What bothers you?
Great question. Nations and states bother me. A few years ago, a friend was telling me that states should be dissolved in favor of cities. I didn’t grasp his argument until I started receiving hate mail from North Dakota. I wrote something unflattering about North Dakota on the internet and suddenly strangers were writing things like “Fuck you, man, I’m PROUD of North Dakota!!!” At first I thought, fair enough, what do I know about the Dakotas? But then something clicked or maybe it snapped because I got angry. You’re proud of a fictional rectangle? That’s insane. Be proud of Bismarck or Grand Forks, but not North Dakota or any state. Cities and towns are real things, the result of people getting together and doing business, whereas states and nations are abstract concepts that cater to our worst traits: paranoia, pride, isolationism . . . a never-ending sense of us versus them.
What are you afraid of?
I was terrified of mannequins when I was small. My first memory is sitting in a high chair in front of Happy Days, watching Potsy or Squiggy fool around with a mannequin at a drive-in theater. After that, I’d yell and burst into tears whenever I saw one. I couldn’t process the idea of plastic people. My mom would cover my eyes whenever we walked through a department store, and she’d apologize to the other shoppers while dragging me screaming through the Women’s department. A few years later, I developed an unhealthy fixation on shows like Today’s Special and Small Wonder.
Today my biggest fear is routine, of knowing where I’ll be in a year or exactly what I’m doing tomorrow. I think it’s healthy to always be looking at the front door (to paraphrase an old Main Source record). Keeps the blood up. Mannequins are stuck in a routine. Maybe there’s a connection.
What are you proud of?
I just said that I don’t like routines, but I’m very proud of my new Healthy Choices Morning Ritual. I’ve been following it for six days now. If I don’t pay attention, I’ll reach for my telephone the moment I wake up and start doing email in bed and suddenly it’s noon and I’m still in my pajamas. This is a rotten way to greet the day. So now I’m making an effort to make the bed as soon as I wake up, then I stretch, do some half-assed push-ups, shower, eat waffles, write for fifteen minutes with a pencil, and only then am I allowed to open my laptop and check my email. It frightens me how much discipline it takes to stick to this meager routine. It’s so hard because something exciting might be waiting in my inbox. And when I finally allow myself to check my email, I actually catch a little junkie rush — but there’s usually only an invitation to connect on LinkedIn from somebody that I don’t like.
What makes you happy?
The conversation about taking down the I-10 overpass in New Orleans makes me happy. In the 1960s, New Orleans followed the lead of many American cities and covered a beautiful, thriving neighborhood with a highway overpass. Clairborne Avenue was a dignified street lined with giant oak trees and shops, then it suddenly became a loud and scary wall of concrete that split the Treme into two pieces. In 2002, several artists painted oak trees on the giant pillars of the interstate, and it’s one of the most tragic things I’ve seen. Today the City is considering taking down the overpass and restoring the boulevard. Some killjoys say it won’t happen, but at least we’re finally having serious conversations about sidewalks rather than instinctively ceding space to the car.
It really wasn’t very long ago that we started doing horrible things to our cities, and my dream is that in twenty or thirty years we’ll look back and say, “Remember when lots of people left the city to live in ranch houses? That was weird.”
Who are your biggest influences?
My mom and the Electrifying Mojo.
My mom encouraged me to read constantly. She filled my life with books. She told me to see the world and she pretty much forced me to read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast when I was too young to fully grasp it, but books like that made me start dreaming about living in great cities. I later learned that she struggled with agoraphobia and this made her insistence that I travel by myself seem absolutely brave. When I lost her two years ago, a bright light went out. I drove around for a month, unsure of where to go next. Whoever said that time heals your wounds was lying. It doesn’t get easier. Instead, I try to stay busy.
The other influence is The Electrifying Mojo. He was this phenomenal disc jockey in Detroit who hosted a show that ran from 1977 through the eighties and into the early nineties. He created an alternate universe called the Midnight Funk Association which was a mixture of music sci-fi, literature, and social commentary. He’d play techno, hip hop, punk, classical, anything — but it all fit his unique gestalt. Sometimes he’d play a solid hour of Funkadelic followed by an hour of Prince and invite listeners to vote for who was better, and he’d read poetry from a mysterious book called The Mental Machine. Although Mojo bounced from station to station because he wouldn’t follow the “urban radio” format, he was a constant presence in Detroit and I was lucky to grow up on the tail end of his show. Everything he loved was epic and amazing to him, and he made you feel that way about music, too. Like you were part of something. When he’d start his show, the Electrifying Mojo would say, “If you’re in the car, flash your lights. If you’re sitting on your porch, blink your porch light. And if you’re in bed, then dance on your back in Technicolor.” And at the end of his show, he’d say, “Whenever you feel like you’re nearing the end of your rope, don’t slide off. Tie a knot. Keep hanging, keep remembering, that ain’t nobody bad like you.” And now that’s sort of my guiding philosophy.