Lives of Quiet Desperation

January 16, 2015

After I quit the job at the newspaper, I needed to save money, so I moved into a cheap apartment building on University Hill. It was an old sorority house that had long since been abandoned by the perky, young coeds who had once resided in its floral-printed halls and was now haunted by the type of middle-age men who commonly stalk said coeds in horror movies.

My room was approximately fifteen feet by twenty, with just enough space for a single bed, a couch, a coffee table, and one of those tiny refrigerators that holds precisely one six pack of beer, four ketchup packets, half a candy bar, and two potatoes. The bathroom and kitchen were across the hall. Both were cleaned once a week by a quiet Mexican family who did not live in the building.

I found out about the apartment from my friend, a full-time journalist and part-time junkie who used to live in the very room I was now occupying. He was forced to relocate when he ran into trouble with his drug dealers, a father/son duo who lived next door. He stiffed the landlord and the dealers during his departure, but neither of them held it against me.

The landlord was a twenty-three-year-old kid who had received the apartment building as a graduation present from his father and was milking us for rent money until real estate prices in the neighborhood rose to a level that warranted selling the property, at which point he planned on moving to Belize and retiring at the age of thirty. He was a nice enough guy, but you couldn’t help but resent his boyish good looks and the baseball cap that was always cocked slightly askew on a messy brown nest of curls.

The rest of the residents were primarily harmless headcases and transients who had just gotten out of jail or rehab or grad school and had nowhere else to go. They were men, mostly. Sad men. Angry men. Broken men. Men who were either on medication or needed to be on medication. Alcoholics. Drug addicts. Control freaks. Weirdos. Losers. They reminded me of that line Thoreau wrote in Walden. “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.” I say “they” but I lived there too, so I was one of the quiet and desperate I guess. There are worse things to be.

Occasionally some scruffy-looking hippie would show up with a guitar case and a copy of On the Road and try to turn the building into a commune. He’d post notes in the kitchen about hosting a drum circle in his room with free kombucha for all comers, and then he’d sit in there by himself playing folk songs until one in the morning before finally screaming “Fuck you all!” into the hall and slamming his door. Fortunately, the building seemed to repel these types of New Agey do-gooders and they were usually gone in a month.

On one occasion, a paranoid-schizophrenic with insomnia moved into the room next to mine. The building had no air conditioning, so during the summer it was almost unbearable. I’d sit in my underwear with the window open and a fan on, and I’d still have to take a cold shower every couple of hours to keep from passing out. But this guy was oblivious to the heat. He wore a ski mask, sunglasses, fleece hoodie, long pants, snow boots, and mittens, and then he would rap duct tape around the sleeves and pant legs so there was no skin exposed. In the middle of the night, he would slam the doors of the bathroom stalls for no apparent reason and then rant for thirty minutes about topics ranging from the CIA to the rising cost of milk to the reasons why black people couldn’t be trusted. He was there for less than three weeks before the landlord kicked him out. In a weird sort of way, I missed him after he was gone. When it’s too hot to sleep and you’re lying on your bed sweating and staring at the ceiling and you can’t get enough air in your lungs and all the molecules in your body suddenly start to freak out and you think “Maybe this is what madness feels like,” it’s comforting to have someone around to demonstrate the difference between insanity and a panic attack by screaming that Kentucky Fried Chicken is responsible for faking the moon landing.

The drug dealers and I got to be fairly good friends.  I mean, we didn’t go see Broadway musicals together or anything like that, but they would give me a head-nod in the hall, which was more than they did for anyone else in the building.  The son turned out to be some kind of computer wiz and he hooked me up with free cable and internet access in exchange for my Netflix password.  Every couple of months he would come over to my room and do something on my computer that gave it more memory or made it run faster or some such thing.  I never knew what was going on.  He would just knock on the door, enter my room without an invitation, sit down at my computer, and start typing away at breakneck speeds, all the while talking faster than seemed humanly possible.  He didn’t socialize much, but once he got started you couldn’t shut him up.  He was an unfortunate-looking guy: 25ish, pasty skin that was always moist to the touch, about eighty pounds overweight, almost bald on top with long, black hair on the sides and back, one of those patchy wispy beards grown by those who can’t really grow facial hair but refuse to give up the dream.  During these computer-repair visits, I learned more than I ever wanted to know about their lives.  Apparently, his father had been hit by a BMW earlier in the year, which was a huge stroke of luck.  It messed up his hip real good, but they ended up suing the guy and getting a $250,000 settlement.  However, the lawyers were still figuring out the legal mumbo-jumbo, so they couldn’t collect just yet.  In the meantime, they were holed up here, trying to stay off the street because they owed various drug suppliers money, which they would be able to pay after the settlement came in.  It was all sort of convoluted and I had trouble getting the details straight because he was talking so fast and banging away on my computer, but the gist of it was that I couldn’t tell anyone they were here.  Since he’d never told me his real name, I didn’t think that would be a problem.

One day, Son Drug Dealer knocked on my door, and when I opened it, he rushed into the room and slammed the door behind him.  “Don’t open that door for anyone,” he said.  I said, “Um…okay.”  He had shaved his head to the scalp and his beard was gone, and he was carrying a green backpack.  He said, “Can I trust you?”  I said, “Probably not.”  He ignored me.  “I need to leave something with you for a few hours.”  Before I could answer he launched into this story…

He and his father were making a drug delivery in Denver.  They’d been laying low for months, waiting for the lawsuit money to come in, but now they were behind on rent and they needed some cash.  So they agreed to run some heroin across town for this guy.  They picked up the heroin and then drove down the street minding their own business when a cop behind suddenly turned on his lights.  Father Drug Dealer started to freak out because he was on parole, and going on drug deliveries while you’re on parole is, well, bad.  The son was driving the car and he pulled into a church parking lot.  He didn’t know what to do.  He couldn’t let the cops catch them with this bag of drugs because his father would go back to prison and then they’d probably never collect that damn lawsuit money.  So the son waited until the cop got out of his car and started to walk toward them…and then he gunned the engine.  It just so happened that they were right next to an extremely busy street.  But they caught a lucky break in traffic.  They just missed two oncoming cars, jumped a traffic island, and took a screeching right turn.  In the meantime, Father Drug Dealer threw the heroin out the window.  They tore off down the street, took some rights, some lefts, and ended up in a Wal-Mart parking lot.  They ditched the car there, got on the bus, and came back to the apartment.  The car wasn’t registered in their name, so the cops couldn’t trace it back to them.  The only problem was that there was now $800 worth of heroin lying on Colfax and Son Drug Dealer had shaved is head and face to disguise himself and now he was going to take the bus back to Denver to see if he could find the drugs and he needed me to do him a big favor.  He looked me intensely in the eyes.  My heart began to hammer as he slowly started to unzip the backpack. I looked around the room for weapons. He reached inside the bag.

“Can you watch my cat?”

He pulled out a black-and-white kitten that could easily fit into a teacup.

“I just got him a few weeks ago.  His name is Grub.  My dad is staying with a friend until this all blows over, and I’m not sure how long this will take.  I don’t want to leave him alone.”

I managed to nod my head and croak, “Sure.”

So for the next seven hours, I sat on my couch reading a Philip K. Dick novel while Grub napped quietly beside me.  Son Drug Dealer returned after successfully finding the bag of heroin and making the delivery. He put Grub back in the bag, shook my hand, and returned to his room.

Two months later Father Drug Dealer had a heart attack and died.  A month after that the lawsuit check arrived in the mail.  I never saw Son Drug Dealer or Grub again.

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The Rumpus is a wonderful website that publishes smart pop-culture writing. Recently, they accepted my essay, “Everybody Cut Loose,” about how the strange correlations between my life and the movie “Footloose.” I hope you like it.

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.

Several months ago, I received an email from Sundress Publications stating that my essay, “Off the Grid,” had been selected for their 2012 Best of the Net Anthology. I was somewhat confused because I had never entered such a contest but also overjoyed. It was a wonderful way to end 2012.

It turns out my essay was entered in the contest by the editor of Eclectica Magazine, Tom Dooley, to whom I am extremely grateful.

The good people at Sundress Publications receive thousands of entries every year from all across the Internet, and their tireless judges whittle those entries down to a few lucky winners. This year the judge in the nonfiction category was Pulitzer-finalist Lee Martin, a novelist and memoirist of wide-ranging talent.

I am honored to have my name associated with such a fine anthology, and I hope you take the time to read my essay.

 

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.

When I was young, my friends and I played a game called MASH, which stood for Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House. The goal of the game was to predict your future, and according to some, it was shockingly accurate. What type of house would you live in as an adult? What model of car would you drive? Who would you marry? How many children would you produce? All these questions could be answered with just a piece of notebook paper and a Number 2 pencil.

Of course, we all wanted the mansion. No one ever came out and said so, but it was fairly obvious that if you lived in a shack, you were poor. If you lived in a house, you were middle class. And if you lived in an apartment…well, there were no apartment buildings in the small town where I grew up, so we decided that the “A” in MASH would stand for “A Cheap Hotel near the Pizza Hut.” And if you lived in an A Cheap Hotel near the Pizza Hut, you were probably either a traveling salesman or a serial killer. Either way, it was better to live in a mansion.

*     *     *     *

The first domicile I can recall with any clarity from my childhood was a broken down farmhouse just outside the city limits of a town called Fort Morgan. It was located at the end of a long, dirt driveway, and it included a garage, a row of palsied elm trees, and a wide variety of poisonous snakes. My father was a fundamentalist preacher who believed the end of the world was coming soon, and he insisted we learn to live off the land in order to improve our chances of survival in a post-apocalyptic world. Chickens were purchased, a garden was planted, and soon we were completely self-sufficient. Sort of.

It turns out living off the land is extremely difficult to do, especially when you are attempting to feed and clothe a young family. Money was tight and we couldn’t pay the electric bill with chicken eggs. A year passed with no Armageddon. And then another. And another.

Finally, when I was eight years old, we gave up on Fort Morgan and moved to an even smaller town called Yuma. I wouldn’t have called our new home a shack, but it was certainly closer to an S than it was to an M. The former residents were either meth addicts or members of the witness protection program. The entire house had been gutted shortly before our arrival, the carpet stripped from the floor, the windows busted out, the walls smeared with a mysterious brown substance. And if that wasn’t welcoming enough, there was a dead bird in the middle of the living room. I think it was a sparrow, but I will never know for certain because my mother snatched me away before I could properly investigate it. Something about bugs and deadly diseases.

The first year in the Yuma house was not a pleasant one. All six members of our family lived in the basement while my father rebuilt the main floor with the help of various plaid-wearing churchgoers. The basement was divided into two rooms by a plaster wall. My brother and I slept on a bunk bed next to the kitchen table, and my parents slept in the laundry room, a thin white sheet separating their bed from my sisters’. The television was positioned on top of the refrigerator. If you needed to use the bathroom, you had to climb the stairs and pray that the plumbing was working.

It took nearly a decade to get the Yuma house in working order, and by that time I was off to college, where I lived in various dormitories with obnoxious coeds. Some of my fellow students were shocked to learn that they would have a roommate their freshman year, but I was delighted. Bunk beds, cramped living conditions, unpredictable plumbing–I felt right at home.

In my late twenties, I moved to Prague and rented an apartment in the middle of the city, where prostitutes roamed the streets at all hours of the night, smoking cigarettes and propositioning male tourists from all over the globe. When I was drunk, which was often, I would stumble home from the bar and pretend the prostitutes were elegant ladies determined to gain my attention by any means necessary. “Hello. How are you this evening?” “You think I’m attractive, do you? Well, thank you. You are quite lovely as well.” “What’s that? Fifty euros, you say? Oh, no, I would never charge you for the pleasure of my company, my dear.” I didn’t make a lot of friends, but my confidence went through the roof.

The Prague apartment was the cheapest place I have ever lived. It was also the nicest. Hard-wood floors, a furnished kitchen, two bathrooms, twenty-foot-tall ceilings, a laundry room. All for just $200 dollars a month. Thank goodness for the post-communist economic collapse! My roommates were two medical students who were studying at the local university. There was always a human skull on the kitchen table and a book of hideous wounds next to the toilet.

After drinking my savings down to nothing, I returned to Colorado, where I lived on my friends’ couch for six months while I half-heartedly looked for a job. Finally, much to my chagrin, I found one.

Currently, I live in a mansion a few blocks west of the University of Colorado in Boulder. That is, it used to be a mansion. Many of the buildings in this area are beautiful Tudor structures that have been purchased by wealthy fraternities and sororities. When they were first built, several hundred years ago, I’m certain the owners had no idea that one day well-tanned coeds named Chad and Britney would be vomiting PBR on their solid oak floors and smoking pot in their foyers.

The building I live in was once a sorority house, but has long since been converted into a series of individual living spaces that are rented out to the dregs of society. Affordable housing is difficult to come by in Boulder, so this place attracts some interesting characters. There are illegal immigrants, welfare recipients, panhandlers, drug dealers, drug addicts, hermits, and one curmudgeonly writer. My room is approximately ten feet long by fifteen feet wide. There’s just enough room for a bed, a couch, and a coffee table. The bathroom and kitchen are both across the hall. You can’t run the microwave and the toaster at the same time or you will cause a building-wide blackout. Air conditioning, no. Mice, yes. We do have heat, but there’s only one thermostat for the entire building, so we all have to make do at 55 degrees, which is apparently the temperature most suitable for the cold-blooded miscreants who live downstairs.

Altogether, it’s not exactly what I pictured for myself when I was a young child playing MASH. When I landed on M, I thought my destiny had been determined. I would live in a mansion, drive a red Ferrari (like Magnum P.I.), marry Sandy Freytag who sat in front of me in homeroom, and have seven children. Thank goodness it didn’t turn out to be true. How would one fit seven children in a Ferrari?

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