Musings


On Unlooked-for Humor

Is unlooked-for humor the best humor? I said it was the other night on Twitter when I was surprised by Revanche’s random quote from Galaxy Quest: “By Grabthar’s hammer, what a savings” (seriously, I can just see the annoyance and disdain on Alan Rickman’s face as his character is forced to say his catchphrase). I was amid a sea of depressing news and thoughts, and this hilarious line from out of left field made me laugh out loud (not that “LOL” thing, which often only means you found something amusing).

While things are almost always funny because they surprise us,* that’s not quite the way I meant it when responding to Revanche. We often experience humor when we’re looking for it: comedic movies, sitcoms, late night shows, you name it. But to my mind, the best humor is unlooked for humor, the type that arrives when you are otherwise preoccupied, sitting on the couch with serious thoughts, perhaps with darkness on the horizon.

This conviction has been quite settled in my mind for some time, made particularly concrete by the large amount of time I spent in hospital waiting and recovery rooms about thirteen years ago, when my father’s cancer was being treated. Aside from the memory I’m about to share, the thing I remember most from that time is the smell: the hospital stink. More than the remembrances of my dad in his hospital bed or the people from our church that were wonderful enough to visit is that god-awful smell of the hospital. I can summon it to mind even now, that antiseptic, artificial, non-living stench.

I suppose some could attach it to cleanliness or something at least a bit more positive, but I cannot. While the doctors were quite hopeful for being able to deal with my dad’s cancer and his recovery, lingering in the back of my mind was the knowledge that this was cancer, those damn rebellious, screwed up, abnormally growing parts of your own body that can kill you. The thoughts were there, just like the smell, refusing to be ignored or to go away.

They were worst the evening of the operation, when we sat in the waiting room with them just hanging about. I eventually had to get up and take a walk—I couldn’t sit there for one more minute—and I inevitably found the cafeteria, which was completely deserted, all the places to buy food closed up. Some kindly or lazy person (I prefer the former) had left a copy of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune lying on a table, and I riffled through for the comics section.

I’ve been a funnies man my whole life and will continue to be, but I wasn’t particularly expecting or wanting to laugh—I just wanted to think about something else, anything else. To forget that hospital stink in my nose, even in the cafeteria. I perused my usual favorites and didn’t crack a smile. Then I found the Boondocks strip for the day, and I broke into laughter. It was just so incongruous to my situation, so illogical, so everything I needed at that moment and didn’t even know it. I was immediately fond of that strip and tore it out, keeping it in my wallet for years until it started to disintegrate (as you can see above).

And that is why unlooked for humor is the best humor.

*The only exception I can think of is when a loved one tells that one story you’ve heard a million times but you still get a kick out of hearing it. And there’s maybe equal parts fondness and love to this as much as humor. 


On What Absence Makes

Lake Superior from Grand Marais, photo by the author

While they do have a frustrating amount of truth to them, the main reason platitudes and clichés are so annoying is that they are downright obvious. More, they’re generally said when that obviousness is staring you directly in the face. So when I tell you what I’m missing in the following paragraph, know that the phrase “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” is making its presence known, and that I am wanting to punch that presence in its clichéd white teeth.

I miss water—open water. Water you can sit and stare at and feel small next to, something in the expanse speaking all the words ever written in literature right inside you, without the words ever needing to be said.

I had an embarrassment of riches in open water when I lived in Duluth. The city sprawls along a hillside overlooking southwestern Lake Superior, so pretty much anywhere you go you’ll see at least a smidgen of one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world (so large it’s often called an inland sea).

That’s not to say I’m in an area without water: this year is the 20th anniversary of a major flood here in Grand Forks (I’ve driven across the bridge shown in the Wikipedia entry!). I like the Red River of the North where it is in its greenbelt and don’t need it to become an expanse again. But even though the Red River is a presence in the region that should not be ignored, it’s not a presence in the same way as Lake Superior is in Duluth. You can’t avoid noticing the lake in Duluth, but unless you’re right on the river here in Grand Forks, you’d be hard pressed to notice it.

Driving pretty much anywhere in northern Minnesota or down in the Twin Cities, you’re going to trip over a lake without much effort. Despite its slogan of having 10,000 lakes, Minnesota actually has almost 12,000 that are 10 acres or more, and if you count ones smaller than that, the number just goes up and up. If some of the info I’m finding is correct, North Dakota has… 35? And some of those are reservoirs or larger portions of rivers!

Some of this, I know, is the stir craziness of winter. I’ve been inside too much, I haven’t even been able to walk by the Red River much… and that’s enough to make me miss water right there. There’s a little English Coulee on the University of North Dakota’s campus, and it is a simple joy to stop and watch it tumble over a little rock dam with Jessica during her lunch break. Some of the underwater rocks have beards of algae, and one in particular sports a fu manchu look: not common among rock algae formations, in my experience.

Still, it’s not the same as being able to drive over any number of hillsides in Duluth and have the sudden and overwhelming vision of Superior fill your eyes. Nor is it the same as crouching at the edge of the water at Kitchi Gammi Park, feeling yourself as small as can be while waves wash against the shoreline.

Lester River enters Lake Superior on the edge of Kitchi Gammi Park, and it becomes a raging torrent in the springmelt. I can see its rapids in my mind even now, and I can see the surfing fanatics in their cold water gear, riding the crests caused by the river’s entrance. The lake has so many shades of blue: I can’t describe them all, but I can see them.

I’ve sometimes wished I didn’t have such a strong connection to Duluth, as it would make this move easier and less full of longing. But if one needs to move, maybe it is a good thing to have such deep roots to your old home, if it means being able to find its waters when you need them. Albeit with mind’s imperfect memory.


On Guilty Consciences for Somewhat Good Reasons

Despite my best intentions, this blog has been lacking a post in a good while, and it’s making me feel guilty. Which might be a little silly, after all, considering it’s been without a post due to health issues, a semester (and its requisite grading) ending, and yet another move to a better apartment.

But even though I have no delusions of grandeur about how many people may someday be reading this blog, I do want people to read it. Which means updating more on the regular. So I’ll be aiming for at least a weekly update, dear readers, because nothing has changed since I restarted this blog last fall. If anything, we’re in more need of focusing on good things: of talking about what is worth talking about, of looking at what is worth looking at.

Dogwoods on UND's campus, May 2017

Photo by the author

I’ve been endeavoring to do just that these last couple weeks, with spring finding its ways to my more northern climes. New leaves have burst forth and reached their full growth, and the dogwoods in Grand Forks have made me realize just how many of them there are around town, so abundant is their color and fragrance. Their blooms will fall away all too soon (indeed, some have already disappeared), but in the meantime I am doing my best to notice them, capturing the feeling they evoke the best I can with the camera and photography hobby I’ve decided have lain dormant for far too long.


On the Importance of Learning of Tokyo’s Destruction by Godzilla 2 comments

*A small memoir from a trip this fall*

It’s been a long week of teaching classes: you wake up, you do your class prep, you do your teaching, you do your grading, and you go home. At home is nothing in particular. Your wife is living four and a half hours away for her new job; you’ve moved the majority of your things with her. The apartment is strangely empty and strangely full of far too many things you need to pack before you can join her in a couple months.

The wind likes to whistle lonely in the evening.

Today you’re driving home after another day of teaching, but it’s a little different in that you will be picking up your suitcase so you can drive those four and a half hours to see your wife. The first hour is alright as you drive through the forests of northern Minnesota and the setting sun is turning everything golden. Then the trees go stark and two dimensional against the still glowing horizon; the only things with depth are the clouds in the sky. Then there is nothing but the tunnel your headlights carve along the route, a tunnel that is hours and hours long.

Even the waters of Cass Lake offer no comfort when you stop to stretch your legs: the wind blows too cold in your face for you to watch the lights in the water.

About an hour from your destination, still tired, your searching radio finds it, the song that will take you the rest of the way. “Oh, no! There goes Tokyo! Go, go, Godzilla!” Before your mind can think about how improbably wonderful it is to find this song out of nowhere (though is it even a favorite song of yours?), you’re singing, shouting along with the words.

You’re halfway around the earth from Tokyo, you’re in the middle of the flat beginnings of the Great Plains and the tallest thing around here are grain elevators, but what else would Godzilla have left to stomp once Tokyo and the other great cities with skyscrapers are nothing but rubble?

You’re on your way, you’re almost there.


On the Redeemability of Fellow Humans

I saw the documentary The Overnighters on my local PBS station this weekend. It’s an intriguing film about a particularly fraught situation: the oil boom town of Williston, ND and the men it draws to work there, some of whom only have a car (if that) to their name. The local pastor of a church starts a program to help the most desperate, providing food and places to sleep for many in the church itself, and sometimes just the parking lot so some can sleep in their car overnight. He even puts some of them up in his home with his family.

The movie’s description probably puts it best, “Broken, desperate men chase their dreams and run from their demons in the North Dakota oil fields. A local Pastor risks everything to help them.” Needless to say, there are a lot of issues at work here, none of them particularly easy to deal with. Some of these men have felonies on their record, and besides that, the town of Williston is going through all the difficulties any community would when its population doubles or triples in just a few years. The backlash of the church and local community against these newcomers is at once understandable and saddening.

The scene that sticks with me, the thing that keeps bugging me, is one where the pastor, Jay Reinke, goes around to neighboring houses, trying to get residents to come to the church and meet the overnighters, on the belief that if they start to get to know them, the fear of the newcomers will go away. After the pastor introduces himself at the door of one house, the neighbor comments on the “trash” he’s keeping at the church.

To call another human trash is to profess a depressing belief in the irredeemability of you and your fellow humans. I’m not so naive as to say there aren’t quite a few members of humanity that can commit despicable and heinous acts—history and the present moment and even this documentary provide far too many examples of this—but to call another human trash is to say they’re on the level of a greasy food wrapper, not worth anything but wadding up and tossing in a landfill. It’s to also ignore the many examples to the contrary of what humanity is capable of, some of which the film also captures.

I wish I could focus more on those hopeful aspects caught in the film, one of which has Pastor Reinke stopping his car so he can wave at a passing Amtrak—the day is beautifully sunny, and it is something to see a grown man wave at a passing train like a ten year-old. But try as I might, I can’t stop seeing the other scene, the one with that perfectly normal house with the perfectly normal person answering the door, calling other humans trash because they’re less fortunate than they are.

I knew some people in high school that liked to look at the “gross stuff” in medical books, for some reason. Weird, cheap thrills, or something… the eww factor that leads to some of the stupid stuff you see on reality TV, I guess. I did it once and couldn’t do it again, because I couldn’t get rid of the image in my head. This is also why I have difficulty with shows or movies that are overly violent—it’s hard to forget what I’ve seen.

I wish I could stop seeing someone call their fellow humans trash, but I can’t.


BFS Update: How This Fall Just Needed to End and My Cat Is Plotting My Doom 2 comments

Photo credit: Foter.com / CC0

Photo credit: Foter.com / CC0

So I spent the Fall of 2016 just wanting it to be over. Going in, it was already guaranteed to add some more white hairs to my once gloriously red goatee—full class loads as a college professor of writing have a tendency to do that. But then this wonderful year just kept wanting to give:

Here you go, your your last living grandparent is going to pass on. Here you go, your wife is going to land a dream job in a city 4.5 hours away, and while the job is wonderful, it’s also going to require you moving during the aforementioned busy semester—once for her and many of your things in late October so she can start the dream job, and once for you with the rest of your things after you finish teaching your classes for the semester. Oh, and did you notice that? Here you go, you get to find an apartment in a strange city and live apart from your wife for two months, even though you two are pretty much inseparable!

But wait, there’s more! Just when you think you’re all done, grades turned in for all of your classes, both moves completed, sanity about to be restored, here you go… a stupid neighbor will leave a window open in the second floor community room of your apartment building (during a winter storm, no less), causing a pipe to freeze and send water everywhere. Sure, it won’t be directly over your apartment, but it will make the carpet in much of your living room swampy and squishy, and the management for your building will take over a day to get a water extractor in (it being the day after Christmas). A dehumidifier will take two days.

Good times, am I right? See you later, 2016, I don’t miss ya. And it certainly explains the dearth of blogginess around here the past couple months. Yet something more is troubling me, something that makes the events of the past few months pale in comparison: my cat seeks my doom.

Don’t believe all the cute pictures Jessica/the Celt may show you of our cat, Rosie, nor the picture below. She may seem quiet, shy, and altogether adorable, but she is crafty—she plays the long game in seeking my demise. With our living room unusable and our office full of boxes and objects rescued from the living room, Jessica and I must live in the bedroom. And even though we have two (not just one) kitty beds in this bedroom, this is not good enough for our seemingly innocent feline named Rosie. Oh no, she must lie all day on my side of the bed. Not just an hour or two: all day.

What? I'm just lying here innocently, I'm not plotting your imminent demise.

What? I’m just lying here innocently, I’m not plotting your imminent demise.

She’ll grudgingly accede for me to take the spot back when Jessica is home—though I have had to pick her up on more than one occasion—but if I get up to do something? Perhaps to put something away? Perhaps to let the maintenance men in to work on the living room rug? Spring, spring! Lightly does the Rosie leap from wherever she lay before, finding my spot on the bed, curling up so cutely, so innocently, that surely no human could possibly try to move her!

This obviously is leading in one direction. My permanent removal! Rosie had a month to grow accustomed to having an entire half of a queen-sized bed to herself, and she does not want to give it up. Every time I have to move her, she looks at me with those big, kitty eyes, tearing my soul in two… and she knows it.

Soon, I’ll be forced into sleeping on a couch I am too tall for, or on a not very comfortable airbed. Soon, I’ll be so tired my mental capacity will deteriorate, my paranoia reigning supreme, and I will be relegated to the funny farm. Soon…

And Rosie will have her half of the bed all to herself.


On Seeing My Grandmother as Herself

In defiance of (or alignment?) with Twitter’s character limitation, I wrote a long chain about my grandmother, who died early in the morning a week and a half ago.

Something about a Twitter chain feels poetic, with the need for each line (or tweet) to hold its own but feed into the next. It made me want to post it here as well with a couple of additions, where the whole thing can work together outside of Twitter’s sometimes frustrating interface for reading reply chains (and maybe a little editing to work better in this new context).

Grandma Herself

So… my grandmother died last Wednesday. Jessica and I have no remaining grandparents alive.
But there’s more I wanted to share about my grandma than that frustrating bummer of a fact.

She felt like a stereotypical grandma in many ways, giving big smooches on cheeks
(and occasionally pinching them),
and she made good food (I still use her pancake, lasagna, & spaghetti recipes).

But the thing I want to remember,
the thing I wanted to share,
Is her taking painting classes.

About eight years ago, Jessica and I chatted with her about how they were going, and
she was so vibrant talking about them,
so awake and alive,
and she joked about her differences of opinion from her instructor.
she had certain ideas about what she wanted to do, and she was quite firm about them:
she wasn’t backing down!
It’s the most her I ever remember her being. Her her. Not my stereotypical image of a grandma, but herself,
through and through.

Childhood memories are spotty, and I only knew her for less than half her life,
but I’m certain of it.

I’m happy to say I saw more of her this weekend.
One universal good thing about all grandparent funerals I have witnessed:
learning more about them.

This weekend, we heard anecdotes & stories about her I’d never heard before,
Saw pictures I’d never seen before of her as a child, a teen, and in her twenties.
It was the her we saw when we talked to her about her painting.

I love what I saw then and I love this memory.

I will always love it.

We need to see more of the people around us—friends, family, strangers.
Go out and create something, everyone. Connect with others. I’m so glad my grandmother did.
My only wish is that I had shared more moments with her.
But I think we would think that about most people,

if we saw the real them.


On the Importance of the Moment and the Memory

For the past four years, Ari Fleischer (former press secretary to George W. Bush) has tweeted the events of 9/11, as he witnessed them. It even looks like he tweets them at about the same time as they happened in 2001, helping bring back the day as it unfolded.

Important memories and historical moments have a tendency to calcify, to lose dimension or gain a sense of inevitability as we forget how things went (or as we lean toward one interpretation of how those things went). Fleischer’s tweets bring back the chaos of the day and the emotion, the leaping to conclusions and second guessing we were doing even then. I don’t recall Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings criticizing Bush for not returning to Washington DC sooner, for instance.

As 2001 recedes further and further into the past it becomes more important to recall the specific moments of the day and to re-examine our memory. In three short years, the freshman I teach in college won’t have been alive then.  It might be impossible to keep “9/11” from becoming a rote (or even forgotten) phrase like December 7th, 1941, “Remember the Maine,” or “Remember the Alamo,” but it’s something we all have to push back against.

That’s the importance of story and history–to give meaning to other people and other lives.


Farewell to a Fellow Dreamer… 2 comments

© 1971 - Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

© 1971 – Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

People use “one of a kind” too much. “Unique” as well (see Strunk & White, who remind us that unique shouldn’t need a modifier). But in many ways, Gene Wilder is one of those we’re not likely to see again. Certainly he was in the upper echelons of great comedians–the man was hilarious, his timing and energy infectious, elevating so many of his roles to a point that not many else could (his delivery in this bit cracks me up every time). But there are a lot of comedians and comedic actors out there who are also able to tickle the funny bone. There’s something more to Wilder than “merely” the capability of making us laugh.

What I’m getting at is perhaps best exemplified by one of Wilder’s most famous roles as Willy Wonka. He has a whole range of seeming non sequiturs throughout the film, but one of the best is when Veruca Salt, one of the children on a tour of Wonka’s factory, objects that there is no such thing as snozzberrys–what they’re eating can’t possibly have snozzberry flavor. Wonka/Wilder responds with the first two lines of a poem by Arthur O’Shaughnessy (“Ode”):

“We are the music makers, And we are the dreamers of dreams.” (short clip here)

Beyond the humor, beyond the delight at confuzzling one of the bratty kids who won a tour of the most amazing chocolate factory ever, is something that is ineffable and serious at the same time. Why is your thinking so locked down, kid? Why are you so limited? Dream big (good lord, you’re tasting flavored wallpaper, after all)!

Wilder doesn’t just deliver it like a throwaway line, either, something for quick laughs (which many might do). He believes it, heart and soul, and this belief is resonating from his eyes.*

And while not every line of Wilder’s many roles convey such depth, it’s what I will remember about him. It’s important to laugh in the moment, but it’s just as important to be a dreamer of dreams.

*What eyes the man had, too. He was one of those that always seemed to be seeing something greater.

On Rejection, Dejection, and That Far-Off Horizon 1 comment

Photo credit: netlancer2006 via Foter.com / CC BY

Photo credit: netlancer2006 via Foter.com / CC BY

As I’ve heard from more than a few other people, it’s been something of a long year. “Please stop the world, I’d like to get off” is an altogether easy sentiment to agree with. The headlines more often than not are full of death and dark things, and the common response is to draw in, to huddle on yourself and lose sight of all that hurts.

Or to lash out.

But as a favorite musician of mine says, “You’ve already been here before, you already know where it goes.”* Because when you go fetal, when you restrict your point of view to the small space you will allow under your protecting arms, there is only the downward spiral. The same goes for the tunnel vision of anger—so many open avenues are lost to sight and the anger only builds upon itself.

I’ve never been much of the lashing out type. It takes quite a bit to get me going, like a bully at one summer camp that kept flicking my fellow cabinmates and me with a rubberband while we tried to sleep, or the neighbor kids that were filling their snowballs with ice and hitting my younger brother with them.

My tendency is to draw in, to huddle in on myself. Which leads to far too much inaction, sadly enough. And over the past eight months, I have spent too long debating whether working on a blog again is worthwhile, whether it was simply a shouting into a vast cacophony where no one else will ever hear me.

Then there is my fiction writing, which I worked on every day of the week (with only occasional, short pauses) for three straight years before working on and earning my MFA over two years. Despite trying not to, I still hit that dry patch so many do after completing their creative writing degree, a combination of overwork from those four fast-paced semesters (while I was teaching full time) and a heavy teaching load.

But I’m well past that and any valid excuses for why I’ve only been occasionally working on stories for the past year. So what’s the problem? Why can’t I do what I was doing before?

Part of it’s the rhythm. When you get yourself used to writing every day (or at certain times throughout the week), you feel weird when you don’t. I’d actually get a bit grouchy when I didn’t work, like a caffeine addict without a needed daily dose of java. On top of that, though, is that I’m tired of rejections. I know how hard it is to be published (I read for magazines myself), but it’s difficult not to feel a weariness when another form response arrives in the mailbox (or the inbox)… even the notes that compliment the submission and aren’t just the standard rejection don’t give a thrill like they used to. The rejections that particularly hurt are the ones that take a matter of days to turn you down. I don’t want them to take over a year to get back to me (which has happened!), but yeesh, at least let me feel good about the submission for a couple weeks. It might be silly, but having the work out there feels good—you’re at least trying.

And that’s what is stupid about all this foot dragging: I know how to combat this weariness I’ve been dealing with. The only thing that keeps you going is to keep creating, to keep offering stories to magazines (and querying agents). Because 100% of the things not submitted are not published, as they say—no matter how lame that sometimes sounds when you’re swimming the gray-dark sea of rejection—and you’re also not just in this for some magazine to publish your stuff. Yes, you want to share it, you want others to read it. But you’re writing because you have something to say. It doesn’t matter how loud and full of voices media and society seem to be—there are things not being noticed, things not being valued, and you need to stand up for them, to let them have their moment in the sun.

So here’s what this blog is going to be. As best I can, I’m going to make it a brighter spot on the internet, no matter how small a nook it occupies, no matter how few readers it collects. I’m going to talk about writing and stuff that I think is important (nature and education and art and living and laughing and so much else), but I’m also going to review books, movies, and maybe even games, because that’s what I’m into. But when I do it, I’m not going to be one of those people that seem to revel in finding the nastiest ways to put down a creative effort.

No, I’m not going to avoid pointing out shortcomings in what I’m reviewing, but I’m going to do my best to be generous, to see what the creator was trying to do. And appreciate it for that. It is possible, no matter how much the snark out there on youtube and reviewing sites makes it seem like it can’t be done.

More, I’m going to do my best to point out the good things I’m seeing in the world—be it what people are doing, saying, creating, or something in the natural world itself. Maybe things that people are even missing.

And I’m going to share what I did with my writing every week. Maybe it’ll lead me to share something interesting about the process, maybe I’ll just say “this week was terrible and needed to be done on Monday, but at least I got this story finished.” And that will be okay, because I’ll be reminding myself and anyone that cares to notice that it’s worth trying, that it’s worth keeping your eyes on the far off, hopeful horizon and avoiding the downward spiral of depression and hate.

*Thank you, Dessa, for that line. Mineshaft 2 is all too applicable here as well.