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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Black Swan: A One-Minute Film Review! The Movie That Dips Its Beak Toward Leda!

BLACK SWAN, the new movie -- or rather Film, with a tottering capital F -- takes the self-v.-self plot conceit, throws it into a revamped La Boheme milieu, tosses in some horror tropes and pre-Beauvoir Cinderella psychology -- at times I found it unbearable to watch, both the prefabness of it all and the horror -- and yet moments of specificity hit that particular sweet-spot note of narrative inevitability, quivering between utter cliche and utter urgency, which could just about make a viewer's head spin around, several times and fast, a la the Exorcist.

The dancer I saw the Film with found it unbearable as well -- and yet. And yet.

Whatever it is, film, movie, last year's nightmare: it enters one's head like a virus from outer space, clenches in, resists forgetting, especially in the resplendence of its cliches. So does that, therefore, make it Oscar material?

Uncurmudgeonly Unman*
*As a friend of mine says: only curmudgeonly men of a certain age don't like this movie.

**The music link, above, is just for fun. The movie trailer -- and not, mind, that I recommend you see this movie -- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jaI1XOB-bs.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Other White Meat

An article on the Jewish Xmas Eve tradition of Chinese food and a movie, first published in 1992 in Contemporary Ethnography:


Bon appetit!

Friday, December 24, 2010

In Memory of a Late Teacher: Thesis and Antithesis

To enter that high school European History classroom was to enter a sanctuary. You were being inducted into something much greater than you could access, you a freshman, he a teacher with consonants exploding klieg-fast and with a certainty you could never hope to muster. Let's have a summary, he'd splutter, and you would try to recover from your careful notes -- taken before in the marble notebook he demanded -- some simulacrum of the prospect view and theory of history on which he had lectured the day before. Years later, you revisit his syllabus, his careful crafting of European history, and marvel at how gracefully opinionated his ideas were, how much history he happily elided, and the absolute respect he extended to mostly American students by proffering them, on a filigreed silver platter, the absolutisms of his Europe.

The defenestration of Prague. Thesis (splutter) and antithesis (double splutter).

To this writer, having been schooled in Oakland-Berkeley public school with not much more to show for it than an acquaintance with Japanese kite songs, the Pate-Pate, and the best methods for incubating chicks, becoming a person who would never truly master which states border Minnesota, Mr. Crome's specificity and transcendence knocked away walls and created a vaulted intellectual cathedral. One could master history and form a thesis; even Herodotus was a kind of fiction writer; historiography already an imperiled pursuit. Come to history with some creativity, he seemed to imply, a stance which might have been a result of his brief past as a kid in the Hitler Youth, a student-borne "fact" which might have had no legs. A bad historian, I still don't know.

His head shone under fluorescence so brightly it seemed spit-polished, as was, perhaps, the careful curl of his forelock. In his being, he retained something of the blue-eyed boyish roue (accent over the e, but can't put it in here!) about him: I would always see him at Au Coquelet, the Berkeley cafe on University and Milvia, savoring with great nostalgia some pastry with layers of whipped cream which just about screamed opening night at the Bavarian opera house. In short, he was exactly the particular enigma students remember and savor, everyone held in the loving esteem which the school -- note "school" as a breathing, corporeal being -- showed its faculty as well as its students.

I remember Mister Crome talking to me on a walkway at what we still thought of as the new campus, telling me a term paper I had written on Descartes was a noble failure, and the phrase stuck: he offered me the epiphany of realizing ideas would forever be embedded in words as a kind of holy vestment, and that there would never be a way to sunder an idea from its representation in language. I could almost say my entire career (as a writer who seems unwillingly drawn, again and again, back to the idiosyncratic byways of history) could have come from the moment of realizing both the failure of my attempt and the nobility of the pursuit.

To the memory of Mister Hans Crome, therefore, to spit-curls and klieg-consonants, in gratitude, I raise the above cup of nostalgic froth.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Recognizing the Slave

I had an odd encounter this evening, in person, with a spokesperson for a major demonic force in corporate America -- let the name of the big entity go unspoken for now, but let's just say it starts with W. And while at first I saw only the flat deadness in the eyes of this spokesperson -- so much like the eyes of a bigoted policeman I once had the fortune to meet off a highway in Whittier, California -- while this customer service manager spoke his party line, speaking American cust-serv glossolalia, while I lost any hope of seeing his humanity, by some grace I managed to do some internal jiujiutsu, and lo and behold, the conversation turned! There came into my proxy's gaze the merest flicker of humanity, clouds parting enough to reveal the slave in his eyes, the helpless proxy of our ironic country in which individuals march lemming-like toward corporations. This proxy, neither young nor old but already formed, this poor customer service manager seemed, before this signal moment, to have been speaking in tongues, but once I made what felt at the time to be an effort worthy of Hercules to see his slave, we started to have a simulacrum of real conversation.

Being able to recognize the slave in another's eyes: a gift capable of unlatching whatever keeps all our thousands of tiny inner slaves unnoticed.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Last Adventure in Nicaragua

Last time I was in Nicaragua, I was sent up a volcanic mountain on the back of a burro laden with now surely old-fashioned GPS equipment: up that mountain, on those six jaded burros, went a pack of five brothers and myself. Supposedly I had come to Managua to act as a translator for my father who had long tried to bring alternative energy to Nicaragua. More about this father of mine: he did not, in fact, accompany us up the volcano. We were equipped, instead, with a few machetes, dulled slicers meant to clear brush as we rode forward on the burros' backs. And just a bit more about this father of mine, now dead two months: a benign idealist, one who always wished to see the best in human nature, he thought he was giving me the ultimate afternoon experience and giving the brothers, who had worked with him for a while, a chance to chat it up with his American daughter. Or god knows what he really thought; that afternoon, he had to be imprisoned in his favorite small Managua hotel, the Hotel Cesar where the duena knew he loved the flan, in a series of unconscionably endless meetings. Meanwhile, the fruit of his loins got to have pure experience, on burros, heading up a mountain.

More about this mountain, then: we rode up not into the sunset but setting forth at a very practical moment in the morning, laden with fruit and some sandwiches. I had thought to bring one bottle filled with boiled tap water, and it gave off an intestinal gurgle from where it jiggled in the horse's saddle-pocket. Very early in the trip, machetes flying left and right to clear our path, we pulled off to a shaded plateau and sat and, companeros of the road, broke bread together. In some essential tic, at that second, I remained my father's daughter, filled with a supremely blind joy: I was one with the people! We were all employed in hard labor together!

I think, in the tradition of cliffhangers, I will adjourn here and continue what ended up being a life-or-death experience in the jungle on another day . . .

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Only Exception

Guess it makes sense if I promised a particular mentor NOT to write in this blog (and instead start stashing away words toward articles that will appear in old-fashioned Print Vehicles, the unfortunate moniker of magazines in our common era with its equally poorly named need for Content Provision) to at least give this entry (because it seems that once one has the habit of writing in this thing called a blog -- a useful cache-tout for the ideas we all have in our day, little tugs at the unconscious sparking out toward the walls and ending up, instead, captured within the frame -- something of the notating habit sticks) the forgiving title of my latest and happiest recent discovery in the world of music, and for all I know I am charting exactly the sine wave of some horribly predetermined pop sensibility so that when I speak of a band, it may already be etched deep in your mind, or at least in the consciousness of some lurking demographic unknown to me --

as if I were saying, back in the time of the Kennedys, yes, but did you happen to get a load of John F.'s WIFE? --

but all that said, I just saw, again from the same bunker-like physical locale in which I get to spy on contemporary culture, a video which speaks to so many themes that seem to have obsessed me recently, or to speak more truly, in these last couple of years finishing up this LOLA novel, that I just have to sing out its praises  --

"The Only Exception" -- by Paramore -- a song which strikes me as a latterday heir to the song "The Real World" by the Bangles, itself an heir to any slow Beatles love song;

here again for the hypertext-happy is a link:


which, as a song by itself, without the video, after its intimate, confessional opening, might not fully stand up; my song jury's still out. The instrumental break leading to the cliche-ridden bridge becomes ponderous and predictable; singer Hayley loses, just a bit, what had started with a charm cousin to that of Jolie Holland (to whom I was introduced by the local Woodstock radio's constant trumpeting of her "Little Birds" song, her crackly voice making me curious, her articulation as if she were rolling marbles around in the back of her Texan mouth, only to see her charisma refracted in the unparalleled writing of Rick Moody, in The Rumpus, on her work, in which he declares "Mexican Blue" to be the best song of the millennium)


but I was moved, a naif about Paramore, by the performance of naivete itself: Hayley's voice has the honesty of youth, and her persona in the video is that of the outcast, the boyish punk girl who found herself recast once she encounters herself as an adult. The kind of girl for whom GHOST WORLD was written.


So the question is: what is it about certain voices that makes them simultaneously so knowing and fresh, and how do such voices seem to promise catharsis to their listeners?

The crackle followed by the clarity in the timbre of this kind of voice is an equivalent to what the French call jolie-laide, the beautiful-ugly effect, the beauty heightened by the chiaroscuro between rough rawness and the labored. My hunch is that this siren call acts as an equivalent to the authenticity we aim to hear in American fiction, the crackle of the ungrammatical against the smoothness of the epic.

In this highly crackly blog entry, on the eve of the holiday that celebrates the idea of the native and his misunderstood gift approaching a Pilgrim with grand designs, I wish I could go now into an aria, smooth and slippery, a whole nother bridge on Pilgrims: I wish I had time to describe the unfeigned anger of the actress playing a Puritan aboard the Mayflower, someone we met in a tiny ship's hold last summer when our oldest daughter begged for us to go to the historical recreation spot Plymouth Plantation, the kind of site I had thought occurred mainly in George Saunders' fiction -- but that really would be a story a whole crackle away, too big an exception even for this blog.

Happy Thanksgiving; and may your inner pilgrim and native unite.

PS Also, for what this is worth, the voice of Paramore's lead singer reminds me a bit of Brielle Korn, a New York-based pianist/songwriter who plays every Sunday at Jack in the Village in Manhattan, and sometimes at CBGBs. Another paean to vulnerability:


Tuesday, November 23, 2010



Some asked where they could read the two stories of mine that received special mention in the 2011 Pushcart Prize collection: here for your Thanksgiving musing, published previously in CONJUNCTIONS, the great literary journal edited by Brad Morrow, is one of the stories, "Beef":

            We take advantage of that friendliness that Southerners are supposed to have, you know, the gentleman thing. What happens is I come up close to the door, press my nose up to the glass everyone has out here, and one of these people comes to the door, could be an old lady, could be a guy, it doesn’t matter. I start talking real fast, sort of snowing it over them, which is why the guys call me The Tongue, as in you want something, get the Tongue. Meat, beef, I’ve got a lot, I say, I’ll give it to you, I’ll give it to you, cost me three hundred but I’ll give it to for one hundred fifty, I’m almost shouting, I’ll give it to you --  and behind me the other guys are holding these black cardboard boxes we use, and our van is puffing steam, our van which is also painted black, paint so thick we can’t even use the rear lock and have to open it from the inside.
And if the people who open the door raise their objections, like: I don’t have room in my freezer, I tell them, look, I’ve known freezers in my time and people don’t know how to use them, no need to get namby-pamby on anyone, and I sort of shoulder it past them to the kitchen and start arranging things better, because one thing people don’t know how to use is space and one American thing we know for sure is space. I start shoving in the beef, packages of sirloin and T-bone and all that, racks and hamburger patties, and I’m opening up the box and hefting stuff in there, and if they say they want to keep the box in case of returns I tell them no worries, it’s fine, I’ll recycle, I’ve got everything flat before they say lickety and before they say split they find themselves whipping out a pen and writing out a checkarooni for one hundred and fifty buckarupees, and if they don’t, it’s essentially highway robbery, because now we’ve got all our beef in their freezer, unpackaged, and possession is nine-tenths of the law, what can they do and anyway we’re gone before they think better.
And hey, it’s not like we’re taking anything from them, they get to have beef for a month of Sundays, sauce it up anyway they like, some people would die to eat beef, and okay it’s not that prissy stuff, none of that pure free-range cock and bull stuff, that grain-eating mushmush, this is real cow slaughter. We’re talking choose your cut and take it between your jaws, bloody or barbecued or what have you.

            This is what the lone cattle farmer has to do in our time. I mean, I’m not that guy but I’m hired by a guy who works with a guy who works with that guy, one local guy who’d never let me use his name but I feel for him, I do, and anyway when I got out of the hoosgaw after those domestic incidents what other jobs were open to me, I mean it wasn’t like some national company was going to hire me to drive a brown truck delivering parcels or anyone would trust me decorating their cakes or whatever pissant job people find when they need to get by. If my mom weren’t sick I wouldn’t be doing this beef racket, because that’s what it is, a racket, who are we fooling here, but money is money and truth is, it’s sort of fun, the choice of a house, the way you zero in like a detective, circling. Trick is you got to look for markers that someone isn’t really comfortable in his skin, like maybe you see someone with one of those cutesy mailboxes that show they’re living out here because they think it’s quaint, not someone throwing their trash out unbagged on their lawn but someone poking a rake at leaves as if  yesterday someone introduced the whole idea of rakes to him. Or you see someone wearing his jeans a little too tight. Once you’re done spotting, don’t move in right away, you wait a while and come back in an hour, you have your guys with you, and the thing depends on speed, which means that after a good take, inside the truck, you are high as kites. This is pure adrenaline without any guilt to tug it down, because after all didn’t you just sell a decent product at decent markdown?
The only other job I’ve been able to get is working for the campaigns, I mean, at night, going around and removing signs the other guy has put up, people know me around here, in the electioneering scheme of things they don’t call me Tongue, they call me Steam because I get away so fast, as in: you need a job done, you call Steam. Only it’s these new people, the out-of-towners and northerners who drift south because their cities are turning into habitats for rats living on top of each other, prime target for a terrorist bomb, it’s the escaping rats who don’t understand the way we do things. Just for the record, the way you collect election signs is you stack them on a corner at night and then come back an hour later, no one really notices. All these endeavors depend on patience, you got to wait that hour before you scoop up the other guy’s signs and then go drive to the river and throw them in the water so that even if they want to use them, they would look all bad and waterlogged and who’s going to vote for someone whose signs are mildewed? It’s a sign you should kick yourself out of the race, right? And the river’s always better than going to the county dump, because anyone can dig up a sign from a dump.

When I was in Basra I was called Steam for a whole nother reason. I was in Basra but back in Bentonville, where I lived for a little bit just out of high school, I had Cherilyn waiting for me. Cherilyn I’d met when she’d auditioned for the kind of bar where the bartenders dance and sing on top of the bar and she hadn’t made it, they’d told her she was tops in the personality department but wouldn’t be good for sales, she’d been sitting curbside outside the bar, crying just before happy hour on a Friday, a girl whose cheeks were so fresh you felt you’d get the first bite out of an apple, if you know what I mean. She felt I understood the troubles of her life and why getting this bar job meant so much. All the other guys in my unit were jealous about Cherilyn, whose mama had gotten her wallet photo retouched so that no matter how many times I took it out of my kit Cherilyn still looked like one hot apple.
            The bad thing that happened two days before Christmas in Basra was basically that I was eating some turkey soup out of a can when we hear this explosion and everyone goes down, I mean everyone, and even my can gets knocked out of my hand, all I have left is the spoon in my hand and that’s the dumb luck of a survivor. The only guys who didn’t buy the farm that second were me and the corporal who was about fifty yards away pulling down his pup. That one-night recon ended up, basically, a life sentence because in the bargain I lost everyone but the corporal who hadn’t been especially a friend of mine, though the moment did bond us, especially after we had to haul one of my buddies to the medevac that came too late because how can anyone get there in time to keep life flowing?
The soup incident is why I got a purple heart, even though it didn’t take much bravery on my part, just the dumb luck I have, they gave me a heart making up for all those other lost hearts, which is also why I got to see this head-shrink now because some wires got crossed, I mean who wouldn’t need help. Like say you stared down the mouth of a nuclear reactor, wouldn’t you think you were ready for some help? Not everyone gets blown up and just has his stupid soup spoon left in his hands.
Which probably in a roundabout way explains how I got into the beef racket, the whole thing with my buddies and then Cherilyn walking out -- we had a few domestic incidents, cops called, all that, but really she walked because I didn’t hang on her every word and then she fell in love with some fellow boytoy prisoner friend of mine who only thought about lifting weights so he could update his photo on the prisoner web site at the same time as he was legally changing his name to Dream Big -- all that just did a number on me, and when I got out, Tony suggested I help him out in a new business venture with guaranteed profit each month, he kept saying, guaranteed, right when I was ripe for anything guaranteed, prayer wasn’t doing the trick and also it had gotten too depressing staying at home with ma all the time waiting for the veteran’s check to thud in with all the other mail asking us to go out and buy things on the cheap. And I wasn’t ready to start calling anyone Your Honor. You can see how it made sense.
So what happens is I’ve stocked the beef in someone’s freezer and even got them to the point of sale, that’s what it’s all about, you get them to use their pen and sign the check and put it in your hand, and any objections they raise along the way you’re like okay, I understand, your answers ready like little soldiers. And then we’re out the door, vanished like the shine on some Christmas decorations the day after you’ve taken the tree down when it doesn’t really matter anymore that you just had all this expectation hanging on getting something. This is not evil. If it were evil, I’d be a liar or someone would’ve stopped me already, because I’m not such a big guy, a fact that I got reminded of a thousand times a day in the hoosgaw. It’s just that my bald head makes me look taller or tougher, I can’t stop shaving it since I got home from Iraq, so though Cherilyn used to say I had super-kind eyes or at least did until the day she stopped saying it, it’s probably my eyes draw them in while my shiny head is probably what keeps people from slamming and locking the door in my face. They’re scared.
And you’d think that even after we leave they’d stop the check but they never do, probably stand a long while in the kitchen shaking their heads, trying to figure themselves out. Probably feel too foolish to want to explain it to Tanya at the bank, as in, Tanya, please stop my check because I just got taken in by the Beef Boys, which is the name we incorporated as, the name we ask them to use for the checks, and Tanya isn’t about to help them out either, being that Tanya’s a good local girl who understands that everyone out here does what he’s got to do. Especially because out here we’ve got God country on our side, that’s what we call it on days when you see dads standing around with their sons around the back of a flatbed, unloading a two- hundred-pound hulk of deer, everyone struck dumb by the fact that they’re still living and that stupid animal just kicked it.
People ask okay did something happen in Iraq that made you go into this line of business and usually I don’t talk about the soup-spoon moment, it’s too much a tearjerker, so I can’t think of anything except the one thing which is that time we were crossing this little bay which I won’t name because it was supposed to be a no-fly zone but our fuel supply was low and we see this little action hero sort of gasping somewhere out in the water, and I was not myself that day, I can’t explain it, I asked Johnny who’d been pressed into flight even though as corporal all he’d ever done was go to some military academy and get shipped out too young, barely knew how to man a copter, given that he was younger than I was, a fact I never let him forget, but on this day I was trying to eject something out of my throat, so I said let’s go down, Johnny, I think that hero’s one of our men, which I didn’t really, but how can you explain days when you’re not yourself? Everyone has them, I’m as good as the next guy. Still we get closer and I see the hero’s not on our side, not at all, he has one of these superlong mullah beards, as we call them, not mullet as in long bad haircut from some 1970s band but mullah as in super-evil trainer of young jihad minds trained to battle the U.S.A.
Like the guy might be one of the priests those guys have out there. But something’s hitting me, maybe because it’s morning of Christmas Eve and we all should’ve been home two months ago or I don’t know, I’ve gone a little soft on account of the soup-spoon incident, so I feel soft toward him, and this even after what I’d seen the day before. We scoop Mullet up in our copter, I say mullet because their hair is long in front not in back, and we’re supposed to be heading to Basra to pick up some replenishment of our medical supplies which have run low given our events, plus the fact that we’ve been bunkered in Bazookistan for two and a half months. And there Mullet is in the helicopter with us, spitting up water and smelling like something just dragged through major sewage, if you know what I mean, probably soiled himself. The problem is he doesn’t speak much English and the Arabic rattling in my head is really not that useful, stuff like koos emuk, which means your mother’s private parts! And other choice words which I won’t share here. I don’t know why, but certain things stick better than the how are yous? And please turn around and raise your hands over your head? that we had drilled in us during pre-op. I can’t help it, my head’s not really sorted out for languages, but at least I remember one or two choice elements.
So here this guy is gasping and I hit on it, like something we could do for him, give him back some dignity, I go digging in my rucksack and I pull it out, it’s a little mushed, but it’s still okay, this hoagie like we used to call it back in training camp near Phillie, I pull it out and true the meat is mushed and true it’s dripping but still it’s prime USDA, sent in a Hugs from Home package filled with diaper wipes and graham cookies when what most guys really want are magazines and beef, even if ladies and beef both come freeze-dried.
And the guy at first looks happy when he sees the puffy part of the bread, he’s skinny like a bird and hungrier, because even if someone has a different color of skin and different way of thinking you can still figure out the basic human things, this is one thing I’ve learned, hunger anger love self-defense, but he’s saying something we can’t understand, muttering and spitting out a kind of question, so we’re just smiling and saying aiwa and la, kind of at the same time, yes and no, which are words that even I can remember though neither of us really at that moment remembers how to say anything else.
So what he does is take a bite and chews and it only takes him a half-second before he spits it out and says something which I think might be the word for infidels but could just as easily be the word for disgusting, and that does it, I mean I’ve had it, what with the soup thing with my buddies only the day before and here I am sharing my last KP with him when we had a three-hour flight at least to get to Basra, me with my low blood sugar and him with the nerve to spit it out because it’s not cut to his liking or whatever. It’s cut wrong supposedly because the animal suffered and I’m all like who doesn’t suffer? Is suffering a reason to reject someone’s courtesy? I say not.
So I say: let’s drop him.
Just like that, let’s drop him.
Plus the corporal doesn’t even bat an eye, he’s all like aye-aye sir, kind of roasting my bones because I’m a private but I don’t care, he’s with me on the dropping of Mullet idea. So we’re over some compound, I can’t tell what it is, one of those secret government installations that are everywhere, they’re on the maps like empty rectangles with squares jostling around inside, and we just do it, we force Mullet out, we drop him inside one of those cement blocks, maybe everyone has fled, maybe he gets locked inside, who knows. These guys can be super-crafty, have subterranean tunnels like moles. And Mullet can’t believe we’re doing it to him, I can still see his narrow longbeard face looking up right before we pull away, shielding his eyes from the wind of the copter blades but still shouting at us. Okay, so even after I say that Mullet will figure out a way to escape because he has Allah on his side, the corporal seems too rattled to even crack a smile. When Mullet really deserved something, treating us with such inhospitality when there we were trying to rescue him, plus I shared my last sandwich with him, and the best thing he could think to do is call us infidels?
Which is all kind of a tangent but maybe it explains why I got so bothered last Saturday when we came to this prissy kind of door, the kind with painted birdboxes in front of it, as if our birds here don’t have any place to go find shelter, and the guy who shows up at the door looks sort of concerned, has one of those pasty Northern cityfolk am-I-doing-it-right, I’m-still-a-foreigner-here sort of faces. He actually has paint stripes on his clothes, so I figure he must be one of those gentleman artsy painters because there is no way in freezing buck county that the guy is a house painter, I’d never let him touch one of my walls, inside or outside.
            His wife has vanished like an aroma upstairs, I just saw her white ankles vanishing, and it is probably out of fear of the evangelicals who run rampant in these parts and who you got to be on guard against because they’ll talk your ear off for a million months of Sundays and never let you get down to business, and they almost put us out of business because now some people don’t even answer their doors. 
            But this is one pasty-looking mother staring at me, and he starts trying to out-egg me, you know, talking some breed of stuff about how he doesn’t need beef, doesn’t even eat it, being one more of these blue-veined vegetarians starting to infest our land, and I’m smiling at him like I can’t believe this, like what kind of guy would you really be in bed, I mean I’m not exactly about to say anything, insults tend to put off sales, first thing you learn, because I’m not in the intimidation racket, just into the speech-and-speed thing. Then he starts asking all sorts of questions and it’s not like I have any ready answers to his questions, and I’m starting to get a little pissy, because things are not going according to plan, and it’s like when he says what are you fighting about? I try not to lose it and say I’m not fighting, that was before, and when he asks is the world black-and-white I say only if you say so and for whatever reason I’m thinking of our copter and I see this painter smiling in some way that makes him seem twice as crazy. He starts taking the beef, just ripping open the packages and throwing beef onto these massive iron skillets he has, I’m not kidding, frying up our goods in his kitchen which is painted all these godforsaken colors, aqua or pumpkin or whatever they call those colors, cooking it up, and I would’ve left by now but I’m not kidding, the guy’s wife is quicker than she looked, she came back smiling herself, smelling of vanilla perfume but basically using surprise tactics that made this one vet look bad, because she got me tied me to their kitchen chair with two extension cords which for the life of me I can’t undo. Must have had a brother in the Boy Scouts or what have you. At this point I’m bellowing like a ram in heat and stomping all what out but who’s going to hear me out here? No one. And she keeps interrupting her husband whose eyes could be those of a serial murderer, I’m not kidding, keeps interrupting to say you want me to call 911?
You’re not supposed to do this, I say, trying to calm everyone down including myself. How it’s supposed to go is you’re supposed to let me free now. Right here you should be signing the check and --
And he says we’ll just keep him here. The thing they used on me was surprise, which I’m still feeling embarrassed about given how you’d think basic training plus my current line of work would have prepped me for better, but he’s frying up the beef and I’m sitting there tied up and then he’s serving it to me, not with sauce or anything, holding my nose to make me open my mouth and at first I’m just spitting it out onto my lap or the floor, wherever I can reach, and I’m thinking what kind of justice is this, me forced to eat my own beef, but the more I spit the more he shoves it in so I figure I better just start swallowing. If it’s so good, he’s saying, you think we’re rubes or something? People you can just get something over on? And I keep eating, it’s okay, not raw or anything, not like the desert lizard-flesh I had to eat once, but it’s also sort of disgusting, it’s like I can see the meat there on his counter, the Freez-R-Pak starting to melt, losing its value as Tony would say, and I can’t tell which is killing me more, the fried meat or the sight of profit dwindling. And my voice is weaker than I mean it to be, I say, if you don’t mind, would you please mind just putting those packages back in the freezer?
Because for everything that I sell for one hundred and fifty, I’ve had to shell out fifty, so it’s like if everything goes bad, I mean I could sell it but I don’t want to get anyone sick with E. Coli, that’s not my business, I never volunteered for the nerve-gas patrol if you know what I mean. I just don’t want to lose money, you understand. I’m thinking of ma at home waiting for me to bring her home a carton of cherry ice cream like I do whenever I make a decent sale, and I’m almost about to explain but the guy’s talking too much, out-tonguing me basically. Meanwhile the guy’s wife has disappeared again when I’d had the sense she was my only hope, something about her white ankles and vanilla scent and the way she knew to tie knots.
Not to go on too long but I’d say my guys apparently had vanished from outside, worse than steam, showing no loyalty, and I’m sitting there about three hours telling by their folksy-cute kitchen clock that cuckoos in the voice of every different kind of bird. Three hours later and this crazy couple finally decides alright, it’s enough, they’re going to untie me. They’ve made me eat all the beef, the guy has even said back to me the thing I had said to him, which is that possession is nine-tenths of the law. Being tied up had gotten me confused and I’d started saying things out of sequence.
            So that was yesterday. At least I got out with my pants on.
We have enough houses tucked away in the hills that I could be in business for a whole nother year before shifting to another line of work, and it would’ve helped out ma with her payments for her lung cancer, that stupid doctor she goes to once a week who makes her breathe into a breathalyzer or whatever just to chart her lungs. None of it makes sense, and nothing lasts forever, I tell my ma whenever she complains but she sort of chucks me on the head and says Jimmy you used to be a decent kid, used to be able to figure numbers in your head so quick, and I let her treat me like I’m six because the old lady has gotten some marbles loose and there’s no way I’m going to ever forget I’m all she has, this is why I’m so steady with the cherry ice cream except for yesterday. Not to mention that she has reminded me that I’m all she has practically every day since my dad was locked away and me only eight and allowed to see him once a month at visiting hours. Which is all a long way of saying I’ve changed my tactics, I’m a reformed man. Which also means I see the world in a new way and look, you gave me your time, it hurts me but I’m just about ready to give it to you.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Forbidden Books

Remember how somewhere deep into their darkest period the Nazis had an exhibit of degenerate art? Art so expressive, it must have been made by outsiders? This as a kind of interesting bookend to the art made for public display by those sequestered in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, turned into art puppets, art as pabulum for the guilty conscience?

Well, I don't know why exactly, or I do, as I write this, but I was thinking of the Nazis in relation to the idea of taboo art: what, really, in our hellbent age is taboo anymore? Where, in other words, can you get the thrill of a book that seems to have toppled off some kind of shelf not really meant for your sensibility?

And the quick two-step: do you remember which books your parents read -- to themselves! the great unimaginable of that! -- which seemed to you to be so insuperably adult?

For me, two signal taboo-book events occurred: one was my mother's creased copy of FEAR OF FLYING, with its cover boasting a woman's waist in peach tones -- odd, actually, now that I realize this; the cover of this next novel seems to share some lineage with this new cover for LOLA, CALIFORNIA.

The other had to do with my witnessing my mother receiving a cardboard shipment of books by Lawrence Durrell, THE ALEXANDRIA QUARTET -- the exoticism of that, back in the Quality Paperback Club era, prior to Amazon -- a set of books whose random purple phrases, whenever I could sneak a peek, far better than the dictionary page in my elementary school's anatomical diagrams, or the 1970s classic lying around, OUR BODIES, OURSELVES, connoted a world of travel and passion.

A few years later, still a kid, I chanced upon the book MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS by Lawrence Durrell's little brother Gerald, a memoir, in my memory at least, about the time the family lived on Corfu with a whole range of British expostulations and friendly eccentric locals, heir and ancestor both to the hoary literary lineage that sets up the traveler as composed of equal parts sensitivity, sensibility and prejudice approaching the great unknown.

The reader as prejudiced traveler: how in our time can the taboo ever again be restored to reading? The frisson felt by, say, readers picking up the first edition of Defoe's MOLL FLANDERS, not knowing whether the hybrid beast in their hands qualified as the newly minted concept of fiction or not.

Do adults ever feel that kids' frisson when reading?

Recently I had to say no to reviewing a book -- don't want to say which one -- which felt as if it were a kind of provocateur's play on a huge societal calamity, sort of a jeu des mots borrowing the shock of the extratextual reference without bringing in anything of worth. No play, insight, articulation or expansion of human boundaries.

Taboo as a kind of border-patrol.

I'd be interested in hearing of others' taboo books: which seem(ed) to promise the kind of magic kids now scramble toward Harry Potter in pursuit of --? You fill in.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Era of Connectivity

In this era, when is too little a good thing? Yesterday I had the good fortune of having some friends spontaneously decide to mount a memorial moment for my father, dead now more than a month, out here in what might well always stay a kind of diaspora for me, the old granite of New York as opposed to the shifting tectonics of California where my father (never knew what to call him in life, never know what to call him in death), a geophysicist in diaspora from his earliest days, one dedicated to this deepest of movements beneath the earth's surface, now lies buried in a pine box in earthquake country: only one New York friend had met him in person, playing harmonica from deep inside the confines of his favorite black armchair.

Yesterday these particular friends met in the orange-walled studio that has let me sustain one long unbroken Renaissance dream -- one of the greatest gifts to my writing life I have ever known -- and of course conversation always gets interesting when people start sharing ghost stories: the negative space around our lives, however real or fabulistic, starts defining all the important impalpables around the life lived. One friend with a troubled relation with her mother spoke of the beauty of finding how much more direct became her communication with her mother starting seconds after the mother's death.

My own little three-year-old daughter had told me, three days after his death but before the funeral, that she had seen Saba in the house, her grandfather having regained use of his legs, and that his ghostly apparition had scared her; she had needed to run and hide. Here, less is a good thing: "I saw Saba and he could walk and I was scared and ran away."

Similarly, a few hours before his death, while we were still in upstate New York, before we knew he'd been taken to a California hospital, this same daughter had gone on one unstoppably emphatic conversational jag, prior to bedtime, about how sometimes people end up in a hospital, sometimes they come out but lots of times they just plain old die. Okay, I had said, that's great -- deep in the muffliing logic of adults -- think you're ready to put on pajamas now?

Some of my friends would say my little one in her late-breaking hospital update was channeling Saba: that, being less muffled, less filled with information, she was able to receive the message about his impending death a bit more directly. That, in other words, Saba chose the most unfilled flute, a three-year-old girl, in which to pipe the knells.

So one question might be: how empty or filled do you need to be in order to recognize truth? So much of this Internet usage, even this ungainly construct of a blog, has to do with belief that being filled is a good thing. We hide, as readers always do, lurking and taking in information, believing that a particularly contemporary and magical silvery information, all these pixel bullets, will help us better navigate lives which paradoxically have become more complex because we must be superheroes in dodging bullets to accomplish anything of meaning. But we continue on, belief morphing into compulsion, silent in our lurking, navigating, dodging, reading, meanwhile creating some kind of noise, what Benedict Anderson called imagined communities of readers, linked around the page.

Ever since a best friend of mine was killed when I was fourteen, I considered the motivating spirit of writing to be made up of  elegy: in absence, we trace the missing forms, the ghostly outlines, the desire to represent now, in text, the idea or person or movement that happened before, though such scripting can also move into the future, inviting the unknowable in the purest spirit of fiction.

In that orange studio yesterday, we boiled down the gift of my father to me: his belief in my potential. In so many of the recent stories that have flown my way about dead or dying parents, I have come to recognize how rare was this particular commodity: sheer belief.

It takes little, as one friend said yesterday, to love a child. Children are inherently lovable, we tend to think;  yet the belief in a child's future offers, if not a script for the future, at least a bare tablet.

For you, then, imagined community, to fill in below?


PS The kind of blogs I have admired have been those like Conversational Reading (http://conversationalreading.com)  in which a wise docent shares sensibility through a specific terrain, helping cleave a path through the onslaught, or those in which the sensibility is just so raw and candid, you feel your subjectivity exploded, expanded, reframed. Not sure yet what this one will be.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Birth of a Blog and the Band N*E*R*D

Here's an odd way to start a conversation, but start it will: in a random moment of pop-culture consumption, I caught sight of a band which surely is so well known, my citing it here will only prove the randomness of my dip into the honeybath of contemporary America.

It was the band from Virginia Beach called N*E*R*D, its asterisks flying high defiant -- http://n-e-r-d.com/about  if you are a hypertexter - and what struck me as much as the lead singer's androgynous charisma, his cool control of the semiotics of hiphop, the throatiness of his back-up singers, as much as the train-blast of R &B from some destination still living somewhere smack inside the decade that began in 1968, a real bass spitting at the rhythm, as much as the moves so Dionysian and self-pleasuring in their excess performed onstage by two wild girls that they threatened to split the stage as much as their already split jeans, was the oddity of a band composed of anyone who could trace some kind of descent back to Africa but for the keyboardist, the one guy whose face was completely covered with both odd eyegear and a mugger's ski mask.

The brilliance of it struck me: this was the kind of involuted minstrelsy I felt growing up as a white kid in the era of busing back in Berkeley, often the only white kid in the class, wishing I had not been born so melanin-deficient, going to schools with principals named Big Daddy, becoming proficient in performing all sorts of Black Panther handshakes eyes closed, seconds flat. How brilliant and oddly correct to have the one white wannabe in the ski mask, and how badly I wish I could have time-traveled back to that long-ago corridor in Martin Luther King Junior High when for the fortieth time a particularly naughty group of girls caught up and razzed me; how I wished back then some mask fairy might have descended into those anodyne halls and offered some first and final redemption.