Thursday, October 03, 2013

the article that wouldn't die recap/decap

So I have (once again) finished the Paper That Wouldn't Die. This time, I'm pretty sure it will be the last time I return to academic writing...although it occurs to me I probably thought that last time around as well.  I can't say I enjoyed it, but I did learn (or was at least reminded of) a lot about both myself and the process in general...and the news, my friends, is mostly just weird.
  •  Location matters.  I tend to take Tuesday nights off from all other obligations, go to my favorite bar, grab a table in the back, and just write.  Usually, I do pretty good.  This Thursday, though, I was writing that damn article there, and I was struggling mightily. I kept getting bound up in distractions...more so than normal.  It didn't help that three people with the loudest voices in history sat at the back of the bar and chatted (i.e, yelled at each other) the whole night.
  • Writing scholarship is slow...and when I say slow, it is glacial.  During three hours of writing at the bar, I finished three paragraphs and had vague plans for the rest of the afterward.  Keep in mind that I had a rough outline and all the research done already, and you see what I mean by slow.  The weird thing is, when I told my good friend/the pinhead who got me into this in the first place how much I accomplished, he said (quite genuinely, I might add) "but that's good...that's really fast."
  • When one starts writing, one begins to take a real interest in everything except the actual article being written.  Today, for instance, I found myself making an increasingly elaborate lunch.  Why?  Because it was more interesting than going back to the computer.
  • When I write, I am pathologically looking for distraction.  When I was two sentences away from finally putting the article to bed, I found myself on Twitter...then on Facebook...then on Digg Reader.  And when I say two sentences, I mean I already knew what I was gonna write.  I was just more interested in doing things other than writing them.
  • Academic writing is essentially a land where feedback is deferred...that is, if it exists in the first place.  I wrote an article on the TV show House, M.D. which was published in 2010, and to this point, it's only been cited three times (and two of those are in some other language, so I have no idea what they thought of my piece).  Other articles I've written have received no feedback at all. I've gotten too used to getting some kind of reaction from my creative endeavors to go back to a writing genre where one might have to wait years to get reader opinions.
I was surprised to find out just how good I was at the game, though.  The bones of the article were, I can say with several years of distance, pretty damn good.  And I found myself able to slip back into writing mode fairly quickly, with all of my old skills only barely diminished.

However. I am also certain that, without said work ever yielding tangible benefits, I will never do this again.  I get a certain amount of thrill in seeing my ideas to be both valid and somewhat innovative.  I get a certain amount of thrill from being able to write them down with pretty good results.  However, none of this is really worth continuing in light of it being irrelevant to my job/career/identity.  Do I want to do more research, or do I want to write a song? Do I want to write another article, or do I want to play with my daughter?

Barring someone just straight out giving me an endowed chair of something professorship, the decision just really ain't that hard.


Tuesday, October 01, 2013

bringing back a ghost

Remember the paper that wouldn't die?  Well, after its birth, I thought I killed it several times...then nobody wanted the remains...then I pretty much abandoned it in the woods to rot.

Well?  It's back...and I blame friendship.

I want to be perfectly honest here.  I spent the last three years trying to come to terms with the fact that I would never really be a scholar.  It took much introspection, much love from my family, much support of my friends...and a prescription of antidepressants.  But finally, I quit looking at myself as an academic, and the desire to sit and do scholarship slowly drained away from me.

And that, quite simply, is where I am.  I'm happy to no longer have to think about scholarship.  Oh, I refer to my writing when I teach comp, but I don't tell them the truth:  that I'm one of those teachers who is now talking in esoteric, unconnected terms, as I don't do the same kind of writing which I'm teaching.  And thinking about writing, about the writing process, all that is really just like an old stand-up routine to me.  I can pull it out at a moment's notice, run it through its paces, make it come alive for an audience...but it's no longer anything with which I have any connection.

But then there's this friend.  My friend lives in Europe.  He desperately wants to come back to the United States to teach, but the job market has kicked him several times.  I desperately want him to come back.  He's my best friend, and it's really weird to only be able to talk via video chat, with an eight hour delay between us.  And to do get him back here, we have to make him an exceptional candidate...which, as he's already the smartest person I've ever met, means padding the resume.

He ran an academic conference this year...and, thanks to video chat technology, made it an international conference (which, he was told, was the first time that had ever happened in his country).  He desperately wanted me to participate, but I had to turn him down.  I was getting swamped with work and fatherhood, and so I didn't have time to retrain my mind to think like an academic.  Furthermore, I had absolutely nothing underway.

The conference was, despite my non-involvement, a rousing success...so much so, that my friend is now putting together an anthology of the conference.  And even though I did not present at said conference, he really wants to publish...the paper that wouldn't die. And so, even though I would rather eat a raw rutabaga than do scholarship, I have agreed to give him the paper.  The only problem is that the paper is now really out of date.  If I was doing this honestly, I would probably revise the whole thing, but I refuse to get that much into scholarship.  So, my compromise solution is to do minor revision and add an afterward.

Today is my big writing day.  So, I went looking for my copy of the article which I reviewed and carefully marked a few weeks ago.  Nowhere to be found, of course...so now I'm back to starting from scratch.  I've got a bottle of Mexican Coke and a farmer's market apple.  I'm as ready as I will ever be.

You and me, paper? Let's do this.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

rock and family

Rock and roll can bring families together.

After years of failing to be a guitar player in a band, I found myself, one whirlwind weekend about four years ago, in a band.  Then we played out, and I became a performing musician. We played shows for a while before (almost as the punch line to a song) the drummer moved away and the band broke up. Then I joined another band, suffered through a lineup change which ultimately improved everything, recorded and released an album, and has played out of town gigs. Then I started a solo career. Eventually, I will scam some musicians into helping record my own solo project. In addition to all this, I now even have a side project.

Playing music has always been a release for me.  When I started playing in bands, it became deeper than just releasing tension.  Playing out was even better.  When I started doing solo shows, I began to be able to articulate what music did for me:  it made me calm, gave me confidence, minimized my mental issues, and made me feel more complete, both as a person and as an artist.

Today, I discovered another added benefit.

I was starting to get my stuff together for side project practice, when my daughter came up to me and asked (as only she could) "Wanna play?"  I gently explained to her that while I would love to play, I had band practice and had to go play rock and roll.  She looked at me and almost pleadingly said "I wanna go rock and roll with you ."

Rock and roll might not be able to save the world, but it definitely can melt your heart

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

on past lives

If the terribly clich├ęd quote "Just when I thought I was out, they keep dragging me back in" was ever relevant in my life, it seems that it is more so now than ever.

My biggest challenge over the last three years has been to accept that I am never going to be a scholar in any meaningful (and certainly not in any professional) way.  I have had to realize that writing and publishing papers is never going to be my vocation.  This was particularly tough, as I had thought of myself since at least 1994 as first an academic-in-training and then as an academic proper.  It was who I thought I was. It was who I wanted to be. 

I sacrificed so much for this dream:  a comfortable life, a career, a personal life, friends, free time,  my dreams of being a musician, a writer, a normal person. Yeah, I know...it sounds like I'm being melodramatic, but really, to get as far as I did--specifically because I came from a no-name college and made it through a doctoral program--I pretty much had to lock myself to my computer desk so I could research and write. I read everything I could, teaching myself most critical theories from scratch.  My summers were writing for well over a decade.  Hell, when I was set up on a blind date with the wonderful woman who would eventually marry me and become the mother to my daughter, I tried to beg off because I had work to do

But eventually, I came to accept the major change in my life...into another life, really. After several years, anti-depressants, a cathartic music career, and much self-guided therapy, I finally accepted not becoming an academic.  Gradually, my interest in my past life faded. Now?  Honestly, my lack of faith in a future for academics is only surpassed by my lack of really caring.  I really never think about scholarship. While ideas still keep me up at night, they are decidedly not academic.  I would rather think about my daughter, my wife, my solo career, my band, my mandolin, whatever the last book I read happened to be (yes! I read for fun again!). Anything but arguments where no one will hear my voice, my contribution.

So what have I been doing lately instead of blogging? Reviewing book proposals. Rewriting a paper. Generally having to exercise the parts of my brain that I quite happily have abandoned.

The worst part? Realizing that the frequently-mentioned Paper That Wouldn't Die was actually pretty good...and so was I at this academic game. Ah well...that as a lifetime ago.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

on being a functional academic

(written Tuesday, 8/20)

The semester started today.  Way back when I thought I had enough of a future to think in terms such as "career," I would always describe this time of the year in the language of addicts.

Let's not kid ourselves.  There is definitely a sense in which academics and teaching are very similar to drug use. When a class goes really, really well, there is a definite rush during the "student eyes pop open in greater understanding" period--and the rush does last quite a while after class is over.  The word "intoxicating," while being definitely cliche, is still very much appropriate.  Of course, this is not a constantly attainable high.  Teaching is quite often merely pedestrian, often sad, disheartening.  This to fits the metaphor.  We teachers are all chasing the perfect buzz.

As a graduate assistant, I chased the buzz quite regularly for three and a half years.  Of course, my hit to miss ratio was not that astounding...I was way too inexperienced to nail the teaching thing with any regularity.  Yet the highs were all totally new, totally fresh.  As a result, they were that much more powerful, that much more evocative...amplified by their relative scarcity.

This is probably why the summers were always a bit of a mixed blessing for me.  Actually getting free time?  Awesome.  Not getting paid?  Much less so.  Most of your friends moving away just compounded any disappointment. The biggest issue, though, was the summer started with burnout recovery from the end of the semester, exams, students begging for grades they did not earn, and the accompanying rush of trying to get my own coursework done.  By the end of the summer, though, I was legitimately looking forward to getting back in the classroom for enlightenment, for the performance, for all of this and more, yes...but mostly for the buzz.

Then there was the year and a half where I found myself in a series of research assistantships.  Then I realized this was deeper...as I didn't just miss teaching but seriously craved it.  When this period ended and I found myself back in the classroom, I slowly was able to work my hit percentage upward.  I found out, after slaking off the rust & learning how to teach these brand new to me disciplines, that I was actually getting pretty good at it.  Slowly, I started moving from being an addict to being...a professional.

As I said earlier, the semester started today.  I was not jonesing for it.  In many ways, I was quite willing to never go in again...if only my wife wasn't strangely resistant to becoming a university president and thus becoming my sugar momma.  Don't get me wrong.  I still get excited about teaching. I still get the rush when things really hit.  Yet I no longer long for it.

How did this happen?  Well, a lot of things came to pass.  Adjuncting beat a lot out of me.  The sheer crushing weight of a full load of composition grading did its work as well...particularly when leaving long grading bouts in my office, heading to the car via the tenure-track faculty offices, and realizing they had left hours before my own personal grading frenzy ended.  The biggest influence, I guess, was finally accepting the perspective I could gain from my wife...and then having my world exploded and reinvented by my daughter.

So, no, I don't "need" teaching in the same way as I did in the past.  This is because I'm much more comfortable in myself as a person.  I don't really need anything else to complete me...definitely not teaching.  And let me tell you, that's a very good place to be.

That doesn't mean, however, that I can't still have some seriously weird and fun experiences, such as getting to share with one of my classes website

Thursday, August 08, 2013

writing humor: on repetition

If I've said it before, I've said it 1,238,647 times--repetition is a vital element in humor.

I will even go one further and say it is in fact essential.  Repetition--mixed with a tasteful amount of variation--is key to creating narrative. Repetition brings both familiarity and jumping-on points for listeners/readers/whatever.  And it adds to the general comedic effect. Regardless of what some people may claim, if you repeat something often enough, anything can become funny...or funnier.

General repetition provides possibilities for improvisation, for exploration.  One classic examples is Bugs Bunny's catch phrase "what's up, doc?" On its own, it was maybe slightly funny for its incongruity (coming from a rabbit and all)...at least during its first few utterances. With repetition, though, it becomes a trademark. Its value is not, after countless repetition, due to any essential humor contained therein. But "what's up, doc?" sets up the viewer for Bugs Bunny's patented style of hijinks. As such, it gains a certain amount of funniness via association with Bugs Bunny, with the context of forthcoming laughs.

Yet it also provides an opportunity for riffing. In the classic 1946 "Hair-Raising Hare," Bugs is being chased by a giant, scary monster.  He's scared, he's breathless, and generally out of control.  But then:




This chance to use the oft-repeated phrase "what's up, doc?" allows Bugs to calm down, to munch on a carrot, and generally regain his confidence.  For Bugs, it's an incantation as much as anything else.  For us, though, it is humor from repetition. The cartoon introduces the familiar (and not for the first time) yet modifies it enough to subvert our expectations...which produces humor. This entire bit, in other words, is set up by the regular repetition of "what's up, doc?"

Repetition sets up expectations in the audience which can then be subverted by the text . Whenever one uses repetition, it establishes in the audience an image, a trademark, an expectation. These are all perfect fodder, perfect prompts for comedy...or, for that matter, drama, insight, whatever.

I remember once (decades ago) seeing Jay Leno on David Letterman's show. Leno (who was a much better stand up than tv host) was on a rant which led into the old (ancient, prehistoric) joke about how nowadays in college dorms, you could have sex, you could have drugs, but you still can't have a hot plate.  It was awesome...not because the joke is funny in and of itself (let's face it:  the joke stunk when new) but because the joke had been repeated so often (run through the wood chipper, actually) that it became funny again as an anachronism.

Then there is Bugs Bunny's repeated use of "what's up, doc?"  While this was incongruous enough to be funny the first time, as he continued to repeat it, it transformed into a crutch to set up other humor. Sometimes, it became a great line to be recontextualized and played with, such as in 1946's "Hair Raising Hare."

One of the more classic Monty Python sketches was "The Spanish Inquisition"...which was repetition and variation throughout the night, repeated and repeated, expanded, played with, and eventually ending the program in an aborted version.




Yeah, a lot of the humor here is from the general incongruity, but each repetition keeps you on the edge of your seats, thinking "where will they go with it this time?"

Another example of repetition setting up improvisation is in the 1946 Bugs Bunny cartoon "Hair-Raising Hare."  Here, every single past repetition of Bugs's famous catch phrase "what's up, doc?" becomes the backdrop allowing this particular story to use the line as a jumping-off point for new comedy.

One example of repetition which doesn't get nearly enough recognition is Saturday Night Live's amazing coverage of the assassination of Buckwheat (and then of the assassination of Buckwheat's assassin).



The repetition allows SNL to perfectly rail against news coverage's own reliance on repetition in the absence of new facts and ideas all the way back in 1983...long before The Daily Show existed.

And then...hey, have I told you about how Bugs Bunny uses repetition?

The most important--and undoubtedly the most essential--feature of repetition in humor (and in writing in general) is narrative. Quite often, I am lucky enough to get pieces come in to my mind with a pretty good structure.  More often, however, I look back on my rough drafts and see a bunch of random observations nailed together with beer and ink. You've seen this phenomenon a lot in many venues, but it shows up quite frequently in stand up comedy.  Lots of comedians have jokes.  Sometimes, though, they seem to follow a Zapp Brannigan-esque approach: "say as many of them as possible, as quickly as possible."  The problem, however, is that jokes are not the same thing as an act...any more than a series of observations, gags, and one-off lines (such as Bugs Bunny's "what's up, doc?) is a coherent story.

Repetition, though, can add cohesiveness.  Hit on a neat idea somewhere in your piece?  During rewrites, it can become an element in the title.  It gets mentioned a couple times in passing.  And then, when you're specifically looking for a narrative conclusion, you work your way back to the original point.  This became really clear to me after reading WWDN, but you can probably think of a million other examples at this point.

Oh, and have I mentioned Bugs Bunny yet? Just checking, because sometimes, repeating something over and over and over and over can work as a complete and utter substitute for narration. Don't believe me?  Then would you believe you're already at the end of this piece?

Friday, August 02, 2013

anatomy of a solo performance

It's half an hour before I have to leave, about an hour before I start to play. I'm putting together my binder of lyrics, and I notice my hands are shaking. For this moment, it doesn't matter that I am firmly used to being in front of crowds. Nor does it matter I've been playing guitar for twenty eight-plus years. I have to admit to myself, if no one else:  I am downright scared.

I know my material. For that matter, I know I have more than enough songs:  ten originals, at least eighty five covers.  I have played music for ages, and there are songs I will play tonight which I have been playing for a quarter of a century.  I should be certain, sure, solid, confident. Instead, I am afraid, and none of my knowledge helps the fear.

I eat some chocolate, hoping it will give my blood sugar wave a boost to drown my nerves, but it only leaves a bitter cocoa taste in my dry mouth. So I concentrate on my task...then I concentrate on packing...then I concentrate on trying to be sociable to my wife and father, who drive me to and will watch the show.

When we get to the Irish pub where I will perform for a full three hours, I grab my stuff, enter the bar, notice no one bothered to hang one of my flyers, head to the bar side of the pub, and make a beeline for the stage (which is in reality only a small triangle in the corner opposite the skee ball game, about five feet at its widest part) The soundman is unwrapping tangled cables (a task which occupies 87% of anyone in the music "businesses"'s time). I've known this gentleman for several years. He ran sound at my first gig ever. He's a nice guy, so even if I didn't have to rely on him for gigs, I would be nice and sociable.  Luckily, he seems to like me.

We exchange pleasantries for a few minutes while I unpack.  I head to the bar to get some drinks and introduce myself to the bartender.  While it's a general rule to be nice to bartenders if you want to get your drinks in a timely fashion, it's especially smart to be extra friendly if you're performing. If the bartender thinks you're a jerk, there's going to be very little chance of you getting invited for a return show.  I grab my beers and head back to the stage for the sound check.  I try to always be very easy going in these.  I'm always amazed at how many musicians become Stalin-esque in their demands to the soundman. In addition to making you look rude and pretentious to the crowd in general, it also tends to tick off the soundman.  People running sound hold way too much of a musician's fortunes in their hands. Yet some people seem to want to simply annoy and piss off those in charge of getting the PA to work and making them sound good. Me, I want them to like me.

I've timed it tonight just right, so I have no time to wander or get even more nervous before I start. As soon as the soundman gets my levels right, he heads to the bar to turn off the house sound. I look around at the crowd.  There's a lot of people in the bar, but the only people I know at this point are my wife and my dad.  The crowd seems older.  I have no idea by looking at them if they're even going to care that someone's playing music.

It's time to start, and my nerves have done nothing to settle, so I start off with the easy, the I-could-play-this-in-my-sleep songs.  This means that for the first twenty seven minutes or so, I sound more than a little like a minimalist classic rock radio station, particularly after opening with an Eagles song.  As the crowd is on the older side, "Lying Eyes" should be a great fit, but save my wife and father, no one really seems to care or is even listening to the music...and for the first few songs, the only applause I get is from the people I brought with me.

This, of course, doesn't help settle the nerves.  To top off matters, I tend to sweat when I play. I mean sweat a lot. So by the start of song two, my shirt is already soaked with sweat.  I jump into a Uriah Heep number, and I see one member of the bar staff who I sort of know smile a bit. I'm over-thinking everything at this point, but it does really help when I earn perceived coolness points in someone's eyes...so I start to relax a little.

In between verses, I steal glances at my song list, trying to figure out what to play next...and of course, sweat drips directly into my eyes.  Through the stinging, though, I see a few more friends filter in. I remind myself to talk to them during my first break and thank them for showing up...but of course, there are a few people to whom I don't get to say more than three words. It's a failure on my part, but it's an unavoidable one.

About eight or nine songs into the set, most of my nerves have dropped out.  I run out of beer and make a plea for another, but everyone thinks I'm joking. I notice a couple I know at the bar:  a former professor and a former boss. I've already started my next song, so I give them a knowing nod. I'm finally relaxed enough to pull in an original song (albeit a very easy one called "A Song About Drinking").  I stay on safe ground for the rest of the set, even though I've finally started to loosen up and have fun.

About an hour in, I take my first ten minute break. I have to say quick "hello"s to a few people on my mad run to the bathroom. On my way back, I prioritize and  talk to my former professor and former boss for five minutes, as they're the ones I haven't seen for the longest amount of time.  I get a couple of drinks, quickly say hi to a few others, and get back to the stage. As I jump into the second set, I realize I forgot to changed out of my sweat-through Piggly Wiggly shirt.

I start set two pretty loose, able to funnel any residual nervous energy into the songs. Whereas my vocals were tight and nervous in the beginning, I now feel free to let it rip (that is, at least as much as my limited range will allow).  I get more adventuresome in my song choices and am much more willing to be silly;  my somber cover of Huey Lewis & the News's "Walking on a Thin Line" is case one.  I think it's a hilarious re-framing of a pretty cool pop song. What strikes me as more funny, though, is seeing my friends's faces as they realize they know the song but cannot for the life of them figure out who did it orignally...which tells me I scored.

Quickly into set two, I break out my kazoo.  One thing I have figured out from watching and doing solo sets is that, regardless of how good one might be, sooner or later the sound of an acoustic and single vocal gets to be sonically dull. So it's a good idea to add textures to the aural palate. I'll frequently throw a tambourine on my leg and kick in rhythm. Of course, the standard solo artist's accompaniment is the harmonica, but I never learned how to play one...so I got a kazoo instead. It's a nice one, hand-made out of wood. I do ape harmonica parts, but I also try to get more adventuresome with it such as when I copy the guitar solo in Motley Crue's "Home Sweet Home." It changes up the tonal landscape of the performance...and, at the very least, is a little funny." Eventually, I plan to add both hi-hat and mandolin to the repertoire.

Some of my friends I didn't really get a chance to talk to during break one unfortunately leave during set two.  The bar crowd also starts to thin, but several other friends show up.  I'm now feeling pretty good.  One of the remaining bar crowd asks for the standard live music cliche "Freebird." I warn him I actually know it, will actually play it, and will even do the solo to the live version...on my kazoo, no less.  I do the verses in a pseudo-reggae style and play the solo straight...as straight as one can do on a kazoo.  Unfortunately , my lungs give out before anyone begs for mercy or bribes me to stop.  I also attempt the falsetto background vocals on Thompson Twin's "Hold Me Now" to intentional bad effect, eliciting a certain amount of laughter...which pleases me greatly.

I chat with friends during break two.  The bartender assures me she will be on alert for my tortured "I need beer" wail, so I don't need to stock up on adult beverages.  I take to the stage and rip into set three, getting stranger and stranger in my cover song selection while incorporating more originals into the mix. One of my friends (a big fan of my band) is seeing me play solo for the first time, so I do my only repeat song of the night. I play "Little Sister" for the second time, and because she's a monster Elvis fan, I put special emphasis on the "haw"s.

Eventually, I check my phone and discover that, where time was crawling during set one, it is flying during set three, and I only have four minutes left.  I decide to end the night with a brand new,never played in public original I wrote about my daughter.  I apologize in advance for it, because it starts with finger-picking...and I am horrible at finger-picking.  Somehow, though, I get through that part with utterly no issues. I mess up some of the chord changes, but as no one has ever heard the song before, my mistakes aren't noticeable...so I'm okay with them.

The soundman/booker is long gone, so I can't thank him...which is generally my first post-gig move.  I talk to my former prof and boss, and they are both very effluvient in their praise...and I get the impression they are actually impressed beyond the "hey, you did good for a friend" level. My wife and father are similarly honestly-sounding complementary.

This will all probably make me feel really good eventually, but after I play, I'm really not in the mental position to process praise....particularly from people I know. I am pretty happy I only made one or two noticeable errors. I am admittedly not thrilled with my nerve-wracked first thirty minutes...my voice was weak and unassured.  It was, though, only the second time I did the three hour show, and it is undoubtedly demanding.  But I feel the pre-show nerves will decrease once I get more of these under my belt.  Right now, though, my voice is close to burnt-out and my fingertips hurt. The main casualty, though, is my brain...I am utterly mentally fried.

Yet it was indescribably nice to see my friends who came out to see me.  It was especially lovely to see my wife and father enjoying themselves. I utterly love seeing my friends puzzle over the Huey Lewis number,giggle of the Thompson Twins background vocals, smirk whenever I played kazoo, crack up over the "Freebird" solo, and generally have fun on a night where I was the entertainment. My wife liked hearing me.  My father got my Townes Van Zandt number. My former professor and boss loved my kazooing. My Elvis fan friend liked my "Little Sister" cover.

After packing up my equipment, I went to thank and tip the bartender.  I got two more beers and a nice Scotch to finish out my "performer" bar tab.  The bar manager thanked me before I could thank him and then, more importantly, paid me. I went to my friends's table and was thrilled to find out dad liked my drummer. We chatted, drank, and enjoyed ourselves.Eventually, we sound out we were done, and I hauled my stuff out to the car, but on the way out, I hunted down the manager to shake his hand one more time.

From that point onward, it was just a desperate hunt for the elusive french fry on the way home, and a brief pre-goodnight chat with my mom before crawling into the bed next to my lovely wife and sleeping the sleep of the just.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

writing humor: a prologue

An old friend of mine once told me that if my sense of humor was any drier, it would be Death Valley.  I suppose there is some truth to that.  Mostly, it comes from trying to always apply a different perspective to any and everything...something I was doing long before it became required by my academic training.  For some reason, I always looked at the world from a skewed perspective...and this most clearly manifest itself in my (attempts at) humor.

Humor was never a defense mechanism, a weapon, or a tool to use to set myself apart.  I certainly never thought of it as a vocation;  when a former colleague once told me I should do stand-up, the idea struck me as just plain wrong.  I had no earthly idea how to turn my humor from contextual to performative.  Hell, I barely had an idea my humor was contextual...which is a sign of to how little scrutiny I held it.

I didn't begin to analyze my humor until a friend got a radio show and decided to make it a "talk" show.  Now, two hours is a hell of a lot of time to fill, so he invited a bunch of his friends to contribute.  I became one of them.  After desperately trying to bluff my way through college sports commentary (I still don't follow anything other than pro football, so my ignorance and inexperience was more than obvious), my role in the talk radio show menagerie become three-fold:
  1. to be weird comic relief, usually in taking conversations in directions no sane person would dare tread.
  2. to do my Richard Nixon impersonation for a friend's segment, where he played Satan offering his perspective on events of the day and I, as Nixon, was the dark lord's sidekick.
  3. to contribute my own segment, which was a weekly top ten list of psychotic observations on weird topics, such as "What would a Victoria's Secret-esque store for male consumers be like?"
The top ten lists were the first time I sat down and tried to write serious comedy.  I had no idea how hard it was or how time consuming it would be.  A fifteen minute segment would take me four or five hours to get down.  I worked like hell to make them as solid and well-constructed as possible.  And I learned an awful lot about writing in general.  I still apply scores of lessons I learned from these top ten lists to my writing in any number of venues.

Now, at the risk of offending any actual comedians or comedy scholars (I know one, but I don't think he reads this), I plan, as a recurring feature here, to start offering my own observations and lessons from my time writing humor.  Yeah, I know most of y'all aren't active comedians or humorists, but I firmly believe there are a lot of insights to be had which can be applied to any number of other fields and occasions.  After all, comedy is, at its heart, inevitably tied to the world at large, as well as to tragedy, to philosophy, to romance, to....well, pretty much anything you can imagine...so I hope you find connections where these to be useful.  I will also be happy if they provoke commentary or debate.  But at the end, if you merely find these to be slightly amusing?  Well, I'll take it.

Possible future topics include:
  • the role of repetition, or, if you keep telling a bad joke over and over, does it ever become funny?
  • why random numbers should always end with "seven," because, out of all the integers, it is hands-down the funniest (although "three" is gaining daily).
  • language, or why absolutely anyone ought to always employ alliteration.
  • who, if anyone, should be the butt of your jokes (if, that is, you're not constantly singling out a deserving victim like Nathan Crook).
  • why "how black people are different than white people" (or any of the 37 permutations of such "jokes") is an inferior form of humor, and how anyone employing such strategies should be drawn and quartered by massive teams of feral hamsters.
  • what's the ideal pet:  a miniature hedgehog, a capybara, or a baby sloth, and what (if anything) this has to do with the subject at hand.
  • what the hell is the point of it all?  Not from a teleological or theological perspective, but from a narrative perspective.
Bet ya can't wait, eh?

cream and context

(written 7/16)

Before hitting the bar, I decided to take my family out for ice cream and ended up getting, in addition to our mini-buckeye sundaes, a lesson in context.

As I walked towards my family while carrying our frozen treats, I saw, at the next picnic tables, one of my favorite former bartenders eating ice cream with her family.  Now, I've lived in a small town long enough to be used to such encounters. For the most part, there is usually a twinge of two things colliding:  an implosion of context and an awareness of the multi-faceted nature of personal life.

My mind, of course, immediately went to seeing the bartender tending (what else?) bar.  I liked her a lot for her attitude.  She is small and not incredibly imposing in looks, but, while on duty, she suffered no fools.  I remember coming in with an undergrad friend who tried to order some undergraduate swill (most likely a Natty Light).  Instead of bringing him one, the bartender brow-beat him into ordering something better.  I remember one time deciding to branch out from my ten-plus year usual.  She stared at me blankly for about three minutes, refusing to serve me, acknowledge my request, or do anything until I meekly backed down.

I used to get thrown when running into someone in a completely different context.  I'd like to think I've overcome my preconceptions, though, and now just revel in the joy of seeing another side to someone in my life.  This time, there was at least tangible progress on my part.  I made no jokes about asking her for a beer.  Nor did she, upon seeing this drunk blowing bubbles for and then chasing his daughter around picnic tables, make any comment about my beer choices.

So we got that going for us.

raising a little villainy

It's often the small things in life which bring the most joy.  Sometimes it's the most damn strange things. If one is very, very lucky indeed, the two might team up to present something wonderful.

When my parents were up a little while ago, I showed them the film Despicable Me, because, well, it's awesome.  My daughter would not sleep that night, partially because her grandparents were in and partially because she had a cold (however, in the quest for honesty, I should say she generally looks for any reason whatsoever to not sleep).  When she saw the movie, she was enchanted.  She particularly was fascinated by the minions...as am I. Seriously, how can you not love them?

As luck (or sequel marketing) would have it, the current Happy Meal toy is an assortment of minions. In fact the arrival of the cool minion toys coincided with the restaurant's Monopoly game. It's the perfect storm of crass marketing for weak-willed, addicted twerps such as myself.  So I got Monopoly game pieces, while my daughter gets minions.

For me, this isn't the best deal. I've only won the crappy free McFlurries and consumed too many empty calories (which I'm firmly aware I do not need).  Sylvia, on the other hand, now has a nice collection of minions.

Let that sentence roll around your head for a minute:  "My daughter has a following of minions." It's truly awesome.  I personally have always wanted my own minions (and no, my students do not fit the role;  they are nowhere near loyal enough).  Hell, I'd be happy to even have a henchman.  Or even a graduate assistant.  Alas, I have none of these...so I don't even really have a need for my secret lair. 

My daughter, on the other hand, already has minions...and she's just a little over two. It's quite awesome to see her running around the house, asking "where are my minions?," or hauling a few around with her, saying "come on, minions." It warms the heart, it does.

To be honest, though, I do worry a little bit that she'll get used to having minions, try to make it a life-long condition, and become a super villain.  I hope not.  I will, however, support her in her endeavors no matter what she decides to be...just as long as she doesn't get a Ph.D. in the humanities...

Thursday, July 18, 2013

love and alcohol

(written 7/16)

My regular bar has what can only be called character.  There is graffiti pretty much everywhere, and if the wait staff catches you trying to carve your name into a table, they are more likely to critique your technique than get angry.  The bathrooms are...interesting to say the least.  One  of them, when the bar is packed on weekends, is predominantly used by law-breakers.  This bathroom is affectionately called "the stoner's bathroom."

My old band's sticker is still on the door to the stoner's bathroom.  This makes me feel more proud than it should.  Amongst the various entries on the stoner bathroom's wall of graffiti) is some scribbling from an English friend.  He went to my college, and even though he's went back to the Old Country, every few years, he will show up without warning at the bar.  Usually, we skip over the "what in the hell are you doing here" part of the conversation and simply pick up whatever discussion of which we were in the midst when he last left this fair land several years prior.

This night, as I return to my table, a song from some friends' band comes on random play.  I take a seat, sip my drink, write a few words, and raise my head to see the bartender riding past on a bicycle.  We are, mind you, still indoors.  Yet this still doesn't surprise me nearly as much as when I later hear her talking about white wine spritzers.

Do you still need to know why I love this place?

Monday, July 08, 2013

The Inspired Drunk

It was pointed out to me last night that it had been a while since I blogged about making a new cocktail.  Inspiration can come in many forms...and sometimes I even take requests! So let me introduce you to The Inspired Drunk:
  • Throw some ice into a pint glass...preferably one with a cool design...or one stolen from a local bar.
  • Add one measure of rum and think of the islands...and how glad you're not in those malarial hell-holes.
  • Add a half measure of strawberry liqueur...or crush a handful of berries from the farmer's market into the glass and up the rum content.
  • Pour to the top with a good root beer. This drink demands IBC or better...because you're worth it, damn it.  Okay, maybe you aren't, but I sure am.
  • Stir, sit back, and enjoy while watching some high class, sophisticated, cultured, and educational television program such as Naked and Afraid. After all, the point of television is to laugh at weirdos, right?

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

big bang boom

One of the fringe benefits of our new apartment is it's really close to all of the BGSU sports arenas.  I've hardly ever gone to any of the sporting events (1 football game, three hockey games since '98), but it's always nice to have the option.  Tonight, though, we found another way this works for us...and it involves explosions.

This year, the city had its 4th of July fireworks display tonight.  Yes, it's the 3rd.  No, I don't get it either.

The name of our complex is Stadium View.  We don't actually have a view of the stadium, but the name stays nevertheless.  And since the stadium is where the fireworks get launched, we knew we wouldn't have to go far if we decided to watch them.

Luckily, though, we didn't have to go far.  While the trees blocked a certain percentage of the display, we were able to see most of the explosions from our balcony.  We went out and took our daughter.  She was the explosions, looked up at us, and then said "going inside."

My wife and I stayed, though, with her doing the obligatory "ooos" and "ahhhs."  My daughter kept coming back out...I'm not sure if the fireworks became exciting to her or if she just didn't want to be by herself, but she stayed longer and longer, eventually copying her mom's "ooos" and "ahhs"...which was as cute as you'd imagine.

So the night was fun.  Now, of course, we get the added benefit of being close to the stadium.  Soon the toxic cloud of smoke will be upon us!  Weee!

What the hell...when we're celebrating America's independence from the British by lighting Chinese firecrackers, there's only a certain amount of sense to be had.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Carolina on my mind

You have seen me write about growing up in Florida many times.  And it is true most of my formative years were spent in the sunshine state.  But before I lived in Florida, I was a child of the Carolinas.

My father was military--Air Force, specifically. I was actually born in New Jersey, but I left way too early to have any memories at all of that place.  When I was one, Dad was assigned to Germany.  We lived off-base for a few years.  I only have one memory of that house in Mackenbach, and that's of my family's horror at discovering me playing with a dead rat. Hey, I was only two or three...and I haven't actually played with dead rats in...weeks, honest.

We lived on base for several years, and that was the first home I can recall in any level of detail.  An air force base, however, is both a place yet not a place.  All bases are pretty similar, and they are all insulated from their surrounding areas.  On Ramstein, though, that was amplified somewhat by us actually being in the middle of a foreign country. It was cool leaving base, but whenever we did so, we were definitely outsiders stuck in tourist mode.

So when Dad was assigned to Charleston, South Carolina, it was a big deal for me.  My brothers and sisters had memories of America.  I, however, did not.  On the plane ride over, I tried to imagine what my home country, the country in which I was born would be like...but failed miserably to come up with anything tangible.

Upon arriving in Charleston, my observations on living in America were as follows:
  1. It was hot.  I had lived all my life to that point in cold climates.  Then you dump me in the middle of a 95 degree summer in the South? Whenever I stepped foot outside, I feared I would spontaneously combust...but then I realized the heavy layer of sweat probably kept me from igniting. To this day, I still hate the heat.
  2. There were bugs everywhere.  Along with beginning to smolder every time I stepped outside, I also was immediately attacked by hordes of little vampires I soon learned were called mosquitoes. They would gravitate to me before even looking at anyone else around me.  Then there were the palmetto bugs, giant roaches which crunched when you killed them.  And don't even get me started on my shock upon seeing my first cicada. If you've ever seen a shot of civilians fleeing from a rampaging Mecha-Godzilla, you get the picture.
Beyond that?  Not much.  I was, after all, still living on a base, and as I was only in second grade, I really couldn't drive around exploring or sight-seeing.  When we did leave base, I noticed a distinct lack of castles, and I noticed the people had a different (and slightly more comprehensible) accent.  But otherwise, being in the United States of America wasn't all that special...at least from the perspective of an eight year old.  Shouldn't, I thought, there at least be regular parades or something?

This year was my parents' fiftieth anniversary, and they decided to rent a beach house just outside of Charleston for the family celebration.  So we all converged on the Isle of Palms so we could be closer to our memories...such (in my case) as they were.

Driving into town was surreal. One of the things about being a military brat is that unlike most people, you really cannot go home again. Seriously. I cannot gain entrance to the base to see where I used to live (even if the house hadn't been torn down). Sure, I could (and had) explored my old neighborhood using Google Maps, but the perspective is off way more than for any normal adult visiting childhood haunts.  And since, for the most part, the base was my existence, my experience is particularly skewed.

But then I started noticing some of the street names on the exit signs, and I recognized tons of them.  But the names had utterly no connections to any mental pictures.  It was the damnedest pseudo-nostalgia one can possibly imagine.

We had been to the Isle of Palms often when I was a kid.  Yet while driving over to the island, it became clear this was by no means the same place.  Forget the common-place changes brought on by decades past that most experience.  Post-hurricane construction had gentrified the island into a whole new social class.  This was effectively a new place, with wealth-dominated getaways not just replacing the ramshackle beach shacks of years past but effectively obliterating any trace of them or the island which used to be.

Yes, there were some similarities.  It was still way too hot.  I still got eaten alive by mosquitoes whenever I went outside.  There was still good fried seafood. Tourism was still the main business.  And palmetto bugs still made a distinctive crunch when stepped upon.

Mostly though, I spent the trip trying to fit the visions I was seeing to the memories I never got to experience in the first place.  And the first time I really had a chance to contemplate this disconnect was when my lovely wife and I were sitting in a beach bar I had never entered before...yet still remembered its theme song from the early 1980s radio commercials.

As the trip wound down, I was unable to see Charleston, my home of many years, as anything other than a nice place to visit.  I couldn't even start to experience anything of what I remembered of my life there.  Our day trips did bring some memories, but only of the day trips of my youth...not of my actual life.

Our last night together, we hit this small, out of the way restaurant specializing in Carolina Low Country cuisine which my Dad stumbled across.  I chatted with my brother, tried to freak out my nephews and niece, and watched my daughter pull my wive around the restaurant while I drank my sweet tea.

For my meal, I ordered a South Carolina Low Country specialty, shrimp and grits.  I took one bite.  Within seconds, I dropped the spoon and just stared into space for a full minute or more. It was awe-inspiring food.  The grits were smooth, creamy, and rich.  The shrimp were staggeringly fresh and had obviously been swimming the night before.  The gravy exploded in my mouth.  Even after just one bite, it had already entered my top five meals ever.

Here's the thing, though. When I actually lived there, I had utterly no interest in South Carolina cuisine...or in Southern food in general. As much as it pains me to publicly admit, I didn't even try grits with an open mind until my thirties.  And now, I had my best Southern meal of my life as a tourist visiting from his Ohio home, where he had lived for fifteen years...not when I had any real claim to be a southerner.

You might expect this to be a sad realization, something about the folly of youth.  While I did find it revelatory, I took a different view.  Yes, my childhood. is either unattainable or superficial.  Would my life have been richer if I, as a youth, were more around of the glories around me?

Possibly.  But there was another (and I thought better) interpretation.

Yes, I had to wait until year 43 of my life to finally "get" and experience the best of South Carolina cuisine.  Yes, this filled an absence in the experiences of my youth. Yet when I did finally partake, I was mature enough to fully appreciate the magnitude of the experience.

More importantly, however, I was able to come to this awareness while watching my daughter shove food down my wife's throat...while tweaking my nephews and niece...while talking to my brother...and while being with my parents who are full, complete people to me rather than just one dimensional mother and father figures.

There's something to be said for perspective...but there's also something to be said for a mean bowl of shrimp & grits.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

two years of changes

Yesterday morning, after my girl awoke, we did our customary half hour of snuggle time.  Her first tangible conscious act of the day was, after shaking the sleep from her eyes, to rock her head from side to side while saying "tick...tock...tick...tock."  She stopped to see if I was paying attention, giving me her special smile as she checked my reaction.

As I changed her, I told her that two years ago, at that hour, we were on our way to the hospital for the third trip in three days.  We were sleep-deprived and punchy.  We were also unbelievably optimistic.  We had no idea what lie ahead...certainly not for the endurance test that was the delivery...nor for the roller coaster ride that has been the last two years.

As I finished cleaning her, my mind went back to that day of her birth.  I remember going over to the warming bed where they were performing tests. My first words to her were "Hi, Sylvia, I'm your Daddy."  She reached over and grabbed my finger.

I remember the hell that was the first eight months, with its bouts of all-day screaming (the result of acid reflux, or dairy intolerance, or who knows what).  I remember days being so thankful when my wife came home so I could pass off my daughter, crawl on my bed, curl in the fetal position, and cry uncontrollably for an hour until I could face her again.

I remember the landmarks...such as when she learned to roll over on her own for the first time.  I filmed her next success, and then she laughed for a minute.  I remember the first time I made her laugh on command (with the toy owl Hoot...an experience which I commemorated in a tattoo).  I remember the first time I fed her and had her eyes lock with mine...the first time she said "Daddy"...the first time she kissed me on the cheek...the first time she said "miss you lots"...the first time she said "I love you."  With each of these (and many more), my heart softened, exploded, and then grew at least four times.

Later yesterday, when we went out and about, it was not possible for me to not note just how much she's quit being a baby girl and has become a person...in the way she waves and says goodbye to people she sees, the way she holds my hand as we cross parking lots, the way she insists on wearing her ball cap backwards, to the way she just generally interacts with me and the world at large.

I do have regrets. I regret we have to move because the neighborhood kids and the next door neighbors at our old place loved Sylvia.  We stopped by last night to grab a few things, and she and her mom ran over to the neighbors.  I grabbed some things and packed the car.  As I was shutting the trunk, I heard some kids yell...and Sylvia came running from their back yard, grinning ear to ear, as one of the kids chased her.  When we finally corralled her and shepherded her to the car, she started to cry.  She looked at the next door neighbors, waved, and said "miss you lot." It both broke my heart and increased my desire to punch our idiot landlord in his bearded jaw for not letting us have our daughter grow up on that street.

My biggest regret, though, is that so few of the really wonderful people I know are part of my daughter's life.  We have friends who do spend lots of time with her.  Their daughter babysat Sylvia last year when I was working.  And Sylvia loves the whole family. Every time the two of us do lunch with the guy, when I tell my daughter of our plans, she lights up and says his name over and over...and runs to him when she sees him.

That family, however, is the only one to have such a relationship with my girl, and this frankly also breaks my heart. I'm sad that my friends, who live elsewhere (other cities, other states, other countries) cannot spend time with her. Understandable, yes, but still sad.

What is less understandable, though is the people who could be part of her life but, for whatever reason, are not.  It hurts me that they don't get to experience this wonderful girl first-hand. Even worse, though, is that they don't get to help shape my daughter into the person she will become.  I love my friends, but it devastates me that they either cannot or will not be part of this wonderful gir's life.

It is a troubling thing bringing a new life, a new blank slate into this uncertain and unstable world.  I'm frightened by a lot of things.  I'm scared she might feel at some point that life has let her down.  I am much more terrified that she might ever think I let her down...and it has becomemy main purpose to never give her a chance to doubt me.

Gotta admit, though...when she smiles at me, when she snuggles into me, when she laughs with me, or when she just gives me that special look which I cannot nor care to explain, those fears go away.

I am not, in general, a strong man.  I keep up a good facade, but in spite of the medication, I still feel uncertain more often than not. When I get to bond with my daughter,when she leans in close, when she lifts my heart by words, by laughter, or by just being close, all that melts away...and all becomes right with the world.

If only more people could experience this.

Happy birthday, my girl.

Moving, part 3 (unpacking): Schrodinger's apartment

Moving into a new apartment, house, or what have you must inevitably involve higher levels of physics and quantum mechanics.  It would be simple if this was only a matter of space or motion, but no, bigger issues are at hand:  namely uncertainty.

This is both our home and not our home.  All our stuff is certainly here...so there is a certain element of familiarity in operation.  My couch, for instance, is still in front of my television, so this is definitely my living room...yet the juxtaposition is off.  The love seat, for instance, is on the wrong side.  There's all this extra space as well. So is this my living room or not?  Every time I sit down and look at it, I experience some form of quantum double vision.

I could look over the alternative arrangement of my possessions if it were not for the little things.  In these apartments, for instance, all of the electrical outlets are, for some mysterious (or at least forgotten) reason, upside down. Every time I go to plug in some appliance, any conception I have of being in my own home is shaken...almost as if some quantum mechanic is playing with my life's vertical hold.

And then there are the possessions.  Out of all possible factors, my "stuff" might hold the key to the sneaking suspicion of being trapped in a Schrodinger thought experiment. I know, for instance, that I own an mp3 player...that my television has an accompanying remote control.  Yet neither of these two (or any other of a thousand objects) are anywhere to be found.  Am I really sure I in fact had them in the first place?

This, incidentally, is where we do quantum mechanics one better.  You might be able at some point to prove if that damn cat is alive or dead.  Can you, however, ever definitively prove my mp3 player existed in the first place without actually laying hands on it?  Moreover, if it never turns up, it will remain in uncertainty in perpetuity.  After all, I only really have my memories to prove it existed in the first place..and can I really trust anything so intangible as evidence?

(This is, incidentally, not the first time I've experienced such uncertainty vis-a-vis objects.  I have lost many books to the alternate quantum dimensions of possibility...or "the aether" if you prefer (as I often do).  I have no rational explanation for the complete and utter disappearance of an Edgar Rice Burroughs collection.  And a large "missing book fine" is the only evidence I had it existed in the first place...that is, if you consider government records to be in any way quantumly certain.)

I should, for the record, note my daughter experiences none of this, so far as I can tell. Of course, she is only two, and, as such, often keeps her own counsel. Yet if there are tangible clues to some struggle to adjust, I am utterly unable to observe them. 

Maybe I will slowly adjust.  Maybe the uncertainties and incongruities will eventually coalesce.

It certainly is preferable to the constant suspicion this place in which I now dwell both is and is not my home.

Moving, part 2 (during): age, pain, and ephemera

(programming note:  after the last post, we decided to move that (last) weekend.  This part is from Sunday, in the midst of and after actually hauling crap to the apartment.)

As I was starting to load the truck for trip one, it rained.  It only lasted for five minutes...just enough for nature to say, "If I feel the need, if it appears things are going too smoothly, I can make your life incrementally more difficult."

Moving makes me feel...not nostalgic, not sad, but simply old.  I feel the move in my body in a very tangible and visceral way.  Every trip up those stairs adds on a couple of years.  My hips radiate pain, even after gobbling Aleve.  This is especially traumatic, as I never have hip pain.  I sincerely hope this is not another chronic condition emerging.

As the day progresses, the rooms fill up and get increasingly junky.  Boxes upon boxes, furniture quickly stacked in blithe disregard for living arrangement, Hefty bags of clothes, papers, and various flotsam mound up in a multitude of locations.  In random corners of the apartment, empty and half-filled sports drink bottles gather in an effort to enhance the general ambiance.

Finally, the last helper leaves.  I return the rental truck and pick up my car...which now feels low, small, inconsequential by comparison. I have but hours to assemble at least part of the apartment into something liveable. If only I can find those damn allen wrenches and other tools.  Now (in what will be my refrain for the next week or so), in which box did I pack them?

Moving, part 1 (pre-move): temporality, motion, & science fiction

(programming note:  as I'm finally largely moved into my apartment and now have internet access restored, I am now posting this three part missive (written in the last week or so) about the moving process and all the thoughts it brought up.  This part was written on June 4th.  After this, regular programming resumes.)

The great move of 2013 is swiftly approaching.  You would imagine this would lead naturally to conflicting emotions about leaving this house where I imagined raising my daughter.  And, without a doubt, there is some of that.  The main issue, however, is one of temporal displacement.

One of the biggest annoyances about this move is the massive last minute nature of it all.  We only found out that we had to move a few weeks ago.  Then a rushed housing shop, now a rushed packing job. Add this to the previously scheduled week of family gathering, and you start to see my dilemma.

I now have no earthly idea when I'm supposed to move my stuff.  Originally, I thought of moving when we returned from vacation. After dinner, though, we studied the calendar.  Problems emerged...mainly we would have six days to move, clean, and get the carpets done.  And since my wife works ten hour days in the summer, we had the matter of my daughter with which to contend.  I either a) move on the weekend (which means when are we gonna schedule carpet cleaning?), b) find someone to watch her (which, as I might have trouble arranging moving help, this might be a bit of a long shot), or c) put Sylvia to work hauling couches (which, as she has to hold my hand going up and down stairs, could be slightly problematic.

The other option is to move before the vacation.  This, however, is also fraught with peril. The child care dilemma (from point b above) still persists...as does the difficulty in finding help in general.  It would,however, give me tons of time to clean our house...and to schedule carpet cleaning.  But could I get cable, electric, and internet hooked up in time?  The mind boggles.

This would all be so much easier if we lived in a time which was at least a little more science fictiony.  Because what I ultimately need to do is figure out a way to bend the time/space fabric.  A time machine would be nice.  I could quite comfortably get along with teleportation.  A robot nanny would also help.  Hell, what would be ideal is if I could simply punch a hole through the said time/space fabric and just cross over to another quantum dimension where the alterna-Mike has already done the move for me.

Of course, magic would also be a possibility.  Maybe I could get a wizard to levitate my stuff...or magically transfer....

Nah...magic is just silly.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

some assembly...

The other night, I dreamed I was playing a prototype of the newest of the Lego video games.  Move over, Star Wars Lego, Lord of the Rings Lego, Lego Batman.  I was playing the hottest, coolest, most awesome one yet:  the Lego version of the classic first person shooter Doom.

Of course, it was recognizably Doom.  There were all the weapons,from the lowly knife to the infamous BFG. There were imps, spectres, cacodemons, and worse.  There was the creepy lighting and twitch-inducing soundtrack.  There were tricks, traps, hidden rooms, and pits...the whole works.

It was, however, also recognizably the Lego version...so the demons were all a bit comical, and when you got hit, yes, you would get bloody--you would probably even lose limbs...but reassembly was never that big of a deal.  Get your hand blown off?  Just pop it back on.

It was, to be sure, an awesome video game.  And as much as I would love to play it in real life, I have ultimately decided I want more.

Screw the game.  I want a Lego life.

I want the ability to rebuild.  I want to know that, if I so desire, I can rebuild myself.  Yeah, I've gained weight....just reach into that box and hand me the teenage torso and metabolism, please.  Crave adventure?  Just tear apart this police station and build a space ship.  Outgrow your hosue?  Expansion is as easy as stack and click.

Mostly, though, it would be nice to actually have some control over your own existence.  Lego is, in the end, about pure creativity.  No outside forces.  No social constraints.  No mysterious powers which have you eternally at their whim.

It would be a wonderful life...with only some assembly required.

circular motion

The great landlord controversy of '013 has, in a sense, been solved.  Said solution, however, makes me question the notion of trajectory.

When our landlords informed us that, as we had the gall to ask them to maintain their own property, we would need to find somewhere else to live, they also told us they would "work with us."  What this mystery phrase seemed to really mean, though, is that we could stay a little bit longer...but just three weeks shy of when 95% of city rental properties became available.  As nice as my sister's offer of three weeks in her guest room in Michigan was, though, being without a home of our own was not really desirable...so we limited the search to places immediately available.

The property search itself was...disheartening.  We found one place I would actually feel comfortable raising my daughter;  it was, however, almost $300 a month over what we have been paying in rent...and had no air conditioner...and had two other apartments on in the house.

Most of the other places, however, were true horror stories.  One, for instance, was an old duplex $125 more a month than our current place.  When I did my tour, there were hefty bags of trash in more rooms than not.  There were piles of dirty laundry on the floor in more rooms than not.  One bedroom had two half-full pizza boxes and a half-eaten platter of McDonald's pancakes.  The toilets looked as if they had not been cleaned in a year or even flushed within the week.  I was glad I didn't have my daughter with me that day, because frankly, I wouldn't want her to touch a millimeter of the place.

The apartment complex we chose is, by comparison, palatial.  It's run by the same management company who ran our micro-house of old, so we know the maintenance will be good.  It's mostly inhabited by the AARP set, so loud keggers are a little outside of the realm of possibility (although if there is one, I really hope they invite me).  Plus they have an indoor pool, an outdoor pool, a fitness room, and a fenced-in kiddie play area where I can drop off my kid before I go hit the bars.  Plus the staff is fascinated with my daughter from our last time doing business with them.

So it could be much worse.  But, man, I hate that phrase.  Yeah, I could be getting repeatedly kicked in the taint by angry Lithuanians.  Not the point.  Yeah, it could be worse.  The problem is this:  it is hard to see this as anything other than a step backward in my life.

I thought that, in regard to living arrangements, we were at least on a positive trajectory.  I move from my folk's place in the insane state of Florida to my own place in the only moderately insane state of Ohio.  I find a nice place in an apartment complex seemingly catering to transients (but in the nicest possible manner).  I get hitched and move to a nice micro-house.  We have a child and move to a nice suburban-esque house in the townie part of town.  All positive moves.

But then our landlord suffers some sort of mental disconnect...and we find ourselves back in apartment living.

I immediately start wondering in what other ways will my life regress.  Will I receive notice I have to resume work on my dissertation?  Will they make me start taking classes again?  Will I have to move back in with my parents? Regrow my heavy metal hair?  Go back to work at the pizza place?  Wear braces again?

The mind boggles...but when the very concept of trajectory disappears, who knows what past hells I will have to endure...for the second time, no less?

Just please don't make me re-experience teenage angst...it would clash with the angst in which I currently reside.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

note from the bar last night iii--comparative losers

I'm sitting in a bar by myself.  My only friend in the place was the bartender, and he got off work five minutes after I walked in.  So I'm sitting at the back table, doing the tortured artist thing--yeah, it's that kind of week. 

The lonely drunk artist thing, though, doesn't come with that much prestige.  No one is going to respect me as an artist for scribbling in a notebook while sipping on a mini-pitcher.  Well, maybe they'll consider me a poor man's Dylan Thomas in a hundred years.  From my perspective, though, this is no real enticement. 

One can only be tortured artist thing while alone, though, and that is a drawback.  I'm not gonna say I'm friendless, though.  I have plenty of friends...just none who live in the same city as me.  My best friend lives in another continent, my best friends in the country live in Minneapolis and Los Angeles, and my best friend in the state lives two hours away.

I've just found out I will not have a place to live in a few weeks.  Good options are not on the horizon.  We will either paying money we don't have, or we will be living in ramshackled tenements.  It's not where I thought I would be at the age of 42.

Earlier, I spent hours roaming the streets of this town.  It's not an unfamiliar thing to do.  I used to do the same thing as a teenager.  Then, it was to smoke and listen to music.  Now? To try to find a place to raise my daughter.

I really don't have the temperament for this life, I'm discovering. I find myself needing not to think of it too much, but apart from being with someone who must process out loud, I found myself without distraction.  It's been months since band practice.  I'd just play on my own, but the sound of my guitar seems to send the family to the other side of the house.  I would hang out with friends, but, as I said before, I don't seem to have any in the area.

So what do I do?

It all seems terribly melodramatic, I know...and compared to the very real joy of which I do partake on a daily basis, it is inconsequential.  I will freely admit this.  I still have my turns--I know I will always have them.  But they are not my life.  They are not my existence.  They are not who I am even a significant portion of the time.

It seems, though, that uncertainty and isolation are gonna be a lot of who I am for some time.  I just wish I was the kind of person suited for suck a live.

Ah, to be the social butterfly who lives in isolation.  To be the one who needs closure in an existence devoid of it.

It is important, though, to maintain perspective. 

A little while ago, this couple covertly snuck into the men's room together...I can only assume for some attempt at illicit fun of some sort or another.  In thirty seconds, however, they were covertly sneaking back out.  I can only assume the illicit fun wasn't very thrilling, or the surrounds did not create the proper ambiance for said fun. 

In comparison, I'm not doing all that badly.

At any rate, I'm gaining a certain amount of perspective from the weird week and my most recent turn.  Plus I've finished several prose pieces and two lyrics, one of which has been on the burner for three years.

There's something to be said for being the right kind of loser, I guess.

note from the bar last night ii--Musician, I

My identity has, for a long time, been bound up in relation to music.  First, I was the guy struggling to learn.  Then I was a guy who was constantly told he sucked as a musician.  Then I was the guy who used to be a musician.

Later, I joined a band and then became a guy who struggled to think of himself as a musician.  Eventually, I came to terms with being a good guitarist and songwriter.  So of course, that band had to break up, and I started to see myself as the guy who used to be in a band.

Relatively quickly, though, I was invited to join another band.  I had to get used to being a musician in a whole different context.  Then half the band quit on us.  Luckily enough, before I could start trying to think of myself as a former musician again, we got a better rhythm section, and I was able to start thinking of myself as a musician in a kick-ass band.

We recently put out an album on an indy label.  This means, of course, I feel more of a musician as ever.

This February, I decided to go out on a pretty shaky limb and perform as a solo artist.  This meant, of course, another change--into being a self-sufficient musical entity.

I've been writing all night, so I have been feeling all singer/songwriter.  Saturday, though, my band plays a show, so I guess I'll revert to lead guitar guy.

It's fun being a musician...regardless of the key of the song.

notes from the bar last night i

Do you remember when you eagerly believed in a directing, hands-on God?  When there was some higher power to hear your prayers?  When you held out home for some sense of cosmic justice, even one comprehensible to man, to make sense of the world as we knew it?  When there seemed a point to it all?

What was it like?  And were you happier?

the long and terrible saga of being a renter

It started a couple of weeks ago with a crash.

When we moved to this house, we wanted to find a place in which we could hang out for several years.  We wanted a nice house where we could live, raise our daughter, pay off our debts, and then look for a place to buy.  This house, in other words, was always a long term option.

The first few times we saw our landlords, they told us several times about how they were worried about holes in the wall, how the previous tenants had left tons of nail holes. This was a little puzzling to me...after all, how hard is it to fill a hole with spackle?  The husband mentioned those 2 sided tape picture wall hangers, so I went out, bought a bunch, and used them to hang most of our art.

A little over three weeks ago, one of them failed.  A picture fell of the wall, tearing off the paint and the drywall paper.  I immediately sent our landlords a message explaining what happened.  I asked if they wanted us to go to nails, or if they'd rather us continue to use the wall hangers.  I assured them we wanted to be good tenants and take care of their house.

No response.  A week later, I sent them a text message.  Several days after that, I got a reply saying she would send me a proper response via e-mail.  Several more days passed.  After two and a half weeks, I sent another e-mail.  I didn't actually get a response until Sunday, and it was fairly brusque and rude.  We left a few messages.  Later in the evening, they finally called my wife.

It was, I thought, a good think my wife talked to them...she is able to stay much more calm than I.  But as the conversation continued, I saw my wife's face contort, and I saw her make "are these people insane?" gestures, and I knew there were issues.  As it turned out, the landlords thought we "were excessive" in our demands.  They thought we called in for too much maintenance.  They thought that we should take care of all the building maintenance ourselves, and that they shouldn't have to do much of anything other than cash our checks.

This puzzled me, particularly because the last time I asked for maintenance, it was because we had noticed some loose bathroom tiles, and the garage door would not open.  As far as the tiles, I thought this was a natural matter for the property owners.  I thought they would be concerned about water damage.  Yet it took them two and a half weeks to fix the tiles.

After the phone call ended, my wife told me that they would rather not renew our lease because of our excessive demands.  As our lease ends June 31, this essentially means we have 5 weeks to find another place to live, secure a new lease, and pack and move all our stuff.

There are several problems with this.  First, we live in a college town, and pretty much 98% of the rentals are student-oriented.  This means they are in student ghetto areas...and these places are not really conductive to raising a child.  But it also means most of the leases are tied to the school year...so there's pretty much nothing available immediately.  Our current landlord said they would be open to doing month-to-month for a little bit, but they would raise our rent if we did.  Yay.

The second problem is actually trying to find a new place.  I took two hours Sunday to drive around the town, noting every "for rent" sign I could find.  Most of them were for this one rental agency in town, but they had some really nice properties, in really great areas of town.  The only problem was that when I went to their office Monday, they told me most of the places with the "for rent" signs weren't actually for rent.  They put the signs up (get this) as free advertising.  They only had two properties for rent which fit our needs.

I spent some time searching on-line, but that's really no help. Most of the landlord websites would've looked archaic in 1998.  Moreover, they're not up to date at all.  I found a great place on one company's website in a gorgeous neighborhood, but when I called that rental company, they told me the house had been rented for weeks, and that they in fact only had two places available (as opposed to the ten or so on their site)...and both available places were in the student ghetto.

The third problem with this is the quality of some of the rentals.  We found one place in the paper, so we set up an appointment to see it.  When we did a drive-by last night, we saw that it 1) had no front yard, 2) had a moderate back yard facing an auto repair shop, 3) was right next to the railroad tracks, and 4) looked beat up and dingy.  Yet they were still asking a lot of money.

Right now, I have three visits set up.  The first one is via the rental agency.  The house is in an okay neighborhood, but the building itself looks rather run down.  The second is also via the rental agency;  this one looks nice, is close to both City Park and downtown, and is in a nice neighborhood...but it is $100 more a month than our current lease.  Both of these places aren't available until August, which makes them a little more challenging.  The third is a private place across from place one;  I don't know yet when it's available, and it does look nice...but we would have to rely on on-the-street parking.

Of course, this has me in a bit of a panic.  I really don't want to rent a duplex or an apartment after living in a house.  I also really want to find somewhere nice where my daughter can safely play outside.  And I really don't want to keep renting from our evil current landlords any longer than necessary.  Most of all, I really don't want to live anywhere other than Bowling Green.  This is where I want my child to grow up.

And if we have to move (a process which I hate with a passion--I'd rather have a railroad spike drove into my forehead), I don't want to settle for a place which sucks and which we'd want to leave after a year.  I want somewhere we can hide out for a few years (which is what I thought we were getting in this house).

There are, however, so few choices available, and our time is short.  I'm not thrilled with any of our current options.  I have a few outstanding phone calls, though, and I'm hoping one of them comes through.  But for now, I'm trying not to panic.

I am, incidentally, also spending time trying not to freak out about having to pack up and actually move all our stuff yet again....but that's another post.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

meta-blogging

I just noticed that Blogger seems to keep stats of page views.  So, not having anything else to do (I've already seen this episode of Team Oomizoomi), I thought I would do a quick scan.  Some thoughts:
  • According to the stats, pretty much nobody was reading my blog for the first few years.  I know I suck, but still...
  • The most viewed post was my first academic bio by a mile.  The runner-up, though, was my post about meat raffles. with a whopping 361 views.
  • Point two obviously contradicts point one.  
  • Furthermore, I've seen some posts which supposedly had 7 comments but no page views.
The moral?  These are some of the most pointless stats I've ever seen....outside of early presidential primary polls.

one of my turns...an inside view

I've said it before, and I will certainly say it again:  depression sucks.

Depression on its own is bad enough.  It sucks that you get into random bad moods.  It sucks that any tiny little thing will set you over the edge.  It sucks that once one bad thing happens, you can't shake the blackness.  It sucks that whenever this happens, you start to take it out on the people who still actually stay with you.

Medication certainly helps, but it doesn't cure it.  You still have to watch every mood, every action.It sucks even more when legitimate bad stuff (as opposed to imagined stuff) actually happens...because who knows where you will end up? 

At first, it's little things, such as when trying to contact friends turns into "I wonder when/if they'll get back to me this time."  Then there's the online stories of the fun they had the night before...while you were sitting at home by yourself, staring at a silent phone.

But then, on top of the little things, the big things hit.  I had two of those happen today.  First, I have realized I'm apparently in a fight with my landlord and might have to rent and move into another place in the next week and a half.  I would rather run a railroad spike through my eyeball than move again, and now I might have to do a rush job (on top of trying to find money for a security deposit...because of course this all had to happen right after I paid bills.  Then I had my place on the social scale firmly stamped onto my head upon learning an out-of-state friend came to visit a couple of weeks ago, and I was apparently not  worthy of even being invited to see her.

What makes this even more harrowing is that I had such a wonderful day Friday, only to have that good mood slowly disintegrate over the next 48 hours.  And sadly enough, knowing "this too shall pass" isn't much of a help.  I want to be playing with my daughter.  I want to be playing guitar.  I want to be watching wrestling with friends.  I want to finish a couple of songs-in-progress.  I want to write that blog post about writing comedy. But instead, I'm just trying to tamp down the black.

a gambling man

We had a poker night last night.  It's been a long time since I've been in a good poker game, so it was particularly fun for me.  I got excited and prepared for the occasion by making chip dip, getting a good folding table, buying several new sets of cards, and procuring real poker chips.  Yep, no jars of pennies or cheap plastic tiddly-winks or frozen peas or fingernail clippings or any other betting tokens for us.

It took ages to get a full bevy of players.  Many self-professed poker fans said they would love to play but had previous engagements...so many, in fact, that, if I were slightly more paranoid, I would think they were blowing me off.  But eventually, we got a full table.

Some of our players, however, were amateurs. This seems like it would be a real advantage, but there were several drawbacks.  First, we had to spend an inordinate amount of time explaining rules, hands, betting, and such.  This itself wouldn't be a problem...but the two self-professed "poker virgins"  were the ones who made the most money through the course of the night...which yes, is slightly aggravating.

I love poker, and while I don't think of myself as a shark or anything, I do have a certain amount of skills.  Yet for the first few hours, I was playing horribly.  Cards simply were not coming...or, if they did come, someone else would be obviously beating me.  We were doing low-stakes ($5), and I started losing around a buck an hour.  As the size of my stack shrunk, I started to play more timidly out of necessity...because when everyone else has four to five times the chips, pushing around another player becomes an impossibility. About three hours later, I had to re-buy for $2 more.  In about an hour, I had to re-buy again.  It was my inaugural poker night, and I was going broke.

Something then snapped.  I started to get cards.  With the cards, I started to regain the attitude.  I pushed all-in a few times and won.  I began playing with authority.  Eventually, I pulled very close to my original stake...I think I might've lost a quarter or so, but as I was down over eight bucks at one point, I'm pretty happy with the result.

Now if only I could break even at any other part of life.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

the link between television and violence

I finally have proof of the insidious power of the media...and your worst fears have come true.  Television will cause erratic behavior in children.  They will copy what they see on television. It will be violent.  It will be brutal.  But most of all...it will be cute.

I know this because I learned it the hard way.

About a week ago, there must've been a program on which featured a pillow fight.  My daughter must've seen it.  I don't have either a clear memory or 100% verifiable evidence of this. But still, I know this must've happened.

Yesterday, my daughter grabbed my hand and led me down the hall. We bypassed the study and headed into Mommy and Daddy's bedroom.  Sylvia wanted up on the bed, so I set her on it and laid down next to her.  She went to Mommy's side and picked up her fairly heavy memory foam pillow.  Sylvia then said "fight!" and threw the pillow onto my face.

New warnings on television! The world must know how dangerous the wanton televised depiction of pillow fights can be! Back in the good ole days, before we had these darn talking picture boxes in every room, there must've been less pillow-on-Daddy violence.

on endings and perspective

One of the weird things about being even tangentially associated with the academic life is that the end of the school year becomes an end in many different ways.  It is an end of sorts for the town, because in a few days, the transient students will abandon the town, and it will once again become ours.  This is, for those of you from other paths of life, completely glorious.

It is also an end for many in terms of employment.  Some see it as the end of certainty, particularly if they're in a job where renewal is not automatic.  Some see it as the end of this phase of their life, particularly if they're making a move to a newer, bigger, better job.  And both of these ends affect those of us who stay in one place, so it might be an end of sorts for me too.

It's still early, but so far, the good news from colleagues has been outweighing the uncertainty and fear from other colleagues.  I hope the trend continues.  I have friends without any definite prospects, and I hope they gain some certainty.  I have a friend who desperately wants to return to the country, and there are so many people who also want him back here, there would be mass celebration if he gets good news.  The joy, in other words, would definitely spread.

But this time around, the most significant end I'm celebrating? It isn't for the school year being over...it was actually one of the best teaching years I've ever had.  It isn't just for the end of night classes...although the opportunity to cook for and eat  with my family every single night is intoxicating.  And it isn't the end of that horrible time of the year when I have to wear socks...evil, cursed things.  While these are all ends worthy of cheer, they're not the biggest conclusion in my life right now.

The biggest change for me is that I have already heard of the good fortune of several of my friends...and the only reaction it prompted within me was of cheer, of admiration, of well-wishes.  Not a single time did my thoughts turn to bitter jealousy of careers which actually advance, of professional lives which gain recognition. I am not weeping for my failures. I am not hearing good news and being angry I never received recognition. No, I am only happy for my friends.

Maybe my own depression, my own crushed ego trips, my selfishness...maybe these are what's truly ending.  I really hope this is the case.  But if they're only diminishing....hell, that would also be a huge victory.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

a super-concentrated collection of cuteness

I promised quite a while ago that this blog would "not to go all "oooh, you should see the adorable thing my kiddie did today" on you."  However, it does occur to me I only really mention her here in passing...and that if you read this, you only get a partial view of her and (by extention) my life.  This would be unfair, because so much of my current existence is being the father to the world's most awesome kid...and she seems, over the last week, increasingly intent on proving her awesomeness. How?
  • Last week, we were sitting together watching something on television.  I told her "I like sitting with you, Sylvia."  Without turning, Sylvia said "no problem."

  • This weekend, as I was doing some grading, she came into the study and played for a little bit.  When I heard her get up to leave, I said "bye bye" to her. She responded with a "see ya!"

  • Later, I was still grading.  I heard Lori and Sylvia in the hallway.  Lori would sing "I got you, babe," and Sylvia would respond with "I got you."  Sylvia also does this with me all the time.

  • Sylvia has a habit of coming in and keeping me company as I use the restroom.  Sometimes she brings me things...my tea mug, my book, and even once my mandolin.  Monday, though, as she opened the door, she said "Daddy?"  She saw me in there, said "Ooops, sorry," and pulled the door mostly shut.  In a few minutes, though, she started to push some bath toys through the door crack.

  • Over the last week, she's started to lay some of her stuffed animals down on our bed, cover them with a blanket, and tell them "Night night."
I used to think I ruled.  Now I know Sylvia rules.  Ah, well...keep in the family.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

on the state of the teaching thingie viii--bragging

The one final thought about teaching has to do with bragging.  One of the advantages of teaching writing is that the discipline does not really lend itself to exams, final or otherwise.  And in the university structure, the week after classes is reserved for finals.

In the past, I've used this to my advantage.  I've had all my work due on the last week of the semester...preferably early into that week.  Then I would get all my grading done by the end of the last week of the semester.  I would return everything on the last Friday of the semester.  Then I would spend the weekend tweaking all my friends who would complain about the stacks of grading still on their docket. I would invite them out for drinks, beg them to stay out late, and when they protested, I would reply "What? You're not done yet??? Why, I've been done for two days."  Then I would duck whatever projectile they've thrown my direction.

This year, however, the schedules were weird.  My lit class had everything due the Thursday of the last week. Moreover, since it's a lit class, there's a lot of them in there...so that one will take a while. I did have my Comp I scheduled to be in Monday, but they were begging for more time.  And then my band got offered a gig at a music fest run by the college radio station, so the due date there got pushed to Wednesday.  I'm doing two online classes, and I've realized that, due to a quirk of scheduling, there's actually one less week in Spring than in Fall...so it was either cut the schedule or give them until exam week for their work.

Bottom line?  For the first time in ages, I won't be done before finals week.  I'm going to be against the wall just like everyone else.  Man, I hope no one else gets done early and starts bragging about how they're finished. That would be the worst...