The Haunted Toaster

Professor Percival Plumefeather and Paperfeet the Cat.

Sunday sucks. Sure, I can sleep in and eat a leisurely breakfast. But after that the hours storm by as I watch helpless. This feeling of angst (read: epic morbid depression) is worse in the autumn, when the sky is gray all day long, thus making it seem about 4 in the afternoon from 8 am until the actual 4 pm, at which point it then appears to be about 8 pm.

Making all of this even worse is a pressing deadline for a writing or editing project. Now, I do enjoy writing and editing work. Usually. Often. OK, sometimes. More often, I come up with creative ways to avoid the work, just like everyone else.

And so my procrastination mission begins. I start by checking my email 9 times in 23 minutes. I groan through a smile when I have an email. Then it’s to my normal stomping grounds. Mental Floss, AP News, Twitter, Facebook. The Book is filled with football predictions and statements of either support or aggression. You can only look at so many GIFs of hot girls winking on Twitter. I check my email two or three dozen more times (both email accounts – work and private), but nothing doing. I visit a site of ill-repute for about 129 seconds. I have a sandwich and read some more articles. Trump’s still a nit. Today he’s being a nit in France. I write an unflattering post about his self-promoted tough guy image vs. the fact that he doesn’t want to stand in the rain, but then I cancel it.

It’s the haunted toaster that saves me.

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This summer I was driving into the city when I saw a moderate green and white sign: Belmont Plateau. Belmont Plateau is a green area with fields and some picnic areas. If you were going to a picnic at the plateau you would be happy to see this sign and its helpful little arrow. If you weren’t looking for the plateau there’s a good chance you would miss it altogether.

I did neither. I lost my breath, my train of thought derailed and, just like in a movie, I stopped speaking in the middle of a sentence. My companion asked what was going on and I told her in a faraway voice that this was where I used to practice football in high school. In said movie, we might cue an eighty minute flashback. It would show a younger me about to go through something trying, something I wasn’t suited for, but in the end gaining something important from the experience.

If you’re worried now that this is going to be a post about past glories on the football field, then we obviously have never met in person. In the first place, there were exactly zero glories on the football field with which to regale you. There were, in fact, two debacles. Second, even if there were some glories, I wouldn’t want to be that middle aged male caricature, whose [enter sport here] career as a young man somehow gets more and more glorious with each passing year and each inch added to the waistline.

The fact is that while many I knew look back with great warmth and nostalgia at their high school career, I do not. Rather, high school football was the first time I remember hating being active. It was when exercise stopped being fun and became work.

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A British Man Buys Books

There’s a new English bookstore in town and I have found myself there several times in the last four months. This bookstore has everything I could possibly want. It’s a large room filled with cheap English books, those selling said books are young, attractive, and clad in boxy glasses, and it’s literally across the street from one of my favorite pubs.

Last Saturday, I brought three books up to the counter. Life couldn’t be better. It was Friday and I was about to leave my second favorite venue for my first favorite one.

Perhaps in anticipation of that mecca I looked across the street at the pub’s entrance.

“Dobrý den,” the woman behind the counter said. She was early twenty-something, guardedly chipper, and wore glasses which suggested a knowledge of Sartre.

“Dobrý den” I said back.

“Oh,” she stuttered a second. “Um…hello. Is this all?”

OK, this happens. Sometimes Czechs switch to English upon realizing their interlocutor isn’t a native Czech speaker. It has upset me before, both morally and conversationally. Morally I sometimes take it as an indictment on the quality of my Czech. Conversationally I get flummoxed as to what language I should speak back. I have had entire conversations with a Czech person speaking English and me speaking Czech. It’s like being in a David Lynch dream sequence.

“Right,” I said, “that’ll be all then.” The words themselves aren’t as notable as the fact that I spoke them in what my brain tells me is a British accent. I clipped the ‘T’ off of the ‘Right’ and based the rest on Inspector Morse, Tiny Tim, and what I’d always imagined Mr. Bean would sound like.

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Folkloric Villain Support Group Discusses the Concept of Blame

Big Bad Wolf: Thank you, Wicked Witch of the West, for your thoughts on modern day beauty expectations and our collective role as scapegoat. Agreed that there is something to be said for the physical representations we’ve been put into. I am, after all, a massive wolf. Big eyes, big teeth. You know the deal. I do think it’s best you don’t sit next to Rumpelstiltskin next time. I think his short stature make you a bit squirrelly.

Wicked Witch of the West: Yes, I think so. Thank you.

Rumpelstiltskin: Bitch.

Big Bad Wolf: That’s enough.

Evil Step Mother: I’ll put on another pot of coffee.

Big Bad Wolf: Thank you. Rump, I’m recommending a course of sensitivity training for you.

Rumpelstiltskin: But she started it!

Big Bad Wolf: (Growls)

Rumpelstiltskin: Fine. But she goes too.

Big Bad Wolf: We’ll talk about this later. (lights cigarette). OK, Hideous Old Witch, you’re up. Everyone give her your attention please. We’re talking today about the concept of blame, how it’s affected us all, and perhaps the unfairness of our perception in everyday society.

Hideous Old Witch: Thank you. Hello.

Everyone: Hello, Hideous Old Witch.

Hideous Old Witch: I’ve been having trouble recently.

Ogre: It’s OK. Just tell us what’s happening.

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Ten White Guys Who Speak English

You have no doubt seen some of those “challenges” around Facebook now. Which ten album covers most influenced your fashion choices as a teen? (sadly, Harry Chapin) Which ten Bob Dylan songs are your favorite to sing in the shower (obvs, Desolation Row).

The one I was nominated for was simple enough: Your ten favorite books. What the hell, I thought. I love books, talking about books, and making lists. This was a win-win. Naturally I took the opportunity to enjoy the nice autumn air (at my local pub’s garden) and make a list. And while I was making the list, I made a decision: I would not lie.

I am not saying everyone out there is lying about this stuff. But I do feel there’s a tendency for people to lie about these things so as to look more sophisticated and worldly than their actual choices might suggest. The things we like vs. the things we think we should like. I have a friend who gushes over the brilliance of Citizen Caine and 8 12, but he could do every character from beginning to end in Groundhog Day as a one man show.

And so I wrote my list. Each writer on that list have three things in common: they’re all white, they’re all male, and they’re all native English speakers.

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Screen Time Rules

My Menagerie Anxiously Awaits the Return of the WiFi So They Can Watch The Muppets)

I walk back into the office in my flat. I click the WiFi settings. I refresh. The horrendous yellow traffic cone is still there’ its message conveys no WiFi yet dude.

As I have two computers now, I go to the computer in the living room. It’s older and makes the same sounds my neighbor’s dog used to make when he’d gone blind and start an argument with the wall. Still, it’s hanging in there by a string and a prayer and we use it as our television for Netflix and streamed shows.

I click WiFi. Refresh. Yellow cone. No! It’s official, I’m offline.

As someone who groups words into stories, I am often looking for a little more time. I get up at 5 a.m. during the semester in order to get my writing in first thing in the morning. If given the opportunity, I would get up at 7:30, but I have no control over my schedule and I have to deal with what I’m given.

If a school task or a proofreading job takes up time that should be spent on fiction or blog, I can get quite testy. I feel uneven if I can’t get the words in every day. I snap at the cat. It’s a bad scene.

So on this lovely Saturday afternoon in which I am home alone, have exactly no obligations in the immediate future should be a godsend. I could hole up in my office and work for two hours, go out for a beer in the evening with the creative juices brewing in my cortexes.

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Hobby Time

No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.

I was leaving my home office this Saturday afternoon when Burke said it me: “You work pretty much every day, don’t you?”

“Work? Well it’s writing. Writing work.”

“So, work?”

“I guess.”

I won’t pretend to be one of those people who claim that writing isn’t work. It is. It is something I immensely enjoy and an activity to which I am fully addicted. And there are certainly times when putting a new story down on paper gives me an immeasurable childlike joy.

But to write with the aim of publishing becomes to a large degree a job. It involves story and character development, editing, fulfilling public need, and working on narrative technique. And, yes, to improve and become a better writer in these areas requires a lot of hard work.

Work. Huh.

I thought about it, too. I never walk back into my office saying “I’m going to gleefully write a story for the simple joy that it brings my soul.” I may go on and do exactly that, but when I walk back into my office and there’s a person in my house (or a cat) I always say, “I’m going to go get some work done.”

Work. Hm.

When I was young, writing was my hobby. I could sit at a desk and write stories all day about ghosts or adventures in the woods. I remember in particular an alternate look at the battle of Gettysburg and one about a monster who had a million arms. It was all for fun. And that certainly changed as I got older and other points had to be included in writing that was going to be taken seriously.

Roger Kahn writes in The Boys of Summer, a book about his experiences with the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers, that to watch professional baseball players practice was to realize that they were no longer playing a game, they were professionals honing and perfecting the skills of their profession, just as a dentist or a carpenter might.

So my childhood hobby had now become a job. I wrote my blog, a book, for some humor websites. And while I loved it, it had someone become work, not a hobby.

And then it occurred to me: I don’t have a hobby.

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Interpreting the Classics

Beam us up, Thorin

This Saturday was International Hobbit Day. I celebrated by having a breakfast that would make a hobbit proud. It was the first day which resembled autumn, chilly, a bit blue and a bit gray, like the American Civil War in the sky. I snuggled up on my warm couch in my warm hobbit hole, ate, read, looked out the window, and didn’t expect much of anything to happen.

And nothing really did. At one point Burke asked if I wanted to celebrate International Hobbit Day by watching The Hobbit films or Lord of the Rings, but by then it was almost 11 a.m. and we wouldn’t have time to watch all 11 hours of either film series. It was, however, time for elevenses. So I made something to eat.

Up until I read The Hobbit when I was about ten, books mostly involved brothers who solved crimes with alliterative titles, trees that were very, sadly, maybe too generous. There were the normal kiddo picture books, the ones that taught me words, and the ones that taught me lessons like that if I thought I could, I could.

But The Hobbit was an adventure. Even the subtitle, There and Back Again, held some mystery. Where and back again? I was hooked, scared at times, and mystified. It was the first of many times that I chose a character in a book to “be,” so that I could take some small part in the adventure as well. (Dwalin. Totally lived, too.)

Sometime in the mid-afternoon, as we were enjoying cheese, crackers, and olives as our twoses treat, we went on a video search. And what we found was The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.

If you’re not familiar with this particular gem of interpretative art, it features Leonard Nimoy all but dressed as Dr. Spock (it was 1968), singing The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins. It gets better. Assisting him in his, I guess, goal of retelling the story of Bilbo’s adventures, are several girls with pixie haircuts and pointy ears (whether they’re Vulcan or Hobbit we’ll never know), who dance spasmodically as if they had, in fact, taste-tested the brown acid that would appear at Woodstock a year later.

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Three Days of the Hangover

Pittsburgh International Airport. When I asked for a coffee a moment ago, the man must have misunderstood that for “unmanageable cup of molten lava.” I am now trying to push the integrity of the cardboard sleeve meant to protect my hands from 3rd degree burns. Problem: my hands are shaking. I put the coffee on a table and remove the lid.

A moment ago I was finally able to speak without actively pursuing advanced lexicon like “and” or “also.” “Please kill me” took five whole minutes, and I was fortunate enough that my friend had driven off before I could get it out.

I am in a confused daze, as if the world has suddenly upgraded to include a new dimension that my inner-technology has not prepared for. They call my flight. I give up on the coffee.

This is day one of the three day hangover.

Pittsburgh visits are always a bacchanalian visit to the good old days. Three days of beers, shots, sandwiches, and very little water; sensible choices were treated like the monsters of fairytale lore. And I knew what I was doing. Each shot was another nail in my coffin. Each beer would be answered for in the future.

The flight from Pittsburgh to Newark involves about 45 minutes in the air. If it were longer, I would be requesting a parachute from the drink cart.

Half of the jokes made by people over 40 is that things get harder/easier/harsher/ after that age. Heading that list is the hangover. People who could drink their weight in tequila at 21 and run a marathon the next morning marvel at how their 43 year old body barely deals with four light beers. I am in that camp. This is probably why I don’t overdo it that often. Oh, I still go out for beers with my friends and I’m never the one to turn down a shot. (Read: I am the one who suggests the shot). But in my day to day life, I can have drinks once a week and remain a reasonable member of society. Unlike my 21 year old self, it now takes a day or two to fully recover. A Friday night session means a Saturday of bad movies and overhydration. A really big Friday might means a Sunday of ibuprofen and poking at my liver.

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Unreal Dan in Unreal Life

It’s Friday. We’re in the mood for a light movie. We opt for a lighthearted rom-com with Steve Carell. Dan in Real Life. He’s a widower with a big goofy family. Dane Cook’s in there. How can you go wrong with all that?

Long story short, we go wrong with that.

Rule number one of storytelling is that you are true. True means that you have to make the actions of your characters believable. We suspend our disbelief every day to allow ourselves to settle into a good story and to let a good story settle into us. Flying crocodile-zebra hybrids attack earth? Sure. Julia Roberts’ character falls in love with Hugh Grant’s character? Why not. Twelve convicts drop behind enemy lines on June 5, 1944 to gunk up the Nazis? I shall get the popcorn. These two extraordinarily beautiful women are going to have their way with the pizza guy? They ordered a sausage pie, after all. Aaaaaalright…for the next 2 minutes and forty-three seconds.

And we will do this as long as what your characters are doing resonate with real life (you know, except for the porn because our genitals have different rules when it comes to real life). But if you break this rule, your audience is unforgiving. Last month I turned off the movie The Nice Guys because of the insanely implausible action of a character. Up until then the movie had been extremely fun to watch and I’d been giggling rather than shaking my head at its ridiculo-hilarious plot. But I just couldn’t get over that one unbelievable action.

While some of the interactions and actions of the characters do ring true, where Dan in Real Life fails on the (ahem) real life-o-meter is in its depiction of family. It has to be the corniest, most rigged family since The Waltons was on the air. Evidently, this family gets together once a year to play nine thousand competitive games, from guys against ladies crossword puzzle-offs to charades to sing-offs to scrabble to a mind-numbing-un-fucking-real talent show to top off all of the crap. There’s the obligatory family football game in the yard. A thing which I can stomach as long as it’s the only family oriented game, but when it comes at the end of this feel-too-fucking-good-a-thon it was just another nail in its unbelievable coffin. By the time Dane Cook (whose job it is, I guess, to run an aerobics class) leads the entire family in a synchronized aerobics class, I have had enough.

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