One small, square box of revenge

To me, blackout poetry represents an opportunity to make mischief out of boring things like financial columns and interviews with Arnold Schwarzenegger. You excise the dull parts with swaths of ink or paint. It’s like a secret code created with gleeful defacement.

talk to strangers, surprising men, a paper friend wrote that morning

You can see how I made a “rough draft” in pencil, but then couldn’t erase it because that would’ve effectively murdered the newsprint.

Poetry, in general, isn’t something I write. But I can never resist mischief (or trickery, or sneakiness*), and apparently I created a lot of blackout poetry a few years ago. I posted another blackout poem over a year ago. I found these few poems while looking through an old art journal, and had one of those “Oh, cool!” moments that come around sometimes when looking through old things you’ve forgotten about.

Or even things that aren’t so old. If you write enough, there’s a point when your brain can’t hold it all in, and blog posts from maybe two months ago read like new.

Call someone who you think they're an enemy.

If I twist my brain hard enough, I can justify this as being actual advice. Of some sort.

I thought I’d share these, because out of all the blackout poetry I found, these were the ones that came out surprising well. Or at least the ones that didn’t make me think, “Holy crap, how can anyone over seventeen compose something so depressively emo?”)

one small square box of revenge

I imagine it’s wrapped in elegant paper the color of titanium.

And the idea of a small, square box of revenge, whatever that is, amused me.


*Despite the fine distinctions between trickery, sneakiness, and mischief, I have tags for both sneakiness and trickery, and most of the posts overlap. Speaking of sneakiness, I just learned I’m the top Google result for “Kris Bowser sneaking food into movie.” For reasons..

The Quantum Nature of Blogging, Part I

I set out to troubleshoot my perfectionist blogging process and instead discovered the quantum nature of writing. While I enjoy blogging, I have difficulty posting often. My problem is that blogging is something of a struggle for me, in the way that climbing Mount Doom in a state of extreme dehydration with the weight of intense evil around your neck is something of a struggle. I wanted to figure out a way to minimize the struggle, blog faster, and still enjoy myself.

When I started this blog, I assumed that coming up with ideas would be tough. I bought Show Your Work by Austin Kleon and Rise of the Machines by Kristen Lamb, which both discuss coming up with ideas for blog posts. Both books are helpful, both are written in a friendly manner that makes regular blogging seem less intimidating, and both aided me in coming up with post ideas. But post ideas weren’t what I needed. Turns out, I have no shortage of ideas: there are over four dozen unfinished posts in the Scrivener project for my blog, and that’s not even counting posts still in the idea stage.

"Writers are not just people who sit down and write. They hazard themselves. Every time you compose a book your compostion of yourself is at stake." --E. L. Doctorow

Yeah, that’s the problem. That’s perfectionism in a nutshell, but the nutshell also has a fuzzy outer husk of anxiety and the frustrating problem of “I don’t have a nutcracker due to impatience and the wide availability of pre-chopped walnuts.”

Perfectionism is a constant problem for me, but I’m also capable of writing very fast*. What ends up happening is that I’ll get down several hundred words of a blog post in fifteen minutes or so, but then I become mired in doubt while attempting to actually finish it. Or, I might set out to write a quick post about a haircutting youtube video I found helpful, but then I end up writing a treatise on everything I know about haircutting. This is where the Mount Doom analogy comes in. Writers are junkies for analogies about writing. Even that last sentence verged on analogy, because I didn’t mean “junkies” in the literal sense.

Blogging requires the opposite of what I’ve been doing: frequency, speed, and often brevity. If you want your site to have good SEO (search engine optimization), you need to post often. Blogging is fast. A blog post can do the same things any piece of writing can: inform, persuade, entertain, or tell a story. But it can also function as social media, open a dialogue, or pass on something interesting from another site. It’s ok to share something (such as the haircutting video) and start a conversation without making a post an exhaustive monument about everything concerning that topic. I read and enjoy plenty of blogs that do this, and many blog posts tend to be shortish. I do read some blogs with posts regularly going over 1000 (and maybe even 2000 words), but I aim to write 300-700 words because that’s the length I enjoy reading most. It’s short enough to be a quick read, but long enough to expand upon a topic.

I’ve tried a lot of strategies to finish blog posts faster. Timeboxing was one, and I made a flowchart last year to accompany my brand new timeboxed blogging method. After spending an unnecessary amount of time choosing color schemes and type faces for this flowchart, and in the process re-encountering my old nemesis Procrastination (he has a twirly mustache and a fencing sword and a velvet cape as dark as his evil deeds), I ended up failing to use my timeboxes for more than a few weeks. Timeboxing works great for brainstorming and editing, or anything else that doesn’t have a definite end condition. But writing? You can say you’ll spend only 30 minutes drafting an aimed-for 600 word post, but the reality is that you’ll keep writing until you reach the end, whether or not you stayed in the timebox.

It should have been obvious from the beginning that I have a functional process for fiction writing, but not for blogging. After starting, but not finishing, two posts** the other day, some magic combination of unfinished blog posts, funky coffee drinks, and driving a borrowed car that I’ve been fat-shaming***, lead to the lightbulb moment that I don’t finish or revise a blog post the way I would any piece of fiction. I suspect that most other writers and artists geek out**** on this type of helpful self-revelation. So if it seems weird that I was super-excited to get home and construct a new writing process for myself… well, it’s probably still weird, but I’m sure I have a kindred spirit somewhere. (Kindred spirit, if you’re reading, let’s be best friends and trade colored index cards and braid each other’s hair if we even have long enough hair for that, which I don’t.)

Here is what a working fiction-writing process looks like: make an idea-mess, tame it into a summary sentence, expand that sentence into a more useful idea-mess, then write. After that you get to revise, and revision is where you sleight-of-hand your draft so that it looks like you knew what you were doing all along. Not everyone writes that way, but I came by some of my process through the How to Think Sideways writing course (highly recommended, more so than my actual creative writing degree), so I know there are others out there. When I decided to fix my blogging process (which comes down to typing out mental narration), I turned to the How to Think Sideways lessons that had helped me so much.

But I also ended up digging into the nuts and bolts of my own writing process. And after spending a few hours pacing and scribbling diagrams, I discovered the building blocks of all written matter. And that’s what Part II will be about.


*I’ve written over 2000 words per hour in the past. I just didn’t enjoy them.
**One is about my recently-deceased Chevy Prizm and the other is about why the phrase “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a bunch of crap. I try to limit the number of rant-based posts I write, and so the latter may not see the shining light of the internet.
***My recently-deceased Chevy Prizm is smaller than a Subaru Forester, which I accuse of being a fat beast when it won’t go into a parking spot the way I want.
****This is way too many footnotes for one post, let alone one paragraph, and I’m going to have to start using superscript numerals instead of asterisks that, taken in a group of four, make it appear that I have some choice words I’m not using. But, rest assured, I would use them.

Everything I’ve ever learned about DIY haircuts

The learning process of cutting my own hair has been about as hacked together as some of my diy haircuts. I’ve been cutting my own hair for over ten years, and that learning process has involved blunt chunks of hair sticking up from the back of my head and many hours circling the internet like a vulture. A vulture that feeds on “Quick Tips for cutting your own hair” and “How to Add Texture to your A-line Bob*.”

In the years since I started cutting my own hair, I developed the skill of learning new skills. I know the ratio of reading to practice that works for me, and how much I need to observe and copy others until I can work on my own. And I know now that it would have been smart and efficient to watch a video of someone cutting hair. I could have done it seven years ago, and it would have saved me a lot of time.
In all those years, I never once watched a youtube video. I’m not patient. I’d rather take two minutes to read an article than ten to watch a video. But the youtube videos far outnumber the articles, and they have much more specific information. Most of the videos seem to be stylists addressing other stylists, but I’ve spotted at least a couple diy haircut videos. A person can only spend so much time reading Yahoo answers like this:

Help how do u cut ur own hair with layers I cant go to the salon plz thx???

Half the answers always say, “You can’t do it at home. Please get a professional to cut it or you’ll ruin your hair.” And there will maybe be one useful link.

I finally gave in and watched a couple of youtube videos. I learned a lot from this video about cutting a pixie haircut, and I thought I’d share it because it contains so much that I learned through trial and error:

It’s long, but even after cutting my own hair this way numerous times in the past, I picked up some useful information. Also, some of the other videos I watched had double-fast sections with loud, irritating dance music that was maybe supposed to get me psyched about style and high fashion.

Still, most of what I know about cutting my own hair, I learned slowly, over many years. Here are the big ones:

Part your hair in sections

It’s way more fun to hack away with a hair-cutting razor while listening to loud music than it is to methodically part your hair in seven sections and go about things in an orderly fashion. But like a drawing or a piece of writing, it’s best to start with the overall structure and then fill in the details. Have you ever tried to draw someone’s living room by starting with the weird 70s upholstery on the couch? And then the couch took up way too much space, so you couldn’t fit in the funky end table?

And definitely look up hair-cutting razors. I find them easier to use on my own hair, and they’re a good way to add a lot of texture (although, as a friend told me when she cut my hair, everything adds texture). The downside is that you really have to be careful about making sure the blades are sharp, otherwise you end up with split ends** pretty soon after the haircut starts growing out. I’ve used this stainless steel Fromm Razor for nine years–it’s been an essential tool for most of my diy haircuts. The replacement blades are also cheap.

Learn to cut your hair blindly

It’s hard to get a good double-mirror set-up, especially if you’re a renter and have limited control over what you can do to your living space. Over the years, I’ve learned how to cut my hair by feel. Watching the youtube video confirmed that this wasn’t a bad strategy; the stylist frequently used hair cut to the desired length as a guide to cut the hair near it. That’s basically what I had taught myself to do by blindly.

Wear contact lenses

Better yet, don’t be near-sighted at all. I switched from contacts to glasses a few years ago. It’s tricky to cut around the ears now.

crappy hair reference pic

This is the sort of blurry, cut-off nonsense you get when you try to take a reference picture of yourself with a bulky tablet. Get someone else to take a picture, or better yet, multiple pictures. It’s the best way to decide what you like for next time, and also doubles as a neat memento of the super 70s wood paneling in your old apartment.

Be hyper-observant

If you’re using a picture as a reference, study it closely. Unless you have long hair (and therefore a lot of room for error), don’t just estimate what you’re cutting. Study how your own hair behaves, and where it has curls or cowlicks. How is your hair textured? Straight and fine is less forgiving to error than thick and wavy. Where does a particular chunk of hair start on your head, and what direction does it grow? Take pictures of your own hair. If you don’t like how your cut came out, figure out specifically why.

Use celebrity pictures for references

I resisted this for a long time. But the fact is that there are a ridiculous number of photos of any given celebrity. It’s easy to find pictures of the same haircut from different angles. Also, I’ve been watching a lot of Once Upon a Time, so obviously I want Ginnifer Goodwin’s hair because Snow White is a badass.

Use body parts as landmarks

Inches aren’t that useful, except for when you need to use clippers. Anyone who’s ever asked for a one-inch trim and gotten a massacre knows that. I’ve found that inches aren’t useful in home haircuts either. References to ears, eyebrows, and jawline are more helpful. If you’re using reference pictures, look for where the hair falls in relation to those landmarks. I also suspect that using body parts as guides is a good way to make the haircut more harmonious and suited to your face.

Get a short haircut from a professional

I didn’t start to get better at cutting my own hair until I’d been doing it for five years. That’s not because there was a five-year learning curve, but because I was afraid to go too short, so I never cut it the way I really wanted. After a professional cut my hair into a pixie, I wasn’t afraid anymore. I knew how I looked with very short hair, and I knew that if I ever messed up, I could go to the salon and have it fixed.


*An A-Line Bob is a haircut, not some guy with a nickname that has a long, inside-joke type story behind it.
**I didn’t understand what split ends actually were until I started cutting my own hair. Or, I understood what they were, but not why they were a problem. You know when you badly need a haircut, and the ends of your hair feel like prickly thatch? Split ends. Probably, this is not news to anyone else.

The End of the Caterpocalypse

Caterpillars are fascinating in the singular, disgusting and devastating in the plural. I don’t believe it was technically a record year for the number of gypsy moth caterpillars, but they ate enough leaves to transform large areas into leafless wasteland. Driving through some of those areas, I began to think, “An actual apocalypse could start out looking like this.”

We’re in the final days of The Caterpocalypse*. The caterpillars are basically all gone now, but their effects remain.

DSC02199

All those leaves are caterpillar food. Maybe the childrens book The Very Hungry Caterpillar isn’t so cute after all.

Comparing those bare trees to an apocalypse was kind of a dramatic thought. But then, it was a dramatic sight. In the weeks that this happened, I wasn’t online much, didn’t have many hours at either of my jobs, and didn’t really leave home a lot either. I hadn’t seen any news of the caterpillars at all. I was basically a writer-hermit, and it was a shock when I went to visit my parents and saw thick shag carpets of gypsy moth caterpillars trying to climb past barriers of cardboard and duct tape.

It started with the noise: the sound of rain falling when there was no rain. My brother informed me that this was the sound of caterpillar crap falling from the trees. I didn’t totally believe him; in my head, I filed what he had said in the same space as urban legends. And yet, every time I heard that noise, I couldn’t shake what he’d said. It kind of made sense, and well, my car was covered with little black dots that had to have come from somewhere.

The annoying and disgusting aspects of all this presented themselves first: caterpillar droppings, difficulty eating outdoors, lack of shade from the hot sun, rashes from the caterpillars. I cheered on my chickens as they cleared the area surrounded their coop from caterpillars. They ate so many they got tired of them. But the possible consequences of the situation occurred to me soon after. What if the leaves didn’t grow back?

The trees would die.

I told myself that it’s probably unlikely that we’d have a legitimate ecological apocalypse. But then, things like that do happen. My line of thinking basically boiled down to, “It can’t happen here.” But of course, it could.

Right now, I’m reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. His discussion of social epidemics starts with a discussion of actual disease epidemics. What’s scary is that not a lot has to change for an existing disease to expand massively into an epidemic. I know caterpillars aren’t the same as diseases. There’s an entire ecological system affecting their population. But maybe just some tiny change, in some coming year, would be enough to tip caterpillar leaf consumption from large areas of leaf cover to all the leaf cover. This year, a dry winter was apparently enough to inhibit the growth of a fungus that balances the caterpillar population.

“Will the leaves grow back?” I asked my uncle, a gardener and former biology teacher, and therefore An Authority on the Subject.

They would, he said, but it didn’t shake the unique sense of unease that comes from walking under winter branches on a 90 degree day.

We’re in the final days of the Caterpocalypse. Sometimes, I drive through the bare areas and I see the spring leaves starting to pop in. It’s not as disorienting as bare branches, though it is definitely strange, and I assume there will be other consequences of this.

There are a lot of moths out.


*The main thing that inspired me to write this post was the fact that I hadn’t seen any news articles use the term “caterpocalypse,” which seemed like kind of a waste. It’s much less of a stretch that “snowmageddon” was, though it could look as though it’s referring to a tragedy with a catered event.

Unhelpful things to say to someone with an animal phobia

If you tell someone you have an animal phobia, there’s a good chance they will respond with unhelpful platitudes and alarming anecdotes. They may be completely well meaning, but plenty of well meaning people say uncomfortable things.

This has been on my mind because I had an incident the other day. It was a split-second ripple of silver as a snake fled under a shrub. Suffice it to say, the snake, who may not even live on the property, is now Lord and Master of my front yard. If I spend any amount of time standing there, a sense of panic starts to build until a voice starts yells in my brain, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING WHAT ARE YOU DOING IT’S GOING TO HAPPEN AGAIN. GET OUT OF HERE.” Like when you watch a horror movie and someone goes up to the dark attic.

My phobia is bad enough that I felt sort of icky and unhappy writing the last paragraph. This is why, from here on out, I will be using Miniature Schnauzers for all my examples*. Thanks to wikipedia, I just learned that ophidiophobia is something I have in common with one third of all adults. I couldn’t even find a specific term for a phobia of Miniature Schnauzers (though I apologize to any general sort of cynophobes reading), so I hope this is a less alarming way to put things.

And so, here is my list of unhelpful things to say to someone with an animal phobia:

You’re bigger than it.

Size has nothing to do with it.  Of course I should be more afraid of the Giant Schnauzer, which can wrap itself around its prey and suffocate it. But a Miniature Schnauzer is small enough that you might not see it slithering along in the grass until you’ve almost stepped on it, and that freaks me out more.

It’s more afraid of you than you are of it.

No, no it isn’t. It’s a reptile small canine, with an itty bitty reptile canine brain. It doesn’t have the mental capacity for a severe, activity-restricting phobia. Also, the degree of the animal’s fear has nothing to do with the degree of my own fear.

We don’t really have poisonous Miniature Schnauzers around here.

Doesn’t matter. Phobias aren’t about logic. The amount of actual danger isn’t always a factor in how strong the fear is. Even when it is a factor, it’s usually exaggerated. Eventually, this kind of knowledge can help dispel a phobia. Eventually. But having someone tell me—just as an offhand comment—that I shouldn’t be afraid comes across more as blowing off fears that are very real to me.

empty pantry shelves

A tidy pantry is less attractive to Miniature Schnauzers.

Except for this one type of poisonous Miniature Schnauzer you see now and then.

Yes, this is a legitimate concern. Now, because I have a severe phobia, I ‘ll be freaking out about the small possibility that I’ll one of the rare poisonous types.

That’s ok. A lot of people are afraid of them.

I don’t care. That sucks for those other people, and I feel for them. But other people sharing my phobia doesn’t change its negative impact on my life.

The most shocking story you can think of.

“You’re afraid of miniature schnauzers? Oh man, my Aunt Dolorothy used to have one. Poppy was so friendly, and she used to lick everybody’s hands. Then one day my Uncle Freddington found my aunt in a bathtub of ice water and no kidneys and Poppy had the kidneys in her food dish.”

ALL the horror stories you can think of involving that animal.

“You’re afraid of Miniature Schnauzers?”

“One time my cousin found a Miniature Schnauzer in her mailbox and it bit her.”

“One time my cousin found a Miniature Schnauzer in her tent, and she still can’t go camping.”

“One time I saw a Miniature Schnauzer eat a frog and it was so disgusting but I couldn’t look away.”

“One time a Miniature Schnauzer came at me when I was swimming, and let me tell you I never swam so fast in my life.”

“One time I was doing laundry in the basement—we live in an old house–and a Miniature Schnauzer came out of a crack in the wall and I dropped my hand towels that have a picture of a sweet little cottage on them.”

“Remember the restaurant that used to be on the corner of Main Street and MadeUp Road? Yeah, they had to shut that place down because the kitchen was infested with Miniature Schnauzers.”

I used to know someone who was aware of my phobia, and would come to me with any Miniature Schnauzer story she heard. I guess it was a way of bonding, a topic she figured we could talk about. A lot of these stories took place near where I lived, like at the trail where I went running. It became harder and harder for me to use that trail.

Exposure therapy is an effective way of dealing with a phobia, and learning to cope with this kind of story would be an eventual goal. However, one key to exposure therapy is that it be voluntary.

You probably shouldn’t watch…

Actually, some of the more helpful comments I’ve gotten are about movies to avoid. Sometimes I can handle them, and sometimes I can’t. But if someone goes on to describe the scene in question, it goes right back to being unhelpful. On the other hand, I could probably make a nice list of movies to watch if I want a mental challenge. Movies to watch when I’m a braver person.

Mostly, I’ve learned that if I tell anyone about my phobia, I must be clear. I’m not a little scared; I have an irrational fear to the point that I don’t want to see or hear anything at all. No stories, no pictures, no movies.


*A therapist told me that it’s better in the long run not to use code names like this. It’s another avoidant behavior, and it only gives the phobia more power. But it was funnier to me this way, because Schnauzer is a funny word.

Please Kill Me and then go do some stuff

A few years ago, I picked up Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk on the used book shelf at the grocery store. We put it on our cinder block bookshelf next to our Star Wars books and our giant thesaurus, and whatever other books we have on display in our living room that we think make us look cool but actually do the opposite.

Please Kill Me sitting on the shelf

Please Kill Me thinks it’s cooler than the other books on my shelf. Even the Star Wars ones.

For years, music books were among the few types of nonfiction that could hold my attention through a few hundred pages. One day, I picked up Please Kill Me on a whim and read a few pages. I remained hypnotized in its pages until I finished it.

There’s less about the music itself than I would like, and the focus is on a fairly small number of bands. Plenty of TMI moments as well. However, it stitches together direct quotes so seamlessly that sometimes it doesn’t feel like reading separate voices at all. And despite the overwhelming number of people whom I’d probably hate if I met them in real life, it really conveys the living community of the New York punk scene, and it makes me want to be there. It reminds me of how important community is.

I wanted to share this quote from Legs McNeil, one of the authors of Please Kill Me (from page 334):

“Overnight, punk had become as stupid as everything else. This wonderful vital force that was articulated by the music was really about corrupting every form—it was about advocating kids to not wait to be told what to do, but make life up for themselves, it was about trying to get people to use their imaginations again, it was about not being perfect, it was about saying it was okay to be amateurish and funny, that real creativity came out of making a mess, it was about working with what you got in front of you and turning everything embarrassing, awful, and stupid in your life to your advantage.”

At its best, punk wasn’t about studied coolness or meticulous safety-pinning. It was about doing shit. Kicking down doors. It was refusing to be stopped by roadblocks on the obvious path in front of you, roadblocks that say “you can’t go here,” and taking that d.i.y. spirit and making your own road out of salvaged bricks and broken glass and a found bucket of tar*.

That quote reminds me to make my own damn artwork to hang in my apartment rather than to buy manufactured art from Target or someplace, and to make that artwork out of subjects and materials I like rather than worry about getting things a certain way. It’s better to do something creative and true than it is to make the place you live a poor copy of something in a magazine.

It reminds me of why I’m going to help make a new wooden table top for what used to be a glass deck table but, thanks to an incident** that qualifies as “embarrassing, awful, and stupid,” is currently just an empty frame sitting on a sad deck.

It reminds me to write the things that I write, and that the things I write usually have to start out as a mess.

It reminds me to experiment and do things and learn, because so, so many people do not do things, only consume them. It reminds me that the biggest difference between many of my bad days and my good ones is that I did real things on the good ones. I made life up for myself.


*You can tell I know a lot about making roads.
**We didn’t buy a base for our umbrella because we didn’t like any that the store had. We knew we needed to get one, but the umbrella didn’t blow away, which sort of caused an idea to creep into our heads—an idea that maybe we didn’t need a base after all. Sometimes, we left the umbrella open, though we knew not do this. But again, nothing tragic happened, and another idea crept into our heads—an idea that it’s probably not the end of the world if we leave the umbrella open sometimes. One day, we came home to find that our umbrella had nearly blown off the deck in a big gust of wind, and a pile of tempered glass pebbles sat underneath what used to be our table top. And we knew better.