Bill Hillmann author photo

So, you’re an author, a journalist and a bull runner. Did reading Ernest Hemingway have anything to do with these life choices?

Hemingway has everything to do with those choices. I hadn’t read a book until I was 19. I took Professor David McGrath’s Hemingway class at College of DuPage and it changed my life. I sat down in the library with The Sun Also Rises and read it in one six-hour sitting. That experience made me want to be a writer and want to go to Pamplona and run bulls. When I want something, it usually happens, eventually.

Mozos CoverI slept in doorways, on curbs and benches. It gets chilly in Pamplona at night, even in July. I got really cold. Cops would wake me and move me along. Other times partiers would offer me a drink and try to pull me to my feet. In my tired wanderings I stumbled across the Hemingway statue outside the arena. He looked stoic, full-bearded and happy. There’s a curved brick slope at the foot of the statue. It made for a comfortable bed. Surprisingly no one bothered me and I slept well there at the foot of Papa Hemingway as fiesta rambled on a half block away.

Tao Lin’s loyal cult following has grown beyond the fringes of the underground. When he pisses in a back alley at night his adoring fans cry, “Look! He’s streaming golden light into the darkness!” He may not be pushing art forward, but he’s giving it a good shake, and for this he deserves credit. However, much of his output resembles mad dross, yet critics (see here) call him existential and compare him to Hemingway and Camus. I’m not saying such pundits are stumpdumb, but Tao’s no existentialist, and he ain’t Camus. Perhaps these reviewers are confused because Tao cleverly peppers prose with “faux existential” messages. Example (from Shoplifting from American Apparel): “Sam questioned Hester existentially while lying nearly face down covered completely by the blanket.”

Deep, man.

The only thing Tao has in common with existentialists is a preponderance of uncertainty. Therefore, last year I pitted him against Camus: Tao Lin vs. Albert Camus. Camus’s victory was decisive, yet Tao’s not done, not by a “long shit.” This time, seeking a fair opponent, I’ve matched Richard Yates with the anonymous genius of the 2006 Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual. Let’s see from where lyric mastery comes!

Tao Lin’s Richard Yates vs. 2006 Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual

ROUND I:

Richard Yates: He walked to the post office. He mailed packages. He walked over the steel bridge. He stood on the train tracks looking in both directions. He walked on a street parallel to the train tracks. He walked behind a grocery store to the train tracks. He stood on the train tracks. He walked on the street. He walked on the train tracks.

2006 Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual: To the left of the instrument panel cup holder are two 12 volt power outlets. The upper outlet is controlled by the ignition switch and the lower outlet is connected directly to the battery. The upper outlet will also operate a conventional cigar lighter unit (if equipped with an optional Smoker’s Package).

RESULT: Tao Lin’s six repetitions of “he walked”  indicates competence in S-V, but could not overcome the lingering poetic resonance of “instrument panel cup owner.” Winner – 2006 Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual.

ROUND II:

Richard Yates: He thought about Dakota Fanning and other people. He orgasmed into toilet paper. He carried the toilet paper to the bathroom and put it in the toilet. He peed into the toilet. He flushed the toilet. He washed his hands. He washed his face. He went to his room and read a few sentences from different books. He ate dark chocolate.

2006 Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual: Air comes from the floor, defrost and side window de-mist outlets. This mode works best in cold or snowy conditions. It allows you to stay comfortable while keeping the windshield clear.

RESULT: Tao Lin’s masturbatory scene no match for a relatively tame epiphany about de-mist outlets. Winner – Richard Yates.

ROUND III:

Richard Yates: Around 5:30 a.m. they were in a booth again. Dakota Fanning was asleep with her head on the table. Haley Joel Osment held her and looked at things. He went to the opposite seat and lay and slept. He woke and saw Dakota Fanning’s head under the table with a shy facial expression asking if he was okay. It was around 6:45 a.m. They left Price Chopper. They walked over the field onto the parking lot of school buses.

2006 Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual: Under certain conditions, the cellular phone being On in your vehicle can cause erratic or noisy performance from your radio. This condition may be lessened or eliminated by relocating the cellular phone antenna. This condition is not harmful to the radio. If your radio performance does not satisfactorily “clear” by the repositioning of the antenna, it is recommended that the radio volume be turned down or off during cellular phone operation.

 

RESULT: In a closely fought round, Tao Lin writes a genuine scene, tender, yet lacking in appropriate weight, as, with a stunning glimpse into the emotional ramifications of cellular technology, the Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual squeaks out victory. Winner – 2006 Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual.

Final Words: The 2006 Dodge Caravan Owner’s Manual defeats Tao Lin’s Richard Yates, much to the delight of the tens of thousands ofsatisfied Dodge owners. Yet Tao’s future shows more promise than that of any car manufacturer. Tao’s star, as cliché-lovers say, shines brighter every day.

 

 

I thought you OD’d.

Is that a question?

 

I mean, I keep hearing rumors that you OD’d –- what’s up with that?

I‘ve heard those rumors, as well – apparently, fans and others can’t understand why I would choose to lay low in New Orleans as opposed to whoring out my celebrity status after White Zombie broke up, so therefore I must be dead. I must say I appreciate the rock’n’roll ending they’ve given me, up there in the company with Hendrix and Joplin with the whole OD thing. It’s especially amusing since I never did any hard drugs, ever. In the past fifteen years I’ve had to respond to the question “Are you dead?” at three different points. It’s always an interesting phonecall to receive, and perhaps next time I will say “yes” just to see what happens.

 

It’s been fifteen years since White Zombie broke up –- why a book on your days in the band now?

It was in reaction to going through my storage room two years ago – I found about ten boxes labeled White Zombie, and began to open them up for the first time since I packed them and shipped them to New Orleans in 1996. This was because our management had contacted me for tidbits for our upcoming boxset at the time. With dread I went to dig through my boxes. What had ended as a bad memory suddenly exposed itself to me for what it was –- an amazing, triumphant adventure in an era that not many people know about, unless they were there. The whole story of us coming out of the ratty, arty Lower East Side and becoming a huge 90’s metal band is ridiculous in itself, but those bands, the intensity and extreme testosterone-driven music – it just brought back a whole world that is so distant now. I felt the need to share it.

 

Do you consider this a coffee table book, or something else?

The book did start off as a coffee table book, filled with my photos from backstage, passes and tickets, flyers and other ephemera. As I began collaging pages, certain flyers or photos would remind me of what happened that night, and I started adding written stories. As I did, people started saying “More of that!” So I wrote more and more, enjoying it a bit more as the details came out of the woodwork. It felt as though I was making a director’s commentary on a movie made in the distant past. I think the book is a hybrid – part autobiography, part documentation of the 90’s in rock and metal, part coffee table book.

 

Do you feel that using the word “chick” in your subtitle is self-deprecating and/or sexist?

No. I’ve never had any problem with that word. Who ever says “chick” in a bad way? It’s a funny and silly word. It’s the female equivalent of “dude”, and nobody has a problem with that being sexist! Those were the tags in the metal scene, and that is what the fans called me, in a very sweet way. I was officially dubbed “the chick in White Zombie” by Beavis and Butthead. They also loved the Butthole Surfers and Iggy Pop, so I am more than happy to claim the title from such arbiters of good taste!

 

When did you join the band?

I hate that question! I never joined the band; I helped form the band. Nor did I ever leave the band; we broke up. Ever since my ex decided to take the band’s name as his last name, the world has been led to believe that Rob Zombie is White Zombie and vice versa. This could not be farther from the truth. Rob and I started White Zombie, and while I was doing the graphic layouts and typography, he was doing the illustrations. While I was writing riffs, he was writing lyrics. In the first five years I did all of the booking and handled all of the expenses and business, due to Rob being extremely quiet and anti-social. It was a true band and family, and although Rob and I did most of the work, everyone worked hard and contributed.

 

You’re familiar with the worlds of music, art and design — did you find starting something new like writing to be difficult?

The realm is familiar to me, although I’ve never tried my hand at it before. My father was a writer and my mother helped him with all of his research and editing. (He wrote five definitive Hemingway biographies and became president of the Hemingway Society before he passed away.) Growing up with two English professors for parents definitely got me used to the whole process, and combining so many of my photographs with short stories definitely took away the intimidation of completing an entire book. My publishers, Soft Skull, were also extremely helpful by letting me structure and design the book however I wanted, and making it as long or short as I wanted.

 

Between your photography, design, music and now writing is there one area you would like to focus on?

I would love nothing more than to do one thing, and do it really well. Unfortunately, as soon as I start working on new music, I get an idea for a photography show. As soon as I start that, I get an idea for my designs. Classic Gemini behavior, I suppose. Since I can’t I manage to pick one, I can only hope that as I put more and more years into all of these fields perhaps each will become more refined.

 

What are you working on now?

Besides book tours? Writing with my New Orleans band, Rock City Morgue, preparing to record with my new band Star&Dagger, developing new items for my home décor line, and prepping for a new photography show. Now that Mardi Gras is over I might actually get some of this done. It’s not easy living in the Big Easy; lots of party demands.

 

Last words?

Have a good time, all the time.

 

 

To make up for the abysmal fiasco that was my mother’s birthday in early August, I planned and filled this year’s Thanksgiving visit with an enormous amount of fun activities and mother-daughter bonding. The first of these is a Tuesday lunch at Eleven Madison Avenue, a shiny rung in the Relais & Châteaux chain.

I write Young Adult fiction. So does M.T. Anderson. The difference between us is that I am me, and he is one of the two or three best writers in the genre, with a large and ridiculously diverse stable of titles. Thirsty long predates the cross-platform vampire onslaught with more wit, style, and weirdness than all of Twilight-iana combined. In a sane and just world, where Anderson took daily baths in royalties cash, his butler would have refused this interview outright. (Also, this is not an interview). Feed envisions an ad-slang dystopia that’s equal parts sly satire, A Clockwork Orange, and a Vinyard Vines catalog. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is a two-part novel of immense scope and sheer intellectual urgency, written in a mix of crystalline prose and Revolutionary War-era argot. There’s no way it should work on any level, and yet it does, setting an impossibly high standard within YA and without, while investigating notions of individuality, altered history, slavery, classical education, fecal heft, and the evolution of language.

Also, it won the National Book Award.

In an effort to avoid the trappings (read: dullness) of your typical interview structure, we more or less had a free-ranging discussion with no prepared questions. Did it work? Who knows?

 

 

 

 

Sean Beaudoin: Salman Rushdie’s YA novel Luka and the Fire of Life was just released. He said he “wanted to write a story that demolishes the boundary between adult and children’s literature.” Does that boundary exist anymore? And if so, do you think his statement reads as brave or presumptuous?

 

 

M.T. Anderson: I’m inclined to give the man the benefit of the doubt – considering that he spent the late 80’s hiding in a wienie shack in Van Nuys. I’m sure Luka will be a wonderful book, and, having read his own explanation of why he wrote it, it’s hard not to sympathize with him as he writes of his mortality.

The question is, does he really believe that he’s the first to undertake heroically the demolition of this literary boundary? And what, precisely, does he mean, respectively, by books for children or books for adults? He himself ornaments the terms with the scare-quotes. Is he forgetting Lewis Carroll, who he mentions? Or Stevenson’s swashbucklers? Or Yann Martel? Or much of science fiction? Or, to really throw the doors open wide, V.C. Andrews? (What twelve year old will ever forget the tar, the arsenical donuts, the blocked toilet a-roil with siblings’ shit?) Each of these authors traverses the ghetto streets from children’s lit to stuff for adults down different byways and hidden alleys.

 

 

He may not think he’s the first, but he certainly seems to think he’s the man to wield the hammer. And he’s probably right. You and I can stand on the sidelines and cheer, our ball peens safely holstered.

 

 

Regardless of Rushdie’s sense in this passage, it’s a great way to start our discussion, because the relation between “literary fiction” and genre fiction – be it kidlit, sci-fi, whodunits, or porn – in fact often plays out in a mildly (very mildly) post-colonial fashion. That is to say, those who write “literary fiction” – a genre that appears to be no genre at all – a genre unmarked and self-evident to its readers – a genre where the clichés and weary tropes are invisible, or taken as signs of quality – they can survey the generic ghettos below them and around them – shanty neighborhoods where men in spacesuits labor up rickety staircases, or friendly hedgehogs hang out their laundry with clothespins in their teeth. It is for those “literary” writers to judge, to deny entry, to admit, to explain to the rest of us readers and writers what we lack, how we might improve. The fact that many more millions of readers are deeply moved each day by supermarket-spinner romance writers we’ve never heard of than will ever read (for instance) The Wapshot Chronicle only damns the romance writer more. Every once in a while, a genre writer will receive the kiss of benediction, and will suffer an apotheosis, mounted up and whisked to heaven surrounded by bunny-rabbit putti or saucer-ships. Suddenly Thomas Pynchon is not a science fiction writer and John LeCarre is not a writer of spy thrillers. So long as they are snatched early enough in their career, they are unstained with the taint of genre. (To suggest John LeCarre is a writer of spy thrillers seems like a denigration.) And, at the same time, by hauling up and resituating many of each genre’s most promising practitioners (by shifting them in Barnes and Noble from the genre shelf to the unmarked “Fiction” section) the “literary” world assures the continued impoverishment of spy fiction or sci-fi.

So there’s me being cranky. What about you? Cranky? As someone who has written a book that partakes of two genres – teen fiction and noir – do you feel shunted off doubly into the corner? Or invited to two parties at once?

 

 

Cranky? Yes, certainly. Although my shawl-and-rocking chair orneriness reaches beyond the injustices of literature and chain store shelving practices. For the most part, I have a hard time being annoyed with a certain amount of condescension, even from those who ask when I’m going to “write a real book,” because I’m sure back in my sweaty V.C. Andrews-reading days, I too was nurturing the tendency to shit on anything that didn’t have the Manhattan imprimatur of serious fiction, an attitude that took me at least another decade to jettison.

I do think it’s sort of popular at the moment, among both those cowering in wienie shacks and wandering out in the open, to say things along the lines of “there are increasingly fewer walls between genres,” but I have the feeling the genre battlements are as manned as ever, despite the quote’s success in making us feel as if we’re evolving. The fact that numerous “literary” writers are now penning YA novels seems to speak more to the quality of YA in general than a Stonewall-esque change in attitude. To answer your question, I do feel at a disadvantage having written something that straddles marketing niches. You Killed Wesley Payne, whatever its faults or merits, requires a subversion of expectations, which is not always a friend of the impulse buy.

 

 

But as we both seem to be saying, the things that straddle different genres are often the particularly exciting projects – great to read, if difficult to work on.

 

 

Writing is hard. And pain don’t hurt. Producing even the clumsiest, most turgid novel is usually the equivalent of giving birth in a covered wagon three days after the midwife was carried off by Apaches. So, you know, a good novel in any genre is a triumph over the continuum of mediocrity and should be celebrated in equal measure, in any section of the bookstore. It’s easy and almost reflexive to hate the success of zombies or Da Vinci, but so many “literary” novels I read seem just as derivative or cynical. So, where do you think this almost universal authorial compulsion to constantly compare dicks comes from?

 

 

You know Hemingway and Fitzgerald literally compared dicks? Hemingway, being – if not having – the bigger dick, tells the story in A Moveable Feast.

Fitzgerald confided over lunch that Zelda had told him he was too small to satisfy her. He pleaded (says Hemingway) positively pleaded for help with the problem. Papa H. took him into the bathroom and they ran a scan of the equipment. Hemingway, needless to say, had some sage advice. “‘You’re perfectly fine,’ I said. ‘ You are OK. There’s nothing wrong with you. You look at yourself from above and you look foreshortened. Go over to the Louvre and look at the people in the statues and then go home and look at yourself in the mirror in profile.” And furthermore: “‘It is not basically a question of the size in repose. It is the size that it becomes. It is also a question of angle.’ I explained to him about using a pillow and a few other things that might be useful for him to know.”

Talk about the running of the bull.

While clearly the moral of this story is that you should never, ever ask a man who’s grown a mustache questions about your penis size, it’s also instructive in that the two of them, for reference, see whether they measure up by comparing themselves with the classical canon. I mean that literally: The kanon was originally a statue by Polyclitus that showed, supposedly, the perfect human proportions. In the same way, the idea is that we as writers are supposed to somehow match ourselves up to the canon, and to check our own growth – in repose, and in the size that we become – against Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

In our post-modern era, this use of the canon has become profoundly destabilized. It’s a fascinating moment. The collapse of book reviewing, for example, means that I really don’t think we have this view any more that there are Olympian observers who are right in damning or praising. The role of the reviewer really has become to characterize a work, rather than to judge it – since the myth of authority has taken such a blow as our newspapers and their book sections fold.

I can no longer claim to know exactly how to appraise fiction. In some ways, I think that’s very exciting.

 

 

Your argument makes me want to rub on some eye-black, grab a torch, and storm the castle of Lowered Expectations. Not to mention the moat of Not Hurting Anyone’s Feelings. The obverse of the impulse for two authors to literally (or literarily) talk junk in the bathroom, is for one of them to stand in front of a series of whistle stop crowds and spit-wax their mustache with a denunciation of all shit prose, not just the dangle to their left. Since this sort of thing almost never happens in public anymore, let alone on Sunday after Sunday of tepid and formulaic book reviews, an intellectual broadside against The Chaff That Is Deemed Acceptable would be exhilarating to behold. One author of Upper West Side apartment novels slamming another author of Lower East Side apartment novels over Madeira and cheese cubes would be meaningless in the face of a larger proclamation. And maybe some form of ruthless objective judgment going viral is the best way to distract the endless autopsies on publishing’s corpse. Either way, the absence of a collective set of lit-onions, the willingness to say some books SUCK, and THESE are those books, is an incalculable failing of the industry. Or the species.

 

 

I guess, when it comes down to it, it seems to me there are two separate elements that go on in judgments of literary quality. The first, and less reliable, is the fact that the “literary” is also a genre with its own rules and its own boundaries. It defines itself by a clean and antiseptic absence of genre elements. But the “literature” genre also has its tropes, as I said above – the epiphany, the neighborhood bar, the fragile marriage, whatever. If you set a novel in New York, describe upper middle class people feeling vaguely sad, and ensure that not much happens, the book is literary. Such books have the appearance of literary centrality to certain reviewers, especially those who write for New York publications read by upper middle class people feeling vaguely sad. But in fact, quality here is somewhat beside the point – we’re really talking about genre conventions, and many of these books would be far more moving and effective with the addition of a finely-crafted alien abduction, or, for god’s sake, a murder in that chef’s kitchen.

Of course, there is obviously a huge body of fiction that doesn’t include any so-called “genre” elements but is still gorgeous, disturbing, and moving. But there is also the ballast that gets a “literary” pass because it uses the same set of realist conventions but is too bland to offend.

More legitimately, perhaps quality can be judged by the tension in a work between surprise and cohesion. You want a novel to twist and to turn in ways you don’t expect (whether that means a beautifully turned phrase or a plot that pulls away from what you know); but on the other hand, some jolts seem accidentally ludicrous, abrupt, or clumsy. But that’s the problem: We all have different tolerances, different expectations, a different “canon” to which we’re measuring the proportions of these works. (Coloring books? Gossip Girl? Gertrude Stein?)

So help me: Is all pursuit of objective judgment dead? Should we really swallow stale, thin narrative as if it were the rich bouillabaisse of Moby Dick? Do we have to all applaud at the Emperor’s new clothes as he primps in front of us, declaring the genius of his see-through culottes?

 

 

Well, I was just reading about an interesting study that concluded taste was mostly a matter of genetics and social position. It suggested that what we think of as a lifetime’s individualized accretion of knowledge–and the hard-earned ability to discern between quality and populism–is really a matter of our subconscious need to lord over the economic strata below us. In other words, if the neighbor making twenty-thousand less than you loves Wanted Dead or Alive, you’ll suddenly loathe the pedestrian fretboard stylings of Ritchie Sambora, unable to boot your computer fast enough to download the next band up the complexity ladder.

But wouldn’t it be a crushing blow to find out your (my) love of The Velvet Underground has nothing to do with odd intervals, transgressive lyrics, or inspired viola-abuse–and everything to do with an embedded chemical elitism? I know I’m playing devil’s advocate, especially by using an annoying cliché like devil’s advocate, but perhaps it would be good to start by defining where the nexus of accessibility, entertainment, sales, and literature lies (or lies to us.)

 

 

I’m not sure I believe that there’s a direct correlation between elevated social class and artistic complexity. Before a flight, when I slog on back through the First Class cabin of a plane in that familiar economy-class walk of shame, I’m not sure that most of the people sitting in those massive pleather seats with noise-reduction headphones are bobbing their heads to the All-Schoenberg station. No, the rich are listening to Miley Cyrus like the rest of us, because for them, it is a party in the U.S.A.

 

 

Except that the rich do go to the opera, even if they hate it, to prove some sort of point. And despite their internal yearning for The Ring Cycle to end as fast as possible so they can race home and down gin and tonics while cruising Miley Cyrus websites, they’re still affected on some level by having Wagner seep into their cortex, and it probably does elevate their taste to some degree. Even if that means cruising Sophie Marceau websites instead. Also, I love my noise reduction headphones.

 

 

I do believe that in more complicated ways, social class does play into our taste (as Pierre Bourdieu describes), as do many other circumstances: the music your parents listened to, the stuff teachers introduced you to as a kid, ethnicity and other forms of community, etc. … This is what makes judgment so touchy right now – because we recognize now that no one is detached and located at the center. Everyone, in a sense, is peripheral to others.

 

 

The Bourdieu drop! I should have been more specific. But, yeah, I sort of love that randomness of influences, and the certainty that can fester inside it. I recently got a Google alert for a young woman’s website where she recorded the names of all the books she’d read this year. At the bottom was a smaller list of books she hadn’t bothered to finish, mostly because she thought they sucked. Next to each of those losers was the page number where she’d given up on them–112 or 89 or 71. At the very bottom of that list was You Killed Wesley Payne. And the page she’d given up on was 1. One fucking page! In a way, I think that’s the best review I’ve ever gotten. And who’s to say she’s wrong? YKWP didn’t work for her, the first sentence was a complete failure, the second paragraph a travesty, time to move on. And why not? A few years ago I read half of an extremely popular metaphysical bestseller on the balcony of a Mexican hotel. My wife had torn through it on the airplane, so when I finished the 900-page anvil of Thucydides I’d brought along (embarrassing, but true. I mean, when else am I going to have the time to tackle Big T?) I gave that bestseller a try. It was, from almost the first line, clumsy, insincere, and emotionally manipulative. So much so, that in an instant of Modelo-fueled rage, I tossed it off the balcony and into the waves below. Where, no doubt, a sea turtle immediately ate it, and then had the burning shits for a month. But, you know, I’m quite sure the author isn’t losing any sleep over my opinion. She has a vast audience of readers she speaks to, with a great deal of mutual satisfaction. And she probably sold more copies during that vacation weekend than all my books ever will, combined. So who’s right? And does it matter? With the insane number of books published each year (somewhere around 170,000), and the average number of books each American is said to read in that same span (between 1 and 5), the sheer randomness of making a sustained writer/reader connection has sort of cudgled me into the opinions are like assholes camp. Or at the very least, although I feel as capable as anyone else in pronouncing judgment on lousy books, movies, and bands, I no longer see much sport in it.

 

 

One of the great things, actually, about being a writer for children, is that the community is so welcoming and supportive. Perhaps we’re all united because of a certain sense of mission: the vital importance of writing good, interesting books for kids. Some writers for teens now even set up events and travel in groups, working together to try to cross-promote. It’s a generous response to an ugly problem – all of the noise, multifarious media, and emphasis on visibility currently. I love the warmth of my colleagues, the fact that we’re actually happy to see each other at conferences, parties, and readings – regardless of our aesthetic differences.

Of course, there are a few pains in the ass, but that only makes things more entertaining for the rest of the industry, snuggly as it is. Without a pain in the ass, who’d ever sit up straight and take notice of the world around them?

 

 

You’re talking about me, aren’t you? About that time I got up on a table at BEA and pissed on a stack of zombie debutante novels. Can’t you just leave that incident alone?

 

 

You mean the launch party for Her Hand in Marriage – And Wrist for Lunch? Yeah. That was an interesting moment in critical judgment.

 

 

Actually, I’m talking about the sequel, Tell Portia I’ll Have the Neck-Steak with Fries.

 

 

Ah, yes.

 

 

Man, I can’t believe we’re at the end here. There’s so much I wanted to ask you about, and we hardly got to any of it.

 

 

It’s been a pleasure! Looking forward to seeing where you go next. Fictionally, I mean. I know more generally, the answer is “Sea-Tac.” Thanks for asking me to talk!

 

 


 

Jazz Hands

I worked on a cattle-breeding farm in central Virginia for one summer during college. My first week involved long hours of bush-hogging—hauling a sort of heavy-duty lawnmower though pastures of shoulder-high brown grass, so that the cows could access the sweeter green shoots beneath. The tractor was top of the line, with an air-conditioned cab and tape deck. I’d listen to audiobooks and entertain myself by beheading black snakes and watching their decapitated bodies spout blood and slither in circles through the rear-view mirror. In the mornings, I’d often rouse families of sleeping deer that had bedded down in the tall grass. Spotted does and spindly-legged fawns would bound towards the trees like Olympic hurdlers.

Bruce Chatwin held that there are two categories of writers, “the ones who ‘dig in’ and the ones who move.” He observed: “There are writers who can only function ‘at home’, with the right chair, the shelves of dictionaries and encyclopaedias, and now perhaps the word processor. And there are those, like myself, who are paralyzed by ‘home’, for whom home is synonymous with the proverbial writer’s block, and who believe naïvely that all would be well if only they were somewhere else.” I like this notion, but have no opinion about its veracity. I do, however, hold that when I read Chatwin I can detect the shuffle of his restless feet traversing ancient causeways, just as, when I read Melville, I smell salt air.

When did you start writing?

I was five, maybe six when I wrote and illustrated “My Autobiography.” I’ll read it to you: “I was born. I was a very very fat babby [sic].” I’d love to have that kind of brevity these days.


Who were you in a past life?

I’d like to say I was a vampire and that I’ve been around for eternity, but it’s simply not true. If I had to guess, I’d say I was either a French troubadour in the twelfth century or one of the painters of the Lascaux caves. I believe that we recycle proclivities from life to life. Which might explain why so much of my writing is infused with ideas from songs and/or images. Then again, maybe I was a snail, which might explain why I love being at home and traveling. Or perhaps I was an elephant, which might explain my preoccupation with memory and family.


What were you doing when the music died?

If you think it died when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, then I was a young child, likely asleep at home (in Manhattan). But if you think it died when John Lennon was killed, then I was hanging out with an English musician named Roy Pries in a bar called the Catalyst in Santa Cruz, California. Suddenly a TV crew came in and started asking everyone how they felt about John Lennon dying. None of us had heard the news (oh boy).


If you hadn’t become a writer, what vocation might you have pursued?

I would have become a mathematician. Not only is mathematics the true universal language, it is a discipline infused with thinking derived from many different cultures. And if I had become a mathematician, I’m pretty sure I would have devoted myself to the study of imaginary numbers.


Has there ever been a period of time when you were not your usual self and you did things that were unusual for you or that other people might have thought were excessive, foolish, or risky?

I’ve done a lot of excessive, foolish, and risky things that may seem unusual for other people. But I’m pretty sure it was always my usual self doing them and that they were usual for me at the time.


What is your favorite curse word?

Bordel, a French swear word. It means, literally, “brothel,” but if you say “c’est un bordel,” it means “what a mess.” I really love traditional curses, such as “May your left ear wither and fall into your right pocket” and “May the curse of Mary Malone and her nine blind illegitimate children chase you so far over the hills of Damnation that the Lord himself can’t find you with a telescope.”


Spiderman or Batman?

That’s really hard. Spiderman has that catch-you-in-my-web allure. Plus he’s more of a loner than Batman, who is part of a Dynamic Duo and is assisted by Alfred. Batman offers a kind of sexual ambiguity that I find alluring, and of course, he drives the Batmobile and stashes all his toys and gadgets and bat suits in the supremely cool Batcave. Both, I guess (though if you were asking me to choose between Toby Maguire and Michael Keaton, I’d go for Keaton).


What is your favorite animal and why?

Everything but humans. For the obvious reasons.


For the sake of this interview, can’t you just pick one.

On Sundays, my favorite animal is the otter because an otter knows how to frolic. On Mondays, I like elephants most, because they remember that life is not all about going back to work. On Tuesdays, especially those Tuesdays when I am apt to hit the snooze button ten times, I favor bears because they can be grizzly, black, polar, brown, or teddy. On Wednesdays, I love dolphins and whales because they are clever. Thursdays my favorite animals are all the birds—raptors, finches, corvids, etc.—because by Thursday, I wish I had wings. Fridays find me favoring the felines, especially my own cat. On Saturday, my favorite animal is canine, and in particular, my dog.


At times I have very much wanted to leave home. (check one):

True    X

False

I actually did run away from home, twice. When I was thirteen, I hid in my boyfriend, Richard’s, closet and read Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The second time, I was sixteen and I went to my best friend’s house because I wanted to hang out with her and also because I had a crush on her brother Richie; her mother drove the school bus.  These days I’m a pretty staunch homebody and would more likely feel compelled to leave my office. Though there are always moments when I’d like to be twenty again and have the kind of freedom where I could just take off and go wherever I pleased.


What is your favorite word?

Ludic.


What is the word you hate most?

Like, especially when it’s used as an interjection.


You allude to birds often in your writing. But you never write about your phobias about bugs. Why is that?

Growing up in New York City before the invention of the Roach Motel and before we knew about boric acid, I was exposed to cockroaches on a daily basis. They freaked me out—something about the way they twitched their antennae seemed sneaky and underhanded. I’d call for my father to kill them. My mother tried to alleviate my fears by naming them and talking to them as if they were guests, but that only freaked me out more. That’s all I can really say about it.


What plant or animal would you like to be reincarnated as?

A patch of moss, if a plant. A raven if an animal.


You take pleasure in putting things in order (check one):

Yes     X

No

Some years ago I assisted a good friend in throwing a party by doing all the cooking for over seventy people. One of the guests asked me how I managed this and I explained that it simply required a great deal of organization and planning ahead. Out of the blue, she asked me, “Did you play with files as a kid?” Her question stunned me because I had played with files; my dad, if he had to work on a Saturday, often took me to his office. I would play an imaginary game of spy in the file room.


What historical figure is your hero?

Miriam, sister of Moses. She knew what was happening around her—had her ear to the ground, so to speak—and took action. Plus, when the Jews were leaving Egypt, she played a tambourine and danced her way across the parted Red Sea and out of slavery. She was able to locate water in the desert. And she was a prophet. These are all good qualities to have when you’re in a hot place, no oasis in sight, accompanied by both your extended family and your tribe, for forty years, with no plumbing, no maps, and a brother who keeps receiving all the divine messages.


Do you have a tattoo?

No.


If you did have a tattoo, what and where would it be?

A small raven feather, on my shoulder.


Who were your favorite writers when you were growing up?

As a child, I was a devout fan of E. B. White—Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan, Walter Farley’s books about the black stallion, Bob Dylan’s musical poems. I was nine when I first read a novel, and it was For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hemingway remains one of my favorite writers today. As a teenager, I devoured dramatic literature—in particular, Eugene O’Neill, Henrik Ibsen, Elmer Rice, August Strindberg, Samuel Beckett. In my twenties, Virginia Woolf claimed favorite status, a place she still occupies, alongside James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Joan Didion, John Berger, Susan Sontag, and a cast of many more.


If prostitution is wrong, then why are there so many examples of it in Genesis?

This could be a very long answer, but I’ll encapsulate two thousand years of history by saying that it wasn’t until the Church institutionalized religion that prostitution became wrong. Back in the days of Genesis, prostitutes were priestesses of the sacred temples, initiating the uninitiated in the ways of love.


What is your opposite gender name?

Alexander. (To my friend Alexander, I say: I am not making this up; the computer generated this answer.)


Where did your god come from?

From someone’s imagination. And, because I was raised as a Jew, a mezuzah on the doorframe, I tend to think a little like Lenny Bruce, who said that God lives in that little box on a slant in the doorway.


Evil spirits possess me at times (check one):

True    X

False

Only when I watch Fox News, listen to Sarah Palin, contemplate the eight years of Republican undoing, see pictures of oil-drenched wildlife, and/or on the eve of a blue moon.


Whose face would you choose to illustrate a new bank note?

Mick Jagger, with the inscription “You can’t always get you want” on one side and “Can’t get no satisfaction” on the other. That way, whenever people would spend it, they’d have a message about the evils of consumerism that would be roughly equivalent to the Surgeon General’s warning on a pack of cigarettes.


What century would you have preferred to have lived in?

Pre-contact, on the island of Manahatta.


After you die, what would you like God (if you think God exists) to say to you?

Let’s dance.


Do you feel guilty if you cry in public?

No, I just feel self-conscious.


Who is your favorite fictional character?

Charlotte the spider.


What is your favorite drug?

Feeling awakened.


My soul sometimes leaves my body (check one):

True   X

False

Only when it’s invited to ride the Soul Train. It always comes back. And no one ever offers me riches beyond compare for it.


What is the quality you most admire in dogs?

The way they wag their tails as if to say “What’s the next good thing?”


Has there ever been a time when you were not your usual self and thoughts raced through your head or you couldn’t slow your mind down?

Only when I have too much caffeine.


Who is your favorite character in a work of nonfiction?

Fred the dog in E. B. White’s essays.


Night or day?

Neither. I’ll take twilight, dusk, dawn, those liminal times of day when the mind is sharp and the light diffuse and creatures are awakening or preparing to settle down.


***

Thanks to David Foster Wallace for the title. Answers to more writerly questions can be found on interviews links or posted at my Web site: www.kimdanakupperman.com. Questions for this self-interview were compiled from a variety of sources, including e-mails from friends, The Mood Disorder Questionnaire, the Proust Questionnaire, the Bernard Pivot Questionnaire, a MySpace Either/Or Survey, an Online Name Generator, the Heirophant’s Proselytizer Questionnaire, the Myers-Briggs Personality Test, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, and an online emotions test.

The Milk!

By Ryan Day

Humor

It is a Spanish custom that women who appear in films must spend at least half of their screen time topless. My girlfriend is a radical. She spends half her time in a bra.

My girlfriend is an actress.  Recently we attended a screening of a short film in which she plays a woman from India who is held captive by a well-built Spaniard for unknown reasons (unknown to me, because though my Spanish is pretty good, I always miss some crucial plot elements). My favorite part was when she attacked the door with a hammer, screaming in a Hindi accent. My girlfriend is badass, I self-congratulated.

My least favorite part was when she seduced the well-built Spaniard in order to put him off his guard and escape. She really seduced him. She’s a hell of an actress. This is all make believe, like the transpirings on the other side of Mr. Rogers’ magic trolley tunnel, I told myself, squeezing her hand for reassurance.



Let me back up to the moment of our arrival at Barbú, the bar where the short was screened. I’ll translate literally, to maintain all of the awkwardness to the Guirri (that’s the Spanish for Gringo) boyfriend, and to indulge my own inner Hemingway wannabe.

“Hello, gorgeous woman!” says the actor, Pablo, who was soon to be straddled by the person with whom I share a sleeping space.  Pablo and my girlfriend, up on a giant screen, every man in the room psychically projecting himself through the magic of the cinematic suture into Pablo’s position. He grabs my girlfriend firmly by the shoulders and plants two kisses.

“Man!” she says, as if this needs any reinforcing. “Handsome! How handsome you are!”

Here in the bar, they continue holding hands as they speak from a distance of four inches. I linger awkwardly to the side. This is Spanish talking. I learned long ago not to stare straight into a conversation.

“Fuck! Man! How many people, no?”

“Yes! How many people. Fuck. It’s true.”

“Let’s go! And you? How are you? How do you walk?”

“Come on! Good. Good. I go good. I mean, I’m not working with any beauties like you, but it’s work, no?” He makes the ubiquitous Spanish gesture of sliding a hand back and forth through the air, like a salute that departs from the chin, but keeps getting sent back to retrieve additional whiskers.

“Yes. Working with you was the milk. Man! The milk!”

“I know it! This job today, ufff. I shit in the whore ocean!”

She puts a hand to her heart. “What pain that gives me.”

“I shit in everything!”

“What pain!” she says.

“Well, let’s go! There is to find seats and the people they are filing in like one testicle [or egg; readers’ choice]!”

“Fuck!”

“Fuck!”

Hands finally part. Two more kisses are exchanged. Guapos and Guapas abound. Venga. Vamos. Nos vemos despues. Vale. Ciao. Hasta ahora. Un beso. Otro para ti. Hasta luego. Adios. Vaya que bien verte, no? Vaya. Hombre. Tia.

Two Spaniards parting can be a lengthy process, even if it is only to cross the room, watch a short film and reconvene immediately thereafter. As a foreigner I never know when to hang up the phone or walk away from a friend on a street corner. I almost always feel as though I’ve cut the other party off before they are permitted one of their customary goodbyes. I think a definitive number needs to be chosen — 3, 5, 7.  It doesn’t really matter, but there must be certainty.

So the movie begins, and shortly thereafter, the passion unfolds.  My girlfriend squeezes my hand, smiles and rolls her eyes to make me feel better. Not that I feel all that bad. It’s more disembodied than bad. Watching the person you know more intimately than any other person in the world change into a violent Indian warrior woman and make passionate love to a muscular, mustachioed member of the Guardia Civil challenges some strange dissonance between what you know to be so, and what is ‘happening’ right in front of you. It’s sort of like free Buddhism lessons. Everything is an illusion. Reality is formless. She tickles my palm with her fingernail. I’m split in half. I’m floating through the room in a meditative bliss.  Well, maybe not bliss, and maybe not meditative.  More like stunned ambiguity. I float to the other side and see the dreaded Pablo. Joder!



What is the writing equivalent? Writing a sex scene? Writing a kiss? Not a fair comparison. While it certainly involves some level of dissimulation, it lacks the embodied bits that make it so disconcertingly real.  I think writers should get to practice their scenes with other writers. At least writers who date actors. It’s only fair.



When the movie ends, Pablo returns to our side of the bar.

“Hello, Aunt,” says Pablo.

“Uncle!” she says.

He ushers a slender fellow in solid black to his side. “He is Javier my boyfriend,” says Pablo.



Still, though…



In my head I have a quote I can’t attribute. I want to say it was Faulkner or Fitzgerald. Maybe Steinbeck. It noted (I’m paraphrasing) that we writers don’t compete with our contemporaries; we compete, rather, with the greats.

It’s possible it was Hemingway. Because there is another quote I can attribute to him, from a New Yorker profile of him:

I started out very quiet and I beat Turgenev. Then I tried hard and I beat de Maupassant. I’ve fought two draws with Stendahl, and I think I had an edge in the last one. But nobody’s going to get me in any ring with Tolstoy unless I’m crazy or I keep getting better.

Even besides that profile, the idea of wrestling with the greats sounds like Hemingway, especially considering his running with bulls and hunting on safari and writing hills like white elephants and shooting himself in the face. Hemingway’s always struck me as though he was born smack-dab in the middle of a mid-life crisis he never actually grew out of, only they didn’t have tiny sports cars back then, so he had to over-compensate in other ways.

I got this idea, of rings and fights and competitions, in my head when I read that The Nervous Breakdown’s founder, Brad Listi, will be having a conversation with Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk in mid-May at LA’s Largo at the Coronet Theater.

Fight Club the book was published a week and a half before I started college. I don’t remember hearing much about it until Edward Norton and Brad Pitt signed on to do the movie. Now, this doesn’t mean people weren’t talking about it. I could just be forgetting. I could have missed it for one reason or another (who am I kidding? I was probably studying).

“I want you to hit me as hard as you can.” I’ll not spoil the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet (though, really, it’s been ten years. What’s the statute of limitations on spoilers?), but I think pretty much everyone knows Fight Club‘s story is its title. It’s about a guy who meets a guy who wants to be hit as hard as possible, and I guess it becomes about male dissatisfaction and aggression and coming to terms with the fact that we’re not the rockstar gods we assumed we’d grow up to be.

Or something. There’s a lot of punching. Also some fucking Helena Bonham Carter (in the movie). Also some shit blowing up. Also, Meatloaf (again, movie) and his boobs. Also, a penguin.

***

I think one could make the argument Fight Club is about men dealing with emasculation; I’m not sure I would, but Fight Club is the sort of book—along with The Great Gatsby and American Psycho, for two—that makes me consider the idea of feminist literary theory, and seems to corroborate the necessity for a complementary masculinist theory. I’ve heard it argued that such a thing is not necessary because the male viewpoint, in a patriarchal society, is the default; I’m just not sure of that, and I tend to hesitate in making generalizations.

Still, I wonder if there is some connection between the idea of a fight club and masculinity. That single Y chromosome, despite its diminutive stature, is enough to change a lot, physiologically speaking, and the defining characteristic of male gender is a penis and testicles, the latter of which produce testosterone. So do ovaries and, to a lesser extent, certain adrenal glands, but when it comes down to testosterone, an androgen, a hormone that causes the body to exhibit stereotypically male characteristics—deep voice, hair growth in some places and loss in others—the primary source is the testes. Testosterone also increases protein synthesis in muscle cells, contributing to their growth, which is why bodybuilders use steroids, and bodybuilders’ balls shrink because their bodies suddenly think they have enough testosterone that the testes don’t need to produce anymore.

That increase of testosterone causes many other side effects, one of which is increased aggression—roid rage.

Which brings me back to the central question; not whether Fight Club is a male movie, but rather: who would you fight?

One of the movie’s jokes (among other things, it’s a deeply black comedy; is it really about masculinity, or is it satirizing masculinity? Must the two be mutually exclusive?) is when Brad Pitt and Edward Norton discuss which celebrities they would fight. Pitt, if I recall correctly, cites Lincoln, noting he was tall and probably had good reach.

In perfect deadpan, Norton states, simply, “I’d fight Ghandi.”

***

In finishing coursework to earn an MBA in marketing, I’ve had to write several business plans, and others concerning marketing and international strategy. Most of these documents contain a section that requires me to assess my competition.

Now, when it comes to these assignments, the courses always offer the option of using an already established company as model; some students choose companies like Google or Apple or Microsoft.

Me, I choose myself. I’m a bit of a narcissist like that. But seriously, I’m earning the MBA for the same reason I earned an MPW; for writers, I think knowing how to reach readers is as important as being able to produce something valuable to reach them with, so I think—especially nowadays, with Kindles and iPads and nooks—that writers should know business as well as they know craft.

Problem is, every time I choose to do a business plan concerning me, as an author, I have to write another section about my competition. The results always strike me as inherently wrong; am I really competing with Dan Brown or Timeline or The Time-Traveler’s Wife or The Historian or The Raw Shark Texts? I don’t think so (though that may be why I’m having such a difficult time selling the damned thing).

In a superficial way, the comparison makes sense: shelves, whether in book stores or readers’ homes, are finite, and only so many pages will fit on them. Writers vie with each other for precious shelf space.

But in another way entirely, we don’t. In that entirely other way, we compete not with each other but with ideas, with culture. We compete for attention. The fact that there’s room enough on the Internet for everyone might be both its greatest benefit and disadvantage.

To go back to the idea with which I opened: if we are to compete with anyone, should it not be with the greats?

***

Growing up Catholic, one of the expressions I most commonly heard—besides “You need to put on your God glasses” and “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed”—was a question: what would Jesus do? Now, as my last TNB essay quite obviously demonstrated, when it comes right down to that question, I really don’t have a clue: I figure ride a pony, exonerate an unfaithful wife, have a meal with his friends (it’s worth noting I originally wrote “wife” there, then erased it. Freudian what?), die on a cross, that sort of thing. For me, wondering what he would do is fraught with more uncertainty than the situations during which one might actually ask it.

Still, the idea of role models, of mentors, is always useful, especially when facing a difficult choice.

I faced a difficult choice in 2005, when I decided I wanted to go to graduate school for writing. Articles about How to Choose the Right Writing Program for You tend to make the cover of magazines only writers read; you know both the articles and magazines I mean without my enumerating them. There’s probably an ampersand in the title, and each one tends to have a monthly quota of one article with a list of Ways to Pump Up Your Novel, one concerning How to Structure Your Memoir, one on a group of Agents’ and Editors’ Inside Secrets to Querying and Publishing, and finally one by a Current Best-Seller Encouraging Writers to Follow Their Dreams. We writers read each of the first three because we hope one day to write the last.

Most of the articles on choosing a writing program mention things like residency and financial considerations. Common advice is to choose a program whose faculty has written books you’ve enjoyed, or in the style or genre in which you hope to write and publish, but that just made me think of the writers I’d read: Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Crichton, JK Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Nick Hornby, TNB’s own Richard Cox. I’m fairly sure none of those writers went to grad school for writing—Crichton went for medicine—and only one, Gaiman, taught (at Clarion West).

I always wanted to be a mega-seller, but none of the faculties seemed to include really popular writers. I fear that dichotomy; if you look at the sorts of books millions of readers read nowadays . . . well, how about we note that the books that earn critical acclaim from prestigious institutions are often not the same as the books that dominate the best-sellers lists? That when New York publishing people start talking about the NBA on Twitter, most readers would probably be surprised they’re not talking about the Knicks?

I remember the relief I felt when I saw USC’s website. While there were a few names I didn’t know, I’d heard of Irvin Kershner; he put my first memory ever onto a screen. I’d also heard of Marc Norman; Shakespeare in Love is one of my favorite movies. I’d also heard of Janet Fitch; I’d loved her novel, which had been chosen for Oprah’s bookclub. I wasn’t yet familiar with Sid Stebel, who became a valuable mentor, but Ray Bradbury said he was great, and Bradbury I knew.

Am I right that it’s a maxim that students are supposed to, ultimately, defeat their masters? As a teacher myself, my aim is for my students to master the techniques I’ve demonstrated to them so they can find their own ways, but I keep thinking of martial arts movies in which the students fight the master to achieve enlightenment. I’m thinking of Christian Bale fighting Liam Neeson in Batman Begins, of Neo fighting Morpheus in bullet-time.

I keep thinking of Fight Club and of Hemingway’s ring.

Truthfully, I never had much time for the greats. Fitzgerald could have used a better editor, Faulkner a POV. Hemingway was a pansy who overcompensated via hypermasculinity, Poe a drunk who married his cousin, Cheever a closeted bisexual who seemed to hate himself and his wife. Dickens wrote like he was paid by the word, and Bukowski should’ve flushed his beer-shit prose. O’Connor’s Catholic guilt bored, while Austen’s propriety grated and Bronte’s melodrama depressed.

So none of them.

No, I’d fight Shakespeare.

When I wonder about role models and mentors, I don’t consider the cross. I always ask myself: what would Shakespeare do?

(I mean besides Anne Hathaway.)

This week marked an anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and christening; he died on April 23rd, and was baptized on April 26th. There is no record of his birth, but custom at the time was quick baptism, so he was probably only a few days old; he might well have died on his 52nd birthday. He was called a lot of things in his time, including an upstart crow, but maybe not a genius. Really, he was just a writer who sat down every day to write words for actors that the great masses of audience would love, and they, by most accounts, loved him for it; his work was as popular as Rowling’s or Brown’s, and we’ll see if their stories last as well.

When I wonder what I should do, I always wonder what he would have done. Mainly because I want to do better.

***

Truthfully, of course, this is all flawed. When it comes right down to it, I think we writers know we’re in the ring alone, and we only ever wrestle ourselves.

Because the artist is

that rare and

fragile bird

with little armor for

this cruel world

Valentine

By Brin Butler

Essay

She bought a one-way plane ticket over here around midnight. She bought it on the same week, same day, same *hour* that a couple, same age as us—who it turns out might’ve got engaged that same day— got smoked by an SUV that blew through a crosswalk.

The 18 year old drunken kid behind the wheel had stolen the SUV and brought along two younger girls in the back seat. Maybe he was trying to impress them by driving fast. I dunno. I do know that after killing that couple he ran off and tried to swim across the icy-cold inlet to the opposite shore but a police dog nabbed him before he could get away.

Yesterday I went over to where that couple died. There was a little shrine against one side of a tunnel underneath a bridge.

There were some people milling around trying to find the spot because the story had been front page in the newspapers. They were giddy and confused but also ready to be upset. It made me uneasy. There were a few crosswalks to choose from pretty close by. The actual location is a bit tucked away. I was alone for a minute and lit up a cigarette after I found a poem by Rilke taped onto the wall of the tunnel and in no time a throng of other tourists piled in.





On Hearing of A Death

We lack all knowledge of this parting. Death
does not deal with us. We have no reason
to show death admiration, love or hate;
his mask of feigned tragic lament gives us

a false impression. The world’s stage is still
filled with roles which we play. While we worry
that our performances may not please,
death also performs, although to no applause.

But as you left us, there broke upon this stage
a glimpse of reality, shown through the slight
opening through which you disappeared: green,
evergreen, bathed in sunlight, actual woods.

We keep on playing, still anxious, our difficult roles
declaiming, accompanied by matching gestures
as required. But your presence so suddenly
removed from our midst and from our play, at times

overcomes us like a sense of that other
reality: yours, that we are so overwhelmed
and play our actual lives instead of the performance,
forgetting altogether the applause.

Other people poking around to find the spot saw us and came over. It was them looking for it with a combination of disorientation and slight panic that reminded me of something I’ve never written about or really talked about either. I mean, what that crosswalk and my girlfriend’s one-way plane ticket have in common I’m not too sure. A lot of it is a big emphasis on a *beginning*, a start, a first page, first-sight, taking a chance. I love beginnings and hate goodbyes.

Five years ago I took a girl to Madrid and we arrived the day after the bombing of the Atocha train station. It’s not Grand Central or the Gare du Nord, but it’s an awfully nice place to see and has its own charm. I had a reservation for us at a little pension about 4 blocks from the blast. I’d picked that pension because it was sandwiched between the train station and the Prado. I boxed in Madrid daily and had to pass through Atocha every day to get there and on the way back I’d meet up with Jackie and we’d see El Greco, Velázquez, Goya, Salvador Dalí at the Prado or the Reina Sofia where little boys and girls demonstrate some of the differences between boys and girls with their approach to dealing with pigeons (girls nice, boys evil).

After the horror of the explosion, one of the most bizarre, disturbing things before the ambulances got there was the lack of silence. Hundreds of dinky melodies rang out and clashed for hours that everyone was afraid to deal with. Imagine a decked out Christmas tree except that every ornament is a cellphone: that’s how Atocha chimed from all corners as families desperately tried to see if their loved ones were unlucky.

I get spooked when somebody dies meaninglessly. Hemingway said the only difference between people is the details of how we live and how we die. Gaudi getting smashed by bus, or Nick Drake overdosing on anti-depressants, or Lennon getting wacked in front of his doorstep, or Plath sticking her head in that oven—you can’t look at their life or their art the same way. I guess that’s why I was a little comforted when more and more details came out about that pair who died at the crosswalk. They felt like supposition to sell papers but still, it was obscenely difficult not to wonder:

A friend had suggested she’d found out about the ring but kept it from him to not spoil the surprise. Did he pop the question at dinner that night? Her friends said she’d been looking through bridal magazines. What’d they talk about at dinner? Did they ever talk about how they’d want to die? Did he not leave a very good tip and she suddenly took in, FUCK, I’M GONNA MARRY A CHEAPSKATE! Maybe she even told him as a joke. Did they ever wonder about the possibility of dying at the same time at a happy moment in their lives and sorta hanging up their lives for everyone they cared about on the peg of never spending another moment apart? How violently beautiful is that? Boy, hit-and-run—who’d see that one coming? Probably nobody who knew them. Maybe those two little girls in the back seat for about a split second.

I was so happy when my girl bought a ticket over here to start a life with me I just stared at the confirmation for 20 minutes without it really sinking in. I never said so, but I felt like we had some stacked odds working against us. This long distance thing for the last year is rotten stuff. Pen pals with the odd bi-monthly conjugal visit isn’t much of a dream situation. And it’s clumsy to admit I wouldn’t have remembered the day she bought that ticket without what happened to this couple who never get any more tomorrows together in the way I hopefully will. Maybe one day some little brat will ask me about when mommy first came over here and even though I’ll lie through my teeth and talk about my seven failed Russian mail-order bride-marriages before I’m slapped by anyone within earshot (and they’ll hit hard); it was February 10th, on a *choose*day, we both slipped on some kind of banana peel taking a crack at something and I wouldn’t have known or especially cared if it weren’t for some piece of shit kid who plowed into this couple. Not fate, just someone who’ll have to do or accomplish god knows what to have anything other than this senseless act define him for the rest of his life. Some punk with a chip on his shoulder trades it in for a fucking millstone. But at the same time, here I am using his millstone as a lucky charm.

See why I sent this to you and not her?

PARIS, FR –

“If you are lucky enough to have visited Paris as a not-so-young person, then
wherever you go for the rest of your life, even if it’s Palatka, Florida; Shangba, China; or Flint, Michigan (okay, maybe not Flint), it stays with you, for Paris is a portable snack — but like the best snack ever: a crepe jambon et fromage on a cold day, for instance.” – JL Stankus

Montmartre

We left the windows open at night so the room was cold in the morning and the cold was good.

Viewday_2

We woke to the municipal workers watering the trees in the square at Place Emile-Goudeau below us. I went to the window and saw one of them as he watched a young woman washing the big window of the pâtisserie on the corner.

She wore the Converse “Chucks” that were the rage, tight dark hip-hugger jeans and a bright pink blouse that rose up as she stretched, her olive skin winking at him. This was Montmartre waking up.