Friday, June 26, 2009

The Despot

So I've been thinking about Kriss Kross this morning. My first, and probably only real memory, of the young rap duo stems from one Monday morning when I was in seventh grade, and seemingly everybody, everybody cool at least, was wearing their overalls backwards. I had no idea what this meant, but that was because I didn't watch "In Living Color" and the Sunday night before, Kriss Kross had performed on the show, wearing their overalls backwards. I'm from a small suburban town, and so the moment that people here decide something is cool, it usually means that the rest of the world is already dangerously close to being tired of it.

The Kriss Kross fad didn't last very long. They were a one-hit wonder, and while there's nothing wrong with that, I feel like their pop ascendancy was shorter than most. It culminated in a bunch of white 12-year-olds in southeastern Massachusetts wearing their overalls backwards one Monday morning.

What made me think of Kriss Kross was the death of Michael Jackson. MTV has been running his videos all morning (well, at least since 4:30 when I got up and started watching.) I have a lot of mixed feelings about Jackson, probably all the same mixed feelings that everybody else has: Thriller is awesome/child molestation is not. But I caught two videos by him that I'd never seen before. The first was the song "Jam", which features, bringing it full circle, Kriss Kross.

The significance of this didn't hit me until I saw the video for "Liberian Girl." It's the most bizarre thing I've ever seen. First of all, the song is low down in the mix, so that we can catch all the little dialogue between the 400 zillion stars who cameo in the video. (From wikipedia: Paula Abdul,Rosanna Arquette,Dan Aykroyd,Mayim Bialik,Jackie Collins, David Copperfield, Richard Dreyfuss,Corey Feldman, Lou Ferrigno,Debbie Gibson,Danny Glover,Steve Guttenberg,Whoopi Goldberg, Sherman Hemsley, Amy Irving,Malcolm-Jamal Warner,Beverly Johnson, Quincy Jones, Don King,Virginia Madsen,Olivia Newton-John, Brigitte Nielsen, Lou Diamond Phillips, Ricky Schroder, Steven Spielberg, Suzanne Somers, John Travolta, Blair Underwood, Carl Weathers, Billy Dee Williams, "Weird Al" Yankovic all make appearances) You can barely hear what Jackson is singing, and he only shows up at the last seconds of the video. Check it out yourselves:

Watch enough Michael Jackson videos (and I'll admit, I hadn't seen one in probably a decade, until this morning's video wake) and you'll see, in the later ones, the ones after "Thriller", littered with stars. "Liberian Girl" is the worst example I've ever seen, but one of his last videos, for "Rock My World" has what may be the last appearance of Marlon Brando ever. So I thought about "Liberian Girl" and I thought about Kriss Kross, and I thought about Michael Jackson. One of the media outlets I was watching last night referred to Michael Jackson as the "Self-professed" king of pop. And so this morning, it all came together.

There was probably a kid you went to school with who wasn't really very popular, or even noticed most of the time. And that kid one day does something: makes a joke, makes a really cool play during a baseball game in gym class, gets cheers as he break-dances at the 7th and 8th grade dance. And then that kid, reveling in the attention, does it again. And again. And again. With diminishing returns each time. He'll never be able to catch that lightning in a bottle again. That's Michael Jackson.

Jackson was clearly an enomorously talented individual. Even the worst of his solo material is meticulously produced. But his problem, one of his problems, was that he needed you to notice it. He called himself the King of Pop, and then he needed to prove it, everytime he did anything. "Look at me. Look all the famous people who want to be in my video! They wouldn't want to do it, if I wasn't the King of Pop."

So the significance of Kriss Kross? That Monday morning, 17 years ago, when the kids in my class work their overalls backwards, signaling the death knell of Kriss Kross's cultural significance? They made their appearance in Jackson's "Jam" video AFTER that.

Kings are kings by birthright. "Self-proclaimed" kings are despots by definition. History is littered with leaders who have named themselves kings, or supreme or dear leaders, and the ends of their reigns are all marked by increasingly paranoid demonstrations of their power, to the detriment of their people, and to themselves. They need people to believe they're powerful, even more so than they need to actually BE powerful.

Michael Jackson could've continued to make great music if he wasn't so concerned with being the King of Pop. Of chasing around the biggest names to appear on his records and in his videos to prove it. His last record, "Invincible" featured a cameo by Notorious B.I.G., who had died six years before, and while that more likely speaks to the deliberate speed with which he recorded his albums, it also a haunting reminder how behind popular culture he had become. His idea of a big name rapper to open his record of the new millenium was someone who had died half a decade earlier.

Michael Jackson will hopefully be remembered more for his early, brilliant work, instead of the scandals that plagued the last third of his life. But as I watched him dance around with Kriss Kross, or get chased by Eddie Murphy dressed as a pharaoh, or awkwardly kissing Iman, or hanging out with a rapping Maculay Culkin on a stoop, all I could think was: The Dear Leader of Pop. Clinging to his title at the expense of everything else. May history be kinder to him.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Moral Dilemma of the Day 6/23

You are walking through the woods when you see a person you've never met before up a tree trying to escape from a lion. You don't know what to do, when a tiny leprechaun approaches and says that there is a 50/50 chance that the guy in the tree might be able to escape the lion without any intervention, but if you want to make sure he'd survive, the leprechaun can guarantee the man's safety. The only price is that you will have severe acne for the rest of your life. It will never go away, and no medical treatment or cover-ups will ever be able to conceal it. The leprechaun says that's the deal: leave the man to his fate, or save him and suffer pizza face forever. What do you do?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Workingman's Blues Part 2: The Drop Box is Missing

I'll always remember her name, because she made sure that I would. "It's Stacia Newcomb," she told me. "As opposed to Stacia Oldbrush." That and she was cute. And she was loitering inside the Hollywood Video where I was working as a manager for hours. And she told me I was wasting my life. You tend not to forget these things.

When I graduated high school, I was offered a job at the local Blockbuster Video, mainly because my buddy Dan was dating the manager's daughter. I worked there for twenty-nine months, and when I left I had worked my way up to Assistant Manager and I had also decided I didn't want to work at a video store anymore. I put in my five weeks' notice (that was how important to the organization--two weeks would not be nearly sufficient amount of time to find a replacement) and planned to get a job waiting tables at the 99 restaurant that was just opening up next door. But one of my last nights working at Blockbuster, I received a phone call from Hollywood Video. They were opening two stores in the area, and they wanted me to come be the store manager for one of them. As ridiculous as it might seem, Hollywood Video had headhunters.

I was only 20 years old, and apt to follow the path of least resistance, so I accepted the Hollywood Video job, with a caveat: I did not want to be a store manager, but an assistant manager. The regional manager from Hollywood tried to convince me that I should take the store manager position, as it had a salary of $26,500 with benefits not understanding that was the exact reason I didn't want to take it. I knew that I was 20 years old, and knew that I was apt to follow the path of least resistance, and that a job that paid a 20 year old who still lived at home with his parents $26,500 was a path of least resistance as well as a path that would lead me to becoming a 46-year video store manager. I figured that once I started making that kind of money it would be hard for me to ever give it up. So I insisted on taking the lower paying, less responsibility job.

I spent one really long Sunday (7am-9:30pm without any significant breaks)setting up the new Hollywood video store in Whitman with two young guys from Colorado who were big fans of David Foster Wallace, which meant I was able to talk about "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" all day. These guys weren't going to be working at the store--their jobs meant they were flown all around the country helping setting up Hollywood Video stores--but I thought it might bode well for my new co-workers. The hardest part of leaving Blockbuster was all the friends that I had made working there, (many of them still among my best friends today) but alas, this was not to be the case.

For reasons unknown, I was transferred to the Hanson store. My hopes of having a bunch of young and hip coworkers were fairly quickly dashed: not only was the store manager Donna middle-aged, the entire staff was over 40. One woman named Mary was probably well into her 60s. Before we opened, Donna had hired at least one teenager that I can remember, but for the most part I was the one young person among a cast of older people, like Steve Guttenberg in "Cocoon."

In addition to Donna and Mary, there Carol, who became another shift supervisor/manager on duty, as well as Frank and his wife. They both worked at Raytheon and took this job as something fun to do together. Frank was made an M.O.D. along with Carol, and since his wife was just a customer service representative (CSR) they hardly ever were scheduled to work together, which I think defeated the point of getting the job, and Frank's wife quit shortly thereafter. There was even a second Donna, who I assumed was some friend of the other Donna's, although I don't know why I thought that, other than the fact that the two Donna's were scheduled to open the store Monday through Friday.

But then something happened to Donna before we opened: the regional manager was very cagey with where she was, just that she was going to be missing for the first three weeks. I overheard that she had been hospitalized, and my thoughts went immediately to hysterectomy, because it seemed like the kind of procedure a woman of Donna's age might undergo, and one that has enough of a stigma surrounding it that it would be kept a secret. Although looking back on it now, "nervous breakdown" also fits that description, and fits in with what happened later.

So, without our store manager, and with me being the only of the management staff who had ever worked in a video store before, I became the de facto store manger for our store's opening two weeks, which is what I had been initially hired for, minus of course the salary. I didn't mind. Donna had kind of freaked me out, and I liked not really having her around. I did have to work with the second Donna a couple of times, and she creeped the hell out of me. The regional manager came down to help out, but for the most part, I ran the opening two weeks of Hollywood Video Hanson without any incident.

When Donna came back, she returned a much angrier woman. Everything I did was the subject of some kind of stern talking to in the office, which unlike every other job I've ever held, was in the front of the store, right next to the front window. She didn't like the ties I wore. If I came in with a day's stubble, I'd get spoken to about it. I remember she once spoke to me about being too nice to some girls who came in. Dear God, I hated everything about it.

And then one Saturday night I was working, and Stacia Newcomb came in. She might have been stoned, or drunk, or just an odd duck, but she spent a good amount of time hanging around the front counter, talking to me. And she told me a lot about herself, her desire to become an actor, her commitment to the arts, but what I remember most of all was her chastisement. I was wasting my life, she told me, working in a video store. I can't say that the thought hadn't occurred to me, but things always sound so much more cogent and profound when spoken by a beautiful girl.

Luckily, it wasn't too much longer after that that events conspired to end my time at Hollywood video. Hollywood had a free-standing return drop-box on the sidewalk outside the store, which allowed people to pull up and return their videos without getting out of their car, probably the only way in which Hollywood was superior to Blockbuster video. I came in one Thursday night to work, and the drop box was gone.

I was relieving Donna, so when I came onto my shift I asked her about it. She brought me into the front office. "Frank stole it." That didn't make any sense, I said. How can you be sure? Donna had some story about the security cameras from the front office catching it, although looking at the angle of the cameras in relation to the front window, I sincerely doubted that. I was confused, but didn't fight her too much. Until she told me that when Frank came in to pick up his check it was my job to tell him he was fired.

I told her that I wouldn't do it, that it was above my pay-grade, and that if she wanted Frank fired, she would have to do it herself. Part of it was my affection for Frank. I wouldn't say we were friends, since he was older than my father, but he was a nice guy and always very friendly. Another part was that I felt there was something really fishy about the whole thing. Unlike taking a nutty like she usually did, Donna just kind of nodded and said she would take care of it.

She left for the night and I was thoroughly confused about the missing return drop-box. It must've been some high school kids or something. It just had prank written all over it. Why would Frank take it? It didn't make sense.

Carol came in next for her check, and she was acting weird. I had worked with her the least, but she was also very pleasant and friendly usually, so her cagey behavior was out of the ordinary. She hung around a lot longer than I expected her to, and seemed to be watching me carefully. Frank called to see if the checks were in, and when he told me he was on his way, I decided to tell Carol what Donna had told me. I brought her into the front office. "Donna told me to fire Frank," I said. "She said he stole the drop box."

Carol looked shocked. "Really?" she said. "Because Donna called me at work today and told me that YOU took the drop box."

When Frank came in, we brought him on board and he told us that Donna had called him at work to tell him that Carol had taken the drop box. I still to this day have no idea why Donna did this, unless it was her version of divide and conquer that would only work if you were trying to divide and conquer a group of Fraggles. There was no way it was going to work with intelligent adults.

We all quit that night. We called the regional manager, explained the situation, and said we were leaving without notice. I said I would keep my store key until the next payday to insure that Donna couldn't try and hold my last paycheck from me. We left Donna a note, signed by all three of us, locked up the store and all went home. On my way home, I drove past the back of the store and saw the Drop Box next to the dumpster. None of it made any sense.

That Sunday afternoon, I received a call from the teenage girl who worked at the store. She asked me when I was coming in. I told her that I had quit and didn't work there anymore. She sounded confused, and said okay. But Donna had left her at the store at 11:00 and she was supposed to be off at 3:00, but now it was 5:15 and nobody was there to relieve her. Donna had told the girl that I was on my way in, and the poor girl had waited 6 hours to call and check to see where I was. I went in and sent her home, closed out the registers and locked the money in the safe (to make sure that Donna couldn't try and claim that I had taken any money), vacuumed the store (I don't know why I did this) hung a sign up on the door saying we were closing early, then locked the door and threw my key into the return slot. I never went back, not even to get my last check. It showed up a month later in the mail.

A few days later, I received a call from the regional manager, explaining that it was Donna and her boyfriend who had removed the drop box, and Donna had been let go. He offered his apologies, and asked me to come back and work at the store. He offered me the manager's position again, even offered to raise the salary if I'd come back. He said he was planning on calling Frank and Carol and asking them to come back as my management staff. I politely declined. Even the fact that Donna was gone, that I was going to be the boss of the store, wasn't enough to get the voice of Stacia Newcomb out of my head. Within six months I would begin work as a substitute teacher, which was the beginning of my career in education.

Three years later, I was working at the local middle school as the building sub, and I took the eighth grade class I was subbing for to a school assembly about Anne Frank. Miss Frank was being portrayed by a young actress named Stacia Newcomb. I recognized her immediately and during the Q & A following the performance, I especially recognized the tone in her voice, the one that had told me that I was wasting my time by not using my abilities for the greater good. I wanted to go up after the presentation to tell her that I had followed her advice, that I had made a decision about how I wanted to live my life, how I wanted to contribute to the world. But it was only 12:35, and there was still lots of work to be done.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Workingman's Blues Part I: You Work 3-7.

I met Krissy on the bus. For a two year period, starting when I was 15, we were best friends. We rode to school together, hung out every day after school, even went to the prom together. And one day, I even dressed up in her clothes and went to work for her.

Krissy worked at the Honey Dew Donuts in Whitman center, and as far as it concerned me, it just meant she wasn't available to hang out Saturday afternoons. She didn't really talk much about it, at least as far as I can remember. But that wasn't really her style. So when she did complain, I knew to pay attention. Her family had been planning a clambake for the upcoming Saturday, and Kris had requested the day weeks off in advance, and had been promised by her boss that she would have it off. But when she went in that Friday to pick up her check, she saw her name still on the schedule. And she pleaded with her boss, told him he had told her that she'd have that day off, and he brushed her aside. "Nobody else could work then."

So she was going to quit. She was going to not even show up, just forget the whole thing. Her boss was an asshole. She wasn't going to miss her family's clambake, she had requested it off. The whole thing was stupid and unfair. It wasn't worth the five bucks an hour. Krissy was going to have to quit soon anyway, because she was spending a month down in Florida with her sister that summer. She was just going to quit now.

"You know what would be funny?" I said. My fiancee hears this phrase now and she gets chills. She's learned that my idea of things that 'would be funny' are usually horrible and crippingly awkward, and she bristles at the mere thought of it. Krissy wasn't quite so squeamish.

So the plan was, I would put on Krissy's pink Honey Dew donuts workshirt, show up at her work at 3:00 and pretend that I was her replacement. I thought it would be really funny to watch her stupid boss squirm at this boy wearing a far too small pink workshirt claiming he was his new employee.

I lived within walking distance of the Honey Dew, so I put the shirt on and walked, in broad daylight, the 1.5 miles to the shop. I think this says a lot about my character when I was a teenager. I wasn't frightened to walk around in pubic looking like a complete douchebag. I walked into the front door, and I got my first glimpse of the manager, Krissy's boss, who I soon knew as Sam the Donut Man. It was the first time I got nervous about my little plan. Sam looked like Manuel Noriega, and I was the kind of erudite kid who knew what the former military leader of Panama looked like. His resting face was a permanent grimace, and if he had ever smiled, I imagine it would have been even scarier.

I told him that I was Krissy's replacement. He squinted one eye and looked me up and down. "You work 3 to 7," he said. He grabbed some cash out of the register and he left me alone in the store. For the afternoon. I had my first ever official job. I was scared shitless.

I have no memory of him showing me how anything worked, but I'm going to have to admit that he must have. But I had no formal training period. I showed up at three o'clock and I was relieved at seven, and for a long time in between then I was alone in the Honey Dew. A bell kept going off that I eventually figured out was someone coming up to the drive through. I had no idea what a regular coffee was, so when people ordered it, I just gave them a black coffee. That first day, these two guys in a pick-up truck who looked and smelled like they had been getting stoned since at least early that morning if not since the mid-1970s came through the drive through not once nor twice but thrice, each time coming up with some kind of new insult to hurl at me. The second time they called me 'miss' and I seem to think that they called me Shirley once. They did however tip me quite well. What that means is something I haven't really thought about, and don't ever really want to.

Between the front of the store and the drive up window was a corridor with the "break-room" which was really just a closet to hang up your coat or put your bags. There was also a payphone, which would ring at random intervals, and I only answered it after it had rung four or five times.

"Why don't you answer phone?" It was Sam the Donut man. I discovered that it was always Sam the Donut Man. I don't know who else would call a Honey Dew Donuts. Customers, wondering if there were any French crullers left? Sam asked me for my Social Security number. I didn't know it off the top of my head, and I still didn't think I was really working there, and I didn't even really know what a Social Security number even really was. He told me to get it, then hung up.

Meanwhile, people were lining up at the drive up and the older folks lining up at the front counter. They wanted coffees that were light with milk, dark with cream, two sugars, three sugars, iced, French vanilla, almond roasted, things I had no idea what any of them meant. But there must have been something cute about how completely inept I seemed, because I made crazy tips that afternoon, at least to a 15 year old. I made over twenty bucks, and when an older woman came to relieve me, I was able to buy not just one, but two cassette tapes from Strawberries (Neil Young's Mirrorball and Warren Zevon's Mutineer) and still had a few bucks left over. And the next Saturday when I went in, there was a check waiting for me for $17.49. It was more money than I could have ever possibly spent. As hard as it is to believe now.

The second week I came into work, Sam wasn't there. There was a morning girl, who left when I came in. I was kind of relieved that I didn't have to see Noriega that I nearly crapped myself when he pulled up to the drive-up window. "You told me you were 17!" he yelled at me. "You lied to me!" I thought maybe he had me confused with someone else, because I hadn't really said anything to him at all the week before when he had left me alone to mind his store. Cars started to line up behind his, so he just shook his finger at me, telling me again that I had told him I was 17, and then he drove off.

And so the summer went. I would put on my pink shirt (I was given one that fit eventually) and I slowly learned how to make coffee, how to accurately use the register (before I just looked at the price on the menu and did the math in my head and hit the no sale button, which gave Sam no idea how much money was supposed to be in the drawer after my shift, so I could have robbed him blind, but it never really occurred to me.) And each week the phone would ring and it would be Sam, asking me some question about something I had no idea about. Tara hadn't come in (I had no idea who Tara was.) I didn't know when the last batch of iced coffee had been made (I didn't even know we made the iced coffee there.) And the same few old people sat there all afternoon, and the same few people came in through the drive-in.

A few weeks in, I started to get comfortable enough to get my swagger back, so I came to work dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and a lei, and told the customers it was our "Tropical Island" weekend, but when they asked what kind of specials came along with that, I had to admit I had just made it up. I tried to come up with some catchphrases to say when I rang people up, but most just confused the customers and none of them ever stuck. I think the last thing you want to hear the 15 year old boy making your coffee say is "Shazam!" when he hands it to you.

The only really exciting thing that ever happened was a phone call one Saturday in late July. I answered it, assuming it was Sam, only to hear a woman's voice. She was looking for Sam, and when I told her he wasn't there, she said okay and hung up. She called back ten minutes later and asked me for a favor. She told me her name was Michelle. Sam owned the apartment building next door, and she rented one of the flats. "There's a man inside my apartment," she told me. "I need you to go over there and tell him to answer my phone."

At the age of 15 I would've done anything a woman told me, so I climbed out the drive-up window (I don't know why I did this, other than I didn't want the people in the front seeing me leaving the shop unattended) and I walked next door to this woman's apartment. There were a lot of things swimming through my mind when I rang the buzzer, especially the phrase "There's a man in my apartment." Not my husband, not my boyfriend, not my brother. A man. There's a man in my apartment. The phrase sounded familiar.

The man in her apartment answered the door, and looked at me with derision. Who was this boy in a pink shirt ringing the bell of the apartment that he was in, that belonged to some woman who had an unknown relationship to him? There was a tiny dog yipping at the crack in the door. "What?"

I told him that Michelle had called. "She wants to you answer the phone." I could hear it ringing over the dog's yipping.

He seemed kind of groggy or stoned (I had gotten used to what that looked like, working the drive up window) and confused. "What?"

"Michelle," I said a little bit louder. "She wants you to answer your phone."

The dog was yipping more ferociously until the man in Michelle's apartment kicked it, and it scurried away whimpering.

"Who are you?" he asked. With everything quiet now, I was able to explain who I was, and how I knew that Michelle wanted him to answer her phone. He said okay and closed the door. I heard that dog whimper in my dreams that night.

But otherwise, it was what ever teenage job ever was. Boring, repetitive, and eventually, once summer ended, over. I gave my two weeks that October and never saw Sam the Donut Man again.

It wasn't a very exciting job, and when I talk about my working history, I usually skip over it like one skips over that girl you "dated" for three days in sixth grade when talking about your romantic life. Krissy came back from Florida and we slowly kind of drifted apart, as she grew more disillusioned with life outside of the Sunshine State, and as I began dating her best friend. Her next job was working at a local restaurant as a waitress and she complained about that job at lot more. Whether it was more difficult, or that it was just one other thing that was making her unhappy I don't know. I tried to make a joke about waitressing, and about how there were probably worse jobs to be had, and she looked at me a minute like she was about to say "Why don't you try walking a mile in my shoes?" before she stopped herself and realized that I kind of already had.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Moral Dilemma of the Day 6/18

You can have any superpower imaginable: super-strength, flight, x-ray vision, the ability to read minds. Whatever you can think of. The trade-off? You will lose your sense of taste forever. You may be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, or fly around the Earth at the speed of sound, but you will never be able to taste prime rib again. Strawberry milkshakes will just be cold liquid in your mouth. You may be able to use your newfound superpowers for the good of all mankind, but would it be worth it if you can never taste your chicken broccoli ziti again?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


I don't remember when I first heard about John Wesley Harding, but I do remember that when I did, it was in reference to his reputation as "Elvis Costello-lite." I remember being slightly disappointed when I finally tracked down a JWH album and didn't really find that he had very much in common with Costello at all. I learned later that he used two thirds of the Attractions as his backing band on his first two records, so that might be where the comparison comes into play. But in the early summer of 1999 when I bought the only JWH CD I could find, "Awake", I was almost offended by how unElvisCostellolike it was. But then again, I was 20 years old and was fond of portmanteaus like unElvisCostellolike. I've clearly gotten over that now.

"Good Morning (I Just Woke Up)"- This song starts out with an alarm going off, and the song coming out of a cheap radio speaker. It is thirty five seconds long. I remember being disappointed that such a catchy number would be so truncated. I've since heard the full version, and thirty five seconds was about right.

"Your Ghost Doesn't Scare Me Anymore"-I've heard every JWH album by now, but Awake was my first, so at the time I didn't realize exactly how many songs about ghosts he'd written. I imagined when I was 20 that this was a metaphorical ghost, like the singer can't help but be haunted by the memory of someone, but now I believe it's supposed to be taken literally, and now that I'm 30, I think this increases its awesomeness by 4000%. I like the idea that somebody might eventually become friends with the ghosts in their house. Like why didn't Scooby and Shaggy just try giving some of those ghosts Scooby Snacks? It might have made their problems a lot easier.

"Windowseat"-One of the biggest things I learned since my overly serious young adulthood, is that not everything is metaphorical. This is a song about a boy being born aboard an aeroplane. I swore that this was supposed to be symbolic, but really, JWH just decided to write a kind of Dickensian story about a little boy who is born and lives his entire life aboard an aeroplane. The chorus? "I know I've got the whole world at my feet from my windowseat." Most songwriters would never have entertained such a notion, deciding instead that there were songs that needed to be written about how women do you wrong, or baby let's get into some make of automobile and blow this town we're in, because we're tramps or whatever. Not John Wesley Harding. He wants to write songs about stuff you've never thought about. Like what it would be like to live your entire life aboard an aeroplane. I give this song an A quintillion plus for awesomeness.

"Burn"-Another thing JWH does? He writes a song called Burn and then builds a drum loops out of flicking lighters and lit matches. Basically, we're all going to burn in hell, according to the singer. My favorite bit is when he tells his lover to put him atop the funeral pyre, and then have the house band play 'Light My Fire' which he has selected mainly for its mention of fire, because it's a terrible song, and the 'fire' is metaphorical, which we have already established is not how JWH rolls.
One thing that I think is really cool is that during the choruses, when the full drum kit comes in, you can still hear the matches and lighter loop. Because that's how he rolls, too.

"It's All My Fault"-The middle third of the album drags a bit, and it starts here. This is a pretty good tune, especially when the female voice in the chorus tells JWH that it's all his fault, and he apologizes for writing this song. He does a much better song around this theme on his next record called "I'm Wrong About Everything" which might be his most famous song thanks to its appearance in the movie "High Fidelity" which tells you all you need to know about JWH's career: he's a terrific songwriter who most people have only heard for thirty seconds in the background of a movie starring John Cusack. For comparision, think about that awful Aerosmith song from the movie "Armageddon" Couldn't JWH have gotten some love for that song, seeing as how he's actually written songs about the armageddon? And I bet somewhere in his vast catalog of unreleased songs he has one about the government sending a team of miners to stop an asteroid from destroying the earth. Because that's how JWH rolls.

"Sweat, Tears, Blood and Come"- The title of this song sounds like the album title of some Norwegian Metal band. It's actually a really pretty little melody, with the unfortunate fact that he references "come" like seventeen times. Also, is that how that word is spelled? He is British, so perhaps that's how they spell it over there. Except it would be ironic, since the original British words we Americanize by dropping the 'u', like favour vs. favor, rumour vs rumor, et cetera. But in this case, apparently, we actually added a 'u'. I mean, we also dropped the 'o' and 'e' and maybe it isn't a British spelling thing at all, but more just one of those record label things where they didn't want the word cum to appear on the back of the CD, so they used the other spelling even though grammatically it doesn't really make very much sense. But then again, neither does using the spelling on a CD jacket as an etymology lesson. PS-This song is way way too long, if you couldn't have guessed by the above diatribe.

"Poor Heart"- I don't know if JWH thought much about the sequencing of this album, putting all these slower numbers right in the middle. Maybe it's a concept album about being asleep, and this is the part of the night when you're asleep and nothing happens. You aren't dreaming, you aren't rolling around restlessly. You're just snoring and farting. At least, that's what I do in the middle of the night. This song doesn't really do much for me. He just keeps talking about his body parts and how poor they are. Poor eyes, poor mouth, poor head, poor gallbladder, poor clavicle. What he should've done is written a song about a body part that becomes independently wealthy. Like an old lady dies and leaves her fortune to her young next door neighbor's spleen. And then he has to try and haggle with the spleen to get the money. That actually sounds like next summer's Eddie Murphy movie.

"Miss Fortune"-We pick things up with this song about a young orphan boy who gets adopted by a wealthy older man who makes him dress up like a girl. The first verse of the song is like half of a Dickens' novel: "I was born with a coathanger in my mouth, and I was dumped down south. I was found by the richest man in the world, he brought me up as a girl. My sheets are satin but my minds a mess, there are worse things I confess than having tea in a pretty dress." That's like a hundred pages of a cross-dressing version of Oliver Twist. JWH actually wrote a novel based on the story of this song,(true story) and it's pretty good, but the song is way better. Mainly because it has a glass harmonica solo in it. That's when you play wine glasses by rubbing your wet finger across the rim. Name one novel that has that.

"Song I Wrote Myself in the Future"- One thing pop music doesn't deal with much is time travel. Like actual time travel, and not some kind of symbolic thing. So JWH has decided he is going to write himself and send back in time to an earlier version of himself. The best part is that he doesn't seem to give himself any real practical advice, which is kind of how I imagine actual time travel going down. Like you would go back in time to meet your earlier self, and I bet most of us would forget all the things we'd want to warn our former selves about and instead just start reminiscing about stuff from both of our pasts. "Remember when we were five? Man, Cookie Crisp was delicious."

"Something to Write Home About"-This song is very reminiscient of "Poor Heart" except much better written. Which as a songwriter I can confirm is something that happens: you write a song that's not that good, but then you borrow parts you like from it to write a new, better song. What you shouldn't do is include both songs on the same album, like two songs away from each other. And you certainly shouldn't put the weaker song on first, because I think if I heard this song first, I'd like it a whole lot more. And I'd like it a whole lot more if I'd never heard "Poor Heart" at all. During the song there's some kind of sound effect that sounds like a gerbil running in a wheel, and I've been spending a lot of time trying to figure out what it is, so that's the other thing I wouldn't do: I wouldn't write a song that sounds a lot like a song I already wrote and then put both songs on the album, and I wouldn't use a weird and totally distracting sound effect on the better of the two songs. I don't know who told JWH this album needed to have forty-seven songs on it, but obviously he's never heard Led Zeppelin IV. That album only has like three and a half songs on it.

"You Were Looking At Me"-This is clearly not the best JWH album, as I'm really struggling to think of things to say to cover for the fact that a lot of these songs are just middling to okay. If I had to recommend a JWH album to purchase, I would recommend 2000's "The Confessions of St. Ace" or 1992's "Why We Fight" which are both superior albums. But this one was first, and it will always remind me of a specific period of my life, and particularly a specific night from that period, when I didn't even listen to this album. And while I bought this album the week that Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was released, that wasn't the night that this album reminds me of. Because, really, I don't ever want to be reminded of the Phantom Menace.

"You Little So & So" Okay, I'm listening now to the remastered deluxe version of this album right now, and I know this wouldn't really go with the whole "deluxe" version idea, but if I were JWH, when I rereleased this album I would've cut out "Poor Heart" and "You Were Looking At Me", kind of like when the Coen brothers released their director's cut of their first movie "Blood Simple" they cut like ten minutes out of it, instead of adding thirty, like most people do. JWH should've streamlined the album because it would've flowed a lot better without the really dirgey songs. And actually if I'm pretending I'm JWH, what I'd actually do is go back in time to myself in 1996 and tell myself not to even put those songs on the first version and then I would go back to the present and add them to the deluxe edition, thus restoring the universe to its proper order. Or I could just make a playlist on iTunes with the songs I want. There are a few ways to handle this situation.

"I'm Staying Here and I'm Not Buying a Gun" This is one of the best song titles of all time. This is like a Morrissey song title, but with the benefit of not being a Morrissey song. (I like Morrissey, but the titles are usual the best part of his songs, which is why he usually repeats them 400 times during the song) This song also seems to be the one where JWH remembered that he'd hired a drummer for this album and lets him play. I really like that he keeps referring to someone as "Pilgrim" which I like to think is him doing a John Wayne impression, because I love when foreigners think everybody in American is a cowboy. Seriously. It's way cooler than how we really are.

"Late O' Clock"- This is the second half of the "Just Woke Up" song, and it benefits from having had about forty five minutes of music between the two halves. So you forgotten how catchy it was, but you've also forgotten how annoyingly catchy it was.

"Wooden Overcoat"- This was a hidden track on the original, and I never knew what it was called until it was properly released on the deluxe edition. Remember when artists put hidden songs on CDs? It was actually kind of a pain in the ass if you put on Nirvana's "Nevermind" and about six hours after the twelfth song finished the hidden song started to play. It would scare the shit out of you, if you, like me, used to put CDs on at night in the dark before you went to bed. Whose idea was it, the first hidden track on a CD, I wonder? Probably the same guy who came up with the packaging of CDs, with the impossible shrinkwrap and those stickers across the top that always leave a sticky residue on the case. Oh, who am I kidding? Nobody buys CDs anymore. I blame the decline in CD sales not just on the internet and music pirates, but on making CDs so difficult to open that Indiana Jones had an easier time getting the Ark of the Covenant. This song, by the way, is pretty good, and would've better a far better choice for the running order than "S,T,B&C", "Poor Heart" or "You Were Looking At Me."

The deluxe CD has two Bruce Springsteen covers, "Jackson Cage" and "Wreck on the Highway" (which is actually a duet with Bruce Springsteen) and I was surprised to learn that Bruce had asked JWH to open for him on his "Tom Joad" tour, which must be quite a thrill. In the original liner notes JWH thanked Bruce Springsteen,and I remember thinking that it must be another guy named Bruce Springsteen, seeing as how he also thanked Steve Martin who was his manager, and it wasn't the same guy as the guy from "The Jerk". I wonder if when Bruce asked JWH to tour with him, he was like "Hey, man, that 'Windowseat' song is tight. Make sure to play that one. You can skip some of those slow, weird ones." and then JWH was all like, "Sure thing, Pilgrim."

Friday, June 12, 2009


Someday I will have children, and they will be as sweet and wonderful as can be. They will be studious, and kind, and thoughtful, and I will think to myself how fortunate I am to have such perfect children. Then, they will turn 12 and try to set me on fire. I know this because karma is real, and I have it coming.

I don’t remember the first time I tried to be bad. I know that as a child, I was bad--played too rough with my sisters, didn’t eat all my dinner but still wanted dessert, talked back to my parents. But I wasn’t trying to be bad. Being bad was what I became in the process of doing something or trying to attain something that I wanted. But sometime, around the age of 12, what I wanted was to be bad. That’s the difference.

I think it would be easy to blame it on bad influences, and Jesse, my best friend at the time, certainly fit the bill, since he wore a jean jacket vest sometimes with Guns N’ Roses pins on it. And having him around certainly made it easier to do bad things, because he either wanted to too or he didn’t need much in the way of excuse to misbehave. But it wasn’t his influence on me, or my influence on him. We were adolescents, all raging hormones and high pitched voices that cracked low without notice. We were full of that kind of weird sexual energy that has no realistic outlet except to create mischief. We weren’t malicious. It was just high spirits.

I don’t think I had it in me to use my mischief against those weaker than me, so I never was a bully. I might have helped that there weren’t a whole lot of people who were weaker than me, but I think there was a part of me that knew, somewhere unconscious, that I was only pretending to be bad. So I directed my malfeasance at those in power above me. My favorite was my 7th and 8th grade English teacher, Mrs. Teahan. I tormented this woman on a daily basis for two years. I don’t know if I’ve ever showed such singular commitment again, to anything.

There are dozens of stories, all too similar and boring to really recount, but they all had a theme: she was stupid, and I was smart. And I reveled in any opportunity to demonstrate this to her and to my classmates.

An example: she once lost one of my three paragraph essays, claming that I had never turned it in. She told me that I could pass it in the next day but I would lose a whole letter grade for being late. I used to type everything on my typewriter back then, so that night I went home and typed the paper in triplicate, put different dates on each and hid two of them in different places on her desk, passing the third in to her. A few days later, she passed us back our composition folders, and inside were four of my essays, with an apologetic post-it note (well, series of post it notes--I remember mocking her decision to,once realizing that her thoughts wouldn’t fit on one or even three post-it notes, continue to write them on there anyway.)

My other foil was our 8th grade Social Studies teacher, Ms. Sullivan. Ms. Sullivan was in no way stupid--at least not to the extent that Mrs. Teahan was.) But her disadvantage was mobility: she was an extremely large and old woman, who rarely if ever got up from her desk during class. The only time, in fact, that she was not seated at her desk is during lunch. That it took us much less time to get back from the Cafetorium each day than it did for her to get back from the Teacher’s room (despite the fact that the teacher’s room was a great deal closer) allowed us to engage in much mischief. I don’t know when I first started turning things on her desk upside down--her stapler, her coffee mug, her desk calendar--but I do know that rarely a day went by when I didn’t find something to leave flipped upside down on her desk. Until one day, I had run out of things, and decided just to turn the whole desk upside down.

I had help. We cleared everything off the desk, to make sure that nothing got damaged, and then turned the entire desk upside down and took our seats. I won’t mention my accomplices by name, except Jesse, who has already been dragged into this, and Brad, who disappeared into private Catholic school the next year. Whether or not this descent into crime had anything to do with it, I am unsure.

Ms. Sullivan was an older teacher who looked like she had been teaching since the days of corporal punishment, and her face would get really tight and red when she was angry. She didn’t say anything, and asked some of the students in the front to turn her desk rightside up again. Nobody sold us out, but they really didn’t have to. Our reputation preceded us.

The next morning we came in to the classroom and our desks were turned upside down. Looking back now, I admire her pluck, but that day we weren’t going to be defeated, so we each sat on the desks upside, crouching on top of the wire book rack that hung under the seat. She ordered us to get off, and we eventually did, but we thought she’d learned her lesson. Don’t mess with us. She retired at the end of the year.

Probably my proudest moment as a punk was in Mrs. Teahan’s eighth grade class. As a class we walked down to the Elementary School and were paired up with a third grader, and the assignment was to write and illustrate a children’s book for them. Again, from the vantage point of adulthood, I can admire the civics lesson, the community service aspect inherent in this assignment. But as we left the Elementary School to walk the half mile back to the Middle School, I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I was thinking that I wanted a Devil Dog. So instead of walking directly back to the school, I walked the opposite way to the center of town and in the local Lil’Peach, I bought a Suzy Q (there were no Devil Dogs on offer) and then walked back to the Middle School. Jesse came with me, at least part of the way, but I remember him being a little gun shy about actually going to the Lil’ Peach. No Suzy Q for him, then.

We were fortunate that Mrs.Teahan had gotten back to the school later, and was late for a grade wide assembly, so she marched the whole class into the Cafetorium, and as such we were able to sneak in undetected and nobody knew we had been missing. It was a dangerous gamble, and I don’t think I even knew about the assembly, or if I did, even imagined the possibility that I would be able to use it to cover for my tardiness. I didn’t have a plan to cover for my absence. Getting caught was probably the point.

The next day, however, the Elementary School principal called the Middle School to inform them that two eighth grade students loitered about before going back to the school. Jesse and I were hauled out into the hallway by Mrs. Teahan and read the riot act. I was a precocious child, and for some reason a big viewer of the daily repeats of LA Law on A&E, and made a lawyerly defense argument. How do you know it was us? Did the Elementary School principal mention us by name, or offer a description? Or did he say two boys and you automatically assumed it was us?

It was an impassioned plea, a well-argued defense, but I was careful to never actually say directly it wasn’t us. Instead I focused on the unfairness of being assumed guilty without evidence. Of being condemned by prior bad acts. And I could see it on her face. Mrs. Teahan realized the error of her ways. It was unfair to accuse us without proof. So she apologized. Said that she shouldn’t be so quick to rush to judgment and that she was sorry.

Jesse gave me a sideways look of relief. We had gotten away with it. We had escaped punishment for our silly little act of defiance, thanks to my deft skills of debate.

“It was us,” I said. I couldn’t resist letting her know that I had fooled her again. Even if it meant rescuing defeat from the jaws of victory. I couldn’t bear for her not to know that I had outsmarted her again. “You shouldn’t have assumed it was us, but it was.”

She retired a few years later and became our Massachusetts State Representative. I’d like to think maybe I’d taught her a few things that would come in handy during her political career.

I left 8th grade and when I got to the high school, I was the small fish in the big pond. There was little patience for my punkdom and nobody really found it funny anymore. The girls from my grade were all snatched up by upperclassmen boys and with nobody left to impress, my life as a punk was over, more or less.

Our final prank at the Middle School involved the Basketball scoreboard. It had been taken down for repairs, and was leaning outside Ms. Sullivan’s classroom, right next to the gym entrance. At the end of the day one day in late May or early June, Jesse and I picked the thing up and ran it down the long straight hallway, where the entire 7th & 8th grade classrooms were. Our plan, probably, was to get it outside and leave on the lawn. But when we got it to the lobby, we found it was too tall to make it through the doorway. Realizing we were seconds away from being caught, we rested it up against the wall there, and then left through the front lobby doors, to go cause our mischief somewhere out in the sunny spring air. There’s probably a metaphor somewhere in there, but damned if I could find it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Moral Dilemma of the Day 6/10

Let's pick a band/artist you love, and a band/artist you hate. For example, let's say that you love the Beatles but you hate Styx. And let's say that tomorrow morning you wake up in a parallel dimension where the two bands switch places, so that Tommy Shaw and Dennis DeYoung are the two most acclaimed songwriters in pop music history, having written such great hits as "Yesterday" and "Strawberry Fields Forever", and their band Styx is the biggest band of all time. Meanwhile, two young men from Liverpool, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, team up to form a band called the Beatles and released a concept album about robots taking over, featuring a song called "Mr. Roboto". Although the songs and the critical acclaim have switched (in other words, Styx has written all the Beatles hits and their albums are held in the same high regard that the Beatles are now) the individual personalities of each artist is intact: if you'd like, you can imagine a "Hard Day's Night" like movie starring John, Paul, George, and Ringo, except instead of having Beatles' songs on the soundtrack, it features "Babe" and "Snowblind." Nobody will remember that these two bands used to be reversed, only you. So the question: are you a Beatles fan or a Styx fan*?

(*Or Stones and Bon Jovi, or Radiohead and Jonas Brothers, et cetera)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Moral Dilemma of the Day

You are in a happy relationship with a person of your preferred gender who you find attractive, and who you can envision spending the rest of your life with. You also have a beloved pet (cat, dog, turtle, whatever) that you've had since before your current relationship began, and who you love more than you've loved any pet you've ever had before.

And then one day you wake up to discover that your lover has turned into some kind of domesticated animal and your pet has become a person, an attractive person of your preferred gender. Their personalities will remain intact, so that your new cat (or dog) will have the same personality as your former lover, and your new lover will have the same personality as your former pet. The problem is that your new lover is violently allergic to your new pet, and one of them will have to go. Who do you choose? The person who before yesterday was your pet, or the pet who before yesterday was your lover?

Friday, June 5, 2009

Sample the first chapter "The While"

My new book, "The While" is available now, using the links at right. It tells the story of eight-year old Matthew Giarrano and the last seven days of his life.

The first chapter can be read here

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Moral Dilemma of the Day

In 1696, Guillaume de l'Hôpital published "Analysis of the Infinitely Small to Understand Curved Lines" which included a mathematical discovery he called L'Hôpital's Rule. The problem? Guillame was a mediocre mathematician at best, and hired Johann Bernoulli to tutor him, in order for him to be able to devise a mathematical theorem. Eventually Guillame got tired of waiting for inspiration to strike, and purchased one of Johann's mathematically discoveries, and named it L'Hôpital's Rule after himself.

So here's your moral dilemma: if you invented something and someone offered to pay you an outrageously large sum of money for it, with the caveat that they would claim credit for the invention and that you would never be able to mention to anybody that you had anything to do with the invention, would you take the deal? Or would you keep credit for your invention, but remain at your current economic status forever?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


I had a dream a few night ago where I was filling out an application, and somewhere after emergency contacts was a blank reserved for my archenemy. I remember being slightly concerned in the dream why the people reading this application wanted to know who my archenemy was, but I quickly became anxious at the question itself: who was my archenemy? I’ve certainly used the term before to describe a great number of people, from the head of the high school guidance department who was my last boss to the pretentious poet/artist I went to high school with sometime in the last century. But those weren’t archenemies. They were foils, rivals. To truly be an archenemy, by definition, they would’ve had to have been my best friend in the whole world. That’s what an archenemy is: someone you hate with the same passion that you used to love them with.

People who are only familiar with the films or cartoons or comics might not realize that Superman and Lex Luthor had a relationship prior to Metropolis. When they were boys, they both lived in Smallville, and there, Lil’ Lex and Lil’ Kal El were best friends. (It’s my understanding this is similar to their relationship on the Smallville TV series.) Lex even developed a cure for Kryptonite, such was his friendship with Superboy. But when Lex’s lab catches fire, and Superboy uses his super-breath to extinguish the flames, he destroys Lex’s experiment and knocks chemicals onto Lex’s head, causing the permanent baldness that has become Luthor’s trademark. Convinced that Superboy purposely tried to ruin the experiment and cause his baldness out of jealousy, Lex turns on his friend, and swears to get revenge. Cue 70 years of rivalry.

So who, under this criterion, would be my archenemy?

I grew up on Auburn Street in Whitman, Massachusetts, a busy little street in a decidedly unbusy little town. As a toddler, I was able to entertain myself for countless hours, running around my backyard, pretending wiffleball bats were swords, old ropes were tentacles, and tiny kittens were frightening manticores. It was an idyllic life, one that probably worried my parents, and while I would sometimes play with my cousin or the children of my parents’ friends when they came over, there were no children in the neighborhood for me to play with, nor did I have any desire to seek any out. They would have to come to me.

And when I was five years old, our next door neighbors moved out and the Joyce family moved in. They had two daughters, Jennifer and Katie, and I don’t remember the first time I met them, but I can say I had, we were in each other’s backyards every afternoon. Jennifer was my age, and Katie was my sister’s, so we each had gained a playmate in one move.

A popular cartoon and action figure when I was young was He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, in which a fey prince and his cowardly giant tiger would be magically transformed into the fur underpants wearing barbarian He-Man and Battle Cat (although why He-Man was never recognized as being Prince Adam, but the tiger needed to wear a mask to protect its identity is beyond me.) And while I certainly loved the traditional superheroes of Superman, Spiderman, and the Hulk, I had a pretty singular preoccupation with He-Man while play-acting in my backyard. And even then, as a small boy, I knew that I needed a nemesis to really complete the experience. Jennifer fit the bill perfectly.

Which is to say that she was another person, and was willing to play with me. There was nothing particularly villainous about her. She was pretty, as far as I was concerned, and she had a certain bit of sophistication, relatively speaking. Video does exist of us playing which more or less contradicts this, but I remember her speaking with a slight upper class British accent, not unlike Gregory from Yardale in the South Park movie. (“Come, Wendy, let’s frolick in the underbrush! I have a 4.0 grade point average!”) She probably set mold for all the other erudite but snooty women I would later become involved with. Joy, I am looking at you.

But despite this level of snootery and sophistication, she was willing to play Masters of the Universe with me. But she didn’t want to be Skeletor or Beast Man, or even Evil-Lyn. (I was not so concerned with gender issues that I felt she needed to play a female character; in fact, Evil-Lyn, the at that time sole evil female character, was probably seventh on my list of villains for Jennifer to portray.) Instead she wanted to be She-Ra, He-Man’s newly revealed super-powered cousin. Which left me with little choice but to play the villain.

I didn’t really mind. I was pretty good at it--I seemed to relish the opportunity to be fiendish and evil, which is the main reason why I don’t drink alcohol or take drugs. Because I believe somewhere deep inside of me is a Skeletor waiting to come out. You can witness this, if you want, because there exists video of me putting Jennifer in a headlock, sticking my plastic sword against her chest, and dragging her across my backyard, cackling maniacally. My girlfriend watched it and wanted to know who was filming this, and why they weren’t stopping me. “It was just playing,” I explained. “I wasn’t really trying to hurt her.”

A small stream separated our two backyards, and the friendship between my sister Sarah and I and the two Joyce sisters was so great that my father built a small little bridge across the water, so that we could pass between each other’s backyards freely. Looking back upon it now, there is something so powerful and resonant about thinking about that tiny bridge, and how easily we crossed it, time and again.

When I started school, my mother sent me over to the Joyce’s in the morning to wait for the school bus. They had a giant golden retriever which had no fear of me, nor a respect for my personal boundaries, and I can trace my general dislike of dogs to the overzealous affection of Sandy upon my tiny boy body. The Joyce girls were also fans of Nickelodeon, the children’s TV network, and watched it constantly. I was not familiar with the network--we might not have had cable at that point--but based on my experience watching it over the Joyces’, I would think of it as the “Lassie” channel. These two girls loved the “Lassie” show so much. I couldn’t stand it. It was in black ‘n white, it had ridiculous plots, and it starred a goddamn dog. I don’t think I could’ve thought of a more boring show if I tried. But I was raised to be polite, so each morning before school, I would sit down in the Joyces’ basement with Jennifer and Katie and watched a golden retriever rescue the residents of the dumbest town ever.

I mention this detail to highlight the fact that I spent every school morning, and every school afternoon at Jennifer’s house. Afterschool we would play out back, weather permitting, and when it was cold or rainy we would sit inside and watch “Lassie.” So, while I would befriend Andy Greenlaw in first grade until we got in a fight over his refusal to let me play with his Inspector Gadget doll, and Wyatt Dowling in second, and then Mike Finley in third grade, if I was to be honest, I would have to say that my best friend growing up was Jennifer Joyce. I spent every day with her, and even though it was a matter of convenience for my mother, to have me watched by the family next door while she was at work, the truth remains: I played with Jennifer Joyce and I liked it.

I even had my first sexual pangs (though I didn’t know what they were) in the Joyce’s backyard, dragging Jennifer like a caveman back to the giant rock that sat at the edge of their woods. I don’t remember exactly what we were playing, but I can remember the strange and foreign feeling of having a girl’s body so close to mine and realizing at some animalistic level that the two were different.

Where does the story go from here? In the summer of 1987, they dug up Auburn Street to put in town sewerage, and I remember the summer being a hot one, the air filled with rock dust and the sound and smell of jackhammers. For what seemed like a long period of time to an eight year old boy, there was a large pile of gravel in front of my house, and Jennifer and I, despite probably several warnings from our mothers, were playing on it.

I can remember climbing up the giant rock pile, and sliding down, and getting my hands dirty, and getting rocks in my shoes and emptying them out. I don’t remember what we were playing, or if there was even a structure to the play, or if it was simply just “Here’s a giant pile of rocks, let’s go!” All I remember is that as I was on the opposite side of the gravel hill, I heard Jennifer yell out “Ow!” She started to cry and was running home before I even was able to get around the pile to see what was going on.

And here is where I learned about female betrayal: about ten minutes later, my mother called out the kitchen window to me. I came inside and she shook her finger at me and told me that I was grounded, no comic books, no television. How could I have thrown rocks at poor little Jennifer Joyce?

Except I hadn’t. I hadn’t thrown a rock at anything, living or non-living, boy or girl. I hadn’t thrown anything at Jennifer Joyce, but here I was, sitting inside on a summer’s day, found guilty and sentenced before I even had a chance to understand the crime I was charged with. Mrs. Joyce had called my mother, told her Jennifer had come home crying because awful, mean Ryan had thrown rocks at her head. Bring in the firing squad.

I couldn’t comprehend why Jennifer would lie like that? Had something else caused the rocks to strike her, a passing car or an errant jackhammer? Why would she assume it was me? And if nothing had struck her--which eventually became my preferred theory, that she was making the whole thing up--why did she lie about it? Why did she want to ruin my life?

It might seem a bit melodramatic to say that an afternoon’s groundation led me to hold a lifelong grudge against the girl, but one has to remember that I was eight years old, and it was summer, and an afternoon without being able to play outside, or read comics, or watch TV might as have been a hundred years in solitary confinement. And one also has to remember, if one can, how much betrayal stings when you are a child. Before we have opportunity to get used to it. Before we come to expect it.

So that was it. The following fall, my sister was also going to school, and my mother needed to find a real babysitter for us, and we began getting dropped off with a woman on the other side of town, and I never went over the Joyces’ again.
They still came over on occasion, usually for birthday parties, and the sting of betrayal, sharp as rocks against my face, affected my memory, and I pretended that I had always hated Jennifer Joyce, and that I always would. We had never been friends, and any mention of our previous friendship would have been enough to send me into a fit of raging denial. It was a reaction akin to a scorned lover. I changed the locks, burned her picture. She never meant anything to me at all. Don’t ever say her name in front of me. She meant nothing at all.

My family had some fun with this idea, and I was teased a lot by my mother and stepfather about Jennifer Joyce. They enjoyed my violent reaction to any suggestion of a possible future romance between Jennifer and me. Don’t you understand? I would say. She’s my worst enemy.

The last night I slept in the house I grew up in before my family moved away, Jennifer and her sister spent the night. Their parents must’ve needed to go out of town for the night for some reason, and my mother offered to let them sleep over. They spent the entire time with my sisters, while I sat alone in my room, as sick as if they had brought kryptonite into the house. I couldn’t believe it. My own worst enemy, under my own roof! I moved the East Bridgewater a few days later, and although my father moved into the street on Auburn Street (meaning I would never be totally free from her) it wasn’t too long after that the bridge was damaged during a particularly heavy rain, and my father removed it so that nobody would be hurt trying to cross it.

It would be five years before I was able to get my revenge on Jennifer Joyce. We ended up both attending PCC, the summer academic program I proudly teach at today, in the summer of 1994, and she befriended Janine, one of the girls from my school. Janine came and talked to me, in that confidential way that barely teenaged girls have of confessing the love of others. Jennifer liked me, Janine told me. She thought I was cute. Maybe she had always liked me, I thought. Maybe that explained the whole thing.

I managed to avoid Jennifer the rest of the summer, and I met a girl of my own that managed to preoccupy me so that I forgot all about what Janine had told me. But that fall, at our Homecoming dance, Janine signed Jennifer in. Jennifer came up to talk to me, and I, in a measure of cruelty I can’t even pretend to defend, ran away comically, like Mike Meyers from Lara Flynn Boyle in Wayne’s World. I must’ve thought it was funny. I know I definitely thought it was fitting. Tell my mom I threw rocks at you, will you? Let me humiliate you in a crowded room full of strangers. I was still punishing a fifteen year old girl for a tiny little lie she had told when she was eight years old.

I have always thought of myself as Superboy in this particular situation. I was the one who was wronged by her jealousy, or her wickedness. I always wanted to be the hero. But when push came to shove, I was always willing to be the villain. And so while I have told the story many times about the girl next door who was my worst enemy, I have also held a grudge against her for something she did over twenty years ago, something so insignificantly small it ruined my summer for an afternoon and a friendship for a lifetime. I have always thought of myself as Superboy in this particular situation. Now I’m not so sure.