He’s not a terrible actor.  And before you start to argue that, yes, he is in fact a terrible actor, go to IMDB and make a list of all the movies he’s in that you legitimately enjoy.  Not movies you would write about in a film theory class, just movies you would watch a second time if they happened to be on TV while you were cleaning the house.  Go ahead.  We’ll wait…

For me there are eleven.  I know; I was as surprised as you.

And the films I like are fairly diverse: Good Will Hunting, Chasing Amy, Argo, Shakespeare in Love, Armageddon.  That’s not to say Affleck stretches himself much as an actor in any of these movies, but he does move fairly easily from comedy to drama to action.  Obviously, he’s no Ed Norton or Johnny Depp, but he’s not Keanu Reeves either.

But part of the reason I like Norton and Depp is that they’re both sort of skinny (except when Norton was in American History X…holy crap) weirdos who seem like the type of people Affleck would beat up during recess in middle school.  And that’s sort of the crux of the matter for me.

The movie role that will always define Ben Affleck for me is the spanking-obsessed jock Fred O’Bannion in Dazed and Confused.  This also happens to be my favorite movie that Affleck has ever been in.  No matter how many asteroids he destroys or awards he wins, this is how I will always see Ben Affleck.

It’s not that he’s too good looking (although that’s part of it).  And it’s not that his giant chin always makes him appear smug (although that’s part of it too).  It’s that he reminds me of that good looking, smug guy in high school that I always hated because his life seemed so easy.  All the girls wanted to be with him and all the guys wanted to be him.

You’d think directing and starring in Argo (a movie nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Director) would alter my opinion of Affleck somewhat.  It’s like when that good looking smug guy in high school sits next to you one day in the cafeteria, and you find out he’s actually a really nice guy who wants to be a physics major in college.  Theoretically that should make you like him (and maybe it does on the surface) but deep down there’s still a part of you (or maybe it’s just me) that hates the guy even more because now you know that not only is he good looking and popular but he’s also smart and nice.  What an asshole!

By almost all accounts, Ben Affleck seems like a really good guy.  He gives to charities, he pokes fun at his own stardom, he keeps in touch with people from his old neighborhood.  Directors tend to have good things to say about him, as do his family, friends, and coworkers.  Kevin Smith practically worships the man, and I really like Kevin Smith.

But none of that makes any difference to me.  I want to hate Ben Affleck.  I need to hate him.  It’s an irrational compulsion that I can’t explain or control.  Ben Affleck could win ten Oscars and I’d still think he was an overrated bastard coasting by on his looks.  Of course, in the end, this says more about my own shallowness and narcissism than it does about Ben Affleck, but you probably knew that before you started reading this post.

p.s. I do realize that I wrote this entire rant without actually addressing the question in the title, Why don’t I want Ben Affleck to be Batman?  The reason for this is that halfway through I realized I have no logical justification for not wanting Affleck to be the caped crusader.  I don’t think he’ll be as good as Keaton or Bale, but he’ll probably do just as well as Clooney and better than Kilmer (although I probably won’t admit it if he does).

For years, I’ve been talking about how you can understand the Baby Boomer generation by watching all the Rocky movies. Well, the theory has finally been published at As It Ought To Be.

Whenever I move to a new city, I make sure there’s a good bar within walking distance from my apartment.  I don’t mean a club or a discoa bar.  There has to be a long piece of polished wood that you can carve your initials into and a stool in the corner that fits your ass just right and a no-nonsense bartender that will either laugh at your corny jokes or tell you to shut the hell up depending on the mood they’re in.

And a jukebox.  A good bar most always has a jukebox.

We moved to Austin sight unseen, and while the Less Abrasive Pessimist had a variety of practical concerns about the size of our new apartment and whether or not it had working plumbing, all I could think about was where I was going to drink.  Things did not look good at first.  We live in North Austin, which is not the “cool” part of town.  That suits us just fine, as we gave up on cool years ago.  Now we’re just shooting for “acceptably weird.”  There are a lot of car dealerships and furniture stores near our place, and while I don’t mind living next to establishments peddling sofas and sedans, what I really wanted was a nice dark place to bend my elbow.

The Less Abrasive Pessimist found some bar called Buddy’s Place on the Internet.  I didn’t know anything about it, aside from the fact that it was less than four blocks from our apartment building, but that seemed like a good place to start.  So I got gussied up in my finest T-shirt and blue jeans, and we set off at around 8pm on a Tuesday evening.

SIDE NOTE: It’s always best to scope out a new bar on a weekday.  That way you get to see what the regular clientele look like.  Sure it’s nice when the hipsters and sorority girls drop by on Saturday night, but who are you going to be drinking with when you get kicked out of the house on Monday morning?  That’s the real question.

It was a small, square building not much bigger than a Cracker Jacks box.  The outside was painted sky blue and there was wobbly neon sign near the road that looked like a lawsuit waiting to happen.  There was an image of John Wayne stenciled on the wall and a cartoonish drawing a pony-tailed man with a cigarette in his mouth and a mischievous look on his face.  I could only assume this was Buddy.

There were five people sitting at the bar, and when we entered they all turned around at the same time, as though they’d been practicing all week for just such an occasion.  A big man with a handlebar mustache and tinted glasses bellowed, “Y’all got  any good stories?  We done told all of ours and now we’re bored.”

The Less Abrasive Pessimist tightened her grip on my arm.  I said, “Not really, but I can make some shit up if you like.”

That got a big laugh, and we were immediately accepted by the inner circle.  Names were exchanged all aroundand then quickly forgotten.  For the rest of the evening, I was either Dave or Dan or Hey You, and the Less Abrasive Pessimist was Juanita for reasons unknown.

There’s no hard alcohol at Buddy’s and no beer on tap.  If you ask for a menu, the bartender points to the ceiling, where there are about a dozen bottles and cans hanging from plastic cords.  You can bring in your own bottle of whiskey if you are so inclined, and there’s wine on special occasions.  What constitutes a special occasion at Buddy’s could be anything from an engagement announcement to the purchase of a new pair of boots.

There’s no food at Buddy’s either, but they don’t mind if you bring in a bag from the Taco Cabana across the street, as long as there’s enough inside it for everyone.  There’s also a very nice woman named Jazelle who comes around once in a while and sells tamales at $10 a dozen.

If you don’t want to pay for your drinks, you can try your luck with the dice.  One dollar buys you a roll—six of a kind gets you a free six pack and if you get ten you win the whole pot, which is currently somewhere in the four figures.

Behind the bar there’s an erase board with a list of customer names and birthdays.  Below that there’s a bumper sticker that says “Unattended Children will be Sold as Slaves” and just to the right there’s a sign that reads “If you are grouchy, irritable, or just plain mean, there will be a $20 charge for putting up with you.”

There are two men’s bathrooms.  The normal one that most customers use, which has seen better days, and the secret one that everyone who frequents Buddy’s knows about.  And if those are both occupied, you can always step out the back door and relieve yourself on the Dumpster.  In the women’s bathroom, there’s a colorful shower curtain hanging on the wall for no apparent reason and on the mirror alphabet stickers spell out the message “YOU ARE SO PRETTY.”

There’s a no-smoking sign behind the bar, which means the owner, Jackie, will ask you if you’re bothered by cigarettes, and then light one up before you have a chance to answer.

Jackie is the new owner.  He used to be a bartender, but when Buddy passed away, Jackie bought the place.  There’s a photo of Buddy behind the bar, and he looks a bit like the quirky badass grandpa in “Lost Boys.”  If you turn around on your bar stool, there’s a picture of Jackie on the wall wearing a blonde wig and holding on to what appears to be a stripper pole.  The staff really enjoys pointing it out to new customers.

The walls are filled with pictures of employees and regular customers, although the line between employees and regulars is a bit blurred in Buddy’s.  On any given night, you can find most of the off-duty bartenders investing their tips back into the business one bottle at a time.

There’s a mannequin dressed as a cowboy, and in the dim bar light he looks incredibly real after half a dozen Budweisers.  His name is Jasper, and periodically the staff will set him on a stool with a beer in his hand and then watch as new customers keep glancing over at him with curiosity and fear.  According to legend, one night after a few beers a regular had an hour-long conversation with Jasper.  There’s an ongoing debate over what they talked about, but Jasper’s been pretty tight-lipped about the whole affair.

It’s not an expensive bar.  Beer is $3, pool is ₵50, the jukebox plays three songs for $1, and there’s a $5 charge for whining.

Oh, yeah, there’s a jukebox.  It’s filled with country tunes, most of them of the old school variety.  George Jones, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Willy Nelson, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard.

There’s also live music at Buddy’s.  They don’t have a stage exactly, but there’s some open space next to the shuffleboard table where a band can set up, and the Christmas lights on the ceiling provide a nice ambiance.  On the back wall hangs a Confederate flag with the silhouette of cowgirl on it and the words “Redneck Woman” over the top.  If you’re lucky and happen to be around on Friday night, you just might hear Son Geezinslaw fronted by Dwayne “Son” Smith.  It’s just Smith and an excellent steel-guitar player that sounds like the reincarnated ghost of Don Helms.  There are usually about twenty people in the audience, and requests are welcome, although not necessarily obliged.  What many in the audience don’t realize is that Smith is the son of the famous Austin-based duo the Geezinslaw Brothers, which toured extensively for forty years starting in the 1960s.  They appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and the Jackie Gleason Show and even had the privilege of opening for Elvis.  My favorite songs by the Geezinslaws are “Blah…Blah…Blah” and “Help, I’m White and I Can’t Get Down.”

On that balmy Tuesday evening, “Juanita” and I stayed at Buddy’s until around midnight.  Toward the end, there was just us, the bartender on duty, the bartender’s boyfriend, an off-duty bartender, and a bald Canadian with a hockey fixation, and we had a grande time.  We got drunk, we heard good stories, and we listened to good music.  I was sold on the jukebox selection and decor, and the Less Abrasive Pessimist fell for the variety of small dogs constantly roaming around the bar begging for treats.

And when it was time to stumble home, we agreed that we’d found our bar.

I like television. I’ve never understood the viewpoint of certain quasi-intellectuals who brag that they don’t watch TV. “I don’t even own a television set,” they often say, as if not watching “Project Runway” somehow gives them a moral perspective the rest of us lack.

I would argue that our culture is currently experiencing a Golden Age of Television. While many people decry the rise of reality television and sensationalist shows as the downfall of Western culture, they fail to recognize that some of the most interesting narratives in our society are currently being produced by TV. The metaphysical questions explored by shows like “Lost,” The Booth at the End,” or “Battlestar Galactica” are almost too complex to follow, and I can’t think of many modern artistic documents consumed by millions of people that more thoroughly examine issues like race, class, crime, justice, and media than “The Wire.”

That being said, there is something disturbingly manipulative about television and movies that I don’t find in other art forms. They have the ability to make you feel emotions against your will. You see this all the time in cheesy sitcoms or dramas. The main character is presented with some sort of personal crisis, the issue is resolved within the family/friendship unit the show is constructed around, and then some crappy emotional pop song is played while the characters snuggle on the couch. It’s such an obvious cliche. My logical mind absolutely hates these shows, but the scene triggers something in the emotional sensors of my brain that I can’t switch off. My throat tightens, tears often well up, and I find myself blinking rapidly so that my girlfriend doesn’t think I’ve been weeping over an episode of “Dating Rules from My Future Self.”

I never experience this reaction with books. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read some cheesy Nicholas Sparks novels in my time, but my reaction to his sappy prose is simply anger and dismissal. Without the music and images to flood my brain, Sparks is unable to force me into an unwanted emotional state. I am able to recognize the overly romanticized schlock for what it is and then hurl it across the room. But that’s not the case with television (in part because my TV is too big to throw).

I have no idea what any of this means or how it should be processed by the larger culture; I just think we should all be careful or one day we might wake up to discover we’re living in a sitcom starring Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber. We will laugh when we’re told to laugh, cry when we’re told to cry, but the only true emotion we will experience is helplessness.

Reading is Fundamental

July 30, 2012

Originally published in the Front Range Review

My father hates receiving mail from the government.  Census reports, tax statements, registration forms—it doesn’t matter what’s inside the envelope, he doesn’t want it.  First of all, it rankles him that those paper-pushers in Washington know his address.  He is aware, of course, that his location is a matter of public record and anyone with five spare minutes and a phone book can find him, but it annoys him to be reminded of this fact.  They’re just rubbing it in.  Secondly, they always want something.  Sometimes it’s his information, sometimes it’s his vote, but usually it’s his money.  Perhaps the local fire department needs a new hose or maybe some congressman wants to finance another prairie dog preserve.  It’s always something.  The government is like a stingy brother-in-law who keeps ordering fillet mignon at expensive restaurants and then misplacing his wallet.

But the primary reason my father detests official mail is simply because he doesn’t like being told what to do.  For those with authority issues, a government mandate is the ultimate slap in the face.  You can’t ignore it, you can’t fight it.  All you can do is bend over and take it.

Therefore, when the STATE OF COLORADO sent a letter to the house reminding our parents that their children were old enough to enroll in school, my father bristled.  This meant our family’s information would be recorded by some secret government agency, and his offspring would spend five days a week under lock and key in the public education system, where anti-patriotic hippies disguised as teachers would indoctrinate us with their socialist agenda.  Sure, it seemed like a good idea on the surface, free education, but now that the Supreme Court had removed prayer from school, it was just a matter of time before students started making Bolshevik Revolution dioramas and burning the American flag for show-and-tell.  The modern public school system was just a ruse invented by left-leaning academics to brainwash future generations.  Everyone knew that.

My father is not the type of man to back down from a fight, especially one that exists only in his head, and so he decided to start a school of his own.  What did he know about educating young minds?  Well, nothing, really.  But how hard could it be?  Give the students some flash cards, force them to memorize the Gettysburg Address, add a few multiplication tables into the mix—and voila!  Your kids were ready for Princeton.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy.

It should be noted here that there is a stubborn streak a mile wide that runs through the male descendants of the Bridges clan.  I have no idea if the cause is genetic or environmental, but I do know that it is often petty and can be shocking for unsuspecting bystanders to behold.  I once saw my grandfather fall thirty feet onto a gravel road while attempting to trim the branches of an oak tree on our property.  Frightened, I asked if I should call 911.  But he just shook his head, wiped the blood off his face, and—even though he was probably concussed—climbed back up to finish the job.  Why?  Because no tree’s gonna get the best of him, that’s why.  I think it was stubbornness that inspired my brother to become one of the best long-distance runners in the state.  Someone once told him that he couldn’t sprint from one end of town to the other, and, without pausing to contemplate the logic of such a challenge, he said, “Oh,yeah.  Watch me.”  When he finished, he fell to his knees and vomited for several minutes.  He then looked up at the person who told him he couldn’t do it…and smiled.  As for myself, in my mid-twenties I nearly drowned trying to swim across a lake in Guatemala because I was too stubborn to admit I couldn’t make it to the other side.  Not once, not twice, but three times local fishermen in boats stopped to ask me if I needed assistance—my desperate flailing was causing a scene and possibly scaring off the fish—but I waved them on.  Less than two minutes after the last boat departed, I realized I was going to die in a city whose name I couldn’t pronounce, and I began to scream for help.  The fishermen in the third boat turned around and picked me up.  He piloted me to the other side, where my friends were waiting, their hands strategically covering their mouths in an effort to hide their laughter.

Possibly the most stubborn branch on our well-trimmed family tree, my father is constantly on the lookout for opportunities to be uncooperative.  He enjoys doing things his own way, especially if his own way is unpopular in the community and inconvenient for the mainstream establishment.  Therefore, after being told by various family members and local government officials that starting his own school was a terrible idea, my father decided to do just that.

And that is how it came to pass that I began my formal education in a bomb shelter beneath the First Church of Christ in Fort Morgan, Colorado.

Originally, the space had been a basement where potlucks and prayer meetings were held, but as the Cold War wore on and fear of a nuclear holocaust increased, certain churchgoers began referring to the subterranean space as a fall-out shelter.  Whenever there was a tornado warning in the area—and in the summer this occurred at least twice a week—congregation members who lived nearby would huddle together underneath the church, singing hymns or praying silently while the storm raged overhead.  Of course, a nuclear bomb is not the same as a funnel cloud of wind, but when the sky is falling Chicken Little doesn’t waste time clucking about petty details.  Hypothetically, if the Ruskies ever decided to nuke the local Gas-N-Sip, we would be able to hide out in the cement sanctuary beneath our house of worship until the radioactive dust had settled.  After that, we would emerge like Noah from the Ark to witness the dawn of a new day in human civilization.

It was only logical to combine the school with the bomb shelter.  That way the children would receive a quality religious education while simultaneously being protected from an atomic blast.  It was like killing two adulterers with one stone.

Technically the school was open to anyone who wanted to pay the tuition fee, but for some reason the local citizens failed to see the benefits their children would reap from studying penmanship inside an armored foxhole.  Therefore, Christ Foundation School (or CFS, as the cool kids called it) matriculated exactly eleven students varying in age from five to eighteen, all offspring of our congregation members.  We were a collection of shy, homely children who said “sir” and “ma’am” far too often and had difficulty making direct eye contact with strangers.  You’ve probably seen young people like this handing out religious pamphlets at the mall or trudging door-to-door in suburban neighborhoods.  No matter what decade it is, the boys tend to have uneven home haircuts and the girls twist their pigtails into rope-like braids.  Braids are cute when you’re six years old, but they start taking on an air of creepiness as one approaches voting age.  Like doll collections and clip-on ties.  It wasn’t hard to understand why our parents put all their philosophical eggs in one spiritual basket.  In the physical world, we were a few yokes short of an omelet.

There was one teacher for the entire school, a large, pear-shaped woman named Roberta Dilrumple, who spent most of her time sitting on an aluminum folding chair in the back of the classroom, quietly humming “Nearer My God to Thee” while she embroidered Bible verses on pillow cases.  She wore pastel turtlenecks under denim vests, and there was always a turquoise broach the size of a tarantula pinned to her enormous bosom.  Mrs. Dilrumple’s ample hips had given birth to more than half the student body, which was the only reason she had been given the title of educator in the first place.  She was a nice enough woman, I suppose, but you could tell molding young minds wasn’t exactly her lifelong ambition.  Mrs. Dilrumple’s work philosophy was not dissimilar to that of a goat herder: as long as one of the kids didn’t wander onto the highway or get eaten by a pack of wolves, she considered the day a success.

The school itself was just a single room, a dark, damp space that always smelled curiously of moth balls and cheese.  There were no windows and the only door led to a dirt parking lot behind the church.  The ceiling was low and littered with exposed wires, as well as various metal pipes that made hissing noises and dripped brown sludge whenever someone flushed a toilet upstairs.  On the south wall, an American flag hung next to a watercolor painting of Jesus tending a flock of sheep, and on the north wall, there was a loan chalkboard with the words Welcome, Soldiers of God! written in large, cursive letters.  The i in Soldiers was dotted with a little, pink heart.  The other two walls were occupied by the students’ desks, each separated one from another by tall, plywood dividers, like rows of public bathroom stalls.  Add the dim lighting and cement floors, and the facility looked remarkably similar to the men’s room at the local swimming pool.  Except more educational.

The curriculum was based on a series of age-appropriate workbooks called Packets of Accelerated Christian Education, or PACEs for short.  These workbooks covered the same subject matter featured in most public schools, with one minor exception: everything had a religious theme. For instance, while attempting to complete one of the math PACEs, a student might have come across a word problem like this: If there are 4 sinners and God saves 2 sinners, how many sinners are left?  On every desk there was a red, plastic cup that contained various pens, pencils, and a small American flag.  If a student had a question, they would remove the flag from the cup and place its stem in a pencil-sized hole above their desk.  Mrs. Dilrumple would then heave herself off her chair with an irritated grunt and waddle over to answer this patriotic inquiry.

Christ Foundation School was based on the honor system.  When a student completed a section in their workbook, they would take it to the Grading Station, a long folding table at the front of the class, where their answers would be compared to those found in the teacher’s manual.  The Grading Station was littered with red pens, which were used to mark wrong answers and record the overall score at the top of the page.  9/10, 7/15, etc.  The graded workbook would then be carried across the room to Mrs. Dilrumple, who would put aside her knitting needles and record the final score in her grade book.  At the end of the quarter, these scores were tallied and report cards were either sent home by mail or, more often than not, passed out to parents following the Sunday-morning sermon.

Because my father was both the preacher of the church and the principal of the school, I decided that I must be better than the other students.  Not better at any one particular subject, just a better all around person.  Spiritually better.  Of course Mrs. Dilrumple insisted we were all equal in the eyes of God, but I knew this couldn’t possibly be true.  One look at Laura Freytag’s cauliflower ear or Gary Crismer’s back hump and anyone with an ounce of sense could see that God played favorites.  I just happened to be one of them.  As the son of a holy man, it stood to reason that I would be more intelligent and talented than my peers.  Not to mention the moral superiority that I wielded, if I did say so myself, in an impressively altruistic fashion.  Whenever a student giggled during the morning prayer or made farting noises with their armpit, I would immediately raise my hand and inform on the little heretic.  More often than not, the perpetrator was a pudgy, freckle-faced dullard named Philip, who happened to be the youngest member of the Dilrumple brood and as such was prone to acts of immaturity as a means of drawing attention to himself.  It wasn’t entirely Philip’s fault.  Not blessed with an overabundance of intelligence or charm, he needed some way to distinguish himself from his numerous siblings, so imitating flatulence became his calling card.  Philip and I quickly became oppositional clichés, he of the class clown variety and me the teacher’s pet.  Whenever I informed on Philip, Mrs. Dilrumple would either yell at him or smack him in the back of the head or both.  Watching these mini-beatings I felt a sense of accomplishment.  I was helping punish the wicked.  I was doing God’s work.

Since I was not yet fully literate, I spent a majority of my first year at Christ Foundation School memorizing Bible verses and then carefully copying them into a large notebook that I kept at my desk.  I got to be pretty good at it, too, going so far as to imitate the ornate calligraphy found in certain passages of my father’s ancient King James Version.  But the satisfaction was negligible.  There was no need to grade these clumsy scratchings, as it was simply an exercise designed to sharpen my reading and writing skills.  As long as I completed the assignments in a timely manner, my report cards were exemplary, but no one was impressed by them.  I was like a family pet performing a trick on command.  “Good boy,” my mother would say when I showed her my finished homework.  Then she would pat me on the head and give me a treat.

But I didn’t want to be merely good.  I wanted to be exceptional.

At the start of my second year, I received a stack of PACEs along with the older students and was told to complete them as best I could.  Expectations were not high.  So far I had displayed no special talents in the academic department.  Despite constant prayers requesting a genius brain and the ability to shoot laser beams from my eyes, my intellectual progress remained average, at best, and my enemies refused to burst into flames no matter how hard I stared at them.  “What are you looking at?” Mrs. Dilrumple asked after informing me that, no, I could not skip a grade, and, yes, it was too early for me to apply to Harvard.

“Does your head feel warm?” I replied.

“No.”

“How about now?”

“No!”

“How about now?”

But then a miracle happened.  Much to the astonishment of everyone concerned, I cruised through my first set of workbooks in a single week with just a few wrong answers along the way.  The second week yielded similar results, as did the third, and by the end of the quarter people were starting to take notice.  I received perfect marks in all my subjects.  It was an unbelievable turnaround.  The school soon ran out of workbooks at my age level, and I was given a three-day vacation while more were ordered.  My fellow students regarded me with wonder, and their parents suggested I lead a study group.  By the end of the school year, even Mrs. Dilrumple was forced to acknowledge my intellectual prowess.

My parents were delighted, especially my father, who now felt vindicated for his decision to start the school in the first place.  All those naysayers had been proven wrong.  Public education was a farce.  There was no need to waste taxpayer money on expensive textbooks and “certified” teachers when students could thrive just as well in a hole in the ground.  His own son was living proof that religious education worked.

Gaining my father’s attention was no easy feat.  Not only was he the leader of our church and our school, he had also been tasked with converting as many sinners to our faith as possible before the world ended.  With the fate of the human race in his hands, it was sometimes difficult to convince my father that he should drop everything and listen to a story about how I’d caught a lizard in the backyard that afternoon.  Even if the lizard was big and green and I had to run really fast to catch it and then its tail fell off and that was pretty gross and then I put the lizard in a jar and then it escaped and then my sister screamed and then I chased the lizard around the kitchen and then I took it outside and then I saw a squirrel.

Normally my father listened to these riveting lizard stories from the other side of a newspaper, pausing intermittently to clear his throat and turn a page, but now that I was the star pupil at his school he began taking an interest in my life.  Unprompted, he volunteered to tutor me in math and purchased a set of used encyclopedias, which sat thenceforth unused on a bookshelf next to my bed.  I was thrilled to receive his full attention and became even more determined to be a model student.

News of my educational accomplishments reached the company that made our workbooks, and they sent me a medal in honor of my success.  It was bronze plated and about the size of a silver dollar.  On the front was a cross floating above an open Bible, and on the back it was engraved with the words, For exceptional academic achievement.  God Bless America.  The medal was attached to a red, white, and blue ribbon that had a stickpin on the back so the exceptional recipient could fasten it to his exceptional shirt.  I wore it everywhere that summer.  It was physical evidence that I was indeed special, and I wanted to rub it in everyone’s face.  Often I would pin the medal to my Sesame Street pajamas before I crawled into bed at night or attach it to my uniform before soccer practice.  Eventually the ribbon became frayed and the medal itself began to tarnish, but nothing could convince me to take it off.  After a few months my mother gently suggested that perhaps the medal should stay at home when I went certain places, like to the swimming pool, say, or anywhere else in public.  She tried to explain that it was important for me to be humble like Jesus, but I wasn’t having it.  I figured humility was something invented by ordinary people to keep the extraordinary in check.  Why should I pretend to be just like everyone else when it was obvious that I was better?  How did I know I was better?  I had a medal to prove it.  So there.

As summer vacation drew to an end, I prepared to return to school a conquering hero.  By this time I’d retired my medal to a prominent spot on top of my dresser, but only because I planned to earn a dozen more the upcoming year.  Now that I’d had a taste of public recognition, there was no limit to my ambition.  I expected Mrs. Dilrumple and the other students to fall all over themselves when I walked through the door.  Flash bulbs would pop from all directions and autographs would be requested.  Reporters from a variety of national and international newspapers would fight for my attention as I held up my hands.  “Please, everyone calm down.  One question at a time.”

But when I arrived at school, there were no photographers and everyone acted as though I was just another student, not a celebrity genius.  I was tempted to go home and retrieve my medal just to remind everyone who they were dealing with, but decided against it.  Better to prove myself again in the trenches than to rehash old war stories.  So I graciously accepted my stack of PACEs and settled back into my cubicle, prepared to eclipse the previous year’s performance and claim my rightful place next to Newton and Einstein in the pantheon of prominent intellectuals.

Everything went as planned for the first couple of months.  I continued to fly through my workbooks with incredible ease, scoring almost perfect marks in every subject and earning the admiration of my peers along the way.  I made room on my dresser for more medals and petitioned my parents for a glass trophy case.  At night in front of the bathroom mirror, I often practiced the witty conversations I would have with Dick Cavett when he invited me to appear on his popular talk show.

“So you’re the boy genius we’ve heard so much about,” Dick would say.  “How does it feel to be one of the smartest kids on the planet?”

I would dismiss his compliment with a blasé shrug.  “I’m really not so special,” I’d say.  “Surely there are other children out there who can sing the ‘Alphabet Song’ really fast while standing on their heads.”

Then I would shock the studio audience by doing a perfect headstand right there on stage while simultaneously reciting the alphabet at an astonishing pace.  The audience would gasp and erupt into wild applause.  As a special bonus prize for being the most interesting person to ever appear on his show, Dick would give me a million dollars and a spider monkey.  I would name the monkey Cornelius and train him to attack my sisters whenever they attempted to enter my room uninvited.  We would be very happy together.

It was Philip Dilrumple who ended my dreams of owning a territorial primate and becoming the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.  Later he would claim it was an accident, but I never believed it.  He was getting even for all those times I ratted him out.

It happened one afternoon in mid-October, just after lunch.  I had recently finished a PACE dedicated to social studies that featured a cartoon image of a soldier saluting the American flag on the cover, and I was going over it at the Grading Station when Philip, who was sitting across from me, suddenly yelled, “Mom!  He’s cheating!  He’s cheating!  Mom!”

I looked up, surprised by the sudden outburst but otherwise nonplussed.  After all, I was innocent.  Why would a genius need to cheat?  It was absurd.  When asked, I willingly extended my workbook to Mrs. Dilrumple, expecting her to glance at it and then give Philip a good, hard whipping for attempting to incriminate the school’s star pupil.  Instead, her eyes widened and she said the seven most horrible words in the English language: “I need to talk to your father.”

It turned out my entire academic career had been a lie.  I had been cheating from day one without knowing it.  The vacations, the medal, the accolades—they meant nothing.  I was not a genius, I was a charlatan.

Here’s how it happened.  On the first day of class, Mrs. Dilrumple spent several hours explaining the numerous rules and regulations of Christ Foundation School to the students.  She went into painstaking detail concerning the importance of punctuality, what to do when we had a question, and even how many times we were allowed to urinate in a single afternoon.  I listened as long as I could until I became bored, which was approximately two minutes, and then I leaned back in my chair and began daydreaming about what it would be like to deliver my valedictorian speech.  I pictured a large audience dressed in formal wear hanging on my every word.  The President of the United States would be there, of course, along with certain important political figures and various members of the entertainment industry: Robert Redford, Hulk Hogan, the cast of The Dukes of Hazzard, etc.  My parents would be seated in the front row, and toward the end of the speech, after thanking God and America, I would graciously acknowledge their role in my upbringing.  My mother would burst into tears, and my father would put his arm around her shoulder to comfort her.  It would be clear even to the television audience watching at home that there were no two prouder parents on the planet.

My ears were still ringing with applause when Mrs. Dilrumple’s lecture ended.

I was able to figure out most of the rules and procedures simply by watching my classmates and using common sense.  However, the grading system tripped me up a bit.  I decided that I was supposed to sit in my cubicle and answer all the questions I knew in my workbooks.  I left the questions I didn’t know the answers to blank, because why would you write down an answer if you didn’t know it?  That would be absurd.  Afterward, I would take my workbook to the Grading Station, check to see if the answers I’d written down were correct, and then fill in the rest of the questions with the appropriate solutions.  I assumed my peers were also using this method, as it seemed the only logical course of action based on the physical evidence available.  And that was how I completed more PACEs than any other student at the school.  It was simple.

During the meeting with Mrs. Dilrumple and my father, I was confused.  I knew I had done something dishonest, but I still didn’t entirely understand where I’d gone wrong.  Academic assignments had been given to me, I completed them to the best of my ability, and then I corrected them.  Why all this fuss over a procedural technicality?

My father’s disappointment was considerable.  Just a few short hours ago, his son had been a budding prodigy who proved his theory that big government had no business educating the youth of America.  Now I was just an odd, lizard-chasing kid with an inflated sense of entitlement and a short attention span.  I’d gone from hero to hoax in the time it took to boil an egg.

In the end, it was decided that mine was an honest mistake and instead of announcing it publicly, which would embarrass everyone involved and diminish the school’s credibility, I would simply start grading my workbooks in the appropriate manner.  I returned to my studies a chastened man.  My academic performance immediately slowed to a snail’s pace, and the words “average” and “potential” began appearing on my report cards.

Despite the fact that there was no official announcement, somehow my little misunderstanding spread quickly through the ranks.  Considering all the gloating I’d done the previous year, my classmates were magnanimous when I fell off my pedestal, although they failed to completely hide their amusement.  For the next six months, it became a running joke amongst the older students to ask if I would grade their workbooks when they were doing poorly in a subject.  For some reason, they were certain their scores would improve if I was the one correcting their work.  Mrs. Dilrumple scolded the students for teasing me in this manner, but on several occasions I was certain I saw a wry smile tug at the corners of her mouth when she did so.

With my whiz-kid reputation publicly dismantled, I was left with an enormous, attention-starved ego and nothing to feed it.  Over the past year, I had grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle, one that included public recognition and the smug sense of self-importance that is common to those who think they’re smarter than everyone else.  I couldn’t go back to being just another average kid, not after being told I was exceptional.  And so, with my vanity against the wall, I fell back on the only other trick in my bag: moral superiority.  After all, there would always be someone more intelligent, talented, attractive, or athletically gifted, but that did not necessarily mean they were walking the righteous path, right?  Of course not.  In fact, if you niggled enough and narrowed your criteria until it became impossible for any normal, red-blooded human to live up to, you could find character flaws in just about anyone.

I became the living, breathing embodiment of sanctimony.  Whenever one of my peers skipped class or stole so much as a nickel from the tithe box, I was there to point a diminutive, judgmental finger in their direction.  No lie was too white, no crime to petty.  Nothing escaped my hypocrisy.  And being that ethical purity was far more important at our school than academic prowess, it wasn’t long until I regained my old pedestal—and then stacked a soapbox and a high horse on top of it.

While my father generally approved of my new-found zealotry, he was not about to let me off the hook so easily.  I was allowed to keep the medal I had been given as a reminder of my behavior.  It was supposed to be a badge of dishonor to keep me humble.  However, I quickly turned the shameful souvenir into a prop.  Alone in my room, I would stand on my bed and deliver acceptance speeches for a wide variety of honors and awards, as my stuffed animals applauded below.  Sometimes I had just won Best Actor at the Oscars, sometimes I was accepting my twentieth Grammy, and sometimes I was simply being recognized for being an all-around great person by everyone who had ever met me.  Whatever the occasion, when the speech was over I would pin the medal to my shirt and take a deep bow, while the audience cheered and cheered.

Crazy Like a FOX

February 3, 2012

Originally published in Boulder Weekly

July 2008

I’ve always had trouble falling asleep. I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe it’s because of all the caffeine I consume. Or the sugar. Or the cocaine. Or maybe it’s because of the troll that lives in my closet named Tum-Tum who likes to taunt me by playing Rod Stewart’s “If You Want My Body” on the acoustic guitar after sunset. Who knows? It’s a mystery.

Whatever the cause, the fact remains that I often lay awake late at night, staring at the inside of my eyelids. When this happens, I try to take my mind off of Tum-Tum’s incessant strumming by inventing new television shows for the FOX network. For some reason, this helps me relax, and I soon drift off into the dreamy world of unicorns, faeries and Sean Hannity. Here are some of the shows I created this week:

1) Bill O’Reilly Yells At A Baby: This is a show that I’ve been working on for a long time. Sometimes O’Reilly faces off in a political debate against a newborn baby, sometimes it’s a puppy, and sometimes it’s just a potted plant that happens to be leaning too far to the left. In any case, the basic format of the show is always the same. O’Reilly sits at his desk across from the baby/puppy/plant with a look of utter derision on his face. His hideous turkey neck pulses in anticipation and the horns on top of his balding, liver-spotted head begin to glow bright red. “So what’s your opinion on stem cell research?” O’Reilly asks. However, before the baby/puppy/plant can respond, he screams, “That’s ridiculous! What are you, French or something? I am very attractive and very smart! You are a communist!” The baby cries, the puppy whines, and the potted plant photosynthesizes (but in a very distraught manner). “Oh, stop being such a wuss!” O’Reilly says. Then he sheds his skin, unhinges his jaw, and swallows his opponent whole.

2) Former Celebrities Undergo Abject Humiliation So The Rest Of Us Can Feel Better About Ourselves: This is a reality show that features child celebrities who are now grown up and addicted to crystal meth, or sex, or doing crystal meth while having sex. Danny Bonaduce is on the show, as well as Rudy Huxtable, Punky Brewster, and the boring youngest brother on Home Improvement that no one ever liked. The producers of FOX put them all together in an insanely expensive house and force them to perform various humiliating activities, such as vacuuming and making their own beds. If the show starts to get boring, Ted Turner murders one of the celebrities in their sleep (presumably the kid from Home Improvement) and blames it on Danny Bonaduce. The remaining cast members hunt down the accused killer with crossbows, and then they write a hip-hop song about it.

3) Fat Guy & Attractive Lady: This is a sitcom that stars a dim-witted, over-weight man who is married to a beautiful, intelligent woman. The man works at some innocuous blue-collar job where he makes semi-clever jokes about his boss, while the woman pursues vague ambitions of working outside the home. The husband has a wacky friend who lives next door and sometimes causes trouble by convincing the husband to go bowling on his anniversary. Hijinx ensue. The wife’s parents also live nearby, and they come around to belittle the husband whenever the show starts to get dull. Other possible names for this show include: The King of Queens, The Honeymooners, According to Jim, The Flintstones, Grounded for Life or Still Standing.

4) Horny Rich Teenagers with Stupid Problems: This is a high school dramedy set in California, where all the teenagers look like adults and all the adults look like teenagers and all the breasts look like beach balls. Nothing remotely interesting ever happens on this show, but the audience pretends it’s interesting because, well, everyone is so darn beautiful. And as we all know, beautiful people are better than normal people, who are icky and pointless. Everyone on the show is obsessed with sex, but no one ever gets naked. Instead, the girls practice being pouty and anorexic, and the boys practice looking pensive. There’s one James Dean wannabe from the wrong side of the tracks and a slutty white girl who doesn’t fit in—they exist to remind the audience that poor people can be pretty, too. At the end of every episode, some awful emo band sings a whiny song about how difficult it is to be rich and narcissistic in America and then everyone converts to Scientology.

I was living in Prague during the second half of the Bush administration because I thought becoming an expatriot would make me a better writer.  It did not.  However, while I was not becoming a better writer, I spent a lot of time in bars, killing the brain cells that contained the next Great American Novel and learning what foreigners hated about my country.  It was an enlightening experience and one that I would encourage all Americans to have at least once.

Prague is a strange, beautiful city that has been conquered several dozen times, and therefore, its citizens are of a peaceful, cantankerous disposition.  In all the times I tipped my elbow there, I never once saw a Czech man get into a physical altercation.  The Czechs don’t like to fight with their fists unless absolutely necessary.  This does not mean they are cowards.  Not at all.  They just know what their strengths are and play to them.  A citizen of the Czech Republic would much rather insult your country, your mother, and your soccer team (in that order), and reduce you to a blithering pool of insecurity than waste his time dirtying his clothes with your blood.  They are a verbal people, and they know how to turn an insult.  On the other hand, they are also a mumbling culture, so it is sometimes difficult to know when you’ve been insulted.  I once asked an elderly local why the Czechs always spoke under their breath, and he looked at me like I was an idiot.  “You ever had tongue cut out by KGB?” he asked.  “No,” I said.  “Me neither,” he said.  And then he mumbled something I couldn’t understand.

I couldn’t sip a Pilsner in Prague without eventually being approached by a local who wanted to know what was wrong with my country.  I seldom had an answer for this, so I simply bought them beers and listened to their opinions on the subject.

The conversation always started off with George W. Bush, of course.  This is not a political blog, and I’m not interested in getting into a debate on the subject of whether or not Bush was a good president.  However, I can say with absolute certainty that no political figure in my lifetime has been more reviled by the citizens of foreign countries than Mr. Bush.  I once knew a French woman who couldn’t say his name without spitting afterward.  True, the French are a little on the, ahem, expressive side, but still, no one wanted to face her in a public debate.

However, Bush was despised by people at home and abroad for a variety of reasons, so this criticism was nothing new.  What really interested me was the second person that was brought up when listing the reasons why they hated America.  Almost without fail it was Tom Cruise.

It must be said here that I have disliked The Cruise for quite some time.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved Top Gun and Risky Business when I was sixteen as much as the next sexually-repressed, testosterone-charged boy, and over the years I have enjoyed numerous other Tom Cruise movies, but at some point I began to grow sick of his smug face appearing on giant screens all over the country.  Still, I’d never really thought of Tom Cruise as the representation of everything wrong with America until I started talking to the Czechs.

Actually, the Czechs didn’t have a theory about it either, just an intense hatred.  Whenever they were asked what pissed them off about American culture, they fumbled around for a few minutes, passing over things like McDonalds, Wal-Mart, and Congress, eventually settling on Tom Cruise.  They couldn’t place their finger on it, but he represented something rotten in our culture.  The first couple of times it happened I sort of shrugged it off, but after hearing his name bellowed by unshaven drunks all across the city I decided to give the matter some thought.

Here’s what I came up with: Foreigners hate Tom Cruise because he is a very charming, very handsome egomaniac, and our culture has chosen to elect him as our ambassador to the world.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking, “I didn’t vote for that guy to represent me.”  But in a way you did.  I did.  We all did.  Do me a favor.  Go to Tom Cruise’s IMDb page and count how many movies he’s made that you’ve seen.  Go ahead, we’ll wait…

Finished?  Was it more than you thought?  It certainly was for me.  I’ve seen twenty-four Tom Cruise movies.  Twenty!  Four!  And I don’t even like the guy.  He is a blockbuster machine thanks to American culture.  We created him.

Tom Cruise is a charming man, but he is not a very good actor.  Whenever he’s playing a character that requires more than a smarmy smile (Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia, Vanilla Sky, etc.), he looks like one of those male betta fish when you hold a mirror up to its tank: nervous, angry, and absolutely in love with itself.  Tom Cruise is Marlon Brando without the intellect or talent.  Everyone knows this, but it doesn’t make any difference.  Would we rather have Steve Buscemi or John Malkovich as our leading man?  Sure, in a theoretical world.  But Buscemi and Malkovich just don’t fill the theaters like The Cruise.

And what’s so bad about Tom Cruise, anyhow?  Is he really such a terrible pop culture ambassador?  Well, yes, actually.  Besides the fact that he’s a mediocre actor and has a weird nose (looks like it’s made of Silly Putty or something; what’s up with that?), he also has such an enormous ego that he actually believes the Scientology muckymucks when they tell him that he’s on a higher spiritual plane than the rest of us because they want to feed off his celebrity.  In fact, every time Tom Cruise has tried to speak without a script in the past five years, he ends up sounding like he’s one step away from getting himself a pair of Nikes, starting a cult, and hopping on the next comet.

So are the Czechs right?  Is Tom Cruise evil incarnate?  No, he’s America incarnate.  That’s the problem.  American culture has voted, and this is what we’ve come up with.  Charming egomania.  Is this really what our country is all about?  Of course not, but it’s what our cultural democracy has decided to put on a pedestal.  Can you blame other countries for wanting to take him down a peg?

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