Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Happy Little Tree

There once was a happy little tree. It lived in the middle of the forest, surrounded by other happy little trees. But this happy little tree couldn’t join in the happiness of the other happy little trees. This happy little tree was a secret. Its Creator had decreed that no one could know about this happy little tree. The other happy little trees saw it, but they couldn’t acknowledge its existence due to the proclamation from their Creator. The Creator’s name was Bob Ross, and, although he seemed nice, he was actually a vindictive megalomaniac. The happy little tree lived in isolation. Even though it was surrounded by other happy little trees, it could not communicate with them and they could not communicate with it. Not only that, but it couldn’t even express its grief, for Bob Ross had also decreed that it should remain forever a happy little tree and never show its profound sadness. So the happy little tree put a brave face on its misery and despair and eventually died of Dutch elm disease.


Thursday, January 25, 2018

A Poem about Opossums

I performed the following piece in The Encyclopedia Show at Kieran's in downtown Minneapolis on Sunday, January 21st. This month's theme was Marsupials.

With this presentation, it feels like my life has come full circle. Back in 5th grade, I gave an oral report on opossums in conjunction with a written report. It included my first attempts at stand-up comedy and acting, grasping and inchoate though they were. Of course, back then I was eager to get good grades with the least effort possible, so I would sugar-coat any subject, even the opossum. I’m sure I depicted it as a noble beast that serves an essential purpose in the Grand Scheme of Things. But now that I’ve lived in the Real World and my eyes have been opened to the ugliness that underlies everything we believe in, I will give my honest, unvarnished appraisal of these larger versions of rats. This judgment will be delivered in the form of a poem.

Possum, O Possum,

What makes you so awesome?
You originated in South America, and entered North America in the Great American Interchange following the connection of the two continents.
Or so Wikipedia would have us believe.
Did you really originate in South America? Or did you originate
in HELL?!
Your unspecialized biology, flexible diet, and reproductive habits make you successful colonizers and survivors in diverse locations and conditions.
This is all true, but it leaves out the most important question:
Why did God see fit to bring you into this world when everything about you seems to insult His Creation?
You have hands and feet like human hands but with claws
and it’s creepy.
Your face is white like a banshee or a ghost.
Your fur is grey and black and stringy.
And it’s gross.
You have a long rat’s tail,
and that is super-gross.
Truly, you are Nature’s scumbag,
and you couldn’t care less, you who scuttle through the margins of the Night.
You are shunned and shamed, targeted and tricked like the trickster you are.
This is a well-earned fate.
You have no honor. You will play dead to avoid a fight.
Your young cling to you like bubonic bacilli.
Do you drop them in the dark of night to fester in the lymph nodes of America?
Answer me, Hellbeast!
Your face is a portal to another dimension.
Is that where we’re all heading in this imperial twilight?
You hold your secrets closely, Opossum.
You are a wise Sphinx of the Night.
Through back alleys and brothels you carry the fate of America on your back.
You will be the last thing standing once the Empire has fallen.
Then will you be King, King of the Ruins, having made the whole world your natural habitat.
This was supposed to be a poem about opossums.
But instead it became a poem about the imminent fall of the American Empire.
That just seems to creep into everything I write these days.
Sorry about that.
But, again, opossums are creepy.
But they’re also the rebels of the Animal Kingdom.
If you ever see one,
I’d just leave it alone.
It’s probably crawling with disease.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Forty is the New Twenty

For the last 2 weeks I was working at the U of M bookstore in Coffman Union. It was a good job. I got to chat with my co-workers, get some exercise by walking around getting books off the shelf and help the mostly friendly students picking up their online orders. Usually I’m no fan of customer service work, but I actually enjoyed it this time around, owing largely to the amiability of the customers.

I also have to admit: There were a LOT of cute girls there. But they were about half my age, so what could I do? Just talk to ‘em, I guess. In my defense, we’re probably about the same age emotionally. Or not. I don’t know.

It’s not like I have much (if any) more romantic or sexual experience than they. Lord knows I haven’t fucked much. I didn’t lose my virginity until I was 31. I haven’t even reached double digits in the number of times I’ve had sex.

I guess it’s not surprising when you consider what my conception of sex was. As they say in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, I “put the pussy on a pedestal.” I thought sex was the ticket to adulthood, to being a man, to no longer being a freak, which is what I felt like as an adult male virgin.

It was also the essence of romantic love, which I thought was the end-all be-all, the sine qua non of life. Superficially, sex is the only thing that separates romantic relationships from all other relationships, and I focused on that.

But what really kept me from fucking for most of the last two decades or so was my fear of rejection. I’m a sensitive guy, and my relationship with my parents (esp. my mom) was weak, making me desperate for a romantic relationship to fill that void.

Women, like most people, don’t find desperation attractive. I tried to hide my desperation through a guarded reserve and quietude. But this kept me from talking to women, much less asking them out. It also kept me from responding warmly on those rare occasions when a woman would flirt with me.

It just kinda sucks that, now that I’m finally emotionally ready to be “sexually active,” most of the women who are DTF aren’t “age-appropriate” for me. And the age-appropriate women wanna settle down. It’s quite a pickle.

Ultimately, this is just a preemptive defense against the naysayers I imagine hovering in the wings, ready to pounce on my cradle-robbing impulses. But I’m only worried about these nattering nabobs because I’m one of them. I will tsk-tsk someone (in my head) involved in a May-December romance.

It doesn’t take long for me to realize that I’m just hating on them out of envy. It’s also driven by bitterness and anger. I only really feel this way toward the friends I don’t see anymore, the ones who’ve drifted away. I resent them more for leaving me high-and-dry than for being happy.

I know there are plenty of guys who prey on younger women, exploiting their naivete. What I’m trying to say is I’m not one of those guys. Given my history, it’s clearly not in my nature, and I think my maturation and emotional healing have prevented me from heading down that road.

At the end of the day, though, I’m gonna fuck who I wanna fuck (with their consent, of course). And the haters can go fuck themselves. Age isn’t a measure of maturity (as long as the person isn’t underage). If you have a problem with me dating women half my age, I suggest you ask yourself what you’re really upset about. Because I doubt it’s me or the supposed exploitation of someone you’ve never met.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The True Origin of Star Wars Scripts

There’s been a lot of heated debate about the Star Wars sequels lately. Many longtime fans of the franchise are extremely angry about these new films. They seem to think that the writers and directors are taking unwarranted liberties with the Star Wars galaxy.

What they don’t realize is these stories were not invented by the filmmakers. They are, in fact, based on ancient scrolls discovered by George Lucas in the Mojave Desert during a peyote-fueled vision quest in the 1970’s.

Lucas found them in ceramic jars in a cave. With the help of the world’s greatest linguists, he was able to decode the writing. It told of a highly advanced, space-faring civilization that existed, as the text has it, “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” NASA scientists confirmed its authenticity through the discovery of elements in the jars that could not have come from our galaxy.

But Lucas didn’t keep this information secret to serve his own ego. The U.S. government allowed him to make his films based on the scrolls only if he presented them as fiction of his own creation. They were understandably concerned that public knowledge of this intergalactic communiqué would lead to massive riots, looting and a breakdown in the social order.

This revelation should chasten those who have been critical of the films’ content. The filmmakers have only taken small liberties with the details. The broad strokes are religiously faithful to the original text. But those who would question the motives of the writers are questioning the wisdom of a civilization that was far more advanced than our own, not just technologically, but culturally as well. So stop that.

We can’t possibly understand the wisdom of a purple-haired woman who refuses to tell her supposed comrades what their escape plan is. It’s beyond our puny human cognition. We would be better off letting these scriptures wash over us in the (perhaps vain) hope that they may enlighten us through osmosis.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Star Wars Remakes

When I saw The Force Awakens, I was underwhelmed. But everyone else seemed to love it, so I figured my ambivalence toward the movie was just a symptom of depression. I was willing to go along with the mainstream narrative of a Star Wars renaissance. Honestly, I didn’t wanna ruin anyone’s enjoyment of the film. I didn’t wanna be the stick-in-the-mud who insists that the new ones aren’t as good as the originals. Everyone seemed to think Star Wars was back on track, and I wasn’t going to stand in their way.

My reaction to The Last Jedi was similar. Although I thought The Last Jedi was better than the previous installment, it still didn’t rekindle my childlike enthusiasm for the franchise. (For the record, I enjoyed Rogue One much more than these two.) Once again, I was willing to accept the critical and popular consensus that it was superlative entertainment.

But I’ve been emboldened by the brewing backlash among Star Wars diehards. Now I’m thinking that maybe I was right all along. I wasn’t able to articulate my criticism until I watched this video.

The main problem with the sequels is that, so far, they’re basically just a reboot of the original trilogy. We’ve got a new empire and a mostly new Rebellion/Resistance. But we already defeated the empire! Why should I care about defeating another empire? That’s boring! As the guy in the video points out, even the prequels had a different arc, covering the rise of the empire. Sure, they did a really shitty job with it, but at least it was different!

When The Force Awakens came out, people said, “Yeah, the plot is identical to A New Hope, but so what? It’s a reboot.” I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that, except for one thing: THAT’S SO FUCKING LAME! The series doesn’t need a reboot! J.J. Abrams, Rian Johnson & company just wanted to go back to what “worked” in the original trilogy. They assume it was the basic plot structure that drove their success and doomed the prequels (instead of the artistic execution).

Just as The Force Awakens was a loose remake of A New Hope, so is The Last Jedi a rehash of The Empire Strikes Back. I’ll spare you the irrelevant details and tick off the bullet points. The movie starts with the Rebellion’s – er, Resistance’s – secret base being discovered by the Empire – er, First Order. Instead of Luke being trained by Yoda, Rey is (reluctantly) trained by Luke. We get an imperial walker battle, but at the end instead of the beginning, and on a planet covered in salt instead of ice. Kylo (basically) tells Rey who her parents are: “nobodies.” (That’s one of the more refreshing changes. Heredity has become so important in this series that I was beginning to think the Force was just a recessive gene.)

The First Order’s fleet chases the Resistance fleet. The Emperor’s – excuse me, Supreme Leader’s – huge ship is revealed. Just like with the updated Death Star (the imaginatively named “Starkiller Base”), the only real innovation is that it’s way bigger than its precursor. Also, the technical aspects of the film are above reproach. The special effects, sound design, art direction and fight choreography are all top-notch.

But, when it comes to the story, the filmmakers don’t have much new to offer. Women and POC’s figure prominently in the Resistance, whereas the First Order is the last bastion of white masculinity. This has triggered some alt-right (or alt-lite) dudes on YouTube, which is kinda fun, but it doesn’t bring any new energy to the plot’s tired beats.

To me, it seems like Disney has decided to play it safe in the interest of maximizing profit. I wonder how people will react if the next film has another Starkiller Base or something similar, and the Resistance has to disable its force field in order for their fleet to finally defeat the First Order. If they team up with a bunch of cute woodland creatures, I might just lose it. I might go full Sargon of Akkad on their asses.

Seriously, though, I think the backlash could go nuclear if the next one proves to be just another remake. Those who have enjoyed the sequels so far will have enough time to digest them and see the parallels with the originals and may finally come to the conclusion that they’ve been had. Or maybe they’re right and I’m the asshole. Who knows?

I just wish they would’ve told a different kind of story. I wanted to see the New Republic try to re-establish democracy in the galaxy through a mixture of diplomacy and warfare. I think it would’ve been far more interesting watching the Rebels make the difficult transition from resistance group to government. Surely, they would’ve been riven by internal conflict and challenged by other power centers in the galaxy, some of which may have had a morally equal claim to legitimacy.

By choosing the remake route, Disney has denied us a more complex, rewarding story. Then again, that may not be the kind of tale that blockbusters are made of. But, more likely, it’s just too morally fraught for a transnational behemoth to take that big a chance on.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Way Out

Last week, I started a month-long temp job inspecting (mostly holiday-related) photo cards. It’s in Eagan, so it’s been taking me about 35 minutes to drive there. Luckily, they switched me to a 11:30-8pm shift this week, so the traffic isn’t as bad. Unluckily, the roads have been covered in ice, nearly doubling my travel time.

It’s an easy job. We just flip through stacks of cards, looking for flaws in the printing or cutting or resolution, for instance. The challenge is the repetitiveness, since some orders have hundreds of prints, and doing this for 8 (or more) hours a day can be mind-numbing.

Strangely, I haven’t yet been tempted to stick in my ear buds. At most of my jobs this is the first thing I do. It always seemed like the best way to take my mind off the work and shift my focus to matters I consider more important or more entertaining.

But now it feels like doing so would cloud my brain and make the job more difficult, even though this is one of the most mindless jobs I’ve ever had. I think I’ve finally come around to the idea of mindfulness and given up on multi-tasking. Intellectually, I’ve long seen the benefits of concentrating on one task at a time, but now I seem emotionally ready to embrace the practice.

I think the main difference is that I no longer have to drown out my personal demons. These aren’t shrieking horrors out of the realm of nightmares, just the nattering nabobs of negativity. I used to call them “couch potato demons.” Unlike the anxieties that supposedly drive certain people to greatness, my demons kept me on the couch, snacking and watching TV.

But, given time and nourishment, they grew into terrifying giants. I’d been avoiding them until they grew too large to avoid. I had to stop hiding and meet them head-on. Once I cut back on my behavior of “avoidance” (a term my third-to-last therapist introduced me to), I started down the road to recovery.

Eschewing the ear buds is just the latest step in my path toward engagement with Reality. Instead of trying to distract myself from the job, I’m willing to accept the fact that I’m working as a temp grunt. I no longer have to be ashamed, because I’m not worried (as much) about what other people think of me in terms of social status.

I finally believe the hokum I’ve been spouting all these years about how what really matters is who you are on the inside, not what you have, that love and kindness and charity are more important than material possessions and appearances. This is because I’ve taken another big step closer to fully living by those principles.

That big step was accepting my parents’ love and reconnecting with my nurturing side. At heart, I’m just a big Stuart Smalley. (Sorry about the timing of that reference.) But it’s taken about 25 years to throw off the shame that was heaped on that side of me in my youth.

It’s especially nice to be free of that shame at this job, because we get to look at pictures of cute kids and families looking happy. I’ve really been able to indulge that long-dormant “caring nurturer” side of me. (I should say that my “caring nurturer” side hasn’t been completely dormant, but it’s been mostly expressed toward friends and cats, and even then in an oft-reserved manner.)

This is the first time since I hit puberty that I’ve been able to express that warmth fully towards kids, without being worried that someone’s gonna make fun of me. I’ve finally forgiven them (that is, “Kids,” writ large) for making fun of me when I was a kid. (The actual kids who made fun of me are not yet totally forgiven. But they aren’t kids anymore, so what am I holding on to?)

The Old Me would’ve (inwardly) sneered at the cute kids and the happy families. Eventually, he would’ve despised the person who invented photography for (indirectly) forcing him to do this work. (According to Wikipedia, there were a few Western European male-types involved in the invention of photography.)

But now I can revel in the vicarious joy and cuteness of the pictures, because I’m finally happy and grateful for my family. I’m forced to marvel at those who are happy despite growing up in broken homes. That’s a level of mental health I haven’t yet achieved.

I still wonder if all these people in the photographs are as happy as they appear. I know what it’s like to put on a show for the cameras. I resented having to do that for family pictures. Surely, some of the people in these pics fall into that category, but so it goes. This isn’t a perfect world.

I check out the couples in the pics to see who got the better of the deal. I assume the more physically attractive person got the short end of the stick, but they could be a real basket case. You can’t really make that judgment without knowing them personally. But it’s still fun.

One piece of advice for holiday pix: Don’t hire a Santa to pose with your kids. No matter how jolly that Old St. Nick is, it’s still creepy. It may be a sad commentary on our times, but there’s just something disturbing about seeing a little girl whisper into an old man’s ear, especially when he’s wearing an expression of surprise.

I look at the kids in these pictures and wonder: Which of them are going to grow up to be total fucking assholes? Statistically speaking, some of them will. It’s just science. I wonder if I can tell just by looking at them. I doubt it. That would fly in the face of years of experience. I’ve been obsessed with appearances for decades, and this is where it’s gotten me.

It turns out that most people who order fancy holiday photo cards have physically attractive families, or so this job has led me to believe. That, combined with the super-happy shots of kids frolicking and parents looking on lovingly, makes me wonder if these people are real.

There was also the card featuring the Soap Opera Family, a group of people who looked just like characters from an early-90’s soap, right down to the older gentleman with the white goatee. They made the Kardashians look subtle. I didn’t really think those people existed, except on TV.

I should thank the company employing me, and the temp agency that arranged it, for allowing me this time to write. On my first day, I came down with a cold. It wasn’t bad, but I really would’ve liked to stay home and recover and not infect all the people around me.

I didn’t think that was an option because I’d just started the job and it was my first assignment with this agency, so I kept going and spreading my germs. I cursed Capitalism for forcing me into this situation. Instead of just letting me stay home and rest, it was making me spread my contagion.

I finally called in sick on Wednesday, in the hope that one more day off (I worked Sunday.) would help me get over the cold. It wasn’t quite enough, so I called yesterday and told them I’d have to quit because it would take a while to get over this. The lady at the agency asked if I could just take the rest of the week off and come back Monday. I said, “Sure,” amazed that was acceptable to them.

So here I am, recounting the travails of a 40-year-old temp. I may not be where I wanna be, but, as someone (Robert Frost, apparently) once said, “The only way out is through.” I’ve already made it through the minefield of my own brain. Compared to that, the rest of the journey should be a cakewalk.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Street Scenes

Yesterday I was sitting in my (parents’) car at a stoplight on University a few blocks south of Broadway. A line of cars was crossing the intersection from my left. Just before the last one entered the intersection, a young black man on a bicycle (poppin’ a wheelie the whole time) crossed in front of the car. (It was an SUV or something like that.) The SUV screeched to a stop and the guy on the bike kept going, laughing like a hyena.

My immediate, vocal reaction was, “Whoa, he shoulda fuckin’ run that guy over.” Not a great thing to say, even to oneself, but that’s how pissed off I was. The SUV driver just saved his life, and he’s laughin’ his damn fool head off. Maybe he enjoys the adrenaline rush, because he clearly saw the SUV coming.

In the evening, I nearly got run over while using a crosswalk in Cedar-Riverside. As the car approached me, I put up my hands, hopped mostly out of the way and said, “Whoa, whoa!” The middle-aged lady at the wheel didn’t react much. I think she was embarrassed and ashamed, but maybe I’m just projecting, because that would be my reaction. I’m just glad I responded as quickly and forcefully as I did. It’s taken a long time to undo the middle school conditioning of pretending like nothing bothers me.

It made me sad to think the guy on the bike apparently places such little value on his own life. But I was still mad at him. That kind of behavior makes those of us who care feel like suckers. It’s like the panhandler conundrum: to give or not to give (a fuck). I googled it and found a The New York Times editorial citing Pope Francis’s advice.

He recommends giving, even if they use the money for alcohol. (Street drugs don’t seem to exist in the Pope’s world.) Whatever they buy, it will make them happy. He also says you must look them in the eye and touch their hands. That sounds good, but the money still presents a dilemma. If they use it to buy drugs and then die of an overdose, what then? Don’t you bear some responsibility for that?

Last week I got panhandled by a black guy outside Calhoun Square. (As Uptown has continued to gentrify, the number of panhandlers seems to have risen.) I looked him in the eye (like I usually do) and said, “Sorry.” He didn’t hear me, so I repeated it, just before opening a door to the mall. He acknowledged it and then added something like, “Ya don’t hafta frown at me just cuz I’m black.”

I turned around and glared at him for a moment as he walked away. “Yeah, thanks for callin’ me a fuckin’ racist,” I thought. “I’m sure black people just love gettin’ panhandled.” I know he was lashing out from despair, but it still sucked. There we were, sniping at each other, while the Fat Cats looked down from their penthouses and laughed.