Monday, February 8, 2016

Memoirs of a Man to Whom Few Things Happened

False Alarms

I thought I was having a heart attack.

It makes sense: Forty, a tad rotund, cardio goal met by the effort it takes to force down the netting of my French press.

I look red and beefy all the time.

After taking a moment to say goodbye to my immediate family, I laid down on my couch to die.

Several minutes passed. My wife finished the episode of "Sabrina the Teen Witch" she was watching on her Kindle Fire and asked me how my heart attack was going.

"It's pretty bad," I wheezed, "but not like how Fred Sanford used to describe them."

"I don't know who that is."

"Well, it doesn't matter. He's dead, and I am coming to join him."

Even at the prospect of my expiration, her face was neither here nor there.

"Did you take some Tums?"

"Tums are chalky," I whined. I didn't really say that, but it is a very accurate description of Tums.

Instead I chewed some Tums. My heart attack stopped about fifteen minutes later.

Having almost died, I feel like I have a new perspective on life. Air smells sweeter and other crap like that.


We've been talking about new boots for twenty minutes.

Regna, the 23-year-old woman standing in front of the class, rocks back and forth as everyone admires her footwear: black leather boots with glass beads lining the sides.

Tales of boots bought or found, loved and lost, worn out to time or the salt laden sidewalks of Michigan winters.

Boots, boots, boots. The absurdity of a word said repeatedly. People's mouth shapes as they say it. Boooots. All those mouths making oooooohs.

The next person to say 'boots' will be my enemy forever.

Regna is blind, and uses one of those red and white collapsible canes to navigate her world.

I say "her world" to sound more professional, just like I employed person-first language when I said "Regna is blind", as opposed to the much more offensive "Old blind Regna."

Our classroom is very small, and unfortunately, as Regna goes navigating, she trips many of the people living in her world.

The humor of it is so cliché, so tired: a blind person sending others flying by whacking their shins with her cane.

But it's real. It happens every day. And each time, as I hear another "WHOAH!" or "MY LEG!" and someone crashes to the floor with a great commotion, I hate myself for laughing.


A girl got up to announce her birthday party to the class.

There were red marks all over the front of her pants, and everyone began to scream.

"It's period!! She got period on her!!"

The girl smiled and assured us all that it was just blood from a bug she had killed.

Later it occurred to me that her explanation would only make sense if she had squashed the bug by purposely laying on it, which seemed unlikely.

Being the safety conscious, responsible teacher's aide that I am, however, I went with her to find a change of pants.

"Mike?" she asked me, once we were alone.


"Does your wife....does she ever....have the blood? You know....of the month?"

"I thought you said it was from a bug."

She laughed nervously.

"Oh it is, it is." Her eyes searched my face to see if I believed her.


In my never-ending search for companionship, I recently bought a puppet.

There's something so classic, so timeless, about a good puppet. 

They've been with us since the days of ancient Greece, and I see no reason why they will not be there at the end; mute, googly-eyed witnesses to the last gasp of this wretched, dying planet.

Puppet technology is always evolving, and we find ourselves now at the edge of what is known as "the uncanny valley".

This means puppets have started to look too real. The little discrepancies in their human-like appearance stand out to us as jarring, somehow off, and make us uneasy.

Uncanny Valley
More Uncanny Valley
The intimidating thing about puppets is that their personalities are only as good as you make them. Garbage in, garbage out.

I was worried that mine might be a smug know-it-all, or a shameless lecher. Maybe someone with no social filter whatsoever.

The box provided few clues:

Was the African-American child featured on the packaging having a fantastic time with the puppet?

I couldn't be sure.

With fear and trembling, I brought him forth:

Well, apparently this video is not working for anyone. What an anticlimax. I will try to figure out the problem. In the meantime, please don't leave me.
About five minutes after shooting this footage, I grew really tired of my new friend and threw him down the basement stairs.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Take'em away, boys

The Sharehouse fills the entirety of an old shipping complex, with its piles of unsorted donations, tables covered in dusty glassware, and rows of books from the usual range of thrift store stalwarts: 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Chicken Soup For Everything Imaginable, Your Erroneous Zones.

Other thrift shops in the area put a strong emphasis on purging items that have sat around for too long, ensuring that there are always new things for customers to see, but the Sharehouse has neither the staffing nor the inclination to maintain a revolving inventory. New junk is thrown on top of old junk until it all runs together.

Bins get loaded up and topple over. A pyramid of tube T.V.s rises in back. There is a terrifying boulder of extension cords waiting to challenge the intrepid untangler in need of just one.

The second floor is dedicated to children's items, including a huge space for toys and games. Up here, the insulation sags low enough in places that a toddler might reach out and pluck a handful of pink fiberglass fluff, maybe pocket it for later. The lights regularly flicker, and when it rains, water pools on the wood floor, or collects on the stacks of Trivial Pursuit games and 100 piece puzzles that form the Toy Room's perimeter.

To the first time visitor and Ebay prospector, the Toy Room would seem to hold promise. Boxes of toys everywhere, rows and rows of rubber totes stuffed full. But I have been coming here for five years, and many of the items have sat around the shelves for at least that long.

The same scene plays out repeatedly: a hopeful treasure hunter mounts the creaky wood ramp, smartphone in hand, and gasps with wonder at the sight of all those toys. They begin to frantically dig, certain to find the particular treasure they are after: Legos, American Girl clothes, 80s Transformers distinguished by their dated looking sci-fi stickers and die-cast heft. Hot Wheels cars with the Redline tires that can mean big bucks.

G.I.Joe. She-Ra. Anything.

Their initial scrambling enthusiasm begins to deflate. Several boxes in, and they haven't found anything. The digging becomes angrier, punctuated with heavy sighs and muttered, disbelieving curses. They are soon less careful about cleaning up after themselves, and leave trails of upended puzzles and Happy Meal toys.

Beneath a mound of Rescue Heroes, those chunky, square-jawed firemen with reassuring moustaches, the reseller finds a Star Wars Monopoly game. They quickly flash the barcode on the box with their smartphone, and look for the going rate on Ebay. 100 dollars, didn't sell. 75, no sale. 50. All the way down to 5.99: 1 sold, 1 bid.

The game is thrown down in disgust.

With its price tag of 2.99, and Ebay taking 10%, Paypal another 5, not to mention the supplies and effort needed to pack it into a box, or the life-sapping visit to the black hole of the local post office, where the same old lady is frozen in time, forever deliberating over a choice of two stamps: Black History Month or Peanuts.

Or the inevitable request for a partial refund when the buyer (somewhere in Italy) gets his Star Wars Monopoly and discovers the "Naboo" property card is more deeply creased than the auction picture portrayed. The end take on a sale like that runs into the negative thousands, mostly in damages to the mental peace of the luckless seller.

And I, lurking nearby, could've told her not to bother with waking her Iphone from it's sleep. Not to bother with anything at all that features the stiff, unlikable cast of The Phantom Menace on it's cover.

The product lines from that movie have notoriously tanked in value. Rumors of landfills stuffed with Padme figures; dealers in their climate controlled storage units up to the rafters in unsold Episode 1 merchandise, staring into the idiot eye stalks of their signed Jar-Jar busts and brooding.

My slightly oversized visual memory is one of the few advantages I have in the Ebay game.

I am not agile, so quicker feet will pass me to the prize.

I'm not competitive.

Once, at a garage sale, a woman and I both placed our hands on a Lego set at the same time. I tried to yank it towards me, but she clung on with a death grip. I could have kicked her large, Scandinavian looking shin, or ran to the pile of sets she'd already accumulated and shoved over her little son from where he stood on guard.

But there's no fight in me. Only the resigned sigh of the Honorable Mention.

So I've come to rely on the database of my memory to recognize when an item might be valuable.

I scan shelves quickly, and anything promising lights up with the enticing glow of an Easy Bake bulb, telling my hand to rocket out and snag it, faster than it could be searched for on a smartphone. My visual recall buys me a few seconds from the other guy.

Sometimes, though, the system misfires, and I make a few bad purchases. Our finances suffer a squeeze and the kids get toothpaste for breakfast again.

In those desperate times, I cast about for my reoccurring dream of a "real job". A job-job, where you make real money, with real security, and plan a budget that's not based entirely around the annual tax return.

A job where I develop marketable skills, CV bullet points, and someone repeatedly taps into my potential.

I begin striding into businesses unannounced, no idea of what they even do, and asking if they'll hire me. They won't.

I apply for a part-time library job, agonizing over a cover letter that ends up becoming the same pathetic spaghetti of sentence fragments and cries for help that mine always do.

When it's safely in the mail and on its way, I fold my arms in satisfaction and say aloud, "Well I'm sure as shit not getting that job!"

The dealer I'm stalking in the toy room of the Sharehouse, the one who dropped Star Wars Monopoly like it was hot, gives up in frustration and leaves.

It's just me and the toys now.

Somewhere, beneath some avalanche of crap, a talking doll is stuck mid-sentence.

"Merp, merp, merp...." It's little battery must be failing.

I don't know what I'm waiting for. I've looked through all of it a thousand times, and I know there's no Golden Ticket in this cluttered, musty Wonka Bar.

Two hipster guys come up the ramp.

"It's cold as balls in here!" one of them exclaims.

I always struggle with "something is as balls" statements; the weighted ends of the simile often seem incompatible.

At first I figure they are Ebay dealers on the hunt. Ninety percent of adult men in the toy sections of thrift stores are.

But as I eavesdrop on them, it becomes clear that they are musicians, searching for electronic toys that they can hack, "circuit bend" into unique, customized instruments and sound generators.

It's a popular thing to do, and chip bent instruments of good quality can fetch high prices on Ebay. Even their base ingrediants sell for a profit: old Yamaha synthesizers, children's pianos, etc.

I want to ask them if I, too, can be in the band, for I have a song in my heart, but I know they will not let me.

The merping doll has worn out it's aural welcome; time to shut it down.

I trace the voice to one particular tub, and, on my knees, begin to dig.

It's important to maintain a certain level of dignity when you are an adult spelunking through used children's toys.

Several times I've been arms deep, only to realize my pants have slipped, and full halves of shapeless, ice-white buttocks are exposing themselves to young mothers and their children.

Once, as I pawed through a tub of Matchbox cars, another man sidled up uncomfortably close to me. He began his own search, our hands crisscrossing over hot rods and utility trucks.

An elderly black woman, standing nearby, clucked her tongue.

"Two grown men....lookin' in the toys," she said, with obvious disapproval.

My uninvited companion smiled and let out a giant laugh. His teeth were tiny gray squares, geriatric Chiclets.

It's not what you think, I wanted to tell her. I'm a legitimate businessman. This other man smells and is not my friend.

After lifting ten or so things to my ear, I finally discover the cause of the aggravating sound. A strange, plush rabbit-like creature. One of it's floppy green ears is much longer than the other; it's lips are like giant tomato worms. The sound does not come from the mouth however, but from a white plastic speaker buried in it's colon.

I pry it partway loose but see no 'off' switch.

The hipster music wizards turn in my direction as the merps, now free from their furry overcoat, increase in volume.

Beneath the grotesquely large lips is a set of human-like teeth that suction closed around my finger tip. The rabbit thing has no life in it's glassy, magenta eyes.

"Merp, merp, merp...."

It won't stop.

In frustration, I spank it's small body. Whatever button triggers the sound effects seems to pop loose, and then, in a voice possibly lifted from the diminutive throat of Herve Villechaize, it speaks to me.


A long pause.


Every few seconds, it repeats itself.

I think about buying the demonic rabbit, taking it home, maybe learning to love it somehow.

I think about turning it into a blog post, a post that is automatically amazing, that blows up cuckoo cuckoo viral, and suddenly for some reason a check for a million dollars comes in the mail. I pay all my debts off and give the rest to Uganda. Uganda uses the money to build a water filtration system and names the shiny new village drinking fountain after me.


I realize then that many of my ideas are stupid, and I toss the rabbit back into the bin.

One of the nearby hipsters, hearing it speak, explodes with loud, immoderate laughter. His companion looks up from his phone long enough to flash the smile of a person who wasn't really listening.

As I leave the Sharehouse, I halfheartedly ask if they will hire me. They won't. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


Sometimes crazy screaming at them seems to help; they pay attention when Daddy escalates, because something outrageous or memorable might be about to happen.

But usually, all my noise is for naught.

I turn to the slightly older girl in the front seat next to me, hoping she will provide some baseline calm and sanity.

"What are you learning in school right now?!"

"We talked about Hitler!"

"Who is Hitler?!?" asks one of the animals in the backseat.

The car is cramped, tiny, and so worn down by age that all of the insulation around the doors and windows has fallen off. The sound of the highway is deafening, every conversation shouted. That is why I used so many exclamation marks in the dialogue above.

Before she can answer, stabs at Hitler's identity fly fast from the boys behind me.

"He was a king guy!"

"He talked in another language!"

"Germany!" someone blurted. It was me because I got caught up in the excitement.

The girl, nine, self-assured, socially imperial, rolls her eyes, clears her throat, and tucks a stray flipper of brown hair behind her ear.

It always amazes me how little boys will hang on every word spoken by a young female, but when a five foot eight, two-hundred and-three pound walrus of a man with the eyebags of a prizefighter on a losing streak bellows nary an inch from their faces, they stare right through him with the unblinking grins of the mentally troubled.

"Hitler was..." she begins, and taps her chin as she gathers her thoughts. "Well, he was someone who probably never made a good choice in his whole life.

As she speaks, I can't help but picture Hitler struggling to make good decisions.

She trails off about Hitler but keeps a wrinkled up expression on her face, like she is offended by a stinky smell in the air.

Speaking of the lingering stench of Germany's dark past, I turn 40 in a couple of days.

My students are oblivious to the usual baggage that goes along with this particular birthday. They keep smiling and patting me, proudly murmuring "Forty....." like I am their little son whose all growed up.

Iva, the Eastern European girl, has decided she is now my caretaker as I pratfall into middle age. Every morning she prepares a cup of coffee for me before I get to work. She hides somewhere in the kitchen, waiting for me to take my first sip.

If I declare the coffee to be 'good', she explodes into triumphant air kicks and waves around rock'n'roll fingers. She yells "In your face!!" at me, which does not seem to fit with the overall intention of being helpful.

But as my birthday has gotten nearer, her efforts have become more invasive. When I am about to put my bread into the toaster, she places herself between me and the kitchen counter, and puts both of her hands over mine to assist me in getting the toast into those troublesome slots.

As I turn to get my peanut butter from the cupboard, Iva is already there, jar in hand, unscrewing. She sprints to the drawer to get a table knife. The toast is not yet done, but she has popped it out and begun to spread a half pound of peanut butter on the soft bread, shredding it all to sticky bits.

"It's really okay," I say, trying to deter her from further helpfulness.

"I'm juz taking care of you. It's hard."

", you can carry my coffee out to the classroom." Her face lights up.

"Yes, I will carry it."

As she walks, the hot coffee sloshes wildly in the mug and spills out onto her fingers.

"It's burning me," she says, and giggles a little.

I sit next to her and eat my breakfast.

"Forty...that's so old," Iva whispers. She tries to stroke my elbow as I lift my food to my mouth. Then, in a gentle little sing-song, she begins to chant, "Mikey, Mikey, fucky, fucky".

"What did you just say??" I ask her, certain I had misheard.

"Nothing. I'm sorry! I don't know why!" She runs into the bathroom to hide.

Forty. The Invisible Killer. From here on out, young people will see me as nothing more than a cadaver. I'll be reduced to a frightened little voice, pestering a hip barista for more half and half. Or a chubby finger stabbing at an error on a grocery receipt.

Twentysomethings will call me 'Gramps' or 'Big Papa'.

I'll be an annoyance and most likely an imbecile.

"Did you juz see that?!?" Iva gasps.

We're walking back to school from the YMCA. It's a three mile path that takes us past rows of cheap, rundown student housing. The yards are often littered with red plastic cups and smashed pizza boxes.

She is gesturing back to a gray pair of thong underwear that had been discarded on the sidewalk.

It amazes her that I am not more alarmed by the sight of it.

"Mike, Mike, that is not underwear. It is....I can't say is a T-H-O-U-N-G. It is what they wear."

"It's what who wears?" I ask her.

The way she misspells words aloud reminds me of the Frances books by Russell Hoban. I picture a little badger girl, making the painful decision to share her candy with a bratty sibling.

Meanwhile, Iva struggles to spell the word 'stripper'.

"Strippers are not the only ones who wear thong underwear," I tell her, using my most authoritative, teacherly tone. "Lots of people do."

"No! My god."

We cut through a park, Iva some ways ahead of me, and as she veers towards a drinking fountain, a small boy runs up to tell her something.

"What did that kid say to you?"

 She launches into a shrill, satanic imitation of a child's voice: "They turned the water off for winter."

"Jeez, did he really sound like that?"

She doesn't answer me.

Back in the classroom, Christmas decorating has been interrupted by an emotional incident.

Apparently, Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer had come on the radio, and one of the students, claiming she had recently lost her grandmother, found the song to be too painful. She burst into tears and started ripping down strings of Christmas lights.

I manage to get her into the small conference room. She kicks a chair and plops onto the floor.

"I'm sorry this is hard for you. When did your grandma die?"

I try to put on my sympathetic listening face, the one we are trained to use when a student is having behavior problems. I have practiced mine over and over again, but it still doesn't look right; it's less "I'm sorry for your bad choices" and more "Mickey Rooney won't stop goosing me."

"I don't know. Five years ago."

I use my patented "tease therapy" to boost her spirits. A little tapdance act, some off-key singing, and a fake fart put her back on track.

When we exit the conference room, she is all smiles.

"He's a teaser," she announces, pointing at me. "A forty-year old teaser."

She means well, but it comes across as awfully creepy.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Gweenbrick Voyage Redux

Hmmmm.....let me think......

Here we are:

And just like that, every light in the house came on.

I sat bolt up right.

Gone the gloom, the sense of inevitable despair.

Gone the fog that I have slept walk through these past few weeks.

Well I'll be damned.

I'm on drugs.


Where to start?!!?

How to end?!!?

I think I can hear my thoughts in my teeth, tee hee.