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.

Sherman Alexie Interview

January 27, 2012

Originally published in Boulder Weekly

2007

I am a 14-year-old girl at a Justin Timberlake concert. I am wearing glitter nail polish and a T-shirt with the word “Juicy” pasted on it in puffy, pink letters. I am in love. When the music starts, my heart goes pitter-pat-pitter-pat, and I scream so loud that dogs in China begin to howl. People look at me strangely, but I don’t care because I am a 14-year-old girl at a Justin Timberlake concert…

I know it’s not exactly professional, but this is how I feel about interviewing Sherman Alexie. I want to giggle and invite him to my house for a sleepover.

Book critics are not supposed to admit we have personal reactions to prose. We are just literate androids that consume novels like flavorless bowls of oatmeal and then spew out dispassionate, semi-witty quips about the authors who write them. But I can’t help it — I love books, and I love the people who write the books I love. If you want to read a cold, impartial review by some priggish academic, pick up the New Yorker. I’m a fan.

Alexie’s latest novel, Flight, is a short, tender satire about a young American Indian/Irish orphan named Zits who has spent the better part of his 15 years bouncing back and forth from foster homes to juvenile detention in Seattle. He has been scarred — emotionally and dermatologically — by life.

On one of his visits to juvy, Zits meets a handsome anarchist named Justice who inundates the angsty American Indian with left-wing revolutionary dogma. Justice supplies Zits with an amoral philosophy and a pair of handguns. The journey ends in a public massacre.

However, just as the brain matter begins to fly, Zits is transported by postmodern powers through time and space into the body of a white FBI agent in 1975. The rest of the novel follows poor Zits as he jumps back and forth through history witnessing (and sometimes participating in) horrible acts of violence.

In another writer’s hands, this could be a really corny book. But as always, Alexie deftly imbues his characters with equal parts cynicism and compassion to form a sophisticated, modern parable. It’s a bit like Catcher in the Rye meets Gunsmoke meets Quantum Leap.

I spoke with Alexie about his novel while he was doing laundry at his house. (His favorite red shirt was recently stained during a book tour.) He greeted me kindly with his soft reservation accent and then proceeded to shatter all of my political and social opinions one by one.

Boulder Weekly: There’s a scene in your novel where the main character goes on a public shooting spree. Did the events at Virginia Tech change the way people perceived that narrative?

Sherman Alexie: It’s interesting. I think there has been some reaction to it but not a whole bunch. I don’t think people have a way of talking about it. Nobody seems to have connected [the shootings at Virginia Tech] to the fact that we’ve been in a war that’s lasted longer than World War II. We’ve been watching our president’s amorality for years. How can people not think those amoral decisions are going to influence sociopaths like this kid?

BW: Were these all themes you were thinking about while writing this book?

SA: Yeah, I was trying to explain war and talk about it in one way or another.

BW: How do you feel about the way this book has been received so far?

SA: It’s about what I expected. It’s about 60 percent positive and 40 percent negative. I knew there would be an elitist literary reaction to the time travel factor — that I would dare to have a genre element.

BW: Some critics thought it was strange that Flight was not published as a hardback.

SA: Actually, we did that for a number of reasons. There are so many returns of hardcovers that it’s an economic model that’s broken for most writers. So I did this to try to remove some of the stigma from publishing a paperback original. I took a lower advance, and we published in paperback to send a message: This is the way [writers] are going to be more successful. It’s also the way more first-time and experimental writers will get published.

BW: But not everyone saw it that way?

SA: This is the first time I’ve gone public with the idea — with the Boulder Weekly. Part of it is that I’m responding to a review in the Rocky Mountain News by Jenny Shank. She thought Black Cat (Flight‘s publisher) hated the book, and publishing a paperback original was like a studio not allowing a movie to be reviewed before its release. It was shocking to me that someone with very little experience in publishing like Jenny Shank would even have a guess at that. The arrogance was astonishing. So I’m telling the Boulder Weekly all this so you guys can hammer on your competitor, the Rocky Mountain Fucking News.

BW: We definitely will.

SA: Good.

BW: I’ve heard that you don’t actually like to write novels.

SA: It’s not that I don’t like them. It’s just not my natural form, so it takes a lot more effort.

BW: Do you feel poetry is your natural form?

SA: Yeah, it’s still what I write the most. I’m always working on a poem.

BW: What do you feel is the state of poetry in America right now?

SA: Poetry has always been, is now, and will always be mostly ignored. But that’s only in its most literary incarnations. I hear poetry whenever I turn on the radio. Eminem is a better poet than just about everybody. He’s better than Billy Collins; he’s better than Richard Wilbur; he’s better than me. “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” is better than Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.” People’s elitist notions of what poetry is prevents them from seeing that it’s everywhere all the time.

BW: You surprise a lot of people with your views. Quite a while back, Boulder Weekly published a review of the movie Narnia, and you wrote a letter to the editor defending Christians. I think that surprised some of our readers.

SA: Well, I am a Christian. I’m a Catholic. The reflexive, anti-Christian thinking in that particular review was just lazy. It was as shallow as any attack by Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly. We liberals pretend to be smarter, but we’re not.

BW: Do you think America is filled with reactionary junkies?

SA: Yeah, and I’m a born-again gray-issues guy. I was fairly fundamental before 9/11, but that morning everything changed. What really got me pissed was Ward Churchill blaming the victims, saying that the people in the Trade Towers deserved their deaths. He’s just an evil bastard, and those are evil words, but what killed me was people’s rush to defend him. My defense would have been: “Yeah, he has a right to say what he wants, but he’s completely wrong, and it’s evil.” The problem for me with liberals is that we’ve abdicated our moral responsibility to the universe.

BW: Do you have any idea where we lost that?

SA: Looking back, I think it was when white liberals abdicated the Christian church. They lost their tribal identity. Their religion became less about tribe and justice and more about self-help. Facetiously speaking, I think yoga fucked us.

BW: Do you think there’s a liberal politician out there who would be a good president?

SA: The guy who won in 2000: Al Gore. I’m still pissed at the Nader-ites for that one. Talk about fundamentalism. And I’m sure Boulder voted for Nader about 90 percent. Dumbfucks. (Editor’s Note: Actually, it was 20 percent, Sherman.)

BW: Have you ever been to Boulder before?

SA: Many times.

BW: Do heads explode when you come here?

SA: Generally, yeah. But I get away with so much because I’m an Indian. Everybody feels like shit in the presence of an Indian. I get invited to speak at all sorts of stuff: Christian conferences, right-winger events, diversity business things. People just like to be beaten up by an Indian. I’ve made a lucrative living pounding on the left and right white people of America.

BW: That’s so fantastic that I don’t have any words for it.

SA: I know. And recently, I’ve been getting grief from people because I’ve become an optimist. I love my country, and people have such problems with that.

BW: You’re a patriot?

SA: Well, I have to speak autobiographically. I live in a country where a reservation Indian boy, whose parents didn’t go to college, who used an outhouse until he was 7, is now one of the most published and awarded writers in the country. That does not happen anywhere else.

Originally published in Boulder Weekly

December 2008

Believe it or not, there is a man in Boulder named Sam Kent who lives with an 8-foot-tall robot named Gort.  At first glance, Sam and Gort do not seem to have much in common to base a friendship on.  Sam is small.  Gort is humungous.  Sam wears round, bookish spectacles, brown corduroys and Velcro shoes.  Gort wears a helmet with a visor and is the color of a shiny new dime.  Sam is witty and gregarious and has a mischievous twinkle in his eye at all times.  Gort is more of the strong, silent type and—well, he doesn’t really have eyes, much less ones that twinkle.  However, despite their many differences, these two companions share a modest, two-story house near the downtown area.  “He’s not much for conversation,” said Sam during a recent interview.  “But he’s a great listener.  Besides, I probably do enough talking for the both of us.”  Gort had no comment.

If you are ever invited to Sam’s house, the first thing you will probably notice is that the doorbell plays an odd tune when you ring it.  Instead of the usual ding-dong, you will hear the theme song to Steven Spielberg’s famous extraterrestrial movie Close Encounters.  The second thing you’ll probably notice is Gort standing motionless no less than five feet inside the front entrance.  Gort is a life-sized replica of a character from the classic sci-fi movie The Day the Earth Stood Still.  Sam found him at an auction in Newport Beach—where Gort was hanging out with other replicas of other famous Hollywood robots, such as Robbie from Forbidden Planet and Dave from Lost in Space—and decided a faceless, silver automaton would be the perfect addition to his foyer.  Sam admits that it might be slightly unnerving for some visitors to be greeted by an enormous creature from outer space when they cross the threshold of his house, but he can’t do anything about it.  “That’s is the only spot where the ceiling is tall enough,” Sam explained.  “He won’t fit anywhere else.”

It’s difficult to tell what the next thing is you’ll notice after entering Sam’s house.  It might be the framed, wall-length poster in the dining room commemorating a movie called The Island of Dr. Mareau, or perhaps the incredibly realistic Frankenstein head in the work room, or the rotary phone in the kitchen shaped like Mickey Mouse, or the rare scale model of Captain Nemo’s submarine from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  But one thing is certain: you won’t have a problem finding something to notice.

Sam’s passion for movies started when he was a child growing up in Chicago.  “I had about 12,000 cousins living nearby at the time,” he said, “and when we all became too obnoxious for our parents to handle, my older brother would take us to the movie theater around the corner.  I was particularly fond of monster movies and the old, animated Disney films.  I can’t really explain why.  Perhaps it was an escapist technique, although I’m not sure what I would have been trying to escape from at the age of six.  I’ll give you my therapist’s number, and you can ask him.”

Not content to be just another voyeur in the audience, Sam was bitten by the performance bug at an early age.  When he was 9 years old, he began frequenting magic shops, and would often entertain his family by pulling quarters out of their ears and producing floral arrangements from empty hats.  “Is this your card?” became a common phrase in the Kent household.

In high school, he found a place amongst the quirky, melodramatic teenagers known as “theater nerds,” and this social outlet eventually developed into a bachelor’s degree in the performing arts from the University of Colorado.  Since that time, Sam has remained a fixture in the local arts and entertainment scene, albeit often in unorthodox ways.

“People sometimes have limited perceptions of art.  They think if you’re not dressed in tights performing Hamlet in the park, then you’re not an entertainer.  I don’t like that. I say an entertainer is anyone who entertains you.”

After graduating from college, Sam worked his way through a variety of jobs connected to the entertainment industry.  He spent time booking shows at the Boulder Theater, attempted to broaden the public’s awareness of Dracula movies at the Video Station, operated a movie-poster store in Denver, and even returned to his childhood fascination with magic for a brief period.

“For a few years, I owned a magic store in Boulder,” said Sam.  “It was really great. I had all kinds of neat things in there.”

Like what?

“Like trick knives and handcuffs and playing cards.  I also had some white rabbits and some doves that I would let loose from time to time.”

You let animals loose in the store?

“Oh, yeah.  I think a magic shop should be magical, don’t you?  I think it should be more than just a place to buy things.  It should be its own little world.  It should be an experience.”

Creating new worlds is another one of Sam’s passions.  He is a firm believer that reality is what you make of it, and Sam likes to make his reality as imaginative and whimsical as possible.  In his house, Sam has created a tiny, carefully organized universe filled with all of the things he loves: model airplanes and boats and monsters and aliens and amusement park rides and anthropomorphized cartoon animals.  Many of the items are rare or one-of-a-kind, almost everything appears to be vintage.  Sam has no idea what his entire collection is worth, and what’s more, he doesn’t care.  “I’m never going to sell any of this stuff,” he said.  “So I guess that makes it all worthless.”

Sam does not look like the type of passionate eccentric who would own such an unusual assortment of pop culture bric-a-brac.  In fact, he looks more like a landlord. In fact, he is a landlord.  Currently, he makes a living collecting money from a number of tenants, who rent space in various buildings that he owns.  However, Sam has a restless nature and seldom sticks with any job for more than five years or so.  He’s the type of man who is prone to flights of fancy, and recently he developed a new obsession that might soon lead him down yet another track: trains.

“There’s something very romantic about trains,” said Sam, holding up a caboose that he’s been working on for some time.  “Historically, they represent innovation and connection.  The United States is a big country, and railroads helped unify the nation—you know, back before we had the Internet.  I think the sight and sound of a locomotive will always be an exciting experience.”

How many times has Sam been on a train?  Twice.  But that’s not really the point.  Once again, it’s all about inventing your own little world and finding new opportunities to entertain the public.  Serious train modelers don’t just build railroads; they create an entire landscape for the train to travel through, complete with cities and cars and people.  In other words, they reconstruct our world, only smaller and hopefully with fewer lawyers.

This time, Sam wants to go public with his vision. “I would like to create a complete scale model of Boulder in the 1950s.  That’s when I first moved here as a kid.  It was a different city back then.  There weren’t so many trendy restaurants and shops; it was just a town near the mountains.  I would give tours and answer questions—I think people would really enjoy it.  The thing is, I’m at a point in my life where I’m ready to settle down.  I want to find a career that combines all of my interests and dedicate myself to it. I’d also like to get married some day.  I’m really an old-fashioned kind of guy at heart.”

Sam glanced over at the large shadow near the front door and grinned.  “Of course, I’d have to talk it over with Gort first.”

Hair: A Confession

January 14, 2012

Originally published in Stays Magazine

January 2010

I don’t like my hair. Never have. It is straight and boring and it has been slowly falling out since I was twenty years old. I can’t remember a day in my conscious life when I didn’t think about my hair and wish it was different. I always wanted thick, flowing locks on my head; the type of hair that looks natural behind the wheel of a convertible. You know, cool hair. But my hair does not look natural behind the wheel of a convertible. My hair looks natural behind the wheel of a bus. I don’t have Convertible Hair. I have Public Transportation Hair.

There are other things I don’t like about my body. My nose, for instance. It’s long and pointy, like a goddamn shark fin in the middle of my face. It looks like the Egyptians built a pyramid out of dry skin and blackheads underneath my eyes. Speaking of which: my eyes are okay, I guess. But they’re dark. Very dark. Like almost black. This would be fine, except I have pale skin, and the two just don’t match. I should have blue eyes, or at the very least, green. Hazel eyes would be nice. What’s the difference between green and hazel? Who cares? I want hazel eyes. Actually, forget blue, forget green and hazel; I should have tan skin to match my dark eyes. I always wanted smooth, caramel-colored skin. My brother has tan skin. He also has a normal-sized nose. I hate my brother. My knuckles are hairy. So are my arms. And my legs. We’re talking werewolf-type hairy here. Gorilla-type hairy. Old-Greek-man-walking-on-the-beach-in-a-Speedo-type hairy. My chest and back do not have excessive hair, but this only seems to draw attention to my hairy arms and legs. It’s like some mad scientist took a normal human torso and sewed orangutan appendages onto it.

This next part is kind of gross, and I understand if you don’t want to read it. In fact, I recommend that you do not. So I’ll give you the opportunity to bypass what I’m about to say and spare us both the embarrassment. Just stop reading right here and skip the next four paragraphs. Right here. Just lift your eyes from the page after this sentence and continue reading when the gross part is over. No? Are you sure? Okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn you…

My buttocks are hairy.

See. I tried to tell you.

Both cheeks and also in the, um, crack. It’s like evolution in reverse. My body is trying to grow a tail. I really do believe this. The hairy knuckles, the arms, the legs, and now this. I am Darwinism undone. I am becoming a monkey.

It is especially cruel that hair is falling out on my head and growing on my ass. Sometimes I wonder if the two are related. Perhaps the follicles on my head have simply decided to uproot and move south for the warmer climate, like all those retired octogenarians in Florida.

Where I come from, men aren’t supposed to care about their physical appearance. Men are supposed to care about things like carburetors and guns and how to cook various meat products on the barbeque. Worrying about your hair is for women and Democrats.

All the men in my family are going bald, and we suffer this indignity in various ways.

My dad has a large collection of baseball hats that he wears to cover his receding hairline. Most of these hats feature the University of Nebraska’s mascot, which is a robust man in overalls holding an ear of corn. My dad is very athletic, but he wears these hats even when he is not participating in sports activities. For instance, we will go out to a nice restaurant, and he will wear a conservative blue dress shirt, a pair of tasteful gray slacks, and a fire-engine red hat that says “Nebraska Cornhuskers” right on the front. On the back, it says “GO BIG RED!”

My older brother Wayne has a similar collection of hats. One summer, Wayne went to work on our grandparents’ farm in Minnesota and came back with a new hat. It was something a gay Australian cowboy might wear, and he was very proud of it. No one was allowed to touch that hat. He said, “If you touch that hat, I will kill you.” There was a long list of things my brother would murder me for doing. Such as: “If you change the channel to cartoons while I’m watching football, I will kill you,” or, “If you drink the last Mountain Dew, I will kill you,” or, “If you don’t stop looking at me weird, I will kill you.” My brother has shoulders like a moose and could probably snap me in two if he wanted, but I’m not afraid of him. I once saw him rescue a baby mouse from a neighborhood cat. He picked up the mouse and took it to a safe place in the backyard. Afterwards, he said, “If you tell anyone I rescued that mouse, I will kill you.”

Of course, I touched his hat.

Not only did I touch it, I put it on and pretended I was Indiana Jones. The hat was too big. It kept falling down over my eyes while I was trying to kill Nazis, and I accidentally walked into a wall. The hat was scuffed. Not torn, not bent, just scuffed. I brushed it off and returned it to the exact spot on my brother’s dresser. I swear it looked exactly the same, but right away my brother knew what I’d done. He chased me around the house, and when he caught me, he said, “If you ever touch my things again, I will kill you.” And then he took me to get ice cream.

Wayne has a tan line on his forehead from wearing so many hats, but he doesn’t wear the gay Australian cowboy hat anymore. I don’t know what happened to it. I imagine it sitting in the back of his closet in a sealed glass box. One day, thousands of years from now, archaeologists will dig it up, brush off the dust, and read the inscription on the box: If you touch this hat, I will kill you.

When I was growing up, the only time I ever saw Grandpa Bridges without a hat was in church. I was told that it was disrespectful to wear hats in “God’s house.” But as soon as he stepped into the parking lot, Grandpa put his hat back on. Apparently, God doesn’t mind if you wear hats in His driveway.

When he’s not wearing a hat, you can see my grandpa’s comb over, which is amazing. The only hair he has left is around the edges of his head. On top, he’s as bald as a refrigerator. At some point in his life, my grandpa started parting his hair on the side and combing it over the top of his head to hide his receding hairline. In the beginning, this might have worked, but somewhere along the way things went horribly wrong. Now, my grandpa parts his hair on both sides of his head, just above each ear, and combs it to the top, where it meets in the middle and then moves forward, like a pair of don’t-pass lines in the center of a liver-spotted highway. My grandpa is a smart man but he can be slightly delusional at times. I sometimes wonder what he thinks when he looks in the mirror: “And now, I will comb these five hairs over my bald scalp like so… Perfect. No one will ever know.”

I don’t look good in hats, and I’m not at the comb-over stage just yet. But I have never liked my hair, so I drastically change it every couple of years. I’ve always thought that if I could just get the perfect haircut, the perfect style, the perfect look, I would have the perfect life. It hasn’t happened yet, but I keep trying.

Five Hair-Raising Moments:

ONE: I am seven years old. I have a rare kidney disorder, which causes me to get sick and stay home from school for months at a time. I don’t mind. I like staying home. As soon as everyone leaves the house, I go through their things. I put on my dad’s crazy 1970s suits and lip-sync to Elvis songs. I use my mom’s bras to slingshot marshmallows across the kitchen. When I get bored with my parents’ closet, I read books. I particularly like books about the Old West.

Today, I am reading a book about a tribe of American Indians called the Mohawks. The book says the Mohawks were part of a fierce warrior culture that would kill white settlers and take their scalps. The person who wrote the book obviously wants the reader to empathize with the white settlers, but I immediately side with the Indians.

There is a picture of a Mohawk warrior in the book. His skull is completely shaved on the sides, and the hair on top of his head is sticking straight up, like the plumage on some exotic bird. It is the coolest haircut I have ever seen.

I go to the kitchen and find a pair of scissors. I take the book and the scissors into the bathroom. I prop up the book on the bathroom sink so I can see the picture of the Mohawk warrior. And then I start to cut.

I’ve finished cutting the hair on one side of my head and I’m about to start on the other side when my mom comes home on her lunch break. I try to explain that I am part of a fierce warrior culture that kills white settlers and takes their scalps, but she refuses to listen. She takes me to the barber, who ruins my Mohawk hair by shaving my entire head. In other words, he scalps me. I look ridiculous. At school, kids laugh and call me Baldy and Humpty Dumpty, and it’s all my mom’s fault. She says I will thank her one day, but I never have.

Ten years later, Bobby Westfall sticks a safety pin through his nose and gets the exact same haircut that I tried to give myself in the bathroom when I was seven. He becomes instantly popular. I curse my mother.

TWO: I am twelve years old and my favorite television shows are Knight Rider and Magnum, P.I., both of which feature attractive male actors who drive around in sports cars and have thick, wavy hair. Since there’s very little chance my parents are going to buy me a Ferrari when I start sixth grade, I want thick, wavy hair. Nobody in my family has thick, wavy hair. We all have thin, straight hair.

However, the women in my family have a solution to this problem. Every month, my mom gives herself and my two younger sisters home permanents. This occurs in the kitchen, usually while my mom is cooking a pot roast.

Here’s what happens: My sisters sit on chairs at the dining table. My mom wraps towels around their shoulders. My sisters argue about who gets what towel. (“I want the blue one.” “You had the blue one last time.” “Fine, I’ll take the yellow one.” “No, I want the yellow one. You take the blue one.”) My mom squirts their hair with a bottle of Windex, which she has emptied and washed out and filled with water. My sisters tell her the water is too cold. My mom tells them to stop whining and be quiet. My mom rolls their hair up in plastic rollers. My sisters say, “Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow!” My mom tells them to stop whining and be quiet. My mom applies some sort of chemical solution on their hair that smells like embalming fluid. My sisters cover their faces with their towels and say, “My eyes, my eyes! It stings!” I tell them to stop whining and be quiet. My mom tells me to mind my own beeswax. After about forty minutes, my mom takes out the rollers, and my sisters’ hair is magically curly. Four weeks later, they do it all over again.

I tell my mom I want to have my hair permed. She says no. I say please. She says no. I say pretty please. She says no. I say she’s a horrible mother and she never lets me do anything I want to do and I will run away from home and never speak to her again even on Christmas and Arbor Day and other major holidays. She says no. I say please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please please— FINE! she says. “But remember, this was your idea.”

I sit at the dining table. My mom wraps a towel around my shoulder and squirts my hair with water from the Windex bottle. She rolls my hair up in plastic rollers. I say, “Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow!” My mom tells me to stop whining and be quiet. She applies the embalming fluid. I cover my face with my towel and say, “My eyes, my eyes! It stings!” My sisters tell me to stop whining and be quiet. My mom tells them to mind their own beeswax. After forty minutes, she takes out the rollers. I rush to the bathroom mirror, expecting to see David Hasselhoff or Tom Selleck staring back at me. Instead, I find a fair-haired Little Orphan Annie. I find an Aryan Ronald McDonald. I have a blonde afro. I look like a dandelion.

I am not very popular at school already, and my new hairstyle does nothing to change this fact. If anything, the other kids think I’m even weirder than I was before. The boys in my class either avoid me completely or they call me names like “faggot,” “fairy,” or “butt pirate.” I don’t really know what these names mean, but I know they’re not making me more popular. Some of the girls talk to me. At first, I am thrilled by this, but then I realize they are asking me hairstyle questions. They don’t want me to be their boyfriend; they want me to be their sister. I don’t know much about dating, but I know this is not good.

Surprisingly, the negative reactions from my peers do not deter me. For an entire year, I force my mom to keep giving me perms. She protests, but she does it anyhow. Secretly, I think she enjoys the fact that she has such a stubbornly weird son.

THREE: I am twenty years old and I am in the middle of either my second sophomore year or my first junior year of college, depending on how you look at it. Like all twenty-year-old college students, I have decided that my parents are backwards and ignorant and I am going to be the exact opposite of them. This means I instantly reject all their conservative values and adopt liberal values. It’s an amazingly simple procedure. I throw away my Amy Grant CDs and buy a Rage Against the Machine poster. I hide my Bible under the bed and start carrying around a used copy of On the Road, which I pretend to read but never actually read because I secretly think the writing is terrible. I wear tie-dyed clothing. In public. With no sense of irony.

I purchase a marijuana cigarette from a stoner down the hall and smoke it in my dorm room while I drink a wine cooler, watch a rated R movie, and listen to secular music. Afterwards, I puke in the toilet for approximately seventeen hours.

I start growing my hair long in a belated attempt to become a hippie. My dad hated hippies when he was in college, so this is the perfect revenge. The year is 1995, which means I’ve only missed Woodstock by a few decades. I also get an earring and a tattoo. I am so rebellious it’s almost frightening. To go with my new hairstyle, I grow mutton chops and start writing free-verse poetry. I don’t know why.

My sister Sonya announces that she is getting married and asks me to be an usher at her wedding. This is perfect. My family has not mentioned my long hair yet, but they will not be able to ignore it now. I imagine a dramatic public scene involving a toppled wedding cake and the words “You are not my son!”

I go home for the wedding. When my mom sees how long my hair has grown, she wrinkles her nose and says, “Maybe you should get a haircut.”

Before I can deliver my scripted indignant response, my sister says, “Why? I like it. Maybe you can just put it in a ponytail. That’d be cute.”

“Or I could braid it for you,” says my brother. “That’d be adorable.”

Everyone laughs and the subject is closed. Two weeks later, I get a haircut.

FOUR: I am twenty-three years old. I have just graduated from college and I am completely and utterly lost. I have no idea what to do with my life. I have a bachelor’s degree in history, but I do not want to be a teacher and I don’t know what else to do with my extensive knowledge of World War II propaganda films. I rent an apartment across town from the college that I just graduated from. During the day, I work at a corporate book store, and at night, I read too much Ernest Hemingway and write minimalist short stories about my experiences in the Spanish-American War. I send my writing to literary magazines and receive rejection letters in return saying my stories don’t make sense. For some reason, I take this as a compliment. I am misunderstood; ergo, I am an artist.

After reading Siddhartha and seeing Seven Years in Tibet, I decide to become a Buddhist. This will solve all my problems. Unlike Christianity, which is oppressive and boring, Buddhism is from the East, which makes it exotic and cool. I’ve heard that Steven Segal is a Buddhist. So is Richard Gere. Of course, I’ve also heard that Richard Gere likes to put rodents in his anus, but I don’t think that has anything to do with achieving nirvana. At least, not for the rodents.

There’s a slight problem: I have no idea how to become a Buddhist. Should I stop eating meat? Do I need to purchase a gong? What about chanting? And yoga? How often should I trim my banzai tree? Of course, I could probably research the subject, but that sounds hard. What I really need is an elderly Chinese man to recite peaceful homilies while simultaneously showing me how to snap a man’s neck with my pinkie finger. Like Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid.

There’s not exactly a large elderly Chinese population in Greeley, Colorado, but I do the best I can. One of my coworkers is half Hawaiian, and I start writing down what he says, hoping to find the words of wisdom that will guide me on the path to enlightenment. Here’s what my half-Hawaiian coworker says: “I hate this job.” “Don’t you hate this job?” “I got so wasted last night, brah.” “This job sucks donkey balls.” “My girlfriend has huge tits, brah. No, seriously, they’re really big.” “I don’t mind the blacks, but the gays creep me out.” “I’m gonna quit this job.” “I think I got herpes, brah.”

Eventually, I decide the best way to become a Buddhist is to shave my head. I have seen numerous kung fu movies about ass-kicking Buddhist monks, and they always have shaved heads. I plug my electric hair clippers into the bathroom outlet and cut off all my hair. Afterwards, I lather my scalp with shaving cream and remove the stubble with a razor. I stare at my reflection in the mirror. I do not look like a Buddhist monk. I look like a skinhead. All I need is pair of Doc Martens and a swastika tattoo and I would be right at home spray-painting anti-Semitic graffiti on the side of a Synagogue. This is not a good look for me.

There might not be many elderly Chinese people in Greeley, but there is a substantial Jewish community. I did not realize this until I started looking like a cast member on the set of American History X. My next-door neighbor is Jewish. So is my landlord. And my boss. I had no problem with any of these people before, but now they give me strange looks and avoid talking to me. I can’t tell them that I shaved my head to become a Buddhist, because when I actually try to say those words out loud, I feel like the biggest jackass in the world.

The only person who treats me the same is my half-Hawaiian coworker. He says, “I never trusted those kikes either, brah. Have you seen my girlfriend’s tits?”

FIVE: I am twenty-seven years old, and I still want to be Ernest Hemingway. Instead of working harder to improve my writing, I decide to grow a beard and move to Europe. Hemingway lived in Paris during his early career. However, Paris is expensive and filled with French people, so I buy a ticket to Prague instead. On the plane, I practice calling myself an ex-patriot: “Hello, I’m Dale Bridges, writer and ex-patriot.” “Greetings. Dale. Ex-pat.” “Ciao, Ex-patriot Dale Bridges at your service.”

I find an apartment in the center of the city for $250 a month. This apartment has ten-foot ceilings, oak floors, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a furnished kitchen. It is by far the nicest place I’ve ever lived in my life. My roommates are two medical students who are studying at the local university. Deidrich is from Munich and Wade is from Houston. I immediately nickname them Da Fuhrer and The Redneck. They do not particularly like their nicknames.

It is strange living with medical students. For instance, Deidrich keeps a human skull on the kitchen table. I don’t necessarily mind this. In fact, I think it’s sort of quirky and amusing. But one day Deidrich tells me where he got the skull. “Dat zkull belonged to my grandfazer. He found it when he waz in ze zecond World War.” (Deidrich actually speaks perfect English, but I think it’s funnier to make him talk with an accent.)

My concern is this: Where does a German officer get a human skull in WWII?

I’m not saying Deidrich’s grandfather needs to make a trip to Nuremberg; I’m just saying it’s sketchy.

One day, Wade accidentally brings home something strange. He is digging around in his backpack for a notebook, when suddenly an odd look comes over his face. He picks up an object and holds it to the light. It looks like a melted rubber ball. “Yeehaw! Well, ain’t that the damnedest thang.” (Once again, the accent is just funnier.)

It’s a testicle from a male cadaver he dissected earlier that day.

“Musta fall’d in thar by mustake. Don’t mess with Texas!”

When I’m not hearing about Nazi war crimes or looking at some dead guy’s balls, I am growing out my beard and trying to comb my hair like Hemingway. It’s important that I look the part. After all, I am an ex-patriot now. Which is a lot like being a patriot, except you wear more turtlenecks.

After getting settled into the apartment, I hit the town.

Prague is the most beautiful city I have ever seen, but the Czechs don’t care. They’ve been conquered at least a dozen times, and they don’t have time to appreciate where they live because they are too busy grumbling about the administration in power, especially if it’s their own. Prague is famous for being the home of Franz Kafka, the guy who wrote The Metamorphosis, which is perfect—the citizens of Prague are gorgeous, intelligent people, but they all think of themselves as cockroaches dying of tuberculosis.

As a tubercular cockroach myself, I love Prague. Perhaps a little too much. I start going out every day. I see street markets and castles and bistros and bars, but I don’t see much of my computer screen, which is what I’m supposed to be looking at while I write my novel. For nine months I have the time of my life, but I have nothing to show for it except an empty bank account and a drinking problem. No novel. No European supermodel girlfriend.

I fly home with my tail tucked between my legs. When I get off the plane, my friend Chris says, “What’s up with the beard, Hemingway? You trying to write The Old Homeless Man and the Sea?” I shave my beard, get a haircut, and then I punish Chris by sleeping on his couch for the next six months.

Biologically, hair is just long strands of fiber growing out of your skin, but culturally, it’s like your own personal magic talisman. Nothing else on your body can change your life in such dramatic ways. Grow your hair long and you’re a hippie. Cut it short and you’re an insurance salesman. Change the color and you’re a washed-up pop singer desperately trying to get attention.

Hair sends a message to the world: This is who I want to be.

During the course of writing this essay, I have looked at my hair in the mirror approximately five-hundred times. I have combed it to the right, and I have combed it to the left. I have combed it back, and I have combed it forward. I have done everything in my power to make my hair represent who I want to be, but it’s no good. That’s because I’ve never really decided who I want to be. Today, I’m a starving writer. Tomorrow, I might be a documentary filmmaker. Or an aspiring actor. Or a Mohawk warrior.

In the past, people have suggested that I get plastic surgery or try Rogaine if I’m dissatisfied with my appearance. That’s how things work in our culture now. If your body does not conform to your self-delusion, you go to the doctor and get beach balls implanted in your chest.

I think the idea of hair plugs is funny, especially if they took the hair from my ass and transplanted it to my head. I can just imagine those follicles waking up one day and saying, “What the hell? How’d we get back up here?”

But I will never cosmetically alter my body. Personally, I think that’s cheating. I may not like my hair, but it’s mine. We’re in this together.

Besides, I have a better solution for improving my appearance. It’s an old family secret that has been passed down for generations, and it goes a little something like this: “And now, I will comb these five hairs up over my bald scalp like so… Perfect. No one will ever know.”

Denim Virgins

January 14, 2012

Originally published in the Umbrella Factory

August 2010

It’s not something I’m necessarily proud of, but when I was a young man, I used to masturbate with my clothes on. Late at night, while all the other teenage boys in America were either having sex or at least pleasuring themselves in the nude, I would flagellate the sinful bulge in the crotch of my Bugle Boys until I achieved an orgasm. I never actually touched my penis unless I was urinating or taking a shower.

I was twenty years old when I stopped doing this. That was 1995, the year I switched from briefs to boxers. It would be three more years before I worked up the courage to have sex with an actual female—and I kept my shirt on during the entire process.

To say that I was sexually repressed would be a bit of an understatement. Homosexual teenagers in Utah are sexually repressed. Muslim women in Iran are sexually repressed. I, on the other hand, had problems.

My father was a small-town evangelical preacher, and he believed in four things: Jesus, America, Nebraska Cornhusker football, and abstinence. In that order.

My first real kiss occurred the summer before my fifteenth birthday on a warm, starry evening at church camp. I was at the peak of my physical and emotional awkwardness, and had already resigned myself to a life of celibacy. That year, my body underwent an unholy transformation that can only be described as the opposite of the caterpillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis. My nose and ears doubled in size overnight, and my skin began to produce a strange, oily goop that could not be washed off despite obsessive showering habits and special-order skin-care products. To add insult to injury, my vocal cords couldn’t seem to decide whether I should be an alto or a soprano, so every time I tried to say hello to a girl, I sounded like a yodeling transsexual. I was a disgusting, greasy, inarticulate, pre-teen swamp monster.

And for reasons I still can’t explain, I constantly smelled like bologna.

The girl was also a freak. Her name was Susan, and she looked as though she had been raised in a windowless cellar by a family of Transylvanian vampires. Her skin was not just white; it appeared to be translucent. You could actually see the tiny, blue veins snaking through her hands, and I always wondered (though I never got the opportunity to find out) if, when she was topless, one could watch her heart and kidneys in action. The porcelain hue of her skin was made even more apparent by her mousey brown hair, which was parted in the middle and hung down like a mourner’s shroud over her sallow face. If she had possessed a sardonic wit or a clever sneer, Susan might have been mistaken for the cool Goth-girl type. But she did not have the confidence to be cool. She was timid and skittish and she rarely ate anything except buttered noodles because “exciting foods” disturbed her stomach. I fell in love with her instantly.

Emotions tend to run pretty high at church camp. You gather a group of insecure junior-high students together at a secluded mountain commune, force them to listen to Christianized versions of popular rock songs every day, and eventually some of them are gonna crack. Of course, our emotions were supposed to be focused on Jesus, but sometimes they got sidetracked. The camp counselors called these moments “setbacks.”

Susan and I suffered our first setback at twilight behind a grove of aspen trees next to the chapel/cafeteria. There were about a billion stars in the sky that evening and the air smelled like fresh pine needles and I was nervous and sort of gassy because it was Taco Tuesday night in the cafeteria and I kept trying to release silent farts when Susan wasn’t looking and then I would wave them away before she could detect them. The sweat pouring off my face mingled with the lemon-flavored lozenge in Susan’s mouth (she suffered from numerous allergies that caused sniffles and fits of coughing), making our kiss both salty and sweet. Despite the flatulence and the sniffling, it was the greatest night of my young life. To this day, the smell of cold medication on a woman’s breath makes my heart quicken.

After that, Susan and I had setbacks every afternoon following lunch and usually right before bed check. Our encounters were only partly sexual; we spent most of the time holding hands, talking about our limited life experiences, and working up the courage to lock lips once again. It was the type of tongue-less, dry (except for the sweat, of course) kissing that only naïve romantics find erotic.

On the second-to-last day of camp, our secret rendezvous were uncovered by a nosey lunch lady with a wart the size of Krakatoa on her witchy chin. We were both required to meet one-on-one with the Head Counselor, a 30-somethingish man named Gene who thought he understood our generation because he listened to Bryan Adams and sometimes wore his baseball cap backwards.

I don’t know what Gene told Susan, but I was informed that my soul was in danger. Satan was everywhere, said Gene. He was in the music I listened to and the movies I watched. He was in my non-Christian friends at school and the Stephen King books that I read for pleasure. But most of all, Satan was in my pants. Whenever I felt sexual attraction or excitement, that was Satan popping up to say howdy. By kissing Susan behind the chapel/cafeteria, I was damning both of our souls to Hell. We would burn in a fiery pit for all eternity, and for what? A few, dry, lemon-flavored smooches? Was it really worth it?

“Yes!” I wanted to scream. “It’s worth it, Gene, you smug little prick! And by the way, Bryan Adams sucks!”

But of course, I didn’t say that. I was fourteen and not nearly as brave as I wanted to be.

Instead, I broke down and began to cry. I promised that it would never ever happen again. I was a sinner. I was scum. I was a disgusting, greasy, inarticulate pre-teen swamp monster who constantly smelled like bologna. Gene nodded in agreement. He put his hands on my shoulders and prayed for God to cleanse me of my evil desires, and when it was over, I blubbered a submissive, “Amen.”

That night, I stayed awake in my bunk, staring at the ceiling and trying to work up the courage to sneak out and meet Susan. Was she at our spot waiting for me? Dare I risk the wrath of God for one last kiss? Dare I? Dare I?

I did not dare.

Susan’s parents arrived early the next morning, and I watched them drive away from my hiding place behind the grove of elm trees next to the chapel/cafeteria.

I was a melodramatic child, and although I’d known Susan for a total of five days, I mourned our separation for almost a year. I built up our brief encounter in my imagination until it became an epic tragedy, on par with Romeo and Juliet—or at least Joanie and Chachie. Wouldst I ever findeth true love again? Me thinketh not. My parents both came from stoic, Midwestern stock, and they didn’t understand their weepy little son. It’s not that they were insensitive; they were simply incapable of talking about emotions or sex. I made several attempts to bring up the subject, but every time I approached my dad, he answered by clearing his throat and turning up the volume on the television, and my mom simply volunteered to bake a fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies.

This was why I didn’t understand my father’s reaction when he received a letter from my school requesting permission for me to attend a bi-weekly sex education class. The letter stated that we were to learn about penises, vaginas, condoms, and “heavy petting.” I didn’t know what half of those terms meant. I thought my parents would be relieved to pass along the responsibility of teaching me the birds and the bees, but that wasn’t the case. At the bottom of the letter, there were two options: (1) Yes, I agree to allow my child to attend this class, or (2) No, I do not agree to allow my child to attend this class. My father circled the latter with a red marker. Then, in the side margin, he wrote: ABSOLUTELY NOT!

When I brought the letter to my health teacher, he regarded me with pity and said that I could spend those bi-weekly hours in the library, where I read Spider-Man comic books while the alcoholic librarian, Ms. Dunkirk, sipped her “Irish coffee” and glared at me out of the corner of her good eye. I was the only student at Yuma High School who did not learn about heavy petting. Consequently, my petting skills are atrocious. Once, in college, I permanently damaged the right nipple of an unfortunate Alpha Phi in a horrible petting mishap. Her areola will never be the same.

My parents explained to me that sex should be taught in the home, not in the school. This is not such a terrible assertion. After all, there are countless sexual traditions and practices around the world that are probably best passed on to future generations by conscientious parental figures. My own family’s oral tradition was fairly simple: During a commercial break in the middle of an episode of Highway to Heaven, my father lowered his voice to a whisper and said, “When you’re with a young lady, remember that Jesus is right there beside you, watching you every step of the way.” I nodded, and we turned back to the television, where Michael Landon was zapping bad guys with his angel powers.

It’s incredibly difficult to have an orgasm while Jesus is watching you. He looks at you with those sad, blue eyes and scratches His beard and says things like, “That’s not where you’re supposed to put that,” and, “I’m telling my Dad.” Jesus is such a tattle-tale; that’s one thing the New Testament never mentions.

My father’s lecture served its purpose—I remained a virgin throughout high school and most of college. However, I was a denim virgin. For those who don’t know, a “denim virgin” is a young man or woman, usually a teenage Christian, who participates in the act of copulation while fully clothed. Bare genitals are not touched and no penetration occurs, although it is permissible to fondle the chest area as long as shirts are not removed.

The first time I did not have sex was with Karen Davis during my junior year of high school. She was a Lutheran cheerleader, and, therefore, an evil temptress, just like Delilah and Jezebel and Cher. Karen was the opposite of Susan—charismatic, blonde, the girl in the Noxzema commercials who doesn’t need Noxzema—and I was always worried that one day she would realize that I was a toad trying to pass myself off as a prince.

Karen and I nearly humped one another to death. This normally occurred in the front seat of my parents’ 1974 Ford Granada. We didn’t go to the back seat because that would have been a conscious acknowledgment of our sinful intentions. Instead, we pretended that each grope session was a freak accident that would never happen again.

After watching a movie or attending a local sporting event, Karen and I would drive down to Lake Yuma, which was actually a giant drainage ditch where all the gutter water in town flowed during the rainy season. We would sit in the parked car and talk about innocuous subjects, waiting for an opportunity to initiate some sort of physical contact. This usually happened in the form of tickling. Karen would bait me by saying something sassy and cute, in the vein of, “You’re such a weirdo.” I would respond with something incredibly intelligent, such as, “Oh, yeah,” and then retaliate by poking her in innocent, yet desirable anatomic locations (knees, tummy, hips, etc.). Karen would fight back by straddling me and grabbing my wrists. Giggling was followed by kissing, which was followed by necking, which was followed by Karen grinding on top of me like a wedge of cheddar on a cheese grater until I had an orgasm.

Yes, in my pants.

Afterwards, there were usually tears and apologies and promises that such a horrible thing would never happen again. Of course, it happened again about five times every week, until I finally graduated and moved to college.

In college, I joined Campus Crusade for Christ and immediately found an entire harem of denim virgins at my disposal. Everywhere I looked, there were sexually repressed Christians who wanted to make-out and then pray and then make-out some more. I became a complete slut without ever having sex. Sometimes I would not have sex with a girl and then not call her the next day. I was a Christian cad, a Protestant playboy. This went on until the youth pastor politely suggested that perhaps I should join one of the fraternities on campus.

At this point, I suppose I could have done some serious soul searching. I could have gone to the library and compared the theological arguments of C.S. Lewis to the atheist rhetoric of Bertrand Russell. I could have formed my own conclusions about the morality of traditional religious thought as compared to modern intellectualism. I could have done a lot of things, but I didn’t. Instead, I simply replaced my fundamentalist Christian beliefs with fundamentalist liberal beliefs. It was a fair trade, and I figured it would be easier than doing all that nasty reading.

I threw away my Amy Grant albums and started listening to Rage Against the Machine. I frequented dimly lit coffee shops, where I sat in the corner dressed in black and pretended to read Noam Chomsky. Very soon, I attracted the attention of a group of intellectual hippies who were amused by my conservative upbringing. I smoked pot and told them funny stories about my childhood, and we all laughed at my backwater family. I thought I was very clever and bohemian.

One day, following a protest march against either cruelty to animals, war, or pesticides (after a while, they all began to blend together), a glassy-eyed hippie girl invited me back to her dorm room, where she proceeded to deflower me. It was a painless, almost clinical experience, and afterwards I made the mistake of asking the girl if she had enjoyed herself. “Not really,” she said. “Next time, it would be better if you took your clothes off.” I looked down and realized that I was still wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt with a giant peace sign on the front.

I should have been embarrassed. After all, I’d just had my first sexual experience with a woman, and I had failed to remove my clothing, which is pretty much the most rudimentary part of the process. On the other hand, the world had not come to an end. Jesus did not ride down from Heaven on a white horse and smote my penis or anything like that. Therefore, I decided to ignore the girl’s criticism and focus on the two words she’d said that really intrigued me: next time.

The Sky’s the Limit

January 13, 2012

Originally published in Boulder Weekly

September 2008

I’m thinking about redecorating my apartment. Nothing fancy, just a giant 7’ by 7’ Cross-Word Puzzle Mural to cover the east wall in my bedroom. It has 28,000 clues and 91,000 squares, and it comes with a 100-page help book and a nifty storage box, all for the very reasonable price of $29.95. Of course, if I purchase that, I’ll also need the World’s Largest Write-On Map Mural, which covers more than 10 square feet of wall space and features capitals, countries, major cities, political boundaries, time zones, ocean depths and more! This is the only detailed, eight-color 2006 mural of its size, and it’s a bargain at just $149.95.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that my living room is going to look pretty drab after my bedroom has been bedazzled with these unreasonably large wall-hangings. That’s why I plan to throw out my couch and replace it with a full-scale replica of King Tutankhamen’s Egyptian Throne Chair. At just $895, this detailed copy of the 3,500-year-old original is a steal. With a hand-painted gold exterior and a carved lion head on each armrest, it’s a must-have for any Egyptophile.

I know, I know — the throne is going to look ridiculous sitting next to my normal, boring oak bookcase. Which is why I absolutely must have the matching $895 King Tut Life-Sized Sarcophagus Cabinet, which looks like an actual sarcophagus on the outside but also has a surprising amount of shelf space on the inside.

*     *     *

I first discovered SkyMall magazine on a flight from Denver to Chicago in 1996. I was 21 years old, and it was the first time I’d ever been on a commercial jet. Consequently, I was scared shitless. I tried to relax by listening to music and digging my fingernails into the right arm of the octogenarian sitting next to me, but I couldn’t get my mind off the fact that I was sitting in a 300,000-pound hunk of metal that was filled with 50,000 gallons of flammable fuel hurling through the sky at 500 mph. For the first time, I truly understood the meaning of the words “death trap.”

After annoying the flight attendant with a million questions, most of them concerning the laws of gravity, I finally picked up a SkyMall and started to flip through the pages. I was immediately enthralled. Robotic vacuum cleaners; collars that translate your dog’s barks into human speech; fish tank coffee tables; musical toilet-paper dispensers — I was perfectly content for the rest of the flight.

Over the past decade, I have continued to collect SkyMall magazines, although I have never made a single purchase from any of them. My favorite issues sit on my coffee table (which, sadly, is not also a fish tank), and I look through them on a nightly basis. As a tool for understanding American culture, SkyMall is more important than The New Yorker, Harper’s, Newsweek, Esquire and Rolling Stone combined. These magazines can only give you facts and supply you with social commentary; SkyMall on the other hand is an ongoing sociological experiment. And since SkyMall’s only agenda is to make money, you can trust that it’s not influenced by anything except greed. SkyMall products that don’t sell are quickly removed from the magazine, but the popular items return month after month, year after year. Therefore, if you’re an obsessive nerd with a lot of time on your hands like I am, you can trace cultural trends by examining how the contents of the magazine evolve over time.

It’s important to note that SkyMall customers don’t fit into a single category. I doubt if bluecollar workers in Detroit are scratching their heads and wondering where they can find a portable commercial steam cleaner or an electric shoe buffer. On the other hand, SkyMall is not just a magazine for high-class millionaires, either. It’s difficult to imagine Donald Trump and his cronies ordering a toolbox with orange flames painted on the side or a bar stool with a motorcycle seat.

At first glance, SkyMall appears to be extremely random and chaotic: a hot dog cooker on one page and a tapestry depicting the French countryside on the next. However, if you read it consistently, you realize that SkyMall has actually tapped into an extremely specific piece of our national psyche: the desire for more. No matter what socio-economic class we belong to, Americans want more. If we have a 24” television, we want a 32” television, or a 45” television, or a flat-screen television. If we have an appliance that makes two pieces of toast at a time, we want one that makes four pieces, or six, or we want an appliance that cooks rotisserie chicken while it balances the checkbook and plays samba music. Americans defeated the British, we conquered the wilderness, we landed on the moon, and now we want a fountain pen with a builtin digital recorder and an FM radio. All for the very reasonable price of $89.99.

I am Stupid and so are You

January 13, 2012

Originally published in Boulder Weekly

August 2008

Recently, it occurred to me that I don’t really know anything. Not that I don’t really know anything about the mating habits of the hairy-nosed wombats of Australia or that I don’t really know anything about neutering housecats; I don’t really know anything about anything. It’s not that I’m necessarily stupid (duh) or that I’m misinformed (double duh); I just don’t retain any factual information. For instance, I can talk about the cultural significance of Little House on the Prairie and Hot Pockets for hours on end, but I couldn’t tell you the first thing about how a microwave works. (I assume there is a gaggle of tiny dragons inside that funny box that gently breathe fire on my chicken noodle soup when I push the magic buttons.) I can deconstruct and manipulate the semantic/philosophical world around me like a motherfucker, but I don’t know a damn thing about how that world operates.

And there is really no excuse for my ignorance. Interestingly enough, I am living in a sea of information. At no point in human history has there been more data on more topics in a more accessible format than at this very moment. I have books, television, radio, newspapers, magazines, the Internet, cell phones, BlackBerries, iPods, my next door neighbor who constantly feels the need to tell me about all her personal health problems (stop showing me your bunions, Rita!)…

Two hundred years ago if I wanted to know when the upcoming vernal equinox was going to happen, I would have to get on my donkey, ride down to my local alchemist, and watch as he examines a closet filled with astronomical equipment. Two months later, I would have an answer. Right now, all I have to do is type the funny little words in Google and three seconds later… Voila! (The next vernal equinox occurs on March 20, 2009, at approximately 11:44 a.m., in case you’re wondering.)

Ironically, the ready accessibility of such raw facts seems to be one of the main impediments to my ability to obtain and retain knowledge. The volume of information that’s available to me is overwhelming, and since I can access the data at any time, I don’t feel the need to learn it.

Is this a problem? Yes and no. No, it’s not a problem, because this is how our entire society is set up. Everyone in America operates within this system (and, actually, you could probably argue that everyone in the world operates within this system, although I’d have to look that up on Wikipedia). In fact, this is an essential part of our cultural make-up. Since we can’t all be Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking, we must rely on others to be “experts” in a particular field. Our normal lives have become so complicated that we can’t possibly understand even the most simplistic daily operations that we perform. Instead of learning how a carburetor works, we simply take our SUV to the nearest mechanic. If a raccoon falls in the toilet, we just call the plumber and the veterinarian.

On the other hand, yes, this is a huge problem. American society has become a giant, corporate entity and every employee is stuck in their own specialized department. Theoretically, this makes everything more efficient, but in the reality, it means that we are raising a generation of intellectual lemmings. Since we don’t know how anything actually works, we rely completely on other people to define the world around us. This is probably why the public is always so paranoid about the media feeding it biased information. Since we don’t do any research on our own, it seems like a conspiracy when something like 9/11 happens. What? People hate us in the Middle East? Why wasn’t I informed? It must have been a media cover up.

The concept of American individualism started to die as soon as Henry Ford perfected the assembly line. Everyone performs a small, specific operation in order to manufacture a product. At the end of the day, the factory workers don’t actually know how to change a tire; however, through their collective efforts, they have built a car. That’s how we manufacture ignorance in a capitalistic society.

What’s the answer to this dilemma? I would tell you to start educating yourself, create a cranial dam to hold back the flood of intellectual apathy, fight the system. But then again, what the hell do I know?

Vote My Conscience

January 13, 2012

Originally published in Boulder Weekly

November 2008

Recently, while trying to put a diaper on a goat, it occurred to me that I haven’t yet told the loyal readers of That’s Irrelevant who to vote for in the upcoming election. One of the most important responsibilities of Opinion Journalism is to give the American public completely biased, uninformed advice on how to make really important decisions.

For example, let’s pretend that your boyfriend of three years asks you to marry him. Your first response might be to think very hard about whether or not marriage to this particular person will make you happy, and then make a choice based on what you know about the world and how you feel about your relationship. After all, you probably know your boyfriend pretty well. Certainly, no one knows you better than you know yourself, right? Wrong. In this particular situation, current societal trends dictate that you do one of two things: a) make a phone call to a bitchy troglodyte named Dr. Laura and let her make the decision after listening to you for approximately 30 seconds and then interrupting with some inane, moralistic psychobabble; or b) invite your boyfriend to go on a day-time talk show, tell the world everything about your private lives, and get into a fistfight with a midget.

As a newspaper columnist in this complicated modern age, it is my right — nay, my duty — to educate the public on how to reduce our convoluted socio-political universe to simplistic personal beliefs disguised as facts. Hey, boys and girls! Can you say “subjective emotional manipulation”? Good!

If you want to write a successful political opinion column, you have to start by complimenting the person you hate the most. This will give the reader the impression that you are open-minded and magnanimous even though you are not. For instance: “We can all agree that John McCain has served his country heroically in the past…” Or “Barack Obama is obviously a man of great character…”

See how that works? It makes it appear as though you are an objective person. Then comes the big but.

“…but it’s clear McCain is a geriatric neo-con who wants to drag this country through another Vietnam War in order to satisfy his Rambo Complex.”

“…but everyone knows that Obama is a terrorist sympathizer who wants to surrender victory in Iraq in order to appease French homosexuals.”

The next step is to take some obscure comment or piece of data out of context and use it to draw erroneous conclusions. Voting records are great for this, as are media sound bites, Internet blogs and ex-girlfriends. These conclusions should be specific enough to appear plausible yet vague enough to defy verification. Saying that a candidate wants to socialize the health care system is a popular tactic, or you can try claiming that they are Muslim because they have an unusual middle name.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “But what if readers decide to do some research and draw their own conclusions based on a variety of in-depth sources?” Oh, ye of little faith. For starters, words like research and in-depth are way too boring for American readers. We prefer words like CNN, FOX and boobies. Also, even if some annoying egghead decides to ruin everything with tedious “facts,” it will be too late. You see, false information is sort of like a Hillary Duff song; it spreads through television and radio like a horrible virus and infects everyone who comes in contact with it. True information is more like a Tom Waits album; it’s superior in every possible
way but few people know it exists.

The final ingredient necessary for writing a successful opinion column is the “emotional appeal.” Remember, people don’t like to think too much. Thinking hurts the brain and causes acne. Therefore, it’s best to reduce complicated intellectual issues to sentimental drivel. That way, the inbred fundamentalists in Colorado Springs and the burned-out hippies in Boulder can make decisions without challenging their uninformed perceptions. Emotional appeals are often combined with important social, political or theological issues in order to give them more credibility, but the critical-thinking process is removed. To practice this, try having a conversation with a friend about abortion without bringing up biology, or send out a mass e-mail on the subject of global warming but do not include a single scientific fact in the missive. That’s good Opinion Journalism!

In the end, the important thing to remember is that all of society’s problems can be solved in 800 words or less by anyone who has access to Wikipedia. We live in complicated times, people. That’s why it’s important to ignore logic and rely on misplaced anger and moral platitudes to rule our lives.

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?

Worst Fear

March 15, 2011

I used to work with an idiot. This girl, this “coworker,” I hated her with a passion I cannot describe in words. Everything was more difficult when she was around. She wasn’t stupid, just consistently and infuriatingly incompetent. The job in question was retail, so it wasn’t as though we were building rockets to the moon, but she couldn’t seem to grasp the most basic details: enter the correct price into the cash register, make sure the customer signs the credit card receipt, when the phone makes the ringy-ringy noise that means you’re supposed to pick it up.

The strange thing was that this young woman was actually quite intelligent. She was in her early twenties, about ready to graduate with a bachelor’s degree, and her next step was med school.

And that is what frightened me most. I had never given much thought to hospital staff, but it must be like any other field: there are a few bright ones, a few apathetic ones, and plenty of people who can memorize every bone in the human body but can’t figure out how to turn on the vacuum cleaner. (Hint: There’s a big red button on the top that says ON).

One of my greatest fears is that one day I will be in a horrible automobile accident. (This would involve a bus, of course, since I don’t drive.) The paramedics come with their flashy lights and woo-woo siren. They put me on a stretcher and hoist me into the back of their vehicle. They say things like, “Stay with us, son,” and, “This guy’s a fighter. I can see it in his eyes.”

When I get to the hospital, they rush me to the emergency room, where I am hooked up to a variety of beeping and blipping machines. “It doesn’t look good,” someone says. “We have to perform emergency exploratory surgery. STAT!” (You know they mean business when they say stat.) I stare at the bright lights on the ceiling as they put me under. And just before I drift off to sleep, my former coworker sticks her bulbous head in front of my face and says, “Oh, my God! Dale! Is that you? Totally cool. I haven’t seen you in years. Don’t worry, I’m totally going to be your doctor today. For the reals! You’re in good hands… Now how do you turn on this defibrillator? I have to restart that gross red thingy in your chest.”

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