Alex

By Lauren Hoffman

Essay

Twenty-four hours ago, a police officer in Seattle shot and killed a man who was holding or brandishing or whittling with a three-inch knife and didn’t drop it when told. It’s clear that the story is only going to become more and more tragic as its details continue to come to light, but I can’t bring myself to try to understand what exactly happened yet. I’m not finished feeling relieved about what didn’t. The man with the knife wasn’t Alex.

I was strolling down the street with my sister, tossing mini gummy bears into my laughing throat, when death paid me a brief visit. I was simultaneously strolling, laughing, talking, and swallowing, when a single mini gummy bear slid down my windpipe. No sooner had the little red bear made its confused dash for destiny than I coughed him right back up onto the pavement. I would say death flashed before my eyes that day, but in fact death is always before my eyes, like a retinal ghost at the corner of my vision. But in that instant, there unfolded a very specific picture of my death-by-gummy and all that would follow after.

I’m not afraid of dying, but I am afraid of dying in a way that guarantees I will be a laughingstock to all future descendents, possible literary biographers, and collectors of arcane death-related trivia.

I hope it won’t sound morbid to say I often picture what the world will be like after I am dead. A tasteful service, a few well-spoken eulogists in basic black throwing around words like “insightful” and “lovely,” and I gently depart this good life.

In time, while my bones lie quietly mouldering in a suitably picturesque cemetery (I would prefer London’s Abney Park Cemetery, if anyone is taking notes), some graduate student desperate for an original thesis topic will unearth a thin collection of my essays and stories, long out of print, and so earn himself a PhD from a small but well-respected East Coast liberal arts college. For a decade or two, my name will serve as an extremely obscure reference to be bandied about academic halls by pretentious undergraduates suffering from secret feelings of crippling inadequacy, and then again forgotten. I will have a Wikipedia entry, but only a stub.

Or why not think bigger? Perhaps a few of my more quotable musings, torn from chronology and context, will find their way into a brightly bound gift book, where they will join crafters of epigrams like Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde on the Barnes and Noble impulse purchase rack right by the cash register. Precocious and unattractive teens will aspire to emulate me, like that one month in high school when I dressed like Fran Lebowitz every day. There will be an automatic Summer Block quote generator on the internet but it won’t work that well.

Contrast then the death that appeared before me that day with my sister, my unruly epiglottis, and that fateful confection: I die from choking on a gummy bear. Instantly, the world forgets every single thing I have ever accomplished in my life up to that moment.

When you die by choking on a gummy bear, you are forever enshrined in memory as a clumsy, gluttonous, and luckless oaf. No matter that you graduated at the top of your medical school class, that you donated money to orphans, that you produced a delightful little one-man show to mixed reviews. No matter that you were thin and fit, a dedicated drinker of vivacious green spirulina concoctions and a regular fixture at charitable 10K races about town, where your financial generosity was matched only by your otherworldly lung capacity. No matter that you had never tasted a gummy bear before in your entire life: you are now officially the swollen-bellied slob who was so ravenous and ill-coordinated that they died while shoving gummy bear after gummy bear into their flapping maw, just like they probably did every other day of their life before Fate finally caught up to them and gave them the shameful ending they deserved.

101 Hilarious Ways to Die may well outsell The Wit and Wisdom of Summer Block at Barnes and Noble come some future holiday season, but that’s not how I plan on being remembered.

THE RIVER GODS

Brian Kiteley first came to my attention via The 4 A.M. Breakthrough, his wonderful book of writing exercises. A professor in the University of Denver’s creative-writing program, Kiteley advocates improvisation and play, urging storytellers to free themselves from the constraints of literary labels: “There is and should be no real difference between fiction and nonfiction. The distinction between the fictional and the fact-based world is overrated and the distance between the two is shorter than most critics imagine.”

Remainder, Tom McCarthy’s first published novel, arrived in 2005 as the ideal kind of literary fiction, showing us a new reality and refusing to give up its secrets all at once.

It’s a work of a certain uncompromising inscrutability, and like all works of art that don’t exist to strike the eye, ear or mind with an instant and gratifying rush of artifice and pleasure, it pulls us back to it time and again to check what we’d missed seeing in its mirrored surface when we first opened it. British publishers would have preferred it to be otherwise, since they all passed on it, leaving it up to a small press in Paris to release it in a limited edition, before it was brought out in the US by Random House to laudatory reviews by such writers as Joyce Carol Oates and Zadie Smith.

Couscous

By M.J. Fievre

Memoir

My father is dozing on the balcony, behind the large hibiscus plant.

Papa sleeps better during the day because he’s haunted. Night haunted. And when the spooky things come—memories of his childhood, he haunts my mother. He tells her his nightmares, wakes her up—to pull her into his suffering, to taunt her into saving him.

I know because I’ve heard him.

Thank you Mother Nature.

For the seasons are changing. Fall is right around the corner bearing two gifts. For one, my summer depression will soon hit the woe-is-me road for next year. And two, the 2010-11 NFL football season is here!

To hell with baseball!

And lawn bowling!

And Tiger Woods and that soft hobby that has delivered that horny misfit big cash, a divorce, and copious amounts of classy take-home-to-meet-momma beaver!

I mean enough already!

Tiger!

Is this all right with you? Huh?

Good then.

Bring on the blitz!

As you know this is prediction time, folks. Everyone and their dope man knows what’s going to go down this year.

The Saints will kiss the Lombardi once again.

Watch out for the Ravens.

The Raiders will blow as usual.

Keep an eye on the Packers.

So on and so forth.

The truth is no one knows what’s going to happen. That’s the beauty. It’s a long season full of cheers, jeers, and unpredictability. What you can count on is that weird shit is going to go down. Bad luck. Dumb luck. Fluke injuries and victories. Some teams will be sickened one month into the party and other teams will bite and claw for 16 brutal weeks and play their best football as soon as the playoffs hit.

One never knows.

Except for me.

Here we go.


The NFC

The South

The Saints took the pie last year and it was a happening sight. Some say they have a good shot at getting back to the big game. History says there’s a good chance they won’t even make the playoffs. They’re defense is sketchy, but they have Brees and a very dangerous offense to boot. They’ll put on a show no doubt. I say they make the playoffs, but it stops right there.

Falcons have what it takes to battle New Orleans for the West. They have a solid young QB in Ryan, a good running game, and a good defense. With Ron Mexico and the Dirty Bird (thank god) in their rearview mirror, Atlanta is one of those teams to keep an eye out for in 2010.

The other two teams, Carolina and Tampa, are horrible. If you see either of these teams on your team’s schedule then have a party at your house that day. BYOB.


The East

The Cowboys are the favorites to take the division. They have Romo, Austin, Bryant, Witten, a frumpy-looking coach, and all of Texas. That’s good eats. Cowboys fans span the globe and I met one the other day who barked in my ear for what seemed forever (she’s lucky she smelled good or it would have been intolerable) how the Cowboys were snatching the Lombardi this year.

“You’ll see,” she said, blowing a cigarette hit into the L.A night. “All you haters will see. Hot-ass Romo in the middle of the field talking about going to Disneyland or some shit like that. Just watch.”

“He’ll be fishing in the middle of the ocean when that trophy is raised.”

“Kiss my ass!”

I understood what that chick was talking about. The Cowboys are a good team and I expect them to be at the top of the conference at season’s end. Last year the Vikings dismantled them in the playoffs and I’m sure this year they’re looking to rewrite that nightmare.

Look for the Redskins to do a little better this year. Which is not saying much. Owner Dan Snyder (a bona fide football putz) signed McNabb and hired Mike Shanahan as the new head coach. You know, the one with the eye. The one with the Super Bowl rings. Their hope is that Shanahan will conjure up some of that Denver magic. I don’t see it. It’ll be more of the same for the Redskins: dish out a lot of fast cash for veteran players and high-profile coaches and keep losing.

It should be easy for the Giants to have a better season than last year. They ate themselves last year and just need to clean up their act. They have the talent. Saying that, their defense needs to pick it up and put the ball in Eli’s hands. If that happens then the Giants fans should have something to cheer about.

Philly ditched McNabb for Kolb and they’ll soon learn that, sure, the dance with Donovan may have run its course, but his replacement is simply not ready to lead the team to any semblance of success. Good defense. Bad offense. They’ll suck this year.


The North

Brett Favre and the Vikings almost made it to the Super Bowl last year but they blew it big time. But if Peterson can hold onto the fucking ball and the receivers can get healthy one never knows. Favre is a veteran and if he knows one thing it’s football. Minnesota fans should be optimistic.

I like the Pack this year. I think Rodgers is a kickass QB and will probably get a Super Bowl ring before he hangs up his cleats for a gig calling games for ESPN. If that offensive line can block for him and that defense can hold their own then watch out. Really.

Da Bears? Fuggedaboutit. Even if Obama gave them a you-can-believe speech before every game they’d lose more games than they’d win. Look for this to happen in 2010.

The Lions? Well, I will never pass up a chance to rip on Matt Millen so here it goes: yeah, I know that bloated jock pig is not on their payroll anymore, but his short-sighted, dimwitted, boneheaded vision of football cursed that franchise (they didn’t need any help) for all eternity. He ripped out their hearts and shitted on their puny dreams because that’s all he knew what to do. He was incapable of doing or knowing any better. Sorry Detroit. Truly.


The West

I don’t have anything to say about this crappy division so I won’t.


The AFC

The South

One word: Peyton. The Colts are still the team to beat in this division and the entire conference for that matter. Peyton is a football god and he’ll take his team into the playoffs without a doubt. Like the Saints, if the defense can hold their own then it’s on. It’s on regardless. Peyton. Say it again: Peyton.

Jaguars. I like the quarterback and have a good friend that hails from Jacksonville. He’s a crazy fucker that builds muscle cars and like me thinks that Amy Hempel is the bomb. Other than that I have nothing to say about Jacksonville.

The Texans were supposed to have a solid year last year. They didn’t. They won’t this year either.

Vince Young has turned his shit around. I thought the man was dead in the proverbial water. But hey. The Titans have the talent to do some damage this year. They have a vicious running back in Chris Johnson and a smart coach that sports a disgusting croissant-like mustache. I’ll be there to see it when they line up against the Colts. And you should, too.


The East

The safe bet is that the Patriots will again be in the Super Bowl hunt. Brady. Brady. Brady. Moss is returning for one last dance. Oh, and Wes Welker is back and the moody coach in the hoodie will be mumbling at the podium. Enough said.

The Jets have gobs o’ players returning to the team after a solid year last year. Sure, their obnoxious coach has a foul mouth and has the class of a road apple, but he has his team believing they can win. Maybe his verbal prowess can stop Tomlinson from being a post-game pussy and get him to just run the damn football. We’ll see. Sanchez needs to keep up his chops of last year or it’s a bust for New York.

The Dolphins shocked a few people last year when they ended the season at 7-9. One would think they’d be better this year. But because I inherently loathe the Dolphins I say they’re going to stink up the field. Let’s hope.

The Bills are perfectly horrible. Again, if you see the Bills on your team’s schedule chalk it up as a win.


The North

The defense-heavy Ravens should be in the fight once again. The Ravens have a thing for playing spoiler and I can see them making the playoffs and knocking off a team or two with a better record. Last year they smacked around the favored Patriots on national TV. It was a pure ass whooping. It’s what they do. I find Ray Lewis to be an utter bore with his lame two-bit sermons, but the man is an animal on the field and has the power to will his team to victory. I’ve seen it happen one too many times.

Roethlisberger’s off-the-field shenanigans have suspended that super genius for four games. If the Steelers can get passed this mess with a couple of wins they’ll be all right. Ben is still a good QB and the Steelers are, well, the Steelers. They know how to win. I look for them to make a run for the playoffs this year.

The Bengals should have an explosive offense this year with the acquisition of T.O and his big teeth. Let it be known that I think that man is a perfect asshole and hope he takes a short slant route right into Ray Lewis’ helmet and his world fades to black. Ray, I already told you that you bore me, but for the love of god, homie, if you have a love for humanity and god the way you claim that you do then you’d take that degenerate out. You have at least two chances this year. Put it to good use, dog.

Forget about the Browns once again this year. Most do.


The West

The Chargers have dominated this cheap division for some time and should have no problem taking it again and go into the playoffs. Good QB. Gates. Sproles. So-so defense and a coach with great infomercial skin. What else can you ask for? A Super Bowl ring? Oh.

The Broncos? Last year they came out of the gate punching and kicking and then petered out when it counted the most. I don’t like Orton. Nothing personal, but he’s not a leader. They’ll be watching the playoffs with you and me.

The Raiders stink but should have a better season than the Chiefs who stink even more. Like last year, pay no mind to either of these pathetic teams.

Whew. That’s it, folks. Lame utterances and fast picks void of solid ESPN research. Straight gibberish. Just the way it should be. Now, it’s time to call my dope man and find out what he thinks. So fire up the grill. Break out the hooch and the brauts. See you at the stadium.


Simon Smithson reads a piece entitled ‘A Quick Nine Years’. Produced by Aaron M. Snyder and Megan DiLullo. Music by Goodbye Champion.

Introduction

My name is James D. Irwin, and after being alive for over two decades I feel incomplete. I don’t feel as though I really know myself, and I think that’s a major obstacle in my development as a rounded, confident young man.

How can you pretend to know anything about the world if you don’t even know who you are? I mean, who you really are. We get told things like where we come from and how old we are etc, etc, but we don’t really know. We don’t come from wherever we were born; we come from our pasts, our history, and our heritage.

With this in mind I set out to investigate the real James D. Irwin— the enigmatic genetic make up that makes a humanoid, carbon-based life form so much more than the sum of its biological parts.

I will question everything and leave no stone unturned to discover just who the fuck I really am.


How Old Am I?

Although we can only prove that we’re really, really alive by releasing adrenaline or feeling pain, there are also birth certificates which prove we’re alive in a less philosophical and more legal sense.

Mine says that I was born in 1989, which means that I am, in the chronological sense, twenty-one years old.

However, Greg Olear repeatedly insists that I am in fact fifteen years of age. Scientific studies prove that if you hear something enough times you begin to accept it as fact. There are also scientific studies which say the memory is inherently unreliable so I may be making up that study, or simply inventing in my mind numerous instances where Greg exaggerates my youth. The upshot of all this means that it may or may not be true.

Then there are my behavioural traits, which must be taken into account:

I often sit in my pyjamas watching cartoons, eating cereal and watching cartoons like a six year old, yet I also like drinking scotch in quiet pubs like an eighty-five year old.

Finally we come to the theory of age put forth by the controversial philosopher Groucho Marx who believes ‘you’re only as old as the woman you feel.’

Unfortunately I am not currently feeling any women, so there is no data available.

We then add these figures together and divide them by the number of figures for an average.

So, that’s 21, 15, 6, and 85.

The cold hard maths:

21+15+6+85= 127.

There are four figures, so we divide 127 by 4.

Conclusion: I am in fact a little over thirty-one years of age.

Am I a man or a woman?

Initially this would seem to be quite simple: I have slight facial hair and I don’t have breasts. But then I watched a female athletics event with my grandmother and discovered it was perfectly possibly to be a woman without breasts, or despite having a moustache.

My old neighbours, both younger than six, used to ask me why I wore ‘girl shoes’, ‘girl trousers’ and why I had ‘girl hair.’ They make a compelling argument: I wear boots, flared jeans and I have long hair— all quite feminine characteristics.

I also own a lot of scarves, I’m quite thin and I’m no taller than 5’8. It does seem entirely plausible that I was a taller-than-average woman.

However, I do have extremely hairy legs and a penis with all the biological accessories you might expect (scrotum, pubes etc).

Conclusion: In the face of overwhelming biological evidence I can rationally conclude that I am a man; a fairly effeminate, skinny man, but a man nonetheless.

Where do I come from?

Once again we can turn to official documentation for this, documentation that claims I am English.

However, that’s merely a technicality based on the fact that I was dragged into the world in a hospital in Swindon that has since been demolished. For example, the actress Sienna Miller was born in New York and holds an American passport, but is no more American than she is Azerbaijani. It’s family origins that count, the legs you crawled out of— not wherever those legs were at a time. Otherwise babies delivered by water birth could go around telling everyone that they’re mermaids.

My family history can be traced back to Germany, Ireland, the north of England and the West Country.

I have a reasonable claim to being German— I love sausages, potatoes, beer, Claudia Schiffer and the song 99 Red Balloons by Nena. However, Ireland produces a lot of beer, sausages and potatoes, as does England. I also only like the English language version of Nena’s 1984 hit single.

Although I have German blood and I like a lot of what the country has to offer— mostly women who were incredibly attractive twenty years ago— the main Germanic traits I possess can also be attributed to my English and Irish ancestry. In short all I have learnt about myself is that I like beer and pork, like most men from Western civilization. There is nothing in my personality that is uniquely German, and I don’t much care for David Hasselhoff— Knight Rider doesn’t even compare to Magnum P.I.

So I must turn to Ireland and England and study those cultures to see which is closest to the man I think I am/wish to be/seek to become.

My family name is Irish. I know it’s an Irish name because there’s a soda bread company that shares my family name and soda bread is as Irish as being turned away from a job in 19th century New York. There was also a footballer called Dennis Irwin who played for Manchester United and the Republic of Ireland. And sure enough my family tree goes back to the early 1800s where the Irwin family are potato farming in County Mayo, Ireland.

However, I visited a Genealogy institute in Dublin a few years ago and was told that ‘Irwin’ is not an Irish name, and although having Celtic origins, it is closer to the Welsh ‘Owen’ and the Scottish name ‘Irvine.’ Apparently I’m no more Irish than a giant novelty Guinness hat. As with my German ancestry it doesn’t matter how much pork and potato I eat, or how much beer I drink, it doesn’t count for anything.

At some point during the potato famine from 1845-1852 the Scottish or Welsh conmen masquerading as potato farmers and calling themselves the Irwin’s moved across the water to Manchester, England. They probably spent most of that time building roads and doing other things associated with the Irish of that time just to fit in and keep up the whole ‘being Irish’ charade.

Eventually the family settled in the West Country, which is interesting. Firstly, because there was a lot of potato farming in the area and secondly because it’s very, very close to the Welsh border.

So far it’s all fairly inconclusive; I don’t think I’m any closer to discovering my true heritage. Although I think I have discovered something important about my family DNA…

We’ve moved again, this time to Cambridgeshire. We’re very close to a turnip farm, whilst the house itself was originally built for the farm workers who used to live in the area. A quick look at the history of the property shows that the majority of the families who have lived in this property have been farmers— potato farmers.

The Irwin’s cannot escape the ghosts of their potato farming past.

Conclusion: The only heritage I have is the heritage of potato farming. I am essentially descended from Welsh or Scottish con artists who spent centuries pretending to be Irish, presumably for the pure love of farming potatoes; they only left Ireland when the spuds ran out.

What is my purpose?

I’m interpreting this as my purpose in life— not so much in the sense as why I’m here on this, the third rock from the Sun, drifting in an ape descended civilization that tries to find meaning and purpose from concepts ranging from religion to spider solitaire— more in the sense of which social mechanism I am a cog in. Am I a big cog? Is my cog used often? Will I be a cog that fails to function in old age?

In other words: what profession do I fit into?

Like Randy Bachman I am self-employed, working at nothing all day aside from occasionally attending to business that needs takin’ care of.

Or to put in another way, I’m unemployed.

I prefer ‘between jobs.’

I have done work, but failed to achieve professionalism in most fields. For example my work here and in other publications has never earned me anything but kind words, good will and a paragraph on my C.V. I am not a writer, writing is not my profession— it’s merely a hobby I have like stamp collecting or masturbation.

I used to help out at my mum’s old hardware shop, but only manning the till in times of necessity. My duties earned little more than insincere praise and maybe a biscuit from the back if I was lucky. I also did work experience at a hotel, but as it was work experience it was unpaid. I also walked out after a few days because the manager was a bastard— the hotel would later be featured on TV’s ‘Hotels From Hell.’

However, I did work experience at an estate agency and I got paid for that. It was my job to file new properties and ‘un-file’ old ones. I was pretty good at it, so I was rewarded with a ten pound note.

The only thing I have ever been paid for is stand up comedy.

I haven’t done it in a while, but science clearly says I’m an out of work comedian with a sideline working in real estate.


General Conclusions

I wanted to find out who I really was in as I found myself both directionless and at a crossroads. I felt that I could only truly evolve into my true self by knowing who that was.

And it’s been a huge help. The biggest surprise for me was discovering that I was already a professional comedian. I haven’t performed for years, and thought I never would again. Before I undertook this research I’d been thinking about making ‘a comeback’ and with the benefit of this knowledge I can proceed with confidence.

And a lot of comedy comes from identity, and now I can shape my ‘comedic persona’ by drawing on my true self— a thirty-one year old Welsh potato farmer with a taste for trashy ‘80s Europop.

Before this research I only felt like half a man— half directionless young man, half genealogical enigma. In unlocking that enigma I have unlocked the other half of myself; I have unleashed the ‘real me.’

Now, who wants some mashed potato and a joke?

My sister Caroline stood at my front door, wintry pale with her brown hair piled in a wild bun, her chin high. She’d been crying—the ballerina in distress. Her divorce was just final and her dance company had disbanded. Beyond her, the airport shuttle was already disappearing around the corner. I may have suggested Caroline come to California, but I knew better than to let my guard down.

I have a new boss. Her name is Pam. Pam emails us and we reply. Pam never replies to our replies. I hadn’t heard of Pam until this semester. But there she is in the staff directory, listed as a Course Coordinator.

“Where the hell is Pam?” asks my colleague after yet another crisis. And Franz, the Co-coordinator is going nuts. He has to find a replacement for the lecture on Coetzee because the professor scheduled to give it has been embroiled in a scandal. Or has had an accident. Pam isn’t clear on that.

Pam is reportedly based at the Other campus (we have three).  However, the big red-haired administrator tells me that Pamela works right here. At This campus.

The administrator has a sheet of paper taped to the filing cabinet in her office. It says in caps:

A LACK OF ORGANIZATIONAL
SKILLS ON YOUR PART
DOES NOT CONSTITUTE
AN EMERGENCY ON MINE.

“What’s she like, this Pam?” I ask. The administrator looks at me askance. I’d almost face-planted running for the train that morning and caught the fall with my hands, which are dripping blood all over the carpet.

“Pam?” says the administrator. “Pam’s an older woman. Favors scarves.”

But someone else describes her as Not Old. Keep an eye out for a pink cardigan and ankle boots, they say. Her office is in Building 5. Room 10. Level G.

That’s my office.

Pam, like Elvis, has been sighted at any number of conflicting locales. Sitting in front of someone on the bus or disappearing across the parking lot. The situation is rare but not unusual. Many graduates and teaching assistants describe their superiors as immaterial. Sightings of the Head Librarian, Associate Dean or one’s Doctoral Adviser abound, and are the stuff of campus legend.

Franz emails my colleague and asks her to fill in the Coetzee spot. Pam also emails my colleague and asks her to be the new co-coordinator.

“That really bugs me,” says Franz. He looks like he is about to cry.

My contract goes missing.

“You can’t be working without a contract,” says the administrator.

“I sent a copy to Pam,” I say.

“Leave it with me,” she says. “I’ll get onto Pam straight away.”

“Thanks,” I say doubtfully.

“This conversation never happened,” says the administrator.

I wait a week after the conversation that never happened. I keep an eye out for Pam in my office. Finally I go to see the administrator who cobbles me up a new contract.

“So have you seen her?” I say.

“Who?” says the administrator.

“Pam,” I say. “For the love of God—!”

“Oh,” she says, swiveling around from her desk. Rolls a tic tac on her tongue.  “You’ve just missed her.”

The latest from Pam is a mass email announcing her resignation and a ten percent pay raise.

“Believe it when you see it,” says my friend, a Bronte scholar who moonlights as a nanny to make ends meet.

But there it is in my next pay check. I don’t know who, or even if Pam is. All I know is that she’s gone, down into the murk below the inexact surface of our so-called reality. Today I created this digital dream to cover the tracks she left. It’s the least I can do.