Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Bout of Inconsequence

Our students have been doing some cleaning at a local software design company.

The place has one of those free range office setups, where everyone scoots about on wheelie chairs and there is nowhere to hide. Most of the employees are young beardy guys in dark, fatigued jeans and ironically tight polo shirts. They speak of Netflix while fussing over the espresso machine.

Every day, while I sit in their kitchen and pretend to be teaching my students how to do things, all the software people gather in a giant circle and pass a plastic Viking helmet around.

When it is your turn to hold the helmet, you are supposed to say your name, what you are currently working on, and any other little tidbits you want to throw in.

One lady mentioned Subway was having a two-for-one deal.

Someone else asked that we take a moment to irradiate his distant, dying grandmother with well-intentioned thinking.

Some people grip the hat awkwardly, just by the tip of one horn, as if they want to be as far from it as possible.

Others turn it over and over again in their sweaty, nervous hands.

Nobody ever puts the Viking helmet on their head. I wonder if that is a right reserved for the company president alone. I hope to be here on that day, when he strides proudly into the center of the workforce he has assembled, and holds his be-horned head aloft while issuing grand proclamations.

They can all see me, hunched over their lunch table and scribbling away, glancing up frequently at them with a naked longing to come and join their merry band. But no one bids me dance.

What could I offer a modern, youthful software design company anyhows?

Our class recently saw the Robert De Niro film The Intern; it was the worst movie I've seen since Best of Me, the Nicholas Sparks floating nipple extravaganza we were dragged to last year.

The Intern features De Niro as a senior citizen who teaches the hip youngsters at a fashion design start-up how to have some old school class, and by doing so, he saves the entire galaxy.

Not sure about the ending, actually.

The dialogue became so atrocious after awhile that I used the congealed butter from my cold popcorn to stop up my ears.

I do remember Anne Hathaway sobbing and telling rickety old Bob that he was her bestest friend. Then they got all giggly with peppermint schnapps and slept together chastely while Spartacus played on their hotel television for the last forty-five minutes of the movie.

I shouldn't complain, of course.

Most people do not get paid to go to the movies, or the apple orchard, or Steak'n'Shake. But after a time, some of these wondrous freedoms begin to stink like death.

My wife calls me while I'm pushing back my cuticles on company time.

"Well.....I'm pregnant."

There is a long pause while the phone in my hand grows to the size of a 5-story tombstone and topples down upon my head.

"Am I the father?" I ask, from a lack of anything better to say.

She takes a moment to determine whether or not I might be joking.

I suffer from a particular conversational tic; I'll say whatever comes into my head and watch to see how it lands. If it meets with approval, then you're damn right I meant it; if it sparks anger or repulsion, then I was only joking ha ha let us all laugh together.

I'm constantly backpedaling from my own statements, as if everything I say could be followed with an or not? in parentheses.

"No, it's Thomas the electrician." She thinks she is making a sarcastic bit of piffle, but already I am scouring the internet for evidence of this cuckolding tradesman, desperate to see if his jawline still cleaves tightly to the bone or sags away in a wrinkly bag of aging wishes.

I can make jokes but I cannot take them.

"It's you, silly. You're the father."


What does a family with four children look like?

A collapsing star swirling inevitably towards the event horizon of a hungry black hole?

Tired people hating each other over a Bloomin' Onion at Outback?

"What do you think?" she asks me. "You don't have to act overjoyed or anything. Its kind of a shock to me too."

Grateful that she has opened the door to a truthful expression of feelings, I begin to cry and suck my thumb.

Babies are wonderful things; terrifying and wonderful.

They are wailing agents of change.

Anytime you hear of one coming and you figure you had something to do with it, you can't help but shake in your boots.

I get off the phone and stare at the circle of mumbling programmers.

"Pass me that warrior's helm," I bellow, "for I am a fourth time virile!"

Yet not a single one of those young bucks would hand Daddy the hat.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Open Mic

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Will the real Gweenbrick please never stand up again

I recently tried to perform an open microphone comedy act at a local club.

This was not the realization of any lifelong dream, nor was it a wrestling match with the coming shadow of middle age.

This was just a small man, with small aspirations, hoping to light a wee fire of gladness in this often gloomy world.

And how wee my fire was.

For one thing, the second you find out that you, along with twenty other people, have been chosen to stand on a stage in a glorified basement, and be hilarious for five whole minutes, you run directly to the classroom toilet and vomit. This a fantastic omen.

For second thing, I have no business speaking to the public.

There was the unplanned, out of control sobbing during an attempt to improvise the Best Man Speech at the Leedy wedding of aught five, and then the painfully brief, superficial performance at the Distel nuptials the following year.

Why did people keep tapping me to be a best man?

I threw the worst bachelor parties as well-four guys on a porch eating Doritos and drinking green tea.

I tried to get crazy by bringing Cool Ranch and Twinkies to the next one, but everyone just stared sadly into the distance.

Someone wondered aloud if we should watch a video of a stripper on Youtube, and I slunk off into the shadows to sing "It's My Party" with whispered grief.

But I like to make people laugh!

I must be some kind of comedian in some way, to somebody.

I agonized over five pages of material, mostly snippets boiled down from old blog posts, and then practiced over and over again for a week.

My wife was my victim soul/test audience.

This caused a small bit of trouble: while she seemed to find her own joke ideas to be quite hilarious, when it came to my material, her smile became very tight, almost like rictus. If I went really off the rails, she covered her face with a pillow.

"I'm sorry," she said, her voice muffled. "It's just not funny. You're funny, my special attractive sensitive man, I love you so much....but these things you tell...in the form of jokes....these things are not too good."

In the end, her editorial presence was quite helpful.

The next day, as I threw everything out and started from scratch, I imagined her face floating in a little bubble over my head, politely smiling when I was on the right track, and slowly bringing a pillow up when the material ran out of gas.

At last the big night arrived.

I was about fourth in line to perform, which gave me plenty of time to pee freely in my pants.

One guy on before me was a friendly middle-aged white dude with a ponytail.

He slapped a large stack of notepaper covered in diagrams onto the little black stool provided for performers.

"I want to have a little fun up here tonight. But I want us to work together to wrap our minds around some of the concepts I'll be talking about."

Things became very silent.

He proceeded to lay out a theory about how Freud's reduction of personhood to the sexual drive did not go far enough, how sexual selection is driven by intermittent reinforcement and addictive behaviors. I am not really sure what he was saying, exactly. It was like a college psychology lecture delivered by someone on LSD; someone who was just barely, by the thinnest of hairs, keeping his shit together.

He muttered; he spaced out. At one point, he was overcome with emotion and had to step away from the microphone.

After his five minutes were up, he wouldn't stop talking. They flashed the red light over and over again, then the manager started clacking something loudly, and as several waiters began to converge on the stage, he finally relented.

His strange, unfunny filibuster left the five or so audience members in an awkward daze.

A young beardy guy got up next, and all of his jokes were about abortion machines and his love of child rape. I am not exaggerating.

He bombed terribly.

It had now been agonizingly quiet in the comedy club for over ten minutes.

"Up next-Gweenbrick!" A single clap from a distant corner, and I was on my way to the gallows.

I like to think, in my prouder moments, that I've managed to be funny on this blog at least a few times over the years. A couple things have worked pretty good, I feel.

But in retrospect, that was no reason to think, at all, that I would have a knack for stand-up comedy.

I remember the lights clearly, because that was all I could bring myself to look at. They were blinding and my face got all squinty and smooshed.

My voice did that shaky thing voices do, when the throat is strangled by terror, and your natural pitch rises in octaves until it's nothing but a feeble squeak.

If I had any jokes to tell at all, they came out in the form of frightened questions.

I didn't smile; I didn't come across as a fun guy. A guy you bring in to get the good times rolling.

One person tittered. One titter.

It was when I described my younger self as "a kind of soiled looking kid, with a greasy black bowl cut, weird sweater vest with tassels, provocatively short shorts with brown socks up to the knees..."

She was right in front of me, one of the two people still sitting there, and when she tittered, I wanted to kneel down, gently take her hand in mine, and tell her, in the microphone, that we were now best friends forever, but the red light flashed and I had to get off.

Monday, October 5, 2015

All of Gweenbrick in Day

I'm sitting with my three-year-old son in the long, mosquito thick grass of our front lawn.

The grass has gotten to such an unruly length because I accidentally mowed over the cord that ran from the garage to the burlap coffee filter my wife absently indicates by muttering, "pool".

There was a tremendous whipping, screaming sound, and in one moment, I simultaneously destroyed the lawn mower's cutting system and the various filters and pumps keeping the pool from becoming merely a chilly toilet bowl.

"Crusher?" my son asks.

"Yeah, Rock Monster?"

Lately he has insisted we pretend to be violent, grotesque monsters who speak only in guttural pidgin English.

 As we stomp our way around the yard, two beasts unleashed, he stops occasionally to pick a flower ("for Mommy" he growls) or to point out a Monarch butterfly settling on a blade of grass. 

Crusher and Rock Monster, terrible to behold, but not utter savages.

He will not let me break character for anything. Whining about coffee, pleading for a bathroom break, suggesting lunch choices; it all has to be done in Crusher's caveman snarl. 

"No, no-say it wike Crusher. Talk wike him."

When I am in the bathroom, I pretend I am a bachelor. Its fun to imagine I have the entirety of the day still to myself. Time is mine to waste. This is all you need to know about parenting. It involves hiding and pretending.

But even there, I am tapped for a performance. 

"Crusher?? What are you dooooing?"

"I'm almost done."

"Talk wike Crusher."

I clear my throat and take things down to a gravelly octave.

"Me going potty."

Uproarious monster laughter from the other side, and then bam! on the door, fingers twisting at the handle.

Many of the door handles in our house do not operate as they should. They no longer open things, they only jut out like useless brass schnozzes.

Do people still call noses "schnozzes"? 

I don't know. I am on the furthest ring of the solar system around what people say. By the time I catch wind of trendy doings in the vernacular, they've already been co-opted by the ad industry and slapped on the signs above the gas pumps or printed on T-shirts discarded in a dumpster behind T.J.Maxx. 

The point I'm ambling towards is that Rock Monster can't get in to my sanctuary, but he does everything he can to assure me of his waiting presence. He's like a metaphor for God.

I have not written or drawn anything in months, but it has been for a very good reason.
I did not wanna.

Not really. I just don't have the jazz anymore.
It went the way of all impermanent things: out with the bathwater.

In an effort to reignite the spark, I started to keep a diary of my thoughts. That took about one entry, and then I had the whole rest of the composition book to fill up.

Sentence fragments and dead ends litter the pages now like creative dry heaves.

"Here Mike, read this." My student Marcy shoves a crumpled piece of lined paper under my writing hand.

Marcy has been having what we in the industry call "a very bad year". Every day, she tries to push as many buttons as she can find: hitting, pushing, yelling, swearing.

She tried to injure herself with a soft plastic garbage tie, ineffectually mashing the bendy corners along her forearm.

When she realized a nearby pair of scissors would do a better job, things got a little wrestley.

The note reads: "Hey Mike. My pee hurts again. I'm sorry, but it does. I cleaned my room last night." Smiley face. Heart. And a "Love, Marcy."

She often blames her troubled behavior on urinary tract infections.

I had to block a door to keep her from bursting in and smacking kids, and the whole time she was just screaming, "I HAVE A U.T.I.!" and kicking the door with her foot.

I don't know. Things are about the same.

These past few months have felt like they are missing something for me, and I am not sure if that something is Gweenbrick.

But if possible, and if you can keep your expectations super duper low, I would like to drop a few kids off at this blogging pool once and awhile.

Talk to you soon.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Flightless Birds of Summer

On the last day of school before summer, the teacher brought her parrot Jonah for a visit.

In case you are wondering, young adults with cognitive impairments say the same types of things to talking birds that plain folks do:

Iva came up to the office doorway and froze when she saw the parrot.

"Oh my god what is that?"

"It's Jonah," I told her, "He's here to visit us."

She looked nervously over her shoulder.

"Is he, like, coming to school here now or what? Like a student? A student in our class?"

"He's a bird."

I wondered if she was confused because several days earlier, a potential new student for our class came for a visit, and he, too, had been standing in the office when she got off the bus.

Jonah let out a shrill whistle. Iva self-consciously tucked a flap of hair behind her ear and thanked him.

"I do look very nice today," she said sheepishly.

I went to the kitchen to get coffee, and when I returned, Iva was telling Jonah about her recent birthday, how delicious her ice cream cake had been, and how much she longed for a new Iphone but had not received one for a present.

"He poops when you say 'shazaam'," I told her. 

Apparently,you teach your pet bird to drop anchor on command, as a way of minimizing unplanned defecations.

Despite the better angels of my nature, I found the idea of this avicultural safewording to be hilarious. 

When the students took turns holding Jonah on their arms, I kept erupting in shazaams and then giggling like a blue-footed booby.

I soon grew bored of my own amazing joke and wandered from the room.

People get all emotional and stuff before summer break. They hug.

There were still several hours left in the school day, but Amy Ting angrily accused me of not saying good-bye to her.

"Ok," I said, and I offered my specialty: the side hug with arched arm, so that only the fingertips and the interior porkchop of the deltoid come into contact with the other person.

I left school wondering what kind of man am I, whose bump is too cold for comfort.

But as I walked into the thrift store several minutes later, all such thoughts just fell away.

The feeling was upon me.

There is a certain kind of electricity at work in a second hand shop.

Some days, it's dormant; I walk inside and the whole place reeks of sandaled feet. There's a tower of Country Karaoke CDs teetering on the showcase, everything is puce and olive, and I might as well go home.

When the electricity rises, however, it pricks the hairs of my arms and upper shoulders as I walk through the door.

There's treasure here today. I know it.

I made a beeline for the toy section, brushing past a large black man holding a waffle maker and shouting into his cellphone.

"No....a WAFFLE MAKER. Yeah, for waffles. WAFFLES. No, it's for making them. FOR MAKING THEM. No, man, WAFFLES."

The toys were strewn around the floor, shoved onto narrow shelving, piled into crates. I did my initial visual scan of the area and then moved in for some deep digging.

The thrift store electricity was roaring in my ears.

Not the Monster High Doll clad only in a thong. Not the Choo-Choo with Cookie Monster waving from the conductor seat. Not the half-empty puzzle in a bag, or the moldy cylinder of Lincoln Logs.

Somewhere beneath all this ordinary, lays-

It was a 1970s Tristar International Klinger action figure from the landmark dramedy series M*A*S*H.

I have no poker face when it comes to these things.

If I find a rare treasure in the wild, I gasp, I proclaim, I give sobbing thanks.
Hisssss.....who calls me by my name, in this, my thrift store refuge??

Who has the audacity to find me familiar-looking and speak out??

I turned around, and there stood a woman I'd not seen in twenty years. 

She'd been my first kiss, a little lesson in passion for which I'd gladly paid a dollar. Our teeth clacked together in painful failure, however, and I'd psychologically vomited.

I went to her house for brunch some months later.

How she had recognized me now, a bloated hobgoblin clutching his M*A*S*H action figure and jiggling with suppressed glee, I'll never know, but knew me she did.

I'm still not clear on how to stand when I run into someone I used to be acquainted with.

There is a certain amount of "catching up" that polite society demands, and this obligates me to assume a posture that does not betray my building need to run off screaming.

I went for one arm resting on a nearby cabinet, feet evenly apart, as she told me about her life in Northern Ireland, the view of the inlet sea from her kitchen window.

This position was no good; the stretch marks along the back of my arm were too prominent.

I kind of lowered my head to one side, to block her potential view of the marks, but I quickly discerned from the puzzled fluttering of her eyes that it may have appeared too casual.

I then brought my head back up and let my arms fall loosely to my sides, but nervously crossed my legs at the knees and teetered a bit from poor balance.

She was starting in on the names of her ten children when I folded my arms too far forward from me, as if resting them on an invisible fence, and then quickly reeled them back in to wordlessly demonstrate to her that I was not a crazy person.

And all the while, as we spoke, I gesticulated with the Klinger.

After an agonizing five minutes, I excused myself by way of a side hug, made my purchase, and scurried home.

Father Mulcahy and B.J. sharing a good laugh

They separate, feeling pleased with their time together.

Monday, June 1, 2015


My wife wants to get an above ground swimming pool.

You know when you see an opening sentence like that, you're in for a wild ride.

I'm opposed to the whole idea.

When I was a young boy, I had an unpleasant experience with a neighbor's above ground swimming pool.

As I've mentioned before, working in Special Education does not pay well, so to supplement my income, I sell stuff on Ebay.

This means obsessively checking Craigslist, classifieds, thrift stores, garage sales, streetside trash piles; any place there might be something worth selling.

Legos are an easy flip. They're very popular, and you can quickly pick out the valuable stuff for large profits and sell the rest by weight.

Maybe. I've had a few rough encounters with biker gangs.

There was a woman I met at a party one time. She was super into stuff like motorcycles and bald eagles.

As the night wore on, everyone around the bonfire passed out except us.

I've always waited until I was the last man available to a girl before making my move. It tips the odds ever so slightly in my favor that I might get a smooch, but it makes the rejection sting like the dickens.

I scooted closer to her. She told me about her agonizing motorcycle accident and I shared with her the time I fell off a small skateboard and my dad bought me Mcdonald's.

Nothing happened between us.

She fell asleep against a log. I awkwardly used her metal-toed boot for a pillow.

An hour later, she kicked me awake, threw me a beer, and then called me a pussy because I said I had to go home.

I ran into her at a big Halloween party some weeks after. She introduced me to her new boyfriend, a soldier in the Forbidden Wolves biker gang by the name of Loony Tunes. 

I was in somewhat of an E.T. costume at the time, and I believe that went a long way towards helping Loony Tunes to not feel threatened. 

He spent most of the time drinking Popov vodka from a gigantic bottle and howling at the moon. Around midnight, they hopped onto his Harley and tore off.

There was another biker incident as well. A high school substitute teacher I had; he said he belonged to a motorcycle club. He was a pretty nice guy, but his belt buckles were bigger than my face.

Writing that now, I realize the human face is an odd unit of measurement for belt buckle sizing.

Oh well.

Anyways, people are weird about selling their Legos.

They want to sell them, but they don't; like they are selling off all the hopes and dreams they once had for their kid's potential.

One hot summer evening, I was stuck on the floor of a middle-aged woman's living room for several hours, Legos strewn all around us, as she picked up practically every brick and recounted a memory specific to it.

When she eventually decided on a price, it was so outrageously high that I walked out empty-handed.

The woman didn't want to sell her son's Legos, not really; she wanted a little company while she mourned her newly emptied nest.

I eventually found the seller in Detroit, bought the Legos, and dumped them out on my basement floor.

Having looked through hundreds of pounds of Lego bricks over the years, I've noticed a certain kind of gross consistency in what I find.

There are always Band-Aids, doubled up and twisted. Some with prominent red-brown stains. Animal fur in clumpy abundance. Dog food. Poop (once). Screws and nails. Numerous dirty, oxidized pennies.

And in every crack and corner, suspiciously pubic-looking hairs.

Parents across Southeast Michigan must teach their children that the Lego bin is the proper place for all disgusting things.

My wife arrived home a little later. The back of our minivan was loaded down with a pile of discolored burlap and fifty steel poles.

I guess the moral of the story is that if you want to send me Legos, just let me know.