A while back, my wife and I were talking about our early relationship. More specifically, we were talking about those times, 17 years ago, when she’d try to dress me. At least the way I saw it back in 1992, she was trying to get me to wear fancy-boy jackets and shirts — outfits I thought were better suited for backyard-croquet dandies. Never mind the fact I was a serious slob who wore very old clothes that I kept in giant piles. I didn’t like being “controlled,” and at some point, there was a backlash.
So not too long ago, we laughed at it all. And I said the whole “Dress Greg” campaign was like trying to put a tux and top hat on a semi-feral cat. Point being, that tux and top hat ain’t gonna change anything about that cat.
Then I had an idea for a short story. I’ll leave it at that, but suffice it to say that my new short story, “Cool Breeze of Mercy,” is dedicated to all you guys out there who have struggled with deep-seeded fears that someone wants to change you.
I am proud to report that “Cool Breeze” was picked up by Pulp Pusher, the badass U.K. ‘zine run by the insanely gifted crime novelist Tony Black, author of the poweful new noir thriller GUTTED. The only bummer is that despite Black’s repeated best efforts, some limitations to a web-publishing system have left formatting of the story less than what we wanted. With that in mind, you can read the piece at The Pusher here, or if you’re having problems reading that text, you can try the properly formatted “reprint” here.
NOTE: If stories involving peyote, cat diarrhea, extremely hair men and pantsuited crazyladies wielding fire pokers aren’t your thing, you may wanna pass on “Cool Breeze of Mercy.”
I was busy when she called. More importantly, I wasn’t interested in leaving Sun Microsystems. I loved my job, my boss, the Sun leadership and my colleagues. Even so, when the recruiter told me about the new job, and how much it would pay, I found myself firing off my resume.
The job was a speechwriting gig for the CEO of one of the largest companies on the planet. It would be a promotion in title, and it would pay a boatload of money. I’d been a speechwriter for a titan before, so I knew it would be a pretty challenging gig. But I also knew this was the kind of opportunity that didn’t come around very often, and the money would make a big difference in my household, where my wife stays home with our two sons.
Well, one thing led to another, and things got more and more serious. First it was a conference call with an executive recruiter in New York, then it was half a day at the company itself, then it was another visit with the chief marketing officer as well as the chief technology and strategy officer. They liked me, and I liked them.
Only one problem: I still loved Sun.
I still loved what I was doing at Sun — creating journalistic, reality-based videos for our CEO, explaining our vision and strategy to our 33,000 employees, getting tapped for humor projects and trying my best to make Sun a fun place to work. My boss had always encouraged me to use my creativity to do new and cool things, and I knew that leaders like her don’t come around too often. I can’t tell you how many times I had friends and acquaintances tell me that mine was the coolest job around.
But the other company was calling; their CEO wanted to meet with me. This obviously would be the final interview. Me and the titan, in his office.
Maybe I should have been thrilled. Maybe I should have been salivating. Maybe I should have been ready to do jumping jacks for this guy. Maybe I should have looked at the bigger title, the promise of more money — all of that — and let my eyes cross in corporate lust.
But I didn’t. I was too busy having fun at Sun.
Then came the kicker. I was in the midst of producing a video about courage and integrity at Sun. Along the way, I was able to listen in on a high-level discussion about Sun’s core values and how they are “interwoven into the fabric of who we are” as a company of integrity, transparency and mutual respect, as CEO Jonathan Schwartz put it. It was a special moment for me, because I knew he wasn’t just feeding us a line. I had been at Sun for more than eight years, and I had seen how Jonathan and his team have not only made some important moves to turn in consistent profitability, but also have emphasized the importance of treating people with respect. It’s one thing to talk about being high-integrity; it’s quite another to show it day in and day out with your actions. Jerks, bullies and self-important snobs are a lot harder to find at Sun these days, and that means a lot to me.
I kept my date with the titan. He seemed like a great guy, and he was smart. In fact, really smart. Despite my best efforts to show extreme interest in the gig, he could tell my heart wasn’t in it. At one point, he put my resume down and announced, “Well, it sounds like you’re in a great situation over there at Sun.” According to the executive recruiter, he later declared, “Greg doesn’t want this job.”
He was right.
And I got to produce an April Fools prank on Schwartz. See below for all the drooling details. Is it any wonder why Sun is such a great place to work?
About 17 years ago, when I was fresh out of college and at my first daily newspaper, an older, morbidly obese woman would periodically saunter into the newsroom — always huffing and panting, and always wearing a floral moo-moo dress.
She was nice enough, except for her unwanted shoulder rubbing.
What would happen was, I’d be on deadline, finishing yet another story on mosquito abatement, when she’d approach from behind and start rubbing. The first time it happened, I was paralyzed — shocked beyond movement. The second time, I gritted my teeth, cringed and hunched up my shoulders, waiting for it to end.
“You like that?” she huffed in my ear.
“Um, thanks.” Still cringing. Shoulders still hunched. “Well, better get back to work.”
She panted closer, whispering in her husky voice. “Well, I’m just doing what I wish someone would do to me.”
All these years later, that line is still a favorite around my house, especially after a long day. The kids are finally asleep after another evening of unleashing boyish aggression throughout the household. Everyone’s bones are aching. Everyone is exhausted. Everyone just wants to veg on the couch. But you muster the energy to massage your spouse’s shoulders for a moment, and he or she sighs in relief, eyes closed, totally exhausted, thanking you profusely, which is when you say in a husky voice under your breath, “Well, I’m just doing what I wish someone would do to me.”
I like to look at people. They interest me. What they do interests me. What they look like can be fascinating. I guess the way I see it, looking at people is one way to really “get” a person. And hell, it’s just fun to look.
The family next door put a hot tub right outside our bedroom window. My wife Nancy says to me, “Stop looking over there. What if they see you?” I turn the lights off and keep looking, gazing out the window, whispering, “I wanna see what Jim looks like with his shirt off.”
You can’t blame me. Jim and his family have lived next door for eight years. We adore them. They’re quality people. But come on, let’s be honest here — I wanna take a look at Jim in his trunks, and I bet you would, too. And why can’t I look out my own bedroom window? Should I bow my head and gaze at the floor whenever I pass that window?
When we’re out and about, I really like to look. We’ll be walking, and I’ll be looking, and then I’ll say something like, “Hey, there’s that guy from that salsa-dancing class in ’95.” I’ll wave to him while Nancy pulls at my arms. “Please don’t,” she’ll whisper. “Not here. Please don’t. It’s not him.” … I will admit that on several occasions (or maybe it’s more accurate to say, on manyoccasions) these people aren’t who I think they are — rather, they’re complete strangers, and it makes for some awkward moments. Really awkward moments. Nancy doesn’t like those.
Now, to be fair, I do have a freaky way of remembering faces. As a teen at a water slide park, a friend and I spent about 40 minutes standing in line behind a very amusing fellow in a blue Speedo. He was about 50. The two ladies with him were in their 30s. My friend and I had a wonderful time standing behind them, taking note of this guy’s “scene.” A year later, this guy walks into the Dublin Uhaul, where I’m working behind the counter, and I say, “Hey, you were at the Manteca Water Slides last summer, the last Sunday of July, and you had this blue Speedo on, and there were two women with you, and you had this puka-shell necklace and … and … and.” When this stunned man confirmed this was all true (and confirmed that he’d never met me in his life) one of the Uhaul lifers walked up to me and mumbled, “Dude, you’re psyschic.”
The past few years, I’ve been cocky about two things: my ability to sleep-train a baby and my success with homemade guacamole.
Last night, I came plunging back to reality. Last night, I realized I wasn’t quite the man I thought I was. Last night, my guacamole delusions shattered into a thousand little green globs.
You see, I’ve made a big deal about my guacamole. I’ve puffed my chest and sighed contentedly. I’ve nodded in silence as friends and family tasted my guac and widened their eyes in delight.
But now, I’m questioning all that. Maybe people have been humoring me. Maybe friends and family have been too kind to tell me the truth, too kind to tell me my guacamole isn’t really that special after all. Maybe I’m just a big joke.
It all happened last night. I came home, and my wife mentioned casually that she’d whipped up some guacamole. On any other day, this would have been a blatant attempt to strip me of my power, akin to her saying, “Honey, I think there’s a leak in the bathroom, so why don’t you stay here with the boys while I go crawl under the house?” But on this night, I was starving. I was thrilled to see the guac sitting there on the kitchen table.
And let me tell you, it was phenomenal. My eyelids lowered. My brain melted in pleasure. My mouth was on drugs. And I wanted more — more more more. Nancy smiled to herself and went about her business.
Then I realized. I realized Nancy’s guac was better than anything I’ve made in a long time — maybe better than anything I’ve ever made. Hers had the personality that I love in good guac, but it wasn’t trying too hard. It contained nearly all of my secret ingredients (don’t ask, because I won’t tell you). But there was a light-touch sophistication that my guacamole has lacked. This guac was like a symphony, and mine suddenly seemed like a one-man band on “America’s Got Talent,” some needy freak with eight different instruments attached to his torso.
“This is beyond anything I’ve ever accomplished,” I said, taking a pull off my Tecate.
Nancy was at the counter with her back facing me. She adopted the gentle, motherly tone she’ll use with the boys at critical moments. “Well,” she soothed, “I just think the best thing about guacamole is the avacado.”
You see, Nancy likes my guacamole. And she likes my ingredients. But she has told me over the years that maybe I need to take it down a little. Maybe I don’t need to put so much of “this” and so much of “that” in my guacamole. I agree with her, but at the end of the day, when I’m there at the counter and I’m doing my thing, and the Latin Jazz is playing and my can of Tecate is open, and I’m having a grand old time there slicing and mashing and sipping, I can let it go too far. I lose myself.
Thinking about it last night, I wondered if there were any parallels between my guacamole and my writing. After all, isn’t it funny that I have learned that sometimes it’s better to tone down my fiction, that a little “personality” goes a long way? I shuddered at the thought. How deep does this problem go?