Raising Readers – Maurice Sendak is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself

9 May


I was lying in bed reading a book one night, when my oldest son came in.

“Dad, I can’t sleep. Can I read in here for a while?”

The answer wasn’t even out of my mouth before he dashed out of the room to fetch the book he had just started reading; the first book of The Spiderwick Chronicles series. He returned to my room, and I set up a pillow for him to lean on. After he had adjusted himself into a comfortable position, we made some small talk about the books we were reading – prompted by his stealing glances at me reading. And I, in turn, stealing glances at him reading.

“Dad – You read books, and mom is Catholic.”

I sat back and looked at my son. “What?” He clarified, “You read a lot of books, and mom is Catholic.”

As funny as it may be; the kid was on to something. When my son made this declaration, I had been pondering how to get him to be more interested in books. Not that he’s uninterested in books. He is. We just hadn’t found the books he was really interested in; books he had a magnetic attraction to.

Last summer, he and his brother discovered Star Wars, and like most little boys; they became completely brain-damaged by it. Every word spoken was about Star Wars. Every synapse that fired sounded like a laser bolt inside their little melons. So – what do I do? I pick up every Star Wars book I can find – Star Wars novellas for young readers, character encyclopedias, spacecraft manuals. I even bought them a Star Wars cookbook (I’m not kidding. It’s called Wookie Cookie. The Boba Fettuccine isn’t bad). The problem was, as much as he enjoyed the books; I got the feeling he just wasn’t crazy about the Star Wars novellas like he was about pretending to be in a galaxy far, far away.

When he was younger, I used to pick up the heavily discounted encyclopedias from the front of the bookstores. I bought books on snakes, primates, helicopters, dinosaurs, sharks; anything I thought they’d be interested in. I would leave the books around the house for him and his little brother to pick up. The goal wasn’t to have them read the books; neither of them could read at this point. I wanted them to get used to books; to become comfortable with them. I would also rent documentaries on dinosaurs or sharks, whatever they wanted to watch- we then would look up in the books the animals we had seen. We watched a dinosaur documentary every Sunday night, and we would place post-it notes on the pages of a dinosaur book we saw in the documentary. I then read the pages to them for their bedtime story. This went on for a year or two. We went through a spider phase, shark phase, and venomous snake phase. It worked out for me because, let’s face it, you can only read Goodnight Moon so many times before you want to hurt someone.

But that didn’t matter as much to my children as what I was doing.

I think I have a healthy appetite for books. Going back through my and accounts; I estimate that I read a book every seven to ten days; approximately 45-50 books a year (not including the books I read to my children or work). I don’t know if that qualifies as a voracious reader. We’ll just say I like books.

What my son had cued in on was not the books I was gently introducing him to, but the family attribute of being readers. It was interesting to me he likened being a reader to being Catholic. It was a way for him to categorize the family based on a strong, identifiable trait.

Similarly, my five-year old told me this weekend that he and his brother don’t believe in God when they are with me, and they do believe in God when they are with their mother   (Which was never my intention with them. I always told them to pick the path that was right for them). He tells me this as he poses his Star Wars action figures on my large, wooden statue of Buddha. I can only assume he is referring to the one-true-god who looks like Barry Gibb, and not any of those weird, foreign gods. But he’s only five years old, so I couldn’t really argue with him. I did tell him to get his gun-toting Star Wars bounty hunters off Buddha or he’ll release the flatulence of a thousand vegetarian curries under his covers as he’s falling asleep. To which he replied, “Cool!”, and quizzed me on exactly how bad would that smell.

My ex-wife, the Catholic, isn’t a prolific reader. So it’s only a matter of time before they think atheists are readers, and Catholics – not so much. I could head them off and correct them before they make the connection, but why spoil the fun?

On March 27th, USA Today ran an informational snapshot which stated 18% of 4th grade boys felt they did not have enough time to read, while 10% of 4th grade girls felt similarly. In comparison, 40% of 8th grade boys and 24% of 8th grade girls felt they didn’t have time to read.

Without getting into the disturbing gender disparity (I mean, 76% of 8th grade girls have the time to read and kiss their Justin Beiber posters!), our children are not reading, or getting enough time to read. The really sad news is, the children are reading more than many adult Americans. An MSNBC poll showed 27% of adult Americans had not read a book in a year. In 2004, a study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts found only 57% of American adults had read a book that year. Of those 57%, the median number of books read per year was 9 books for the women, and five books for the men (Come on, guys! Why so low? You can read more than five books a year if you only read while sitting on the toilet!). I am willing to bet the children who aren’t reading are raised in households where the adults also do not read.

When I was in the Navy, I had the benefit of having some very good leaders, as well as some atrocious ones- and I learned from both. One of the good ones taught me that any failure on my crew was ultimately my fault (and subsequently his fault, etc.), because we had not identified the weak link and given that person the necessary training they needed to do their job. The goal was never to punish the person for not meeting the standard, but to give them additional attention. I also had a boss who we could not beat in our qualification tests. For years, I struggled and studied to beat him in one of those tests. His ability to stay just out of our reach was indicative of his lead-by-example style of leadership. He was far senior to us and it wouldn’t really matter if we scored higher than him on a qualification test, but he did it because it motivated us. Years later, after he retired, he told me how hard he had to work to stay ahead of us. I can say I eventually did score higher than him on an exam; I beat him by two points. I had studied for months for an upcoming exam. Then the night before we were to be tested, I got him drunk and sent a hooker to his room at 3 in the morning- which is something I learned from those bad bosses I mentioned earlier.

I think we can take the same attitude with children reading (I’m saying we should send hookers to their rooms). We can lead by example and be their role models for reading. We can blame the internet and texting, but ultimately the failure falls on us. I have zero evidence to support this rant, but it would seem that if we want to raise readers, then we need to be readers ourselves. It’s like when people say to not go on a diet, but make a lifestyle change. Make reading one of your traits; a part of your personality.

We also need to provide better examples of readers in books, television, and movies. The people with books in any movie or television show are either rich, white people who have expansive libraries nobody believes they read; liberal, white people who have books stacked around their loft as part of their decor; or the crazy, mad scientist. Not exactly the typical American family.

In books, there are only two characters holding the book pennant up for our children: Klaus Baudelair of the Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events series, and Hermione Granger of the Harry Potter series. Both are avid readers fueled by a thirst for knowledge. For both characters, the ability to apply the knowledge gained from books is their super power. However, neither character seems to read for the simple joy of reading.

I believe movies can also play a role in raising readers. I recently let my kids see the first Harry Potter movie to get them interested in reading the books. We then began reading the series after their approval of the movie- and by “We”, I mean “I” am reading the books to them. My oldest can read the Harry Potter books, but he can’t read it smoothly as a storyteller. His little brother also wants to hear the stories, so I do the reading.

The annoying thing about reading the book after seeing the movie was they knew what was going to happen. For the second installment of the series, I read the book to them and then rented the movie. The book-then-movie path seems to work better for us. The movie becomes a sort of reward for finishing the book, and it seems to make them look forward to the next book.

I decided to continue with the trend of renting movies based on children’s books series as an introduction to new series. I rented Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, as well as The Spiderwick Chronicles. Along with the movies, I picked up the first couple of each series to read if he was interested.

I presented the boys the first two books of The Spiderwick Chronicles,  along with two supplemental stories to the second book. I picked up the books at a used bookstore for roughly $.75 each, so even if they don’t like the books, I’m only out a couple of dollars.

An interesting thing happened with The Spiderwick Chronicles series. My oldest began reading the first book on a Thursday night. When my alarm went off the next morning, he hopped into my bed and stated he read the entire book. Saturday morning, the same thing happened; he had read the second book in the series. After his baseball game on Saturday, he hopped on the couch and began reading the supplemental stories. By the end of the weekend, he had read all four of the books; roughly 300 pages total. He then took off reading The Lemony Snicket series.

I don’t know what it was about The Spiderwick Chronicles series that captured his attention. He didn’t pretend to be in the story or reenact a scene; all of the cues I had been using to pick books I thought he would be interested in. It seemed he just needed to be introduced to enough books to find the ones that he liked.

Although I am no expert on the matter, I do have a few pieces of advice for raising children.

  • Treat books as regular entertainment for children. Too many children just get books as gifts. Make it a rule that your children can come and ask for a new book just like they do school supplies.
  • You don’t have to buy children books to get them to read. I pick up comic books for my kids whenever I’m grocery shopping. Reading is reading.
  • Ignore the reading levels printed on the cover of some children’s books. When I was first introducing books to my son, there was a book he really like. However, the book was emblazoned with a large number 3 on the cover, indicating it was a Reading Level 3 book. Some well-meaning, but moronic adult had told my son he should be reading Level 1 books. I had to promise him I’d help him with any difficult words in the Level 3 book if he would read it. After that, I have purposely shied away from books with the reading levels printed on the cover. I have used the reading levels as positive reinforcement. The Scholastic website has reading levels for several children’s books. After he read The Spiderwick Chronicles books, I should him how he, who is in 2nd grade, was reading at a 3rd and 4th grade reading level.
  • Give them books to look forward to. I set aside a stack of books for the boys to read when they are ready. The stack includes non-traditional books- Peter Benchely’s Jaws, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, Richard Matheson’s I  Am Legend; as well as the traditional- Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. It’s just a stack of books that will knock their socks off when they are old enough to read them.
  • You don’t need to spend a fortune on books. I picked up many of the books at used bookstores. I bought grocery bags full of children’s books for under $20.
  • Stop caring what they read. My kids could read The Satanic Bible and I wouldn’t care. We need to stop pushing the books on them. You can – and should – introduce books to them, but you can’t force them to read a book you picked if they aren’t interested.

For more information on raising readers, check out these links:

Unfortunately, as fitting as he would be to this blog; I would like to call for a moment of silence in the wild rumpus to mourn Maurice Sendak. Where the Wild Things Are is, and forever will be, the coolest children’s book. To this day, when someone get’s in my way when I am in the mood to make mischief or one kind or another, I still threaten to eat them up.

Noah Baird is the author of Donations to Clarity, which should not be read by children.

Donations to Clarity

Donations to Clarity


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You Don’t Know Easter by Noah Baird

8 Apr

Hi, everybody. It’s the time of year when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, or as it’s known in my house – the spontaneous zombification of a religious figure day. The kids don’t care either way – candy is candy. For this month’s blog, I thought I’d drop some Easter knowledge on you.

Why doesn’t fall on the same day every year? Easter is known as a “movable feast”. It falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox (or “Spring” to the rest of us). Lent is determined by counting forty days  back from that date (Not including Sundays. Lent is really forty-four days; you have to read the fine print.). Which is also why Mardi Gras is also not a fixed date.

That’s right – JC had a fixed birthday, but the day of his death is determined by celestial mechanics. It’s a good thing Christmas isn’t also a movable feast. As a child, I felt Christmas took far too long to get here.  I don’t think I would’ve handled a shifting date.

The full moon probably worked out in JC’s favor. It would have made a nocturnal exit through the desert easier. Son of God or not – I’m pretty sure he wasn’t eager to run into any more Roman Centurions.

So, why the egg? I tell my kids the rock used to cover JC’s tomb happened to be shaped like an egg. Presto! Tradition! The reality is more mundane. Christians didn’t eat meat or dairy during Lent. Back in JC’s day, eggs were considered . . . dairy. Dairy was any animal-derived foodstuffs rendered from an animal without shedding its blood. This is way before we had a FDA or a congress to tell us what food is. Considering congress classified pizza sauce as a vegetable, things haven’t improved much.

So, for forty-four days, nobody is eating any eggs. Because the chickens refused to also observe Lent (all poultry are atheists), they kept laying eggs. What do you do with a nearly a month and half worth of eggs? If the Jews had met any Chinese caravans traveling along the spice routes, we’d probably bury our eggs for a month or two to preserve them. Don’t ask me why the Chinese bury eggs; they’ve got some strange ideas about food over there. Apparently, the eggs are still edible, which is the exact same rationale my vet gave me when I asked him why the dog eats poop. We avoided that bullet, and just hard boil the eggs to make them last longer.

Eggs were also considered a fertility symbol by the early pagans, who liked to wind up their sexy-time festival in the spring when all of the other animals were also busy mating. Then the Christians show up with a brand-new holiday they want to create celebrating their newly-minted undead deity. The Christians lift a few ideas off of the sexy-time pagans, who were pretty groovy and not too worried about what the Christians were doing. Two thousand years later, the Easter Egg is here to stay.

What’s with the bunny? See the paragraph above with our friends, the sexy-time pagans? Insert “bunny” everywhere you see “egg”. Exact same story. Think of it like when a kid is born near Christmas. The kid’s birthday ends up being rolled into one hybrid Christmas/birthday. If the kid were to live two thousand years, then eventually the two celebrations would morph into one holiday.

Historical records that I made up state it went like this:

Sexy-Time Pagan 1: “Hey, Christians. Why the long faces?”

Christian 1: “Oh- hi, heathens. The son of our god died.”

Sexy-Time Pagan 1: “Bummer. Listen, we’re having our annual Love Fest. Why don’t you guys come in and . . . ”

Christian 1: “Well, he came back to life.”

Sexy-Time Pagan 1: “Really?!?! Your god is a zombie?”

Christian 1: “JC wasn’t our god. He was the son of . . . ”

Sexy-Time Pagan 1: “Yeah, yeah. You guys have to stop badgering us for being polytheistic while claiming to be monotheistic . . . ”

Christian 1: “We are monotheistic. We only worship the one true . . . ”

Sexy-Time Pagan 1: “Which is personified by a holy trinity of . . . ”

Christian 1: “You heathens will never understand.”

Sexy-Time Pagan 1: “Anyway. So, your semi-deity is a zombie? Why don’t you bring him around. I know some of our ladies might be interested in . . . ”

Christian 1: “He isn’t a zombie. He’s risen from the grave with the love . . . ”

Sexy-Time Pagan 1: “So, he’s undead?”

Christian 1: “Well, that’s an over-simplification of . . . ”

Sexy-Time Pagan 1: “Look, bring him around. We’re having our annual Love Fest (wink, wink). I know a girl at the fest who will make you forget about all of that.”

Christian 1: “We can’t. The son of our god died for our sins. We’re supposed to think about the sacrifice he made for us. I imagine that includes not adding more sins to our list.”

Sexy-Time Pagan 1: “Listen. Just get your guys to stop thinking of intercourse as a sin, and you’ll be set.”

Christian 1: I wish. It’s harder than you might think. It’s written on a rock.”

Sexy-Time Pagan 1: “Ungh – that’s a bummer.”

Christian 1: “So, anyway, we were thinking of starting a new holiday to commemorate the death and resurrection of the son our god. We’re all tapped out of ideas, and we were wondering if you guys could help.”

Sexy-Time Pagan 1:  “Sure. Go on into the fest. We’ve got massage oils, lubes, toys – help yourselves.”

Christian 1: “Umm, we were thinking of something more . . . Wait, are those Roman Centurions partying at your fest?”

Sexy-Time Pagan 1: “Them? Oh yeah, the Roman gods suck, so they hang out with us. They’re cool.”

Christian 1: “Anyway. We were wanting if we could use the egg and the rabbits.”

Sexy-Time Pagan 1: “Well, we keep those around to entertain the kids so the adults can participate in the Love Fest.”

Christian 1: “Okay. So you don’t mind if we use them?”

Sexy-Time Pagan 1: “Seriously, Christians, go into the festival. There are these swings that attach to the ceiling. Your partner gets in it and . . . ”

Christian 1: “No, no – the rabbit and egg will do.”

Sexy-Time Pagan 1: “Okay. So what are you going to do with them.”

Christian 1: “We are going to paint the eggs red to remind kids of the sacrifice JC made for all of us, and then we’ll make the rabbit the size of a human. The rabbit will then sneak into the kid’s house at night and hide eggs.”

Sexy-Time Pagan 1: “Yeaaaaaah – that sounds much better than Love Fest. Okay, see you later, Christians.”

Sexy-Time Pagan 1 to Sexy-Time Pagan 2: “Their religion will never last.”

And that’s how we got stuck with a rabbit and an egg instead of religiously-sanctioned love fest.

So, why did the pagans celebrate the bunny? Because they are horny little fuzz balls. Not only are they constantly mating, rabbits can get pregnant while pregnant. The phenomenon is called superfetation. The rabbit can have two separate embryos at different development cycles in their uterus at the same time.

Thankfully, superfetation doesn’t occur in humans.

Why do rabbits go ass to mouth? Remember the old Cadbury Egg commercials when a rabbit would squawk and lay a chocolate egg? That commercial always freaked me out. Probably because rabbit poop looks a lot like chocolate cereal. Turns out, rabbits eat it – not their poop; their cocetrope. Rabbits have a hindgut digestive system. When a rabbit eats, most of the nutritional material is separated from the vegetable matter after it’s passed through the stomach and large intestines. The nutrient-rich material, called the cocetrope, is passed as mucous pellet. The rabbit then eat it again to get the full nutritional value. The hard pellets really are poop, and you shouldn’t play with them.

Now, I’m from the school of thought where anything that comes out the rectum shouldn’t go back in your mouth (the dog and I disagree on this point).  However, rabbits need the nutrients from the cocetrope, and will die if they don’t get their preprocessed meal.

I think if anyone has an argument against intelligent design, it is Mr. Rabbit.

A few more things you may not know:

  • Chocolate is popular during Easter because it represents the wood of the cross (Not really. I just tell my kids that).
  • Chocolate Easter Bunnies are hollow so you don’t break your teeth. As disappointed as I always was with getting a hollow rabbit, at least someone was looking out for us. Now I’m a cynic and realize you won’t have any lifetime chocolate fans if we all break our teeth when we were five.
  • The word “Easter” comes from the name of a fertility god, known as “Ostara” or “Eostre” (Thank you, sexy-time pagans!).
  • Easter Island was discovered by westerners on Easter. The Polynesians had already discovered the island and named it, but we didn’t ask them.
  • Cadbury Creme Eggs are 5 oz smaller now.
  • Kids love the idea of hard-boiled eggs, but you can’t get them to eat them.
  • If there is snow on the ground at Easter, then you don’t need to dye the eggs. Just toss them out in the snow for the kids to find.

Happy Easter, everyone.

Noah Baird is the author of Donations to Clarity.

8 Feb

Indigo Sea Press Blog

List creators of the world unite. Colons are used after a main clause to list off a series of items (For my birthday, I want: two monkeys jousting on the backs of Golden Retrievers, a stripper dressed as a clown, and a carrot cake). Colons can also be used to clarify the main clause (Buddy Guy and The Rolling Stones played a Muddy Waters song: “Champagne and Reefer”.

What it says about you: You’re a woman.

The dash – formally called the Em Dash because it is the width of the letter “M” – is generally not recommended for formal writing. Probably because the dash can be used instead of commas, colons, and semicolons. Dashes are used to give emphasis to the content between them.

What it says about you: You are a rebel who can’t be bothered to learn the different pauses associated with other punctuation.


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Not Seen In Bookstores

8 Jan

I recently read an article on the plight of the independent bookstore. The point of this particular article, similar to other articles I’ve read, was independent bookstores were having difficulty competing with Our local bookstores are turning into Amazon showrooms. People (I’m not referring to them as ‘customers’ on purpose) are going into bookstores, browsing books, and then buying the books off of Amazon at a lower price.

I have to admit I am guilty of this also. However, I usually make a point to buy a book in the store; partly because I feel guilty, but mostly because I won’t get the book from Amazon for another week and Daddy needs his fix.

As a first time author, a counterpoint to the fall of the independent bookstore is it is often difficult for new writers to get their book on the shelves of an independent bookstore. The explanation I’m given usually covers one of the following reasons:

  • There is not enough shelf space for every new author. Translation: “We are only going to carry books we think are going to sell.” Which means they are going to carry the same books Barnes and Noble sells, but don’t have a Starbucks.
  • New authors don’t have a large enough fan base to warrant carrying the book or hosting an author event. This is a b.s. excuse. People pick up books from authors they’ve never heard of. Most people don’t care if it’s the writer’s first book or fifteenth; if the book looks interesting, then they will buy it. Secondly, I realize a very small percentage of a bookstore’s customers are writers. But there is a larger percentage of customers who want to be writers. People who are interested in writing will go and listen to writers, regardless of genre or popularity.
  • They won’t carry books from a particular publishing company because of return policies. I don’t know enough about return policies between booksellers and publishers to write anything intelligent. However, it seems like the bookseller knows which publishers have return policies they like. Usually, if your book wasn’t published by one of them, then you are out of luck. In my experience, they won’t investigate what your publisher’s return policy is; they just deal with the one they know about. I am not a publisher nor a bookstore owner, but this seems like a navigable obstacle. Both parties are in the business of selling books. It seems logical that a compromise could be made to aid in that goal.
  • Sometimes they are willing to take the books on consignment in return for a larger percentage of the purchase price. Translation: “I want you to write the book, get it published, haul it over to my store, and give me a larger portion of your royalties for your work.” This is always my favorite.

I have to admit, I was surprised by the responses I was getting from my local, independent bookstores. I wasn’t deluded enough to think they were waiting for me, but I assumed there was more of a symbiotic relationship between the stores and the writers. In hindsight, I was under the impression bookstores liked writers. And I think most of them do, but they are more interested in making a profit than establishing relationships with local writers.

I realized my impression that independent bookstores were kindred spirits to independent writers and musicians was wrong. I’ve been to countless indy music stores, and they were full of music by artists you’ve never heard on the radio. This is an interesting parallel; discovering an indy musician not heard on the radio, or before they became big (aka – sold out) is considered a testament to your taste. The same is not true for indy or small press writers. If a writer is not carried by one of the big publishers, then you aren’t truly vetted, and therefor aren’t worth reading. Regardless of the fact that there are countless books by independent writers which are excellent, as well as some really crap books published by the large presses. The reality of it is, some independent bookstores have become arbitrary gatekeepers; Saint Peters of Nightstands. My issue with this attitude is our work isn’t measured for quality, but weighed for the popularity of the writer and the size of the publisher.

The irony of this attitude is studies indicate the reason potential customers pick up a book is the cover. Most people decide if they are interested in a book within 10 seconds of picking up the book. Within those 10 seconds, a customer decides to make a purchase based on two pieces of information: the cover and the synopsis. Reviews and blurbs are also influential, but really confirm the customer’s impulse to buy the book. The price of the book is a distant 4th. The author’s name does influence the decision if the author is well-known; a Stephen King fan will pick up a new Stephen King book. Otherwise, an author’s popularity or the publishing company are not considered. Interestingly, when asked after making a purchase, a customer often does not know the name of the author of the book they just purchased. It isn’t until they have read the book that they commit the author to memory. Yet bookstores behaving like high school girls ordaining popularity based on factors transparent to the customer remains pervasive.

I think this the wrong attitude for bookstores to have. Several years ago, I went to Florida for a business trip. My flight had a long delay in Philadelphia, so I finished the book I brought with me faster than I anticipated. After I checked into my hotel, I wandered out to grab a bite to eat and pick up a new book. The hotel was in a funky beach town with several shops across the street. As I cruised around enjoying the sights, I noticed one street had two little bookstores. One bookstore was hosting an event for a local writer I’d never heard of. I went into the bookstore hosting the author event only because it had something more interesting going on than the other store. I bought three books- two by the author the event was being held for.

I was going to buy a book that day. I bought more books than I planned (which isn’t unusual), but I bought them from the store that had something going on that day. All things being equal, one of those stores was going to make a profit that day. The store with the author event got it. I would like to reiterate I had not heard of the author before that day. He was local author with a regional following. Since then, I have bought every book that writer has published to date, several from a small bookstore that will order books for me. A sale, is a sale, is a sale. A win for the writer translated to a win for the bookstore. That win transferred to another bookstore who made sales on books it didn’t carry.

I’m a bibliophile: I love books, I love bookstores, and I love writers. As a reader, I am concerned with what is happening to local bookstores. As a writer, I’ve embraced Amazon. I may be just a number at Amazon, but at least I’m acknowledged there. And for a first time author, that gives me a fighting chance.

By the way, the author in Florida was Tim Dorsey. If you’ve never heard of Tim Dorsey; mix Carl Hiaassen with the TV show Dexter and give it a bunch of Red Bulls and vodka.

Noah Baird is the author of Donations to Clarity, which often is not found in an independent bookstore.

Donations to Clarity

Donations to Clarity

A Jerks Guide to Comedy Writing or Rubbing the Four Humors

8 Dec

I was recently asked to contribute a chapter on comedy writing for an upcoming book on writing. As I was figuring out what I want to write, something occurred to me: I have no idea how to explain what I do. It probably sounds funny that a comedy writer cannot explain how to write comedy. So as I’m trying to figure out how to explain comedy writing, I thought I share some words of wisdom.

Comedy is an outlaw. In that, it doesn’t have to follow any rules except one: be funny. Comedy, like love and fear (the other two outlaws), is personal and defies explanation. Just as someone prefers one mate over another, or fears snakes and not heights; what is funny to one person is not funny to someone else. This explains my trouble with writing a chapter on comedy writing. I know what I think is funny, but it’s harder to understand what the audience thinks. I recently posted this very question on Facebook and called friends for their opinions. Every person responded with a different piece they felt was the funniest.

Do a Google search on comedy and you will find dozens of articles on comedy writing (Trust me- I’ve been reading them to try to figure out what I do). Nearly all the articles cover mechanics and structure. What they don’t tell you is how to become funny.

Here’s the part you don’t want to know: comedy is work. Stop laughing, it’s true. You have to train yourself to see the humor in things. I need to warn you: the training will make you an asshole. Once you’ve learned to make a joke out of anything, you won’t be able to quit. You’ll become the smart-ass. The kind of person who asks the urologist if your semen will be clear after the vasectomy. On the other hand, your partner won’t try to drag you into too many let’s-talk-about-how-you-feel conversations anymore. So, you’ve got that going for you.

Part of that training requires reading; a lot of reading. This includes the news. There are a couple of reasons why you need to read the news everyday:

  • People are stranger than you think. If your zany characters are eclipsed by the news, then you aren’t pushing hard enough. As soon as you think you’ve developed a character that is going to be your comedic vehicle to drive your jokes, someone will do something even crazier. Herman Cain quoted the Pokemon movie in his farewell address. If I wrote that a year ago, you would’ve thought I was insane.
  • You have to remain current. Humor has a relatively short shelf-life. The edgiest material is what is happening right now. You are doing really well if you can begin to predict a funny situation before it happens.
  • You need cultural anchors. What I mean by cultural anchors is your references have to be widely understood. Prior to 2009, the tea party had a different meaning than it does now. Before the tea party movement, we weren’t debating the merits of the Boston Tea Party (maybe historians were, but nobody listens to them). Today, the tea party has had a polarizing effect in our culture. Your humor has to consider that. Dennis Miller gets away with dropping obscure cultural references mixed with a robust vocabulary; you can’t. I love Dennis Miller. I think he’s a brilliant comedian, but you need a dictionary and an encyclopedia to follow along with him.
  • Language trends change every few years and the news typically reflects it. Remember a few years ago when the media merged celebrity couple names to make one name? Now every political incident is a something-gate. In the ‘90s, there was a period when we dropped Jewish words into normal conversation. The good news is, keeping up with language trends doesn’t require any effort. Just by reading you will pick up the trends organically.

Here’s an exercise if you want to start writing comedy. Pick up the paper, find and article, and write a joke about it. The object of the exercise is to find the humor in something that is not funny.

Here’s a link to an article I had published doing this exercise. The article is dated, but is still relevant for the idea of the exercise. The idea came to me as I was cooking dinner and listening to the news. I don’t remember the focus of the news piece; I remember George Bush had just done something which had implications against Iraq. I remember thinking when are we going to stop screwing these people? That was it. I sat down and wrote this article.

The exercise nearly paid off. Years later, I was interviewing for The Onion to be a staff writer. As part of the interview process, I was given a list of fake headlines and I was to write a newscast for each headline on the spot. Ultimately, I didn’t get the job, but it was a personal victory for me to be able to write a funny newscast without any preparation. Here’s an example of one of the articles I wrote:

You may have noticed based on the two articles above that I talk about sex. I have news for you, folks: Comedy isn’t pretty. Psychologists have described humor as the sudden release of tension. On a physical level, laughter is our body’s response to surprise of an unforeseen stimulus. One of the tools a comedian uses to create tension is to discuss something uncomfortable; enter the sex, fart, and poop jokes. Pushing the audience into an uncomfortable area raises their tension levels. The punchline is the release valve to bleed off that tension. In the Panda Wants Abortion newscast, I wrote dialogue for an artificial insemination protester. Here I’ve brought the audience into a slightly uncomfortable situation. The joke is we know what artificial insemination is, so the audiences’ brains are creating a framework of what that means. The punchline is the protester was objecting to the use of artificial semen. This is one of the mechanisms of a joke: build tension, put their minds on a specific path, and nail them with a left hook while they aren’t looking. This isn’t the only comedic style and you don’t necessarily need to make the audience uncomfortable, but it illustrates a basic framework of a joke.

A question I get from aspiring comedic writers is: How do you know if you’ve gone too far? You don’t. The concept is subjective because what is funny is personal. It’s the same argument as what is pornography and what is art. In my book, Donations to Clarity, I wrote several chapters with questionable content. I wrote a character who was a homophobe and a character who impersonated a homosexual. These are two subject areas I needed to be careful of. In the ‘80s, comedians could beat up homosexuals all day long. Eddie Murphy made a career out of roasting homosexuals and Richard Simmons. That doesn’t fly in 2011. You can still make fun of Richard Simmons, but not because he’s gay. The hair and the striped shorts are still free game.

One of my rules for comedy writing is to not to insult anyone- directly. Offended? I don’t care if they’re offended, and you shouldn’t either.  You don’t want to insult. In this case, making homosexuals feel like I’m picking on them. And it’s not about gay rights or embracing everyone. To me, comedy is about enjoyment. My goal is to take the audience out of their lives for a small time, and give them something to laugh about. That does not include abusing a subset of the population. Along with this, I was worried about how I portrayed women. I’d never written women before, and I was concerned I was too degrading to them.

I could get away with writing a book without the homophobe and the homosexual impersonator. I couldn’t really write a book without any women in it. Because I chose to write the characters anyway, I did a couple of things to protect myself:

  • I wrote the homophobe and the homosexual impersonator as idiots. In the case of the homophobe, the way I developed the character, it made sense for him to dislike gays. It would have been incongruous if I’d written him any other way.
  • I asked a few homosexual friends and women read the chapters. I explained what my concerns were and asked for their honest opinions. A funny thing happened: not only did I get their blessings, but they gave me insight to develop the characters better.

Now that doesn’t mean I was completely protected from criticism. I recently had a female reader email me claiming I degraded women. If you read my book, you know I made the guys idiots and the women were the only sane characters. Normally I don’t respond to these emails, or I send a quick note with several suggestion of what they can do with their opinion. This particular woman hit a sensitive button for me; I wanted to know why she felt the way she did. And wow, did she! I got a page and a half on how I degraded women because I had a female character pee a little when Bigfoot scared her.

Which brings me to my next point: if you’re going to write comedy, you’d better have a thick skin. You need a thick skin to be a writer. It needs to be thicker for comedy because you are going to piss someone off. Comedy isn’t pretty. No matter how careful you are, you are going to offend someone. And they will write you and tell you all about it. The good news is they’re just giving you a new character to put in the next book. It’s the circle of life.

The last point I want to make in this article is dialogue. As a comedic writer, most of your  jokes will be between characters talking. There are other styles you’ll use, such as situational and environmental. You could even write physical comedy (slapstick). I wrote some slapstick in my book. Slapstick is a unique style that requires a muscular writing style, which I’m not going to get into in this article. What were we talking about? Dialogue! Here’s my advice for dialogue. Go to your neighborhood bar; not a nightclub or meat market, unless you are specifically seeking something from that element. I mean a nice Irish pub; blue-collar, middle class. Hit it at happy hour for a couple of weeks and just watch. You’ll begin to see trends. There’s a group of regulars. They usually get there as soon as the place opens, and they stay after the happy hour crowd leaves. Some times they go home to eat, and then come back to the bar. These are your tickets. They are golden fountains of verbal diarrhea. Get to know them. They will tell you the funniest and strangest stories you’ve ever heard. My idea for the weight of the human turd conversation in my book stemmed from this.

In reality, the guy I was talking to thought we were all going to die by being binged in the melon by rocks falling from space. It was a surreal conversation. This guy was really worried about being knocked off by space pebbles. Although I didn’t use the space rocks in the book, it inspired me to add a similar conversation to the book.

Also go to cop bars. Police officers have fantastic stories. I’ve gone into cop bars, explained I was a comedy writer looking for material, and I would buy a drink for anyone who told me a funny story. I have never walked out of a cop bar with less than three hilarious stories.

Before I let you go, I’ll give you another comedy trick. One way to keep your comedy and your dialogue current and relevant is to use the internet. I’ve attached several links to websites full of ideas. One website, Overheard in _______ is just conversations people have overheard in public places. Part of comedy is the examination of the human condition. Because you, the writer, can’t be everywhere; use the internet to expand your research.
Another great site is Texts From Last Night. This is a website of texts between people. Most of the people are young, maybe college age. It’s a great resource for picking up attitudes and dialogue from the 20s to early 30s age group.
One of my favorite sites is Shit My Dad Says. The site is run by a 30ish comedic writer who posts the shit his dad says. His father, a retired doctor and veteran, is this grumpy, tough-as-nails, no bullshit kind of guy. If you don’t think this site is funny; comedy writing may not be for you.

Now, I am not telling you to steal lines from these sites. Use the sites to develop your character’s dialogue, pick up new terminology, and inspire you to write something funnier.

Now, go away and write something funny.

Noah Baird, author of Donations to Clarity, is often thought of as funny by dogs and small children. Women also laugh at him, but only when he’s naked.

Man Without Ties by Noah Baird

20 Oct

A great tie can take an average suit to spectacular heights. The rare man can successfully and repeatedly pick a great tie.  Rarer still is the man who can pair the tie with the right shirt and suit.  Men who can do it; flaunt it.  Rightfully so.  Men’s magazines are filled with articles covering the subject.  You don’t find nearly as many articles on picking the right belt or the proper way to lace up your shoes.

My father can pick ties. He came from a time where men typically wore ties.  They weren’t foreign to his generation as I imagined they were to mine.  Ties weren’t rock and roll, and I saw myself as a rocker.  Axl Rose didn’t wear a tie and neither would I.  Not my father’s generation.  They wore ties in their school pictures- something my generation couldn’t conceive of. I also don’t remember my father ever squirming uncomfortably in his suit like I did until he snapped at me to be still.  He came from a line of conservative, sober men who were practitioners of conservative, sober dress.

I remember my first tie; not the clip on- a real tie.  I was 16 and I finally graduated from mowing lawns in the hot Florida sun to a job in the mall- a toy store. The job had one setback: I would have to wear a tie.  The Sunday before I started my new job, my father took me to the men’s department of a local department store.  I stood there staring at the swivel racks of dyed cloth. My eyes glazed as he pointed out the different types.  The pros and cons of stripes and solids. Fashion history of the fat and skinny. Conservative choices between polka dots and art-deco swirls.  He sternly steered me clear of the cartoon characters. Likewise, he steered me away from the rack of bolo ties. Stars and steer horns; the pewter stamped bolo ties were far cooler to my 16 year old sensibilities than my father’s ties.  There was something outlawish about them.  I imagined if Keith Richards were to wear a tie, he’d pick a bolo.

At home, he stood me in front of the mirror and repeatedly demonstrated the basics.  It reminded me of the knot-tying classes I dreaded at summer camp.  I was as helpless with the four in hand and half-Windsor as I was with the square knot and clove hitch.  I can still remember his frustration as he faced me and struggled to perform, in reverse on me, a thing he did normally.  Then the awkward feeling as my father stood behind me and reached around my neck and repeatedly tied various knots.  Me all the while trying to observe his hands working at my throat.  Like trying to watch yourself swallow.  Then to watching our reflection in the mirror at the reverse image of what he was explaining.

He showed me the subtle nuances of a properly tied tie.  How to get the correct length.  How to get the dimple right in the fabric as the silk exited the knot.  To remember to get the knot symmetrical.

The lesson opened the door for a question and answer session between father and son.  What’s with the undershirt?  Why do I have to wear a belt if my pants fit? Why aren’t white athletic socks inappropriate for a suit if nobody can see my ankles? Why are the pockets of a suit jacket sewn shut? He answered each of the questions patiently.  We moved on to when to button and unbutton a suit jacket.  Why I couldn’t keep my hands in my pockets.  We decoded the mystery of getting the proper fit for a dress shirt.  I think it dawned on him how far I was from his world, a man who wore a suit and tie nearly everyday of his life.

I still don’t like wearing ties.  I know I’m supposed to.  I’m more of a jeans and T-shirt guy.  I’ve avoided wearing suits and ties my whole life.  Occasionally, I do have to wear a tie.  Recently, I needed to wear a tie for a meeting, and I found myself picking out new shirts and ties to update my small, out-of-date collection.

I selected a shirt and wandered over to the tables covered with neatly arranged ties.  Picking out a tie is the pop quiz you didn’t know you needed to study for.  Men’s suits range from black, blue, gray; maybe khaki.  Shirts are typically white, blue, or some sort of paisley color.  Shoes: black and brown.  Same thing with belts.  Not a big range in color.  Maybe half a slice of pizza in the color pie chart. To pick out a suit, shirt, belt, and shoes; a man only needs to know the colors from the eight pack of crayons. Black, blue, gray, white, brown; that’s about it. A suit may be charcoal. We know about the charcoal. We barbecue, so charcoal is dark gray; we got it.

Not in the Land of Ties (not to be confused with Thailand). In the Land of Ties, there are more colors than in the paint section of Lowes, and 34 names for one color. White is no longer ‘White’, but ranges from ‘Eggshell White’ to ‘Unicorn Testicle’. Blue can be ‘Peacock’, ‘Navy’ (we know about the navy), ‘Pacific’, ‘Blueberry’, ‘Baltic’, ‘Deep Baltic’, ‘Midnight’, ‘Sound Blue’, ‘Surf Blue’, ‘Sail Blue’, ‘Bluestone’, ‘Deep Navy’ (I think this is for submariners), ‘Deep Sea’, ‘Mediterranean’ (More fun than Baltic!), ‘Harbor’, ‘Stone Blue’, ‘Coastal Blue’, ‘Shoreline Blue’, ‘Oceanfront’, ‘Peasant Blue’, ‘Royal Blue’ (More inbreeding than the Peasant Blue), ‘French Blue’, ‘Montclair Navy’, ‘Cayman Blue’, ‘Light Maritime’, ‘Grey Blue’, and ‘Ink’ (Ha! I bet you thought I was going to through in a blue balls joke. I wrote about my huevos enough in the last buhlog).

The proper tie with a patterned shirt?  Is the shirt pattern bold or subtle?  What colors match?  Which patterns compliment? I have no idea. I usually grab the most effeminate sales person in the store and ask them to pick out the tie. Say whatever you want about homosexuals; those dudes can pick out a tie. They will break all the rules I’ve ever learned and match a striped tie with a checked shirt, but it will look great. I’m thankful for every one them who have helped me out. I’m still annoyed with them about the restaurants. Homosexuals know where all of the great restaurants are, but they won’t tell us. If you want to find a great restaurant in any city; ask a gay dude. Except for barbecue; they don’t know about the barbecue. If I can’t find the effeminate guy, I have to scan the store for a mannequin and buy whatever it has on.

Many things have change since 16, and many more things I couldn’t learn from my father.  I’ve long since stopped fearing I would become my father to slowly realizing I already had.  With one exception. What did I do with my first paycheck from the toy store? I went back and bought a fist full of those bolo ties.

No colors were injured while writing this buhlog.

Noah Baird is the author of Donations to Clarity. If you buy the book, I promise to not use the royalties to buy ties.

Vasectomies For Beginners by Noah Baird

19 Oct

I’m almost 40 years old. I’m divorced (twice). I have two little boys, who may or may not be werewolves. One of my possibly werewolf children pissed on my living room rug this weekend because he was too busy playing to run to the bathroom. I was making the boys breakfast when I heard my oldest complaining that his brother’s pee is getting all over the rug during their epic space battle. It was one of those surreal moments every parent has; I’m pouring cereal in bowls and through the crunching sound I hear “pee” + “rug.” I poke my head around the corner and see my youngest in a deranged Statue of Liberty pose; a Stars Wars spaceship held over his head as he balanced on one foot and shook liquid out of the other foot of his pajamas. Before I could get a “What the fuck . . .” out – you can’t throw the ‘F’ word out at a four-year old. My brain has to run through a catalog of words and phrases which capture my emotion but is appropriate to little ears. Before I can get any words out, the child dashes off downstairs, leaving me to contemplate the pros and cons of climbing back into bed. The little monster dashes back through the living room, still holding the spaceship but now completely naked, leaving a tangy wake behind him.

I’m at the point in my life where I don’t want any more half-werewolf children.

I posted on Facebook that I had my vasectomy consultation the next morning. I was surprised by the reactions to the post which ranged from “I wouldn’t do that” and “Don’t do it,” all the way to “This is a procedure invented by women to keep man down.” The really strong reaction came from a Catholic guy who had a vasectomy and is mad because he’s going to hell for cutting the Catholic-making pipeline off.

I was surprised I was getting any sort of negative reaction. All of the men I’ve spoken to about it say it’s no big deal. They want to tell you about it, but it isn’t a big deal. Ladies, here’s the part you need to understand: vasectomies are our pregnancy. Every woman wants to discuss their pregnancy; every man wants to discuss their vasectomy. I know it’s not the same thing. We don’t have anything else. We don’t have duckbills poked into us every year. Our doctors don’t even get close to us. I see my physician once a year. He shakes my hand, looks at my tongue, checks my lungs, and kicks me out. The closest he’s ever gotten to me is when he checked my ears.

In the Urologist’s waiting room, as I handed in my insurance paperwork, I notice the nurse looking around behind me. She asks if I’m alone. I tell her that I am. It’s then I notice every man in the room has a female chaperone. None of the men looked happy. The women; they were happy. My mother called to tell me she forced her first husband to get a vasectomy. His name was ‘Tom’ and so is my father. The first one is dead; we call him ‘Dead Tom’. It took Dead Tom two tranquilizers and five beers to get him into the Urologist.

When the Urologist was done playing with my Huevos Rancheros, which is Russian for ‘Stones of Many Pleasures’, we discussed the procedure. One of the topics was scaring. Apparently, some men are upset by the scar left on their seed bag. Who would be worried about a scar there? Have you seen testicles? It looks like our nuts were gift wrapped in leftover elbow skin. I’m not sure if I could find a scar there if I tried. I think I might like the scar. I may need to prove I had the snip one day.

The good news is I passed the consult. My vas deferens (the swim lane between the huevos and the prostate) is “taunt like a guitar string.” I also have big balls, which I’ve been telling people for years, but I don’t think they believed me.

Noah Baird is the author of Donations to Clarity.