The Old Junk Room

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“Cottonmouth 1” by DMangus, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Old Junk Room

Grandpa closed the door,
and shooing me away
said, “Stay away from there.
“That room’s no place to play.”

Musty, junk-filled room,
where dusty webs and grime
and shapeless piles loomed,
just begging to be climbed.

“There are snakes in there,”
he said, and he would know.
He smiled, roughed my hair,
“Now off to bed you go.”

Scrambling into bed,
mere feet away from it,
that room filled me with dread.
I hid ‘neath Grandma’s quilt.

No attic for the junk,
no storehouse for the heaps.
Against the room I shrunk,
fearing slithering creeps.

Yellow porchlight poured,
through curtains hanging slack,
across the thin wood door
that held the serpents back.

What evil, out of view,
with belly to the floor,
would silent slither through
the gap beneath the door?

Drowsy from the day
In bed while nightmares crawled
I slept, which is to say,
I didn’t sleep at all.

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Going All-In on David Pumpkins

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I was slow to the David S. Pumpkins party. I haven’t really watched an episode of Saturday Night Live in at least a decade, finally succumbing to that stage of life where you find yourself tut-tutting, “the show isn’t as good as it used to be.” I don’t know these kids on SNL, and damn are they annoying. (I’ll be yelling at a cloud next.)

I was in a burlesque show with my wife, a tribute to the great Tom Hanks. All Tom Hanks-inspired acts. My wife and I did a little duet inspired by The ‘Burbs. This was one of the last shows we did in Los Angeles before the big move, in February, a decidedly un-Halloween time of year.

The last act of this particular show was typically an improvised striptease to a randomly chosen song. This time, they sprung David S. Pumpkins on the unsuspecting crowd. It’s difficult to put into words exactly how they pulled off a striptease version of David S. Pumpkins, and I’d hate to deny your imagination the chance to run with the concept. All I can say is, it was baffling and hilarious.

Naturally, the wife and I immediately searched out the clip of David S. Pumpkins from SNL. It was as baffling and hilarious as we could have hoped. Later that year, SNL broadcast the animated David S. Pumpkins special, and we were in stitches for days. Reviewers were not so kind to the special, but I sincerely hope it becomes a holiday staple. (Ironically, the chief complaint seemed to be that SNL went “all-in on David Pumpkins.”)

Mass-Produced Novelty

Why my devotion? Because David S. Pumpkins is the embodiment of everything wrong with Halloween. Whether intentional or not, Bobby Moynihan, Mikey Day, and Streeter Seidell created a scorching satire of the over-trendiness of Halloween. It’s always been a commercial holiday, at least as long as I’ve been alive, but sometime around the turn of the millennium, Halloween became truly manic.

Halloween became blowing out your house decorations with “Hollywood” special effects, sexy version of everything costumes, Spirit Halloween Stores popping up like toadstools after a rainstorm, and the haunted house mazes–MY GOD THE HAUNTED HOUSE MAZES!!!

And yet, with all the mania, there is a certain generic quality that has creeped in. I think it started before the 2000s. From the late 70s into the 80s, filmmakers gave us idiosyncratic icons of horror. Freddy Krueger, Jason, Michael Myers, Pinhead, Chucky, Killer Klowns. They had their own verisimilitude, and a commitment to high concept that sometimes defied any attempt at logic.

1996 rolled around, and Wes Craven, one of the great filmmakers of that movement towards whimsical horror gave us a new nightmare: Ghostface of Scream. A boogeyman born from an off-the-rack, unlicensed, generic halloween mask. Don’t get me wrong, it’s brilliant. Scream is brilliant. But, it heralded the place we find ourselves today, where the same person who begged their parents to help them make a dinosaur costume in the 80s can casually drop $60 at Walmart for an inflatable T-rex costume.

I hope this doesn’t come off as cynical. I do adore the absolute nonsense that lines the racks this time of year. I can browse a Spirit store for hours, marveling at the quality of the wares, and the assortment of costumes and props both licensed and clearly not licensed while obviously that thing from that show everyone knows. I also never get tired of sexy version of everything costumes.

As much as I adore the novelty, it’s a mass-produced novelty. Novelty in bulk. Penn Jillette once opined that “Halloween is for amateurs.” He’s not wrong. At the same time, “amateur” literally means “someone who does something for the love of it.” Love is good, and I would never look askance at those who are enjoying themselves.

The Spirit of Party City Halloween

I do reserve the right to find Halloween mania ridiculous, however, and in David S. Pumpkins, I have a new sort of idiosyncratic icon. This icon is born of the mass-produced novelty that has sanded off Halloween’s edge. He has no carefully crafted backstory. He’s his own thing, man. His motives are inscrutable. His sidekicks are “part of it.” He is the spirit of Party City Halloween.

Pumpkins and his two skeleton friends are as off-the-rack as you can get, like amateurish, postmodern descendants of Ghostface. They fully commit to the gag in a way reminiscent of the transcendent scenery-chewing you could rely on from Robert Englund. The anti-humor of Pumpkins is an echo of the absurdity of 80s comedy horror, from the Evil Dead flicks to Killer Klowns. By somehow bridging the gap between bespoke horror and mass-produced novelty, David S. Pumpkins is also the embodiment of everything right with Halloween.

He can be enjoyed ironically and unironically at the same time. It’s a joke we’re all in on– that might not actually be a joke. It’s ephemera of substance. A straightforward paradox. I’ve gone all-in on David Pumpkins.

Any questions?

Spiked and Marked

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Left behind detritus
Of an ephemeral empire
Melted into concrete
Beneath foot and tire

Scattered little crosses
Relics for the spare
Discarded and forgotten
Beneath a blinding glare

What now of the actor
Who seems lost to the void
Who once stood on that spike
Beneath super-cardioid

Melted into the city
An ephemeral bazaar
Left behind detritus
Beneath ascendant stars

What 100% Means

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Wayne Gretzky by kris krüg (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Originally posted on LinkedIn.

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

Thus spaketh The Great One, an inspirational quote that holds much power in its brevity. And yet, there is a depth to Wayne Gretzky’s wisdom that we don’t often think about. Let’s look at the numbers.

894

That’s how many goals Gretzky scored over a legendary career in the NHL. 894 is a tangible number. Our evolved monkey brains have a hard time visualizing large numbers, but 894 is not so large we can’t get a sense of what it means.

No doubt about it, many of those goals approached the Platonic Ideal: clean breakaway, beating the netminder. But how many were odd bounces? The puck hitting a defenseman and slipping in? Greasy goals? Goals that were shot by another player, but just happened to deflect off of Gretzky’s stick before going in? We remember the perfection, but you don’t get to 894 by being perfect every time.

1,963

More than twice the number of goals Gretzky netted is his number of assists. Gretz could have just as easily said, “Your teammates miss 100% of the goals you don’t set them up for.”

Gretzky had a crisp pass, and the hockey IQ to know when to use it. He didn’t have to be the rockstar every time. When your entire team is working toward the same goal, you all share in the victories, even when someone else takes the ultimate credit.

17.57%

The man who, to this day, holds or shares 61 NHL records is way down at number 44 on the NHL leaderboard for shot percentage. 82.43% of the time–5,090 shots on goal–he didn’t score.

And that doesn’t take into consideration shots he took that don’t register as shots on goal: blocked by a defenseman, hit a post, went wide. If you only focused on the misses, excluding all the goals and assists, you could easily think of The Great One as The Great Loser. Crazy, right? We do it to ourselves all the time.

100%

The full quote is, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, even though there is only a 1-5% chance of scoring.”

Success can be greasy or quirky; the result of error or a weird bounce. Success may not even be your own, but the “loose change” a teammate knocks in.

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,” but that doesn’t mean you’ll be successful 100% of the time. Your shots may be swallowed up by a threshold guardian who stands between you and success. Your shots may go wide. The fact is, you will fail more than you succeed. We all will.

That doesn’t mean stop trying.

New Year’s Resolutions

Happy New Year!

And what would the New Year be without resolutions? Here are a few of mine:

On the weekends, wear nothing but one strategically placed sock, and run around yelling “Dobby has no master! Dobby is a free elf!”

Start pronouncing “Paul” like “Raul” and vice versa.

Float affirmation memes out into the world that neither make any sense nor are based on any personal experience.

SurfAngry

Whenever someone asks me my name, roll my eyes back and respond, “WE ARE LEGION.”

Occasionally fire up Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero” on repeat and wash every dish in the house. Maybe shirtless. And wearing a headband.

Get the band back together. Offer to remove their gags if they promise not to scream.

Learn enough Klingon to get into trouble.

Worf

Put forth more of an effort in my structure of sentencing and grammar and seplling and stuff.

Dress up on laundry days.

Eat healthier. Like maybe start using my mouth again.

Magic And What Does The Work

“Why did you ruin your rope?!” The IT guy who sat in the cubicle behind me at the day job was aghast.

I had been fiddling with a length of “ordinary rope, like you would find in any magic shop” all day, drilling the (hopefully) subtle move that made the trick work. It was 2016, and I was trying something new as co-host of the upcoming Nearly Naked Nutcracker in Dallas. I was going to do a magic trick onstage.

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Photo by Brandy Lynne Photography

The conceit was simple: Drosselmeyer the Great is a not-so-great magician who enlists a sassy Showgirl to help his magical assistant Clara find her purpose as a burlesque dancer. In the end, Drosselmeyer compensates the Showgirl by filling in as her dance partner in the final act of the show. (We altered the premise slightly for 2017.)

I wanted to tackle a few “cheesy” tricks, including the well-worn cut and restored rope trick. (I say “cheesy” with nothing but respect. If you’ve caught my shtick as Mr. Snapper, you know that I love a little cheese. Further, I know how much effort goes into something as “cheesy” as the cut and restored rope trick.) I asked my magician friends for advice. One of them–I think Funny Eddie–recommended I check out Aldo Colombini. I consumed his Gagbuster video, and used a couple of his blow-offs in the show. But I digress …

I don’t have great hands. So I took to carrying a length of magician’s rope around with me, practicing the move over and over until I could do it without thinking. And so it happened that I was practicing the move at the day job, when one of the MBAs I worked with asked me what the deal was with the rope. A few other coworkers gathered around, and when I snipped the rope in two, they all flinched. The IT guy voiced his alarm.

A terribly simple trick, some confident patter, and I sold it. I finished the trick, and they were suitably impressed. Other coworkers drifted to my cubicle, having heard about the trick, asking to see it. It was like a drug.

It absolutely killed at Nearly Naked Nutcracker, and I brought it back to the show this year, along with another chestnut: the disappearing and reappearing hankie. I’ve been thinking about both tricks, their simplicity, and something occurred to me this morning. The hankie doesn’t do the trick. The scissors don’t do the trick. The thing that you think is doing the trick is not doing the trick.

The hankie thing amazes me. There’s no hiding how it’s done. There are only so many places that hankie can disappear to, and the most likely suspect is sticking out, literally, like a sore thumb. Like a Silly Putty-colored sore thumb. The audience doesn’t seem to notice. (Or they don’t care. Honestly, I don’t know which would be more mind-blowing.)

In magic, as in other artistic pursuits, you have the actual work that creates an effect, and you have the apparent work. All the attention is on the apparent work, which makes the result simply mystifying. “How’d you do that?”

This is true of writing. There are many apparent things doing the work: word choice, ideas, your premise. The actual thing doing the work is structure. Little things like putting the joke phrase at the end of a punchline so you don’t step on your laugh. Huge things like building up expectations that you can knock over at the climax. People think that knock over, that twist is the magic trick, but what actually does the work is everything that comes before it.

“Why did you ruin your rope!?”

I had to suppress a smile as I thought to myself, “Gotcha.”

Lon

lon-chaney

My bones don’t fit together
I’m a bit disjointed it seems
Ligaments act as tether
Lashing misshapen beams

My gait is all herky-jerky
With pops and grinds and snaps
I pass it off as quirky
I play it up for laughs

If my outside is ungainly
My inside is much worse
I flail around so vainly
In my inner universe

No tether for these thoughts
No audience for the dance
As I spring and twist and plotz
Through a dark and lonely manse

 

(Happy Halloween!)