Not long ago, I stood in the office of Records Management in the Indianapolis City-County Building and watched as a man with crooked glasses punched my name into his computer. It was spring. A bright blue sky, sunlight danced between the glass and steel of the taller buildings. I was there in the sub-basement to search for criminal records—my criminal records.
Outside it was sixty-five degrees. The landscape was turning green, flowers were blooming—everything was being renewed, coming back to life, starting over.
“C’mon. Bare-knuckle brawl. I win, you break up with her. You win and I’ll never bring her up again.”
He put his hands on his slim hips in dramatic protest. “I’m not gonna fight you. How do you think it looks if a black guy beats up a prissy blonde?”
I wasn’t worried about how it looked. Ernie could talk himself out of anything. That boy had a candy-coated mouth and friends in every corner of our mostly white, middle-class high school. My white ass, however, had four to six friends depending on how much I had been running my mouth. Some may have called me unpopular, but the disdain was mutual. During high school I took a full load of courses at a nearby community college so that I only had to go to high school in the mornings. That summer, I had just claimed my diploma a year early and was about to leave Ernie behind to finish high school without me. Not that he minded.
“Fight me!” I jumped up and down on his bed, throwing punches into the air. “C’mon. Let’s go. I wanna be a pugilist.”
Matthew Salesses is the guest. He is the author of two chapbooks, Our Island of Epidemics and We Will Take What We Can Get, a novella called The Last Repatriate, and his new novel is called I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying (Civil Coping Mechanisms).
My sophomore year of college, I was a thin, small girl with a pierced lip and pixie-short hair and a mildly broken heart and it was because of this last item that I left myself make a mistake by the name of Lee. This was such a small moment in the great, growing swath of my life, this frozen semester of weeping over romantic comedies and thrashing angrily to loud music and getting drunk off Malibu coconut rum which I didn’t even like. Such a small moment. Over the course of the last decade, these few months I spent with Lee have barely registered. They have been a blip. He did not hurt me badly, nor did he teach me any great life lessons. He did not matter, hardly at all.
But I think about him often, and the day I first let him kiss me, because that was a mistake.
January 04, 2013
PART I/July 2010.
I see him, but I hope no one else does. The guy leaning over between the train tracks and the station bar has a guitar in one hand and a plastic baggie in the other. I am stopped at the tracks waiting for the gates to rise, watching him on the platform, hoping no one else sees him because it’s the kind of thing that makes everyone involved uncomfortable.
Taylor is sitting next to me in the passenger seat, and she is not watching him. She is going through her purse looking for her checkbook so she can pay for the hour-long session with Lisa she is about to attend.
November 17, 2012
Like a David Cronenberg movie, this offbeat anthology zeros in on beauty’s dark and complicated side. Another bonus: it mostly features good writers you’ve never heard of.
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.
“I quit, you bitches,” he yelled before ripping his apron off, throwing it on the ground, and storming out Starbucks, leaving me with my rival to finish the shift. Neither of us were sad to see the guy go — he was a grown man who replied, “Do I have to?” when asked to fetch a pastry or sweep — but we begrudged being left alone together to finish the shift without anyone to break up our passive aggressive feuding. Both of us were bitter that we had to be baristas in our mid-20s after earning college degrees and building professional resumes, but instead of bonding over our similarities, we complained to our boss about one another and swapped shifts to avoid working together. That evening we finished our work with a minimum of conversation. As we were locking up the store, we spotted the quitter waiting for us in the parking lot, idling in a late-model convertible. He sloppily hurled a melted Frappuccino in our direction, did a few screechy loops around the parking lot, and sped off. It was such a hideous and absurd display that all my rival and I could do was go get a few beers and laugh it off.
The tent waited for us, her canvas wings hovering over a field of stubble that sprouted rusty cans, A&P flyers, bits of glass bottles, and the rolling tatter of trash that migrated through town to settle in an empty lot just beyond the city limits. At dusk, the refuse receded, leaving only the tent, lighted from within, a long golden glow stretched out against a darkening sky. She gathered and sheltered us from a world that told us we were too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did. Society, or at least the respectable chunk of it, saw the tent and those of us who traveled with it as a freak show, a rolling asylum that hit town and stirred the local Holy Rollers, along with a few Baptists, Methodists, and even a Presbyterian or two, into a frenzy. Brother Terrell reveled in that characterization.
Okay. First things first. I’ve long ago come clean as a violence junkie. Maybe even a scholar. But, okay, okay, this is not about me. So, your new book, Pot Farm, deals with your experiences working on a medical marijuana farm in Northern California—the politics, the narratives, the social hierarchies and what-not. Your first day there, you mention some guy named Hector the Treetop Sniper or something. Is this some sort of metaphor (I really hope not, just to let you know) for the way violence rises, approaches the ether, spreads, and returns to us earthlings as, say, a “black rain” of sorts? Or are you talking about an actual sniper here? I mean, a dude with a gun.
Hector was an actual sniper, flesh and blood. Highly trained, but not bloodthirsty. A real sweetheart.
“The drugs! Ditch the drugs! He’s coming!”
When Pete doesn’t immediately comply with my frenzied request to jettison the narcotics I grab his backpack and attempt to throw it into the brackish water.
“Take it easy man,” he says, wrestling the bag away from me. “We’re gonna be fine.”
Stanton has no reaction. He silently and expressionlessly pilots the boat from his position in the back.
Seized by terror I pull my knees into my chest, bury my face between them, and tell myself that if I don’t look at the boat creeping ever closer this nightmare will somehow end.
We can’t just sit around here smoking and looking at each other, he says.
I know he’s right, but I’m afraid to him leave alone.
Don’t worry about me, he says as if reading my mind.
January 16, 2012
Is The Rules of Inheritance about how you inherited a bunch of money and acted like a Kardashian?
Sadly, no. It’s more depressing, gritty and uplifting than that. Both of my parents got cancer when I was fourteen. My mother died when I was eighteen and my father when I was twenty-five. I’m an only child and these losses left me very much alone in the world, and going through something that none of my peers had really experienced. The book is kind of a coming-of-age story. It follows me through cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, through various relationships I cultivated with men and with alcohol. It’s definitely a grief memoir, but it’s also a lot more than that. You don’t have to have lost someone to relate to someone who is trying to figure themselves out and fucking up a lot along the way.
Aren’t you kind of embarrassed to publish a memoir?
For a long time the word memoir really made me cringe. When people asked what I was working on, I would go to great lengths to avoid that word. I’m actually a big fan of memoirs, but there can be something really trite and embarrassing about them, especially given our culture’s obsession with the intimate details of other people’s lives.
So, why did you write a memoir?
Well, when I was grieving and trying to figure out how to move through my life as a young woman without parents, I turned to other people’s stories for answers and solace. These stories often came in the form of memoirs, and I found some of them enormously helpful. That’s all I really want from my book — to help people.
For some reason no one has really asked you about the writing style you used in Rules, although it’s kind of unusual. You don’t indent your paragraphs and you don’t use quotation marks. What’s up with that?
It’s true. People like to use the same three words to describe by book: gritty, poetic and heart-wrenching, and they talk a lot about how well the book flows, but no one comments on the liberties I took with the writing style. I don’t indent any of the paragraphs, I let a lot of lines stand alone and I don’t use quotations. A lot of this has to do with the poetic nature of the writing and the way I wanted the language emphasized, but I also just wanted the writing to have a kind of immediacy that I think gets lost with a more formal approach. And I also just felt weird using quotes around sentences that were based on memories.
Got it. Makes sense. I heard you’re working on some weird afterlife book now, doing seances and stuff. Is that true?
No seances. Yet. But yes, I’m working on a nonfiction book in which I explore different beliefs about the afterlife in an attempt to work out what I believe for myself. If you call it a spiritual memoir I’ll shoot you. I’ve been doing all kinds of fun stuff for it though — seeing mediums, getting hypnotized to find out about my past lives and taking Kabbalah classes. Stay tuned!
December 12, 2011
In her introduction to Geek Girls Unite: How Fangirls, Bookworms, Indie Chicks, and Other Misfits are Taking Over the World, Leslie Simon defines a geek as “a person who is wildly passionate about an activity, interest, or scientific field and strives to be an expert in said avocation.” What distinguishes a geek from his or her close relatives—say, a nerd, a dork, or a dweeb—is that a geek “does not necessarily sacrifice social status to participate in area of expertise; instead, person will often seek out like-minded peers—in both the real and virtual worlds—in order to connect, bond, and celebrate mutual love for this area.
With this sociability in mind, Leslie aims to unite geeky girls worldwide. She notes that geek guys have sucked up the air in the room—Seth Rogen, Mark Zuckerberg, and Michael Cera, to name a few—and that it’s time for women to claim some of the oxygen; but first, we must learn to recognize one another. This is where Geek Girls Unite, an amusing field guide to geekdom, lends a helping hand.
There are many types of geeks out there: there’s the comic book geek, the music geek, the movie geek, the comedy geek, the geek who enjoys the domestic arts, and those geeks who always have their nose in a book. Using pop-anthropology, Leslie profiles each of these types, highlighting where they can be found, their outward signifiers, and who their historical predecessors are.
Having written something of a manifesto, Leslie says, “Embrace your quirkiness!”—and with Geek Girls Unite she makes it a little bit easier.
Leslie spoke with me about the impetus for the book, her research, finding geek mentors, and growing up geek.
What was the spark that led you to write Geek Girls Unite?
I’ve been banging my head against the wall trying to remember what or who it was that sparked the idea for Geek Girls Unite and the only thing I got out of it was a big lump on my noggin. Odds are, I was probably standing in the middle of some weird L.A. party, feeling completely out of place and having horrible high-school flashbacks. Or maybe I was watching 30 Rock, basking in the amazingness of Tina Fey and her Liz Lemon alter-ego while sucking back a glass of wine. Either way, I’m sure it was inspired by how I used to feel my quirks and idiosyncrasies held me back—when, in fact, they probably helped propel me to where I am today.
You’d mentioned feeling ashamed of your geekiness growing up. I can totally relate. When I look back at what I did to fit in I cringe. How did you react to, or against, your inner-geek—and when did you finally accept that it was who you were and you weren’t going to change?
I still consider myself a work in progress, but my geek evolution started happening when I was eighteen. Once I went away to college and realized that I could choose my friends, it was a whole different ballgame. I wasn’t forced to socially cohabitate with people just because they lived in the same zip code; I could actually choose my comrades based on similar interests and outlooks. (What a concept!)
What would you tell your teen geek self if you ran into her today?
I would definitely tell her to loosen up and live a little… or a lot! In high school, I was so scared of life—scared of not doing well on a test, scared of my friends thinking I was lame, scared of getting in trouble for missing curfew, scared of disappointing my parents. I really didn’t understand the concept of unconditional love, whether it was coming from my friends, my family or myself. When you want so badly to be liked (and/or loved), it’s easy to lose focus on who you really are and what’s really important. I know that now… but it would’ve been nice to understand it a little sooner.
You have a section in each chapter called “Geek Love” where you give a description of a guy who would be compatible with the specific type of geek girl outlined. Finding a good match, especially in high school, can be difficult, if not impossible. What were your dating experiences like in high school and what advice do you have for young women negotiating the hormonal minefield today?
First of all (and unrelated to your question), I’d love to say that while I highlight male love matches in each of the chapters, I really mean to spotlight whoever your beloved might be: male, female, transgendered, animal, mineral, vegetable, what have you. It was a huge yet unintentional oversight on my part, and I want to make sure that my readers know that geek love knows no gender.
Okay, now that I’m off my soapbox, I’d like to say that my dating experiences were nonexistent in high school. Zero. Zilch. Nada. At the time, I think I was more interested in having boy friends than boyfriends—or at least that’s what I told myself to avoid a full-on emotional shame spiral. (Plus, I spent most of those four years lusting after my best guy friend who I’m pretty sure ended up being gay. That’ll put a slight cramp in your romantic life, huh?) Ergo, I’m probably not the best person to give romantic advice. However, if I had to muster up some pearls of wisdom, I’d tell said hormone-fueled geeks to be patient and not to settle. It might take a while to find the He-Man—or She-Ra—of your dreams, but that person is out there. Trust.
Where was your weakness in compiling this book and how did you overcome it?
Great question. I think I was most nervous about compiling each geek’s character sketch because it’s such an intimate portrait of who these girls are. Thankfully, I was able to pick the brains of my friends and acquaintances, and that really helped to humanize all of the characteristics that I was trying to paint together into one cohesive picture. I also spent a lot of time agonizing over which Geek Goddesses to include in each chapter. It’s hard to pick only six women to represent an entire subculture, but I gave it my best shot!
You’re a self-professed music geek—did that make the music geek chapter easier or harder to write?
I’d have to say both. Going into that chapter, I knew I had to be really focused because it would be easy to overwhelm the reader with all sorts of tangents and sidebars. Seeing that my past two books were primarily music-centric, I also didn’t want to repeat anything, so it was quite a challenge to write things from a fresh perspective, even if I had tackled them in some way before. That said, I didn’t do as much research for that chapter because I felt super-familiar with the subject matter, probably more than any other content in the book.
Do you feel there’s something women bring to music journalism that’s unique to them? Something a guy might not necessarily be able to tap into, express, or just miss completely?
When it comes to communication styles between the genders, they say women are more interested in rapport and men in report. Generally speaking, of course, women music writers seem to connect more with the emotional side of music as opposed to the technical side—at least that’s why I started scribbling about bands, although I’ve never thought of myself as a music journalist. I’m a writer who just so happens to write a lot about musicians because they have amazing stories to tell and I’d like to be the one who helps them get the words out.
You mention that young geek girls should seek out mentors — find someone in a field that they’re interested in and contact them for advice. As someone working in a hectic field you know that life can be busy, emails tend to pile up, and general inquiries, if not presented correctly, can go ignored. What tips do you have for approaching professionals?
Before you reach out to anyone, I’d recommend that you research them as much as possible. Not only will it help you focus on the questions you’d like to ask them about their career trajectory, but there’s nothing worse than getting a query that appears to be a cut-and-paste job. Plus, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: People love to talk about themselves, so don’t be afraid to ask questions! Finally, while I try to write back everyone that contacts me, I know I’m prone to write back faster if we have a friend or acquaintance in common. So go ahead and ask for a virtual introduction or recommendation if you’re a couple degrees away from your would-be mentor.
Leslie Simon is the author of Wish You Were Here: An Essential Guide To Your Favorite Music Scenes and co-author of Everybody Hurts: An Essential Guide to Emo Culture. She is currently the Senior Creative Director at Warner Bros. Records. You can find her online right here.