Grow Your Own Furniture

Amy was assembling our new dressers. The dressers couldn’t have been more disassembled, “unless they made me cut my own wood,” she said. Yes, they could be, I countered. They could have made us grow our own trees.

* * *

Dissatisfied with your local furniture superstore’s selection? Feeling emotionally disconnected from the furniture pieces in your home? Wanting to establish a relationship with the wood on which you park your butt for hours each day without so much as a howdy doody?

If you answered yes to any of these, then Grow Your Own Furniture (GYOF) has what you need.

There are three steps to a purchase from GYOF:

Select Your Wood

We have over 10,000 types of wood from which to choose. Pick Oak, Cherry, Walnut, Alder, Maple, Mahogany, Teak, Birch, Beech, Hickory, or Ash, and you’ll be part of the collective mindset of the majority of our customers. If you go a more exotic path and select from our smaller batch lots, such as Zebrawood, Ebony, Bolivian Rosewood, or Bloodwood, you’ll need to check out our deluxe package, which includes land ownership, citizenship, and a full-time arborist in the origin growth country of choice.

Decide on Generational Delivery

Typical growth times from seed to sawmill range from a low of 20 years for certain softer woods to a high of hundreds of years for harder, more exotic woods.

Probably we should have led with this in our sales pitch, but raw materials that become finished goods under the GYOF brand typically do not accrue to the generation that signs the contract. Typically, they are passed down as a legacy, with the contract signatories serving as caretakers and purveyors of emotionally intelligent highboy and other fine pieces.

Probably this should be its own section in our sales copy, but to ensure successful fulfillment of the terms of a GYOF contract, you must be strongly resourced, i.e., you must already possess enough financial capital to allow you not to work a day job.

Why can’t you work a day job? Because the central premise of emotionally connected, fully family integrated furniture requires the owner’s commitment to nurturing the wood from seed to sawmill. This means if you’re not eating, sleeping, or shitting, you’re spending time with your wood and attending to its every need.

Hey, it supports you every day and accepts your—or, rather, the next generation’s—after-Superbowl chili cheese farts without complaint, so the least you can do is dedicate your life to its growth.

If you’re religious, think of this like you’re God the Father, and your chosen wood is Jesus, your Son of God. Yes, you know you’ll eventually sacrifice your wood to the sawmill, but it’s for a higher cause, so it’s worth it. If you think that simile is sacrilegious, hey, give us a break, we’re trying to run a business based on the model that you have to give up your life to read calming poetry to wood. We don’t have time to become the next US Poet Laureate.

Choose Molded or Sawn

Molded furniture grows into a pre-measured steel form. In this way, the wood comprising your piece is contiguous, with not a cut, splice, joint, or other break to be found. (Of course, restricting the growth of your wood in such a drastic way can negatively affect its health, so you risk wasting years of your life cultivating a chair that only has one arm. Just thought you should know in case you didn’t realize it was stupid to turn over your life to growing wood for next-generation use. This comment is courtesy of Randy the Intern, who is quitting this shit-for-brains business and who hopes the insertion of this comment post editorial review will mean it makes it into the final copy that reaches you, gullible potential customer, so you will shop Amazon with the rest of us thought-we-could-be-patient-but-really-would-be-okay-with-drone-delivery customers.)

The sawn furniture option is, as its name implies, crude, ripping, impersonal, and ultimately detrimental to proper emotional furniture connection, but it may allow you the best chance to have your great grandchildren carry in the finished piece to your hospital room as you lay dying.

* * *

If ass-in-seat now means inheritance ravaging later, count me in.

All hail mass-production assembly.

And release the chili cheese farts.

Kinky by Dimensions

Amy bought a rubber belt with studs on it and hung this in the shower. I got all excited about kinky shower sex, until she told me it was an exfoliator, used to prevent acne.

Suddenly white bodily fluids aren’t so sexy.

I’ve developed an alternative explanation for the presence of the non-kinky item. It was non-kinky only because of the small dimensions of our shower. We have a stand-alone shower in our master bathroom. We have a jacuzzi tub, but the shower is about the size of a coffin stood on end. Okay, a coffin stood on end for Al Capone or William Jennings Bryan or John Candy, but a coffin, nonetheless. You believe you can fly? Not in my shower, you can’t.

I believe that if the rubber belt were hung above my jacuzzi tub, it would have acquired the powers of kink. If it were hung outside, it would have acquired the powers of kink, and also the power/right to hire an attorney to defend me against accusations of violating the HOA’s morality clause. (I don’t know if our HOA has a morality clause, but it’s an HOA. Gotta be some dark ritual going on somewhere, the result of which is narrow language and no fun.)

In essence, the ability or inability to move one’s limbs freely is the determining factor in whether a location shows activity on the kink scale. Some choice locations that may or may not lend themselves to a good kink rating:

Outdoor Trampoline

Netting surrounds the modern versions of these. With wear and tear from the elements and the occasional knife fight, this netting often develops rips and tears. Thus, outdoor, non-standard-sourced fishnet stockings. Lots of room to move around. Lots of fishnet material to fashion according to fantasy. But there is the HOA to think about. Also the scarring of children.

Kink rating: 7. Danger rating: 7.

Jail Cell

Following the logical conclusion of a romp on my neighbor’s trampoline, swaddled in kinky trampoline netting, I feel law enforcement would get involved, so my next location is a cell in the county jail.

We live in Warren County, IA. I’ve never seen the inside of the Warren County Jail, but I have Internet. The entrance is flanked on either side by multi-story glass, limestone, and brick walls, windows at the top of which give these walls the appearance of Minecraft characters. The building is an older, squat, rectangular box that could have served as inspiration for the Kitchener Ironworks in Stephen King’s IT.

I didn’t find any good pictures of the cells online, but judging by the exterior, I’m guessing these are of the 6’ x 8’ variety. Not a lot of room, but cell size may be a non-issue.

Because of its failure to develop in utero from an old, creepy building into a modern one, the Warren County Jail probably has spirits caught between generational progress. Even when one is dead, change is tough. I see these spats between the old and the new as tension builders. Plus, we just finished watching the first season of American Horror Story, and now that I know sex with ghosts is possible, the walls of a jail cell seem less limiting.

Kink rating: 10. Danger rating: 5.

Aging Snowbank

A little ice on the nipples can conjure images of a Russian winter fantasy, complete with stranded royalty, heavy furs, and, oddly, the ever-present forgetting to wear anything underneath gambit.

But trying to reenact this in your aging, dirty snowbank at the end of your driveway presents more problems than solutions. Frostbite will temper a turbo-charged heart. Wet, heavy snow will dilute lube and slick one’s footing. Best to leave this one to the dogs.

Kink rating: 5. Danger rating: 10.

Is this short list arbitrary? Of course it is. Should you try any of these locations for your own fantasies to see if ordinary exfoliating objects can transform into titillating toys? Or bounce you to buxom boisterousness? Or excarcerate (I’ve declared this to be a word) your incarcerated id? Or feather your frozen phallus?

Check in with the expanse of your mind.

How much room have you got?

The University of Iowa Bumblebees

Amy and I were playing Ticket to Ride. Amy was black. I was yellow. Amy commented that we had bumblebee colors. I said it was Iowa Hawkeye colors. Amy asked why the Hawkeyes weren’t the bumblebees. “Bumblebees are scary,” she said.

Maybe. But not on the football field. Some names must remain static.

I imagine the crowd at Kinnick Stadium on game day. The stands shake like a fault line has opened up underneath, people jumping up and down like they’re blood-thirsty attendees at a Colosseum event in ancient Rome (and in a way, they are), beer flowing like geologists have found the mother lode of all hidden resources, and it’s beer. All this raucous activity is in anticipation of the home team bursting through the tunnel, breaking through the barrier, and barreling out onto the field.

They do all that, but instead of Herky the Hawk leading the charge, it’s Barney the Bumblebee.

Instead of screeching bird sounds blasting from the stadium speakers like shouts from an angry god, an annoying buzzing flies on sound waves through open space. (Full disclosure: I haven’t been to a Hawkeye game in a while, so I’m taking license with the audio effects and stage blocking.) Everyone pokes their fingers in theirs ears, working out the tickling sensation assaulting their eardrums. Also, Barney isn’t running; he’s hopping like he’s trying to play the world’s biggest game of hopscotch. It is, in a word, sad.

It’s not football. It’s not the Hawkeyes. It’s not what you love or expect, so it is sad.

Names matter. History matters. I realize certain groups take umbrage with the historical connections some sports teams’ names have with blighted human activity. But I think it’s better to remember the bad and learn from it—continuously learn from it, for we humans are dreadfully fickle creatures—than to paint over it with fresh lacquer and bestow upon it a new arrangement of letters. The paint will never cover. The letters will always retain the impression of typeset and the ink from a million headlines.  

This opinion is predicated on a team’s name having real meaning, real verve. If, however, your name is a few spectrum wavelengths off from a primary color, as in the Moline Maroons, perhaps a renaming committee is in order.

I don’t hate Moline, IL. I lived there for eight years and in two houses, but I dislike a team name that inspires me to think of fall landscaping and apples growing their Death Star concavities.

I like both of those things. Fall landscaping is delicious, almost as good as the hot apple cider one sips while looking out one’s window and ogling the neighbor’s verge with envy. Rotting apples explode with pernicious pugnacity. Much better than fresh Granny Smiths, which are barely less structurally sound than new Rawlings baseballs. The miniature collapsing George Lucas wannabee orbital ordinance do a wonderful job of chasing off youths who like to loiter, or suitors who like to lavish themselves with a dream lover’s cape. (Just to be clear: all suitors of my daughters look like fire-breathing dragons to me. Their capes? Just a bunch of dirty scales.)

Do you see what I mean about a bad sports team name? It takes you down paths you don’t want to go. It cancels enjoyment in sport and opens wide the throttle of out-of-context neighborhood arborous jealousy and assumed future generational philandering of those who have barely begun to shave.

We can’t have the Iowa Bumblebees. We can only have the Hawkeyes. We must stay with what we know, with what keeps our minds straight, with what feels right.

We must assign black and yellow the course of running parallel lines.

While a bird of prey circles.

And circles.

2020 Bibliopathy Report

I have a problem. It’s books.

I acquire them armloads at a time. Many go unread for years. They are insulating the house, I think. To this and other rationalizations, my wife, Amy, rolls her eyes, but she’s got a bad case of bibliopathy herself. She just hides it with e-books and library checkouts.

We moved from Oregon to Iowa a couple months ago. Prior to the move, I had books stacked up on every conceivable flat surface in our home, and this was only after filling our numerous bookshelves. It was like a scene from UP, only the skyscrapers rising around Carl were towers of books, and I was damn sure glad for their presence.

Our old bookshelves were afflicted with bibliophilic scurvy, so we junked them before hitting the road. The result: we have dozens of boxes of books in our storage area, awaiting next month’s shelf-making project. For now, I’m digging out a few titles at a time and increasing my quota of audio books.

Lest the cardboard barriers promote memory loss of the worlds held within, here’s a list of every book I read in 2020:

  1. The Guardians, John Grisham, 12/25/19 – 1/3/20
  2. Agincourt, Bernard Cornwell, 12/10/19 – 1/18/20
  3. Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman, 1/18/20 – 1/31/20
  4. Bloody Genius, John Sandford, 2/2/20 – 2/21/20
  5. Under the Dome, Stephen King, 1/3/20 – 2/21/20
  6. Coronado, Dennis LeHane, 1/26/20 – 2/22/20
  7. Nothing to See Here, Kevin Wilson, 2/22/20 – 2/28/20
  8. Lean Turnaround, Art Byrne, 2/4/20 – 3/2/20
  9. A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles, 3/2/20 – 3/28/20
  10. The 100, Kass Morgan, 3/7/20 – 3/29/20
  11. Successful Aging, Daniel Levitin, 2/16/20 – 3/31/20
  12. New Iberia Blues, James Lee Burke, 4/1/20 – 4/11/20
  13. A Long Walk Up the Waterslide, Don Winslow, 4/13/20 – 4/23/20
  14. Narrative Economics, Robert Shiller, 3/15/20 – 4/24/20
  15. While Drowning in the Desert, Don Winslow, 4/23/20 – 4/26/20
  16. Miracle on the 17th Green, James Patterson-Peter De Jonge, 4/24/20 – 4/28/20
  17. American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins, 4/24/20 – 5/1/20
  18. Time and Again, Jack Finney, 5/5/20 – 5/19/20
  19. Run for Your Life, James Patterson-Michael Ledwidge, 5/21/20 – 5/25/20
  20.  Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson, 2/16/20 – 5/25/20 
  21. Worst Case, James Patterson-Michael Ledwidge, 5/25/20 – 5/29/20
  22. Miracle at Augusta, James Patterson-Peter De Jonge, 5/30/20 – 6/1/20
  23. Zoo, James Patterson, 6/2/20 – 6/10/20
  24. Camino Winds, John Grisham, 5/18/20 – 6/13/20
  25. The Son, Phillip Meyer, 6/12/20 – 6/30/20
  26. Masked Prey, John Sandford, 5/18/20 – 7/6/20
  27. The Jesus Cow, Michael Perry, 6/30/20 – 7/10/20 
  28. Warriors of the Storm, Bernard Cornwell, 7/10/20 – 7/23/20
  29. Countdown 1945, Chris Wallace, 7/6/20 – 7/29/20
  30. Fair Warning, Michael Connelly, 7/24/20 – 7/30/20
  31. The Late Show, Michael Connelly, 7/31/20 – 8/6/20
  32. Dark Sacred Night, Michael Connelly, 8/7/20 – 8/21/20
  33. Misery, Stephen King, 7/6/20 – 8/23/20
  34. Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn, 8/22/20 – 9/7/20
  35. The Night Fire, Michel Connelly, 9/8/20 – 9/16/20
  36. Mexican White Boy, Matt de la Pena, 8/25/20 – 9/21/20
  37. The Good Detective, John McMahon, 9/21/20 – 9/27/20
  38. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy, 9/16/20 – 10/28/20
  39. David & Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell, 10/29/20 – 10/31/20
  40. The Coward’s Guide to Conflict, Timothy Ursiny, 10/31/20 – 10/31/20
  41. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared, Jonas Jonasson, 10/31/20 – 11/3/20
  42. My Lovely Wife, Samantha Downing, 9/27/20 – 11/5/20
  43. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey, 11/3/20 – 11/15/20
  44. Unfuck Your Brain, Faith G Harper, 11/15/20 – 11/18/20
  45. Population: 485, Michael Perry, 11/18/20 – 11/29/20
  46. The Silent Patient, Alex Michaelides, 11/5/20 – 12/1/20
  47. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hr Bookstore, Robin Sloan, 11/25/20 – 12/6/20
  48. The Jungle, Upton Sinclair, 12/6/20 – 12/18/20
  49. Teamwork 101, John C Maxwell, 12/18/20 – 12/21/20
  50. Strangers on a Train, Patricia Highsmith, 12/21/20 – 12/27/20
  51. Perfect Little World, Kevin Wilson, 12/24/20 – 12/31/20
  52. As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner, 12/27/20 – 12/31/20

I’m approaching 40-years-old. If I’m as lucky as the protagonist in The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared, and I keep up a book-a-week pace, I’ve got a little over 3,000 titles left to read.

My bibliopathy is chronic, it appears.

I can live with that.

Editor’s Note–TFF Issue 28

Root cause analysis is important.

Years ago, I owned a Chevy S-10 pickup truck. It had a rotted tailgate; it shifted like I was trying to push a toothpick through modeling clay; and it would occasionally send perfume bursts of gasoline fumes into the cab when the fuel injectors malfunctioned. But I thought it was great.

I was a truck-owner, a real American—and not just an American, an American man. People thought of me when they needed to move something. I thought of myself when I needed to move something, so I ignored some of the more concerning symptoms my S-10 was displaying (yes, more concerning than edge fear of immolation).

At the time, I was living in the Quad Cities but working in Muscatine, IA, so I drove 45 minutes each day on Highway 61. Previously, I had either commuted 10 minutes or worked from home, so my planning ahead skills re: fuel levels were lax, and I found myself whispering sweet nothings to my S-10, praying it would coast long enough down the hill to reach the Casey’s General Store just outside the Muscatine city limits. I never ran out of gas, but I also learned that my idea of root cause analysis was misinformed.

I thought my S-10, despite the admirable quality of, on a semi-regular basis, starting and rolling from point A to point B, was just a gas guzzler. Turns out, it had the automobile equivalent of Crohn’s disease. Once, while pumping gas at Casey’s, my heart rate on the decline after the latest bout of anxiety over whether this was the day I would finally stick my thumb out on the side of the road, I heard rain.

Problem: it was a sunny day. Yet, the rain continued, seeming only to be occurring in and around truck. My observation was in the right region, but I had chosen the wrong preposition. “Got some gas leaking out under your truck there,” the motorist at the pump opposite said to me, nonchalantly, as if he saw this every day. This year’s crop of leaking gas tanks is acutely concentrated around youths at Casey’s, I imagined him writing in his journal that night.

His tone seemed unconcerned, but I was freaking out. It’s not every day one finds oneself surrounded by a pool of gas. I’ve heard the vapor concentration has to be just right for gas to ignite, but that’s like saying if you find yourself surrounded by a pack of ravenous wolves, their aggression quotient has to be just right for them to attack. Maybe so, but the situation is still Shitsville, most roads leading to Deadwood and the Pinewood Box Factory.

What did I do? I got in my truck and drove to work.

After work, I drove my truck, my tinder box on wheels, to a mechanic, who informed me my gas tank had rotted out and would need to be replaced. Each time I started it up in its current condition, I learned, it was like igniting a kerosene-soaked rope wrapped around a crate filled with dynamite, hoping that when the rope failed, the shock from the impact of the dynamite on the floor wouldn’t cause an explosion. Nothing in this life is guaranteed, but come on, man.

I admit I wasn’t thinking clearly. Probably I should have called the fire department. Probably I should have junked my S-10 then and there, but I was late in learning the root cause analysis of my fast-disappearing gas levels. This lateness allowed unearned confidence to seep in and denial to grow.

At TFF, we care about any tendency you might have to believe it’s acceptable to replace a section of the Hoover Dam with a tarp, so long as you pull the edges good and tight. We want you to get to that root cause analysis before you become a rolling lantern. We think the pieces from this edition will help you in that regard (and by you, I, of course, mean me, too).

* * *

Punch Club

Root cause of not seeking dental work: no money. There are alternatives.

The Etymology of Suck

Root cause of things sucking: parts of speech are nasty little magic spells.

The Soothing Sounds of My 38-Inch Cutting Deck

Root cause of miscategorizing items for sale: musical dreams don’t follow business strategy.

Dr. Rocks Off

Root cause of elective sterilization: corporate greed.

Cut the Fruit and Pack All the Knives

Root cause of contract killing business failure: vitamin deficiency.

The Great Banana Sacrifice

Root cause of terrorists running amok: unbalanced reincarnation preferences.


Root cause of political/religious disagreements: lack of funky chill.

Dufus Guru

Root cause of feigned expertise: an optimistic view of one’s potential.

Don’t Pick Up Abandoned Pancakes at the Park

Root cause of a superhero’s identity leaking: litter cleanup hypervigilance.

We’re Starting to Paint Tomorrow and Moving Our Stiff in on Saturday

Root cause of bountiful blessings in one’s life: carting around a dead body.

Approaching Asylum

Root cause of happiness during the holidays: misunderstanding Christmas songs.

Apples Around the Dollar Tree

Root cause of retail offense: failure to realize the gulf between the value of a dollar and the value of life.

Weather News Happens or Not

Root cause of an escaping, super intelligent shitstorm: typos.

* * *

As we close out 2020, may you conduct your actions with clear sight into what was and what will be. Should you choose to add becoming a lantern to your 2021 goals list.

Get yourself a flame-retardant suit.

Weather News Happens or Not

An article from earlier this week in the Des Moines Register had this headline: Blizzard Conditions Hit Norwest Iowa.

Like my eyes to Cubs, Packers, or Blazers apparel and paraphernalia on my fellow man or woman, I snapped to attention at the almost-concatenation of the end of the second word and the beginning of the third, which would have produced the Captain Underpants humor-worthy headline of Blizzard Condition Shit Norwest Iowa, as in prior to a gastrointestinal event in a weather system, northwest Iowa as we know it did not exist.

I shared this spacing insight in a screenshot to my 14-year-old son and my brothers, both in their 20s, and we got good laughs as only males can. I still chuckle to myself when I see the chocolate frozen yogurt extruding from the machine. I can’t help it. It’s a frozen condition of my gender.

But I feel the need to go further, to reach beyond gender roles concerning toilet humor. If a weather system can have an excretory event and produce new land, this seems momentous and worthy of sharing with all humans, i.e., this calls for fake news.

* * *

Farmers in northwest Iowa discovered they had brown thumbs today, and not because of their growing skills or lack thereof. A freak blizzard/tornado touched down on every hog, cattle, and fertilizer operation in the state. These powerful, dual-pronged storms sucked up feces with tornado power and blew it around with blizzard intensity. The result: a brown Christmas, and not of the Charlie Brown variety.

“Puts a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘brown and serve,’” said Vernon Welcher, manager for the Farmland hog-buying station in Grundy Center, IA.

“Takes mud bogging to a new level,” said Clancy Critters, self-proclaimed mud bogging champion, hillbilly, and crystal meth cook.

“I’m concerned about the animals’ welfare,” said Theresa Hartman, local veterinarian, “though I suppose, for the pigs, anyway, it’s probably the best way to go. They are flying, and we must believe,” she said, holding up a hand and shielding her eyes from the brilliant, coffee filtered light, casting her face in half shadow, and not totally obscuring a smile.

These takes on shades of airborne tree bark are novel, but they fail to reach the magnitude of the storms’ largest effect: terraforming.

Following the fecal patina, a new section of Iowa appeared as if conjured from a magic spell, one cast from the kicks of a karate master, a brown belt. Former northwest Iowa is now northeast. Per Dale Hodges, founder and managing partner of Hodges & Associates Surveyors, the storms terraformed new ground and expanded the state’s footprint by roughly 50 square miles, over the top of which “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown would have been proud to dance,” Bill said.

Since this new land is mostly manure mixed with a smidgen of soil, it is highly fertile. Early experiments (read: in the last few hours since the literal shit storm touched down) have produced amazing results. A dead branch from an oak tree grew into a 100’ monster in minutes, your writer observed. A bag of potpourri broke out, changed genus into tulips, filled 100 acres, and awarded itself the international tulip festival title.

The former title holder, Gretchen Kjarten, reached by phone, said she did not plan to fight this reassignment of title. “What would you have me do to compete?” She said. “Lift up my skirts, climb onto a broom, fly around in circles, and let loose?!”

The potential to spark tremendous growth is exciting and equally concerning. “We haven’t seen anyone coming out with corn stalks instead of legs,” said Polk County Sheriff Rodney Faulkner, “but we’re restricting access, nonetheless.” Faulkner is working with Bruno Guy, head of fertilizer research at CornChem, an Iowa agricultural chemical company. Guy said his team has observed no abnormal human growth, but your writer observed a chorus of researchers singing Jimmy Crack Corn.

Fears about superintelligence and who might access, develop, and control it, lead US Department of Agriculture Secretary Marsha L.L. Town to order a rolling brownout to the power grid in the area to discourage rubberneckers. “Better out than in,” she said. “We don’t want ‘shut your corn hole’ to lose its metaphorical status.”

* * *

Sidenote of real news: I hear the Cleveland Browns are thinking of relocating.

Apples Around the Dollar Tree

I stand in line at the Des Moines, IA Dollar Tree on SE 14th, six feet back from the shopper ahead of me. We are spaced properly, but he is behind his blue painter’s tape line, so I am forced to stand behind mine, lest I should open a gap that is wastefully large. I stand there for a minute, and nothing happens.

The family ahead of the off-line agitator is apparently buying a month’s worth of groceries. The cashier has yellow hair, cut short, unmoving as if it were a wax mop placed atop her head wet and left there to dry. Her hands move in a blur to scan the family’s trove of foodstuffs. Her frame is large, but it seems she is shrinking, like an inflatable animal losing air and wanting to serve out its purpose before it is rendered flat and put away for the season.

Behind me, a glassy-eyed employee, pushing a cart of $1 each orphan detritus, wanders the aisles like someone lost in the desert. I’ve seen her in all the places I’ve been in the store. I don’t know if she’s stalking me, if she has an assigned task, or if she lacks a directive and is, thus, moving around like a slow-motion human pinball, caroming off the stationary aisle, rolling through seasonal, and ricocheting down the front aisle for the hell of it.

Purpose aside, her vectors bring her up behind me, and she bumps her cart into my butt. Rather than slacken her push, she increases it, as though I am an annoyance to be removed, like I am a stubborn cart in a line that must be loosened and rousted from the ground where I stand, an undeserving claim jumper whose deloucheing will bring about what she desires most: uninterrupted caroming, orbital freedom, walkabout within the four walls of the store. I move out of the way. She moves forward and offers a Dollar Tree apology but neither looks at me nor slows. I feel hot. I want justice. I’ve been wronged, and not just me—my butt!

I think about the after-action report where I would have to justify screaming at a Dollar Tree employee, and my temperature cools. Is this an offense? Have I been wronged? Maybe. I rock my hand back and forth in my mind. Considering the degree of offense with, say, murdering someone in cold blood, bumping of my butt with a cart is decidedly un-duel-worthy, so I get over it.

The man in front of me turns to talk to the lady next to him. She cants her body toward his. She is shorter, older, more dried, like a towel left to bake on a clothesline and then run through a pair or rollers to flatten her out. Her smooth, deeply tanned skin, though, retains its grooved pattern. She wears a crisp black sweatshirt with pink lettering encased in pink wedges that look like pie pieces tumbled off a plate and stacked up wedge-to-point with intention. The letters say





The pyramidic, juvenile meter of the lines tells me their placement was made for graphic design considerations, rather than poetic.

The man increases his turn toward the woman, and I see him full on. He wears a dusty sweatshirt and stiff jeans, the kind that might withstand a glancing blow from a naked circular saw blade. He looks hardened, a tradesman, perhaps, someone who lives with the labor of his hands. I see the words emblazoned on his mask: FUCK OFF.

Perhaps he meant for it to say FUCK OFF, I HAVE COVID. That would have made sense. Even if it were substituting moonshine for cooking sherry, it would have been an accurate overreaction.

Flipped Bitch Switch leaves the line, and I hear snippets of dialogue between her and FUCK OFF about going back for another this or that. Given that this is the Dollar Tree, those could be brand names.

So missing his companion, FUCK OFF turns to motion me forward. I am surprised and temporarily frozen, like the tailgate of a truck after a freezing rain. I have my AirPods in, listening to the soothing sounds of John C Maxwell discuss Teamwork 101, so I miss a chance to act immediately on FUCK OFF’s beckoning. The irony of my failure to work with the team of the Dollar Tree queue escapes me. But FUCK OFF is persistent in his offering. He intensifies his beckoning, like I’m a long-lost friend, and he’ll be damned if he misses an opportunity for us to connect, if only for a moment.

I move ahead, make the perfunctory protestations one makes when one receives unexpected charity one fully intends to accept. Said protestations are jovially rejected, the offer renewed, and I advance beyond mine and FUCK OFF’s blue tape lines to land behind the family filling up its survival cache. Progress!

Or so it seems, as the pile of foodstuffs has only grown. Perhaps the loading dock is like a bowling ball return, and it pops up right underneath this cashier’s scanner.

“I’m gonna do some in cash and the rest in card,” the young lady says. I take her to be the family matriarch. “The fucking bank locked our cards until Monday.” It is Friday evening, and I wonder what this means for them. I steal a glance at the cash to be used as the primary source of payment. It is all ones. A pile of them, but still ones, and, yes, this is the Dollar Tree, but when you’ve got the bowling ball return feeding TV dinners to you at a steady clip, your pile will quickly feel its inadequacy.

Finally, the bowling ball return jams; the cache is full; and the family moves toward the door, still muttering curses about the “fucking bank,” but they seem to enjoy their public therapy.

I recall similar situations of having engaged in public therapy. One occurred when the road was blocked on mine and my family’s way out to the Oregon coast a few months ago. My fellow motorists and I nosed our cars out of line to try to get a better look. Like cabinets tilted over on their sides, our cars the doors, we flopped open, hoping to be the one to see the cause and take the news to no one in particular, but in the meantime, we shook our collective heads and fists and felt better about it, so I do not begrudge the public therapy of the cache-cash-card family.

Yeah, fuck the bank, I think, but I don’t feel it. Not like them.  

I tread in the wake of bank-directed epithets and at last move in front of yellow and stiff mop hair. I notice a stack of pink pregnancy tests. $1 to learn if life will forever change. $1 invested to find out if one is going to be in hock for $250,000 more. I think, Is this enough financial assurance for the weight carrying the result down the hill to the test taker? Is it advisable to see a Micro Machine rolling toward one’s feet when it is distracting one from the dumpster tearing along behind?

I get my total for the clothespins I’ve selected: $5.35. Either a bargain or a cheap ticket to a poorly produced show that will happen the next day when I attempt to use the clothespins in place of gutter hangers. We moved into a new house a couple weeks ago, and this has rendered me a latecomer to the Christmas light display race but has not, alas, lowered expectations from my children. I hope for calm winds.

I pay my $5.35, or attempt to. I stand there staring at the kiosk. It shows me the bullet points of my masked PIN lined up in a row, four of them, each entered with the ultra-modern cyber security awareness of a raised forearm, a palm cupped like a cave, and a turned torso to block would-be looky-loos. The bullet points remain. I am confused. Mop hair looks like she’s in suspended animation, but the medical crew forgot to lower her eyelids. I realize my mistake: I forgot to press the enter key. I feel annoyed that I made this mistake and then simultaneously, inappropriately, unjustifiably angry that I should be forced to follow a step that I forgot. But I bear up, lower my ungloved finger for another go, press the button, and complete the transaction. No one scolds me. No one hurries me along. I am alone in my thoughts of offense. Alone at the dais of my own impatience and incompetence and entitlement. I am arguing with an empty room.

I leave and head for my car, dodging puddles. The temperatures climbed into the 40s today. I had full feeling in my fingers all afternoon. Be damned, drafty windows! I had to push the door open myself on my way out the store, but on my way in, a young girl, perhaps 15, had held the door for me as I fiddled with my gloves, trying to snap them together like a civilized person rather than stuffing them in the pockets of my coat like a brute. I’m refined, I had thought. I put away my gloves properly.

But a kid held the door for me. A guy in a FUCK OFF mask promoted me to a better place in line. A family having ill-defined financial troubles used me and other bodies as unpaid and unlicensed talk therapy.

There was good. There was generosity. There was butt bouncing annoyance. There was presumptuous foisting of troubles. There was perspective twisting of my own reception of decent acts. There was self-reproach that I was a taker, not a giver of acts of kindness.

At the Dollar Tree, everything’s a dollar.

But more is free.

Approaching Asylum

We were listening to Christmas music through our Amazon Echo Dot. The selection was on It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas, an old version by Perry Como, and the Dot transferred sound seamlessly to our ears as we moved throughout our new house.

Once, when the singers got to the Mom and Dad section, they broke out in hysterical, on-pitch laughter. They sounded like they were a short bus ride away from the asylum. Drifting into the turn lane of insanity. In a word: crazy.

Backing up a few lines, Perry croons, “A pair of hop-a-long boots and a pistol that shoots.” What the what?! Are you kidding me? What do you need to wade through with the boots? What’s the pistol for?

Are other songs similarly siren calls to sapid grips on reality? Are they the stuff of nightmares masquerading as seasonal, saccharine, sanguine drink? It goes down easy but kicks like a bitch?

As you read these twisted interpretations of popular Christmas songs, keep in mind that I’m listening to the audio book rendering of The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, which is equal parts terrible and beautiful and has doubtless influenced this column. We also are in the middle of watching the Netflix adaption of You, a novel by Caroline Kepnes. Chicago stockyards or hopeful immigrant influence? Bookstore clerk with a mallet or aspiring writer influence?

You decide.

This Christmas

Selfishness abounds in this song. Over and over, the chorus repeats, “And this Christmas, will be, a very special Christmas, for me.” “[F]or me.” What else is one to think of when one is stuck in the asylum?

One must make up specialness in one’s head, imagine the tree, the lights, and the smell of liquor coming off the eggnog, the sulphureous combination turning to sweet burning when someone lights a match and puts it to a pipe, bending down over the eggnog bowl to shield the lighting action from a drafty common room door, only to receive an incinerating, sticky blast that renders pipe and smoker and drink as one.

Underneath the Tree

This song is an ode to the truths of one’s grim situation. “You’re here, where you should be,” the song declares on repeat. Getting past the usage of second person POV, we see the lyrics are non-specific on where “here” is and who “you” is.

“Alone on Christmas day” draws a lost soul, writhing on her side on the floor of the common room, the cold from asbestos tile seeping through a thin hospital gown, holding spent match sticks (thrown aside by the previously incinerated pipe smoker) over her head and imagining their reincorporation into a Christmas tree.

Without specifics about where “here” is and who “you” is, the insistence on talking about a fictional “you” reveals the asylum connection. Is the character joyful? Perhaps, but in words only. Who is “you”? “[Y]ou” may only be a mirage against the glass, incapable of making any response but to copy its creator.

All I Want for Christmas Is You

Mariah Carey’s seminal Christmas classic is not what it seems. Like Underneath the Tree, this one straddles the line between second person and sane person. “All I want for Christmas is you”? Why is that?

Is it because the singer’s nose is pressed against the glass of the bus that is nearing the asylum, and while snow falls on the fields, the temperature of the glass reminds the singer of the coolness of a wedding ring slipped onto his finger at the jewelers, and then the hot blood running from the jeweler’s throat when the customer (our nose-to-glass fellow) slammed the jeweler’s head into the display case when the jeweler failed to honor an advertised sale?

“All I want for Christmas is you”? Again, I ask, who is “you”? Is there a “you”? These Christmas songs produce warm feelings in listeners, but they are frighteningly non-specific about the antecedents of second person pronouns.

Is Santa’s suit dipped in dye or in blood? Can’t say for sure.

I’ve never seen the workshop.

Have you?

We’re Starting to Paint Tomorrow and Moving Our Stiff in on Saturday

We bought a house in Carlisle, IA. It’s a pretty sweet place, ranch style on a corner lot, with vaulted ceilings and a finished basement, on just shy of a quarter-acre, in an established, newer, planned neighborhood, the back of which opens up onto common wilderness space that will never host development.

Consequently, this guarantee against future development makes it the perfect place to dump a dead body.

Apropos of this, while texting with my dad on when they would be able to visit, Dad asked me what our plan was for occupying the new place. Drawing on typos as a source for humor, as is my bent, I texted, “We’re starting to paint tomorrow and moving our stiff in on Saturday.” I caught the typo before sending. No stiffs in need of a deep freeze in our new, roomy garage. No missing persons reports that I read and to which respond with a sheepish grin (conspiratorial grin?).

No dead bodies in this house.

But what if I had been telling the truth?

* * *

How and when does one move a dead body?

Wait until the weekend, of course. Weekends are made for things like ice-fishing, curing beef jerky, and marathon BBQ competitions—all activities that are good to pair with moving from house to house, all activities that require a large vessel for transporting goods, all activities into which one could insert a stiff, with the most notable comment of any participant not in the know being, Gee, this thing’s awkward, as they teeter side-to-side like an amateur tightrope walker.

Once one makes to lift a body into one’s trunk, the real fun begins. Lifting a body into a trunk is, I imagine, like lifting a huge storage bin filled halfway with paper, the paper being on the opposite side from where one must lift because the surface area of the proper ergonomic lift is, let’s say, covered in anthrax and staphylococcus paste.

The result? One looks like one is holding a thrashing, freshly caught marlin by its tail and wondering why it doesn’t assume taxidermy-like stiffness. Could also be concern about the anthrax/staphylococcus paste.

Beyond activity pairing and lifting techniques, though, the question remains: why would one need to move a dead body? Some reasons:

  • Keeping a Saint

In Viking times, clergy members would take great pride in possessing a piece of a departed saint’s corpus. Having a finger or toe in one’s collection was sure to bring wealth, prosperity, and understanding from God when clergymen visited the backroom of the local tavern, and not to inspect the ale barrels.

But to have an entire skeleton, perhaps with a few sheets of pastry sheet thin, desiccated flesh remaining stubbornly attached? The benefits that could accrue from such a possession were worthy of violating all manner of corpse abuse laws.

Alas, I am neither Catholic nor living in the ninth or 10th century, so we must look elsewhere for why I’d have a stiff with me.

  • Mom and Dad Wanted a Country View

About a decade ago, my parents moved out to Lost Nation, IA and bought a small farm and acreage. They’re in their 60s and stay fit, so this column is not intended to signal anything about them going over their life’s data cap. But when they do get into overage territory, and the upcharges are too high, I think they might be open to a permanent view from the front porch, and someone’s got to take them there.

  • Clark Got too Close to the Electrical Box

In our new neighborhood, the residents get into Christmas lights, so I know it’s only a matter of time until a Clark Griswold-like accident goes beyond the ability of a gutter to stop downward progress off a roof, and I find a dead body in my front yard. Can’t leave it there. That would totally clash with Santa. Not the right shade of red.

  • Funeral Director Needed an Assist

Since we’re back in the Midwest, ice and snowstorms are the norm. I’m anticipating the day when I’m driving behind a meat wagon, and it spins out, the back doors flying open, chucking out bodies like a lawn fertilizer spreader or some mad PEZ dispenser. As a good Midwesterner, I feel it’s my duty to assist with stiff lift.

  • Skydiver Got Confused

What’s that whump on the roof of the car? Did Santa get confused? Are Pterodactyls a thing again, and they’ve got indigestion problems? Is FedEx air freight hauling bowling balls and having trouble securing its cargo doors?

None of the above. We’re dealing with winter skydiving.

When this combines with power lines that were not on the descent trajectory map, one finds oneself with dead weight. It does’t look as good as a Christmas tree and might need to go through the woodchipper early.

* * *

Right now, on the cusp of winter, the common wilderness space behind our Carlisle house is a spectrum of beige. The foliage bends over this way and that like a greying giant’s unwashed mane.

When it turns green in the spring, however, I’ll be on the lookout for spots that dive deeper into the verdant palette smear.

Each of those spots represents a story and a potential prison sentence, but we’re new in town, and as my mom always said, beggars can’t be choosers.

But anyone can be a body mover.

Don’t Pick Up Abandoned Pancakes at the Park

Will borrowed my American Eagle hoodie to wear to the Phipps Prairie Park in Silvis, IL. Later, he told me he used it to pick up a pancake he found and toss it into the woods. I was mad, but this burned out like a single spark.

How mad can you be when your son picks up a piece of abandoned breakfast at the park? At least he spared some other unfortunate soul the pain of coming across a harried, homeless hot cake.

There are few decisions in the world with the weight that accompanies deciding whether to toss a pancake into the woods. Among them:

* * *

Deciding Whether to Toss a Paper Cup into the Woods

This might not be trash. It might be part of the collection of cups belonging to the winner of the world champion cup-stacking competition. Have you seen those videos of people who can stack into a pyramid and unstack to small piles a group of cups in a matter of seconds?

They leave you thinking you’ve seen a video full of cuts and jumps rather than someone with superior skill. But watching more closely reveals no trickery, just an amazing human.

You wouldn’t be so callous as to throw away the tools that made them famous, would you?

Deciding Whether to Toss a Shoe into the Woods

Whether the laces are twisted around a high-power line or lying flaccid on the ground like abandoned snakeskin, laces play an important role in any shoes, abandoned or otherwise. So why give them the blame when their owner failed to cinch them tightly enough to prevent them from falling off?

We could be talking about an escaped criminal on the run. We could be talking about the next Alberto Salazar or Steve Prefontaine or Usain Bolt. We could be talking about The Flash who was looking for some rural chic to add to the texture of his runs to balance out the old-town cityscape of Central City—I mean, Portland, OR.

But in each case, the wearer lost a shoe and has a responsibility to return to claim it and accept its accompanying consequences. For the criminal, evidence, jail; elite runner, talisman, hall-of-fame; The Flash, recovery of evidence that could reveal his identity, sequestering of such at normal speeds with no member of the public looking around.

You wouldn’t be so callous as to throw away the shoes of responsibility, would you?

Deciding Whether to Toss a Dirty Diaper into the Woods

This one seems a no-brainer. I’ll admit, I’ve had to sit here a minute to think of a plausible reason why one would approach a discarded dirty diaper, let alone swing it into a momentous arc and toss it into the woods, let further alone use my American Eagle hoodie to do said momentous swinging. (The most impactful and complex questions deserve space in which to develop, or molder.)

But I’ve got it.

What if these discarded diapers are not discarded but rather stored? What if they are the ammunition cache created with the help of an army of diarrhea-inflicted toddlers and intended be used to launch an assault on a political establishment? “What smear campaigns couldn’t do, we will fill the gap with poo,” the military cadence rallying cry of this underground and overfilled movement.

You wouldn’t be so callous as to throw away the buttloads of butts, would you?

* * *

To pick up a pancake at the park and toss it away is an unconventional use of clothing. I wonder if the American Eagle brand would cringe at its involvement with litter clearing that carries potentially momentous consequences.

Is this, then, license to pass by? To consider history?

To leave my American Eagle hoodie unmarked?