What is it about this show? I should be working on my thesis right now. Instead, I'm laying here watching Hoarders: Buried Alive, the best thing going these days on TLC. It sucks me in; I can't look away, even though the same patterns repeat in each episode: a person experiences the loss of a loved one, forms attachments to the objects around them, merges identity with things and the memories tied up in them while fearing further loss, and freaks out on cleaning day before seeming rehabilitated to some degree in the end.

Sometimes the whole family is complicit. Sometimes a child with health problems precipitates the change. In the most compelling shows, one spouse threatens to leave the other unless the situation improves. The husband says, quite literally, "I've had it up to here!" The wife cries, screams, and clings.

As far as I can tell, there are three types of hoarders. 1, Those who amass collections of stuff and run out of the space and energy to organize their possessions. They keep a relatively clean environment, but their families suffer from claustrophobia and stuff crashing down on their heads. This type can sell their hoard, as they have always claimed, and make a pretty penny. The other night, a woman made $7,000--and that was only a fraction of her empire. 2, Those who collect stuff of practical or aesthetic worth simultaneous to not throwing out their trash. They may have things of value, but the rats and roaches inevitably move in and on cleaning day the hoarder doesn't comprehend they're stuff isn't worth squat anymore. 3, Those who have very few items of any practical or aesthetic value and treat their homes like a landfill. Leaks, holes, and electrical issues start to show from disrepair, and bugs and rodents move in.

Tonight, we have the third kind. Early in the show, the son plays trumpet on his three-foot-high, cardboard throne. Feces-laden refuse surrounds him, along with mundane items like a foldout chair, a hockey mask, a lamp or two hovering sideways and haphazard in the mass. His friend comes by and, wearing yellow gloves, rummages through the layers of junk that is the kitchen floor. He finds, among other putrefaction, a whole pork loin. The parents point to a young son they lost to pneumonia as a factor in their hoarding. Later, the Hoarder's psychologist (one of a few regular specialists on the show) uncovers a divide in the marriage caused by the husband wanting the swinger lifestyle and the wife being completely turned off by his polyamory. They've tried this lifestyle in the past, and the other woman is still in the husband's life.

The other woman comes to help the cleanup process. She's a large woman. The narrator (inadvertantly, I think) says "Despite the elephant in the room..." Because the family parts with their hoard this night easier than expected, the director highlights tensions involved in this love triangle. After the hoarding specialist confronts the third leg about her insinuation in this marriage, the woman storms away, slamming her coffee into the second dumpster full of rubbish hauled from the house.

The show concludes with a sweet ending. The house is no longer condemned, the son can come out of his tent in the woods and move back in, and the family, minus the elephant, plus the pork loan-excavating friend, have spaghetti dinner at the kitchen table for the first time since 1994. Another family saved. Another hoard erased. Another untangled extension cord of feelings and emotions. Till the next episode, I think it's time I clean out my closet and take a donation down to the Goodwill.


The Clown Who Faked His Own Death

Each Thursday, I volunteer to lead a creative writing workshop at a charter school in Tallahassee, the School of Arts and Sciences, with a group of nine really creative seventh and eighth graders. We gather in a circle made of 5 or so moveable tables and sit in those plastic, stackable chairs in a room spotted with art supplies and stacks of books and with vocab words written in marker on the walls. Serious vocab words. Like "abstruse." And "gregarious." Words I studied when I took the GRE.

I started last fall. Some Thursdays, amid the steady burning grind of grad school, I'd bemoan my commitment, thinking I'd rather catch up on sleeping-grading-reading-writing-teaching-emailing than give away an hour of my life. But after engaging with my workshop group, hearing their excitement over storytelling, their thankfulness that I was there, I'd always walk back to my car feeling better about my day. Drive to campus energized. Gratified.

The imagination these 12-year-olds display in their fiction is amazing. One boy wrote about a man with super powers whom the government holds in a crystal prison. As a result of his capture, he has no memory of the past. All he knows is a blinding whiteness and a few tubes delivering him his vitals. "This is the world," he says. "There is nothing else." But when he sleeps, he dreams of city streets, of a vague familial love, of planets and stars and the cosmos. The story makes me think about the persistence of memory, collective memory--a link to the past we carry in our genes. Then the man breaks loose. This spring we'll find out what he does next.

A girl wrote a story involving two adolescent friends, a boy and a girl, playing on a farm while their parents are away watching college sports. Lightning strikes the barn and the youths have to run bravely through the blaze to save the girl's beloved horses. When we workshopped the story, we clued her in that her story had an element of romance. In its next version, the boy had been almost completely edited out and the horses had been severely and graphically scathed in the fire. We all encouraged her to spare the horses and write the boy back in.

Another story involved a convenience store robber whose truck gets jacked while he's inside holding the clerk at gunpoint. Others featured mutants, zombies, alien monkeys, overbearing mothers, an epistolary from a soldier in Iraq. The students insisted that I write a piece to be workshopped. I wrote about a ragtag trio of scientists picking up extraterrestrial signals from space. It stunk, but with the middle schoolers' help, maybe it'll get better by April.

Today was my first day back for the spring semester. We did a writing exercise where everyone chose to be a character from the circus. We had a ring master, an elephant, an elephant-poop scooper, a bear on a unicycle, an amazing monkey, a trapeze artist, a crazy clown, a Shetland pony, a gorilla, a ring master, and I was the tight rope walker. Each person took five minutes to start a story, then we passed to the left, and maintained our personas as we added on. The student to my right kept using his narrative authority to give everybody AIDS. Again and again, he'd pass me a story that took a sudden turn toward AIDS. He was worried that I'd give them all happy endings, turn them right back around.

"There's no redeeming this," I said. He laughed and laughed.

After four or five passes, we read a few out loud. Bears fell off tricycles; ring masters battled stage fright; monkeys jumped on people's heads.

In one story, the monkey said, "I had a huge crush on the poop scooper. Too bad he always smelled like poop."

In another reading, the clown informed us, "Once I hung from a noose and pretended to be dead. I stopped moving and breathing for five hours."

How dark. How sardonic. How dark and sardonic and utterly terrific.


Sometimes at Publix, It's Not About Parking as Close as You Can to the Door, but to the Cart Corral

Dear Blog,

I haven't written to you this year, a year in which I've cut my hair and shaved my beard: a new look for a new year. A year for which I went beyond making New Year's resolutions and constructed instead 10 Initiatives for Paul Haney's 2012. Ask nicely and I'll show you.

In less than three months, I'll be done with this Master's program and looking for work. I've got my sights set on train travelin' this summer, and plan to record my sojourn in a blog. If you can't write at home, write at the coffee shop. If you can't write at the coffee shop, write in the park. If you can't write in the park, write on a train, or wait till the next city. If you can't write on a train or in the next city, forget it and get a job.

See what I did there? Anaphora? Antithesis? Parallelism? Repeating that "If..., write...." My friend A--- could tell you that exact rhetorical device. She's a poet, and she remembers those things--like zeugma, and tmesis. A---'s been prolific with her blog this year. She must have a motive. Something to aspire to. The other night a group of us stood in her kitchen looking up what song was #1 on the day we were born. Mine was "Let's Hear It for the Boy." Someone else's was "I Think We're Alone Now," the Tiffany version. One guy had Dolly Parton's unrivaled anthem to the working class: "9 to 5." 

What a way to make a livin'.

But you got dreams [the boss]'ll never take away.

"That's the best song ever!" I yelled.

"I'll have to take your word for it," said the guy.

No, really. "9 to 5." Does it get any better? BTO's "Takin' Care of Business" is close. Dire Strait's "Money for Nothing" is closer. Van Morrison's "Cleaning Windows" is probably the closest. (See what I did there?) But nothing compares to Dolly tumblin' outta bed and stumblin' to the kitchen, pourin' herself a cup of ambition, beltin' it out with all us workadays behind her.

Tonight after class, I went to Publix. I picked up a box of cordon bleu in the frozen meat section and quickly put it back after reading the ingredients. A man across from me said, "they didn't raise the price, they reduced the quantity."

I looked up. "Oh yeah?" I said. He was bald and overweight.

"So you don't feel screwed until you run out." 

I slipped away and saw that his cart was empty except for three gallons of whole milk in the child seat. Later, while waiting for deli meat, he strolled by and I saw he had added one item: a bag of Publix crispy chicken fingers.

A new year, rhetorical terms, trains, Dolly Parton, the man from Publix. What do these things have in common? I don't know. Get off my back already.