I Have Always Practiced Social Isolation—Pt. 2

My wife Michael pointed out to me how strange it is to read tweets and posts by people who claim to be bored already. I can’t speak for the rest of the world, or even all of America, but I feel fairly comfortable in thinking I represent the, well, fairly comfortable. Even if I wasn’t a homebody—not unadventurous, since I do enjoy road trips and travel; I’m just most comfortable at home—suggesting that my house lacks for mental stimulation is absurd. Even leaving the laptop and Internet behind, I have about 200 or more curated DVDs and subscriptions to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and the Criterion Channel (best Christmas gift I ever got). Between me and Michael, our shelves hold a possible thousand or more books. We have plenty of puzzles, kits, and video and board games; a lovely backyard and an even lovelier hometown that affords a short walk to a Lake Michigan beach; a plenitude of arts and crafts supplies and woodworking tools; and a home that, frankly, has never looked cleaner. Bored? I am inebriated on both pastimes and the actual time in which to perform them.

Of course, work life comes first, as well as the coaching and ride-herding of the children. The former has certainly been sufficient. If any of my bosses are reading this, believe me, I may be home but I’m earning the hell out of that paycheck, writing and editing and proofing and podcasteringing (that’s the verb, right?). I confess, I squeeze in a quick 20 minute nap sometimes because I’m getting old. My body seems to like it, and it repays me (and you) by making me more alert and creative. Just keep that in mind when I get back. Say…do I really have to come back?

As for the kids, they’re certainly happy to be home, but providing direction and suggestions is an ongoing task. As I mentioned we’ve been having “school” from about 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., which usually involves them checking their Chrome books to see what their teacher has posted, worksheets (Flynn likes doing math—let’s hope that keeps up), about an hour and a half of reading, and usually what are called “specials” in their schools (art, gym, etc.). We had art today. I took them outside to draw pictures and write pleasant messages in sidewalk chalk to the many folks who walk by the house every day with their kids or dogs or pathological need to run, even in shitty weather. On our walks Mike and I saw that other folks had done so. My favorite was the one from the neighbor who started with their address: “647 LOVES Our Neighbors” with the parenthetical note: “(From Six Feet Away).” We went with “Stay Happy.”, “Stay Healthy”, and Nate’s “Stay Positive”.

Now, let us be clear… I am not a ball of sunshine. I am frequently goofy or humorous in a deadpan way, and certainly not unfriendly, but I’m not touchy-feely. I despise glurge. I guffaw at trite blandishments. I don’t believe a decapitation can be fixed with a band aid—even one of those great big knee ones. But this is a very different time.

I bring this up because today I saw someone tweeting about how ashamed they were of the twee movement that took place in their youth during the early 2000s. The tweet appears to be gone now, but as I recall they rankled at public pillow fights, flash mobs, precious rock bands and naif lyrics, and so on. Mostly, they seemed to dislike whimsy and, perhaps, false bonhomie, such as that supposedly practiced by people conversing through posters in their windows.

I’m sure the tweeter had the best of intentions, but it was a useless sentiment—not to mention a touch cruel—in the current climate. (Not as blithely cruel as the writer who felt obligated to point out that many of us hugged and kissed our relatives for the last time without knowing it…but that’s another issue.) As I’ve grown older, I’ve discovered, to my annoyance, that unlike me, not everyone has learned when to be tough. I don’t mean they’re weak. I mean they never figured out how to suck it up and drain themselves of emotion in order to make the hurt go away (I got very good at that in my twenties). These people need the kindness, not the snideness, of the tough folks to carry on. So, that’s why my kids and I wrote silly, inspirational messages in chalk on the sidewalk and driveway. Oh, and a platypus.

Maybe nobody will notice, just pounding over our pictures with their trainers or standing on them while their dog diddles on the tree. But when you can’t do anything, it’s nice to feel like you’re doing something.

I Have Always Practiced Social Isolation—Pt. 1

IMG_9662A friend of mine, Eric Kirsammer, suggested I regularly post something during this period of social isolation. Some kind of online diary, “in your style” as he put it. Presumably he meant with an ironic, sarcastic, and semi-bitter tone, owing to the complete absence of that sort of writing from the Interweb.

Ohhhh, that’s what he meant. As the philosopher Britannia Jean Spears expounded, “Oops. I did it again.”

Very well then. I’ll try to share what my family and I have been up to during the days of social-distancing. One hopes all this social isolation and people avoidance will keep the body count way down, and my blog will remain a silly whimsical thing.

Starting March 16, my employer sent us to work at home, originally for two weeks. Supposedly, we’d be back in the office by the following Friday. Within a few days Illinois Governor Pritzker issued the first order to shelter in place, self-isolate, social distance, and all the other fun new terms and verbs, and it was decided we wouldn’t go back until the near-end of April, at least. It probably didn’t help that a few people in our building were diagnosed with COVID-19. I hesitate to use the phrase, “it’s all for the best”, but I suppose it is. My wife Michael, a teacher, and two kids, Nate (12) and Flynn (8), being Illinoisans, had their schools closed the Thursday before. Mike and I both hoped that I’d get to work at home, because the idea of her doing her job and minding and homeschooling the kids alone didn’t sit well with either of us. Working for a healthcare association, however, I knew they’d do the right thing, and lo and behold they did.

I work at home twice a month. That’s one of the cushy benefits of my job, something for which I am deeply grateful. I choose two Fridays to stay home so I can walk my daughter Flannery to school and be there to meet them both afterward. It’s a pleasant perk. Wish I could do it more often. As it turns out, the past few days showed that I could. As a copywriter and copy editor my job is all about creating and reviewing documents. With a laptop I can carry my office in my backpack. For the past year I’ve also produced podcasts for my association. Again, luckily, my recording studio is portable. Just saying, in case anyone is listening, working at home has been easy. I’ve participated in several meetings, and frankly they’ve been shorter and more to the point than all the in-person ones. Does a lack of an audience—beyond a grid of taking heads—encourage people to not perform or pad out a meeting? Maybe so.

I started this blog a couple of weeks ago, but I’ve really been too busy to maintain it.* And I mean busy-busy. My workload, praise Cthulhu, has been consistent enough to justify my paycheck. I know how damned lucky I am (so far) to have a job I can rely on. Again, it’s a healthcare gig, and I suppose today we’re enjoying(?) a bull market. I’ve also been taking every advantage of being home, with no need to commute and no social or child obligations (no soccer, basketball, Boy Scouts, swimming, etc. to take the kids to and from). I can read without interruption. I’ve had greater motivation to work up stuff for Third Coast Review and interact with a group of fine, generous writers. I’ve even been able to give that whole writing thing I basically abandoned over the years another look. In a plague year, knowing it can all blow to hell and having extra time is a powerful motivator to attack projects. Also, I seriously, desperately, frightfully need the distraction. Yet, as wonderful as it is to feel productive, I hope it doesn’t last long.

More later.


Ten Books That Have Stuck with Me Off the Top of My Head as I Make Them Up

1. Teddy’s Skin by Margaret Wise Brown—The peculiar recurrence of furry animals and fur-lined rooms in Brown’s work becomes apparent in this little-known and strangely horrifying entry in the author’s whimsical oeuvre. Uncommonly, Brown is a character in her own children’s book, having been made by the Color Kittens when they mixed together “all the colors of the world rejected by God.” The Brown character is locked in a room with only two chairs. She sits in one, her childhood bear in the other, mute but obviously too, too alive. It is unclear how long she’s been in the room, or if the room exists. An example of a passage from the book:

“Miss Brown had spent the morning (was it just this morning? Or another?) purchasing parsnips and leafy green vegetables from the local grocers, when she was overcome by a wave of nausea. The world went black and she awoke in a windowless, doorless room. The farthest wall wavered in her sight until she approached it, at which time its infinitude coalesced into a blank, bleak solidity. She imagined she heard a duck kicking at the wall outside, cursing her with quacks and heaving small pebbles at the house for spite.

‘Goodnight, room,’ said Miss Brown.

‘Goodbye, Margaret,’ it replied in her father’s voice. She fell to the floor, chattering, and counted the seven shiny brass buttons on her jacket.”

Throughout the book, Brown is taunted by her beloved Little Fur Family, who appear through orifice-like openings in the very air, demanding that she explain what the fuck they’re supposed to be, and why the fur son found an even smaller fur-being living in the ground, before snapping shut with disgusting liquid sounds. “I don’t know! I don’t know!” sobs Brown, before Scuppers the Sailor Dog appears in his yellow rain slicker and hat with a large baling hook. He swings at her, but vanishes before connecting, representing her deceased mother’s distant personality.

Eventually running out of parsnips and leafy green vegetable, hunger and cold gnaw at Brown. She looks to her bear who would surely provide SOME sustenance and warmth, but at the cost of removing her fondest memories, and perhaps her sanity. The illustrations by Garth Williams are soft and edgeless yet filled with Much-like anxiety. Here is a man tired of drawing cute fluffy animals and filled with a desire to see the world melt and burn, as hinted at by the cover of Wise’s other collaboration with Williams’ Fox Eyes.

The book ends with Brown eying Teddy over her shoulder, fondling a Opinel knife left behind by Mister Dog/Crispin’s Crispian after he appeared in the form of a fur tornado and dared her to finally “belong to herself…or belong nowhere.” Brown weighs the possibilities in her mind and the knife in her hand, but the final page shows only a wordless illustration of a crib filled with flaming autumn leaves. What it means is left to the reader’s imagination, but it probably has something to do with fucking.

All Aboot Canadian English, Eh?

A friend at work just passed this along to me. She worked as a designer in Toronto for a few years, and ended up toting it back to the states, where it remained wrapped in plastic until she thought, “I know! I’ll give it to the word nerd at work!” (She didn’t really say that.) It’s fascinating to read a book written in your own language yet which seems slightly “off”, owing to subtle variations in spelling, definitions, and the like. I’ve had that experience in many a dream, though the reading usually ended up summoning some eldritch horror. I find it heartening as well to see that the Oxford folks took the time to include entries on Canadians-Prime Leonard Cohen and William Shatner.

Crab’s Cradle

“But there was more to it than just coping with such traumatic situations. In later life, despite being hailed by so many as an American genius, Vonnegut felt that the literary establishment never took him seriously. They interpreted his simplistic style, love of science fiction and Midwestern values as being beneath serious study.”

Never minding that Vonnegut was due for an inevitable “Your great hero was flawed! FLAWED!” biography, there’s a common trope among successful cross-genre writers that’s always niggled at me. I’ve never understood the concern among such writers to be taken “seriously” by the “literary establishment.” What exactly does that mean, to whom do they refer, and what is the root and extent of their desire for acceptance? Can we assume David Remnick refused to go shoe shopping with Kurt? Did  Kingsley Amis blackball him when he applied to the Junior Woodchucks in fourth grade?

The history of literature is a jittery timeline of yesterday’s young firebrands becoming today’s stodgy old poops, making sure the newer, angrier kids can’t sit at the big table until they’re old and grey (Kerouac died a broke drunk, while Burroughs became a chevalier of France’s Ordre des Arts et des Lettres), or grow willing to play according to the rules of the universities, lit journals, and writing workshops. Or so the story goes. In actuality, the world of literature has become so fractured and fragmented (and the need for validation diminished by the instant gratification of the Internet—nowadays even a halfway decent writer can have a bushel of fans and supporters), needing approval by the establishment seems charmlessly archaic. I remember the time I attended a party thrown by a certain well-known magazine. I spoke with an editor who gave me a pleasant, but head-patting speech of encouragement, telling me that if I worked really hard, maybe I’d get published by a real magazine like his. I wanted to tell him, “But… I’m published and already relatively content, chum. More recognition would be nice, but… Well, forgive me, but turning up in your slick yet tepid mag would feel like a artistic step back for me. Of course the check would be nice.” Yes, there might be one or two mags I’d sell my children’s souls for a chance to appear in (Car and Driver, why haven’t you ever called?), but overall I have no one I NEED to impress other than my friends, family, and myself.

To me the best writers are the loners, Holed up in their attics, apartments, and cabins, they occasionally interact with their editors and publishers, but rarely attend the right cocktail parties (Capote notwithstanding, though that’s how that particular bird lost his way). They never needed validation. All the real work and gratification took place between their ears.

Reading about big-time writers like Vonnegut and Hunter Thompson complaining about a lack of recognition is both quaint and perplexing. It makes me wonder what exactly they were after since they were pretty well-recognized in their own lifetimes. It gets especially silly when the writer laments his lack of “acceptance,” despite the reprints, book signings, readings, honorary doctorates, hot, ready, and willing fans, commencement speeches, talk shows, multiple translations and anthologies, ongoing fluff assignments for big bucks, merchandising, royalties, film and TV cameos, inclusion in the curricula of a thousand thousand colleges, and insertion in the memory of every human being who read their work and heard them speaking to their deepest heart of hearts.


God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut, you imbued a phrase as simple as “And so it goes.” with immortality. And yet that wasn’t enough? Or was that compassionate grump act just covering up a basic, irritable crank?

Captain Prolix

Mike: So, are you going to finish that novel?

Me: Yes, eventually.

Mike: Well, how much is left? Where are you at?

Me: Chapter 20 of Section 2.

Mike: (Gapes) Really?

Me: Wait a second. (I leave and return with the print-out of Section 1) Here it is.

Mike: That’s it?

Me: No, that’s just book one.

Mike: (Gapes again) Can I see it?

Me: No, you might read it.

Mike: Just let me see it!

Me: Okay, but no reading.

Mike: (Flips through it without reading.)

Me: So, yeah, I hope to finish it during leave.

Mike: You better not die and leave me with some 14,000 page Henry Darger manuscript.

I Have a Book

Way back in the ‘oughts, I wrote a series of articles for the Chicago Journal that were, for lack of a better term, “church reviews.” I’d visit local places of worship during services and evaluate them according to entertainment value, sanctity, and whatever else occurred to me. At the same time I’d do a little research on the faith du jour, respectfully exploring their histories and whatnot. I’m still quite proud of my stint as a church reviewer. I wrote some fine, funny stuff, if I do say so myself. And I do. I should be careful. Pride is what did Satan in.

Be that as it may, I compiled all my church reviews, along with a few religious writings I did for other zines and magazines (tongue usually lodged firmly in cheek) into a book called Hilaretic (many thanks to my talented friend Kathy for doing the layout and cover). Hilaretic is now available for purchase on Lulu.com. Stop by my author profile page to buy a copy!

Readers Without Borders

For many years I avoided buying books at Borders’ web site for the very reasons you’re probably thinking right now: they were overpriced and their stock was curiously limited. While I made regular browsing and buying visits to stores around Chicago (my son’s library was nicely padded out by their expansive children’s section), I dreaded receiving Borders gift cards. If I shopped at a Borders store, I’d have to search a hour or more for anything I’d like. If I shopped at the site I’d spend an hour or more trying to find what I wanted, then another half hour searching for a used copy at a price slightly higher than what I’d pay for a new book/CD/DVD at Amazon. Yes, white people problems, I know, but admit that it’s a little frustrating.

One day I thought, “Hold on a second. I used to order books through bookstores for years. If they didn’t have a copy, most stores—especially the chains—could search around and see if another branch had a copy.” Because of Amazon,  it’d been a very long time since I’d done that. Brilliant! Genius!

The next day I went to the Borders on State and Randolph. I found a clerk and told her I couldn’t find a book on the shelves, and a search on their computers revealed that they didn’t have any in the store. So, I asked, could they order me a copy for pick up the next day?

“Sure!” she said, beaming. “All I had to do was visit borders.com and order it there. Then it would be sent to the store for pick up.

“Uh…” I said. “Yeah, okay.” I saw no point in entering into a discussion, but can you guess what immediately occurred to me?

Right. If I visited their site at home, why would I need to return to the store? Factoring in shipping and handling, I’d probably pay just as much, with the county taxes, as if I’d bought it at their store. I suppose there was some basic “shipping” fee involved in sending a copy of the book from, say, Skokie to downtown Chicago, but they’d still be ahead, wouldn’t they? I think I ended up buying the book online—which was good for the company, but a loss to the store, yes?

So, not really surprised at the current turn of events. Wow. I still remember the days when the box stores were pricing smaller independent bookstores out of existence. I never thought for a moment they’d fall themselves. Again, wow. I feel bad for all the people losing their jobs because of poor marketing and management decisions.