August 2016 Archives

[playing 'misty' on harmonica]

IMG_6220.JPG"Your air conditioner is 27 years old," said the HVAC guy. "It's going to go soon. I'd run it until it dies, though."

"Not a chance," I replied. "It'll die when I need it most. I'm getting it replaced in the fall."

Naturally, it died a week later.

After 27 years of use, it couldn't make it another month. It died in the middle of a heat wave. The temperature in my house was 93F.

Thus have Fredo and I been living, working, watching TV, playing, sleeping, and eating in my bedroom for a week. That is where the portable unit is, so it's the only place we want to be. Nevertheless, it is like the world's 14th nicest jail cell, right down to the bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling and the blanket I'm using to block the sun.

I'm fine.

• • •

When the AC blew, I had already bought a portable unit. Like the chainsaw at my Metamuville house, it sat in its unopened box, waiting for my fears to prove justified. I was proud of myself for seeing it coming, and I told Mike.

"Greeeeat," he sighed. "The world really needed for your paranoia to be positively reinforced."


After a couple of decades in Seattle, I am not accustomed to being the tactful party in a social setting. I am the one whose remarks make others blanch.

In Pittsburgh, I am the blanchee.

My circle here falls over one another to be the first to say the outrageous thing. More often than not, they whiff at air pathetically.

"I need to stop and get some rebar," a contractor said.

"DID YOU SAY YOU'RE STOPPING AT A GAY BAR?" Sean asked loudly, beaming at his own witty turn of phrase. "HEY EVERYONE, HE SAYS HE'S STOPPING AT A GAY BAR!"

This quality of repartee is sadly commonplace in my life now. "Jesus H," I groan. It's taken as a compliment.

sister's day

Just how celebrated was the one day a year my mother made me breakfast? Once when my mom was hospitalized for the first day of school, my adult sister came over to make me breakfast...because this grand familial tradition simply could not be missed.

Perhaps not coincidentally, I never eat breakfast as an adult. If friends want to go out to breakfast and there are only breakfast foods on the menu, I am annoyed.

"Just iced tea, please."

mother's day

Back to school stuff has reappeared in stores, which led me to reminisce about a favorite childhood ritual. On the first day of school every year, my mother would set her alarm and make me breakfast. It was usually oatmeal, which, if rendered half brown sugar, isn't half bad. Unable to touch the footrest on the bar stool, my tiny little six-year old legs would soon flail excitedly from the sugar rush.

• • •

The other night I was talking to Katrina when she exited the call with “I gotta run and make Annie breakfast.” I was confused by a couple of things. It was Saturday. It was after 11am. And this kid, age 70%-of-the-way-to-wrecking-Dad’s-car, is fully capable of making her own breakfast. I grumbled about how someone taller than Mom should be able to pour her own cereal, and I hung up.

Jesus. Is Katrina going for Mother of the Year, or what? I thought. But this thought didn’t survive much scrutiny. All of my friends make their kids’ breakfasts. And lunches. And dinners. Inevitably, this train of thought led to my frame of reference.

If your mother making you breakfast is an annual delight just short of Christmas, perhaps Mom ain’t all that. But she demanded the accolades anyway.

three little words

Moving from Seattle to Pittsburgh is a mixed bag. This morning I was thinking about how my Jeep's air conditioning had recently gone from theoretical, like the cruise control I never use, to an imperative second only to oxygen—and not a distant second, either.
"Add some Freon" is a phrase that hasn't crossed my mind in decades. I can't say I missed it.

Other long-dormant, three-word phrases making a sudden comeback in my life:

  • Butt-crack sweat
  • Buy an umbrella
  • State income taxes
  • Local incomes taxes
  • High property taxes
  • Cold cranking amps
  • It's the humidity
  • High utility bills
  • Dumpster gang tag
  • Shady-ass shit
  • Chicken and waffles
  • Knowledgeable sports fan
  • Got a babysitter
  • No green arrow
  • Fly-ass motherfucker
  • Best snow blower
  • Wanna get lunch?
  • Live music tonight
  • Bagels and lox
  • Best fall colors
  • Marble rye rueben
  • Thank you, sir
  • You're most welcome

go bucks!

A friend was just accepted into a graduate program at prestigious Carnegie Mellon University. This is her first foray into advanced degrees, and her return to college comes after a two decade absence. She is understandably nervous, so she asked me what grad school is like.

I started to tell her, but then I trailed off. "I have no idea what a good school is like," I admitted. "Maybe you should ask someone who wasn't poor and stupid."

and now for something completely indifferent

"I can't keep posting negative stuff," I just thought, my concerns about being a bummer in real life now seeping into this page. "Lemme think of something upbeat to post."

Thinking, thinking.

Okay, this made me laugh. It's also a perfect metaphor for my life recently.


parade of fools

It's really hard to describe how badly I've fucked up my life. I find myself lying just so people won't think I'm a complete bummer to be around.

"How's the new house, John?" well-wishers ask. "Are you loving it?"

"Mrrrmph," I will nod, smiling weakly and flicking a tear from my cheek.

I just typed a paragraph listing my woes but deleted it. Suffice it to say that among the many things my inspector missed was about $60k of structural defects. He missed a whole lot. Except for billing me in advance. He was on top of that.

As the issues have revealed themselves, I've been trapped here, dealing with one flabbergastingly lazy, incompetent contractor after another. Every thread I pull has horrific results. For instance, unable to breath after three days here, I had the HVAC inspected. "This old electronic filter hasn't worked in years," he said. "So the house has just been recirculating the same filth." I had that repaired and had the carpets cleaned. The carpet cleaning unleashed a horrific stench that a week later was still stinging my eyes. So I hired another carpet cleaner.

One day after I dropped $1000 on the second carpet cleaning, the duct cleaners arrived. They were clearly morons, but they don't need to be neuroscientists, right?

"I busted one of your light bulbs downstairs," drooled Moron 1. "I'll clean it up."

It took me a second to realize that he was talking about a 12' fluorescent bulb. "No, wait. Don't touch it. That's filled with mercury."

Moron 1 blinked at me.

"Mercury is a poison."

He blinked at me. I thought about finding him a Mr. Yuck sticker but contented myself to opening the windows. "Don't touch it. I'll clean it up," I said.

I did some research and found that the proper way to clean up particulate mercury is wet-wiping. "Do not use a vacuum or broom," the guidance intoned. This made sense.

I returned to the scene of the breakage and found that while the morons followed my advice to leave the mess for me to clean up, they had spent the last 20 minutes walking through the pile and throughout my house.

"STOP IT!" I said uselessly.

Then, while I was on my hands and knees-wet-wiping up the deadly neurotoxin, Moron 1, whom I had contracted to improve the air quality in my house, used a broom to sweep mercury toward my face, not two feet away. I had been breathing normally. I was thrilled.

I kicked them out while I cleaned. Their manager called me to argue that it was not a consequential amount of deadly neurotoxin that his employees had tracked all over my house.

"Those bulbs contain only 3-5 grams of mercury," sneered Moron 3.

"And how much is harmful to children or dogs?" I replied.

"I don't know, but it's more than that!"


The disaster ended, sadly predictably, with Moron 1 presenting me with a bill. I laughed and told him to have the owner contact me. Anything less than an apology and an offer to reduce the bill to costs was going to be refused. I would get neither.

He called very soon, when I was on my way to Lowe's for a new bulb and air filter. He asked what happened, and I explained. Then he cut to the chase. "The job is completed," Moron 4 said in his thick Appalachian drawl. "I wanner know why ya don't think you hafta pay yer bill."

It was soon clear that if they had burned my house down on their way out, we would be having the same conversation.

"Wow," I said. "Sir, I've never seen your balls, but they must be fucking huge. We're talking beach balls, here."

"I don't know why yer talkin' like dat t'me," he replied.

There would be no offer to pay for damages. No offer to fix the damages. No apology. No offer to reduce the bill. Just demands for payment in full, buttressed with curiously self-serving scientific claims about the harmlessness of mercury.

"Well, I'm not gonner be swore at," he snapped.

Then don't fucking call me again, because it's all I've got for yinz.

stupid is as stupid writes

After a few thousand reps of reading college students' writing, I developed muscles I didn't know I had. One skill, long since lost, was the ability to guess students' native tongue through the types of errors they made in English. I surely wish I still had this skill in the Internet age. It would make crafting insults on reddit much easier.

An easier-to-acquire skill was the ability to spot readers. Their syntax and vocabulary are more sophisticated, and they are far better able to articulate a thought without relying on lingual flotsam. The reverse is also true. Non-readers do not have a similar mental database of phrasing upon which they can call. They rely on flotsam. The exact same flotsam. Every one of them.

"I'm sorry, but [declarative statement]," they will write.

This is, of course, not an argument. It's an assertion buttressed with condescension. But Todds do not accept this. They think they just slammed the door on any conceivable opposition. Didn't you see the "I'm sorry?!" Game over! For good measure, they sprinkle insults and glitter like very, just, and worst throughout their assertions. Then they wrap it all up with an exclamation mark or a question tag.

I'm sorry, but the illiterates who do this are retarded! They're just very, very stupid, all right?

These students, sadly, were the crux of my job. I was supposed to teach them to think critically, to argue from evidence, to tailor their rhetoric to their audience. Honestly, I don't know that I succeeded even once. It's like trying to bail out the ocean with a colander. A few kids learned to appease me, but I could feel their eyes rolling. They thought I just didn't get it, and, well, the feeling was more than mutual.

Which brings us to Trump. He is the most spectacular example of this that I have ever seen. Using my lens, look at his tweets, especially six months or more ago, when he wasn't as vetted. His brutally unsophisticated syntax and vocabulary are decidedly those of a non-reader. He famously asserts without attempting to marshal evidence. Any reference to opposition contains an insult ("low ratings CNN," "lightweight Don Lemon," etc.) And oh, those verys, exclamation marks, and tag questions. Their sheer density depresses me.

At 70, he is the most unteachable freshman English student I have ever seen.


When I first arrived in Washington state from Ohio, I was in for some culture shock. First stop: whitest Spokane. The only black people I saw were among my Freshman English students, and they were either from Africa or from the football team. But as disconcerting as I found that, the white folks from northern Idaho are the lasting memory. At the time, Hayden Lake was the home of Aryan Nations, and even though I don't think I had any of those kids in my class, their cultural influence was obvious enough.

Which brings us to Todd, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Nazi poster child. All white teenagers in baseball caps look alike to me, so the fact that I remember everything about him decades later is a testament to how much he pained me. In a paper that was supposed to be about food, he prosthetyzed about how his future wife was going to have to take care of the household. He didn't want a wife with a career, he said. The very idea was ludicrous. She would take care of him and his spawn. That was her one and only calling, and everything else was offensive to Todd. I kept waiting for a biblical invocation, but none came. He instead concluded with "I'm sorry, but a woman's place is in the home."

"Funny, you don't seem sorry," I wrote in the margin.

For the prompt where students were to write about the moment in their lives where they first felt grown up, Todd managed to discuss why blacks don't excel at hockey. "I'm telling you, blacks don't have the ankle strength. They just don't."

I considered praising him for not saying "coloreds," but I thought better of it. I knew my job was to reject the paper and ask him for the evidence to support this claim, but I fervently did not want to read it. I settled on "Today I learned that Michael Jordan has weak ankles."

"Huh," Todd said. "I never thought about that."


Todd represented something new to me. He grew up in a heremetically sealed environment with toxic illiterates, and it showed. Todd himself did not read, for he already completely understood the world through his experiences Hayden Lake. I made zero headway nudging Todd up the Perry Scheme of students' intellectual and ethical development.

When I saw his next English teacher was Berkeley-educated Mariko, I was delighted.

"What the actual fuck?" she asked me a few weeks into their quarter.

Tomorrow: what this has to do with the election

this seems easily attainable

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lie-down guy

One Pittsburgh stereotype I would desperately like to be true is the "blue collar, hard-working stand-up guy." Apparently whoever invented that image did so sarcastically.

I assumed that people in Pittsburgh trade services in exchange for money. Boy, was I ever wrong. That is not how it works here. Which is fitting, since nothing apparently works here, except me. I have worked unbelievably hard to give people my money, racking up scores of unanswered texts and phone calls and, worse, quite a few no-shows.

My favorite was a plumber. On a Tuesday night, I scheduled them for the next morning. I agreed to be here from 8-11. Around noon, I reached for my phone to see if they were running late. That's when I saw my voice mail from 7:15. They'd called to confirm the appointment.

"We'll need to reschedule," the douche said in lieu of an apology. His tone was exactly appropriate if I'd stood them up instead of the other way around. I said as much. "We don't go anywhere without a confirmation call," he sneered.

"So 14 hours after I made the appointment, you called at 7 in the morning, didn't get me because my phone doesn't ring that early, and decided to cancel the appointment without telling me, thereby leaving me waiting for you in vain and wasting my entire morning, all in the name of not wasting your morning? Because your time is more important than mine? Do I understand your retarded train of thought correctly?"

He took exception to his thought being called "retarded."

Stank stands by its story.

the brian

When I was growing up, I was often in the same class as Brian. He was puny. He was dim. He was weird looking. One could have said those things about most of us at that age, truth be told, so Brian further distinguished himself by being unremittingly hostile. Brian employed flamboyant assholery in hopes of making the world cower before him. He insulted people constantly. He talked about how stupid we all were, about what pussies we all were, about our general inferiority in the face of his obvious greatness. He wasn't smart enough to craft an actually hurtful insult, so he stuck with the classics. "You're very very dumb," he would say, convinced he had just flayed someone's soul and congratulating himself for his wit and bravery. It was unremitting. It was, in fact, all I remember of him. He was a noisy lap dog barking ferociously at every passersby, to whom he was otherwise of zero consequence. Brian employed volume and venom as flak, hoping to confuse our radars. It didn't work. We knew what he was then, and he remains my benchmark for dim-witted, noisy frauds now.

When a certain presidential candidate speaks, all I hear is Brian. I can hear little else. I think, in fact, the exact same things that I did then. Tough guys don't really go around talking about how tough they are. Ditto smart guys. Or successful guys.

What a bottomless well of well-earned insecurity. I look forward to the resulting constitutional crisis when Brian loses an election.

moron taxonomy
stupid church signs
super bowl xl officiating
percy chronicles

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