DADDY-O'S DRIVE-IN DIRT
SCI FI ARCHIVES
Dispatches from Cranbrook
In the summer of 2001, Mary Jo Pehl taught a course called "Writing Your Humor" as part of a writer's retreat at the Cranbrook School in Michigan.
Here are three reports on the week, from three of Mary Jo's students.
To skip to the next dispatch, a brief look at Mary Jo and naughty words, click here.
To skip to the final dispatch, which has its tongue firmly in its cheek, click here.
In 1994, I was finishing off a tumultuous four years in Maryland. My mother called me once a week, and in one conversation she mentioned a show she had discovered on Comedy Central. She described it as a guy stranded in space with two robots making fun of really bad movies. Um...OK, Mom...see you on Thanksgiving...
In January 1995, I moved back to my hometown of Philadelphia. One morning I was sitting in the living room of our family home reading the want-ads (job hunting will be a recurring theme in this essay), half-listening to the show my mother was watching intensely. I wish I could say I remember the exact moment I fell in love with MST3K, as I soon learned it was called, but I don't remember. I do know that it was love at first sight. I was soon watching even more intensely than my mother. I never laughed as much in my life as I did when I was watching that show. I felt like the references were just for me. I soon learned that was a common feeling among the fans.
I thrived on my MST weekends, until it moved to the Sci-Fi Channel. Since I didn't get the Sci-Fi channel, I was crushed. But it remained my favorite show, and I carried on even if I couldn't watch it.
In the years that followed, I tried to eek out a plan for my life.
What did I want to do? Did I want to be a flight attendant? Did I want to be a dancer? Did I want to be an astronaut? It was a tough decision. I turned 25, and was in a car accident while I was out of town for my job as a construction site office manager. I found myself stranded in a hotel room with nothing but TV and a pen. I wrote my first grown-up story on the inside of a phone book cover.
The love of writing in me was re-awakened; it had been quashed eight years before by a creative writing teacher that told me I wasn't doing it right. Month by month, I started thinking of myself more and more as a writer, and vowed that I would never be blocked or stopped again. I think I must have bought about 2 dozen books on writing or writing exercises. Gradually, I began to refer to myself as a writer. It felt good. I repeated it several times until I got used to saying it.
That year, I went back to school. I decided to major in English, just to learn as much as I could about writing. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with it, if anything. Eventually, I went as far as I could with the job at the construction company, and took another job with a similar engineering type firm. It was then that I began to play with different ideas on what I could do with writing. I also began a novel to help me through all the life changes I experienced. I created a character based on myself, and when something happened to me that I couldn't understand, I wrote it as having happened to her, and it helped. Wow, free therapy!
It was an average day six months later when I first got the email, titled "Mary Jo Retreats" - Satellite News said that Mary Jo was set to teach a workshop entitled "Writing Your Humor." Right after reading it, I thought, "I wish I could go..." but really, how could I? It's not like I can just take off and go. Can I? Maybe if I was a humor writer, then I could go. Could I possibly be a humor writer?
There was no question. I HAD to go.
I began my weekly pestering of Liz Lent, the Head Mistress of the Writer's Retreat at Cranbrook, where Mary Jo would be retreating. I pestered her once a week up to and including the week of the retreat. She was patient with me and understood my excitement, answering my many questions: when is it? Where can I stay? How will I get there from the airport? Are there places to eat near the campus? Will you be feeding me? Do you like chocolate? Do you enjoy sports? What's the Midwest like? Liz answered all my questions good-naturedly and with extreme intent to help make my trip to Michigan a fun one.
Then - WHAM (hope you liked my sound effect! I won't make anymore)! Job elimination. Despite my attempts at being prepared for a possible layoff, I was caught completely off guard. I called Liz and told her I couldn't go. Then I got really depressed.
Aw, the heck with it, I'm going!
I called Liz back and said I would go. Her kindness and patience with me never wavered.
Finally the day in late July of 2001 came: I was to take a night flight to Cleveland and then to Detroit. This was it! I arrived at the airport a hot, wretched mess, and decided I would not take public transportation on the way home no matter how much money I could save. I checked my bag, and trotted on down to the gate. I was so excited! You should have seen me - I was adorable. I practically skipped on to the plane, and when we were boarded I got out my copy Jackie Collins novel and got set to jet.
Two hours later, we were still on the runway. We didn't move at all. Oh, excuse me, we moved fifty feet, I forgot about that...to say I was disappointed is a big understatement. Since Liz had been angelic enough to arrange transport for me, I called her from the runway (there was some question in the cabin among the disgruntled passengers if cell phone use was OK. Twenty-five other people and I decided it was) and told her when my new flight would arrive. Another bit of luck on my side is that one of my best friends is a travel agent and I had another flight booked before I got off the plane.
I took a cab home (luckily I also live near the airport), and my fat cat Bogart jumped up on me excitedly, landing on my stomach, this time not scratching me. He then proceeded to beg for food as I whined to my mother about how I would have to wait to go on My Trip. The main reason behind my disappointment was not that I couldn't wait to get there, but that now I would miss at least one hour of the three-hour class. One hour out of fifteen isn't that bad I suppose, but I absolutely despise being late - it's embarrassing, though naturally it can't be helped sometimes. I especially despise being late to something I'm excited about - when I took all the necessary precautions to make sure I wouldn't be late (being late for say, the dentist, is OK with me, however).
The next day, I was considerably less excited, because I was nervous something would go wrong and I would miss the first day altogether. But this time, the flight arrived on time and took off when it was supposed to. We took off and I gazed at Philadelphia below me. It was at that moment I remembered: I'm afraid to fly.
Luck was on my side again as I strained to hear the comforting sounds of Frank (Sinatra if you're asking) singing "Summer Wind" which was distraction enough til I got in the air. I felt the airlines choice to play Frank almost made up for stranding me in my hometown the night before. When I could no longer hear the velvety tones of Francis Albert, I was calm enough not to panic, so I took Jackie Collins out again and began to catch up on the adventures of Lucky Santangelo.
When we landed safely in Cleveland, eventually, I got off the plane. Waiting to exit a plane is almost as much fun as sitting on the runway waiting to hear how long it will be until takeoff. It's even more fun when an ignorant man puts his full body weight on your bare toes. My sandals will never be the same. I looked at him, wondering how he could not have noticed he crushed my toes! Did he think it was a lump on the floor? I looked at him waiting for him to say, "Excuse me." He did not. So I "accidentally" swung my backpack in his direction as I pushed past him to exit the plane. Bump. Oops! Then to make up for the bad karma, I found a charity box and squeezed in $5 while I was waiting for my connecting flight. I don't want to shock you, but the flight was an hour late.
By the time I got on the second plane, I was ready to fly it myself. This 21-hour journey to Philadelphia (not counting my schlepping home to sleep for five hours) was getting to be too much. Perhaps if I called Mary Jo, she'd bring the class to Cleveland? Cleveland seems nice enough. The airport is pleasant, if that's any way to tell.
We eventually took off and arrived in Detroit. It wasn't soon enough for me, and I couldn't wait to get off the plane. But now, I was no longer the same excited girl who all but skipped on to the runway the night before: I was a hardened traveler, made cynical and weary by one too many delays.
The delightful Cranbrook school had a driver waiting for me at the airport. I felt important. Forty-five minutes later, we drove up to the school! I entered the school, while the driver carried my bag into the building for me. Liz introduced herself and shook my hand, then pointed me in the right direction for the class.
This is it! Of course, I am no longer in the mood to write...I felt so awful as I walked down the hall. Didn't even have time to check a mirror to see if I resembled something human. Two hours late! How embarrassing! OK, Erica, I instructed myself, calm down, put on your happy face and your pleasant demeanor and walk confidently in the room!
It didn't work. I mumbled an apology to Mary Jo, as she introduced herself to me with a smile. I smiled back and shook her hand and tried again to appear cool. Numerous sets of eyes looked at my red-faced form as I found a seat. Come to think of it, it's more like I slumped into the first seat near me.
After I got used to the owners of the many sets of eyes, and stared at them one at a time trying to get a "read" on them, I felt more relaxed and started to feel the excitement of the night before. Then, I felt comfortable enough to participate verbally in the class. Mary Jo told me what exercises I missed and I dutifully promised to make them up that evening. I wondered if the role of teacher's pet was already taken, as it was a role in which I had always excelled.
In the meantime, I had to write something, so I began a few free writing paragraphs on my fears or obsessions (the topic of that moment). When it came time to read aloud, I gleefully, if somewhat hesitantly, shared my paranoid feelings with all. It brought a couple of chuckles. I felt better - more relaxed..
I left the first day of class much more confident than when I arrived, though it had only been an hour. The class all moved on to lunch in a big steeple-like room, as I and one of my classmates, Liza, were shown to our dorms. Liza was the only other classmate of mine to have a room on campus, so she and I adopted each other as Dorm Buddies. Liza is one of the most bitingly funny people I have ever met. Though she presents a quiet demeanor, her Geminian eyes do not miss much, and neither does her wit. We, like, totally bonded. I drove her crazy singing the Judy Garland version of the song "Liza" and telling her how Liza Minnelli was named for that song. I would torture her with continuous verses of "Liza, Liza, skies are gray, when you belong to me, all the clouds'll roll away..." She liked me anyway. I couldn't help it - I never met anyone named Liza before.
After Liza and I were shown our rooms (mine was nice but the TV was missing - I later learned the TVs were missing in all the rooms), we made our way down to the churchateria. We grabbed lunch. I was starving as I hadn't had any food since lunch the day before, save for two glasses of milk and a stale, horrible, cold donut on the plane (I had to eat it, I was hungry!). Liza and I sat with a few of our classmates:
Chris who was really Willy (or vice versa), his bud Craig, and Bryan, one of the more talented and imaginative writers there. Liza, Bryan and I discussed MST3K while Craig began the first of a series of lectures about how television eats your soul. Willy talked about how he worked at the school and found out about the retreat that way. Afterwards, we all went our separate ways, but Liza and I promised to meet later for dinner.
Being stranded in a mostly suburban area without a car leaves you with little options or freedom. But my new buddy Liza had rented a car. I couldn't think of anything a car-less, basically broke woman could do for her in exchange for a ride here and there, so I offered to give her gas money. She declined. I shoved it in her purse, she took it out. I stuck it under her door, she stuck it back under mine. I passed it to her in class, she passed it back. I was beginning to think she didn't want the money.
Liza and I had important things to do on our first day. It turns out there was a CVS within short driving distance to the school. My sister and I could go to a CVS and stay there for an hour, wandering the aisles, making fun of merchandise, and discovering wonderful new products. I was thrilled when Liza admitted she did the same thing!
After our CVS excursion, we were pretty worn out. Hey, who wouldn't be? We had dinner and wandered around the school and the campus, chatting about writing, our jobs (well, I didn't have a job, but we talked about the whole "working" concept), and compared favorite episodes of MST3K. We also discovered that both of us had read Mike Nelson's book twice, and compared favorite parts.
Later on we again went our separate ways, and I went to unpack and get settled my room. It was with great joy later that night that I discovered a cable TV in a living room, so I didn't have to miss "Larry King Live" or "Law and Order" after all. It was a comfortable room, one that most simulated my at-home writing area (my lap, on the couch or my bed, as the TV plays in the background). I got a lot of writing done that night.
Liking the free-writing concept of earlier that day in class, I decided to apply that to my real life. Julia Cameron said in a great book called "The Artist's Way" you should write three full pages of writing every morning as soon as you wake up, before you do anything else. I don't think so. But I can do it before I write anything else, and so I began that night.
Before I went to sleep, I had to go shut down the computer room. The Kingswood building is beautiful, as is the whole of the Cranbrook campus from what I saw, but as I walked the hallowed halls (Liz had made me dorm mother - I felt special! One of my jobs was to turn off the computers at night) I felt as if I was picking up the emotions of almost a century full of students, and it was slightly creepy.
Well, actually, it freaked me out. Sometimes my active imagination serves to frighten me. My imagination fixated on a picture of a girl from the class of 1937, who was killed in 1936. I made up stories about her as I roamed the empty halls, and wrote a mental note to force Liza to come with me when I turned the computers off the next night.
This experience did not help put me in a relaxed mood for sleep, and it was too creepy to sit in the living room past midnight. The class didn't start until 10AM the next day, but it was necessary to get up early so I could eat breakfast. I would rather my classmates hear the sound of my voice reading magnificent works than the sound of my stomach as it begs for food. I took a couple of Tylenol PM, and had dreams of my fat cat eating stale donuts and watching "Law and Order."
The next morning, Liza knocked on the door to greet me and walk me down to breakfast. My God, was she a morning person? I was relieved to find out through the course of the morning that she wasn't. I eventually was ready and we went to eat. Then we walked around the campus until it was time for class.
As class started and I listened to the conversations around me, I again surveyed the more talkative members of the class.
There was, of course, Liza the talented, but I had plenty of time to study her.
There was Willy, who was really Chris, but wasWilly because there was someone else that was Chris. I'm not sure why he wanted us to call him Willy, but we complied.
There was Michael, whom I later nicknamed Scott. He looks like several people I have known named Scott, so I think he was mistaken in thinking his name was Michael.
Craig, the un-shy wit, agreed with me that Michael was actually Scott. Craig was probably the most vocal of all of us, and out of all of us, got more laughter than anyone in the room.
There was Ann, who looked so much like someone I go to school with that several times I almost asked her what she was taking this semester.
There was Mary Jo, with her fabulous laugh. It was nice to see that she was having as much fun in class as we were.
There was Stephen who had a magnificent way of speaking and putting sentences together, and seemed in such control.
There was Bryan, who insisted he was a teenager but was really much older, wiser, and more mature than half of the class.
There was Chris, who inspired me with his way of putting stories together.
As for me, somehow when I was out of the room, I was nicknamed "Erica with 97 K's," by Craig and/or Willy. I'm not sure why. I think because they thought I was Erika and not Erica. Regardless, the name stuck.
That was we: the Writing Your Humor group. There was a poetry class down the hall, and the humor writers formed a quick rivalry with them. We won. I think. Well, we were cooler anyway.
We did some individual exercises, and then some group exercises. One of the class favorites was when Mary Jo would ask us to write a list of ten nouns on a piece of paper. She then asked us to write ten verbs. After seeing the blank faces of half of the group, she explained that a verb was an action word. "Oh, right," said the class. The light dawned, and we wrote our verbs down. Then we had to write sentences using these nouns and verbs. We changed the exercise gradually so that each of us was writing silly, quick sentences with someone else's noun and verb.
Mary Jo asked us to bring ideas or stories to class that we were working on, so we could either read them in class or work on them. Since I was still dealing with my job elimination bitterness, I brought a "job journal" I started. One of my teachers suggested I try to send an article or article series to Philadelphia Magazine, and at the time I was still playing with that idea. I started trying to get through my job hunt by making it funny, and making fun of the people and situations I encountered while job hunting. I had to do something to counter the depression of realizing I had gone on 50 interviews in a year...
The classes went by entirely too fast. It was soon time for lunch in the dining hall. I have blocked all of the meals, so I cannot share with you what we ate, but we did eat. After class, Liza, Craig, Scott and Willy invited me to drive down to Canada. Down to Canada, I asked? Yes, down, Willy said. I pretended it made sense and wrote a mental note to study some maps later. I passed on the Canada trip because I didn't have much money and was also afraid I wouldn't be back in time for Mary Jo's reading that night.
I went back to my room, read some Jackie Collins, and then wrote for an hour. Then I went to watch "Magnum" in the living room, and strolled on down to dinner. Liza was supposed to meet me there after Canada, but she wasn't there. I ate alone, trying to develop the courage to ask Mary Jo to read some of what I had written. I decided I would wait until class the following morning. Mary Jo, that night, would be reading some pieces, along with some of the other teachers at the Writer's Retreat. I would like to say I remember the other teachers, but I only paid attention to Mary Jo. Can you blame me?
Willy had given me directions to get to the area that was housing the reading, and I wrote them down. Except I wrote them down from memory, and they were wrong. So I got lost. I got really lost. Really, really lost. Finally, after searching for twenty minutes, I found it. Thank goodness I was on foot and could just pretend I was wandering the campus.
I spotted Liz, and after offering to help her, and she told me to sit down and relax. Wow, cool...OK... I sat down and relaxed. Soon, there were masses of people in the once-empty area. I looked around. No Liza, Willy, Craig or Scott to be seen. I wondered if they had found something more interesting than Mary Jo in Canada. Not likely, as they had all been as excited about the reading as I was. The reading started. Mary Jo was first. I think Mary Jo was first. Like I said, she was the only one I was paying attention to...she read two essays, leaving everybody wanting more. In one of her essays, she talked of her love affair with a cheese from the wrong side of the tracks, and how her father killed him in an angry haze. It was an emotional reading. We clapped enthusiastically when she was finished.
After the reading, while still looking around for Liza and the Crew, I approached Mary Jo and told her how funny she was. I didn't say it that way, I mean, I didn't want to sound corny or anything. I think I told her she was great and thanked her, but I don't remember. Wow, I have to work on my memory. But that's for another essay. She thanked me, and I decided to back off, not wanting to appear like an overeager fan, though in all honesty, I probably was. I continued my "totally cool" demeanor, or at least attempted to, and bade Mary Jo a good night.
I grabbed a soda, took a free keychain from the radio station that was sponsoring the reading, and ambled back to my room. It was then that I saw Liza. She was drunk off her butt. Well, in my opinion she was just tipsy, but according to herself, she was drunk off her butt. I was trying to appear stern with Liza, comfortable in my big sister role, but I couldn't pull it off and was soon laughing outright at her (she assured me the next day she didn't mind). I asked Liza how Canada was, and she said they never got there. I don't know if she told me why, but she seemed to think it was funny. To this day, I wonder what I missed, but I'll get over it.
I went to watch TV and write, and Liza went to her room. Later she appeared with things that she'd written, and I gave her some things that I'd written. I invited her to join me in the living room, and we hung out with some more "Law and Order."
Liza showed me the newsletter she did for work, in Arizona - I was so impressed that she could put together a newsletter - I wouldn't have known how to begin. She read my job journal and liked my description of what driving around in suburban Pennsylvania is like, and how I opined that people who work at temp agencies can go from kind hearted people to dragons in two seconds flat.
We went to our rooms, where I read and wrote some more and tried to pretend there was a TV in the room so I could sleep. It didn't work. I focused on looking out the window at a light and tried to pretend that was a TV. I then tried to pretend I was in my own room so that I could sleep in the dark, and that didn't work either. Again it was up to Tylenol PM.
The next day, it was breakfast, roaming and hanging out until class for Liza and I. This was the third day, Saturday. We did some more fun writing exercises, like continuing with our noun verb exercises, and writing whole stories based on someone else's silly sentence. I wrote a story about two rival mafia groups. One group was fingernails, the other were toenails. Maybe you had to be there, but the class seemed to like it.
I asked Mary Jo on our break if she would mind reading what I wrote. We talked for a bit about job hunting and administrative hell. It was fun, and she was more than willing to read my work! Excellent.
After class, Liza and I hung out until the second reading that night. We didn't really want to go because we were tired, but then again there wasn't much else to do, especially for free. We went to the reading. We went to the reading hungry because our dinner didn't like us. We didn't like our dinner, and we were thinking of going out looking for cheap food after the reading. We suggested this to Scott, and he agreed to be our escort. Mary Jo sat next to us, and after the reading, Scott offered her a ride back to her hotel. Liza and I tried to be cool and exchanged glances, as if riding in a car with one of our favorite writers happened to us every day. Mary Jo accepted Scott's offer, and I asked if they would mind waiting a few seconds for Liza and I to run to our rooms and get our purses.
Liza and I walked out of the reading room calmly, chatting politely. As soon as we were out of site of everyone and anyone in the reading room, we ran like crazy people to our rooms to get our stuff and make sure we looked presentable. We didn't want to keep Mary Jo waiting. We ran back to the room, but were having trouble keeping straight faces by this time. Especially me. Come to think of it, Liza may have been laughing at me rather than the situation. We stopped short of the room, collected ourselves, and walked calmly, like two lovely ladies, to a waiting Mary Jo and Scott.
After dropping Mary Jo off, I called shotgun and rode next to Scott while Liza stretched out in back. Scott took us to a cute little restaurant in the center of town. I liked it because we sat under a picture of Frank. The "Pal Joey" years - my favorite.
I didn't have much money but I had a big appetite. I could either get a salad or a crab cake appetizer. I'm no fool -I got the crab cake appetizer. It was gone in two bites, but they were two delicious bites.
Scott dropped us off at our dorm-atorium-church-ateria, and we repeated our nightly process of hanging out in the living room and in our respective rooms, writing. I still didn't sleep well that night.
The next day was Sunday. Only two more days of class! Liza and I were starting to get sad that it was almost over, but we cheered each other with reminders that we still had two whole days. Among that day's exercises were writing a story, fictional or true, and then reading it aloud. The rest of the class then had to decide whether it was truth or fiction. I wrote about being on a temp job that I hated, discovering I had won the lottery, and walking off the job. Most of the class thought it was true. It wasn't. It was a fantasy. Actually, it was partially true - I had been at a horrid temp assignment, just days before leaving for the retreat, and I had purchased a lottery ticket. I had won. I won $1.00, but still...
Another class exercise was to write about an event from two perspectives: one as if it was the best thing that ever happened to you, and one as if it was the worst. The class had grown weary and tired of hearing me complain about losing my job, so I'm sure no one was surprised when I wrote about that - but I had fun with that exercise! It was so true of that particular situation; there were so many good things and bad things, it was more than enough for two perspectives.
Mary Jo sat with me after class and gave me her perspective and advice on my writing. I was so excited! I tried not to look too stupid as I stared hopefully at her. I was so thrilled that she had read my work let alone liked it that I was practically beside myself, at least internally.
That night's excursion was a tour of the campus with Willy and Craig, during which I made a faux pas regarding whether lakes were man made or were not...we don't have lakes in Philadelphia really, so I got confused. I'm not ashamed to admit it. Willy and Craig are not ashamed to remind me, either.
The plan was to meet for dinner, than go to a local jazz club called Baker's. There was a rumor among the group that Mary Jo might meet us at Baker's. Craig and I thought it would be especially fun to leave Mary Jo messages on her hotel voice mail on the hour bugging her to join us. It was, indeed.
We arrived at Baker's. I've been to jazz clubs once or twice, but nothing like Baker's. This was perfect for an old movies and old music buff like me. The man that greeted us told me Baker's was the oldest jazz club in America. He was an elder gentlemen, and my imagination went to work again as I imagined him working at the club for most of his life.
The music was incredible - I impressed Willy and Craig by recognizing Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart (my favorite) among the composers and lyricists of the music that was being played. Liza and Willy were amused that Craig and I were writing down story ideas on napkins. Craig ran out of napkins, and stole mine. I, in turn, had to steal Willy's when I ran out. Liza hid her napkins.
The night went by quickly - around 11PM, we all decided to leave one last message for Mary Jo as a group. In that message, I told Mary Jo that I missed her, Liza asked her where the hell she was, Craig told her Liza was dancing on the tables, and Willy asked if she would be grading on a curve. We then hung out for another hour, and left around midnight. On the way out, I finally noticed the waiters had these awesome red T-Shirts with white printing and told Willy to get me one and send it to me in Philly.
The next day - the last day! We would all be going back to our real lives. I was starting to get sad, because my real life meant no job, and there at the retreat - I was a writer. I was a funny writer, who had become sufficiently less shy over the days of the class. In fact, this was to be the day that I read my work out loud. Over the days, I gradually had more and more fun reading what I wrote. Everyone was so supportive that it was unusual for someone to read and get no reaction - there was always a reaction, and it was always positive.
We did our noun verb exercise one more time, and then we wrote a complaint letter. The funniest one was Stephen, who wrote a complaint to the person who decided to stop playing videos on MTV. At last, it was time to read allowed. I was nervous, but excited.
When my turn came, I read selected portions of my job journal. I felt pretty good, but I didn't feel a reaction, so about ¾ of the way through my reading, I made an unfortunate mistake for a public speaker: I looked at my audience. There were such serious faces! Immediately, I regretted having read my work. My heart ached with disappointment as I said to the class, "I don't think I can read anymore..." and meekly offered that no one seemed to be reacting. I couldn't focus on who was doing the talking, but I heard a few people encourage me to continue.
I had shown the work previously to both Liza and Mary Jo, and they had both liked it, so my first reaction to the silence was that the rest of the class didn't like it. After I was done reading, a few people said they didn't react because they were sucked into the story and were listening to see what would happen. Though that made me feel better, I was still in some sort of crash stage, and I started to cry, even as people were praising my work around me. I was embarrassed, but not humiliated. Mary Jo gave me a box of tissues and an understanding look, and Willy, Craig, Scott and Liza exchanged glances with me to remind me I was among friends.
After the class, Mary Jo told us all how incredibly funny we all were, and how much fun she had with us. She asked us if we had any questions. We asked her about everything from freelance writing (I'll give you two guesses who asked that question) to MST3K. I felt comfortable enough to admit that I had only ever been able to see one or two Sci-Fi episodes, and hadn't seen the last episode, and, but I was glad to hear that Mike and the Bots got back to earth. I wondered if that included Cambot, but was too shy to ask.
It was time to say goodbye. I was presented, by Willy and Craig, with a Baker's T-Shirt! Mary Jo and I enjoyed some chocolate together - the class made promises to keep in touch, and as my plane was first to depart, I was the first to leave the group. I started to tell Mary Jo how much coming to this retreat had meant for me, but I decided against it as I was still processing all I had experienced. I felt like Mary Richards as I hugged everyone in a line to say goodbye and crushed Craig's fedora. Little Liza, I think I'll miss you most of all...
I got to the end of the hall where I was to meet my ride, prepared to internalize my "Wonder Years" style monologue of what this retreat had meant to me. Except that I realized I forgot my suitcase, and had to go back to retrieve it. So much for my exit...
On the plane, instead of getting depressed about Real Life and No Job, I decided to process everything I'd been through. I played with my "I'm a writer" affirmation, changing it to "I'm a humor writer." I felt for the first time that being a writer was something that I was instead of something that I wanted to be, and though it's only been eight months, I'm confident I'll never lose that. I found a job after eons of job searching, and threw myself back into the ten week semester grind at school. There isn't time because of my "day" job (I no longer call it my "real" job) and school to write as much as I want (the fact that it took me 8 months to get this to your eyes should attest to that), I am sure to write every day, even if I can only write, "AAAAAAAAAH!" I still try to use my novel as a diary and therapy, and I am no longer as concerned with editing it and publishing it as I am with getting the feelings out and just writing.
Members of our group, especially Liza, Willy, and Mary Jo, continue to offer their support about writing and other things. I wish I could do for them, or for anybody, what they have done for me. I'm still not sure where writing will take me, but I feel successful just by writing, even if no one ever sees it.
And that is how my love for MST3K changed my life.
I could hardly believe it. I was in an actual writing workshop with the actual Mary Jo Pehl. I was going to learn how to write humorously from one of the masters. Or not. I didn't care. I was just ecstatic to be in the same room as the divine Ms. Pehl. So imagine my surprise when I found she actually wanted us to do writing exercises. Our first assignment was to write three pages about our obsession or fear. Since obviously I couldn't write about my obsession with MST3K or the fact that I had changed my cat's name to "Mary Jo," I stared at my blank piece of paper until I panicked and penned something down on the page about one of my more mainstream obsessions.
It was a very freeing exercise, yet I was hesitant to read it. Others in the class had read their work, and it was funny, naturally, but lacking something. I read over my piece once more and realized why mine was so different. I hesitantly raised my hand and tentatively asked if it was okay to swear, as my paper was delightfully peppered with all sorts of cunning, albeit highly offensive uses of the F-word. But Mary Jo, the consummate pro that she is, was not shocked in the least. In fact, she seemed almost relieved by my question, and by the end of the retreat her mouth uttered such beautifully constructed phrases that would make even the most hearty of sailors blush. It was pure poetry. Except better because we weren't poets. We were humorists.
Eventually, most writing exercises lent itself to the occasional swear word, which in it of itself is funny. Now throw in the word "monkey" and you have pure comic genius.
Needless to say, some people's opinion of me rose steadily with every new foul word uttered from my lips, while some equated me the antichrist. So, I couldn't help be a little bit proud of myself. It was like pitting light against dark, good against evil, butter against margarine. Because, I may not be the funniest person in a room, but damnit at least I can honestly say I got to hear Mary Jo say "f---," and you just can't put a price on that.
The sun rose gloriously on the elegant Cranbrook campus, revealing brilliant swaths of green foliage and blue water, patina roofs and cyan sky. By mid-morning, however, the Nature's once spectacular palette had been faded by the mid-morning sun. All around had been reduced to gauzy, washed-out hues, creating a look not unlike some old, faded movie print. In the midst of this pallid scene, a small group of people gradually assembled. One by one, they trickled through the doors, directed toward their classrooms (and, thanks to the beverages of choice for all the participants, with ever growing frequency, to the nearest lavatory). One room housed poets, anxious to release their inner muses. Further down, there were would-be playwrights, eager to compare their works with peers. And, somewhere in the middle of it all, were a small but plucky band of humorists. Undeterred by the jeers and taunts of the poets, the reigning bullies on this block, this rugged little group congregated to ponder life's lighter moments with the guidance of one Mary Jo Pehl.
As the humor writer's group assembled, personalities were already beginning to be made known. That was Ann, over there, sweet and sincere, with a gentle sense of humor. And, here was Chris (one of two named Chris -- the extra Chris was later slaughtered by the human sacrifice writers' group) -- measured, clever, and ever droll. Young Bryan sat at the head of the table, soon to reveal himself as a magician -- accomplishing mighty literary feats with a minimum of verbiage. Liza sat quietly; she seemed nice enough, at the time. Later, she would unleash terrible, wonderful venom upon the unsuspecting group. Next, the wily vet, Michael strolled in (what exactly was in that bottle, homemade whiskey or just iced tea?), followed by Craig, who can only be described as "closely related to modern human beings." Willy, one of the tragic "circus orphans," chronicled in the November 1964 issue of National Geographic, accompanied his adopted cousin, Craig. Even though they might look genetically related, they weren't. And, here was Stephen, later dubbed as "kind of shy but also wry" by one of the less talented poets just before she attempted to kick his ass. (Good thing Stephen is such a martial arts fan.) He would later retaliate for one of her many transgressions against his native language (Athabaskan), with a classic Tae Kwon Do move, made popular in the 1950s by Lucille Ball. Christina scowled at this rag-tag group, wondering where on earth such a strange collection of individuals might have originated. The lovely and charming Erica was absent, but would soon arrive, fashionably late -- making as grand an entrance (who brings doves to retreats any more?) as you could imagine. But, where was Mary Jo?
Ms. Pehl was fresh off her triumphant appearance as Abraham Lincoln in a 100% improvised, Chicago revue of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. ("Unnerving!" said the Chicago Sun-Times.) And, she sauntered into the room, brimming with all the haughtiness that such an recent spate of good fortune (or, as she would call it, "mega-superior, gigant-o-talent") may impart. As she took her place at the front of the room, she introduced herself and asked the group what they expected to get from the class. Young Bryan was the first to respond. In a voice drenched with sincerity, he said, "All I want to be is the best humor writer possible." The reply would be swift and stinging -- literally. A quick swipe from back of Mary Jo's hand would graze Bryan's face and remind him that cliches and trite banalities would not be tolerated. This was the first indication of Mary Jo Pehl's greatest attributes: A talent for being kind and magnanimous but ultimately. Young Bryan was quickly whipped into shape and never dared utter another meaningless phrase.
--Chris "Willy" Hopp