5. Write about a babysitting experience.

“Very Special Episodes” were an important part of my moral development. They piped the complex world into my sheltered suburban life and then told me how to feel about what I was watching, which was very helpful. Drugs are bad. Stranger danger is real. Cults will make you hug cute girls (Boy Meets World kind of muddled their message on that one.) 

Although I had never seen, held, or knew anyone who owned a gun, I took the Family Matters episode in which Laura feels threatened and responds by wanting a firearm very seriously. The episode ends with Urkel rapping about the importance of turning in one’s weapon and Freddie Prinze Jr. is tough, as his wont as the credited “Tough Guy”.  

My brother and I watched this episode with our babysitter, Dale, who, as far as we were concerned, was the coolest. He wore flannel and had holes in the knees of his jeans. He let us eat pizza in front of the TV. He watched Tales from the Crypt like it was no big deal.

Dale tolerated our questions to him about guns and gangs and had he ever seen a gun (yes) and whose was it (his buddy’s dad’s) and had he played with it (of course not). Dale could tell this episode would stick with us so he did what good babysitters do: he changed the topic and cheered us up. He probably just flicked the channel over to a John Candy movie, which was a small kind thing, but meant I wouldn’t have nightmares so I was grateful.

About a year later, my mom told us that Dale hadn’t woken up one morning. He’d been rushed to the Emergency Room where his stomach was pumped and the doctors found a plethora of narcotics in his system. 

Dale OD’ing completely shattered my worldview. Hadn’t he been paying attention during those episodes? Why hadn’t someone called one of the many hotlines always listed at the end? But most importantly: I still really liked Dale, which made the whole thing so confusing. He was the best babysitter. And if drugs are bad then is Dale bad? Is he an addict? Do I call a hotline?

Dale survived, but wasn’t allowed to babysit for us anymore. That was it. He didn’t die, go to jail, or even rehab. 

There wasn’t any message or moral. No Urkel rapping or fourth-wall-breaking from an actor or audience cheering the show’s social conscience. The complex world was still there, except, this time, no one was telling me how to feel about it.

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4. Did you ever have a paper route?

No. But there was that time I delivered an astro jump to what I’m pretty sure was an orgy.

Allow me to back up.

Summer after high school, I got a job delivering astro jumps, aka “bouncy castles”. The job interview consisted of two questions: “Do you have a driver’s license?” and “Do you have a truck?” Since my answers to both was “yeah” I was hired.

My boss’ name was Jim and he explained what a sweet gig delivering astro jumps is. “You show up at 7. Load up your truck. Make your deliveries. Then you get the rest of the day off until the evening. Then go pick ’em up. You get to sit out the heat, which is pretty sweet, right? You can have a beer or whatever. Wait, hold up, how old are you?”

“18,” I said.

He shrugged. “So you can have a couple Sprites or somethin’. Anyway, I’ll go out with you the first time, show you the ropes.”

The night before my first day, I felt nervous. It would be my first time doing honest-to-God physical labor and I worried I’d look like a wuss. I saw the jumpers on my interview. Imagine big blue plastic bales of rolled hay. And the other drivers all wore Dickies and Oakley shades, while I wore pop punk t-shirts and had to stop every now and then to wipe sweat off my glasses.

My dad gave me some advice. “Look, just ask clear questions, do everything he’s doing. And if you fuck up, its not that big a deal. You’ll learn a lot. First days are always interesting.

Next day, Jim and I loaded up two trucks full of deliveries–an assorted variety of cartoon-themed inflatable play houses, generators and industrial fans, cotton candy machines with corresponding syrups, extension cords, power strips, and a clipboard full of paperwork. Throughout the day I lifted heavy layers of stitched-together tarps, spat on my hands to prevent callouses, and grimaced as the radio played nothing by Tal Bachman and Five For Fighting.

My t-shirt slick and my glasses streaked with salty dribbles of sweat, I felt good. I could do this job.

The last stop took us away from town. Way away. We had one jumper and fan to drop off. Our trucks jostled from pot hole to pot hole down an unpaved dirt road that twisted through a canyon.

We came to to the wooden fence bordering the property and navigated our trucks underneath the quaint wooden archway that served as an entry point.

A few old horses chewed whatever-horses-chew as we surveyed the landscape. “This is weird,” Jim said, breathing the words into the heavy, manure-scented air.

From the garage, we heard a chirpy, perky voice. “Hello! Are you guys here with the jumper.” She was a petite blonde woman, in a tank top and bathing suit underneath. She was maybe mid-30s, although parts of her body were, quite clearly, much younger than that.

All the destinations we’d been to so far had certain touchstones: lots of cheap plastic toys strewn about the set-up spot that had to be cleared away; stacks of colorful plastic plates and cups the size and portion for young children; banners and streamers exuberantly emblazoned with the words “Happy birthday.”

This place had none of those things. No toys, no bikes, no cake, no generic bargain-priced soda in two-liter bottles, no decorations, and absolutely no kids. My boss was right–this place was weird.

I flipped the jumper off the truck, popped it onto the dolly, and wheeled it into the backyard. The back of the house stood in contrast to the rustic front. Instead of horses and dirt and desert vegetation, there was a glistening pool, patio furniture, and well-kept Italian-style stonework. It was less cowboy chic and more Playboy grotto.

It would be a great place for a kids pool party, except for the fact that there were no kids. Instead, three more adults, each displaying sculpted and tanned bodies, sat around a table casually sipping beers.

Once we found a decent spot to set up, I flipped the switch on the jumper and it expanded. It wasn’t a cartoon-themed one–it could best be described as a slide, red and inviting.

“Now, we’re okay to keep this overnight, right?” the woman asked.

“Sure,” Jim said. He drew out the “sh” sound as though his faith in the “customer is always right” ethos was starting to waiver.

We got in our trucks and were halfway back through the archway when Jim’s truck stopped, which meant mine stopped, which meant we were both out again, walking back to the grotto.

“Everything okay?” the woman asked.

“Yeah…” my boss said, “just wanted to make sure you understand the cleaning policy in regards to these jumpers. Don’t want to come back tomorrow and find anything left in there… or stains or whatever.”

The woman giggled and said, “We’ll clean it real good, I promise.”

As we drove off, I thought how my dad was right: first days are always interesting.

2. Describe your neighborhood bully

The strange thing about Mike wasn’t that he was an asshole. That much became clear to my brother and I shortly after we moved in.

The weird thing was that he was also an idiot. He once proposed that air pollution could be solved by instructing the National Guard to stand along the Canadian border and blow the air to the other side. He wanted to re-create Pangea using giant magnets. He broke his ankle one time because he leapt into an above ground pool without checking to see if it was full of water.

Mike’s stupidity was counteracted by his assholery. Two years older than most of the kids on the block, Mike cursed freely through his braces-clad teeth. Whenever we were playing some game in somebody’s front yard, he’d ride his bike by, slowly looping around, like a shark, and toss off some half-hearted homophobic epithet to whoever looked weakest before riding away.

Those were the good days.

He’d pick a target, like all bullies do, and, since he was an idiot, he’d pepper that person with insults, working from generalities to hyper-specificity, finding the entry point like a virus. Once he knew it, he’d use it. Over and over.

Once he found yours, those were the bad days.

My brother and I found some solace in the reminder that he was a dumbass. Whenever he’d say something like “Native Americans and Indians are the same thing?!?” or “I can outrun those wasps” we’d chalk up another tally and feel a little better about the world.

My cousin Alan came to visit us one summer. The sudden presence of an Irish kid, replete with accent, caused a stir among the kids of our little suburban corner of Syracuse, New York.

We used to ride our bikes up to the local golf course, which had the only restaurant accessible to us. Mike came along.

We sat down at the table, standing out like sore thumbs, a dozen sweaty kids to whom the concept of “Free Refills” was very, very exciting.

We ordered burgers and Mike asked, “So, Alan, have you ever had a burger before?”

Alan had tolerated a lot of ridiculous questions about his and my native country–about leprechauns, about Lucky Charms, about all manner of curious, tentative inquiries concerning that guy St. Patrick and his magical snake-banning staff (…or whatever).

Perhaps it was his status as an outsider, or the fact that he would be leaving this country shortly, or maybe Irish kids are just mature or some shit, but Alan had little respect or fear for Mike. Which made his dry wit so perfect, so devastating. “No, Mike,” he said. “In Ireland, we eat rocks.”

It was such a childish, perfect retort. My brother and I smirked, while Mike reacted as though he had just made the anthropological discovery of the decade. “Really?!” he said, his braces fully exposed as his jaw dropped.

Chalk it up. Call it a win.

1. Did You Ever Stick Up For Someone?

There was a social hierarchy to the school bus. We all had assigned seats but the general understanding, the social contract that we had with our bus driver was the older you got, the further towards the back you were allowed to sit. I was aware of the mental fortitude required to be back there. The back was always louder than the front, the bus driver was out of earshot, and there were rumors that some kids scrawled lewd messages on notebook paper and pressed them against the window for passing cars to see.

At the start of my 5th grade year, I had graduated to back-of-the-bus status. We still had assigned seats, but now, with that last third of the bus in our grasp, we were elementary school kings.

My seatmate was this kid Kevin. He was was a gangly and skinny 10-year-old, with unfortunate avian features. Across the narrow walkway sat Paul who earned his cool status because he was the second kid on the block to own a Starter Jacket and, reportedly, decorated his room with a giant Stussy “S” he’d drawn on a piece of butcher paper. Paul’s goal was to make Kevin cry on a daily basis. When ran through all the usual scrawny insults and stick-man puns, he elevated his game to a scientific level. Once he learned in science class that birds had hollow bones, he used it on the way home, insisting, in shrill mocking tones, that Kevin’s bones were hollow too, which was his nose looked so much like a beak. Paul didn’t let up until Kevin cried, quietly at first, then burying his face into his Jansport sobbing.

Paul’s seat mate was Tommy, who, by virtue of pre-pubescent Darwinistic genetics, was considered the coolest kid on the block. He had blond hair. He could play sports. He was the first kid on the block to have a Starter Jacket.

I had been Tommy’s next door neighbor for the past three years and while, objectively, I didn’t have much cool cred to my name, Tommy liked me. He slept over a few times, we went bike riding, and tried to catch the local snapping turtle together. Tacitly, I had Tommy’s endorsement and protection, which sounds crazy seeing as how I was taller than almost all my classmates. I was bigger than them too, which wasn’t helpful. I was big in a wears-a-tee-shirt-at-the-swimming-pool way. And I was far from tough. I sucked at football, wrestling, really anything halfway physical.

I’d had my own brushes with kids like Paul. But now, with just one year left till (what I thought would be) the maturity paradise known as junior high, I was in the back of the bus and thought, “Let Kevin cry. Just be grateful it’s not you.”

That is until the day Paul started in on Kevin’s brother.

“Hey, birdie,” Paul said. “My brother said your brother killed himself.”

Kevin bit his lip and stared at the peeling dark green backing of the seat in front of him.

“Birdie,” Paul said, elbowing one of his friends. “Is it true? Is you brother dead? Did he off himself?”

Kevin started to cry, again. And then he started to quiver. And then Paul’s friends started to ask the same “dead brother” questions over and over again.

I had to say something. I’m neither then nor now good at confrontation. But nobody ever told Paul to stop, so the mere fact that I leaned across the doubled-over body of Kevin and said to Paul, “Dude. Not cool.” was enough to get Paul to stop. For a while.

Kevin didn’t come to school for two days. When he returned, Paul gave him another week of respite before getting bored and starting back with the bird stuff. It was better than the dead brother jokes. I’d whisper to Kevin some encouragement when I saw he was about to cry. It wasn’t much but it got him through the next few months.

Until Spring. Every year we had to do the President’s Physical Fitness test–a week of pull ups, push ups, rope climbing, and capped off with the mile.

I dreaded it and decided that, this year, I wouldn’t sweat it, by literally not sweating it. See, one just needed to complete the mile–they didn’t need to run it. So, I decided to walk the whole thing.

On the bus ride home, all the kids, amped by competition, were comparing times. Kevin, thin as he was, was safe from Paul, seeing as how he’d gotten one of the best times in the grade.

Kevin turned to me and asked what I got.

“I don’t really want to tell you,” I said.

“C’mon, it can’t be that bad.”

“It’s pretty bad,” I said.

“Look, just whisper it, alright?” Kevin said.

I checked over my shoulder. The bus’ loud rumble and rambunctious passengers made it easy for me to quietly tell Kevin: “20 minutes.”

Kevin’s eyes went wide, his mouth-beak split into an agape grin. He spun around the rest of the bus. “Guys!” he shouted, pointing to me, “he took 20 freakin’ minutes!”

Paul, Tommy and what felt like everyone else in the world laughed so hard the bus driver told us to keep it down. Then came the fat jokes, the lard-ass cracks, the heat-seeking self-confidence atom-bombs that only 5th graders can deliver.

Kevin laughed the loudest and longest. I could feel the pecking order shift. I could see the rest of the school year becoming hell. I could see dreading the school bus rides. I could see everything that my elementary school self valued crumble.

So, I did the only thing I could do.

I grabbed Kevin by the back of the neck and flung his face into the dark green peeling back of the seat. I aimed for one of the softer parts, but that wasn’t satisfactory. This was a kid I had stood up for. This was a kid who I tried to help. This was a kid who can, now, go fuck himself. On the rebound, I grabbed the scruff his his neck again and flung him, hard, into the firm top of the seat.

The boys went silent.

I heard Paul whisper, “Dude. Not cool.”

I looked out the window. And ignored the soft crying next to me.

A New Thing I’m Going To Try

I just Googled “100 Journal Topics” which led me to this list.

Sure, it’s an Angelfire page, which seems laughable. I copy and pasted all of them into a Google Doc and I’m going to try to do at least one a day.  This being the Internet, where even I, an English teacher, merely glance over “walls o’ text”, I’ll try to limit my responses between 300-500 words.

I’ll go in order. Here we go.

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