Latest in the series of

Latest in the series of T-shirts that strike me as really funny, but I probably won’t be able to find a good time to wear: this one, from Aerostich. I couldn’t resist it, though, so it will arrive at my house in the next couple of days, along with a reflective helmet halo and some “Aerostich molded velcro-like material”, which I’ll use to better the attachment of the video camera to the Ultimate Water Gun.


In other, and more important news, Kate and I completed our move to our new house over the weekend, yaaaay! Which now means that I have access to more than two shirts and one pair of pants (I’d been living out of a messenger bag for several weeks.) Yesterday, I wore my silly Chochie shorts to work (really just oversized cutoff Dickies pants with Mexican hotrodder flaming-crown embroidery on them), and they balooned out in the wind on my motorcycle ride to the station, making me look like a goofy Renaissance fop on a small Japanese bike.


Yay, I guess. Nuke and pave.

Latest in the series of

The Ultimate Water Gun now

The Ultimate Water Gun now has remote video!

Thunderbirds are GO!!!

I added a Plantraco wireless video camera to the helmet of the Ultimate Water Gun. Now you can see what the wearer of the Ultimate Water Gun sees on a mini-TV screen, and use a Motorola Talkabout two-way radio set to remotely direct the actions of the UWG’s heroic wearer. Here, you can see Kyle Smith, looking fresh and polished in French cuffs, controlling the actions of developer and UWG hero Phil Miner as he rescues Kieran Downes and Glen Camargo from a horrible, fiery fate. The camera is the little blue box on top of the helmet, and the big orange box is the airtight Pelican case I bought to make the camera-and-receiver set look all rugged.

The Ultimate Water Gun now

Today’s Link: Bad Candy, where

Today’s Link:

Bad Candy, where two intrepid Internet journalists have discovered and put on review both the freaky, horrible, burning-hot ear-of-corn-on-a-stick-dipped-in-burning powder candy that I saw in the colonias of Reynosa, Mexico, and the freaky double-salty licorice candy that pale, opprobrious Westtown teacher Master Norman Robinson used to force on his German students, including Kate.

Today’s Link: Bad Candy, where

The importance of bad jokes

The funniest youth minister I ever met was a short Virginian guy in his forties, with salt-and-pepper hair and paratrooper boots. I was working for a week at a Young Life camp in upstate New York; he had brought a group of about fifteen teenagers, and they were working their way through the high ropes course, one by one. Down below, on the ground, he was telling a slow, steady succession of the worst jokes you ever heard. Youth ministry, like carpentry, is a profession known for the horrible quality of its humor (“Remember, a groan’s as good as a laugh!”), but these were especially bad, material along the lines of “This horse walks into a bar, and the bartender says, ‘Why the long face?'”


All his teenagers would groan in real pain, like they had just been sucker-punched. He fixed them with a calm, unconcerned gaze and said, simply and directly,

“Way deep down, you thought that was hilarious.”

The kids continued to groan and roll around on the ground.

“Yeah, I see you’re complaining on the outside, but you’re all laughing on the inside.”


I can’t remember if the kids started laughing at that point; probably they didn’t: they just continued to groan as if their appendixes had burst. But I remember thinking that there was something important there, something that I should remember carefully and emulate later. I still think so, and it’s not just the horse joke, which I still use (to Kate’s everlasting regret.)


Even though I gave up the idea of being a youth minister for a living about five years ago, the practice of youth ministry is still a subject that’s very near to my heart. It doesn’t have to be Christian youth ministry, necessarily: I believe that teenagers in our society have a desperate need for committed, sincere, and consistent adult contact in their lives. One of the fundamental goals of youth ministry, I think, is to tell teenagers that they are important in a way they can hear. A big part of doing this is to create spaces in which they feel safe, in which they know what’s expected of them, and in which they aren’t in competition with you. This last part is important: I’ve known several youth ministers who needed the kids to worship them, which wasn’t doing either party any good.


The terrible joke, told with a straight face, is one of the principal weapons in the youth minister’s arsenal. Teenagers like to know what’s expected of them, and what’s more inevitable than the pained groan at the end of the horrible shaggy dog story? It’s a familiar, comfortable pattern that both parties know. The kid groans “you’re killing me!” The adult placidly ignores the wails of pain — “You’re laughing on the inside, I know it” — and demonstrates that they don’t need the kids’ approval, that they are not in competition with the kid for any of the resources the kid needs — coolness, poise, a feeling of control over their social persona. By injecting large amounts of creativity, the youth minister can also drive home that most difficult, elusive, and hard-to-hear of messages — that the teenager is important and valuable.


Witness this beautiful, shining example of the youth minister’s art, sent to me by my friend Will Ronco, who once was one of my teenagers, youth minister-y speaking. Will now has a Unitarian junior-high group at his church in Boulder, and created a scavenger hunt for a church retreat. Originally, he was going to dress adults from the church up as celebrities, and have the kids interview them to find out who they were.


“…The first thing I had to do was abandon all hope of using actual people.
There were just too few adults at the entire conference to pull eight of them
away from whatever dumb thing they had them doing at the adult workshop
(hello, roundtable discussions about whether the church should change its
name? no wonder hardly anyone goes). So I changed it:Teams had to find, in
order, four clues that were hidden around the camp. Clues were given in
limerick form (Some movies of which I’m quite fond/ Are the series that
featuer James Bond/ Which has nothing to do/ With your next clue/ Which you
will find out by the ____) and each one had a hint on it (“Oh I love Trash”).


And we set up like this: The game is called Celebrity Life Match. You are
Ivana Trump and you have just gotten divorced. Over the course of this game
you are going to marry and divorce, in succession, each of the people you find
on your clues. The first team to return to me and tell me Ivana’s new name
wins.


She married, in succession, Mr. Bean, Oscar the Grouch, Mike Myers, and a
dacshund. No one found all the clues, at least one group was destroyed from
within by fighting, and one kid fell and skinned her knee. It was perfect.
Only thirty minutes past the alloted time for the activity, I gathered
everyone up on top of a huge rock pile and together we went over the clues:


Ivana Bean Oscar Myer Wiener.”


Yeah, I know. Brilliant, right? And, way deep down, you’re laughing on the inside.

The importance of bad jokes

Kate and I also



Kate and I also went to the Chester County Hospital’s May Day Carnival this weekend, and I just about wore out the digital camera trying to catch the spooky, doomed atmosphere that a carnival has when the weather is 45 degrees and cloudy. Or maybe it was just due to the worried animals in the fun-house murals, or the constant references to eternal damnation. Or the traditional carnival blending of Mardi Gras-style hilarity with abject terror. No, wait. Really, I think it was the scary fey carousel panda with the big teeth!

Kate and I also

More vituperation: a taxonomy of

More vituperation: a taxonomy of service camp crews

I painted a whole bunch of the new house this weekend; I put a second coat of ‘Moss White’ on the used-to-be-red bedroom, and two coats of the same color in the hallway and living room. In fact, I finished everything except the bathroom, hurrah!


Usually, I really, really hate painting, because painting is the ghetto team of every service camp I’ve been a part of. Every organization I’ve worked with or for is roughly the same. At the beginning of a day’s work, you’ll be presented with Rorschach test in the form of a job signup list. Your choice immediately and irrevocably reveals the innermost recesses of your personality:


  • If you have carpentry skills, or if you’re just unafraid of hammers and bad jokes, you volunteer for carpentry. Minuses: bruised fingers, many unlovely ass-cracks on display. Pluses: learn to use a hammer, learn many bad jokes. (“Damn, I cut it twice and it’s still too short, har har!”)
  • If you’re unafraid of hard work and are generally good-natured, you volunteer for landscaping and/or yard duty. Minuses: hard, dirty work, thin-walled lawn bags have been purchased at the dollar store. Pluses: Best cameraderie.
  • If you own a Slipknot hoodie or have any sort of haircut that would look appropriate at a tractor pull, you volunteer for demolition. Pluses: you get to bash walls with a crowbar. Minuses: you own a Slipknot hoodie.
  • If you are some kind of giant saint walking the earth, you put your name on the list that has no volunteers on it: cleaning and mopping. Minuses: probably involves shoveling ankle-deep cat poo out of an explosively smelly row house. Pluses: Grateful Habitat leader will personally bring you an extra sugar cookie at lunch.
  • If you fall into none of the above groups, however, if you’re only half-sold on the idea of spending a day in service, if you’re boring and bland and willing to be told what to do but don’t want to do something too hard, you sign up for painting. Or you get put there; painting crew is the big catchall of a service camp, because you can post all the warm bodies like pickets and give them minimal instructions and walk away and they’ll still be there an hour later without requiring new instructions. Got someone who doesn’t know what they’re good at? Painting crew. Showed up 90 minutes late for the start of work? Painting crew. Complains about the temperature of the coffee in the 40-cup church percolator? Scraping crew, a service project’s Ninth Circle of Hell.

This is not to say that everyone on painting crew is a boring, whiny waste of space who knocks off early and grabs the good sandwiches in the lunch line before you can get there. I have many good friends who were on the painting crew at last year’s [My employer] Volunteer day. I don’t think less of them as people; they simply didn’t know any better, and this year I’m sure
I’ll see them carrying shrubs or carefully sorting the nails in their carpenter’s apron into two piles, depending on which way the points are facing (“You see, the nails pointing this way are for the other side of the house, nyuk nyuk!”)


Meanwhile, this weekend I was the painting crew, and I actually kind of enjoyed it.

More vituperation: a taxonomy of

Rem Koolhaas must die. A

Rem Koolhaas must die.

A couple of months ago, I did my best to tear Rem Koolhaas a new one for the friggin’ godawful new Prada store on Prince street. “The ultimate luxury is not shopping!” burbled this great, horrible pillock when describing why he had, on purpose, designed a space that was good for nothing.


Evelyn Waugh loathed chrome, mirrors, and sheetmetal-paneled studies as a harbinger of Horrible Modern Society. It wasn’t the chrome decorations that Waugh hated, it was the decadent, frivolous, and ultimately pointless lives that were surrounded by them that Waugh equated with the Apocalypse. Flip, trendy, and a self-important generator of deeply crappy soundbites, Rem Koolhaas could have been ripped whole from Waugh’s darkest nightmare. Witness his latest abomination: the new flag for the EU, guaranteed to cause headaches and look already dated TWO FRIGGING YEARS AGO.


As an antidote to Koolhaas’s feckless and burbling embrace of mid-nineties post-productive post-representational awfulness*, I present Cal Hopkins Amish Armada: clean graphics, sarcasm used AS sarcasm (not masquerading as some kind of delicious postmodern irony), and a T-shirt I can wear on my motorcycle in Lancaster county.

Rem Koolhaas must die. A

In an email to me,

In an email to me, my dad had this to say about his own days on Amtrak, commuting four days a week from Philadelphia to edit Travel Holiday magazine:


I remember the rag trade crowd from my own Amtrak days. Some of them can complain longer and louder than anyone I’ve ever heard, but they’re great in emergencies — pushy, funny, indomitable. One day, a young kid got separated from his parents in the Newark station and got on the train by mistake, leaving his parents behind. How scary can that be? The conductor, a grumpy Italian we called Toscanini, wouldn’t help the blubbering kid, so the garmentos stepped in, locating a cell phone (those were the early days of cell) to call Newark station and get word to the parents, calling ahead to Metropark to arrange for someone to meet the kid, comforting the poor lad, etc. etc. It was a combination of commedia dell’arte and Yiddish theater, which pretty much represented the garmentos’ ethnic milieu. I still see some of them at fashion events at Drexel. It’s like seeing college classmates or army buddies.

In an email to me,

I took some guitar lessons

I took some guitar lessons in high school (guitar playing, juggling, sandals; the embarassing triumvirate of quaker youth): enough so that the neck of the guitar stopped being a single, inscrutable unit and resolved itself into six separate strings and a fingerboard. I often think about that when I learn something new; a larger, complicated object suddenly resolves itself into an aggregation of smaller, less complicated ones. Or, in the case of a motorcycle engine, it resolves into an agggregation of smaller, equally incomprehensible things that can burn you.


Anyhow, Amtrak is starting to resolve itself in the same way; I know most of the conductor’s faces on the Keystone run now, including the big, goofy guy you get if you sit in the rear half of train 654. His top-volume soliloquy over the loudspeaker every night:


“In five minutes, we’ll be entering Philadelphi…AAH, the city that spoils you, loves you back, and leaves you begging for more. Exit only where you see one of the handsome conduct…AAHs. Thank you for riding Am-TROCK! …your preferred MEHW-de of trans-por-TAY-shone.”

I’ve also started being able to separate the passengers into groups. There are the garment workers, buyers at the big wholesale mills in the fashion district: the men are in old, good suits with suspenders, the women in loud animal-print dresses. One introduced herself to me as being “in the schmatte business”, which was pretty damn cool. Then there’s the grad students: one, like me, starts in Exton, traveling five days a week to the College of Pharmacology at NYU. Then there are the dot-commers; about five of us, all living where the living’s good, and traveling to where the working’s possible. A smattering of stockbrokers, lawyers, and salespeople, and then one woman with a furry, squirrely shock of hair: red on top, gray on the sides. I overheard that she’s an NYU professor, but I forgot her name. Which is a damn shame, because with hair like that I bet she’s a famous kooky professor.


Today, the Amtrak-ing happens to be good; I’ve gotten a seat in the dinette, with a table so I can use a mouse. And there’s food, and we’re on time. Being on time is actually the thing that made me realize that my train is a human enterprise, not a Mysterious Manifestation of Bureaucracy; we arrived ten minutes early in New York yesterday, and everyone’s still praising the engineer this morning. It’s like a folk song:


“He musta run every stop signal on the tracks!”

“He got every lucky break from North Philly to Newark!”

“He’s Rocket Man!”

I took some guitar lessons