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.

I once had a job where the employees were required to celebrate Valentine’s Day.  This was a retail position at a mid-size corporation that sold books, music, and movies.  I spent eight hours a day alphabetizing used CDs and ringing up customers at the cash register while wearing a green smock with a button attached to it that said, “Hello, my name is Dale!  I’m happy to help!”  I was not happy to help.  In fact, I had never been so unhappy to help in my life.

Working at a corporation is a humiliating experience for the low-level employees.  Its’ not enough for those suit monkeys to monopolize your time and energy; they want your soul, as well.  This particular job paid $7.00 an hour with no benefits, which was a mere 50 cents above minimum wage, and for that extra half dollar the company expected you not only to show up on time with a smile for the customer but to also express gratitude for the opportunity to scrub their toilets and receive abuse from their patrons.  The official company motto was, Let Us Entertain You, but unofficially it was, Thank You, Sir.  May I Have Another?

At some point, a group of pencil-pushers at corporate headquarters organized a focus group and decided they needed to boost employee morale.  I can say without reservation that a livable wage and a dental plan would have improved my outlook considerably, but instead the company decided to mandate certain celebratory activities.  On birthdays, cheap cakes were purchased and songs were sung.  Cards were handed out during major, non-religious holidays, and Valentine’s Day became a compulsory activity.

Few things are more degrading for the average human being than forced happiness.  Telling someone they will be fired if they don’t have fun is a bit like requiring a POW to write out a thank-you card after his tormentors have broken all his fingers.  America has always been known as the Land of Eternal Optimism, where brilliant minds like Walt Disney and Henry Ford are allowed the freedom to realize their dreams. However, once those dreams have come to fruition and those genius brains have been rotting in wormy graves for a few decades, another American tradition takes over: greed and exploitation. In our current system, it’s not the innovators who are rewarded but those who take a wonderful, new idea and transform it into a cheap cliche that can be crammed down the public’s throat with such relentless determination that the original dream becomes nothing more than a shallow mockery of itself.

Hence, Valentine’s Day.

But I digress…

During the first week in February, the employee break room at my workplace was suddenly cluttered with brown paper bags, scissors, construction paper, glue sticks, tape, markers, crayons, and glittery paint. It looked like a kindergarten classroom for clinically depressed children. Two days later the staff received a memo stating that every employee was required to create a Valentine’s Bag with his or her name on it and give one another cards by Feb. 14. Or else! In response, I wrote my name on a bag with a black marker and placed it in the designated area. My supervisor was not amused. He called me into his office and delivered a speech similar to the one given to Jennifer Anniston’s character in the movie Office Space concerning the amount of flair she had on her Chotchkie’s uniform. I was told that my attitude was a problem and it needed adjusting. Why couldn’t I be positive about this? Was it really so bad to spread a little love and good cheer to my fellow employees? What was the issue here?

I was twenty-two years old at the time and incapable of articulating the precise reason why being mandated to spread love and cheer by an amoral, money-hungry corporation made me want to firebomb my supervisor’s BMW, so I capitulated. I decorated a new sack with various pink and red hearts, while secretly cursing my supervisor for making me do so. The bag was then filled with stupid little cards and those gross heart-shaped candies that taste like chalk. I quit two months later.

Over the years, my attitude toward Valentine’s Day has not improved. If anything, it has gotten worse, a prejudice that has often made my love life difficult. Though I have never been the type of person to date girls who listen to Celine Dion or cry during cheesy romantic comedies, most of my exes wanted to at least acknowledge February 14th and perhaps go for a nice meal at a restaurant that didn’t feature a drive-up window. Go figure. Arguments ensued and I was often accused of being unromantic and cynical, insults that are difficult to deny while you’re setting a Nicholas Sparks novel on fire. In the end, the reasons most often sited when these relationships ended were my inability to express emotions and my impulse to see the negative side of every situation. I was exhausting. And depressing. And narcissistic. And misanthropic. And I wore socks to bed.

These things are undeniably true. I am not good at relationships; I hate expressing emotions; and even though I am now in my mid-thirties, I still make gagging noises whenever I see couples feeding each other in public. (I don’t care how in love you are–if the recipient of the food is not wearing a diaper, there is absolutely no reason to feed another human being. Ever!) An ex-girlfriend who also happened to be a psychology major once diagnosed me as “a pathologically unromantic person who uses humor to hide your true feelings.” My response: “You get me!” She then added immaturity to the list.

Several years ago, I met a blind date at a bar near my apartment building. This was my favorite dating bar. If things went well and it looked like intercourse was on the horizon, I would take the date back to my place to consummate our doomed relationship. If things didn’t go well (which was usually the case), I could say goodbye to my date and get blind, fall-down drunk without having to worry about how I’d get home. It was a win-win.

This particular date was a young woman named Michelle whom I’d met via the Internet (long story). When she entered the bar, she hovered near the door for almost a full minute, her gray-blue eyes darting around like those of a frightened mouse searching a new environment for a hungry cat. I waved. The fear in her eyes did not dissipate. Nevertheless, she crossed the room, sat on the bar stool next to me, and, in a voice barely above a whisper, told me how much she hated bars. “Actually, mostly I hate people,” she said. “And bars are always filled with people. Strangers. And sometimes they try to talk to me.” She shuddered. The look on her face indicated there was nothing so horrible in her opinion as unwanted human contact.

It wasn’t difficult to see why strange men would attempt conversation. She was beautiful in a way that was almost disturbing. She had perfect alabaster skin, a long sexy nose, a swan-like neck, and dark brown hair that she was constantly attempting to hide behind. Oh, and she had pointy ears. Like an elf.

I have always been attracted to physical abnormalities, so I asked her about these ears, and without a hint of reservation she told me it was a genetic trait called human vestigiality, which is a characteristic passed down from monkeys that still appears in certain human beings. “You know, like some people have a vestigial tail,” she said. “When you think about it, we’re really just a bunch of animals. If you condense evolutionary history into a single lifetime, we just climbed down from the trees about five minutes ago.”

I was smitten.

It just so happened that on this particular night there was an open-mic poetry reading at the bar in question. I hadn’t known this when I planned the date. I hate public poetry readings. They are most often attended by the type of annoying artsy people who wear scarves indoors and insist on talking in loud voices about Allen Ginsberg so that everyone in the room can overhear their witty repartee. This event was no different. As the room filled with bongo drums and tweed jackets, I shifted uncomfortably on my bar stool. I was enjoying the date so far and did not want to risk expressing my loathing for what was about to happen next. After all, Michelle didn’t look like the type of person who delighted in reading poems about her menstrual cycle in front of Kerouac wannabes, but you never could tell. She seemed anxious, but I got the feeling this was pretty much her permanent emotional state. It was impossible to know how she felt about the whole affair. Finally, when a a young man in a goatee and beret stepped up to the microphone and announced that he’d written a haiku about Charles Bukowski’s liver, Michelle broke down. Speaking rapidly and in a voice that sounded as though it was attempting to suppress a mounting hysteria, she said, “I’m-having-a-really-good-time-and-I-don’t-want-to-offend-you-but-I-hate-when-people-read-poetry-in-bars-I-can’t-stay-here-I’m-sorry-can-we-please-leave.”

I downed my beer in three swallows.

Since the night was young and we had no specific plans, I suggested we take a walk through a nearby cemetery. Michelle thought this was a fine idea. As we strolled, I pointed out my favorite tombstones–Adolfus Livernash, Samuel Belcher, Esther Reeks–and we talked about how much we hated open-mic poetry readings.

This all happened two years ago.

It turns out Michelle is even more antisocial than I am and just as repulsed by modern romance. Currently she works at a gourmet chocolate shop, where she spends five days a week making expensive cakes and candies. Feb. 14 is their busiest day of the year, and Michelle has forbidden me to say the V-word. After spending ten hours a day crafting chocolate roses and attaching hearts to cheese cakes, she wants nothing to do with the holiday.

There are other words we don’t feel comfortable saying, as well. The L-word, for instance. I realize there are those who believe saying “I love you” several times a day is an essential part of a good relationship, but we are not these people. We tried it a few times, and it just didn’t take. It felt forced and embarrassing, like an enema. However, there are instances when even pathologically unromantic cynics feel the need to express (blah) affection. Therefore, we’ve had to improvise.

For awhile, I told Michelle that I “lurve” her, a line from a Woody Allen movie called Annie Hall, which we both admire for its unhappy ending. Eventually, “lurve” transformed into “larve” for no particular reason, “larve” became “larf,” and then “larf” made the inevitable metamorphosis into “barf.”

This is the perfect expression for us because it removes all sentiment from the term. To say “I love you” in our current culture means to act out a scene from some cheesy Meg Ryan movie. However, to say “I barf you” is to express a shared hatred for the cliches of modern romance while simultaneously sharing something personal and sacred. We’ve never actually discussed this, because that would involve expressing our feelings to one another, which would immediately make those feelings disgusting and shameful. Therefore, we simply continue to barf one another in text messages and email. We barf each other in restaurants and we barf each other at the mall. We barf each other in the morning and we barf each other at night.

On Feb. 14, we will return to that old cemetery near my apartment building where we had our first date. We will stroll amongst the tombstones thinking about all the poor saps out there buying flowers and feeding each other chocolate-covered strawberries in an effort to reenact some unattainable bit of cultural nostalgia that has long since become a trite marketing ploy. We will laugh and enjoy ourselves. We will sneer and roll our eyes. We will drink cheap wine. We will avoid poetry at all costs. We will talk about all the things we hate about Valentine’s Day. And then we will fall in barf all over again.

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.

Last Call

January 29, 2012

Originally published in Boulder Weekly

June 2008

“Where do you get those weird ideas for your column?” my friend asked during a recent phone conversation. I told him that my ideas come from the same three muses that inspire all writers: sex, rum and cheeseburgers. He asked me to elaborate…

It’s 1:36 a.m. on a Friday night/Saturday morning and I am sitting at a bar on Pearl Street, gently stirring a double rum and coke, sort of half-watching Ultimate Fighting on an old television set that is bolted to the wall in front of me and sort of half-watching a young man at the other end of the bar who is masticating the straw that came with his drink in a way that seems to indicatethat he has some  pent-up Freudian issues involving his mother. He is one of those impossibly beautiful people whose hair always looks perfect, even in the middle of hurricane-like winds, and he’s talking to a girl who also has hurricane-proof hair, and they smile and they laugh and they generally look like a toothpaste commercial, except for the fact that this impossibly beautiful boy is drunk and this impossibly beautiful girl is also drunk, and it’s quite clear that they will soon be going home together to have impossibly beautiful drunken sex, and this knowledge somehow makes me both happy and depressed at the same time.

I finish my drink and order another because Last Call is looming around the corner like a 400-pound ninja with a grudge, and I don’t know karate. My drink has too much ice in it and the soda is flat and the bartender slipped a lime wedge in there even though I told him not to and I take a sip and think, Ah, just the way I like it. On the television, the Ultimate Fighter in the white shorts is now beating the ever-loving shit out of the Ultimate Fighter in the black shorts, and across the bar the impossibly beautiful boy and girl are asking the bartender for their check, and at that exact moment, Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” comes on the jukebox and you can almost see everyone in the room smile at the same time (even though “Billie Jean” is an incredibly sad song when you think about it).

I have now reached the perfect level of drunkenness: warm and sort of swimmy but not stumbly. Of course, this is the moment that I choose to text-message all the people I should not be sending text messages to while I’m drunk (ex-girlfriends, ex-girlfriend’s friends, ex-girlfriend’s exfriends, etc., etc.). While I am trying to spell “It wasn’t my fault” on my cell phone, a girl sits down next to me and asks if I like Michael Jackson. This girl has cornflower-blue eyes and blonde corkscrew-like hair, and I tell her that I definitely do not like Michael Jackson. I tell her that the word “like” is not sufficient to describe my feelings about the music created by the King of Pop. His bass lines are groundbreaking. His hooks are transcendent. Michael Jackson is a genius. She says that she likes Michael Jackson, too (“No matter what he did or did not do to McCulley Culkin”), and then we have an intense debate over what was his best album, Thriller or Bad, and I lose the debate because she brings up M.J.’s collaboration with Paul McCartney on “The Girl is Mine,” which is not really fair because it’s impossible to argue against a former member of The Beatles. I’m trying to work up the courage to ask this blonde girl for her phone number, but suddenly some guy wearing a They Might Be Giants T-shirt swoops in and beats me to the punch and I curse the little birdhouse in his soul.

The walk home takes about 45 minutes, and it’s the best 45 minutes of the whole year. The stars are bright. The air is charged with nocturnal romance. And I find a quarter.

McDonald’s is three blocks from my house and their drive-thru window is open 24 hours, and even though I don’t have a car, the 15-year-old Night Manager lets me order a double cheeseburger from the dollar menu and I go home and sit on my balcony and eat my delicious, un-healthy, un-organic food product, and I think about all the things in the world I truly love that no one else really cares about: zombie movies, Billy Joel, SkyMall, documentaries about seria killers, documentaries about religious cults, documentaries about aliens, ThunderCats, Hot Pockets, Footloose, Michael Landon, Spider-Man, Miles Davis, Scott Baio, the Rocky movies (except for number five), Rambo, pretty much Sylvester Stallone’s entire career, The Dukes of Hazzard, Bill Hicks, Spaghetti Westerns, The Karate Kid movies (except for number four), Netflix, interviews with prostitutes, taxidermy, books about Scientology, Christian rock and tater tots.

And that’s when I write my column.

Texting the Apocalypse

January 28, 2012

Unpublished fiction.

© 2012 Dale Bridges

hey sara.

hey kelsie.

u hear bout the end of the werld?

yeah. bummer.

i know right?

right.

fire and brimstone.

yeah. brimstone smells like ick.

totaly.

BTW, ricky sutton talked 2 me 2day.

no way.

way.

THE ricky sutton?

yeah.

no way.

way! way! way!

cool. just a sec. my parentz r totly freakin out bout the zombies.

yeah. this apokalips is lame.

tell me bout it. yestrday my bro got fed to The Beast.

the cute bro or the 1 w zits.

cute.

oh. sorry.

its k. i get his room.

score.

i know.

did u see the skirt jenny wore for the genocide?

i know. totaly 2011.

yeah, i was like, That skirt is totaly 2011!

good one.

right?

hey. gotta go. my stupid mom wants me to join a cult with her.

which 1?

the 1 that werships a pole with a photo of tom hanks on it.

cool. the tom hanks pole cult is the best. suzie is a membr.

sweet. see you in hell.

totaly.

People of the jury, before you make your final judgment, please hear my case!

I’m not a shut-in. Not yet. But it’s getting closer. I can see the headlines in the future: MAN DIES ON USED COUCH, BODY UNDISCOVERED FOR 3 WEEKS AND SMELLS REALLY GROSS.

Now aside from the fact that this is far too long to be a realistic newspaper headline, this is a legitimate concern. I am becoming increasingly weird and misanthropic as I grow older, and these are things that add up to weird, misanthropic events.Ergo, death by choking on an M&M while listening to Billy Joel.

My journey into shut-in territory increased a few months ago when I started having my groceries delivered. This possibility was brought to my attention by my former-drug-dealer neighbor who informed me that I could order online from King Soopers for just ten dollars.

Now, for many years, I have tried to explain to people my life philosophy. It is really quite  simple. Every decision I make is based on two opposing forces: Cheapness and Laziness. These are the yin and yang of my existence, the two powers that are continually in competition as I shuffle through this mortal coil. For instance, I don’t have a car. The last time I owned a vehicle was 1999. This is not because I am concerned about the environment and am trying to lower my carbon footprint. I wish I was such an altruistic person, but I am not.  The car was an old Bonneville that I purchased from my parents during college. At some point, I forgot to pay the registration fees, and because I didn’t want to go to the DMV and because registration fees cost money, I stopped driving the car. It sat in the parking lot next to my apartment building for almost a year with numerous yellow notes on the windshield that were placed there by my irate landlord. One day, a woman knocked on my door looking for donations for cerebral palsy research, and I gave her my car. It had nothing to do with charity. I wasn’t overly concerned about cerebral palsy. I simply didn’t want to figure out what to do with the car. Cheap and Lazy.

Therefore, when I heard that I could have my groceries delivered for ten dollars, I immediately did the calculations in my head: Ten Dollars Buys Three Meals Or One Book + I Would Have To Talk To People – Going To The Grocery Store Takes Time And Energy + Taking The Bus Costs 4 Dollars Anyhow = Laziness Trumps Cheapness In This Particular Situation.

See how that works? So now I just go online once a month and order everything I want for just ten dollars and it comes right to my door.

I’m not necessarily proud that it has come to this, but I have made the decision. If you don’t hear from me in five days, come over to my apartment and poke me with a stick.

My Cemetery

November 1, 2010

Music provided by my favorite zombie band, The Widow’s Bane.

….

My Cemetery

by Dale Bridges

There’s a graveyard about five blocks from my apartment building where I go for walks late at night and make up stories about the dead.  It’s just something I do when I can’t sleep.  I’m sure the place has a name but I’ve never learned it.  I simply think of it as My Cemetery because everyone else seems to have forgotten about it.  Sometimes I’ll see a couple in their forties walking an asthmatic pug or a group of teenage goths smoking pot, but I consider these people interlopers, tourists.  They’re here because Princess needed to tinkle or because they have an unhealthy fascination with black fingernail polish that will eventually develop into an eating disorder.  They don’t care about the bodies buried in the sacred ground beneath their cigarette butts.  Not like I do.

Consider, for instance, the life of one Esther Reeks.  I don’t know what her name was before she met William, but I like to think it was something along the lines of Esther Rose or Esther Spring.  A dainty, fragrant name.  Then one day she fell head over heels for a local guy, and the next thing she knew her friends at the beauty salon were giggling and calling her Mrs. Reeks.

But at least the Reeks had the good sense not to have children.  The same thing can’t be said about the Belcher clan.  My Cemetery is crawling with Belchers.  I like to think of them as a sophisticated family, a real group of high-society snobs complete with monocles and top hats.  You know the type.  However, they lost their family fortune after attempting to open up an elegant French restaurant in the ritzy end of town.  For some reason, no one wanted to eat dinner at Le Belcher’s.

My favorite tombstone is a giant, rectangular monstrosity designating the burial site of a family with the last name of HUSSIE.  That’s how it appears on the grave, HUSSIE, like a Vegas billboard advertising a new strip club.  It’s a sizeable monument and it’s the color of an old pearl necklace, making it stand out from the rest.  I know it’s natural for humans to be proud of their heritage, but you’d think a group of people named after a sexually promiscuous woman would’ve learned a little humility in their lifetime.  Apparently not.

Less than ten yards south of the Hussies is the eternal resting place of the SALE family.  Since America is the land of capitalism, when I first saw this tombstone I thought it was available for purchase.  You know, like: SALE ON USED CRYPTS!  OUR PRICE$ ARE TO DIE FOR!!!  Who knows?  The economy has been in a slump lately.  Maybe cemetery landlords are feeling the crunch.

I sometimes imagine one of the Sale boys asking a young lady in the Hussie family for her hand in marriage.  He’d own a used car dealership and wear designer cowboy boots.  She’d be one of those feisty liberals who would decide to hyphenate her last name in order to maintain her independence.  You know how proud those Hussie women can be.  Of course her children would hate her for it later, especially when their teachers took attendance.  “Hussie-Sale!  Is there a Hussie-Sale in class today?”  But what a great tombstone it would make.

There are a surprising number of graves shaped like penises in My Cemetery.  I don’t know how this happened, but I can’t be the first one to notice it.  It’s pretty obvious.  They’re like giant, stone dildos sticking out of the earth.  The long shaft, the rounded tip, the testicle-like base.  These are not subtle details.  Curiously, these penis graves are all circumcised.  Every single one.  I wonder if it would be different in a European cemetery.  Do tombstones in Paris have foreskin?  I hope so.

Right next door to My Cemetery there is an elementary school, which I’ve always thought was slightly macabre but also appropriate.  “Suzie, Johnny, are you having fun playing in the sandbox?  Good.  Don’t forget that in a few short years you’ll be buried six feet under it.”  Circle of life, you know.  Those kids gotta learn sometime.

I sometimes wonder if any of the children ever pause at the top of that slide to look out on the field of dead people next door.  Perhaps for a fleeting moment they halt their mindless play and contemplate their own mortality.  All those tombstones lined up in nice little rows like a morbid stone garden.  The image will haunt them at night, burrowing deep into their subconscious.  Ten years will go by, then twenty.  One day they’ll look in the mirror and realize that they are a 35-year-old man with a drinking problem and incurable insomnia.  When that happens, in an effort to forget their own problems, they will leave their apartment in the middle of the night and walk down to the local cemetery, where they’ll wander around like a crazy person, making up stories about the dead people buried below them.

The Museum of Stinginess

October 16, 2010

In the summer of 1999, I found a mattress leaning against the Dumpster behind my apartment building.  There was nothing wrong with it—no unsightly stains or rodent nests—so I put it on my back and carried it Sherpa-like up the stairs.

“What the hell is that?” asked my roommate, Megan, as I pulled the large, rectangular object through the doorway.

“It’s either a really soft tombstone with springs in it or a mattress,” I said.  “I’ll need to perform a few more tests before I know for sure.”

Megan folded her arms over her chest the way I imagine Mussolini used to right before he ordered an execution.  “And what’s it doing in my apartment?” she said

Both of our names were on the lease, but that didn’t mean it was an egalitarian arrangement.  Megan favored democracy when it came to government and reality television shows, but her personal life was less Bill of Rights and more Mein Kampf.  For tasks like vacuuming or taking out the trash, Megan considered me her equal, but when I proposed we paint the bathroom black because I wanted to feel like I was taking a shower in outer space, suddenly my ideas were “impractical” and “borderline psychotic.”

“Why don’t you just buy a mattress from the store like a normal person?” Megan said.

“Do you have any idea how much a new mattress costs?” I replied.

“I don’t know, two hundred dollars, maybe three hundred.”

“Two hundred dollars!  I’m not going to spend that kind of money on a stuffed quilt.  Are you out of your mind?”

“Right,” said Megan.  “You’re going to sleep on a piece of trash like a hobo, but I’m the one who’s crazy.”

#     #     #

Megan eventually abandoned me for a graduate school in California, but she left behind a pile of belongings to remember her by.  Dishes, towels, pans, a microwave, and her old futon.

“Get rid of that disgusting mattress,” she said.  “And buy some real furniture, for the love of God.  You’re living like a refugee.”

As the years went by, this kept happening.  Friends would get better jobs, move to better houses, and inevitably they would give me their used belongings.  A television with no volume control here, a lamp shaped like a hula dancer there.  They knew I was too lazy and cheap to purchase these things on my own, so they passed them along, pretending the reason for these gifts was because I was a good friend instead of a hopeless charity case.  Cups, vacuum cleaners, coffee tables, nightstands.  I am thirty five years old and I have never purchased a single piece of furniture.  I still sleep on the futon Megan gave me more than a decade ago.  My couch was a gift from Megan and her husband Chris.  The coffee table came from Megan’s mom.  My entertainment system was once owned by my friend Travis.  I have a bookcase that was given to me by my old roommate Paul.  My ex-girlfriend Ashleigh provided two of my four pillows.  The others were taken from my mother’s house.

Nothing in my apartment belongs to me.  It was all stolen, scavenged, or given away as a hand-out.  My apartment is a museum of stinginess.  I am surrounded by other people’s lives, taking naps on their hard work.

Dear Seymour,

I named you Seymour, I hope you don’t mind.  My therapist says that names help build emotional connections, which will then make it easier for me to mourn your passing.  And she’s probably right because she has like a gazillion diplomas on the wall.  She’s a great gal, my therapist.  I think you’d really like her – you know, if you were still alive and all.  Her name is Dr. Jamie.  She’s one of those modern counselor types, who wants people to know that she’s a Harvard graduate (Summa Cum Laude, thank you very much!) but hopes they will also recognize that she’s a woman with emotional and physical needs just like everyone else.  That’s why she has her patients call her Dr. Jamie.  It’s not as clinical.  Anyway, that’s what she told me last week after we fucked.

Oh, yeah, I say ‘fuck’ now.  Dr. Jamie says that I’m verbally confined, a direct result of my Protestant upbringing, and I need to branch out with my fucking speech patterns.  I decided to start with ‘fuck’ because it’s such a versatile word, don’t you think?  It can be used as a transitive verb (John fucked Mary), or a passive conjugation (Mary was fucked by John).  It can be an active verb (John also fucks Mary’s mom), a passive verb (John has fucked Mary’s mom), or an adverb (Mary really fucking hates her mom).  It can be a noun (Mary’s mom is a terrific fuck), or an adjective (Mary’s mom is a terrific fucking whore).  It can even be used in greetings, such as, How the fuck are you? and Good to fucking see you.  You can also attach it to a variety of nouns to come up with infinite results.  (Watch that fuck-mouth, you fucking retarded piece of monkey fuck.)  Actually, there are so many situations where you can use the word ‘fuck’ that I hardly know how I ever got a-fucking-long without it.  Anyhow, after we made love, Dr. Jamie saw the scar on my belly and asked me about it, and that’s when I told her all about you, Seymour.

You see, our therapy sessions had begun to bog down a bit.  I started off like a rocket.  I mean, I got through my entire childhood in the first session.  Dr. Jamie said that she’d never seen anything like it in all her three years in the business.  It was just emotional breakthrough after emotional breakthrough.  I forgave my father and achieved closure with my mother in the first fifteen minutes.  It must have been some kind of world record.  Then I went on to recognize my inner child and came to terms with the crippling sense of guilt that came from being raised in a functional family.  After that, we had about twenty minutes to kill, and that’s when we christened Dr. Jamie’s leather therapy couch, so to speak.

Dr. Jamie says that I’m a therapeutic genius.  Not the actual analyzing-people’s-problems-and-helping-to-overcome-them part, of course, but on the receiving end, I’m like the Stephen Hawking of mental patients.  I’m a blank book.  Actually, that’s probably not the best analogy in the world since a blank book would have no information in it at all, huh?  I guess I’m probably more like a blank computer screen.  On the other hand, I guess that would mean that I’m like in a coma or something, unable to interact with the world until someone switches me on.  Okay, okay, I’ve got it.  You know how sometimes when you are at an internet café and you try to go into your Hotmail account but the last person who used that computer forgot to logout, so now you can look at all of their business and see everything about their personal life?  That’s me.  I’m like someone else’s Hotmail account.

But anyhow, I was so good at therapy that, after three sessions, Dr. Jamie couldn’t figure out what else to do with me.  That’s when she thought of this ‘fuck’ business – but I’m almost fucking finished with that already.  So we decided that the only obstacle left for me to overcome was a fear of death.

The problem is that I don’t really have a fear of death.  I mean, I have a fear of dying, I suppose – I don’t go around antagonizing hungry lions or sticking my hands in meat grinders or anything like that – but I can’t really say that I have a good healthy fear of the death process.  To be honest, I actually enjoy funerals.  It’s dark, you get to wear black and cry in front of strangers.  What’s not to like?  Dr. Jamie says that this is because I’ve never really had anyone close to me die.  It’s true, I’m sorry to say.  There have been some family pets that have kicked the bucket over the years and there was that one episode of Growing Pains when Carol’s fiancé got hit by a car or something, but my family and friends have been annoyingly healthy throughout the course of my life.

So when I told Dr. Jamie about the scar on my stomach and how I’d lost my spleen when I was fifteen years old, she had an epiphany.  I chose the name Seymour because I think Seymour Spleen has a nice ring to it and because when the doctors did exploratory surgery on my stomach, they definitely got to see more of me than anyone else ever has.  Get it?  See more.  Seymour.  It’s kind of a play on words.  Anyhow, I did a little research and I found out just how important you were in my formative years, and I wanted to write you this letter to say thank you and to get some closure to our relationship.

So, here we go…

Thank you, Seymour.  You were the largest of my lymph organs in more ways than one.  For the first fifteen years of my life, you rested in the hypochondriac region of my abdominal cavity, between the fundus of my stomach and my diaphragm.  You prevented millions of disease organisms from entering my system with your spleen tissue, and then you attacked them with your lymphocytes.  Don’t think I didn’t appreciate that.  They say that an average spleen weighs about 0.2 kilograms, but the surgery report stated that you were almost twice that size, an entire pound of purple, peritoneum-covered companionship.

I know that Pancreas and Kidney have totally missed your company.  Seriously.  I hear about it all the time.  “Where’d Seymour go?”  “We miss Seymour.”  Oh, they go on and on.  I am aware that Bone Marrow has taken over the production of red blood cells since I was a baby, but I’ll tell you something, the quality of workmanship has gone down considerably.  And I’m not just saying that.  Never send a bone to do a spleen’s job, I always say.  Furthermore, I’ve never seen Bone Marrow put in overtime removing bile pigments like you used to.  If you think Liver didn’t appreciate that, you’re crazy!

I think about the horrible afternoon of your passing all the time.  I replay the events of that awful day in my head and try to figure out how I could have prevented it.  I blame myself, if you want to know the truth.  The doctors tell me that it wasn’t my fault, that these things happen, but I can’t help but think that if I hadn’t jumped off of that roof and landed on my stomach, you’d still be here with us today, Seymour.

I guess that’s about it.  I just wanted to let you know that you’ll be missed.  To this day, whenever I step on a scale, I automatically add one extra pound to my weight and think of you.  The experts say that you can live to be a hundred years old without your spleen, but what kind of fucking life is that?  That’s what I want to know.

In Loving Memory,

Dale Bridges (your former host body)

Dear Mr. Wonka,

I have read one book and watched several documentaries about the inner workings of your so-called chocolate factory and, frankly, I am appalled.  Although the documentaries seem to conflict in certain areas (namely, whether you employ geese that lay enormous golden eggs or trained squirrels that shell and sort nuts), it is clear that you have no regard for OSHA regulations or federal law.  I am speaking, of course, about the short, curiously-tan men on your payroll called Oompa-Loompas.

I understand that it was necessary to close your factory to the public because your candy-making secrets were being stolen by competing chocolateers, such as Mr. Slugworth; however, did you even think about the loyal workers that you laid off in the process?  How many of those men have pulled your taffy and washed your nuts over the years?  Hundreds?  Thousands?  Wonka Bars have always been made by Americans for Americans; but now, with the stock market plummeting and the terrorists at our doorstep, you take all of the union labor out of your factory and replace them with foreigners who are willing to work for mere cocoa beans.  Does that seem fair to you?

And that’s not even the worst of it.  There’s a name for luring an entire race of people away from their homeland and forcing them to work for you without monetary remuneration.  Yeah, it’s called slavery.  Maybe you’ve heard of it. That little operation you’ve got going–the one where the workers live with you inside a walled fortress and sing happy little songs while they toil in the fields all daythat’s referred to as a plantation.

If you want to keep your candy-coated ass out of the federal penitentiary, I suggest that you turn over birth certificates and citizenship papers on every single one of your pint-sized employees this instant.  I don’t care how many Wangdoodles, Hornswagglers, and Vermicious Knids you saved those Oompa-Loompas from; you still have to pay them minimum wage.

Sincerely,

Dale Bridges

p.s. My sources tell me that you recently turned your entire operation over to one Charlie Bucket.  I hope we can expect Mr. Bucket to run a much tighter ship, because if you think the American public is going to stand for more of this type of behavior, you are nuttier than the tasty, chocolate-covered candies that you make, my friend.

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