T-shirts and Poetry Games

Brian and I were just in Chicago where I attended the Podcast Movement ’16 conference. I’m currently working on a QuOTeD episode that documents the extra day we spent in the Windy City after the conference. As we bummed around, with the exception of advertisements, I started to note the words people were wearing on t-shirts. I wondered if they could be strung together to either snap a sort of picture of the day or a specific time and place in the culture.

Woman in t-shirt
By Friedrich Haag (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The t-shirts we saw were:

Chicks dig diamonds.
Save Ferris. (this turns out to be a band, which technically should not be included)
Run faster.
Kicking your ass one step at a time.
I am culture.
Swoosh. (this might be a Nike ad)
Time to shine.
Look on the bright side.
Play like a champion today.
Keep calm and dream big.
Better sore than sorry.
You can put it on the chalkboard.
It’s Go Time.
Detroit vs. Everyone
I’m awesome!

Writing Exercise Using Words on T-Shirts

What rules could be applied to a writing exercise using the given phrases? We could start with:

  1. Arrange the phrases as is in any order.
  2. Insert line breaks and punctuation as you like.

I came up with the following:

Chicks dig.
Diamonds save.
Ferris run faster.
Your ass.
Step at a time I am.
To shine look on.
The bright, side play like.
A champion today keep.
Dream big better
Sore than sorry you can
Put it on
The Chalkboard
It’s Go Time
Detroit vs. everyone.
I’m awesome!

This needs work. Maybe the initial list of phrases could have been arranged better? Or maybe more rules would help. For example:

  1. Contractions can be made or undone.
  2. Verb tenses can be changed.
  3. Up to 10 words can be deleted (we could also say “must be deleted”).
  4. Homonyms can be used.

The list of rules could go on. Finding the right parameters that make a game a game would take some trial and error. Given the rules above, here’s another version.

Chicks Dig.
Diamonds save.
Ferris Run faster.
Your ass. one step
at a time I am.

To Shine.
On the bright side
Play. like.
A Champion today.

Dream big better.
Sore then sorry you can
Put it on.

The Chalkboard.
It’s Go time.
Detroit vs. everyone.
I am.


This could lend itself to a round-robin exercise. Randomly selecting the next rule to apply with dice or cards could work. So the game might look like this.

  1. On a piece of paper, arrange the phrases as is in any order.
  2. Pass your paper to another player.
  3. Using the list you just received, insert line breaks and punctuation as you like.
  4. Pass your paper to another player.
  5. Draw a card to reveal the next rule to apply and apply it.
  6. Continue to do this until…

How would we know when the game is over? Is there a timer or a set number of rules that can be applied? How is a winner determined? Can works get eliminated along the way? Or do they all make it to the final round? How would that work? One piece gets eliminated and another is duplicated so that every player participates in every round? This would mean that one piece is on two tracks, which might be interesting. Are there bonuses for certain moves? Penalties? The equivalent of buying a vowel? Are there certain moves that can be made at any time, regardless of what rule card is drawn? Can rules be invented? Is there a board? Pawns? A deck of cards?

I like the idea of a final round where each player selects a piece to make final edits. It does not necessarily have to be the piece they originated. In this round the player would have a lot of latitude. Maybe there would be no rules in this round. The scoring system could reward the originator and the final editor. This is a foggy idea, but I wanted to jot it down in case it’s worth more consideration.

I’m seeing a bingo grid.

How would we know who wins? Is it an accumulation of points earned by certain moves? A vote for the best? The problem with a point system is that it creates a motivation that is separate from writing what you want to write. And a subjective vote doesn’t feel satisfying either.

Or maybe it can just be amusing.

Purpose vs. Happiness, Another Take

Sixteen years ago, a friend and I found ourselves talking about purpose. The following is a partial transcript from that conversation. I had just made a comment about how “knowing yourself” always seemed to be the promise of the next stage of life. When you’re thirty, this. When you’re forty that. When you’re fifty…

Paint swatch on white wall. Why did you wander into the room? What's your purpose?
Paint swatch on white wall.

Incidentally, the original Question of the Day was “Tell me about a wake-up call that informs the way you live your life today.”

My words are in bold. Everything else is my friend.

Why did you wander into the room?

At some point you come up with the idea… at least I think I have… um… That basically…. If it’s not an answer, it’s, it’s, it’s a path. You want freedom. I want my freedom. It’s like, I’ve decided that I’m not going to jump through any more hoops, you know. If I get sick I’m going to wander off into the woods and die. You know, I just… I don’t care anymore. I just don’t care. I just… It’s my life. I’m in control. This is my life. And I’m not going to go through any more hoops. You know it’s like…

What kind of hoops?

Well… ahh… about what you do and when you do it. And what’s important… Basically, what’s important. It’s the idea of prioritizing what’s important. Because the fundamental question is staring us all in the eyes. “What am I supposed to do with my life?” “Why am I here?” “Why?” “Why?” It’s not like, “What will make me happy?” You know. I mean, “What will make me happy?” It’s like, it’s that simple. Take a pill, you know. Eat a chocolate bar. It’s, it’s, it’s uh… “What am I supposed to be doing?” “Why am I here?” You know.

You go into a room… You ever do this? You go into a room. You think “Oh my gosh! I forgot why I walked into this room.” I think that’s why we… what… what… the fix we’re in. We walked into this life and we forgot why we’re here. And it’s like, oh my gosh! So you can’t walk back because you don’t know where you came from. You’re stuck. So, at some point you go, “Oh my gosh! It’s absolutely important. I’ve got to figure out why I’m here.”

And some people say, “I haven’t a freaking clue. I’m just going to be as cozy as I can.” Those are the people who get real frustrated ’cause they just go from bottle to pill to vicarious experience to whatever thrill-seeking moment looking for something. Looking, looking, looking. Never finding what they want. And I think the thing is finding contentment in being alive. And contentment would only come with doing what you, what you… remembering what you’re supposed to do. It’s like knowing what you’re supposed to do. Feeling comfortable in doing what you’re supposed to do. Fundamentally, what is that? It’s like, very few of us find out what it is.

Society doesn’t help us… at all… in the discovery process. It’s says “Okay, uh… we’re going to give you some focus. Okay, I want you to stand here, look in that direction and when something comes down, you just give it a shot.” It’s like… I mean they just line us up like people on an assembly line. Whether it’s going through school, as a child, as an adult, as a worker… uh… as a family member, as a spouse, as a child as a parent. And it’s like your roles get defined for you by society. It says, “Okay, we’re going to give you some focus.” And all that does is keep society going. It doesn’t help you in the discovery process. So we’ve become like a whole group of totally confused chaotic people. ‘Cause we still have this fundamental problem. “Why did we wander into the room?” “Why did we come here?” And it’s like… I think that’s why people are totally perplexed about their lives.

Why did you wander into the room?


Don’t know.

What do you make of… um… being certain. “This is what I’m supposed to do!” And feeling confident. Maybe going weeks. And then the inspiration leaving you?

Oh, yeah.

Where does inspiration come from and why does it leave?

I think some people, uh… They’re looking for some kind of like uh… spark of like some guidance or some spark of inspiration. And uh… Let’s say they see something and say, “Oh, that’s great. That’s, that’s for me. That’s it. And they do this for a couple of months or a year or two years. And then, “Oh, I don’t know. I’m kind of disillusioned. I didn’t really want to be a Hare Krishna .” You know. “I didn’t really want to take up…” you know, “pottery. You get all dirty.” You know, “It seemed good at the time, but now what do I do with all of this stuff?” So, I mean people are just looking for these kind of answers. I think a few people actually kind of get close.

Like who?

Who are the lucky ones? Those who know or those who are engaged in finding their life’s purpose?

Well people that they just know from an early age what they’re supposed to do and they do it. And they do it really, really well. “[inaudible]… child prodigies like musicians like five-year-old child prodigies. They were born remembering why they were here. It’s like, there’s no other explanation for a child prodigy or like a child who’s born with just great mathematical genius skills and they’re in college when they’re seven years old doing upper mathematics. I don’t think that’s an accident. I think they were just born remembering. They found themselves. They’re the lucky ones who found themselves.

For the rest of us, I don’t know. It’s like maybe, maybe the discovery process… I think the discovery process is maybe what’s important. Maybe we’re the lucky ones? Because it’s the finding that’s important. Finding ourselves. When you get there, it’s probably okay. But, well, I mean it’s the first goal ahead of you. So, naturally it moves [inaudible]… I just think there would be tremendous satisfaction, comfort peace and joy and uh… a sense of bliss in finally discovering and doing what you’re supposed to be doing. Whatever that is.

Safety First, Revenge Second

“Safety First, Revenge Second”, Who wrote it? Why? Why there? What does it bring to mind?

Written on the sidewalk a few blocks from the house we read, “Safety 1st, Revenge 2nd”. A poetic threat? I imagined hooligans busting out the chalk.

Safety 1st, Revenge 2nd
Safety 1st, Revenge 2nd

Revenge: Junior high girls exact their revenge on a the meanest math teacher in the world and somehow survive adolescence despite a daily dose of humiliation.

by Rebekah Smith

My eighth grade math teacher humiliated me daily. Borrowing a pencil drew ridicule no less than giving the wrong answer. In the first case you were a leech who expected others to prop you up. In the second, you were just stupid. I was badgered because I was a military brat who had arrived out of nowhere, shared no history with my peers and had no ties to ranching; my teacher was a cowboy. I was responsible for the B-52s that rumbled overhead, spooking the cattle and seizing the flow of milk. He said that I was ringleader, a word intended to make me shrink and it did. When I was dragged to the principal’s office for trying to be like the popular girls who held hands with boys in the hallway, my teacher predicted that I’d never graduate. I was on track to becoming a teen mom, he said. I probably wouldn’t amount to much.

And yet I was smarter than them, Mr. Portland and the co-conspirator principal, Ed Stitchie. (Stitchie had once punished three of my girlfriends and me by forcing us to stand in front of his desk on our toes and with our hands above our heads while he watched with his feet up on the desk. I was 32 before I realized this made him a creep.) As these goons stood over me, forcing me to dial home with confessions of my latest delinquencies, salivating in anticipation of my disgrace, I called the neighbor instead. Having asserted my depravity, I started to hang up when these clowns jumped up and demanded, “Tell him about the finger!”

“Oh, yeah”, I said. “I also gave my math teacher the finger.”

As soon as Portland turned his back on me on our way to the principal’s office, I flipped him off and as my dumb luck would have it, Stitchie swung around the corner just in time to make the bust. I described this to my dad’s stand-in on the other end of the line with a flatness that totally confused my teacher and the equally vile administrator. Why wasn’t I torn up? My parents must be horrible people, they speculated. Disengaged. Fine by me, I thought. My parents are horrible people. Or maybe Portland and his pal Stitchie were just stupid.

Compared to a classmate, a shaggy dirty blonde who sat behind me to my right, I didn’t have it so bad. Even as I routinely left Portlands’s class shaken enough to give my home ec teacher cause to inquire but never enough to give her a reason to press it, that kid got it worse. I don’t remember his name. But I can still hear Portland screeching it. I was Miss Smith and he was Mister Something. As if he were talking about a mathematical proof instead of a human being, the teacher explained that Mister Something was the sort who did this and the sort who believed that. In other words, he was trouble. A loser. Every day Mister Something had the guts to show up to class, Portland struck him down without provocation, well before the kid had a chance to straighten himself to see what he could see from a school desk that must seem tiny to him now, to him, a grown man. Boys don’t cry so unlike me, Mister Something didn’t. Sometimes I wonder whatever happened to him. And then I try to forget.

Retaliation against Portland was a group effort that took many forms. There was a chastising letter that was meticulously plucked out on Julie’s mother’s typewriter and signed “concerned parent”. We looked up every word in the dictionary as not to blow our cover as the adult who was created to protect us. Watching Portland react to the letter with agitation that briefly peeled back the thin shroud of authority he used to punish and demean, exposing him for a pathetic grown man who bullies children – watching the cracks surface with every second he surveyed the hallways in a desperate aim to nab the prick who had slipped the letter onto the podium from which he ruled – was worth whatever trouble that might come down. It was just too good.

We plastered “Wanted” posters all over the school. The hallways, of course. Bathrooms. Locker rooms. The rarely used elevators for which we needed a key. Check. Penetrating the teacher’s lounge with Julie’s spot-on caricature of Portland was a tasty conquest. Imagine his blockish head, that flattop, the unibrow and those black-rimmed glasses staring out from the center of the bulletin board at a bunch of teachers eating tuna sandwiches. The poster read: “Sees all. Hears all. Knows all.” Recalling it makes me laugh because, first of all, it was funny and in hindsight I realize it’s a big reason why I survived junior high.

There was also my favorite antic, something I would later appreciate as performance art. Before the first bell and after lunch, students would gather in the school’s lobby, the perfect setting to unwind an entire spool of thread. Weaving in and out of the crowd until a third of the student body was entangled in a giant invisible web would have been sufficient amusement. But Portland would see fit to grant us the hilarious image of him punching the air with the empty spool, shaking his fists, yelling… He was always yelling.

Twelve years later my niece was assigned to Portland’s class. Not wanting to make a stink before there was cause, my sister took my warnings with a grain of salt and didn’t request a transfer. She would learn the hard way: the man was a dangerous jerk. Portland would eventually tell my sister that her daughter was failing math because she was a girl. That could have been the end of this story, a satisfying verification of my reality as the man’s student. But it wasn’t.

When I was a young adult in my 20’s I worked at the English as a Second Language (ESL) Center, which was housed in the same school with Portland. On occasion I encountered him in the infamous teacher’s lounge and once on a bus a bunch of teachers chartered for a trip to Deadwood, South Dakota’s Vegas. I immediately won 50 dollars on a giant slot machine that towered over the casino. I gave a one dollar coin to a friend and then quit gambling for the rest of the night. It was on that trip that my eighth-grade English teacher told a dirty joke that began “What do men and linoleum have in common?”

I wondered if Portland remembered me. Did he know my face? Would it help if I cried? Mostly, I avoided him, which was easy to do but not always possible. There was the day I took my ESL students, little kids, to visit a seventh-grade classroom that had been decorated like the rain forest. The lights were turned down. A tape recorder played the sound of water and exotic birds. There were paper mache trees and flowers made of construction paper. It was nice. It was peaceful.

Just outside of the classroom door, the rain forest teacher and I could hear the screaming coming from the floor below. It was Portland. Some kid wasn’t going to amount to anything.

“He does this all of the time,” she told me, sort of shrugging her shoulders as if nothing could be done.

Believe me I know.

It had never occurred to me that anyone would have been standing within earshot when Portland was going after me. I imagine they’d cast a dirty look in Portland’s general direction and then quietly shut the classroom door, just like what we were doing now.

I might have been reassured had I turned to see a “Wanted” poster with Portland’s blockish head on it staring back at me from bathroom door.