Writing

I’m So Tense

PhoneMonkeyPNGI’ve been tempted over the last few weeks to post about the horrible things customers do and say. I’ve also wanted to air out grievances regarding terrible and (borderline) criminal management practices, and the terrible toll that customer service takes on one’s physical and mental health. In short, I want to whine. But why whine when there are so many beautiful things out there, just waiting for someone to notice?

Take, for example, the following line from an email I received today:

“It always has been happened.”

Whaaaaa? you say. Or perhaps I’m being an ass for making fun of someone’s ESL issues. Oh, here goes the jaded know-it-all, right? Perish the thought! As a verb tense, this is a thing of beauty, so let’s cut it open and see how it ticks.

It happened. Once. At some point in time, possibly never again.

It always happened. Routine instances. Points on a line, most often in conjunction with another event. Here. Here. Here. Here and here and here. Up until now, at which point, for narrative reference, it may be happening.

It has happened. At least once, though possible more than once. It may also be “it happened” with “has” as an emphasis, though this would be less formal, more colloquial.

It has been happening. From some point in the past up until and including the present moment. Sometimes incidental, sometimes continual. Typically, set in motion by an outside actor.

It is. Exists now. It was. Before now. It has been. Before–could be again–might even still be.

It has been happening. Continually, from some past point through the present moment.

It has been happened. Before. Passive voice. The connotation is that an outside, unnamed force made the past event or identical events happen.

It always has been happened. In conjunction with other events in the past, the above outside force made it happen over and over again, the most recent instance terminating just before the present moment. Probably, it will have happened again in the near future.

Additionally, it is a permanent affixing of the past tense on a moveable event. The event will never happen. In fact, it never seems to happen. It has always been and will always be finished before it begins. Time, in most other tenses, is the reason for the tense’s existence. We unravel time into a string, and place on its length an object or objectified chunk of time. In this tense, we drop objects like marbles into the malleable mass of jelly that is time. They may move with the internal currents to new locations in time, but inside they always have been what they were.

Hey, at least it is not always having been happening. Unless it’s Groundhog Day.

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Lace

[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.

In The Interest Of Time

Day 9
The Woman

We meander through the park, watching the birds. I take his hand and squeeze it, but it shakes, anyway. My father staggers, catches himself, and suddenly begins to weep in silent sobs. His clothes still smell like smoke.

The Man

The sirens have long faded from my ears, but my eyes water, burning from smoke, or from something else. Through the tears, I see my wife. She knows, but sits, knitting. Patient. I feel my knees buckle.

The Crone

I’m not there.

Open Letters

I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve begun to loathe the open letter, as practiced on the Internet, so I began searching around for open letters. Here are some of the ones I found.

A working mom’s open letter to Gwyneth (New York Post).

An open letter to the teachers of my daughter (Times of India)

Dear Harvard: You Win (The Harvard Crimson)

The public feud between Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow (The New York Times: Part 1, Part 2)

An Open Letter to the Makers of The Wolf of Wall Street, and the Wolf Himself (LA Weekly)

And for crying out loud, McSweeny’s has an entire page of “Open Letters to People or Entities Who Are Unlikely to Respond.”

But why, you might ask, does this man hate the open letter? With a few possible exceptions, which I will talk about in a moment, the answer to this question is sleaze. Now understand: I am not saying that Harvard’s rape victim is sleazy; nor do I necessarily think that Gwyneth is all that sleazy (because I really have zero opinions about her either way). The sleaze (and I promise to stop using that word) is the gross spectacle. While, in the Internet Age, we are all becoming accustomed to losing our privacy as more and more of our private lives becomes digitized, the open letter exposes for public consumption something that could and should have remained private.

It’s not always a Bad Thing, though, as the “Dear Harvard” letter shows, for it, like some others out there, are the contemporary equivalent of Langston Hughes’ “Open Letter to the South” or Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, essentially an open letter nailed to a church door (though, not so much with the Hughes poem). While the side-effect of their publication may be a thorough public shaming, what sets these kinds of letters apart from their monstrous counterparts is that the intent is reform.

What separates these brilliant, rare, reformative open letters is the other intent, to play to a crowd–particularly an unruly Internet mob. From the letters that aren’t the reformative type, if you took away the public aspect, they would more often than not operate just as well as a closed, private letter. But the intent is to draw attention to the writer. The subject of the letter is typically not as important as the raising or lowering of social status, which is why the McSweeny’s letters, meant to be comic, are the other exception.

There is a whole genre of open letters that, while addressing a personal gripe, aren’t particularly serious. They operate on the same level as any other open letter, but with a few changes: a public shaming roux and a heaping tablespoon of self-aggrandizement, but with a pinch of self-deprecation, and a sprinkling of bons mots. Tongue-in-cheek rants, like the very lovely “An Open Letter to Bearded Hipsters” (and the subsequent apology, which fits well with another article I’ve written, speaking of self-aggrandizing), take those weirdly pornographic public displays of meanness and strip them of their import. Perhaps it’s why taking a legitimately reformative open letter seriously is increasingly difficult. I mean, why would I take the Gwyneth letter seriously when I seriously want and expect it to be a little something like this:

Right?

Of course, that brings up the last kind of open letter, which like the jackalope is extremely rare, and, oddly, often musical–or at least often enough to worth noting. What do I mean by often?

Often enough for me to embed two YouTube videos in this post:

Until tomorrow, you crazy kids.

Back to the Bastard

Here’s what it’s like to start reading Hunter S. Thompson again after a few years: bittersweet.

A long time ago, far, far away, I began reading Thompson more or less chronologically. You would probably presume that I started with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, because that’s generally where most people started with him–and you’d be right–or half right, anyway. Technically, I started reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas first, but set it down after a few chapters and picked up and read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 completely before resuming Las Vegas back up. Why? It was that weird time in the early 2000s when Terry Gilliam’s film adaptation had just come out, and college students, away from home for the first time in the fall of 2001, were going bananas over the Gonzo spirit in part as a way to deal with the cruel realities not just of the outside world, but of life in America, as well. It was escapism, for sure, but it also enkindled something in certain young people’s spirits that helped them process the grief of loss and the growing fear that their country was headed toward war. Just through osmosis, I’d pretty much heard the Las Vegas story already, so Campaign Trail ’72 it was. Over time, as I went through his books, I built up a sizable collection until the only books of his I was missing were his most recent.

I’ve reassembled my collection digitally, because shipping an entire oeuvre overseas is cumbersome and is just about as expensive as buying the whole thing over again, and have completed it by adding the few books I was missing and hadn’t read yet. Appropriately, I’m starting now with the stuff he published when I was first discovering him–Hey Rube! and onward. And to be honest, it’s a little strange.

It’s no secret that Thompson laughed at the idea of inherent journalistic objectivity. While he may have been factually correct in his writings, he also made no particular effort to hide his or others’ emotions toward those facts. Blending the psychological and spiritual into the story was a tactic to get at the truth, a laudable goal, now that people seem to be generating their own sets of facts, depending on what they believe. But by the time Thompson was writing Hey Rube! and others, he wasn’t out marauding across the country and getting his head kicked in by Hell’s Angels. As we reach the end of the line, the scales seem to shift, now heavier on emotion, opinion, and collected experience than on field notes and direct contact with the major players in his pieces. He seems more content in these later works to rant and spin yarns than to really get into the meat of things. Maybe that changes after Hey Rube!, but I’m not there yet.

That isn’t to say that there is no more truth to be had, and that the writing is no longer good. There is truth, and it is good. But reading it is a constant reminder of the transition most of us have gone or will go through: the days of striding confidently into the mountains of sex, violence, and weirdness that the world has to offer and coming out enlightened, eventually withering into the settled days of couch surfing and semi-private masturbation. Fear and Loathing.

Encounter at Farpoint, I&II

Until The Writing 101 prompts come around, I still have about two weeks’ worth of posts to fill, in order to avoid being a sad sack who reneges on his commitments. So, I thought, here’s a novel idea for the creatively lackluster days: start naming posts after Star Trek: The next Generation episodes, and even if you don’t talk about the episode, you can make it a theme. Brilliant! So, let’s go chronologically. First episode: “Encounter at Farpoint, parts I and II.” Crap. Oh well. Also, by the way, if you’re unfamiliar with Farpoint, you’re probably going to be lost. But hey, that’s why there’s Netflix.

After staring at my screen for an hour and not knowing what in tarnation I could possibly write about this, I remembered something. Despite being retroactively reviled by fans and hipsters alike, Farpoint had all the makings of a perfect TNG episode, and would actually go on to be the blueprint for much better episodes, like “Clues” (in the style of Friends: The one where Data wipes everyone’s minds lest they all be murdered by aliens). Honestly, it wasn’t a terrible episode; it just suffered from the kind of stiff writing and undeveloped characters most first-season network TV shows have. And the first- and second-season uniforms were kind of awkward. But those things are peanuts compared to what it got right.

While, admittedly, Captain Kirk kicked mountains of ass from one end of the galaxy to the other during his abbreviated five-year mission, there was generally a great sense of exploration and newness to the Original Series. Farpoint made a point to carry on that tradition, and in doing so, set the precedent for the rest of TNG, which is why far more of its episodes have more replay value than those of any other Trek series. Because of its uncompromising fidelity to the “new life and new civilizations” ethos, the Next Gen crew could encounter grave conflict, but the show never had to become mired in it. As the following series in the franchise became increasingly battle-based (eventually self-destructing with Enterprise, which was basically Stargate SG1-Lite), crews became less focused on the exploring and newness, and more and more bogged down in the typical human-style conflict of territorial pissing. Now, with the film reboots, the new-old Federation resembles the Klingons or Romulans more than it does the peace-seeking and -keeping Shatner- or Stewart-era Federation.

If there is an argument out there that TV audiences only respond well to cruelty and explosive action, this show is its antidote. And it’s all because of a mediocre first meal made from the best ingredients.

60 Days of Blogging: Day 1, Writer’s Jail

I am the worst writer.

Words and structure are easy, and generally I’m better at it when I don’t try so hard. Apparently, though, I have to try a little bit harder than I have, or else nothing gets done. So now I’m in writer’s jail: 60 days of blogging about anything and, eventually, everything until something resembling a daily routine falls into place.

They say you’re not really a stand-up comedian unless you stand up and comede for a living, and so that principle probably applies to writing, as well. We’re obviously a long way off from that, but I’m looking to fulfill a dream, so maybe it’ll happen. Or maybe it won’t, and I’ll just drink my way to an early grave. We’ll see.

Cozy.

 

So, coming up in the next couple months you’ll see the following and probably more.

  • An as-of-yet untitled segment–probably about once or twice a week–about working as a customer service phone monkey.
  • Sketches, doodles, and whatnot. I got an iPad recently, and I have some interesting art software, with which I am going to try and improve my drawing skills–something else I’ve let atrophy.
  • Updates on my imminent marriage, the process of which is made somewhat complicated by my being in a foreign country.
  • A retrospective on my recent visit to Taipei, and a day-of entry on my upcoming trip back.
  • More cultural ramblings. I think I’ve learned some good lessons from the gargantuan Nerd post earlier this year, so look forward to spine-tingling conciseness.
  • And probably more of the usual, from when there was a usual.

I’m also getting serious about the theme and layout, so that may change, if I can find anything that’ll work.