Let’s start with a confession: I’ve been discouraged lately. Not just because I wrecked my car, or because I have awful PMS, or because my job has me encountering poop more often than a proctologist moonlighting as a zookeeper. It’s the socially-conditioned things that have me down–assumptions I and many others hold about what it takes to be a successful writer. I suspect I’m not the only one who flounders amid these sorts of defeatist attitudes. That’s why I’m about to br-br-break ’em down.
When I was eleven years old, my dad got us hooked up to the Internet for the first time. As I’ve mentioned before, there wasn’t a whole lot to do on the web at the time apart from asking Jeeves if he was gay and waiting 45 minutes for a five-second gif of Goku punching Frieza to download.
Thanks to the dearth of other options, the primary destination for any newly-wired child in those days was the chat room. I spent several of my formative years in the Geocities rooms, talking to total strangers about their pets and their sexual proclivities, crouching meekly behind my chosen handle: GingerSnaps12. “Ginger Snaps,” because that was my dog’s name, and “12” because I was pretending to be twelve. Not thirteen, which was the actual minimum age for Geocities chat. My reasoning must have been that I could pass for twelve easy, but thirteen was too much of a stretch.
By the turn of the new millennium, chat rooms had started to die off and were supplanted by instant messaging programs, chief among them AOL Instant Messenger. The authors of today’s book, In the Chat Room with God, were a bit slow to cotton on to the changing landscape. No self-respecting teen used a chat room in the Year of Our Lord 2002. Then again, there’s a lot of things in this book that no self-respecting teen would do.
In the Chat Room with God represents that most futile of beasts, media that seeks to make Christianity hip and relevant to the modern adolescent. It was written by two brothers: Todd, who heads Hallmark’s book division, and Jedd, who became a Christian stand-up comedian in an attempt to wrest the title of “Least Cool and Street-Credible Job” from his brother’s grasp. Who better to penetrate the six inches of ossified irony shielding the heart of the average teen and show them how legit God really is?
I work with young children, which means I spend a lot of time listening to children’s songs. I don’t mean the songs I listened to as a kid–ballads of futility like “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” or gripping exposes of maternal schizophrenia like “Down by the Bay.” I mean more modern creations, the fruits of what I call Children’s YouTube.
Children’s YouTube is like regular YouTube, except it’s nothing but crappy songs and every video has 90 million hits. Take a second to wrap your mind around that: 90 million hits. Kids are nothing if not good little consumers, and they consume the hell out of YouTube.
Most of it is uninspiring fare, though some of it opens up horrifying new avenues of possibility. For example, how many different ways are there to sing the alphabet song? One? Guess again, sucker! It turns out the alphabet song can be sung 13 god damn ways, each of which are sure to enchant the balls off your little tyke.
Others are apparently so addictive that every single child they touch becomes their sworn thrall. I have yet to meet a kid who didn’t love this video, which begins with a man shouting “I AM THE SHAPES TRAIN! CHOO CHOO CHOO!” in what sounds like an empty airplane hangar, descends into faux-Calypso purgatory, and ends with me screaming in the mad house.
The kids at summer camp watched it every day. The kids at school have also watched it every day. Overall, I’ve probably spent more of my life listening to this song than I’ve spent holding my loved ones.
But those songs are just annoying. The ones I’m about to list are straight up weird. I’ll give them to you in order from least to most surreal/offensive. I’ll also link each video, though I don’t recommend you watch them. I wouldn’t wish my suffering on anybody.
Because I’m currently in the process of restocking my supply of weird books, and because I’m too tired to put together a TEENWORKS post, we’re going to abandon standard operating procedures and venture way off the beaten track today.
We’re going to talk about penis pasta.
Specifically, Weenie Linguine Penis Shaped Pasta.
Weenie Linguine bills itself as “the only noodle with a HARD-ON!”, and while I’m willing to take their word on that, the notion that only one company would come up with dong-shaped pasta does strain credulity to the breaking point. Questionable claims of unique-ness aside, Weenie Linguine is exactly what it says on the package: tiny little penises that you can boil up and serve with your favorite pasta sauce. Made in Italy, no less, which is more authenticity than I’d expect out of a product purchased for $7.99 at Spencer’s.
(Spencer’s, for those of you not in the know, is a gag gift shop found in malls. They specialize in drug references, sex toys, and comedy bumper stickers that say things like: “HOLD MY BEER–WATCH THIS SHIT!”)
I bought it for my husband’s 28th birthday. He was grateful. And by grateful, I mean he stared at it for a moment, heaved a long-suffering sigh, looked up at me and asked: “Why?”
We wound up having pizza instead. Which was a colossal waste, if you ask me, but no matter. Weenie Linguine has been sitting in our cupboard for nearly a week now, and that’s long enough for me to get curious about it. I decided to do a Google Search, because my past searches (“Frankenstein sex,” “Sisqo,” “how much heroin for an overdose,” and “that guy in pilgrim times who had sex with three turkeys”) haven’t confused the NSA enough.
The first thing I found were the reviews. They ranged from the innocent…
“Fun box of weenies!”
To the raunchy…
“I ate 23 dicks last night. I think that’s a world record.”
To the gay panicky…
“The men did not think it was good.”
To the frankly alarming.
“Weenie Linguini was a big hit! Grandma loved it”
What I was really interested in, though, was who produced the stuff. The packaging was no help on this score.
But one of the reviews sites I visited clued me in. Weenie Linguine is manufactured and sold by Hottproducts Unlimited, a company in California. I spent some time perusing their site. Their products are indeed hott. They include vibrators, cock rings, something called “Horny Honey,” and a section called “Xmas Holiday” that I was too scared to click on. If you go to their About Us page, Hottproducts Unlimited informs you that “[they] have received numerous trophies that were awarded to [them] by some large customers.” So there you have it. Weenie Linguine isn’t just penis shaped pasta–it’s award-winning penis shaped pasta.
Suck on that, Ryan.
Pardon me while I get sappy for a moment.
The wonderful thing about books–well, one of the wonderful things, among a countless multitude of others–is that the same story can mean different things to you at different points in your existence. Crime and Punishment, the literary love of my life, was a very different experience at age 17 (when I was six years younger than the protagonist) than it is now (when I’m five years his senior). Romeo and Juliet, a simple love story when I was in ninth grade, has become a parable on the intensity of adolescent emotions and what parents can do to help or hinder a child’s sexual development. The Babysitters’ Club…is basically still about some girls babysitting. And one of them has diabetes. (Not every book merits renewed scrutiny.)
Then there are the books that mean nothing to you as a youngster.
“What is this bullshit?” you demand, flinging your copy of Billy Budd, Sailor against the wall and complaining to your girl Nicole and your boy Tyler about the assignment over AOL instant messenger. (I’m old, okay?)
We all have books like this: stories that left us underwhelmed or flummoxed the first time we encountered them, only to metamorphose into something great when we got a bit older. Here are three of mine. What are yours?
Then: This may come as a surprise to those of you who know me as a rabid Tolkien fan, the sort of creepy basement dweller who taught herself Elvish and has daydreams about Doriath, but I didn’t understand The Hobbit when I read it the first time. I liked it–so much, in fact, that I nearly threw down with a boy in my English class who characterized it as “just some people walking around”–but the ending left me cold. Spoilers for an 80-year-old book: our hero, Bilbo Baggins, having been charged with finding the precious Arkenstone amid the dwarven treasure horde, locates said stone and relinquishes it to Bard the Bowman instead of to its “rightful owner,” King Thorin Oakenshield. He’s been with Thorin the whole book, the entire point of his quest is to reunite Thorin with his birthright, and then he gives the dang Arkenstone to somebody else. What the hell, Bilbs?
Now: For all Tolkien is inextricably linked with traditional high fantasy, he does some pretty non-traditional things in The Hobbit. As a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature, much of Tolkien’s writing was based on very ancient archetypes: the young noble and his faithful servant (Sam and Frodo), the disinherited liege lord and his subject (Thorin and Bilbo), etc. But whereas a commoner in the most traditional stories would be endlessly deferential to his betters, following their mandates even when they contradict his own moral principles, Bilbo ain’t havin’ none of that noise. Rather than aiding his lord in glorious battle against the enemy, he tries to avert war by using the Arkenstone to broker a peace deal. Yeah, Thorin’s great and all–but not so great that Bilbo is going to sit back and let him kill people. That makes Mr. Baggins a distinctly modern hero, and one I can now appreciate.
Then: Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that I wasn’t alone in my childhood antipathy toward The Catcher in the Rye. Some whiny kid called Holden Caulfield cuts class, bums around, hires a prostitute and then changes his mind, almost gets molested, visits his sister, and whines, whines, whines. Also something about a red hat. I too felt alienated by the world, but at least I hadn’t reacted the way Holden does: like a little bitch.
Now: Except that, short of actually running away from school, I reacted exactly the way Holden does. I was just too close to see it. Far from being a little bitch, Holden Caulfield is an excellent representation of the frightened, sensitive kid inside every adolescent. The teenage years are almost uniformly dreadful for everyone. And while it’s easy to fault teenagers for “whining” about the world, consider this: they have a point. The world is unfair. People are phony. School is stressful. Growing up is hard. Those truisms seem trite now, but think back to when you were first coming to grips with them. It was painful, right? You resented it, right? That’s a natural feature of human development, and we shouldn’t write off kids, Holden included, for struggling with it. The Catcher in the Rye‘s main fault–if you want to call it a fault–is being too accurate to the adolescent experience. It’s so on-point that it dredges up all sorts of buried feelings, and that makes it a difficult read.
Then: What the hell is this book even about? The narrator, Nick, goes to a bunch of parties thrown by a guy called Gatsby, who seems really cool but is actually a total sad-sack. Nick helps reunite Gatsby with his old girlfriend, there’s an altercation, then Gatsby runs over somebody and gets shot by his swimming pool. What’s the point? How am I supposed to care about the romance, when Daisy is such an off-putting character? And can Gatsby go five seconds without calling somebody “old sport?”
Now: It’s not that young people can’t understand character-driven stories–they can, and do. But character-driven books will always be a tougher sell than plot-driven ones, because the main arc is a little bit harder to tease out. If you look at Gatsby objectively, sure, nothing really happens. Jay Gatsby is kind of sad, Daisy’s kind of awful, and their love story doesn’t hold water. Of course, that’s the point. Gatsby has built his entire life around reclaiming Daisy because he’s in love with the idea of her, an idea that proves as flimsy and insubstantial as the pretensions of the Jazz Age themselves. Of course, kids aren’t super familiar with the concept of being in love with an idea versus a person, nor are they necessarily experts on 1920’s America, so the book reads like some lame, lackluster romance to them. It certainly read that way to me. Once I got older and got some (very painful) experience under my belt, the whole thing made more sense.