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Monday, December 22, 2014

List Week 2 rolls on!

Wonky Apocalypse Mechanisms that Would Disprove Long-Held Notions About God

1. Logs rapidly falling from clouds
2. Toxic opossum horde (must be eaten to be toxic)
3. Dynamite hot dogs
4. Ozone layer becomes pudding
5. Everyone morphs into Michael Landon, everyone dies a Landonesque death
6. Blood becomes Kool-Aid, Kool-Aid Man wrings everybody out into himself
7. Lists become deadly to behold
8. Every vehicle on the planet merges to become Devastator
9. Suffocating pies to the face surprise all people
10. Pissed-off raccoons
11. Malfunctioning chainsaws under every pillow

Saturday, December 20, 2014

List Week 2: The Second-Ditch Attempt

Because one person seemed a tad bit amused by the original List Week, we now present a new collection of lists in something resembling a 5-in-one-week arrangement. Remember, the enumeration makes the comedy go down easy, like jello cubes.

Alternate Names for Bigfoot, as Used by Various Organizations

1. The Shaggy Rustler (Cattlemen’s Association)
2. Primitive Pete (Civil War Re-Enactors of America)
3. Undocumented Sumbitch (The NRA)
4. Ol’ Jack Dingleberry (AARP)
5. Sasquatch American (The Census Bureau)
6. The Eternal Fall-risk (OSHA)
7. That Blasted Skunk Ape (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints)
8. The Hirsute Galoot (International Association of Youth Hypnotists)
9. Shy Primate Hazard (PGA)
10. El Gringo Grande (Chupacabras de Estados Mexicanos)
11. Adolph Murderbear (Boy Scouts of America)
12. The Homeliest English (Amish folk)
13. The Lord, Our Savior (Church of the Holy Sasquatch)
14. “Some guy” (Planned Parenthood)
15. Deep Woods Buddy (National Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement)

coming soon...
The Only Pedigreed Cat Names Ever Rejected by the Cat Fanciers Association!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Not Again, Jehovah!

Shall I never be free of Carl, the nattily attired Jehovah’s Witness who corners me at work annually with his unsophisticated theological redux? He’s been sticking me with his extra copies of Awake! and The Watchtower for more than ten years now. After the first several years, I let slip that I’m a “nonbeliever” (he inevitably says “atheist,” which isn’t quite on the money, but I usually give a Costanza-esque “ehh,” as a sub-verbal surrender to imperfect terminology), so he comes back about once a year, always on a beautiful day, to see if he can convert me with his puny rhetoric.

That way, Carl can hold up his hand at the sky and say, “God created all this beauty, and gave us eyes to enjoy it, and all the senses….” He can also keep his suit dry, and not feel too bad about leaving hapless passengers fermenting in the minivan. There’s always someone in there, cracking the window to get some air, or worse, coming out to join the Lord’s gentle mugging of my sensibilities. But this year, the minivan has become a much loftier, pearlier contraption, while Carl and I both have more nostril hair than in previous meetings. The Lord giveth and the Lord giveth.

I understand that there’s a thing, based apparently in scripture, compelling Christians to proselytize, so I try not to be too mean. Early this summer I even bought a lame cookbook from two college girls selling icky fundraiser (insert Hellraiser parody horror pic here: “FUNDRAISER”) illiterature to fund their own educations, even though I wanted to say something like, “I prefer not to give money to stuff that detracts from human progress.” They wanted to sell me overtly Christian children’s books at the outset, but I went ahead and broke them the news that I was unholy, and frowned on Christ in my storybooks. The cookbook was pitched as some sort of soft-core consolation item, but on later inspection, it was peppered with little doxological snippets alongside spiritually intrusive dingbats. Why did I buy it? Because, you know, they seemed sweet.

A couple of years ago I told Carl that there was a certain assumption (condescension would be more accurate) in casually trying to convert people. It sort of implies that they haven’t given life— or at least metaphysics—much thought. So, from that point on, I was going to try converting him. I wasn’t really joking, but I knew it would be taken as a joke. That’s part of the assumption: that this discussion will take place on a one-way street. Of course you should talk to God, but don’t talk back.

After some awkward small-talk about real estate or whatever, Carl gets down to brass flim-flam. He asks if my wife goes to church.

“Yeah, out in Billings.”

“What church?”

“Oh, I always forget. Disciples of Christ, I think. They’re pretty easy to get along with. They let women be ministers, so they’re pretty liberal… they’re, oh,” I say with a smile, “They’re the same denomination that Jim Jones was, the guy who killed with Kool-Aid!” A joking truth.

“Ah, no wonder you don’t want to go!” I think he’s kidding.

“So, they’re one of the more liberal denominations in all of... Christendom, I guess.” An unusual word choice, but I think it works.

A sort of lightbulb flashes above Carl. He says “Christendom” is a word they like to use at his church. I feel a tic of vocabulary pride, but simultaneously, I feel I may have unexpectedly stepped in something worrisome. Nothing really comes of it.

Carl wants to know if I will change my mind about God if I’m ever about to die.

“I don’t think so, ‘cause I don’t want to be a coward about it. I don’t know if you know the writer Christopher Hitchens, but people asked him the same thing when he was dying of cancer. It just made him mad, because he said that would be the most cowardly way to go, changing your mind at the end just because it’s comforting and easy… there was some philosopher who had a term for this, Kierkegaard maybe, Kierkegaard’s Gambit?”

I couldn’t think of it then, of course, but with the aid of Wikipedia, I remember it’s Pascal’s Wager. It's simply a formulation showing the economical wisdom in choosing to believe, based on having everything (eternal salvation) to gain and nothing to lose (plain old inevitable death). It’s logically true and shrewd, but still kind of cheap, reducing transcendent truths to monkey-grabs-banana self-interest. To me, Hitchens's stance is more heroic.

Carl also whipped out that same old scammy thought experiment about an intelligently designed universe being too beautiful and finely tuned to be a “random occurrence.” Everything works together like a fine timepiece. “So, if you break apart a watch into a bunch of pieces and toss them into a bucket, evolution should make them come together into a watch again?” He uses this one every time, but never gets better at it. Last time, I think he pulverized a hypothetical jet airplane.

“No, but that analogy doesn’t mean anything,” I say, “it just demonstrates a poor understanding of science.” I never think on my feet well enough to assemble a really good counter for this one, because it shorts out my brain slightly on the conceptual level. With hindsight’s advantages, I can say:

    • For starters, there’s nothing “random” about natural laws; to the contrary, physics is much less random than the irrational outcries of religion. That said, it’s just as easy to refine one’s definition of God to recast natural laws as “His” thought processes. This would at least put Carl and I on common ground in a “book of creation” model, where we would be separated only by metaphorical interpretation. 

    • Further, a watch is clearly a man-made thing. Sure, it evokes the “watchmaker” metaphor for intelligent design, but to paint a complete picture, it should be partnered with a hypothetical guy who can fix watches. Of course we know watches don’t magically reassemble. Magic is for irrational people like Carl. If it worked, you wouldn’t need a watch for the analogy. I could turn around and say, “Carl, if only God can make a tree, why can’t I just put a bunch of firewood in a tumbler, pray over it, and pull out an intact tree later?” Hopefully he would answer, “Because that’s crazy, that’s not how things work,” so I could say, “Exactly. It’s a stupid scenario, huh?”

    • Unfortunately, the only valuable refutation of Carl’s clunky misinterpretations would be to bonk his head clear and then make him take a long regimen of science classes.

At some point, speaking about the language of the Bible, Carl mentioned that “some translations of the Bible were tampered with.” Ha! Yes.

“The original writing of the Bible WAS the tampering!” I said.

“I don’t know about that…”

“Yeah, because how can you convey infinite wisdom and ultimate truth in some limited human language? Just translating it into another language changes some of the meaning.”

Just when I was getting somewhere, Carl had to leave. Some old ladies in his car were getting antsy; one had popped the back door open, presumably to get some air or stretch her legs, since they’d been waiting for 20-30 minutes. He’d had something of a hot daughter with him one time, pretty, dressed like a Little House on the Prairie character, but today it was only old ladies. Carl encouraged me to read The Watchtower. The next day, I did. Thanks to a sophisticated form of print-based hypnotism and aerosolized LSD in the ink, I’m now a Jehovah’s Witness.

Joking. What would I do with all of my kick-ass Halloween stuff? Not get rid of it!

But the same week, in a parking lot, I walked by a table with a sign reading, “WHAT DOES THE BIBLE TEACH?” I wanted to stop and say, “I suspect it teaches nothing very well. If it did, wouldn’t all Christians agree on what it says? Wouldn’t it make this table unnecessary?”

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

xtranormal megafail

Damn it, bring this shit back, internet!
Something bad happened to the website "xtranormal," where you could make cool animated movies with your own dialogue in the mouths of little cartoon characters. I made one a few years ago, but it's gone, and the idiots who bought out the site not only lost all the videos, but the editing program is defunct, so I can't remake it. At least I still have the script, which is a conversation between my mom and me. It's kind of a "greatest hits" of my mom's best lunacy from around 2009-2010, all rolled into one dialogue, with my exasperation as a bonus. 

(Unfortunately I can't recreate the clunky, Siri-style voices and the little gestures the characters made, not to mention the zooming and "camerawork," which made it more fun to watch.)

Chad, are you going to cowboy church with us?

No, Mom. I mean, you know if I go, it will just be to make fun of people and look for whoever tells you all those lies about Obama.

There are some really nice people at cowboy church. They play good music and there’s such good food, and there’s hardly any church. Even Sam likes to go, because they don’t really preach.

Well, I might go someday. Not this week.

Don’t you like country music?

You know I don’t. Johnny Cash is the only country guy I like.

Maybe if you go, you’ll get to meet Doctor Mosier, the vet from Ash Grove. He’s so nice. Did you know that Al Gore lied about all that global warming? Do you think he just made it all up? I thought he used to really be an honest fella. He’s the son of a cattleman, you know.

What? No, Al Gore didn’t lie.  I mean, we can’t prove any of it yet, because it takes years just to measure what’s happening in the atmosphere. Is Doctor Mosier the one who tells you all this crap? What a jerk.

No, he’s a very nice man. His daughter died about fifteen years ago. That was so sad, and he is just the nicest man. He was a large animal vet, so you know what kind of great person he is.

Okay. Well, I don’t know if that really makes you any sort of person, but I’m sure you like him.

He keeps track of all the bad things Obama is doing to America. Here in just a couple of years they’re going to take the flag down from the White House and take away all our bibles and make everyone become Muslim.

Oh Jesus. Quit listening to this shit. Two years ago you thought Obama was going to take everybody’s guns away, but that never happened, did it?

Well, not yet, but it still might.

That doesn’t make any sense! You know Obama is running for re-election, right? How is he going to get any votes if he forces everybody to change their religion and steals their guns? He’s not going to do anything like that. He’s just a middle of the road politician. He’s not a socialist or a Muslim, he’s just a boring president who’s black, so old people in Ash Grove don’t like him.

When I listen to my teevee preacher on Sunday morning, he says Christians are going to be rounded up by the government.

Which one is saying that? It sounds like that evil creep from Texas, what’s his name? John Hagee.

Oh, I believe everything he says.

OH GOD! You like John Hagee? He’s probably the WORST ONE.

I love listening to him. He’s so smart.

Oh man, he’s such a gross, fat, city slicker bastard. He’s just a disgusting hatemonger.

He’s wonderful. I need him to help me get into Heaven.

No you don’t! He just wants you to think that so you’ll send him money. He doesn’t have any direct line to God any more than I do. He does sermons against education because he wants people to be stupid.

He preaches against Muslims because they’re trying to take over the country, just like they’re taking over Sweden. I talked to a man from Sweden, and he said the Muslims just have to reach fifteen percent of the population, and then they can take over.

I’ll bet that’s what Sarah Palin says, too.

Sarah Palin wants to save the world. If Saturday Night Live would just stop picking on her, she could sell more books and become president, and then we could get prayer back in schools.

God damn. What else is on your mind, Mom?

You know they’re sending all the horses to Mexico to be tortured, and soon there won’t be any animals left in the United States. They want to get rid of all the farmers.

Who are “THEY”? Who is doing this?

Obama and the animal rights people. The PETA people. Now that they passed Proposition B, all the good dogs are going to be euthanized, and only the rescue dogs will be left. All the best dogs that breeders have been working with for years will be gone.

You know that your pure bred dogs all came from wolves, right? All that selective breeding proves Darwin’s theories, because Darwin just said that evolution is just the accumulation of traits favored by the environment.

Oh, I don’t believe in evolution. I believe in Adam and Eve.

God dammit.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Review of Pythian Castle

Pythian Castle, in Springfield, MO, designated a haunted site by people who see dead people

No matter where one's supernatural sensitivity may fall (I for one am fully ghost-blind and ectoplasmically neutral), I believe everyone enjoys a nice portal to another reality. Stargates and Narnian wardrobes being in short supply here in Missouri, one must settle for the old standbys: weird caves, haunted houses, and surprisingly enough, a century-old castle built by a mostly forgotten fraternal order called the Knights of Pythias, or the Pythians.

Although Springfield’s Pythian Castle is only 100 years old (much newer than some of the houses in the area), its architectural hubris, ancient decor, and sheer heft give the impression that one has stepped into another age, or at least discovered a living stage for obscure local history. The building's thermal mass alone helps transport one backward in time: the three-foot-thick stone walls held a bridle on the sunny warming of the mid-March Saturday when I was there. The proprietors even ran two kerosene heaters in the grand dining room for the benefit of our party, but jackets stayed on and only the sunlit windowsills were warm. We speculated that the structure might retain summer heat well into autumn.

The castle also has the added magic of seeming much larger on the inside than the exterior would suggest. The front entry is only mansion-esque, but the deeper one delves within, the more castle-like it becomes. There are several huge rooms, including a theater on the top floor. However, most of the castle’s creepiness points are scored on the lower levels, where there are dungeon-like chambers once used to hold German and Japanese prisoners of war, plus a dark, somewhat claustrophobia-inducing tunnel leading underground to a boiler facility. Now lit by a rope of LED lights, it was once, apparently, traversed by children who carried laundry to the far-back boiler facility—in the dark, or maybe with candles.

The castle is owned by two women, a mother and a daughter who bought the castle at auction about 20 years ago, saving it from demolition. They spent some years fixing it up, restoring it (one assumes) to something resembling former glory. Since the building served multiple functions over the years—meeting hall, retirement home, military infirmary, tourist attraction—there is no way to make it "accurate" or "frozen in time," as the owners explain in response to one negative Google reviewer who wished it were more "authentic." But the entry area, with its grand fireplace/sitting room, foyer, and dining rooms, feels more like an historic hotel. Slightly spooky old photographs and paintings of distinguished people and dogs dominate the entry hall, along with some Halloweenish decorations such as unconvincing suits of armor, placards of coats-of-arms, and big fake tomes that are not books at all, just decor objects.

A tour of the castle begins as visitors gather in the foyer at the appointed time. If it is a “ghost tour,” it will be after dark, probably on a weekend, and it will take longer. A guide appears and begins stabbing people to establish the atmosphere. No—but that might be cool, if well acted. A guide appears, and it might be one of the owners, or it might be Tim, a theatrical and rotund man likely in his thirties. Tim is the way to go. He has a knack for the history surrounding the castle, and for zestfully communicating stories about hauntings. At key moments, he will warn the group, turn off lights, and attempt to contact the dead. Nothing happened when I was there, but whatever the true track record of the paranormal, Tim is good at expressing how commonly and recently there was a weird response from The Other Side, and how somebody lost their shit, or how he himself almost lost his shit when a ghost yelled in his ear or licked him or burned out a light bulb, etc.

If it’s a ghost tour, before you enter the castle proper, visitors have a chance to rent EMF detectors for five bucks. Whatever kind of electronic device they actually are, they appear as a small plastic box with a row of LEDs, much like a stud-finder. Supposedly, they will detect electromagnetic fields created by specters or dancing skeletons or masturbating kobolds. I declined to rent one, but two in our group got them, and thank Zuul, because the presence of EMF detectors gives Tim additional material for his routine. This helps differentiate a “ghost tour” from a regular tour. In certain areas, Tim urges the EMFers to hold their detectors aloft, or bring them together. Sometimes they blink randomly, or in unison. Are they detecting a ghost? A miswired electrical conduit? A hidden transmitter? Tim’s cell phone? You’ll never know!

In a large dance hall, you are encouraged to sit and listen, classroom-style, to Tim’s intro to Pythians. It turns out they were not creepy or even mysterious, just a society of mostly rich guys who made a group similar to the freemasons, but less famous and less storied. They made a castle as a sort of retirement home for their widows, orphans, or other needy family members of Pythians who died or became disabled. Before social security, there were members-only castles. After a few decades, the military bought the castle and used it for medical quarantines and WW2-related operations. Numerous people died here over the years, mostly soldiers, most notably POWs but also ailing children, so you have your pick of odd and potentially resentful spirits to imagine. 

Tim gives a few warnings, both practical and spooky, because he doesn’t want you falling down over the castle’s numerous pre-code hazards, and I think he’s also planting little power-of-suggestion seeds to get everyone primed for paranormal sensitivity. Then he walks the group around. The ground-floor rooms are generally beautiful in their finish but not especially suggestive or storied. There are stories of barracks, infirmary beds, and dances. As you might expect, the basement level is where the action is. Down the stairs you go.

After winding through a couple of bending stone/concrete stairs, our group squeezed into a kitchen-like area with large, defunct boiler equipment. Tim talked, but I was distracted by a Cheerio on the otherwise clean concrete floor. I looked all around for more cereal, but there was just the one piece. How old was it? When we moved on to the next area, my wife’s uncle Stan told his wife, Margaret, that he saw a little boy run through, but there were no children in our group. I did not see the boy. Should I have eaten the Cheerio to gain a connection to the errant spirit? Did losing the Cheerio cause the boy to be stuck in this basement lo these many years after dying? Did anyone else see the Cheerio? Did Stan only tell Margaret he saw the boy because he knows that’s the sort of spooky thing she likes?

If you can't see the far end, whatever is there can't see you.

The creepiness peaks, thanks to claustrophobic architecture, when Tim lets everyone go through a rickety door. We go single file into a tight tunnel, probably 40-50 yards. He tells us that it goes underground to the boiler facility, which is a separate building behind the castle, so there is a long steel pipe running the length of the passage. It would have been pitch black in Pythian times, when children, Tim says, used to carry laundry through there, or maybe they just had to go stoke the boilers in winter. Now, a string of blue rope lights has been attached to the boiler pipe. For the most part, going downstairs has removed all sunlight, but there are exceptions. One is a six-inch concrete vent, halfway along the tunnel, where dim daylight weeps out, along with a puff of outside air. It’s just enough to make you say, “If Tim decides this is the ideal time to lock the whole group in the tunnel, I will claw my way past the others to this drainlike hole so at least I can breathe until Tim kills us.” Granted, Tim lets everyone out, which is nice of him.

The basement becomes huge. There is a big chamber with high ceilings. Off to the left, smaller rooms are said to have been used as prison cells for German prisoners of war. They have cool textures and rusty stains on the walls. Tim states that the Germans there were pretty bad, angry guys, and at least one of them died here. He also says this area is the best for the EMF detectors; they often register “activity” here. In one of the prison chambers, the two in our group with devices use them. They move slowly around the room, raising the detectors, lowering them here and there. Tito Godfrey, my wife’s cousin’s husband, has downloaded an EMF detector phone app since we arrived, and he seems to be getting something, but not really sure. He also takes a couple of photos, and one of them has some glowing rods or spheres in it. This area is also oddly drafty, for a basement with no windows. Tim mentions something about feeling chills here. I spend a few moments looking around for sources of moving air, and have to admit, I can’t see any. We’re quite far away, at this point, from the stairs, or from the vent-hole in the tunnel. The two EMF detectors have some slight blips on them. The room has primitive wiring in some visible steel conduit; I don’t know if this could affect the devices by way of electrical interference, since I don’t even know what the devices are. They could just be walkie talkies with LEDs in lieu of speakers, so anyone (Tim!) with a device on the same frequency could signal them. Or we could be wading through a pissed-off Nazi’s spectral porridge just now.
Then there is a cool room where a Japanese POW painted stuff on the wall. Too dark for me to get a decent photo, but interesting to look at.

The group enters a stone chamber straight out of Dungeons and Dragons, but with a single light bulb hanging in the center. This will be Tim’s greatest paranormal gambit. He gets everyone in the room, lined up all around, backs to the walls. He says this was once an interrogation room for grilling German soldiers. Tim says he has been accosted by spirits here more than once, with some disturbed entity yelling right in his ear. He turns off the light and loudly asks a few questions—first in English, then in what seems like convincing German: “Why are you here?” “What do you want?” and maybe “Are you angry?” There is no response from beyond, but I can’t fault Tim for lack of dramatization. Tim turns the light back on.

As we file out of the room, an older woman who knows my mother-in-law trips over the door threshold and falls like a felled tree, face first. Maybe the German spirit shoved her. She must have caught the brunt of it on her arms, because they peel her off the floor and she seems shaken but basically fine. (Except of course that she can now only speak German and begins killing all Americans!)

Back out the way we came, we worm up to the ground floor, then to the grand staircase. Tim suggests that our group divide by gender, so that men and women go up different sides of the stairs, as was the old-timey custom. Even though we just went to real effort to get a rise out of a resentful ghost in the basement, I guess we are now pussyfooting around the sensibilities of the dead. We arrive, two gender parades, on both sides of a theater that can seat several dozen. Tim gives a little history as usual, then fires up the room’s rather powerful speakers to play audio from a group gathering where a phantom yelled a rather vague distortion into the microphone. It might be “I’ll kill you” or “I’ll get you,” or who knows. Just like the “white noise” phenomenon, unless you are the one who made the recording, it’s another thing that could obviously be a hoax. But with Tim’s endorsement of authenticity, you at least pay attention. Especially since he plays it at about 120 decibels.

Finally, there is an unfinished room upstairs, with raw walls and lots of windows. A dead boy named Peter is said to play with a ball here, and in the nearby halls and stairs. The description of Peter could actually fit the errant boy Stan saw in the basement, near the abandoned Cheerio. Tim gives us some silent time in the room, then directs a few questions at whatever restless spirit may loiter there. Nothing presents, other than a cat that sits on a covered couch. It looks like it can’t believe another stupid group of humans is chumping up the room again.

In the final tally, I saw nothing that made me feel haunted, but I admit there were a few puzzling moments. The place is impressive, and Tim fills it with interesting talk. This is supposed to be one of the most haunted places in Missouri, but if nothing manifests, at least there’s Tim. And let me know if that Cheerio is still there.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Nontraditional Students, cont'd

The Narcoleptic Newspaperman
I can’t recall his name. Something like Bob. I’d guess he was about 50, and nearing 400 pounds. He was a knowledgeable sort when conscious, but he would literally fall asleep moments after arrival, and stay that way for quite some time. He often wore one of those classic reporter hats, as I think he had been some kind of reporter. I probably wouldn’t remember him at all, but for the insane class context: a small graduate seminar in a cramped room, maybe ten students sitting around a long table, taught by Debora Greger. On the street, Debora would pass for harmless if not insubstantial, but in a class setting, she could be deadly. Her cutting remarks happened mostly on paper, but even in workshop she could stab you in the neck with a look or an icy phrase. “I can’t believe you wasted my time with that,” was frequently her subtext. She wasn’t 100% venom, but she kept her fangs primed. Yet Bob seemed immune. Debora never gave him any grief that I know.
    The course itself could have been part of Bob’s problem. Debora was never a livewire as a teacher, and the subject was Literary Letters (correspondence written by poets, playwrights, etc). It turned out pretty okay, but I had the active ingredient of William Bowers nearby. Bowers tended toward being the opposite of Debora as a presence. It was no small task staving off his smirks and mirth-vibes, for which Debora was a perfect background: two parts librarian, one part dominatrix, one part storybook witch… sitting right next to, as Bowers put it, “a huge, liquid man” on the verge of snoring. Then we would all write fake letters to dead people, hand them to a woman who apparently couldn’t stand us, and discuss. Bob woke up semi-regularly, adding surprisingly relevant comments from the outskirts of Slumberland. 

Nirmal T.
Now back in Missouri, around 2006, I was teaching Poetry Writing 1. My wife knew this Asian hipster guy, from the library or computer lab? Nirmal was in his mid-to-late twenties. His parents were originally from India, I think, but more recently from Bahrain. He was a business student, but I guess he needed an elective, and ended up in my class after getting my permission to add.
    Heather had already warned me of Nirmal’s bad study habits. The semester previous, he would ask her to help him edit papers, then try to get her to do much of the writing while he goofed around. He might work on moonwalking or another dance move. He was obsessed with Michael Jackson, becoming even more so after Jacko died. He believed Jacko was killed by the government or some other powerful people. He also wanted to go shopping a lot. Heather went to some downtown stores with him once, to help him pick out hipster clothes. He was so into dressing up, going out, and discussing Michael Jackson, that Heather decided Nirmal was probably gay, but since he would soon return to the middle east, had to remain in the closet. Or maybe he was just half half mad with American brain worms.
    Nirmal had good conversational English, but little of the English language depth one might need for great writing. But as I told him, that can be faked/edited out in Poetry 1. Most semesters I had one person who didn’t get what syllables were; that semester, it was Nirmal. Still, after some false starts, he wrote one really interesting poem—right before dropping the course.

Brian B.
Brian was only around 30, but he had a son around 4 or 5 at the time. His dad-ness came through in some of his work, which accentuated his non-traditional nature. But he was an English/journalism guy, and had no troubles with any of the coursework. In fact, he nailed most of the assignments with clairvoyant ease, which may only go to show that we were on the same wavelength regarding humor or literary agenda. He was even emotionally stable, socially levelheaded, and blessed with the constitution of someone capable of attending class without moaning about it. He didn’t freak out even once, and turned in a superior stack of final poems. It comes as no surprise that Brian just won a couple of Missouri Press Awards. He may have even had my back in a moral-support way, when it came to enduring Charles, the vaguely passive-aggressive dude in the same room. It’s also possible that Charles was just much less funny than he believed himself to be, which, when accentuated by questionable physiognomy, produced the effect of passive aggression. In any case, Brian was a soothing antidote for Charles.

Ben J. and John M., Army dudes
Ex-military guys always carry a certain gravitas, especially in creative writing classes. Not only are they a few years older, but workshops are traditionally inhabited by mostly wussies who suckle at the teat of expressing life experience, and the grimmer the better. Having been in the shit can really lend credibility. It helps if a soldier can write a decent sentence. The two guys that come to mind were actually pretty good writers. Ben lent a beer-and-Metallica edge to a poetry class, while John showed up in the one fiction workshop I taught, providing a mixed vibe of survivalist/deer hunter/prison guard. I seemed to recall him writing a first-person shooter account of a guy watching his ex through a rifle scope. I think they were both pretty upright guys, although I suspected burgeoning Republicanism.

The Blockhead
The one time I taught an evening class at MSU, there were a few 30+ women enrolled. Two of them were just fine, if not commendable. But one was the second part of a duo I called “The Genius & the Blockhead.” Boy, were they a pain. I guess they were roommates, and after a few weeks, they began tag-teaming my class—one would come so the other wouldn’t have to. This became especially insulting the time I saw them both in the hall before class, but then The Genius, wearing a giant Cat-in-the-Hat hat, skipped class. When I tried to tell them they were missing too many meetings to avoid some kind of penalty, The Genius (apparently well versed in the technicalities of attendance) informed me that I had to have DATED documentation of each absence to make it stick. I had only been making little tally marks beside someone’s name in the roster, not creating a signed & dated log. Lesson learned.

The Blockhead was older than the Genius, but seemed to worship her. When I gave the Genius’s first poem a B+, they both waited after class, until everyone else left, and informed me that I must have miscalculated, because The Genius was, after all, a published writer already. They didn’t say where she was published, but their tone implied that I really wasn’t qualified to judge such a brilliant young superstar.* I kind of wish I would have said, “Tough shit, titty baby. Why don’t you quit grade grubbing, go back to your weird domicile and commence with the creepy co-dependency in private?” Instead, I said they should just look at it like my only way to apply pressure for final portfolio revisions, as revision is an important part of the writing process. They kept hanging around. They just couldn’t get on board with my inappropriately harsh grade. I think The Genius was one breath away from saying that THE POEM IN QUESTION had been published somewhere already, which would have been awesome, because submitting recycled work violates the Academic Honor Code. That’s a “multiple submission.” Anyway, I had to put up with their buttered horseshit all semester. Neither of them was much good, but at least The Blockhead was lesser in a way that I could deduct for. The Genius, on the other hand, was technically proficient—just brimming over with bogus assertions, clich├ęs, archaic noodling, painful thesaurus language, etc. “Lost in purloined sadness accrued…” began one of her leaden lumps of meteoric language. Reading her poems became almost pure misery for me. To spare myself further encounters, I became passive aggressive. I gave the Blockhead the ‘B’s she barely deserved; I gave The Genius ‘A’s, but loaded her poems with divisive comments that could have come from William Logan or Debora Greger. “Chicken Soup for the Vampire’s Soul” is the only thing I can remember writing in one of my various critiques. At least The Blockhead had the decency to sign her own name to her work; The Genius already had a nom de plume. Mercifully, I have forgotten it.

*Genius/Blockhead bonus round: I knew I was in for it when, from the first week’s warm-up assignment, I picked a few student haikus (anonymously) to write on the board and discuss. One happened to be from The Genius, and included the phrase “the white snow.” Circling the adjective “white,” I advised that poems, especially very short poems with only 17 syllables, should really conserve words. Since “white” is something we normally assume snow to be, I said one could probably find a better modifier—a more surprising word that would transform or add metaphorical dimension to the idea of snow. For the next couple of minutes, the Blockhead (knowing that was her friend’s poem) led a charge to defend the word “white” as THE PERFECT word choice. No, there could be no better word, ever. Groan. 

Paul J.
Paul was a cool old Santa Claus guy, probably 60, physically sturdy and with a solid presence. He was a veteran of English classes, so he had all his shit together and tended to slam-dunk the assignments. Plus, he was a go-to guy for workshop critiques—not a workshop hog at all, but always prepared to give a good, honest response. He listened to critiques of his own work with good grace rather than defensiveness, and accepted some little gag prize for an off-the-cuff workshop award with humor, saying his grandson would like it. At the end of the semester, he told me it was the best writing class he’d ever had. That obviously rang sweet to me, but credit goes to that unfathomable mystery of “workshop chemistry,” over which Paul had almost as much control as I had. Paul had lucked into and helped build one of the best groups I ever ran—several strong writers, no insurmountable egos or super-sensitive basket-cases, good humor as well as smarts and good attendance, plus some interesting, good-natured personalities. I knew, because the other group I had that same semester was brought to a crashing halt when a super-sensitive basket-case had a crying meltdown and almost came to blows with another student. Had he been sitting next to Paul instead, perhaps his loony rat’s nest of a brain could have been detangled.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Nontraditional Students

Whether I was student or teacher, odds were that any given class would be blessed or afflicted with roughly one nontraditional student. Once I was teaching, the first day of class always came with that breath-holding moment when an older student appeared, and I had to wait for him or her to reveal the character attributes I would have to enjoy/endure. Because nontraditional students are there for a reason. And they will likely let you in on it. Rather than drift anonymously through a course as many an undergrad may, the nontraditional will get their money’s worth. Personalize the course. Become an unofficial teaching assistant. Hijack the vibe of the room. Spin off into a flurry of divorce-induced absences and legal documentation. Or disappear entirely.

Of course, traditional students have their ups and downs, quirks and failings, but the nontraditionals tend toward personality-to-burn assertive histrionics that cement their places in the room and the mind. Sometimes you know what’s coming by way of a shot-across-the-bow email on the eve of class: “Dear Professor (sic) Woody, I am enrolled in your class and want you to know in advance that I have two children and (insert special problem here)…” Once or twice, I responded with preemptive sternness to such emails and deflected the person away entirely. Maybe that’s mean, but when someone is predicting putting a drag on your whole operation before day 1, you want to send the message: Buck up, or jump ship. Especially if you’re like me—a total wash-up at being authoritarian in person.

Jon G.
This guy was a grinning, friendly, very tan, short-but-mighty dude of about 45, who used to sit in the back of poetry workshop with his leg(s) up on the radiator or next desk. He always joined discussions, but not to toxic levels. He liked to say something was “pretty good” when he liked it. Projecting a very outgoing and happy-go-lucky nature, he talked about taking his son to Little League games, etc. Jon blew my mind ten years after poetry workshop when I found him working at Kinko’s, telling me that he had divorced, and, now in his fifties, was living with a 19-year-old girlfriend. I suppose that is a form of “winning,” but somehow it contaminated my feelings about this old champ.

Lori S.
She became an MSU teacher later, but all I can remember is how she was kind of a socially dominant, hot, mature adult woman in a room full of barely-more-than-kids. This made her the apple of the teacher’s eye, and it seemed like she frequently talked to him before and after class. On occasion, she wore tight black pleather pants that, you know, made you look. I find it fitting that she is teaching now and I am not. It’s all about the networking.

Joe R.— or, “Joe-Man,” was the all-time Godzilla of nontraditional students. A long-time fixture at (Southwest) Missouri State, Joe appeared in one of my poetry workshops circa 1994. I won’t bother trying to capture him in euphemistic language. The guy was— and still is— a tragic wreck of a man-child with just enough determination to keep inflicting himself on others. Driving his motorized wheelchair with his withered T-Rex arms, sometimes gasping for air, sometimes showing up with food in his beard and down his shirt, Joe arrived on his shockwave of resentful need. Naturally, he was astute enough to zero in on me from the start, intuiting, perhaps, that I would have perfect attendance and enough conscience that I would always help him get his drink out of its holder, set up his tape recorder, collect his assignments, etc.

Then the fun really hit the fan. Joe could barely talk for lack of breath, but he had a lot to say, often unintelligibly. His poems were also long, rambling, repetitive, obvious, and tiresomely loaded with abstractions and the undisguised pain of his life. I think after only a few classes it became clear: Joe was not there to learn; he was there to teach us about him, and about how shitty the world is when you are super fucked-up.

Mike Burns, the professor, had a pretty even hand with Joe, but it was no secret that Joe tested his patience. He frequently, with decreasing diplomacy, prompted Joe to tie off his comments, or finished reading Joe’s work for him. This was necessary, because Joe’s voice was painfully, haltingly slow. One day, Joe violated workshop protocol by seemingly defensive retort. Someone had asked something I can’t recall...

    “It’s why I WROTE… the DAMN… POEM!” Joe gasped. Burns rocked my world by sternly rebuking Joe.

    “Joe, you know you don’t get defensive in here! I’ll roll your ass right out of here if you can’t follow the rules!”

    Joe said he was sorry, and everything proceeded apace, except that I couldn’t stop thinking about Burns literally rolling Joe’s wheelchair out into the hall like a mad dad.

    Another problem with Joe was that he was grandiose, a perfect counterpoint to his omnidirectional misery. He might praise a classmate’s work by comparing it to Wordsworth, or calling it a masterpiece, etc. Even if my own ego got the boost, it wasn’t long before the exaggerated praise proved tiresome.

    I soon learned that Joe had completed at least one previous degree, in something like sociology or political science. My friend Aaron told me that his older brother Clay had once had a class with Joe. Aaron and Clay passed Joe in the dining hall one day, and immediately after Joe greeted Clay in passing, Clay turned to Aaron and said, “I hate that son of a bitch!” So, Joe apparently wore out his welcome all over. Another friend who worked at the campus library said Joe would ram his chair into the counter to protest slow service, even if it had nothing to do with ignoring the handicapped, as Joe assumed. Yet another buddy’s girlfriend reported a similar incidence from the financial aid desk, etc.

    If there exists a milk of human kindness, Joe had a gift for souring it.

(Many years later, I would reunite with Joe, in his element: at a comic/gaming/sci-fi convention. Vonnegut-like, I have always been a reluctant member of the same karass. Review the further adventures of Joe-Man and Chad-Man here.)

Barb Gunderson
    Barb was a middle-aged woman who took the first poetry workshop I ever taught. I believe she looked like her name. After one of the first few class meetings, she took me aside for a long sit-down talk at the Student Union. She was fired up, which was cool, but she was obviously looking for too much from the course. She raved about being inspired by Andre Codrescu, among others. She wanted a life-changing experience, and I tried to agree, but I also tried to defuse the bomb of her hopes. She wanted an experience between “Dead Poets Society” and an affair with me. I was like, “I have to follow the course outline, and it’s a “Gordon Rule” course (6000-word minimum of critical writing), but we’ll have some fun.” It turned out to be a relatively lackluster workshop group, which happens about 50% of the time. She reported to me about once per month how disappointed she was. I’m sure at the time I wished she was pretty and nearer to my age, maybe I could have struck up an unethically sexual relationship with her, or at least walked with her in moonlight while reading Rimbaud and Rumi to one another and then licking absinthe off one another’s wrists… but no, she hadn’t the power to break my 26-year drought with the opposite sex, and I was powerless to give her the poetry mind-blow she so desired.

Stay tuned for part 2, when we meet some nontraditional students who are actually excellent, as well as more who are nuts.

Monday, September 1, 2014


Pretty sure I'd rather have this guy in my house, over his namesake.
Around 1979, my mom started raising dogs. Not long after that, cats. Somewhere in there, I’m sure she began raising fleas. I don’t know how many times I went to the sink as a kid to see the post-catwash dish of soaped-and-tweezed fleas. And one time when I slept over at Chris DeLozier’s mom’s house in Branson, she had some cat-fed fleas… that was, I think, when I discovered that you can kill them not by squeezing them, but by pinching AND grinding them between the fingers, with concentrated hot friction that just about makes your fingertips raw.

Just twice in my life, I’ve encountered fleas of a different magnitude. Vengeful fleas, with demonic, leg-prickling zest and horror-movie impact (although they are still too small to be filmed, unless you count the impressive flea POV shot in City of Lost Children). Fleas in such obscene numbers that they go from being the least significant things in the room to being the only thing that matters.

The first time, I was probably around 14. My mom and sister dabbled briefly in the world of ferrets. Having hitched my wagon to one of my mom’s trips into town (likely hoping to set foot in a Wal-Mart or some other sampler of civilization), I ended up at the home of some old lady in Springfield. She may have had cats as well, but what she really had, to the dismay of whatever gods hold sway over decency, was a concrete basement full of caged ferrets. It must have been hot out, because I was wearing shorts, which I did not wear often. As we reached the basement floor, my pale legs took on a tickling, pepper-like sandstorm of fleas. I think for 30 seconds or so, I tried to keep my cool, but it was not to be endured. We got the hell out of there, but we never forgot.

The second time was last month. This August, I became the owner of pestilential fleas. I would like to say Biblical fleas, but the Bible foolishly overlooks fleas as a plagueworthy nuisance*, opting instead for frogs, lice, and child mortality. My old house, now my rental property, was vacated at July’s end. As I helped the renters move their last stuff out, I realized there were fleas. No big surprise—we had had fleas there several times over the decade we lived there with two cats—but I figured, now that the house was empty, I’d set off a fogger or two and be done with it. Two weeks and six foggers later (including two of the highly touted “Knockout” brand), along with powder, some other spray, and a bag of outdoor granules, I’d spent about 80 bucks and the fleas were only getting worse. I had what one seller of insecticide referred to as a “flea nest.”

Aside from having no carpet in the house, the scenario couldn’t have been engineered any better for fleas. Their cat had been allowed in and out of the house, providing the fleas a convenient shuttle service. Their dog had been mainly kept inside, so became flea HQ. Humans were non-essential bonus meals.
Going the extra mile for the blogosphere.
Every time I went back to do some work, all I would do was fight fleas and cuss the renters, calling for the death of their dog, their cat, etc. I wondered how they could stand to live there at all, but of course, they couldn’t—they left. Plus, it was better when their pets were there—the dog and cat had been the fleas’ main chuckwagon. Now, I was their only dining experience, and the buffet opened wide when I stepped in.

At the apex of fleas, before I finally called an exterminator, I walked over to a sunbeam from a window, knowing fleas love warmth. In that 20-inch square, I saw a couple of fleas per square inch of hardwood floor. I sprayed it all with windex and wiped about 500 into a paper towel. By that point, I already had richly peppered socks, and a ring of 15 or so already biting me around the top of each sock. I retreated to the porch, where I used strips of blue masking tape to trap them. The tape is only sticky enough to hold a flea for about 3 seconds tops, so you just have to pick a good spot, slap fresh tape over it, then fold it over for solid entombment. My better runs with the tape would grab at least a dozen in each 2-3 inch strip. Then I’d spend 10 minutes on the front step, letting the last ones climb my socks so I could take them out individually. The bonus comes when every part of your body starts sending false itch-sensations, but you must look, because every once in a while, a hot-shot flea manages to get above the knee level. Inevitably one or two would make it into the car with me—probably in the seams of my shoes, which were always good cover—and I’d catch those on the drive.

After several days of my own attempts, the situation was not only not better, it was increasingly foul, dismal and desperate. I was beginning to think I was at ground zero for the rise of a new strain of superflea. Their skeezy leaping already puts them on the verge of being nature’s teleporters; what the fudge do you do if they grow resistant to all chemicals? I called an exterminator, who came the following Monday morning. I actually left the front door unlocked for him all weekend, thinking there was nothing in there to steal, and if anyone went in to do any mischief, the fleas would make them sorry.

After the exterminator, the flea population took a big dive, and it became possible to work in the house again. I’d still catch and kill a dozen or more on arrival, followed by a few per hour. One week later, they were gradually declining but still worrisome. I called the exterminator to see if they ought to come again. Their phone lady said I could expect to see lingering fleas for at least another week, because the eggs would still be hatching, and only after they hatch will the chemical residue work on them. I guess I knew that from internet fleasearch… I would just have to wait, and refrain from mopping the poison off the floors. For the same reason of retaining chemicals, I also decided to leave the house closed up, despite my strong desire to air out the crappy stale mix of dog, pee, cigarettes and flea death.

One month into the challenge, the fleas are finally on the ropes. I killed fewer than 20 during a 3-hour tour today. According to the chemical literature, “no new populations will develop.” Pray on that shit, friend, for I say the flea is the worst of nature’s common parasites. No, I’ve never had bedbugs, intestinal worms, or any of that African horror-show crap like eyeball-drillers or waterborne butt noodles, catfish-heads-for-tits, etc. Let’s keep it that way, future renters. Quit scuzzing up the place, ya gross-asses!

*Just one more reason the Bible is a poor guide to living: One of the great plagues visited on Egypt is… FROGS? Who cares? Frogs never hurt anyone. Bring on the frogs, man. Frogs are cool, soft, clawless… I mean, wading through a roomful of poison dart frogs sounds pretty daunting, but I don’t think Egypt had those. What a lame threat. Here’s a plague for you: FLEAS. Fleas are the worst of creatures. Chiggers come close, mosquitoes suck but at least you can net them out, ticks are gross… but fleas, man, fucking FLEAS. Worst thing about the frog plague is that I’d feel bad killing them accidentally while walking.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Renter Rant

Just kidding, it's not this bad.
I declare this day, August whatever, Judgment Day, the day I climb upon my high horse which has been shod with soapboxes, and I judge the living daylights out of all chumps I deem hoseriffic. There will be no mercy, no fairness, and none of my usual hemming, hawing, or judicious wobbling.

Alas, I must declare my former renters TURDS. Slackaholics, pantywaists, wee-wees, numbskulls. I now see their lameness as emblematic of their generation’s primary shortcoming, which I will now diagnose: insensate ignorance, the opposite of alertness. Also, a lack of resourcefulness. Lazy? Well, they both had jobs and paid all their rent. Are they stupid? Maybe a little, but not to the core. It’s just, this: wake the fuck up, schmucks!

Two 21/22-year-old girls, with boyfriends, one of whom probably lived there most of the time, could not avoid the following problems:

List of Lame
• Every time I went over there (about 5 times in the past year) there was a smoke alarm chirping. 9V batteries ain’t that expensive, kids.
• Sometime this spring, they stopped mowing the back yard. I left them my old mower, and I even replaced it when it broke down, but that still made mowing a whole yard too tough. At least they mowed the front yard, so anytime I drove by, I wrongly assumed they were on top of shit.
• Did not pull weeds or trim vinery anywhere. (Always expected I’d have to catch this up myself)
• Never trimmed the hedge. Well, maybe once, poorly? Not sure.
• Any time I was there, I would notice they had a TV to watch videos on, but no reception, cable or otherwise. I told them how I made an antenna for free TV, and even offered to make them one. They would just have to get a digital converter box. They just said they were trying to get internet/Netflix. But they seemed to have no sources for news/weather...
• Thank god I stopped over 2 days before we hit -8F last winter, to shut off the water to the outside spigots. Their dog bit me, and I had to avoid piles of dog shit in the basement to reach the shutoff, but at least I prevented a broken pipe.
• Porch door handle came loose. Rather than tighten it with a screwdriver, they put a lot of masking tape over the latch so it wouldn’t keep them out. (+1 point for being inventive, -2 points for overlooking the obvious problem)
• Tree fell over in the back yard. No one told me. I don’t think they realized it fell.
• On my second afternoon of reclaiming the back yard, I noticed the attic fan running while both air conditioners were on. This is a bit like opening, say, five windows while using air conditioning.
• Almost the entire year they lived there, one or both of them had a defunct little car blocking the garage. First a PT Cruiser, then an older Honda that wouldn’t have bugged me half as much, but it had a fucking BUSH/CHENEY bumper sticker.
• They had a garage sale, left sign on fence for 10 days after the sale was over, until I took it down. Also left several unsold items scattered around the yard, including glass tabletop that killed a big rectangle of grass.
• Dog pissed repeatedly in one room upstairs, one room downstairs, ruining carpet in upper room, section of hardwood floor in lower room. Curtains nearby also ruined, but different stench. My nose suggests to me that their cat was trying to get a urinary word in edgewise.
• Broke window out of back door. Supposedly it was the dog.
• I sent them both a text in April: “Once you are sure you won’t need heat, turn the pilot lights off in the floor furnaces. This will keep the house cooler in summer.” Reply from one girl, “OK, will do.” As I scraped a thick layer of dog hair off the furnaces in August, I find warmth, o joyous warmth! Pilot lights still piping hot. Wish I would have shown this to Miranda on her last day there, right after she complained how hot it was in the house.
• Smoking. At least they kept it on the porch. But, as my wife pointed out, smoking dulls your sense of smell. That explains their ability to live with the smell of dog and cat piss. It does nothing to explain their ability to live with...
• Fleas! Good grief, the fleas! Fleas will have their own rant, coming up.

Saturday, July 12, 2014


 A recent road trip to Lansing and Detroit took me right to the outskirts of my long-ago childhood home, a farm in Howell, Michigan. On the drive into Detroit, my wife, Heather, and I saw the signs: “Howell, Next Three Exits,” still halfway between Lansing and Detroit (as I’d always repeated since being four or five years old). I was surprised to see Howell was big enough to have three exits. After spending the day in Detroit, we were passing Howell again in early evening, and decided it might be worth pulling off, to see if we could find the old farm. If not, maybe we would find somewhere to eat, or something interesting. Among the top three Google results for Howell, MI was a story about the KKK, but that didn’t really get us anywhere. 

Before leaving Missouri, the idea of finding my old house had popped up, but I’d shrugged it off. Now we needed the address, but no one remembered it. Heather texted my sister and my mom, both notoriously bad at texting responses quickly. “Norton Road,” lurked as a fuzzy recollection, but then I second-guessed it and said “Drury Lane,” which I think had something to do with the address in Illinois where I was born. Heather did find a Norton Road on GPS maps, and it wasn’t far. She called my mom, who launched into a ramble of mostly unhelpful associations, like how I should try to find the lady who used to babysit me.  

“What was her name?” my mom asked.

“Who, the babysitter?” I said, “Mary Franks?”

“Yes! Don’t you think it would be neat if you saw her? Wouldn’t she be surprised?”

“Wouldn’t she be dead? I mean, she was older than you, right?”

“Oh, maybe she would be dead by now… I guess everyone gets old, just like me.”

“Yeah, I think she would be at least in her eighties by now.”

My mom asked my dad. He said something like 2118 Norton Road, which my mom said couldn’t be right. Then we asked if she knew a relevant crossroad, and she came up with Amos Road, then talked about how her painting teacher, Lillian van Houten, used to say that the row of trees on our road was the prettiest scenery IN THE WORLD, or something. Once Heather let my mom go, she searched for Norton & Amos Roads together. I had a good feeling about those two names, and I knew it should take us out to the edge of town, which it soon did.

I have only a scarce handful of memories from that place, but one assumes there is a formative sea of static churning beneath them, since I spent ages 2-6 there. I remembered nothing of the house’s interior, but there was a willow tree behind the house that was a big deal to me. I knew there should be a big barn, and the house had been white in 1979 when we left, but obviously that could change.
As things took a turn for the rural, we turned toward Amos Road, went through some huge trees that might have been the prettiest woods according to some lady, then saw some fields that were what I expected. I told Heather that this was looking right, and there was a row of metal barns in the distance that looked like where my dad used to work. Another quarter mile, and the road came to a T near a little house in front of a willow tree, across the road from a big weathered barn. I parked in front of the barn.

Sitting out in the front yard of the house was a burly man. At first glance, Heather thought he looked a bit like trouble, maybe still thinking of the KKK thing. I got out and walked toward him with a wave. When he stood up, I asked, “Did this farm used to be called Premier?” That’s what it was called when my dad worked here decades before.

“Yep, it was Premier,” he said with a surprising friendliness.

“Aha! I lived here when I was a really little kid, about... 35 years ago. My dad took care of Angus cattle here. Then we moved to Missouri in 1979.”

“Was your dad one of the Cottons?”

“No, but he worked for Larry Cotton… are they still around here?”

“No, but you can find them on Facebook.” He appeared incongruous with Facebook, but apparently that is a faulty snap judgment. “...I’d still like to get down to see Missouri someday,” he said. The guy had a slightly wacky, almost Canadian accent.

A nine- or ten-year-old boy popped up wearing a jack-o-lantern shirt and started chatting with my wife. I pointed out the willow tree, and we walked over by the barn. I told them how I fell out of the hay loft once, and threw pebbles at cars from the barn door one time, and thought there used to be frogs in a scummy drainage ditch near the road. My mom had said to ask to look in the house, but that seemed pushy unless we were invited in. Heather took our picture in the front yard.

We walked around a little more. The little boy told us (mostly Heather, since I was talking to the dad) about how he grows pumpkins. Heather said later that it was like talking to a chatty old man. He went on in detail about how people like to buy his pumpkins and corn stalks for Halloween, and Fall, and Thanksgiving…

“So, you’re the pumpkin man around here?” I asked.

“Yeah, but there’s a big place down (somewhere in town) that has a whole lot of pumpkins.”

“They’re pretty hard to compete with?”

“Yeah,” he admitted. His dad laughed. The pale gold field we passed coming in was knee-high wheat. The deep green field across the intersection grew soybeans. He’d been renting there about 15 years.

We went back to the car. I said, “Thanks for your time, good to meet you guys.”

The farmer said, “Well, it’s good you stopped here now, they’re getting ready to build a few hundred homes out here, so this will all be gone in a year, maybe less. They got it all platted out, the company that owns it in Illinois told us they sold it a while back.”

That sounded disappointing, as it was a pretty place. Pumpkin Kid and his dad would have to find land somewhere else, if they wanted to keep growing wheat and soybeans and pumpkins. It was already hard to imagine them doing anything else, though I hadn’t known them more than ten minutes.

We left without ever saying our names or asking for theirs. Later we kind of wished we had, so we could look them up… but then, sometimes I think it is good to toss some stuff back into that inaccessible ocean of static, to lighten the data load and allow wild spaces to exist, even if only in the soon-to-be bulldozed backroads of Michigan. 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Sweet Rewards
After a long time in the making, the comic anthology CRINGE! is near. It's full of stories such as mine, where people (generally the authors themselves) fess up to embarrassing things. Like that one episode of Buck Rogers when they pulled his shirt off and futuristic women bid on his bod, it must now suffer the glorious public auctioneering of the Kickstarter campaign. I saw some sample pages, and it's looking pretty cool.

I offered some of my recent goods as Kickstarter incentives. Because nothing says "Buy me" like quasi-related other products lingering in my garage... I don't know what the price of the book is yet, or what the donation levels will be.

Basic Level: PDF Comic Books

For the non-lords&ladies who buy whatever. Read them on your devices, if you can figure that shit out.
40-page mini where you choose your own adventure. What a pain!

20-page comic with idiosyncratic pirates. Chad Woody & Edward Bolman. Moderately triumphant.

Bigshot Level: Fish-with-a-Gun Hats

Actual real-world, non-digital object, has the value of a hat. These will still be around, likely in my closet, long after we die or delete our cloud, unless they get thrown away. Screw your digital head—Protect your actual head!
Yes, it's a hat with a fish holding a nonlethal gun.

Hats are adjustable, but too big for a tiny child with hot-dog arms.

Godly Level: Make It Happen

Give more to the Kickstarter campaign than any sensible person would, and you can come over to my house. I will swing you in my hammock swing and serve you a beverage. Tour my shed, take a cutting from any of my houseplants. Within two hours, you must depart.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The C of Heartbreak

Yes, it's also a song, sung by lots of people.

1. Cancer vs Friend

I’ve been lucky. Cancer has barely crossed my path in 40 years alive.  There’s never been much cancer in my family (none, actually, that I can think of), and growing up, most cancer news breezed by. The only story I can even think of is of this screwball woman who used to help my mom with farm work and claimed several times to have cancer. As far as we could tell, she just said that when she didn’t want to work. Then she would go back to stripping for a while, and then she would do some farm work again. She never lost any hair, never lost weight, never seemed sick. Either she had the easiest of all cancers to cope with, or she was full of shit. I’m sure at some point, my family of mostly smartasses reduced her hoaxy cancer to a joke. “She didn’t show up today? Probably got cancer again.”

Maybe that was example #1 in the realm of “Cancer brings out the worst in people.” Another example would be Steve, a college roommate, always invoking the concept of “dick cancer.” Sometimes he was gonna get it; other times he was condemning someone else to getting it. Does dick cancer even exist? Lance Armstrong had testicular cancer, and I suppose skin cancer could pop up on a penis, but I’ve never heard of “dick cancer” per se actually being a thing. Possibly just another of Steve’s obsessions. To steal another guy’s phrase, “Your dick’s too short to fuck with cancer.”

Other manifestations of cancer over the years still tended toward affecting folks at some distance from me, often people who smoked or featured this or that unhealthy characteristic. Although I’ve always known that no one is exempt, I think I became guilty of the presumably universal hubris of thinking cancer was not in my cards. We’re all gamblers in this sense—problems are abstract until they are yours, or at least a friend’s. That makes sense, since a person only has time for a short list of shit in life. I mean, wouldn’t it be weird if Michael J. Fox had dedicated himself to finding a Parkinson’s cure long before getting the disease?

Well, the run of good luck ran down, as it must with age. Several years ago, cancer killed my mom’s long-time friend, Sheila. Then it almost got my friend’s wife, Stacy, who lets me read demented stories to her 4th graders. A few years later, my grade-school buddy’s dad went down. Still pretty lucky, none in my immediate family… oops, then my mother-in-law got a bit of melanoma. Getting closer to home, but still for some reason, not threatening to me directly. There’s always a reason why it ain’t me: he’s much older than I am, she’s got family history, etc.

The point being, maybe I have a hearty dose of mortality denial, or at least a touch of dickheaded noncompliance about getting onboard the Good Ship “We’re All in this Together.” Maybe it’s a healthy hubris: if we each ran around in true empathy for the deaths of our fellow folks, we’d die a thousand sympathetic deaths and likely never accomplish anything, favoring worry, holding back the doom. But still, jerk-ass soul contents.

So, if I were a more superstitious person, more inclined to see cosmic targets on my back, I might think the cancer dice have been loading themselves the past 40 years for a big hit in my vicinity, because the friend now afflicted is certainly an unlikely choice. Aaron has always been a bit of a superman, or at least solidly outside the main columns in that ledger where we tick off the carcinogenic odds: strong guy, smart guy, clean livin’, upstanding citizen, not a prick, not a cosmic target in either the obvious way (no Evel Kneivel stuff) or the ironic way (no pumping of wheat-grass colonic smoothies from yoga positions). Mr. Solid. Mr. 435 lbs Bench Press. Mr. Reads the Books I Should Be Reading. But also not pompous. Good for jokes, pranks, foolishness. Mr. Biology Degree who hoarsely reports on the state of his organs with informed medical clarity just moments before laughing when my two-year-old quietly delivers the line, “Chickenbutt… boogernose.”

As I told him right after the bad news was delivered, “I think we all run our mortality through little scenarios, but they don’t take on much weight until you consider your kids.” At least, that’s what I think now that I’m a dad. I know it goes double for Aaron, who not only has two girls, but is the only guy I know who has always (well, since having kids) been vocally pro-fatherhood. That’s not to say he’s the only good dad around; he’s just been the opposite of the predictably dissatisfied American stereotype dad). So this paragraph’s thesis is, Should Aaron be taken by cancer, he will be sorely missed—not only by dreary old adults, but by kids who aren’t even halfway done knowing how Mr. King Dad he is.

Part 2: The Great Debates, or, When the Cure is More Disease

Tragedy strikes, and people always have to ask Why? Why us? Who did this? How can we fix it? It’s right to question, but only useful if you ask the right questions.

The “Shit Happens” theory covers much of it. Most of these questions hit the fan a couple years ago when my daughter came on the scene with her guts unpacked. The WHYs lead mostly into the cosmic maze where televangelists point fingers at hurricanes, earthquakes, and gay people. Does application of a vengeful God to irrational existential fear actually fix anything? Anyone who answers ‘Yes’ has my groans of weary exasperation, and adds to my theory that maybe people should not learn religious thinking as children for risk of having a Sunday-school worldview “that gets stuck that way.” I mean, if gods have been throwing lightning bolts, floods, and tumors for millennia, why hasn’t their aim improved any? I tend to look at things the opposite way: we all swim in a stew of bacteria, radiation, and chemical runoff on our best days. Maybe we’re all damn lucky everything works as well as it does.

“Who did this?” is a great question if you’re Erin Brockovich or your well was poisoned by big coal, or if you live in the Marvel Universe or a CSI episode, but most of the time, forget about finding the answer. I had to wonder if my daughter’s liver fell out because I handled the wrong pesticide or solvent, but the doctors gave us “no known risk factors” to choose from. Aaron’s esophageal cancer resulted, almost undoubtedly, from airborne crud ingested during 10+ years as a firefighter, but even so, there’s no tracing it. There’s no ballistics test for sabotage on the cellular level.

“How can we fix it?” would seem to be the key question. Easier asked than answered. Unfortunately, whole schools of Cancer Lore have sprouted up in the garden of doubt surrounding medical science’s failure to find a cure. It’s made worse by the brutality of the treatments: your best chance is in chemo, surgery, and radiation—three things guaranteed to make you feel awful for what may be your last days. It’s no wonder so many people reach outside the mainstream for some other cure, or at least hope. “Cancer Centers of America” comes to mind, with its long-running commercial starring Peggy, the woman whose regular doctor told her to “Go to the store” (Whatever the hell that meant). She even showed up in a sequel, riding a horse, which of course means she went to Heaven. But if you squint at those Peggy commercials, somewhere are the tiny words, “results not typical.” Plus, the sheer number of times I saw that on TV either means I am in prime cancer demographic, or that Cancer Centers is making a porky profit on desperate sick people.

Then there is prayer, which in my opinion is equivalent to speaking into a disconnected phone, but at least it’s free (as long as you’re not sending any “love gifts” to Pat Billy Jack), and it helps one gather one’s thoughts. Plus, there’s always that outside chance of activating some sort of subtle brain-centered healing razzmatazz.

Then comes the rising tide of alternative medicine. Good fuckin’ luck. On one hand, there’s my brother, ambassador from the world of marijuana miracles and herbal cure-alls. When I mentioned Aaron’s cancer, he automatically rattled off several cures that sounded hot from the voodoo store: “black waggo root” or something… maybe I would know it as the weed, Kingsfoil, Mr Frodo! I know I’m a jerk for making fun of stuff I know nothing about, but my line of reasoning goes like this: Even if Big Pharma were suppressing nature’s cures, there are plenty of doctors out there who have gotten cancer, or watched a loved one die of it. If there was a leaf or root that really mattered, doctors would know about it, or at least Chinese herbalists would. And if such natural cures begin to gather your confidence, along comes the counter-testimonial, via Marcus Howell: “My friend’s wife had cancer. She tried all that stuff—everything BUT chemotherapy. Her husband begged her to do chemo. Dead in six months!” —Dwayne Crigger  For me, that one anecdote is enough to make all the natural cures sound anecdotal.

The web, guaranteed, is loaded with rich arguments from every angle on the topic of Cancer. I’m not even gonna wade in. I spent an hour one night just scratching the surface of the question: “Should a long-haired dog be shaved in hot weather?” I don’t even have a dog, but I THINK I learned a lot about shaving one.

Life-threatening illness may be the ultimate wake-up call. It's just a Brutality Bonus that it tempts people to burn big hunks of their precious little time chasing wild medicinal geese. Maybe that's why Peggy's doctor just told her to go to the store.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Donate Your Digits to this Potato Amputee

As a bonus for the 4th graders I read to last month for Read Across America, I made this cheapskate's potato action figure. You may print it out and use it however you like. I stole everything cool about it from Brad Jones's Red Rogue Action Figure, anyway.

Print me out approximately 5" x 8" unless your fingers are ridiculous in size.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Bronies. Why?

We come to a moment in history which gives birth to the exact opposite of the cowboy.

Arriving a little late to the Bronies phenomenon, I have many questions.

I think it is almost obvious that the Bronies documentary, about boys and men who love "My Little Pony," had to cast the guys in a positive light. To attack them would be too easy, as everyone's primal, predatory instinct is to attack them. But, the light may have been a bit too forgiving. Aside from talking to two disapproving dads, the filmmakers let Bronies off easy, without much probing of their rather glorified version of reality. Sure, some of them were bullied or threatened at some point, but no one seems willing to deflate their delusional consensus fantasy, in which:

-- My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, is written with great insight, intellect, deep characters, and valuable life lessons, and series creator Lauren Faust must have been divinely inspired.

-- There is nothing psychosexually haywire about men, or even boys, being sincerely into My Little Pony.

-- The concepts in the cartoon are original, perhaps unique in all of television.

I've been a nerd since before it was cool (and trust me, people under 30, the world is vastly more forgiving of, even welcoming to, nerdy activities now more than ever), so I can discuss this crap to the max, but my wife arrived first at the crux of it: "Have these people ever seen TV?" They mentioned the stuff they loved, unique to this program—and they sounded as if they could have been talking about anything from Happy Days to Family Ties to Cheers. Ever since I've been alive, TV has pumped us all with little lessons about friendship and honesty and you-name-it.  

After all the Bronies' gushing, I watched a whole episode of Friendship is Magic. It was not insipid... unless you are older than 8. Its dialogue was clever... unless you are older than 8. It was not predictable and formulaic... unless you are a grown person. The only thing not retrograde in its execution was the background art, which I give sky-high marks. The scenery has the color-soaked seduction of a Junko Mizuno comic. In fact, the backgrounds might be subliminally responsible for the show's power over its hypnotized fans. Aside from looking away, the backgrounds are the only relief available from the vapid humor and the flat, stereotyped characters, such as the hayseed, country bumpkin pony that TAWKED LAHK THII-US.

Since it is a Hasbro-product-based show, it comes as no surprise that MLP follows the classic pattern established by G.I. Joe, Transformers, and others: every toy is a character, slapped with a symbolic name, each with a canned mentality befitting its station in life. A robot named Brawn will be very strong; a soldier code-named Snow Job will be good at skiing; and a pony named Twilight Sparkle will be... I already forgot. Something to do with night-sky colors and a star on her butt. But for some reason, people taller than me, most of them dudes, think it's brilliant--in a literary sense. Can flat characters be written into significant, impactful stories? Sure. See most of mythology. But that's not what's happening here.

The bonus round of irony is that there is a far funnier, infinitely cleverer and more nuanced study of the power of friendship running in another animated series that started around the same time as MLP:FIM—Adventure Time, a show that actually is brilliant, if not in a full-blown literary sense, then at least in unparalleled speed-of-invention, surreal conceptual blending and comedic approach.

The predictable jab at the Bronies is that they are gay. Near the top of the Google search results for "Bronies" will be "bronies are fags." Whatever. I have no big hang-ups about crossing gender lines with your tastes, and it's become obviously mainstream for girls to be into previously "guy stuff" like Star Wars or superheroes or football, but you should be aware of the line you are crossing, and understand why embarrassment might be in order. Sure, you can be postmodern or ironic or whatever, but the Bronies—the real Bronies—show NO SIGNS of irony or mockery. They view the Ponies as muses, almost as little godlings.

I planned on making an argument about some sexual deviancy in the Bronies, but the documentary gives no evidence for this, despite lurking suspicions: Bronies sometimes dress up like ponies, paralleling the "Furries" phenomenon, some Bronies wear tattoos of their favorite ponies' symbolic brands, located on the butts of the horses, the sexuality of which would be hard to avoid on a woman's anatomy, but no Bronies claim to have their tattoos on their butts.... There may be twisted psychosexual ingredients in the Bronies wacky mentalities, but thus far they remain sublimated, or at least concealed from the camera. 

I suppose that the main problem with Bronies is immaturity. Social, interpersonal, sexual, almost omni-directional immaturity. Most of us, as functional humans, have absorbed some element of social rule-enforcement that makes us want to grab guys like this by the collar and say, "Grow the fuck up!" Are they hurting anyone? No. But they are embarrassing everyone. The film's consulting psychologists claim that the Bronies are just looking for community, or meaningful ideas about life... that MLP: Friendship is Magic, just encourages grown men to be caring, emotional people. A reviewer elsewhere said, "these guys aren't much different than crazed fans of Star Wars or Harry Potter or Buffy or fill-in-the-blank." Well, then I guess there's not much difference between drinking a glass of cow's milk and being one of those men on Jerry Springer who drink breastmilk from a lactating stripper.

I could go on, but the gist of it is, I think Bronyism is a subcategory of arrested development, or possibly Aspergers. If that's a diagnosis that somehow excuses it, then oops. 

Bibo's First Standup Comedy?

Photo not current, but clownishly relevant
 In the giddy stumble up to bedtime, Penelope fumbled around with a freebie coloring book called "The Responsible Dog Owner's Coloring Book (AKC propaganda)." She blathered insistently over it, slapped it onto the couch, pointed at a long paragraph of text on the back cover, focused, and said, as if reading, "NUTS." She was already starting to laugh drunkenly. Then I started laughing.

"Is that what dogs need?" More laughing.

"Dogs... need... NUTS," she said, poking the text. "DOGS NEED NUTS."

This went on for a good while, until consciousness was lost.