JesseOkay, Mr. Walker, just say the first things that come to your mind.  KKK. 

Church’s Chicken is a front for the Ku Klux Klan, and it prepares its food in a special way that makes black men sterile. Or that’s what a tenacious urban legend said, anyway. When the folklorist Patricia Turner heard that story in the 1980s — a time when the real Klan had been reduced to a bunch of squabbling splinter groups — she asked her informant why the FDA didn’t stop the chain from doctoring its chicken. Aha, came the reply: How do you know the KKK doesn’t control the FDA too?

The fear had a definite beginning.  I knew there had been a time when I wasn’t afraid of the cables on the Brooklyn Bridge snapping. I knew there was a time when I wasn’t afraid to eat.  I knew there was a time when I wasn’t afraid to go to sleep at night because I didn’t know if I would ever wake up again.  I just couldn’t piece it together that those times had all been before I’d had a miscarriage, before my body had decided to reject the life growing inside of it.

The women’s restroom at my place of employment–the floor on which I work–has two stalls.  One regular, one handicapped suite.

Because of the size of the suite, the resultant distance of the toilet from the stall partition, and the sight lines it creates, it is easy, when seated in the suite, to see the feet of the person in the neighboring regular stall.

Marijuana. Mary Jane. Reefer. No matter what you choose to call it, I have never been able to smoke pot. What for some people seems to be a relaxed good time has always been for me a paranoid journey to the center of my mind, where I sit shivering in a cerebral corner, wondering if I’ll ever be able to think normally again.

In college, I reluctantly got stoned with the happy party people around me. Most of these attempts ended with me feeling lost, floating in the universe, indefinitely wondering whether or not I had to pee. Time crawled by thick as resin as I tried to decide if I looked as crazy on the outside as I felt on the inside. If I was lucky, I found a bed to pass out in, mercifully ending my hyper-analytical mental anguish.

It seems like a wonderful ride for most, so for years I tried to stay on the bucking bronco of marijuana before permanently passing the reins to the other space cowboys. Abstaining from pot, combined with my love of exercising and rising early, eventually conspired to make me the least rock and roll chick to ever play guitar in a band. I am decidedly not cool; I’ve made my peace with this fact.

Throughout high school, however, I was still trying to smoke the stuff. My older sister and I would sometimes hide behind one of the many outbuildings on our farm to do it. We’d sit in the grass, leaning against the hay barn; two teenage girls smiling into the summery blue Missouri sky, giggling about nothing and everything. When my parents took the family to Disneyland, she and I got stoned in the It’s a Small World ride. It was there I learned that hundreds of creepy animatronic children singing a repetitive song about the world closing in on me do nothing to ease my pot smoking paranoia. Noted.

On family vacation in Las Vegas that summer, my sister and I quickly tired of the little kid games inside of Circus Circus where we were staying. There were only so many stuffed animals a teenager wanted to win. Bored and seeking fresh entertainment, we left the pink ponies and casino to walk the streets of Sin City. Ducking into an alley, we decided to make our stroll more interesting by smoking a joint she had brought along. Standing next to a ten-foot-high concrete block fence for privacy, by the dirt road that ran between buildings on either side of us, we proceeded to smoke marijuana.

We’d taken a few tokes and I was just starting to feel blurry when a car turned quickly into the alley, about fifty feet away. I brought the joint down from my mouth and held it at my side. I was hoping that the person turning into the alley would think I was only smoking a cigarette, stupidly forgetting that as a non-smoker I looked awkward smoking anything I tried. As the dark blue car drove by and I clumsily passed the joint, we realized in our dulled awareness that it was an unmarked police vehicle. So of course we did the worst thing possible. We panicked.

“That was a cop!” she squeaked as he drove past.

Get rid of it. Get rid of it. Get rid of it,” I whisper-screamed at her.

She frantically tried to toss the joint over the wall next to us. It backed up to a neighborhood, so there was no convenient way around to retrieve the contraband. If we could just get it over the wall, it would be out of sight and virtually unreachable.

My sister has always been petite, and she was unable to throw it over the high fence. The joint bounced off of the wall, rolling futilely back toward us on the dusty ground. We jumped away in fear, as if it was a spider. I grabbed it out of the sand where it sat mocking me like a turd in a litter box and tried to clear the concrete wall again. I’m taller at 5’9″ with greater reach, and it went over this time.

This all happened in the span of a few seconds, so before we could feel relief to have ditched the incriminating evidence, we saw brake lights. No doubt tipped off by our frantic chicken-like scrabbling and obviously guilty behavior, the officer turned around and drove back in our direction while we watched in mute terror. There was nowhere to run, as we were trapped in an alley and didn’t know the area. We both turned our nothing-to-see-here knobs up to eleven, and then he was getting out of the car. Meanwhile, the pot we’d smoked was the kind that creeps up on you, and I was feeling exponentially freaked out by the second. I quickly realized an intimidating police officer was even more paranoia-inducing than soulless puppet children singing at me en masse. My world of hope was quickly becoming a world of fear.

“Did I just see you two girls smoking a joint?” the officer demanded.

It was do or die time. Time to sell it like I’d never sold it before. If we got busted by this cop for pot, there would be no end to the trouble we’d get in. We’d be grounded until I started college for this one, and rightly so. We’d fucked up, big time. I summoned every bit of acting ability I had in my dumb fifteen-year-old body, and tried to push the part of me growing fuzzy from the drugs to the back, working hard for a moment of ass-saving clarity. I put on my best shocked and appalled face at the mention of pot, because pot was awful, and oh my gosh, how could anyone think I’d been smoking pot?

“No officer! I would never smoke pot. But I was trying to smoke a cigarette,” I replied, shame dripping from my voice, eyes cast downward in good girl humiliation. “It was the first time I’ve ever tried it and I didn’t even like it. It was so gross!”

“It looked like a joint to me, whatever you threw over that wall, young lady. If I drive both of you around to the other side, are we gonna find marijuana? Do you think your parents are gonna enjoy having to come pick you up from jail today?”

Shit. If I didn’t pull this off, we were going to end up in a cell, the weak teenage bitches of hardened Las Vegas prostitutes. I silently hoped my prison mistress would at least have a heart of gold. In full self-preservation mode, I quickly realized that my best psychological tactic would be to act so distraught about being caught smoking a cigarette that the pot thing would be downplayed. If I seemed truly disgusted about the cigarette, he might believe me innocent of the worse crime.

“Oh no, please, don’t tell my parents I was smoking a cigarette! They’ll be so mad at me because they hate smoking! This was the first time I’ve ever tried it and I thought it was so nasty. I’m never gonna smoke a cigarette again, I swear it,” I pleaded.

He asked again that if he went to the dreaded other side of the wall, would there be marijuana waiting? I repeated the Please Don’t Tell My Parents I Tried a Cigarette monologue, as if he hadn’t mentioned pot at all. I was working it. Totally owning it. I had the big, tear-filled eyes and the quivering lip; I epitomized the scared young girl gone astray. I was a living, breathing After School Special, begging for a second chance. Before I knew it, even I believed my lies. I was the innocent babe trying those yucky gosh darned cigarettes for the first time. And please don’t tell my parents I was smoking a cigarette, yes cigarette, can I say cigarette one more time? Because it was a cigarette and totally not marijuana, you know. Cough-cigarette-cough.

It finally worked. I couldn’t believe it, but it worked. The officer admonished us one last time with some sort of you kids stay out of trouble speech, got in his car, and drove away. Chastened and shaking like rabbits unexpectedly released from a snare trap, we headed back to the hotel, officially ending our stint as teenage streetwalkers. We walked dazed and confused into the pink nightmare of Circus Circus. Sad clowns and desperate elderly gamblers were definitely preferable to horrified flop sweat and handcuffs.

I never really gave myself much credit for my actions that day, always assuming the cop took pity on me, or had bigger fish to fry. But recently my mom mentioned to me that my sister had told her about the incident. I’m old enough now that my mom has heard most of my naughty stories, and I can only be grounded by myself, so this didn’t bother me. What shocked me was that my sister said my performance for the officer was amazing. She was blown away by my acting ability, and gave me full props for getting us out of what might have been the only arrest of our lives.

She also told my mother, “After I saw Tawni lie so convincingly that day, I knew I could never trust her again!”

Oops.


Kris Saknussemm

Q: You’ve got three books out right now, yes?

A: My collected short fiction Sinister Miniatures is out from Lazy Fascist Press in Portland, and a portfolio book of my paintings called The Colors of Compulsion from Les Editions du Zaporogue in Europe. Enigmatic Pilot from the Del Rey imprint of Random House, a prequel to the world of my first novel Zanesville, will be released on March 22.

Q: Busy boy.

A: Not a boy anymore.

Q: Feeling the pressure?

A: Always. On the other hand, art is what I care about most. I got a cut on my arm the other day and I looked at it—in one of those distanced moments—and I thought that’s just fucking beautiful. Sure it hurt, but visually it worked. I was only sorry I had to clean it up before I could photograph it properly.

Q: Some people wouldn’t call that sane.

A: Art and sanity have never mixed well. But the measure of sanity is finally paying your bills and staying out of custody. That’s all.

Q: You worked with seriously insane people once, didn’t you?

A: I did, and it forever influenced my ideas. The truly deranged, who can’t look after themselves, are a tiny and universally abandoned minority. Psychopaths and sociopaths however, abound and often rule, as we know too well.

Q: Is that one of the key themes in your writing?

A: I’d like to think a broader definition of sanity is. Some of my work is dark, but I value intelligence and humor…loyalty. Most of the behavior we class as insane is actually an attempt at a rational response to perceptions that fall outside society’s accepted frames. I’m very concerned about those who curate and manipulate these frames.

Q: Speaking of such, Enigmatic Pilot is steeped in paranoia…conspiracy theories…mysterious ancient orders…counterfeit people…hypnotic devices…

A: Emerson talked about the two tribes of Hope and Memory. Sounds innocent. Forward looking on the one hand or nostalgic-conservative on the other.

The paranoid version sees these tribes as secret societies in perpetual conflict. My form of cultural anxiety simply addresses this schismatic view of human development in terms of the chessboard of history—with some special kinds of masks, nightmare machines, hallucinogens and media puppeteering mixed in.

Q: Which side will win?

A: The biggest mistake any gambler can make is to be too sure who’s actually in the game.

Q: More paranoia?

A: Prudence. Old drug ways. And something I’ve learned from Facebook.

Q: Final question. If you had one wish that could be granted, what would it be?

A: I’d like to know a whole lot more about whoever can grant such wishes. And I’d be very curious to learn how long they’d been watching me.

I have a confession to make.

I have become addicted to controversial TV. No, not to ‘Jerry Springer’ re-run marathons. Not to fly-on-the-wall crack den raids on Current TV. Not even to the thinly-veiled hard-body pornography of ‘A Shot of Love’ with Tila Tequila (of ‘I Fucked the DJ (He Fucked Me Till I Bleed)’ fame).

© Glenn Francis, www.PacificProDigital.com

Saknussemm in Guandong

I hate to big note myself (unless I’m ill-advisedly tilting at the windmill of a luscious younger woman who I think may not see through the act quickly enough)-but, as a certified paranoiac, I do occasionally have moments where I draw some grand albeit dark and discomfiting conclusions about the impact of my psychic state, perhaps just even my physical presence, on the larger scene.

For example, I can’t help but feel some twinge of that famous sinking feeling when I think of the Chinese province of Guandong.

Things can start off innocently enough-say with a tea-buying spree in Shanghai or some casual misbehavior in Hong Kong (although I do have my friend, the San Francisco writer Leland Cheuk, to thank for bailing me out of an embarrassingly large bill once at a girlie bar in Wan Chai)-but by the time I get to Guandong, things start to openly wobble.

Each visit, some catastrophe has taken place. I lie. Multiple crises have ensued, erupted-and just plain exploded. I’m left with the nagging question-am I a DISASTER MAGNET?

Guandong is China’s most populous region and the driving wheel of their economic empire. Guangzhou (Canton) is the principal city. To say it’s possibly the world’s densest manufacturing center today is no overstatement and doesn’t really begin to capture the emotional-psychological aspect. We’re talking the intensity of a termite mound during a thunderstorm.

Guandong produces a signficant percentage of China’s entire GDP, and there’s an excellent chance that right around you now are a whole lot of things made there-from clothing to electrical goods, to things inside other things-to stuff you don’t want to know about. Anything you can think of in fact, may very well be made in Guandong.

Hong Kong and Macau were historically parts of Guandong, and Cantonese remains the main language spoken there, despite the recent flood of immigration from other parts of the country because of the employment opportunities. The bulk of the men and women who built the railroads of America and Canada originated from Guandong, and that same work ethic is very much alive today.

Which isn’t to say that all is well there. Not by a long shot. Most of the wealth produced is consolidated around the Pearl River Delta. Actual wages generally are often pitiful. Sweatshops, battery farms and bizarre factory scenes from out of the 19th century sit right alongside complexes that conjure the 22nd. Unidentified clouds of smoke hang over vast sections. I worked one summer on Neville Island in Pittsburgh, back when steel and coke were manufactured there, and it doesn’t even begin to compare.

Toledo painted by Saknussemm

I first went to Guandong because of this painting (ironically titled Toledo).

A gallery in Hong Kong had taken me on and had sold it to an advertising executive visiting from Guangzhou. The gallery owner’s tip was to pay a visit there. There was talk of the Chinese government turning an immense decommissioned military base into a magical arts colony, where artists from all over China and the world would be welcome to live for free, providing they fixed up their own studio quarters. I was on a plane to Guangzhou quick smart-and that’s when the pattern began to form.

I could be sitting peacefully at a Western style breakfast…and a fiberglass factory has burst into an inferno of flames flash-frying 400 workers in an instant. Phosphates are found to be leeching into a major waterway. 300 school children suddenly lose all their hair. The principal railway line suddenly gets closed for unstated reasons and men in strange uniforms appear. The next morning an “incident” has occurred at a sulfuric acid plant. (Incidents don’t occur with sulfuric acid-more like total havoc and mayhem.) And then there are the agricultural industry outbreaks.

Meat Pig Head

We all know that chickens go supernova when the computers malfunction and too many hormones are administered. We all freaked out about Bird Flu. But what about suckling pigs with two heads? What about several baby pigs with two heads?

Yes, we’re willing to overlook a few oddball mutations. What would the traditions of the NBA, the freak show, and a good portion of next year’s admitted class to M.I.T. be without some wiggle room on this point? But it’s not a good look to be eating some Western style bacon in Guandong-overhearing that several hundred factory workers have been cooked like bacon, and only a few miles away, pigs are being born with two heads.

Now, I concede, it’s very possible-it may even be likely-that my coincidental presence has had nothing to do with these calamities. No one wishes that more than me. But I’ll tell you the thing that worries me the most. When this weird shit has been going down-and I count a total of thirteen “incidents” over the course of my visits that would’ve made front page/top of the TV bulletin news where I live-only one made it onto the radar of the world media that I’m aware of. One. (In a particularly worrisome instance, 4,000 people were exposed to toxic chemicals and I’m certain nary a whisper reached CNN or any outside news source.)

China has become much more media transparent than it was only a short while ago. The recent spree of attacks by lunatics on school children is a case in point. That news might well not have reached us once. The Olympics in Beijing helped. The influx of western businesses has helped. But in my view, we have the Chinese students and folks under thirty to thank for opening some windows that were previously sealed-and not always for reasons of some kind of political dissent. In fact, many Chinese young people are far more conservative than you might think.

The reason these younger people are conduits for news is that they’re often dislocated across great distances from their homes to study in the major cities, and like many of the population, they’re forced to occasionally seek employment at great distance from home. A lot of news that otherwise might not get out is carried in very personal ways by this mobile section of the populace.

It helps that these younger people are computer fluent, usually have cell phones, and have some degree of multilingual skills. But theirs isn’t for the most part any active attempt to subvert the official government spin on anything. The many students I’ve met are working hard just to cope with the challenges they face, and they have a great deal of pride in their cultures. Take my young friend Su, for instance.

She comes from an isolated rural village in the far north and lives in a shoebox, attending university in Shanghai. She’s the first person of her generation to go away to university, and in recognition of her achievement, her village named their most prized asset after her-a large earthmoving machine. When the government presented it to them, they had her name stenciled on the side. It sounds like a humble honor, but as everyone knows, 20 year olds don’t tear up all that easy-and she does when she shows the photograph-meekly but with reverence.

Her goal is to get educated and to help her family. She has no political radicalism. But she gets concerned when she hears from her brother, who works in Guandong, that several of his fellow employees have suddenly fallen gravely ill or that a few hundred at a plant nearby have been incinerated.

What did the plant manufacture? That’s another very big problem. It’s not just that industrial accidents occur far too frequently (whether I have anything to do with it or not), there’s a much bigger issue.

I have a friend who’s been a senior chemical engineer for DuPont (The Miracles of Science™). Their history, like Monsanto’s and others, is pretty checkered too. I don’t pretend to understand all that he does, but here’s how he puts it. “It’s very wrong to think the problem with developing giants like China and India is a matter of quality control and safety standards. That makes it sound like there are lapses in protocol that create accidents. It’s a lot truer to say that there are practices and processes at work that aren’t safe period. You don’t need a Ph.D. and twenty years of industry experience to know certain things aren’t only dubious, but highly dangerous. You can see them from the road. There are manufacturing facilities involved in multiple kinds of production that would simply not be allowed in the U.S., Japan and in all of Western Europe.”

Chinese Money

It doesn’t take a genius to understand why this is allowed to continue. It’s not a question of there being no photographic evidence, no chemical analyses, a tell-no-one conspiracy on the part of the government and its leverage over their media. We’re all engaged in the “conspiracy” because it’s right out in the open. We’re all stepping and fetching to the beat of China’s economic drum, with India’s juggernaut not far behind.

And yet, it’s a great mistake, too, to assign national blame in this regard, when multinational corporations are involved. Large portions of America have been similarly blighted in the past because of money and expedience (Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and on and on). Think of the Midlands of England. Industrial devastation is nothing new-but it takes on a new meaning with both the scale of production in Guandong and what’s being produced.

Can any region, anywhere in the world sustain super-dense manufacturing across such a huge spectrum of industries, even if the highest quality work practices are in place? What if they’re obviously not?

It’s easy to think the problem is somehow “over there.” It’s easy to ignore what you hear only vaguely about, if at all. And sadly, it’s all too easy for whole nations to turn their backs on commercial negligence and malfeasance for financial reasons.

But sooner or later, a catastrophe occurs that inevitably does make the news-and like news-can travel. Look at BP’s tragic fiasco in the Gulf of Mexico.

Thank You, Good LuckI confess that I knew only generally what the situation was like in China until I physically paid a visit. There are thousands of legitimate enterprises that are being well run there-coping with a multitude of complex logistical problems. But while we may worry at large about China’s carbon footprint, I had some serious tactical concerns for my own, when I stepped through a marshy area and later felt a distinctly warm sensation. By the time I made it back to my hotel, the soles of my new Shanghai shoes were partially dissolved. Those shoes were dramatically cheaper than anything I could buy in America or Australia. But I can’t help wondering if there’s another price tag involved.


Having been a fan of David Goodwillie’s excellent 2005 memoir, Seemed Like A Good Idea at the Time, I was a bit apprehensive when I heard he was publishing his first novel, American Subversive. I feared the worst: the dreaded second book bomb. It’s almost a cliche, to follow a great book with a flop. Then I read the book.

American Subversive, a tale of contrasts, is no disappointment. The book’s main characters are Aiden Cole, a self-absorbed entertainment blogger in NYC, and Paige Roderick, a southern Belle turned eco-bomber.   They meet after a bomb explodes in Midtown at the Barney’s on Madison Avenue. The intended target, an oil company, is not immediately discerned; the bomb has been detonated on the wrong floor by mistake.
The usual suspects are reigned in.  Aiden receives an anonymous email, along with a photo of a woman fleeing the scene. The woman is identified as Paige Roderick. This is the woman behind the blast, the email tells him. But who in the hell is Paige Roderick?  Should he go to the cops or break it in his blog?
What follows is the melding of two lives, in what struck me as a cross between Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang.
I caught up with Goodwillie as his book tour came through Ohio and asked a few questions. I followed up later on the phone.

What attracted you to this subject matter?

I was interested in the idea of people with a broader view of society. Americans grow up with a somewhat narrow mindset of how to proceed in the world.  There’s always a good guy and a bad guy, and capitalism is the only way to go. I grew up in Europe, and when I was in Paris there were always Communist demonstrations and nobody was ever alarmed. I think in America we grow up filtered from political events and sheltered from democracy.

Communist was a bad word when I was a kid. I didn’t even know what it meant until I grew up!

Exactly. I wanted to explore this theme via Paige and Aiden and bring two sides of their generation together.

Was there any autobiographical aspect in the character of Aiden?

No, not at all. I saw myself as neither of the characters in the book, but rather somewhere in the middle. I’m not apolitical and tend to be an avid news watcher, but I tried to keep the book agenda-free.  I didn’t want it to be any kind of a liberal screed. I wanted readers to make their conclusions.

In your book, Aiden works for a fictional website called Roorback.com, a sort of Gawker-like venue. Are you going to be putting up a real life Roorback soon?

Yes, I hope to have it up and running in a few days. It will have the same name and be run by professional NYC bloggers who will be assuming the identities of the characters in the book. It’s part experiment, part promotion.  We don’t know where it’s going yet.

You’ve been accumulating some accolades lately, including a nice mention in Vanity Fair. I was reading David Lipsky’s recently published conversations with David Foster Wallace, and Wallace speaks often about how praise and publicity really put the pressure on him to make every word he wrote bear the mark of a genius. Do you feel any similar pressure when your work is praised?

I don’t feel pressure in the sense that David Foster Wallace did. Wallace was in his own realm of genius and I can see him feeling the need to live up to that. My pressure comes from simply getting my book read and having it out there. Writing is my career, so I have to make sure readers know about my work so I can keep on writing. I think Wallace felt that art should speak for itself. The writer needs to be in the wings and let the world focus on the art and not the artist.

Did you have trouble switching from memoir-mode to fiction?

Novels are harder to write.  You have to pick and choose your characters.  You have to invent their world and keep the suspense going. Part of being a literary writer is to challenge yourself over and over—unlike a guy like, say, Dan Brown who basically writes the same book again and again. Joshua Ferris, who’s a friend of mine, recently came out with a new book [The Unnamed] which was completely different from his first novel, Then We Came to the End, which had a lot of comic schtick. And people were surprised when his second book was nothing like his first.  But I think in the long run Ferris will be much more appreciated for making this move. It took a lot of courage.

Sometimes it takes a lot of courage to know when to stop writing, too. I think Harper Lee knew she had said all she had to say in To Kill A Mockingbird.

That too. Salinger included. Hard to stop though, if you are a compulsive writer!



David Goodwillie is working on another novel while he follows the Mets in what he hopes will be an amazing season of victory.



I

Around the age of twelve I moved into a big house with my family. It was on the edge of our little village, with a large garden. The house had two storeys – more than twice as many rooms as either of our previous homes, and was more than a hundred years old.

Everything about the house was ancient. It was built solidly, but it creaked. The stairs creaked, the doors creaked, the windows creaked. Sitting in the house alone, one could always hear noises.

During the next few years I frequently found myself in the house alone. I could always hear the movement of people who weren’t there. There were always noises that were impossible to identify. None of these, I believe, were ghosts, but they led my imagination astray more than a few times.

December 11, 2009 – L.A.X.

In general, I feel good about this. Three months isn’t such a long time, and I certainly wasn’t accomplishing anything in L.A. So what if all anyone has told us about Brazil is that it’s dangerous, and we’ll be beaten and robbed within seconds of landing in Sao Paulo. Just because everyone has a third- or fourth-hand account of a girl who was slashed or a guy who was shot doesn’t mean we’ll be slashed and shot. Never mind that story in the Times about how Brazilian police kill hundreds of innocent people a year. Just don’t ask the police for help. And just don’t think about that other story in the Times that said gangmembers in one of Rio’s favelas just shot down a police helicopter. That was Rio.

Everything’s going to be fine.

 

December 15 – Sao Paulo

On Sunday, Day One, it was raining, so after breakfast we went to a nearby mall. I don’t see how Sao Paulo can be dangerous. At the entrance a man stands with a machine gun strapped to his bulletproof vest, the cuffs of his black cargo pants tucked into his army boots. That seems to be the hip look for scary paramilitary types. When a man tucks his pants into his boots, you can just assume he has no problem with cold-blooded murder. Think about it: those Blackwater Nazis? Tuckers, to a man.

Inside, there are five security guards for every civilian. Men in dark jackets stand about thirty feet apart, watching every move we make.  When I take my wallet out of my pocket to pay for some cheesebread, I do it very slowly.

Yes! We successfully ordered cheesebread! We communicate with the natives via pointing at what we want. As a result, we tend not to get exactly what we want, but we are adaptable and our stomachs are strong.

 

December 16

Stomach pain!

Shouldn’t have gone from being vegetarian straight to eating chicken wrapped in bacon.

Also, Portuguese is hard. It shares words with Spanish, but Brazilians pronounce the Rs like Hs at the beginning of words but like Ds in the middle of words. They pronounce Ds like Js, and Ts like CHs (as in “Chanukah”), except when they don’t, and I have no idea when that is. Basically I have to rely on context to make a guess about what people are saying to me.

Have discovered local Starbucks. Emotions: conflicted.

 

December 17

Karen is jealous that I get to hang out all day while she has to work. I sympathize, but hey, I’m working. These crossword puzzles aren’t going to do themselves! I mean, I’m trying to plot my novel, but well, it sucks. And right now, someone is using a circular saw right on the other side of this wall, and the sound is like a demon screeching inside my head. I would leave this place, but I’m waiting for coffee. Still learning the local customs. I’m relying wholly on tone and context here, but I think the barista just said to me, “Sit down, bitch! I’ll bring you your goddamn coffee when it’s ready!”

I miss my dog.

 

December 18

Brazilian greetings are complicated. Before noon, it’s “Bom dia!” (but you say, “Bong gee-a”). Then, “Boa Tarde!” (“Ta-ch-jee!”) and then at night, “Boa Noite” (“Noichee or Noich.”) But you also might get, “Tudo bem?” or “Tudo bom?” which are apparently interchangeable. If someone says “Tudo bem?” your response is supposed to be “Tudo bom!” and vice versa, but so far all Karen and I have been able to do is smile and repeat whatever they’ve said to us, or lapse into a lame “Hi.”

I’m at a mall. I flew six thousand miles to sit in a mall. Next to Starbucks. But in my defense, it’s an outdoor mall, and it’s the only place in like a three-mile radius where you can be outside without suffering the noise and air pollution from the cars that clog every street.  And I’m not at Starbucks. Just next to it. At Fran’s Café, which, I’ve been told, is the Brazilian Starbucks.

There are security guards everywhere. The patrons of this mall are professionals and the super-rich. I’m the sketchiest-looking person here.

 

December 19

I did our laundry for the first time yesterday. It’s a complicated business, that begins with my calling housekeeping and saying, “Posso reservar a lavanderia?” and the housekeeper’s saying, “Que?” and my trying again and her saying something unintelligible that goes on way too long but ends abruptly so that the silence extends into awkward territory until I say, “Um…” and she says, “Agora! Agora!” and I say, “Oh, now? OK!”

I took the elevator down to the stiflingly hot basement where the laundry room is and where the housekeepers all marvel at the gringo man doing laundry. I don’t know much about Brazil yet, but I’m guessing they don’t have house-husbands here. I think of saying in Portuguese, “A woman’s work is never done!” but my courage fails me.

The machines are slow and stubborn, and the dryers don’t actually dry. I used up my entire allotted three-hour window, and still had to hang clothes from every possible place in the apartment to dry them. I managed to hang all of Karen’s undies on hangers, five each, which I then hung from our dining table chandelier. If all else fails, I will become a panty-mobile maker and sell my crafts by the roadside.

 

January 4, 2010

New year, old shit. Trouble sleeping. How can I detach the critical part of my brain?

I’m in the penthouse common room of the hotel. The view is 360 degrees of high-rise buildings, beautiful in a sort of tragic, pre-apocalyptic way. Every now and then a helicopter flies by and keeps going or lands on one of the office buildings in the neighborhood. Those guys — the ones who take helicopters around the city — just have to be all-star douchebags. There’s just no way around it.

There are security cameras in here. They’re also in the hallway outside our room, and in the elevators. Do they make me want to adjust my scrotum and pick my nose more than usual, or am I just more aware of these urges?

 

January 7

The housekeeper is messing with me. I leave the room at the same time every day to allow her to clean, but today I leave for two hours and come back, and she still hasn’t been here. What do I do? I am a home-person. I’m the roommate about whom other roommates moan to their friends, “He’s always home!”

I can only sit in so many cafés, and the hotel roof gets too hot in the afternoons. Where can I go?  Who will care for me? Is this how my ancestors felt? Would building a golden calf make me feel any better?

 

January 8

No.

 

January 9? 10?

I’ve lost track. Feeling a bit… low. I’m working at the juice place I’ve been going to so the servers at the cafés don’t think I’m stalking them. It’s pouring rain. It’s rained every day that we’ve been here, which is fine with me. I could go back to the room, switch the green Favor Arrumar o Quarto card on the door handle back over to the red Favor Não Incomodar, but then the room won’t be cleaned! What if we should want to shower again today?! The towels will be — gasp! — damp!

Karen says she doesn’t think the room needs to be cleaned every day — we certainly don’t have a housekeeper in real life — but I’m afraid of setting a precedent. Skip a day and the housekeeper may never come back. Or skip a day, and then I’ll skip two, and then three. Before we know it, we’ll be living like animals.

Also, I just left the hotel, and I can’t run that gauntlet again. On my way out I had to walk past the front desk, where no fewer than four blue-blazered hotel staffers milled around, all smiling fakely and saying, “Tudo bem?” or “Tudo bom?” or “Bom Dia!” Then there was the stoic security guard at the door, his deep “Bom Dia,” and then the three valet parking attendants. I just nodded and kept walking, like someone who is busy, very busy. No time for chit-chat, I have places to be, people to order coffee from!

No. Can’t go back to the hotel.

 

January 11?

Why can’t I get my shit together and get some work done? What’s my problem? Why won’t the housekeeper be consistent? Why doesn’t this hotel have a back door?

It’s too hot to think in this climate.

Stomach pain is back. Yesterday we accidentally ordered a stew that had at least four different animals in it.

When we get back to the States, I’m going vegan.




The Dark Undone

By D. R. Haney

Memoir

Macbeth

The thought came to me when I was fifteen and trying to sleep on New Year’s Eve. Nothing I recall had happened to incite it. I’d spent the night babysitting my younger siblings while my mother attended a party, and she returned home around one in the morning and everyone went to bed. (My parents had divorced, though they continued to quarrel as if married.) My brother was sleeping in the bunk below mine, and as I stared at the ceiling and listened to the house settle, I thought: Why don’t you go into the kitchen and get a knife and stab your family to death?

I’ve only recently shaken off the trepidation associated with taking public transport after riding a local train through Atocha railway station on the morning of March 11th, 2004, but I still occasionally feel exactly the same kind of paralysing fear that I’m sure every Londoner, Madrileño and every New Yorker is acquainted with, if not every person in the world who is even cursorily aware of terrorism lore.

Photo by Christopher Doyle

Strapped into an international flight, delayed on the runway in Jakarta in November 2006, due to the fact that Air Force one was passing through the airport, I fixated on a Semitic man sitting opposite me who was holding a copy of The Economist open in front of him.

Working his way through the paper steadily, the man was spending an equal amount of time looking at each double-page spread. Eerily, he was staring just as intently at an advert for Continental tyres, and for just as long, as he was spending reading the longer pieces.

Over the space of about an hour, blasted with sleep deprivation, culture shock, beer, Valium and memories of the film, ‘Flight 93’, I’d convinced myself he was pretending to read the paper and was, therefore, attempting to appear like a normal passenger, when, in truth, he was actually a member of al-Qaeda.

In no time, I’d managed to work myself into such a state that I’d dismantled a pen I’d found in my pocket, and was vacillating between squeamish thoughts of just what plunging the improvised plastic shiv into the guy’s neck would actually feel like, and how to explain my suspicions to the stewardess without breaking down and/or causing some kind of paroxysm.

I even wrote it out on a napkin, leaving out the words, “let’s roll”. I was preparing to hand it off when the resignation to the fact that I was going to die began to set in. The only consolation was that in doing so, I would have a part in ridding the world of George W. Bush. This was surprisingly comforting.

At what point does social conscience become interference?

When I was 12 years-old, I witnessed what would now be termed a ‘racial attack’. Some might say I participated in it by proxy. Indeed, apparently “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.

(Tell that to the Dalai Lama…)

A few seats down the bus from me, a friend of mine challenged a younger boy to specify his ethnic origin as among the people of one or the other of two neighbouring South Asian nation states; one of which he labeled with a racial epithet, the other of which he referred to with the standard demonym. My friend challenged this boy, the only non-Caucasian on a bus full of white people, clearly using the racial slur to antagonise him.

Another friend in attendance began laughing loudly and continued cackling throughout the provocation and the ensuing one-on-one fight. The public racial challenge meant that the onus was very much on the kid to escalate the conflict, and my friend certainly deserved a punch for his bigotry.

Should I also have been one to administer this, in addition to the kid’s justifiably violent reaction to what my friend had said to him? The answer is quite clearly in the affirmative: The influence I had with my friends was the power I had above and beyond that of this beleaguered kid.

A comment or an action from me may not have been able to stop the fight, but it would have certainly registered my horror and disapproval as some kind of ‘societal’ protest, and it certainly would have been easier for me to do this more effectively than he, and perhaps the fight could have been turned more in the kid’s favour.

A typically resonant line from ‘The Sopranos’ comes to mind here…

Character, J.T. Dolan returns to admonish the attendees of a Writer’s Guild seminar he has just been physically dragged out of by Mafia goons:

“An entire room full of writers, and you did nothing!”

I suspect people who weren’t on that bus are still disgusted with me for doing nothing. I don’t feel great about it. I think that the incident lies behind my obsession with ‘jobs’ that legitimise; indeed that require a passive, observatory stance. eg. writer. In both situations, I just sat there shocked into inaction.

I got off the bus well before my stop as a boy, and off the plane as a ‘man’.

I walked the rest of the way home in silence.

IMAGE: Screengrab from ‘The Sopranos’ from youtube.com