>  
 

In 3000 BCE, papyrus scrolls allowed people to preserve oral stories in writing. Then, about 2000 years ago, people figured out that they could fold a scroll up into a codex, or even produce individual sheets of paper that could be bound into a book.

Around 1439 CE, Gutenberg’s movable type printing allowed people to reproduce books for the masses.

By the late 1800s, paperbacks were finding themselves in the most remote locations of the world. Books were more available to the general public than ever, but these books were still written as though the stories within them were consistent, straightforward narratives–oral stories on paper.

In the maiden voyage of this column, Poetry for the Nervous, Vol 1, I led with the principle that what you love, what strikes you, what moves you in poetry is what matters.  Critics do not matter.  The judgments of others do not matter.  Poetry is yours to dispose as your heart dictates.  If your teachers or friends impose upon you some poem or poet they champion, and you just don’t get it, there is no need to think yourself stupid or inadequate, nor to give up on poetry as a whole.  You will find what you love eventually, because poetry in its essence is as deep within us as our desire to communicate.

From an appeal towards what you love, I’ll work into something a bit less romantic.  I think the best poetry is also useful.  That’s a dangerous word in the world of art, wrapped up as it is in the most ancient debates about aesthetics and utility, but I’m always ready to argue that gallery art is great, but does it really beat, say, a well crafted chair that is beautiful to behold, and is also very comfortable for sitting?  Do any human efforts match the art of nature, for whom, especially if you are a cosmologist, utility is the most fundamental quantity?

Before we discuss if we have a “right to be happy” or “how can we be happy,” we must first decide what we mean by ‘happiness.’

The word “happiness,” today, is used too ubiquitously to really mean much.There is a happy life, a happy moment, a happy accident.In etymological terms, the word’s origin is actually more closely related to “happen-stance” or “haphazard” where the root “hap” has to do with something being accidental or as a matter of fortune, rather than a result of purposeful action.  In most European languages, happy meant lucky.  Further, happiness’ connotation, its common usage rather than its definitive definition, has evolved from one of generality over a lifetime to one of one’s current state of being.Saying, “I am happy,” used to mean that your life was going well.Now it means, “This cake in my mouth is really something.”So, what was once a description of goals, direction and prudence, is now a full-mouthed reply to a bit of frosting.

 

Dear Suzanne,

 

I never really liked you that much. The reason I randomly called you and asked you out was that my best friend at the time Philip said that I should try to get out there. I would have actually preferred to go on a date with Kim because she had big tits.

 

 

Dear Michelle,

 

Sorry I screamed that you were a slut when you told me to calm down after I threw a book across the room in reading class. You were right, I did need to calm down, but I was freaking out because Mrs. M didn’t understand that I didn’t want my father “helping” me either, but that he was an overbearing prick obsessed with my education because he had been ignored by his parents and turned to school as an escape.

 

 

Dear Nancy,

 

Sorry I hit on you in a crude and I’m sure offensive manner that night at your party. Don’t know if you heard, but I wound up in the hospital that night.

 

 

Dear Dr. Abadi,

 

It’s really fucked up that you used to get mad and complain that I drooled too much when you worked on my teeth. As an adult I realize that HAVING YOUR HAND IN MY MOUTH might have had something to do with that. By making such a big deal of my cavities you were inadvertently the cause of me getting hit by my father for the first time in public. Oh, and my new dentist said that you’re a shit dentist. He had to re-do a lot of the work you did so maybe instead of concentrating on how much I drooled you should have read a dental journal or something. Hope you’ve gotten sued since then, you fucking prick.

 

 

Dear Mrs. Greenstein,

 

I know everybody in school hated you but I loved you. You brought me Twinkies and other snacks when you tutored me after school. I had just moved from NYC and no-one was nice to me then, so your kindness meant a lot to me. Also, I heard many kids say they hated you because you ate pretzels during class and they felt like that was taunting them because they couldn’t eat during class, but I knew about your health condition, I knew why you did that. Sorry I didn’t explain this to the other students. I just wasn’t there yet, you know?

 

 

Dear Kelly,

 

I’d only known you a short time when you were diagnosed with MS. You couldn’t understand why I didn’t run for the hills, but I explained that I wasn’t that shallow. I spent 14 hours on a Greyhound bus to come see you. I bought groceries, I cooked and cleaned for you, gave you massages and soothed you during your panic attacks. I treated you better than I’ve ever treated any other human being. You paid me back by going totally cold and rejecting me after about a week. Did you love me so much you hurt me so I’d run away and not have to take care of you anymore? If so, thanks I guess, but really, shouldn’t that have been my choice?

 

 

Dear Babysitter,

 

Sorry I didn’t hug you that time you asked for one. I don’t know if you just wanted a hug or if that was the start of a long, elaborate plan to molest me, but either would have been okay because you were really hot.

 

 

Dear Liz Chang,

 

Sorry we walked all the way to Closter to see a movie and then couldn’t see it because I only had enough money to pay for me. You might not believe this, but I thought if I paid for you I’d look like some old-fashioned loser so I purposely didn’t bring any more money.

 

 

Dear Yling (the other babysitter),

 

I hope you rot in hell, you ungrateful slut. My parents paid for you to fly to America, paid for your schooling, everything. And you slept with my dad and fucked up our family as thanks. I hope you know my dad has women issues and would sleep with anyone. You weren’t even cute.

 

 

Dear Lisa,

 

I have two memories of you. One is of you giving me crabs. The other is of us playing basketball at my house. I was standing at half-court and asked what you’d do if I got the ball in from there. You said your body would be mine for the night and goddamn if I didn’t sink that shot. I felt like such a winner and loved when you asked me suck or fuck as I started to claim my prize. I guess these two memories balance each other out.

 

 

Dear Csaba,

 

Sorry I let Terrence Bates convince me I should fight you. He was also responsible for my only other high school fight, with John Larson. If it’s any consolation, you were much tougher than me and would have kicked my ass if Mr. Timmy the woodshop teacher hadn’t jumped in. That’s why I blindsided you like that, I knew I had no chance.

 

 

Dear Cousin Thomas,

 

I promise to never tell anyone we showed each other our penises as kids. I know you’re a big deal in the Coast Guard and that they probably frown on such behavior.

 

 

Dear Amanda,

 

Sorry for smacking you across the face that time at my birthday party. I had been drinking long before anyone got there and drunkenly remembered how you blackmailed me into letting you come even though we were broken up. And well, you know the rest. If I could do it all over again, I would marry you this time. I’ve never met a woman who I’ve been even half as attracted to as I was to you.

 

 

Dear Jennifer,

Why’d you sleep with me and then tell Amanda? I slept with Christine too and yeah she was kind of fat and ugly, but at least she knew how to keep her mouth shut!

 

 

Dear Uncle Arthur,

I know you’re dead now and it’s bad to speak ill of the dead and all, but man, I can’t believe you stole my boombox after my mother, your own sister, let you stay at our house. Even your crime buddy thought that was scummy and mailed us some of the stuff back (which I guess he stole from you), but I never did get that boombox back.

 

 

Dear Mets,

As a boy I went to one of your games and not one of you would give me an autograph. As the day wore on I asked photographers, batboys, concession stand workers, etc. for their signatures too but got nothing. What’s wrong with you assholes? Don’t you realize that crap can be really important to impressionable young boys? I wasn’t mocking you, I really wanted you to sign my stupid program.

 

 

Dear Eddie Malone,

God, I miss you. You’re the funniest person I’ve ever met. You had no inhibitions whatsoever when I knew you and I’ve aspired to that ever since. I didn’t and still don’t care that you did cocaine and Heather broke up with you. Truthfully, she was kind of weird anyway.

 

 

Dear Elissa,

Thanks for visiting me in the mental institution and bringing me a Bart Simpson doll. Susan told me that you cheated on me many times and it’s a little fucked up that you told me not to make art because that was “your thing,” but that was nice of you to visit. Besides, not to be a prick, but I’m actually a real artist now, and well, you’re probably not.

 

 

Dear Kazoo,

You were the best miniature schnauzer in the world. When they told me that you got hit by a car and that my dad and a police officer suffocated you in a trashbag, part of me died too. I used to love putting on your little red and black sweater and taking you for walks after a big snowstorm. You and I were the whole world during those moments.

 

 

Dear Grandpa Schwartz,

I doubt I ever told you I loved you unless my parents told me to say it to you which probably would have sounded forced and robotic, but I want you to know I keep a picture of you taped to the inside of my bathroom cabinet. It seems like nobody in the family (especially your wife) gave you much respect because you worked most of your life in a men’s clothing shop. But you know what? Fuck them. Fuck anyone who says a single bad word about you. You were kind. Maybe they don’t respect that, but I do.

 

 

Dear Other Dog (I forget your name),

They told me you jumped out of the window of our Chevy Citation one day. If that’s true, way to go. If I was an animal who could survive anywhere, believe me, I would have been right behind you.

 

 

Dear Grandpa Gaffney,

Thanks for reading to me in a rocking chair for all those hours. I don’t remember them, but mom swears that’s what we used to do. I like to think you’d be proud of me even though I can’t support myself.

 

 

Dear Aunt Barbara,

I was flattered at the time but it’s kind of fucked up that you taunted your husband by saying what a good kisser I was when all we ever did was peck. I think you might have boundary issues.

 

 

Dear Allen Ginsberg,

You’re by far the most overrated poet of all time and when I saw you at Manhattanville College you really sucked ass. That smoke-dope, eat-rope, smoke-dope stuff was embarrassing. I’ll never understand why the world doesn’t care that you were a pedophile. If you were alive and tried that shit now I would kill you in your sleep.

 

 

Dear Birthday Clown,

I know you were just doing your job but it mortified me when you pulled out that scarf and “my” underwear was on it. I wanted to scream that that was NOT my underwear but the silence had already overtaken me by then.

 

 

Dear Kibbutznik,

That was fucked up when you asked if I was a mute, if I understood English. Why did you ask that? Because I wasn’t jumping fast enough as you barked orders? You may live on a kibbutz but you sure don’t understand the ideology behind one, you sad prick. I have a degree in Literature with a minor in Creative Writing, thank you very much.

 

 

Dear Coach Clancy,

I can’t believe you told me to beat up anyone that got too close to me. Not very responsible adult behavior there, pal. And I think being a goalie actually ruined me. The pressure to defend and then the burning self-recrimination after I let a ball go by me, especially one I knew I should have saved, that feeling still haunts me over 20 years later.

 

 

Dear Kevin,

You always acted like this big tough guy but then you had your friend fight me instead of doing the dirty work yourself. Pretty pussy, you know? And why did you do it? Because Ed’s sister told you I read your diary. How do you think she knew I read it, you idiot? She read it too! I guess she was suspect anyway though, she said I raped her. I’ve never raped anybody.

 

 

Dear Moira,

I was totally humiliated when after the night my mom tried to commit suicide you asked if I was okay in school the next day. You knew about it because your mom was a volunteer EMT. Isn’t that some kind of breech of confidentiality? I know you asked because you cared, but I wish you didn’t.

 

 

Dear Social Worker,

I don’t know how I wound up with you trying to diagnose my autism and not a psychologist or psychiatrist but you know, you were a real bitch. You were almost immediately hostile, questioning why I even felt the need for a diagnosis and you totally judged me for not being employed which is obviously very unprofessional. I may be nothing in your world, but you’re even less in mine. Where are you published? What galleries have you shown your artwork in?

 

 

Dear Jeff,

I’ve demonized you badly enough not to miss you but, well, who am I kidding, I miss you. Sorry I told mom that you were the one to put the batteries in her gas tank. I have no idea what I did to deserve your silence but understand, I’ve cut off many people who probably didn’t deserve to be cut off in my life too. Peace.

 

 

Dear Lucian,

Holy shit. I had no idea I had to clean the tank. This sounds so stupid but I thought that’s what the filter was for. Sorry, you deserved better. RIP.

 

 

Dear Barry,

Thanks for being the father I never had even though you’re younger than me and it’s probably creepy to say that.

 

 

Dear Dad,

Are you dead yet?

 

 

 

 

 

What does it mean to be literate? That one’s pretty easy; it means you know how to read. What does it mean to be cultural? That one’s a little tougher; it means you know that in most situations, it’s unacceptable to put your cigarette out on a dachshund. And so what does it mean to be “culturally literate?” Many have posed this question (Harold Bloom, the Yale professor currently encased in acrylic and preserved for posterity does it a lot.), yet no one has truly come to terms with an accurate answer. My uncle Seamus once remarked that “cultural literacy is for homosexuals,” but he was urinating in a koi pond at the time, so who knows? I suggest we journey together to see if we can’t get to the core of this labyrinthine dilemma. Perhaps the most logical first step is learning how to read (I’ll wait for a few minutes)… Sweet. Our next step is to determine what exactly is “cultural.” Below are a few undeniably cultural items in the realm of architecture, literature and music. Let’s familiarize ourselves with these things, and then we can begin to get a handhold on what it means to be culturally literate.

The Eiffel Tower

Perhaps the most recognizable man-made structure in the world, The Eiffel Tower is a must-see for any culturally minded person. Completed in 1889 to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the French Revolution(1), the Eiffel Tower serves as a constant reminder that not everything in Paris is covered in dog feces.

The tower stands well over 1,000 feet high, something I discovered after dropping a crêpe from the observation deck while utilizing the equation Yf = -1/2gt^2 + Vot+Yo. Nestled along the Seine and overlooking the Champ de Mars, the Eiffel Tower strictly prohibits oral sex in the elevators (although there was no noticeable sign or warning). Also, be sure to say “bonjour” to the one-eyed dwarf who roller skates atop the structure’s antenna, drinking his own blood and reciting Ozymandias(2).  As an added frustration, Le Jules Verne restaurant on the second floor offers food you can’t afford. I recommend the filet de turnbot au sautoir, écrevisses et champignons à la Riche, then running away.


Ulysses

A mammoth tome, written by James Joyce and published by Sylvia Beach in its entirety in 1928, Ulysses catalogues a day in the life of one Leopold Bloom. Often cited as the cornerstone of modernist literature, Ulysses takes its name from Homer’s Odysseus, as in The Odyssey, that book you were supposed to read sophomore year but ended up huffing oven cleaner in the school parking lot most of the time.

Written in Joyce’s inimitable stream-of-consciousness style, Ulysses is an integral part of any literary aesthete’s library. In addition, the book reminds us that even though the sisters at Strake Jesuit put saltpeter in our Cheerios to keep us from masturbating, there’s really no stopping the process, even if the guilt stays with you to this day. While nobody has ever read this book, its inclusion in your book collection will ensure at least a cursory dry-hump from the intoxicated Yale co-ed you met at the “Vampire Weekend” concert last month. Be sure to look out for the last sentence in which Molly Bloom probably has an orgasm or is in the throes of Crohn’s disease. Joyce was also blind, so we can forgive him for not making a whole lot of sense (there has been speculation that Joyce wrote much of Ulysses on the back of his cat, accounting for much of the confusion within the text). The poet Ezra Pound perhaps put it best when he remarked, “Ulysses is a treat for anyone trapped under ice.”

Jazz

Often cited as the only “true American art form,” jazz music is what happens when heroin happens. First popularized in the early 20th century, jazz incorporates West African musical traditions and European stuffiness, resulting in a cacophonous mishmash that makes one feel as if his or her genitals are creeping up and slowly eating his/her belly button. A vital part of America’s long history of misguided art forms, jazz is sure to spark furious debate among people who can’t admit they sing along to Rihanna’s “Umbrella” in the car when nobody is looking.

Jazz is, at its core, an interpretive medium. Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and other maestros of the genre are venerated within certain musical circles much the same way the idea of a space/time continuum is venerated by physicists, even though, after a while, ruminations on the subject lead one back to the inevitable conclusion that nothing is understandable in this crazy world, especially Ugg boots. If you feel you have the mettle, give jazz a chance. When you’ve discovered it’s over your head and you’d honestly just rather sit there listening to Shakira, don’t feel bad. You can always count on her and her hips don’t lie.

I hope our maiden voyage into the unforgiving sea of cultural literacy has proved helpful. Keep in mind; this is a long journey, but a journey well-worth taking. For how are we to navigate our desires, our fears, and ourselves if we cannot navigate the world around us?

GPS is a good answer, yes

[1] More on the French Revolution can be found in Charles Dickens’ classic, A Tale of Two Cities. Although, it is a far better thing if you start reading at Part III, as I this is where the nudity really kicks into high gear.

[2] There is a place that sells absinthe next to the McDonald’s on the Rue Duban.

“Visiting London, I always have the sense of a city devised as an instrument of political control, like the class system that preserves England from revolution. The labyrinth of districts and boroughs, the endless columned porticos that once guarded the modest terraced cottages of Victorian clerks, together make clear that London is a place where everyone knows his place.

-J.G. Ballard, Airports: Cities of the Future for Blueprint magazine, September 1997

As in every big city, perhaps in every large concentration of human beings, London regards itself as quite considerably more important than everywhere else. Areas within London even posture themselves as somehow superior to their closest bordering neighbours. The same ‘narcissism of minor difference’ is expressed clearly by the amplified hatred of one obscure group of sports fans for their closest neighbouring rivals eg. Liverpool vs. Manchester, New York vs. Boston etc. etc. It’s just another reminder of what a bunch of witless, retrograde animals we actually are, despite all the protestations of highly-evolved, right-brain thinking.

People talk about tiny areas of London as if they’ve magically earned as much a right to a place in the collective consciousness as Sparta or Crete simply by being within the boundaries of the North Circular road. Londoners tend to assume in the listener a detailed geographical grasp of the city, regardless of where they might be from, just as New Yorkers refer to esoteric distinctions in ‘uptown’, ‘midtown’, and ‘downtown’ culture as if they are as intrinsic to human development as the Out of Africa migration patterns of Pleistocene man.

How have the supercilious people of a cold, rainy conurbation in an isolated corner of Northern Europe come to such licence to lord the relative merits of either side of a grey, begrimed river over the rest of the world.

Especially now, it seems that London didn’t get the memo that the system it developed and propagated across the globe has almost no ethical, spiritual or economic currency anymore, anywhere. It’s a situation that makes the half-mast-drainpipe-red-jean brigades look extra-specially ridiculous

Like the revival of the cravat in the early nineteenth century, in the 1980s, and then again in the early 2000s, the choice of that hat looks very much like a ‘top of the economic bell curve’ decision.

It’s very hard to avoid making them. It’s a rare individual that manages to transcend economic determinism, and avoids falling into the trap of thinking that things might be even remotely similar to how they were five, or even three, years ago.

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m with this guy, and therefore, with Nicholas Sarkozy:

“That a head of state should allow Eros to plot the trajectory of his life, rather than the travails of the global credit crunch, is so life-affirming it moves me to tears.

-Peter Aspden, Financial Times, August 2, 2008

She had my thing in her hand when the monkey swung in.

Like the monkey, I wish to make a dramatic entrance.

But what constitutes a great dramatic entrance?  Is it some thing or some act that rises above ordinary by its very existence or action?  Or is it an invitation for one’s imagination to go someplace it hasn’t been lately — or someplace it has never been?

The great dramatic entrance — whether it’s an opening sentence, an architectural feature or a theatrical introduction — has a come-hither quality, I think.   It startles one pleasurably with certain unspoken possibilities.

Some people’s flair for the dramatic goes way back.  Take the du Pont family, for instance.  They fled the French Revolution, it is said, and landed on these shores on New Year’s Day 1800 — kissing the still-new world on the first day of a new century.

I call that a dramatic entrance, and I raise it here because we live in a big old house with a history.  It sits on a rise above the Brandywine River.  And, although you mostly can’t see the river because of intervening woods, the water below, slowly gouging the valley, lends a mystical quality to our environs.

The presence of the river is not incidental.  In 1802, Eleuthere Irenee du Pont settled on the side opposite our house, on the site of an old cotton mill.  While the original mill had burned, the millrace remained intact, enabling du Pont to get a jump on his project.  He soon constructed the first high-quality gunpowder mills in America and thereby founded one of the oldest and most successful American enterprises in the history of capitalism.  The mansion he built on a hill above his mills stands today.  If not for the trees, in fact, my family would look daily upon it.

And — here’s the crucial thing — were it not for the trees, du Pont’s house would also look upon us.

E.I. du Pont had an older brother named Victor, who built our house between 1807 and 1811.  On his side of the river, Victor constructed woolen mills to manufacture cotton cloth.  His company — known, after Victor’s partner, as Du Pont, Bauday & Co. — functioned for decades into the Nineteenth Century.  Nice little business, I suppose, but his brother bet on a better future.  Du Pont de Nemours & Company diversified and went public and made many members of an old family very rich.

But before that there were two well-connected brothers living at a time when shopkeepers resided over the store and manufacturers lived next to their mills.  The brothers had social stature.  There’s reason to believe, for example, that the boots of Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette trod the old floorboards that we often now walk in bare feet.

Over time, however, the house known as Louviers apparently passed into abandonment and disrepair, sitting vacant for some time and serving as a temporary hospital during World War I.  Then, in the 1930s, one du Pont descendent took up residence, renovating the house, raising his family, and eventually living out his days there.

The place hasn’t changed much since, and when we study the renovations we often wonder what the old man and his wife may have been thinking.  In the master bath, for instance, the sinks don’t match, one being six inches shorter than  the other.  It seems obvious that she was short in stature, but the lack of symmetry is startling in a house that is so well balanced in other ways.

Also, they added a kitchen far away from the living quarters.  This stood to reason, because — as the relics of a paging system attest — wealthy folks had servants in those days.  The kitchen needn’t be close to things when family members ventured there neither for dinner nor cleanup.

There were other changes, too numerous to mention here, the reasons for which we attempt to infer now and then — an old walk-in basement safe (for silver?), janitorial closets in the halls (to keep the bathrooms pristine?), built-in fire hoses by the bedrooms (because the du Ponts historically feared fire?).

Curious, but I promised an essay about entrances, didn’t I?

Here’s a funny thing about the house that matters to the subject.  There is a small paneled library with built-ins from the Thirties.  It’s barely ten by ten, yet in addition to bookshelves it features a fireplace, a large window, and three doors.  Three.  One of those doors comes in from the hall and another goes out to the back porch.  It’s the third door that presents the puzzle.

This door, much to my daughter’s delight, is a secret door.  Sandwiched between the fireplace and an outside wall and hidden behind rolling bookcases, it leads to the living room.

What’s odd about that is the following.  If you’re going to the dining room or the entry foyer on the way from the library, you pass right by the main door to the living room anyway.  You needn’t pass through servant’s quarters or walk out of your way.  It’s right there.  So the hidden door is not at all required.

Furthermore, it’s only hidden on the library side.  On the living room side it’s plainly a door, albeit one without a proper knob.  So this unnecessary secret door readily gives up its secret to the close observer.  What’s going on here?

I think I know.  I think the man who installed it understood something about old-fashioned dramatic entrances.

Picture Scarlett O’Hara descending the grand stairs of Tara.

Picture Mary Poppins floating down on her umbrella.

Picture an injured Willis Reed, not expected to play Game 7 against the Los Angeles Lakers, jogging onto the court at Madison Square Garden in 1970 to an electrified crowd.  The game is won before the first shot is taken.

Now think of the man who built that secret library door.  The maid ushers his guests into the living room and offers them cocktails.  Sipping their drinks, they peer expectantly through the open doorway into the front hall, awaiting their host.

Instead, a door opens behind, where they least expected, and there he is among them — suddenly, dramatically.

If he were a modern author, he might have written: “She had my thing in her hand when the monkey swung in.”  If he were a sports legend at game time, he may have been the last one out of the locker room and into the arena.

Beginning journalists learn that a lead paragraph must include the Who, What and When of the story.  Yet many seasoned journalists will tell you that the best newspaper lead paragraph ever is simply this:

Bang bang bang.

Why?  Because its draw is irresistible.  Plus: in the beginning is the end.  In other words, great story beginnings often also contain the ending.

Therefore, maybe my beginning — the thing and the monkey — is not so great.  It intrigues, perhaps, but doesn’t complete.

But picture those once grand stairs of Tara, falling into ruins.

Picture the magical nanny, for the last time lifted by umbrella over the rooftops of London.

Finally, once more, picture the man who built that hidden door.  The party is concluding.  He could walk down the hall and use the main door to his library.  But he doesn’t.  He waits until no one’s looking.  And then he disappears.

A main character in my upcoming novel* has feeble short-term memory. His pockets spill over with scraps of paper covered in scribbled notes like tattoos on the leathery arms of an aging biker. A minor character fills her study with bound books chock-a-block with the lists of her daily life.

I’m not a list person, although I often write notes to myself. In the car. In the bathroom. But in a way maybe these notes are lists — things to remember, events by which to gauge time, yet not in list form.

My book deals with memory, history, and the chronology of a life whose gaps are filled by the most unlikely sources.

The first thing that really nailed it was “Constantinople.” The word comes toward the end of Dr. Seuss’s Hop on Pop and when I pronounced it for the first time, finally, I think that lit the candle. Droplets spilled from the ducts of my parents and mine as we closed the book and then perhaps I was offered some fried chicken. A simple exchange of values, my inchoate literacy for a bucket of Popeye’s extra crispy. It has always been that way for me; chicken for literature. Madame Bovary and I shared a bucket in bed until Rodolphe burst in with a revolver. But that is later.

I flounder on what to include. After Hop on Pop, I think I rode the Seuss wave dressed in a Marmaloot suit, scrambling Horton’s eggs and devouring the oeuvre. Then a snag. There is no real transition from Seuss to anything. Maybe Finnegan’s Wake, or some of the more obscure Borges stuff, but that doesn’t really do it either, does it? And thus, my literacy was stifled for a rather large quantity of years, as Good Night Moon and its cohorts never really did it for me. However, I did look at covers of books during these dark ages.

Those god-damned Hardy Boys, with their blue bindings and images on their covers depicting all sorts of scenes of mystery, intrigue and adventure. So alluring to the youngster, all the while not giving a tinker’s fuck to the fact that I can’t read you, man! And so I waited. I can’t quite remember the time when I first opened up one of these Hardy Boys books, but I remember it was a little anti-climactic. Isaac, one of my associates had apparently been devouring all this Hardy Boys nonsense for a while. I was accused of being a tyro in the sphere of the Hardy Boys and felt I ought to compensate by attending the book fair and enlisting my mother to buy around 10 of these books because one must catch up to one’s fellows. They still sit on my bookshelf, and I still am only able to look at the covers. I’ll bet they’re not bad, though.

My next endeavor into literature, I suppose would be the series of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. These books are responsible for my current literary bankruptcy. Now, I am sure I am not the only one to abandon the whimsical “chance” happenings in these vile books, but I am quite certain that their resonance has stayed with me longer than the average anybody. I remember distinctly one of these books. The main character, presumably I, am stuck in some kind of Orwellian nightmare of totalitarian regimes and faux Nazis that continue to kill my family and hook me up to some kind of brainwashing mechanism. Well, this tried my patience, as every adventure I “chose” enlisted me in the same odious situation. At wit’s end, I wrote my own “adventure” on the back jacket cover that had me blow-torching some futuristic Reichstag and wandering in a field with the love interest of the story who never actually appeared except in my addendum on the back cover. I still look for her in bars and sundry houses of ill repute. I can see her. Is it wrong that I continue to put her age at around twelve? Eat your heart out Humbert.

When I woke from this, it seems I spent my days treading Vaseline in a sea of warped sexuality (not so different from now, at this very instant). A Separate Piece (Peace?), To Kill A Mockingbird, Catcher in The Rye. These works are what I remember from my early adolescence. Alas, all I really seemed to absorb in my sexually quiescent stage was how much Scout would enjoy a good romp in the back of the courtroom. Hell, at this stage, I would have fucked Holden, Stradlater, Phineas, Gene, Jem, Gregory Peck (he is Atticus) as quick as the crack of dawn–given the opportunity. I think at some point around this time I also read The Jungle by Sinclair, but all that did was switch me from hot dogs to corn dogs for a semester. The Jesuits really know how to put a scare in you.

And then it gets interesting. I am sitting on a hammock in Fortaleza, Brazil with summer reading (high school) in my hand. It is this atrocity called Madame Bovary. Flaubert? Flaubert? Sounds like some kind of ice cream that you should set on fire. I guess it still does. But he introduced me to my literary fait accompli. Falling in love with heroines. No, but bad love. That faded love in aurora, thrice before the cock crows. Yes–hanging from the fig tree. Holy Thursday love. Dead love. And Emma Bovary is my first, my last–my alpha and omega. And then the credit card debt. I spoke to her. And she spoke back. Our knowledge of each other made us complicit. And she adores my jejune reflections on life and art. And her blood sings in her veins like the very river of milk.

It is not I that negotiates these grotesque self-deceptions. It is literature. It is Emma Bovary, with her “heavens torn open…and passion… spilt everywhere” that beguile me. I suppose when I open the novel and “go” I go. This is why I don’t wander around with Catcher in The Rye in my pocket. I have no inclination to assassinate anybody. Not yet. And Salinger’s shibboleth is one I don’t feel like speaking. I choose Emma. And Anna. And Brett Ashley. And Natasha Rostov. And Molly. And all those maenads hovering around Nightwood. It is the most erotic thing since considering balling the Aramaic legions and a vixen from every Ivy League school simultaneously. Horrific, yet undeniable. And necessary?

Then there is now, today. Literature aside, I try and brush up on my Portuguese. There she is, Paula. She sits with Gustavo, ordering a cervezinhas na praixa. If I can get him out of the picture, I have a chance. Hell, last night I swindled Portnoy’s “Monkey” into bed with Emma. I have so much more reading to do. I really do. But this is where I am. I am looking at the cover of Don Quixote. I wonder if Dulcinea needs a drink.

I’m wondering if writers in my Generation X age group who contribute their talents to various sites and newspapers, and yet don’t feel like they’re a part of a literary movement, might feel a kinship to this particular piece that I have never shared publicly until now. The Dead Generation is an excerpt from Chapter Nine of ‘Citrus Girl’ (about a third of that chapter). It was written sometime between 1996 and 1998. Could all be drivel. It’s up to you to decide. Part of it was edited by literary historian John Arthur Maynard of CSU Bakersfield who wrote ‘Venice West: The Beat Generation In Southern California.’

I’ve been a casual toast consumer since I was a kid. Wonder Bread and Sunbeam were magical words in that long-ago suburban Florida kitchen with the orange linoleum.

Not that I worship toast or anything, but after all these years of toast consumption I realize how oblivious I’ve been (albeit blissfully) to its rich history and the hard-working professional scholars out there unearthing the truth about the toaster, without which bread would just be bread.