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.


Monday, March 3, 2014

This world was never meant for one as beautiful as me

It's pretty obvious by now that I am a "creative" person.

I have all the symptoms:






And yet, I struggle a great deal with abstract thinking.

In my high school art class, our teacher, a crazed ginger by the name of 'Kitty', tasked us with creating a work that reflected our feelings towards the ongoing AIDS crisis.
 

Everyone took a different approach to the assignment: some people melted things, or appeared to have hurled uncapped markers at paper. The one kid who always made a Confederate flag for everything went ahead and made a Confederate flag.

I was at a loss. This was a time for metaphor, or poetic license, or some act of creativity described by a pretentious French word that for the moment escapes me.

Using a giant sketch pad, I layed out the lines for what I felt was a sincere expression of the horrors of AIDS.

Time has been ruthless to my memory, but my best recollection of the picture is this:



I remember that, not only did I title it "Positive", I wrote "Positive" on it in big red letters.

Each student took a turn showing their piece, talking about their artistic intentions, and then fielding questions from the rest of the class.


Kitty flitted around the room, nervously eating the macaroni from her necklace and cackling about how talented all of us were. 

Except me.

When I stood up and turned my drawing pad around to reveal "Positive" to the class, there was a noticeable shift in the mood. Everyone just seemed sad in their hearts; sad for art maybe, or sad about AIDS.

The great shimmy towards Relativism in our society has no greater proponents then high school art teachers; they simply will not call bad "bad".

I saw this struggle play out on Kitty's face. After clearing her throat and surveying the slumped shoulders of her students, she decided it was time at last to take a stand.

"It's really...it's really quite bad." She looked sick to her stomach.

"There's not much to it," someone offered.

"He looks like he's laughing."

"Why is there smoke underneath the big red plus sign?"

Because it's abstract, you swine.

Kitty approached me, and there was genuine discomfort in her eyes. One of her bony fingers pressed on my picture.

"If you turn this in," she told me,"you'll get an 'F'."

I did not even know she gave letter grades; usually she just glued a word onto your report card from her collection of magnetic poetry. One semester, my friend got "unyielding". Hoping for a word as cool as that one, I flipped over my own evaluation. I got 'lobe'.

Actually, I made that last part up. I am as bad of a liar as I am an abstract thinker.

I want to lie; I mean, I really, really want to deceive people. It seems so exciting.

But right after a lie, I struggle to keep it together.

I live in fear of a scenario like this one:









It took forever to draw that completely exaggerated depiction of a fear I don't even really have.

This lack of abstraction really impacts my attempts to write creatively. 



I've even gone back to some of the old classic writing exercises to get the juices flowing. I've never much cared for the concept of flowing juice as the engine that drives good thinking. Actually, I don't have an opinion on it at all, and simply invented one right this moment because I was typing already and did not know what else to type.

I also don't like it when an author writes Listen:, and then goes on to write whatever they really really want you to pay attention to, like maybe a description of a tree or suspicious mist.

I can't stand that. It's like, oooh looka me, Ahm a story tella. Ahm part of a long tradition of story tellas going back to da dawn of man.
Gimme some candy.


Maybe I'm just jealous because I can't write a book at all.

Maybe I'd kill for the chance to write Listen:. But knowing that I shouldn't be writing a book in the first place, I wouldn't be able to keep it up, and it would become something terribly stupid, like Listen: my stomach is making hungry grumbles, or Listen: the senator farted.

So a classic writing exercise: describe a kitchen as seen by a person who has just suffered a horrible loss, WITHOUT mentioning death or dying.

I can't do it. All I get from my abstract brain is he carefully placed the vegetables on his plate in the shape of a frowny face. Discovering he had no appetite, due to...due to THE THING, he sadly put the food back in the refrigerator, and, with a heavy sigh, patted the mournfully humming appliance.
"At least you're still here, ole fridgy."


Agh, it's just wretched, too literal and unconvincing.

That's one of my problems. 


The stories I write tend to dispense with abstraction, symbolism, and metaphor all together. They read like the book reports of sixth graders:

Carl was a sad white man who was sad for reasons he could not put his finger on. Maybe it was because of the adultery. His brown eyes searched the room. He also had grey hair.  In the last chapter, on the plane home, he sees the sun setting over the clouds and gets a smile on his face that is sad and knowing.


My poetry is even worse. It's basically someone's grocery list.

leeks rhubarb
jelly two kinds
pickles-should we?
not bananas

I get to the part about chicken strips and terrible doubt creeps in. What am I even saying? I feel like all my writing is on the surface; there is nothing underneath, nothing to warrant re-readings and interpretation.

Someday I hope that a college professor will raise his laser pointer to the board and say "Which brings us to Gweenbrick. What did you think of the book?"

A young, hunky college guy will brush his bangs back behind his ear, almost dislodging the marijuana cigarette he has tucked away there.

"Um, I found the narrative to be compelling, and the central metaphor of the dynamo and the moustache to be auspicious," he says.

A pert blond girl asks, "When he speaks about donuts, do you think he's really talking about the futility of hope in the face of modern atrocity?" She has just one piercing too many, so you know there's a dash of arty in her regular.

The professor holds up a finger and looks down at his vibrating cellphone.

"Hold it, hold it...I'm getting a text from one of you now. Remember, you can always text me your question if you feel it's too stupid to ask aloud." He reads the message on his phone and chuckles to himself.

"Yes, yes, a very stupid question indeed," he remarks.

Everyone in the class begins to laugh, except one student who looks down at his phone, red-faced, and quickly conceals it beneath his copy of my book.