Monday, June 27, 2011

Warriors with Dirty Undies.

Today, I found myself, once again, in my backyard hosing out my underpants.

It comes from keeping company with an evil, sadistic cadre of lunatics.

Evil, sadistic friends.
We are scary, right? Me, Ben, and Tim. Ben and Tim win the coolest beard/hair combo. Ever.

It all started many months ago when my buddy, Tim posted a link on Facebook about an event called The Warrior Dash. I clicked on it and was taken to a website depicting muddy people diving over flaming lakes, scaling towering walls of wrecked cars, and horking down turkey legs the size of a small child, washed down with paint-bucket-sized beers. All these images were set to a rousing heavy metal-ish soundtrack to make them seem epic and fun and exciting.

And it did seem epic and fun and exciting.

To watch.

From a distance.

To participate in such an event would likely mean–in no particular order–pain, suffering, gastro-intestinal distress, death, projectile vomiting, and more death–all the hallmarks of jogging. For this was not merely an obstacle course followed by beer and brontosaurs legs. This was a 3 mile run, punctuated by obstacles.

I will voluntarily run only under the following conditions:

1. Being chased by knife-wielding maniac.
2. Being chased by gun-wielding maniac.
3. Being chased by knife-and-gun-wielding maniac.

In any other situation, I prefer to walk, bike, saunter, drive, sashay, trot, gallop, or–depending on the occasion–dance, as a means of personal locomotion.

I believe that I made some caustic comment on Tim’s link. Something clever, along the lines of, “Are you nuts? Dry heaves are for suckers.”

And then, much to my amazement and horror, many of of my real, actual friends–friends I have know and loved for years–started posting comments like, “Yeah!” “I’m in!” “Let’s do this!”

I grew sadder and more despondent each day, seeing friend after friend fall victim to the terrific peer pressure. I knew it was only a matter of time before I cracked and joined them. I am weak.

My personal breaking point was when my friend Julie, whom I have hiked with on many occasions, lost her mind and joined this muddy death march. “Someone must watch over this poor, lost soul.” I told myself.

Plus, maybe I could convince her to stay with me as I feebly drag myself through the mud, toward the finish line and the freakishly large turkey legs that awaited us.

So, I forked over $50, signed my life away on a waiver, and joined my friends for a day of soul-shattering pain and misery.

It was decided that we should all meet at Tim’s house and caravan down to the event together. My suspicion was that this was merely a method of keeping people (like me) from chickening out at the last second. To assure that we got there in time to park, take the shuttle to the event, and register, it was further decided that we should leave Tim’s house by 8:00

In the morning.

On a Sunday.

This was, by far, the most grueling trial of the entire day. I awakened early, dragged my innocent wife and children out of bed, and headed off to my destruction.

We arrived at the emergency back-up off-site parking, conveniently located about 350 miles away from the actual event. We boarded a charted luxury school bus and, along with a few thousand equally foolhardy goons, headed off to the race.

One important element of the event, besides the beer, is the pageantry. People dress up in outlandish costumes in order to disguise the fact that they are suicidally depressed about the fact that they are about to run through 3 miles of ankle-deep mud.

The breadth and scope of the costumes was amazing. Nuns, hot dogs, gorillas, more vikings than you could count, assorted super heroes, villains, nerds, punks, and anthing else you could possibly imagine. All crammed onto a school bus, racing down I-495 on a Sunday morning. I can only imagine the other drivers, upon seeing the bus and its occupants, immediately racing to the church of their choice and praying that their children never have to go to THAT school.

When we finally disembarked, we were lead to the first officially sanctioned obstacle of the day: The Waiver Forms of Untold Suffering. They stated that we were about to, of our own volition, run through a deadly landscape of toxic water, biologically active mud, treacherous obstacles, insane participants, and, possibly, knife-and-gun-wielding maniacs.

And if we contracted some incurable disease, or fell to our deaths, or got trampled into a human jelly as a result, we agreed that it was our own stupid fault.
After which, we were ready for the actual race which, really, was nothing compared to the Signing of the Waiver.

We lined up at the starting gate along with 600 or so other fools, and awaited the thrilling blast of fire that signaled the beginning of another wave. There were waves each half hour throughout the day. The spacing was, no doubt, intended to make sure that there was enough time to cook the turkey legs in between each race.

We whooped and hollered and raced up the gentle 70 degree slope that was the beginning of the race. With 600 other people crammed onto the track, it quickly became obvious that racing was not the correct term. We sauntered up the track, strolling languidly up the scenic hill, marveling at the sweaty wall of humanity that encircled us.

A leisurely stroll up the hill with 600 of our closest friends.

Soon, we summited the hill and were set free to slip and slide in the mud as we attempted to actually race through the woods. With the single exception of The One Old Guy Who Was Trying To Prove Something, the other racers were considerate, friendly, and careful. If someone slipped and fell (and nearly everyone did) others would stop and offer assistance, or, at the very least, offer kind words of sympathy like, “Dude. That sucks.”

Everyone except The One Old Guy Who Was Trying To Prove Something. He raced full speed down every slope and up every incline, slipping and sliding, wildly out of control, his arms windmilling, taking out dozens of other participants in each of his countless, spectacular falls.

No matter how our pace altered throughout the race, it seemed that we were shadowed by this bane to humanity. There were many loud suggestions (by me) that he be tied up and placed in the path as a bonus obstacle, but to the best of my knowledge, nobody acted on that suggestion.

Early in the race, Ben took a heavy lead and we didn’t see him again for quite some time. I stayed with Julie and Tim and throughout the race, we marveled at Ben’s endurance and speed. “Wow! He really must be doing great!”

I’m sad to report that many of the obstacles did not appear quite as daunting in person as they had online. Perhaps it was the absence of the heavy metal-ish music in the background, but I was underwhelmed with the Bunch Of Tires Dangling From Ropes obstacle.

To provide a more authentically difficult event for each other, Tim, Julie, and I heaved the tires at one another, but it was futile.

We continued slogging through the mud, over the barricades, under the barbed wire (which was framed with 2x4’s for our protection) and finally caught up with Ben at the climbing wall. It seems that poor Ben was under the impression that he had fallen behind us and was running at this superhuman pace to try to catch up with us. All the while, we were many hundreds of miles behind him.

The climbing wall was a 15 foot monument to suffering with ropes dangling from the top of it. The idea was that you grab the rope, scale the wall, and do not fall to your death. In theory, it was simple. In practice, when you are tired, the wall and ropes are enrobed in slippery mud, and there is a steady stream of fellow dashers eagerly awaiting a turn, the challenge is multiplied a bit.

We all eventually managed to get over it, even those of us with pathological fears of heights. And then, reunited, we linked arms and skipped joyously to the flaming logs that we were to hurdle.

One more climbing wall later, we stood at the crest of the mud slide, a slippery slope that mirrored the same hill we had started the race on. We tried waiting for a clear opportunity so we could all safely jump onto the hill together, but there was no such chance. We simply hurled ourselves on to the hill and proceeded to have mud injected at high velocity into every available crack, crevice, and orifice on our bodies.

Mud Slide Colonic - Ben, Tim, and me half way down - Julie awaiting her turn at the top.

With the exception of the sand, the grass, the rocks, and the other people, it was extremely enjoyable. Until we stopped at the bottom and the big guy that I never even saw coming slammed his knee into my cheek. After a quick check to make sure all my teeth were still intact and a brief apology to the lady whose rear-end I had slammed my face into, we were headed for the finish line.

I limped over the finish line with Julie; Ben and Tim having been trapped in another wave of runners slightly behind us.

Happy Warriors with Bananas. Julie, me, Ben, and Tim.
Happier Warriors with Beer.
More Bananas.

We scraped what mud we could out of our eyes and staggered over to the rinsing area where snow making machines had been set up to blast water at us. The problem with this set up was that if you were near the back of the crowd, you were merely pelted with other racer’s dirty rinse water. If you did manage to get to the front of the crowd, the water spray was so powerful that it was like having your face sandblasted with ice.

Jet spray of pain and suffering.

We hobbled on to the bus that was to take us back to our cars, and headed back to Tim’s house for swimming and beverages. It seemed that, since this entire day was essentially his fault, it was only fitting that we mess up his house with our muddy, bruised bodies.

 Ben had the most impressive looking injury of the day.

Julie had the dirtiest ears.

The biggest question of the evening was, “What are we going to dress up as next year?”

Sunday, June 19, 2011

You'll Have To Talk To My Agent About That

For many, many years, I have operated as an independent, sad, lonely writer and illustrator of children's books.

I wrote my books, sent them off to publishers, and collected the many, many rejection letters that I used as cocktail napkins at the rejection parties that I used to host for myself.

But those bleak days days of rejection are over.

Now, I have an agent.

An agent is a person–typically a ferocious, heavily armed, lunatic with crazy Ninja skills, and secret mind-control powers–who, in exchange for a meager 20% of every penny you ever make for the rest of your life, will undertake the odious task of selling your books to publishers for you.

Now, when I get rejection slips, my agent will buy the cocktails.

At least, I assume that's how it works. I'll have to double check the contract's fine print.

I'm sad to have to report that my agent, Abi Samoun of the newly formed Red Fox Literary Agency, is neither ferocious, nor a lunatic. And, as far as I am aware, she is also completely unarmed; though her crazy Ninja skills are well known and widely feared in the publishing industry.

I am delighted to be working with her.

Abi was, until its recent closing, a hot-shot editor at Tricycle Press. I first met her after sending her a manuscript for a book I had written called, "Childhood Trauma #4: Give Auntie Lulu A Kiss". She called me and explained that Tricycle was not interested in my book. But she had another idea. How would I like to do a book that was full of childhood traumas?

I swooned and was immediately smitten with this deeply twisted editor. I spent the next few days in close conference with my wife, Kerri. We huddled on the back porch making lists and lists of bad things that could happen to kids.

"What are you two doing?" our children would ask.
"Making lists of all the awful things that could happen to you," I would cheerily call back.

Those were a quiet few days at our household.

Eventually, the list was complete, some initial sketches were sent, and Abi convinced her boss to buy and publish my book, Twelve Terrible Things.

I have no idea how she did it, but anyone who can convince a children's book publisher to publish a book that is nothing but two page spreads of horrible things happening to children, is a person to be reckoned with.

The book went on to earn a starred review in School Library Journal and a wonderful write-up by Lemony Snicket in The New York Times. It was also pulled off the shelves of several public libraries for being "unsuitable for children".

When Random House bought Tricycle Press, everyone at Tricycle was very excited. When Random House subsequently closed down Tricycle Press a few months later, some of the giddy excitement waned.

Abi, rather than being crushed by the wheels of Evil Corporate America, dusted herself off (I assume that she was dusty, but I have no proof of this), squared her shoulders (again, I am assuming this is what she did), and started her own literary agency.

Using her secret mind-control powers, Abi has gathered some of the greatest, most dazzling talent in the known universe and formed a group of writers and illustrators so amazingly wonderful that other literary agencies whimper and tremble with fear at the merest mention of Red Fox Literary.

Abi will also, unbeknownst to her, be able to get me out of any unpleasant task.

Kerri: Marty, will you please give me a hand with the dishes?
Me: I'll have to speak with my agent about that.

I can see no possible downside to this.

Unless Kerri gets herself an agent.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dumpster Yardsale From Beyond The Grave - A Eulogy for Uncle Ray

My Uncle Ray died last week.

From what anyone can determine, he was at a subway station in Boston, fell on the stairs somehow, and suffered a fatal brain injury. He never regained consciousness and might have died alone had a nurse at Tufts Medical Center not done some extra investigating to locate family.

That's the thing about Ray. He was a mystery.

Ray lived alone in a low-income, government-subsidized apartment. His quirky mental make-up allowed him to live in government-subsidized housing, while simultaneously decrying any sort of welfare system. Loudly and often.

"These illegal immigrants come over here illegally and then expect the government to pay for their housing!" Ray would shout.

"Ray, the government helps pay for your housing, too," someone might helpfully point out to him.

"But I have a job!" he would counter.

"Some of those immigrants have two or three jobs, Ray," someone might also point out.

"And some of them don't have any jobs at all," he would answer. And then he would walk into the kitchen and celebrate his linguistic victory with a half gallon of ice cream.

Ray’s unique mental wiring left him entirely unencumbered by concern for the nuances and mores of etiquette. Inviting Ray to any sort of social event was a sure-fire way to create a lifelong memory.

Music too loud at a wedding?

That’s Ray with six inches of wadded up napkin sticking out of each ear.

“I didn’t come here to listen to this noise,” he would complain, “They should be playing Rudy Vallee!”

Crying baby in a restaurant?

Ray to the rescue!

"Will someone shut that brat up?" he would bellow. “Where are the parents of that thing? Why haven’t they covered its mouth with duct tape?”

None of us are without flaws. Ray's flaws were just louder than other peoples'.

And yet, in spite of his eccentricities, Ray was one of the kindest people I have ever known. For all his bluster and bluff, there was nothing he wouldn't do to help someone out.

My Great Uncle Eliot had a long history of renting a bedroom, for $5/week (meals included), to members of the family who needed some transitional housing while they worked or went to school in Boston.  My mother and several cousins enjoyed Eliot’s hospitality and generosity over the years. I stayed with Eliot during my first year at art school. Ray's transitional stay with Eliot lasted for a few decades. Ray was devoted to Eliot and he worked hard to make life more comfortable to anyone staying in the house with them.

While I was living with them, Ray would often bring home "treasures" to surprise and delight Eliot and me.

"Look!" Ray would bellow, marching through the door, "I found this 8-track player lying on the sidewalk! Now we can listen to all those 8-tracks I found at that church flea market last winter!"
And we would be subjected to many, long hours of “Lawrence Welk’s Polka Parade” at ear-shattering levels. Ray would lean back in the perfectly good Naugahyde recliner he had dragged out of a dumpster, close his eyes, and revel in the golden, musical sounds filling the house. I would cower in the kitchen, close my eyes, and wish for deafness. Eliot was nearly deaf and therefore immune to the noise. He would sit in his armchair, smiling contentedly and contemplating the infinite.

Ray would also occasionally surprise us with a quart of ice cream or a box of doughnuts. Many of those treats did not come from a dumpster or a flea market or the sidewalk.

I hope.

Even after he moved into his own apartment, Ray always felt the need to bring home whatever shiny baubles, trinkets, and knick-knacks captured his attention. His deep love of treasure hunting lead to the greatest Dumpster Yard Sale that the city of Lowell has ever witnessed.

My mother called me after Ray died and asked if I would be willing to help her and my Aunt Esther clean out Ray's apartment.

"Bring gloves," she recommended.

I brought 3 pairs. Just in case.

Arriving at Ray's apartment building, I was greeted at the door by the Smokin' Old Ladies Welcoming Committee. They lined the benches beside the door, their wrinkled, bewhiskered faces barely visible behind an acrid cloud of cigarette smoke. They cackled merrily as I approached the door. From somewhere deep within the billowing cloud of smoke, The Gatekeeper pointed a remote control at the doors and pressed a gnarled, arthritic finger to the button. The doors swung open before me like the gates of some great and mysterious fortress.

A fortress that reeked of stale smoke and commercial grade air freshening products. Every resident in Ray's building, with the exception of Ray himself, smoked like a Chinese toy factory.

I finally managed to find Ray’s apartment and, opening the door, was greeted with, "Why in the world would anyone need this many pens?"

Indeed, this was to be a pervasive theme throughout the afternoon.

Several family members had been conscripted to help clean out Ray’s apartment. We waded through the the innumerable treasures that Ray had collected over the years. He seemed to have a preference for stereo equipment, writing implements, and–being a very pious man–bibles and rosary beads.

I believe that my cousin Karen, at one point, mentioned that she had found at least 50 bibles. Before lunch. There were enough rosary beads scattered throughout his apartment to make a New Orleans Mardi Gras party look drab and lifeless by comparison.

We began hauling boxes of Ray’s treasures down to the dumpster and soon it was filled well beyond its capacity.

That's when the fun began.

Load after load was hauled out of the apartment. We arranged things in an enticing manner around the dumpster. Word spread quickly throughout the building.

The Gatekeeper of The Smokin' Old Ladies Welcoming Committee warned me, "Hey! You leave that stuff there and people are gonna TAKE it!"

"They're welcome to it," I answered cheerily, "In fact, can I interest any of you delightful ladies in this 800 watt portable CD player or a few hundred 'Sing Along with Mitch' 8-tracks? How about 65,000 pens? Thirteen dozen #2 pencils?"

They were not interested. The Smokin' Old Ladies were tough customers; even declining my cousin Kathy’s sweet offers of 22 almost-new bags of egg noodles. The rest of the building’s residents were not so difficult to please, however.

Soon, people were swarming around the dumpster and, some, seeking to get the jump on the competition, met us en route to pick items off the hand trucks we were pushing.

It may have gotten ugly at the dumpster if Kathy hadn’t charmed a resident into helping out by offering him several dozen strings of giant rosary beads. With the beads draped around his neck like some twisted mockery of Mr. T, he assumed the role of Dumpster Yard Sale Manager and attended to the myriad details that we simply didn't have time for. Without his invaluable assistance, we certainly wouldn't have done half the business that we did.

He advertised the sale by calling out to passers-by, "HEY! Come check it out! Someone passed away. You KNOW that's the only time there's really good stuff like THIS! Hey, Pedro! Wasn't you lookin' for a new microwave? We got one here!"

He saw to the orderly conduct of the customers. "Hey, Showanda. Put that clock down, honey. I'm saving that for Jung Hwa. You can have this other clock. The one that plays music every hour. No. That one is saved for Pedro. Don't make me ask you to leave."

He displayed the products with an artist’s eye for detail. "You guys got any shelves up there in that apartment? Well, bring 'em down. I'll put all these beer mugs out on the shelves. Make 'em look nice. Then people will take ‘em."

Those beer mugs were one of the many surprises that awaited us in Ray’s apartment. For a lifelong tea-teetotaler,  Ray had an impressive collection of beer mugs, including one with the slogan, "Beer Drinkers Make Better Lovers" another with the provocative word, "Sexy" stenciled across it in the shape of pursed, red lips, and a giant mug, tastefully outfitted with a bell on the handle, presumably to signal to your wife that you were in need of more beer.

My cousin, Jim suggested that a mug like that would bring about the end of even the happiest marriage.
And, although Ray was never married, we also found several baby-name books inexplicably squirreled in among his belongings.

After several hours of grunting Ray's accumulated belongings away, our previously brisk business at the yard sale began to slump. Whatever people didn’t take, we were going to have to haul away.
So we pulled out the big guns.

Ray's mighty collection of fedora hats was an instant hit with the entire neighborhood. People flocked to the Dumpster Yard Sale clamoring for some of Ray’s fashionable haberdashery.

"Hey! Whoa! One to a customer!" bellowed The Manager as people groped and clawed for one of the hats. Everybody in the neighborhood seemed to be wearing one. Even the guy in the sweatpants and yarn slippers who swaggered into the toxic cloud encircling The Smokin’ Old Ladies, his new hat tipped at a jaunty angle on his head.

"What the hell is that ugly thing on your head?" The Gatekeeper barked at him.

"It's my new hat," he bragged, striking a pose of awesome manliness.

The fedoras rekindled business enough so that there was very little left by the dumpster at the end of the day.

Ray's lifetime of collected treasures had spread joy far and wide.

"You know what Ray would say if he knew all these immigrants were getting his stuff?" Jim laughed as we hauled out the final load of the day.

We howled with laughter. Ray would have foamed at the mouth, spouting off about a welfare state, quoting Rush Limbaugh, and generally making a fuss. But I truly believe that deep down, Ray would have been happy to know that, in death, as in life, he made lots of people happy.