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail, or a portion thereof, has not been a lifelong dream. I have never done anything like this before and I welcome the adventure. It will be hard, but that is the point. I look forward to taking on this challenge. This whole “hike thing” came about in a casual conversation.

"I’ve been thinking about hiking the Appalachian Trail. In the Smokey Mountains, near where I grew up.” Kirk said during a conversation.
“Cool,” I said, not really thinking much more about it. I am sure I was doing three other things at once, probably updating my Facebook status.
“I was looking into it and I think it would take about seven days to do the part of the trail I am considering. I really want to experience this; I think it will be a huge accomplishment,” he said, the excitement palpable over the phone line.
“Do you want to join me?” he asks.
In my head I thought, "Go on a seven day hike? Ummmm ... No." 

*     *     *     *     *

I always say no. I never do adventurous things. Other people do. I am invited and then I say no. I see their pictures posted, their comments about their trip or excursion, and listen to them talk about how fun it was, what they saw, what they learned, how great it was. And, then, I hate them. I get jealous.

Why do other people have lives? Why don’t I ever do anything like that?

I resent the fact that other people push themselves to be a better people or to experience life in ways that they aren’t used to. Pushing outside my comfort zone is something that I do not do. And have not done in a long time.

A line from Carrie Fisher’s “Postcards from the Edge” has stuck with me since I read it in the mid-1990s:

“Sometimes I feel like I have my nose pressed against the window of a bakery. Only I am the bread.”

It’s a fitting statement that really captures how I feel I have lived my life. Don’t get me wrong, I have had adventures, but I really feel like a spectator most of the time. I used to blame work. I could never really live life because work always got in the way. Whatever. It was a lame excuse, but it worked to cover up my fears about being seen as a failure. I used to believe that if I cannot do something perfectly, I just would not do it. Let other people have a life. Let them fail. Then watch them live this “so called” life and resent them. Or … resent myself for not being adventurous.

Now I think more in terms of “what do I have to lose?” Nothing. What do I have to gain? I have no idea until I try.

Moments, or a day later, I said to Kirk, "I've been thinking about this hike thing." I took a deep breath.
"I'd love to go."

And the adventure began.

*      *      *      *      *

In the meantime, we are preparing for this excursion. We have been on practice hikes, we purchased backpacks, boots, and several books. We’ve read what to do, what to bring and not to bring, what to expect, etc. We are speaking to experienced hikers and are acquiring a lot of helpful and useful information. They are encouraging.

We’ve also listened to countless people say they think we’re crazy for doing this without ever having done it before. Honestly, I am getting really tired of that. If one doesn’t do things one hasn’t done before, one would only do what one has always done. BORING. I’ve lived my life that way. Besides, we are both adults. I feel that, as a 43-year-old man, I can handle myself on a trail. And, if I can’t, I think I am smart enough to know that I can always get off the trail. So, if you have an opinion on it, please keep it to yourself. And, no, I have not read “A Walk in The Woods.”

There is more to do to prepare. I get that. There is more to buy. I get that. There is more to learn. I get that. We leave one month from today. I get that.

What more will I get? Life experience. Thinking on my feet. Blisters. A tan. Bug bites. Sore legs. Tighter calves and thighs. An aching back. An appreciation for food that is not freeze-dried. The glow of self-awareness. A spiritual connection that I have been lacking. The stars, the moon, and the Milky Way. An appreciation for accomplishing something that I set out to accomplish. Mental clarity that I have been seeking. Many stories to tell. Rained on, perhaps. A new hobby, maybe.

Honestly, I have no idea exactly what I will get. That’s the point. What I do know is this: I am doing this hike for me. Me. No one else. This is mine and no one can take it away or diminish its importance to me. I get that.

I guess I did have something to say today after all.

Get it? Got it? Good.

Monday, April 16, 2012

a tisket, a tasket, what's in my grocery basket ...

I like grocery shopping. It’s not a chore that I dread, like vacuuming or rotating clothes with the change of seasons. Actually, I don’t dread those chores either. I suppose that if I owned my own house I would dread chores like cleaning out the gutters, or painting the eaves, but I am only guessing since those tasks never appear on my “to do” list.

Grocery shopping is always on my “to do” list and I find it to be a fun chore. I like because it involves thinking, planning and strategy. It requires skill: planning the meals to eat for the week, creating a list of what is needed and wanted, a plan for where to get all the goodies, and a definite sense for detail and organization. It’s a perfect project for me.

Grocery shopping in New York City is different from other places I have lived, even San Francisco. Maybe it’s because I don’t have a car. When I lived in San Francisco, I lived three blocks from a Cala Foods, but drove my Ford Escort there and back to stock my fridge and pantry with necessities. I still planned what I would eat, but since I was able to haul more, I bought more.

When I lived in Irvine, grocery-shopping day meant going to Albertson’s, along with Lowes, Home Depot, Walgreens, and Ikea and any other store that my “at the time” boyfriend saw a manic need to get to. The car was filled to the brim with he and I, a dog, wood, plants, potting soil, pots, ready-to-assemble (and ready-to-annoy) furniture, toilet paper and paper towels, huge jugs of laundry detergent, and many grocery bags filled with everything you could possible imagine. You’d have thought we were preparing for the apocalypse.

*     *     *     *     *

In my early twenties, when I first lived alone, I grocery shopped off the belief that if a cupboard was bare and the fridge was empty, it needed to be filled. No empty space was allowed, otherwise it symbolized that I could not afford to have full cupboards or a full fridge. Being able to fill them symbolized that I had achieved a level of success in life. “Being able” meant that my fridge and cupboards lived outside my means.

My first task on shopping day was “the big clean out.” I would throw out old leftovers, dried out rice and days old stir-fry, pasta sauce spotted with mold, cheese with green film and hair, lettuce in its own distinct and pungent brown water, smooshy tomatoes, and anything else that had passed its prime. I would toss almost empty packages of frozen peas covered in ice and shriveled to pebbles, and clear out sausages, ground beef, or chicken breasts encased in an iceberg that concealed the whitish glow of “freezer burn”.

Once complete, I would focus on what was needed to stock my fridge and freezer. More rice, more veggies for this week’s stir-fry, different cheeses, lettuce, tomatoes, frozen peas, ground beef, chicken, and breakfast meats; anything and everything in order to fill up the drawers and shelves, only to repeat the big clean out process again two weeks later.

*     *     *     *     *

Now that I am older, I tend to control my purchasing power and stick to what I need based on … well … need. Not the need to fill the fridge, but the need to create well-balanced meals.

In New York City, it is easier to “right size” the grocery shopping experience. First, the task is about buying food to sustain myself for one week. Sometimes, I shop daily for what I will eat that night, but this can become burdensome to do each day.

Typically, “Shopping Day” happens on Sundays at my regular grocery store, West Side Market, early and before it gets too crazy. I put laundry in the washer and then head out to the grocery store. Grocery stores in NYC are small and well stocked, with items housed pretty much to the ceiling. They do not always carry every brand and sometimes I have to go to various places to get exactly what I want. For example, West Side Market never has decent artichokes. I go elsewhere to get those. I never buy paper towels or TP at the grocery store. I buy those items at the Duane Reade, RiteAid, or CVS.

Everyplace in New York City delivers. If I am stocking up, or preparing for a dinner party, or buying more than I can carry (or heavy things like flour, sugar, bottles of juice, etc.), I will have those delivered. It’s a nice treat to fill a cart and leave empty handed. At home, the doorbell rings and Ta Da! It’s all being placed on the kitchen counter. A tip, a thank you, and the chore is d-o-n-e done.

I love strolling through a grocery store when it is not crammed like a subway car. I like to test the ripeness of fruit, debate a change in brands due to sodium content, calculate the price per ounce, fill up a basket, and act like Joanna in “The Stepford Wives” while helping a little old lady who struggles to grasp a hard to reach item. All while humming along the sixties and seventies tunes that ooze out of the store’s speakers.

I follow a definite path through my grocery store. It’s based partly on the store’s layout, but mostly on what I need as shown on my meal plan and shopping list. Produce is always first. I spend a lot of time touching, smelling, considering, and sometimes rethinking my meal plan depending on the state of produce. This is usually where I veer “off list” and add veggies, fruit or herbs that I did not intend buying.

Then I move in this order: cheese; bread; cereal (where I also veer “off list”); cans, jars, and boxes of things (peanut butter, pickles, oils, pastas, rice, sauces, dressings, stock, etc.); frozen items; dairy and eggs; meats; and then to check out, where I get heavy bottled items like juice, seltzer, etc.

Aren’t you happy to know that? Do you feel complete?

*     *     *     *     *

When I first moved to New York, grocery shopping was a new and exciting adventure. Occasionally, a drive to New Jersey was needed to stock up. Grocery stores there were larger, had every brand conceivable, and were like the stores in the suburbs of California. I loved being in the chip aisle. An entire aisle devoted to every kind and flavor of chip possible. I felt the same way with the cereal aisle: neat, orderly, and colorful boxes, and boxes upon boxes, upon boxes upon boxes. Ahhh! Domestic bliss!

When I moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I realized I moved two blocks from a New York grocery institution, Zabar’s. Immediately recognizable by their white bags with orange and black lettering, this should have been THE pinnacle of Upper West Side grocery shopping. I gleefully entered the market and went to the glorious cheese case. I was promptly pushed out of the way by a wrinkled biddy that started to fight me for a hunk of cheese. People pushed, grabbed, bumped into me without apology. It is small, cramped, and excessively pricey. I left and vowed I would never grocery shop there. It’s horrible, institution or not.

There is Citerella, the Saks Fifth Avenue of grocery stores. It’s fancy, upscale, clean, and classy. I put some basics in my basket only to quickly figure out that the six meager items already totaled over $50. I set down the basket and slinked out, hoping no one noticed. I only ever buy their artichokes. They have the best.

Fairway Market (also a New York institution) is a ginormous place compared to my regular market. Along with the store’s immense square footage come immense shopping crowds. The lines for checkout are like queuing up for the Matterhorn at Disneyland. To avoid fighting the crowd, the best time to shop there is late at night, usually after 10:00pm. I rarely go there.

*     *     *     *     *

Sometimes, I order online, but I just don’t like to. It’s too hard. I cannot touch or smell the produce (even though it is typically amazing) and I struggle when it comes to determining sizes that I need. I will order something, and it arrives as a tiny little bottle, when I needed a jug. I think a quarter pound of whatever sounds like a perfect amount, it arrives, and it’s too much or too little. I think about how a pound of rocks and a pound feathers weigh the same, but the volume is very different.

Online grocery shopping also takes me forever to navigate and complete. Click here, choose a brand or item, enter a quantity, go back to shopping, then do it all over again. Click click click click click click click click click click click click. It’s annoying. I find it faster to go to the store and do it myself.

I also spend too much money when I shop online. I am a marketer’s dream and fall into simple traps, like enjoying clear Pepsi, which I did when it came out, or that great online shopping feature where it suggests things that you might be interested in buying. “You might also enjoy…” appears showing items that I didn’t know I wanted or needed, but in that moment I realize I cannot live without whatever is being presented and I click away.

One time, I decided to order from freshdirect. I was clicking away and my cart was filling up. One of the items I needed to order was mayonnaise. I love mayo. Mmmmmmm! Tasty! I found my brand and clicked the bottle of mayo. Low and behold, I was offered a selection of products that I might enjoy based on my mayonnaise selection!

Since I bought Hellman’s Mayonnaise, freshdirect thought I would also like Heinz Ketchup, Crispix Cereal (it’s crispy times two!) and Quilted Northern Bathroom Tissue. Hmmmm … some of my favorite things all bundled together: condiments, cereal, and potty time. I needed toilet paper, actually, so I clicked it and put it in my basket. But, how did it know?

I started wondering about freshdirect’s macros or decision engine. Why did an order of mayo bring up toilet paper? What was it thinking? It’s like saying, “You just bought a pair of shorts. You might also like a bicycle tire pump.” It just does not make sense. Maybe they were considering the full and complete food consumption chain, from a very personal angle. It can always start with mayonnaise, but it will always end up with … well … never mind.

Whatever it may be, I still prefer to grocery shop in a store, on my own, at my own pace, with my own list, on my own time, where the only suggestions that I am subject to succumbing to are those that pop up in my own head. If suddenly, while reaching for mayo, I remember that I need toilet paper, it is because I remember I need toilet paper. That is all.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

the book of my life ...

facebook post: March 23, 2012

cathartic morning ... i feel a weight lifted ... lighter ... unchained but grounded ... i am grateful for what has been offered me and i breathe a sigh of relief at moving forward and not looking back (too often) ...

*     *     *     *     *

July 21, 2011 was the last day I was physically in my office in the building in which I worked for the division of the company that employed me. On August 1, I started a leave of absence in order to clear my head, regain my self-respect and dignity, and start rebuilding my self-esteem and self-worth that was sucked out of me by this job. I also need to confront the crippling depression and grief of losing my partner to AIDS.

From 2003 to 2008, I worked in a different division of this same company. They hired me to do what I do best: define and implement business processes to positively impact bottom line results. That job brought me to New York with my “at that time” boyfriend and it kept me in New York when that tumultuous relationship ended. It was a challenging and rewarding job. It pushed my skills as a business driver, stretched my partnership and influencing skills, honed my communication and training skills, and molded me into a more effective executive leader.

I loved that job and the company loved me. I excelled at my work and I wore the success well. Being alone in New York was a new chapter in my life. It was my chance to prove that I could embody “If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere.” That job was a crowning achievement in a career started almost by accident and definitely by necessity.

*     *     *     *     *

in the late 1980s, my career started by working in retail stores. I had a lack luster high school education and no college degree. I never planned for a career in retail. I planned to be a Broadway star with three Tony Awards under my belt by the time I was twenty-three. Clearly, I failed at setting achievable life goals. I did not have the discipline to properly train or hone my craft let alone the level of talent to make that goal a reality. Retail sustained me. It gave me a creative outlet and it paid the bills.

I have great memories from my in store days: opening and closing shifts, floor sets, store meetings, conferences, inventories, learning from great managers. I worked with amazing people and learned an unending amount of business acumen.

In 1988, I joined one of the best American fashion companies during its heyday. This was THE company to work for in the late 1980s through the 1990s. I grew up in the “backyard” where this company was founded and headquartered. I “grew up” professionally by working there. My store management skills helped me to work my way up and into the corporate environment where I excelled and advanced in the Store Operations arena. I worked in this company’s various divisions for thirteen years until I was laid off during its first ever “workforce reduction” in the recession of 2000.

I humbly worked in the stores of another great American company, as a sales associate selling home décor and furniture. In 2002, I met a man who moved us to Southern California, and started a new chapter of my life as a store manager with this same hard lines retailer.

Within a year, I was in New York with that same man and our dog. I landed a new job in a corporate role created expressly for me. This job was with a company whose name alone evokes the aspiration of wealth, opulence, and the American dream. It was a very “New York” company to work for. What I was asked to do was never done there; it was a clean slate. I was charged with defining processes, policies, procedures, tools, techniques and training to enable stores (and the division) to manage a $46 million dollar payroll budget. It was glorious.

I worked there from 2002 until 2007 when I left to start a new chapter of my life. I joined a UK fashion brand and worked in the US headquarters. This job moved my career in the direction I had always wanted. I supervised both the Operations Department and the field organization. I had three regional managers reporting to me along with Store Operations, Store Communications, Inventory Control, Facilities & Maintenance, and Loss Prevention.

In June of 2009, the poor state of the company’s financials made them eliminate my position. I was incredibly grateful for this. My partner was hospitalized in March and was released the week I was laid off. I spent the last six weeks of his life with him here in my apartment. He passed away in August of 2009. That chapter of my life started a deep depression that seemed as if it would never end. I didn’t make smart life decisions during that time. I was desperate to escape the reality that I just faced. That chapter tested me in more ways, but that’s a story for another day.

*     *     *     *     *

In November of 2009, I was asked to take a position in a different division of the company I left in 2007. I was told that my skills and experience were needed. I was told that what I accomplished before was still seen as important and my skills were needed in this challenged and evolving division. I was told I would take a $20,000 pay cut, and that the division’s culture was intense and demanding, almost like working in a “start up.” I needed the structure and a diversion from my sorrow. I was broke and desperate and the recession of 2009 was in full swing. I was told I was lucky to be offered a job “in these troubling and uncertain times.” I took the job and a new chapter of my life started.

I liked it for the first few months, but soon it deteriorated into something I wasn’t expecting. I supervised a team filled with talent, energy, and drive. We had fun times, hard times, late nights, early mornings, long days, many laughs, and many venting sessions over many drinks. We created and implemented good solid creative work.

I had three direct supervisors with three different approaches and three different perspectives on what needed to be done and how to get it done. My job became trying to get their alignment on the initiatives and work approach, keeping each of them up to date on projects and progress, and navigating through the conflict between them.

The CEO of this division made Amanda Priestly, from “The Devil Wears Prada,” look like a dream boss. Stepping into the office, one never knew if you’d be meeting with Dr. Jekyll or meeting with Mr. Hyde. He had a very democratic approach in the verbal abuse he doled out and occasionally one could fall victim to his violent outrage. Eyes rolled, voice raised and yelling, fists pounded and fingers pointed, cups thrown, papers tossed. Being called a fucking idiot, worthless, ignorant, stupid, and a waste of time was routine. Being thrown out of meetings or his office was common, while “Why the fuck did we hire you?” or “We pay you money for this shit?” or “What the hell were we thinking?” trailing off as you’d slink out of the office picking up shreds of dignity and scattered papers off floor. He was known for firing people on the spot.

Turn was high and morale was low. Within the division and parent company, this behavior was defended as being part of that divisions’ “culture.” 

My peers – the divisions’ other department heads – were often told that Store Operations was not an important part of the business by this CEO. After all, we were a fashion brand based on design and visual display. Store Operations gets in the way, hinders progress, and is inconsequential in everything we stand for. Partnership and inclusion was not necessary.

The Store Operations team was moved to a separate floor away from the rest of the division. We were told that our workspace was needed to accommodate the growing visual team. The work area that my team vacated was filled with boxes and props for weeks after three of us moved into a 5’ x 8’ office nine floors away from our employer.

I could no longer gloss over or protect my team from the “culture” or attempt to motivate them to deliver quality work. They were all too wise. I struggled to motivate myself. One changed departments. One, with amazing potential and a great future, quit. One position remained open for more than six months, during which several workload intense initiatives crested. Potential candidates, including the best I have interviewed in years, were turned down by this CEO. Even after being interviewed and approved by the VP of Human Resources, VP of Stores, VP of Operations, CFO and COO.

After two and one-half years of working 60-70 hours per week, and of being beaten down, feeling like each day was a fight, and of trying to overcome devastating emotions, I hit rock bottom. I was given the worst performance appraisal of my career. Some criticism I agreed with, but many points I rebutted. These rebuttals were acknowledged with nods of agreement by two of my three direct supervisors, along with “that’s a good point,” “yes, that’s what we discussed,” “hmmm … you’re right,” etc. The third supervisor was not present and was unaware that my assessment rating was so low. Hmmm … I wonder how much input she had on my assessment.

Because of this rating, I was ineligible to move to a different position within the parent company and was ineligible for my annual bonus and stock options. I felt pushed into a corner. I had no options. I was stuck.

I snapped. I left one day and I couldn’t go back. Emotionally broken, spiritually bankrupt, I fell into a deeper depression that no amount of alcohol or drugs could ease. I needed to get as far away as possible from this dysfunctional and abusive relationship. I needed to end this chapter of my life. I hit my bottom. I filed for a leave of absence. I went to rehab and I started intense therapy.

*     *     *     *     *

I have been out of the madness since August and I am now completely sober, in use and in thinking. I have focused on my physical and mental health, slowly regaining my soul and learning how to think positively about life and myself. It has not been easy.

I have worked hard my entire career. The service industry suited me because I am a people pleaser and prioritized the needs of others before my own. Now, finally, this time, I am living my life for me and not for anyone else. It is my life on life’s terms. This is the most important time in my life. This has been the hardest work I have ever done.

I was offered a severance agreement, although they could have filled my seat once my short-term disability claim ended. The thought of signing it surfaced different emotions to face and conquer. My life has been defined by my work and I have defined myself by my work. Without work, what defines me? Signing it meant I was no longer, for a fact, employed – not working. No job. I had concerns about what would define the next chapter of my life.

As a final act of self-respect, as a way of getting the last word, as a way to prove that I was abused, wronged, and driven to near insanity, I wanted returned only one piece of paper from the files and paperwork I had left on my desk. This contained my response to my performance appraisal that I had not turned in before I left.

I wanted to sign the agreement and include this response with it. I also wanted to send this tyrant CEO an object d’art, like a bookend-sized king’s chess piece with a note saying, “You win, you fucking asshole.”

I asked about my personal items. They were boxed up and put into storage and once located I could come and find what I needed. The box was located and I was then told to provide my shipping address, as “It will be easiest for all involved to send it to you.”

I received the box and it sat in my hallway for two days. On March 23, I finally decided to open it. I found project files, paperwork, and my business cards (like I’d use those again). I did not find my assessment response. Naturally, I thought it wasn’t sent because I specifically asked for it and this was the only item of importance I wanted. I went mentally ballistic. I lost my mind.

I wanted to get the last word! I wanted one moment to prove that I was right. I could rewrite it! I would rewrite it! I booted up my computer. I was going to get my revenge, a great skill. I used to say I excelled at this because I was born a ruthless Scorpio.

Some have called this behavior vengeful, bitchy, malicious, or passive-aggressive. I used to call it relief, power, control, or “my right” because I “am right.” I now see this for what it really is: insecurity, fear, and self-doubt run amuck.

So … instead of doing what I would normally do, I did something that I have recently learned. I did what I don’t normally do. I did the opposite of what I wanted to do. I took a deep breath, I let go of resentments, anger, and harbored ill will. I closed the box and pushed it out the door for recycling. I signed the severance agreement and sent an email asking for messenger pick up. It was done.

And with that, another chapter ended. A new one will start, but I am in no rush. Metaphorically, I need to put the book on the shelf for a while. It may collect dust, start to smell musty, get cup stains from use as a bedside table coaster, and turn yellow and crack. Whatever its state, my life is now my life.

And all of this, whether good or bad; all of this, whether or not you can relate; all of this, whether or not you choose to judge me – all of it – is a part of the book of my life.

*     *     *     *     *

facebook post: March 23, 2012

cathartic morning ... i feel a weight lifted ... lighter ... unchained but grounded ... i am grateful for what has been offered me and i breathe a sigh of relief at moving forward and not looking back (too often) ...

Monday, April 2, 2012

gum ...

Gum is revolting. There. I said it. I hate gum. Before I tell you why I hate it, I need to vent about this gross … ummmm … what do you call it? Food? Candy? Treat? What the fuck is it? Where is “Gum” categorized in the game “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?”Nowhere. It’s just “Gum.” It’s just gross.

The very thought of gum can fill my mouth with warm, salty saliva; the warning sign that my stomach is about to empty itself as quickly as it can. Even the word “gum” is gross. It’s an ugly word. Like most German words. (Nichts für ungut, meine deutschen Freunde.) Say “gum” ten or twenty times and the word gets uglier. I mean it. Say it. Here, let me help you:

Gum, gum, gum, gum, gum, gum, gum, gum, gum, gum, gum, gum, gum, gum, gum, gum, gum, gum, gum, gum, gum, gum, gum, gum, gum, gum, gum, gum, gum, gum, gum. Gum. Gum. Gum. Gum. Gum.

I think I am going to be sick.

*     *     *     *     *

When I was young, I babysat two kids who lived down the street. My sisters also babysat them. They were like “hand-me-down” kids in need of sitting. The oldest, a little girl named Heather, had a little brother named David, and when Heather asked for a piece of gum, she would spell it.

“I want some gee ewe emm.”

I can still hear her spoiled, little girl voice saying that. The tone, the inflection, and the pitch creeps me out almost as much as those twin ghost girls in “The Shining.”

If I think about it long enough – which I don’t like to – I can hear her chewing her “gee ewe emm;” loud smacks with every move of her jaw, her wide-open mouth, her lack of manners. Those who smack and pop their gum make me want to smack and pop them. And, of course, when I encounter such an unfortunate, I fixate on them. There is no, ‘Live and Let Live’ credo when it comes to my life being intruded upon by an annoying subway rider who smacks and pops their gum. I summon as much power as possible to try to burn holes in them with my eyes. It never seems to work.

Many people seem to forget manners when chewing gum. It’s as if gum wrappers had one or more of the following directions on them:

“For maximum enjoyment, chew with your mouth open and smack your tongue off your mouth’s roof with each chew.”

“To enhance flavor, allow a piece of product to hang outside corner of mouth while chewing."

“Blowing bubbles and popping your gum is not only fun, but it makes you a more interesting person that others enjoy being around!”

“Chew until there is absolutely no flavor or color left. Consistency remains forever as is and will not disintegrate, dissolve, or pulverize from any chewing action. Chew until satisfied and either add another piece to increase enjoyment or discard unwanted chewed gum.”

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There are gum discards everywhere! Look at the sidewalk in any heavily trafficked area and you’ll notice hundreds – if not thousands – of black dots. These are old pieces of gum. Discards. Cast aways. Garbage. Trash. Litter. Gum. It’s absolutely disgusting.

Everyone has accidentally touched the underside of a table, desk, chair, or bar and found a gum discard. In one millisecond you first think, “What is that? A rough patch of wood or something I need to attend to?” and then immediately, gum chewer or not, you recoil and think, “OH MY GOD! That’s a piece of fucking gum! Gross!” There is no better reason to carry Purel.

Two places are attractions for gum discards. There is "Bubble Gum Alley" in San Louis Obispo, California, and the mother of all gum discards, "The Gum Wall" in Seattle’s Post Alley. Touted as the most “germ infected” tourist attraction in the country, people put their gum on this wall for fun. This wall is my torture nightmare. More than being eaten by bears, I am deathly afraid of being pushed against this wall, face first, eyes and mouth forced open. While some tortures may be more painful, this is THE worst kind of torture possible.

Bubble Gum Alley -- San Louis Obispo, California

The Gum Wall -- Seattle, Washington
(photo by Victor Grigas, Dec 2011)

Oh my god. I taste salt in my mouth.

*      *      *      *      *
When my dog Victor was a puppy, he often found freshly discarded gum on the warm sidewalks of Irvine, California. If I did not watch closely, I’d eventually find him smacking his lips as he chewed, a confused and elated look on his face. I’d scream “Drop it! Drop it!” with no result, so I would reach into his mouth and take it out. What horror: people-chewed and then dog-chewed gum, that sometimes had a minty smell!

Oh my god. I taste salt in my mouth.

When I was little, we labeled discarded wads of chewed gum, no matter where found, “ABC Gum,” or “Already Chewed Gum.” One of my sisters (maybe both, but I am not certain) loved to find ABC Gum and try it for herself. “Mmmmmm … ABC Gum!” she’d squeal as she pulled it from the water fountain basins at Rosemary Elementary School and promptly pop it in her mouth.

Oh my god. I taste salt in my mouth.

In high school, before I met and fell in love with my first boyfriend, I dated this horribly trendy mod girl. Yes … I dated girls. I wanted to try to fit in. Besides, she drove a cool scooter and wore awesome Creepers. Keep in mind, however, that I was also sleeping with most of the New Wave boys who I met at The Upstart Crow, a coffee shop/bookstore that was the misfits’ hangout.

Anyway, this same girl joined me at a school dance. I remember vividly the incident that prompted our breakup.

We drank bottles of Peppermint Schnapps and Bartels & James Wine Coolers and got pretty buzzed by the time we were standing in line to enter the Cafetorium. We kissed. (Being buzzed made kissing girls a bit more palatable.) She was chewing gum. Our lips locked and our tongues did what tongues do while kissing. She placed her gum in my mouth.

Oh my god. I taste salt in my mouth.

Done. Goodbye. Drive that little scooter away, but first, can you give me a ride to The Crow?

*     *     *     *     *

It is a social norm that one offers others a piece of gum when taking one out to masticate. How polite. When offered, I always decline. Most people get a quizzical and confused look on their face, as if gently thinking, “Are you a freak, I am offering you gum? No one turns down gum. What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Are you sure?” they ask.

“Yes, I am sure. I don’t chew gum.”

“You don’t chew gum? Why not?”

I share with them this true tale:

When I was little, I chewed gum. I liked it. Hubba Bubba was a favorite. Chewels and Freshen Up were awesome. Dentyne, Wrigley’s, Razzles, and Blow Pops, and that pink, hard-as-a-rock crap with the comic strip in the wrapper. I chewed ‘em all. Then I got braces.

I loved my braces and I did not chew gum when I had them. The day they came off, I marveled at how smooth my teeth felt and I licked my teeth until I nearly cut my tongue.

I rode bikes with my friends to the nearby 7-11 to buy gum. Off we peddled to Campbell Park. Oh! The joy! That Hubba Bubba was the best thing I had tasted in months! I chewed and chewed and chewed and chewed. Four, five, six, maybe countless pieces filled my mouth and I went to town. What fun! What freedom!

Shortly, in the summer sun, I got a familiar funny feeling. I said to myself, “Oh my god. I taste salt in my mouth” and promptly threw up on my white and blue terry cloth OP shirt and my starch-stiff 501 blue jeans.

And since that day, "gee ewe emm" has disgusted emm eee -- period.