Halloween Costume Ideas That Make Use of My College Band Tux

This post was submitted to McSweeney’s too late to be included in their Halloween content for the year, which I kind of expected since I sent it the day before. I’m pretending scheduling was the only reason it wasn’t used. Let me have that. Enjoy.

James Bond
Accessories needed: Walther PPK, Aston Martin, emotional tolerance for literally any amount of alcohol

James Bond, Libertarian
Accessories needed: Sandwich board with text, “Ask Me About My Fire Station Subscription Plan,” written in a hasty hand

James Bond, Blogger
Accessories needed: 1,000 true fans

James Bond, Barista
Accessories needed: Neck tattoo of favorite origin country, screen-printing business on the side, improbably sensitive palate

James Bond Moved to the Suburbs, Took a Crushing Job in IT, and had Mild Nervous Breakdown
Accessories needed: None

A frog, a horse, and a smaller horse

“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

— E. B. White

I just watched a great five minute video of Jerry Seinfeld explaining the process of writing a joke about Pop Tarts. It took him two years to write a bit that will likely only last ten minutes. He fussed over syllable count and rhythm like a musician. I couldn’t do Jerry’s laundry, but these are the same pains I take when I write jokes for Twitter.

Some jokes come together in a couple tries in one sitting, some take a long time and several revisions. One of the jokes I’m most proud of took me weeks of revising, cutting, copying, pasting, and reordering. Here it is:

I’d love to know what this guy in the next stall is paying that Foley artist. The man’s gallop is so good I can almost smell the horse.

Let’s have frog legs for dinner.

  • I’m in a bathroom stall, which is automatically funny.
  • There is some raucous activity happening in the stall next to me. Also funny. If you’re keeping score, that’s now a second bathroom stall, along with some loud bathroom noises.
  • The noises are so vivid I believe they are coming from a Foley artist. Foley artists use to work for radio shows making believable sound effects live on the air. That’s a pretty funny occupation by itself, but it’s made funnier because the only people left doing Foley work in the 21st century are employed by Garrison Keillor.
  • The Foley artist is doing his work in the stall with the other man, and since I’ve not said anything about this being a handicapped stall, you may believe it’s sufficiently cramped in there.
  • The Foley artist is there because he has been paid well to ply his trade while another man uses the bathroom. Why? Is it for the edification of the other patrons of local leaving houses? Is it for his own amusement? You get to decide! Isn’t this fun?

Now, we could have stopped the joke here and it would have been complete. But let’s continue.

  • The sound effect the Foley artist is performing is the distinct trip-o-let of a horse gallop, which is funny because there is clearly not actually a Foley artist in the stall next to me. There is just a single man alone in the misery of his body trying make sense of what must have been a dinner of curry and firecrackers.
  • Referencing the gallop sound, we make a broadly absurd situation funnier by adding specificity. Rear ends making noise are funny. Rear ends making the specific rhythmic pattern of a horse’s gallop are funnier still because rear ends are not known for their dexterity.

Now we get to it.

  • So completely has this illusion been created in the theatre of my mind, and by a Foley artist so gifted I might wonder what princely sum it would take to hire his services, that I believe a horse is running in place in the stall next to me, and that the usual men’s room smells are indeed the earthy musk of a fine equine specimen.

It took weeks to get this right, to boil these eight-odd multiple sentence bullets down into 140 characters with 5 to spare.

Why am I telling you this?

Because Twitter is my night club. There’s less smoke and I can kick people out at 9pm. And while comedians measure their work by laughs in the night club, we measure it by little golden stars on Twitter. That’s how we know you’re laughing.

That joke got 13 little golden stars, which is nothing comparatively, but I was pleased as I could be, because I worked hard for each one of them and several were from my other funny friends, whose work I respect.

The real real reason I’m telling you this is because yesterday I posted a tweet that got 22 little golden stars. What flights of humor did I perform? I posted a photo of a pumpkin in which I had carved a symbol from my daughters’ favorite cartoon. With the photo I said “All the days of my life led up to the moment I carved Rainbow Dash’s cutie mark into a pumpkin.”

Rainbow Dash is the name of a character in the children’s program My Little Pony. A cutie mark is a butt tattoo on each pony that tells you at a glance what their power is. I was making a throw-away joke about how my entire life had been orchestrated so that I would live to be 35 years old and spend an hour carving a magical pony’s butt tattoo into a pumpkin for my children. Is that funny? Well, yeah, it is. But it’s not two-men-and-a-Foley-artist-walk-into-a-restroom-and-I-can-smell-the-horse funny.

And it wasn’t 22 little golden stars from my funny friends telling me they laughed. It was 22 little golden stars from a bunch of grown, male, childless fans of My Little Pony (Bronies), all of whom apparently receive keyword alerts when someone tweets about magical ponies with butt tattoos.

Well they can keep their little gift horse. I’m headed over to the second stall to get a look at that Clydesdale.

Reflective Narration

A couple things:

  1. If a Terry Gross interview exists, I want to read it. Huge fan.
  2. I enjoy interviews in general, and in a recent interview Terry explains that the good ones go beyond narration, and speak to transformation.

You make an interesting distinction between being reflective and over-sharing—they’re not the same thing. We don’t want people to come on and just tell us everything that they’ve ever done in their lives. Even if it’s personal, it doesn’t necessarily make it interesting. What makes it interesting is what you’ve taken away from that. How it has shaped you as a person? What insights you’ve been left with as a result of that experience. Just narrating your life, no matter how over-sharing it is, isn’t inherently interesting to people who don’t know you, and it might not be interesting to people who do.

– Terry Gross

We would all do well to remember this when tempted to lunch-tweet.

The Climate Science of Comedy

Slate just launched a new podcast titled Working, in which editor at large, David Plotz, interviews people about the work they do. It’s a descendant of Studs Terkel’s Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, only instead of focussing on how they feel about the work they do, it focuses on the granular specifics of what happens between waking up and going home. The first episode is off to a great start with Stephen Colbert. I got tired just listening to the description of his routine. Comedy often gets pegged as a frivolous, easy activity done in lieu of more serious work, but it’s hard, and requires rigorous discipline and study. (NB: There are a couple of points in the interview where Colbert uses some words you don’t hear at church potlucks, so maybe don’t play it in the background while your kids are coloring.)

Similarly, though the clip is a little older, this Rachael Maddow interview of John Stewart is excellent. It’s 40-odd minutes long, so there’s a great chance you won’t actually watch it, but if it sounds like two ideological peers talking shop, it’s not. Stewart explains more clearly what I’ve seen and loved in his work for years now. The easy conclusion is he’s a liberal taking cheap shots at conservatives, but if you watch this interview you’ll see he’s really shooting at the entire news media culture.

His analogy is he is a climate scientist looking at the full breadth of data, while Maddow, O’Reilly, etc. are talking about today’s weather. He makes some great points about the general cynicism of both sides (for example, the notion that there are only two sides), and a distinction between partisanship and wild ideology. If you think your ideological network of choice has it right, I encourage to you hear Stewart’s diagnosis of the climate.

Yes, he’s a comedian, a fact he owns, but the discipline of comedy and satire is to ruthlessly scan the world for patterns and discrepancies and follow them to their most absurdly logical conclusions. Sometimes it’s just for a laugh, sometimes it’s to use a laugh to disarm us before convicting us.

“I wrote a thing.”

An impromptu discussion broke out on Twitter a few days ago among some writers and myself regarding a bit of language that had been gnawing at me. It’s the trend of tweeting, “I wrote/made a thing: [link to thing].” I’ve done it, as have several writers and creators I respect, but there is a subtlety there that doesn’t sit well with me any more. It’s a cocktail of insecurity and self protection that is not helping any of us.

If you have used this phrase when sharing your work, take a beat and examine why. Then confidently share what you worked hard to make.


Blood Clots, Boat Parts, and Some Educated Guesses about Jack Johnson

Here are a couple interesting articles I’ve found over the last week, along with a report from a recent conversation over coffee with friends.

A Blood Clot in the Brain, and an Artist is Born

An accountant in his late 40s suffered a stroke and soon found himself compelled to sketch and paint prolifically. We have heard stories of this category before, but let’s make an agreement, you and I, that we do our best to never stop marveling at the vastness of the brain’s complexities and capabilities. There is some interesting (and mostly accessible) scientific conclusions in this article about how our brains produce new ideas, evaluate those ideas and process creativity in general. The event that temporarily “damaged” this man’s brain also unlocked part of it that was new to him. I don’t know what to tell you about that today besides, “Think on that.”

Boat Parts or Names of Unvaccinaded Children?

I love a good McSweeney’s list.

Other News

One morning recently I had coffee with two friends.

Jack Johnson was playing, and we were discussing the very likely probability of his lifestyle not requiring him to keep much more in the way of clothes than a couple pairs of board shorts.

I guessed his concerts were probably a pretty dependable place to find white-guy dreadlocks.

Then I thought this and did not share it: It seemed like there might be some guy, an eccentric, to put it politely, who collected white-guy dreadlocks as a hobby, and really only needed a sharp pair of scissors, a steady hand, and regular tickets to Jack Johnson shows.

Play it wrong

Records are good teachers, but records are hard to understand if you can’t see it done. So you end up doing something different. But that might be good…

– Ry Cooder in Fretboard Journal issue 32

This quote has been rattling around my head for a month or so now. As a guitar player who doesn’t know music theory, and doesn’t have the patience for tabs, I’ve learned about 90% of what I know about guitar from either listening, or from other guitar players showing me exactly how something is done (in person or on YouTube).

All these years of not understanding precisely how other guitar players were doing something forced me to make some near approximations, to do some reverse engineering. Sometimes I just couldn’t figure it out, and I moved on. Other times I got close, knew I wasn’t exactly there, but liked what I found and used it for a launching point to explore a different interpretation of the music.

I did this most recently (the last few years) with Joseph Spence, a Bahamian folk guitarist who I’d heard was a big influence on Cooder. As soon as I started listening to Spence play, I heard Cooder’s work in a whole new light. I realized how much he had been informed by Spence’s style. But it wasn’t exactly the same. Cooder’s work was, of course, more polished and controlled – Alan Lomax’s field recordings of Spence are rough as a cob; Spence’s guitar is out of tune and his voice sounds like a cement truck, and both of those things are beautiful, to my ears anyway – but the connection was clear.

So when I started trying to play like Spence, a lolling, halting style of finger picking, I wasn’t sounding exactly like him. But I had the general feeling, and I listened to him pretty heavily for a few weeks. If I played my arrangement of Oh, How I Love Jesus for you, and you listened to Spence’s version of the same song, you would understand where I got the idea, but if I played along with the record, it would be a bit of a mess. However, what I learned from listening to Spence and Cooder has colored the way I approach guitar, and now mandolin. It has worked it’s way into my overall voice as a musician.

There are some things in our work of which we need to get a good and proper foundational understanding, but there are other things that, when we learn to “play it wrong,” can yield interesting results.

It was Arkansas’ to lose

I work from my local library once in a while. It’s quiet and the wifi’s pretty good. I like to sit at a small desk positioned near a load-bearing beam because it’s next to an outlet, and it has a nice view of whatever temporary, employee-made, art work is hanging over the help desk in support of their monthly promotions. Currently it’s a four foot by three foot paper collage of Frida Kahlo that is not doing her any favors.

There is a sign on the small desk that reads, “RESERVED FOR NOTARY,” but I sit there anyway. Who do I think I am? I think I’m a guy who knows a social experiment based on people’s fear of authority when he sees one. The kicker is, “notary” is obviously a fake title they made up to prove their point. And it’s clear my choice to sit there passes the test because no one has ever asked me to move.

A few weeks back I was sitting there getting my work done when I was approached by a little old lady interested in passing the time. She did most of the talking. She knew a lot about football and had some strong opinions about the local team, I forget their name. I do know the name of the guy who owns the team. Jerry Jones. A man with that much money, and that little taste tends to make himself known well outside his immediate industry. I get the feeling that were it not for the iron bonds of time he’d be having regular coaching lunches with P.T. Barnum in which P.T. would mostly repeat himself: “Chill, bro. Chill.”

The little old lady seemed to have a higher road from which to object. Something about management of the franchise and greatness. I don’t know. It’s hard for me to track with sports conversation. I need Ken Burns to make me a 20 hour football documentary staffed with the same weepy poets as his baseball work and maybe then I’d buy the cap.

I got the impression over the course of our chat that she was in the early stages of her mind not being what it used to be. At one point she asked me to highlight some of her hand-written notes for her. “Which lines?” I said. “The whole page, and the same for these other two sheets,” she said, “I can’t seem to press hard enough to get a dark line, and it’s taking me too long. You might be able to do it faster.” She leafed back through other pages that had been highlighted top to bottom. “Oh, I think it’s that your highlighter is out,” I said.

I offered her my highlighter, but it was pink, and she said it was imortant that it was yellow. She had to pack up and go catch her ride, and seemed to be troubled by not getting the pages highlighted. So do we all slowly plod if we live so long.

Before the highlighting thing, while still on her screed about the local football club and its garish owner, she said this:

“I never forgave Arkansas for giving us the Clintons. And I never forgave Arkansas for giving us Jerry Jones.”

What was there left to say?

Two Articles about a Good View

It’s been a long week here at the Trotter adobe. All but two of our numbers were down with a bug, myself included, so the time I might have spent reading and writing, I spent moaning and wailing, and cooking rice for myself at 3am. I know I’m a terrible patient, but you can ask my wife how many times I have literally almost died of being slightly uncomfortable. That excellent excuse out of the way, here are a couple articles of note:

Roaming through Woody Guthrie’s New York

I’m a fan of Woody Guthrie’s music, as you may remember, so I try to read every article I see with his name in it. This one follows the story of two of his grandchildren touring places he lived in New York City. My main entry into Guthrie’s music was through reading The Grapes of Wrath, so I have a distinctly Dust Bowl picture of him in my mind, which is why I was surprised to learn from this article that he wrote “This Land is Your Land” from an apartment over a tuxedo shop in New York City with a view of the Empire State building. They know this because he had the practice of noting his location and his view on the same sheet he wrote his lyrics.

We do not create things in a vacuum. We are influenced by our context, so making a note of those things while we make whatever it is we’re making might give some sweet bits of insight to our families one day about where we were sitting and what we saw, especially if it was something we momentarily transcended to write a song about some troubled farmers in Oklahoma.

Faith in Eventually

This is a short but powerful read from Jason Fried, one of the co-founders of Basecamp, on not getting so caught up in the details being right that we forget to keep moving forward.

It’s important to know when to say “it’s fine for now, but it won’t be fine for later.”

This is the kind of article that’s worth printing out and keep close by.

What CAN you do?

We’ve all seen our share, maybe more, of ASCII art, but I find Paul Smith’s a little more impressive knowing he has severe cerebral palsy. He works on a typewriter changing out different colored ribbons. The video makes me think Paul’s story has made its way around the web a few times already by the time I found it (It was posted on Facebook by someone I don’t know, but liked by someone I do know, and it linked to Meta Picture, a site that appears to be mostly snapchats of cat gifs. The internet is hard, you guys.), but good things are worth seeing twice.

Paul had an interesting response to the usual “Oh, I could never do that,” we hear ourselves saying when we see beautiful things that obviously take a lot of time and skill to produce. “What can you do?”

Well, shoot, Paul. Once I get back off my heals I’ll let you know.