Art, Horror, and Sour Grapes

Like I mentioned before, my wife and I don’t get out to the theater much.  In fact, if it’s not the library grocery, or chauffering the kids, we don’t get out much at all, so a lot of our intellectual stimulation comes from reading, watching television, and discussion.

For example, last night my wife and I had a startling, vociferous back-and-forth about the moral and ethical ramifications of drone warfare and the modern state of our attack on terrorism.

OK, no we didn’t.  We watched Sons of Anarchy and fell asleep.  But it feels like we COULD have that conversation, and rock it out hardcore (btw: mixed feelings on drones: love the American-casualty-free angle, but not altogether sure about the hands-off, vidoe game approach to taking life; seems a step shy of Clockwork Orange or Brave New World).

To reiterate: we watch a lot of DVR-ed television, and last night we saw a couple of things worth commenting on:

1. Is anyone else watching Work of Art (Bravo, Wednesdays, 9PM)?  It’s outstanding: ten or twelve artists vie in a competition to discover/celebrate the “next great artist.”  I recorded it because my oldest and middle daughters love to draw, paint, etc. (all kids do, I guess, and all parents think their kids are terrific artists; my kids are terrific artists) and we as a family like Project Runway and this looks like Project Runway without the runway.

That’s EXACTLY what it is.  I say that with no irony intended.  It is a show about artists that has taken the Project Runway/Top Chef model and fused it onto a show about art, not even bothering to fuck with the format one tiny bit, not even ONE IOTA.

I love that.  Here’s a show celebrating originality and purity of vision, and its taken its inspiration, whole cloth, from two other shows, and doesn’t care if you take issue with that.  It’s almost an artistic statement in and of itself.  Forget the fact that it’s commodifying and marketing artistic expression.  We’re all whores in that regard, really, and it’s too obvious a point to make.

It’s got three judges (one judge is a guest–do I even have to recount this?  Just watch Top Chef/Runway and get out your Photoshop), a host, and a mentor, but instead of Tim Gunn, it’s this french guy named Simon de Pury who’s apparently an auctioneer (?) as well as magically endowed with the ability to endow a piece of art in process and determine if it’s great or shit.

It has the obligatory, racially non-dominant (but still smokin’) host: China Chow (I think she’s Chinese-American but I’m not sure…) who manages to be judgmental, expert, and completely superfluous in the great tradition of Padma and Heidi.

And it’s got a short, fat, grouchy guy who’s job is to be negative and snarky.  Now, this is where Work of Art sings.  Top Chef has Tom Cholicchio, who I like because he has obvious chef chops (get it?  wink-wink nudge-nudge?…forget it) and looks like Uncle Fester or that intense, bald, fat VJ from the early ’90’s on MTV (who still pops up accordingly–free prize to whoever can tell me his name in the comments).  Runway has Michael Kors, who is mean and fey but phones it in all to often.  There are times when I’m almost sure they’re using stock footage on reaction shots.  Work of Art has this guy named Jerry Saltz, who is the Senior Art Critic for New York Magazine.  This guy is an ASSHOLE.  I want you to read ASSHOLE like Oprah would shout Julia ROOOOOOOOBERTS!  That’s how much of an asshole this guy is.

There’s a contestant on the show called–I shit you not–The Sucklord.  Everyone can say his name without laughing.  Last night we watched as he took a shitty piece of kitsch painting–Gandalf the Grey, if you must know–and transformed it into a shitty piece of kitch sculpture.  Not even a sculpture, more like a figurine.  It was horrible.  No one but the weird guest judge who looked like she voluntarily slept under a bridge liked it, but everyone tried to be polite because it was the first challenge and his name was Sucklord and therefore he and the kind of kooky charisma these shows feed off of.  He’s going to stay, because he makes for good TV (it’s this dialectic–between the need to create personality-driven, reality-show drama as well as maintain some semblance of artistic credibility that gives the show its kick–these people want to be artists, with all the integrity that purports, but they’ve submitted themselves to a television game show, basically, and they need to “play the game” (physically and metaphysically) to win.  And if they win?  How will the notoriously cynical art world respond?  It will hate them.  But they’re still there, because how else would they get noticed in the notoriously cynical art world?  Weird and awesome).

Anyway, Saltz ripped him so hard in the initial judgement portion of the show that it looked like Sucklord was trying to remember the license plate number of the truck that just creamed him.  The Sucklord, who I despise, was immediately back on his heels, after spending the first part of the show doing everything short of pissing in a circle to mark his territory.

He did stay.  The hot French guy was voted off, but it was fun, nonetheless.  I’m really looking forward to this show.  My wife has dubbed the Sucklord the “Buttlord.”  My whole family had fun conversations about how art was supposed to make you feel and then all made fun of the four-eyed, vivisection-obsessed, psycho girl’s ugly crying face in the previews for next week.

Everyone competing seems legitimately talented, which is cool, and everyone has a niche–performance, photography, agit-prop, graffiti art, etc.  I’m genuinely excited about watching them work. It’s going to be a fun season.

I was going to write about American Horror Story, as well, specifically Ryan Murphy’s talents, obsessions, and shortcomings, but that can wait.  Instead, I’ll invite you to read Jeff Jensen’s outstanding recaps (  I’ll write about it next but I’m running short on time today.

I’m including a short story that was just turned down from  I like it, they did not.  Tell me what you think!

Heroes and Savages

Dear Dr. Wu:

I hope this letter finds you well.  I can’t honestly imagine how it will find you any differently, especially after meeting you and admiring your perpetual sunniness and generally forgiving attitude regarding my conduct towards your son, Eric.

The above paragraph is speculation.  Your English was so poor and general mien inscrutable–most probably (and forgivably) due to the language barrier—that it’s altogether possible that behind your generally mild façade you felt a loathing as powerful and molten as that of a thousand suns.

Oh well.  This letter is a bullshit hoop through which I must prance to keep a formal written reprimand out of my personnel file.  The school board and district superintendent have little-to-no interest in its contents and my suspicion is that you would be as capable of deciphering its significance if I sent you a Candyland board cut into cock-and-balls silhouettes.

I was given a word count specification: 2750.  Like a quota.   I beggared it down from 5000.  They demanded more than a text.

2578 to go.

I’ve spent some time thinking about your son, how terrified he, or anyone, must’ve been to start a new school year in a new school.  The fact that he speaks and understands enough English to be considered, in rural Ohio, a really dumb preschooler or a really smart Labrador retriever is just bacon in the beans.

I imagine the post at our modest local university and the chance to visit America, even temporarily, was too good to pass up.  I understand your work in Aeronautics is quite solid, if not astounding.  You sound like a scientist of demonstrative if not extraordinary gifts, and when you retire I imagine you will be missed, even if your colleagues will be hard-pressed to point to any single, lasting contribution you gave to the field.

I hope you appreciate that I’m not inclined to kiss your ass.  I hope that’s worth something to you as a gesture of respect.

You dropped your kid into our particular Mayberry and then let him shit his pants and try to paddle his way out.  I think that was a stupid, stupid, stupid thing to do.

I’m positive that this stupid, stupid, stupid thing you did was much more damaging to Xioaling “Eric” Wu than—I’m reading from the report—“refuse(-ing) Eric use of the facilities until he (Eric) urinated on the floor, rose to flee, slipped in the urine, and concussed himself on the edge of another student’s desk.”

It does sound pretty terrible transcribed like that.

I was trying to make it better.  Really.  I’m seventy-five to eighty percent sure that you’re the one to blame here.  At least forty percent to blame.  The other sixty percent should be divided between guidance department, administration, my daughter, and that little shit Mike Morsten.

That leaves zero percent for me.  That’s unfair, I guess, and a little childish.  I’m also to blame.  Say two percent.  So you’re really thirty-eight percent to blame, which I hope makes you feel better, but, in actuality, if fault was a corporation, you would still be the majority stockholder.  Of the blame.  You would own thirty-eight percent of the stock of blame.

I just read the last couple of paragraphs.  They’re confusing.  I’m seventy-five to eighty percent sure that you are thirty-eight percent to blame for your son’s incident, injury, and subsequent embarrassment.  It’s a lot of numbers, all speculative, I suppose, and under normal circumstances I would revise or maybe excise the entire passage.   I’m not going to, though, because I don’t really care; I don’t believe you care, either, and the last three paragraphs, according to the word count function, equals out to 194 words, not including the words I’m typing right now.  That’s eight percent of the letter I need to produce to get the board off my back.

It’s staying in.

I feel inclined to explain myself a bit.

My daughter converted to Zionist Judaism three months ago, though she was raised Methodist.  She renounced Jesus Christ in the letter, throwing her support behind The Torah.

She wasn’t best friends with Jesus; Methodists rarely are.  I don’t imagine that the split was all that heartbreaking.  I blame myself.  She read The Diary of Anne Frank when she was twelve.  We watched Munich later that same summer.  She’s impressionable.  Those one-two punches lead to an obsession with Israel, Zionism and The Mossad.  The Golda Meier poster was a tip-off that her interest was developing into a possible psychosis.  So was her insistence on calling all Jews “Badass Hebrews” and dubbing NPR “National Palestinian Radio” because she heard David Mamet call it that on Crossfire.  She received an A+ on her Junior English research paper about Krav Maga; her thesis was an appreciation and exploration of “the vision and foresight attributable to Israelis for stripping Martial Arts of all the spiritual components and rendering it a purer and more honest pursuit: that of fucking someone up until they were a drooling, blood-covered brain trauma.”

Those were her exact words.  My wife and I were horrified.  She carried around pictures of Elie Weisel and Benjamin Netanyahu.  She learned Hebrew and began to refer to Yiddish as an ungodly aberration.  She asked for a Desert Eagle handgun for Christmas (she still celebrated Christmas).

You have not experienced ball-shrinking terror until you’ve been called and asked to retrieve your daughter from a synagogue in which she’d interrupted temple to explain to all present that they were embarrassments to God’s plan for their diasporic ways.

We love our daughter, or at least I do.  My wife is gone, fled to parts unknown with a French professor and I have to say that talking about it makes me itch, like I have a tawdry paperback jammed in the folds of my fat rolls.  Does that even make sense?  Not at all!  It’s an insane analogy! Do you see what that woman did to me?  What she continues to do, through her neglect?  Through the very genes she has passed along to my zealot of a daughter?

I was meant to be a man of mission and purpose.  My Great-Great Uncle was Richard Spruce, who knew Alfred Russel Wallace and stayed in the armpit of the Amazon for eighteen years, discovering quinine, cocaine, and commercial rubber before returning home to England.  He spent the rest of his life sick and abed.  I feel like my life, in this age, at this time, is his after he returned.  I’ve skipped over the greatness and sat right down into a huge pile of the consequences.

My wife ran off with Frog LeFrenchy.  My daughter is training to be a full on Mossad agent, or at least an Israeli assassin, according to the postcards she sends from her kibbutz.

I, however, teach ninth-grade English.  I’ve gone nowhere.  I measure my life by how full my garbage can is every Thursday evening.  Heavy means company, light means lonely.  It’s only one can.  We used to have three.  I want to love and sweat and bleed and fight and discover.  It’s all gone now.  Which brings me to why I made your son pee on the floor, or at least my two-percent contribution.

I imagine you find this letter a touch on the rambling side.  You are correct.  It’s time to get to the corn of the matter.

Perhaps you won’t understand the nuance of this, but I must tell you: the pronunciations of “I must urinate” and “Say it again” in traditional Chinese sound remarkably alike to the untrained ear.  You will disagree.  Hell, many English speakers have disagreed when I say them back-to-back, but I still cannot tell the two phrases apart.

Your son was in my class for three days before anyone told me he could not speak English.  I just thought he was retarded and since the Special Ed. Department is understaffed and overworked decided to wait patiently for the Individualized Education Plan or maybe some in-class assistance.

Finally, we met and our well-meaning idiot of a guidance counselor explained the situation.  Eric Wu, sixteen years old, Taiwanese, son of a visiting Aeronautics professor had the English competency of a first grader.  Basically a Dick-and-Jane knowledge of our language, if it was written down for him.  Fair enough.  He has more English than I have Chinese, so that’s saying something.  Seems like a polite kid, and honestly I was relieved he wasn’t retarded because IEPs make me nervous.

I was excited.  Finally, an opportunity to knock the rust off the hinges, so to speak.  You start this job, you’re going to change a life.  You’re not Richard Spruce, or a Mossad agent, or fucking a French guy, but you’re fighting the good fight, doing more good than harm, less trouble than you’re worth, you know?  Pretty soon you realize that your job is really about pissing contests with fifteen-year olds and writing passes so kids can walk around the halls.

Nobody cares.  Everybody lies.  And they hate everything you try to do.

And that’s just the custodial staff.

And everyday, you still get up and try.

Every.  Goddamn.  Day.

Except summertime.

So when someone said Eric was smart, pliant, and willing to learn but had no concept of what anyone was saying and probably wouldn’t until returning to Taiwan after the semester, that he was essentially trapped in a Beckett play for three months, except worse—at least everyone in Beckett understands the basic sounds coming out of other people’s mouths and his life had become one large, unceasing yammer, I said let me at him.


I feel inclined to include Eric’s counselor’s advice, verbatim and unabridged: “I’ve been told Chinese kids are respectful and that stereotype had been proven thus far.  Don’t knock a stereotype.  They’re around for a reason.  Let him wander around and smile until Christmas and give him a B for the class.

My right hand to Christ, Allah, Buddha or Mao–that is exactly what the worthless old cunt told me.

Oh, and don’t yell at him.  Slow’s better than loud for directions.  Because nobody likes an ignorant, loud American and we’ve got to be conscious of our image in the world.


It’s been years since I tried to help a kid.  Years.  The last time ended poorly, and the less I say about that, the closer I come to following the edicts recommended by the restraining.

It’s the kind of situation that curdles a guy—we’ll leave it at that.

Facebook is not the right place to counsel a minor.  Enough said.

Parents lie as much as their fucking kids do.  Now I’m done.

I printed out this sheet from the internet—“Emergency Chinese for the Reluctant Traveler”.  It’s basically standard phrases for American businessmen: “Hello,” “Check Please,” “Where is the Bathroom?”—you get the idea.

But before I talk about that, we’re going to discuss Mike Morsten.  Mike Morsten is my least favorite student ever.  He is rude, obnoxious, always certain but never correct, unctuous and patronizing to girls and a competitive asshole to guys.  He is our superintendent’s son, and therefore untouchable.  He walks through the halls with a ball cap, sunglasses, and Bud Light T-Shirt in flagrant defiance of the school dress code.  He has pornography on his iphone.  The gym teacher caught him jerking off in other students’ water bottles.  The sneer plastered across his face is the oily smirk of everyone’s boss.

Once I tried to help his older brother out of a jam and it turned into a big deal.  Facebook was involved.  It’s the reason the school doesn’t have access to Facebook anymore.  I probably shouldn’t talk about this.  I mentioned that earlier, actually.  Parents fucking lie.  I’m blathering.  Onward.

Mike Morsten speaks better Chinese than me, according to your son.  Three weeks ago, after I’d printed the Chinese translation sheet, I approached Eric.  He looked at me like he does everyone, as if he were a cow and I had a pneumatic bolt gun, and I bent down and said to him, “Xiawu Hao!”  I didn’t realize it at the time, but the exclamation points are not about volume but emphasis, so I think I startled him (at least his face wrinkled up like I poked him between the eyes and Americans relate that expression to the word “startle”).

I repeated the greeting, more quietly, and Eric smiled.  I felt like the goddamn Miracle Worker.  Eric said something back that sounded like “Xiawu Hao.”  Good Afternoon.  Golden.  I was communicating.  Making a difference.  I said, “Zhunbei Haole Ma?”  Are you ready?  Eric said, “Zhunbei Haole.”  I am ready.

There I was, pumping gallons of goodness right into that kid’s hands.  I said, “Dakai Shu.”  Open your book.  He opened his fucking book!  I said “Heshang Shu.”  Close your book.  He snapped it shut like he was squashing a roach.

I was suddenly the closest thing to a native speaker that he had.  I was a communicator.  No one did shit for this kid, nobody had a clue how, and I did it.  I was going to win teacher of the year.

Mike Morsten turned around, looked right at me, then turned to Eric and said, in fluent, rapid Chinese, “Xia ke.  Heshang Shu.  Zaijian.  Dong bu Dong?”

The class is over.  Close your book.  Good-bye.  Understand?

Eric looked at me and I’ll be goddamned if he didn’t just pack up, and leave.  It took the principal three periods to find him, sitting in the courtyard, reading a Dan Brown novel translated into Mandarin.

I pretty much lost interest after that.  Fuck Mike Morsten and fuck your son.  I go above and beyond, and a dickhead ninth grader showed me up.  Do you have any idea what other high school teachers are like?  Most people end up high school teachers because they loved high school.  Loved the schedule, loved the drama, loved the catty bullshit.  That story was repeated and known by everyone, and sure, I have been accused of taking myself too seriously but it was humiliating.

I tried to help your son. It was small, measly, maybe even expected of me by any reasonable person, but all the same, Mike Fucking Morsten?

So, yeah, I was a jerk after that.  I wasn’t going to break my ass learning Chinese so Eric could just walk out on me every time I tried.  I am an educator and I have other students and that’s what it’s really about.  The majority.  Not your kid.  If anything positive comes from this, it’s that: a reminder that helping one kid at a time is simply not helpful to anyone.

Maybe help your own fucking kid if he has problems?  Isn’t that what we’re always hearing?  Everyone thinks parents should do their job, until it’s time to do their job, then they wonder what the schools are doing.

People run off to find themselves, to fight others’ battles, to make the world a better place.  We call them heroes.  No one talks about those that are simply good.  Little and pathetic and good and broken.

So, long story short: Mike Morsten’s an asshole.  His mom and dad are dickhole liars.  Your son’s a worthless judge of character, and “I have to urinate” and “Say it again” sound remarkably similar.  You think the first story about Eric up and leaving class is funny, you should hear everyone joke about this.  The icing on the cake is what I thought he wanted me to repeat, a quote by Anne Frank: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

Let’s write that again: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

Again: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

One more time: How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world. How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world. How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

HowwonderfulitisthatnobodyneedwaitasinglemomentbeforestartingtoimprovetheworldHowwonderfulitisthatnobodyneedwaitasingle momentbeforestartingtoimprovetheworld HowwonderfulitisthatnobodyneedwaitasinglemomentbeforestartingtoimprovetheworldHowwonderfulitisthatnobodyneedwaitasingle momentbeforestartingtoimprovetheworld.

I screamed that at a sixteen-year old Chinese boy ten times, then watched him piss his pants and knock himself cold.  The world’s a funny goddamn place.  That’s 2750.

I’m out.  Go to hell (those are free)

David Isbell

(Probably Former) English Teacher




Filed under Fiction, Television

2 responses to “Art, Horror, and Sour Grapes

  1. Sometimes you crack my shit up. Funny.

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