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

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.