A Tragicomical, Unsophisticated Blog about the Weird, the Absurd, and the Banal

Sunday, May 12, 2013


It's been a while. The short of it is that I've been pre-occupied with searching for a new job and some disappointing results with grad school admissions.

After seventy job applications in the summer of 2012, I developed a habit of asking people how I could improve my chances as an applicant. It was a good way of showing there were no hard feelings and to network a little and also, you know, I could learn something. I did that this time around for grad school - sending thank you letters and  asking for advice. Some of it was encouraging and vague, but  one commented, "The writing sample was much less sophisticated than what we look for in a potential MFA student... far more students we admit are not yet publishing than are, [but] it should give you an indication of the level of expertise we expect."

The professor didn't have to write me back, and I am glad for the honesty. Though I do think some of the writer's opinion is a bit presumptuous since one of the stories in my portfolio was published in Daily Science Fiction (which was noted on my CV in my application).

I need to move on. And so I am starting a new website where I will now post updates.

Please refer to www.samferree.com for more things.

Sunday, March 10, 2013


There is an article that I revisit every so often because it amuses and inspires me. Well, it's not really an article, exactly. Every year, the Edge magazine asks a few hundred scientists, artists, and thinkers to respond to the question "What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?" and last year there were 194 answers.

My favorite is from Prof. Tania Lombrozo of the University of California, whose brilliant response "Realism and Other Metaphysical Half-Truths" basically says that there are particular assumptions we have to make every day for our world to function, like Realism, Other-Minds, and Causation.

So, I thought I'd step back and evaluate my own deeply held and indefensible assumptions. To wit:

1.) ... Realism, Other-Minds, and Causation. Okay, not very original, but they are a few concepts that I find infinitely fascinating, particularly the latter two. You take for granted that you are not the only mind in the universe and that there is an external world, but there's no really good way of proving that solipsism is false much less ridiculous, but you do anyway. Why? Moving on.

2.) Linear continuity. Tomorrow will come. What I do now will have some effect on whatever happens next. Sort of causation, but a little more mundane. Whether I want to or not, I'm hurtling into the future and the past becomes richer and deeper while the there's a little less of what comes after. Eventually, I'll have to reckon with my procrastinations.

3.) Daily karma. No matter how many times I've seen the contrary proven, I can't shake this belief that suffering and hard work will ultimately pay off, even if the ultimate reward is completely unrelated to the work and suffering etc. Sort of against the idea of causation in a strictly logical sense, but works the same way, I think. Or maybe I believe in magic and just call it something else.

4.) Garlic and cloves can make anything tasty. Enough said.

5.) Eventually, I'll buy a house and have kids. So far, I have no idea how that will be accomplished, but I'll get there.

6.) The day I don't triple check to make sure I locked my car, apartment, office, etc. is the day I will find myself the victim of avoidable misfortune.

7.) If I don't record the date above everything I write in my notebooks, all semblance of order will crumble and something awful will happen.

8.) There's someone listening to my thoughts. I don't really pray, but I will make requests and try to bargain with some sort of divine appellate court. For an agnostic, it's very odd. So, I think as if I am composing a letter to someone.

9.) My car will start tomorrow. Hopefully.

10.) Eating spinach will miraculously improve my health.

11.) Probability is not as powerful as fairness. If I've flipped a coin ninety-nine times and it always ends up heads -and knowing that it is not weighted - I'm  certain the chances are better than 50% that it will fall tails next. It's just fair.

It's a Sunday afternoon and I've spent most of my time reading, playing video games, and cooking with Anna.  I have one less hour than normal because some bastard invented daylight savings. If I had my way, we'd fall an hour back every weekend.

This post is a day late. I am going to go cut more vegetables.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

What Happened to a Third of My Life?

I've been having stormy dreams, lately. Literally. Whenever I wake up, I go through the motions of re-hydration, brushing my teeth, getting ready for work and suddenly I'll remember that I survived a tornado while I slept (or EH's driving. Much like that incident in Nantucket... because of which we will never speak again).

For a very long time, I didn't remember any of my dreams, but now they hit me every morning, a block of ice shattering over my head. There was a zombie invasion the other night. Before that, I experienced my first teeth-falling-out dream. The latter all happened in the middle of a guerrilla firefight while my Boss yelled at me about not having the appropriate amount of bullets on hand to fight off an insurrection. Somewhere in there I got shot and had to bandage my wounds in a filthy bathroom straight out of Silent Hill, reminding myself that I was pursuing other careers and, sooner or later, something would work out.

This is all unusual. For most of my life I've just taken it with a shrug that I somehow lose eight hours every day to unconscious amnesia. If I did remember my dreams, it was all flashes of the Strange, unmoored from anything having to do with my waking life or even tangentially significant. So I just forgot.

Like most writers in college, I became obsessed with Stream of Consciousness writing for a while, convinced that if I just wrote rambling prose, it would be somehow significant. This was all ironic, since my thoughts are usually ordered and sluggish, a few steps behind everyone else, and I'm not familiar with dreams. One time, a writing teacher, Sergei, just shrugged off a story about dreaming and said, "Come on, it's a literary trope. And everyone knows that dreams don't mean anything." Like that, I was Free.

There is one dream, though, that I remember from childhood. Actually, I'm not sure if it was a dream or if it was just me being a weird little kid. I was standing in my backyard thinking about infinity. I tried to imagine space and time expanding around me in all directions and throughout history, pushing my six-year old mind to the limits and beyond. Suddenly, I became extremely depressed. I'd somehow stumbled into an existential crises as a pre-adolescent and it bothered me. That summer, I went to see a doctor and for the first time I realized that Depressed wasn't just an adjective, but a disease.

These all should be nightmares, but they aren't. I'm not horrified or terrified (the genre freaks out there will know the difference). They just are Strange.

I hope this trend continues. I regret that I can't remember many of my dreams and I want those eight hours back. It seems fair, considering how sleep deprived I was in high school and college.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

I Refute You. Thus! (Kick)

Because we were all post grads starved for something to argue about, we AmeriCorps kids decided to form a reading group. We were also lazy, so we decided the pieces had to be short. So, every week we would designate someone to host and choose a story, essay, comic, or whatever. We called ourselves the Swimmers because that was the first story we read and discussed. And because we usually drank a lot.

One week, R decided to join us. R was in charge of making the warehouse more efficient and was outstandingly successful at it. He was also taking a break from an MA in philosophy at Ole Miss and since we hadn't read any philosophy yet  he volunteered to provide.

At lunch, we were sitting in the dwindling shade underneath a rusted, sheet metal structure that served as a volunteer orientation spot. Anyway, I asked, "What are you thinking for a philosophy essay?"

I admit that I didn't particularly care what he was going to choose -- I just wanted to hear him talk. R has a fantastic academic Mississippi drawl and so at lunch I would usually try to prod him into a rant so he'd keep going.

R shrugged. "I don't know. What would people like to talk about?"

"Well, your specialty was ethics, right? Why not bring up something from that?"

"Nah, I'm taking a break from that and I don't think anyone would really want to hear me talk about it because I've researched it so heavily I slide into minutia. What about you? What would you like to talk about?"

"Well, I'm really fascinated by Allan Turing's 'The Turing Test.' We could talk about that."

R gave me a horrified, baffled look. "Why would you want to talk about that?"

"Why not?" I asked, falling back on that age-old rhetorical last-stand question. "It's interesting. I think it could be fun to talk about the idea of humanness and talking about other minds."

R shook his head. "No, it's not. I find that entire debate dull and ridiculous. Why would you bother to ask if a computer can think? Of course it can't. It's a programmed machine."


"And why bother asking if someone else has a consciousness outside of yourself. Of course they do. If they didn't, why would you bother trying to communicate with them. Go down that road too far and you end up in solipsism and you've lost the whole game."

I suddenly realized I'd brought a English major to a philosophy fight and looked for an escape route.

"Isn't that poor sportsmanship?" I asked. "Just dismissing someone's argument outright. Isn't that called straw-manning?"

"No, straw-manning is when you misconstrue someone else's argument to be weaker than it is and then tear it down. I didn't do that - I just said your argument wasn't worth my time."

"Again," I said, feebly. "Sportsmanship. What do they teach you at Ole Miss?"

R laughed. "Actually, they encourage you to do that. If you can't argue with someone then you just dismiss it outright and say, 'I'll tell you how wrong you are by ignoring you and starting at the beginning.' Bertrand Russell did it all the time."

Lunch was over. We started to retreat back to our respective offices. "So, what would you like to talk about?"

"'The Apology,'" R said, and proceeded to explain. I considered it a successful lunch break.

Saturday, February 16, 2013


In school, I hated gym -- actually, I've pretty much always hated physical activity of any kind. That didn't stop me from trying, though, and I always passed -- if not from success, then at least I got by with Effort. No matter if it was basketball or tennis, though, the other athletes always made beating me look effortless.

One day, after a particularly embarrassing round of foot hockey (or whatever they called it), one of the guys, I'm pretty sure it was RA (the one who gave me such sage advice as, "Never get in a fight you can't win.") told me surreptitiously, "You know, Sam, you would have more fun if you didn't try so hard."

About a year earlier, I was stressing out over a paper for Western Civ. and Will M. told me, "Sam, you need to learn how to say, 'Meh.' Say it with me. I've got a paper due tomorrow! Meh."

My coworker and boss always tell me that they are amazed at how much extra work I make for myself. It always seems to me that if it's easy then it's wrong.

This is why I rarely miss a deadline, even with this blog. I don't particularly want to post. I rarely want to do anything, in fact. I just do it. It's always what Ought to be done and what Should come next.

I'm not entirely sure how to finish this one. You see, I don't like writing about myself in this blog. Ironic. Even when I'm writing personal essays I tend to think in terms of  Narrator and Story, not Me. That said, it's been a tough few weeks and I'm trying to resign myself to disappointment. In the past two weeks, my applications have been declined by Wash U., KU, and Minnesota. The deeper into February I get, the more remote the possibility that I'll receive good news. It reminds me of when I was 18 and applying for college, receiving one rejection after the next, opportunity narrowing to one possibility -- UI, which was legally required to accept me because I was Iowan and had the good grades and test scores. Not that I'm not grateful for my education there, but it would have been nice if I'd had a choice.

Last year, when the first round of rejections started coming in, I confessed to CD that I was afraid of getting rejected from everywhere because I didn't think I'd have the energy to move north and apply for jobs. She said, "Well, even if you are rejected from everywhere, it'll suck, but you'll have the energy, you'll apply for jobs and get one." I wasn't glad she was right. Seventy-odd applications, as many networking dates, and about ten second-interviews later I ended up with another last choice.

It all disturbs me because I don't understand what I'm doing wrong. I've heard too often that I'm good, but not good enough. I'm growing bitter. IB told me, in the middle of the Bad Season last year that she knew many people who were in the same situation, applying for dozens of grad school and hundreds of salaried jobs and finding themselves in AmeriCorps or coffee shops wondering how the hell That happened. I take no comfort from this, though. I feel bad for my peers who are suffering disappointments and hate that we have to share such awful camaraderie.

"I write to exorcise my demons," a friend of mine told me once. Xe was being melodramatic, but sometimes melodrama's the way to go. This is the most confessional post I've done in a long time and I needed to write it and I do feel that I've gotten something Bad out of me.

A and I had a good night last night. We saw several bands at the Turf Club and it was worth the entry fee. This evening, we shall get together with friends to play games and it will be Good. I have a long weekend and I'm going to make the most of it reading (The Bell Jar about three years too late), writing, playing video games, wasting time with friends, and visiting with my brother-in-law. It's a beautiful, sunny, cold day in Minneapolis, and A and I are hanging out at Spyhouse Cafe. The light roast is immaculate.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Tribute: Marcus Aurelius' Meditations


My high school western civ. teacher, Mr. Daddow, taught me that everything has an economic reason. And to make sure to have my affairs are in order should a crowd come to my door proclaiming me, "An enemy of the people."

A's cats taught me sloth.

From my roommate, D. the Viking, I have learned many puns.

L taught me how to change a bike tire and how to endure untenable living situations.

IB gave me a crash course in feminism every time we spoke and, in many ways, gave me New Orleans.

Will M. taught me the absolute value of learning to say, "Meh."

A has, and continues to teach me about living my life the way I want to.

To my family I owe my bibliophilia, dissatisfaction with easy answers, and love of learning.

From a New Orleans nonprofit leader I learned that bluster and arrogance will get you far in life.

Josh G. taught me that if I ever begin a sentence, "[Group of people]..." what follows had better not be anecdotal.

To Rachel Swirsky I owe most of what I know about writing and that a story isn't done until you sit down for the nth time to revise it and start to cry.

From all my Iowa City friends I've learned more than I really wanted to know. But most recently, they taught me how to laugh again.

Raymond Carver taught me to never use tricks.

To Marcus Aurelius I owe the revelation that I owe a debt to everyone for who I am.

Saturday, February 2, 2013


It was scary how much effort my friends put into trying to make me believe in ghosts. Afterwards they told me it was my fault. On a rainy, February day in New Orleans -- not really cold so much as Unpleasant, the kind of day where you can imagine what it's like to be a forgotten sock on a damp, cement basement floor, growing and being eaten by mold -- we were talking about faith. Just M, B, G, and I.

G was explaining that she was having trouble finding a church because all of them were so Different. They weren't at all like the calm, contemplative congregations she was raised in farther north. B, ever the anthropologist, said Everything was Different down here. It was a hodge podge of faiths and practices that got together for a party and woke up the next morning having no idea how to get home, so they did the responsible adult thing, had a shotgun wedding and raised the kids as best they knew how.

Anyway, I said something about how disappointed I was that I hadn't met a single vampire or ghost since moving to New Orleans. That was all the inspiration they needed, apparently.

Working in the office, I didn't get to go out much, but one of my duties was to go and visit homeowners and interview them. B was working on this particular sight where one Mr. Breaux lived and one day, the first day after B went to the sight she and I were at a coffee shop with M (B was a teetotaler).

"I don't know, something about that house, man..." she said, stirring honey into her tea.

"What about it? Did you find a closet full of pornographic magazines and assault rifles?" M asked.

"No!" B snapped.

"That would be funny if it hadn't happened once," M said.

"Really?" I asked.

"Oh yeah--"

"The point, M, is that people died in the house," B said.

M shrugged. "So, it's New Orleans. Lots of people die in their houses where their mothers and fathers and ancestors died before them. It's tradition. They're big on tradition here."

"The guys whole family drowned in the house during the flood," B said.

"And he wants to live there?"

"To be close," B said.

Strange Things got passed around the work site, then the warehouses, and finally, as these Things go, got to us in the office. B found the tools rearranged in the morning when she got to the site and no sign of a break-in. Every time the framers tried to put up a wall where there wasn't one before, the nails would bend and it took hours of frustrating work to get everything level. B was working late one night and her foot went through the rotten wood and she swore that as she struggled she felt a hand pull her out. People found mysterious trinkets.

"The weirdest thing," B said one night when we were all out at Tipitina's and she was taking a break from dancing manically. "Every morning there's food there. I mean, like, a bag of beignets and coffee. Sometimes even a crockpot full of gumbo. I always thought it was Mr. Breaux coming by before work, but I asked him about it today and he said he had no idea what I was talking about. I think he's pulling my leg, but..."

She let that hang there, then shrugged and darted off back into the fray. Rebirth was playing that night and so there was a full crowd and Stasi-like dudes standing by the door checking IDs. I didn't feel like dancing. I never feel like dancing, actually. People shoved into me while I stood by the second floor railing, contemplating the crowd below while the brass band blared. Vibrations up and down the skin. It felt like a rough caress, if sandpaper could be soft.

This was two days before I had to go visit Mr. Breaux. On a Monday, mid-morning, we agreed to go and meet him, G and I. We worked as partners, typically. She would take pictures while I would talk to our clients, writing down their tragedies, hopes, and disappointments and trying to make a three-paragraph story out of it. I'd argued with my boss over the length of the biographies, but, as always, I lost and so they were always three paragraphs. I had to break down every single person's life that way: what they did before Katrina, what happened to them during the Tragedy, and what happened to them afterward. I wondered if someone dissected  my life, where they would make the incisions.

The house wasn't far from where IB lived. Just around the corner, in fact, somewhere in Treme near a large, institutional-looking building that I was never sure if it was a school or a penitentiary. B was waiting for us in the front, right on the street. It had been raining and it was that uncomfortable, wet-cold so unusual for a Midwesterner.

As we were driving, G wouldn't look at me. This was unusual since she was generally chipper no matter what the atrocious circumstances. But that day she and I drove silently to and from the office and toward our destination for our semi-exploitative endeavors. Finally, when we were only a few blocks away, she said, "I had a few nightmares last night..."

"More than one," I asked.

"Yeah. More than one. The first one I dreamed that I was drowning. I've heard that's one of the most common nightmares, after having all your teeth fall out. It makes sense that that would be one of the most common fears. So I woke up from that and I brushed my teeth. When I went back to bed I had this dream that I was in a house filled with everyone I knew and they were all saying 'I'm sorry' over and over again, but nobody would tell me why they were so sorry. Finally, I got up from my chair and they all looked away. Someone knocked at the door and I went to answer it and there was my grandpa and grandma, they're dead, and you, waiting at the door. You asked me to go with you..."

She drew the Parallel between me and the Dead right as we pulled up to the house and got out without another word. She took her time getting her camera.

Mr. Breaux was much younger than I expected, maybe in his mid-thirties, and he looked haunted. He didn't actually look at me when we shook hands, but right past my shoulder. B nudged me unnecessarily to be polite. It took him several seconds of try-and-fail to find the correct key to let us into his house.

It was a two-story behemoth, the kind that most people associate with New Orleans. You could easily imagine gentry living there from the outside. After we walked through, though, it was all rotten wood and cobwebs, dust and pieces of a house.

"This is the entryway. Sorry I don't have a mat. There used to be a mat here," Mr. Breaux said. He nodded to himself and led us through the broken house. "This is the kitchen. Mom cooks a lot of good food here. Follow me... here is the living room. This is where my sister spends most of her time working on homework. Wave sister..."

He waved at some figure who wasn't there. I carefully did not look at G or B, but took careful notes and asked polite questions about his mother, sister, the history of the house, how FEMA had screwed him, where he was during the Deluge, and so on. When he started to lead us upstairs, G quietly excused herself and said that she was going to try to get better pictures of the downstairs.

As soon as we reached the top landing, Mr. Breaux stopped and stared up at the patchwork ceiling. "This... this is where I survived..." he said. I didn't say anything, but just waited for him to go on, pen poised, like I always did.

"I have to go..." Mr. Breaux said and then quickly went down the stairs. B looked at me and motioned for me to stay put, pursuing him.

So I stayed in the creepy old, gutted upstairs. Strange to think that I once didn't know what "gutted" meant. I asked the carpenters and they said that it's when a house has been stripped to the siding and framing. It's a skeleton, essentially -- gutted. B had warned me that there were a lot of dangerous spots in the upstairs, so I didn't wander, exactly. I just got bored and started to test the wood around me, inching one direction and then the next. It was a giant floor and I could see every room, all the bedrooms and single bathroom, or at least the bare shapes of them.

"I know you," said someone. I looked around and saw no one, but I could've sworn I had heard a voice.

"Hello?" I asked, but didn't move. I know how horror movies work.

"I know you," the voice said again.

That was enough for me. I walked slowly down the stairs and found B and Mr. Breaux talking quietly in the corner. G tapped me on the shoulder and I jumped forward. B laughed. I managed to finish the interview and then insisted that G and I leave as soon as we could.

That was it. Nothing more than that. I know you, the voice said. It wasn't until a month before I left, when we were all together at another bar that M admitted that he was hiding between the floorboards and talking to me. When I confronted B about it, she admitted that Mr. Breaux had played along. He was from New Orleans, but it wasn't his family's house and no one had died in it that anyone knew of.

I asked why they let the joke go after that. B admitted that it just wasn't funny after that point. I didn't seem scared enough.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Reading the Signs

Recently, I made the terribly poor health decision of following the postings on a Facebook group called the MFA 2013 Draft. Basically, it's a place for MFA applicants to virtually congregate and share advice and developments about the process and, unfortunately, reading the comments is sometimes like watching the scenes from a Shakespearean comedy when Shit Goes Down. There's a slight bit of miscommunication and suddenly everyone who applied to some school has a sympathetic heart attack... like me just now.

Within moments, you can watch a discussion explode into micro-analysis of what these tell-tale signs -- like an auto-reply message burped up from the submission system -- Means. Deep down, you know it's ridiculous, but when you rest your hopes on something it's hard not to divine secrets from bureaucracy.

I promised myself I wouldn't look and every day I break it. I have a problem, I know.

It is, however, interesting to see how my thought process and behavior has changed under such anxiety. For some reason I'll find myself playing video games instead of writing and think to myself, "Ah, but if I write more, maybe that will tip the Karmic scales in my favor and while I am writing some professor from X university will feel compelled to call me at that moment to inform me that I've been accepted." This seems irrationally reasonable.

But it gets worse. Now I've started to feel bad about not writing thank you notes or not starting to do my taxes and an itchy suspicion begins to take hold that my slacking off is diminishing my chances of getting into grad school. This, I believe, is why people believe in magic. I'm starting to develop the equivalent mental ticks of the baseball coach who rattles the bats to shake out a home run. People wonder why I carry a notebook around with me everywhere -- I should just start telling them I'm bewitched.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

King Lear is Not for Kids

Over the holiday, I went back to Ames to visit some old teachers and Mr. Keane finally told me why he decided to do King Lear as our sophomore performance. That deserves some context. I've hiked the Grand Canyon, worked for a certifiably psychopathic boss, gotten lost in Berlin for three days, and managed to get a four point while I had mono, but acting in King Lear was truly the most harrowing experience of my life. You try doing a play about insanity and betrayal as a teenager.

It's true, I really wanted an explanation, but I wasn't looking for a confession. I'd put it behind me, and I figured, like King Lear itself, there really wasn't a good reason for it anyway. The admission came about in the most unnatural way possible -- one moment we were talking about jobs and the next he said, "It was a dare I had in college." He looked mildly ashamed of himself, which he should have been.

It was after hours and it was already dark outside. Mr. Keane's window looks out on the courtyard where I used to eat lunch with friends and I could see a few kids were still there, huddled in a tight circle talking about god knows what.

"A dare...?" I asked.

"A dare..." Mr. Keane said and nodded. He slouched in his chair, resting his forehead in his hand and I had to stop myself from laughing because he suddenly looked a lot like a photo I'd seen of Edwin Booth as Hamlet.

"It was senior year and my friends and I were sitting around at a party talking about Shakespeare because we were theatre majors and an old argument came up: can you teach Shakespeare to high schoolers? We were drinking and smoking pot, which tends to lead to silly promises..."

I looked over my shoulder to make sure that no one was standing at the door to the room. Mr. Keane didn't seem the least bit worried about anyone hearing. In fact, I'm not sure if he was talking to me at all.

"Um, Mr. Keane..." I said and, for first time, his formal name seemed awkward and I wondered if I should just call him Miles. "... Mr. Keane... are we really having this conversation?"

"Apparently we are," he verified. "I can get to the point and say that that was my first year teaching and I'm very sorry."

"You made Max sit in a corner and scream 'Please God don't make me crazy!' for ten minutes..." Max played King Lear. I've never seen anyone so deep in character. I've heard Max works for the Bank of America now.

"Yeah, I'm sorry about that. I stole that from a friend who was doing Proof." He took a sip of coffee and refilled my cup. In the whole year I sat in his classroom, I don't think I ever saw that pot empty.

"On the first rehearsal you made us all sit around and write out our worst memories-"

"Yeah, I-"

"-and then made the person next to us act it out." Try to imagine being sixteen years old, sitting next to the girl you have a crush on (playing Ophelia), and acting out the death of her uncle.

Mr. Keane hung his head. "That was a bad decision."

The head-hanging thing was too much. I'd forgiven him, if not forgotten, but now he was looking for sympathy and I wanted to get to the one that really stung. "You threw cast parties and didn't invite me."

There was a grimace on his face and he took a quick sip of coffee. "It was something Milos Forman did to the guy playing Salieri filming Amadeus."

"And this seemed like a good thing to do to a sixteen year old?"

"You did great in that play."

"I know I did, but that's not the point."

Every rehearsal I would get there and all the other actors would be talking about the fun they had at Gregory's or how they got together to watch different film versions of the play. Without me. The best part of high school theatre is the social aspect and I missed out on it completely. I later learned this was by Mr. Keane's design so that I would feel animosity toward the other actors while playing Edmund. Ever since then, I've always liked that character.

Mr. Keane nodded. "Well, I know it's not worth much, but I'm sorry and I was learning."

He was learning. It seemed like a feeble excuse when he said, but after a moment it took on greater meaning.  Mr. Keane, when he did that first play with us, was my age - fresh out of college and still susceptible to bouts of artistic insanity. At my job now, I meet teachers all the time and usually I think, "You're too young to be a teacher..." not realizing that I guess we've reached that age where we're expected to know something and pass it on.

We talked a little longer, Miles and I, but about nothing particularly memorable. He was "Miles" to me then and that meant he didn't have anything more to teach me. The lessons he did give me were accidental anyway. We said goodbye and I left Ames High feeling educated again.

Saturday, January 12, 2013


B made a god. He found it in the basement of the Ivy House and carried it around with him wherever he went. No one knew how it got to be down in the basement originally, but that wasn't really surprising since there was all sorts of stuff down there.In the basement, you could find couches, boxes of Christmas supplies, books, clothes, costumes, broken furniture, art, and inexplicable and unnameable Things.

So, the god was not impressive. Actually, it looked like the kind of brass figurine you could pick up for five dollars at any new age shop. That didn't concern B. He was determined to have something, if not more reliable, then at least more concrete than his potluck Christian upbringing.

For weeks he created myth, mystery, and ritual around the cheap metallic half-man-half-fox-thing -- Cantori, he called it. Cantori was born at the end of the Universe and never existed in our time and so was more of an avatar than a god. He was beyond all this Newtonian physics and capitalism nonesense. He projected reassurance back from the future that it would be all right. In his own little way, Cantori was helping out. All this, B created in his spare time between working hellish hours at Walmart to pay off student loans.

"So, he's not all powerful?" I asked B one day when we were sitting on the floor of the Ivy House living room in the bare spot between crumpled blankets, books, yarn, buttons, carpentry tools, match books, candles, lost game pieces, and so much discarded change.

"Of course not," B said, shaking his head in quick jerks. "I gave up an all-powerful god for a personal one."

"Seems weak," I said.

"But ultimately more pragmatic."

It was early summer and we were both sweating. There was air conditioning in the house, but it only seemed to take the edge off the heat. This was before the flood and it was the humidity that was really troubling.

"Think about it," B said, standing up and taking unsteady steps over to the porch door. "An almighty god has great concerns. How could I, in all seriousness, ask for help getting through an eight hour shift to an omnipotent being?"

We stepped out onto the porch. The heat was incredible and for a moment it was difficult to breathe, but B lit up and continued on his monologue without missing a beat. We sweated more and sat down on the couch that smelled like ash and an antique shop. Vintage.

"But, a local god..." B held Cantori up and then set him down on the glass table top. There Cantori rattled, wobbled, and came to rest. While he spoke, B lit two cigarettes, put one in his mouth and left the other burning down slowly on the ash tray. "A local god, on the other hand... you don't have to feel bad about asking a local god for things. And it's more like a business relationship. I make him offerings," B gestured at the burning cigarette, "and he gives me a little edge when and how he can."

"You're going to spend twice as much on cigarettes,"  I pointed out.

"That's not all he'll accept," B said. "I can burn all sorts of things that will sustain his avatar in what, for him, is the impossibly distant past. You see, the more he changes Now, the more powerful he becomes in his Now."

"So, you're his pawn?" I asked.

"I work at Walmart, Sam. We're all somebody's pawn."

B lost his god one day. It's difficult having a physically manifested deity, because if you lose it, it's gone. We were at one of the last parties at the Ivy House and B confessed his sin to me. "I wasn't a faithful worshiper " B said, sitting down on the stoop outside. The night was illuminated by fireflies and alive with the ruckus of cicadas.

"I'm sorry to hear that," I said. "What will you do now?"

"Well, I could follow the majority and go back to Lutheranism," B said, slouching forward and unknowingly striking the pose of the Thinker. "I thought about becoming a minister, actually. The job has always appealed to me."

"Didn't you just, you know, break one of the Commandments?"

"Omnibenevolence, my friend. God forgives all. And, when you think about it, seminary seems like a better, more pragmatic option than completing my English degree."

"This may be true," I conceded.

After that, we went back inside and discussed religion and finding a good Flock. B came back to help me clean up the Ivy House and we found Cantori under one of the couches, but by then B was working a better job and was making good progress on his loans. He was preparing to make investments and maybe buy a house, a very practical thing to do in his twenties.

Sunday, January 6, 2013


When I first moved into my new apartment, the window right next to the front entrance was always shaded by a thin, brightly colored sheet that reminded me of New Age-shop aesthetics. I never saw anyone enter or leave. Come to think of it, I rarely see anyone in the building, but I hear their animals and footsteps, smell their cooking, am inconvenienced by their cars, see their lights. Whoever lived in that apartment right next to the entrance, though, I never saw.

One day, the sheet was gone and I could see inside. I'm certain I wasn't the only tenant to stop and stare. The bed was right up against the window, a bare mattress covered in wrappers, empty Coke and vodka bottles, rolls of duct tape, other junk. The next day, the new cleaning crew came through. Word through the grapevine was that the tenants sisters had come by one day and conducted an intervention. The cleaners said that his room was filled with books in half a dozen languages, that he had been a student and succumbed to something bad enough that loved ones had to step in.

The cleaners let me in to have a look after they'd removed all of the tenants personal possessions and were getting down to the wood and dirt. It was a cozy place. There was a fireplace, two bedrooms, a bathroom and kitchen that hadn't been renovated since the 1920s.

Hey, take a look at this, one of the guys said. He walked to the far end of the room and opened the second front door, leading to the other half of the building. All the other apartments only have one door. There are a lot of odd things about the way the place is built, he said. Maybe it was used by the mob back in the 20s.

When I started writing this, it seemed like a story. A story happened, no doubt, but I wasn't a witness. So much goes on and we only get a fraction of it. In conclusion, I suppose, I hope the tenant is better off now.