A Story

“Astonishment gives pleasure; evidence of this is the fact that everyone exaggerates when passing on news, on the assumption that they are giving pleasure”

“If impossibilities have been included in a poem, that is an error; but it is correct if it attains the end of the art itself…”
Aristotle, from Poetics

OJP StreetLast weekend my six-year old daughter told me a story about being at her mommy’s house. We were decorating pink frosted Valentine’s Day cupcakes with sprinkles, and she remembered a time her mother and her made cupcakes. Her story was simple. It began: “At my mommy’s house we made cupcakes for my birthday. Then we brought them to Nana’s (her grandma’s house), and I got to eat two whole cupcakes!” I replied, “What a lovely story.” To which she turned her head with a furrowed brow and a grimace, remarking, “It’s not a story, daddy!” I said, “Well, of course it is. Someone did something; something happened to someone. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. It wasn’t a very good story—next time include a dragon—but it was a story.” Before you rage against my parenting skills, I’d like you to know I tell this to everyone; I even say this when relating my own stories (“I should throw a dragon in there next time”).

So, her grimace now became frustrated, “But it really did happen, daddy!” Now this is where I shine. I said, “Well, stories can be true and not true. You are still telling me a story when you tell me about something that happened to you. Even if it’s just going upstairs to use the bathroom. It’s still a story. It’s just better when there’s a dragon. More dramatic.” Yes, this is how I talk to my six-year old. I tend not to belittle her or make that awful “child speak” that people often do. I use big words. And I tend to explain everything at eye level. She’s an individual to me, and I am so happy that she finally has an opinion.

OJP CameraAs I was explaining to my gf the other night: many people tend to think children are not very smart, or rather, observant (I am thankful if you, dear reader, are not one of these people; but you should read on anyway). I tend to think they are absolute geniuses. Let me explain with an example. Some people think children don’t consider race, class, or gender when watching Disney films, or, say, playing with toys. And, therefore, do not consider those issues on our privileged, adult or mature level. But I think they are very wise; wiser than us.

You see, they have nothing to do. No bills to pay. No cars to fill with gas. No groceries to accumulate. No job. They don’t worry about sex, or looking good, or being confident around a pretty boy or girl. They don’t worry about shaving, or where food comes from, or what’s in their bank account, or taxes. All they do is watch you. They are learning how to be a person. All day, every day. And playing. 90% of their waking time is figuring out how to best utilize their play time, i.e. who can play with me, when can they play, how long, and what game. They make friends by proximity, not a shared morality, interests, or hobbies. So, that’s it: Play and Mimic us. Children have a sincerely simple and myopic view of life: it is black or white. There is always a rule present: either you follow it or you don’t. That’s it. And following that rule depends solely upon what brand of attention the child wants, and from whom they want it.

OJP Battle CreekSo, to my point. It is clear that my daughter firmly holds this logic: A story is a lie, and lying is bad (due to parental enforced consequences). Therefore, I should not lie; I should not tell stories. Here’s the rub: I don’t see it that way. I think we all tell stories. We are a social, story telling species. When I ask you, “How are you doing?” Then you tell me a story. Same with, “How was your day?” I get a story (hopefully a good one). Now, there is no possibility that you can tell me an accurate version of a story. It is always colored. Your perspective colors it with a Crayola of tones, adverbs, and adjectives like grey sadness (like Eeyore) or pink worry (like Piglet)—for just a few examples. And you decide, every time, how to tell your story. You decide where to begin, where to end, and what details to include. Nietzsche states that we actively forget. If not, we would never move! Every color or smell would provoke a memory, which in turn would provoke another memory, which would provoke another, and another. We would never move; or, even worse, never experience our amazing life; and in doing so never create new memories. So, we forget. Then, we embellish; we tell stories.

I broke my daughter’s chain of logic. She still looks at me with a weird, cock-eyed grimace when I tell her I like her story. You see, I want her to know what pleasure can be derived from hearing and telling a story, whether it is fact or fiction. That her life is not simply Black or White, Truth or Lie, Story or Reality. I don’t want her to tell me everything, but I want her to feel free to do so. In fact, I want her to tell me stories twice. Because each time, even if it is the exact same story, I’m a different person than I was two or thirty minutes ago. And I hear a uniqueness every time she tells it. Same with you. You haven’t told everything. You can’t. But what you piece together is You. So, the next time someone asks you about your day, remember that you’re telling them a story. So, color it well…


The Exclamation Point and The Rorschach Test

I have a fatal cyber flaw: I cannot grasp internet sarcasm. I am now wondering if this makes me old (read: unhip), or whether this makes me just not quite cut out for the Internet (capital “I”). Either way, I blame the exclamation point!

errors!Did I just yell? Did I laugh? Was I angry? You will never know. There must be some level of exclamatory congruity brewing across this great cybersphere; there must be some level of mutual understanding: “yes, the exclamation point means this, this or this, depending on the context.” Obviously, it is emphasis of some sort, right? Yes. Ok? Agreed. But! (Interjection) Here is the real crux: I just presume everyone on the internet is being genuine. Sheesh. That was like an AA meeting:

“Hi, my name is Shawn, and I presume all people on the internet are genuine.”
Let’s all welcome Shawn: “Hi Shawn!”

Damnit! What just happened there? Were they excited to greet me? Are they angry with me? Does that (!) emphasize their voices in unison? Oh, man! (Crap…) There it is again. That last time I think it signifies consternation, but I cannot be sure. Although, now I think we are getting to the bottom of this (!) mystery: the signifier. Oh, that slippery signifier. I would like to thank Jacques Lacan and Ferdinand de Saussure (two people I will NOT be naming my unborn sons after!) for this mysterious signifier; this tender, unreliable thing that invokes and evokes meaning of a unique thing to each and every individual and conjures up images of unique things and memories that tangle (and tango) with other memories, colors, smells, making us unique in our (physique) ambitions, talents, thoughts, actions and desires. Sheesh. Signifier. How ’bout a demonstration?

(I read that last paragraph and think of loveable, furry, old Grover. Remember him? Blue. Monstrous. Real skinny. Flailed his arms a lot. Wandered around Sesame Street. Unassuming. Loves words, letters, soup. Dressing up as a waiter, superhero, cowboy, etc. He had this frequent skit where he would be discussing a thing, say an (!), and that thing, say an orange, foam, 2-foot tall (!) with a little black wire near the bottom that I started to only notice later on in my childhood, would just pop up while he was discussing it. The cool part is that Grover was completely surprised! He was all like, “AAAHHH!!! (Grover yelled a lot, not in a frightening way) WHAT is this thing!?!?!” And then it would go away. He would begin talking about it again, and then BLAAM! The foam (!) would show up! Right in the middle of him talking about the actual thing! Talk about your return of the repressed! Crazy. Anyhooo. Where was I?)

(Oh yeah!) What have we learned? So, the (!) means different things to different people: signifier. And I assume you are all being genuine (you nice folks, you). What is left? Oh, ugh, another confession: I write blog posts either smiling, slightly laughing, or convincing myself that something that does not appear funny actually is funny. Not in a mad-scientist-y way. No. More like a: “Shawn, you are hilarious!”-type of way. Which leads me to my next point: I blame the exclamation point because it tells us about ourselves.

Mr. Johnson (Sesame Street)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The exclamation point is our very own Rorschach test: it reveals to us exactly what we want to see. When I come across an exclamation point in an internet comment, I usually see happiness, laughter, humor, an interjection, or surprise. I cannot locate cynicism. I do not read it. And I do not speak it. I feel as though I need an (*) for every time I use a (!), just to make sure that the commenter believes that I too am genuine. As though I need to convince them ever so desperately, “Listen! I mean it! I truly do! It is not sarcasm!!!” I want them to see my ink blot. My Rorschach. I also want them to see loveable, furry, old Grover perhaps repeatedly attempting to serve a bowl of hot alphabet soup during a windstorm to this other dapper, blue fellow who always yells “Ohhhh, waiter!” with lips hidden behind a glorious, old-school mustache as an obvious signifier of sophistication and learning and the antithesis to Grover’s unkempt, shaggy blue hair, inept social skills, abhorrence of any and all contractions, and inability to secure steady employment leading him to later adopt a schizophrenic, Quixotic personality and dawn a billowing, red cape and an often faulty, metal helmet so that he may be better rescue precious kittens from trees and us from ultimately misunderstanding (!). Whew! Loveable, furry, old Grover. Taught me everything I know about (!).

Thanks everyone. Hope you enjoy!

The Plague: A Conversation

The Plague: A Conversation

-Hey, man. It’s John.
-Hey buddy, what’s up?
-Yeah, nothin’. Listen man, Jesus, I don’t know how to say this: I can’t come in to work tomorrow. I have the plague.
-I can’t come in to work… I have the plague.
-What the hell are you talking about?
-I know. It’s crazy, but I found out today that I have the plague.
-Like: The Plague? The Black Plague?
-Is there another one…?
-Well… I… I don’t think so. Wait a minute. This is bullshit. Are you fucking with me? Do you really have The Plague?
-Like the one from, like, the 13th century? Wasn’t that in Europe?
-And you can’t come in to work?
-NO! I have the friggin’ plague! And yes, I’m going to be alright. Thank you.
-How long will you be out?
-I don’t know? Jesus, man. I have the fucking plague.
-Okay. Well, if it’s more than three days you have to bring in a note.
-You want me to bring in a doctors note stating that I have the Bubonic Plague…?
-Yeah. Weird, right?
-Okay. Um. I’ll talk to the doctor. But that’s the weirdest fucking thing I have ever heard of.
-So, like, are you contagious?
-You’re kidding, right?
-I don’t know!!
-God damnit….
-Listen, can Katherine cover your shift tomorrow?
-You want me to call her?
-If you could.
-I have the friggin’ plague!!
-Okay. Okay. Alright. I’ll call her. Sheesh, calm down. You know, it’s not exactly a “plague” if only one person has it. Isn’t it something else then?
-You cannot be serious. Like, a handful of people still contract it in the United States. So, yes, it’s still a friggin’ plague. Jesus.
-Well, I don’t know.
-Fucking Google it, man.
-So, um, dude, I have to ask… did you get bit by a rat?
-You are a moron. You are truly a moron. Yeah, it’s carried by rats. But seriously, it’s carried by animals that host fleas. No, before you ask, I don’t have fleas.
-I wasn’t gonna…
-I don’t know how, alright! The doctor said it could be from another person who may have been carrying it. It’s airborne, man. It fucking sucks.
-Yeah… Well, um, feel better…
-Let me know as soon as you can when you can come back. I mean, you know… Katherine is here, and Scott, and Theresa. But Theresa is starting school again soon… and Scott can’t work Sunday mornings… so…
-Alright. Alright. I’ll let you know when I no longer have The Black Plague! Jesus.
-Thanks, man. And, well, I’m sorry.
-Sorry… for what?
-You know. That you have The Plague.
What? Dude, I’m not a customer. You don’t have to apologize to me. Sheesh.
-I don’t know. It seemed like the right thing to say. What do you say to someone who has the plague? Oh, man, Theresa is gonna flip out!
-Don’t tell anyone!
-Are you kidding!?!
-NO! I’m dead serious.
-“Dead serious”?
-Fuck off.
-No really. I can’t tell anyone? This is, again, sorry, hilarious!
-Dude, I’m gonna fucking kill you if you say anything! People are gonna look at me sooo strange. And, Theresa is never gonna let me touch her again.
-That’s exactly why I wanna tell her!
-Okay. Okay. I’ll keep it under wraps. You are “sick” and absent for an undetermined amount of time. You know, you should really contact corporate.
-You okay?
-I have the plague…
-I know, man. I know.