In her 2005 book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy argues that women have been duped into embracing “raunch” culture, wherein women and girls objectify themselves and other women in crude, sophomoric ways. Levy argues that “raunch” culture pretends to be about women liberating themselves, but is really about keeping women in their place as objects for the male gaze.
In recent years we’ve seen a similar trend, where women have been encouraged to buy into “asshole” culture. While some may argue that we have always tolerated certain types of male bad behavior, it seems there has been a cultural shift in recent years where we actually applaud watching male characters behave like jerks.
Please place a “1” before any of the following statements that cause an improvement in your mood:
_ We all have problems.
_ It could always be worse.
_ Everyone feels that way.
_ This, too, shall pass.
Now, add your scores.
Despite my lack of psychic abilities, I predict you scored zero. Therefore, you’re probably considering paying a visit to a psychiatrist. Guess what? You’re right: Paying is one thing you’ll definitely be doing, and plenty of it. Meanwhile, you imagine being treated by a person who practices what Merriam-Webster calls “a branch of medicine that deals with mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders,” a/k/a psychiatry. It sounds like some kind of love. It sounds astonishing. It sounds like it’ll take your breath away… and it just might!
But before the breaking of your brain’s hymen, remember that, in layman’s terms, once fucked by a psychiatrist, your mind will never be a virgin again. Therefore, aim for abstinence, the only form of mind control that’s 100% effective in preventing brain impregnation by drugs for which the average psychiatrist has never bothered reading the manufacturer’s prescribing instructions, much less the truth.
We understand you may have passed the point of caring. For whatever reason, you’re determined to sacrifice your virginity. You’re only human. So, assuming that you’ll act upon this decision, you shall now be guided through the process of brain impregnation and, we hope, avoid getting pregnant upside-down.
First, let’s get real. Psychiatry is only rarely practiced in the United States. The goal proved too difficult and the profit margin too slim for almost anyone to bother trying. Psychiatry was abandoned for easily-attainable and profitable goals, that being guesswork, drug dice throwing, abject apathy, and, of course, check cashing. Derived from Freud’s daughter Anna, this brand of malpractice is unknown as capitalanalysis. This has never been disclosed, and no one will admit it, yet capitalanalysis has been and remains the almost-ubiquitous form of “mental health care.” They even still call it psychiatry! But it’s still capitalanalysis, and the only things analyzed are the degree to which any psychiatrist is not a doctor and the degree to which any psychiatrist is not a psychiatrist. A minus sign precedes almost all such ratings.
You shall now be walked through your first visit to Johnny the capitalanalysist. You’ve come this far, and you might as well come all the way. However, surrendering your virginity need not equate the surrendering of your self-authority. Tell yourself, “If you’re going to stick it to me, buster, you’d better treat me real good.”
So let’s begin with the proper greeting. Upon entering the capitalanalysist’s office, which capitalanalysists call “the brain’s bedroom,” immediately shout, “Where’s the mustache, Adolf?” Now you’ve told Johnny, “I know the facts, Jack:” Exactly what do you know? That you’ve accepted the risk of entering the bedroom of a “medical field” born in Nazi “medicine.”
Next, while being “evaluated,” you must evaluate the psychiatrist. The latter carries all the weight, while the former bears none. The purpose of this process can be easily remembered by the acronym ASIF (Avoid Sadistic Ignorant Fascists). The odds of your accomplishing this task have been estimated in Vegas as approximately 1 in 9,234. Whether you ever accomplish that mission depends on how much money you can blow. Capitalanalysis entails the fact that only the wealthy can afford psychiatry-psychiatry, not psychiatry. Don’t try to keep this straight in your head; it’s crooked on purpose.
As the evaluation continues, interrupt one of the “doctor’s” boilerplate questions and state, “Just to be clear, I’m employing you, not the other way around.” You’re the authority figure. You take charge even in the capitalanalysist’s own bedroom. After all, it’s your virginity on the grill.
Soon, you’ll be diagnosed. You may or may not be told your diagnosis. The diagnosis is the capitalanalsyst’s theory. From this point forward, the capitalanalsyst’s sole concern is proving his theory correct. No capitalanalsyst can feel what you feel, nor would any capitalanalsyst care. Your treatment is entirely designed to prove the capitalanalsyst’s theory, and you will be blamed if you fail to assist in proving that theory. The theory is never wrong; you’re wrong. Otherwise, the insurance companies might cost Johnny his virginity in the last place he wants to lose it.
Or so you’re told. Demand your diagnosis. Johnny might refuse. He cares even less than the average capitalanalysist, if that’s possible. Are you going to stand for this from the first Johnny who fingers your frontal lobe? Of course not. Repeat your demand for the diagnosis. When Johnny finally belches the diagnosis and code, and no matter how accurate the diagnosis may seem, say, “Bullshit!” If Johnny runs, he doesn’t even care enough to despise you for stopping him at third base. Congratulations: You’ve terminated your first capitalanalsyst, and you’re still a virgin. It’s too late to abort the capitalanalsyst, but at least you won’t have to terminate Johnny again.
If Johnny doesn’t run, he will produce his prescription pad as if it’s a magician’s rabbit. Where was it? On the desk the whole time; you’ve been duped by Johnny again. Didn’t you know Johnny slips everybody mickeys?
Stop! Pause and refresh your memory. What was that diagnosis, again? Oh, yes. Odds are it was bipolar disorder. That’s because almost no other disorder “requires” so many drugs as bipolar disorder, making it a very appetizing theory indeed for capitalanalsysts. In fact, it’s their favorite excuse for cocktail hour, but you’ll be the only one swallowing anything. Get used to it. You may swallow a hundred different cocktails and never get to where you planned. Don’t worry: You can’t get your brain pregnant by swallowing, silly!
More than likely, you’ve been misdiagnosed. You’ll notice this after two years of a depression six feet deep: You might as well be dead. Hopefully, just in the nick of time, you’ll finally figure out what’s been making you “sane” made you disappear! Now you’re Johnny’s rabbit, and you’re all but pulling tricks unless you confront that dirty rotten son of bitch. You tell Johnny, “You’re not getting to home plate with me! And use your fingers on yourself, fuckface.”
Yes, even after all this time, your brain is still a virgin no matter how many time’s it’s been fingered. By now, you’ve probably figured something else out, too: You weren’t bipolar, just anxious. But you have to prove it to a capitalanalsyst, and words won’t do the trick. You wanted it, so get naked. Act exactly the way you feel. You might consider smashing the capitalanalsyst’s degree over his head. Don’t fret: That won’t hurt any capitalanalsyst. There’s nothing in their heads!
Learned your lesson yet? Rather than giving it up to any old Johnny who calls himself a doctor when he isn’t a doctor any more than he’s an Olympic athlete, keep that abstinence until you can’t stand it any longer. Your brain deserves love, not just a lousy lay Johnny will give anybody in town who calls him “Doctor.”
Finally, whatever you do, keep your eye on those mickeys. Some are worse than heroin, but don’t expect a capitalanalsyst to tell you that! With the best mickey he can give in his self-interest and the worst you can take in your self-interest, a capitalanalsyst supports whole industries, from drug manufacturers to rehabilitation centers.
Have you learned your lesson? Abstinence first! And even then, swallowing might catch you a virus they call addiction. We call it capitalanalysis, and we don’t take dick from Johnny!
The literary world needs more essays written by men who are disenchanted with the behavior of women. Perhaps it’s only my experience, but it seems as if publishing is rife with memoirs and self-help books and online rants about how men won’t commit and can’t communicate and how chivalry has gone the way of the Dodo, whereas similarly-themed works from the male point of view are proportionally scarce.
What makes someone an asshole? Everyone knows one, and some of us are one, but it seems a purely subjective matter.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines asshole as “someone or something foolish or contemptible”. One of the more popular entries in the Urban Dictionary describes asshole as “someone being arrogant, rude, obnoxious, or just a total dickhead”. Denis Leary once sang that an asshole is someone who drives slow in the fast lane, enjoys Cuban cigars, and parks in handicapped spaces while “handicapped people make handicapped faces.”
So, here’s the thing.
I want the very best for the people I care about.
I do. I really and truly do.
And when I say the very best, I’m not fooling around. I want us all to be riding our jet-powered jaguar-shaped hoverboard through the streets on our way to a) have energetic sex with a hot Spanish secret service agent of the gender of our personal choice, b) pick up the keys to our new carbon-neutral Batmobile, c) enjoy a relaxing afternoon of conversation, massage and fine cheeses at Richard Gere’s house, or d) all of the above.
Yes, I recognise and understand the nature of a supply-and-demand economy, and I know that if these options were available to everyone it would decrease their rarity value, and the bottom¹ would drop out of the lucrative energetic-sex-with-a-hot-gender-non-specific-Spanish-intelligence-agent market, but, if you were given the choice between a), b), c), d) or e) going to work tomorrow, which would you pick?
I’ve come to realise that not all of the people I love currently have the wonderful lives I want for them. Perhaps even more heartbreaking, neither do I. And yes, some of the reason is because life just doesn’t work like that, and Richard Gere gets very busy sometimes, but there’s also another factor at play. And that factor is this:
I’ve heard – and lived – enough stories of terrible boyfriends, cheating girlfriends, dangerous drivers, abusive parents, muggers, murderers, thieves, and people who answer the phone in movie theatres that I’ve been forced to stop and wonder: Goddamnit. Where are all these assholes coming from? Is there some portal to another dimension – an asshole dimension – that someone forgot to shut? Is that where they’re all coming from? Because I’m not that asshole. My friends aren’t those assholes. Who are these assholes?
Well… the truth is that no, actually, we probably are the assholes. All of us². It’s human nature. Everyone, at some point in time or another, has acted like an asshole³. Some more than others, but that’s the way it goes.
Because we’re only human. We get angry and we say things we don’t really mean, or we somehow glide right by the idea of consequences for the split second it takes to think that greenlighting Jersey Shore is an awesome idea, or we wake up in the morning and say ‘You know what California needs? An eighth proposition!’
And I’m not trying to judge, or blame, or make anyone feel bad, with the possible exception of The Situation… it’s just that I don’t think this approach is helping anybody. So maybe we could all tell the demons on our shoulders⁴ to just kinda… take the day off.
June 2 is Saint Erasmus’s Day. He’s the patron saint of intestinal diseases and colics. And that’s about as close as you can get to a patron saint of assholes – so it makes June 2 a fitting time for Hey. Don’t Be An Asshole Today Day. And the wonderful thing about this is that you can do it anywhere you are, and if you bust someone acting like an asshole, you can say ‘Hey. Don’t be an asshole today.’
(Saint Erasmus? He’s that asshole on the left).
I’m not talking about making a play for sainthood. I’m merely suggesting that, for one day – one day! – we could all take a breath and try to restrain our baser instincts. In terms of logistics, these were the first ideas that came to mind.
1. Hey. Don’t Drive Like an Asshole Today.
Yes, sometimes you want to beat the light. And sometimes the perfect gap looks ready to open up if you just drop the pedal a little harder and cut around that guy in front and bam! Made it! Now to drop right back down to the speed limit and coast… all the way to Subway.
Hey, remember every single time in your life when you’ve suddenly hit the brakes because some asshole swerved in front of you with no warning and you spent the next five minutes in an impotent rage because there was nothing you could do about it except hit the horn, which, really, does nothing, and if the horn is whiny enough, actually makes you more angry? And then on the date you went on that night, which was the third date, and we all know what that means⁵, your date says ‘How did your day go today?’ and you snapped and shouted ‘Some asshole cut me off!’ and slammed your fists into the cheesecake, and your date got weirded out and left?⁶
Yeah, that’s you right now.
2. Hey. Don’t Invade Anyone Today.
Just for one day, K? I know, I know, Estonia’s been looking at you funny, and Malta is just begging for it, and no one will notice if you annex Lesotho because no one’s ever heard of it, but still. Just for one day.
3. Hey. Don’t Kidnap Three People and Turn Them into a Human Centipede Today.
Because why would you even do that? Seriously, why? There is nothing that a human centipede can do better than three people who aren’t a human centipede. Literally, not one goddamn thing⁸.
You’re a weird guy, Tom Six.
4. Hey. Don’t Commit Adultery Today.
It’s a big ask. But perhaps, just for today, if you want to have sex with someone’s promiscuous wife or philandering husband, you could just… oh, I don’t know. Not commit adultery?
It’s easy to forget and slip up in the heat of the moment, but if you find yourself engaging in sexual intercourse with someone else’s partner, maybe try stopping, or at least slowing down, and saying, in a non-confrontational, non-judgmental manner ‘Hey! We’re committing adultery!’
You could then maybe watch some TV instead, or play a little blackjack, or even take a walk if the weather is nice.
I’m not going to lie. It’s probably going to be awkward.
5. Hey. Don’t Call Anyone any Names Today.
24 hours without a single nigger, cracker, fag, dyke, breeder, queer, chink, spic, etc., etc… And I don’t even mean just the big ones – any kind of name that might be hurtful, or offensive, or mess with someone else’s head… really, what are you going to lose by not saying them for 24 hours?
Nothing, that’s what.
Still use ‘asshole’ though.
6. Hey. Don’t Collapse and Release an Oil Spill into the Gulf of Mexico Today.
There is nothing funny about this.
7. Hey. Don’t Steal a Bunch of Money and Fuck Every Single Person in the Whole World Today.
Or this, really.
Wait. This line of reasoning insinuates there’s something funny about #1 – #5. There isn’t. There really isn’t. These arguments aren’t mutually exclusive, is the point I’m trying to make.
The point I’m trying to make is: Bernard Madoff, you are such an asshole. I lost so goddamn much. And I don’t know if I’ll ever get it back.
8. Hey. Don’t be an Asshole Because You Think a Book told you to Today.
No, seriously. If a book – and I’m not going to name names – is the reason why you think that some people can get married and others can’t, or why it’s OK to kill doctors, or kill people in general, or blow shit up, or really, just be mean to anyone and try to take away the rights, the life, or the happiness that you would want for yourself and the people you love, then just stop. Stop for one second and ask yourself: ‘If someone did this to me, would I think they’re an asshole?’
And then ask yourself: ‘And would my own personal God want me to be an asshole right now?’
It’s really simple. He, she, they, or it, totally doesn’t.
Gods hate assholes.
See you June 2.
¹ but not the culo
² especially you
³ but not me, actually, now that I think about it
⁴ the asshole demons
⁵ it means you can start talking about your political opinions now. All right!
⁶ you won’t be having any sexy discussions about Reaganomics tonight.⁷
⁷ or fucking
⁸ except ‘be a human centipede’, and that totally doesn’t count
As I left my home this morning on the way to work, how could I possibly have anticipated our encounter? I assumed it would simply be another Monday, another dull start to a week of mindless drone work and perhaps – just perhaps – some clever and creative breakthrough with my writing. But you had left your home too, hadn’t you. On your way to work, perhaps, or possibly on some random errand. Did you know, too, that our paths would cross? That you would foolishly risk your very existence just to illustrate to me that I am one of the most stunningly attractive men in the universe?
Certainly that’s the only explanation I can think of for why you nearly sideswiped me as you merged onto the highway this morning. I mean, there was no one – NO. ONE. – behind me for, near as I could tell, almost a full mile. Any normal, sane, courteous non-moron would think, “Hm. I shall simply let off the gas just a smidge and fall in behind this fellow rather than attempt to speed up to pace him before I try to cut him off.” So the only thing I can think of is that I am far more attractive than I give myself credit for and, upon stealing a glance at my profile, you felt compelled to do anything – even risk mutilation and fiery death – to get a closer look. It’s the only thing that makes a lick of sense.
You were driving a Prius, for fuck’s sake, whereas I was driving a truck. A much larger vehicle with bark-&-sap-encrusted scrapes running down the side and dents in the body. A vehicle that says, “Not only don’t I give a flying fuck about my ‘carbon footprint’, I also have little regard for hitting large, nearly immovable things with my vehicle – and you are neither large nor immovable.” Still… like a moth to a flame you drifted inward.
You were not distracted – no cell phone to your ear, no beverage at your lips, no yelling at your dashboard radio. I could even see your eyes click to your mirrors and register my presence before you locked your gaze forward and punched it, goading all four of the hamsters under your hood. “Onward, Fluffy, Brain, Moloko and Mister Whiskers! Onward! I must not lose sight of this Adonis!” I just know your very heart must have cried out these words.
Or perhaps it was something deeper. Perhaps it was nothing so shallow as a base physical attraction. Perhaps my very soul shone like a beacon for you. You knew, as you careened brainlessly toward me that I was different. That I could transition easily from gutting an elk to holding a tea party with my daughter, from killer to nurturer. A creative savage, a warrior monk, flitting from ascetic to epicurean on a whim, from discussing technology to theology, listening with equal pleasure to Corelli’s sonatas or Korn’s “Freak on a Leash”, comfortable in all worlds. “Surely,” you thought, “this is Heinlein’s ‘human’ idealized – changing diapers, planning invasions, butchering animals, et al!”
How could you resist being pulled into my orbit? Hurling yourself at me, quite literally.
Sadly, though, I could not allow it. I am a married man, with a family that depends upon my presence, fidelity and income. I will not lead you on and can return neither your infatuation nor your passion. I tried to slow down and wave you in but, stunned by my rugged, masculine pulchritude and the blazing inferno that is my soul – the morning sun gleaming more brightly from my bare scalp than from the cup of coffee I sipped as this drama unfolded, the pendulous parenthood-and-late-night-writing-inspired bags beneath my eyes flapping in the wind – you were still too blinded by your desire to notice the obvious-to-anyone-who-hasn’t-performed-a-self-lobotomy gesture and so, hamsters frothing, could do nothing more than pace me as the onramp ran out. And so I goosed the gas so slightly and left you in my wake.
It could never be, Prius driver. My heart belongs to another. I’m no good for you. We are from different worlds.
Plus, you know, you drive like a fucking asshole.
The other day I was walking down Market Street, enjoying a rare day of calm winds and clear, sunny skies, when a stranger approached me. His hair was brown and coarse, like horsehair, which he clearly hadn’t washed in weeks. Maybe months. He was short and swarthy and wore a thick, bushy moustache and a black trench coat that was too big for him. I tried to walk around him, delete him from my life, but he swerved to intercept me. This is what always happens. You can’t get away from these guys.
What does it mean to be literate? That one’s pretty easy; it means you know how to read. What does it mean to be cultural? That one’s a little tougher; it means you know that in most situations, it’s unacceptable to put your cigarette out on a dachshund. And so what does it mean to be “culturally literate?” Many have posed this question (Harold Bloom, the Yale professor currently encased in acrylic and preserved for posterity does it a lot.), yet no one has truly come to terms with an accurate answer. My uncle Seamus once remarked that “cultural literacy is for homosexuals,” but he was urinating in a koi pond at the time, so who knows? I suggest we journey together to see if we can’t get to the core of this labyrinthine dilemma. Perhaps the most logical first step is learning how to read (I’ll wait for a few minutes)… Sweet. Our next step is to determine what exactly is “cultural.” Below are a few undeniably cultural items in the realm of architecture, literature and music. Let’s familiarize ourselves with these things, and then we can begin to get a handhold on what it means to be culturally literate.
The Eiffel Tower
Perhaps the most recognizable man-made structure in the world, The Eiffel Tower is a must-see for any culturally minded person. Completed in 1889 to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the French Revolution(1), the Eiffel Tower serves as a constant reminder that not everything in Paris is covered in dog feces.
The tower stands well over 1,000 feet high, something I discovered after dropping a crêpe from the observation deck while utilizing the equation Yf = -1/2gt^2 + Vot+Yo. Nestled along the Seine and overlooking the Champ de Mars, the Eiffel Tower strictly prohibits oral sex in the elevators (although there was no noticeable sign or warning). Also, be sure to say “bonjour” to the one-eyed dwarf who roller skates atop the structure’s antenna, drinking his own blood and reciting Ozymandias(2). As an added frustration, Le Jules Verne restaurant on the second floor offers food you can’t afford. I recommend the filet de turnbot au sautoir, écrevisses et champignons à la Riche, then running away.
A mammoth tome, written by James Joyce and published by Sylvia Beach in its entirety in 1928, Ulysses catalogues a day in the life of one Leopold Bloom. Often cited as the cornerstone of modernist literature, Ulysses takes its name from Homer’s Odysseus, as in The Odyssey, that book you were supposed to read sophomore year but ended up huffing oven cleaner in the school parking lot most of the time.
Written in Joyce’s inimitable stream-of-consciousness style, Ulysses is an integral part of any literary aesthete’s library. In addition, the book reminds us that even though the sisters at Strake Jesuit put saltpeter in our Cheerios to keep us from masturbating, there’s really no stopping the process, even if the guilt stays with you to this day. While nobody has ever read this book, its inclusion in your book collection will ensure at least a cursory dry-hump from the intoxicated Yale co-ed you met at the “Vampire Weekend” concert last month. Be sure to look out for the last sentence in which Molly Bloom probably has an orgasm or is in the throes of Crohn’s disease. Joyce was also blind, so we can forgive him for not making a whole lot of sense (there has been speculation that Joyce wrote much of Ulysses on the back of his cat, accounting for much of the confusion within the text). The poet Ezra Pound perhaps put it best when he remarked, “Ulysses is a treat for anyone trapped under ice.”
Often cited as the only “true American art form,” jazz music is what happens when heroin happens. First popularized in the early 20th century, jazz incorporates West African musical traditions and European stuffiness, resulting in a cacophonous mishmash that makes one feel as if his or her genitals are creeping up and slowly eating his/her belly button. A vital part of America’s long history of misguided art forms, jazz is sure to spark furious debate among people who can’t admit they sing along to Rihanna’s “Umbrella” in the car when nobody is looking.
Jazz is, at its core, an interpretive medium. Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and other maestros of the genre are venerated within certain musical circles much the same way the idea of a space/time continuum is venerated by physicists, even though, after a while, ruminations on the subject lead one back to the inevitable conclusion that nothing is understandable in this crazy world, especially Ugg boots. If you feel you have the mettle, give jazz a chance. When you’ve discovered it’s over your head and you’d honestly just rather sit there listening to Shakira, don’t feel bad. You can always count on her and her hips don’t lie.
I hope our maiden voyage into the unforgiving sea of cultural literacy has proved helpful. Keep in mind; this is a long journey, but a journey well-worth taking. For how are we to navigate our desires, our fears, and ourselves if we cannot navigate the world around us?
GPS is a good answer, yes
 More on the French Revolution can be found in Charles Dickens’ classic, A Tale of Two Cities. Although, it is a far better thing if you start reading at Part III, as I this is where the nudity really kicks into high gear.
 There is a place that sells absinthe next to the McDonald’s on the Rue Duban.
September 29, 2009
Pierre Bayard’s ode to philistinism, Comment Parler des Livres que l’on n’a pas Lus, or How to Talk About Books That You Haven’t Read is a unique experience. Upon completion of Bayard’s work (one wonders if Bayard himself ever read his own book), I found myself first outraged, then confused, and finally, a little constipated. I thought to myself, “How does this boorish Frenchman claim that a perfunctory flip-through of Anna Karenina should suffice for an understanding of St. Petersburg’s high society during that time—or Jasper, Missouri’s, home to the Double Deuce for that matter?” Can this Bayard be serious? Can we really talk—intelligently—about books we’ve never read?
On the jacket cover of his aggravating book, Mr. Bayard leans against a railing next to a dumpster leading up to a whorehouse, staring at the reader as if to say, “Hey, I’m French—perhaps you’d be interested in some beignets after I’m done with these prostitutes.”
He also claims that he is a professor of literature at the University of Paris. As intellectuals, it’s safe to assume that we’ve all been to Paris—but has anybody ever seen this alleged university? Not I. All I saw in Paris was a gift-shop full of chocolate Eiffel Towers at Orly airport, as nobody was kind enough to direct me to my time-share in the 23 rd arrondissement, with what they assured me was a “first-class” view of the Bastille. It seems the French have a knack for deception, while bringing out the worst pseudo-intellectual hobgoblins into the cultural milieu.
Bayard begins by making the ridiculous claim that readers may finally “shake off the guilt” of not having read the great books that shape our world. Be careful with guilt, Mr. Bayard. Had you finished Roadhouse, you might sing a different tune when it comes to washing oneself of both corporeal and spiritual guilt. Do you have any idea what happens at the end? The bristling irony that clips at the thin threads of your argument? I assure you, the culmination of tropes during the end game of Swayze’s opus is terrifying—truly something that stays with you, like a disease, or a small dog stapled to your leg, gnawing at your testicles (not always, but a lot of the time). Read (or watch) the end of this, and you will rethink your gilded shit-head ideas on guilt.
As a freelance intellectual, I often find myself asked to contribute a book review, or deliver a lecture extempore after Jonathan Safran Foer has cancelled. So, I’m no tyro in this sphere. Mr. Bayard recommends that to lecture on a book one hasn’t read, it’s essential to “put aside rational thought and…let your sub-conscience express your personal relationship with the work.” Similarly, to review an unfamiliar book, Mr. Bayard counsels, “closing your eyes to perceive what may interest you about [the book]…then writing about yourself.”
Let me state categorically that allowing the sub-conscious to intervene during a lecture is a dangerous thing. I recall a commencement speech I was asked to give at Princeton (after Jonathan Safran Foer cancelled), in which my goal was to make a connection between the gateway to adulthood and the battle scene against the Cubans over the corn fields of middle America in James Joyce’s, Ulysses. At the time, I was 40 pages short of finishing Ulysses, but I panicked for one brief moment, allowing my subconscious to creep in and reference the heart-pumping Patrick Swayze vehicle, Red Dawn to fill in the gaps created by my literary malfeasance. The audience chortled and squirmed with typical Princeton fatuity, and I spent the rest of the address huddled under the gown of Joyce Carol Oates. Years later, when I explained at a PEN meeting to Mrs. Oates that I had, in my youthful folly, dared to reference a book I had not completely finished and I was soooo sorry and I now know that the varsity football team in Ulysses were fighting Communists, not Moonies, Mrs. Oates gave me a coy smile and sort of whispered, in that way she does, “Would you mind getting me a another vodka gimlet?”
As for book reviews, I don’t have the faintest clue where Mr. Bayard gets off. Close my eyes and write about myself? What kind of self-aggrandizing, philistine claptrap is that? I was once stuck sitting next to Michiko Kakutani, book reviewer extraordinaire of the New York Times, on a flight to Zurich, and it turned out we were both reviewing the same new translation of Don Quixote. After we agreed that one of the key requirements of criticism is the removal of oneself from the work under consideration, I made a reference to the end of Don Quixote, when Sancho Panza is about to join in the rumble between the “Greasers” and the “Socs”, and how it’s a metaphor for the craft of writing. I think she must have been forced to digest this burst of protean insight, because for the rest of the flight, she said little. I remarked how every time I met Gore Vidal, he would sound a rape whistle and hog-tie me to a fire hydrant, and Michiko droned on as usual, always trying to one-up me with her one story; you know, the one she never finishes about, “Stewardess, can I change seats?” What’s the point, Michiko? It’s not even a story, per se.
The truth is, we read for any number of reasons: we crave a good yarn by the camp fire; we savor the world of words created by our greatest artists; we feel a preternatural magnetism toward an understanding of how and why we are the way we are; perhaps we are having a bowel movement. What Mr. Bayard suggests is an approach toward reading, and a discussion of reading, that goes against our nature. We are not partial beings—we are complete—complete in the sense that our minds create our realities. Mind is life. We must subscribe to life whole-heartedly, eschewing the notion that a partial understanding of our world, our ethos, our pathos, is tantamount to a full life. Anything else is a bourgeoise conceit! Dumbing-down displays the utter convenience of ignorance!
Bayard is a travesty of nature, like a Gaulloises-puffing ogre. His mongloid understanding of human nature will eventually lead to an early demise. He is a French Hamlet (although presumably shorter), pathologically self-destructing at every turn, although you’d think he might have learned something from all that post-mortem correspondence with Whoopi Goldberg. And yes, he escapes, but at what cost? What now will his wife Molly do? Can you have sex with a ghost? Is Claudius really going to poison a glass of Mouton Rothschild just because Baby Houseman is a Jew? And what of the Roadhouse?
I am reminded of something Flaubert said upon completion of Madame Bovary: “Quelle atroce invention que celle du bourgeois, n’est-ce pas?” Had Bayard finished Madame Bovary, he would have recognized—as Special Agent Johnny Utah did about Bodhi right before the appearance of Rodolphe—not everybody wants to be rescued from the fifty year storm.
Rejection letters are always a drag; whether they are negative responses from job opportunities, university admissions boards or literary journals. However, there is nothing quite as spirit-crushing as a rejection letter received after submitting a poem. A short-story rejection slip is depressing, but not devastating. You manufacture a story in your head, create some characters and make them talk. Fine. So you didn’t like my characters. Their dialogue is unrealistic. Their motives are questionable. Fine. They aren’t me. But a rejection letter from a poem is, for me, the equivalent of standing out on a street corner naked and having passers-by hand you terse little notes reading, “Your penis is unconvincing,” or “You call those nipples?” or maybe, “You have an affected buttocks.” And that kind of stuff just breaks my heart. You pour it all into a poem: your skeleton, your bile, your oozing primordial remnant—your private parts. To be told that the fundamental you is not up to snuff—that’s hard murder.
I was looking out a window at the Vail ski slopes and thought that the skiers in the distance resembled fleas on a giant polar bear. That made me feel fairly poetic, so I went to my girlfriend’s computer to write it down. I’d never seen a ski poem and thought that perhaps there was a niche industry there. Most skiers are rich, most skiers are educated, and everybody loves a hokey poem about their sport, their profession, their passion. I could be the Pablo Neruda of ski poems: “I want to bounce over moguls/like the raindrops in Chile/bounce across your breasts.” Every poet, at one point in his or her life, considers dipping the quill in hackneyed Hallmark ink. But, this is poetry, and the real poet must never compromise feeling, self or integrity. My mind whirred around, thinking of words and meter, then came to a stop and remembered that it had been a while since I last checked one of my “poetry” e-mail addresses. This address (which I will not divulge, as I still may have a poem in me one day) is one of the many e-mail addresses writers have. Most publications assert that their editors will accommodate no more than two or three submissions per writer, per year. So, after those first two rejections, what can the writer do but stew until the coming year nears? I’ll tell you what: The writer can fabricate names and alternate e-mail addresses, assuring at least a few more reads a year (alas, this is inevitably coupled with a few more rejections each year). I have three poetry e-mail addresses. I had checked two of the addresses fairly recently, but it had been over a month since I checked the third. I went to my account, as I always do, hopeful as one is hopeful for making parole (in that this kind of hope is seldom realized and often results in continued forced sodomy, or in the best of cases, a job cleaning those cheese spackle guns at Taco Bell). I have four replies.
Three are in response to a poem I wrote about the death of Federico Garcia-Lorca. One is in response to a Bukowski rip-off that details the deleterious gastro-intestinal effects of drinking gin and eating chicken wings in excess. It looked bad. You can always tell you’re about to be denied when the response reads something like: Re: My Poetry Submission. If the bastards don’t want you, they won’t even bother with changing first person to possessive. Sure enough, I receive all vaguely complimentary albeit offensively generic rejections (I will not even begin to go into the despair upon receiving SASE snail-mail rejection letters. The thought of paying to be rejected makes me want to burrow through an excelsior filled cage with a rent copy of Leaves of Grass.).
Then, something snapped in me. Not exactly snapped, but kind of slurped. As I quickly changed websites to cnn.com/money to see how rapidly my stock was tanking, a warm swell enveloped me. I thought of Whitman and how he went door to door hawking his scrawls. Then to Rimbaud and how if it all went to shit I could just leave for Paris and drink absinthe all day. And finally, to a guy I read about in Saskatchewan who juggles moose testicles for the patients’ amusement in a cancer ward. There are solutions to problems. These men had all been faced with artistic rejection (except for the moose dude, maybe) in their careers and had found ways to assuage their pain. Besides, it wasn’tthat bad. I was in Vail. Of course, I had (still have) over $10,000 of credit card debt, a shit job, an STD I picked up in Nuevo Laredo and the house in Vail was my best friend’s boss’s house that we broke into; but it was still far from hopeless. Maybe poetry would never work out. I could be happy on a beach just drinking boat drinks and making passes at women—who needs poetry? Maybe this was just not my epoch; maybe in 2388, when robots/yetis rule the earth, I will be appreciated as “ahead of my time.” I didn’t need poetry the way I need pornography. I would survive.
My trip from Vail over a little more than a week, I sat in my girlfriend’s and my 300 square foot apartment in Denver, restless. The first few days I never wrote, I never thought of writing. However, after those few days, I started to lose it. I would wake up before my girlfriend and run to liquor store to buy a half-pint of vodka at 9:00am. I sat behind a car, drank the Absolut Citron mixed with Diet Rock Star Energy Drink and then wobbled my way back up the stairs. I would sit through an agonizing episode of ER in which I would lament my abbreviated pre-med career and think how, if I had been more vigilant in organic chemistry, I could have made MDMA and sold hits of Ecstasy to the gentry. The vodka would kick in and around 10:00am my girlfriend would wake up.
“Did you leave this morning?”
“That Diet Rock Star smells like booze.”
“I know, doesn’t it?”
“What are you eating?”
“From last night?”
“We were going to eat that together for lunch in the park.”
“This is different Chinese food.”
“Are you drunk?”
“Then where in the fuck are your pants?”
You ask a lot of questions, don’t you?”
It went this way for a while until I reached that point of indifference that breeds the most valuable of ideas. Snow was falling over Denver and I sat out on our balcony and watched it. The chill was numbing but the scenery was hypnotic. I saw each snowflake as if I had been taken on some kind of peyote-induced vision quest. Every bit of geometry made sense, much like cheeseburgers; every cheeseburger, like every snowflake is different, yet hauntingly similar. My poems, God help me, were different. My unmetered scribbles were vessels for a universal suffering, a galactic joy. I resolved to sell a poem.
Up to this point, I had published a grand total of one poem (a floundering rant on commercialism picked up by a Marxist rag out of Portland) and had been paid for none. I was going to create and I was going to get paid for standing skinned alive on the street, my own entrails squishing through my fingers as I raised them over my head in Promethean awkwardness. I would become a merchant of my own quill and scroll. I would set up shop on my own—like Whitman—and sell my poems.
“Original Poems: $500 or Best Offer” read my slipshod cardboard sign. I spent almost two hours perfecting the desperate scrawls that adorned my sign. I don’t want to seem too complacent, I thought. Better dirty up the sign. I want to seem educated—perhaps one year of college, then the mendicant breakdown of sociopathic genius. I printed out a quantity of poems and sorted them into three piles. One pile would be for the patchouli-lathered quasi-hippies who might identify with me—people who might buy a poem just because the idea of buying a poem on the street seemed “counter-cultural.” Another pile would be my attempt at a “romantic” poem. Now obsolete, the poem was written for an ex-girlfriend that borrowed heavily from—who else?—Neruda. These poems would be for husbands too lazy to stop for flowers after coming home smelling like stripper perfume the night before. Finally, I managed to track down a poem I’d written a long time ago that amounted to a musing on nature. Nobody knows what to do with nature poems. This poem was the kind of wild-card I’d sell to those folks I couldn’t get a really solid read on. Nature confuses by its very, well, nature. Thus, its appeal in poems is undeniable but still perplexes the reader, which I suppose is good.
What followed was easily one of the most petrifying moments of my life. I gathered my stack of poems and made my way out to one of the busier intersections in Denver—at Hamden and Colorado. My first fear was that I would saunter up to the intersection only to find another “homeless” person with an even more sympathetic if not humorous sign and that I’d have to pack up my gear and find another intersection. I had picked this particular intersection because it was close to our apartment and I thought that if things really got out of hand or the gendarmes decided to go after me for loitering or soliciting (I can never remember which is which), I would have time to make a quick dash back to the apartment, burn all my poems and call my parents, asking them for another loan. I didn’t see any other vagrant with a sign, so I freaked out and ran back to the apartment anyway. The thing was, the closer I got to setting up my makeshift poetry kiosk, I was reminded that I had gone to college with two guys who I knew were in Denver. Denver is a big city, but I was beset by a strong mental image of either of them pulling up next to me in their BMW’s, noticing me, then it’s that whole awkward situation you see in movies where they demand to “take me in,” feed me and give me money until their wives come home and demand that “he can only stay the night, then he has to leave. . . Think of the children!” Or, the other option: The eye contact between former colleagues, one of whom has obviously “made it,” and the other, obviously bat-shit crazy, probably drunk and likely to start screaming about “modes of being.”
When I return to our apartment, my girlfriend is there, which is a bit of a problem, as I thought that she would be in class and that I would not have to explain why her upper middle class boyfriend is wandering around the streets of Denver with a stack of poetry and a cardboard sign.
“I thought you were in class, baby.”
“I imagine you did. What the hell are you doing?”
“I’m selling my poems on the street.”
“You’ve got to be shitting me. Why don’t you call my cousin—he said he’d give you a job at Starbucks”
“I hate Starbucks, no way.”
“Everybody hates Starbucks. You just have a bad reason—they took over your Taco Bell and that Taco Bell was the only one who would still make the Cheesarito?”
“I told you that?”
“Yes, a bio-degradable moment, obviously.”
“You read that phrase in a book.”
“No, you read that in a book. You say it all the time because you can’t remember that you say it all the time.”
“It’s a good line, though, you have to admit.”
“It was a good line. Now you just embarrass yourself with it. . . like you’re doing out on the street. Selling fucking poems, Tyler? Why don’t you just keep submitting to the New Yorker?”
“They don’t reply anymore. They just send me offers to subscribe, completely ignoring my submissions.”
“You shouldn’t have written them hate mail every time they rejected you.”
“It wasn’t hate mail, it was more desperate pleas for a sympathy publication.”
“You called an editor “fit for little more than extinction.”
“I was writing a metaphor.”
“Go sell your poems on the street, then. How’s it going out there, I guess I’ll ask.”
“Terrible. I totally panicked and ran back here”
“Get your fat-ass out there and you can have wine after you’ve sold ten poems.”
“Ten at least.” She ushers me out the door, sort of tenderly, which is nice. But again, I’m scared shitless. I gird up my loins, as I have another flash ushered on by the Ghost of Poetry Future—who looks a lot like a black Emily Dickenson—that has me writing Crayon hieroglyphics on a bathroom wall somewhere in New Jersey with a bottle of something in hand and a case of mild gigantism that has only afflicted my lymph nodes. I walk out of the apartment, this time resolute in selling my poetry.
Again, I walk down to the corner of Hamden and Colorado. I sit for one moment, pondering the possibility (inevitability?) of humiliation and shame, but I am not the most weak-willed person in the world and I take up a spot at the northwest corner of the intersection by the left-hand turn lane. I arrange my poems in their respective piles, I don my sign and try not to make eye contact with any of the drivers. I am sweating ice. I feel an acute sense of fraud. I feel death.
Moments go by and it seems, in my agitated state, that none of the drivers have even recognized this freaked-out specimen standing on the side of the road. The light is still green. The cars whiz by and I long to be in a fugue state, or at least drunk. But I’m here, carrying with me the hope every poet must carry in his or her heart that what they have to offer is valuable, valuable not just to the self, but to humanity. The light goes yellow and it seems I am being rained on by a sulfuric acid cloud. My skin gets hot, my knees wobble and my head feels as if needles have sprung from every hair follicle. The light turns red. An eternity goes by and still nothing. I begin to daydream . . Word gets out. Within a week a writing professor will drive by after reading one of the poems purchased by his wife and take me in and coddle me and cultivate my writing and then I’ll be fighting Jonathan Safran Foer at some art opening in Soho. I think when Annie Leibowitz shoots my photo for Rolling Stone, I’d like to be ass naked holding a five liter jug of Carlo Rossi burgundy with only a Purdue roaster chicken covering my crotch. Art. Just start with one poem. One god-damned poem.
After waiting another eternity on this damned corner, I resolve to engage at least one person on thiscorner. I walk gingerly up to the Ford Explorer stopped at the light. The driver is a 40ish man in street clothes, so I’m relatively assured that he either has enough money not to work or has one of those jobs that allow for free-thinking and poetic tendencies. I make eye contact with the man and he looks back and, noticing my sign, lets out a laugh. He rolls down the window.
“I don’t have $500. What kind of poems are you selling?” He sounds vaguely Texan, something that puts me at ease. I am from Texas.
“I’ve got a few kinds here. Romantic, pensive, natural…”
“I’ll give you five dollars for one of each.”
“Five a piece?”
“God, no. Five for one of each.” I am about to wet myself I am so excited. I reach into each of my little cardboard boxes and pull out one of each poem. I hand him the poems and he hands me a five dollar bill. My first poetry sale fills me with such happiness that after taking the money, I nearly walk out into traffic out of mongloid jubilation. There are souls on this earth that still care! I am the happiest man alive I resolve to stay out on this magical corner for the rest of my days, happily whooping like a Valkyrie and selling poems to this world—this beautiful, artistic, forgiving, gentle world. I regard the Rocky Mountains in the distance and feel I belong here in this place. There is a place for the poet on this Earth!
As my eyes water with joy and Haydn’s “Der Himmel Erzahlen” bellows throughout my very soul, aFord Explorer pulls up and a 40ish man with a hint of a Texas accent throws some pieces of paper at my feet.
“Hey, man—these motherfuckers don’t even rhyme.”