Gates of hell

I’ve signed up for the 31 Plays in 31 Days project, committing myself to daily playwriting throughout the month of August. The project includes a pre-challenge warmup of 256-(alpha-numeric)-character plays. Here’s the warmup play for July 28:

    • GUY: Hey, are you that philanthropist?
    • BILL: Yes.
    • G: You know, you’ve caused a lot of misery.
    • BILL: Oh?
    • G: Yeah, the stress of using your shitty operating system. There’s a
    private room in hell for you, Mr. Gates. And it’s gonna have windows.

Major major

I’ve signed up for the 31 Plays in 31 Days project, committing myself to daily playwriting throughout the month of August. The project includes a five-day warmup of 256-(alpha-numeric)-character plays. Here’s today’s warmup play:

    • STUDENT: It’s hopeless. I should never have declared double majors.
    • FRIEND: So you have two final papers? Where are you with that?
    • S: Stuck. For weeks now, nothing. I swear it’s like a medical condition.
    • F: Oh, yeah, what?
    S: Impacted theses.


I’ve signed up for the 31 Plays in 31 Days project, committing myself to daily playwriting throughout the month of August. The project includes a five-day warmup of 256-(alpha-numeric)-character plays. Here’s today’s warmup play:

    • WIFE: Look at this! Just LOOK.
    • COP: We’ll need an inventory.
    • W: Of stuff I might not remember. Great.
    • C: I don’t make the rules.
    • W: And why’d they have to make such a mess?
    • C: Choosy, I guess.
    W: Oh, and THIS necklace wasn’t good enough for them!

256 characters in search of…

I’ve signed up for the 31 Plays in 31 Days project, committing myself to daily playwriting throughout the month of August. The project includes a five-day warmup of daily 256-character plays (needless to say that’s 256 letters, spaces, etc.). Here’s my warmup play for July 25:

    • EVE: Mmm. Try the one with the navel, Adam.
    • ADAM: No thanks.
    • E: Just a lick.
    • A: I said no, Evie.
    • E: Sweet and juicy.
    • A: No!
    • E: What’s with you lately?
    • A: I just don’t want more trouble. It’s bad enough.
    E: But you’re comparing oranges to apples!

Look on your work, ye Mighty, and throw it away…

Sand stream

Monk at work. (The scarf is a sneeze guard.) Click to enlarge.

Recently I watched Buddhist monks labor over a sand mandala meant to celebrate the deity Green Tara, who embodies the feminine characteristic of compassion.

A mandala’s elaborate overall design is traditional, yet unique to the site and the situation in detail. Rendering one in sand involves carefully applying grains from the mouth of a narrow funnel called a jamphur. Rubbing the side of a full jamphur with an empty one generates a controlled vibration that dispenses the brightly colored sand, a few grains at a time. The sound of the jamphurs in action builds and fades like the buzz of cicadas.


Loaded with pigment, each of the hollow tools, when tapped or scraped, releases its contents precisely.

The sand mandala that I saw under construction was the product of scores of monk-hours over the course of a week. The intricate display was destined to be erased when finished, its mingled sands ceremoniously strewn onto the nearby Wisconsin River in recognition of the impermanence of life.

Mandala detail

Note the texture of the white border, like icing piped onto a cake. Notice too how uniform the layer of green sand appears.

As an artist, I was not surprised that it pained me to consider the fate of this beautiful work of art. I’d be tempted to try to preserve it.

Compassion is fine, of course, but being nonreligious, I think the act of destroying what had been so painstakingly assembled says much more about the humility of sacrificed ownership.

For many of us, this is an unobtainable ideal.


A “12-step-commedia dell’arte” kind of relationship…

Literary agent Janet Reid regularly hosts online writing contests. Her latest challenge: Write a story with 100 words or fewer. Use the following words: kill, dell, plot, sheep, codswallop.

She received 84 entries, and decided that mine was one of six finalists. Here’s my effort:

Hazel and I had a “12-step-commedia dell’arte” kind of relationship. Our respective sex addictions repeatedly threatened to kill our marriage, but we always managed to dance away from the yawning cemetery plot of divorce.

Unfortunately, my latest infidelity involved her sister. To keep the scene from getting ugly, I suggested that we reconcile in public, over mutton at a local restaurant.

Hazel ordered for me, animelles, the sheep du jour. But when the codswallop arrived, and she handed me my noix dans un sac, I got the message: ironing out the wrinkles wouldn’t be so easy this time.


Procrastination Tips Nos. 16-20

Procrastination Tip #16
All this criticism of federal government surveillance will disappear once we realize that we now have a way to precisely retrace our steps so that we can find our missing car keys.

Procrastination Tip #17
What picture book could’ve influenced a toddler Vladimir Putin to become human?

Procrastination Tip #18
Speaking of things Russian, I successfully threw away an old garbage can using the “matryoshka doll method,” which requires a larger garbage can that I wanted to keep.

Procrastination Tip #19
I think one of my toes is growing, but I can’t be sure without going through all our old family photo albums in search of a baseline.

Procrastination Tip #20
What the world needs is a poem that rhymes “waif,” “naif,” and “giraiffe.”

Come on, what’s your favorite procrastination tip?

Is hoarding genetic?

hereditary behavior

A portion of my future estate. (Click to enlarge if you dare.)

After my parents died, my siblings and I were faced with the task of sorting through the detritus of their lives. After their eighty-plus years–more than fifty spent in the same house–this amounted to a stash that could be measured only in units commonly known as “dumpsters.” Typical of our discoveries were:

  • An three-foot bureau drawer full of unused candles,
  • A bushel of rubber stamp blanks, and
  • Hundreds of oleomargarine tubs, carefully washed, stacked, and secured in plastic bags.

These findings filled me with dread, as they reminded me of the contents of my own basement. Was I wading through my own legacy foreshadowed? Is hoarding genetic?

homeowner's inventory

The well-stocked maintenance shelves of a prudent homeowner.

Immediately I began assembling excuses. One basic goal as a homeowner is to conduct routine maintenance without having to go to the hardware store for tools and materials. You can’t do that without a healthy inventory of stuff that might eventually come in handy for repairs.

And of course, even things that I no longer need could be of value to others. Those cane-backed chairs, for example. How can I in good conscience send them to the landfill when with a few hours’ worth of skilled attention, they could be returned to full use in someone else’s dining room?

In the same way, I’m temporarily holding some things until their potential reveals itself.

shovel stock

The eclectic shovel holdings of Hippie Tom. No relation.

And let’s not forget, a good third of the contents of my basement belongs to my grown children, who use the space shamelessly as a free storage facility.

Sure, I’ve amassed a wee bit of useless junk. But I have no candles, rubber stamp blanks, or margarine containers. And I’m no Hippie Tom–now there’s a hoarder’s hoarder.

I’m just a guy who’s his parents’ son, and how can you blame me for honoring their memory as I see fit?

What’s your status–hoarder? Collector? Waste management expert?

Always go for the berries

Canadiansis excrementii

The good life according to Canadiansis excrementii.

The coffee shop guy (baristo?) didn’t hesitate when I asked him which scone he recommended–the blueberry or the lemon. “Always go for the berries,” he said. His reasoning was that the basic batter was the same for both and included a touch of lemon. And so I had the lemon-infused blueberry scone.

It occurred to me that his advice had a wider application, and I promised to look. Later that day, inspired by the debut of yet another generation of Canada geese (Canadiansis excrementii), several interpretations of “always go for the berries” came to mind:

  • “Know what’s important.” Eat dessert first.
  • “Be on the lookout for something special amidst the routine.” Pay attention or someone else will find that insect or corn kernel lying in the weeds.
  • “Given a choice, select the most extraordinary or rare.” Don’t fill up on grass at the all-you-can-eat park buffet.
  • “Look for the two-fer.” Garbage is a likely source of more than one food group at a time.
  • “What are you waiting for?” Keep moving. Don’t dawdle. Food isn’t going to jump in your mouth.
  • “Enjoy now and deal with the consequences later.” Like berries through a goose.

What does “always go for the berries” mean to you? If you favor an alternative philosophy, what is it?

[Second Thought: It is possible, of course, to overdo this advice and by always choosing berries, destroy their mystique. Going for the berries without exception risks becoming desensitized to their special delights. Overused becomes overlooked. That’s why in J-School they warn against resorting to the same fireworks every time to open story, an error known as “berrying the lede.”]

Forgotten books: The Garden Under the Sea

On the shoreline, preparing to cross between pairs of worlds…

I don’t recall when I first heard the melody of “Sweet Molly Malone,” but I’m certain where I first read the lyrics:

She wheeled her wheelbarrow

Through streets broad and narrow

Crying, “Cockles and mussels

Alive, alive ho.”

The Garden Under the SeaThe tune comes to mind unbidden, often when I’m working outdoors, bringing with it a pleasant melancholy, the emotional residue of a book that I received from my parents when I was eight or nine. The Garden Under the Sea (by George Selden) might seem an unusual present for a child for whom the nearest seaport was Milwaukee, but considering its lasting influence, it represents gift-giving genius.

The premise of The Garden Under the Sea is simple: A contentious lobster named Oscar uses questionable means to fight an injustice. The basis of the conflict is the tendency of the humans who each year descend on the Long Island shore to decorate their cottage gardens by “Shell stealing, glass stealing, rock rearranging, and general ruining of the ocean floor.” Tired of losing debris that the neighborhood’s aquatic residents consider the sea’s rightful property, Oscar rallies them to retaliate. Thus begins a summer of beach blanket stealing, sandwich stealing, and general raiding of assorted treasures left unattended above the waterline.

The Garden Under the Sea is an unusual children’s book by contemporary standards. With its sophisticated language and genteel anthropomorphism, it follows the tradition of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, especially its seventh chapter, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” The moral guide of The Garden Under the Sea is a “wise old periwinkle,” who cites maritime traditions with Nor’eastern aplomb: “It ain’t what you salvage,” said the periwinkle sternly, “It’s how you salvage it. If you go at it with respect for what”s been wrecked, and pity for the people involved, that’s one thing. If you don’t, that’s anothah.”

The plotting that goes into building the underwater garden plot yields a plot that’s episodic rather than overarching. Still, the book’s recurring narrative tides memorably convey humans’ persistent inability to embrace their environment. Ultimately our efforts to comprehend and live in harmony with the world come up short, leaving us with “a great Awe.”

The next morning–not quite at six o’clock–Howard and Janet came down to move their meteorite. When they couldn’t find it, they called their mothers and fathers and they came down too. Soon the whole neighborhood was scouring the beach. One group held that the tide had washed it away; another said that shooting stars always evaporated after they hit the earth. But Howard and Janet didn’t believe either of these theories. It was a puzzle , and they admitted it. As a matter of fact, it was just one of several things that happened that summer on Crescent Beach which the human beings living there never did fully understand.

The Garden Under the Sea was published in 1957, three years before author George Selden‘s more well-known book The Cricket in Times Square. Perhaps overshadowed by that Cricket‘s Newbery Honor award, The Garden Under the Sea doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. Through its descriptions of storm and shipwreck, meteorite fall and fireworks, it shows how the the man-made and natural worlds parallel each other in confounding wonders whose power to enthrall remains forever alive, alive ho.