Words of Advice for Young People

So, let’s figure you’re a creative type.

You know the artsy people you look up to in high school and college? The free spirits with funny-colored hair, unlikely names, and wardrobes that incorporate all the colors of the rainbow and the ostentatious fashion sense of about seven different cultures? The ones who start dancing in public without music, insist on eating and preparing only exotic and unnaturally natural cuisine, and usually play (or try to play) an oud or zither or some similar obscure instrument? The ones who re-filter everything the hippies were into through a dozen cultural effects pedals, thereby making “NEW” art out of other’s ideas and labor? The ones who are multifaceted incompetents, reaching new heights of mediocrity in multiple genres? The ones that just. FEEL. SO. DAMN. MUCH., they’re either self-destructing, weeping, or whipping about and criticizing everyone for not acting rightly or paying enough attention to them? The, as Kerouac rambled, “mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

Those people wear on you like a belt sander when you get older.

Unless you’re one of them, of course.

Fair warning.

Mediocre Striver


Sometimes you encounter a person who’s so diligent, productive, and active, you know they’re destined for greatness. Barack Obama’s friends probably knew he would rise higher and faster than most, for instance. The rest of us deal with the everyday stuff, occasionally rise to meet a challenge, and enjoy our little moments of triumph—but we’re not “on” all the time like these people. They succeed as much through persistence as they do through talent.

Then there are those who persist and endure and apply their talent and skill, and only rise to the middle. Often these individuals are harsh, blinkered, or unpleasant. No, no clichés please. They’re not embittered because they’ve fallen into a crevasse on their way up the mountain. They’re angry because they know they could rise higher if it weren’t for the mediocre folks directly beneath them. If only those idiots would muck in and stack themselves into a throne 200 turtles tall, why, they’d be running this planet before long.

Eventually, the mediocre striver becomes fixated on success through repeated discipline. As they see it, the folks below them just need to be prodded to work harder, faster, longer, and better. Which they do, bringing good results. But the mediocre striver doesn’t want good results, he or she wants great results. So the underlings work even harder, producing great results. But is the mediocre striver happy with this? Of course not. The mediocre striver needs consistently great results, dammit, or else he/she has failed.

So, once more, the underlings work harder, etc., and for a long time produce great results at the expense of their lives and sanity. It is then that the mediocre striver beams proudly at them, says, “Well done, thou good and faithful servants!”, and buys them all ice cream.

If you believe that, search your childhood for an instance of severe head trauma.

No, the mediocre striver doesn’t reward the underlings with much more than a, “Good results. Now, get back to work.” Why? Because the results, not the means by which they’re achieved, matter

The killing sensation comes when you realize that the mediocre striver is not an unintelligent individual, nor even an uneducated one. They operate on a fixed program, free from creative thought. Their vocabulary is stripped down to grim functionality, and they seem unable to communicate beyond expressing a desired outcome. They repeat words they believe have totemic power. They are free from speculative thought, and their mythology springs from hoary cliches. To them, creative types are like vending machines. You insert the coins and the goodies come out. If they don’t that can be remedied by a little screaming, punching, kicking, and tipping over. Reason with the vending machine? Address its emotional needs for praise, communication, and satisfaction? Don’t be ridiculous. Machines don’t talk or have ideas and feelings. They’re only there to serve, and, in the back of the mediocre striver’s mind, they’re always ready to break down and fail when needed most.

I have an individual in mind. One I knew a long time ago at an old job. Sometimes I wonder what happened to him. Sometimes I wonder who he’s tormenting now.

Perish the Thought

I know it’s wrong, but whenever I read about a starlet collaborating with some shaggy song-writing dude, I always wonder how often the guy thinks: “What an excellent opportunity to explore new musical ideas and pathways. This young woman will act as my muse, even as I, in turn, inspire her. What a delightful tapestry of sound we will weave together!” versus, “Oh. My. God. I might get a chance to bang the chick from ___________.”

I’m thinking it’s 40/60.

Shit’s gotta end. That’s all I’ll say.

Sorry. It was a ponderous night. Ponderous few weeks, in fact. And it’s all happening when I’m feeling creative.

You Know, There Are Two Sides to Every One-Dimensional Object


All right! All right! Hellloooooo, Chicago! Here they are, together for the first time ever on this stage! I give you… the folks who comment on every single god damned Chicago Tribune article posted online!

On bass and guitar… the monsters who think (1) sassy grade schoolers should have the blood whipped out of them, (2) women who dare to walk around their neighborhood in above-knee skirts after 7 p.m. deserve to be raped, and (3) anyone stupid enough to live in a house with windows and doors is just begging to be murdered!

Over here… on keyboards and drums… the invertebrates who believe, (1) hey, maybe you should think about the recently deceased serial torture murderer’s family before you start insulting his memory, (2) we need to wait for all the facts to come in before judging the genocidal cannibal warlord who wore tuxedos made out of his victim’s skins, and (3) maybe if you had a  big fluffy-bunny heart like them, and realized that (sob!) everyone is entitled to their half-assed opinion, maybe (nyaggh!) just MAYBE this world would turn into a giant damn Dreamsicle of peace and (sob! whinge!) LOVE!

The Trib’s online commenters, ladies and gentlemen!

Furthermore, let’s thank the two boobs who “Like This” article for inexplicable back-up.

The Skinny, Floppy-Haired Scammer with Fingers in Many Pies


In my unspectacular life, I have encountered a number of men resembling John Linnell of They Might Be Giants who either (1) attempted to wheedle money out of me, (2) continually outlined their grand plans for fame and fortune for me, and/or (3) made it clear that my taste in everything was shit. I doubt Mr. Linnell himself is this way—when I met him he was a bit stiff, actually, though acceptably polite—but his twentysomething self’s mop-like hair and excessive ectomorphism is the best illustration I can provide for what these guys look like.

The first one I met was X, way back in college. X showed up in my last year at school, and at first our paths infrequently intersected. However, since he was the only other guy on the floor who listened to a few of my favorite bands and he’d seen Withnail… and I, we inevitably shared a few discussions about music and cult movies. The trouble began when X stopped talking about what we liked and more about why what I liked sucked. The usual zeta male territorial pissings. I grudgingly took it in stride, letting him blather before wandering off. Unless I’m conflating him with someone else, X was one of those jackasses who chucklingly tell you to smell his finger after he’d returned from a date. A real man of the world, you know, with girl-scented fingers. Having enough p-rock dipshits on hand at the time, I avoided him. Still, he was occasionally pleasant to me. Mostly when he wanted something.

Eventually, it came time for me to graduate (I never bothered leaving the dorms because it was cheaper than an apartment, and I didn’t feel like spending even more to share a place with six guys with whom I had nothing in common. To confess, my college friends were perfunctory. I didn’t hang with anyone who didn’t live on my floor. I went home on the weekends to work maintenance at a mall store. Surprise surprise, I mostly kept to myself because while many of my floormates were perfectly nice, they weren’t that interesting. I didn’t care about partying, and I spent most of my evenings reading at the library, attending the film club’s movie nights (never joined), or listening to classical LPs at the music building. I wasn’t antisocial, just… socially retarded. Ah, that’s another essay.

Back to X, I’d bought a parking sticker at the beginning of the winter semester (I was on the 4 1/2-year plan), and I let it be known that I’d sell it at half price for the remainder of the school year to whoever was interested. X was interested, and he paid me 12 bucks so he could park his Pacer, or whatever floppy-haired douchebags drove back then. I gave my mini-fridge to a fellow I actually liked. I graduated. That was that. I thought.

Two months into the new year, I received parking violation notices at my parents’ house from my alma mater. See, the sticker–which dangled from X’s rear-view mirror—identified his shitmobile as mine. It wasn’t the same as getting a ticket from the city of Chicago, but still, that was my name and reputation he was messing with, I seethingly thought.

So, here’s where you see a little bit of the old me. There’s no violence or grue, sorry. I was just a little off.

After I paid the tickets, I drove out to my old college.

That night.

For four hours, one way.

I was highly strung back then, and socially retarded. Sorry, I was. Give me a better adjective and I’ll use it.

I brought along a friend, who affected a biker punk persona, to give the appearance of muscle (why he indulged me, I’m not sure—no bands performing that night, I suppose. I might be remembering a previous visit when I robbed a couple of books from the school library. Yes, I did. But I returned them later.). In those pre-Columbine days (hell, pre-NIU shooting days), we strolled right into the dorm, up to the 9th floor, and knocked on his door. His roommate didn’t know me, but a few guys on the floor recognized me. I’d visited the month before, and, I’ll admit, that night I probably went from “cool grad” to “creepy guy” status rather quickly.

“Where’s X?” I asked his roomie.

“He’s not here,” I was told.

“Tell him I’ll be back,” I said. I’ve never been physically intimidating, but a lot of people in the old days figured I’d shoot up a McDonald’s. I never appreciated that sentiment, but I played it to the hilt, wearing all black, a long peacoat in summer, and generally acting like I was slightly nuts. The polo shirts and All-Stars only added to my Bundyesque mystique, I’m sure. Socially. Retarded. No wonder I was only ever hit on in college by drugged-out chicks.

My friend and I took a stroll and returned in a half hour. I knocked on his door. I was getting strange looks. X opened the door, his face a dictionary thumbnail illustration of surprise.

(Not verbatim, but close enough.)

“Dan? What are you doing here?” he asked.

“You owe me 40 bucks!” I shouted, too forcefully.

“What? Why…?”

I explained the situation.

“And you PAID it?”

For a moment I felt stupid. Then pathetic. Then psychotic. Then pissed off again, because I could see the smugness creeping across his bony face. Clearly, it was not only ridiculous that I’d paid the fine, it was ridiculous to pay any fine, or to expect him to answer for being a jerkoff.

“Look, it’s MY name you’re fucking with!” I said, poking his chest and yelling. “A ticket could affect my insurance… credit rating… the university could rescind my degree…. Just pay me the $40!” I doubt any of that would have happened.

“Dan, Dan, Dan, Dan… I don’t have it right now,” he said. “I just got back from Japan, and I’m broke.”

I wanted to kick his ass out the window. It’s a little-known fact that I’ve never left the country. I’ve seen Canada from across Lake Superior, but that’s it. 1980s Japan remains on my list of places/eras I’d most like to visit. It’s my own fault for never going anywhere. My parents instilled a pennypinching attitude in me, and I was chickenshit on top of it. Still, the floppy-haired ectomorph was able to visit 1980s Japan, in his teens. So, to HELL with him.

I was panting and shivering with anger then, and I think he could see it. Give uz the monnnney, Lebowski.

“Look, Dan,” he told me, laying a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “Dan, I will SEND you the money. I just don’t HAVE it right now. Okay?”

“Forty bucks,” I said. “Or I’m coming back.” It was a hollow threat, insofar as promised violence was concerned, but he didn’t know that.

“All right… all right… What’s your address?”

I gave it to him, and my friend and I left without another word. I tried to visit a group of girls I knew and had attended to like the idiot puppy-dog I was with women back then, but they’d since moved. At least that’s what the girl who answered the door said. She eyeballed me and my friend as if we were rape hobbyists. Smart girl. We drove home, and that was the next to last time I ever visited my old Alma Mater. A few years later my girlfriend of the time and I were passing by, and I decided to show her where I matriculated. It was winter break, I think, and I remember standing on the stark, unpopulated main quad, feeling moronic and weepy. Another story, yes.

A week later X’s check arrived. It was for $20. He’d scrawled out a note, “Dan, Here’s half. More come soon! X.” That’s how he wrote it: “More come soon.”

“Well, at least there’s that,” I thought. I drove to an ATM and deposited the check.

A week later the bank informed me it bounced. He never sent me the rest. More not came soon.

I chose not to visit X again, but I’ve promised myself that if I ever run into him, I’m going to demand the 40 bucks, just to see if I can make him perspire blood.

Revenge is a dish best served with shredded crazy.

Learn to F*ckin’ Type

Lists of waiter/waitress complaints are one of those bits of Internet lore I barely tolerate. You’ve seen them, I’m sure: litanies rants, complaints, and bitchings by harried food servers about their occasionally dreadful jobs. I completely sympathize with the ones that recount tales of rude/drunk/sexist/arrogant/cheap/crazy customers. It’s bad enough to work in the food industry for minimum wage plus tips. Waitstaff don’t need to be any more belittled or abused than they already are. Having been a busboy and being related to several women who were waitresses gives me even more empathy for the profession. Really: I tip 20 percent even for adequate service.

What gets me are the stories about pranks, stunts, and bad behavior sandwiched in-between the genuine cries from the depths. I’m referring to the frontier justice exacted on customers for daring to ask for more coffee or the guy who sent back a dish because it’s cold. I mean the grotesque, health code-violating practices that some servers inflict on the just and unjust alike. When I hear these stories, I feel like the Establishment is onto something with that whole philosophy of, “Shut up and do your job.” Unless you’re being assaulted, there’s no justification for this behavior. If you <i>are</i> being assaulted, or the guests are simply acting out of hand, tell your boss and get them kicked out or switch to another table. Almost any human annoyance can be endured for 45 minutes.

As an aside, I’d really like to see the breakdown of who these folks are, and whether they’re career wait-staff or just doing it  as a temporary gig. You aren’t really being repressed if you’re in an office gig one year from now, drawing down twice what you’re making as a waitron. Of course by then you’ll be writing blog entries about how you’ve pilfered hundreds of bucks in office supplies in revenge for being asked to work late.

All that said, I’ve noticed how rarely these lists of horrors include good advice for customers to follow (beyond “If you don’t let me ignore you for 45 minutes while I grab a smoke, I’ll scratch dandruff into your salad amidst the parmesan,” of course).

For example:

How to be a good customer

18. Use your waiter’s name. When I say, “Hi, my name is JR, and I’ll be taking care of you,” it’s great when you say, “Hi, JR. How are you doing tonight?” Then, the next time you go in, ask for that waiter. He may not remember you, but if you requested him, he’s going to give you really special service. 
—JR, waiter at a fine-dining restaurant and author of the blog servernotslave.wordpress.com

19. Trust your waitress. Say something like “Hey, it’s our first time in. We want you to create an experience for us. Here’s our budget.” Your server will go crazy for you. 
— Charity Ohlund

See, that’s the way to do it. Oh, you’ll never reach the jerks, but as for the guy who usually tips 20 percent—even for adequate service—right now he’s thinking, “What a nice person. I no longer fear eating out because my waitress might be a sullen piece of crap, eager to infect my food with snot if I look cross-eyed at her.”