The Friday night before Halloween, at a party in Echo Park, I helped a friend of mine open her twist-off Full Sail Pale Ale. It was the most useful I’d felt in weeks.

Later that weekend, as I was boiling water again, to make Annie’s Mac and Cheese again, it hit me that I am a royal pain in the ass to the whole world. Every grim, toiling generation of my Czech and Swedish ancestors, with all of their useful labor and survival skills, has resulted in a guy who pretty much can’t do anything with his hands.

What limited skills I do have are dependent on optimal conditions of comfort and convenience. I can hook up audio/visual components, I’m solid at both bar trivia and Scrabble, I can responsibly manage personal finances, and I’m good at remembering people’s names. And I can recite all of the Presidents in order, with years served and political affiliation, off the top of my head. That about covers my skill set. When it comes the bottom two layers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, that’s where I’m absolutely pointless.

I know that if I had been born in 1840, I’d have been dead by age ten, and if I had somehow survived dysentery and snakebites on the Oregon Trail, I’d have been killed off, for constantly getting in the way of people who were trying to get things done.

I’ve met a few small challenges—pitching a tent in Joshua Tree, installing storm windows on my great-aunt’s house in North Dakota—but innumerable other tests, like casting lines while deep-sea fishing in the Pacific, changing out a flat tire in the rain, chambering a round in an AK-47 (harder than it looks, the first time), I’ve failed badly and have been called out for it.

It doesn’t mean I won’t try. A few years ago, I was working north of the Arctic Circle with the kind of guys who drive snowmobiles for fun– you know–regular guys. Even though I immediately crashed mine into a ditch and was thrown from the thing into a mass of frozen shrubbery, I knew I’d have another go at it. I mean, I hadn’t broken any bones, and we’d paid in advance for four hours of fun time, and after the five minutes it took three (other) guys to dig the thing out, we still had about three-and-a-half hours left.

Had my snowmobile ride been a solo journey, the accident wouldn’t have ended so happily. I could not have gotten that thing out of the ditch on my own, and had I broken any part of it, even something easily repaired, I’d still be standing on the side of the road either until someone useful came along or until I died.

I can’t listen to a snowmobile engine and determine what ails it. I can’t build, fix, fabricate, pre-fabricate, or retrofit anything. Nor can I make anything from scratch in the workshop, garage, studio, or kitchen.

How did it come to this?

My parents weren’t like me. They were raised on farms and/or by people who were. I myself even lived on a farm for short time when I was three, but I learned nothing. I adopted a cat I named Ratlips and I was at least savvy enough to stay away from the machines that would’ve killed me had I expressed any curiosity about them.

Even after moving off the farm, I had numerous chances to become a useful man around the house, in the garage, in the wild. I grew up completely surrounded by outdoorsy gearheads – last time I checked, I was literally the only male on my dad’s entire side of the family (this includes my dad, my brother, five uncles and five male cousins) who does not own both a gun and a motorcycle. Some of them own several of each, and the motorcycles are customized and assiduously maintained by their owners. The same is true of their cars. The passage of time at family reunions is marked not by the growth of grandchildren, but by the progress of automotive engineering.

“Remember that ’54 Dodge flathead? You were sixteen!”

“The 1980 RX-7 with the Wankel engine? Your youngest was in college!”

I have learned the hard way that if you stop the conversation to ask what “torque” or “a camshaft” is, you are more or less breaking the fourth wall.

Despite being exposed to this surfeit of utilitarianism throughout my formative years, none of it sunk in. Whenever my dad attempted to teach me how to change the oil in a car, or change a tire, or flush the radiator, my mind wandered to what I’d rather be doing, which at age 11 was probably revising Presidential elections (where, for example, I’d have Henry Clay defeat James K. Polk in 1844) or making giant family trees of the House of Atreus on huge sheets of paper in the basement. Picking up on this, my dad pointedly admonished me.

“If you don’t learn how to fix your own stuff,” he said, “You’ll have to make enough money so that you can hire the people who can.”

Sounds like a plan, I thought.

And that’s pretty much how it’s turned out. I talk to my dad on the phone and he tells me about how he repaired his hot water heater and how he’s keeping his 1990 Volkswagen Passat in pristine mechanical condition. In turn, I tell him how much my repair bills are and how I have to call the landlord to help me figure out how to light the pilot light on my stove, so I can make more mac and cheese from a box.

If there’s a conclusion to this sad tale of masculine devolution, it’s this: My DNA should not be allowed to dilute the gene pool. If you’re a single woman, don’t end up with someone like me, whether you can fix your own stuff or not. If you and I hooked up, I would cancel out your usefulness with my immense non-usefulness. We’d only have kids who’d be obsessed with Greek mythology, have pensive posters of M. Ward on their bedroom walls, and major in things like Comparative Literature at expensive private colleges founded by Jesuits. This will not help the human race to blossom and thrive through the difficult times ahead.

So, until you’re married, don’t talk to guys like me at Jonathan Franzen readings or the Literary Death Match or the Sonic Youth/Pavement show at the Bowl. Even if you can already replace the spark plugs in your car blindfolded, you and I cannot be holding hands when we jaywalk, and have no business whispering in each other’s ears in the middle of a dance floor.  No, I beg you, hang out with the pit crews at the Brickyard 400, linger at the Minnesota State Fair’s Machinery Hill, or apply to grad school at Cal Tech or MIT instead of Cal Arts or Sarah Lawrence. Discover the wonder in usefulness, not in guys that get your film and literary references.

As much as I may want kids someday, it just isn’t fair to society. It’s time now to make a Kickstarter page where you all can chip in and buy a vasectomy for me, and the thousands of men like me. If you allow me to someday wear a BabyBjorn through the streets of Silver Lake, my children will only help keep Jiffy Lube in business.

I, and future generations, thank you.

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J. RYAN STRADAL is from the second-oldest town in Minnesota. His writing has also appeared in Hobart, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rattling Wall, Joyland, Trop, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and NFL.com, among other places. He lives and writes in Los Angeles, where he volunteers with students at 826LA and sometimes works on TV shows.

43 responses to “Post-Utilitarian”

  1. Summer Block says:

    You see, I was basically exactly like you as a kid. And I always dated guys like myself, guys who went to University of Chicago and majored in things like Rhetoric and Classics. Then I married a guy who can (no kidding) start a fire with only a plastic cup and a license plate, or catch and kill an animal with his bare/bear hands.

    Is that awesome? Yes. And yet the other day he let slip in conversation the fact that he didn’t know that Freud was Jewish or that he was Austrian (he thought he was a German Christian). And I was as appalled as your someday wife will be when she sees you try to assemble an IKEA dresser. So you can’t win.

    Also, “House of Atreus” = you rock.

  2. Regardless of your functional talents, Ratlips is a great name for a cat.

  3. Slade Ham says:

    I used to think I was the same way. Turns out, I’m not. I don’t really know how anything works, but once I’ve identified the problem I can usually find a way to fix it with anything but what you’re actually supposed to fix it with. Growing up on MacGyver I’m sure….

    Welcome aboard, man.

  4. Andrew Nonadetti says:

    This would have had me laughing, even if I wasn’t posting from my geeky office desk after committing $575 to a local Toyota dealership to change out my timing belts. Bastards. I should know how to do that…. But I digress.

    Really funny and sadly accurate re: devolution. Much like Slade, I’ve pleasantly surprised myself the past few years. I once thought my only manly skills were killing things and using duct tape (cooking doesn’t count – I’m of Italian descent so it’s like claiming “autonomic functions” as a skill set) but I’m actually surprisingly handy to have around. At least now that I’ve made my mistakes like almost burning down the apartment when doing wiring… and draining the transmission fluid instead of the brake fluid… and that unfortunate incident with the nail gun (I’m hoping he doesn’t still make that awful whistling sound on windy days)….

    Welcome once again and email me if you need a urologist recommendation or more AK time!

  5. Becky Palapala says:

    Ah, indeed. But there is hope even for those women who prefer their men NOT to wear John Deere gear.

    I found my husband in a bar in dinkytown, for example. He listens to electronic music, has a leather jacket from the mid-90s with The Crow airbrushed on it, and is a big fan of Sci-Fi novels and the syfy channel.

    So a bit of a geek. Not really a coffee house intellectual. Nevertheless, not the sort of person, at first glance, who should be handy with a ratchet set. Yet he is. So there is hope!

    What’s the 2nd-oldest town in MN? I’m from the oldest.

  6. J. Ryan Stradal says:

    Thanks for reading, everyone — and thanks for both the welcome and the encouragement. It could be that I have an untapped well of dormant know-how that I’m not aware of, simply because it hasn’t been asked of me yet. Like I said, I’m game for finding out the hard way.

    Becky, you’re from Wabasha? I know sometimes Stillwater says they’re the oldest, and they’re pretty old, but I’m pretty sure it’s Wabasha. Am I wrong?

    I’m from Hastings, which didn’t *officially* become a town until even after Stillwater did, but had a settlement for decades before. I was always told growing up that it was the second-oldest town, but the city boosters could be wrong … or their definition of “town” could be dumbed-down to “settlement” and we’re all good.

    If I have to change my bio, I blame the Hastings Area Chamber of Commerce of the 1980s.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      I’m from Stillwater. I guess I don’t really know, to be honest, about the birth order of the towns.

      I know that “official” settling of the St. Croix river valley began sometime in the 1830s, but I don’t know if that means there was or wasn’t a town already there.

      And I know that the process of establishing MN as a state began there (hence the “birthplace of MN” moniker) and that, along with Minneapolis & St. Paul, Stillwater got preferential treatment as a city of primary importance in the emerging state. Hence, the prison.

      Hey. Not everyone can have the University.

      Anyway, you have no idea how happy it makes me to see a fellow Minnesotan here. Even if you are a defector. 😉

  7. J. Ryan Stradal says:

    Thank you, Becky. You know, when I was growing up, I was always *told* that the oldest town was Stillwater, and it was fitting that Hastings was the second-oldest, because we always seemed to imitate Stillwater in every substantial way and fall short.

    I do hear that my hometown is getting a new bridge. If it’s a lift bridge, I’m going to shake my head for a month.

    Agreed on meeting a fellow Minnesotan — it’s a service mark of quality, and always a pleasure. Just to see Dinkytown mentioned in the comment thread warms my heart.

  8. Alice Wernimont says:

    You’re *both* warming my heart–when dating, my Afton-born, Stillwater H.S.-attending husband used to show me the islands in the Saint Croix, saying, “You know, those islands are why Stillwater is where it is…” ….(frequently). I finally called him on it, and now it’s a joke between us.

    Two weeks ago, I moved away from my home two blocks away from Machinery Hill, and I miss it like you wouldn’t believe.

    Great piece of writing. Thanks!

    • Becky Palapala says:

      The Minnesotans and Minnesotans-in-law are crawling out of the woodwork now.

      Group hug!!!!

      No?

      Er. I mean, uh…yeah. That’s pretty cool. MN’s okay…

  9. Cass Sullivan says:

    My cheeks burn from laughter. Reproduce, please. We have enough fixers.

  10. David says:

    If you’re going to cover up your secret identity, you need to come up with a more original origin story. Your upbringing and current humility seems awfully similar to that of Clark Kent.

    Good stuff and sorry about your Vikes.

  11. If you’re on it enough to reference Tantalus making a stew of Pelops, I’m guessing you can download a schematic for a backyard ethanol kit or home tibia repair as needed. Funny stuff either way. And as I think back on my grandfather, the kind of guy who built his own house writing plans down on butcher paper as he went, I guess I also deserve to be shot down in the street by radical Oxfammers.

  12. Don Mitchell says:

    I know this is humor, but there’s some significant stuff here.

    I spent many hours in my adult life learning to do things that weren’t either in my true job description or in the description of any job I hoped to get. I can’t say I’m sorry about that, but I’ve come to realize that in many ways I wasted hours I could have put to use learning how to be a better writer (now) or a better anthropologist (then).

    I think it’s likely true that no one I went to graduate school with can rewire a house or rebuild a porch or do plumbing or fell trees or build a racing bicycle from a frame and a box of parts or assemble and fix PCs or run and walk long distances. It’s demonstrably true that all of them have higher-status positions than I ever did, made more money than I ever did, and have more publications, because they did what they were trained to do, and they did it pretty much to the exclusion of anything else. As to whether they’re happier or more satisfied with the choices they made, I have no idea.

    A couple of days ago I was on my roof with flashing and tar, fixing a leak, feeling pretty good about not falling, working out where the leak was, fixing it, seeing what else needed fixing up there, all of which was OK, but then I started thinking, Ah the whole roof needs replacing . . . who can I get to teach me what I don’t know about replacing a roof so I can do it next spring . . . and my next thought was, Idiot!

    As in Idiot, your job is to finish the novel, not learn another skill.

    There’s only so much time, an obvious thing to say, but as you get older that starts to really make a difference.

    Your Dad was right.

    • dwoz says:

      I have learned two things about life, and only two things: roofing is a job for young guys, and septic tank work is NOT a DIY job.

      That’s just about all the esoteric knowledge you need, to get by, in my humble opinion!

  13. J. Ryan Stradal says:

    Alice — Great to uncover another Minnesotan lurking around here. Thank you for reading.

    Sean — Do you know how long it’s been since I thought about the name “Pelops”? It’s great to have a reader who’d be equally flummoxed my home tibia repair *and* knows the Greeks.

    Cass — Thank you for the vote of confidence!

    Don — You’re on to something here. I’m not sure if I’ve recognized that conversation in my dad’s garage as the turning point that it was. He’d been driving tractors since he was 8, and was taking apart and reassembling all kinds of machines in the years since. But I’m just not like that, and at some point we both had to admit it.

    You’re right. My main job on this planet is not fixing cars. I also must finish the novel, as it were, and if I do it with the alacrity, passion, and focus that my dad has in the garage, I might actually write something worth reading.

  14. Judy Prince says:

    J Ryan—-Dude!

    You CAN cook! You brought me from simmering giggles to a full laugh boil. And I bubbled over, starting here:

    “I have learned the hard way that if you stop the conversation to ask what “torque” or “a camshaft” is, you are more or less breaking the fourth wall.”

    And now I’ll have to clean off the burners bcuz of this:

    “My DNA should not be allowed to dilute the gene pool. If you’re a single woman, don’t end up with someone like me, whether you can fix your own stuff or not. If you and I hooked up, I would cancel out your usefulness with my immense non-usefulness. We’d only have kids who’d be obsessed with Greek mythology, have pensive posters of M. Ward on their bedroom walls, and major in things like Comparative Literature at expensive private colleges founded by Jesuits. This will not help the human race to blossom and thrive through the difficult times ahead.”

    BTW, what’s 826LA?

    Welcome to TNB. I think Lenore Zion would be your best bet for a wife, but don’t tell her I said so.

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      Thank you, Judy — I’m glad you dug the piece, and I appreciate your kind observations.

      826LA is the local branch of a national educational non-profit organization started by Dave Eggers. I’ve been volunteering for them for over five years now, working with local students ages 6-18, doing everything from helping them with their homework after school to giving free assistance on SATs to teaching workshops where they invent new countries from scratch.

      This week I’ve been helping high school seniors in East LA with their college application essays. It’s been absolutely mind-blowing.

      • Judy Prince says:

        J A, reading your post again, I hooted once more at this:

        “I would consider it blatantly immoral were someone to give me a plot of arable soil; I’d expect activists from Oxfam to shoot me in the street.”

        Great post, that!

        I love the idea of your 826LA students inventing new countries from scratch. What do you find happening with that process? Their reactions? Conclusions? Creativity?

        And what are the mind-blowing things you find out about their college application essays?

        • J. Ryan Stradal says:

          Judy,

          OK, My 826 experience is whole different cup of pizza. I’ve been teaching the “create your own country” in some form since 2005. It’s a one-time workshop where I have 3rd through 6th graders draw a map, design a flag, write laws, and establish diplomatic (or, if they choose, bellicose) relations with the other nascent countries they’re sharing a table with.

          I’ve taught the class maybe seven or eight times, and never seen the same country twice. It’s just enough structure to allow for an incredible amount of creativity, and at the same time it dovetails nicely with their level of comprehension re: government and laws –which range from sophisticated to whimsical. I love working with this age group in particular because they’re rapidly evolving as writers & creators, and tend to be completely unfettered and enthusiastic in regards to expressing their creativity.

          The high school seniors blow my mind because they often have incredible life stories that, in many cases, have never been expressed before in any form. Just yesterday I met a high school senior who hadn’t even started his personal statement essay yet because he didn’t know what to write about — he didn’t think his life was that interesting.

          It turns out at age eight, he left a life hanging out on the streets and began boxing lessons. Through boxing he discovered a work ethic and discipline that revolutionized his outlook on life, on school, on maturity — but it took a while. About a year in, he said, in the break before the last round of his fifth fight, he found a reservoir of strength in himself and decisively won a bout seemingly out of nowhere. It surprised his coaches, but it didn’t surprise him — he knew he had been holding back; some part of him still held on to the street kid that was expected to fail. And he let that go.

          Ten years later, he’s in AP English and he’s won ten boxing tournaments in LA County and elsewhere, while the friends he left on the street have mostly dropped out long ago. He told me that he wants to be an architect, and he’s in the position now to be a success at anything he chooses — he has the intelligence, confidence and work ethic to do it.

          It didn’t have to be me to help him write his story, it could’ve been anybody, any one of the other tutors, or a teacher, who could’ve sat next to him and said, “So let’s figure out what you’re going to write.” But the fact is these kids carry stories that absolutely break my heart and impress the hell out of me, and almost invariably, these stories have never been told before. When you’re sitting next to someone who has little frame of reference for their life story — because it’s their life, they’ve just been living it, it seems completely unspectacular to them — a half an hour per student is not nearly long enough to help them tell it, when they’re telling it for the first time. There’s nothing about that experience that *doesn’t* blow my mind.

          I could say more, but that’s already quite a bit. Thank you for asking, Judy, and thanks again for reading.

        • Judy Prince says:

          I was just thinking, J A, about your workshop where you have “3rd through 6th graders draw a map, design a flag, write laws, and establish diplomatic (or, if they choose, bellicose) relations with the other nascent countries they’re sharing a table with.” A nifty idea, and if I were one of your 3rd-6th graders I’d LOVE writing nasty laws for my invented country! U Go!

          Seriously, having taught for 32 years, trying my mightiest to help students and having my eyeballs practically blow out from paper-grading, I feel strongly that what you voluntarily do with students more closely approximates what helps students learn about their world and themselves, than what I did. It’s what made me sign my son up for a parent-run/taught school in first grade, then a Montessori school, then a public school with a hookup to other schools for Spanish language and literature classes. And now his kids, my grandtwinboys, are in their second year at a charter school in L.A. that they love.

          The more an educational institution approximates a tutoring situation, the better. As it stands, as you know, it is physically impossible to tutor 35 students per one-hour class, times 6 classes per day. Impossible. How can we give this necessary personal attention to children in school? I can think of only two solutions: Hire enough teachers to have a ratio of 1 teacher per 5 students, or find qualified volunteers to provide that ratio.

          Your thoughts?

        • Judy Prince says:

          A follow-up, J A, in our talk about teaching, here’s an excerpt from the blog of poet-philosopher, Tom Leonard of Glasgow, that cites composer Schoenburg’s dialogue with a pupil about the “Variations”:

          http://www.tomleonard.co.uk/

          June 3rd 2009

          “The conservatories, with their pervading influence, have long furnished—and in assembly line quantities—compositional diagrams which they take to be the forms of art; and their students, when they arrive at the age of production, model their compositions after these diagrams (or at least suppose they are doing so, for some of them have a guardian angel: talent). The aestheticians are happy because they have inspired these products, which are thus put on the market, but in reality all this has no existence in art, where every content produces its own form; and only a robot, a tool of the conservatory as it were, could deliberately check the expansion of form which every work of art tends to produce. To stop the creative processes like this is to systematise ugliness itself, and mediocrity, and banality.”

          “Change the word ‘conservatories’ to ‘creative writing departments,’ and Schoenberg’s words still hold. In recent years as creative writing departments burgeoned in Britain and America, there was a central ideological conflict between the concept of providing a creative space where it could be allowable that ‘every content produces its own form’; as against a closed space in which ‘traditional genres and forms’ were taught as necessary basis and precondition of any true artistic identity. Rule-based presuppositions about artistic production made it easier to ‘mark,’ and accorded philosophically with containable conservative notions of specific canonical poetics. Society-wide, the ‘Quality Control’ business model imposed on all public services foregrounded ‘efficiency’ as a unit of cost with an integral chain of idealogical jargon-clusters such as ‘full economic costing,’ ‘visible outcome points,’ ‘targeted income generation,’ and so on.”

          ————-
          I love Schoenburg’s “. . . in art, where every content produces its own form”!

        • J. Ryan Stradal says:

          Judy,

          Thank you for the additional thoughts and observations on this tangent. I agree that the biggest difference we make as tutors is simply giving students the increasingly rare commodity of one-on-one attention. I often think of James A. Garfield’s quote about his education at Williams College — afterward, he remarked that “The best college is [professor and college president] Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.”

          Whether or not we make the impression on our students that Hopkins made on Garfield, it would be difficult to have the chance without the comprehensive understanding of their individual needs and abilities that a tutor/teacher accrues through one-on-one exchanges.

          Certainly, students would benefit from substantially smaller class sizes and more one-on-one interactions with the teachers themselves, and volunteers, no matter how dedicated, cannot replace this. Although the 826 volunteers are trained, we are certainly not teachers or their equals; we exist in a support capacity dictated by the specific needs of the teacher & students in the class at hand, and nothing more. Still, I feel that we have made and are making a difference — at the very, very least, sending a student the message that there’s a concerned adult in the community who wants to help them succeed.

          Love the Schoenburg, and that’s yet another thoughtful tangent. I’ve never attended a MFA program, but I’ve generally found my writing teachers to be tolerant of the liberties I’ve taken with form, provided the quality of content justifies it. Taking writing classes as an adult, I’ve met instructors and peers whose notes and encouragement have given me confidence in the form that my content desires, which is important if your work doesn’t always hew to the familiar literary narrative. Do you have experience with classes or departments where the notion of “success” is much more circumscribed?

        • Judy Prince says:

          James A. Garfield’s quote is wonderfully visual, J R.

          I quite agree with you that, at the very least, the benefit of volunteer tutors is “sending a student the message that there’s a concerned adult in the community who wants to help them to succeed.”

          The magic words, I think, are “wants them to succeed.” No time left for one-on-one talking to students due to mandated work covering the curriculum and grading and testing, teachers’ judgements and evaluations often leave students feeling that they’re unable to succeed, or that they’re far short of succeeding, of measuring up.

          Briefly to touch a point you’ve made, tutors can do some harm—-but teachers do harm, as well, and more potently.

          One factor in helping students succeed is smaller teaching units; i.e., smaller school buildings, fewer students in each class. Even taking a typical large high school building and physically configuring it for smaller (ie. more) “home rooms” and classrooms, has been cited as one practical way to convert existing school buildings to give students the chance to better know and be known by their teachers as well as other students.

          Obviously, we agree that the most fundamental factor in all of this is the *personal* (individual) connection with students. And, frankly, how could it be otherwise? In other areas of life how could it be otherwise? None, I think.

          Now for the thoughtful tangent. I haven’t got a degree in or attended an MFA program, either, but I’ve read and entered into massive heated, deeply divided online poetrylist debates about the programs. And, at last, I decided two things: 1) Exposure to poems and poets is mostly helpful; 2) Exposure to uniform/accepted/expected/rewarded/institutionalised/academicised poetry and poets is often harmful.

          Programs, schools, universities are good places for writers—-if you’re tough-minded. Writers’ works need to launch and grow from basic places in the writer. Those works can be launched and grown from exposure to others’ works (good or bad). But if the writer receives constant bombardments of what is called The Best, it can be daunting. There’s a reason that so many writers are insular, independent, unsociable and at times thought eccentric or insane. They need to express their views as if they were the only ones that mattered in the world. That requires a constant “F–k that!” response to packaged writing and “F–k you!” to imitative writers/teachers who’ve “succeeded” and are in positions of authority.

          Can packaged writing and imitative writers/teachers actually harm Real Writers (read: truly creative writers)? Yes.

          Michael Schmidt, founder and general editor of PN Review and Professor of Poetry at the University of Glasgow, states a problem he sees in poetry submitted to PNR:

          ” . . . (B)ecause there are so many writing courses and because so many people write “plausible” poetry nowadays . . . the factitious come so beautifully ‘processed’ that you’re sort of puzzled at what seems to be the quality of the work; its very derivative, it’s very carefully ‘workshopped.’ This can be very good—-but it can also be ‘hollow’ and so the the act of discrimination has been a little bit more difficult.”

          Schmidt’s noting the problem is ironic since he’s convenor of the Creative Writing M Litt Programme at U Glasgow. How, I wonder, has he been able to avoid the traps inherent in institutionalising “creativity”?

          What do you think about all this?

        • Judy Prince says:

          J R, I just read this two paragraphs of yours again and think they’re wonderful:

          “So, until you’re married, don’t talk to guys like me at Jonathan Franzen readings or the Literary Death Match or the Sonic Youth/Pavement show at the Bowl. Even if you can already replace the spark plugs in your car blindfolded, you and I cannot be holding hands when we jaywalk, and have no business whispering in each other’s ears in the middle of a dance floor. No, I beg you, hang out with the pit crews at the Brickyard 400, linger at the Minnesota State Fair’s Machinery Hill, or apply to grad school at Cal Tech or MIT instead of Cal Arts or Sarah Lawrence. Discover the wonder in usefulness, not in guys that get your film and literary references.”

          “As much as I want kids someday, it just isn’t fair to society. It’s time now to make a Kickstarter page where you all can chip in and buy a vasectomy for me, and the thousands of men like me. If you allow me to someday wear a BabyBjorn through the streets of Silver Lake, my children will only help keep Jiffy Lube in business.”

        • Judy Prince says:

          OK, I *do* know the difference between “this” and “these,” despite my having written “this two paragraphs.” (sigh)

          Always check your writing 3 times before clicking on “Add comment,” Judy.

          Done.

        • J. Ryan Stradal says:

          Judy,

          First — thanks for your appreciative reading (and re-reading)!

          The quote from Schmidt is provoking, and I’m sure other journals have a similar story. I have no experience on that side of things, however, so I don’t feel qualified to speak to it.

          I can say that my peers out here write what moves them, and the ones in workshops or MFA programs usually end up cherry-picking the advice from just two or three classmates who really “get” the story. The advice from 12 people with varying tastes and apprehensions of your story is definitely interesting, but applying it all could really do some damage.

          Most of the instructors I’ve met, regardless of their taste, do their best to discern an individual’s voice and work with them on developing craft in a way that expands the potential of their expression — without imposing a Robert McKee-style blueprint for narrative success on it.

          Thank you again for reading, Judy, and for asking some interesting questions along the way. I appreciate it.

        • Judy Prince says:

          “Most of the instructors I’ve met, regardless of their taste, do their best to discern an individual’s voice and work with them on developing craft in a way that expands the potential of their expression — without imposing a Robert McKee-style blueprint for narrative success on it.”

          I had a feeling, JR, that that is mainly the case, as evidenced by so many on the poetrylists who had gone through an MFA program and were very much appreciative of their instructors’ help. On the other hand, the only 2 people I’d known who continuously opposed MFA programs had never gone through them. I respect their position urging us to challenge the “institutionalising” of creating art in all the ways that that they’ve pointed out, bcuz they’re often correct in their belief that academic/political/psychological/artistic “boxes” are born from numbers and status games which are deadly serious and ubiquitous—-and exclusive. Thankfully, many teachers find ways to reveal the “boxes” and offer free forays outside them. They help student artists live Schoenburg’s maxim about art “where every content produces its own form.”

          I again re-read your post and am touched and energised by the continuing story of the boxing champion about to study architecture, having found in that brief intense few minutes of boxing success the very core of his determination, his inner strength. Marvelous.

          Be well, and thank you for your devotion to young people.

        • Judy Prince says:

          JR, to reprise and update the issue of the importance of a higher ratio of teachers to students, today’s online Guardian article cites a major study (the PISA*) of 65 countries which found that the UK, for example, has slipped in maths, reading and science, and which states that, among other things:

          “The UK . . . is one of only a few countries where richer pupils have more teachers than poorer ones. Only in Israel, Slovenia, Turkey and the US is this also the case.”

          (* This explains the PISA study: “Around 470,000 15-year-olds across the world sat a numeracy, literacy and science test last year, the results of which inform the latest Pisa study by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). . . . [the PISA is] highly respected across the globe, and enables politicians and policy-makers to assess how different countries’ education systems compare.”)

          Following are the top-ranked countries in the study:

          “Top countries in the Pisa study

          (Shanghai-China)

          Korea

          Finland

          Hong Kong-China

          Singapore

          Canada

          New Zealand

          Japan

          Australia

          Netherlands

          Belgium

          Norway

          Estonia

          Switzerland

          Poland

          Iceland

          United States

          Liechtenstein

          Sweden

          Germany

          Ireland

          France

          Chinese Taipei

          Denmark

          United Kingdom”

          —–

          The URL for the article (“UK schools slip down world rankings,” 7 December 2010):

          http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/dec/07/uk-schools-slip-world-rankings

  15. “expensive private colleges founded by Jesuits. This will not help the human race to blossom and thrive through the difficult times ahead.”

    Heh. Undergrad and MBA from Jesuit institutions. Take it you went to one, too? If the Jesuits’ mission statement is to be taken at face value, that’s the only thing that’ll help the human race to blossom and strive through the difficult times ahead.

    No, but seriously, I have valued the Jesuit influence on my education in certain ways.

    Overall, nice piece. Welcome.

  16. Art Edwards says:

    My own lack of utility is a constant source of shame. Not to be all French-filmy, but what’s the point?

    Welcome!

    Art

  17. dwoz says:

    …I can do anything.

    But for me, the problem comes down to the triangulation between money, time, and knowledge.

    I can fix my own car, but where does that fall in the equation? A couple years ago, I had time, but no money. Today, I have no time.

  18. Michelle says:

    As an Illinoisan, a wife of a gearhead, and a human, I really enjoyed reading this. 🙂

    Also: M. Ward!

    and,

    You could totally make Sangria, it’s really easy.

  19. Jen says:

    I think it’s unfair to assume that any well read intellectual is incapable of being useful. My husband is immensely well read and the most well versed person in film I have ever known, even owning his own dvd rental store because of his love for film. Yet he can do ANYTHING around the house required, even build a house if need be. He has actually put in roads, wrangled cows, installed windows, flooring, wiring, fixed cars, etc. Handiness and intellectualism are not mutually exclusive. As one of my close friends would say, you need to just “make stuff do stuff.” Get out there and force yourself to learn it. Anyone can, even if it doesn’t come as easily to you as others you can be both useful and an intellectual. Saying that you are helpless in the face of these things is just an excuse.

  20. dwoz says:

    There’s an aphorism about this, that I’ll extend slightly…

    It’s always the carpenter’s house that has a leaky roof…

    …and the plumber’s house with the faucet that won’t shut off…

    …and the mechanic’s house with the cars that don’t run…

    …and the author’s house, with the manuscripts that aren’t published…

  21. Simon Smithson says:

    “and after the five minutes it took three (other) guys to dig the thing out, we still had about three-and-a-half hours left.”

    Heh.

    I loved that.

    Welcome aboard! The sweet part about having disposable time is that you can read books about how to get some of this stuff done. And the sweetest part about the whole deal is that the world is set up so our ignorance will never become apparent.. It’s the greatest bait-and-switch of all time, and I’m going to ride it all the way to the grave that someone else will be digging for me!

  22. J. Ryan Stradal says:

    Will, dwoz, Art, Michelle, Jen, Simon — thank you all for reading & for your comments.

    Simon, if I’d only heard that idea before I wrote this, I might have kept up the charade for a while. Still, I don’t think it’s unfair to put my cards on the table. I have nowhere to go but up. I have already been challenged to help make something for Thanksgiving dinner, and I’m looking forward to it.

  23. […] I went to Umami in Hollywood with my friend and fellow Los Angeles reader/writer J Ryan. If you don’t know who he is, you should educate yourself, fast. No one can make you like […]

  24. Dana says:

    Very funny! Why on earth were you north of the Arctic Circle?

    Ratlips is a PERFECT cat name.

    “Despite being exposed to this surfeit of utilitarianism throughout my formative years, none of it sunk in. Whenever my dad attempted to teach me how to change the oil in a car, or change a tire, or flush the radiator, my mind wandered to what I’d rather be doing, which at age 11 was probably revising Presidential elections (where, for example, I’d have Henry Clay defeat James K. Polk in 1844) or making giant family trees of the House of Atreus on huge sheets of paper in the basement. Picking up on this, my dad pointedly admonished me.”

    Brilliant. You absolutely should be donating to the gene pool. 🙂

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      Dana,

      I was north of the Arctic Circle for work — typically, I’m a TV producer, or at least that’s where I make about 90% of my income — but it’s a place I’ve been long intrigued by and I was extremely happy to be there even if the experience wasn’t always so kind.

      And thank you for recommending me for the perpetuation of the species. We’ll see how that works out.

      Thanks for diving into the archives, Dana!

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