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When you’ve run completely out of ideas, and your stock-in-trade, or at least the thing that keeps the lights on, is ideas (often metaphorically represented as a light bulb flashing on), you have several options. One is to jump-start the imagination via the application of lubricating and/or energizing chemical preparations, e.g. alcohol and stimulants. This method has proved successful for millions of people throughout the ages and has resulted in both some very interesting work (Ulysses, On The Road) and a lot of embarrassingly self-indulgent dog-flogging (William Gaddis’ oeuvre). This avenue is closed to me both by circumstance and inclination, the circumstance of being in the sort of obsessively monitored prison that allows for no recreational brewing nor black market in drugs, and the inclination toward lifelong sobriety developed after finally coming to the way-overdue realization that it’s probably best for both myself and the general populace that I operate on standard fuels without any performance-enhancing additives.

Another choice is to sit back and wait for inspiration to strike as it invariably and eventually will, but deadlines don’t know from inspiration and respect only marketable content delivered in a timely fashion. As the artist Chuck Close said, “Inspiration’s for amateurs. The rest of us show up and go to work.” Of course, the act of forcibly wresting ideas from a seized cerebrum in the face of deadline only increases stress and locks up the creative process even more firmly, leading frustrated artists back to solution #1.

Some people resort to theft, plumbing the archives for forgotten gems to rework and pass off as their own. I find this sort of thing reprehensible in the extreme and would never, but never, even consider it. Yes, there is irony here, given that in the past I have been known to make off with anything not screwed, glued, nailed, welded, bolted, or tied down, locked, buried, guarded, or electrified, quite a few things that were, and are the subject of many an official record for having done so, but there you go. This is what becomes of giving a child Alan Sillito novels in lieu of moral instruction

Oh, wait. You thought that’s what I was doing here, writing about writing about the lack of ideas in a sort of inverted meta-commentary to disguise the fact that I am, in truth, a dry well? Fiddlesticks. Perish the thought. I am a veritable fount of ideas. They stream from my every orifice in a surging flood, on which I float contentedly in a steaming pool of inspiration plasma. I only chose this subject in commiseration with other of my brethren of the pen who may have suffered this lack of material and felt a real urge to do permanent and spectacular injury to the maddeningly blank screen before them. Maybe pull out a large-caliber pistol, although writers, like children and mental defectives, should never be allowed access to firearms, and after a wry Arnold-style parting shot (“Brace yourself – I’m about to install some hardware”), blow that smug pile of chips to data heaven and head dramatically off into the sunset to walk the earth like Cain. I feel your pain.

It occurs to me, apropos of nothing whatever, that sometime in the past 175 years someone, for whatever reason – specific education requirements, strict Catholicism, proximity to South Bend, Fightin’ Irish fanatic, a legacy, whatever – afflicted with kyphosis (the abnormal curvature of the cervical spine commonly known as hunchbackism) applied for and was accepted to the University of Notre Dame. The numbers bear out this claim. Given the frequency of occurrence of the condition, enrollment figures for the university, computational matrices, vicinal constituent distribution, and other intelligent-sounding things, it’s a no-brainer. I could bore you with a lot of made-up statistical data and formulae, but you’re just going to have to trust me on this one.

For the sake of discussion, let’s postulate a family stricken with both kyphosis and an exquisitely random sense of celestial mischief. It is 1985, before the McCluskeys of Goshen, Indiana, are one of those families whose identity is all wrapped up in college boosterism. Patriarch Andrew met his helpmate Diane at Notre Dame, where he was a second-string punter and she a cheerleader. Staunch Catholics, their three children either attend or are graduated from the local parochial academy, St. Mary’s. Elder son Jared is a sophomore at Notre dame; daughter Samantha is in her final year of high school and will matriculate there in the fall, and younger son Bobby is a sophomore at Saint Mary’s. They hold season tickets and faithfully attend all the Fightin’ Irish home games, even occasionally road-tripping to Michigan or Purdue for an away match.

Two years previous, a marked protuberance was noticed in Bobby’s cervical spine and he was taken to an orthopedic specialist who gave the family the unfortunate news that the condition was idiopathic in nature, essentially untreatable, and would likely worsen. He was fitted with a brace to wear at night and instructed in certain beneficial exercises to perform, and sent home with the promise that any advances in the understanding and treatment of his condition would be immediately made known to the family. No mention was made, at the time or any time in the intervening two years, of college and the cruel vagaries of fate.

As predicted, Bobby’s hump grew in size and his posture worsened until some of the crueler kids at school were calling him Quasimodo. Bobby was a stalwart lad, though, and kept his head up (so far as he was able to).

After Bobby aced his PSATs, Andrew and Diane decided it was time to broach the subject. “So, son,” Andrew said at dinner one night. “College. Any thoughts?”

Bobby shook his head slowly and put down his knife and fork. “I’m going to Notre Dame, Dad,” he said decisively. “I don’t care. I’m going, and I’m going to major in music, and I’m going to operate the carillon at the cathedral. It’s controlled by a keyboard, Dad. I checked. How could they possible refuse me if I asked to do it? And dad, what’s more, if there’s a girl named Esmerelda anywhere on that campus, I am going to seek her out, and woo her, and make her mine. I don’t even care what she looks like. That’s the way it is.”

“Dammit, no son of mine is going to be a joke?” thundered Andrew.

“You just don’t get it, Dad. God chose me to be the Hunchback of Notre Dame for a reason.”

The following year Bobby got a 1420 on his SATs, applied to and was accepted to Notre Dame as a member of the class of 1991. On arriving at school his roommate, fearing at first that he may be the victim of some elaborate and tasteless prank, displayed admirable self-restraint and the two became fast friends. His European lit professor observed him worriedly and informed the class there would be a delay receiving their syllabi due to some glaring typos. Every single fraternity, even the Jewish and African-American ones, rushed him vigorously.

In his second year there, he was indeed granted the post of carillon operator, and did it with such verve and pizazz that chapel attendance increased 38% during his tenure. He also met his Esmerelda, a pre-med student of that name whose love for obby led her into orthopedics and specifically, spinal abnormalities, and she eventually led the team pioneering the surgical procedure that restored her beloved to straight-backed normalcy.

They were married in the Notre Dame cathedral – the real one, in Paris – in a ceremony encompassing both twisted irony and perfectly aligned vertebrae, not to mention stately elegance and startling beauty.

That, labias and genitals, is the real and true modern tale of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, with a nice, positive, American spin on it, unlike those dour Frenchmen with their existential ennui. If we’ve learned anything here today, it’s that the French, for all their hoity-toity pronunciation of Notre Dame, which requires one to manipulate one’s glottis in a rather unsavory fashion, have been not only out Notre-Damed – I have been to the original, and while it is impressive in its way, with the gargoyles and flying buttresses and all, they don’t even have a football team – but out-hunchbacked. Bobby McCluskey is now the university’s band director and holder of the music department’s Seagram’s chair. Esmerelda is chief of staff at the Student Health Center and they couldn’t be happier. What more can I say, but … U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

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