Thursday, December 27, 2007

Things In Life that Make Me LOL When I Shouldn't

It's almost the end of the year and therefore time for lists. There are lots of lists out there: best ofs and worst ofs and top ten reasons to, and those terribly clever, self-referential Top 10 Lists of Top 10 Lists, blah blah blah. Since I just got to experience one of those moments when you really want to laugh out loud but oughtn't, I thought a list of things that make me LOL at inappropriate times would be good.

These are, in no particular order:

1. When you're a temp and someone comes wheeling around the edge of your cubicle, desperate to tell the funny story of What Happened to Them Over Christmas, and half-way into the first rude revelation, they realize you're not Sara or Becky or Todd or whoever usually sits there.

2. When my stomach growls loudly enough to be heard externally in a job interview because I was too nervous to eat beforehand.

3. Yesterday I was answering the phones at a temp gig, and as I answered the phone I realized I couldn't remember where I was. I was frantically scouring the desk I was at for a piece of letterhead, a business card, anything, but there was nothing, and the person on the other end was waiting for me to identify the business he'd just called, but I couldn't, so I didn't say anything at all while I was scrabbling for a clue. Then I started laughing to myself which undoubtedly came across as heavy breathing to the person at the other end. By the time I'd managed to work out the company name by reading it backwards where it was printed on the glass door in front of me, it was too late, I was laughing too hard, so I just hung up. They never called back. We must have sat in near-silence together for at least 30 seconds. I wonder what he thought?

4. Myself, jogging and falling down at that same gap in the sidewalk near Toasty's house. It wouldn't be nearly as funny if it weren't for those ads on TV for Miss Congeniality where Sandra Bullock wipes out. OK, it was funny the first time I fell. The second time was Christmas morning, and I was pissed off enough to shout curses -- "Santa is dead, you little bastards!" among them.

5. Inadvertently scaring the crap out of my upstairs neighbor (and myself). She was carrying a bunch of Christmas presents to her car and came down to our admittedly creepy parking garage in the elevator. I had a bunch of crap to carry up to my apartment, so I was waiting for the elevator down in the garage. When the door opened, I was standing directly in front of it. It briefly rained Christmas presents. Nothing was broken, so no harm, no foul.

6. This is an oldie but a goodie. Back when I was in graduate school, I had a class taught by the head of the Graduate Dept. He was a guy in his late 50s, I'd guess, and built on the Hemingway scale: big white beard, plus-size belly, generous ego. It was "presentation week," and the Prof was sitting amongst the students as student teams gave their presentations. One day, he was sitting in the back row; my friend Liz was next to him, and I was on the other side of her. During the students' talk, the Prof folded his arms across his belly and fell asleep. Something startled him, and he woke with this outrageous snort, throwing his giant head up and back. His glasses, which had been resting on his forehead, flew off and landed on a shelf behind him. There was a moment of chaos while he looked for his glasses on the floor and tried to pretend he'd been paying attention the whole time. Meanwhile, Liz, who is next to him, is struggling heroically not to laugh. I'm blocked from his line of sight by her thankfully oversized hair, laughing myself sick. The problem was that she could block his vision, but not his ears. My lungs were the size of raisins, but I couldn't re-inflate them without being heard. I thought I was going to pass out before I managed to sip in enough air to live on.

7. Same graduate school Prof., same Liz. We walk into the grad office, and the Prof is there, in one of his more expansive moods. As we walk in, his spreads his arms wide in a fatherly gesture and says, "Liz! Angst! How are things?" And Liz replies, "Great! How are your things?" There is a long, awkward moment of silence while we all evaluate the question and determine whether or not she's just asked the head of graduate studies about the condition of his genitalia. Then we all turn abruptly and flee. 

8. Teaching in the Czech Republic. A students confuses "nipples" and "nibbles" and, asked to give an example of a verb in present tense, says, "the squirrel nipples his nuts." No one else hears the mistake. I have to excuse myself long enough to laugh to the point of nausea.

9. Teaching in England. I have a class of 14 students from Taiwan. Though I know nothing of the culture, I think I'm safe to assume that belching is not considered embarrassing or impolite. We met after lunch, and I do not know what they served in the cafeteria that day, but best guess would be Cucumber Deluxe. It was like sitting in a lake full of bullfrogs. Their faces were alternately confused by my inability to stop laughing and stretched wide to allow for the next eruption. 

While this is by no means a definitive list, I'll stop here for the moment and ask my commenters to include any occasions where they desperately wanted to laugh but couldn't. And we'll all try hard not to LOL because we're at work and NOT reading blogs.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Why is My Cereal Bossing Me Around?

Mr. Spock says disobedience
would be irrational.

This morning, as I'm preparing my breakfast, I read the back of the cereal box -- as you do. And I realized that there are instructions on how to save money on the back of the box. Now clearly, the producers of the cereal know their audience. This is the Safeway, store-brand version, a poor (wo)man's Grape Nuts called Crunchy Nuggets. Never mind that this cereal's name makes more sense and is a little less suggestive than Grape Nuts, it's still the dollar-or-two-less-a-box brand, and Safeway has a good idea who's buying it.

On the back it reads, "Saving Money Can Be Easy!" and there's a cartoon depiction of a "typical" American family -- Dad, Mom, one boy, one girl, all white. Dad's wearing a shirt and tie; Mom has on some frumpy housefrau dress. The kids are dressed in clothes that could easily have come from the local second-hand shop or Salvation Army or possibly the "ironic" bin at Old Navy -- hard to tell.

And the advice? Genius stuff, really: stock up on regularly purchased items when you find them on sale. Generate a budget and adhere to it. (They use neither "generate" nor "adhere," but I have more faith in my audience than they do in theirs, apparently.) Get a subscription to your local paper -- not so you can be up-to-date on news, don't be silly, white trash doesn't vote -- but rather so you can clip out the coupons for foods that are probably overpriced by at least that $0.65 anyway. Compare prices when shopping! Save money from your paychecks! Keep a "loose change" jar!

There's nothing inherently wrong with any of these ideas. I just found it a little weird to be getting advice on fiscal responsibility from my breakfast cereal.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Warning: Don't Read this Over Lunch

So, I really really need to get this article written today. It's not due for another month, but it's kind of a big deal for me, and I figure if I get it done now, I'll have time to rewrite after it's been ruthlessly edited by someone in a visor with those elastic things holding up his sleeves. The problem is, the article's supposed to be funny. And lately, when I sit at my computer, I just don't have t'funny. (some might argue that I never do, but that strikes me as a little cynical) Steve Martin's solution to this problem was to put baloney in his shoes so he could feel funny, but as a vegetarian, I have to protest this practice. Plus it's gross. And it doesn't work. And I don't want to talk about it.

So what's a writer to do? I mean, I haven't worked on my on-line novel for, like, over a month or something, and I fear losing both of my readers to frustration. Ideas are at a low ebb just now. I trust that they will come back; they always have in the past. But right now, I need a little Lewis and Clarke, a little Stanley and Livingstone of the brain to go on a trek for the source of inspiration, maybe roust up the natives a little bit, introduce gunpowder and firewater, spread a little syphillis... no. Hang on.

Fortunately, there is one huge source of inspiration that I can tap into from time to time: weird stuff that happens to me. So let me relate to you a recent-ish experience.

I rock climb at a local gym. I'm not terribly good at it, but I love it, and I'll quite happily spend an afternoon climbing up walls and occasionally falling down them. Now that BF Toasty and his kid and her husband are into the climbing thing, I have fun, safe people to climb with on a regular basis, and I've started rebuilding Tim. (For those who don't know, Tim is the name of my one muscle. Since I only have one, I named it. I thought it might encourage others.)

Rock climbing is not the hyper-macho sport some might think it is, at least not at the level I do it. There are as many women as men, and some of the best climbers are these weedy, 98-pound scrawny-chickens of both sexes who appear to be made of twine and barbed wire. They dance up the wall, all grace and monkey-skill and perfect balance, and I stand at the bottom, more manatee than monkey but still loving the sport.

Except for that stinky guy.

Seriously, this guy walks around in his own funk like PigPen from Charlie Brown. It's so bad, it's visible, you know? He wears t-shirts with the arms cut off, so there's nothing, no layer of protection, not even a thin wall of cotton between him and us, and I swear the only time I can cross my eyes is when he walks by.

One time Toasty and I were in the gym when he was there, and you couldn't walk into any section of the gym where there was no outlet like a door or window. His odor would creep into corners and lurk there, fetid and giggling, bad enough to make a German shepherd gag. It was so bad I considered asking a staff member to take him out back and either hose him down or shoot him.

But it gets worse. You know the whole Close Encounters thing, how there are different levels of interaction with aliens -- first there's the sighting, then there's physical evidence of alien existence, and then there's actual face-to-face contact? Well, here's my Close Encounters with the Stench that Should Be Forbidden by the Geneva Conventions.

I was in climbing with my friend Tom one time. We had already concluded that Stinky Guy was there, as we had had the first close encounter: the smell. It rolled like banks of fog through the gym, leaving a residue that made the holds slippery. Through teary eyes, we had the second encounter -- a visual sighting (is there any other kind?). He was climbing on the rope right next to me. You know how in movies the guy exercising has that exaggerated V of sweat on the front and back of his shirt, extending from the base of his neck in an upside-down triangle to his waist? He had that. Bits of him were glistening. Not Disney glistening with little radiant stars coming off him, but, like, Karo syrup glistening.

Just as I realized how close he was, there was one of those unfortunate series of events where everything inevitably comes together in the worst possible way. I had finished my climb, and my partner began lowering me. When I got to about the half-way point down the wall, Stinky Guy missed a move and popped off his neighboring climb. I saw it happening, I knew what was coming, I tried to holler at Tom to just drop me and to hell with the consequences, but it was too late. With a wet slap akin to a dead fish being flopped down on the butcher's block, he swung right into me.

After that, events unfolded in sickening slo-mo: first the collision (at this point, his smell was streaming mercifully out behind him) with all the sticky horror of hitting an underclothed sweaty guy. Then, the ropes tangle around each other in defiance of the laws of physics and simple decency. Then the smell catches up with its source, and I'm hit with the full tsunami of eye-watering, death-would-be-better-than-this body fug from a man who clearly hasn't showered since Kennedy was shot. John, not Bobby. Frantically, I'm trying to get myself untethered from this guy, from this wall, from this life if necessary, scrabbling at the ropes, while my lunch is threatening to untether itself from my stomach. Finally, an eternity later, we get unknotted, Tom lowers me the rest of the way, and I escape to the bathroom to breathe deeply and scour my flesh with giant, soapy wads of paper towel.

I mean, come on, does the guy have rabies or something? What makes water with a little soap such a bad idea?

What kills me is that the guy obviously doesn't think his smell is a problem, or he'd do something about it. So my reaction to being in contact with him must have seemed really inappropriate and hysterical to him. I mean, I wasn't panicking and flailing (much), but probably more than a simple bump would merit. I wonder what he thinks caused all the fuss?

The worst of it? Our mid-air (mid-fetid-air) encounter apparently makes us "buddies," so now when he sees me in the gym, he waves hello.


Thursday, December 13, 2007

I had a temp job today.....

The temp jobs do help me to support my freelancing habit, so that's a good thing, right? Yes. And the fact that I don't have to go back again tomorrow is even better. But for you in positions of leadership and authority in the corporate world, I'd like to make a few suggestions for the next time you drag in a temp:

Instructions on the Proper Care and Feeding of Your Temp:

1.) Have shit ready. I realize that I still get paid even as I sit there and watch you tear your hair out because there's no network connection for the computer and the IT guy is off trying to button his shirt up correctly, but seriously, this is 45 minutes I could have spent in bed.

2.) Don't put me in a closet. I realize I'm an embarrassing temp with bad hair and that blank look of incomprehension, but if you stick me in a cold, windowless storage space, crammed in between file cabinets and boxes so covered in dust they will require carbon dating to determine their age and piles of paperwork dating back to the Carter administration, I'm going to spend the day trying to make monster faces by applying Scotch tape to my nose and adding Post-It eyeballs to the staple remover so it looks like a viper. That's just what temps do when left alone.

3.) Choose ONE PERSON to tell me what to do. Six people trying to load me down with all their crap jobs that suck the will to live right out of a person means I spend most of the afternoon trying to flush eight months of back-filing down the toilet.

4.) I require a lunch break. A real one. Not the kind where I try to eat a furtive sandwich at the piece of old plasterboard laid across an open filing cabinet drawer that you call a desk while you stare at me like every second I spend eating is stealing money right out of your kids' college fund. Give me space and time and some privacy, please. I don't want to make conversation with you. You earn a lot more money than I do, but believe me when I say that I pity you a lot more than you pity me, and I really don't want to try to explain my lifestyle choices to you. And yes, the "meat" on my sandwich looks odd because it's a veggie-tofu-fungus-wheat gluten thingy, and yes, it tastes very nice, thank you. Feel free to fuck off back to your own desk now.

5.) I leave at 5. I will not work until 5 and then spend 15 minutes "tidying up," chasing your ass down to get you to sign my timesheet, locking up file cabinets and running last-minute errands. The "last minute" that you'll get from me is the one between 4.59 and 5.00. Use it wisely; when it's gone, so am I.

6.) Yes, I am competent! I know, you're stunned that I've managed to master my own native alphabet to the level of being able to file without moving my lips, but please, try to rein in the surprise. Not all temps have an IQ equivalent to, say, a sock or the President. Applauding when I manage to accomplish a simple task like answering a phone will only succeed in pissing me off. And that's when I suddenly forget how.

7.) You are not doing me a favor. I'm doing one for you. I'm helping you out of a tight situation with grace and ability and for less pay than the guy who stocks the snack machine. Expect professionalism and competence -- not gratitude. "Letting" me come back tomorrow to do some other mindless task for little money is why I drink.

I have to say that, by and large, the people I've worked with have been extremely nice and very gracious and almost apologetic when they give me something really awful to do. But there is that odd person now and again who mourns the end of the feudal age and really just wants a scullery maid to terrify and occasionally throw down the back stairs. That's why I keep a guillotine in my car. I'm just saying.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Drama in Real Life (Someone Else's)

OK, so lately I've re-read Into Thin Air (a bunch of people get trapped and die on Everest), Into the Wild (a kid gets trapped in the Alaskan bush and dies) and Deep Survival (a bunch of people get trapped in a bunch of different situations -- most die). I'm beginning to suspect I may have a ghoulish streak.

Personally, I blame Reader's Digest. My parents used to get their wee magazine when I was a kid, and I would grab it first and squirrel it away until I could read the story about "Man Falls into River from Life Raft, Nearly Dies, Finds God, Survives" or the one where "Woman is in Exploding Airplane, Falls Thousands of Feet, Nearly Dies, Lands in Remote Desert/Jungle/Mountain, Finds God, Survives" or even "Boy Goes Hiking with Family, Gets Lost Finding Place to Pee, Falls from Cliff, Nearly Dies, Finds Dog and God, Survives." Reader's Digest taught me to be ghoulish. It's not my fault.

I don't read a lot of non-fiction, but the stuff I do read (for fun) can pretty much be separated into two camps: (1) survival or lack thereof stories and (2) when a good brain goes bad. Give me a story of someone high on a mountain in a snowstorm with no food, no water, only Panama shorts, a t-shirt and a pair of Converse tennis shoes and incipient frostbite nipping at his nose, and I'll happily curl up on my couch with some popcorn, root beer and a blanket. Tell me about a stroke victim who only eats from the right half of his plate to the middle in a perfectly straight line, and I'm into that book like a survivor into a sleeping bag. Synesthesia, echolalia, hemisphere neglect: bring it on!

So for the last few weeks on the Discover channel (10 pm Tuesdays), they've been showing a group of guys trying to shuffle their way up Everest. Some of the same people tried to make it up last year. They're being guided by a man named Russell Brice -- an experienced mountaineer and guide. Russell, who I believe is from New Zealand, is that odd mixture of ex-Brit Empire polite and restrained and This Is Everest, So Get Your Shit Together old-fashioned tyrant.

Last year, one guy on his team who actually seems a bit of a jackass refused to come down even though he was running too late and too low on oxygen to summit and make it down safely. Russell kept up this running commentary on the radio: "Time to come down now, please turn around, think about coming down, perhaps you ought to consider that whole coming-down-and-not-dying option," blah blah blah. I kept shouting at the TV for him to stop being so polite, for crap's sake. The guy's seriously hypoxic and not able to make rational decisions (his decision-making even when fully oxygenated seems a bit limited, actually) -- it's time to talk to him like a parent to a child. "Turn your ass around and get down here. Now." At one point, Russell even points out the dead guy just to the right of the obstinant climber. Right there. Just to your right. Frozen to the rock and left up there forever or until an avalanche brings him down. Seriously, how much more persuading do you need? Finally, after an hour or more of arguing, the guy turns around and lives to try again in '07. I won't know if he was successful until next Tuesday, dammit!

I can't stand horror movies with all the gore and grossness, and frankly last week's episode of Everest, where there's a dead body at Camp 4, loosely covered with a sleeping pad and his own backpack, was pushing even my limits pretty hard. But I'm fascinated by people who can force themselves to do these things despite all reason, despite the fact that the human body is entirely wrong for this place. Frostbite, HAPE, heart attacks, hypoxia, the fact that your brain cells are exploding like tiny little firecrackers inside your head for every minute you spend above 26,000 feet -- what compels someone to keep going in such a hostile environment? Seriously, people, we have survival instincts for a reason. Your brain cells are dying. You don't replace those, you know. You come off Everest stupider than you were when you got there. You could stay warm at home and binge on alcohol if headaches, nausea and near-death experiences are that important to you.

Anyway, I guess I'm glad people are willing to struggle to hang on to a thin thread of life 120 feet under the surface of the ocean or 29,000 feet above it, and then write about it later so I can be entertained from the comfort of my couch. Human beings have gotten rather arrogant about their ability to survive, forgetting that that survival has a lot more to do with access to things like heat, drinking water and couches with comfy afghans than with our own cleverness or resourcefulness. Maybe that's why I like to read about people who really do test the limits in hostile places: if humans win, then hooray, look how smart and crafty you are (and, by extension, me). If nature wins, then hooray, look how powerful nature is and how it'll triumph even over our concrete, our toxic fumes, our pesticides and smog long after we're gone.

Or maybe I'm just ghoulish. Yeah, that's probably it.

Am I a Writer Yet?

Must just do a quick plug for myself -- I got a story published in a new literary ezine, woo hoo! If you're interested in reading it (it was briefly published here, so some of you have already seen it: "Boat Weather"), you can check it out here. You have to download a PDF version, then scroll through quite a lot of other stuff (or read it -- that's also an option) to get to mine. Yay!