Friday, July 25, 2014

I Stella, in search of groove

Hi everyone.
I have not posted in awhile because my writing was just getting so amazing that I felt like I could not possibly be any better than I already am. I was worried that my talent was on the verge of scorching the virtual earth.
So I took a break to antagonize my wife and stare vacantly out my sliding kitchen door for a few weeks.
This is what artists do; it's called 'sabbatical'.
When a sabbatical is finished, the sabbaticalee comes back twice as much of a genius.
That is how I was able to produce this:

I know at first glance it resembles much of my other work, but notice how I used white space to not draw anything.

To give you a better idea of how far I've come, I am including my conceptual drawings for this piece.
From early sketches to finished picture, it was about four minutes.

The pace of my work was fevered.

I am in the thick of summer school right now, which means I am away from the clutches of Baba Pam Yaga.

This in and of itself is amazing and exhilarating, so any complaining I proceed to do in this post should be regarded with great contempt and 'geez there's no pleasing this guy' harrumphings.

The student pictured above is new to me this summer. I will call him Curdy for no reason.

Curdy's current caretaker, Bill, has been told to train me on all the ins and outs of the kid, but Bill seems more interested in his Ipad interactive video games and his motorized bubble gun.
In the mornings, before any students have even arrived, Bill walks about, whimsically blowing bubbles into the air.

On the first day that he did this, we all jumped around popping them and taking part in the magic of it, but now just one person lights up when the bubbles start floating into everyones peripheral vision. That person is Bill.

Sometimes a bubble will pop on the skin of my bald head, at which point for some reason I feel compelled to give Bill a smile. I tell myself that this time I won't smile, I won't, but I always do, because it seems terribly awkward to not acknowledge his bubbles at all. Its one thing if they are just loose in the air, but if they touch me, well then....what is a man to do? He and I both know what has passed between us. I'd be a fool to pretend it wasn't happening.

Anything you could possibly say, Bill compares unfavorably to his two tours of duty in Okinawa. After awhile, you say nothing and wish in your heart that you had been an Army guy so you could talk about distances in terms of "humping klicks" too, or discuss a wide variety of rations.

As well as bubbles and their battery powered dispensaries, Bill enjoys having thick slices of habanero cheese for breakfast. He often tries to get me to eat some while I sip my morning coffee.

I tried telling him it was too early in the day to eat spicy cheese, but he did not seem to understand, so now when I hear the crinkling of the package or the retrieval of a knife from the kitchen drawer, I hide in the bathroom for ten minutes and wait for him to look about, shrug, and take for himself the portion meant for me.

"You gotta put it on crackers," he said, on the only morning I was willing to try the cheese. He pulled some individually wrapped saltines from his tight jean pocket.

The crackers were warm, and blended nicely with the fire of the habanero and the briny green olive bits hiding within the cool, soft flesh of the cheese.

Bill's idea of training me is to wait until I do something and then tell me not to do it.

This style of learning people things probably has a fancy name like "education through negatory exclusion" or "learn by not doing after already doing", but to me, it's just annoying to have Bill on me like a tut-tutting fairy godmother. 

Curdy suffers from intense, terrible intrusive thinking coupled with echolalia. 

A simple phrase said to him like "close the door now" will build up in his mind until he lashes out and starts yelling.

He always screams "Curdy has to take a shit" or variations on that theme. I don't know why. It seems as good an expression of unmanageable frustration as any other, I suppose.

I consider my own struggles with intrusive thinking to be fairly vanilla by comparison.

For instance, my brain has been stuck on the idea of nail scissors for several months now. Not owning nail scissors, or collecting many pairs of them or anything, just the idea of the sensation of them expertly clipping overdue nails off in perfect rectangles that clatter to the floor.

Unable to sleep the other night, I confessed my odd fixation to the pile of blankets and mumbles that was my wife.

"You know, we have a pair of nail scissors in our junk drawer."

"We do?!?"

I stood in the kitchen and turned the scissors over and over in my hand.

I thought of Curdy, needing to take a big shit.

There was no relief; the reality of the nail scissors seemed completely unrelated to the intrusive idea.

I put them away and went back to bed, feeling lost.

Why can't obsessive thoughts be directed towards something more useful?

If you had obsessive drive to direct towards anything at all, where would you point it?

I guess the easy answer is towards something like voter apathy or blood diamonds, but that all seems complex and out of reach.

I like passions and obsessions that are immediate. Say something like rock collecting.

This summer, I dabbled a bit in that heady world of geologic accumulation. Mostly, I stared at the picture of a gold nugget in my DK Let's Look at Rocks! field guide and sighed longingly.

Several things about rock collecting quickly became clear to me. Though I loved the feeling of being outside on an overcast day, letting the wind tug at my luxurious shoulder hair and uncurl my most restless thoughts, my neck started to hurt from always looking down, and I felt my fatty back hump begin to swell. It was also extremely frustrating that when they lay gravel down on our road, they don't liberally sprinkle it with little nuggets of gold as well.

I moved from rocks to panning for gold, but the sexual gyrations of the prospector in the Internet tutorial video as he sloshed water around in his pan made me uncomfortable.

I couldn't see myself standing in our local stream, perhaps wearing a homemade sleeveless tee, and passionately wiggling a dinner plate.

It's too bad people like Curdy and I could not direct our obsessiveness towards push-ups or other feats of physical fitness. We would have such beautifully cut shoulders and triceps by now.

Instead, he and I share thick, pasty bodies that sweat easily and prowl kitchens for unclaimed cookies. No one wise to the epic, all-consuming nature of our secret thoughts until we scream them out loud or whisper them to our pillows in the middle of the night.

I wonder how much money it would cost to get Bill to stand in my room at bedtime, shower me with bubbles, and assure me that I would be fine.

For a little extra, he'd produce the Harry Potter replica wand he proudly purchased from Walmart for forty dollars, wave its little white LED tip around, and say "Expelliarmus" in a voice as magical as it is commanding.

That echolalia is a curious thing.

I've worked with many students who have it, but another student I have this summer, Floyd, echoes me while I am speaking to him, so that I keep stopping my conversation to say things like "do you hear something?" His repeating undercurrent grows in volume and accuracy when he's able to predict the word I am going to say next, like someone doing their best to join in on a song that they do not really know.

Floyd's mother died recently from a sudden illness, leaving her boyfriend of many years to care for her son.

He often echoes things this man, Don, has said to him, using a gruff, Fat Albert voice that is completely unlike his own, high-pitched, almost babyish speaking tone.

Usually, it's just repeating commands, things like "Sit down, we'll take the bottles back later", "Get in there and wash again" or "Hey hey hey". Not that last one, I only wrote that there to emphasize the Fat Albert connection.   

Occasionally, though,  I'll get a glimpse into Don's awful private grief.

"Ah, ah," Floyd will grown,"Ah just miss her so much." He imitates deep sobbing and rakes his fingers over his face. "That's what Don says, mmm-hmm." He smiles at me.

I picture this Don: middle aged, rough around the edges and all leathery from his construction job, losing the love of his life only a few days after a hospital bedside wedding, and now living in the wake behind her, out in a rundown farmhouse with her twenty-year old autistic son to care for, and to hear his own turmoil echoed back to him in an unflattering Fat Albert voice, over and over again, while he thaws out Floyd's dinner or changes his soiled pull-up.

Summer school has now ended, just yesterday, and I have a few weeks here to write my way out of the damp, unfunny box I seem to be stuck in, but I most likely will waste it away.

Thanks to all of you who keep reading, I really appreciate it.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Hump Day

Did you know that every Wednesday is considered Hump Day?

I knew it before working in my current classroom, but now, I really, really know it.

On Wednesdays, the teacher I aide, Ms.Pam, explains how Hump Day works.

Sometimes she even draws a picture of something she says is a camel.

When she gets to the crucial "hump" part of her phallic brontosaurus, she slows her drawing hand way down.

Then she writes "Hump Day" under her camel, and everybody cheers.

I used to cheer too, back in the first part of the year. But after so many Wednesdays, I guess the thrill is a little bit gone.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Some great writing on an interesting topic

In other exciting news, I went grocery shopping recently.

I filled my cart with everything healthy and organic you can imagine: potatoes grown from compost, lovingly smothered wild turkey (apparently, the trauma of any other kind of killing makes the meat gamy), apples untouched by man.

My total bill shot well past my budget for the week, but I prided myself on eating in a manner so back to the earth that I might as well have been snorfling around in the dirt on my naked hands and knees, rooting for grubs and tubers.

I loaded the many bags of groceries into my car and drove directly across the parking lot to an Arby's, where I proceeded to eat as many battered fingers as a chicken could possibly have on its hand. This I chased with a bucket of curly fry.

The singular "fry" is accurate here because that's what it was: a giant, coiled Gordian knot that lifted whole from its carton and settled directly into my unhinged jaws.

It tasted a bit like cigarettes and the salt from a sweaty forearm, and I realized suddenly that I might be eating myself to death.

Every human body probably has its unique limit of unhealthy food it can contain in one life time.

It's not: Will Arby's kill me?

It's: After a certain number of Arby's, I will be dead.

I want to know what that number is, so I can flirt around it, get near enough to the fire to get a bit of a dirty thrill.

I'll stop at the 99th donut if I know that the 100th will kill me.

I'm a pathetic person, I thought, as I ate. A winded sack of monosodium glutamate and aimless yearning.

You see those movies where eating is a sensual, joyous experience. The act of it lifts the spirit. 

What kind of food was this, then, here in my mouth, when eating it convicted me in the heart that I've lived a life of worthless things?

Such a classic middle American turmoil to flounder in: a car full of the freshest, healthiest food money can buy, a slight burn of guilt over a fast food indulgence, a dark country road to park along, a sky of brilliant stars overhead and nothing but my uneasy sense that everything is wrong to keep me company.

There's no denying it now, I suppose. I can fit snugly into a folder labeled "mid-life crisis" and be filed away in a drawer alphabetized according to cliche: sports car, toupee, interest in karaoke, rickets.

It reminds of a black man I once knew, who, with seething anger, described to me what it was like to walk into a room full of white people and have preconceived notions thrust upon him about how he should dress, or the kind of music he should enjoy. No one said anything aloud, but he could feel the box dropping around him through their eyes.

I studied the fury in his face and thought, is there anything in my life that makes me that passionately angry? I bought a Lego set recently and it was missing all the little figures. That definitely bothered me, but he was talking about racism. It's not the same.

Yes, I am writing about black people again. I have been writing Gweenbrick for over three years now, and its getting to the point where I can't remember what things I have written or what stupid jokes I have already made. It's all a trivial blur, with a sense that I may have been a lot more fun in the early days. Like when people who used to know me encounter me now; they still tweak my breasts or poke my belly, but they can't shake the feeling that my giggle used to bubble out of me with more authenticity. 

I sat in my car and continued to eat.

What did you hope to be by now, I asked of the chicken fingers and the bits of curly fry hiding under the inside corners of the paper bag.

What did you expect to be, giant glass bottle of Bragg's Apple Cider Vinegar, besides the key ingredient in a more holistic douche?

Food, mute whore that it is, gave no answers. 

It communicates all that it needs to by its very presence, sitting there greasy in the darkness and urging eat me, eat me to death without using a single word.

Monday, May 19, 2014

On Race and the Disconnect of the Modernity Paradigm

My co-worker, Curtis, said this to me while we sat in the pouring rain, waiting for the city bus. Students flapped their umbrellas and paced restlessly around us.

We were on our way to an end of the year party. As I looked through the plastic bag of food I had been told to carry, I noticed the big ziplock bag of baby carrots did not look quite right. They were slimy and matted together with soupy brown paper towels.

"Ms. Pam did that," Curtis told me. "She said the carrots were all wet, so she stuck them towels in there to suck up the water."

Curtis is black.

I don't want to brag, but I am pretty good with black people. The trick, I learned, is to not try too hard.

While other people strain to impress the black by acting foolish or talking about rhythm and blues standards, I hang back, looking disinterested, aloof.

It's the same method I use to get girls, only then I suck in my stomach.

With black people, I don't suck in, because they are really good at detecting when a person is not keeping it real, and sucking in your belly is a sure sign that you are unable or unwilling to do that.

Eventually, my aloofity paid off, and Curtis began to notice me. It was on the first day of work, right after I had gotten there, and I was standing in the corner with my hands in my pockets, looking down.

"You work here now?" he asked.

"Yes," I answered, but not very enthusiastically, ever aware of his invisible "keeping it real" feelers probing my aura.

"That's cool," he said. He sat down at his desk and began to play Candy Crush on his cell phone.

I had passed the first test.

The second one came a few weeks later.

Curtis discovered that I lived out in the country, and worse, in a township known to be well-endowed with yokels.

He didn't say anything, but I knew he was wondering if I was a racist.

I decided to put him at ease by making a joke that would demonstrate how cool I was with the role that race plays in our society.

In order to make my joke, I needed a very specific set up from him; he needed to unwittingly say a certain statement and then I could spring my satirical jab.

Curtis never said what I needed him to say, and after a month or so, I forgot all about my hilarious joke.

I have been accused of being a racist several times.

On one occasion, a friend of mine and I were driving at night, and I turned down an alley, looking for a place to park. My headlights lit up two large groups of young black men who were standing in the parking spaces. They were staring angrily at each other, but when I accidentally brighted them all, they turned angrily towards me instead.

"Park right here," my friend said.

As I reversed back onto the street and sped away, he accused me of being a racist.

I reminded him of how, when we were in Austria together, I thought every group of men we saw with close-cut hair was a gang of rampaging skinheads.

"I'm not a racist, I'm just very cowardly."

Years later, he grew a beard and bore a passing resemblance to a Middle Eastern person. One day, some black guys drove past him and shouted, "Fuck you, Bin Laden!"

He told me this story, and four years in the making, I leapt at the opportunity for vindication.

"Ha! So you're the real racist after all!"

He didn't remember what I was talking about, and as I began to explain it, I realized it didn't really make any sense. I let my voice trail off like people do when they want to be done talking because they are ashamed of how stupid and lonely they sound.

Another time I was accused of being racist was when I was walking to my car after a class. Some little black children standing behind a fence began yelling at me.

"Skinhead! Hey, skinhead!" I didn't know what to do, so I gave a warm and friendly wave while pretending to yawn.

Pretending to yawn is a good way to show people that you are casual and unafraid.

The children gave me the finger.

Ms.Pam always mixes Curtis and I up.

It causes a lot of problems, because she tells Curtis to do things that she meant for me to do, and vice versa.

After school last week, she came up to me, took my hand, and genuinely, emotionally, thanked me for helping out with "that tough situation."

The next day, I mentioned it to Curtis.

"I have no idea what she was talking about."

"She meant to be thanking me," he said. "I helped her out with that kid who been talking suicide. What'd you say to her?"

"I said 'You're welcome', and went back to checking my email." I wanted to add that she stood there for awhile, quietly, her belt buckle just an inch or so from my face, but I've noticed Curtis thinks it's weird when I point out lots of extraneous details.

One time, Ms.Pam complained to me that Curtis was always late. She likes to pit staff against each other for the sheer gladiatorial thrill of it. I knew she was mistaking him for me again,though,because I am late almost every day, and Curtis never is.

"I don't think he is late very much at all," I told her, but she nodded her head insistently, bugging her eyes out far enough that they pushed her glasses down the slope of her nose.

It occurred to me then that Ms.Pam was what all non-racist people aspire to be: truly colorblind. She did not see Curtis as black, or I as white; she only saw two interchangeable man blobs. Even our names didn't matter.

By the way, when I mentioned that I suck in my stomach to "get girls", I did not mean to imply that I am actively getting girls right now. I got a girl, and she grew into a woman.

I still suck in my stomach for my wife, but it does not impress her anymore.

She usually just says things like, "stop sucking in, I'm trying to see if these pants fit you", or, "stop sucking in, you always complain later that it gave you gas."

Sometimes I'll do the opposite, and stick it waaay out, and then waddle around pretending to be pregnant.

"Stop pushing it out, that looks terrible."

"Make up your mind! Don't suck it in, don't push it out-what do you want from me???"

"Normal! Just be normal."

But I can't remember what that is, and my belly flutters oddly, stuck in some frightening in-between state.

It was during a recent performance of my stomach when I discovered a startling new fact about my body: my butt is gone.

The operating elements are still there, of course, but the soft, resilient casing has mysteriously dropped away.

Where did it go?

I squeeze around back there, but come up empty handed.

My wife used to say I had a cute little boy's bottom, but, over the years, I've noticed her grow quiet on the subject.

I don't blame her: you can't lovingly pat something that you cannot see.

"Why do black people like big butts?" I asked Curtis. My fear was that, since my bottom had run away, no black person would ever like me again.

I whispered the question to him during an art class the students were taking at the community center.

The instructor for the class seemed very confused by the developmental disposition of her pupils. She kept hesitating and checking her phone, but finally, she got things underway.

"Welcome!" she said. Her hands folded and unfolded in front of her before settling in a tight knot behind her back. "Have any of you ever heard of Vincent Van Gogh?"

There were a few non-committal grunts, and someone muttered, "No, not really."

"Well, he was a painter. An Impressionist." The teacher lifted up a painting she had done herself, a hurried copy of a A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat. She kept smacking her unruly brown hair back into order behind her ears as she talked. "A lot of Impressionism is round dots. Well, really, it's whatever you want. Just dots and then you draw on the dots."

Each of us had a little workstation at our seats, with canvas paper, brushes, markers, stickers, cotton balls, and some glue.

The instructor grabbed a handful of cotton balls and stuck them to her painting.

"And glue on some cotton, that's the clouds."

Most of the students were staring at her kind of blankly, and this seemed to irritate her. She wasn't getting through to them.

"Inherent in the dots are shapes. Shapes!" She peeled off a sticker of a feather and jabbed it onto the picture.

"This is multimedia!" she yelled. The room was dead quiet.

Eventually, some of the aides started puttering around, lamely encouraging different students to get painting.

I noticed that, beneath her frilly blue and white lounging pants, the art teacher had the same absence of butt as I, and this thought had prompted the question I put to Curtis.

"Everybody likes big butts," he answered. "You telling me you don't like no healthy butt?"

"I don't know what I like," I said. It seemed like a safe, neutral thing to say, given that the passionate truth was that, yes, more than anything, I wanted a healthy butt, I wanted it in my pants.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Transcript of a hilarious conversation for the purpose of distribution on the Internet

There seems to be a lot of support for blog posts that retell a conversation carried on by the blogger and their significant other.

I have one of those others, so I approached her to begin a hilarious conversation.

It worked!

But I forgot what the conversation was about.

How do all those bloggers keep track of that stuff?

Recording devices are way out of my budget.

Pen and paper are always an option, I suppose, but what if writing the conversation down disrupts the flow of it? 

If I asked her to help me remember, then she'd know I was going to put everything she says on the Internet. She might act different, like when you point a camera at someone and suddenly they turn very sexy or use their hands superfluously while they talk.

Me: A lot of people are worried about the zombie apocalypse.

Wife: Why?

Me: (shrug).

Wife: Do you mind shutting the bathroom door?

Me: Oh sorry, sure. 


Me: Do you think it's something we should be worried about?

Wife: What? I can't hear you through the bathroom door.

It's possible that my wife has humor swings. There might be times when she is more or less apt to engage in hilarious conversations. 

Sometimes people laugh really hard when they think something terrible has happened, but then find out suddenly that it didn't happen after all, and right then you engage them in a conversation that is as clever as it is funny.

Me: I'm suddenly dead.

Wife: Ok.

Me: I mean, people we love have died suddenly.

Wife: Yes, that's true.

Me: Recently, and in terrible ways.

Wife: Geez, you're a real downer today.


Me: I'm depressed.

Nothing was coming together the way the Internet said it should.

However, I've heard that there are people who say hilarious things in their sleep. Like whole fantastic conversations, carried on in the night.

I wait until my wife is asleep, and then I get out my notebook.

 About halfway through the night, I realize that I am going to have to fudge the numbers.

No sound comes out.

I agonize over the ethics involved in what I am about to do. 

Me: Let's be amusing about bacon.

Wife: (Not really. It's me, talking in a high, sleepy voice and writing down what I say) Ok.

When I was a child, I used to entertain myself by waiting until my mother had just drifted off to sleep in her chair.  I would then tell her alarming but false information in hopes of getting a good reaction. Unfortunately, I was a dull and useless little boy, so the best I could come up with was "Ma! The chicken's burning!"

Sometimes she would answer, muttering outrageous things like "take it out of the oven, then".

This was going to be as funny as that.

Me: Bacon moustache.

Wife: (Don't forget, it's me) Is that even a thing? 

Me: It is now-HA HA!

Wife: OMG. Hunger Games.

Me: I'm going to laugh out loud.

Wife: Oh no you don't, I'll wake up.

Me: Then I can tell you how funny you were in your sleep.

Wife: Yeah! I'd like that. I'm a big laugher.

Me: Yes you are.


The whole thing deteriorated from there. 

Eventually, my wife does wake up because I have like the loudest, spittiest whisper in the world.

Wife: Why are you squeezing my face?

(long pause)

Me: I can't stop loving this faaaaace.

Wife: Please turn out the light.

Me: Ok.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

This is a Happy Two-Bit

A few days ago, Ms.Pam demonstrated to us the proper way to tell Ken the deaf kid how to stop touching people.

"It has to be black and white with him," she said. "Very strong. It can't just be-" and then she yelled no! in kind of a quiet little voice, and weakly signed 'stop', which is a karate chop into your flat palm. "Not like that at all, you have to do this." And then she did something unusual.

She began the signing of her 'stop' high in the air, almost on tip-toe, and brought it crashing down, taking her body with her into a full squat, her buttocks just resting on the floor. As she did this, she screamed "STOP! NO! WRONG!" into the crotch of my co-worker seated in front of her. 

Ms.Pam continued to shriek while she pantomimed tearing Ken away from the stranger, like Moses bracing himself against the sides of the Red Sea.

She repeated this demonstration several times. I looked around the room, hoping to catch an eye, just one sane eye, but not a single other person was as much as smiling.

What would be more alarming to a guy on the street, I wondered: a deaf young man coming up to shake his hand, or a frantic lemur of a woman plunging between that hand shake, shooshing and chopping and deep squatting while screaming at everyone to stop.

Several days later, I was fortunate enough to see the scenario play out in real life.

Our class was on its way to a meeting of the "Aktion Club". This is a charity group that, in coordination with the local Kiwanis, does fundraisers for different causes. The smiley, ever-tan host of Aktion Club is an old fella named Ed. He always wears creamy sweaters with animal crests, and looks like the kind of person who drives a golf cart down to get their mail.

When Ken tried to hug Ed, I froze. Could I recreate Ms.Pam's apish display of ground pounding and bellowing? Would it give kindly Ed a heart attack?

Luckily, Ms.Pam never suffers from that disorder known as "hesitation". She was suddenly there, flinging herself quickly around a blind corner and shoving her body between the hug.

"No, no, no!" Her hands worked at Ken's embrace, prying it free and sending him backwards. "It's wrong!" She stared accusingly at me. "Didn't we just talk about this?"

I mumbled something about not realizing it was happening, as if in that narrow corridor I could have possibly missed what was going on directly in front of my face.

Knowing she expects me to be incompetent comes in handy. When caught in the act of doing things differently then she would have it, I can just make this face:

It's one of the few times in life that having crooked front teeth is an advantage. I just curl in my upper lip and twist my jaw so that my wayward left incisor (nicknamed Simple Bill) pops forward, and instantly, people's expectations for what I am capable of drop off drastically.

We squeezed into the Aktion Club board room and all the students took their places around a long wood table. At one end, the club president, a tall black kid in a brown fur coat, lounged in an office chair. There was a large brass bell and wooden hammer in front of him. The president was supposed to use these to call the meeting to order, but he was instead lightly pounding his cheeks with the gavel and clicking his tongue to make a beat.

As with all things, Ms.Pam takes Aktion Club very seriously.

"Call the meeting to order, Mr.President," she hissed.

"What up, ya'll?" he asked, and leaned forward to thump the bell with a finger. She gave him a strained smile, then turned to the table, clearing her throat loudly.

"It's time to say the pledge, everyone. Stand and face the flag."

Seventeen students and eight or so staff stood up, turned to the American flag in one corner, and began the Pledge of Allegiance. We were about half way through when Ms.Pam started shushing us.

"No! That's not right, is it? We're saying it too fast. It's way too fast." She said this for the benefit of Ken's interpreter, who had been frantically signing the pledge in double time. You could see the stress of it in the widening of her eyes.

We muddled through the rest of the pledge, and then sat back down.

Immediately, I heard the clattery ringing of a little bell, just like the kind you might have on your bicycle.

"Benjamin," Ms.Pam said sternly, "It's not time yet." 

A smiling young man at the opposite end of the table from the president apologized. But when she started to talk again, the bell rang another time.

Ms.Pam laid the minutes from last month's meeting down on the table.

"Benjamin, when is it time to ring the bell?"

He brushed his flat brown bangs back from his eyes and looked down at the long stick in front of him. On one end of it was a metal bucket. The other end had a rubber handle, and attached to that was the little bell. He rubbed the button for the ringer with his fingers but then snatched them back as if they were burned.

"Happy Two-Bits," he said. 

When it's Happy Two-Bits, Benjamin goes around the room and shoves the bucket in people's faces. If they have a quarter, they can throw it in and say something they are happy about that day.

"And is right now the time for Happy Two-Bits?"


She began to address all of us.

"Benjamin is our constable, right? And what does the constable do?"

The bell chimed.

"He keep order," said the president. Ms.Pam smiled and patted his shoulder.

"That's right, Mr.President. And what else?"

"HAPPY TWO-BITS!" Benjamin leapt from his seat to yell out. Ms.Pam shushed at him, and made a motion like she was trying to clear the room of cobwebs.

"But not now, Benjamin!"

He muttered Happy Two-Bits again as he sat back down.

The meeting plodded on. I couldn't stop myself from counting the number of times that Ms.Pam said "cha-ching!". She says it a lot, and even does the little downward arm pull with it. My favorite was the time she got it backwards, and said "Chi-chang!" and then corrected herself, saying it again the right way. Or sometimes, she shakes things up and says "Ta-ching!", but I think it kind of confuses her when she does this, because afterwards she stares hard like she's trying to remember something.

I counted up to fifteen, but started feeling guilty. I would not want someone scrutinizing some tic of mine, recording in their little yellow legal pad how many times I furtively cupped a hand to my armpit and then brought it to my nose to sample my own body odor, feeling like I got away with it, or squirmed unsubtly on my chair, in the obvious grips of some kind of anal discomfort.

"Ok, Benjamin-"

"YES! YES!" he shouted, ringing the bell like crazy and almost leaping on the table. He swung the bucket around and around. The students near him had to duck.


Very few people had brought money that day, however. 

Ed was always good for a Two-Bit, but he said the same thing he said every time.

"Just happy to be here today." It always reminded me of AA meetings when he said that.

A stocky guy with Down Syndrome, slumped low in his chair beneath a large camouflage trucker's hat, threw in a Two-Bit and told how he was happy because finally, finally he had a new girlfriend. Without glancing at her, he pointed a finger at one of the college girls who volunteer at the Club. She was checking her phone and didn't seem to notice.

Benjamin returned to his seat. I could tell he was not happy with the day's take.

After the meeting, Amy Ting and I hobbled outside towards the bus station.

"Oh my god, it's raining," she said. Several other people behind us began discussing the rain as well.

The people I work with are obsessed with the weather. Not only do they spend a good twenty minutes of class time on it, they follow that up with staff to staff recaps.

"I like the way Terence chose the word 'cool' instead of 'cold'. Because it's not really cold, is it? It's sweater weather. It's, well, it's what he said. It's cool."

"Supposed to be cold tonight though."

"Is it?"

I've been practicing my weather conversations, and I'm getting better at it. I gained major ground by discovering that, when it comes to weather, it's perfectly acceptable to just look up at the sky and say nothing. I even do this indoors, as if the perforations in the ceiling tiles will tell me the chance of rain.

You just have to squint upwards with sufficient gravity and weather talking people feel certain that you get them.

I looked up at the cloudy sky silently, but Amy was not going to let me off the hook.

"This girl does not like the rain, Savior!" she screamed in my ear. "You think she like the rain?! She does not, she does not."

Amy still insists on calling me Savior. It's getting uncomfortable. The other day, I lightly pressed on her back to inspire her off of a curb.

"BE GENTLE WITH ME, SAVIOR!!!" she had shrieked. People took notice.

I saw our bus up ahead, still a block off. It began to pull away from the curb.

"We have to hurry, Amy."

"This is my hurry," she said. It felt like we were walking on the bottom of the sea.

"So c-c-c-cold, Savior." Amy nuzzled her head into my shoulder. I could just imagine her saying weakly I'm so tired, so very tired as consumption sent her coughing mouth back into a blood-spatted kerchief.

We barely managed to get to the bus on time.

I have been riding the same 11:48 route to Ypsilanti for almost a year now, in this same new classroom, no longer new, with this same Ms.Pam and all that she brings with her.

I'm tired.

There is a small group of high school boys that ride the bus with us every week. They are some kind of jazz combo, shuttling to and from practice. 

So fresh faced they could've walked right out of the 50s, like they should be chewing licorice gum and scouring the railroad tracks for dead bodies instead of cramming onto the city bus and burying their faces in smart phones.

I think this has been a year of change for them, too.

Tod or Taddy or something, hard to hear over all the bus sounds, seems to have drifted from the rest of his bandmates. 

He must have discovered rock 'n' roll; his blond hair has grown long, curling at his shoulders and looking unwashed. He's traded the bright colored sports team sweatshirts of his peers for a black on black ensemble, a ragged suitcoat over a T-shirt. A skull necklace made from colored beads dangles around his neck. On his chin, an embarrassed cough of a beard.

Likely the band is frustrated with him. He's thrown out his Duke Ellington records and keeps bringing an amplifier to practice. None of their instruments can plug in to it, but he turns it on anyway, loud, and gets a faraway look in his eyes. 

I've watched the people at the Fitness Center change through the year as well.

One guy, I think of him as Big Fella, has been steadily losing weight. I envy his success, but I find his regimen to be kind of strange.

He spends his time bouncing a large rubber ball. As he dribbles, he jogs around the main floor, weaving around exercise machines and pausing to make small talk with people who seem unhappy to see him. He talks and bounces and jogs in place. His grey hooded sweatshirt with cutoff sleeves grows dark with cleavage sweat.

Between his booming voice and violent slaps of the ball, Big Fella is easily the loudest person there.

I stare at him a lot, and sometimes my perception blurs: is Big Fella bouncing the ball, or is the ball bouncing him?

I'm finishing this post up at my son's floor hockey game.

I am not a sports dad, yet I find myself yelling things anyways. Safe, non-specific things, because I am uncertain of how the game is played.

I'm selling it, I think. I'm really selling it. Blushing after every expulsion of "Chase it down!" or "Good hustle!" because it's kind of embarrassing to yell those things.

At last week's game, a kid pulled one leg of his shorts up and showed his penis to my boys. He fixed me with a challenging stare, as if to say, go ahead, tell my dad. I dare you. Tell my dad you saw my penis. 

Like I do in so many situations in my life, I froze in place, having no idea of what to do next.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Yes, we are tiny, but we are mighty

Lacking the ability to gussy up the scene, let me just say that the sunrise this morning was real pretty. It was pink and there were birds over it and it was like spying on God through a View-Master.

I don't like being ambushed by beautiful nature because it does that thing, that same stupid thing that tragedy and first love and all that stuff does, where it grabs my brain and screams "OH MAN! YOU'RE TINY AND THE WORLD IS BIG!" and I suddenly hate myself for being excited the night before when I beat my wife's Tetris score while playing Gameboy on the toilet. 

I realize then that I may not really know what excitement is, or what concepts like "personal best" or "fulfillment" could even look like. 

And with that realization, I groan in pain, knowing that some kind of epiphany is probably on its way. Some thought, possibly a life changer, a philosophic doozy, lurches forward to be born.

But at the critical moment, just as the head crowns, there is a sound not unlike stifled flatus, and instead of delivering a baby, I only deliver a deflated, baby shaped balloon, the best of my thoughts diffused back in to synaptic patty cake.

I scramble for my notebook anyway, thinking I better at least pretend that I was going to take seriously whatever it was I almost thought, when I see the little note I have written to myself and my blood freezes and I want to die, just die already.

Now I am not some kind of snob; I enjoy most of the things that the rest of humanity enjoys: rice, Carol Burnett. 

But many modern comedy motion pictures are inaccessible to me. 

I look around at other people laughing and I just feel sad. I want to ask them, what is here? What do I not know that you all do? Give me the secret information so I may laugh at "Here comes the Boom" with you. 

I bury my face in my popcorn and pray that eating and laughing are interchangeably acceptable in the eyes of society. See look, look, I have a soul, I'm eating this popcorn, ain't I?

The thing that worried me about "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" was that lately I have noticed a downward trend in my ability to politely tolerate the majority of situations that constitute "being alive".

Take small talk, for example.

I used to be able to fake it, even get into the act of it a little, but for some reason these days it hurts me physically to do it. 

I wonder if everyone I keep chatting with might be some kind of psychic vampire secretly infiltrating the earth for the sole purpose of telling me tomorrow's forecast and then draining me dry as I stumble over a response. 

If so, then the vampire Queen must be the poor, genuinely good woman who translates for the deaf student in our class. 

I have written of her before; she is the real deal: kind, considerate, respectful. 

I even wrote in her birthday card, "You are the nicest person I have ever worked with" and then I tried to draw something which I was not sure even what it was going to be, and it ended up looking like an anthropomorphic pickle filled with remorse.

As much as I admire this woman, I am unable to have a conversation with her. Something in me starts a little countdown timer that will surely result in my entire head exploding if I do not somehow end the exchange prematurely.

My excuses for getting out of small talk with her have literally been as lame as fakely stammering "I have to-have to" and then slowly walking backwards from her.

She stopped me in the hall to tell me how delicious the school pizza was that day.

"Because it was warm. It was really nice that it was warm, they had it in a box, you see," and she drew the dimensions of the pizza box in the air with her finger. "Normally they have it in one of those serving dishes," her hands shaped the dish,"and its barely covered, so it's cold. But today, it was really nice because it was in the pizza box", she made the box again. "It was nice and soft, you know, not hard and dry, it's nice for the kids to have soft, warm pizza."

I have no idea what my face was doing, but inside, it was taking me all the mental grit I had to stay rooted to the spot and hear her out about the warm pizza. She kept using the word "nice" and it became like profanity; harsh to the ear and kind of tacky.

"I just thought it was really nice to have it like that," box shape again,"I'm going to tell them or you could tell them how nice it was and how much the kids enjoyed the pizza today. They could actually chew it because it was soft, and very flavorful when it's warm." 

Somehow I knew that it could not go on, that I was going to scream uncontrollably and run directly through the big glass windows at the end of the hallway. My eyeballs must be bulging out, I thought, they just have to be.

Let the Rapture come before this woman smiles shyly and speaks the words "soft pizza" one more time.

The primal kernel in my brain that dictates my most basic functions somehow got a word in, and urged my feet backwards.

"I just-just-" There was now a foot between us and a crack of light.

But she is much kinder then me.

"Oh I know you're busy," she said, signing what must have been "busy", but looked like killing flies with maracas. She patted my arm and walked on.

I almost sagged to the floor. What's wrong with me, I wondered. This is what humans do. They talk about things. The littlest of things, even. It's not hard. You just make your mouth say words like 'oh' and 'great'. When in doubt, just smile. You're human, aren't you?

It was the gravity of this question that I carried with me into the screening of "Beverly Hills Chihuahua."

I came back out, after ninety-two minutes, and was not sure of the answer. My armpits stank and there were bite marks on my thumb from where I'd clamped down on the skin.

Everyone around me was smiling and recalling favorite bits. I had prepared my line already: "I knew Delgado would get his smell back."

Delgado was the disgraced police dog whose failure to protect his human partner had lead to his dismissal from the Mexican police force. The trauma of the experience had left him unable to follow a scent. Only when things are absolutely dire, when Chloe the Beverly Hills Chihuahua is in danger of being lost forever, does Delgado shatter the mental barriers handicapping his nose and redeem himself by saving the day.

"Did you like the movie?"

"I knew Delgado would get his smell back." The person asking me looked confused. Forgot to smile, I thought.

The interpreter approached me hesitantly, signing already as she neared. 

"Did you like the movie?" Her hands dug down in invisible dirt, searching for a lost bone.

I smiled big. 

"I knew Delgado would get his smell back."

"Uh-huh," she said, and patted my back like I was a child. "I liked that part too."

On the bus ride back to school, the ambient conversations around me played tricks on my ears, sounding like thirty quiet voices whispering "Chihuahua."

Ms.Pam greeted us with her usual lunatic electricity. 

She bobbed her head as she counted each student coming through the door, not convinced that we were capable of bringing back the same number of kids that we'd left with.

She grabbed the last guy through the door, and began to interrogate him about the movie.

"Now, was there just one Chihuahua, or a lot of them?"

He rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

"I don't willy know," he said, after a moment.

"Oh," she said. "Oh." Her eyes unfocused, and drifted towards the sky outside the window.