Being pregnant is interesting to you.  But you are not the first person to be pregnant or the first pregnant person anyone has known.  You are not the most important pregnant person anyone has known.  You are not even the only pregnant person in the world, country, state, or city at this exact moment.  You are probably the only pregnant person in your house.  But not necessarily.

Being pregnant is not exceptional.


Metaphorically, a chimera is a bogeyman, monster, or other fanciful mental fabrication comprised of grotesquely disparate parts.

In mythology, Chimera was a fire-breathing monster.  She was a child of Typhon and a sister of Cerberus & Hydra.  She had the body of a goat or ram, the hindquarters of a dragon, and the head of a lion (most depictions show her with the heads of the other two animals as well).  In some genealogies, she was the mother of the Sphinx.  Seeing Chimera was a omen of natural disasters like storms, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions.

Chimerism is also a genetic anomaly.

Real-life  genetic chimeras have the DNA of more than one distinct individual, usually just in a handful of organs.  True chimerism results from the fusion of fraternal multiples very early in zygotic development.

A chimeric mother may, for example, have ovaries and a uterus from her fused female fraternal twin.  As such, the DNA in them would not match the DNA that made up the rest of her body, so the children she conceived,  carried, and gave birth to would not technically–at least genetically–be her children.  They would be her nieces & nephews.

Ultimately, you could say, such children would be born by surrogate.  But the whole reproductive system, not just the fertilized eggs, would be tenants in a host body.

It boggles the mind(s).


“How are you feeling?”

I don’t know how many times I’ve asked this question of a pregnant woman and not actually cared what the response was.

Most of the time, while pregnant women obligatorily answer my obligatory question about their health, I scan the room to find someone who can drink alcohol–preferably male–and make plans to escape to his company at once.

I have never fit well with women.  I have no particular allegiance to my gender (at least not for sake of my gender alone), and I don’t generally trust its members.  I consider myself a feminist, but only insofar as feminism is, foremost, a sort of individualism & autonomy advocacy.  It just so happens that it’s especially for females.  Women make me uncomfortable, even more so if they’re beset with a fundamentally female affliction.

There is, I’ve found, a tendency for reproduction to have the general social effect of a middle school dance.  Girls on this side, boys on that side.

It’s my worst nightmare to be isolated among women and left to talk about nothing but women things.  So if I am to talk about pregnancy, we won’t have any of that uterine cult, Red Tent nonsense.

And even where pregnant woman are not being sentimental about their gender, being in the company of most pregnant people is not altogether unlike being in a nursing home, hospital, or hospice center. The primary topics of conversation are medical in nature.  Or if the conversation is not directly medical, it will still call to mind hospitals, medical issues, internal anatomy, and bizarre physiological processes, creating a sort of sickly clinical atmosphere wherever one is, whether at a fancy dinner, innocently trying to grocery shop, or at Disney World.


There you are on some sunshiny Orlando day, maybe in line for Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.  Your pregnant friend is chatting away about doula hunting, and suddenly you’re compelled to consider burst blood vessels, blood, mucus, and your best friend shitting the bed in front of God and doctors and family alike.

Later, the gleeful giggle of preschoolers, the whimsical pastels of Main Street, USA, and the spectre of excrement, bodily fluids, and torn sinew hanging over your burger lunch at the Crystal Palace while your friend pokes three fingers into her bulbous stomach, chewing and grimacing as her fetus grinds a heel into her liver.


Everyone’s always trying to cover it up.  Like pregnancy is a spiritual experience rather than a physical one.  It’s the “miracle” of life.  This condition, which human evolution, in 3 million years, has not managed to perfect well enough to keep a woman from vomiting for 3 months straight or wetting herself every time she laughs, is considered a “blessing.”

Pregnancy is supposed to be this sweet, gentle image–soft-focus, vignetted.  But there’s an unspoken, septic quality.  Underneath the euphemisms and precious sentiment, there’s something very Dorian Gray.  The “glow” is a greasy face.   The woman gazes lovingly down upon a creature who is pissing into her belly.  And then inhaling it.


It’s the happiest time of her life.


Except for the excruciatingly painful varicose veins in her rectum that are beginning to bulge out of her butthole.



If everything goes well, she will give birth to both an infant and a slimy two-pound mass of blood, tissue and mucus, which she can then take home and cook up like a haggis, if she is so inclined.


Everything surrounding pregnancy tends to be feminizing, mortalizing, and deceitful.  Each is bad enough on its own; they are especially awful together.

But even worse, in my perception, pregnancy–though I recognize it not to be a disability or weakness, per se–is nevertheless an instance of a person in a compromised state.  I have known only a small handful of pregnant women who did not give off that vibe.

I am acutely aware of not wanting to be perceived of as compromised.

I am even more aware of not wanting to feel compromised.


Intentional though it may have been, my current pregnancy puts me in a weird spot.


I am aware of the implications inherent in what I’m saying, not the least of which is the suggestion that childbearing can compromise a woman’s personality or intellect.  But I am also aware that biology doesn’t give a shit about my feminism or anyone else’s.


Progesterone has natural anti-depressant and anti-anxiety properties.   In excessive doses, it’s a formidable sedative that causes drowsiness and difficulty waking.

I am currently, and all pregnant women are, to some degree, doped.


I’ve found that in the relative absence of anxiety and hyper-vigilance, my intellect has changed.  I am less curious.  I am not compelled to write.  I am less investigative.  I simply don’t care.  Face value will do.  The first answer is the last answer.  Finito.  My madness used to have a method.  Now it’s more of a declaration.

And once the pregnancy is defeated, “mommy brain” is said to persist as long as the children do.


Now whosoever of them did eat the honey-sweet fruit of the lotus, had no more wish to bring tidings nor to come back, but there he chose to abide with the lotus-eaters, ever feeding on the lotus and forgetful of his homeward way.



All to the grim, sneering satisfaction of those who have always wished I were a more docile human being.

I’m sure of it.


If the child were the only one who believed he/she was entitled to dictate a parent’s behavior, that would be one thing.

But reproduction and parenthood, especially for women, brings with it an oppressive expectation of conformity, moderation, and general temperance or softening of character and behavior in addition to a thoroughly more severe and self-righteous community of kibitzing, judgmental busybodies who want, more than anything, for the same things that happened to them to happen to other people and for other people to do the things they have done.  If there is only one way, then that’s the right way.  Validation.

I have found, already, that people suddenly assume they understand my life, my thoughts, and my emotions just because I am pregnant and they or people they know have also been pregnant.  They delight not only in speculating on how I feel and what I think but in telling me how I will feel and think come this time or that time in the future.

Presumed homogeneity of experience.  Unconscious communication and enforcement of norms and acceptable shades of deviation.


I have already been referred to as “a mommy.”

“A.”  Meaning any one among many.

“Mommy.”  The diminutive. Indicating small, non-threatening, less.


This was spoken by another adult.  A male adult.

I have put many different sentences here, attempting to describe the violent emotions that one word caused in me.  But like Lycia, I just burn and burn.


Women are often worse.  A female adult has told me that this will mark my transition into “full” womanhood.

Not only do the insipid platitudes of the sisterhood cause bile to rise in my throat and a greasy-black, acrid cloud of loathing to creep across my soul, I am intellectually allergic to the notion that a woman isn’t a really a woman until she has, under considerable duress, squeezed a watermelon-sized object out of her vagina.

Never mind that I never asked to be a member of whatever mythical club this woman is trying to induct me into.  She just assumes I’ve been on some kind of waiting list.  As if we all aspire to be “full” women.  Whatever the hell that means.

In fact, it is beginning to appear as though not even the smallest of my peeves, principles, neuroticisms, hang-ups, and individual sovereign boundaries will go unmolested during this blessed, miraculous time in my feminine journey, including, many warn me, the boundary where I prefer not to be groped by strangers in public.


There are, I accept, many aspects of reproduction and motherhood that will require me to relinquish significant portions of my Royal Self.

There will also be requests and attempted demands for such relinquishment that I will reject.

Potentially aggressively.


I pity the stranger who reaches for my belly.  I pity the person who side-glances at me as I order my morning–or afternoon–coffee.


I can feel them looking at me already.  Plotting my subsumption.  Putting their eyes on me.

It starts this low, inaudible rumbling.


Maybe I’ll end up in jail.



My pregnancy is not exceptional.

But I am.

Exceptionally what, I won’t presume.



Get your fetal chimera specimens here.


I.

I loathe grocery stores.  The big ones, I mean.  Where going in for cigarettes or milk or a bag of coffee is a 30-minute ordeal.

I don’t loathe them for political reasons or ethical reasons or anything like that.  With full awareness of the first-worldliness of my problem, the basic truth is that I can’t stand to have my time so discourteously pissed away walking the quarter-mile in from the parking lot and standing in line for 15 minutes.

When my husband asks me to step foot in the chain grocery store, I writhe and whine and make excuses and come down with exotic diseases.

I complain that I’m not wearing any pants.

“Well, you could put on pants.”


Yet, when we had to go out to round up supplies for our part in last year’s Thanksgiving Day meals, I had a go-getter attitude.

“Let’s go get this over with,” I said, pulling on my Sorels over bare feet.

“I was thinking we could drop some stuff off at Brad’s after we go to Sam’s Club.”

My go-getter attitude vanished.  Sam’s Club is the end-boss of all huge chain grocery stores. I became panicked.

“WHAT DO WE NEED AT SAM’S CLUB?!?!?!”

“We can get a relish tray there, then stop at Cub for shampoo and stuff.”

(Cub is the local, non-bulk, chain grocery store.)

“I’m not going to Sam’s Club AND Cub in the same day.  It’s grotesque.”

I stood there, worry-browed, unwashed ponytail poking out the bottom of my too-big stocking cap.

The problem was–and he pointed this out to me quickly–Sam’s Club doesn’t carry our brand of shampoo and conditioner.  In fact, they don’t carry most brands.  They have monstrous (however reasonably-priced) 10-gallon squeezy bottles of exactly 3 different kinds of shampoo and conditioner, none of them the kind we usually prefer.

This makes for odd hypothetical scenarios.

It is entirely possible that, if you were well-acquainted enough with the 3 flavors of hair care Sam’s Club does offer, you could, with decent odds, identify a fellow Sam’s Club shopper by smell:

“Ah.  I see you’re from the Garnier Fructis Sleek-N-Shine tribe. I myself am of the Pantene Moisture Balance clan.”

Their limited deodorant selection could make for an array of sub-groups.

I decided I’d rather be a part-time member of the Pantene tribe of the Sam’s Club Nation than go to two grocery stores in the same day.  So we settled on Sam’s Club only.

Sam’s Club, for those of you who are unaware, is the bulk/wholesale arm of the Walmart dynasty.  There, with membership, you can buy way too much of anything at a cost (usually) much less per ounce than you would spend if you were to by significantly less of it elsewhere.

To be perfectly honest, for non-perishables, coffee, etc., it’s generally worth it.  But they don’t just sell non-perishables.  They sell clothes and furniture and tires and electronics.  All of which you can get “a really good deal” on.

People who shop at Sam’s club are always eager to tell you about the “really good deal” they got on something.  Unfortunately, it’s usually something kind of cheap and ugly and shitty.  Not always, but usually.  They’ll say it’s “pretty nice,” but it’s not.  It’s only nice for that price.  Though I am not–nor have I ever been–wealthy, I come from a sort of half-assed, pseudo-bourgeois lineage: None of the money and all of the pride.  Though I can’t afford to shop like a rich person, I hate to admit I shop like a poor person.

As the husband and I stalked the aisles, I developed a sort of tic.

“We should really just shop fresh every day.  Like Europeans.”  “Jesus.  Look at this place.” “Maybe when we get home we can make some kind of plan to shop fresh cheaply and at least 4 days a week.  What must that old Hmong lady think?  Jesus.” “I know I hate when people talk like that, ‘Europe this and that, blah blah blah,’ but this is incredible.  It’s too much.”

I said ‘Europe this and that blah blah blah,’ in a high-pitched, snotty voice.

I dropped a box of frozen, microwavable White Castle cheeseburgers into the cart.

“I know, but there’s something to be said for it, probably, even if just to be healthier.  We could stand to eat better,” he said.

He pointed out some novelty thing that we could get a “really good deal” on.

“Ugh.  No.  I don’t think we’re allowed to buy that.  We don’t have mullets.”


II.

My vacillating class allegiances play out on odd stages.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with the website “People of Walmart.”  I’m not linking there because I don’t want to deal with the fallout from a pingback.  If they find me, they find me, but I’m not going to invite them here.

When the site first came to my attention, I remember reacting violently.  I remember being bewildered by my own reaction.  I, of all people, should not be the sort to lecture others about being mean.  In high school, my best friend and I used to remark, after an extended, choking, gasping, laughing jag at someone else’s expense, that in all likelihood, karma would cause our own children to be born fat, ugly, and mentally disabled.

Nevertheless, I crawled right up on my soapbox and started flinging elaborate derisions and “Tsk tsk.  That’s mean.”

Generally, the defense of the website and the grim spectacle surrounding it goes something like this:

“Well, come on.  If you’re going to go out in public looking like that…I mean, they bring it on themselves.”

The gist of the argument is basically sound.  The thing serves–in addition to making us feel better about ourselves by reminding us that we are not so poor, fat, ugly or badly dressed as someone else–as a provocative bit of social commentary, both directly and indirectly.  Nothing (as far as we know) that is depicted there is fake.  The point is indeed humor, but the pictures, by and large, speak for themselves.  It just IS.  It’s a depiction of an American reality, both with regard to the people it showcases and what people’s reactions to the photos say about them.

I don’t know what my reaction says.  It probably says that I am a hypocrite.


While making fun of poor, fat, ugly, or badly-dressed people is nothing new to humanity, one thing about this website that I noticed immediately is that it features a disproportionate number of less-than-convincing cross-dressing men.  Any anomaly like that deserves attention.

And it dawned on me that the photos were all taken by someone(s).  Someone who was also at Walmart.  It is an elaborate record not necessarily of socially, economically, or aesthetically aberrant individuals, but what the people out there with the camera phones and computers uploading the pictures deem socially unacceptable enough to advertise, “This is unacceptable.”  It tells us who the other people of Walmart think they aren’t (or fear they are…or what?).

The people behind the cameras don’t know they’re revealing too much, just like Ms. Juicy Booty there in the too-short shorts and violently pink hair doesn’t realize that her cellulite isn’t attractive.  Same same.

I want one of these fat, ugly, or badly-dressed people to spin on the people taking the pictures and snap pictures of them.  Start their own website.  For the sake of science.  I wonder who’s there?  I wonder who I think would be there and what that says about me?

Who DO I think will be there?

You?  Hipster guy who insists he never shops at Walmart, wearing a guilty look on his face underneath his conspicuous facial hair?  Planned community mom scrimping on cosmetics costs to afford her Xanax and Ambien?  North Face eco-hippie fleece and corduroy connoisseur dude, stocking up on power bars?

How do I know it wouldn’t be just another fat, ugly, or badly-dressed person?


How do I know it wouldn’t be me, in my pajama pants, winter boots, dress coat, and toque with a reservoir tip, wandering the aisles with a scowl, bitching to a half-listening husband about contemptible bourgeois xenophiles and poor people mullets?


Who do I think I’m not?

Who exactly do you think you aren’t?


Can I smell your hair?



There is a saying.

It’s a saying I wasn’t aware of until a couple of days ago, but apparently it’s a saying nevertheless:

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who love Neil Diamond and those who don’t know they love Neil Diamond.

In fact, I discovered, the original quote comes from the movie What About Bob, in which the title character attributes the failure of his would-be marriage to his ex-fiancee’s love for Neil Diamond.  He resolves:  “There are two types of people in the world: Those who like Neil Diamond and those who don’t.”

I prefer the other one.

Beware of Dog

By Becky Palapala

Essay

In my intellectual travels, one thing above all others has vexed me.  One thing above all others is likely to send me into a tangential rant about subtleties of meaning and logical correctness.

“That’s cynical.”

or

“You’re a cynic.”

It recently came to my attention that there is an actual diagnosis in the DSM IV for a childhood behavioral disorder called “Oppositional Defiant Disorder” (ODD for short).

Symptoms include:

  • Frequent temper tantrums
  • Excessive arguing with adults
  • Often questioning rules
  • Active defiance and refusal to comply with adult requests and rules
  • Often being touchy or easily annoyed by others
  • Frequent anger and resentment

It should occur to anyone that in most cases of small people whose brains are not yet fully cooked and who have not had 20 years of experience in social artistry, these things will happen.

But DSM has that covered.

A child with ODD will do these things “more than normal.”

It is important that I point out two things:

First, I have no children.

I have no desire to tell people when their kids’ behavior is or isn’t normal, to try to make them feel or even suggest that they should feel guilty about seeking help for behavior they think may not be normal, or anything even remotely to that effect.

Second, there is a good chance that, were I born 15 years later, I would have been diagnosed with ODD.  There is a good chance that the more wise-assed amongst you will diagnose me with it now.

It’s a tired question:  Why does it seem like virtually every incidence of childhood misbehavior or difference or difficulty is suddenly treated as grounds for declaring children pathological?  Conspiracy theories abound:  It’s the conservatives and drug companies inventing diseases so they can sell drugs for them; it’s a liberal plot to subdue and pussify children for ease of federal control of civilians in the future; it’s an attempt to pathologize individuality, answer-seeking, and the questioning of authority in general; along with vaccinations, it’s a government plot to sterilize and/or lobotomize the population.  Maybe there are aliens involved.  Or the Illuminati or Free Masons or the Priory of Scion.  Someone get Dan Brown on the phone.

As a child I was…difficult.  I was not violent, and I was not harmful or antagonistic towards other kids–at least not more than was normal.  I have discussed, in another piece, my childhood propensity to tell rather spectacular (but generally harmless and seemingly purposeless) lies.  More than anything, I liked to tell adults and other authority figures where they could stick it.

This is my recollection, at least.  I don’t know exactly what the view was like for the adults in my life.  I was strong-willed enough to cause my mother to buy a self-help book on dealing with me.  I would argue relentlessly, feverishly, dramatically to get my way.  At one point, maybe around 8 or 9 years of age, I suggested one of my teachers was an asshole (or maybe it was that he did or should eat shit), and the powers-that-be at my experimental hippie elementary school threatened to put me in special ed or even kick me out, actions against which my mother, after insisting that nothing was wrong with me, was offered “take her to a child psychologist and prove it” as the only recourse.

It is important to point out that one of the guiding premises of this experimental school was that children were autonomous individuals, capable of thinking for themselves and, with a little guidance, managing their own schedules and making the “right” decisions.  But even as they shouldered us with this adult-like responsibility and somewhat non-specific expectation, we were still treated as children–that is, with the attitude that, as children should, we would accept adults’ assertions about what decisions were “right,” do as we were told, and maintain an attitude of capitulation and submission toward authority figures.  Talk about confusing.

So, reluctantly, not believing for an instant that anyone other than the school was messed up, my poor, beleaguered mother hauled me off to a child psychologist for evaluation.  I didn’t get it.  I asked my mom:  Was I stupid? “No,” she said.

“Are you sure? I took a long time to learn money, and I can’t write 2s or 5s.”

She was sure.

Was I messed up?  Why did I have go see a doctor for crazy people?  I was not messed up, she said.

“We’re going just to prove it to everyone for good measure.”

“Why do we have to prove it?”

“Because you’re smarter than they are, and they don’t know what to do about it.”

I went weekly over the period of a handful of months.  I had to role play with dolls, answer endless simple questions, look at pictures and describe what was happening.  I think she advised my mom to do some kind of rewards system thing, maybe with gold-star stickers that went on a bit of tagboard on the fridge when I managed to refrain from arguing.  I knew it was contrived–intended to manipulate or trick me in some way.  I could not be enticed to care about the gold stars.

“What kinds of things make you angry?”

“When I’m watching TV and my dad comes in and just changes the channel to watch football without asking.”

I remember that question and answer distinctly.  It was a slightly warmer-than-normal winter day and the blinds in her office were pulled against the sun.  I was facing the window and she was facing me.  I remember, vaguely, having misgivings about whether my shrink might like football as much as my dad did and wouldn’t be sympathetic.

I remember, for our last meeting, we didn’t sit in the boring office.  She took me in her sports car to get ice cream.  I think the place was in downtown Minneapolis’ famous skyway system.  Maybe not.  At any rate, I didn’t have the heart to tell her I didn’t really care for ice cream, and she gave me a hug when she brought me back to my mom.  The shrink was a nice enough lady.

The finding, incidentally, was that there was nothing wrong with me, aside from a bad case of not knowing my place.  Or knowing what it was supposed to be and simply rejecting it.  I had no personality disorder and I wasn’t retarded or in possession of a learning disability.  There was a personality clash with my own father–something about a power struggle.  I was a bit spoiled.

In my mother’s defense, she believed I was wrenched from the hands of death himself to be in the world (I was, in a manner of speaking), so she coddled me.  I. Me.  The miracle baby.  I got away with things that children with less dramatic births may not have.  I was special.

I was a difficult individual, but not a pathological one.

My impression of the situation, both at the time and in hindsight, was that I knew and understood more than I was given credit for.  I could not stand being talked to, reasoned with, or treated like I was a child, even though I was.  I would say to people, “don’t talk to me like I’m a kid!” which they often found adorable and worthy of a chuckle.  Laughing at me was about the worst thing any adult could do; it made me all the more furious.

Even now, the slightest whiff of condescension is to me as the word “chicken” to Marty McFly.

In the end, I was not put in special ed or kicked out of school.  I was given a more structured schedule than some of my peers, and that helped.

Thus began my long-standing academic habit of being difficult enough to be a monstrous pain in my teachers’ asses, but never out of control enough to suffer any very serious consequences.

I vacillated between As and Ds in jr. high and high school.  I’d escape summer school, barely, every year, and spend my semesters maxing out my tardies & unexcused absences, bribing the man at the parking lot gate with Egg McMuffins & coffee.  I was a master test-taker and walked out of high school with a sparkling ACT score and a C average–an average average–though everything else about my record indicated I was a born delinquent and hopeless loser.

My life certainly would have been easier had I left high school with an A average.  Had I not spent so much time forcing my way and fucking around for rebellion’s sake.  I made a lot of headaches for myself, in addition to the headaches I made for other people, often just to prove a point.  To assert my self-ness.   My am-ness.

My 2s and Zs remain identical, as do my 5s and Ss.

My first Facebook status update after I graduated college with my B.A. was something to the effect of “Haha, suckers!  I win!  I WIN!!!”

(My outstanding student loan balance begs to differ, but that is a separate issue.)

I wonder what would have happened if I had been put in special ed?

Part of me fears that I had been born 5-10 years later and my mother were a slightly more pliant woman, I would have been medicated into oblivion.

Would I even be here, talking to you?  Would I have been beaten down, told I was a walking malfunction, tranquilized into capitulation for long enough that I would never have found the confidence to go to college, let alone do as well as I did?  Would I have been made afraid to challenge, to question, to search for unique answers to run-of-the-mill questions? To reject answers that I found insufficient?

We don’t need no education…

Or would my early life and education (both scholarly and social) simply have been easier for everyone involved, including me?  Maybe I wouldn’t be here because I’d be a shrink, a lawyer, a doctor instead?  Maybe I’d be too busy rolling around in money and influential connections to care about any of this stuff?

The answer is: I don’t know.  I can’t know.

But the question is important because there is a good chance that either by virtue of genetics or simply knowing me, any future children of mine will not be entirely easy to deal with, either.

They may inherit my husband’s much more agreeable personality, but should they not, should the moment come when I’m sitting in a principle’s office somewhere, my child staring at her shoes, kicking her heels on the chair, answering some administrator’s questions–or mine–monosyllabically out of either shame or fury, I wonder if I’ll be strong enough, prescient enough, lucid enough, to recognize the reality of my–and more importantly, my child’s–situation.  To discern whether it’s my child or the adult system around her that, in fact, has the problem.  To act accordingly.

The challenge, no matter how speculative, frightens me.

I have to hope and trust, though, that my mother’s example wasn’t for naught.  That because my mother knew her child, because she didn’t let them wrest it out of me, when the powers that be are wrong, I’ll still have the ability and willingness to look them in the face, narrow my eyes, cross my arms, and with total disregard for their authority, say, “No.”

I will try not to stick out my tongue.


As you may know—but may not, because of my Scorpio predilection for Dick Cheney-level secrecy—I am a semi-professional astrologer.*For many months, I have been quietly collecting birth data from TNB contributors** whenever the topic came up on the comment boards, a sort of horoscopical scavenger hunt that netted quite a few charts for my burgeoning collection.

I’ve been paying more attention to literary news in recent weeks.

When it comes to what qualifies as “literary news,” it is important to know that results may differ.  For the most part and like most news, a lot of literary news is actually politics.

Prior to the last few weeks, my exposure to literary news has been limited to whatever filtered through to my facebook feed and to discussions here on TNB.

I am a writer, to be sure, but I’m not a writer.  I’m not hooked up, tuned in, or latched on to the scene.  I barely know who writes for this site or other sites and which books they wrote.  I don’t read much contemporary fiction.  I don’t know what’s going on half the time.  Most of the time, I don’t care.

Of the controversy, news, drama, and shit-talking that has passed before me in recent weeks, one thing and one thing only has fascinated me:

James Franco.

The guy from the Spiderman movies.  The Green Goblin, Jr.–or Hobgoblin, technically, he should be, as my husband reminds me regularly.

The man playing Allen Ginsberg in a brand new fictionalized documentary about the obscenity trial over Ginsberg’s poem, “Howl.”

The movie is called…Howl.

For those who are unaware, Franco is a young actor & Hollywood heartthrob with a sincere desire to be taken seriously.  As a writer.

He was accepted to the MFA program at Columbia amid much huffing and snorting from the respectable literary community.  He is currently a PhD candidate at Yale.  The man is said to be blessed with superhuman ambition & stamina.  He’s going to school so many places, it’s tough to keep track.

No matter where he’s going, however, everyone is convinced: Surely, he only got there because he’s James Franco.

But even James Franco knows he probably got there because he’s James Franco.

I discovered that he is well aware of who he is when I stumbled across this (expansive) article in a recent issue of the Advocate.

How many people will apply to 15 MFA programs and get accepted to 14?  Virtually none.  Even the most talented, most hyped, edgiest, flashiest among us will not go 14 for 15.  Contrary to what James would probably like to think, his high rate of acceptance is probably more proof that his name rather than his talent landed him where he is.

So there he is.

He’s James Franco, and he loves literature and writing, and he’s pretty famous, and he wants to be a writer, so he applied to MFA programs and got accepted (a bunch) and went to school.

And people loathe him for it.

That fucking James Franco.

I’m not sure what he did wrong.  I can’t imagine people honestly expected him to self-police the situation.  “I don’t deserve this.  Never mind.”  No aspiring writer would do that.

“He can’t be that bad,” I thought to myself.  “He seems like a reasonably intelligent person.  The lit-set is constantly sucking lemons about something.  This is just more kvetching.”

And it’s true.  In recent weeks, the people taking the most heat in the little corner of the literary community I’ve been exposed to all have one thing and one thing only in common:  They are all more famous than the people who are complaining about them.

Of course, this should be expected to a degree.  There will always be more to talk about with regard to well-known individuals, but this doesn’t explain the undercurrent of contempt.

There’s a Mayan tinge to the whole thing:  Resources are scarce, and the more of us there are–the harsher the climate turns, the more competition there is for basic things–the more aggressive and hostile our cultural rituals become.

So, in an effort to bolster my sense that envy was the culprit, I set out looking for Franco’s work.  He has published a short story in Esquire and at least one essay (that I could find) in a UCLA publication.

They are both…not great.

Particularly the nonfiction.  It’s rambling and conversational.  It is drowning in a wash of its own flotsam.  Something about watching gay sex while researching a role and how he’s James Franco and he may or may not be fucking with you, but he’s not; yeah he is.  No he’s not.  Oh, and here is a character sketch of himself.

It looks like a first draft.  It looks like copy & paste broke.  It looks like the delete button broke.  I have no idea what the uniting theme in the essay could possibly be.

The fiction is better, but it’s a worn path:  A couple of drug addicts in a car, riding around, doing drugs, being crazy, smoking cigarettes, thinking and talking about suicide so on and so forth.  It’s self-explicating and the dialogue is flat.  There are bright spots.  Whole paragraphs that are quite good.  But at the end of the day, it’s a piece of Beat mimicry.  All the elements of Beatdom (TM) and none of the soul.

I’m not a proponent of runaway relativity in literature.  There is such a thing as unfinished, unpolished or even just straight-up bad writing, and what I’ve seen qualifies as at least one of the above.

Still.

The more I thought about it–the more I plodded through these pieces–the more I felt sorry for the guy.  Most of us, in our relative (or total) obscurity, would not be able to get something that unfinished to print.

But because he’s James Franco, every single one of these initial forays into serious writing–every ill-conceived plot point or questionable metaphor or clunky, burdened sentence…every overwrought piece of poetry and all the other creative abominations that plague green writers–will have a buyer.  A publisher.

He will always have someone willing to trot out, in front of God and everybody, the most inept creative moments and unsightly growing pains of his nascent literary career.

There will be the flatterers and, of course, the peanut gallery.  The literati politicos. The bitter, toiling masses who do a pretty good job of making themselves look more like they’re choking on a maw of sour grapes than offering honest critique:  Those who take to their social networking accounts to snark and, in doing so, inadvertently lay bare their own frustrated neuroticisms about being writers in a world where writing is no longer considered particularly valuable.

Then again, this may be all that any of us have.  Writers are, traditionally (though certainly not universally), supportive, communal creatures at their cores and when left to their own devices, but when faced with a competitive business-and-marketing environment, sometimes no one stands in a writer’s way more effectively than other writers, united in their conviction that someone–anyone–deserves the attention more.  Either that, or the flattery of “support” becomes synonymous with networking.  The whole thing develops a slimy solipsistic sheen as people move around “supporting” each other to support themselves, and when all is said and done, even a vote of confidence or encouragement can no longer be trusted.

So who will convince James Franco to get better?  To grow as a writer?  Is there any hope for the guy at all?

The obvious answer is, “Who gives a fuck?  I’m sure he’ll be crying all the way to the bank.”

But I have a whole tote bag full of embarrassments of my own.  I’d suspect most of us do.  If not a tote bag, something like it.  Mercifully, at some point, most of us have had those pieces rejected by someone–some editor or publisher–who knew better than to expose it to the public or vice versa.

And we look back at those pieces later and scrunch our noses and are embarrassed for ourselves in front of ourselves and vow to never look at them again.  We self-flagellate and self-deprecate.  We titter nervously and kick the tote bag back under the bed.

But not James Franco.  He can’t.

That fucking James Franco. That poor James Franco.

In his interview with the Advocate, he said something that struck me–unexpectedly–as fairly poignant.

He said something to the effect of, “Short of using an alias, I’m taking my writing as seriously as I can.”

As he can.

He doesn’t even know if he can take himself seriously.  He’s doing the right things, as far as he knows.  He’s idolizing his canonical literary heroes.  He’s in an MFA & PhD program.  He’s doing his day job and writing and getting stuff published here and there.  Now he has a book deal.  He has a book deal that he doesn’t sound totally sure he deserves but that he is nevertheless excited about, as any of us would be.

By most writerly standards, he’s any young writer.  He’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing.

He even wrote a middling Beat knock-off story, which I’m pretty sure is an official rite of passage for any serious writer nowadays.

He’s trying.

But try as he may, he’s still James fucking Franco, both to his readers and in his own head.  And, maybe most importantly, to the community and industry made up of people just like him, for people like him (at least at some level), and upon whom he will be, ultimately, dependent for the kind of validation he seems to want. There is a good chance that those politics, whether eager to promote or stifle him, will never allow him a fair showing or even a solid foothold from which to begin.

Maybe he should use an alias.

Count me among those who hope he pulls it off, in the long run.  He’s not capitalizing on his fame in an opportunistic way, as far as I can tell.  At the end of the day, he didn’t have to go through MFA and PhD programs to get published, but he’s doing it anyway.  He seems serious in the dire, awe-struck way most of us are or have been serious about our writing, and even for all his breaks, at the end of the day, the guy doesn’t seem quite able to catch a break.

So I raise my fist in solidarity with the me who hates my tote bag, with every writer who is making awful literature in an attempt to write something worth reading, and indeed, with James fucking Franco.  With all of us, really, as we negotiate the balance between good literature and marketability in a climate that encourages us to form tribes, make and break alliances, and, even under mundane circumstances, eat each other alive.


____________

Update:  Since the time of writing, Franco has picked up the movie rights to TNB contributor & past featured author Stephen Elliott’s novel The Adderall Diaries, so we may at least say that Franco’s taste is well worthy of approval.  Also since time of writing, this review of Franco’s short story collection (it is curiously dated two days from now, which I assume corresponds to the release date of the book) appeared in the L.A. Times online.



There are any number of reasons to refuse friendship to someone.

They range from the practical to the personal and will certainly vary by individual.  Here are some examples:

Lying, cheating, stealing, murdering, cursing, getting too drunk, not getting drunk enough, being obnoxious, being dull, being too smart, being too stupid, being heartless, being homeless, farting in public, flirting in public, grabbing your ass, grabbing other people’s asses, being a junkie, being a jerk, getting you in trouble, getting other people in trouble, being unpopular with your girlfriend/boyfriend/mother/father/friends, running with shady characters, running with the Rainbow Family of Living Light, being too dangerous, playing too safe, breaking your shit, taking your shit, giving you shit, talking shit, involvement in domestic spying for a barbaric totalitarian communist regime…

The list goes on.

For me, personally, most of these are not reasons, categorically, to not be friends with someone. Some are.  I do my best to be flexible, but I try to steer clear of any murderers or potential murderers who aren’t state-sanctioned, for example.

I’ll be friends with an army sniper, but I probably wouldn’t want to be friends with Jeffrey Dahmer.

Maybe that’s hypocrisy.

Or maybe it’s just a strict anti-cannibalism or anti-dead-person policy.

The following story struck me for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that literature, as a scene, does not usually involve high international drama and espionage of this obvious a nature:

Nobel Prize winner Herta Mueller recently went public with the revelation that the real-life inspiration for Atemschaukel, her latest anti-totalitarian novel about a homosexual man who is held captive in a Soviet gulag, turned out to be, in fact, an informant for the totalitarians.

No one was so shocked as Mueller.  Apparently she had no idea.  He was a man with whom she had become dear friends as they worked closely during her time writing the fictionalized account of his story.

From what I can tell, this man–his name was Oskar Pastior (he died in 2006)–had been granted some kind of amnesty when he defected–or was seized–to the west.

From what little I’ve read, it’s not clear whether or not he was in fact a communist sympathizer or whether he had no choice but to do what he did, but he is listed as a Securitate informant in dossiers and other corroborating documents.

“Over the years [Mueller] has clashed with Romania’s post-communist intellectuals with her remorseless campaign against former Securitate informers, demanding that writers and theatre people who were on the police payroll be unmasked and punished.”

DAMN.

This means that Oskar, at some point, was watching his friend–in whom he had confided the details of, potentially, the most difficult time in his life and who was writing a book about him and his heroic ordeal–call for his public revelation, humiliation, and eventual punishment (of what type, I don’t know).

Or, not his, really, since she didn’t know he was one of them.  She was calling for these things, but she thought she was doing it, in part, in his defense and for restoration of justice to people like him (including herself).

But he certainly must have known that had he told her the truth, she would have probably ended their friendship, certainly would not have finished the book (or at least not as planned), and may, potentially, have publicly outed him and destroyed whatever life he’d made for himself since leaving the world of political intrigue and espionage.

Or wouldn’t she have?  After all, what kind of friend would do that?  What kind of monstrous person would offer up her own friend for filleting at the hands of the post-communist public?  How blind must you be to basic interpersonal loyalties and friendship to serve up some one you care about, ostensibly, in the service of state and other relative strangers?

I mention Herta first only because the next consideration is much more obvious:  Were Oskar alive, we could–and should–ask him a series of nearly identical questions surrounding his time as an informant.

And I was thinking about it, and I couldn’t, for the life of me, sort out who was guilty of wrong-doing in that friendship scenario or if both were or if anyone was guilty at all.

What a clusterfuck.

Poor Herta for not being able to confront Oskar.  Poor Oskar, who will never have the chance to explain himself to Herta.

And it suggests a mundane question in fairly dramatic fashion:  To what extent do or should one’s political inclinations or political behaviors, past or present, affect whether or not we choose to be friends with them, interact with them, date them, or consider their experiences and their general presence valuable?  At what point do beliefs and behaviors nullify relationships?

We ask these types of questions with regard to people’s overall past and habits in a very general way, but I don’t hear people talk about them much in a political way.

This question is constantly at the fore of my mind.  I live, basically, in a liberal world.  Because of where I work, because I like to write, because I have what are likely academic ambitions, I am mostly surrounded by leftward-leaning people.

I don’t consider myself a victim by any means.  I interact with the people I interact with by choice and, I think, to my benefit.  This isn’t a complaint lodged against liberalism in the arts, and I don’t consider myself persecuted.

Nevertheless, it is something that I am aware of.  Just all of the time.  Whether or not and when it is advisable to reveal my political leanings, what the consequences might be, etc.

About 16 months ago, a meta-analysis published in the Psychological Bulletin noted that people actively seek out information that agrees with them.  That is to say, they don’t necessarily fail to be exposed to different points of view just because they’re surrounded by like-minded people or because the information available is necessarily skewed.  People are not passive in maintaining and honing their views; they actively go looking for information and perspectives that allow them to go on “living the lives they’re living.”

And it appears to be true for liberals and conservatives alike.

The consensus seems to be that on items of political import, morality, and values, 70% of the time, most people will choose to hear views that agree with them.

Those most likely to seek out opposing views tend to be a) the most confident in their own views and/or b) in need of awareness of opposing views in order to defend against objections to public declarations of their own views (politicians, media personalities, etc.).

In turn, the people least likely to seek opposing viewpoints tend to also be the least confident in their own views.

None of this is altogether shocking.

But more to the point of Herta and Oskar, I have noticed–though few people are willing to state it explicitly–that there is at least some indication that a political lean may be, for many, among the friendship deal-breakers listed above.  That is, people actively search for and/or exclude others from their social circles based on whether or not those people agree with them, just like they seek out agreeable news stories and other types of information resources.  Strictly from my perspective, such sentiments appear to be on the rise.  Or they appear to be more firmly and less self-critically held.

If my impressions are correct–if they are true at all–I’m sure they’re true straight across the political spectrum.  Basic political behaviors, if not the politics themselves, tend to be fairly uniform across humanity, whether people care to admit it or not.

The conundrum is complex:  At what point do a person’s politics and ideology reveal in them some other, fundamental, deal-breaking character flaw?  On the other hand, at what point does a person’s exclusion of others from their sphere of awareness based on politics and ideology reveal in them a fundamental, deal-breaking character flaw?

Where is the line, exactly, between the personal and political, and what are the implications?

For example:  How has the value of a fictional account of Oskar’s story changed, given Herta’s revelation?  How has the value of his real-life story changed because of it?  And most importantly, is their friendship–Oskar’s death notwithstanding–invalidated?

On the topic, Herta hasn’t said much except that she felt slapped in the face and that she is now in a period of mourning.  This suggests to me that she has left or lost something some way or another, but only Herta can say what.

Last but not least, had Oskar been forthcoming with the information from the outset, would there even have been a book?  A friendship?

If an ideology is willful and can be synonymous with a character flaw, then does that mean an ideology IS a willful character flaw, and if so, what then? What might we do with such people?


My feeling is that otherizing–the act of identifying and alleging a dichotomy between “us” and “them” –is at the very heart of how Herta and Oskar ever even found themselves in the predicament they did.  It may, by some leaps (great or small, take your pick), be at the heart of the very existence of the USSR.  Between Herta’s otherizing and Oskar’s participation in Securitate otherizing, the stage was set for a karmic kill-strike of dazzling irony.

Maybe, in a way, they deserved the fate that befell their friendship.  Both of them.  Or maybe neither of them did.  Maybe they were both victims of something well beyond their control.

At any rate, it appears that the two of them, both separately and in their joint war against ‘the other,’ were eachother’s ‘other’ and eachother all along.


This essay used to end here.

I didn’t like it ending here because I didn’t think I’d made my point, but I wasn’t sure what else to say.

Then John Cusack posted a tweet leading to this article. He called it “strong, clear thinking.”

“We have to build that independent left. It has to be so strong and so radical and so militant and so powerful that it becomes irresistible.”

Militant, radical, powerful, irresistible.  “Left” is not the word that worries me here.

And just last week, at the dentist’s office, I picked up a recent issue of Time magazine with a cover story about the Tea Party’s rattling of the conservative establishment (and the political establishment, period).

There’s nothing too fascinating or groundbreaking in the article save one thing, and it is unfortunately treated as minor–a passing thought–by the article’s author:  The suggestion that the solution to extreme, reactionary conservative politics may be for liberals to create their own extreme, reactionary politics with the expressed intent of doing battle with the conservatives of a similarly pissed-off, bloodthirsty, and unthinking sort.

I find this progression troubling.  I find it troubling that some people believe and are increasingly fervent that the answer to extremism and reactionism is more of the same.  Escalation, basically.  A call to balkanization.  I find it wrong-headed and obviously so under almost any circumstances. I think most people–certainly most liberals and conservatives, asked independently of a discourse on politics–would find it wrong-headed as well.

But here we are.


I suspect that there will be no call for radical moderation. I just hope we can all still be friends.


Sometimes it’s in dreams and sometimes in the moments just before I sleep.

Maybe they are daydreams or wishes or premonitions or visions of an alternate universe.  Or memories of less interesting people into which you’ve been placed.

When the first song ended, I began to clap and suffered sharp rebuke at the hands of a middle-aged woman one row behind and two seats to my left.

“Shh!”

Clapping is what you do when a song ends.  I wasn’t the only one who screwed up.  How was I supposed to know?  Orchestra Hall–or its audience, rather–sat in silence for the next 45 minutes.

I felt like I was meeting an old boyfriend for coffee. I was nervous.  I was already under-dressed in shorts, a tank top, and flip flops.  Why couldn’t I have at least worn heels?  I should have worn the floral print dress.  It’s Orchestra Hall, for godssakes.

“Yeah, it’s Orchestra Hall,” my husband had reasoned soundly one hour prior as I tugged at the hem of my shorts in the mirror, “but you’re not going to see the orchestra.”

True enough.

There have been a lot of posts about love in recent months–finding it, losing it, what’s the right kind, what’s the proper duration, is it really even worth it?  Eccetera.

It reminded me that I went through a phase, some years ago, in which I was obsessed with the philosophy of Platonic Love.  It’s my favorite kind of love.  It’s the most interesting–and, I think, most delicate and complicated–kind.

I started to jumble my words on the freeways heading into Chicago. Not truly badly, or to the point where I was nonsensical or in any way reminiscent of Steve Miller Band lyrics, but just enough that alarm bells started to ring.

So, while we were at McDonald’s, getting coffee, on the outskirts of town, Zara gently quizzed me.

‘Hey, what state is Hobart in?’

My mind was a foggy, cotton-wool blank.

‘Um… I know it’s not Western Australia, so maybe it’s… uh… fuck. I have no idea. Where is it?’

‘Tasmania,’ Zara said.

‘Oh! Yeah! Tasmania. That’s right. It’s the capital city of Tasmania. Well, I knew it wasn’t Western Australia.’

Even though there were only ten minutes to go to Gina Frangello’s house, it was unanimously decided at this point that Zara should take over the driving.

I consider myself an exceptionally honest person.  Occasionally, honest to a fault.

Honest about what I think, feel, believe, etc.  At least at any given moment.

I shy away from using the term “truth” as a player in any description of character, since that invites a whole host of objections that I’m not energetic enough to expose myself to today.

It is possible to be honest and still be mistaken, for example.   It is only one example, though.  The line between honesty and falsehood isn’t always totally clear.

I am honest at least insofar as I will answer any sincere, serious, unloaded, and un-ridiculous question with a sincere, serious, unloaded, and un-ridiculous answer–to the best of my ability.

But I am honest now because I was not always that way.  Or I was.  Or I wasn’t.

Technically, as a child, I was a pathological liar.

Well, check that.

I don’t know if I was pathological, really, because I never lied out of compulsion alone.  My lies always had some purpose, but it didn’t take much for something to count as a purpose, and in many cases, the purpose of the lie didn’t become apparent until many years later.

There are a small few of these lies whose stories stick with me because of their consequences, their geneses, or, in one case, because the lie actually turned out to be a premonition.  Here are three of them:


1.  The Beach Towel Fabrication:  In which Grandpa reaches across double-wide generation gap to remind me who I’m fucking with.

When I was a young, school-aged child, both of my parents worked–my mother in politics and my father as a land surveyor.  Unlike school, work doesn’t let out for the summer, so for many years, I went to summer day camp at the YMCA.  Even day camp, though, let out before my parents’ jobs did, so my grandfather would often pick me up, and I would hang out with him and Grandma at their house until my mom got off of work and could come retrieve me.  My grandpa was a North Dakota farm boy who was in his late teens, just getting ready to enter the world, when the stock market crashed in 1929.  He had been led home by a horse in a white-out blizzard once, which was my favorite story of his, and he lived a young life that most of us would consider third-world from our contemporary, relatively affluent perspectives.  His own grandparents (or was it his parents?) were Swedish immigrants.  He walked with a cane even when I was still very young.  In true Scandinavian fashion, he was reserved, slow to (exhibit) anger, and, really, the epitome of the patient grandfather stereotype.  He had glasses with thick black rims, a dry, clever sense of humor, and liked kids with “spunk.”  His eldest daughter, my mother, was one of them.

One day at day camp, I lost my towel.  There was a pool at the YMCA, and it had been swimming day (as opposed to nature day or field trip day or arts and crafts day).  When Grandpa picked me up, he rifled through my bag, as was customary, to make sure I hadn’t lost or forgotten anything and discovered no towel.

“Where is your towel?”

For reasons not entirely clear to me but that may have been related to my current fear of ever making or admitting mistakes, especially to people who I want to think that I’m awesome, I lied.  I didn’t say I lost it.

“I’m not telling you.”

“Did you lose it?  Should we go in and look for it?”

This is where I should have said, “Yes.  Let’s.”

Instead I said, “I didn’t lose it.  But I’m not telling you where it is.”

Now I was in for the haul.  Committed to the lie.  No turning back.

“Don’t you sass me.”

“I don’t have to tell you.”

I may have laughed the snotty laugh.  I may have stuck out my tongue.

This went on longer than most men of his generation would have allowed.  Finally, out of space, out of thin air, a bolt of paper-skinned lightning struck me on the cheek, immediately setting the whole left side of my head on fire.

When I finally realized that I had been slapped in the face for–perhaps amazingly–the first time in my young, snotty life, he was already behind me, holding the truck door open.  In a stern but controlled voice, he ordered me to get in.  I could explain the towel to my mother, he said.  He had “had it.”  I sulked the whole way back to his house.

At this point, you’d think I’d have learned something about who was the boss of my situation, but no.  When we got home, I refused to get out of the truck.

He offered me the “easy way ” or “hard way” option.  Ever the warrior, I told him he couldn’t carry me anywhere because he was “just an old man with a cane.”

He came around to my door, leaned his cane against the truck, pried me out, and threw me, flailing and screaming, over his shoulder.  He picked up his cane in the other hand, parallel to the ground, and hauled me into the house without ever letting the cane touch down.


2.  The Incredible Tale of Crusher, the Wolf-Dog:  In which my susceptibility to fantasy is revealed in a lie I almost started to believe was true.

I was always obsessive, even as a child.  I would watch the same movies, over and over, until my parents had to disallow them as options on video rental night because they simply could not stand to watch them again.  Among these movies were The Neverending Story, Emerald Forest, Better Off Dead, and The Journey of Natty Gann. (My John Cusack obsession started early, too.)

For those who are unfamiliar, Natty Gann is about a Great Depression-era girl with a dead mother who goes in search of her father after he leaves her in the care of an unsavory guardian so he can do logging work some 2,000 miles away in the Pacific Northwest (or was it Alaska?).  Anyway.  She wants her dad.  She takes off across the North American wilds trying to get to where he is, having many adventures and, at some point, befriending a wolf (known only as “Wolf”), who becomes her constant companion and guardian throughout her travels.

After seeing this movie for the tenth or fifteenth time, I began telling kids at school that I had a half-wolf, half-dog named Crusher (Bad.  Ass.  Name.), who was my best friend.  Crusher was pretty incredible.  He lived in the woods by my house, could sense when I was in trouble, came when called from up to 5 miles away, attacked bad guys, AND did all the normal tricks dogs do, like sit, roll over, shake, speak, and play fetch.

In reality, I had a grumpy Pekingese with an underbite who all my friends were afraid of because he was dreadfully ugly. And he bit.  His name was “Oscar,” after the Sesame Street grouch.

I told the other kids I met Crusher when he saved me from drowning in the river.

Crusher was an imaginary friend of sorts, but I don’t think I ever told my parents about him, and I knew he wasn’t actually real, most of the time.

I have one particularly vivid memory of telling this lie on the school bus as it made its way towards my day care, going down 3rd St. on the north hill of my hometown.

If what I was saying were true, I was dared, I should call him and he should show up.

I said fine, I would, but he might be busy doing some other bidding of mine.  I remember looking down towards the river and seeing, in my mind’s eye, a gray streak barreling up the hill to come get me.  I stopped telling that lie, I think, when he never showed up and when I realized that, sooner or later, friends who came to my house would begin to ask why they never saw Crusher.  I told them I sent him back into the wild to be with the wolves.  This, unsurprisingly, is exactly what Natty Gann did with Wolf.


3.  The Completely True Fairy Tale of Neverland Summer Camp:  In which I describe in great detail a place I didn’t yet know existed and events that had yet to take place.

Thriller-era Michael Jackson was cool.  Way cool.  I was a huge fan and even had a red leather belt (a la his jacket in the Thriller video) with MJ’s Billy Jean facade as the belt buckle.  Michael Jackson bought Neverland Ranch in 1988, when I was ten.  When I was nine, a new kid came to day care.  He was from a wealthy family with Hollywood connections, and he told incredible stories about meeting famous people.  They were like my stories, in a way, but his were true.  We knew they were true because he brought pictures to show-and-tell.  One of the people he’d met was Michael Jackson.  He was wildly popular almost immediately.  No tale of an invisible wolf-dog could trump an actual Polaroid of Cool Kid standing next to a squatting, beaming, still-black Michael Jackson.

So I did the only thing I could think to do:  I fabricated a story so awesome that nothing anyone else could say could possibly be cooler.  It was easily the most elaborate and vivid lie I have ever told in my life.  It was about how–not only had I met Michael Jackson–I hung out with Michael Jackson on an annual basis, in the summer, every summer.  It was basically summer camp; a bunch of other kids and I would go to Michael Jackson’s house, where he had rides and video games and threw parades every day.  Michael Jackson loved kids, which is why he let us come to his awesome house.  We played with Bubbles, had slumber parties every night, and he slept in the same room with us (in bunk beds, though, because even my premonitions, I guess, were naive).  We’d stay up late telling ghost stories and get up early to go swimming and ride elephants.

He’d give me rides on his shoulders because he liked me best, and no, sorry.  No other kids could come with me because it was invitation-only.  But if they were really nice to me, I might be willing to give Michael a call and ask.

When the more elaborate details of Michael’s time at Neverland Ranch began to surface in the late 90s and after, I enthusiastically and with terrible desperation told people how, when I was 9, I had described this very scenario in shocking detail to a group of playground kids in semi-rural suburban Minnesota.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, no one believed me.




Bernadette Mayer.

I know virtually nothing about her and neither does Wikipedia.  I’ve read only a small bit of her work.  I know she’s a poet and that people tend to locate her within the New York School and, more recently, among the Language Poets.  I get the sense that she’s a fringe figure.  She is not H.D. or Elizabeth Bishop or Gertrude Stein.

Details of her life are difficult to come by, most likely because it isn’t over yet.  She lives somewhere in New York, I think.

I love this picture of her as a young woman; I don’t know why.  She looks slightly unhinged.



More importantly (at least for my purposes), Mayer also composed a widely available and seriously creative list of journal ideas and writing experiments, which you can see here.  The list is an open secret, and despite an embarrassment of books, websites, and writers in general itching to advise others on the best way to get a cursor moving, this list is the best collection of writing prompts I have ever seen.

“Everyday Machinery” comes from one of Mayer’s prompts.  I keep saying it to myself in my head.  And looking around.  And saying it in my head again.  I can’t get over it.  It’s a mantra.

In my return to writing after a long hiatus, I discovered that, of all the things that had atrophied, my willingness to let myself experiment was the only thing that didn’t come bounding back.  If my ear, my voice, my vocabulary, and my technical skills startled awake and lept to their feet ready for a fight (drunken master, maybe, but ready to fight nonetheless), my sense of creative possibility was hung over–pulling the shades against the birds, hurling invectives and nightstand junk at me as I shouted from the doorway to GET. THE. FUCK. UP.

So I did the only thing I could think to do.  I dug out Bernadette’s list.

I have trouble sorting out what’s so appealing about it.  I have had more than a few writing how-to books–though many had the obnoxious habit of considering themselves writing companions.  (I‘m not your buddy, Guy!)

All of these books had sections devoted to writing prompts.

When it came to those books, I was the writerly equivalent of a kid in summer, turning to my mother for ideas about what to do.

We all know, or should know, to never, EVER ask Mom what to do.  Because Mom will not say, “Why don’t you go bounce a baseball off the aluminum siding?  Why don’t you go jump out of the tree so you can break your leg, go to the hospital, and get presents?  Why don’t you steal some matches when I’m not looking and go light things on fire in the woods?”

Mom will never say anything cool.  Mom will always say you could go clean your room or brush the dog.

Which, theoretically, you could or even should do, and it would be something, but Mom never seems to understand that those things are boring, too.

It’s not just about doing something, it’s about doing something fun.


So it is with a solid majority of writers’ handbooks and companions.  They’re boring, matronly cohorts who just want to sit around and do repulsively dull things all day:

“I know you need to get out of the house, how about we go out to eat?!?! Bakers Square!!”

“I could use some help sorting my pantry!”

“Write a description of the room you’re in!”


I can’t tell you, specifically, what some of the most revolting prompts in the books were because, in a fit, I got rid of most the books.  I found them practically useless, uninspiring, not very challenging, and generally depressing.  I donated one to my English department’s undergraduate literary journal for use in helping them conduct poetry workshops…which, in hindsight, was probably an act of hostility, if not sabotage.



Sometimes the problem was the overbearing detail with which prompts were presented:

“In this chapter, we will work on _______.  Here are some prompts focusing on _______.  Write with ______ in mind.”


In other cases, the prompt was simply nothing a person wouldn’t think to do on his/her own and obvious enough to be of no help to anyone.  The ubiquitous “dream journal” prompt is a good example.


Perhaps it’s best not to focus on the faults of the writing companion industry.  Maybe it’s better to try to suss out what is compelling about Mayer’s list.

Though Mayer’s list does include the suggestion of a dream journal in more than one place, what it does not have is an entire chapter–complete with instructions on where in your bedroom to set your notebook–on dream-journaling.  Additionally, it contains a prompt that involves day-dreaming and dreaming in every sense of the word, including aspriations, short and long-term goals, pipe dreams, etc.


Under the suggestion to “Write the unwriteable,” she offers the example, “Write an index.”  I have no idea what this means.  I’ve seen all kinds of written indices.  What is going on?  What kind of index would be unwriteable?  Like a cross-reference?  Write a cross-reference?  Of what?


On and on in this manner, Mayer’s prompts range from simple to elaborate and from straightforward to high-theory. They are numerous; they are open to interpretation; they come in both long and short-term.  There are suggestions for both prose and poetry (fiction and non) and for both the very odd and the very formal.  They can be combined or reduced.  One size fits most.


The list in and of itself gives the sense of having been composed with relative spontaneity and potentially even in one sitting, in a free-associative way, with little self-editing and no attempt to explain itself or what each prompt is intended to do or generate.  Compared to the formally structured and professionally edited and packaged tendencies of most writing manuals and companions, Mayer’s list seems far more conducive to the state of mind most writers would prefer to be in when they are suffering a dearth of their own ideas.  As one might expect from a Language poet’s product,  the list is elicitive rather than instructive or declarative, making it potentially the single (most) productive application of LangPo theory I have seen.

(I kid!  I kid!)

In that way, what is best about Mayer’s list is that it is organic and cooperative.  It encourages organic writing and it seems to stem from organic writing–from Mayer’s own genuine tendencies rather than a spirit of punditry.  It is a study in meta-functionality; I think there is a good chance that this list was originally a writing exercise in and of itself.  It generated a written product, and here I am reviewing it, generating a written product about generating written products.

But a review was not my intent.  I have shared this list with a couple of other writer friends and was surprised to find that very few people have heard of it.  I can’t say that it’s one-of-a-kind; there may be other lists out there like it.  Some may be just as good or even better.  But this is the one I know about, and it raises interesting questions about how we, as writers, exercise (as in practice or “do”) our talents.  At some point, it seems to me, if you’re doing all the same exercises all the time, you should expect to become a caricature of natural human form.

Stiff, like the greased-up body-builder guys.  All the strength of Hercules but comically incapable of wiping your own ass.


I want to be able to wipe my own ass.


Everyone is different.  There is nothing worth denying in that statement.  But if, like me, you ever get sick of your own voice or your own ideas or, worse, you don’t have any ideas at all, I offer Mayer’s list as a resource.

For my part, I’m making an investment.  I don’t consider myself a particularly experimental writer, so this could be painful.  But I do bore easily, and boredom quickly gives way to creative lethargy.  So, for a few months (or until I get sick of it), I will let Mayer’s list serve as a tortuous Safety Dance-at-high-volume–an intentional rattling of pans, whirring of the coffee grinder, flushing of the toilet, running of the microwave and leaving it to beep, bounding up (and thundering down) stairs.  When it comes to rousting my reticent sense of creative adventure, I will make getting up easier than staying in bed.




Not too long ago, Simon Smithson submitted a brief blog entry, seeking ideas about the best way to write about place.  I had nothing to say about it.  I was curious.  I wanted to know, too.  I waited.  No one had much to say.

Then I left my place to go to my cousin’s place in Chicago where I met Simon and Zara, who were not in their places, either.

I love Chicago.  Stormy, husky, brawling.  I fit in there well enough.  I’m comfortable there.

Most of the rules in Chicago are the same as here.  It’s a lovable, dirty old dog in a fancy coat–not glamorous, and not really trying to be.  Chicago is at home in its skin.  In that way, it’s similar to the Twin Cities.  Nevertheless, it’s not home, and in conversation with foreigners in a place to which I, too, was foreign, I became acutely aware of it. 

I am proud of Chicago like I’m proud of my sister’s kids.  They’re great.  I love them.  I marvel at them.  But they’re not mine.

Unlike most people from the Upper Midwest, I have never been in any particular hurry to leave.  I see no problem with it.  I can’t imagine what other people have that we don’t–at least in reasonable facsimile.  I like it.  Wherever you go, there you are.

Nevertheless, it’s particularly difficult to write about a place like Minnesota.  No matter how excellent I think it is, to most of the world, I’m talking up an ugly sister to a hapless friend in the hopes that her charming personality will win the day if I can just trick him into being in the same room with her.

It’s practically a con.

A siren song to the happy oblivious.

Never mind the crooked gait, the missing eye, the shoddy public transport, the Iron Range.  She’s a lamb.

So I’m going to try to be honest, here.  No tribal supremacy, no maudlin sentimentality.  I’m going to tell it like it is.

Technically speaking, it’s flyover country.  Home of nothing but lutefisk, mosquitoes, and fat farmers.  But we are a blue state, so as far as most people who live on either coast are concerned, we at least have that going for us.  We’re a strange hue of blue, having our own democratic party of a type found nowhere else in the nation.  I expect Canada to invade any day.  We’re the closest you can get (except maybe the UP) without actually passing through customs.  We’ve been sticking our nipple into Canada for over 150 years.

The running joke about MN politics is that any given person is probably a card-carrying member of both the NRA and the ACLU, and we are happy in our habits.  For nearly as long as I’ve been alive, our habit is to elect democratic presidents, republican governors, one each conservative and liberal national senators…

You get the idea.  We’re not sitting on the fence; we’re straddling it.  We deal with a political climate of extremes the same way we deal with our weather:  Use what’s available to make the situation as tolerable as possible.


For the most part, much of what the coastal supremacists say is true.  Our winter cold is at once hypodermic and searing.  It can, sometimes and if you’re not careful, freezer-burn the skin right off your face.

We do, indeed, have fat farmers.

Our summers are oppressively hot, stormy, and humid, too.  That’s what happens when 10,000 lakes get sucked into the dry Southwestern air that rides in on the jet stream.  Manic depressive weather.  The land of 10,000 natural extremes.

We have a lot of corn.  And livestock.  And water.  Water everywhere.  The water turns to ice, and we drive on it to get from igloo to igloo or state to state. Or just to whip shitties.

Our main defense against all of these accusations is, “Hey.  At least we’re not Wisconsin.”


But also in our defense, I know from experience that many major metropolitan areas smell like piss.  The Twin Cities do not.  We are a proud, clean people.  Little Mogadishu sometimes smells like curry and nag champa, but that’s just how they roll over there.  There is a store there that is the size of most Aldi supermarkets, and it specializes in batik and incense; it has been there for 50 years or something.  The smell is in the sidewalks.

On the West Bank, even the dirt smells like a foreign country.

If I wanted to attribute a sound to Minnesota, I would probably mention how it is possible to hear snow and ice melting (literally true; snow “breathes” and ice “sings”).


I’m not sure what Minnesota tastes like.  Probably like something on a stick.


We are Germans and Scandinavians primarily–traditionally, I should say.  This is changing.  We have some of the largest Hmong, Somali, Sierra Leonian, and Liberian immigrant demographics per capita in the nation.

As I said, we are a clean people.  We like  for things to be nice–not fancy or ostentatious, which would be rude.  Just nice.  Look nice, be nice; don’t make a scene.  That’s the state motto.

Actually, the motto is L’Etoile du Nord.   It is evidence that we once had French people hanging around here.   They were voyageurs and other unsavory, unwashed characters, no doubt.  We shooed them all into Canada and slammed the door.

We shooed them politely, though, I’m sure.  Minnesota Nice.


Minnesota Nice is not actually about BEING nice.  It’s about acting nice.  It’s about showing that you know how to do it.  It’s not unlike French politesse.  It has a lot to do with not imposing on others.  Not shouting, not invading others’ personal space (a Minnesotan’s personal space is half again as large as any other American’s), not invading their auditory or olfactory space, not turning up unannounced, not showing any emotion that may be disturbing to others, not invading ego space with braggadocio, returning calls and correspondence in a snappy fashion, saying “excuse me” when you sneeze…you know…in case you might have grossed someone out, and saying “bless you,” if someone else sneezes, so he or she knows you were not grossed out.

There is a lot of apologizing involved.

Pardon my reach, excuse me, thank you, I don’t want to impose, which floor would you like, I’m sorry, excuse me, my mistake, pardon me, I’m sorry it’s so late, I’m sorry it’s so early…

And if you’re doing nice right, no matter how evil you are in fact, no one will ever, ever know about it.  Some people find this off-putting or problematic or unpalatable.  I don’t see what the difference is between actually being nice and only being nice as far as anyone you ever encounter knows.

I mean, the net effect is the same.

We are adept at getting along.  Feel free to cuss someone out behind his back, but make nice in person.  Do not upset things.  No one wants to deal with that.  Don’t make a scene.

Immigrants from Africa, however, struggle with this aspect of northern culture.  Many come from more outspoken, straightforward speech cultures and are widely regarded as rude or aggressive by Minnesota natives.  Cultural confusion.  Conversely, many Asian immigrants who come from more reserved cultures assimilate fairly easily in this respect.

Our accent–or alleged accent–is legendary.  Most Minnesotans, especially those living in cosmopolitan areas of the state, will erupt in clenched-jaw, terse-lipped, low-voiced, and inappropriately (however reservedly) offended derisions if you tell them that they sound like Fargo.

And rightly so.  The accents represented in that film are caricatures and, even then, caricatures of some of the most extreme accents in the state.  Nevertheless, I discovered that some things just aren’t fit for denial.  “Ya shuur” escaped my lips at least three times in the roughly eight hours we spent with Simon and Zara that weekend in Chicago.  I’d repeat it every time.  To myself, near myself.  To punish myself for having said it.

So, what has already happened, what has already been said, who has already been here?

James Wright, John Berryman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Patricia Hampl, Ray Gonzales, Winona Ryder, Judy Garland, Steve Zahn, That-Guy-Who-Played-Hellboy, Bob Dylan, Soul Asylum, the Replacements, The Suburbs, Husker Du, The Jayhawks, Bob Mould, Semisonic, The Hold Steady, Atmosphere, and The Artist Known, Then Not Known, and Now Known Again, as Prince.

These people all have formidable Minnesota connections.  I’m sure I’m forgetting some.

John Berryman died less than 2,000 feet from my cubicle at work.

No.  He did not die of boredom.  And not of polar bears, either.

F. Scott Fitzgerald lived in my hometown briefly.

A reporter in the 19th century once said St. Paul, our capital city, was “another Siberia, unfit for human habitation.”  So we threw a street party and a parade in the dead of winter–and continue to, annually, without fail.

Fame and respect outside of Minnesota are hard to come by while you’re in Minnesota, but that’s changing somewhat.  The Twin Cities’ arts scene (performing, visual, and literary), which Minnesotans have been shouting about for decades, is formidable–in many ways ridiculous–relative to our population.  It continues to grow, maybe from the realization that, being where we are, talking funny like we do, we have to work twice as hard to  be considered even half as good.

Minnesota has a tradition of sharing its collections of stuff, be it art or animals, free of charge.

The animals.  The wildlife.  We have wildlife.

But in exchange for cursing us with the coldest major metropolitan area in the nation, The Guy has seen fit to grant us a few boons.

A major one is that Minnesota is 99.9% free of poisonous things.  It’s too cold here for poison.

We do have wolves, bear, puma, moose, and an inexplicably robust (suddenly resurgent) wild turkey population.  I don’t know if you know this, but wild turkeys are mean as fuck.

And stupid.  So stupid.  I wouldn’t normally shoot a living thing, but I might shoot a turkey if properly armed and even mildly provoked.

Come to think of it, our birds are pretty mean in general.  Bald Eagles and Red-Tailed Hawks, especially, may abscond with your Pomeranian or preemie if you don’t keep an eye on it.  Death from above.  For real.

A raptor ate your baby.

Okay.  They don’t take babies.  Please don’t go to your urban condo coastal dinner parties and make wide eyes at people over your martini, telling everyone you heard that the hillbilly Minnesotans sacrifice babies to the national bird.

It’s the June Bugs that take babies.

Another boon and, really, the bottom line:  Unlike our turkeys, our people are smart.  We are among the best-educated states in the country.


Suck on that, coasters.  Take that to your dinner party.

Our winter comes and goes, but your stupid is forever.


Er. I mean.  Um.  Sorry.

Pardon my braggadocio.

What I meant to say was:

  • Wi nøt trei a høliday in [Minnesota] this yër?
  • See the løveli lakes
  • The wøndërful telephøne system
  • And mäni interesting furry animals...
  • Including the majestik møøse
  • A Møøse once bit my sister...
  • No realli! She was Karving her initials on the møøse
    with the sharpened end of an interspace tøøthbrush given
    her by Svenge - her brother-in-law - an Oslo dentist and
    star of many Norwegian møvies: "The Høt Hands of an Oslo
    Dentist", "Fillings of Passion", "The Huge Mølars of Horst
    Nordfink"...[credit]


Anyway.