Editorials — April 27, 2015 15:15 — 2 Comments

A Sandwich for John Osebold

I love making sandwiches. I love making sandwiches and I think I’m really good at it. I also like talking with interesting people. In this column, I make sandwiches and talk with interesting people.

John Osebold is a wonderful human being, literally. He’s filled with wonder. I know this from his work, which magically conveys a vision that’s equal parts wide-eyed child in a candy shop and deranged experimental poet. His work as a musician, sketch comedy performer, and author (One of his “unstageable plays” was published in this magazine) has made him a mainstay in the Seattle arts scene. He’s released an album every December since 2004 under the moniker Jose Bold, and his comedy group, The Habit, has kept Seattle audiences in stitches for going on two decades.

I met Osebold around lunchtime in the café lobby of Amazon’s Arizona building in South Lake Union where he works. I was early, and caught him from the back as he careened out of an elevator. I recognized him by his raven-black hair, which fell loose and long past his shoulders. His wild hair, high, broad cheekbones, and his generous eyes make for one – dare I say it? – Oh So Bold presence.

We made ourselves comfortable in a couple of high-backed, finely upholstered turquoise chairs near a table I’d staked out. We took inventory of our lunch: a turkey and avocado and a pastrami with red onion and Dijon, both on Fremont Sour White. On the side, we had plain Trader Joe’s potato chips, a probiotic coconut drink just for fun, and a fancy-ish berry smoothie. We were meeting, as his diet and calendar would have it, on the one day that week on which he was allowed to eat bread. He was on a very specific “elimination diet” that after a month involved the reintroduction of particular foods on a precisely calculated timetable. I was nervous that the sandwiches, made with the specifications of his dietary restrictions in mind, would be boring. He’d noted, in our scheduling exchange that he had “weird taste” in sandwiches, and these sandwiches were not weird at all. I was quite happy then, when in the middle of lunch, unprompted, Osebold remarked, “God, that’s a great sandwich, man!”

Going in, I’d been anxious and mildly concerned that I might not find an earnest thinker behind all of Osebold’s madcap zaniness. I’m not sure what I was imagining, but party poppers, balloon animals, and silly string probably weren’t far from the picture. As it turned out, his in-person demeanor confounded my expectations entirely. A lack of sincerity, I quickly learned, is not one of Osebold’s problems. His enthusiasms are immediately evident face to face, but they’re measured and balanced in a way that a tweet could never be. He exhibits a genuine desire to understand the larger human forces that produce the forms in which he’s so fond of working. His mental agility, and a professed lack of talent for concision, allow and force him to follow his ideas, despite contradictions and past caveats, to conclusions that ultimately suit him. He’s simultaneously calm, centered, and subject to gleeful spasms of whimsy at the odder possibilities of language. We talked at length – almost two hours – about comedy, poetry, money, the internet, crocheted cats, and even rainbows.

On the diet:

No alcohol, wheat, grains altogether, dairy, legumes even, no peanuts, no beans of any kind. I think that’s it. So basically I’ve been eating vegetables and fruit and meat and potatoes for thirty days. It really did a number on me. That first day – that first week I should say – wiped me out. What I wasn’t expecting were these headaches and mood swings. Where’s my quick fix? I ate cereal in the morning, and that would be it, if I ate breakfast. Now I eat eggs and sausage every single morning, getting actual protein in my body at the beginning of the day. And I do have to admit, it’s felt really great. So there are ten days that are at the end of the thirty days, which I didn’t know about when I started, because I was like “I can do thirty days.” Actually, there’s another ten days, where I get to have one of those food groups introduced back in for one day and then two days back off, and then the other food, and then two days off. So this is my wheat day.

On the evolution of language online:

I think a lot of people would liken the language of texting and the language of being online and in social media to a dumbing down of language. I understand where that comes from, but on the other hand I kind of like it. I like the idea that language pervades in so many different mediums and so many different ways. And there’s a different way of speaking, a different way of punctuating yourself online, than when you write your English Literature paper. I was an English major. I was a very strict user of the Oxford comma, and if I saw anywhere where that was not happening, I could feel the bile raging inside me. Why? Wow! What a strong reaction. So, now I write in a lot of lower case, or omitting a lot punctuation, because I find that when you read it, it actually illustrates more of what I mean. So I’m trying to write in a way that actually illustrates the intention, the subtext. I don’t know if I’m actually achieving it, but I just like the idea that you can do that, and that that is becoming more accepted. If you omit certain consonants from your words, it means something, that carries a certain kind of weight.

On the semiotics of emoji:

I don’t know if this is a little too lofty of a claim, but I mean, there is an extent to which an emoji can be related to a hieroglyphic. You’re trying to communicate using pictures. So when someone asks you how you’re feeling today, you just send a pizza. To say that it has as much significance as seeing spears and buffalo on a cave wall – certainly that carries something different, but essentially it’s the same kind of communication, I guess.

On saying loops:

I think when I talk I’m a lot more long-winded. I really respect the friend who can sit there and spend so much time listening, lean forward and just say the exact amount of words that matters. I don’t have that talent. I have to talk around the thing, trying to say several loops.

On natural ability:

I mean this is hard for me to talk about… It’s like tying my shoe, I feel like if I talk about it too long I’ll forget how to do it, or realize that I’m a fraud. As difficult as it is for me to look you in the eye and tell you that “Yes, I think I am a natural at this,” of all the things in my life, I think this has come the most natural to me. As soon as I started realizing, oh, this is what you can do with this medium! And it wasn’t just twitter. As I was discovering poetry, I saw that people were dropping punctuation, people were dropping proper capitalization… Just the sight of words on a page, so sparse and so immaculate, was such a thrilling thing to me.

On traditional and emerging literary forms:

I see so many similarities between the tweet and the poem. I like that I can contain everything that I’m going to read in this one small block of text, or it’s broken up into a list. Or maybe it’s just that I have a shorter attention span and so does everybody in this day and age, where reading a list of things is easier than reading a paragraph where you do have to invest and hunker down.

On maybe writing the Great American tweet and not the Great American Novel:

I’m reading Moby Dick for the first time. I absolutely love it, but it’s slow going for me because there is so much to chew on in every single sentence, not just in terms of what he’s saying, but the language, the way that he’s saying it. I wish I possessed that talent, but I don’t. What I can do is use language and words that I like, and words that I think carry specific meaning to find where the humor is. It’s like I’m trying to find a piece of music here. I don’t know if that sounds pretentious, but who give a shit!

On art and money and freedom and funny:

I really wanted for so long to be an artist who could support myself just on the art, and therefore, it meant that I would have to focus on how to make art a commodity. I think that the artists that are able to do that, who are able to make a living solely off their art, is amazing. I think that’s fantastic. But I’d bet, that in almost all of those cases there are sacrifices to be made too, where you have to answer to someone, or you have to make sure that you don’t use these kinds of words, there’s not complete, one-hundred percent artistic freedom. But if you don’t tie it to money, which I know is a luxury, in a lot of ways, to be able to just have the spare time to go “I’m just gonna go do this thing, because I like to do this thing,” – which I hope everybody does – it really is freeing. Suddenly, you’re able to make the thing as you really envisioned it, with no filters. And I really feel like that is what The Habit has come up with. We don’t censor ourselves, for the most part. If we find it funny, we’re going to do it.

On pets and hand crafted garments:

Crocheting your cat has such a great little visual to it, because you would never do this. Does this mean that you’re actually making a cat out of crochet, or you’re taking a live cat and crocheting the fur, are you building a crochet around the cat? These are all the things that I never have to worry about answering, because I think your imagination does the rest, hopefully. I’ve always done this since I was a kid, try and find the most absurd thing that I can do. I feel like I’m just figuring out how to get to some of those things.

On the terror and beauty of life:

It’s completely absurd…and wonderful. I love being alive in this particular life. The ways in which we can create horror have become so plentiful and so creative that it’s just a terrifying thing every single day, and it’s flip-side is that also, the wonders of the world are so astounding. Oh man, this is going to sound so awful. I mean you sit there thinking, so there’s this rainbow. When you really start thinking, what the fuck is a rainbow?! Well it’s refracted light from this, and it’s separated these…but why those colors? Every time I see a fucking rainbow I think, this is just an amazing, beautiful, ridiculous thing that should have every one going, “I should call my mom, I should never have fought with that guy this morning. Look at this wonder that we have!” It’s like if we woke up tomorrow and there was a second moon just really close, just hovering right there. I feel like, no matter how long it would take us to go back to the routine and go, “Ok, it’s day two of this new moon and it’s just there, so I guess I’m going to go to work now.” But if it’s for a second or a whole day, I think that the shared, complete mystery of it, would bond every one together in this incredible way. That’s all we would be talking about. There’s something really gorgeous about that thought, that something would unify us, because it’s a complete mystery to us. I think that’s what I love even more that just trying to get to the absurdism of things. The mysteries of life are so far more intriguing. As strange as it sounds, I’m always trying to find them through humor. It’s like a good magic trick. It fills you with wonder. If you can surprise people, it’s the greatest thing ever.


Caleb Thompson is a co-founding editor of the Monarch Review


  1. Hole says:

    Probiotic cocoanut drinks is your idea of fun?

    That settles it, we’re never dating.

  2. Hole says:

    I’m the last to ever doubt the sincerity of Thompson.
    In fact I suspect he lacks the ingenuity that deceit requires.
    So I must take the content of his interviews at face value:
    the bedazzled, suck-up adulation of a bemused groupie.
    Has he ever challenged an interviewee’s egregious nonsense?
    Can’t he imagine that a modicum of adversarial rebuttal
    would actually throw his subject into a higher relief for his reader?
    Are we ever to come away from one his interviews with
    other than the impression he’s willing to drink their bath water?
    But as Eisenhower said, “the future lies ahead” (!),
    and one can only hope.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney