Cover Story: Keys to Uncomfortable Living

Thousands of things had to go wrong for me to get here

Sep 29, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Sean Hughes/

Have there been mistakes? Absolutely. Miscues? Certainly. False starts, errors in judgment, misunderstandings, failures, tailchasing, inadequacies, ineptitudes, sloth, cowardice? Yes, all those. Many times over. And that's just my day so far — the nasty, treacherous, deeply potholed washboard of a road that stretches from the beginning of this paragraph to precisely-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y ... here!

To say "I fail myself more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day" comes far closer to being the absolute truth than it does to being brazen copyright infringement. But to me, that's the writing process.

Torturous. Frustrating and defeating. A constant struggle between choosing the wrong word and choosing the wronger word. One sentence written, two sentences deleted, as it were. Honestly, if writing were any more of a daily torment to me, I'd say it must be a Republican president.

So it's not hard to believe then that, even though I decided I wanted to be a writer at age 14, it took over three decades to finally finish a book and get it published. (Yeah, this book, Special Eds and Edwinas.) Now, the only items I have left on my To Do Before Death List are "Legitimize my secret identity by acquiring some superpower(s)" (also put on the list at age 14) and "Cheer up!" (something I've wanted to do since I was 26).

But let's not lose sight of the fact that a book has happened. And while its creation, writing and publication may to a large extent exist despite my particularly thick brain soup of metaself-consciousness, low self-esteem, inordinate doubt, fearfulness, generalized anxiety, neuroses, indolence, plus a secret blend of 13 other as yet unidentified though fully functional and piquant psychological and emotional flaws and spices, it also exists because of it — i.e., it is only because of this fiasco of a psyche that I have anything to say at all. And it is only via the afore-alluded to missteps, nonsteps and long strides of retreat dictated by my grab bag of personal deficiencies that I now reach, however circuitously or belatedly or unlikely, this authorial summit. (Am I the only one who's bored here? How about we all close our eyes for a few minutes and imagine a car chase through the cement canyon and shallow waters of the Los Angeles River ... screeeeee! splashcrash! bah-boom! OK, I'm rejuiced. Back to business.)

Of course, no book is written by a single author. By which I mean, I have no intention of hogging all the credit for creating my disastrous self or, by extension, this, its lexical spawn. So, for their invaluable help and contributions, I would like to thank the following:

The Partner. What can I say? I realize my progress was unbearably slow, my passion for the work frequently dubious, my lack of ambition persistently vexing and my hit-and-miss employment financially crippling. But then, as my mate, you've been an accessory to my every failure and failing. The fact that, throughout our marriage, you regularly pressured me into seeking psychological counseling helped keep me in touch with the fact that I'm a miserable, bent and contemptible fuck who, to stay within the parameters of your love limits, had better dump a lot of his bullshit in the lap of paid strangers.

Dad, from the time I first became interested in writing, you explicitly expressed your complete lack of faith in my ability and prospects. Without that doubt and disapproval, I likely would have missed the colorful, shameless and shameful years of drug and alcohol abuse that were so instrumental in (eventually) shaping my voice and work. Worse, had I had your moral and emotional support, I would in all likelihood have foolishly dedicated myself to pursuing my dream and, perhaps, become an author sooner rather than later.

"Foolishly" because I realize now that any success which might have come my way early on, when I was a young man, would have been wasted, that my immaturity would have precluded me from fully appreciating the achievement, the recognition, the rewards, awards and accolades. No, Dad, without the 30-year run-up to the publication of this book, I would certainly have been deprived of my current feeling of undying gratitude for the low-ball advance and tepid attentions some desperate, pitying publisher has thrown my way.

Mom, don't for a minute think you weren't a huge help, too. You were. Throughout my boyhood, your forthright devotion to preparing and assembling overabundant meals of red meat, starches, fats, oils and sugar along with your cooings of "Have another helping" and "Come on and finish this up" and "There's plenty more" produced a much larger, more padded and comfortable ass for me to sit on and write. Even more importantly, for the past few years, the years I've been working on this book, your total disinterest in what I've been doing or how it was going gave me the freedom to guiltlessly ignore you and your so-called needs so I could get on with not just my work but my life.

Had it not been for my two sisters, with their alternating deepseated resentment of and emotional detachment from me, I might have known the joys of sibling affection and the bonds of shared experience and wound up writing the kind of drippy, sappy, treacly family crap I absolutely refuse to even read. Thanks, girls, for not letting that train wreck happen.

To my feckless acquaintances and colleagues, I truly appreciate that by never actually becoming my friends you reinforced my bleak worldview, saving me the time and energy it would have taken to reassess and reevaluate. Also, your infrequent and hollow words of encouragement made me want to finish this book all the more, so I could rub your disbelieving faces in it.

For those who saw fit to publish my work in the past, your preposterously low pay kept my writing free of the taint of commercialism while your nonexistent readership ensured I could not pander to an audience; and for all my editors over the years, I give a gratefull nod of acknowledgment for there scrupulous atttention too detial.

There are also several exceptional educators who made a contribution to this book. Mr. Chesowitz, my gym teacher from fourth through eighth grade, who, through his example, inspired me to enter some field where I could wear shorts to work. Mr. Bostrich, who, through his lack of a discernable personality and nonexistent communication skills, failed to fill my head with New Math so I could fill it with something useful. Ms. Kleeman, my ninth-grade English teacher and the woman who paralyzed me for years by planting in my head the idea that there is no sentence a preposition can come at the end of. Ms. Mazurki, whose lack of control over her History class allowed me, the class clown, to run roughshod over the other students and prove to myself that making people cry at the hands of humor is easy, enjoyable and largely unpunishable. And finally, Dr. Fonsk, my History of Western Civilization professor and the author of the text he required students to use in his class, the man who proved to me that lucidity and education are inversely proportional and that I better stop while I was ahead.

The time I spent at the writers' support group, Critique, which I attended exactly twice, was invaluable. To hear you, my fellow aspiring writers, offer such generous critiques of, enthusiasm for and positive feedback on each other's stories and chapters told me that if writers were so undiscerning, so easily snookered, readers would be a piece of cake. But what was truly inspiring was to read your work and come to the realization that while my work might end up on some publishing slush pile, it wouldn't be at the bottom of the slush pile.

To my many employers over the years, by treating me with disrespect, discourtesy and condescension you forced me to remain sharply focused on my one true goal: Do something, anything, in order to escape the rule of tin pot despots who liberally dispense fear and dull routine in the service of soulless companies. And whether you were my overlord in a numbingly tawdry retail store or a dark, dank warehouse, a drunkard-lined bar or a drunkard-lined ad agency, your carefree unfairness and crazy quilt of adamant contradictions demonstrated to me that making sense isn't a prerequisite for making money.

I am indebted to the city of Cincinnati. Its unwavering conservatism combined with its relentless cynicism taught me that it's bad to color outside the lines but good to criticize the picture. Its parochialism always made me feel like an outsider but its tradition of overzealous prosecutors and fascistic law enforcement made me think twice before allowing this feeling of alienation to manifest itself as violent or destructive behavior and instead channel it into harmless, malicious mockery. Its lack of forward progress gave me the illusion I was moving.

Lorne Michaels, for decades I looked at the TV programs and films you produced and asked, "Will this man never make me laugh?" Thank you for creating and succeeding with a new kind of comedy — the kind no one laughs at. For a guy like me, that lowers the bar to a level I can approach with, if not confidence, condescension.

Lastly, I acknowledge my great debt to God. The world You've created is to me as a grain of sand is to an oyster: highly irritating, but it's what I have to work with.

BOB WOODIWISS will sign and discuss Keys to Uncomfortable Living at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 4 at the Hyde Park Public Library, 7 p.m. Nov. 9 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, 7 p.m. Nov. 11 at Borders on Colerain Avenue and Nov. 20 at the Mercantile Library Book Fair.

Bob Woodiwiss has released his first book, Keys to Uncomfortable Living, a collection of humorous essays. CityBeat readers might recognize some of the ideas and subjects from Bob's longtime column Pseudoquasiesque, which ran in the paper from 1995 to early 2002. He resumed writing a humor column for CityBeat earlier this year, this time under the name Estrangement in a Strange Land. It runs the last week of each month, which, coincidentally, means it's in this issue (page 7). Bob is a native Cincinnatian; he grew up in the Northwest school district, attended UC and lives in Walnut Hills. He currently runs a one-man advertising shop, Bob The Agency, mostly, he'll tell you, because he can't get along with anyone else. We print two excerpts from Keys to Uncomfortable Living here: Bob's acknowledgements section, which opens the door to his "unique" mind, and one essay. This work is copyright Emmis Books and is used by permission.