Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Adventures of Uhler and Clark: Part 2

What has become of our heros since we last left them?!
(hastly finished i think but finished.)


Hannah and I opted not to verbally respond, instead slowly turn towards each other and watch the color drain from our faces; resigning our fate to being stuck atop this mountain and living as human Appalachian Trail markers. Sure I enjoyed organic grocery shopping and the occasional bonfire but I wasn’t ready to fashion a natural diaper out of oak leaves and saplings. Soon I’d be communicating to Hannah is our own strange mountain language, wearing homemade animal pelts and forgetting a time when I would spend five minutes in the grocery store analyzing each individual shaving cream to see which one fit my needs and personality best.

My all too natural nightmares were interrupted by another one of Flannel’s boisterous laughs, “You really don’t have a clue as to where you are do you?” We sort of responded with another nervous rounds of laughter, already possibly slipping into non-verbal mountain communication, but trying to redeem ourselves Hannah half said, half asked, “We were just following the Appalachian Trail. We’re on the Appalachian Trail?” He laughed again while simultaneously shaking his head in soft disbelief. We might as well have approached him with a map of Manhattan asking, “I’m sorry sir, could you help us, we can’t seem to find where we are on this map? Are we near Chelsea?” He gave us two potential paths, one following the electrical line through the mountain (the shortcut), the other taking this trail to a gravel road and then following that to a paved road. Before we thanked him and his crotch-loving dog, he asked hopefully, “Say that green truck with all the Steelers stickers on it isn’t yours is it?” Finally I could respond with some conviction, “No sir, it most definitely is not.”

I opted for us to take the path that lead to the paved road. I was now viewing the wilderness as a plastic bag over my head; as long as I could get out of it I might not die. We reached a gravel road that snaked down the least romantic part of the mountain. Sure enough we passed by an old green pickup truck with Steelers football decals on the windows and a n1STEELERS vanity license plate. We contemplated hotwiring the truck but considered the death of our reputation and dignity not worth the quick escape. The decline we had so hoped for while just a few minutes ago came in a fairly steep, steady rate that made our knees question why they were being punished. I’d turn around every so often somewhat expecting to see an old pickup truck slowly driving towards us, the man in the flannel leaning out the window, his dog leaning out the other. “You kids won’t last another hour, hop in” He’d say and Hannah and I would give each other looks of hesitation but ultimately throw out grade school warnings and hop in. Except flannel man was nowhere to be seen; in fact, no one was around. The end of “Tot’s Lane,” came to a paved road, which we turned right onto, following Flannel’s directions. I was finally walking on the outside perimeter of the forest and mountain but then the signs on the trees made me wonder just what perimeter I was on. White marks were replaced with “US TERRITORY LIMITS.” While I was positive we hadn’t ventured into the excitement graveyard known as Canada, spirits were not lifted with the stern notification.

When at first I assumed the directions he gave us were just vague, upon walking down the paved street I realized the directions weren’t vague, the area was. Unless “unkept house number three” was seen as a monument, nothing stood out among this stretch of Grade-D Americana. The monotony of the landscape only made our trek down the macadam decline more tiresome. The houses we’d pass all contained porches littered with disregarded items and broken down appliances, a wrap-around garbage can. While it seemed to me that the Krelians’ might want to dispose of their jumbo diaper boxes somewhere else it occurred to me that maybe the Krelian’s weren’t so concerned about public displays of paper underwear seeing as the road seemed about as traveled as Mount Deserted we just left. The strangeness of our presence was even more apparent when we’d pass a house who’s standard too long driveway had someone taking out the trash, watering plants or preparing a cat for dinner. Regardless of what they were doing, the person would slow down their activity and gaze at us--a two-person parade of foreignness. Directly proportional to the house’s state of dereliction was the number of mediocre cars. It seemed in this area stashing your extra tires and electrical parts outside meant you deserved an extra car. Thought exterior paint as a thing exclusive to the 70s? Add another used car. As an open-minded accidental traveler I try not to judge what appears to be cultural norms but I couldn’t help but question the need for so many similar cars, and if no one was home (which was the apparent state of the...area) than were they all driving around somewhere else in more cars? The thoughts provided me with a mental soundtrack to accompany the metronome of my feet.

Our energy and Naglene bottle slowly draining we came upon an unexpected T in the road. Flannel had given us directions up until the road we were currently on so anything from here on out was left to our natural intuition or the gods of the Delaware Water Gap area.
“Let me check the name of the street,” I said confidently to Hannah, who was now nervously clutching the Nalgene bottle, testing its shatter-resistant claim. The T in the road featured only a street name for the street we were just on and it was…”Tot’s Lane”.
“Wait, this says we were just on Tot’s Lane but that was the gravel street that we turned off of to get onto this street miles back.” I was stupefied. Had all directional logic been thrown out the window since we embarked on this adventure hours prior? Was it this hard for Louis and Clark? Where was our Sacagawea? Before the thought could escape my mind we glanced over to the field next to us; a small part of it was the back and front yard of a medium sized home. An elderly man was playing with, presumably, his grandchildren on a plastic swing set. Exhausted we plopped down on the grassy slop next to the street corner. We were probably about ready to accept defeat except defeat was not an option, we hadn’t the slightest clue where we were or how to get back; defeat would mean using the Fisher-Price plastic slide as shelter and roaming the neighborhood for scrapes and squirrel meat. Much like our approach to the man in the flannel, we had a brief, frantic debate over asking the elderly gentleman the name of the street we were about to turn onto. Contemplating the carb and calorie count of squirrel meat and realizing I had a bag of organic Tostidos waiting for me in the car I wasn’t ready to give up. Thankfully Hannah agreed and mustered the energy to stand up and politely shout to the now dazed man, “Excuse me sir?! Excuse me? Hi, yes I’m sorry could you possibly tell us what street this is?”
The elderly fellow began to shake his head no—a response I was not prepared for—but then managed to squeak out in a gender confusing, feminine squeak, “Cherry Orchard Road, I think”.

Hannah thanked the androgynous elder and we made a hasty left onto what may or may not be Cherry Orchard Road. As we scurried away from the scene I, in poor taste, recounted the strangeness of the area: automobiles that grow from poorly managed properties, streets that begin and end in no logical order, gender-bending grannies, it was all too much to take. The sheer lunacy of the situation shut down the sector of our brains that registered stress. Where hopeless crying should have been we laughed uncontrollably. Were we regressing from some sort of back-woods America toxin? Our brains were seemingly malfunctioning, were our motor skills next? Would that he/she senior citizen be pushing me down that Fisher-Price slide? During our inappropriate laughter we somehow managed to conclude that calling Hannah’s mom and getting online directions from Cherry Orchard Road to the Deerhead Inn just off of Mountain Road was the best option, except the laughing didn’t stop before or during the phone call. As I walked around in a small circle, arms in the air signaling defeat to Mother Nature, Hannah was trying to explain our situation to her Mom in between laughter. Much like when you accidentally hurt your friend during a childhood roughhousing session Hannah’s mom wasn’t sure if Hannah as in fact laughing or crying. Before she could deduce an answer, I signaled to Hannah that there were people ahead we could ask further directions and she snapped the cell phone shut.

Were those two moms waiting for their child’s school bus or were they waiting for us to approach them in near hysterics asking for directions? It was hard to judge especially since our brains might be functioning on a third grade level soon; after that communication will be on a strictly giggles and grunts level.
“Hi, I’m sorry but we are sort of lost we were wondering if you could help us,” Hannah again apologetically asks.
“Okay,” one woman cautiously answers.
“You see we were just hiking the Appalachian Trail and then we…”
I cut Hannah off before she can give the full back-story to our misadventure.
“Yeah we just need to get back to the Deerhead Inn actually, if that’s at all close”
“Ah yeah you want to just turn around and take this road down till it hits Main Street, then turn right and it’s right past the post office, you can’t miss it. It is a bit over a mile away I think.”

We thank them and I turn us around in the opposite direction, with—for the first time—a sense of direction. Dreading passing the androgynous grandparent again, we try to walk as fast as our aching legs can move. Still acknowledging elementary rules we walk against traffic, moving into the possibly poison filled brush every so often as we lazily warn each other, “Car”. It’s nearing the four-hour mark and everything on our bodies is tired: ankles, knees, head, even my hand is tired from carrying the Nalgene bottle. Brains and mouth fatigued as well, we barely speak except for the occasional optimistic outburst of what we plan on doing as soon as we are within visual range of freedom. Freedom meant hot showers; freedom meant junk food…freedom meant Dairy Queen.
“I would love to get Dairy Queen right now,” Hannah says, teasing my taste-buds.
“I don’t want to be in the presence of food that contains any colors found in nature. I want a pastel, rainbow plate of sugar, carbs and various fatty-based foods,” I respond, half sternly directed towards nature.
“No…my Mom’s friend said there’s a good vegetarian cafĂ© in this area that we should check out.” Hannah suggests with feigned enthusiasm.

We take a moment and stand in knee length weeds as a pick-up truck barrels down the street. I try to jump-start my legs by kicking a small, run over branch into our sidewalk of wilderness. Again we stroll in tired silence.

“I know there’s a Dairy Queen around here, I just know it,” Hannah blurts out.

Before we can imagine the extra pounds on our tired thighs we come to the literal and figurative end in the road. Main Street at last. We turn right and for the first time in four hours we recognize where we are. We are getting irrationally nostalgic:

“The Italian Restaurant! I recognize that!”
“Oh, remember this dip in the road?!”
“Look up ahead—the post office!”

Every familiar sight reminds us that we are in fact headed in the right direction, and with each reaffirmation our pace begins to quicken with some unexplained energy that I imagined would only show itself when I needed to rescue a baby from under a car. Like an old friend we had been separated with, there was the Deerhead Inn; while we had no clue as to what the Deerhead Inn was, we referenced it to almost every one of our unexpected guides. It was only fitting that the final leg in our journey was a short but remarkably steep hill that passed the Deerhead Inn and reached the parking lot, one final “fuck you” from Nature, she might have been a bitch but she certainly had a sense of humor.

It may not have been washed in a few months but on that late afternoon Hannah’s Scion shined as if waxed with angels’ wings. It still might be the most religious experience I’ve had to date. Once inside the car, in unison, we took a deep victorious breath. Immediately we could smell our musky natural scent, clashing with the synthetic smells of the car. It was horrible. I smelled like pine trees, dirt, and fresh air. My lack of energy was the only thing keeping me from rubbing my face against the man-made fabric of the seat, dousing myself in the artificially flavored drink and being able to breath again. No as we pulled out of the gravel parking lot I realized I would only ever be comfortable entering a mountain when I know I have a way out. And as we merged onto the highway and were greeted with a sign proclaiming, “FOOD NEXT EXIT – DAIRY QUEEN,” Hannah and I looked at each other, smiled, and realized we were finally headed in the right direction.

Friday, January 25, 2008

We Regret to Inform You...

1st rejection letter EVA, thus starting the new blog feature: "We regret to inform you.."

SUB: Your Submission to Ploughshares

Dear Writer:

We regret that the manuscript you submitted does not fit our current editorial needs. Thank you very much for sending us your work.


The Editors of Ploughshares

Aiming a bit lower next time and possibly at a more speicialized literary magazine. New Yorker maybe?

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Adventures of Uhler and Clark: Part 1

I've been writing this entry about a failed hike Hannah and I took while on break off and on for about a week. I don't usually write pieces in...well..pieces so I'm sure the grammer and spelling has reached a cosmic level of error, in addition this writing style made the piece surprisingly long and therefore I'll upload it in parts. It may be the only post i have that includes words such as "nature" and "hiking" so enjoy it...


Given the circumstances it’s not surprising that the mysterious man in the flannel was our guardian angel. Hannah and I, attempting to curb couch and cable TV addiction and make the most of our few slow days at home, decided to go on a pseudo adventurous hike. Trail directions from the Internet, matching Nalgene bottles, and functional yet fashionable hiking ensembles en tow we piled into the car and jokingly referred to ourselves as that couple who leaves the big city on the weekend for a refresher course in nature at an upstate park or mountain; only to come back on Monday, invite friends over for a $200 dollar cheese and wine spread accompanied by a digital slideshow so we can tell them how much we’ve changed and explain in great detail our deep appreciation for nature. A fate that seemed a little less like a joke as the man in the flannel gave a hearty laugh and said, “You really don’t have a clue as to where you are do you?” No sir, we don’t but help yourself to goat cheese and Sauvignon Blanc; it’s really something to experience.

Boredom at home could lead to much less noble pursuits: cataloging back issues of Seventeen magazine, tripping on cough syrup, or binge eating on homemade cookies. When Hannah and I decided to become active the Pennsylvania way and go for a hike in the mountains I just naturally assumed the experience would be pleasant, rewarding and completely successful; a sort of higher-power good behavior reward. Mother nature must have been PMS’ing pretty hard that day because no such reward was even slightly hinted at. We may have physically been on the Appalachian Trail but I somehow ventured off onto an unwavering trail towards Mountainous resentment.

The directions we pulled from an online article from a local newspaper told us to turn off of Mountain road at the Deerhead Inn and make an immediate left turn into a parking lot that is “not well marked”. “Not well marked” ended up being “not marked at all” and the only other car in the small gravel lot, a gray haired woman taking her canine companion for a walk, seemed startled at our arrival. A not marked parking lot led to a not marked trail, in fact many not marked trails. While the trails weren’t marked our directions said to follow the “old fire road” up to the summit. A name like that is essentially a description in and of itself and therefore I was relatively self-assured in my guessing of which “trail” to start up. We had lost the woman with the dog and now seemed miles and miles from any sort of human presence. I had no worries for I figured the only person we’d run into on “the Old Fire Road” was possibly Lassie, off on another rescue. We hadn’t been hiking long and were enjoying the steady incline and fresh air. My lungs seemed to be working on a new level, the unseasonably Autumn-like January afternoon gave the air a certain crispness that agreed with me.

“Hikes are great!” I exclaimed to Hannah.
“I’m so glad we’re doing this,” Hannah replied. She went on to describe other hikes she had taken on other monotonous breaks from school. I pulled out the phone I had gotten just a few days earlier, “Ohh I still have full service!”

The vagueness of the directions bordered on haiku-status, “When near the summit; the old road narrows slightly; take white-marked trail down.” At any sort of clearing I’d ask Hannah if this was the summit, the car ride equivalent to “Are we there yet?” Yet when the Old Fire Road did in fact narrow slightly I proclaimed triumphantly as if I was a seasoned explorer guided solely by instinct and experience, “Yup this trail’s definitely narrowing just a bit, we are going the right way! Just a little bit more till we hit the summit.”

Instinct and experience weren’t necessary; the sudden change in terrain was enough to signal that one was at a new point in the journey. Although the incline was barely any steeper, the fact that it was all rock made that last few feet seem a bit more monumental. No one would judge you if you added a few unnecessary grunts and groans, verbalizing a physical struggle that mostly likely never occurred.

“We made it!” we both proclaimed, my hand unfortunately carrying only my Nalgene bottle and not a flag I could triumphantly thrust into the earth. I let out a telling sigh as I looked out over the rest of the small nearby mountains, highways and Delaware River. You almost forgot that you might be looking at New Jersey. As Hannah continued her gazing I plopped down and ate a banana she had brought but didn’t want.

“It’s so pretty!” Hannah said loudly, being surrounded by a space vast enough to make any sort of cry seem small.
“It…really…mpfhhh…is,” I said mouth full of banana.
“Will this just compost?” I asked, holding up the peel. Hannah gave a nod and I chucked it behind me. I amused myself with the thought of a unknowing hiker stepping on the banana peel and having a hilariously exaggerated tumble down the Old Fire Road.

“Well I think we’ve admired all we can, we should head down,” Hannah said.
I took one last look at the majestic scenery and agreed. Hannah’s previous hiking knowledge confirmed that the Appalachian trail was marked with small white marks on trees, and since this was as concrete of guidance as we had, we decided to follow the white trail. Gazing at the sky with feigned understanding I stated, “Should have plenty of light left to get us down the mountain, we’ll be good as long as it’s light out.”

At the mercy of the Appalachian we moved from one white marked tree to the other, failing to ignore the newly discovered trail marker, “Why is there so many clumps of hair? I’m seeing these little tufts of animal hair on the trail. Should we be worried about bears?”

Having spotted them before but not verbalizing a growing guttural fear I provided the only appropriate answer, “No, that banana peel I threw out a while ago will act as a decoy. Either that or maybe the bear will trip on it.” In reality had a bear came anywhere near us our shrieks and screams would have either scared the bear aware or alerted any dog within a ten mile radius of our danger. I was banking pretty heavily on my Lassie and the Old Fire Road theory.

The directions had stated the trail downward as “more up and down, rougher terrain and longer but much greater scenery”. I reread the directions as I past white-marked tree number eight on a fairly level open trail that edged up and down with as much intensity as a kiddie coaster. I was getting worried. The majestic views we had admired earlier on the summit was following us. There was no real alternative option and every time I’d express my growing concern over our lack of decline, the trail’s horizon would appear to promise such a drop only to show us another equal incline immediately following. We had reached a commitment point and personal pride in conquering the summit that refused to let us turn around and back track down Old Fire Road. I couldn’t bare trekking down the Road and passing Lassie, moving in the opposite direction, giving us a shameful glare. I cannot be defeated by a fictitious dog again.

The vanishing dog-walker woman from the parking lot was the last human we had seen until a larger figure, and larger dog, broke the trail’s horizon. We walked as calmly as we could while debating in loud whispers the necessity of asking this approaching figure for directions. “We have to ask him. I’m going to ask him,” Hannah said convincingly.

His large Labrador approached us first, skipping right over the cordial handshake greeting, opting instead for the much more informal crotch sniff greeting. I gave a half-hearted chuckle and tried to pat/push the dog away.

“He’s a friendly dog. Maybe a bit too friendly,” the man in the plaid said, punctuating the statement with a boisterous laugh. While his plaid shirt and relaxed fit jeans failed to evoke comforting images of the L.L.Bean catalogue it seemed to signify that this man was comfortable with nature in a way that didn’t involve post-hiking cocktail parties and Thoreau comparisons.

“Excuse me,” Hannah said, “Do you know if this will take us down to the parking lot?”
“Parking lot?” the Man questioned.
“Yeah, down by Minsi Road”
“Well if you go up a ways and then bear left, its not a quick or easy trail but it will get you down to the Lake. Or if you wait up by that electrical station just a few yards ahead of you then I’ll take you down in my truck. I’m heading that way.”
“Oh and this lake is by the start of the trail? By the Deerhead Inn?” We half asked, half pleaded with him. If we sound desperate enough, it’s bound to be true.
“Deerhead Inn? No, no, I’m talking about Lake Minsi, the Deerhead Inn is the opposite direction. The Deerhead Inn? My god, that’s way off.”

Saturday, January 5, 2008

RERUNS: Even God Hates Creed

In the spirit of the writers' strike and mild laziness I'm adding a ReRuns addition to this blog, which is essentially just personal essays I wrote for school. Some of you have read them before, but I feel like most haven't and therefore they aren't ReRuns at all! in fact, they're probably better to read because they have actually been proof-read and gone through revisions. I'll start with my last essay for Intro to Non-Fiction class sophomore year because I just somewhat sheepishly submitted it to Ploughshares. This will result in a well-worded rejection letter from them but everyone needs to get their first-rejection letter sometime and you might as well start near the top. me when new episodes of the Office are on.

"Even God Hates Creed"

Even God Hates Creed
An Essay by Rodney Uhler

March 2007

Like a lonely, mid-class prostitute, I feigned pleasure for two hours for a fast seventy-five bucks. Although the crowd around me gave me an odd sense of comradery, the repetitive movement and the dulling of my senses made me question my decision. I imagined being confronted by my partner later in life; I’d turn around, grasp the granite tabletop and speaking in a shameful whisper I’d say, “I was a broke college student. I was desperate for money and it seemed like an easy way out.” Although the shame will follow me, I realize there is no use denying it. I participated in a Christian Rock consumer focus group for the money. I lied about my musical taste, my faith and subjected myself to bands with names like: Angels Wake, P.O.D (Payable On Death), Living Sacrifice and, of course, Creed.
I entered college with the expectation that I would hold out on getting a job until the second semester, so as to better acquaint myself with the college lifestyle and academics. I lasted a month. Having been employed since I was fourteen, and having the financial outlook of a paranoid accountant, I couldn’t handle spending money without the reassurance of earning it back. Although I was hired at a local retail boutique, my hours weren’t extensive and I was eager to make up for lost income. One of my suitemates, Zach, told me that he was participating in a music focus group he found on the popular internet classified site, Craigslist, and that compensation was seventy-five dollars. He copied down a number for me to call. “Intriguing,” I said as I rubbed my chin signifying my deep thought. People would pay for you to share your taste? Although excited, I was suddenly annoyed that I had been sharing my musical taste fee-free for years. Perhaps, one needs a focus group to provide justification for putting a price on cultural opinion. Perhaps, this focus group was my justification for charging for entertainment advice. “What did I think of the new Sam Mendes movie? Do I think Samantha Mumba will have a comeback? Five dollars please.” I wondered if this was the end to my money troubles.
Before I could contemplate my financial future I needed to see if there were still open spots. Notepad and pen ready for detailed instructions I dialed the number. The voice of a middle-aged tired professional answered. She briefly explained what a focus group was, and what my job would be in that process. Then she began throwing curveballs, “We like to know if any of your close family or friends work in the record industry or radio?” Thinking that my sister’s recent Capital Records internship would make me seem more experienced for the focus group I responded, “actually my sister works for Capital Records.”
“Ohhhh really,” her voice exhaling all hope in me. Catching on to the fact that I had given the wrong answer I backpedaled with the speed of Lance Armstrong,
“Well of course that was a while ago. And it was only an internship! She isn’t doing that anymore. Nothing like that.”
“I suppose that will be alright”
Before I could regain my composure, she threw a second pitch,
“So tell me about your interest in Christian rock music, Rodney,” she stated as if I had introduced myself by saying, “Hi, I’m Rodney, number one Christian rock fan!”
“Oh,” I was fumbling. “Well I do like rock music, and while I’m not the biggest Christian rock fan, I definitely have heard it before.” I was avoiding outright lying, while internally I was debating my pain-threshold for Christian Rock in comparison to my desire for some extra coin.
“But you like some Christian rock, right?” Her questions were now bordering on hints.
“Oh yeah! I mean I just might not be the most knowledgeable.” I tried my best to sound like a good Christian boy. I mentally reminded myself not to bring my “Gay Satanic Worshipers” magazine to the focus group. Most likely desperate to end her job, she said I was a good candidate and she’d email me directions.
Venturing out into a city I was barely acquainted with and armed with slightly vague directions I viewed myself as a modern day Columbus. My suitemate had a different scheduled time so I was co-pilot free. The directions had me venture off the main roads and into smaller, darker areas of the city. These were the types of areas where I imagined the phrase “That’ll teach ‘em” was often muttered late at night, which men from the Mafia considered “places of business,” and where young, supple Boston University freshmen girls were “last reported seen”. The temperature was brutally cold yet my increasing panic was overpowering my body’s discomfort. I pulled my jacket close around my body and wondered if this was a cruel prank by some intense Christians to punish me for lying about a faith I had no ties too. I saw what appeared to be one of those young, supple BU girls and tried to flag her down. “Excuse me,” I croaked out. She didn’t hear. “Excuse me!” I shouted, this time eliciting her to turn around, exposing a fear and distrust I rarely see directed at me. To her I was a potential rapist or sexual deviant. I was oddly ashamed but my desire to see this mission out and not accept defeat overcame her frightened gaze. Besides I was roughly her size and possess the upper body strength of a Girl Scout. I pulled out my directions and explained to her that I was pretty lost. She actually was a BU student and therefore knew the area pretty well. She pointed me in the right direction, probably mentally assessing my survival rate. Reading the BU newspaper the next morning she wouldn’t be surprised to see the headline, “Unknown Christian Rock Fan Goes Missing: Can Jesus Find Him?”
Like the light of heaven itself, my destination appeared to me in the form of an illuminated office building surrounded by a macadam purgatory. I literally sprinted into the building. Inside the lobby an easel was set up with a foam-core sign reading: VANGUARD CONSUMER RESEARCH, beneath the bold company letterhead were the words “Welcome Focus Group Participants” and an arrow pointing to a door directly to the left which featured a smaller version of the foam-core sign. I entered what looked like most doctors’ waiting rooms and made my way to the male receptionist seated behind a Formica desk. I signed in, and was given a group number and told it would be starting very soon. After finding my way to a thin, uncomfortable chair, I was ready to peruse the choice of magazines when a young woman stepped into the room from a hallway I hadn’t noticed, she called my group’s number. With slight hesitance I got up from the chair and looked around the room to see who my group-mates were. About seven males, all seemingly mute. We all silently followed the pencil-skirted young woman down the hallway and into a personality-less room. I was careful to remember the route we took in case I needed to make a quick escape. Through a slender window next to another door I could see my suitemate’s eyes fixed on something out of sight. I thought I saw a faint glow coming from the room, much like those described by victims of alien abductions, but I couldn’t be sure.
“Hi guys, and Welcome! My name is Kathy and I’m part of the Vanguard Consumer Research Group. At Vanguard we do all sorts of consumer research and focus groups on many different types of media, but as many of you know, today we will be focusing on Christian Rock themed music. Your input today will really have an effect on some decisions a new radio station will make, so get excited and I’ll explain how it all works…”
We would record our results on a 1-5 scale on a Scantron test, much like the ones that frequented many of my worst days in high school. The most physical activity involved was the perpetual shading in of tiny bubbles. We’d listen to about 30 seconds of a song and then record our opinion of it on the test sheets. The music was all programmed on a CD, so Kathy would only sporadically pop in to make sure there were no technological glitches, we had no questions, and to make sure we hadn’t attempted suicide via a sharp number 2 to the throat. At first I had the energy and enthusiasm of a loyal worker determined to earn my seventy-five dollars, regardless of my contrived interest, but like the small bubbles on the Scantron, my outlook gradually grew dark. The music was becoming one muddied mess of shouted vocals and guitar riffs. I would periodically glance up from my test sheet to see how the other participants were doing. Coincidence or not, it was all men in the room. Many were sporting casual attire such as hooded sweatshirts or layered t-shirts. Two dark haired, bearded thirty-somethings appeared to have known each other prior to our focus group family for they’d periodically whisper to each other. I began surveying the group and contemplating the reasons why each had decided to participate in the process. Was that man in the knit cap feeding a drug addiction? A knit cap worn indoors post twenty-five speaks highly of my theory but the rolled up sleeves on his button-down show exceptionally clean, needle-mark-free arms. Was the guy in the corner a new father in need of some extra money to buy gifts for his wife and daughter? Or for his mistress? Were any of these people actually fans of Christian rock? The man closest to me wearing a black band t-shirt that I couldn’t make out and black converse with neon-green laces could be a potential Christian rock fan, he seemed to show genuine enthusiasm during Kathy’s pep talk. The rest seemed to either be boarder-line unconscious or very interested in what was going on in the vicinity of their feet. While green-shoelaces-man was enthusiastic and had a fitting wardrobe, he could just be a more cunning liar. A professional focus-group fraud, perhaps? I seriously doubted that I was the only imposter in the group.
We were granted a five-minute break after the first hour in which I ventured back into the main waiting room. I wrestled a mint out of the surprisingly complicated candy jar next to the sign-in desk. After feigning activity on my cell phone, excusing myself to the building lobby as if the call was extremely private, I returned back to the room in time for Kathy to jump-start our musical adventure.
I suddenly realized that many of my bubbles were filled in towards the negative side, potentially exposing my fraudulence. I concentrated on picking answers that ran the gamut without seeming too contrived. Occasionally a random Coldplay song would come on and I’d suddenly feel better because I could give a truthful answer to a band I actually recognized. Ironically Coldplay was my savior in the Christian rock category, although I’m still debating their link to the genre. Was the song “Green Eyes” really about Jesus and not Gwyneth Paltrow? The only other band I recognized was Creed, a band fronted by the frequently shirtless and always creepy Scott Stapp. Their popularity in music coincided with the pinnacle of my poor musical taste. Besides their Top 40 hits, the only other opinion I have of the band came from a anonymous music critic; on my eleventh grade locker someone had written in black sharpie, “EVEN GOD HATES CREED!” I considered myself privileged to use that locker. I declined to share this sentiment with Kathy or the rest of focus group. The final CD played its last 30 second musical punishment and we were instructed to move on to the last, but comparatively exciting loose paper answer sheet where we circled names of bands we are familiar with or like. I circled a few based on creativity alone and left any with the words “Savior” “Damnation” or “Sacrifice” without circle or praise.
Filing back into the waiting room, spirits rose as the young male receptionist was now clutching a stack of envelopes that no doubt contained our financial reward. As if Army trained, we formed a tight line, stepped forward, gave our name and received our check. I tucked it safely inside my jacket and made my way out to the unnerving streets I had traversed before. With God on my side I made my way rape-free to civilization. Climbing out of the literal darkness and onto the streetlight filled neighborhood I felt as if I had spent years in the Vanguard prison, and would have to readjust to my newfound freedom. Waiting for the train I looked around at the others who were idly standing at the station. Were they silently judging me? I spotted one of the men from my group further down on the platform. We made brief eye contact. I wanted to exchange slight head nods that would show our brotherhood and reaffirm our unspoken link. Sometime in the future faceless radio executives will glance over a report that has a strong spike in approval of Coldplay music. They might question the participant’s faith or they might just increase the play count of “Green Eyes,” but either way I’ll know that my lack of faith and love of money will always overpower my better judgment. Check aside, next time God wants me to look through his CD collection, I think I’ll politely decline.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

the internet is as confused as i am

the banner ads on my myspace are still in french for some reason despite the fact that myspace clearly knows i'm back in the states for i'm online yet no where near a mcflurry; it is making this "transitional" periods even stranger and more difficult. rupert murdock owns myspace, this maybe a insignificant fact to my situation or it maybe horribly significant.