Out of the Mouth of Babes

1) We’re transitioning to summer camp now, while the grass in my tiny yard accelerates. Last week we held our last club of the school year. Between games and celebratory milkshakes, we talked about Luke 24 and the resurrection. A seventh grader posed this brain-exploder:

“So after evil is defeated and Jesus comes back, God says he’s going to recreate the world, right? But won’t we still be tempted to sin? What if it starts all over again, like a cycle.”

To which one of the easily distracted kids said, “WHOA – WHAT IF THIS HAS HAPPENED BEFORE?”

Brain exploded.

2) On Wednesdays, I tell a story to our after school program, a collection of surly third graders from an elementary in Springdale. Currently, we’re on a series about Robofox and his best friend, Charles the Mouse. Charles has a tiny bow and tiny arrows. Robofox has two metal legs that can transform into many things. Through the course of the narrative, Robofox’s legs have been wheels, magnets, grappling hooks, flamethrowers, lightsabers, and a time machine.

After I finish, the program director asks the kids to recite the story. Then he’ll ask, “What would your arms turn into?” Aside from a few direct answers, we get these:

“Snakes!”

“Money!”

“Horses!”

“Medusa!”

The idea of a horse attached to each arm is disturbing and unlikely to be helpful. I’d like to know who taught Jose the word, Medusa.

3) Holly and I ate dinner with my parents on Thursday, celebrating an early Mother’s Day. I called my brother to warn him that there would be presents, and he claimed he may not bring one. He lied, and brought a 20-pound stoneware bowl. He said, “I got you so good!”

My nieces and nephew were there, climbing on the kitchen drawers and using the cast iron fireplace tools to clean the family room. I tried to stop them, afraid that they would rip the nobs off the gift wrap and ribbon drawer. My mom stopped me.

“I learned this lesson long ago,” she said. “If I own it, grandkids should play with it. You know, John Owen (my twelve-year-old cousin) said it best to my momma: Why would a grandma have a bed with poles you can’t swing on?”

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We Didn’t Insult Anybody’s Dad

In celebration of two years away and/or the ability to finally afford plane tickets, I reunited with several of the friends I made teaching English in Turkey through the Fulbright program. As we’re scattered across the continental U.S., we voted on cities to descend on. New Orleans won. It was the only place I could drive to. I still can’t afford a plane ticket.

ImageI arrived early and spent the first night in a most original hostel. The closest fictional counterpart to the India House Hostel would be the Happiness Hotel from The Great Muppet Caper – a place where drifters mean to pause and wake up twenty years later, working as the bellhop.

The India House Hostel was never built but rather it has been grown for several decades. It seems that every traveler to pass through has left a postcard, picture or poem plastered onto the walls. Posters in the hallways are turning yellow with age. Murals, both horrible and beautiful, decorate the facade. Arriving late that night, I knocked a Hindu goddess bust over and the head rolled off. When I reported my crime, the desk clerk says, “No one knows who put that there.”

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The hostel is a converted house with several lean-to’s resting against it, no doubt built on hot summer day’s when backpackers had nothing better to do. There’s an above ground pool and a posted sign of 40 maximum occupants. We were told that in July, the pool and pool deck will be filled to capacity, and a fifteen minute timer will call for rotations between those two and the house bar, located under a lean-to.

Though I was given a key, the door to the shed I slept in didn’t lock. I had the top bunk above an Indian man who was sleeping both when I laid down and when I packed up the next morning.

As my friends as I collected ourselves over coffee, we eavesdropped on a nearby phone conversation: “Yeah, it was an awesome night…no, it’s not my fault…he deserved to get punched…” The man was in his sixties, white beard and pony-tail, and he wore an open shirt that had once been red. His skin was weathered by good times and he seemed to want it that way.

After he hung up, we asked him about his night. It was wonderful, he said. He had lived in New Orleans his whole life and he obviously favored it above all others. I mentioned the characteristic flavor of the hotel, so much different than the cold dormitories in Europe.

“Europe,” he scoffed. “Pyramids? Stonehenge? It’s a bunch of rocks. Where’s the jazz? Who’s dancing? What’s cooking?

“Rocks. Yeah – we should get some of those. Let’s get some rocks.”

He meandered, waxing about the city and it’s general disposition, until we turned the conversation back to his previous night. He still hadn’t revealed the specific story behind his phone call, so I asked: “What’d you do last night?”

And he uttered these immortal words:

“Last night? I’ll tell you what:
We ate well. We drank everything.
We danced with everyone’s mother,
We stared at everyone’s girlfriend,
But we didn’t insult anybody’s dad.
We fought everyone
And we bet on everything.”

One day I’ll write a book solely to use that quote as an epitet.

Elementary Story Telling

I’ve been asked twice to speak to a friend’s elementary classes about writing. They all want to meet her “writer friend.” When I arrive, the first question is always, “What book did you write?” Kids. Worse than adults. This is why I don’t talk about my dreams at Christmas gatherings.

After deflecting a few of the more on-the-nose question – including, “How much money do you make with words” – I’m asked to tell a story. The challenge is always the same: the current group of eight-year-olds will provide me with characters, a setting and a problem and without further ado, I tell them a story.

The first time I did this I had to include Psy, a momentarily famous Korean rapper, alongside a flying monkey bellhop and a popular video game enemy, a Creeper (I am told they behave very much like zombies). Psy had forgotten how to dance (that was the given problem) and, alongside a shambling and depressed Creeper, they stayed at a cave-hotel ran by the aforementioned monkey and discovered a crystal that released music into the world.

The second classroom I spoke to gave me a “fat momma”, a goblin named Pip and Mean Pickle Ted. I was assured that it was an inside joke. Pip had too many chickens, so I was told, and I related the story of how he gave half of the chickens away to Mean Pickle Ted only to have the other half run away – attempting to rescue the first half. There was a lot of context about human-goblin relations and the chicken market, but I won’t waste time on that now. After I finished, two children hugged my legs as I left.

I like to tell stories and I secretly write but I don’t speak about it much, anxious about the very same questions I fielded from first-graders. However, as my friend the elementary teacher broke down my stories, she asked her students why my stories were good. The students said that they liked the details. Psy had a blue axe that was shaped like a music note. Ted the Mean Pickle smelled like shoelaces. Human-goblin relations were precarious. Though it came from children who imagine Mean Pickle Ted as a hilarious and intimidating villain, it did provide a brief ego boost.

I enjoyed the exercise so much that I practiced it with our after-school program. After gathering suggestions, I told the story of Derek the jellyfish, who had to rescue his best friend the whale shark from a mysterious monster in a subterranean lake in Antartica. A little full of myself, I gave Derek a little bit too much backstory and lost my elementary-age audience. To win them back, I had the evil monster vomit up all his previous victims. That garnered modest applause, I’m happy to report.

3rd Annual Egg Games

It’s hard to imagine something that blossomed out of ironic sibling rivalry becoming an annual tradition. Three years ago, in epileptic nostalgia, my mother asked my brother and I to duel in an egg hunt. It quickly became a wrestling match. Now, later and older, the games have evolved. Instead of candy, there are Starbucks gift cards.

I bit someone this year.

My uncle and his family came from Kentucky to celebrate Easter with us, which bumped the combatants up to nine. In the grand Trumbo tradition of speaking unnecessary animosity into a competitive situation, my parents began to spread a rumor that Holly and I had been strategizing for several weeks. My Kentucky cousins came with ten-gallon buckets instead of baskets, threatening to use them as weapons. All Holly and I brought were matching purple v-necks.

The games began with a whistle and the nine of us spread out in a jog, looking for eggs. Last year, Holly pioneered the brilliant strategy of allowing other players to collect eggs before stripping them of their baskets. We came with oversized fanny-packs strapped to our bodies. The only trouble Holly had was a Kentucky cousin who climbed on her back to get a hand in her fanny-pack. I, on the other hand, feared no one and paid a dear price for it.

Whilst scouring a grass patch for missed eggs, my back to the world and my guard dropped, my brother – shirtless and in short shorts – a man who didn’t even bother to bring a basket for the egg hunt – speared me in the back and tackled me into the mud. I lost several of my eggs (the fanny-pack was unzipped) and I had to change out of my church jeans into a pair of my father’s pleated khaki shorts.

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No one knows why my brother wore what he did for this family Easter gathering…

Later, as we broke open eggs together on the back porch and read off the notes inside – McDonald’s gift card! Ten dollars cash! – we realized that, despite having opened all the eggs, there were still several unclaimed prizes. In a shared revelation, the nine of us sprinted to the front yard and began looking desperately for the last eggs. I found one behind the brake pad of a parked car.

I struggled to get my fingers through the hub cab, imagining a Chick-fil-a card awaiting Holly and I. In the final moments of my effort, when the egg was within my grasp, my twenty-year-old cousin jumped on my back, stealing the egg at the last minute.

That’s when I bit him.

And then Holly dropped a knee on his ribs.

The Egg Games can be brutal, but the rewards are great. However, the particular egg in question only had a Reece’s Cup.

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An unrelated incident – I wail on my brother while Holly, on the left, steals the eggs that I’ve dropped.

Happy Valentines, Harry Potter

I’ve written before about my desire and failures to surprise Holly. I love surprises, often can’t fathom why someone wouldn’t, and I project that love onto others. Luckily, Holly does like to be surprised, though I can’t imagine how badly my romantic gestures would go if she didn’t.

(However, I like to think that there’s something in the attraction of our personalities that leads to the eventuality of a love of surprises.)

In an effort to mislead Holly, I gave her a present a day early, preempting Valentines in mutual excitement. Because I worked on Thursday night, I promised her dinner on Saturday.

ImageAll the while, I planned to take her to a showing of Potted Potter, a Shakespeare-Abridged-type show that runs through all seven Harry Potter books in seventy minutes. The show is a two-man affair, a British duo that purportedly began as an impromptu entertainment at a midnight book release. Holly loves live theater in the big auditorium at the Walton Arts Center, and she loves Harry Potter. A perfect surprise.

However, Holly has a such a clear track record with uncovering surprises. In fact, she is such a great detective, I would trust her to solve my murder, provided that she did not commit it. So when we got into the car on Saturday night, I said with a sigh, “So you probably know where we’re going…”

“No I don’t,” she replied. However, I had given her the scent. “Wait – are we going to a play.”

“Dang it…”

“Tell me what play.”

“…so stupid…”

“I’ll just Google it.”

“Potted Potter! We’re going to Potted Potter.”

Neither of us had great expectations for the play. Holly had none. In fact, when I told her of my logic – she loves theater and Hogwarts – she said, “I didn’t love Harry Potter. I only read them because of you.”

I panicked about my date choice as Holly continued. “You gave me the final book. I had to read it, even after we broke up. But I love the books now, trust me.”

The play, though spoiled, was still fantastic. It was simple and hilarious, with a quidditch game played among the crowd and one actor presenting twenty characters. Though it didn’t deconstruct the story or add any understanding of the books, it reminded me of how well Harry Potter caters to children. Much of the audience on Saturday night weren’t yet teenagers, and they laughed the loudest. That made the jokes much funnier.

On our way out, as both Holly and I talked excitedly about the show, Holly remarked on how neat the shirts at the merchandise table appeared. I missed her comment and walked her out the door, offering dessert at a local yogurt shop. “I tell you what,” she said. “Let’s skip dessert and instead go back inside and buy that shirt.”

Holly has worn it all day as we’ve watched the first and second Harry Potter movies. I expect we’ll finish the third by tonight.

Our Christmas Presents

ImageWinter is a season of creativity. Or perhaps its just the season I’m indoors the longest. Between holidays and work, Holly and I watched two seasons of Moonlighting before Holly said, “I thought this was a murder mystery.” Actually, it’s just a show about Bruce Willis and the woman who is not Marion Ravenwood from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Holly got a sewing machine for Christmas. Her mother numbered her presents so that she opened the machine and all accessories before finally opening the quilt top that made her cry. It was crafted one hundred and fifty years ago by some amount of greats-grandmother, possibly a McCoy – as in Hatfield-McCoy and blood feuds. That’s where Holly gets her fight from.

While Holly worked on a quilt, I invented a board game. As a big fan of Dungeons and Dragons, I’m always trying to simplify the gameplay to coax friends into the universe. This past summer I rewrote the rules for my own use. However, it remains mathematically involved and time consuming, two things that the high school students I work with shy away from. This Christmas, using a Settlers of Catan board and index cards, I created a straightforward kill monsters/get loot game that I now call Evil Katan for trademark purposes. Speed rounds take about an hour. I wrote the rules and game cards on our road trip to my grandparents in Kentucky.

I’ve only played it four times – once with other humans. The other three I played four characters by myself as Holly quilted. She did not want to play, though the offer still stands. She’s not a sword person. I think she’d do well as a wizard.

(If you’re interested in Evil Katan, please ask and I will send the rules.)

I’m not good at asking for presents. I don’t realize what I need until Christmas morning. Holly had to point the problem out to me though I’ve had it my whole life. Most people give Barnes and Noble gift cards, which are fine. On one of the early days in January I put my cards together and purchased The Guide to Literary Agents. I’m done tinkering with my first novel and am now sending it out. Wish me luck.

Christmas Box Office

We spend Christmas in a small town an hour north of Nashville, just across the Kentucky state line. Twenty-six people slept in a house with one-and-a-half bathrooms. Holly and I had to fight for our air mattress, which was next to two other air mattresses in the dining room.

les_miserables_french-posterIt was once a tradition for the family to see a movie on Christmas day. That went out of style several years ago but we have all been very interested in Les Miserables, the musical about French people going through hard times. I believe it translates to Everyone Eventually Dies. Most of my family has seen the play several times and we wanted to sing along with their melancholy. Because it’s Christmas.

Holly and I drove forty-five minutes to the nearest movie theater in Glasgow, KY, using the backroads that my grandfather Pa Will calls, highways. My brother Harlin and my sister and her husband rode with us. En route, we forced Harlin to lay out his life plan. “Coaching, and either teaching math or history.” I voted history in our straw poll. Harlin is very good at telling stories as well as memorization. He would be wonderful, fleshing out old events with new language.

The parking lot was packed so we sent Harlin ahead to buy tickets. However, once we had parked, we couldn’t find him. We searched the box office. We searched the lobby and concessions. Finally we found him waiting outside the theater door. Only then did we realize that not a single employee was taking tickets. Though the cinema was very popular that evening, there wasn’t a soul of security. I assume small towns are on an honor system.

The movie was fairly good, though the screen was small and the sound quality bad. It reminded me of a Turkish movie theater in its mediocrity. We sat in the back, directly in front of a loud talker who wasn’t really that interested in the movie. Instead, he told his girlfriend several incorrect facts about the French Revolution before he began to eat his popcorn loudly – no, wait, they were making out. With a smoker’s voice, a supreme confidence in his false history and his complete swagger, I assumed this was one of the first dates. When the lights came up, he was in his mid-thirties, though he had a sailor’s face, weathered by salt water and storms.

On the long drive home, we joked about that man and Russel Crowe’s Creed voice. I also pointed out that we didn’t have to buy tickets. We could’ve simply walked in.

“I know,” Harlin said. “I bought six tickets for nothing.”

The car quieted a moment before my brother-in-law Cory said, “How many of us are there?”

“Six,” Harlin answered with confusion.

There were only five. “I guess this rules out teaching math,” Cory said.

Celebrating Christmas One Party at a Time

Tis the season to have Christmas parties. As I inch closer to becoming an adult (45 here I come!), I find that Christmas is often celebrated more as a elder human. While Santa is often used as a sight gag, presents carry a much greater weight.

Camp War Eagle hosted a Christmas dinner for 150 of our families, most of whom could not afford what my television defines as a normal Christmas. Food bags, toys and gift cards were distributed. I was tapped to be the Master of Ceremonies but in the end was relegated to a sort of Semi-Pro of Ceremonies, as I think most people loudly ate and conversed over my talk show format. Which is fine, because it wasn’t earth shattering comedy.

I led with this:

“What is your parent’s favorite Christmas carol?”

I paused while the translator relayed this in Spanish (half of the families are native Spanish speakers).

“Silent Night!” I shouted. When I looked at the translator with glee, he simply shook he head, dejected. “Really?” I asked. “I thought the humor would translate.”

The show did give a few of our campers the chance to perform music in front of an audience of six hundred, which I think is a wonderful life skill to build upon. However, I did scratch one high schooler’s cello while positioning his microphone. Apparently that horror translates well into Spanish.

(The dinner took place in a large ballroom, The Metroplex, which usually hosts weddings and quinceaneras. As such, it boasted a complex laser light, disco ball and smoke system for raves. Which inexplicably turned on during the cellist’s performance of “Ave Maria.” Spicy.)

Two days later, our organization hosted an appreciation Christmas dinner for our volunteers. While I didn’t host, I was in charge of gifts. After ordering 80 16-oz coffee mugs, I was given 20 dollars for “useless whatevers.”

Little did they know.

20 dollars later I returned from the Dollar Tree, typed out a personality test based on all of the bits and pieces I picked up, and crammed it all into the mug. I will reproduce it below.

World’s Fastest Personality Test
1. Empty the contents of the mug.
2. Get one cup of water for the table.
3. Put the small pill into the cup of water (one that expands into a foam animal).
4. Examine the jumping bean (one that came in a pack of 37 bizarrely countenanced jumping beans).
Is it angry? Give yourself 10 points.
Unnaturally happy? 5 points.
Confused? 0 points.
Concussed? -5 points.
5. Fill out the Sudoku with the crayon.
6. Consume the candy cane.
7. Stop filling out the Sudoku.
Finish a number set? 10 points.
Write four numbers? 5 points.
Attempt it? 0 points.
Skip the step? -5 points.
8. How did you eat the candy cane?
Stirred into hot chocolate? 10 points.
Sucked into a shank? 5 points.
Crunched to death? 0 points.
Don’t like peppermint? -5 points.
9. Check the pill in the water cup.
Is it a dinosaur? 10 points.
A mammal? 5 points.
A bug? 0 points.
Nothing happened? -5 points.
10. Now add all your points.
40-30 – You’re a wizard, Harry.
30-20 – You’re an Aquaris.
20-10 – You’re a golden retriever.
10-0 – You’ll get it next time.
0-(-10) – You’re an artist.
(-10)-(-20) – You’re really bad at this.

Bill Davidson Will Take Back His Land

At our Ozone clubs, we often play silly or gross games, conjuring images of time spent at summer camp. However, I often lean towards activities that require a measure or two of creativity. In my bias, that often means the creation involves words.

I love nothing more than to hang pictures drawn by our elementary students and ask our teenagers to write a six word story about it while listening to oddly loud instrumental music. That has led to such gems as I have hung on my office corkboard: “Slowly leave something that is loved” and “Gazing serpent gazes at what was.”

Both of those were written about a basilisk fighting a robot, pictured in crayon.

This week we played a variation of Balderdash, the game that gives an obscure title or phrase from which the player must puzzle out meaning (or bluff very well). As I explained the goal – to either correctly describe a movie plot or to make up a feasible plot that matches the title – the students were confident. Most assured me that whatever the movie was, they had seen it.

51NxKqb3IxL._SX500_“Ready?” I asked. “The movie is – The Hudsucker Proxy.

As they stared, glassy-eyed, at their blank papers, I tried to help them along. “Who is the main character? Is it the Hudsucker Proxy? Or is the main character trying to find the Proxy? Maybe destroy it? Fall in love with it? Protect it?

“Is the Hudsucker Proxy a place? A spaceship? An idea? Is it in Canada? Or in King Arthur’s Court? Or on a moon of Jupiter? Maybe it’s in each of us.”

Obviously, none had heard of it. And no one was even close to the actual plot – a mailroom worker is promoted to CEO because the company’s exec board thinks he’s a schmuck. One-half of all submissions had to do with either the Hudson River or a vampire that sucked the heads of his/her victims.

In both our middle school and high school club meetings, there were some winners. These were ones with believable plots that at least tangentially involved a Hudsucking Proxy.

“Mr. Hudsucker is a jail escape artist who’s escaped from jail 20 times. And in his worst nightmare, he’s being chased by the proxyman. Despite the proxyman’s cuddly appearance, he can rip the flesh of a human with his bare hands. Mr. Hudsucker must escape from him and find his real world (not the proxy world).”

Very Inception-esque. I’d watch it. And if the proxyman looks like Mr. Hudsucker (which the definition would suggest so, though the author didn’t know it), I’d say the title is right on the money.

“A robot has to guard a dragon-princess, but he doesn’t want to. So he says to a human, ‘Hey guard this princess,’ and the human says, ‘Okay.’ Will the human do it? Will the robot get fired? Find out at the Hudsucker Proxy.”

Okay, so not even tangentially involving the HP, but I’m amazed at the fantastic cast of characters written against a mind-numbingly mundane plot.

“A hunter is attacked by a beast called a Proxy. So he has to fight back. It takes place in  a dark forest where there is no sight of light! So in the end is he lost forever. But before then he kills the Proxy on mistake! But it was a good thing.”

The reversal that killing the Proxy was a mistake makes me think the hunter came to love the beast – or at least respect it. However, as in White Fang, it would never work. Also, the fact that he’s lost forever and now alone is quite disturbing.

“There are only two people left. There is no one else in the world. And they are on opposite sides of the world. The movie is about their journey to find each other. When they meet, they are brother and sister.”

Again, no HP, but the omission of how everyone on the planet died is captivating, as is the final twist that the two are brother and sister. Along with the writing, we held a movie poster competition. The poster for this plot won.

“During a normal shiny Tuesday morning, a flock of wasps takes over the world. They turn humans into other wasps and the world becomes ruled by wasps. Only one human survived the Hudsucker Proxy, and Bill Davidson will take back his land. He will have to survive these vicious wasps. He is willing to survive and he will. Watch to find out if this brave man will take back the Earth.”

For me, this is the clear winner. It includes the HP in a non-detrimental way (too many plots were horribly transfigured by jamming the HP in). It also sounds like a smashing movie trailer, with the expert introduction of Bill Davidson. And slowly enlarging his goal from “his land” to “the Earth” sets it up for a sequel.

I Master Carpentry, Become Sleepy

During a recent craft fair, Holly was perusing doll outfits and barnwood crossbows as I trailed behind her. Bored, I pointed to an old shutter that someone had converted into a note holder by way of clothespins. “I could make that,” I grumbled.

“Okay,” Holly said. “Then make it.”

“Uh…with Legos?” Holly was not amused. “So, wood then?”

One of Holly’s good friends ran a booth at the fair. She makes crosses and picture frames. She gave us a nice piece as a wedding present. Her husband was operating the cash register.

“It looks like you’ve had quite a lot of people today,” Holly said.

“Yeah,” her friend said. “But mostly they just say, Oh, I could make that.” She didn’t notice my sudden blush.

“For real,” her husband added. “I’m like, I’d like to see you try.

I stepped away to take a fake phone call.

Holly just got hired as a P.E. teacher at Old High Middle School. We are both officially adults, by one measure. To celebrate, I wanted to get her a table. We have little furniture and no end tables. Sanding and painting a thrift store find seemed within my grasp.

But those things cost money! Like thirty bucks! I could buy like sixty balloons for that. So instead, I tried to build one.

Holly has an extensive Pintrest account. I used it to find a few designs and then decide that those people were stupid. It can’t be that hard. Why so many steps? So instead I wrote this on a Wal-Mart receipt: STEP 1: Buy wood. STEP 2: Treat them like Legos. STEP 3: Impress Holly.

I was especially proud for spending eight dollars on two 1×4’s and two 2×2’s, though I had to employ my Maintenance training to sight boards for straightness. I’ll be honest – that was probably the best part. It was the first time I had been to Lowe’s and known what I was doing. Yet something was missing. There were cracks in the wood and one leg was shorter than the others. I knew only one man who could deal.

I took the table to my old boss, Rob, Lord of Maintenance at Camp War Eagle. “Well,” he said, “telling you what you did right would take less time. Have you heard of pilot holes.”

“Yes,” I said proudly. “I don’t like to do them. Too many steps.”

“That’s good, because I know you don’t want your table to look good.”

He proceeded to school me in the ways of woodworking. We laughed, I cried, and in the end I took away a few pieces of advice to incorporate – namely, an extra length of 2×2 for leg support.

Yesterday I sanded and painted the beast. Now it holds my books. I – HAVE MADE FURNITURE. I – AM FURNITURE!