Thursday, October 3, 2013


(originally performed at an event called THE SOFT SHOW at The Blue Monk.  Portland. Oregon. October 1, 2013)

Good evening, Softies.  It’s an honor to be all up in this here soft serve spectacle.
My humor is bad and my Uncle Frosty love truck plays “The Entertainer” backwards over and over again as I careen up and down your streets, at ungodly hours.  And now you feel weird, because you thought you dreamed me.

On this night, I bring you not bon-bons but a fistful of cherry bombs.

What follows is an excerpt from a forthcoming memoir entitled “
This chapter is called 

I guess I’ve always had what you might call an “overactive imagination”.

Depending on who you ask, maladjusted dreamers with an allergy to reality either make the world go round or they ruin it for the people who matter.  Either way, I fit the profile, right from the start.  Only child of a broken home.  Addicted to science fiction paperbacks and comic books and grisly horror films before there was such a thing as “geek chic”, when a pariah was a pariah and a born outsider knew where he stood.  In my earliest attempts at socialization, I was king of all neighborhood games, as long as those games hinged on make believe and communal daydreams so intense they unmade the homes we came from and, for a little while, we'd forget about the impending dinner bells that would break the spell and make everything ordinary all over again. 

As soon as the cultural programming kicked into high gear and the boys were playing sports and riding bikes, my kingdom shriveled into a daily game of dolls with Kathleen Maguire, the girl next door, who knew how to ride a bike but pretended she didn’t because I didn’t, I wouldn’t learn, and she thought that was cool.  We jungled up star wars figures with Barbie playsets and love boat plotlines, despite the incongruities in doll size and aesthetic intent.  There was a kind of heaven going down in that room.  I dream about it sometimes. 

But Kathleen grew up just a little as I was growing backwards, faster and faster.  She wanted to ride her bike and talk about something real and play outside where the world is.  They all want that, in the end.  So I was alone for awhile, more or less friendless in a suburban nowhere that was bleeding magic faster than my crazy little brain could conjure it.

In junior high, I found two friends who were as desperate in their dreaming as I was.  They had siblings and slightly more stable family backgrounds, if I remember correctly, but they, like me, were a little bit spastic, a little too smart for their own good, a little bored by the stale array of futures the nuns in charge were offering us, and hungry for wonder like Ethiopian children were hungry for Bob Geldof’s grainbags, in those tender times, those Live Aid days, when all the global strife seemed to be happening somewhere else.
Together, the three of us made the quantum leap beyond escapist entertainment and discovered ROLEPLAYING GAMES, which, for the obsessed, offered up escapism not as a hobby or as a guilty pleasure…but as a LIFESTYLE.  Dungeons and Dragons and Villains and Vigilantes and Starships and Wormholes and Twenty-Sided Dice. 

We acquired all the hardcover manuals and modules and magazines that offered tips on how to work a dungeon with a fatal scarcity of hitpoints, how to haggle with imaginary innkeepers to make the most of your arsenal, and how to resurrect fallen comrades without losing forever the air of lethal menace that made our imagined worlds so immersive.  But the rules usually got in the way of our freestyle oral mythologies. 

We soon left the books and charts and maps behind and we’d tool through the suburban streets all summer or malinger on the saint-framed steps after school, weaving realities out of whole cloth, with one die to cast at every crossroads and a shared fascination at how the stories seemed to shape themselves through us, in the spaces between our decisions.   It was shamanic astral path working.  It was freestyle hypnosis.  It was three way telepathy, and our hormones were raging.  The flow and it's content sometimes approached the pornographic, but the game was never tactile.  It was  a game we played against the flesh.
I was usually the gamemaster, with my friends as players in the worlds I was spinning. 

But the dynamic shifted as we grew, and it all went funny, until my maps lost all meaning and I was suddenly master of nothing but my room and the silence.  Nature had thwarted my escape from its clutches, once again.  My companions wanted to meet girls, start working towards an enjoyable array of objects in the “real world”, maybe publish stories instead of making them endlessly out of nothing for no one but each other and our own stunted selves. 

I could feel them withdrawing from “the game”, as we called it, and I reacted like a junky does when he loses sight of his stash.  I was a hysterical thirteen year old, suddenly left to my own impotent devices in a dismal gray cosmos that was composed with inscrutable manuals and handbooks I would never appreciate or understand. 

After I had one terrifying suicidal tantrum too many, my playmates decided on a militant silent treatment as the easiest way to get my dreamsick gloom out of their carefree teen years. 

We were all just kids.  Looking back,  I can’t say that I blame them. 

Nonetheless, I was off to my first year at Malden Catholic High School with no confidence, no games to play, no friends and no idea how to make them.  Also no stable homelife to provide protection from all this awkwardness.  Mom was on a boyfriend bender.

In retrospect, it seems The scene was set for something strange to unfold, at that straight-laced school for rowdy boys.  Something that would leave a psychic bruise or two on the ambiance of its hallowed hallways.

You’d think I’d find kindred spirits, there.  Once that first month’s tidal wave of testosterone receded a little bit, and I could find my way from class to class without getting jostled, bullied, or stressed into sobbing, you’d think I’d find another two misfits, or a gaggle of them, even.  Other boys who weren’t good looking or smart in any useful way, boys who had a nervous breakdown before, during, or after, every gym class.  Boys who liked science fiction…comic books… and monsters that could abstract the horror we were living.  Boys who liked role-playing games, and who might admire my ability to evade reality, dispensing with it altogether for days at a time.

But that road was closed.  I’d been burned.  I was skittish.  I didn’t want to build connections with people that would just get severed whenever my contempt for conventional time and space made me insufferable.  The physics of adult reality were constricting like a snake does around my throat.  I didn’t want to talk to anyone but myself, but all the grown-ups had so many questions, and all my classmates had such hurtful methods of punishing my shyness.  Fantasies kept my soul alive in a frightening environment.  I didn’t want to stop dreaming long enough to have a normal conversation. I think my personalized method of sustained dream-friendly interaction with the human race emerged fully-formed on a Monday morning, in English class.  Before the bell, I was snapped out of my reading trance by one of my swaggering fellow freshmen.  Martinelli, I think his name was.  

He asked me what I was so sad about all the time, aside from being fat and ugly.  I didn’t even think about it.  Meeting his stare, I said with a conviction that must have been chilling in one so young...

that I was sad because evil sheep are taking over the world.

He had no comeback.  He looked a little stunned.  The bell rang.  Class began.  Mr. Hughes read the first few pages of “The Monkey’s Paw” in a boozy Shakespearean slur, then had to excuse himself, presumably for another nip.  The minute he was gone, the little goombah confronted me again.  "Evil sheep are taking over the world?  What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”  The other kids in the class had swiveled in their chairs to see me as if for the first time.  Seeing me as something slightly more interesting than a sweaty, trembling wretch.  The sharper lads were smirking, waiting for me to make myself even more vulnerable with some metaphorical political nerdism.  or something to that effect.  But that’s not what happened.  With the grace of a gamemaster and the cold passion of an ambitious heretic, I delivered the first scriptures of a grandiose and convoluted conspiracy theory years before I ever even heard the term.

The gist of it was this: 
I've been watching the news, I'd tell them, and my dad is a cop ( which wasn't 't true).  My dad is a cop and he tells me things.  I know things.  I know that sheep, while seeming to be docile creatures, are actually nature's perfect killer.  We bred the killing out of them.  But wise, untamed sheep are waiting on sandy beaches all over the world, bleating their bleat of summoning, awakening the raging madness and bloodlust that sleeps in the genes of every sheep we see.  The day draws nigh.  Mankind has been a phase the Earth was going through, but she's over it.  All sheep are evil inside.  And this world will soon belong to them.  In the wake of our bloody extinction.
That's why I'm sad.

Those weren't my exact words. But that was the gist, and the gist left them speechless.  Stupefied.  Spellbound.

Mr. Hughes came brandying back in, more composed than he'd been, but suspicious of the silence.  The bell rang.
Certain that the beatings would begin immediately, I raced to my next class and resumed my previous socialization strategy of sweaty trembling.
The beating never came.  Not exactly.   The boys in my English class, apostlistic receivers of the first transmission, they dispersed, each to three other classes, spreading my crazy talk like gossip.  By lunchtime, I was semi-famous.  My usual cafeteria strategy of "buy French fries and find unoccupied, secluded table because I am in prison" was thwarted by the boisterous but semi-friendly questions of freshmen.  They wanted to know more about the sheep, and I was rolling with it, repeating every nuance of the first improvisation and adding little flourishes.  
The Hostess corporation is in cahoots with them.  The creamy fillings and the fruity fillings are sedatives, so we'll be easier to feast on when the sheep rise up.  
Twinkie the kid is a vicious caricature of a cowboy who tried to stop them, when they rose up briefly in the 1890s.  But his cream is pure death.  Taste it not.
I was on a roll.  They were eating it up.  I had found a way of being in high school.  Every question that was put to me and every comment made by a fellow student would be figured, on the spot, into an aspect of my expanding sheep mythology or would be turned into a pretext for discussing the sheep.
Over weeks, the scope and the depth of the story in my head had become vast and hilarious and yet very very serious.  I never broke character.  I was known as the Sheep Boy throughout the school.  Seniors and juniors would charm or bully their way into the classrooms of my weaker teachers, interrogating my philosophy, impressed by its ability to explain everything if you accept its fundamental precept, that evil sheep are, in fact, going to take over the world.
Gangs of kids would form around me in the street to hear the latest skeins of prophecy.  The only human the sheep will work with is, of course, Fu Manchu.  He woos them in a pleasure dome buried deep beneath the South Pole.
 The sheep we see are mere embryos.
When they seem to die, they have hatched into something invisible and angry. 
And every apocalyptic prophecy needs its day of judgement, of course.
 I could feel my students drooling for it, without consciously knowing what was missing.
I chose a day in May, I think.  At random. 
We'll say it was May 10th.  Let future theologians quibble over anniversaries.

In no uncertain terms, I told those who asked that evil sheep would be loose amongst us on May 10th.  And on that day, those sheep who lurk invisibly amongst us would get angrier than ever and the gutters would run red with the blood of man.  I had provided the latent fanatics with a countdown.  The rest takes care if itself.
I still had no friends and no future, but I had somehow become a teenage Ezekiel.  The absurdity of it all and the power it gave me to make every conversation an occasion for creativity made getting up in the morning a little bit less of a struggle.  I still preferred any old dream to living, but, on a good day, I was dreaming out loud.  And rippling quadrants of Malden Catholic High School were dreaming with me.  In the game I made.
On the streets, wherever I went, there were passing cars full of boys saying "baaaa-aaaaaaa-aaaaaaaaaah!"
The hills of Malden, Medford, and Melrose Massachusetts were alive with the sound of my madness.
A few of the teachers were into it, too, at least at first.
One gym teacher let me sit out the group games and tell him all about the sheep while We lifted weights.
One English teacher who wasn't even mine saw me at the mall and introduced me to his girlfriend as "the sheep kid".
I had a world of fans when I kept it conversational. 
But I took it too far in French class.
Each student had to do a report on a former French colony and it's culture.  I chose Martinique, or it was chosen for me.  It's probably a charming place, but encyclopedias can give things a certain dullness.  I was irritated at having to write about something I didn't care about.  I paraphrased all the entries I could find, collaging an imitation of interest, playing it straight...until the very last paragraph. 
Where I described the crucial place Martinique has in the machinations of Fu Manchu and his hordes of evil sheep.  Mrs. Roberts had been aware of the building sheep fever in the school, and had politely ignored it, but that paper seemed to represent to her my definitive break with reality.
A few days after I turned it in, I was sent to see the headmaster.
Brother Sullivan.
An imperious, ruddy-skinned bespectacled headmaster, sent from central casting to speak in inspirational latin mottoes and scowl with a moist eye at the foibles and disasters of youth.  At my fourteen years of age, his office looked and smelled and felt like the archetypal office of authority, on the same frequency of august resplendence as the offices of popes and presidents and CEOs, the offices of people so powerful they only exist on TV.
He was seated at his massive desk when I entered, stained glass crucifixion spilling tinted light onto his scribbling majesty as he made entries in a ledger that no doubt contained the fates of all his students, from birth to death, and algebraic diagrams of their essences.  I couldn't help but notice a lamb at the foor of the crucifix.  I thought I should be careful not to mention that.  The older you get, the more touchy you get about kids assimilating your totem animals into their own twisted fantasy worlds.
"Jason. Please sit down" he said, gesturing with gravitas towards a big leather chair the color of caramel.  And so I did.  He scribbled on.
"What's this I've been hearing about a great disaster on its way, Jason?  What's this I hear about sheep taking over the world?"
I was wracking my sweaty little brain for strategies, trying to decide what he wanted to hear, what response would serve me best, what serving me meant when i wasn't ever sure what I actually wanted, etcetera.
He rose from behind the desk, setting the pen down like it was in idle lightningbolt that must be handled with delicate forcefulness.  He crossed the room and seated himself in the caramel chair across from me.  I still hadn't come up with anything.  I was stammering, shaking, on the brink of short circuiting when he took my hand and softly shook it.  His gaze met mine with a disconcerting clarity, like he could see straight through me to the loneliness my mythology was spun from.
To keep from bursting into tears, I told him everything.
Not just every facet of the sheep/Manchu mythos, but my murky jumble of reasons for telling all these stories, the fear I had of other people, the comforts of crazytalk and my painful awareness of the difference between my reality and my fabulations.  I told him about the game, about my junior high cohorts, about the sudden break in my communion with them.  I told him about Kathleen Maguire and the green jelly dreams of my first grade evenings.  I told him everything and he listened.  He listened and didn't say a thing.  He just exuded importance, like the mentors you read about, like whatever mad spree I was on was having its climax there in that room and he knew I knew it.

Finally, after I ran out of confessions, he spoke:
"Jason, I am headmaster of this school."
"I...know that, sir."
"And before taking this job on I received two phDs."
"That's impressive, sir."
"Jason, can you guess what subjects those degrees might be in?"
" one of them education, sir?"
"No, Jason.  I have pHds in theology...and PSYCHOLOGY."
I wasn't sure what he was getting at, but the ambience of momentousness hung there, unbroken.
He leaned just a little bit closer, piercing my little heart with eyes that spent half their time watching God, the other half peering into the disfunctional depths of nubile human minds.
"Jason", he said, "You have a VERY expressive face."
My heart went pitter-pat in a kind of ecstatic confusion.
I wasn't used to anyone saying anything nice about my face.  I was, first and foremost, deeply flattered, and filled with a vague hope that all those uneventful years as an altar boy were a matter of priestly personal taste, and maye I did have a certain something, and was I about to experience some form of intimacy with this very important man?  Would that make me more popular with my peers, or less so?  Who else was a plaything in Brother Sullivan's harem?  I was jealous already.
"I think we both know you don't believe in all this sheep business."
Alas, my hopes were fleeting.  he wasn't on the make.  He was all business.  I guess that's why I liked him.
"This kind of story, you need to keep it on the page.  In life, it makes things...difficult.  For students and teachers who are just trying to get ON with things.  You'll find that you get along easier yourself."
I could feel an ultimatum being discreetly unsheathed.
"But the day is coming up.  I can't go back on it.  The whole thing will just be stupid."
"It was ALWAYS stupid, Jason."
And that's when I stopped liking him, but I towed the line.

 I stopped talking about sheep and evil geniuses and impending catastrophes and sinister twinkies.

When pressed, I admitted that I was only telling stories to get attention, which wasn't the whole truth, but it seemed to satisfy the rabble without riling them.

Until May 10th, of course.

Despite my denials, despite the apparent dissipation of that imaginal frenzy I made up as i went and infected a school with, there was a sheep day riot in the cafeteria.
I was jostled and smeared with twinkie guts.
Half the school, it seemed, was shouting "baaaaaaaaaaaa baaaaaaaaaa baaaaaaaaaaaaa" in that caf, because the mass hysteria foreplay I'd applied so naturally still required a climax, or the tension might kill the student body.
In the aftermath, in the days leading up to summer break, I was looked at in a different way, I think.  The way I'd drawn all that attention to myself was a little bit pathetic, by macho high school standards, but still impressive.  I was thinking that I might find my way here, as a mellowed creature of legend, if given another year.  In general, there was great curiosity about the way I renounced my faith.  Everyone knew I'd been called down to Brother Sullivan's office for an extensive conversation.  In my English class, where it all began, the class and a gaggle of juniors (soon to be school superstars) asked me point blank what had happened in that room.
I thought about how I could break it down, how I could put the whole sheep story in context so they would know what it meant for me and my future for Brother Sullivan to give his advice, to keep the madness and the fabulism on the page and out of his halls.  I thought about the amusing future that philosophy might provide, writing books maybe, delivering a different mythos unto strangers in public places, where there might be girls, even.  I thought for a moment of how I might begin to explain all that.
But mythology is my default.  After a momentary reboot of the devil in me, I told them that I'd been"cured".  Brother Sullivan had a portable electroshock therapy kit in that office.  They give it to you when you get a PhD in psychology.  That majestic, serious, sadistic man had fried my brain until the sheep were all gone.
It didn't take long for the story to sweep the school.
I could have mentioned his flirtations, but the electroshock myth was enough.
I was asked to matriculate elsewhere for my sophomore year.
But, for a time, no child was called to that office without almost fainting from terror.
And as recently as twenty years ago, I would still get a BAAAA from a passing car when I traipsed through my old home town.

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