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Essay Fiesta - 2/21/11 "I Chew-Chew-Choose You"

Anybody know why St. Valentine was imprisoned and martyred? His real name was Valentinus and he was a Roman priest who was executed for marrying people. Which is to say presiding over weddings – he was not known to be a polygamist. He was beaten, stoned, and beheaded.

There’s a part of me that wants to make a cheap joke about how this was only fair, inflicting as he did marriage upon unsuspecting Romans. I will refrain from making joke, however.

The skull of St. Valentine, which is crowned with flowers, adorns the Basilica of Santa Maria in Rome.

So the modern day holiday – the celebration of romantic love – was born in blood. If you look with enough care, you will nearly always find our occasions, our feast days, our annual observances all had a bloody beginning.

I’m not getting all Wikipedia on you to create the false impression of myself as being especially learned or smartypants. I am not.

I’m just reminding us all that things are not always as we take them to be – oftentimes the unexamined surface of the thing bears little resemblance to the origins of the thing.

St. Valentine, for instance, whom we today commemorate with cellophaned chocolates and overpriced roses, has come to be a figurehead for the superficial-expression-of-love-industry, when he was actually a thousand-year-old religious fanatic who pissed off the prevailing power structure and got his head handed to him for his trouble.

Which serves as a preface when I tell you that I proposed to my wife Hallie on Valentine’s Day, 1997.

I did not do so because the date was fitting, or because I was swept up in some crescendo of emotion arising from the bewitching elixir of the day and the elevated pheromones it carries with it.

Quite the contrary – I chose Valentine’s Day to ask my then-girlfriend-now-wife to marry me precisely because Valentine’s Day is exactly the WRONG day to do so. In fact, I’d say it’s the last day on the calendar you should propose to somebody, the VERY LAST DAY – even during a leap year.

To do so in complete seriousness would make me a chucklehead of the worst sort, a dillweed of such jaw-dropping severity, a cliché-perpetuating, orthodoxy-embracing nimrod epic proportions. I would have such a stunning lack of imagination that I would make lemmings look like paragons of initiative and individuality.

Hallie and I had long agreed that Valentine’s Day belonged in the same bucket as Secretary’s Day and the rest of the Hallmark holidays. Valentine’s Day was to be shunned. Like a leper on a lace doily.

So it was that I was able to maintain the element of surprise.

We go to dinner – all the while disparaging the strained-seeming couples around us with their mylar balloons and fur-bearing Beanie Baby cherubs. And carnations. The blossom that says “I comPLETEly forgot till the last minute and bought these off a sketchy dude on the train platform on the way over here.” And all of them murmuring along to the version of “Candle in the Wind” Sir Elton did to memorialize Lady Di that was so huge that year.

So it was, in the wake of this forced march into the gulag of warm fuzzies, that I popped the question, and in so doing, I outflanked my adversary – in effect tricking her into saying “yes”. It was, in all modesty, a masterstroke of subterfuge. Hallie has had the good sense to regret her decision ever since.

Valentine’s Day, 2003, I once again concealed myself behind the cloak of frilly and lightweight ridiculousness by giving her the… best… Valentine… ever. Our son was then just a week shy of his second birthday.

The consensus among any who met him was that our boy was the single most sweet-tempered baby ever to draw breath. And they were correct in this – our boy was a dewy-eyed and beaming little thing. He was unfailingly happy and curious and engaged, he was expansive and trusting and free, and above everything, he was at peace always.

Rather than getting a sitter and going out for a “romantic” dinner, I hatched a plot, and enlisted as my henchman my not-yet-two-year-old associate.

I dressed him in his red footie pajamas. I made a pair of cherub wings and affixed them to his back. I put shining red heart stickers on the pudge of his cheeks. I made for him a “Happy Valentine’s Day” sash we slung over his shoulder and across the roundness of his belly. I turned him into a living cherub and carried him into his mother’s office.

The other people there – not just the women, but the women in particular – lost their minds when they saw him. I had to shush them so they wouldn’t give us away before we could surprise Hallie. He was SO cute, that people bit their knuckles and drew blood. He was so adorable – so soft and sweet-smelling and happy-making – that he singlehandedly accelerated every biological clock in that place.

The moment Hallie saw him, she didn’t just SHED tears, tears SQUIRTED out her eyes. Like a Super Soaker. Or the final panel of a Cathy cartoon, where she’s going “Ack!” I was like four feet away from her and I got doused like her tear ducts had been replaced by old-timey seltzer bottles.

The onslaught of that much adorableness in so concentrated a form, was more than she could withstand. She has been powerless to leave me ever since. My victory is complete.

Valentine’s Day, 2005, wherein we return to the blood-soaked historical roots of the day.

Some background: in 1986, my dad killed himself. Sorry, there’s no genteel way to say it. So there it is. It’s a fact. I had succeeded in suppressing this fact for the better part of the next twenty years.

As the 20th anniversary of his death was approaching in 2006, I’d begun looking into this previously disregarded episode in my family history. I got the police report. Found some news clippings. Xerox of the suicide note. My mom sent me his death certificate. Tucked inside a Valentine’s card.

Now – let’s be clear. I knew she’d be sending the death certificate. I had been anticipating its arrival.

What rendered it jarring was the fact that it was inside a Valentine. I think you have to have had something like the life experience that I have in order to fully understand why this was so hilarious. I laughed like a maniac when I opened that thing.

For most people, black humor is entirely theoretical. For me, it is real and present and true. For me, having my dad’s actual death certificate unfolding like a punch line from inside a sappy-ass card not only makes the incident of my dad’s death more bearable, it makes the world a slightly less perplexing and horrible place.

For me, encountering real events that by any measure are cause for despair, and that involve real, actual human beings – myself included – flailing and failing as we all must, and responding to this confusing miasma by laughing my ass off may strike the untrained observer as me being a callous a-hole with no regard for others.

But really, what the sound of this laughter – which at first may seem vicious or fatalistic or unkind – is really the sound of the ragged and ungainly hope that has taken me this far. When I laugh at misfortune and heartache and brutality, it may not seem like it to you, but it is a love song. It’s just that melody isn’t as trite, and the rhyme scheme isn’t as stupid and crappy as “Candle In the Wind”.

The sound of this laughter is like Valentine’s Day. If Valentine’s Day was a plant, the foliage up top would be showy and dumb, insincere and pretty embarrassing, but the taproot of this plant would draw from a pool of blood deep underground.


WRITE CLUB - Chloe Johnston, Play - 9/21/10


Ian Belknap - WRITE CLUB, Work - 9/21/10


Ian's Essay Fiesta Piece - "Authenticity" - 9/20/10

In April of 2009, I accepted a position as a grant writer for a non-profit arts organiztion. This non-profit is located in what Business Week Magazine last year named the 16th richest town in America. I’m pleased to report that as of this week I have emancipated myself from this job in this quaint village that Business Week Magazine assures us is the 16th richest town in the nation.

I’m here to report to you that there are BURDENS associated with living in the 16th richest town in the country.

Now, though I was a “knowledge worker” and though I dutifully dressed like a bank teller every day, I might as well have worn a tinker’s apron and smeared my face with grease, so evident to them was my membership in the laboring classes.

My assessment of conditions in the well-tended village with its well-tended people is that the primary effect on the inhabitants of the 16th richest town in America is that on the one hand, they have a bulletproof certainty that they are better than you in every way you could name, while on the other hand they are gripped by the excruciating discomfort arising from the knowledge that there are FIFTEEN RICHER TOWNS IN AMERICA.

I know. Take a moment. Sit with that.

Perhaps the most vexing, the most bedeviling, the most maddening and unjust aspect of this hurtful, hurtful list, however, was the fact that while the majority of the other Richest Towns in America had the DECENCY to be situated in the tony suburbs of D.C. or out Silicon Valley way, the NUMBER TWO TOWN on the list was RIGHT DOWN SHERIDAN ROAD, not FIVE MILES away, just sitting there, GLOATING.

It’s like you’re Slugworth and right down the road is Wonka’s factory, mocking you. And you, Slugworth, with your scarred face and your lack of charisma, are STUCK with your inferior empire. And Wonka. With his Oompa Loompas and his his joie de vivre is right down the street. Which. Just. KILLS. You.

While it feels important in the interests of accuracy to state that I did encounter noteworthy exceptions to this tendency – persons who had maintained a degree of perspective about their relative position in the world, and to remain mindful of their good fortune – these handful of people seemed always aware that their affluence arose from a modest amount of work, true, but was largely the result of a happy confluence of their geography and race and class. These few people were able to regard these fortuitous quirks of birth and place as precisely this, and to regard their position and capacities of time and capital as an opportunity to be of service in the world.

Each of these generous-minded people was contented and tranquil. Perhaps it goes without saying that these generous-minded people were deeply unpopular among the other residents of the village. The other residents of the village – those right-minded citizens who had the good sense to seethe with resentment about the FIFTEEN OTHER U.S. TOWNS THAT HAD GREATER PER CAPITA WEALTH regarded these few generous-minded residents as misguided and more than a little weird.

These generous-minded residents, these… weirdos, seemed unavailable to devote the kind of grooming time that had come to be expected in the village. These weirdos seemed unable, unwilling, or – perish the thought – UNINTERESTED in logging the kind of time in the manicurists’ chair each week that yielded the desired suppleness of one’s hands.

The RIGHT-minded citizens of the village had come to agree that the experience of touching the human hand should be akin to clasping a latex glove filled with tepid pudding. Not only did the weirdos’ hands bear the traces of – it pains one to say it – EFFORT and USE, in their frankly appalling lack of suppleness, the nails at the ends of these fingers tended to be both scandalously under-shaped and to have tips that were not French in the slightest.

The weirdos further did not or could not see the virtues of an adequate amount of the right kind of attention paid to the volume and color of one’s hair. These weirdos – in FLAGRANT defiance of convention – would INSIST on wearing their flat and lifeless hair in ways that did not require the frequent professional intervention that the right-thinking citizens of the village have come to recognize as indepensible. When to do so calls into question the need of the village’s scrum of Eastern European hair stylists and colorists who roll into town in their Jettas each morning. To say nothing of the brown-skinned ladies who sweep up the hair.

These weirdos, with their lank, unsassy hair are taking food right straight out of the mouths of our sad brown-skinned ladies who lurch out of the Metra every day to sweep up our hair.

And let me tell you something else about these weirdos with their big jerk faces. Those faces have NEVER once gone under the knife – these weirdos, they have old-looking, un-improved faces. I mean, so OK, you’re afraid of surgery or have like a philosophical thing or whatever, but they don’t TAN.

But if the right-thinking citizens of the village were to isolate a single crime of the weirdos, it would not be their unsupple hands, or their unglamorous hair, or their untanned, uncarved faces, it would be this:

These weirdos are known to eat. Food. Publicly. They, like, INGEST food. In full view. Of strangers. Now, the right-thinking citizens of the village would the be first to concede the need to choke down a bite or two when their own daughters are nearby, so that Olivia and Madison and Sophia and Brookly can develop a healthy body image and don’t get all… fixated on food.

But to see these, these weirdos… chewing. And then swallowing. Over and over again. Well, I don’t mind telling you that the right-thinking citizens of the village are quite frankly sickened by the sight of it.

Every time the right-thinking citizens of the village are compelled to bear witness to the SPECTACLE of these so-called generous-minded residents of the village putting all that, that FOOD down their gullets – right there in the center of town, they know – AGAIN – that these weirdos are simply… not. The right kind. Of people.


Ian's (Victorious) Work - WRITE CLUB, 9/21/10

Now, Play may be nice. Play may be fun. But it doesn’t fucking MATTER to you.

Confucius famously observed: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

Later that same week, Confucius also said:

“If Debbie in Marketing does not give it a rest about her fucking cats, I swear to Christ I will open my wrists in the break room. If she says one more WORD about the fucking ointment she’s gotta put on that one cat’s anus, I swear to GOD I will slash my wrists right in her face.”

Sage words. As true today as when he wrote them two thousand years ago.

This is the thing: the difference between WORK and A JOB. Your WORK fires your imagination and imbues you with a sense of purpose, it create a sense of flow and drive and propulsion in your life – it is both journey and destination, aim and end. You do your WORK whether you have to or not – you wedge it into the tiniest crevice in your schedule – you continue with it no matter how dense and complex your life becomes.


Hitler’s JOB was to be der Fuhrer. His WORK was to be painter. Which is an important lesson: if you know what your work is, don’t suck at it. You’ll end up super pissed. Like Hitler.

Einstein’s JOB was to be a patent clerk. His WORK was to forever alter our perception of space-time. This is another good lesson: if you can swing it at all, be a genius.

If you are Tom Cruise, your JOB is to fan the embers of your waning celebrity. Your WORK is to be tiny, closeted mouthpiece for a creepy non-religion.

And if you are ME, your JOB is to spend your days raising money for a theater, but your WORK is to be Overlord of WRITE CLUB.

Think of it this way: a JOB is a set of shears. Your time on earth is a bolt of fabric. This fabric is precious to you – it is the only time you possess. But so then these SHEARS cut all these irregular shapes out of your fabric, compromising and frankly fucking up your vision of what this fabric was to become. The pattern of a life well lived might to you resemble a floor-length garment like a dashiki.

Every hour you spend at a Job, and getting there and back, and every stray thought about some bullshit thing your boss said two days ago. All the moments of all the days you squander on a Job are STOLEN from your fabric. As a consequence of this, the dashiki of your life that you envisioned is no longer possible.

Because of the snipping and trimming and slicing of these ASSHOLE shears, you will be lucky if you can salvage a pair of culottes from the fabric of your own life. Instead of the stately and regal dashiki in your mind’s eye, you’re stuck with these culottes that are unflattering, and frankly more than a little demeaning. Your ass not only looks huge, but they are badly out of season, and you have squandered your adult life on the construction of these culottes, which your friends all agree was a bad miscalculation.

This is not the case with WORK. Your Work is something you will defend. Where your Work is concerned, when you get some bulllshit call, you will not let stand – you will blitz the line judge in the McEnroe style – a mushroom cloud of hair brimming over your headband:

“You CANNOT be serious!”

At a Job, when somebody shits on you, you just shrug and check your watch and hit the vending machines and you’re like “Ooh. Krackle Bar,” and forget all about it. And, I mean LOOK at yourself, man: you are SETTLING for a Krackle Bar. A waxy, flavorless Krackle Bar, dude. Grow a pair. And get to fucking WORK, OK?

Work sustains you. A Job feeds off of you. Like a tapeworm.

You get stoked about your Work. You get ground down by your Job.

You are a giant-killer in your Work. At your Job, you are a piss-ant.

You are a sex machine in your Work. At your Job, you are a eunuch.

And if you talk about your POSITION at an organization, what you have there, my friend, is a JOB that you hate, but that you are pathetically trying to convince people is something awesome and prestigious.

Your PROFESSION is still a Job, but you can only get it if you stay in school for a long-ass time.

If you have a GIG, you’re trying to convince us that your Job is cool. Which it isn’t. It just means you’re allowed to where your Chucks and jeans there. But they will still bitch you out if you show up late, and we will find you to be a douche if you persist in calling it a gig.

Your CAREER is a string of Jobs. So you can track your failure over time, as you trapeze from one irrelevance to another.

Work – real work – matters to you. Maybe not as much as your kids or your wife or your dog, but it matters an awful lot.

If there is a fire, you know the five things you need to grab to continue your Work – the things that you cannot let burn because they are too fucking important. In your Work, you will persevere, you will redouble your efforts. You will abide.

If there is a fire at your Job, you will walk away without snagging a thing. You will stand across the street watching blankly as that shithole burns to the ground.