The most instructive test I ever took was given by my 10th grade English teacher, Mr. Graff. It had one simple instruction at the top, “read the entire test before you begin,” followed by 40 numbered questions.
I don’t recall the teacher telling us that there was any advantage to finishing quickly, but that was how I always took tests. I was usually among the first ones to complete in-class quizzes and exams. It flattered my sense of my own intelligence that I could do the same work as others in less time. It was also a reliable way to indulge in my favorite school-time activity: not being spoken to. Any respite I could get from having to pay attention to teachers was golden to me.

Mr. Graff’s test was unusual in that it was not meant to test our acquisition of any material we had covered in class. It included problems to solve and activities to perform, kind of like the IQ test I had recently taken. My guidance counselor had leaked to me that my IQ was in the genius range (one of many things he did to try to spur me to stop being a C-average underachiever), but this only made it imperative that I be the first to finish, me being so smart and all. All the competitiveness I lacked in gym class came out in the speed with which I could finish a test.

There were so many numbered questions, I couldn’t afford to read them all. Besides, experience had long before proven to me that test instructions are mostly pointless, because the questions and formatting tend to make them self-explanatory. I wasn’t going to fall for that time-waster!

I read ahead through the first few questions, then launched in. They were so easy! One of the first questions simply said “rap once on the desktop.” I heard a couple other people rap on the desktop ahead of me, which spurred me on to go even more quickly. I rapped thunderously so everyone would hear how much progress I was making.

Ten more questions in, and there was another one that simply required me to make a noise, with my mouth this time. I was the first one to make the noise, so I knew I was winning the race. Weirdly, many of my classmates hadn’t even gotten to the desk rap yet.

I was getting close to the end of the test, when I finally got to a question that stumped me. Or, rather, that required me to stump myself! I sat there in disbelief, reading and rereading the question, knowing I would have to figure out the trick behind it before I could go on to the next one. There was no grammatical ambiguity, no clever wordplay, that could let me finish it correctly and move on to the next task. I hated having to leave a blank on a test, but I just couldn’t do what it asked me to do, which was “bite off your right index finger.”

Defeated, I went on to the next question, knowing a perfect score was now impossible. I cruised through a couple more simple problems, and then I applied my eyesight to the very last one.

“Question 40: Ignore questions 1 through 39.”

Fuck! I reddened with the instant realization that I was the fool!

I looked around the room, noticing finally that hardly any of my classmates were working on the test, but just sitting there with self-satisfied grins watching those around them who were still toiling away at the test paper. My mortification soon wore off. Now that I was in on the gag, I, too, could feel superior to my former competitors. Every time someone rapped a desktop or made the other noise, I had to cover my mouth to keep from giggling and giving away the game. Those poor dimwits! If only they knew what I now know!

The problem with ignorance is that no one knows they are in a state of ignorance. They just have a different set of received ideas and personal motivations driving their actions. It takes a self-realization that your previously-held beliefs are hollow and uninformed to be able to shed them and believe something new. If you’re caught out in an obvious way in front of your peers who are already in on the next-level way of thinking, like I was on that day in tenth grade, your only options are denial or acceptance.
Recently, transgender activist Janet Mock made headlines by “flipping the script” with a cisgender interviewer, making the cis person have to defend and explain her gender and her body parts in all sorts of dehumanizing, objectifying and otherwise identity-destroying ways. The cis interviewer has her “ah-hah’ moment and understands how oppressive and invasive the questions are that she herself had been prepared to direct at a trans interviewee.

I used to believe that the fact that I liked girls made me a boy, because I grew up without the simple information that girls can also like girls. I knew that, inside my head, I wasn’t at all like a boy, not any boy I knew (besides, “genius” could explain all that), but I also grew up without the information that you can actually be a girl even if everyone you trust believes you’re a boy. Imagine my embarrassment when I finally figured that one out at age 49!

But now I’m exchanging amused glances with the other people in the know, and watching all the poor fools, ignorant of their ignorance, who still rap loudly on desktops.

(Written in 2008 as part of a free-lance copy voice development assignment for a home-furnishings catalog. Most of the headlines analyzed are ones I had written when I was the head writer for Frontgate between 2000 and 2003.)

First and foremost, understand the drawbacks. Not everyone “gets” wordplay. Every individual has a unique sense of what’s funny and what’s not, what’s charmingly irreverent and what’s downright offensive, what’s disarmingly witty and what’s too clever by half.

The mainstay of wordplay is punning. There are two basic types of puns: homophonic, based on similar word sounds; and homonymic, based on multiple meanings of a word.

For our purposes, there are also two ways to pun: reflexively and referentially. A reflexive pun is one that points only to itself as a joke; a referential pun points to the product. Avoid using reflexive puns in catalog copy. Mainstream magazines, and some catalogs, are filled with examples of reflexive puns such as “A View to a Frill,” “All the Beige,” “Knots in White Satin,” “Log Heaven,” “Spring Preening,” “Tux Be a Lady Tonight” (all these examples appeared a single issue of InStyle magazine). Facile and meaningless, reflexive puns try the patience of many readers. More important, they do not highlight features and benefits in a compelling manner. They lend credibility to the pun’s reputation as the lowest form of humor.

A referential pun, on the other hand, uses humor to kindle a reader’s positive interest in the product. The humor is never at the expense of the customer, the product or the brand. Take, for example, this catalog headline for a Panasonic electric shaver: “Shave a few seconds off your personal best with the world’s fastest razor.” The reader doesn’t have to get the homonymic pun (shaving time off an athletic feat/shaving your face) to get the message about the razor’s distinguishing feature (it’s the world’s fastest). A homophonic pun like “speed razor” may resonate with people who enjoyed the series or movie Speed Racer, but it could confuse others, and it does not tell the customer as much about the product.

Here is a headline from a home furnishings catalog description for a Detecto Physician’s Scale: “Just what the doctor ordered.” It plays off the product in several ways–all good. It has the word “doctor” in it, which establishes an immediate connection between the product photo and the copy (customers will have seen it in a doctor’s office). “Just what the doctor ordered” is an idiomatic expression for something that makes one feel good, which casts a positive light on the product. Even at the literal level, the statement is accurate because the scale is truly a thing that doctors everywhere have ordered, so the pun reinforces the product attributes of trust and reliability.

Idiomatic expressions tend to make good referential puns. A useful brainstorming resource for wordplay is a Dictionary of American Idioms. Titles, famous quotations, and lines from movies, songs or works of literature also make good puns, but the reference needs to be broad enough not to exclude, and innocuous enough not to offend.

Another way to add wordplay to copy is to use binary opposites (e.g., long/short, night/day) to combine two benefits, as in: “Here’s a bench that seats you closer to the fire—and stands up to the elements.” Or, for a retro turntable, “Looks like the 1950s—sounds like a million bucks!” 


I have been an apprentice karaoke jockey to KJ Paul de Jong for the past two years, and this Sunday I am starting my own karaoke night.

It’ll be held at 50 Mason Social House Sundays from 8PM until closing. They offer a wide selection of beers and wines, but no hard liquor, and they are located near the corner of Market and Mason in San Francisco, close to Muni and Powell St. BART.

50 Mason Social House is mostly known as a live music venue, and they have an impressive sound system and a raised stage for singers, plus lots of comfortable seating for everybody else.


Join the Karaoke with Dana Facebook group to keep up with the latest information and receive event invitations. And if you’re in the Bay Area, check out my karaoke night!

I am honored to be one on a long list of amazing trans and gender non-conforming performers nominated for a MOTHA Art Award by the Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art. Many of the nominees are friends and colleagues of mine, and many have national or international reputations, while I have only ever performed in the Bay area, and am not exactly a YouTube sensation. I’d love your vote, but I’d rather you follow the award instructions and research all the nominees. You will be granted access to some of the most amazing and whole-hearted work being done today.

Dana Morrigan standing inside a hollow redwood tree.

Photo by Carson Rader

1) In the plaza in front the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 1980 to a drum circle by myself.

2) At the Cactus Cantina, Miami Beach in 1992 to Ade Peever’s band The Hautboys covering Bob Dylan’s “Meet Me in the Morning” with a crazy girl with whom I was falling in love.

3) At El Rio in San Francisco in 2013 on stage at the final Go Deep! lube wrestling event as a Sexy Balloon Dance contestant. For the finale, I popped the balloon using only my thighs.

4) Alone in front of a laptop while hosting karaoke.

“The Irretrievable”
by Dana Morrigan

At the far end of the room
is a wall with two dartboards.

If you’re equipped with a prong,
you throw your darts
at the left bullseye;
if you have a socket,
you aim for the right.

You get points for good aim.
You lose points if you don’t
make an effort to hit the board.

We don’t know
what the points are for,
but we’re afraid
to be caught wanting.

if you arrive with something
that’s not quite a socket or a prong,
an expert examines you and tells you
which target to aim for.

If you have a socket
but hit the left bullseye,
or have a prong but hit the right,
it’s an affront to the players
at the top of the leaderboards.

They prompt us to respond
with catcalls and violence.
Indeed we can do so
with no risk to our standing.

There are other
disruptive elements as well.
People who don’t follow
the leaderboards,
who don’t care
about accruing points.

Those who aim
for an invisible point
between the two targets,
or some random spot
on the wall, or ceiling, or floor,
that pleases only them.

Those who want to throw
two darts at once,
or don’t care to throw
their darts at all.

Some are eventually
coaxed—or pressured—
back into the game.
They play dutifully
but without passion.

Others remain outside,

When they step up to the line
and squeeze a dart
between their fingers,
they call into question
the entire dart-throwing enterprise.

It’s as if they’re making fun of us
for playing to win.


Afterthought: this is the last piece I wrote in a voice that is not my own.

In my creative work before coming out as transgender, I was a chameleon. I could mimic voices, or invent voices and write consistently in them, but I didn’t have a voice that was recognizably mine. I needed to come out to myself and begin transitioning before could find my own voice.

I’ve read The Irretrievable at a few performances, but I find it hard to read aloud because it is not written in my voice, so I have decided to retire it from performance and let it stand on its own. I don’t expect to write any more works where I use a persona. Now that I can speak as myself, I am done with other voices.

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