It’s not easy to characterize Amy Walker. At first glance you might consider her a gifted performer, but a closer look reveals talent across numerous artistic disciplines. She’s a writer. An actress. A singer. A film director. A choreographer. A skilled instructor. Her ability to assume the mannerisms and vocal patterns of regions around the globe will astonish you.

I found Amy’s work on YouTube, quite by accident, and was amazed at the breadth of unique content she’s published there. In one video she pokes playful fun at certain English words. In another she films herself preparing for a date while timing her movements and singing along to a piece of instrumental music. Her sense of humor ranges from subtle to off-the-charts wacky. But one piece in particular, a tender short story about a long-married couple titled “Toast with Butter,” impressed me enough to look further into her work. I learned that one of Amy’s videos earned her a segment on NBC’s “Today,” and that she’s working on a feature film about relationships and the amazing ways humans are connected to each other.

As you may know—but may not, because of my Scorpio predilection for Dick Cheney-level secrecy—I am a semi-professional astrologer.*For many months, I have been quietly collecting birth data from TNB contributors** whenever the topic came up on the comment boards, a sort of horoscopical scavenger hunt that netted quite a few charts for my burgeoning collection.

Imagine you’re an 18 year-old bloke born and raised in Sheffield, England. You’ve just finished high school, have no plans for university, and are trying to figure out what to do with your life. There aren’t many apparent options. Sheffield is a gray, aging steel town, and if you don’t think of something else you’re going to end up working in a factory. Or maybe not, because the local economy is shit and a lot of the steel mills are closing.

The one thing you have going for you is you’re an aspiring musician. One day you miss a bus and find yourself talking to another chap who’s in a band. He invites you to audition. You’re thrilled at the prospect of joining an actual band, and you want to play guitar, but it’s clear your skills aren’t quite up to the task. Or at least not playing an instrument. To your surprise the band asks you to become their lead singer, which at that point is the greatest moment of your life.




From August 16 – 20, Erika Rae, Megan DiLullo, and Slade Ham joined me in Tulsa, Oklahoma to film a documentary about the evolving state of literature and the arts. We also spent a lot of time goofing around like children.

In this short clip, we try to recall TNB authors from memory and struggle to pronounce their names properly. We hope you won’t be too offended if we missed yours. We were very tired. Plus, I was driving, so you can’t blame me.

This past week, I got a Kindle. I have not been so changed by a reading experience since Stephen King’s Needful Things, which was the book that made me realize I wanted to tell stories. It’s the sort of genius-level device that demonstrates the fact that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Truly wonderful.

The literary world needs more essays written by men who are disenchanted with the behavior of women. Perhaps it’s only my experience, but it seems as if publishing is rife with memoirs and self-help books and online rants about how men won’t commit and can’t communicate and how chivalry has gone the way of the Dodo, whereas similarly-themed works from the male point of view are proportionally scarce.

It was OK, I guess.

On June 23, near the end of TPAC 2010, Simon Smithson and Zara Potts made their way to Dallas to meet fellow TNBers Slade Ham and Richard Cox.  Like most of their other visits, the friends from Down Under had never met their hosts in person before, and they were eager to see how reality matched up with the online presence of their two friends. What follows are selected excerpts from a transcript each of the four wrote about their experience.

And there might just be a bit of a surprise when you get to the end.  We’ll get to that in a bit though.

For now, enjoy.


* * *

 

Slade Ham: I have four rules for kids. Don’t get them wet, keep them out of sunlight, never feed them after midnight, and keep them out of planes. So when I got on the plane to Dallas and I saw a two-year-old sitting and staring at me, I knew, man. I knew there was a chance for trouble.

And this kid knew it, too. He had that look that kids get when they can see through your eyes and right into the back of your skull. He was like, “If my apple juice doesn’t get here right on time…”

So I telepathically sent this kid a message and made him a deal. I focused my thoughts and beamed a transmission across the plane cabin to him. “If you’re good,” I said, “I’m going to get my friends the Wiggles to play a concert at your house.” The kid’s mouth, which had been so ready to fall open, locked shut, and stayed that way for the rest of the flight. And when we got off the plane, I sent him another message.

“Lesson One, kid. Don’t trust adults who send you telepathic messages on plane flights. I’m not friends with the Wiggles.”  I walked out of the plane, and behind me, I heard the crying start.

That’s what you get for bringing a baby on a plane.


Richard Cox: It was already past noon when I finally left Tulsa for Dallas.

Still, I figured I’d be there in plenty of time to meet ZaraPotts and Simon Smithson, who were coming from Baton Rouge and probably dead tired and running late. Even the road construction and traffic didn’t concern me, at least not until Zara called and told me, in her impenetrable accent, they were already entering Dallas.

“What a load of horseshit,” I thought, since I was till two hours away.

“Where are you, Richrob?” ZaraPotts asked. She’s been calling me “Richrob” ever since she mistakenly addressed me as ‘Rob’ in a comment on The Nervous Breakdown. Apparently she had been thinking about Rob Lowe at the time, but I’m not sure I believe that. I mean, has Rob Lowe been relevant since 1989?


Simon Smithson: I found his work in Thank You For Smoking to be excellent, thank you, Richard.


Richard:  Put a sock in it, Simon.


Zara Rose Potts:  Shut up both of you! It’s my turn.


Simon and Richard: Fine.


Zara:  Dallas appears suddenly on the horizon, like a shimmering mirage. It is a gleaming skyline of sunlight on glass buildings but I do not care.

I am tired and the traveling has almost defeated me.  Not just me. Us. Simon and I both are exhausted from the miles of concrete road we have traversed.

Fortunately for him, he is only required to lie comfortably in the passenger seat and ponder why the rear-vision mirrors don’t work the same way here that they do at home.

Our hotel is blue and yellow. There is only one bed in our room, but we are not concerned. We are just happy to be at rest.

It is only five in the afternoon, but already I want to fall asleep in that single, simple bed. Simon receives a text. Richrob and Slade are just now leaving the airport.



Simon: As this was our first foray into the Lone Star State, Zara and I expected to share the highway with cowboys on horseback. Or at the very least oil barons driving vintage convertible Cadillacs with the tops down. Instead we found more of the same-semi trucks, pickup trucks, and SUVs. Finally we made it to Dallas, and after a few phone conversations with Mr. Cox, who arranged the accommodations, we reached our downtown hotel. Slade’s flight from Houston was scheduled to coincide with our own arrival, but as luck would have it, the plane was running late. As was Richard, who was driving in from Tulsa.  We had time to kill, it seemed.


Slade: Richard was waiting by the flight desk, hitting on one of the stewardesses. I heard him as I was walking up.

”And the sexy thing about particles,” he was saying, ‘is that it doesn’t take much for them to bond. Just a little flicker of… electricity.”


Richard: I didn’t try to pick up a girl talking about physics.


Slade: Well, that’s the show going on in MY head.  You write your own version.


Zara: Was it Amy, Richrob?


Slade: Why didn’t you dance for her?


Richard: We haven’t gotten to that part of the story yet and you guys are already embellishing it.


Slade: Because it’s hilarious!  Anyway, as I was saying, this girl was levitating out of her chair. There was a clear two inches of space between her feet and the floor. Her eyes were locked onto his lips like there was a secret tractor beam in his mouth. That’s when I slapped my boy on the shoulder.

“Yo, Richard Cox!” I said. “Slade Ham!”

Cox? Blocked.


Simon: Hahahahahaha.


Richard: Enough.


Simon: Hahahahahaha.


Slade: Richard is like the male equivalent of the chick from Weird Science, if she were a dude. He’s tall, and tanned, and good-looking and one charming motherfucker. And he’s so pleasant he’d make Mr. Rogers look like Freddy Krueger.

“Hey, Slade!” he said. “Nice to meet you, man. Simon and Zara are already at the hotel; they must have driven three hundred miles an hour to get here so fast.”

“Screw those bitches,” I said. “Let’s go get drunk. Nah, I’m kidding. Let’s go meet them. I hope they don’t suck.”


Richard: You didn’t actually say that.


Slade: Still my version, Rich.  Plus, I was thinking it.


Richard:  Eventually, I made it to Dallas and called ahead to let Slade know I was close by. He’d flown in from Houston and was at the airport waiting for me, but as soon as I got off the phone, traffic came to a complete stop and it took me forty minutes to travel five miles.

There wasn’t time for introductions or pleasantries because we were already running late. But it didn’t seem to matter, because for some reason I already felt like Slade and I were best buds. Finally we reached the hotel. I figured Slade and I would have time to put our luggage away and change clothes before we met our overseas friends, but as soon as we entered the lobby, we were spotted by Simon and ZaraPotts, who were already enjoying many glasses of champagne.


Zara:  Shit. Maybe I did drink more than I thought I did.


Richard: You did.


Slade: Total lush, actually.


Zara:  But not as much as you did Slade. Or you Richrob. Want me to tell them about Peaches?


Richard: You’re going to, anyway. I’ve already read this post.


Simon: Let’s get on with this, shall we?

You never know what to expect when you meet online friends. When our Texas visitors finally arrived, they strode into the hotel lobby talking like old friends. I honestly thought they were, and then we learned they had only met twenty minutes before at Love Field (which, before you get any strange ideas, is a nearby airport.) Slade and Richard were both taller than I had imagined, but more than that they carried a certain presence that made them seem even larger.

Zara and I walked over to greet them, and it was if we all had known each other for years, like we were old friends seeing each other after a long time apart. It’s difficult to explain, really, why we would feel that way. Of course many of us have conversed on TNB, or exchanged emails…but still, when you’ve never met someone in person you expect a certain awkward moment of moving a relationship from the online world to the real one. But with Slade and Richard it wasn’t like that at all.


Zara:  I decide on a glass of champagne. It bubbles and pops golden in the glass as I upload pictures from the last leg of our trip.

An hour passes, then two. I am certain that I will never like them enough to make up for having to wait this long.

The doors to the hotel slide open and they walk in. Simon notices them first. They are giants. In a Texas way. A good way.

It’s strange how quickly they run over to us, and we to them.  We hug in the lobby, happy to see each other again, or for the first time.  Already the line is blurry.


Slade: OK, so Simon and Zara. I like these guys.

Because as soon as we met, it was like we’d all known each other for twenty years. Simon said the same thing about me and Richard – he figured me and Rich were old pals, because we already had that easy kind of rapport. Same thing with Simon and Zara, except they talk weird.

So we went over to the counter to check in, and the desk clerk looked at us, looked at the ledger, looked back at us, and said “Sure. Sixth floor.  The room with just one bed.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Just one bed?”

Richard just glared at me. “I swear I didn’t know,” he said.


Richard: I didn’t.


Slade: Now, I don’t know if Rich knew or not…


Richard: Really, I didn’t.


Slade: …but Zara didn’t understand what the problem was.  “Why can’t you just share a bed?” she asked.

Simon got it.  “Two guys,” he said, and he exhaled, real slow. “Two guys can’t share a bed. What if, in the middle of the night, one of them… slips?”

Exactly.


Richard: Have you ever had that feeling when you meet someone, that you feel like you’ve known them forever? That’s how it felt meeting Simon and Zara. It felt like we were greeting old friends who we hadn’t seen for years. I noticed details about everyone, matching them with the images I already had of them in my mind.

Slade was funny and generous with both his laughter and conversation.


Slade: And really good looking.


Richard: Simon was as tall as I thought he would be, though he seemed to have more physical presence than I had imagined.


Simon: It’s probably because I’m so handsome.


Slade: Thief.  I just said that about myself.


Zara: He did say it first.  Both you are being insufferable.


Richard: Zara was beautiful the way I knew she would be. And she smiled and smiled.

We sat down to talk, and as the conversation progressed I noticed the ease Simon and Zara felt with each other. They seemed like sister and brother in the way they interacted with both themselves and us.


Simon: Once the two of them had put away their luggage and changed clothes, we sat for a time in the lobby talking. About our trip, about theirs, about TNB and Dallas and how goddamn hot it was. We kept pointing out that we should go find something to eat, since we were all hungry, but no one seemed ready to make a move. Finally we left on foot and went to find a restaurant, no particular destination in mind, and finally Richard suggested Mexican food.

We ended up on the roof of the Iron Cactus. The restaurant commanded a spectacular view, and the live music was a solo guitarist who played everything from 60s rock to Radiohead. Richard wouldn’t stop raving about him. I don’t know if it was the music or the margaritas that put the smile on his face. Either way, the setting for our TNB dinner would have been perfect if not for the oppressive heat.

We ordered our various dishes and immediately Slade began to hit on the waitress.


Slade: Just because I have flirty eyes doesn’t mean I was hitting on her…


Simon: You were totally hitting on her. I don’t remember her name, but Slade certainly did…


Zara:  Are you sure about that?


Slade: Yeah.  It was Jillian.


Simon: …and he used it liberally as he queried her about possible local bars to visit after dinner. She suggested both the City Tavern and the One-Eyed Penguin, and when Slade asked her to join us, she told him she might just do that.

“I get off at eleven,” said the waitress, and Slade just smiled. I imagined him thinking, “We’ll see about that.”


Zara:  Upstairs on the rooftop, I order a mojito and dip crispy chips into a bowl of fresh red salsa.  The mingling tastes of cilantro and mint and salt make me smile.


Slade: That would be you drinking again, Z.



Zara: An acoustic guitar strums a few tables away from us and Richrob recognizes every song played.  Our conversation dances effortlessly from writing to food and back to the music.

The heat and humidity would be unbearable were it not for the drinks. Perspiration builds on the sides of our glasses and leaks onto the table, the trickling rivulets running suicidal towards the edge.

Slade finally takes off his sunglasses as the sun dips below the skyline.

He’s also managed to catch the attention of our waitress. Her name is Erin, or something else young and waitress-y…


Slade: Jillian, goddammit.


Zara:  …and their eyes flirt as she returns with another tray full of drinks. I slip downstairs for a quick cigarette, and when I return Slade has already talked Erin…


Slade: Fucking Jillian!


Zara: …out of the names of a few of her favorite bars.


Slade: I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun just with dinner and hanging out. We ate Texas Mexican at a rooftop restaurant and the waitress, JILLIAN, came over and started talking to us about sleep cycles and The Nervous Breakdown. She recommended a bar called The One-Eyed Penguin for us to go to afterwards.

“They got this one-eyed penguin suit,” she said. “Sometimes people wear it.”

We all turned and looked at Zara.


Zara:  I have no idea what you are talking about.


Slade: Lucky for you.  You were two mojitos away from looking like an extra in Happy Feet.


Simon: When dinner was over we headed downstairs and into the street. By then we were all a bit drunk and no longer concerned with the heavy heat. Zara convinced Richard and Slade to swear into the camera as she shot video of us. “Motherfucker” seemed to be the American word of choice. I took random pictures of the nearby buildings and smiled. Slade and I fell into an easy conversation, like brothers, and Richard escorted Zara, gentlemanly positioning himself between her and the street.



Zara:  The night air is no cooler than the day here. It is as thick as seawater, but our laughter cuts through it like a ringing bell.

Simon and Slade share a story behind us while Richrob moves to my other side – the Southern gentleman thing to do – so that I do not have to walk closest to the street.

I am impressed. How could I not be?

Slade and Simon could be brothers. We all could be for that matter.

This is how things are supposed to be.


Slade: We’re really sucking up to each other in this post.


Zara: It’s because we’re all amazing.


Richard:  It was now time to unleash the Kraken, a black spiced rum that I had discovered quite by chance a few weeks earlier. I was determined that our visitors would taste the awesome power of this terrible drink, but the bar we went to didn’t know what I was talking about. Absurd.


Slade: I agreed to a shot of this rum begrudgingly.  I had done a wonderful job of keeping to my strictly whiskey diet.


Simon:  Hey, has anyone else noticed our interjections sound like director’s commentary on a DVD?


Zara:  Has anyone else noticed Richrob’s absurd use of the word absurd?


Slade: Has anyone else noticed that we’re about to get totally hammered?


Simon:  So we stopped first at the City Tavern, which was a tavern in every sense of the word…lots of dark wood and comfortable booths and a long bar populated by regulars. By now Zara was only sipping on her drinks, but Slade and Richard and I were kicking into another gear. We began to imitate each other’s accents. Richard picked up the Australian lilt fairly well, but Slade struggled to divest himself of the English accent he spoke so well. We took some great photos there, including this one in which a stray bartender decided to liven things a bit with his outstretched arms.




Richard:  And there was the hot, young blonde talking to some old fat dude that we thought must have been a blind date or something even worse. Instead he turned out to be her husband.


Zara: God. What is it with men and their constant checking out of women?


Slade: I know. What a mismatch, right? Anyway, we left the City Tavern in search of the Kraken. If you’ve never had it, you’ve never had a spiced rum named after a sea monster, and you’re probably better off for it. It turns out you can get it at the One-Eyed Penguin. Be careful though, because it also turns out the One-Eyed Penguin is a karaoke bar, which Jillian the waitress had neglected to mention. Here are my rules for karaoke:

1. If you’re going to sing anything by Peaches, you had better not look like Peaches.

2. If you’re going to sing Bohemian Rhapsody, you had better know the words. Seriously, how does anyone in the world not know the words to Bohemian fucking Rhapsody? Kim Jong-Il knows the words to that fucking song.

3. If you’re going to sing anything by Peaches, you can’t sing Vanilla Ice later. You just can’t. We’ve suffered enough.

And the One-Eyed Penguin broke all of my rules. But at least we got whisky.


Richard:  We walked up the wooden stairs and then we saw it: At the entrance to the One-Eyed Penguin was a poster advertising the Kraken.

I asked a girl to take our picture up against the metallic Kraken poster. I thought she was cute, blonde hair and blue eyes, or maybe that was just the alcohol talking. Her name was Amy.

Even though this was supposed to be a night for the four of us, I decided to ask Amy to come sit with us. As long as my new friends didn’t care.

“Amy? That took our picture?” Slade asked. “She should definitely come and sit with us. I’m sleeping on the floor anyway, right?”

As Slade, Zara, and Simon sang Bohemian Rhapsody,off-key even, I went and found Amy and brought her back to sit with us. She was a hairstylist, she said. She seemed interested in science, so I explained a particular theory to her.

After a while, Amy went back to the bar. For some reason I followed her, Finally, I realized I was being selfish, standing…


Zara:  STANDING?? I don’t think so, Richrob…


Richard:  …STANDING at the bar  while my friends waited for me in the back by the pool table. I traded phone numbers with Amy and rejoined Slade at the pool table.

Slade is seriously good at pool. He wiped the floor with us.



Slade: I did.  But enough about me.  Back to your “standing”, or whatever lie you’re telling…


Simon: At the One-Eyed Penguin there was a human-sized penguin suit that bar patrons could climb into for photo ops, but despite our best efforts, Zara wasn’t willing to humour us.


Zara:  I still have no idea what you are talking about.


Slade: Stop changing the subject!  I want to talk about Richard dancing!


Simon: The rest of the evening was a blur of billiards (Slade as a team of one defeated Richard and me), terrible karaoke, and Richard approaching a cute blonde girl at the bar named Amy. He even brought the fair maiden to meet us, which must have been strange for her, meeting a couple of people from down under and a comedian from Houston…all of whom had met each other for the first time this same evening. To her credit, Amy was a good sport, and after Richard exchanged phone numbers with her, we drifted into the street again.


Slade: Look, I’m thrilled to talk about my pool skills, but RICHARD WAS DANCING!


Zara:  Ok, I’ll get to it.

The thing I remember best about the One-Eyed Penguin is the karaoke.

Someone butchers Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, and Freddy Mercury resurrects himself from the dead just so he can kill himself.

And there is Richrob, at the bar, moving to the music.  Simon, Slade and I sit and watch.

Dance, Richrob, dance.


Slade: Finally!


Richard:  I have no idea what you are talking about.


Zara:  Richrob started dancing.

“If I can just dance enough…” Simon says, and Slade falls out of his chair.

A large woman waddles rhinoceros-like to the stage. Her skin tries to hold all of her inside, a task that seems impossible.

She gyrates and slobbers into the microphone.

“Suckin’ on my titties like you wanted me, callin’ me.”

Her friends clap as we watch Richard from across the room. Never stop dancing, Richrob. Ever.

“Suckin’ on my titties.” She flicks her tongue like a fat frog as she repeats the words.

I will never scrub this image from the surface of my mind.


Richard: The bar was closing and while we were all fairly drunk by now, we were also aware that Simon and Zara were leaving the next morning. We walked back to the hotel. On the way there, Zara pulled out her camera and requested that we curse for her.

She tried to tell us that she hasn’t been drinking but this was bullshit. She’d had four mojitos in an hour but had conveniently forgotten that part of the evening. I started to curse and somehow ended up showing the camera lens my teeth.

“Focus on my teeth, motherfucker,” I said.

“That was amazingly aggressive,” said Slade.


Slade: I did say that.  It was quite aggressive.  He really wanted us to look at his teeth.


Zara:  We enter the hotel loud and happy.  We will meet for breakfast in the morning. We all embrace. It takes months to get to know people this well.

Dallas must be made of magic.



Simon: I felt like I had just spent the night with three of my best friends, and I didn’t want it to end. But, alas, the hour was late. Zara and I had a long day of driving ahead of us, so we all retired to bed. I imagined Richard and Slade sharing a bed together and laughed myself to sleep.


Zara:  It is coffee instead of champagne that sits in front of me this morning, though the table is the same. The elevator doors chime and open, and the two of them come out to meet Simon and me.

“So who ended up on the floor?” I ask.

“We were too tired to care,” Richrob says. “We shared the bed.”

“But neither one of us slipped,” Slade says quickly.

His admission is shocking to me. “Neither one of you slept?”

“Slipped,” he says. “Neither one of us SLIPPED. You need to learn to pronounce your vowels, Zara. It changes the conversation dramatically.”


Richard:  I think she was doing it on purpose.


Slade:  I’m pleased to be able to report that the next morning, Simon had his first ever breakfast burrito, even if we did spend twenty minutes walking around Dallas in the morning sun to find a place that could serve him one. And no one was hungover, which meant that no one got to experience the magic powers of a good breakfast burrito, but that’s okay.

Next time.


Simon:  The next morning we all met downstairs for coffee. Everyone looked fresher than I imagined they might. Once again we ventured into the streets on foot, and eventually located a breakfast restaurant that served wraps filled with eggs and sausage and bacon (Richard insisted upon calling them breakfast burritos). We watched a bit of the World Cup, cheering for the Kiwis, and reminisced about our perfect night.

Finally, Zara and I bid our Texas hosts goodbye, hopped into the car, and headed west. But we didn’t even make it out of the city before we were on the phone, texting them, already reliving the amazing hours we had spent together, wishing we could go back and do it all over again.

I have never wanted so badly to live in America as I did on that morning.


Slade: How did I spend a full day with you guys and I still don’t know what “Brew” means?


Richard:  We decided to go for breakfast before we all hit the road again. We walked for blocks, and eventually found a café that served breakfast burritos. Simon and Zara had never seen these and took their time ordering.

When we said goodbye, it felt entirely too soon. One night in Dallas was not enough. Simon and ZaraPotts bid us farewell and started their long drive back to L.A and Slade and I began the drive to Oklahoma City.

We spent the drive practicing our Australian/New Zealand accents. We had them down perfectly by the time we hit Oklahoma.


Zara:  Ha Ha Ha. Sure, you did. Almost as perfect as your dancing.

We eat breakfast and watch the World Cup in a little café down the street. Slade and Richard are leaving for Oklahoma in the morning so Slade can perform, and Simon and I are continuing our journey West.

We linger in the restaurant and then again at the hotel.  We should already be gone, but I do not want to go.

We make plans.

Plans to return to America and plans for them to visit us at home.

We exchange phone numbers and decide that one day we will build a compound and hire a bartender and take over the world.

But not today.

Today we must leave.

“We miss you guys,” the text message says, and I show Simon.

We haven’t even reached the Dallas city limits yet.


* * *


Now, if you’ve read this far, it’s only fair that we make it worth your while.  I mentioned a bit of a surprise earlier.  The truth is that we didn’t write what it looks like we wrote.  Each one of us chose another member of the group and wrote as them.  Your job now is to determine who is responsible for who (Or whom. I always screw that up.)

So yes.  A bit of a game.  We hope we did as well as we think we did at writing as one another.

To make it worthwhile, the four of us have agreed to throw in a bit of prize: a foldable “Fuck You” t-shirt from Slade, one of Richard’s books, a bit of Australiana from Simon, and something inherently Kiwi courtesy of Zara.

Certainly there are, buried within our attempts at impersonating each other, errors that will tip you off as to who is responsible for what.  Best of luck with your guesses.  It was a fun adventure.

We wish more of you had been there.


**UPDATE**

Drum roll please…  Starring, in order of appearance:

Simon Smithson as the Comedian, Slade Ham

Zara Rose Potts as the Dancer, Richard Cox

Richard Cox as the Australian, Simon Smithson

and

Slade Ham as the Kiwi, Zara Potts

Winners will be posted in the comments below.



The line at airport security snakes back and forth like a mountain switchback. I figure the wait will consume at least fifteen minutes. I haven’t flown in a while and I don’t realize these days you have to strip naked and stand spread-eagled in front of the Star Trek transporter. To fight the boredom I look around at my fellow travelers, a varied lot that has conspired to be in this place at this time, bound together by our common desire to fly out of Tulsa on a Thursday morning in July.

In part two of my interview with Storm Large, Storm, Quenby Moone, and I continue our discussion about pretty much everything: feminism, Sarah Palin, every possible euphemism for a woman’s girl parts, and werewolves. Storm also shares a simple and delicious recipe for pot candy, called Marijuana Meltaways.

This part of the conversation picks up where part one left off, which was at the end of an anecdote involving Prince’s management team and hypocrisy.

In Greek mythology, the Gorgon is a terrifying creature, so ugly it turns those who look upon it to stone. “Gorgon,” in fact, is derived from the Greek word gorgós, which in English means “dreadful.” Synonyms for “dreadful” include: horrible, terrible, awful, frightful, and appalling…among others.

It’s easy to find references to Greek mythology in modern life. The Oedipus complex as described by Sigmund Freud. Terms like “Achilles heel” and “Herculean task.” The concept of Pandora’s Box. Even an ancient sea creature, the Kraken, has recently been released as a powerful, 94-proof, dark-colored elixir that brings out the fun in certain social situations where writers are involved.

But the Gorgon to which I’m referring, the dreadful monster that for years frightened anyone who dared look up on it, was the golf swing of my long-time friend, Brian Weir. In 1996, when I was first introduced to its complete form, all my own muscles seized up, and I could no longer properly hit the ball…almost as if I had turned to stone. Brian lives in southern California, far away from Oklahoma, so twice a year for a decade the two of us met on golf vacations, enjoying the artistry of many picturesque courses, even if our own games didn’t quite measure up to the beauty of the locations.

On each of these trips I would bring along a video camera to document the experience, footage that never failed to amuse us later. Over time I developed a sizable library of squirrely shots and pushed putts and missed opportunities, but mainly these recordings languished away in magnetic tape obscurity, only emerging when the two of us met again to relive the glory.

Then, in 2005, I saw in ad in Golf Digest, a golf publication that reaches an estimated six million readers per month.

“Do you have the World’s Worst Swing?” asked the ad. “Or know someone who does? If so, make a video and send it to us. You could win six free lessons from Dean Reinmuth, one the top golf instructors in the country.”

The contest was also sponsored by the Golf Channel, which planned to film and broadcast six free lessons awarded to the “winner.” And that’s when an idea occurred to me, an idea that is and probably always will be the best practical joke it’s possible for me to play on anyone.

Until that time I’d dabbled in linear video editing, like hooking VCRs together with cables, but I’d never edited on a computer. I purchased a Windows-based software app and taught myself how to use it over a period of days, painstakingly capturing hours of analog footage in real time. I assembled a collection of the best (or rather, worst) shots, often laughing so hard that I had to stop and compose myself. Then I purchased a microphone and attempted to record voiceover for my two-minute, eighteen-second video. This consumed even more hours, not because I couldn’t figure out what to say, but because I couldn’t go ten seconds without laughing again.

I completed the video two days before the deadline. I watched it again and again and again, supremely confident that, upon viewing, the selection committee at Golf Digest and the Golf Channel would immediately select Brian as the winner. But I also guessed there would be thousands of other submissions, and the chances of them even watching the video were small. Not to mention I was forced to overnight the DVD just to get it there on time.

Then I waited. Every day I would think about the video, and what might happen if my plan worked. To understand the true significance of the joke, you have to know Brian. We met at Texas A&M University. He was a member of the Corps of Cadets, and was commissioned into the military directly after graduation. He served the Air Force for several years, attended Army Ranger school, and reached the rank of Major. He went on to serve local law enforcement in Southern California and is now a sergeant. He is a tough, proud man who does not respond well to ridicule. Of course, we always joke around with each other, but those are private matters. This joke, if it was realized, would be played out on a national scale. Every time I thought about it, it made me laugh.

About two weeks after I mailed the disc, I received a phone call. I looked down and saw it was Brian. I answered, trying to hold my expectations in check. But Brian and I don’t speak on the phone often, and I got that feeling, you know the one.

“What the hell did you do?” were the first words out of his mouth.

“What do you mean?”

“Some chick just called me. She said she works for the Golf Channel. Apparently I’ve been chosen as one of ten semifinalists for a contest to find the World’s Worst Golf Swing. And then she gave me the link to a video. A video you made. She laughed at me, man.”

So did I. I couldn’t help it. Someone had actually watched the video! They even put it on the Internet!

“They’re going to call back and interview me in a couple of days,” he said. “You’re an asshole.”

I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe.

“I hope you know paybacks are a bitch,” was his answer.

But after the interview, Brian’s position changed. Apparently he’d impressed them over the phone. Had made everyone laugh. “I’d be on television,” he said. “They’d buy me a new set of clubs. I would get lessons from this famous dude. Did you know he used to coach Phil Mickelson?”

Readers and viewers were asked to visit a web site, check out the videos, and vote on their favorites. Or they could watch a special episode of “Golf Channel Academy” and call in their votes. Brian explained how they were going to include some of the submitted footage on the show. I salivated at the thought of a scene from my video being shown on national television. At the time, the Golf Channel boasted more than sixty million subscribers. I told everyone I knew to watch it. So did Brian.

My DVR was ready. If only a few seconds of my footage was shown, I’d be happy. So imagine my astonishment when “Golf Channel Academy” opened with my video, with no introduction and no voice over (other than my own) for almost two minutes. I was floored. I was ecstatic. After the video, Kelly Tilghman remarked, “The guy who did that voice over deserves an Emmy.”

Hahahahahahaha!!!!11 I said to anyone who would listen. The only thing better than this would be if Brian actually won the contest.

A few weeks later, a crew from Golf Digest visited Brian in California, and I flew out to watch. They brought a high speed camera to capture his swing. This is the camera used to make those fold-out, frame-by-frame pictures of golf professionals. Only the most notable golfers in the world get this treatment. Brian was asked to hit into a net, and the photographer pointed out a patch where the net had been repaired.

“We filmed Retief Goosen last week,” he said. Goosen is one of the best players in the world and has won two U.S. Open Championships. “He hit the ball so hard it tore the net.”

By now Brian was basking in the glow of his possible upcoming fame. He swung as hard as he could. He hit the ground so far behind the ball that the club bounced over the ball. A complete whiff. And the impact with the ground sent a chunk of sod into the net, where it stuck, coincidentally, on the patch created by Retief Goosen.

“Let’s see Retief do that,” Brian remarked.

Every day this was just getting better.

Finally, the day of the selection show arrived. The field of contestants had been narrowed to three, and the Golf Channel planned to announce the winner on the air. All three swings were terrible, but Brian and I couldn’t imagine the others would win. He is a born entertainer. I think he could do standup if he put his mind to it. The combination of my video editing and his comedy couldn’t be beat. Golf Channel invited us both to Orlando, and we managed to play Bay Hill, Arnold Palmer’s famous Florida course. We made friends with the other nominees. But would Brian win? Would it really happen?

It did.

Brian’s six lessons were filmed outside of San Diego, shown nationally on the Golf Channel, and I was invited to be on the final show with him. He was awarded a new set of clubs. He was recognized in airports, in restaurants, and especially on the golf course. His game improved dramatically.

And his swing, frame-by-frame, was featured in the pages of Golf Digest. Twice.

A few years later, after it was all over, Brian told me he was getting married again. In Hawaii. He’d sent me the raw footage from the various Golf Channel episodes, and I kept meaning to make a compilation video for him, but I never got around to it. So, as a surprise, I put together a new video, with old footage and new, and called ahead to the hotel. I set it to music and arranged for it to be shown at a reception before the ceremony.

One more final jab, you know?

As I said before, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to play a better practical joke on someone. It’s one thing to poke fun at your buddy’s golf swing in private, but to bring it to the attention of a national audience…that was sublime.

If you’d like, you can view the original video and the encore presentation below. The second link is on Facebook, so if you can’t see it, send me a friend request and I’ll hook you up. I’ve also included links to a few pictures.

But be careful. Watch these videos at your peril. His old swing could easily turn yours to stone.

World’s Worst Swing Submission Video

World’s Worst Swing Encore

Golf Digest Table of Contents

Golf Digest foldout

Brian and Richard on set


When I was sixteen, I became the dishwasher at a barbecue restaurant in Corpus Christi, a hot, humid city on the Coastal Bend of Texas. I almost didn’t get the job because the manager of the place, Gary, didn’t like me. Gary was a short, grizzled fellow in his 40s who ran his restaurant with a smoker’s voice and an iron fist. I was a skinny kid from the suburbs, apparently naïve, and he didn’t think I knew how to work.

The restaurant was a rectangular building made of painted concrete blocks and a flat roof. Attached to the building proper was a “pit room,” which was a fenced-in area covered by a slanted roof made of corrugated steel. A screen was pinned between the top of the fence and the roof to keep bugs out. There were three cylindrical barbecue pits, ten feet tall and six feet in diameter, which had been made from sections of oil pipeline. Each had three doors: Behind the bottom door was the fire, and behind the top two were grates where we cooked racks of pork ribs and whole beef briskets. The briskets and ribs continuously rained liquid fat upon the fire, causing it to flare on occasion, so you had to pay close attention to the air supply to make sure you didn’t burn what you were cooking.

The only reason I got the job at all was because of the restaurant owner, Kenny. Kenny was Gary’s younger brother. He was more financially successful than Gary and fancied himself as a privileged guy. My family wasn’t exactly rolling in money, but we were closer to the middle class than Gary or the rest of the employees there, and Kenny seemed to like that about me. I think he enjoyed having a “college boy” around, which is what they all took to calling me after I graduated from high school the next year.

For six hours a day on weekdays, and eight on the weekends, I stood in front of a stainless steel sink with an overhead water sprayer in my hand and cleaned dishes and pots and pans. When I wasn’t at the sink, my job was to separate tiny chunks of beef from long strips of leftover brisket fat. These tiny chunks eventually added up to a plastic tub of flesh that we mixed with barbecue sauce and called “chopped beef.” Being so intimate with the fat, this was the most tender meat in the brisket and tasted wonderful on a sandwich bun. It was the second most popular item we sold. But that meat sat on a table, unrefrigerated and uncovered, for hours, and no one who worked there would eat it.

Once a week, each of the barbecue pits had to be cleaned, because the constant rain of fat and grease coated the grates and the interior circumference of the pit. The way we cleaned the pits was to set them on fire. Literally. We removed the meat, opened all three doors, and started a big fire. The fire fueled itself on the caked-on grease and would climb all the way to the top of the pit. As the fire grew we shut first the bottom and then the middle door, leaving the top door open until we could see flames licking at the top. Then we’d shut that door with a long gardening tool that looked like a straightened hoe. As the fire raged inside, flames ten feet high, the air hole at the very bottom would hiss as oxygen was sucked through it. That was the sound of the fire breathing.

Eventually we’d suffocate the fire and allow the pit to cool slightly, and then it was the dishwasher’s job to climb inside and scrape loosened grease off the walls. I was the dishwasher, so that meant me. As you can imagine, it was massively hot in there. Hot and nasty. When I emerged from the pit, the only surface of my body not entirely black were the whites of my eyes. Even after fifteen minutes scrubbing with soap in the filthy kitchen bathroom, I could only begin to find the pink skin of my arms and face.

Eventually, after a couple of years, I worked my way up to the Head Cook job. This was much easier. Mainly you stood in the pit room and listened to music. Or smoked weed if that was your thing. Or you fantasized about which of the serving line girls you wanted to sleep with. I was still a virgin, but I nevertheless imagined that Brenda, she of the giant D-cup breasts, would one day saunter into the pit room and seduce me. She was thirteen years my senior, and the stories about her exploits with older men at the restaurant became my imaginary porn. There was no Internet back then and my family didn’t subscribe to Cinemax, so what else was I supposed to do?

In the morning, the cook on duty would take briskets, forty or fifty of them, out of the walk-in freezer and load them into one of the pits. Then he would take a natural gas “torch” and use it to start a new fire. The torch was a half-inch natural gas line with a metal fitting on the end. It took forever to light a fire this way, like thirty minutes on a good day. We didn’t have kindling, after all. Just mesquite logs.

As it happened, the morning of December 24, 1989 was my shift. Residents of Texas and other areas of the south may remember 1989 as one of the coldest Decembers on record. The low that morning at Corpus Christi International Airport was 15 degrees, which was actually two degrees warmer than the previous morning. The palm trees were not happy. It was so cold the thermostat in my truck’s coolant system froze stuck on the way to the restaurant, causing the engine to overheat. So I was late to work and already pissed off when I got there. I had no patience to watch a feeble natural gas flame ignite eight mesquite logs, especially not when Brenda stepped into the pit room and asked if I would help her carry a pot of barbecue sauce into the kitchen.

I never worried about the burgeoning fire. It was 15 degrees outside, so I figured if anything the logs would take longer than normal to ignite. Brenda and the other girls were inside, and I was happy to chat them up about whatever. The restaurant wasn’t scheduled to open for another two hours, so Gary the crotchety manager was still at home in bed. Everything was good.

This is why, when we heard someone banging on the front door, I didn’t immediately understand what was happening. Even when he yelled, “The pit room is on fire!” my brain didn’t want to make the connection. I’d only been inside for five minutes, maybe ten. Nowhere near enough time for a fire to start.

Still, I took off for the back door. My heart begin to hammer in my chest. What if the pit was on fire? It was fully loaded with briskets. Hundreds of dollars worth of briskets.

I reached, the door, yanked it open, and what I saw was a monster.

Flames were pouring out of all three open doors. The pit was ten feet tall, remember, and the slanted roof was only another three or four feet higher. The flames from the top door had already burned a hole in the corrugated steel. From my vantage point, the open doors blocked me from most of the heat, but I knew what I had to do–get those doors closed. If I didn’t, the whole pit room would burn down. Maybe the entire restaurant.

I found the hoe-like tool and approached the pit. The heat was immense. Overwhelming. Even protected by the steel doors I could hardly approach it. And my efforts to close the doors were futile. They wouldn’t move. When I pushed on them, the fire pushed back. It was a live thing, that fire. It roared at me.

This angle was never going to work, so foolishly I decided to try another tactic. I walked around pit #3 and approached the burning pit head on. This was a big mistake. Without the doors to protect me, I was exposed to the full force of the fire, which immediately flash-burned all the exposed skin on my body. It was like standing on the surface of the Sun. I retreated. I stood back and watched flames consume the briskets, watched the fire climb through the hole in the roof. I imagined the entire restaurant would burn to the ground, all because I had stupidly left an open flame unattended.

Eventually the fire department arrived and sprayed water everywhere. When they were gone, the pit still stood strong, but the briskets were a charred, soaking mess. They were lost. The 80-quart plastic ice chest, the one we stored cooked briskets in, was melted like candle wax. I was devastated.

Gary arrived a few minutes later, and I knew it was only a matter of time before he sent me home. But somehow he didn’t. A few minutes later, the owner, Kenny showed up. He pulled me aside and told me not to worry. The fire wasn’t negligence on my part, he said, because I’d been inside helping the girls. He called my mistake a “hustling error.” Which was partly true and partly not, so I still felt terrible.

Later that evening, after the restaurant closed, we held a Secret Santa Christmas party. I was in a sour mood and not interested in exchanging presents. All I wanted was to go home. But eventually someone handed me a wrapped box, which I reluctantly opened. What I found inside finally made me smile.

It was a toy fire truck.

After I finished college and moved to Tulsa, I drove my girlfriend to Corpus to show her where I had grown up. I was especially excited to take her by the restaurant, since I had told her many horror stories about that place. But as we approached the parking lot, I could see something was wrong. Where the building should have been, there was just a pile of ground-up asphalt

We went somewhere else to eat, and after we ordered, I pulled the waitress aside and asked her if she knew what had happened to the barbecue restaurant.

She nodded gravely, as if I were inquiring about the dead.

“Yeah,” she said. “It burned down.”

On May 19, 1993, I reported to work for my first real job…or more precisely the first one I held after graduating from university. Prior to that I had worked three years as an electronics salesperson at Sears while attending Texas A&M, and before that I toiled in the pit room of a barbecue restaurant for three other years. Unlike a lot of my friends, I didn’t enjoy bouncing from one job to the next, so as far as teenage employees were concerned I was about as loyal as they come.

Outrage

By Richard Cox

Rants

In a little while I have to go outside and haul six giant lawn bags from my back yard to the street. The bags are full of leaves and some pruned tree branches and they aren’t all that heavy, but that doesn’t make me dread it any less. It’s fairly downhill from my back yard to the street. There is a strip of grass all the way to the curb, so I don’t really have to carry them. I could just drag them down there. Tomorrow morning the bags will be magically whisked away to raked leaf heaven, and still I’d rather complain about having to move them forty feet to the curb than actually do it.

Earlier I went to the grocery store and they were out of local honey. All they had in stock was a slick national brand harvested in a faraway place, and for all I know it’s not even honey but high fructose corn syrup with glue in it, the product of an evil, shadowy agribusiness scientist whose entire purpose on this planet is to genetically engineer foods that are addictive and make me fat when I eat too much of them. As you can tell I’m pissed off about the honey. About the store being stocked full of 3.8 million food items I might want to buy but being out of the kind of honey I definitely want to buy. The nerve.

On the way to the store the streets were packed with cars and trucks and SUVs. There were too many to count. Where the hell are all these people going? There are twenty four hours in a day. We don’t all have to take the same two hours out of every day and jump on the road together, do we? The guy in front of me was driving a giant pickup truck, red and shinier than a brand new Porsche, and it should be clear to anyone who cares that he’s never hauled so much as a screwdriver in the bed of that thing. There is a cover over the bed, for heaven’s sake. How dare he have the opinion that a pickup truck is nice-looking and might be purchased for any reason other than pure utility?

And even when the roads are empty, like late at night or in the middle of nowhere, I’m always too far away from where I want to be. Last year I drove to Wichita Falls on a storm chasing expedition, and when the chase turned out to be a bust, I was five hours from home. Five hours! So on the way back, in the middle of nowhere Oklahoma, I got a bit of a lead foot. Maybe it was my choice to drive all the way to Texas but that doesn’t mean I should have to spend five hours on an empty highway going home. Somewhere between the Red River and Lawton I reached 135 miles an hour before I decided I was being an idiot. What’s the big rush to get home? So I can sit there and sulk about not seeing a tornado?

But I have every right to sulk. When I storm chase I connect my laptop into one of the power outlets in my car and hook it to a GPS receiver that is plugged into the other power outlet. Then I use a wireless card to connect my laptop to the Internet. Software on my computer overlays weather radar with a road map, it tells me how fast the storms are going and how fast I’m going and allows me to plot an intercept course. It tells me if storms are rotating and if they are producing hail. The software does everything but drive me to the damned storms, but then I cross the Red River and that’s when I find out my phone carrier doesn’t offer rural data service in northwest Texas. So I have to actually look for the storms, like out my window, and I have to place a phone call to someone and ask them to look at the radar. I mean I’m in the middle of nowhere and I have this little flatscreen computer phone that makes it possible for me to call anyone in the world, but that’s not enough. There is no data service out here for the love of God.

My car is smart enough to talk to my iPod and pipes all my playlists into a fancy display on the dash, but the menus take too long to navigate. I guess it’s my fault because I had the nerve to load 4,000 songs on there. 4,000 songs that I’m totally bored with. Hundreds of thousands of hours of blood and sweat tears by musicians I’ve never met and I can’t find a single song on the damned iPod that I want to listen to.

And while I’m driving back I can’t decide if I’m hot or cold. I tinker with the interior climate of the car by individual degrees. And the road is too bumpy. I look out on the prairie and I imagine people trying to cross the land on horses or in wagons, with no smooth asphalt, unimaginable discomfort caused by life-threatening conditions in the Old West, and I’m frustrated because the only restaurant on the turnpike is McDonald’s.

This weekend I’ll play golf and probably shoot a pretty good score, but I’ll be upset whenever any shot doesn’t go exactly where I want. I’ve only been playing for twenty-five years. Why haven’t I figured this out yet? It’s not rocket science.

And speaking of rocket science, why haven’t we sent a man to Mars by now? This is 2010. We were supposed to find that big black alien rectangle by Jupiter nine years ago, but the reality is we haven’t even traveled to the closest planet yet. We’re supposed to be flying around in DeLoreans propelled by fusion engines that run on trash, not arguing over where to dig up more fossil fuels. And if you really want to piss me off, ask me why there is no such thing as a real lightsaber.

How come everything isn’t exactly as I want it? Whose fault is this?

I’m outraged!

Aren’t you?