My Diorama: A Proposal

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Dear Mr. Hansen,

Hi! It’s me, Brandon Willheit, from your 4th grade class? I plan to sign this letter at the bottom, but I figure why not tell you right away who’s going to make this the best year of your life ever. (Start writing your Milkweed School District “Teacher of the Year” acceptance speech!) In fact, even though your 1989 Chevy Cavalier is totally sweet, maybe it’s time buy a new ride. And why stop there? You really should get a mailing address.

It’s me, Brandon Willheit. (5th row, 3rd seat, next to the window?)

About our assignment to make a diorama of “a major event from Kansas history” — can I run this proposal by you first? My diorama is going to be so “kick-A” and I’ll need to get so much stuff for it (glue, cotton balls, 750 gallons of water, etc.), I’d hate to get started without your go-ahead. So please spend some time with this – maybe during one of your frequent smoking breaks. Or when you’re not screaming.

Hold on to your hat! (Or, in your case, your lime-green beret.) My diorama will rule all other dioramas. It won’t be just 3-D, but 4-D! (Possibly 5-D!) It will mean the end of dioramas. So find something else for next year’s 4th graders to do. Collages, maybe. Finger painting. When is it due again?

Yes, I know that my report cards, standardized state testing and the school counselor all say the same thing about me. (Luckily, my diorama won’t require the use of improper fractions, long division, short division, math in general, science, social studies, music, physical education, or “life skills.”) But I’ve got something a report card can’t report on: INSPIRATION! I’d also appreciate it if “poor personal hygiene” would stop showing up on my report card, too.

Drum roll! Here it is: My diorama will show Kansas as it was 65 million years ago, when our state was covered by the Western Interior Sea of the late Cretaceous period. When giant mosasaurs and plesiosaurs prowled the waves. When sea turtles grew to the size of race cars (I’ll use actual toy race cars). And don’t forget the big megalodon. (Big shark!) All made of pipe cleaners, toothpicks, clay, “found objects” (from my sister’s room), that 750 gallons of water I mentioned, and 90 canisters of bathroom caulk. I can see it all in my head. And soon, we all will see it in our classroom — through a special viewing window that will have to be cut through the wall.

Sure, I’ll need a few things from the school. Especially a very long hose and a faucet. And we’ll need to move the desks into the hallway and re-tack all wall hangings to at least four feet from the floor, clear of the water line. Will the custodian be mad? I know you two “hang out” in the boiler room during recess. Maybe you can smooth it over with him then? Ask him if he’s got a power saw I can borrow.

Mr. Hansen, this is your chance to grab greatness. Think how great my diorama will be for the school! Maybe Milkweed Elementary will be on the Discovery Channel for a change instead of A&E’s Justice Files. (By the way, that actor didn’t look like you at all.) Mr. Hansen, they might even let you teach class without the assistant principal watching you on that video camera that moves whenever you do. The buzzing sound and the blinking light are kinda scary!

I could go on and on about my diorama, but the cafeteria is serving carrot coins today. So please, make this happen for me. You and I have a lot common, Mr. Hansen. We both cry in class. The court makes us take the same kind of “mood pills.” Well, at least take them. (Backslider!) Who else but you can understand my diorama? Like I said, it’s going to change your life. And, considering the way things have been going, not a moment too soon, am I right?

Yours truly,

Brandon Willheit, 4th grade. (5th row, 3rd seat, next to the window.)

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Never Respond to a Flyer Tacked to a Public Library Bulletin Board

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You have a new message, recorded today at 11:43 p.m.

[Beep]

Phone tag, you’re it! Thanks for responding to my flyer. The name’s Steve. Are you as excited about this year’s science-fiction book discussion group as I am? You’re the first and only person who called, which lends a nice symmetry, because I’m the only member of the group. Current member. We used to be bigger. But as with most things, I guess, it’s cyclical. Much like the Hindu concept of Time. Or a concealed pit with fire-hardened punji stakes at the bottom. Oh wait, that’s circular. At least mine is.

So, where are you at 11:43 at night? Do you go to the gym? What gym?

I’m expecting this to be a great season of sci-fi book talk. Yes, yes, I know. These days, people tend to do this kind of thing over the Internet. Call me old-fashioned if you will, but I prefer the give and take of live discussion. Person to person. Face to face. Boot to neck. Whatever. You just can’t get that from a chat room. Hey, this is weird, but I think there’s a chat room about me! Have you heard about that? Seriously, have you?

Okay, I need to get you up to speed on a few guidelines. Just so you know the ropes. I think ropes are important. I’ve used them on several occasions. Not quite as often as piano wire, though.

First rule — I mean, guideline. I assign the book we will read for each meeting. I’m open to suggestions. But I assign the book. That just seems to work the best. And don’t worry, I like to mix things up a bit. So our first book, say, will be something from the TekWar series by William Shatner. But next time, maybe Shadow Planet by William Shatner. I’ll let you know for sure next week. You’re going to be home, right? When? Maybe I can stop by and let you know in person. If you’re not home, I’ll just wait inside. Don’t worry about leaving a key.

We meet the first and third Friday of every month — at my house. In the coal cellar. Behind the water heater. You can thank the little lady for that; she doesn’t like me entertaining guests upstairs. And, no, I’m not married. The little lady is literally a little porcelain lady on my coffee table. Who talks to me.

[Two seconds of silence]

A week before each meeting, I’ll send you our discussion questions, which must be answered in advance. Now, you may have heard that questions like these don’t have a right or wrong answer. That’s not true. They do. They have one right answer. There are many, many wrong answers. So spend a little time on these questions, okay? This has been a bone of contention in the past, but I think by mentioning it up front, we’ll avoid any unpleasantness. And I promise: no more talk of bones! Huh- what? I’m on the phone! Sheesh. Excuse me a sec.

[Five seconds of silence]

Sorry about that. The little porcelain lady says I shouldn’t make promises.

On to the snack policy: I’ll be responsible for snacks. I take some trouble preparing them, so I hope you’re not the type to say “I’m not hungry” or “I prefer someone else to taste them first” or “What did you just pour into the guacamole from that secret compartment in your ring?” That gets tiresome, believe me!

Okay, then, that about does it. Welcome aboard! I’ll be honest; I was a bit surprised to hear from you. I thought the library took down all my flyers just a soon as I put them up. And it was a real hat trick to get this last one through. I guess they didn’t count on me hiding in the men’s restroom all night, did they? Don’t mention that to them.

Oh, one more thing. I assume you’ll be thoroughly prepared for a lively, positive discussion on the works of William Shatner. I hope you’ll display the level of commitment one would expect from someone who responds to a flyer that someone else crawled through ductwork to tack up. If not, I will be greatly disappointed. I’m just saying this to avoid what’s happened in the past. But, as they say, the past is buried. In my crawlspace. Now, come on, that’s just a little joke. I’m joking! But then again, there is a certain amount of truth in that, I mean, in a metaphori–

[Beep]

You have a new message, recorded today at 11:46 p.m.

Okay, I really hate getting cut off. Really. But that’s fine. You didn’t know that. We’ll have a discussion about my phone message policy next week. Behind the water heater.

[Beep]

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The Stupendoleum: A Visitor’s Guide

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Welcome to the Stupendoleum, the most ostentatious mausoleum and sepulchral monument known to recorded history. Unearthed in 1799 and used as a public defecation pit until 1923, it now stands fully restored in awesome testimony to the life of the monarch whose tomb is housed within, King Stupendicarchus of 4th-Century-B.C. Asia Minor.

This almost inconceivably large funerary monument was first described by Antipater of Sidon in his treatise “Affronts to the Gods” as “Affront to the Gods #1.” As Classics students may recall, the Stupendoleum collapsed under its own weight just three days after it was built. It is even more amazing, then, that this mighty necropolis appears before you now exactly as it did on the day of its completion more than two millennia ago — except for the massive, supporting framework of titanium girders. (Which are slightly radioactive.)

As you approach the Stupendoleum along the Grand Avenue, lined on either side by enormous statues of inscrutable sphinxes, ineffable monkey-faced elephants and incomprehensible winged platypuses, you’ll note that its grotesque scale really starts to hit home. It is this, the Stupendoleum’s shameless manifestation of hubris, that prompted Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger to write about it, Bruegel the Elder and Bruegel the Younger to paint it, and Frank Sinatra and Frank Sinatra Jr. to visit it.

As you can see, the exterior of the mausoleum is difficult to describe. It appears to be five gigantic, rectangular (?) colonnaded podiums stacked atop each other, crowned by a towering ziggurat of solid basalt, its walls crenellated with miniature ziggurats. This in turn is crowned by the gargantuan statues of Stupendicarchus and his far-from-beautiful queen, Preclampsia, in a ferret-drawn chariot, and these figures are themselves crowned by a large, stork-like seabird (possibly a stork) that just doesn’t seem to want to go away. [We have since determined the bird is also a statue — ed.]

Incorporating the worst of all ancient architectural traditions, the Stupendoleum is reminiscent of the stepped Pyramid of Zoser, the Palace of Sargon at Khorsabad, and a grossly oversized Stuckey’s. (An interesting side note: of the two or three manmade structures that can be seen from space, the Stupendoleum is the only one that astronauts refuse to look at.)

As you pass through the portico, please note the entrance gate flanked by two hideous, 50-foot colossi representing the ancient Etruscan twin demigods “Apathy” and “Petulance.”

Is your breath taken away? Then you have now surely entered the famous Hall of 1,000 Columns, a monumental hypostyle chamber (suffused with moderate levels of methane gas) consisting of 467 columns. All exposed surfaces are inscribed with a haphazard combination of hieroglyphics, cuneiform and Linear B, recounting Stupendicarchus’s weekly grocery lists for his entire reign. “Horrible to behold,” wrote Vitruvius, after beholding.

The stinging sensation you feel is a light acid rain that falls continuously from small, horrid clouds along the ceiling. Please make your way quickly (run) to the far end of the Hall (should take 25-30 minutes).

You now should find yourself at the entrance to the needlessly gigantic chamber containing the famous depiction, in freestanding marble statuary, of Stupendicarchus’s pilgrimage to Delphi. Moving from left to right, we first see the monarch, clad only in his trademark super-mini half-toga and coconut-husk helmet, putting a question to the oracle. In the next grouping of statues, the oracle cups her elbow and taps her cheek, formulating a response, while the king amuses himself with a yo-yo. Classical scholars have never determined exactly what the oracle’s answer was, but the next scene shows Stupendicarchus curled up in a fetal position inside a large pot, so obviously the news wasn’t good.

As you begin your trek down the kilometer-long, torch-lit passageway to the burial chamber, please avoid if possible the bottomless fissure at approximately the halfway point. Originally, the passage was to be lined with the flayed skins of vanquished foes, but since there was never any vanquishing, they just kept office supplies in here.

In truth, the reign of Stupendicarchus was never marked by even the smallest military victory or conquest, or any sort of achievement whatsoever. However, the king was described by ancient historian Philo of Byzantium as “fond of drink.”

In fact, Stupendicarchus’ sole triumph was in death. As is obvious from the shockingly massive burial tomb at which you are no doubt marveling this very moment. Inside lies the famed sarcophagus of white alabaster, encrusted with lapis lazuli and carved with nonsensical incantations from the Assyrian Pamphlet of the Defunct, the book that was Stupendicarchus’s spiritual guide throughout his life and was said to have brought him great comfort and peace of mind. The lid of this mighty stone coffin is formed by a sculpture of the great king himself, his hands folded serenely over his chest, each clutching a baby rattle, his death mask forever frozen in an expression that most describe as abject, craven terror.

So what can be said, ultimately, about the Stupendoleum, and by extension, the nature of time and the profound sweep of eternity? When one contemplates this grossly disproportionate shrine to the banal life of a minor ancient monarch, and the outrageous costs, financial and human, of reconstructing it, we hope you will not neglect to visit our gift shop. And come again soon!

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From the Desk of Windy Pines Christmas Tree Farm

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Dear Windy Pines customer,

Happy holidays! Everyone at Windy Pines Christmas Tree Farm is looking forward to a great season. Right off the bat, let me say this: we are 100 percent committed to correcting the minor yet nagging problems that you may have experienced with us in the past. So come get your tree! The burrowing carpet mite infestation has been, to a significant degree, controlled. And by the time you read this, so has the feral cat situation. (We’re setting the traps tonight!) As for the blister beetles, well, some things you just have to live with. How they got here from South America, I’ll never know!

I’ll be honest — this past year has been a time of soul searching for the Windy Pines family. Frankly, we were a bit staggered by the mind-bogglingly consistent statements from more than a few folks last year that Windy Pines was the “worst Christmas tree farm in the world.” And by the TV news reports that said the same thing. At the time we thought to ourselves: Oh, come on now, the worst? What about tree farms in foreign countries that don’t celebrate Christmas? Then appeared the inflammatory yard signs denouncing our tree farm, followed by that reader’s poll in Parade magazine. Okay, that got our attention. Message received.

Of course, we’ve tried several times to correct problems with the help of our customer comment cards. However, most of these were simply smeared with feces, with few or no written comments provided. But thank you for that wake-up call. We know you can always choose another tree farm, one that, say, doesn’t hire employees who hurl holiday-themed insults at you. That’s why we’re making some changes to the way we do business. We want you back! Ho! Ho! Ho!

First, we promise that you will find all the major varieties of Christmas tree at our Christmas tree farm, including the universally popular Scotch Pine, Douglas Fir, and Colorado Blue Spruce. As to why we’ve never offered any of these trees before, I have no answer. But we now subscribe to several trade magazines to stay up on that.

Next, our salespeople pledge not to sulk and sigh heavily when you ask to see something “fuller,” “taller,” or “less brown.” Our nativity scene will be slightly more “traditional.” Our tree shaker will be used exclusively for its proper purpose. There will not be a dead reindeer in back of the utility shed. You will not be tailed by a mysterious brown station wagon after you drive away from the tree farm. We sold that car, so I can guarantee that. Also, prostitution will no longer be tolerated. Although this is due more to a local police initiative than to anything we did, we feel it is a positive step. So bring the kids! We hope to have free peppermint sticks!

Many people have asked us if we operate another business the rest of the year, so that they can avoid this business too. Well, that’s a discouraging attitude, but truth to tell, we’ve tied our fortunes solely to Christmas trees, come what may. So, as you may have guessed, we really need a bang-up holiday season this year. In fact, we’re counting on it. C’mon, give us another whirl! We promise no family arguments in front of customers. And we will not beat King Wenceslas, our Christmas tree farm dog. Unless he bites you, then it’s your call. His fate is in your hands!

I know that we may have disappointed you, our valued customer. I know that we have to win back your trust. I know that being named the “worst Christmas tree farm in the world” (informally and then formally and then, briefly, legally) puts us in the underdog role vis-à-vis our competition. But if you just give us another chance, I know we can make it right. The Spirit of Christmas suffuses every inch of Windy Pines. You’ll notice the change immediately, along with the absence of Asian gangs. Isn’t that refreshing!? And remember, Santa will be visiting us next Saturday and Sunday from noon till four. We hope to see you. By the way, he’s a new Santa. So don’t worry.

Warmest holiday regards,

Dave Bleemstead, Proprietor

Along with Umar, Mrs. Flanch, Mysterio and the rest of the Windy Pines Family

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My Farewell Address to the City Council

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Honorable ladies and gentlemen, fellow members of the City Council, it is with a mixture of joy, sadness and sedation that I make my final address to you as mayor of Milkweed, Kansas. There is something to be said for seeing a project through to the end, but it’s also a blessing to know when it’s time to move on. Of course, few of us enjoy the convenience of having a massive recall campaign draw our attention to this fact. So, in light of our past history, I deeply appreciate the opportunity to offer these closing words — some would say “defense” — and I would raise my hand in salute to you, were it not for the handcuffs attached to the leg manacles.

My record speaks for itself and may be viewed in its entirety at the Topeka Court of Common Pleas, docket #7643. The list of my accomplishments is surprisingly long, especially considering my record-setting 17-day tenure. The sexual harassment suits; the nepotism; the “misappropriation of funds;” the Internet pornography scandal — these are just a few of the highlights. But from the moment I was swept into power on the heels of the previous administration’s Internet pornography scandal, I believed I would make a difference to the political landscape. Who could have foreseen that I would make a difference to the actual landscape by repealing all signage ordinances, so that now virtually every lawn features a rollaway placard with liquor specials? I guess politics is an art, not a science.

As you no doubt recall, on my first day in office I hit the ground running — from the Kansas Highway Patrol. However, my whirlwind visual survey of the city at speeds between 95 and 110 mph gave me a good overview of the job ahead. From my brief but memorable stay in the Milkweed city jail, I also gained some cost-cutting ideas in regards to staffing.

It immediately became clear that mine was destined to be an administration that didn’t conduct business as usual. What’s that? “Or any business,” you say? Thank you, sheriff. Yes, I was a leader who looked at problems and asked “What if?” and “Why not?” Such as “What if we got rid of zoning?” And “Why not rescind open container laws?” So today, a family in Milkweed, Kansas, has merely to walk next door to get a tattoo or work in the battery factory. While drinking a beer. And I’m the one in chains?

Was I not responsible for the more efficient use of city vehicles? By prepositioning our lone ambulance outside my house, I drastically reduced response times. Thank God my guests (and I) required only seven trips to the emergency room. Now that was a surprise, to be sure!

Nothing came as more of a shock to me personally than discovering my talent for bridge building. I’m sorry, what? No, not real bridges. I see that you’re laughing. Yes, reverend, I get the joke. What I mean is, I span the gaps between people, building bridges of understanding, love and respect. Who can deny that I brought together the most diverse group of religious, ethnic, civic and business leaders Milkweed has ever seen? All united to achieve their one goal: kicking me out. I hope you all rot.

Finally, one would say that it’s ironic that I insisted upon this final address to the City Council, a body that I tried to disband the day after my election. And I realize that when I did manage to attend a council meeting, all I cared talk about was NASCAR. So thank you for putting me at the top of today’s agenda. Personally, I would have saved me for the end to build up interest in the meeting, but still I see there is a packed house here tonight, along with a big showing from the FBI.

Oh, speaking of that, I want to address my record on public safety. Since my election, Milkweed has seen a 15 percent reduction in crime. My own. I just haven’t had the hours to fully devote myself to it. I could go on and on about this subject, but the U.S. Marshals are — okay, okay — they’re tapping their watches. So sayonara and God bless Milkweed! You weasels. As for my legacy, let’s let history decide, shall we? And the parole board.

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