Tag Archives: humor

Story-Matic #63


Lately I’ve been feeling the urge to write short fiction again. Stories that I can dip my toes into and move on from without feeling like I have to explore all their murky depths. Stories that I don’t necessarily feel strongly about, or feel the urge to finish, stories for stretching the legs, for limbering up the ol’ bean, for exploring. That maybe don’t go anywhere, or end satisfyingly, but that tickle my fancy anyway.

Here’s one of them. The prompt: “Bodybuilder, revenge”.

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This is the last straw.

Dimitri slams his locker in disgust, snarling at his phone as he thumbs through his feed. That damned Kurtis. It’s not enough that he’s got the biggest deadlift in the gym (and everybody knows it), that his girlfriend is better-looking than Dimitri’s (and everybody agrees — even Dimitri), or that he drives a nicer car than he should even have access to (an unreleased next-gen Maserati, not even on the market for this year or next, apparently handed down from some Arabian prince. How Kurtis ended up in it is anybody’s guess).

And now this.

In the video, a jubilant Kurtis mugs for the camera. He calls out his haters. He points right into the lens, shouting words of encouragement. He reaches down, locks his meaty hands around a barbell. The camera pans slowly out to reveal that, on the ends of the barbell, superimposed over the weights (but not superimposed so well that a viewer wouldn’t notice that the amount of weights is extravagant, Kurtis, you colossal bastard), is Dimitri’s face. Not a flattering picture, either, but a picture snapped by Erik and Josef some months prior as they burst in on Dimitri in the shower after flushing the nearby toilet. The face is a face full of shock, of pain, of a man betrayed and in doubt over whether there is any goodness at all in the world.

The picture had made the rounds in crude memes slapped together by the crew at the gym, and Dimitri’s embarrassment and anger were tremendous. But as with all things in social media, the picture had run its course — or so Dimitri thought. But here it is. Kurtis has resurrected it on his motivational weightlifting account for thousands to see.

The snarl on Dimitri’s face deepens.

The Kurtis in the video presses the barbell once, twice, five times. It’s a Personal Best for Kurtis (you hell-spawn, you absolute rat-chomper). He howls in triumph, drops the barbell to the mat (Dimitri’s superimposed face wincing as it hits) and runs to the camera, his perfectly symmetrical face filling the frame.

“You can do it too, ja?” says the Kurtis in the video, eyes wide with intensity. “You push the haters around, show them you are strong. That we are strong. Throw them around like they are nothing, ja? You make the power in yourself. You take the power from them.” He flexes. Sneers. Then smiles. He even winks. Goddammit.

It’s nonsense, every word of it, but somehow in Kurtis’s imperfect English and his heavy (if vague) eastern European accent, it sounds like pure honey. In real time, Dimitri watches the likes and the upvotes ticking upward like the numbers on a gasoline pump at the height of the oil crisis.

“What you think of my video, ja?”

Dimitri whirls. There stands Kurtis, leaning against the far bank of lockers, sculpted arms folded across his cast-iron bare chest. Perfection personified, damn him. Dimitri says nothing.

“Your face was so funny in that picture, ja? I had to use it.” Kurtis crosses, plucks the phone from Dimitri’s fingers, scrolls down. “Look at all the comments, ja? ‘Keep pushing, Kurt.’ ‘Don’t let them get you down, Kurtis.’ ‘We do it together, Kurt.’ ‘Kurtis, you’re amazing.’ Isn’t it great?”

Dimitri reaches for the phone, but Kurtis keeps it neatly out of reach.

“And the views, Dimitri. Did you see? Over a hundred thousand this time. That’s a new record too, ja? A personal best for views to go with my personal best for lifting. Ha, ha. It is irony, ja? Think of it, my friend.”

Friend?

“Think of the exposure for the gym, and for us. Isn’t it wonderful?”

Dimitri finally snatches his phone away. He imagines all the things he’d like to do to Kurtis. Many of them involve heavy weights and various sensitive parts of Kurtis’s body. These thoughts make him smile, and Kurtis smiles back.

“They love us,” Kurtis says, and leaves.

Dimitri watches him go, knows he won’t do any of those things to Kurtis. But he can do one thing.

He downvotes the video.

This, too, makes him smile.


The Theory of A-Holes


  • Problem: Everywhere I go, I run into a-holes.

I don’t know what it is, but lately, I keep running into a-holes. People cutting in line. People blocking up roads with their cars and grocery store aisles with their carts. People arguing with authority when they are 100% in the wrong (and usually they know it). For a while there, I was thinking I must just be an a-hole magnet: something about me, or my particular effect on my locality of the universe, causes people to act like a-holes when they’re in my orbit.

But I’m a skeptic, so I know that’s ridiculous. And because I’m a skeptic, I started digging into this weird thing I was noticing. And after months of study, I have a few conclusions to share with you.

  • Theory: The dispersion rate of a-holes is high, while the concentration rate is low. Phrased another way: you can find an a-hole just about anywhere you look, but the actual number of a-holes in the population at large must remain a small, perhaps even minute percentage.

We need to define terms, here, or at the very least, define one term: the a-hole. The a-hole is a person (I’m gonna go out on a limb here and wager that they’re mostly men, though I don’t have statistics to back that up — or any other claim in this post for that matter) who routinely puts his or her own interests above the interests of the group in which he finds himself, to the extent that it causes those others pain, discomfort, or inconvenience.

To simplify, the a-hole could be characterized in a single thought: “what I’m doing right now is more important than anything that anybody in the vicinity has going on.”

To clarify, a few examples of a-hole behavior:

  • committing just about any traffic offense
  • blocking the aisle at a grocery store at full Saturday crowd
  • being on his cellphone in the line at Starbucks who hasn’t decided yet what he’s ordering by the time he gets to the front
  • doing the “nice guy” thing by letting you go first even though he’s blocking people behind him from going
  • standing right behind you on the train or in line when there are literally dozens of other places he could be standing that wouldn’t involve invading your personal space

We could go on, and ladies in the audience could certainly give many more examples that I’m sure don’t even occur to me, but the point is, we recognize the a-hole when we see him. (I’m saying “him” from here on just for simplicity, but c’mon. You know.)

We don’t like a-holes in our societies. The non-a-holes dislike them for obvious reasons: they’re inconveniencing us, annoying us, or at worst, actively causing us pain. Other a-holes also dislike a-holes for the same reasons plus a few more: the other a-hole is stealing resources, or making the environment inhospitable for other a-holes, or is just straight-up getting in the way.

Luckily, there are self-correcting measures for the a-holes out there built into our evolution.

  • Big Fishes, Small Ponds

Consider a pond. In this pond are several fish of varying sizes and temperaments. Every fish has to eat. Some fish eat plants, some fish eat bugs, some fish eat other fish. A simple study of the food web you know from third grade will tell you that a small pond can only sustain so many big fish. The big fish does what it wants because it’s the big fish; who’s going to stop it? The big fish gets what it wants by being an a-hole and just taking it. All well and good as long as the big fish is the only big fish.

But what happens when the big fish is not the only big fish?

The moment one big fish takes what another big fish wants, there’s trouble. Now, fish don’t have a lot of tools in their belt: these fish are either going to fight or one of them is going to have to move on. Either way, of the fish in the conflict, one will be forcibly removed from the picture.

One a-hole takes the other a-hole out. The problem rectifies itself; the pond is back to just one a-hole of a big fish.

  • A Bug’s Life

A-holes self-regulate in another fascinating way. Consider the movie A Bug’s Life from the early days of Pixar. In this movie, there’s a colony of ants living together, working hard, storing up food for the winter. But every year, a roving band of grasshoppers demands a share of the food, else they’ll start squishing ants. You know; being a-holes. Now the grasshoppers are bigger and meaner than the ants, so there’s not a lot of point in fighting them; it wouldn’t work. Perhaps more to the point, the ants are generally peaceful and don’t want to fight, so they figure paying a bit of food is worth avoiding the conflict.

Until the grasshoppers make life so absolutely untenable for the ants that they can’t take anymore. The ants rise against the grasshoppers like a tsunami, risking life and limb to fight the injustice. While individual ants might get squished in the conflict, the grasshoppers are simply no match for the unified numbers suddenly coming their way with pitchforks and torches.

An a-hole (or group of a-holes) can push their luck past the point of reason, and the community casts them out.

  • Extra-Strong Charmin

The last resort against a truly nasty a-hole is exactly what you’d expect: toilet paper. (Look, I’m sorry. The metaphor is disgusting. But hear me out. I’ll be discrete.) The toilet paper are those people who hold jobs — often menial, unglamorous, or practically invisible to the average person — that carry a surprising amount of power when it comes to cleaning up sh*t.

Make no mistake, it’s unpleasant being toilet paper. And not every a-hole you come across demands your full attention. But when the TP gets involved, it’s over for the a-hole.

An a-hole running into some toilet paper has options. He could attempt to make himself look small and unassuming and not worth the trouble of cleaning up — but let’s face it, the a-hole isn’t going to do that because, well, he’s an a-hole. No, he’s going to make the other choice: Inevitably, the a-hole is going to go to war with the toilet paper — but anybody who’s been there knows that this particular path isn’t going to go well for the a-hole. The toilet paper has reinforcements. The more the a-hole struggles at this point, the worse it gets.

These are your idiots arguing with cops, acting smug with judges, getting drunk and disorderly in public. And when they act out enough, well … they get forcibly cleaned up.

  • Conclusions

So: a-holes are everywhere. Or rather, there is a self-regulating number of a-holes regularly spaced such that it feels like a-holes everywhere.

But I feel like it didn’t used to be this way, so … why am I suddenly noticing a-holes everywhere?

I see two possible reasons.

  1. I’m a-hole-sensitive. I’m a dad, and I’m trying to keep my kids from growing up to be a-holes themselves, so I’m extra-finely-tuned to a-hole behavior to help me catch it and point it out as Things You Should Not Be Doing for my kids.
  2. I’m an a-hole myself, and I’m extremely conscious of other big fish swimming into my pond.

I guess there’s nothing saying both answers can’t be right.


Wordsmithery and Feelings of Inadequacy


Why are writers so insecure? Today I’m going to tell you!

Many, many years ago, back before I even considered myself a writer, when I was just working on a play kind of as a lark, when I was just scribbling odd little nothings to myself in notebooks (which would become the blog posts and morning pages of today), I had an interaction with my sister. I couldn’t tell you what the substance of the interaction was, or what we were talking about, or what I said, exactly, or really any details of the interaction — except for one.

Image result for tree bicycle

And this detail, well, it stuck in my consciousness like the rusted-out bicycle that a tree grows around. I shaped myself around this comment, almost certainly to my detriment, in the intervening time. It ate me up from the inside, turning me into a neurotic mess of a writer, shaking my confidence the way earthquakes used to shake buildings before they started putting buildings on wheels.

Here’s the situation. I was home from college — or maybe just visiting my folks after college — or, hell, maybe it was before college, who can tell, that’s how bad my memory is but it’s not the point — and talking to my sister about something. Who knows what. And I said something.

What I said, I could not tell you today under pain of torture, except to say that it was an attempted witticism, a stab at something snarky, a foray into wordplay that went wrong. I felt it going wrong in the moment of saying it, the way a major league batter just feels the home run when it leaves his bat, or more precisely, the way he feels that he hasn’t just missed the pitch, he’s tipped it, at dangerous speed, probably past the protective netting, probably into the face of an unsuspecting fan, or worse, a kid, where it will knock out teeth or shatter cheekbones and necessitate a carefully-worded statement from the front office and probably an apology tour in the media. The words felt like that, coming out of my mouth. (Whatever they were.)

Image result for batter loses bat
(Crap.)

I knew, to put it bluntly, that I had botched my attempt at making good words, and botched it badly.

And my sister said to me, in that hurtful way that only your little sister who’s taken a lifetime of your crap can say, “wow, you’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?”

You know that scene in every action movie where the building (or the car or the villain’s fortress or whatever) is exploding — just going entirely to pieces, irreparable damage, nothing but fire and pain and devastation filling the frame — and the hero (or heroine, this is the 21st century after all) is totally cool, walking away from it without a care? Or the end of Star Wars (episode IV or VI, reader’s choice) where the fateful shot is away, the heroes are flying off into the dark of deep space, and the villains keep flipping switches and coolly saying things like “fire on my mark” but they don’t know that they’re dead already?

This was like that.

“You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you,” would stick in my brain and shape me more than I’d like, and certainly more than I’d care to admit, for years and years and years.

Every now and then, sometimes while writing, sometimes not, I’d hear it again, playing on a loop in my brain, and it would never fail to demoralize.

Wrote a sentence in my novel I’m not too sure about?

You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?”

Used a totally inadequate word because I couldn’t think of the perfect one?

“You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?

Said something totally idiotic in a everyday conversation?

“You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?”

Just sitting there watching TV, not even thinking about writing at that particular moment?

“YOU’RE A REAL WORDSMITH, AREN’T YOU?”

Everything I write, I have to contend with that voice in my head: it’s good, sure, but is it wordsmith good? So I second-guess myself to death. Is this creative enough? Is it clever enough? Smart enough? Or could any schlub with a pencil and half a brain come up with something better?

Then, once second-guessed, it’s only natural to third-guess the problem. I could make it better by throwing in MORE words. Better words. ALL THE WORDS. Or maybe get rid of the sentence entirely — the words can’t be dumb if there are NO WORDS AT ALL.

This thinking leads, like a boulder down a mountain path, to overthinking, until the boulder turns into a self-doubt and self-loathing black hole, population: me and everything I have ever written.

Absolute poison.

And while I internalized that comment, like an ingrown toenail, or like the point of that Morghul blade working its way inexorably toward Frodo’s heart, my sister got to walk away and never think about it again for the rest of her life. Probably the most she ever thought about it was in the very next second after she said it, to say to herself “good burn,” and then forget about it forever.

I tell you all this not to shame her, but to shame myself. To purge the poison by first acknowledging the fact that I’ve been poisoned. The fault in this tale is not hers for saying the thing, but mine for taking the thing and wrapping it in silk and tucking it away in the secret place in my mind to take out and fetishize and fixate upon.

It’s hard — nigh impossible, I’d almost say — not to do this. When we identify so closely with what we create (as authors and artists of all stripes must, by necessity), then an assault on that thing becomes an assault on us, in much the same way that, oh, I don’t know, a high-profile sports star saying disparaging things about certain people in positions of power makes people that like the disparaged person come to hate said high-profile sports star, even though they have no personal stake in what was said at all.

AHEM AHEM I DIGRESS.

Our work is a part of ourselves, and that’s not a bad thing — but we also have to be able to see our work as not a part of ourselves. To see that the words we write aren’t themselves who we are, but instead just a reflection of who we are in the moment. And, most importantly, those reflections can always be improved and changed — and we don’t have to beat ourselves up over them.

Go forth and wordsmith.

Imperfectly.


Don’t Forget to Wash Up


This is the kind of thing that you find all over your previously perfectly boring, perfectly un-terrifying house when you become a parent.

Kids don’t give a hot handful how a toy is meant to be played with. They’re going to play with it in the way that makes the most sense to them at the time, dammit, and if that means dumping six 300-piece puzzles out on the floor and mixing the pieces together so that those puzzles will never be completed in this life or the next, that’s what they’re going to do. If it means running Hot Wheels tracks all over the house and the couch and the cat sleeping on the couch, that’s what they’re bloody well going to do. And if it means decapitating their action figures and not so much tossing but posing the disembodied heads in the sink drains so that it looks like little blue gremlins are slithering out of the unseen depths to haunt my nightmares, then that’s what they’re absolutely going to do, thank you very much.

Never mind that I’m going to stumble on this disturbing tableau first thing in the morning. My sleep-addled brain is going to have to contend with a miniature demon head peeking out of the drain. (It won’t contend well. I’ll first have a lizard-brain fight-or-flight jump accompanied by a quite unmanly yelp, followed by some hyperventilating and finishing off by jumping at shadows for the rest of the day.) Never mind that the petit horror is waiting for me in a safe space within a safe space to thoroughly throw off my sense of routine. (Nobody expects to get their brains scared out first thing in the morning in the bathroom, for goodness’s sake … but if it is going to happen in the bathroom, I expect the terror to come from the shower, as would any red-blooded horror movie fan, so the sink is just out of bounds. I’d at least be gratified if the kids had set a trap for me in the shower.) No, the scare will come, not from the last place I’d expect, but from a place that it wouldn’t even occur to me to ever consider that it might come from.

I’ll table, for now, the question of whether leaving a disembodied head in a sink means my kid is a serial killer in the making, and instead focus my mental efforts on checking the toaster for silly string and my kids’ artwork for surreal nightmare imagery culled from my dreams.


Signs, Signs Everywhere


Who doesn’t love a good terrible sign?

By terrible, of course, I mean a sign that attempts to communicate a certain message but in practice communicates an entirely different or even antithetical message. The internet is full of them, and I’ll leave it to your own ingenuity to find the ones that tickle your fancy, but there’s nothing quite like coming across one in the wild.

And that’s what I did this week!

We took the sprouts on an overnight trip to Chattanooga for a visit to the aquarium and the discovery museum (weather was predicted to be too nasty for outdoor activities and … it wasn’t, but we had already arranged for indoor stuff so that’s life I guess). It was a great time! Not that I’m suddenly turning travel agent or anything, but I can safely say (and I take no pleasure in this) that these facilities have way more to offer the tourist than the comparable facilities in Atlanta.

More to the point, I also came across some delightfully confusing signage.

Exhibit A:

I’ve seen this one before, and maybe even commented on it here. (Which is testament both to how long I’ve had this site and how old I’m getting — there’s a vague sense that this thing may have happened, but the memory is so dim and far away it might as well be somebody else’s.) Anyway — this is a sign posted outside a bathroom advertising that there’s a changing table inside, but for all my efforts I can’t see it as anything other than a dude putting a baby on a grill.

“Keep the baby over the center of the coals,” it seems to say. “Check the heat of the grill often and turn the baby to ensure even cooking.”

Then, this:

This one, I … oi. It’s two days later and I’m still breaking my brain trying to properly understand it. First of all, it’s guilty of that perverse advertising oddity where the animal about to be eaten is serenely happy about the entire arrangement. Much like the cow at Milliways in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, our finny little friend here just can’t wait to be filleted. Then there’s the motto, which — I mean, isn’t that a law enforcement slogan? That being said, it’s a lovely double entendre. “We’re going to serve you some fish, but we’re also going to protect them.”

You know. So you can eat them. Happy fish!

A representative from the aquarium actually tweeted me back when I expressed this sentiment, which surprised and impressed me:

So I guess my attempt at twitter humor came up a bit short. On the subject, I won’t at all get into where my head went when I saw that the handle of the Tennessee Aquarium is @TNAquarium. Nope, won’t go there at all, and if your mind didn’t go there with me, then it’s a testament to your character.

Last but not least, there was also this exhibit plaque:

I don’t know what Julie did, but clearly the Aquarium is not having any of it.


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