This past week, I got a Kindle. I have not been so changed by a reading experience since Stephen King’s Needful Things, which was the book that made me realize I wanted to tell stories. It’s the sort of genius-level device that demonstrates the fact that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Truly wonderful.

These are the moments in time that stand out when I first think of New York City.

– hearing the street vendor who looked like he should have been breaking legs for Jimmy Hoffa, with the rich, Bronx-rounded voice of Pennywise the Clown, selling, of all things, bubble guns. He breaks certain words through the middle, like a boat bridge opening to let the river of people hustling along the sidewalk through underneath. As it just so happens, I commit his speech to memory instantly.

Joe Daly opened his “Five Bands I Should Like, but I Don’t. At All” piece by noting there is no accounting for taste.

Steve Almond responded by recommending five uber-obscure bands for listening pleasure, which might have worked without the additional discussion of Daly and his piece, but I think there’s a more important corollary.

Notably: if there are, as Joe suggests, bands we should like a lot—by dint of reputation or acclaim—but don’t, there are probably, conversely, bands we shouldn’t like but do.

Taste seems to have a lot to do with it. The idea that taste and quality are subjective seems to be a popular argument.

I’m not saying that’s not true, but I will say this: like Joe, I don’t like the Beatles, but it has turned out I like their songs and music on the condition they be performed by other musicians. Between The Wonder Years and Across the Universe, I think Joe Cocker may be the best thing that ever happened to the Beatles.

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.

As Will Entrekin has pointed out, Easter is a more complicated holiday than it first appears (especially when you consider the existence of Spy Wednesday, the only holiday with a license to kill). Douglas Adams, too, made the wonderful point that one of things we’re celebrating is that a couple of thousand years ago, someone said ‘Hey everyone! Let’s just be nice to each other!’ and humanity’s response was to say, ‘Well, clearly the only thing to do with this asshole is to just nail him to something and see how cheerful he is then.’

Somehow a rabbit that lays chocolate eggs is involved too, or something?

I don’t know. I missed out on that comparative veterinary theology class, I think. Although the one about how Mr. Ed is the Messiah was truly enlightening*

Anyway.

All that aside, Happy Easter. Stay happy, stay safe, and stay away from bad eggs.







*- and anyone who disagrees is getting Wil-burnt at the stake! Aha ha ha ha…

I put off posting until the final day of this month because it coincides with the Christian holy day with the coolest name: Spy Wednesday.  Not in the sense of the Gospel According to Ian Fleming, unfortunately, though that would be fitting considering that when Jesus was called before the Sanhedrin (Jewish high priests) and then sent to Pilate (the governor), it was for political insurrection.

That’s pretty spy-worthy.

Except the spy part refers to Yehuda ex Karioth, now known as Judas Iscariot, who conspired with the Sanhedrin to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.  More contemporary accounts hold that Judas was actually acting on the will of Jesus, which makes it the sort of double-cross Ian Fleming loved.

While I’ve always understood why Christians mark Easter Sunday as their most holy day, I’ve always thought today is more important.

Because Spy Wednesday is also the day Jesus became Christ.

***

I was raised Catholic, and remained Catholic until my junior year of high school.  At that time, I transferred to a public school and broke from the faith before, two years later, I enrolled in a Jesuit college.  I didn’t know what that meant at the time and I worried how that education might conflict with one in science (I was already a declared pre-med major); science and religion have always been strange bedfellows.

There were a fair amount of priests on faculty, however, and I made it a point to get to know them so that I understood, better, what being Jesuit meant.  Wikipedia notes that Jesuits are known colloquially as “God’s marines,” but none of the priests I ever met seemed in any way militant.  Seriously, imagine your grandfather.  Or better yet, your grandfather’s brother, and imagine him both drunk and too old to be creepy anymore, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the men I met.  They all had the sorts of smiles that stayed around their eyes long after their mouths were otherwise occupied, and they all seemed to wear cardigans.  They spoke softly, and sometimes called you “Son.”

To be honest, I still don’t know exactly what Jesuit means, as opposed to what Catholic or Christian or Free Presbyterian (or Locked-Up Presbyterian) mean.  So far as I experienced it, it means education, compassion, and service.

Now that I’ve begun to teach classes in colleges, now that students and colleagues call me a professor and I hope one day to actually become one, I find I measure my own classroom performance against my experience in one particular class I attended more than a decade ago.  On the cusp of 32, it amazes me that a class I took as a sophomore in college, when I was 19 friggin’ years old, could be so developmentally important, but every year I realize just how much impact it’s had on my life.

That year, I took six credits of an honors seminar in theology, as required by the college’s curriculum.  I dreaded it; I was going to be a doctor, after all, and medicine isn’t about prayer.  It’s about knowledge and skill and precision, names of veins and arteries and the singular confidence that is picking up a scalpel and using it to cut open another person’s body, knowing you can help them, maybe even save them.

I am not a doctor because I realized I don’t have that confidence.

I didn’t realize it in that class, though.  That class was about other realizations, the kind of realizations so deep and fundamental you’re still making them a decade later.  Or at least I am.  I’ve always been slow like that.

My theology class was taught by a man named Robert Kennedy.  Jesuit priest trained in Zen Buddhism.  Tall and Irish.  Quick, piercing eyes that glasses did nothing to blunt.  When Father Kennedy listened to you, it made you want to say something that could change the world, because for a moment you believed you could.

We read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, but we didn’t consider it as a religious document.  We looked at its historical context.  After we finished Revelations, we began to read literature, including More’s Utopia and Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in more religious contexts, basically viewing each work through a lens of theological criticism just as we had applied feminist or sociological criticism in our literature classes.

When we hit the Gospels, they came as a revelation to me.  Not for content; I knew what they said.  I narrated the Nativity when I was in second grade.

What came as a surprise was the questions we raised about them.  Who wrote them?  Was Jesus a real person, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and on the third day rose again from the dead in fulfillment of the Scriptures?

Just asking those questions, nevermind the questions themselves, came as an epiphany for me; in those Catholic schools I’d attended, we weren’t allowed.  It could earn us detention.  Or worse.

***

When you ask questions in math or science, usually the answer is either an equation or an experiment away.  In literature and philosophy, five pages of well-argued bullshit do quite nicely.

History is different, though.  We want facts, evidence, citations, sources.  Or I do, anyway.  Maybe it’s the scientist in me.  When I consider life and its origins and evolution, nothing about it strikes me as so “convenient” that I require a deity to have initiated the process. There seems to be quite a bold leap from measurable, documentable evidence to “There must be an invisible dude in the sky.”

As with so many aspects of the Bible, problems with Jesus emerge when considering his life and story in the context of evidence.  There is, arguably, more circumstantial evidence of Jesus than of Shakespeare (four gospels versus a few signatures and a will), but Jesus didn’t write 30 plays.

Facts are hazy.  We know Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John by Anglican names—they were probably Matthaeis and Yuchanan, for two, and Marcus and Lucas, I suppose—but we’re not precisely sure who they were, when they were writing, or why.  By most modern academic agreement, the earliest gospel was Mark.  Mark was not an apostle, and he didn’t write until decades after Jesus’ crucifixion; most believe he was basically Peter’s secretary—Peter being Simon Peter, on whom Jesus declared he would build the Church, the building of which seems to have gotten in the way of Peter ever actually recording anything.  Most scholars in addition believe that two of the three other gospels—Matthew and Luke—were based on Mark and another source, called Q, and written several years later.

Those three—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—are the synoptics, meaning they summarize the life, ministry, and execution of Jesus of Nazareth.  None of the authors actually met the man in question.

John’s is an oddball gospel; not only is it written in a completely different style, but John’s record of events don’t always coincide with the others’, to the point that he places the date for Jesus’ crucifixion in a different year.  John’s also the guy who wrote Revelations.  I’ve also heard that John is the guy who wrote while fasting on an island on which he consumed nothing but hallucinogenic mushrooms for a while.

I can’t argue the veracity of that claim, but it would certainly explain a lot.  Especially considering Revelations.

But the veracity of the Gospel accounts overall is something that’s fascinated me for years.  Some studies have claimed the most recognizable brands on Earth are Coke, McDonald’s, and Disney, but they seem to completely ignore Jesus (TM).  The Bible is the greatest-selling book of all time by several orders of magnitude.  Lately it seems like social media gurus have been talking endlessly about personal branding, and here’s the guy with the most powerful personal brand in history.  “Love your neighbor.”  “Blessed are the meek.”  He spoke in soundbites ready for mass consumption.

Except, of course, he probably didn’t.

Which is the part that’s fascinated me.  The separation of the man from the brand.

His appearance, for one.  A quick scan of IMDb lists numerous actors who’ve tackled the role: James Caviezel, Jeremy Sisto, Christian Bale, Max von Sydow, Willem Dafoe to name arguably the most famous (and I have no idea why I always think of Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia, but I could have sworn O’Toole gave the role a shot).  What you’ll notice is a bunch of white dudes of mostly European heritage.

Which, of course, Jesus was not.  The big geographical points of his story are Bethlehem, in Judea, and Nazareth, in Galilee.  Most of his ministry occurred in the latter until he traveled to Jerusalem, which was where he ran into all the trouble and was crucified.

The most famous aspects of the Judas story are the pieces of silver and the kiss.  The silver is incidental, but the kiss is important; without it, chances are the soldiers arresting Jesus wouldn’t have recognized him.  Because he was just a regular bloke, and being a regular bloke back then meant he was short, probably under 5’5”.  He was also Jewish, which meant he probably had a darker complexion, and while most accounts refer to him as a carpenter, he was actually a tekton, which is closer in meaning to builder, and probably a stone mason.  So he was a short, muscular, Jewish guy.

Not Christian Bale.

***

I think the more important aspect of the Spy Wednesday story, however, at least in Christian terms, is that it is the day Jesus became Christ.  The two words, nowadays, are so inseparable people sometimes confuse Christ with Jesus’ last name.

It’s not, of course.  They didn’t really have surnames then, not like we do.  There wasn’t a Jesus Jones and a Jesus Smith and a Jesus Washington.  People were identified, mostly, by where they came from, their parents, or their occupation; Jesus would likely have been Yehoshua ex Natzeret or Yehoshua bin Miryam—that is, Jesus of Nazareth or Jesus, son of Mary.  That latter because, remember, Jesus would have been an illegitimate child, and had no father.  This little factoid is interesting considering that, when Pilate offered the crowd a choice between Jesus and the other prisoner, that other prisoner was Jesus bar Abbas, literally “Jesus, son of the Father.”  Make of that what you will.

Christ, however, is not a name.  It’s a title.  Like doctor, or professor.  An honorific.  It means annointed, which is what Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, with whom Jesus was staying on the outskirts of Jerusalem, did on Holy Wednesday.  She annointed Jesus with a luxurious oil.

This annointment is what made Jesus both Messiah and Christ.  Both terms simply mean annointed.

***

I think about all this right around now every year for obvious reasons, not least because I still wonder about that account.  I can’t break from my scientific mindset; like Thomas the Doubter, I need more evidence to be convinced of any of the supernatural aspects of the story of Jesus.  I find the evidence he existed, and preached, and was crucified, reasonably credible.  There are enough accounts by enough writers that I can say I think it’s pretty likely a man named Jesus lived during the early part of the first century, and preached about love and our neighbors and had some relaxed and groovy philosophies.  I’m reasonably convinced he was a bit of a socialist and believed in judging not, and for that he got on the wrong side of the government, who didn’t know what else to do with him besides crucify him.

And that’s about it.  Virgin births and miracles and resurrections from the dead: not only am I not even a little convinced any of those things occurred, but neither am I convinced they matter.  In fact, most days, I go so far as to note I think that the supernatural aspects of the story cloud the truth of the man and his ministry.

Then again, as Pilate so famously asked: “What is Truth?”

(Image from here, after a BBC program and subsequent Popular Mechanics issue that explored forensic imaging of Jesus. Fascinating stuff.)




December 25 marks a milestone at The Nervous Breakdown: the fortieth day of the existence of TNB 3.0. If the revamped site were the Ark, the dove would fly back with an olive leaf in its mouth. Or a sample from the bag of Jessica Blau’s “lemons.” Or a beanie Zoë Brock found on the side of the road in Frisco. Or…but you get the idea.

I feel like this momentous occasion should be commemorated by something other than the exchange of presents and spiked eggnog. Perhaps Megan DiLullo can organize a podcast? Or, better yet, a photo montage of TNBers dressed like Bond girls? (An editorial suggestion for Megan and Erika: next time, get the girls to wear the bikinis).

It’s been a month in which our contributors have displayed feats of tremendous bravery: David Wills swam with sharks. Matt Baldwin hiked with bear. Simon Smithson jumped off a tall building. Ben Loory stole money from Demi Moore. Don Mitchell wore tighty-whities.

J.E. Fishman is serializing his novel, Cadaver Blues. Between Cadaver and Cactus City, there’s a lot of blues going on at TNB. I hope 2010 is a happier year for everyone.

Richard Cox wrote a cool piece about the hoopla surrounded the Tiger Woods imbroglio, which—because we are above it here on this blog—somehow descended into a debate about the literary merits of Jonathan Franzen. The Corrections, it appears, refers to what Woods did to his swing a few years back.

Our Fearless Leader returned from blog post exile, and I think I speak for all of us when I say, Welcome back, Brad Listi. His piece, “You Lost Me At Hello,” was treated like the release of Chinese Democracy—top of the charts, top of the comment numbers—the only difference being that Brad’s post is good.

Someone named Darian Arky started writing for us from his redoubt in Prague. According to his dossier, he works for the State Department. How naïve do you think we are, man? I’ve read enough James Ellroy books to know that if a dude claims to work for the State Department, he’s really out there gathering intelligence, handling sources, and slipping Cold Ethyl into the Chivas of enemies of the state. I’m not sure what Arky is up to—other than contributing great pieces and leaving lots of comments on everyone else’s—but I find it curious that as soon as he shows up, Justin Benton vanishes.

Whether or not Darian Arky is an actual person, Darian Arky is a cool name. That seems to be a criterion for letting new writers on the site. Check out these new peeps: Gwenda Bond, Doreen Orion, Nathaniel Missildine, and Jeffrey Pillow all join Autumn Kindelspire, Slade Ham, and Will Entrekin in the Cool Name Hall of Fame.

(Alison Aucoin is a cool name, too, except that I have no idea how to pronounce it. Oh-KWAN? OH-cun? Oh-CYOON? Alison, please enlighten us).

The forty days have included lots of great stuff—if I neglected to mention you specifically, it’s not because I don’t like you, but because my daughter is yelling at me from downstairs to give her gum, so my attentions are diverted—but I’ve especially enjoyed the content from LitPark and 3G1B and WordHustler, as well as the fact that my kids routinely appear on View From Your Phone.

My favorite piece of the first forty days, however—other than my own self-interview, of course—is the trilogy submitted by Gina Frangello about her father. A must-read, it says here.

Happy holidays, folks. May 2010 be the year in which all your dreams come true…and the year in which we drop the idiotic “two-thousand” business and start saying “twenty-ten.”