Dear Kinsey,

By Jamie Iredell

Essay

797

By the time you read this your Dear Old Dad—if I’m lucky—will still live: an oversized raisin clinging to my dusty tomes in a stinking armchair, nodding off with my glasses skiing down my nose. I will begrudge your generation’s shitty music and ridiculous clothing and our leaders’ uselessness, and all of this will annoy you. I’ve felt this way for most of my life and, yes, I’ve pretty much always been insufferable.

I drove en route to a one-bedroom cabin set off a lonely road from a remote highway in the north Georgia mountains where I’d have no cell phone reception. The cabin came with a mini-fridge, a shower and kitchen sink, a twin bed, a desk upon which I’d perch my computer, and the chair in which I’d sit to write. The windows looked out on a swath of mixed evergreen and deciduous forest that, in the duration of my stay, would blend into a kaleidoscopic of green and the yellow, orange, and red of fall.

If you’re like me you know that your father told you and your brother and sister stories. They often involved characters named Jamie, and companions or equally relevant characters named after your siblings, as together you all tromped through forests and conquered giants and met and saved princesses and you all became princesses and princes and eventually kings and queens. This transpired while you were tucked under the covers of your childhood bed in the bedroom in which you grew up, situated in the northwest corner of the house in which your parents raised you. The covers covered your knees and, sometimes—during the scary parts when Jamie had to outlast ogres, dragons, or giant rats—the covers reared up to your chin, just as you’d imagine they might in a movie version of this story of your life.

To be fair, we abused each other. It was not–as one might use the cliche–a one-way street. The first time we had a big a fight I threw a desklamp against a wall where it shattered and the sparks sifted like fireworks falling in a heated sky till they faded and disappeared. We had just moved in together, into this one bedroom Victorian house on Ralston Street in Reno, Nevada, two houses down from the pizza joint/pub where we worked. My friend from school had left a message on our answering machine, inviting me to her birthday party. My girlfriend insisted that I had fucked this friend, that I was still fucking her. Why else would she invite me to the party, and not explicitly also invite my girlfriend? I was running around, I couldn’t keep my dick in my pants, she should have known I was that kind of guy, why does she always do this, getting herself involved with people like me? My girlfriend wouldn’t let me say anything. In frustration the lamp flew.

BACKGROUND: 750 feet in the air, on the top floor of One Atlantic Center in Midtown Atlanta for Alston and Byrd, LLP’s hosting of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation Winetasting and Silent Auction fundraiser. The Judge stood about five-foot-six to my six feet. His wine sloshed in its glass, his caviar-smeared cracker half-bitten. I had two martinis before any wine, and nothing to eat.

My sister-in-law is a neurolinguist and my wife is a lawyer. I’m a writer and college professor of writing and literature. To say that we don’t bump heads when it comes to what constitutes “good” or “bad” writing is like saying that clichés aren’t the repetitive iterations of the indoctrinated. Better yet: we don’t “bump heads”; we smash each others’ brains into metaphorical food processors and whip up some semantic taters.

The discussion is not new. We’ve talked about it over the years. In particular, it’s an ongoing fight between me and my wife. Our most recent battle took place one night while my sister-in-law was visiting with us.  Afterwards, I talked to one of my writer-friends. This pal brought up what seemed at first a good point: since it is our profession to be writers, can we not “own” that craft? Are we not able to determine what is and is not good writing? As an analogy, my friend offered, “It’s not like you’re telling your wife that what she practices is ‘bad law,’ or that what your sister-in-law does is ‘bad science’; but they’re telling you what they think is ‘good’ writing.”

At first, this sounded right on. But the next morning, after I resumed the intellectual battle with my wife, armed with this new analogy, my advance proved short, and was ultimately repelled. I didn’t stump my wife, even if the analogy made her think for a moment. I had to consider her counter-argument: just because “writing” is not the main component of her profession (since, as a lawyer, the intellectual understanding of the law and its processes is her foremost skill), in almost every instance at her job she cannot articulate her ideas without writing them. The same goes for my sister-in-law. So writing is central to both their occupations, yet neither would consider herself a “writer.”

This all comes after teaching David Foster Wallace’s “Tense Present,” or, as it appears in his collection Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, “Authority and American Usage,” in which he laments, among other things, Academic English and other abominations, like legalese. Wallace, I feel confident in arguing, cannot stand Academic English (he calls it “a cancer”) or legalese, and I admit his point of view was enticing, especially since, like me, he was a writer of literary fiction and nonfiction.

In his essay, both of the above-mentioned uses of the English language come up as asides–mentions in an essay that concerns itself with the “Usage Wars” between Descriptivist and Prescriptivist linguists and other language nerds. Think of these as the Democrats and Republicans of how people use English. Descriptivists might say that “What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” is perfectly valid English, not unlike a Democrat might argue that everyone equally deserves the same basic human rights, whether black or white, man or woman, straight or homosexual, etcetera. Obviously, people do speak this way; and if people speak this way, how can we ignore that this is one way that the English language is used? Descriptivists can explain what’s happening in the language as Standard Black English dialect with elided vowels and dropped consonant endings. They would also claim that Arnold’s now-famous Diff’rent Strokes (note the spelling as appropriate to the show’s characters’ dialect) punchline is just as valid English as the Standard Written English equivalent of “Whatever might you mean, Willis?”

The Prescriptivists, on the other hand, do not ignore the multiple uses of language, but prioritize the Standard Written English dialect over others as the language of commerce and discourse, kind of like the Republican economics of the “trickle-down” philosophy that favors the fiscally-privileged. Consider another example that compares Standard Written English and California English (my own native dialect): “Dude, this is hella good guacamole,” as opposed to its Standard Written English equivalent: “My friend, this guacamole is exceptional.” Thus, Prescriptivists care about Standard Written English and argue its supremacy in socio-economic discourse (i.e., talking or writing to one another, especially when it comes to the finer points of advancing one’s business goals, or “winning friends and influencing people”). Of course, realistically, there exist rhetorical situations in which the use of such a dialect as Standard Black English, California English, and/or others specific to particular groups of speakers remains preferable to SWE, which Wallace likewise admits.

So, a problem in my claim that AE and legalese are both examples of “bad” writing is my wife and her sister’s central argument: that within those professions there exist both “good” and “bad” writers. There are writers who take AE and legalese to their extremes, and there are writers who employ academic and legal terms but who, for the most part, use SWE to convey their ideas. Compare the following

“I am herewith returning the stipulation to dismiss in the above entitled matter; the same being duly executed by me”

To–while on the same Google search of “bad legalese”–this from The Wall Street Journal.

Or consider the most esoteric of articles written for the journal Discourse and Disclosure, such as the recently published “HILDA: A Discourse Parser Using Support Vector Machine Classification,” by Hugo Hernault, Helmut Prendinger, and David A. duVerle.

But just because these experts do not write the kind of prose that I think makes “good” writing, it’s preposterous of me to think that all members of these professions ought to write in the clear but flowery language of the literary ilk.

I confess my inclination to argue that the academies which have produced the linguistic ticks of prose in the scientific and legal worlds (not to mention a thousand other jargon-laden professions) ought to revise their strategies and take classes on writing clear and deliberate prose. But such a thesis is impractical and asinine. To argue such only serves to piss off my wife and sister-in-law–and others in their respective professions–and in the interests of maintaining decent familial and romantic relations it’s best for me to consider alternatives.

This is, ironically, what DFW argues in his review of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage: that rhetoric is an element that traditional linguists have failed to consider in the majority of their arguments, either for or against prescriptivism. Language itself is, after all, something all humans use, either speaking, in sign-language, or in writing, and just because my artistic medium is the language itself does not give me leeway to judge all uses thereof. That would be like Picasso telling a house painter he didn’t know what the fuck he was doing.

In hindsight, now that I’ve taken the time to think through these thoughts and write them here, and after revising said thoughts and the writing thereof on numerous occasions, and after the badly planned morning assault on my wife’s position in this argument–the result of which was said wife, in her bathrobe, picking up her laptop and stalking out of the living room where we’d previously sat together, peacefully enjoying our coffee and checking our email accounts–I have decided that when considering the immediate audience of my lawyer wife, and, by extension, my scientist sister-in-law, it is best to agree: lawyers and scientists can be pretty good writers.

 

*Author’s note: Students in the University System of Georgia must take and pass a Regents’ Exam in writing. I’ve taught a Regents’ Exam prep course, and in freshman composition I have generally been required to teach students how to pass this test. There are 635 approved essay prompts. When a student takes his Regents’ Exam, a random selection of four of these prompts shows up on the test instruction sheet. From these the student chooses one prompt.

As a writing exercise–warming up before jumping into whatever book I’m working on each day–I’ve been randomly selecting a prompt from the list of approved essay topics and writing a short essay–about the same length that an actual Georgia college student might compose when taking this test.

I don’t know if I’ll end up writing 635 essays, but this is a start. I’m calling this project “Writing Sample.”

 

 

What is one of the worst things that people do to one another?  Explain.

 

 

Every time my mother talks to her brother he reminds her that he is the “sole trustee and executor of the St. George family trust.”

 

When I was a boy I used a magnifying glass to burn insects.

 

I once shot my brother with a BB gun when he was walking into the yard, coming home from school. He spun, looking for cover, finding nothing, while I took aim, and waited, lining up the sights, before I squeezed the trigger. When he cried I called him a faggot.

 

I once burned alive a San Francisco alligator lizard with gasoline then dissected its cooked remains.

 

My best friend is what Nietzsche described as a “free spirit,” and I get pissed at him because he cancels classes, gets in trouble at work, runs out of money, and lounges on his porch drinking beer when he should be writing poems.

 

This classmate of mine and his buddies wouldn’t do calisthenics in PE one foggy day in our freshman year, so our teacher made everyone run the cross country course and I waited for this kid and broke his arm.

 

“Paul Broussard (1964–1991), a twenty-seven year-old Houston-area banker and Texas A&M alumnus, was beaten and stabbed to death in a gay-bashing incident outside a Houston nightclub on July 4, 1991 by ten teenage boys. The youths had driven from the northern Houston suburb of The Woodlands to the heavily gay area of Montrose solely to “beat up some queers,” in the words of one of the convicted teens.”

 

Once, when my wife and I fought, I threw an empty Budweiser bottle at the wall.

 

Sometimes when my mother calls and rambles on about nothing I can’t hide my boredom and desire to get off the phone and get on with my day even though with said rambling it’s obvious that my mother only wants to talk to her firstborn, hear my voice, know that I’m alive, the baby she brought into the world, nursed to viability, watched grow up safe and happy.

 

In high school I took this girl out who liked me and I knew that she liked me and I didn’t really like her back but still I took her out and I knew that I could and that I could take her shirt off and I did and I knew that I could and that I could not talk to her afterwards and I did and all of this I knew.

 

The uncle mentioned above, a gay man, suffers the chagrin of most family members for his admittedly pompous behavior. However, these family members repeatedly make light of this uncle’s sexuality and often comment on “how hard” his parents had it, dealing with his homosexuality, never once considering how hard it might have been for this uncle, brother, son, etc., to have “come out.”

 

Last week a college police officer calmly and without any apparent remorse pepper sprayed at point-blank range a group of students who sat on the ground with their arms linked in solidarity.

 

Some estimates say that as many as 78 million—nearly twice California’s population—died as a result of World War II.

 

Students in the University System of Georgia must take and pass a Regents’ Exam in writing. I’ve taught a Regents’ Exam prep course, and in freshman composition I have generally been required to teach students how to pass this test. There are 635 approved essay prompts. When a student takes his Regents’ Exam, a random selection of four of these prompts shows up on the test instruction sheet. From these the student chooses one prompt.

As a writing exercise—warming up before jumping into whatever book I’m working on each day—I’ve been randomly selecting a prompt from the list of approved essay topics (http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwrtp/topics.htm) and writing a short essay—about the same length that an actual Georgia college student might compose—when taking this test.

I don’t know if I’ll end up writing 635 essays, but this is a start. I’m calling this project “Writing Sample.”

 

What are the most appropriate ways for people to show anger? Explain.

 

In the late 1990s I lived in Reno, Nevada and bartended at a college pizza joint and had a girlfriend who also worked at this bar and me and this girlfriend tried living together for about six months and although that didn’t work out, we stuck together for something like three or four years. Our relationship did not blossom beyond boyfriend-girlfriend because (and here I would like to say that it was because she’s a crazy bitch—and I still think she is—but I’m going to be honest with myself instead) but we both drank way too much and she had some anger management issues and these things combined brought out the worst in me, too. I remember the first time: I knocked that desklamp so hard it flew across the office in her house (the little Victorian I had just moved into), the bulb shattering against the opposite wall, the aluminum shade flattened, sparks floating to the carpet then darkness and silence. This happened because a friend had called to invite me to her birthday party and my girlfriend accused me of having fucked this friend, accused me of still fucking her, or of at least wanting to, and none of these things were true and my girlfriend wouldn’t shut up and listen to reason. We destroyed almost everything we owned. Before I moved out, three guitars ended up splintered on the street’s asphalt during violent attempts to leave; knives slashed, and bare hands ripped to shreds, an Oleg Cassini gown and cashmere dresses and a Hugo Boss suit; about ten window panes were replaced in the house and one on the old lady’s pickup; a thirty-six-inch television hissed and spewed smoke out its vents after I threw it; I had black eyes and bloodied lips, and the cops knew us by first name, and I’d attempted suicide twice, both times with pills, and I had walked barefoot out of the hospital in the middle of a winter’s night after doctors pumped my stomach, because the girlfriend in her visit said I wouldn’t come home but would instead go to the state mental health facility.

A few years after this, not long after the 90s sealed closed for good with the selection of a new president by our Supreme Court, some people I’d never heard of flew planes into buildings in New York City and Washington D.C., and into an empty field in Pennsylvania. Living on the west coast, as I did then, I learned of this long after most of the people involved had died, after the sites of this wreckage were smoldering and smoking apocalypses. A friend from high school woke me with a telephone call. He said, “The Twin Towers, dude, they’re gone.” I drove to the bar, this same college bar where I had once worked with my ex-girlfriend, the bar where my butt still perched to suck down one-dollar mugs of PBR. There my friends gathered around the screen like flies over a kill and we watched the devastation repeat, repeat. I was teaching at the university by then; I cancelled class. On the payphone outside my father’s voice shook and I said, “I’ll go to war. I’ll sign up for the Army if they need me, or if I’m drafted.” Dad said, “You may have to.” The next few days the sky was untouched canvas, devoid of jetliners’ trails brushed across it. American flags sprouted in bungalows’ front yards, from the windows of passing Fords and Toyotas. God Bless America became hello. The president said, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” American air support secured Kabul; the Taliban fled to Pakistan.

More than a decade has passed. My ex-girlfriend tried to start a fight with me when I returned to Reno to give a reading. I ignored her, arching my eyebrows with incredulity while I signed a copy for the woman who’d kindly purchased my book. Somewhere between 14,000 and 40,000 civilians have died as a result of war in Afghanistan, and add to that the 3,000 dead civilians here in the United States. The last time my wife and I fought it was over who changes more diapers, who has to get up at four AM to feed our daughter, who has to be stuck inside the house all day while you get to leave for work, who has to work all the goddamn time and cannot spend the time he’d like with his baby. I stepped away, took a deep breath, returned, and said, “What can I do to help?”

Jamie Iredell’s The Book of Freaks serves as a post-modern encyclopaedia of sorts; a collection of observations on the varied populations and situations of the world in the 21st century, arranged, conveniently, alphabetically. It’s much in the vein of the better-known Stuff White People Like, although without the overarching tongue-in-cheek approach. Rather, Iredell has created a mixed bag of sorts: some of the articles are dripping with snark and subjectivity (ENVIRONMENTALISTS: These humans have taken a political and ethical point of view and transformed it into a religion), while some verge on the meditative (LEGLESS MAN: Today you crossed your legs while eating your sandwich, while the legless man-clearly a veteran:tattoes, grizzled gray beard-chewed along jabbering at you).