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.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The play is a thing

We are sitting in a small auditorium, waiting for a band of merry players to begin their production of "Joyous Tales from Happy Africa."

It's 8:30 in the morning, too early for amateur theater.

Next to me is my old friend Lulu. We're smooshed right up on each other, because these seats were designed before America had an obesity epidemic on its hands.

Though Lulu lost a tremendous amount of weight in the year I was gone. Hundreds of pounds. We are now almost the same size; her clothes hang off of her like drapery, while mine split along the seams in tired little sighs. We're having trouble containing you, they say, please, we're not sausage casings. We're clothes, for crying out loud.

Lulu has also developed an unfortunate habit in my absence. She now has a constant need to twist and torture her right nipple. If left unsupervised for more then a few minutes, she assumes her preferred posture: shirt hoisted at an angle, bra pulled loose, one breast hanging low and free, a hand scrabbling at the exposed skin.

When the weather was warmer, she wandered out of the classroom during unstructured time and planted herself on the curb outside the door. I got to her just as she'd made a new friend.

He tried to pretend he hadn't been staring at her large, exposed breast, pulled his hat low over his face, and gunned it out of the parking lot.

I corrected her and directed her back inside. She offered her usual response.

"No one wants to see all that," echoing something she'd been told by staff and family tens of thousands of times throughout her life. 

'All that' used to just be belly rolls or darkening hints of butt crack, but now, in this new phase, it was something much more intimate. 

Somebody wants to see all that, I thought.

The wall along our classroom kitchen is lined with windows that look out onto the hallway. Students sometimes press their faces to the glass to see what is for lunch. They have the expected responses: gasps of delight at the metal bin of taco meat; wrinkled disgust at the gray, stinking spectacle of the California Blend.

Recently, as I was laying out a pizza slice on each foam tray, I glanced up to find myself being watched intently by two eyes and a calloused nipple.
"What I'm gonna get for lunch?" Lulu shouted through the window.

The auditorium lights dim and four actors in traditional African tiger suits take the stage.

I've seen productions put on by this troupe before. Once again, the hateful, sarcastic spirit buried inside me directs my eyes to one actor in particular. She's in her mid-60s, short, with glittery dark eyes, thin curls, and a voice like Lucille Ball being squashed through a colander by the cold, unfeeling hands of Fred.

Listen, I'm not an idiot. I know that anyone who devotes their life to children's theater is some kind of hammy, pantomiming saint.

I'll live a hundred bitter years, and never have the disgusting zest for life that this woman probably has. 

But man, it's hard not to sit there and just focus on the minutiae of what is irritating about her.

I sketched this picture while she was dancing right by me:

She pranced on past, clapped for a moment on a djembe drum, tootled a slide whistle, and shrieked, "Cucumbers, carrots!!"

I notice some activity to my immediate left.

Sure enough, Lulu has taken advantage of the low lighting; the shirt is up, the breast is on the move.

"Put that away," I tell her.

The actors have begun to waltz through the audience, waving long flags.

In a moment, they will be upon us. I wondered what kind of improv skills they would bring to bear when faced with an unexpected nipple.

"Cover up or we're leaving, " I hissed.

Just as a homemade African banner slaps across the top of my head, Lulu pulls her shirt back down, neglecting to repack her breast into her bra.

I hope you don't mind the scrabbly, hand drawn pictures.

I've been running out of time to post things, so first I stopped doing color, and then I stopped drawing on the computer all together. 

Maybe someday I'll be back in the groove of things.

In case you're interested, I've been posting things to my Tumblr recently.

It's mostly nonsense, but maybe you'll get a kick out of it.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The making of real good bread.

Well, we got fired from the shoe store.

They didn't cite any specific reason; an assistant manager just nervously blocked the doorway and assured us our help was no longer needed.

I could see the rows of shoes over his shoulder, stretching away for what seemed like miles.

They glittered in the fluorescent light: Sketchers, Fergalicious, Dr.Scholls.

Nine years we gave them, nine. And not so much as a set of free laces or complimentary can of shoe deodorizer.

I kicked the dust from that place off my sandals and walked two store fronts down to my new assignment: the fabric store.

It's a cramped and gloomy shop, with a lingering, distasteful smell in the air.  

For the record, I don't like the smell of home and garden stores either; for some reason, their odor of potting soil and new rubber hose makes me feel stifled, like the 1970s are flattening me with a giant packet of Burpee Marigold seeds.

The fabric store smell is different. Someone has hidden the entire olfactory experience of Christmas beneath a musty buckskin hide. 

As we walked past rows of character-themed fleece, one of the students next to me began to shout.

"OH MY GOD! They have Monster High fabric!" She held it to her face, snarfling deep into its folds like it was some exotic Chinese silk. "Feel it," she commanded me.

It was vaguely scratchy, sort of cheap.

"Think about the stuff you could make with it. Pillows, blankets...." she trailed off. Then she gripped my arm. "Oh God, Betty Boop!" She yanked me over to a roll of fleece plastered with images of that classic animated floozy.

The girl laid one corner of it over her head, almost like a veil.

"It's beautiful," she murmured.

As she put the fabric back in place, she quietly spoke of the death of Betty White.

"I can't believe she's gone."

"I didn't know she was dead."

"That's what people tell me...."

I could kind of tell how she got from one Betty to the other, but it didn't matter. It was time to get to work.

One plus side to the fabric store is the scenery. It's pretty haw-haw-hot, like so many fine ladies up in that business. Many of them are looking for the right fabrics to use to make things for their grandsons.

I'm a regular cock in the hen house, strutting around with my pink hearts notebook, saying things like "Buttons? Your best bet for buttons is aisle 9, or maybe that end cap there off of 10."

Actually, I can't find anything in that place.

A nice old man with impressive, kootchie-koo eyebrows asked me for help one time, and I was useless.

"I want a cuff button just like this one." He swung his wrist right up in front of my face. What was that scent- fresh rain? Dental floss? "I've been wearing this same brand of coat for thirty years. You can't get the buttons anymore. You gotta go to Germany to get them. Well I'm not doing that."

As volunteer workers, vocational trainees, we are not supposed to interact with the customers unless necessary. But I was feeling bold, as if all the eyes of all the grandmothers in that place were fixed upon me, and the moment was mine to seize.

After leading him down through the kid's crafts and stopping for awhile by the scrapbooking supplies, I gave up.

"Let's find someone that actually works here," I said, which quite obviously confused him. "They're wearing green aprons."

I passed him off to the grumpy lady manning the cutting counter.

"I've had the same kind of coat for thirty years," he began, as I returned to my students.

Ideally, the kids work at the store independently. I am supposed to remain distant, aloof, but always watching.

It's called "shadowing".

Some of our wonderful staff fall asleep in those shadows, or text their husbands, or stroke the spreading jelly of their aging chins.

I'm sure I have been guilty of all of the above, at one time or another, but my main problem is that I get very restless when I shadow students, and I tend to wander off.

Even if I manage to stay put in the fabric store, I still find it hard to keep out of trouble.

The aisle where all the modeling clay is arrayed can be a problem. Those little squares of individually wrapped Sculpey, with exotic color names like "Lagoon" or "So 80's", all in such satisfying little rows.

I often have a strong urge to bite into them, right through their tight cellophane covers.

That would be considered bizarre, I assume, so I clench my jaw and content myself with subtle squeezes of their polyform meat.

It's possible that a similar preoccupation of mine, with the memory foam in the soles of women's cross-trainers, lead to our dismissal from the shoe store.

I couldn't help it. The way that remarkable material closed around my pressing thumb; I could walk up and down the aisle and get a tiny hug from every shoe.

Our students also clean a bowling alley/restaurant combination.

The scrutiny is rather intense there, so shadowing is not an option. We have to get right into the mix and dirty our hands.

A red Kleen-Pail bucket, half-filled with greasy looking water, sat on a table between me and several of my students.

I winced as I dipped in to retrieve a washrag.

"You have to wring it out," I tell them. "That way, no puddles on the tables." When I twisted the rag with an Indian-burn motion, a spastic shot of water hit me square in the face.

"Ewwww!" one of the girls said. "Did you get dat bucket from over there? Dats doo-doo water!"

I received that previously unknown piece of information with great calm, excused myself, and walked slowly into the bathroom. No panic here.

The second the door shut behind me, I flailed in the air, stifling a repulsed shriek.

The BM particles of a hundred bowlers might be settling into my skin, my eyelids, deep in the fibers of my brow.

There was no way the water from the foot-pedal operated sink would be hot enough to scald away the tainted top layer of my face.

One time, I accidentally sprayed gasoline on myself when I leaned down too closely to the pump nozzle and squeezed the trigger.

It was a smart and dead sexy thing to do; the act of a person secretly convinced he is way cooler than anyone else in the world around him, including his two-year-old son watching from the back seat, terrified by the vision of Daddy screaming and running blindly towards a worried looking Pakistani gas station attendant holding out a tiny paper cone of water.

As agonizing as that gasoline baptism was, there was something deeply cleansing about it too.

Like, not only would I never have any blackheads on my nose again, but the pores themselves had been seared away.

I needed that gas pump there, in that bowling alley bathroom.

I needed the kind of clean where you can see bone.

"I was wrong," the girl told me, when I finally came back out. "The doo-doo bucket is the green one."

"No big deal," I told her.

I dropped into an empty booth and waited for the shaking in my hands to go away.

After awhile, I forgot what I was even doing in that place, and I wandered off to the library to look at the DVDs.

In case you are interested, (how could you not be?) I have written about the shoe store before,  like here  and also here.

As always, thanks so much for reading.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Down to go

One of the reasons I don't post that often anymore, since so many of you (one person-it was me, in a little note I wrote to myself with my left hand so I couldn't recognize the shaky, hesitant script) have been wondering, is that I fell into the trap of feeling like I should only post if I have something lengthy and relatively cohesive to say.

You know, like an actual story of general interest or something.

But I just have fragments, and a bunch of dead-ends.

Sometimes though, it pays to post something anyways, just to keep in the habit and stave off frozen blogging shoulder.

So here, have some fragments and do with them what thou willis.

Sure this is just a blog on the Internet, but it's also my only creative outlet, and it bothers me a great deal when I hit wall after wall of bad, unfunny ideas.

It feels like a very tiny, but a very definite, failure.

My wife walked in at that moment, and quickly made me stop squishing my brain.

Only by then, it was no longer a brain I was attacking, but myself. I was trying to give me a frustrated, angry shake. You know, like in movies, when they calm people down by grabbing their shoulders and really giving them a rough time.

I try to do it to myself, but it's like I can't get the leverage right. I can't get any strength going, and I just ineffectually poke the jello of my shoulders with my awkwardly angled hands while nodding my head really fast.

"Oh that's weird looking, don't do that," my wife said. She knows just the right thing to say to talk me back from the precipice.

She made me a warm bottle and tried to help me come to terms with just how much of my life has been spent throttled by utter failure.

" you brought the little urinating figurine home, and now you can't remember what struck you as so interesting about it?"

"Mm-hmm," I said, blinking slowly and taking a long chug from my bottle with a little sigh. The milk was real good. Kind of sweet. Not colostrum sweet, mind you, but not that tepid,opaque 2% they sell at the big box stores neither.

"Show me what you've got so far," she commanded.

"All right."

Back when I was young and full of piss vinegar, I used to review wonderful things I would find around town on this blog.

 The enthusiasm on that kid's face is kind of off-putting.

 "4. See what happen when you take off his short."

 Well, I guess I'll pull this happy fellow's pants down.


You know, the ones like: