Month: June 2014

Advice to the Broken

Day Fifteen: You’re told that an event that’s dear to your heart — an annual fair, festival, or conference — will be cancelled forever (or taken over by an evil organization).

So you’re going to break up, huh? I suppose it was inevitable. Things change. People change. Be cool, and take some advice. It’ll help.

The first thing to remember is that you’re going to be alone. You’re not going to have that person who doesn’t just tolerate, but gets your humor. Cold nights are going to be colder, and on rainy days, you might find yourself setting up a board game and then realizing, when half the pieces are out of the box, that you’re going to be playing alone. It’s a valuable lesson, because somewhere, somehow, you started making assumptions. Did he or she really want to play that stupid game? Find out what it’s like to play against you. Finish setting it up, and play that game, anyway.

Obviously, the sex is gone. But you’re ready for that, or so you tell yourself. Don’t get hooked on porn or stuck in your head. If you have a fantasy, and you have the skill, write it down. Because it’s yours, it’ll be better than any one you can find. Hell, if you need some sense of validation, post it anonymously to a website somewhere, and maybe you’ll finally get people to read your writing. Or just start a blog and write about the fantasy of the fantasy, because it’s the next best thing. Yeah. Do that. If no one reads your sex fantasies, you’re pretty much a failure. Why take the risk?

Going to the movies by yourself is going to be weird, but hopefully you still have someone to go with you because you weren’t one of those guys who forsakes his friends when he’s in a relationship. Oh, who’m I kidding? Take the time to patch up your friendships. Also, feel free to drink a little too much a little too often for a few weeks afterward. I’m not going to tell you that people won’t judge you for it, but screw ’em. And screw ’em literally, too, if you can do it without weeping openly. As long as you’re not looking for validation in it, a little casual sex can keep you psychologically healthy.

Also, you’re getting older, so it’s going to be more difficult to find someone your age who’s single, but not single-for-obvious-reasons. On the bright side, when you do, they’re likely to be in a similar situation as you. They’ll have been knocked around a bit, and maybe a little hardened because of it, but even though there’ll be more layers to peel back, you’ll have much more to talk about. In the end, you’ll almost certainly come away with a better knowledge of who this other person is. When you were younger, your relationships began a lot like this: “You like this one thing? Me too! Let’s be together and do that all the time!” Now that you’re older, they might go more like this: “Look, I work a lot, and won’t be home much, but when I am, I like playing backgammon, having ritualistic Weird Sex once every full moon, and drinking the blood from live chickens. But I’m also sensitive, and I write and perform free-verse poetry to my cats.” And if you’re into that, or not, you can run with it, or not.

Just remember that you’re newly sad and alone, not doomed.


Dear Death

To Whom It May Concern

We idled through the line with our trays and then took our plastic-wrapped tunafish sandwiches and coffee in Styrofoam cups over to a small formica table. Flug talked about the problems he was having with the Gun Control Bill–trying to put it into some form that might possibly pass the Senate. I listened, glancing up now and then toward the food-bar, half-expecting to see somebody like Robert Kennedy pushing his tray through the line… until I suddenly remembered that Robert Kennedy was dead.

–Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, p. 29

Dear Death,

How do we forget?

I know why we forget; let me put that notion to rest. We’re afraid–even paranoid–that you’ll show up on our doorstep unannounced. We do anything and everything we can to delay you–or, at least, we’re supposed to. We know this deep down, because our survival depends on it. And yet, we yearn for a moment where we don’t have to think about you, and we try to forget. So now, here we are, licking the Cheeto dust off our fingers and talking on the phone while wandering into the street.

We like to tempt you, for sure. We throw crazy parties in your honor, but not because we want you there. These are the kind of invites you’re supposed to respectfully decline. By inviting you, we want to look good, but if you show up, it’ll be awkward. With all due respect, you can be kind of a wet blanket.

This isn’t to say that we don’t outright beg for you sometimes. We’ll give you the address to a different house, and you’ll show up there and party for a while, but of course, they’ll eventually give you the right address, and you’ll come right over. And so on, and so on. So, yes, sometimes we deserve you.

You show up, and then after a while, leave with people we love, taking them “back to your place.” It’s rude, is what it is. But after you have left, hardly a moment goes by before we begin thinking of you nostalgically. You really were the life of the party, weren’t you?

Warmly (for now),



[Today, I’m revisiting and editing (for the millionth time) an essay I wrote a long time ago. Partially, this is due to blog fatigue. Being unable to get out of the house to do anything other than run errands makes finding something new and interesting to write about every single day a special kind of torture. The other part to “partially” is that the essay fits nicely and neatly into the prompt, and comes directly after the revelations in the pervious Serial Killer post. Enjoy.]

Serial Killer II: The Lord of the Thongs

The summer after my first year in college, I come back home and find myself working a temp job at Nordstrom’s Rack, a discount outlet that carries overstock and items that just don’t sell in the regular Nordstrom’s stores. Most days, I drag myself from the warm pocket of air between my sheets at about four in the morning, cram some food into my stomach, shower, and then get a ride to the mall, where I sit on the cold curb, watch the sun come up, and wait for the store manager to arrive and unlock the employee entrance. The work is decent—if a tad monotonous—and it allows me a regular schedule so I can plan outings with the girl I started seeing a week before I moved out of the dorms.

Because I’m just a temp and not technically a store employee, my duties include tagging and sorting clothes for the women’s department, while keeping my distance from actual women. During the early mornings before the store opens, I walk the floor with the regular employees, inflating balloons and straightening up displays that look as if they had been torn apart by rabid dogs. During the day, however, I am typically cast from the customers’ view and forced to set up shop in the stock room, where I organize and tag new arrivals. I fill rack after rack with blouses, sport coats, and slacks, all the color of unripe bananas. With a laser scanner strapped to my right arm and several industrial-size rolls of red, blue, and green dot stickers hooped around my left, I try not to let the hard fluorescent lighting rob me of my consciousness. It’s the kind of light that casts no shadows, except in the darkest loneliest recesses, way back behind shelves of lipstick and eyebrow pencils.

I have finally begun to have an interesting sex life, so it follows that fate, in its grand cosmic humor, arranges my singular instruction for the day: sort the children’s thongs. This means not just tagging and scanning, but putting the tiny thongs on the tiny-thong end of the rack and the itsy bitsy thongs on the itsy-bitsy end. This rack, like all the others in the stock room, is a three-tiered, two-sided construction of twenty-foot-long steel bars jutting out from the wall. It is designed to hold a few hundred thick parkas, but the thongs are so small and the rack so full that I am afraid to guess how many we have and why. As I look up at it, the twenty-foot expanse of frilly lace and string between me and the wall seems to stretch on to infinity. My supervisor suggests that the sooner I start, the sooner I’ll finish.

Three hours later, sitting atop a sturdy orange ladder, I have an armful of size extra-extra-small spaghetti-strap underwear, the smiling images of Strawberry Shortcake, Barbie, and Hello Kitty emblazoned on the triangular fronts. I find it is best not to let my mind wander during this particular assignment. If I do, I envision the nine-year-old girls who absolutely mustn’t have panty lines, and then the mothers, the purchasers of the Strawberry Shortcake thongs that now lie limply over my knee. And then I wonder if the girls really did want them in the first place. We have enough thongs to last us a year, so there must be demand. This Christmas, will one of these girls tear open a small soft package to have three or four of these pink lacy contraptions fall into her lap? And will she ask, noticing the dainty, floss-like construction, what in the world they are—or will she hold them up proudly like the Stanley Cup? Will she be asked to model them—or will she volunteer? These are dark, sinister questions best not asked, let alone answered; yet the thongs themselves seem to be questions without answers. Aside from the time lost to the unusually long breaks I take this day—sitting out in the relatively fresh air of the parking lot, watching the shoppers bounce from shop to shop, and forcing myself to think about anything but the frilly lace inside—I spend every minute of my shift sorting the questions, both on the rack and in my head, and when I finish I feel as if there is an indelible stain on my cosmic record. This can’t be one of those things that everyone goes through—one of those experiences that build character—can it?

One of the quirks in oral storytelling I’ve developed over the years is the tendency to start with a statement or question, often pointing toward some awful or perverted aspect of human life. But the trouble with oral storytelling, especially to a live audience, is that the story gets bogged down with skeptical inquiries. It’s like watching a movie with that one hyperactive friend who won’t pay attention, but still wants to know what we’re all laughing at.

Let me tell you: there is little else in this world more humbling and sullying than having to walk around with armfuls of tiny, size-zero thongs, especially when they have Barbie and Hello Kitty printed on them. This one time, I was home from college for a summer, and I found work through a temp agency. They shipped me out to Nordstrom Rack, where it eventually became my job to sort little girls’ thongs. And—what? No, I’m sure they were children’s thongs. They had cartoon characters on them, for chrissake.

Listen, the specific size isn’t really what matters, because sizes tend to differ with manufacturers, but let’s just say that they were so small I wouldn’t have been able to fit them on my head. No, it’s not a sexual thing. Haven’t you ever been tempted to put underwear on your head? Well, your loss. You don’t know what you’re missing. It’s actually a joke I played on a girlfriend once. While she was preening in the bathroom mirror, I dug around in her dresser, found a pair of smooth red panties, and put them over my head so my eyes were in the leg holes. When I jumped out of her closet, declaring, “I’m Spiderman!” it looked for a moment like she was going to cry or hit me. Or both.

So they were smaller than normal. Anyway, can you imagine a grown woman wearing a Hello Kitty thong? 

At this point, I face a quiet room and a lot of worried stares. But these stares I actually find interesting, because it tells me who assumed I actually thought about putting a thong on my head at the time. I hadn’t. The Spiderman incident won’t happen until almost a year after my brief reign as Lord of the Thongs. I’ve done some strange, questionable, and potentially (and actually) reputation-damaging things, but I do them if I think I’m going to get a rise out of someone. The only thing I would have gotten out of my boss is a pink slip. Maybe I’ll get a reputation as a premature Dirty Old Man, but in the perilous world of storytelling, that’s an acceptable risk.

Phone Monkey: All By Itself

PhoneMonkeyPNGAs I have explored before, customer service folk tend to have very warped fight-or-flight responses, and there are two main ways that we deal with this. One is to detach and try to become as objective as possible about the whole scene. The other is to become a balled-up fist of rage. Both have their pros and cons.

There is, however, a slightly better Third Way, which is a lot like Bruce Lee’s style in 1973’s Enter the Dragon. “When the opponent expands, I contract; when he contracts, I expand; and when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself.” Among other things, Bruce had an expert knowledge of semicolon usage.

But how do you tell when your customer is expanding or contracting on the phone, or even via email? You have to draw from emotional memory. You watch the storm clouds gathering or clearing, and you listen to the wind rustling the grass.

Sentences that begin with “You…” are expanding. Sometimes, this is a misunderstanding of our service, and the customer comes out swinging because they’re hungry and upset. Still, in general (relationships, marriages, friendships, business partnerships, etc), beginning with “you” is generally taken as an aggressive act because whatever comes after is unloaded upon the other person. Maybe there’s a misunderstanding, and one person feels hurt. Maybe there is fault. Coming out aggressively immediately puts the other person on the defensive, which significantly lowers the chances of a satisfactory resolution. Even if the intent is just to unload baggage and vent anger, the likelihood of the other person actually listening to the complaint and noting the important parts for future reference is pretty close to nil. They’re probably just waiting for it to be over so they can think about just about anything else. “You” is a tornado warning. Typically, it goes the direction of, “You need to fix x right now, or I’m going to file a complaint with the BBB.” Occasionally, phone monkeys will occasionally get, “You are awesome! I love you guys!” It’s rare, though, and it throws us off our game.

A more neutral stance begins with “I…” and continues on about the things that affected the customer. It seems counter intuitive–that a more objective approach would be a more contracted stance–but “I” is self-indulgent, and as such, can go either way. Much like a cloudy day, if you take an umbrella out with you, it’s probably not going to rain, but the one time you forget, you’re guaranteed to get soaked to the bone. Think about this fairly typical complaint: “I found something wrong with my order.” Ominous, but not a threat. No fight or flight.

But follow from that… “It arrived without the crispy chicken, making me very sad.” They contract, and we expand, immediately reaching out to the right people to right the wrong.

But the alternative… “[T]he whole order was wrong. [N]ot impressed, very disappointed.” It’s subtle, but see the difference? Specificity and a shrugging off of a sense of entitlement really do go a long way. A little sense of humor helps, too. Can you guess whose issue was resolved first?

Customers rarely use the contracted stance. I attribute this, so far, to a misconception that asking for help is equivalent to begging. While we don’t want customers coming to us with axes and pitchforks, we don’t want them groveling, either. It’s embarrassing for us and for them. We’re in a relationship of trust. There’s something deeply wrong if either party has to worry about being rejected. Far from being a form of weakness, the contracted stance is open, like a clear sky, and allows us in to investigate and troubleshoot. “Here’s what happened…” it might begin. And like many once-upon-a-time stories, it’s more than likely to have a happy ending.

When the solution to the problem is clear to all involved, we won’t need to fix it. It’ll fix itself.

(For Day 12)


Day Eleven: Size Matters When You’re Twelve (an exercise in sentence length)

For most of my adolescence, half of my house was a giant hole in the ground. My parents, eager to rid themselves of the space they rented on Trask Street, decided to transform a big chunk of the back yard we had into two spacious studios, where they could concentrate on their art without having to contend with junkies and car thieves. So they built. And built. And built.

Before school some mornings, as the construction crew was digging the foundation for the addition, they would let me drive the Bobcat or dig with the backhoe. But that was before I twelve. I digress.

When the walls were up and the roof was shingled, scaffolding ringed our house. For a twelve-year-old boy, this was irresistible, and my parents couldn’t have kept me from climbing on it if they’d electrified the whole thing. I was a moth to a flame–a moth wearing high-grade fireproof pants. I scaled the rickety metal, and scampered across the uneven wooden planks like a monkey. And then I made it to the roof.

This definitely wasn’t my first time jumping from the roof, but it was the best. I didn’t know why, but I’d long ago figured out that crumpling or rolling after jumping from a high place would reduce the strain of impact. Still, looking down, my guts squirmed in anticipation. I backed up a few paces up the sloped roof, took a deep breath and let gravity carry me.

Step. Step.

And with a push, I launched myself out to avoid landing in the juniper bush growing against the side of the house. Time did not slow down. The grass rushed toward me in a green blur, and I let my knees collapse, tucking my shoulders and head into my stomach. Momentum carried me forward across the lawn, and I rolled like a wheel. I stopped suddenly, having crashed into the agapanthus bushes that separated the soft lawn from the concrete sidewalk.

When you’re a boy, moments like this, sprawled in the bushes, gasping for breath, legs all akimbo, stave off the natural impulse to off oneself. At least until the bruises heal, that is.

After that, anything goes.

Phone Monkey: Tumbling

For lack of inspiration today, I’m drawing from the Daily Post’s prompt from a few days ago: Verbal Ticks.

PhoneMonkeyPNGI have a lot of verbal ticks for someone who speaks to people on the phone for money. I’m sure that there are professionals who offer weekend classes that promise to get rid of your bad habits and make you an aurally desirable person, but there’s some sick part of me that must enjoy inflicting my monotone drone and weird pauses upon an unsuspecting populace.

I speak a lot like I write. As of this sentence, I’m tick-tick-ticking along on my keyboard, making a serious go of not trying to find the right word and just get the message out. But before this particular sentence began, I paused, trying to find the right thing to say after such a good run. The same thing happens in real life. Here’s a sample of what talking to me might be like:

Hi, this is Phone Monkey how can I help you?

Ok. Uhh… [one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand] I see what you’re [one one-thousand] talking about. So you ordered a pepperoni and bacon pizza, but you’re a, uh, vegetarian?

I see. No, umm… I understand. [one one-thousand] Mistakes happen. Let’s, uh, fix that for you.

Oh, man, that is so me! It’s like I was channeling me right there! Crazy! I had one restaurant owner call me an “uh, uh, uh, stuttering dumbass,” but I, in turn, thought that he was a mean cocksucker, so karmically I think it all evened out. I probably could work on having more inflection in my voice. Think of the following two examples.

“Will you marry me.”

“Will you marry me?”

One of them sounds like a joyous inquiry, the other like an admission that one has gonorrhea. Can you guess which one was me (inflection added)?!

I’m great with the black-and-white, or so I’m told, but not so good with the la-la-la. (I was wiggling my tongue in my mouth and trying to figure out a good idiom for spoken words.) I’m hardly complaining, though. There’s a weird kind of thing–I’m not sure I’d call it satisfaction–that happens when you resign yourself to not being very successful when talking to people. They may never understand you or what important message you’re desperately trying to make clear, but you can be sure that you will never be misunderstood in writing. You can be so crystal clear that all your secrets are laid bare between the lines. Or you can be cryptic as hell.

And failing that, after the yelling is done and the all-caps have been joyously converted to Zapf Dingbats, you can always bring your own fantasies to life on the page.

Live the life you were never meant to live.

A Diamond and a Nerd Cocktail

Today, I present a contrast of my own making.

The first half is the engagement ring, which I finally brought back from Taipei. It has been generally well received.


As diamonds tend to be, unless they are sat upon.

Like both the giver and wearer, it is fairly simple, but a little twisted. The giver is actually very twisted, but the wearer doesn’t know the half of it. He is multifaceted.

The other thing is the creation and official documentation of the Fat Jedi (Green). I’ve changed its name to The Hamill, because it sounds like a dangerous trick in an extreme sport, which isn’t far off the Mark. (Dear god…)

Fat Jedi (Green): The Hamill

Nerd cocktails are the fucking worst.

There’s a bit of history regarding this cocktail, and recipes for the blue and red varieties in a previous post. In short, a long time ago, a couple friends and I went out for drinks, started talking Star Wars with the bartender–like you do–and after a bout of storytelling involving a fat man, a comic book store, and Jedi robes, the bartender helped us concoct a series of Fat Jedi cocktails. This is the first. I don’t have gin in the cabinet yet, so the Fat Jedi (Blue): The Sir Alec will have to wait until next time I decide to do something I regret.

Yes. That’s Cheeto dust on the rim. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

[Note: I do not condone or recommend the putting of Cheeto detritus into any form of smoking apparatus (pipe, bong, hookah, vaporizer, etc), nor do I condone or recommend the inhaling of the combusted byproducts of said Cheeto detritus. Do not smoke Cheetos.]