In which I’m a scary ghost man.
In which we act like dorky country hounds.
Teresa and I made this music video for our date last Saturday. This is the first of many more to come.
Minimum wage. What a beautiful phrase. It meant that there was only one direction for me: up, toward maximum wage. Although my job – sorting books at the city library – was tedious and mind-numbing, something a machine would someday do better, I considered myself lucky to be surrounded by a sea of literary masterpieces. Hugo, Dickens, Steinbeck, Pinkwater. Someday, I knew, the glorious books I would write would also pass through the hands of minimum-waged admirers.
My official job title was a “page.” I’m pretty sure this was borrowed from feudal order, intended to break my spirit by reminding me of my place a slave, but I didn’t mind, not when I got to handle works of art like The Fluffy Bunny.
The pictures, a mixed medium of pen and ink and water colors, were, in themselves, Caldecott worthy. But what really moved me was the story. In fact, I read it so many times, I knew it by heart.
The fluffy bunny lives in a hole. The outside world is big and scary, but the fluffy bunny decides to be brave. He smells the flowers. He hears the birds. He feels the sunlight. The fluffy bunny is glad he left his hole.
So I wasn’t actually supposed to be reading on the job, and sometimes I got in trouble with my supervisor. In fact, after my third warning, I kind of got fired. Which was devastating, because the library was my home away from home. While I was an employee, I didn’t have to pay any fines, which meant I could hold on to The Fluffy Bunny for as long as I liked, which I did. But now, two years overdue, I had to return it.
But as fate would have it, I was on my way to the book drop when something beautiful caught my eye, and my heart skipped a beat. She was wearing a red apron and a metal name tag. Miss Teresa. I guess you could say I stalked her, but we don’t like to use that term in love stories. I admired her from a distance. It turned out that she worked in the children’s section as a storyteller. She and her coworker would lay out a blanket, ring a bell, and little tykes would gather around for stories and puppet shows. I knew I was meant to be there when, at the end of the show, Teresa announced that the library was looking to hire another storyteller.
I didn’t hesitate. I filled out the application and got an interview the very next day. (Thankfully, the children’s department didn’t communicate with the circulation department.) I told my prospective supervisor, Bertha, everything she wanted to hear, about how much I love books and children and how I’m very good at choosing age-appropriate material and would never dream of breaking the fourth wall. And, well, they must have been really desperate, because soon I was dawning my own red apron with my own metal name tag. No longer a lowly page, I was now Mister Steve, making a whopping ten dollars per hour.
The best part was cramming into the tiny puppet stage next to Teresa, playing out fantasies with furry creatures on hour hands. For those magical moments, time seemed to slow down and, never mind the plethora of fussy children, there was only us. And Bob. Mister Bob was the other storyteller, and he also had a thing for Teresa. Mister Bob was tall, dark, and handsome. Mister Bob didn’t like me, and I didn’t like Mister Bob. When we played pat-a-cake, he went out of his way to make sure that he was the one clapping Teresa’s hands. When we played Ring Around the Rosy, he preferred to break the circle rather than hold my hand. It wasn’t even a ring.
Once the three of us were performing a puppet show of Little Red Riding Hood. The wolf (Mister Bob) had just locked Little Red (Teresa) in the closet when the hunter (yours truly) came in to save the day. Only Mister Bob surprised us with an alternate ending. The wolf bit the hunter’s jugular vein and pronounced him dead. Mister Bob then informed the audience that the wolf and Little Red were married and lived happily ever after. Afterward, I complained to Bertha about this scandalous adulteration of a children’s classic, but she just informed me that Mister Bob was the senior storyteller and therefore was allowed more creative liberty than others … namely me.
As if Mister Bob’s uncouth storytelling wasn’t bad enough, he constantly violated the rules, talking too loud and bringing food and drink into the library. To cover up his crimes, he would stuff his junk food into the puppets, further cementing his role as the only one who could play the Big Bad Wolf or Papa bear, because the rest of us didn’t want to get melted chocolate on our fingers.
But I wasn’t afraid of Mister Bob. At the first chance, I asked Miss Teresa out on a date. I impressed her with a candle-lit picnic, and together we swung in my homemade hammock. Unfortunately, the ropes couldn’t hold the weight of the two of us, and when we slammed against my concrete patio, Miss Teresa sort of broke her tail bone. Another time we went skiing in the mountains, holding hands while flying over white powder. It was heaven. For me at least. I regret that this was Miss Teresa’s first time on the slopes, and I was a very bad ski instructor. When, the next day, she showed up at work wearing a leg brace and covered in bruises, I overhead Mister Bob say, “If you keep going out with this guy, you’ll end up dead.”
The next day at work, Mister Bob had another surprise. When it was time to pull the magic bunny out of the hat, instead of introducing the letter of the day, the bunny was holding a bouquet of flowers for Miss Teresa. This was getting serious, and I knew I had to act fast. So, not too many story times had passed before I had a surprise of my own. Planted within the paws of the magic bunny, hidden within the magic hat, was a little, green box, and within the little green box was a twenty-four caret gold … coated … engagement ring. I was on a student budget. Though the ring did have a one-hundred percent genuine cubic zirconium.
As we approached the end of story time, my heart began to pound. The only thing remaining before the entrance of the magic bunny was the puppet show. I was Pinocchio, Teresa was the fairy, and Mister Bob was the whale. All was going well. It looked as if Pinocchio was going to escape from the whale and achieve his dream of becoming a real boy, until, to everyone’s horror, the whale bit off Pinocchio’s head. For me, that was the last straw. “Why, Mister Bob!?” I cried, and in the act of throwing up my arms, I accidentally knocked over the puppet stage, which, upon hitting the floor, snapped in half.
Of course, Bertha was standing in the background, her arms folded. Murdering Pinocchio was one thing, but breaking the fourth wall – literally – in front of a hundred traumatized children … well … let’s just say I knew that this would be my last story time. In the corner of my eye, I could see Mister Bob’s devilish green. He must have known I was planning something big, and I’d fallen for his bait.
But there was still time. “Don’t worry, children,” I said, “the fairy cured Pinocchio’s head problem, and everyone lived happily ever after. And now it’s time for a visit from the Magic Bunny.” Before Mister Bob could intervene, I pulled out the top hat, stuffed my hand into the puppet, and, with the help of the children, spoke the well-known incantation. “Magic bunny, please come out.”
And he did. With the little green box on display, I fell to one knee. “Miss Teresa,” I said, “will you –”
That was when Mister Bob, staring at me, put on the alligator puppet and, with a single chomp, devoured all five of the finger puppet monkeys, a subtle way of saying, “I will kill you.” Did I mention that Mister Bob was bigger and stronger than me? Anyway, I stuttered, and Mister Bob took full advantage of the opportunity. He fell to one knee, took Miss Teresa by the hand and said, “Will you marry me?”
“Oh,” said a shocked Miss Teresa. Then she turned to me. “But what did you want to ask me, Mister Steve?”
“Um … will you …”
And then, just to drive the point home, Mister Bob picked up Pinocchio’s severed head and crushed it with is free hand.
“Will you …” I continued, “… marry Mister Bob?”
Miss Teresa looked between the two of us. Perhaps she thought Mister Bob was her only chance. Perhaps Bob had also threatened to crush her skull, but whatever the reason, she said yes, and my life was over. Mister Bob then proceeded to put my engagement ring on Miss Teresa’s finger, and the audience cheered. Meanwhile, I walked to the employee’s work room and threw off my apron and name tag. Before Bertha could fire me, I quit.
And then it was back to my lonely path. On my way out of the library, a sensor was tripped, an alarm went off, and the security guard asked to see what was inside my backpack. The Fluffy Bunny. Wow. They’d canceled my employee status really fast, and no longer was I exempt from paying fines. Though it broke my heart, I had to return the book.
But when I put my hand into the book drop, I just couldn’t let go. Suddenly I felt something tugging from below. “Sir,” said a voice from the other side of the wall – the woman who had taken my old job – “please let go of the book.”
“I can’t,” I said. And so the tug-of-war ensued. In the end, she won, pulling me right through the book drop.
“What are you doing, sir?” she asked as I was carried across the conveyor belt.
“I don’t even known anymore,” I said. When I got to the end of the conveyor belt, another page took a look at the book in my hand and said, “This book is severely damaged. It needs to be discarded.”
“No,” I said, “I love this book.” And so another tug-of-war ensued, and, in the end, she won, pushing both the book and me down the garbage shoot.
I landed in a dumpster in the parking garage, finding myself nicely sequestered among the newspapers, soda cans, hamburger wrappers, and stinky diapers. I was happy to resign myself to fate until I realized that there was something alive in there. “Hello?” I said.
“Hey,” returned a gruff voice. And then, rising out of the trash, covered in banana peels and melted ice cream, was the dirtiest man I’ve ever seen. It was Harry, the town bum. “How’d you end up down here?” he asked.
I replied, “I lost the girl I love to the man I hate.”
Harry nodded knowingly. “That’s how I got down here too.”
“I used to sort books back in the day.”
“I loved a librarian named Beatrice. But she left me for George the janitor, whom she left for Mister Darcy. Now she’s an old maid, and I’m a bum. I shouldn’t have known you can’t marry a librarian. But once you give your heart to the library, it will never leave. That’s why I’m here.”
“Well,” I said, “at least we have each other.”
“I don’t think so, kid. This is my dumpster. Go win your girl back.”
“I tried, but he’s a big, bad wolf.”
“Learn from Little Red Riding Hood. When the wolf eats you up, cut yourself back out.”
“That’s not how the story goes. The wolf locked Little Red in the closest, and then the hunter saved her.”
“Son, you’ve obviously been the victim of watered down storytelling. The true Grimm’s fairy tale involves scissors and plenty of blood.”
I couldn’t believe it. The children’s department had been using me to spread propaganda. Thinking of Mister Bob, the ultimate tool, further adulterating the classics with completely unnecessary violence, as opposed to the proper, culturally-celebrated violence, my blood began to boil. “Thank you, Harry,” I said. “It’s time for the library to see just how Grimm I can be.”
The next day, at story time, Miss Teresa and Mister Bob were behind the puppet stage. Papa bear (Mister Bob) was in the process of devouring Goldilocks, when I stepped in. “That’s not how the story goes,” I said.
“Oh, Mister Steve,” said Papa Bear. “You’re not supposed to be here.” Then in a more hushed voice: “Quick, Teresa. Call security.”
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” I said, drawing closer to the puppet stage.
“Why not?” asked Papa Bear.
“Did you ever hear about the five little ducks that went out to play? When the mama duck said quack, quack, quack, not one of them came back.”
“Yes, I know the rhyme.” Papa bear was growing impatient.
“I’m not finished. When the daddy duck said quack, quack, quack, the five little ducks came waddling back. You can’t hide what you’ve been doing forever, Mister Bob. The show is over.”
At that, Mister Bob was so angry that he threw Papa Bear right at me, a truly terrifying sight. For a moment I panicked when I saw those terrible teeth and claws springing toward me. But then, inspired by my love for Miss Teresa, I pulled out my knife and and flung it. Time seemed to slow down as every child took in the gruesome sight. And then, just before Papa bear devoured me, the knife tore open his belly, exposing torrents of fluff, candy bars and a can of soda.
A gasp fell over the audience. “Yes,” I said. “Mister Bob has been hiding food and drink in the library.” And at that, a horrified Mister Bob came out from behind the puppet stage. He threw off his apron and name tag and ran right out of the library, never to return.
As the scandalized crowd went their way, Bertha approached me. “That was not age-appropriate, Mister Steve.”
“Yes,” I admitted, “but very true to the original folktales, and that makes it all right.”
“It looks like we’ll be needing a new storyteller. Would you like to come back?”
“Done and done.” I then approached Miss Teresa. “So … that ring you’re wearing is actually mine. Will you marry me instead of Bob?”
“Okay,” said Teresa, because I didn’t have enough time in this story to develop her personality. And that, children, is how I met your mother and how I became a storyteller. And the moral is, no matter what Harry the bum said, librarians are hot. You should totally marry one. Thank you.
Prior to taking tests in my eighth grade social studies class, my teacher would often plead with the students not to cheat. She would say, “Your integrity is worth more than a letter grade.” I remember thinking, “Easy for you to say. If I get a bad grade in your class, it will forever stain my record. It will lower my GPA, and my parents will lecture me. My entire future hangs on the outcome of this test!”
In retrospect, I can see that my teacher was right. While, from the perspective of those in the trenches, it’s difficult to see an end to the conflict, to quote the great Elsa, “Funny how some distance makes everything seem small.” I’m glad that I chose not to sell my integrity for a better social studies grade, especially as I ended up acing the class anyway.
Every four years in the United States, it seems that there are many who, like insecure eighth graders, find themselves fearing the outcome of the presidential elections. They’re often faced with the choice of voting for someone they believe in or trying to game the system by voting for someone they don’t necessarily believe in but who has a better chance of defeating the candidate they definitely don’t believe in. Is this latter choice not a bit like cheating on a test, a compromise of integrity in order to minimize a perception of impending damage?
The purpose of tests is to to prove whether or not one has learned something, which cheating obviously circumvents. The purpose of voting is to allow for better decision-making than oligarchs and monarchs usually make. Ironically, by “voting to win” instead of voting on principle, we’re more likely to elect into office someone we don’t actually believe in than a monarch would be, who could simply appoint whoever he chooses. Thus, voting to win circumvents the purpose of democracy. It’s like cheating.
The philosopher David Hume argued that there is a way to determine absolute morality within a given society and that is to ask one’s self the question, “If everyone were to act like me, how would society be?” In the case of voting, if the majority of people were to vote for someone they believed in, it’s easy to see how society would be better. If, on the other hand, the majority of people were to effectively vote against someone they didn’t believe in, what would happen? In a two party system, if the goal is to outdo the other side, the amiable candidates would be the first to go. The ones who would last would be the ones with the most mud to sling, who are the most controversial and make the biggest bulldogs. In short, we would expect to see an ever-escalating game of partisan pingpong.
Like short-sided eighth graders who believe that one’s life hangs in the balance of a social studies test, those who subscribe to the vote-to-win mentality can’t seem to see more than four to eight years into the future. They fail to see that the bigger their win is, the bigger the retaliation will be from the other side. For example, was there really any question that the Democrats would take the power after eight years of the controversial Bush administration? And did the Democrats not choose as their candidate the biggest anti-Bush they could find? And should it be any wonder that, in retaliation four eight years of the controversial Obama administration, we’re now seeing the biggest anti-Obama the Republicans could find? If Donald Trump takes the presidency, can there be any doubt that, in four to eight years, the Democrats will raise up an anti-Trump whose victory will be virtually guaranteed?
I believe David Hume got it right. This vicious cycle is not only destructive, it’s immoral. As evidenced by the fact that the nominations from the major parties are the most disliked in history, we are already viewing the worst-case scenario, the cold, hard effects of abandoning principle for pragmatism, and the results are administration after administration of power-grabbing, government-expanding binges. So what’s left to be afraid of? Why further exacerbate the problem with the same narrow-minded mentality that got us here in the first place?
The problem is, first and foremost, in the minds of voters. Like the results of a social studies test, the results of elections will be, in the long run, much less significant than the value of our integrities. Unlike a social studies test, political losses are not only inevitable, they are, at most, four to eight years away.
Though, eight years ago, the majority of American voters were vehemently for or against one or the other, even to the point of believing that God was on their side, history has proven them both to be two sides of the same coin. This is not a judgment of their personal characters or even their attempts at positive change but as assessment of the end results. From foreign policy, to domestic surveillance, to the bureau of education, to rampant spending, what unforgivable sin did President Bush commit that President Obama has not, effectively carried on or even expanded?
Of course, no one could live up to the godlike expectations we place on our presidents, and this is a good thing. Presidential power is limited for a reason, and the hopes we place in it, weighed against our lack of concern for local elections, is blown way out of proportion. I have no lack of confidence that the United States will survive either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, no matter how dubious their characters or reckless their administrations. What I don’t know, however, is whether or not this country can survive any more generations of people who, when they have every opportunity to do otherwise, consistently vote for the lesser of two evils.
To paraphrase my eighth grade geography teacher, “Your personal integrity is worth so much more than the outcome of elections.” The real problem is not the candidates, it’s us.
Today our little Riah-roo, my Rygor, turned eight years old. Our little bundle of joy with a head in the 90th percentile and a body in 10th percentile. My partner for countless hours of playing toys, such as the many times Lord Zaxon would send his evil robots to destroy the village, or the countless plots of the wicked cats to kidnap the princesses, or the wacky adventures of the syrup bottle and baby Jesus. Our inexhaustible sprite, our flamboyant fairy, our tireless tub of tenacity.
My little competition. She’s already won more baby pageants, science fairs, and storytelling contests than I ever have. And judging by the incessant knocks on our front door from just about every child in the neighborhood — all day, every day — there’s no denying that she’s the life of the party, the creative wonder, the impulsive genius of fun, the explosive, wide-mouthed puppet of passion.
Everyone who knows you loves you. Everyone who loves you fears you. Everyone who fears you wants to squeeze you. Here’s to eight more years of tea parties, love notes, and late-night adventures with our neighbor Totoro.
Star Trek: the Next Generation, season six, episode fifteen. Captain Jean Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise is engaged in one of his many adventures when suddenly his mechanical heart fails, and, in shock, he falls unconscious. Then, somewhere between a dream and the great beyond, the captain finds himself in the company of the extra-dimmensional trixter, the enigmatic, all-powerful Mister Q, an old antagonist of the captain. Q asks the captain how he was able to come to such a pitiful demise, and the captain recounts the story when, as a young officer in the star fleet, he got in a brawl with some alien thugs, who stabbed him in the heart, thus requiring the use of an artificial organ. Reliving the moment, we see young Jean Luc Picard receive the terrible blow, fall to his knees, and, with the brashness of youth, laugh at his own misfortune.
How could he do that? I marveled. Could I ever be so courageous?
Though it’s a painful vision for the older Jean Luc, not only from the memory of steel piercing his flesh, but from seeing the naive, arrogant, young man he once was in contrast to the well-behaved and logical man he’d become.
Not so long ago, after taking a personality test, I discovered that I had a lot in common with the captain. In fact, according to the test, I scored one-hundred percent on “thinking” and zero on “feeling.” This revelation surprised my friends, who seemed to have the idea that a “thinker” couldn’t have possibly been responsible for some of my less that intelligent antics over the years. But to set the record straight, thinking in no way necessitates intelligent thinking.
My wife, on the other hand, scored one-hundred percent “feeling” and zero percent “thinking.” The contrast makes for some interest dynamics. Anyway, like the captain, as soon as I had this realization, I found myself reliving my past, and I was ashamed.
First grade, nineteen-ninety. I was walking home from school with my friends, when we discovered a new boy in the neighborhood. He lived with his grandma, and he was home schooled. He was different. So we did the only logical thing: we made fun of him. Drawing from our rich, first grade vocabulary, we called him a poo poo head. It was good fun. And as a one-hundred-percent thinker and zero percent feeler, it never occurred to me that we might be hurting his feelings. I just thought this was how young boys were supposed to act.
A few days later, we were passing the boy’s house again, and there he was. “Look,” I said, “it’s the poo poo head.” But to my confusion, my buddy Ryan replied, “Actually, he’s our friend now. We got to know him when you weren’t there, and he’s a cool kid.” This was very confusing. First he’s a poo poo head, now he’s our friend? I couldn’t make sense of this illogical paradox. Perhaps it was something only a “feeler” could understand.
I always knew I wanted to be a hero and a leader, like the captain, and from a tender age, I was well-trained. That is, like every other boy and girl, I spent my after school hours watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Of course, most kids did much more than watch, they would play Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But I wasn’t like most kids. From the beginning, I was an original, an authentic. My friends and I played Teenage Mutant Ninja Monkeys. Hour after hour, day after day, the ninja monkeys would fight an inexhaustible supply of invisible bad guys with our inexplicable knack for martial arts. Someday, we imagined, we would fight real evil.
Jump ahead to the fourth grade, when the time had come. My buddy Luke and I were tired of dreaming our lives away, so at night, we snuck out of his parents’ house and roamed the neighborhood streets. I was wearing a black cloak, and Luke was wearing a black trench coat. We were the “Bad Guy Patrol.” As soon as we found a bad guy, we just knew that we’d be able to do defeat him with our inexplicable knack for martial arts.
We never did find any bad guys. Though at church, the next Sunday, I overhead Sister Johnson, who lived right next to Luke, talking about some suspicious characters she’d seen wearing black clothes. She said that everyone should lock their doors and that she’d contacted the police’s neighborhood watch program. I couldn’t believe the irony. We, the bad guy patrol, were mistaken for bad guys! It made no sense. Perhaps it was something only a feeler could understand.
In fifth grade, I fought my first real battle against evil as personified by the mortal enemies of all young boys: girls. The fact that girls were our enemies had always been self-evident, as intrinsic as my knowledge that the home-schooled boy was a poo poo head. So I didn’t need any motivation, let alone justification, when I led a charming army of twenty boys toward a playground full of unsuspecting girls. Many innocent girls were pushed over that day. I myself pushed over the chief girl: Jill Metcalf. I’m not certain how, exactly, I knew she was the chief girl. It must have been another one of those self-evident truths. And as I pushed her onto the chalky gravel, it never occurred to me that I might be hurting her feelings.
Then one day I got my comeuppance. You see, I was taught how to feel, and I was taught well. My family lived by a middle school, and behind the middle school was a big, glorious wilderness we affectionately called Big Rock. The reason for the name was that within the heart of Big Rock was a very big rock. Every last inch of it was covered in graffiti, for this was no man’s land, a home to delinquents, anarchists, and teenagers. Another prominent feature was the old, abandoned house. Most of it had been weathered away, long ago. Now it was the home to a scary, old hermit that ate children. So my older brother and sister told me, and, of course, they knew.
Anyway, one day my buddies and I were walking through Big Rock, hopping across the large stones in the river and having a grand time in the great, unsupervised outdoors, when we encountered a group of boys we’d never met. And just as I knew with the poo poo head and with Jill Metcalf, I knew that these boys needed to be made fun of. Again, it had never occurred to me that I was anything short of a hero, but when one is incapable of feeling, as I’ve already said, one doesn’t always think intelligently.
So I called them Snuffleupagus brains and other eloquent inventions as my buddies and I held our territory. Because, so I thought, that was what boys were supposed to do. There were plenty of bigger kids around, so I felt safe. The new boys did nothing but walk away.
But on the way back to my house, we realized that our new-found rival gang was following us … on bicycles. There was no outrunning them, so again we held our ground as we were surrounded. “You,” said the gang leader, “you’re the guy who was making fun of us.” Two of the boys seized my arms while the gang leader put on some brass knuckles. I looked to my friends for help, but they just cowered in the background.
Come on, I thought, where’s your inexplicable knack for martial arts?
Truth be told, I wasn’t feeling it either. As only a moment like this could truly reveal, I had absolutely no idea how to fight, and these guys were scary. So I did the one thing I could: I took it like a man. Locking eyes with my soon-to-be puncher, I said, without any words, “Bring it on.” And he did.
Bam! A cold, hard punch to the gut. It hurt. A lot. They say that, in my moments like these, one’s life flashes before his eyes. But the only thing flashing before my eyes was Star Trek: the Next Generation, season six, episode fifteen. I thought of the courageous captain with a knife through his heart, and do you know what I did? I laughed.
This made my puncher mad, so he hit me a second time, harder than before. And though it took me a moment to regain my wind, I, in turn, laughed harder. Now he was really mad, and exerting his full body, he drove those brass knuckles into my gut for a third and final time. The heavy blow drained the strength from my being, and for a moment I saw stars. But determined to prove myself a starship captain in the making, I drew in air, and, despite the pain, forced my wheezing diaphragm to laugh one more time.
Apparently feeling that justice had been dealt, the boys got back on their bikes and rode off. As my buddies and I walked back to my parents’ house, I limping a bit, a single thought stayed in my mind: “I deserved it.” But the story didn’t end there. We were almost to the backyard gate when we saw one of the boys riding toward us on his bicycle. We were paralyzed with fear.
He pulled right up to us. “Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” we replied.
“Have you guys seen my friend anywhere? The one with the blue hat?”
We shook our heads.
“All right, well, see you later.” And then he rode off. The unexpected interchange was so short, so casual, so non-confrontational, it was almost as if we were … friends. My thinking brain couldn’t make sense of it. This was one of the guys who had just assisted in my brutal beating. Guys like us and him aren’t supposed to ask each other for favors.
Then something happened within me. Maybe it was a change of heart, or maybe it had something to do with a badly bruised abdomen. But whatever it was, I felt for the guy. I realized that even very different kinds of people can be friends. Poo poo heads, girls, and even bullies like me.
From that time onward, as Captain Jean Luc Picard also realized, as great as it is to be a cold, hard thinker with a mechanical heart, a little feeling doesn’t hurt. Unless you’re feeling brass knuckles in the gut. Then it can hurt a lot.
Anyway, the captain got a second chance, and so did I. You’ll be glad to know that from my most recent personality test, I scored two-percent on feeling, a whopping two-percent increase. So when my wife needs a listening ear as she talks about her emotions in a completely non-problem-solving, purely empathetic, judgment-free environment, to some infinitesimal degree, I almost understand. As for the rest of the time, I’m more than content to be a cold, calculating captain of mixed heroics, boldly going where no feeler has gone before.
This morning I woke up see Teresa perusing the Internet. I asked, “What are you searching for?” She replied, “I’m checking to see if Mister Money Bags has written anything about you.” Mister Money Bags is a longstanding figure in Gashlarian lore. From the early days of our rock band, through our years of puppet shows, storytelling, plays, and films, we’ve dreamed that this elusive, faceless billionaire would show up at the end of a performance, shake our hands, pull out his cigar, and say, “My friends, you have got it.” He’ll then offer us an amazing contract with a gargantuan advance, and we’ll live happily ever after as celebrated artists.
This weekend my family and I have been performing at our favorite event of the year, the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival. As the winner of the Hauntings Contest, last October, I was invited to tell my ghost story for the pre-show of “Shivers in the Night.” As the second place winner at the Utah’s Biggest Liar contest in April, I was invited to perform my tall tale with the other winners, including my seven-year-old daughter Ariah, who won the youth contest. Ariah also got to be the first storyteller of the entire festival, performing with national teller Kim Weitkamp. As always, the festival was refreshing and inspiring.
I’ve concluded that there’s only one rational explanation of why Mister Money Bags has yet to make an appearance in my life: he doesn’t exist. I mean, surely no talent agent or wealthy patron of the arts could behold my genius without pulling out a checkbook. This is tragic, because the world needs a Mister Money Bags. So many brilliant artists are dying for recognition. So I’ve decided that the only suitable thing to do is to become Mister Money Bags myself. While I’m not yet in a position to offer checks and contracts, what I can do is give praise where praise is due. It is my hope that those who are searching the Internet to see if anyone loves them will discover their names in this post and that my comments will provide useful quotes for their marketing literature. So if, dear artist, you are reading this now, you are more than welcome to quote me. You can refer to me as an author, storyteller, playwright, composer, blogger, reviewer, disco dancer … whatever suits your needs.
And now, with no further ado, I will now praise everyone who impressed me over the last three days:
The Mountainside Jazz Orchestra
These Utah Valley college-aged jazz junkies are bursting at the seems with energy. It was my second time seeing them perform, and I hope it’s not the last. Their male vocalist does uncanny Michael Bublé, and every musician not only sounded great but was fun to watch. They hold nothing back as they rip those brass bells, swing their bodies, and jump onto their seats. During one of their uncontainable songs, I was amazed at how so many musicians got carried away with wild improvisation at the same time. I expected cacophony … chaos … but far from it, they just kept raising the roof higher, and it sounded awesome. Their closing number was a jazzed up version of Disney’s “I Wanna Be Like You.” This song will always hold a special place in my heart, as my friends and I often performed it in high school. The Mountainside Jazz Orchestra brought new life to this old classic, for which I echo the sentiment of Baloo the bear: “Man, what a beat.” Hours after the concert, I was still snapping my fingers and busting out, “Oobeedoohs!” The only thing that would have made it better would have been a scat battle a la Phil Harris and Louis Prima.
While I’m on the subject of musicians, there were too many great performances at the festival to write about. Though one that really stood out to me was Emily Brown. Her website describes her style as anti-folk. I don’t know what that means, but it sounds about right. Reminding me of Regina Spektor, her simplistic and sincere music was comprised of beautiful violin, gentle guitar, vocal harmonies, and Emily’s fantastic voice. She has a phenomenal range and a delightful, vintage timbre from a time that never was. Whatever it is, it’s so sincere that I couldn’t help but love it. Her melodies, brilliant and catchy, simply flow. I definitely hope to hear more of her.
And now to the storytellers. Daniel Morden, from Wales, immediately stood out to me. While some storytellers are all about big eyes, larger than life expressions, and (frankly) the timbre of Kindergarten teachers, Daniel Morden breaks the mold with a dry and sometimes dark demeanor. His stories lead us in a refreshing departure from Little Bunny Foo Foo and into the enchanted, “Grimm” woods, where you just might be hexed by a witch or have your head chopped off by a little, green man. Morden is a master of folk tales, though he does far more than recount ancient myths; with each story, he passes on his sagacity. For his Laughing Night performance on Saturday, in his dry way, he presented himself as a Welshman, who is, therefore, virtually incapable of humor. It was one of the funniest performances I’d ever seen.
Joe Herrington, Texas cowboy, was the only storyteller who received a standing ovation during the Thursday night concert. To be honest, I wasn’t overly excited about the idea of cowboy poetry, but when he started speaking in rhyme, so naturally and earnestly, I didn’t want him to stop. Touching on themes of brotherhood, civil responsibility, and our fading all-American values, this wise cowboy preached without preaching, taught without being didactic, and inspired with a commendable humility. He was the first storyteller I’d seen that was completely free of antics and gimmicks. He was just his true, honest self, a scholar and a gentleman, and consequently, his stories were mesmerizing. It was like watching a French naturalist film after an American blockbuster. I loved it, and I made a point to sit through as many of his stories as I could. After my Friday night performance, Joe Herrington took me aside and complimented me on my timing. Aw, shucks. He also told me how impressed he was by this festival and how special the place and the people seemed. I agreed.
If I wrote everything I felt, I’m afraid this post would come across as long-winded and schmaltzy. For the sake of brevity, Geraldine Buckley was simply charming. What makes her unique is that, unlike other storytellers, she doesn’t lie. Not that there’s anything wrong with lying. As the current holder of the title “the Second Biggest Liar in the state of Utah,” I’m quite fond of lying. But Gerlaldine’s stories brought a unique inspiration, that stranger-than-fiction flavor of meaning and relatability. She has a flare for finding the color, drama, and fun in every-day life. Though I’m sure she could spin fabulous lies if she wanted to. She clearly has a strong theatre background and an excellent stage presence.
While I observed that some of my favorite tellers, such as Bill Lepp and Kevin Kling, have a gift for playing off the audience with spur-of-the-moment banter and digression, sometimes this lack of firm direction can get tedious. What I liked about David Novak was that he took full control of his stories. From his world-building and word-smithing to his character voices and diction, David Novak is truly a master storyteller. His ghost story gave me at least three distinct sets of chills, and his folktales were so good that I found myself taking notes so that I could retell them to my children.
I honestly loved all of the storytellers, but because I don’t have time to write a novel this Sunday afternoon, we’ll have to leave it at that. Moving on to the other performers, my review would be incomplete without a little praise for my favorite puppeteers. As one who’s done puppetry at this very festival for seven or eight years, it’s fun to see what my fellow performers are doing, and Teresa and I find ourselves laughing with an inside appreciation. What I love about McMazing Tales is that they always push the envelope into the bigger, wilder, and crazier. On Saturday, after a hilarious routine with a quack magician and brilliant interactions with the audience, William McAllister made an appearance in a life-sized monster suit and chased Randall McNair’s character around the stage. I’d never heard children roar louder with laughter. As if this weren’t good enough, the show reached an unforeseen climax as two more puppeteers entered in life-sized dinosaur suits, taking the craziness even further. After the show, the two raptors (Will’s sisters, I believe), decided to go on a stroll through the festival and spook the passerby. And why not? Do you see why this is the best event of the year?
I guess that’s enough for now. It’s been great to see the festival grow bigger every year, and it’s been fun to get more and more involved as a storyteller myself. For those of you who think that storytelling is just something that happens between seventy-year-old librarians and kindergartners, you don’t know what you’re missing. This is humanity at its best, the purest dissemination of wisdom, humor, and good, old-fashioned fun. I think it’s tragic that, year after year, my family ends up with so many complimentary tickets (from competitions won or service rendered) that a handful of tickets inevitably go to waste. And it’s not that we don’t try to give them away. Again, people really don’t know what they’re missing.
The problem with days off is I become so conscious of the value and scarcity of this precious time that nothing seems optimal enough. And then, even if I invest myself in the most meaningful work I can think of, a voice in my head will tell me that I shouldn’t be working at all but should be enjoying myself (whatever that means). The workaholic parries with, “But I enjoy myself the most when I’m invested in my passions.” To which the leisure lover responds, “But … family. Isn’t it about time?” The end result: I get so invested in the debate that, before I know it, it’s 10:00pm, precious little has been done, and the next work days is only hours away. “No,” I cry. How did this happen? All I wanted was to seize the day, and in the very pursuit, the day slipped through my fingers. Then, with a heavy heart, I find myself envying the two-toed sloth. Hanging in carefree bliss, the sloth has no concept of time. The sloth has nothing to prove. The sloth just is.
In the early days of our marriage, Teresa and I had a certain tradition. I being a workaholic, I would often stay up into the late hours working on a project, while Teresa, who wanted to be near me but also wanted to sleep, would lie at my feet. Sometimes I would take advantage of her late-night delirium by compelling her to write short stories with me, because the random gibberish her half-conscious mind spewed out was brilliant. Following is one such story that I just stumbled upon from 2007. Enjoy.
“Where’s my crackers?” said Mr. Booshna.
“They’re in your trousers,” said the dog.
“I knew you were going to say something nasty like that, you dumb dog.”
“I love you.”
“You have my crackers.”
“My name is Cleopald,” said the dog.
“I don’t care what your name is. Give me back my crackers.”
Just then, the chittering chimpanzee from outer space came through the laundry shoot amid a dazzling display of sparks. He shouted with glee, “Table manners!”
“Oh, excuse me,” said Mr. Booshna. Then in a very polite voice, “Mr. Dog, may I speak with you outside, please?”
The dog said, “I’m not a hot dog, I’m a dog.”
“I didn’t say you were a hot dog,” said Mr. Booshna. “I just asked if you would speak with me outside.”
“Oh, my apologies for the misunderstanding.”
Then the evil lamps of doom came down and zapped the dog’s tail off.
“Don’t!” said the dog.
The chittering chimpanzee squealed with excitement.
Then the lamps zap the rest of the red horribleness out of Mr. Booshna’s eyes. So then the ants come and jump on Mr. Booshna’s back and pulls out his really big bazooka from nowhere, and they have a barbecue with it, and they have a big neighborhood barbecue. And then the oreos came and covered Mr. Booshna’s glasses so he couldn’t see anymore. There was an Oreo on each of his glass things.
And then the man tripped because he couldn’t see. He tripped over some spicy pork rinds.
The chittering chimpanzee went to sleep.
The dog became a horrible dog with a beard, and he laughed at his reflection in the water, and pounced on the ants. He grew wings and darted through the sky in a streak of fire. All the people were afraid, except the little boy.
There were these potatoes who winked, and then the little boy came named Rufio and asked for some pity. Instead, all he received was rocks. But they were beautiful rocks, made of toilet.
“I’m really cold,” said the boy.
“Here, have some…” The shrubs started to move. They didn’t like all the noise. They got up, picked up their roots and said, “I’m leaving.”
And the dog said, “Poor boy, please don’t be cold, we will warm you. This ant here has a bazooka, it will warm you. He didn’t do a very good job last time. We have room in the garden in the backyard for the boy.””
“But wait,” said the boy. “I wasn’t really fired up, I’m okay.”
\”You were a singed boy,” said Mr. Booshna.
“That’s okay,” said the boy.
And then the shrubs felt bad, so they came back, and the ant was so happy that he let the bazooka go again, and there were no more shrubs.