Essays

Chris Otcasek

The Hardest Words

It has been said that the three hardest words to say are "I love you" There have been quite a lot of poets and scholars that have told us this. "I love you" is the one emotion that requires true commitment. When you say these three words, with meaning, you are also asking some one "How do you feel about me?" It is not the three words that are so difficult or even the question but the possible answers that we might receive which causes all of the anxiety. These answers can range from total agreement to total ignorance to shock and laughter that you are joking. And any one of those answers can start another rush of emotions many of which we don't want to feel. We as a race can't stand to be disliked or ignored. We want, better still need, to be liked and accepted and well, loved. We need this so badly that many of us change what we are so that some one else will like or love us. What is truly unfortunate is that you whenever you try to change yourself, you give up the fuel that your psyche needs to survive, namely happiness. Many turn to drink and drugs to bring happiness back to their lives or they just accept their unhappiness and move into depression. Then there are the others, the ones who realize that happiness is the more important and continue to be "themselves" no matter what the world thinks. But this coin has no shiny sides. Most of these folks are ridiculed and laughed at. They pay the great price of loneliness for their individuality.

Then you may ask the question, which way is better to be unhappy or lonely? The answer to this question lies in the side view of a quarter. Notice that the top is silver and the bottom is silver but there is that thin layer of copper in the middle. That is the miracle. That is the place where we all try to be. That is what we call friendship. True friendship is that place where we can be ourselves, but we are also liked by others around us. The miracle is made even harder when you think that most of the people have already chosen one side of the coin or the other. So I think that there are two words even harder to say than "I Love you," and they are "My Friend"

I have lived in that thin fragile place and seen the miracle. My friend not only accepted me the way that I was. I had suffered many years of ridicule for who I was but she didn't care. She encouraged me to be more of an individual. Through her I met other individuals that she had cared for. No two people around her table were the same but that didn't matter. She instinctively knew what each of us needed and gave it freely asking only that we respect her as well. Her name was Linda.

Linda was the mediator of a writing workshop that I joined because I was bored. I had volumes of notes and I hoped to possibly organize them into a coherent thought and maybe write a book. I had never been involved in a workshop before and did not know what to expect. As others shared what they had brought I grew anxious. I brought something light and humorous when everyone else had soul-searching pieces that were quite moving. I have never been known as a shy person but I paused before I read my piece thinking that it would not be right and I would become the black sheep of the group. Yes, I was burdened with the very same stigma that I now write about. I shared some musings about standing at a corner waiting for the light to change. She laughed, not a belly laugh, more of a giggle, and then she made a suggestion because it was too wordy. She treated it just the same as she did all the other works. My humor was just as accepted as another's poetry or deep thoughts. It was in that very moment that she earned my respect.

I had known Linda for just better than two years when she taught me the hardest word in our language to say. In that time I had written a book, two plays, and seen my life-long dream become a reality. The radio comedy that I created in high school was recorded and performed. Linda had critiqued most of it and become more than a friend. She became my mentor, a guru showing me the path to my dreams and to inner creativity. I, of course, never told her these things because I did not realize them myself until she got sick.

We had been talking about her not feeling well in the workshop for some weeks when it happened. Classes were on Wednesday nights and the call came in on a Tuesday. Her husband called to say that classes were cancelled because she was not feeling well. I was told that if there was anything that I could do they would let me know. I never spoke to her again. In early July I heard through the grape vine that she had cancer and in late September she was dead. It was at the funeral home that I learned the absolutely hardest word to say, it is "Good-bye" It is not "good-bye" as in "See ya later" but as in "The last page has turned. You must now close the book."

I will miss Linda but part of her spirit will live on in my heart. In a strange twist of fate, this year also will mark the arrival of my first child. I only hope that the part of her that is still in me will help my child to see the things that she showed me. Also I hope that you learned a little from her through me especially the three hardest things to say in the English language. They are in order: Good-bye, My friend, I Love You.

 

Oops, I Lost the Warranty Card

I am not a lucky man. If a manufacturer makes one billion widjets and one has a fleegle valve that sticks that is the one that will arrive at a store in my neighborhood and that is the single unit that I will buy. It doesn't matter what it may be, if I paid money for it the chances are that it is broken. That is, unless I happen to wager some money on the fact that it won't work. In that case the product operates flawlessly until I pay up. Then, and only then, it falls apart. This is the reason that I am a huge fan of warranty cards, and why I mail them in as soon as the product comes home, sometimes even sooner.

You may find this all quite fascinating and ask why am I telling you this. Well my point is simply that a little while ago my wife went to the hospital and came home with a bouncing baby boy. At first I thought, incorrectly, that this was some sort of free gift. You know the kind of thing that stores do for their one-millionth customer. However I soon found out that this was not the case when the bills started arriving.

This baby thing was very expensive and the value of my dollars was not immediately evident. Now don't think that I am so hard and cold. I fully admit that the kid is cute and a lot of fun to play with, but what I can't understand is the total lack of warranty. I know what you're thinking. You're asking yourself, "Why would a baby need a warranty anyway?" Well I'd be happy to tell you.

First there is the constant noise. Everything that I have paid for that makes any sort of sound, with the exception of him, has a volume control. Stereos, radios, TV's, heck even my car has a muffler. Babies seem to have only two audio settings, asleep and ear-splitting. Believe me that I have looked for a volume adjustment many times and found nothing. Not even a place where a control might be mounted. This obviously must be an oversight on the part of the original engineering specs. I have considered writing the manufacturer but without the card I don't have the address.

Next is the constant moisture problem - or if you prefer it in layman's terms, the kid leaks like a sieve. Now please don't misunderstand me. I am fully aware that if you put fluid into something it has to come out somehow. I have found the drain and was instructed to cover that drain with a diaper. A task that I have grown quite adept to. No I am referring to the semi-perpetual streams of fluid coming from his eyes,nose, and mouth. These leaks have gotten so bad that I carry an oil rag around in my hip pocket just like a mechanic cleaning up spills all over the place. Also most of the messes show up white on my colored furniture and clothing so much so that a friend, who hasn't visited us in a while, asked if he could see the condor that I keep in the attic.

While we are on the subject of liquids let's talk about Miles Per Gallon. How good is a baby you may inquire, in a word lousy. In several words, if he were a car he wouldn't pass the federal government's most liberal mileage requirements. We put gallons of formula in, and while he does move his arms and legs quite a lot, he doesn't go anywhere. Okay he does push himself a couple of inches across the floor every once and a while but that counts for very little.

Another thing that I think I should mention is the complete lack of owners manual. I realize that I am a guy and probably wouldn't have read it anyway. But I would have liked to have had some indication of how many accessories were required to make a baby functional. You start with the crib and formula and move to car seats and strollers and on and on and on. The list is endless. I don't mind hearing the words "Batteries Not Included" once and a while. I can understand that. Unfortunately this is more like selling some one a tire and calling it a car, "if you add a few accessories."

My telling you all of this might make you think that I feel that I was gypped in some way. Let me assure you that while he has many factory defects he has found a place in my home and heart. Something like a painting by Picasso. At first glance you see only the mess. Next something indescribable about it grows on you. Finally you realize what a true masterpiece you have and you wouldn't part with it for the world, no matter what.

 

Survivor? Ha!!

The other day I was looking through my local TV listing. Actually I wasn't looking through it per se, I was searching for the answers to the crossword puzzle on page one which happened to be on the last page. Then I proceeded to fill out the entire puzzle. I had only guessed at six of the answers, three of which were misspelled and two that were wrong. The result was that I now had a perfectly completed puzzle and my wife continues to think of me as a genius. You may consider this cheating, but I see it as maintaining the fragile status quo. Ever since our son arrived, having this little consistency in our lives has become very important. Besides, who has time to complete a puzzle like that the right way with a toddler in the house? All of the squares are filled and I did the filling, and after all isn't that what's important?

Perhaps I should start again. The other day I was looking through my local TV listing, and I noticed something strange. Everything that was advertised was another of these reality shows. There were shows about dating and redecorating someone else's house. There were people eating disgusting bugs, and parents giving polygraphs to their daughters' boyfriends. There were hidden camera shows where you could watch folks eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom. Some of them even allowed the television audience to vote who had the best voice or sexiest body. It was simply incredible.

The one that really caught my interest was the show where they stranded folks on a desert island and they had to survive. The contestants whine and complain about how rough the conditions are and look pretty haggard at the end of the month. In fact, they look almost as bad as I do after one day of dealing with my son when he's in a bad mood. To be honest, I don't think that this show is so tough. I'd like the winner of that show to chase a couple of two year olds for 24 hours with no prize. Now that's reality.

In fact, I bet that I could come up with the most grueling show of them all. I'd call it Extreme Parents, and it would start with 16 good-looking people ages twenty to thirty, and 32 children age two living together in a medium sized home. The kids would be easy to come by, I know several parents who would be willing give up their little angel for a month or two or three or thirty. Food, diapers and coffee would be stocked at the beginning and rationed over the duration of the game. No one would be allowed to leave for any reason. Every three days there would be challenges, and the losing adult would have to leave but the number of kids would stay the same. Eventually you would have 32 screaming children and maybe four very strung out adults heading into the finals.

The challenges wouldn't be the adults eating bugs, but preventing the kids from eating them or perhaps a contest between one child and adult to see who has more energy. We could have an obstacle course to get to the potty. The obstacles would be the other children and piles of toys. Other tests would be keeping a room clean for more than an hour without closing the door, and feeding kids yogurt and chocolate without making a mess. Perhaps they might give colds to several kids just to keep it interesting. The possibilities are endless. My son puts me through these kinds of challenges every day.

I think my favorite thing to see would be the deterioration of the adults as they take care of these kids every day. I have looked at myself at the end of the day in the mirror and it's not the same reflection as the one in the morning - and I only have one toddler. Imagine the devastation with dealing with more than one. Those kids wouldn't be good looking for long. You might even say that the first ones out are the winners and not the losers.

I realize that this is probably not a practical reality show because there is just too much reality and not enough fantasy for the viewing public. Or maybe it would be impractical because the adults would rise to the occasion as I do every day when I see my son and that mischievous smile that says, "I love you daddy - now what trouble can I get into?"

 

Tres Chic

I recently saw a tape of the runway shows of three great fashion designers. The story bounced between New York, Paris and Milan comparing and contrasting the styles. I listened as the announcers babbled endlessly about sensuous lines, silk prints, outrageous headwear, and interesting color combinations. In those two hours I learned that breasts were not "in" this year. I thought that that breasts were naturally supposed to stick out. It never occurred to me that women's bodies bloomed and died back with the seasons like some kind of flower garden, I mean my wife has them all the time. I guess she must be an evergreen in the figure department. Anyway I'm quite sure that the promoters of the event had a terrible time finding flat-chested anorexic models to be in the show. They must have raided a prison camp because beneath the badly colored make-up the girls were emaciated. The best description that I could give of the entire event was "Pablo Picasso producing the movie Schindler's List."

Maybe I'm just not open-minded enough but I didn't understand or like a moment of it. I mean here were thousands of people applauding half naked girls with what looked like mud thrown at them. I would have applauded if someone would have washed their faces and gotten them a hamburger. Mostly they needed to get rid of those ridiculous clothes. Yes, I think that fashion shows would be much better with out the stupid outfits, but that's just my opinion.

Then something hit me. It was warm and wet. My beloved son, who was at that moment sitting on my lap, had deposited a bit of his last meal on my cheek. As I reached for a cloth to wipe my face I noticed that he had not only put half digested carrot mush on my face but also had dispersed it liberally down his own white T-shirt. The one that had been permanently stained with mashed peas the week before. At first I thought very little of it and called my wife explaining that the baby wanted her. But then a revelation happened. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a young woman on the television wearing a dress with a color pattern very similar to the one that my very own son was sporting. The only difference was that her dress had been yellow before she spit up on it.

Could this be a mere coincidence? Immediately my full attention went to the screen. I did not have to wait long for my answer because the very next girl looked like her dress had been spit up on as well. Goodness gracious, I thought at first, my son is a fashion model. But unfortunately reality set in as the next girl came down the runway. For she was even more splattered with food than the other two and with how thin she was there was no way that she had eaten enough in the last six weeks to account for that much spittle. I should know, for I have become an expert on drooling and spitting up since the arrival of my son.

That was when the announcement came. The TV announcer said that this had been the collection designed by Art Panninistein, or something like that. Then the camera focused on a funny looking older gentleman who stood and took a bow. I jumped up with happiness. Don't worry about the baby - my wife had collected him by this point. My first impression had been wrong. Not a fashion model, he was a natural as a fashion designer. I blinked my eyes and my pupils turned into dollar signs just like on the cartoons. My son was showing true genius in a million dollar industry and I was not about to miss this opportunity.

I went through his laundry and found what I had previously viewed as his messiest clothes. I rewound the tape too, and watched it over and over to ensure that my theory was right. Every pattern that I saw was equally as messy as my son's clothes. But my happiness was short lived. It seems that the people of middle America don't appreciate the fashion trends of Paris & Milan. When I tried to sell the patterns that my son had created everyone just laughed and told me to get a better laundry detergent. Undaunted I sent photos of my son's work to some swanky shops in Beverly Hills but met only with more ridicule.

To this day, I still can't understand it. The clothes looked the same to me. Maybe I should have given my son a strange name or perhaps had him decorate size 2 dresses instead of one-piece body suits. Or maybe I should stop thinking that he is some kind of super baby and just love him with all my heart for being just what he is. Yeah, I think that is the best thing that I can do.

 


Short Stories

Chris Otcasek

The Poetry Riots

The large bookstore is, I think, this decade's grand enigma. Born in the early 1990's, they have become the place to be on a Saturday night. Where else can you find a young person with green hair, thirty-five or so body piercings, and wearing a dog collar, standing, in total harmony, next to an ultra conservative in a business suit. Outside there is hate but inside everyone is accepted. Nowhere else on earth can you find The Holy Bible less than ten feet away from a tome called The Gay Experience. It boggles the mind just how universally acceptable this place is.

But lurking somewhere must be the seeds of discontent. Somewhere between the Metallica CD's and the social science aisle there has to be a cultural friction growing and festering. Mankind is too set in its ways for this little oasis of tolerance between alternate lifestyle magazines and the Disney videos to never dry up even for a moment. I have witnessed such a moment. It happened in the Expresso bar and will forever be remembered as "The Poetry Riots."

It was a rainy Friday in February and my wife had scheduled a Tupperware party - a thing that every American husband in his right mind avoids like the plague. I left the safety of my home and wandered the dark suburban streets like a homeless man until I arrived at the door of the bookstore. Now I didn't enter the café specifically to hear the poets read their work. Nor was I there to witness and document a life changing event. I certainly did not go into the place for a double expresso light raspberry mocha decaf whipped cream and cinnamon sprinkled on top, but there I was.

I sat down at a small table in the corner and sipped my drink, and pondered its flavor. I decided that no matter what they do to it or how many names they think up for it, it is still coffee. I slipped into the serene security of that thought and turned my attention to the reader.

I listened for twenty minutes to lyrical verse directed to make me probe my psyche on such deep topics as sex, relationships, death, and infinity. I was truly astounded with my concise summation: WHY. Why did I need to know this? Why did they write it all down in the first place, and why was all of it so bad? I have never insulted someone elses's creativity so harshly but I know what I like and this was not it. I turned my attentions elsewhere. As I scanned the café it became obvious that I was not the only disinterested party.

Across the room there was a group of three men and a woman. It was obvious to me that they had also not come for the poetry. They were talking and joking amongst themselves and not paying attention to the person at the microphone. Suddenly, while a large black woman was regaling us all with the details of her first period, one of the men let out with a loud guffaw. The room went silent. The poet stared at the man. The man looked questioningly back at the poet. Anger grew in the eyes of the poet and she verbally attacked.

"Who the hell do you think you are?" she yelled. "If you don't know how to show some common courtesy why don't you leave? You're too stupid to understand the thoughts and feelings that we are giving you anyway. This is my soul. I realize that you can't understand that, since yours is just a black hole. If you decide to stay, you owe me your respect." I have diluted her message for the sake of the reader. In reality her language was much more colorful and she told the man to do something biologically impossible.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly.

"Yes, you are. You're the sorriest thing that I've ever seen." She glared at the man and then scanned the audience as if challenging anyone else to dare interrupt. I cowered in my seat.

The gauntlet had been thrown and the man stepped back and said nothing. He just grumbled for a minute and went back to his quiet conversation. The woman finished her poem in almost complete silence. I suspected that she had intimidated everyone within earshot. I soon found out how wrong I was.

Not five minutes later another of the poets stood up. He was the emcee, having introduced all the others. He turned to a table where three young people sat and asked if anyone who was not scheduled wanted to read some of their favorite poetry. He was shocked when a man in the center of the room stood up and asked to read. The emcee welcomed the newcomer to the microphone.

The newcomer wore loose fitting clothes and a checkered coat that was much too light for this weather. He had a gleam in his eye and purple shoes on his feet. I could tell that he was up to something but I couldn't imagine what. He thanked the emcee and said, "I have written nothing, but I would like to recite from one of my favorite books of poetry." The poets and the front table of three young people clapped loudly.

"The poet's name," he continued, "is Theodore Geisel." All of the poets took on a look of shock as the newcomer did an extremely dramatic rendition of One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.

The café rocked with laughter. Everyone except for two of the original poets was smiling and applauding. The table that was previously chastised gave the man in purple shoes a standing ovation. The man bowed deeply, but when he stood up, he was face to face with the woman who had yelled.

"You should be ashamed of yourself," she said, as her face turned red. "Our works are deeply significant and moving. You have made a mockery of it."

He did not back down. "Mine is significant as well. It has touched the hearts of children for almost fifty years. I chose it as a mood breaker and to show that not all poetry has to be sad. Yes, poetry can be death and hardship, but it is also springtime and dancing. There are a lot of different people here and all of them want to get something out of your words. So far, your words had great meaning, but no life. They were hard cold words read in a hard cold fashion. The people were imagining cut lumber instead of the beautiful trees that inspired the work you showcased. They enjoyed my snippet, but it's time to give the mike back to you. I leave you with this advice. Remember, treat your audience wisely or they will not return."

There was another tense moment. Then she slowly turned away. He left the stage, walked into the store and disappeared among the shelves. After a minute or two the emcee stood up and prepared us for more readings. But it was different somehow. Suddenly the verse had spirit. The mood of the room had changed. More folks were listening and I could even see some smiles.

I sat and listened a while longer and then left. My seat was taken immediately by two teenage girls. I knew the words had made an impact on me because on the walk home I thought about things that I hadn't thought about in years, but my thoughts kept going back to the man in the purple shoes and how he changed the evening. You know something? I still believe the stuff before him was bad, but after he was there, I don't know which got better - the poetry or the poets.

Copyright © 2001-2003 by Chris Otcasek

About the Author

Say hello to Chris Otcasek who is fond of killing people, comedy and old radio theater. In fact, he is currently working on some new radio theater with his private eye, "Ace Rosebud," the world's most cliche detective. He has been a merry murderer writing mysteries for three local community theaters, who also performed his Christmas show The Day I was Santa Claus. Add to his credit writing an evening of comedy, The Comedy Cafe, and the world's best unpublished novel, A Place In My Mind, and he is truly a legend in his own mind. When not in front of the word processor, he enjoys making wine, cooking, and kissing his wife, GeorgeAnn.


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