Thursday, May 21, 2015

What this man does will blow you away

I decided to do a series of posts about my resolve to give up coffee for a year. 

Bloggers do these types of wild things simply because they can. We answer to no one, and no one, in turn, cares at all, ever.

It was time to bring that joke to its obvious conclusion.

But the bigger point I am attempting to encircle with sweaty, stunted arms is that public interest in this blog has really been on the decline.

I blame three things in particular for this. First, I blame everyone but myself, because it's easy.

Second, I blame my inability to do enough "stunt" posts, ones that are carefully crafted to go viral, such as my hilarious coffee antics pictured above, or this mind boggling collage:

At the end of the long, terrible day we call life, though, I blame me. Always having to be the cool, aloof loner type. Keeping the world at an arm's length, making girls wonder what I'm thinking. Except my steady; I drop the mask with her, only for a moment, only while necking.

That is all about to change. I have decided to provide you with a rare glimpse into my cathedral of creativity, my sacrum santorum, my blogging studio.

Well, that's it. Thanks for reading. 

Just kidding, there is so much more.

Like these Dreidal crayons I bought one time, for I know not why.

I already said, I KNOW NOT.

I don't feel like doing that.

Stop it. That bothers me.

Look, I'm just trying to get more intimate-

-with my readers-

-so I can't be whatever strange companion you wish me to be right now. I'm stretched thin as it is.

Anyways, to get my creativity going, I require a certain amount of sensory deprivation.

This could be immersion in the lego pool-

or sitting in the Dark Place by this blue machine thingy-

Sure, it gets scary.

But, as Nicholas Sparks put it, you do your best writing when you are in the dark, terrified, and everything around you stinks of cat spray and mildew.

It's true. He wrote the entirety of The Best of Me while locked inside a Doskocil Pet Taxi. His assistant fed him Snausages through the tiny metal holes.

I'm sorry I made that dumb joke. It was because I got out of the lego pool too soon.

Here is the shirt I was wearing when I first met my wife, framed now, no longer meaningful as a garment.

Some kind of strange magic was in the air that night, and it is quite possible that I was the most beautiful thing anyone had ever seen.

Ah, well, you know how marriage goes. 

Years later, she confiscated the shirt from my wardrobe when she noticed my chest hair cravat spiking through its frayed surface.

Moving on, any blogger worth a salt has a vast collection of reference materials to turn to in times of need.

The Julia Child blogger from that movie was always looking at cookbooks, and I happen to know that the mighty Jenny Lawson herself is never a stone's throw from her dog-eared copy of Dr.Johnson's Shake Your Pithy Jowls.

Here is just a taste of my own blogging reference library:

There's one other book in the collection, too. I couldn't find it for the picture though.

Probably my wife did something with it. She's always ganking my tomes.

After my senses have been well and truly deprivated, I whiteboard a few key concepts in dreidal.

Well, it's an oversimplification, but okay, we'll get the ball rolling with it.

Anyone else?

Good, good; let's expand that to something more universal though.

Now, how about we drill down to some specifically applicable implementations?

Hmmm. I guess my hesitation there would be that it's kind of a juvenile, maybe kind of a tired, approach to the material?

As you can imagine, blogging is terrifically hard on the emotions. You have to keep yourself balanced by staring at things for long periods of time. 

I like to alternate between gazing at my Happy Shelf-

Each one has a story, and each is perfect in its way
-and my Life is Disappointment Shelf:

This is the part of my blogging studio that my wife calls "a big problem".

There are a lot more areas to the studio, but they all kind of look like the "big problem."

And when all is said, written, drawn, and yet another post has leapt from the snapping electric line of my teeming brain, I put all my blogging tools carefully away.

They wait for me, in the closet there, like a pantheon of slumbering gods.

I hope you appreciate how hard it was for me to open up to you all like this.

As always, thanks for reading.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Let us to the sticking place our courage screw

Lest you worry that in my long blogging absences I allow my considerable talents to go to flab, let me reassure you: nay; verily nay.

I have, in fact, been dipping my ladle into the loamy foam of that brewing succotash called 'poetry'.

Poemy feelings have been with me since the beginning.

When I was just three years old, I was already composing little sonnets on my Etch-A-Sketch:

Long horizontal line
vertical line of shorter length
weird diagonal line that looks like curvy stairs
very bad circle

My father accidentally shook the poem away when he tried with trembling hands to share my genius with mother.

That is a made-up story, and I feel its impact is dampened by it's transparent absurdity. 

Skipping ahead, I recently submitted a poem to several literary publications.

Some of the resulting rejections were actually quite nice in their attempts to not only inform me of my baseline suckiness, but to instruct me a bit on how, in the future, I might possibly be able to suck less.

One critic thought that I ended too many of my spondees with obvious rhymes, such as "creature" with "double feature", and "outer space" with "mean butt face."

Another did not seem to appreciate my extensive instructions on how the poem should be read aloud:

"line beginning Priapus was this dude- please read in the style of Donovan's Hurdy Gurdy Man, but with a kind of sleepy machismo"

"please breathe heavily through hairy nostrils while reading the entirety of this poem"

Needless to say, it goes without saying that I was crushed, utterly crushed, by these rejections.

Poetry is my life, man; it's why I try to think of rhyming words or count syllables by clapping.

So I took my work to the people's literary publication: Tumblr.

There I found many a kindred soul; thousands of voices afflicted by the same weary gloom that I recognized within myself. 

If you scratch the happy surface of the Internet, you will find a teeming mass of sad people who like to write poetry. 

And they were so accepting of me! No scoffs at my dactyls, no pshaws at my limpid rhymes. Well, really not much of any response at all, but oh there is something blessed and rare in silence, is there not?

I soon discovered that people like to put "asks" in other people's "inboxes".

With an eager refreshing of page, I awaited my first "ask".

"@tumblrbot asked you a question" YES!

"What is your favorite color?"  

"Well, first of all, I would like to give you a hearty welcome to my Tumblr page. How did you find me? As to your question, I don't really see the world in terms of color; I see it more as the eternal interplay of beauty and brutality, so.....maybe Kelly green??"

Some time later, I realized my new fan was some kind of automated response. 

Through further study, something else became crystal clear to me: everyone seemed to be using the "ask" feature simply to ask sexual questions.

"@wienerherzog asked you a question: Have you ever made whoopie?"

"I am not one to kiss-and-tell, but I will say I have THREE children"(suggestive emoticon)(suggestive emoticon)

Actually, I asked myself that question from a different Tumblr account that I had started, mostly because I was lonely. 

I detest the use of the word "whoopie" for sex, because I had a bad experience with "The Newlywed Game" when I was little. I was home from school and secretly watched it on T.V. 

Between the constant use of whoopie, and an argument one couple had over whether or not the husband would describe his wife's breasts as pillows or marshmallows, I was left feeling troubled by the pervasive sexiness of the world. 

Navigating now the waters of Tumblr inboxes, that troubled feeling returns.

Does no one care how delicately I sculpted my iambs? Is no heart shuddering at lines such as

bursitis in his pitching arm
so he cannot fling the woo

"@wienerherzog asked you a question: are you the only true poet on Tumblr?"

"Ha! Oh wiener, you flatter me. But yes, it seems your words ring true."

Sunday, May 10, 2015


One of our students recently moved here from some beautiful Serbian coastal town.

"She would walk the little streets for hours, all by herself," her mother told us, in the IEP. "It's so lovely there; everyone knows her."

Welcome to our American classroom. We have a car wash across the street. Fresh wood chips. Sometimes a bird alights upon the tree, but it flies away pretty quickly because the nearby truck traffic scares it off.

I continue on with my little speech, long after the mom has ceased her polite chuckling. She keeps looking at me like she is not sure if I am supposed to be there. 

"I'm just joking," I say, with a shrug.


No one says anything for a minute, and then they pick up where they left off, as if the loud man with coffee stains on his nearly transparent T-shirt had never brapped his unfunnies all over the sacred IEP table in the first place. I decide that I should be finished talking.

A few minutes later, when the mom has been going on for awhile about their breathtaking villa on the edge of the Baltic Sea, I am so wrapped up in her description, I murmur a request to visit there someday. 

The mother laughs nervously.

"What? You ask to come to Skolvenskya Puraschko with us?" I can't remember the words she really said, but it sounded like that. It seemed like her eyes narrowed suspiciously as well.

Just so you know, compulsive speaking when you are uncomfortable is a sign that God has a special plan for your life, and you are going to be super good at it. 

"So you speak Serbian?" I asked Iva a few weeks later, as I lead her around the city and helped her orient to the bus system.

"Yes. Oh yes." 

I kept asking her to tell me things in her language, but she either muttered obviously invented syllables, or simply repeated what I said in plain English. 

A group of young Hispanic women got on the bus and started chattering away in Spanish.

"My God!" Iva gasped, "they are speaking in my language!" She tilted her head towards their conversation.

"I don't think so," I whisper to her.

Whenever Iva even thinks you might, in some tiny, tiny way, be correcting her, she takes it like a true lamentor from the Old Country.

"Oh my God! Everything is ruined!" she roars, slamming her breast with a fist and shoving a handful of her short, unwashed brown hair into her mouth. The hair is chewed vigorously, brought out for a sniff, and then smashed back in.

"Don't eat your hair. It's not a big deal." That's my motto for this soon-ending school year: it's not a big deal.

I am surrounded by constant drama and explosive emotion, so, in a quiet, reassuring voice, I keep telling everyone how nothing is a big deal.

I bought a 12 pack of Little Debbie donut sticks, just for me, and, as I ate a few while hiding in the bathroom stall, I noticed I was still saying "it's not a big deal" out loud. I quickly choked myself off with another stick and squeezed my hands to stop the shaking. 

Just kidding. It's not so bad. I did buy the donuts, but I ate them in plain sight and with a weird sense of take that! in every bite. 

We got off the bus and started the long walk back to the classroom. 

Angela regaled us with tales of her past glory, like:

"You know what my nickname used to be? Bree. That's a very expensive cheese. They also used to call me Cabrini Green-I think that's a car, a fancy car." And all the time she talked, I could here Iva mumbling to herself. I have butterflies in my stomach. I'm scared, I'm so scared. These trees are scary.

We neared a tiny crosswalk between two utterly dead side streets, and Iva screamed.

"OH MY GOD!!! We are going to die! I'm sorry, I'm sorry, we are going to die!" 

"It's just a crosswalk. CALM DOWN." She crossed the street like it was a frayed rope bridge over the cauldron of a volcano. Angela prattled on.

"And when I was little, I looked just like Shirley Temple, my hair, my makeup, everything".

"That's terrible," said Iva, "I mean, that's so nice."

"You guys, let's go in here. I want to get a coffee." They obligingly trudged in behind me. 

As we stood waiting at the register, Iva stared intently at the showcase of pastries.

"Would it be a good April Fool's joke if I told you I had money?" she asked.

"I don't know what you mean, Iva."

"I have money."

"Are you saying you want to buy something?"

"April Fools," she said in a meek, fading voice, and returned to the anxious munching of her hair.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Excuse my slightness here below

One of my students was just hired as a grocery bagger.

She got to sit through hours of cool orientation videos packed with important information:

The first screenshot is real. The next two are supposed to be jokes.

I've been reading a book about making jokes, and now I am trying to make some.

But the author of the book is British.

He keeps referencing all these British comedians like "Dame Knickers" or "Bangers and the Mash." Without any cultural anchor points, I feel lost.

Anyways, he attempts to define humor as the place where two otherwise disparate elements meet and cause an hilarious explosion.

I have tried to play with this concept and tease out some main ideas.

Did you see that part in italics? You can tell we've had a lot of teacher inservices lately, because I've started talking super dooper smart like that. It's because I'm surrounded by experts.

Our last inservice was about mental illness.

Early on in the presentation, one of my fellow professionals raised his hand.

"Yes?" The speaker called on him, but you could tell she hadn't wanted to. It was too early. She was only on her second Powerpoint slide, and wasn't finished reading all the information out loud yet.

My co-worker turned in his seat to address the room.

"I just want you to know, I disagree with what you said about suicide being an impulse. I've attempted suicide many times, so I speak from experience. It's planned. It's always planned."

The room went deeply, awkwardly still.

I tried to study the face of our director of special education.

I tried to tease out what she might be thinking: Did I hire that man? Is this my bad??

The presenter was obviously thrown for a loop, but she managed a "thank you, thank you for that" in a sincere, quiet voice.

At the first break, everyone rushed the table of complimentary Goldfish crackers. I used the distraction to cover my escape.

There is something so powerful about leaving a teacher inservice early; I believe it's as close to God as we dare reach in this life.

I worked at a grocery store for a little while, and there wasn't too much there to blow up.

The people, I suppose, but some of them might've been a bit relieved to have it happen. The rotisserie chicken guy, the four in the morning donut lady; these were not the happiest of folk.

A routine of drudgery lay before them, day in and day out. Disruptions got as exciting as minor mechanical failures: the chicken spit struggled to rotate, or the jelly inserter plugged up and shot donut jelly out in mildly unexpected directions.

It was all lower-case dammits, said almost inaudibly.

I was on the late shift, from ten at night to seven in the morning. The store was closed and we could do whatever we wanted.

Like sometimes, we didn't rotate the older mayonnaise to the front of the newer mayonnaise.

That's the highlight, but I promise you, a million other things happened that were just as crazy.

Once, the night shift supervisor and another guy got into an argument about past-date cans.

They were both puffed up pretty big, bouncing off of each other's chests and spitting out fighting words like, "WHAT?WHAT?" and "OH YEAH!? YEAH?!"

I've always been a peacekeeper.

In college, whenever a fight broke out, I made sure to fling myself between the combatants, even from half-way across the house.

I would burst into tears and scream at everyone to stop, just stop it. A stand-in for all of their mothers.

People would be so embarrassed for me that you could feel the tension fizzle into an awkward restlessness.

What are we doing? Why is he crying and trying to cradle our heads?

It didn't always work.

The fighters and the fight-stoppers sometimes all tipped over together in one drunken brick, or the brawlers faked peace, walked down the block from my blubbering, and beat the shit out of each other anyways.

When the two guys at the grocery store started going at it, I did not even have enough time to work up a good eyeball lather. The angrier of the two, Jerry, yelled "I quit!" really dramatically and stormed out of there. He gave us all the finger as he passed.

Despite the sweeping nature of his gesture, I decided Jerry only intended the finger for the others. The alternative hurt too much.

The book I have about joke-making tells me to always be very specific. That's why I told you the one guy's name was Jerry. He often wore a green hat, which I believe is kind of neutral information, but perhaps you will find that detail hilarious.

There was another guy there who said he spent his weekends driving strippers around to bachelor parties. I don't remember his name, but he said the strippers were all Filipino. Years later, I saw him hop a fence at a Boy Scout rummage sale in order to be the first one to the tent where all the push mowers were parked. 

That story I just told you about the man with his strippers and mowers is one of the most powerful things I think I have ever written.

I leave you wanting more.

Monday, March 9, 2015

No retreat, no surrender

A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to a weekend retreat about marriage.

Maybe if we talk about stuff right now, like if I really open up to her, put all those feelings out there that she wants me to express all the time, maybe it will be enough and we can go back home. 

It would be like a stay of execution; we'd be so giddy, just brushing death that way, and the whole weekend would still be in front of us, wild, alive, free.

The retreat was set in a large, late-18th century house that had columns, lots of windows, and there is no way I'm going to draw it.

Nametags bother me because every time I wear one, people call me by my name.

But worser is having to sit in the front row. Now I can't doodle unflattering caricatures of the person speaking. They might look down, see themselves, and possibly be devastated. And I won't be able to focus on what is being said either, because I'll be too fixated on the person's face or mannerisms.
  Just as he was about to tell us the many secrets to a happy marriage, I noticed a large bubble of moisture hanging from one of his nostrils.
 A person of even mildly sufficient intelligence and maturity would've seen right past the nasal run off and on through to the valuable message beneath.

Why can't I be that person? Is that why my wife wanted us to come?

For the next three hours, I watched the bubble expand and contract with his breathing. I saw my life in it, my marriage. It was filthy with metaphors, but they all proved too elusive for me to pin down. 

Then he burst it with a deep and sudden sniff.

It was time for the breakout sessions. We were separated from our spouses and divided into groups of three.
Everybody in my group was almost touching knees.

Our assignment was to study each other intently, total strangers, and then write down as many affirming qualities as we could discern in five minutes. We were told to be honest, open, and gushing with our praise.

Marcia and Mark began writing. I stared down at my notebook and prayed for it to become a giant, chomping mouth that would rear up and bite off all of our heads; beginning with Marcia, the kindly 50ish lady with chunky, pearlescent jewelry; then Mark, an obvious engineer with a brassy class ring from Notre Dame, and finishing up with my own fat face, brittle as it was in it's social rigor mortis.

The presenters called 'time'.

I was horrified to see Marcia had two whole pages on me, and she even breathlessly scribbled a bit more after the bell.

The woman looked down on me with such a face of earnest kindness that I knew I was in for an excruciating vivisection. 

Marcia described this "other" me for a long time.
I liked him; he sounded good natured, dependable, kind of a happy rock. 

It soon became clear that she was basing the entirety of her affirmations on the sight of my bright tennis shoes and my admission that I have three boys.

We were told that we could only respond with a gracious thank-you, which I did.

Mark started in, and it was just as nice and earnest.

He mentioned my shoes as well.

They had made some alternate universe version of me feel like a million bucks, while the real me stared down in shame at what I'd written about them.
I read out loud the little I had, and was met with blank expressions. They did not really say 'thank you' like they were supposed to.

The main event for the evening was a romantic dinner by candlelight.

Two other couples sat at the table with us, thereby guaranteeing a complete absence of romance.

We were then told to ask each couple how they had met...

Part of the problem with my marriage is that we don't have a compelling backstory.

I met my future wife at a low-key, uneventful party put on by a mutual friend. We started joking around and got married three or so years later.

One of the men at our romantic dinner table kept asking us about the party, like he was trying to help us out, to make us revisit those first moments and see what magical elements we might have forgotten.

"I had wrist braces on," my wife offered. "Because I had carpal tunnel."

I was going to add that I might've had some ice cream, or maybe cereal, at the party as well, but the next couple had already started talking.

They were an odd pairing: he, a German Jew from upstate New York, and she, a flamboyant woman from Colombia. On a faraway Caribbean beach, they'd found each other amidst a whirlwind of love, tour groups, and halting Spanish.

Nice people. Genuinely good. I felt bad that I wished desperately to be somewhere else, even zapped into a smoking outline of a body in ash upon the floor, than sitting there at the table with them.

My social anxiety has become an unchecked monster. It almost paralyzes me.

There were times throughout the retreat when I was certain I could not continue on another moment. I was a dog sled team run to fatal exhaustion in the last leg of the Iditarod.

A review of the little notes I kept writing to my wife demonstrates my state of mind: I can't take this, my head is going to explode (doodle of a monkey) My vision is blurring, my hands are shaking, get me out of here, get me out! (more doodles, little hearts with our initials in them, a terrible ink blot ripped down through several notebook pages by the heavy stabbing of a pen) Dear God, dear God!

Eventually, she drew an 'X' on a piece of paper and told me to just stare at it.

The clean, even intersection of that X calmed me down and allowed my mind to drift off.

I thought of how my little son had unexpectedly poked me in the scrotum while I was urinating. How personal and invasive that had felt.

Then my mind turned to the dingy blue dresser behind him, and the little photo of my wife that lays on it.

When I am stuck on the toilet for a particularly long haul, I sometimes take the picture down and study it.

It's from 2003, which seems old to me now.

We weren't together when it was taken; there had been apathy, betrayals, a painful breakup.

She had gone away to Nicaragua while I struggled through a long first year of desolate sobriety. It's not much of a story.

I don't know what the girl on the horse is thinking. 

The little Nicaraguan horse wrangling man had hissed "Gorda gringa! Gorda gringa!" at her, but eventually handed over the reins. Maybe she was thinking how much she would have liked to kick his bony ass into the sea.

In the picture, she looks like what my wife has always looked like to me: beauty, hope, goodness. 

As good a reason as any to suffer through a marriage retreat.

I guess.