Friday, March 27, 2015

Excuse my slightness here below

One of my students was just hired as a grocery bagger.

She got to sit through hours of cool orientation videos packed with important information:

The first screenshot is real. The next two are supposed to be jokes.

I've been reading a book about making jokes, and now I am trying to make some.

But the author of the book is British.

He keeps referencing all these British comedians like "Dame Knickers" or "Bangers and the Mash." Without any cultural anchor points, I feel lost.

Anyways, he attempts to define humor as the place where two otherwise disparate elements meet and cause an hilarious explosion.

I have tried to play with this concept and tease out some main ideas.

Did you see that part in italics? You can tell we've had a lot of teacher inservices lately, because I've started talking super dooper smart like that. It's because I'm surrounded by experts.

Our last inservice was about mental illness.

Early on in the presentation, one of my fellow professionals raised his hand.

"Yes?" The speaker called on him, but you could tell she hadn't wanted to. It was too early. She was only on her second Powerpoint slide, and wasn't finished reading all the information out loud yet.

My co-worker turned in his seat to address the room.

"I just want you to know, I disagree with what you said about suicide being an impulse. I've attempted suicide many times, so I speak from experience. It's planned. It's always planned."

The room went deeply, awkwardly still.

I tried to study the face of our director of special education.

I tried to tease out what she might be thinking: Did I hire that man? Is this my bad??

The presenter was obviously thrown for a loop, but she managed a "thank you, thank you for that" in a sincere, quiet voice.

At the first break, everyone rushed the table of complimentary Goldfish crackers. I used the distraction to cover my escape.

There is something so powerful about leaving a teacher inservice early; I believe it's as close to God as we dare reach in this life.

I worked at a grocery store for a little while, and there wasn't too much there to blow up.

The people, I suppose, but some of them might've been a bit relieved to have it happen. The rotisserie chicken guy, the four in the morning donut lady; these were not the happiest of folk.

A routine of drudgery lay before them, day in and day out. Disruptions got as exciting as minor mechanical failures: the chicken spit struggled to rotate, or the jelly inserter plugged up and shot donut jelly out in mildly unexpected directions.

It was all lower-case dammits, said almost inaudibly.

I was on the late shift, from ten at night to seven in the morning. The store was closed and we could do whatever we wanted.

Like sometimes, we didn't rotate the older mayonnaise to the front of the newer mayonnaise.

That's the highlight, but I promise you, a million other things happened that were just as crazy.

Once, the night shift supervisor and another guy got into an argument about past-date cans.

They were both puffed up pretty big, bouncing off of each other's chests and spitting out fighting words like, "WHAT?WHAT?" and "OH YEAH!? YEAH?!"

I've always been a peacekeeper.

In college, whenever a fight broke out, I made sure to fling myself between the combatants, even from half-way across the house.

I would burst into tears and scream at everyone to stop, just stop it. A stand-in for all of their mothers.

People would be so embarrassed for me that you could feel the tension fizzle into an awkward restlessness.

What are we doing? Why is he crying and trying to cradle our heads?

It didn't always work.

The fighters and the fight-stoppers sometimes all tipped over together in one drunken brick, or the brawlers faked peace, walked down the block from my blubbering, and beat the shit out of each other anyways.

When the two guys at the grocery store started going at it, I did not even have enough time to work up a good eyeball lather. The angrier of the two, Jerry, yelled "I quit!" really dramatically and stormed out of there. He gave us all the finger as he passed.

Despite the sweeping nature of his gesture, I decided Jerry only intended the finger for the others. The alternative hurt too much.

The book I have about joke-making tells me to always be very specific. That's why I told you the one guy's name was Jerry. He often wore a green hat, which I believe is kind of neutral information, but perhaps you will find that detail hilarious.

There was another guy there who said he spent his weekends driving strippers around to bachelor parties. I don't remember his name, but he said the strippers were all Filipino. Years later, I saw him hop a fence at a Boy Scout rummage sale in order to be the first one to the tent where all the push mowers were parked. 

That story I just told you about the man with his strippers and mowers is one of the most powerful things I think I have ever written.

I leave you wanting more.

Monday, March 9, 2015

No retreat, no surrender

A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to a weekend retreat about marriage.

Maybe if we talk about stuff right now, like if I really open up to her, put all those feelings out there that she wants me to express all the time, maybe it will be enough and we can go back home. 

It would be like a stay of execution; we'd be so giddy, just brushing death that way, and the whole weekend would still be in front of us, wild, alive, free.

The retreat was set in a large, late-18th century house that had columns, lots of windows, and there is no way I'm going to draw it.

Nametags bother me because every time I wear one, people call me by my name.

But worser is having to sit in the front row. Now I can't doodle unflattering caricatures of the person speaking. They might look down, see themselves, and possibly be devastated. And I won't be able to focus on what is being said either, because I'll be too fixated on the person's face or mannerisms.
  Just as he was about to tell us the many secrets to a happy marriage, I noticed a large bubble of moisture hanging from one of his nostrils.
 A person of even mildly sufficient intelligence and maturity would've seen right past the nasal run off and on through to the valuable message beneath.

Why can't I be that person? Is that why my wife wanted us to come?

For the next three hours, I watched the bubble expand and contract with his breathing. I saw my life in it, my marriage. It was filthy with metaphors, but they all proved too elusive for me to pin down. 

Then he burst it with a deep and sudden sniff.

It was time for the breakout sessions. We were separated from our spouses and divided into groups of three.
Everybody in my group was almost touching knees.

Our assignment was to study each other intently, total strangers, and then write down as many affirming qualities as we could discern in five minutes. We were told to be honest, open, and gushing with our praise.

Marcia and Mark began writing. I stared down at my notebook and prayed for it to become a giant, chomping mouth that would rear up and bite off all of our heads; beginning with Marcia, the kindly 50ish lady with chunky, pearlescent jewelry; then Mark, an obvious engineer with a brassy class ring from Notre Dame, and finishing up with my own fat face, brittle as it was in it's social rigor mortis.

The presenters called 'time'.

I was horrified to see Marcia had two whole pages on me, and she even breathlessly scribbled a bit more after the bell.

The woman looked down on me with such a face of earnest kindness that I knew I was in for an excruciating vivisection. 

Marcia described this "other" me for a long time.
I liked him; he sounded good natured, dependable, kind of a happy rock. 

It soon became clear that she was basing the entirety of her affirmations on the sight of my bright tennis shoes and my admission that I have three boys.

We were told that we could only respond with a gracious thank-you, which I did.

Mark started in, and it was just as nice and earnest.

He mentioned my shoes as well.

They had made some alternate universe version of me feel like a million bucks, while the real me stared down in shame at what I'd written about them.
I read out loud the little I had, and was met with blank expressions. They did not really say 'thank you' like they were supposed to.

The main event for the evening was a romantic dinner by candlelight.

Two other couples sat at the table with us, thereby guaranteeing a complete absence of romance.

We were then told to ask each couple how they had met...

Part of the problem with my marriage is that we don't have a compelling backstory.

I met my future wife at a low-key, uneventful party put on by a mutual friend. We started joking around and got married three or so years later.

One of the men at our romantic dinner table kept asking us about the party, like he was trying to help us out, to make us revisit those first moments and see what magical elements we might have forgotten.

"I had wrist braces on," my wife offered. "Because I had carpal tunnel."

I was going to add that I might've had some ice cream, or maybe cereal, at the party as well, but the next couple had already started talking.

They were an odd pairing: he, a German Jew from upstate New York, and she, a flamboyant woman from Colombia. On a faraway Caribbean beach, they'd found each other amidst a whirlwind of love, tour groups, and halting Spanish.

Nice people. Genuinely good. I felt bad that I wished desperately to be somewhere else, even zapped into a smoking outline of a body in ash upon the floor, than sitting there at the table with them.

My social anxiety has become an unchecked monster. It almost paralyzes me.

There were times throughout the retreat when I was certain I could not continue on another moment. I was a dog sled team run to fatal exhaustion in the last leg of the Iditarod.

A review of the little notes I kept writing to my wife demonstrates my state of mind: I can't take this, my head is going to explode (doodle of a monkey) My vision is blurring, my hands are shaking, get me out of here, get me out! (more doodles, little hearts with our initials in them, a terrible ink blot ripped down through several notebook pages by the heavy stabbing of a pen) Dear God, dear God!

Eventually, she drew an 'X' on a piece of paper and told me to just stare at it.

The clean, even intersection of that X calmed me down and allowed my mind to drift off.

I thought of how my little son had unexpectedly poked me in the scrotum while I was urinating. How personal and invasive that had felt.

Then my mind turned to the dingy blue dresser behind him, and the little photo of my wife that lays on it.

When I am stuck on the toilet for a particularly long haul, I sometimes take the picture down and study it.

It's from 2003, which seems old to me now.

We weren't together when it was taken; there had been apathy, betrayals, a painful breakup.

She had gone away to Nicaragua while I struggled through a long first year of desolate sobriety. It's not much of a story.

I don't know what the girl on the horse is thinking. 

The little Nicaraguan horse wrangling man had hissed "Gorda gringa! Gorda gringa!" at her, but eventually handed over the reins. Maybe she was thinking how much she would have liked to kick his bony ass into the sea.

In the picture, she looks like what my wife has always looked like to me: beauty, hope, goodness. 

As good a reason as any to suffer through a marriage retreat.

I guess.