A Tragicomical, Unsophisticated Blog about the Weird, the Absurd, and the Banal

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Scared Shitless

This isn't a real post, but I've been breaking promises.

Have you ever had one of those experiences where you worked very hard for something and by some miracle you actually got it and instead of feeling exuberant you just sat there thinking, "Well, shit.... I hadn't planned on that happening."  Well, that's how I feel right now.

A few days ago I was offered a grant writing job with the St. Bernard Project in New Orleans, a nonprofit rebuilds and renovates houses for people affected by Katrina who do not have the money to help themselves.  I accepted the job and have not stopped running since.  Probably, I won't be out of panic mode until this time next year.

I want to live in New Orleans and do good work.  Above all, I want to have an adventure and do something that scares me.  The trouble with the last item is actually getting your wish.

In a week and a half I will be in New Orleans.  Today I got housing squared away.  This week has been a blur of planning, taking leaps of faith, and trying desperately not to forget anything.  I'm sad that I'll be missing two weddings and won't be able to visit a friend from Germany.  Most of all, I'm very sad I'll have to leave my love, A.

But, then, what's the point of going through life comfortable?  One just arrives at death asleep.

A week and a half from now I'll be in one of the oldest cities in North America.  One of the meccas of music and performing arts.  A reputable hedonist capital.  And I'll be there doing what I do best: writing.  I'll be persuading people to help support people who have had a much harder, scarier time than me.  I'm going to leave my home to convince others that we all want and deserve to go home.  Doesn't sound like a bad way to spend a year.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Thoughts on the Iowa City Book Festival

Last weekend I attended the Iowa City Book Festival.  Despite an apparently incompetent and corrupt organizing committee, I managed to have a good time. I acquired a copy of a book on writing for my collection, got to see A having a good time with customers visiting the Haunted Book Shop stand, and attended a couple panels.

The first panel was Really Early in the morning (10:30) and consisted of Camille T. Dungy and Ibtisam Barakat talking about the art of teaching creative writing.  It was better attended than I expected.  I didn't know either of panelists, but that didn't stop me from being impressed with them.  Some bullet points that I liked:
  • Teaching and writing can be mutually beneficial crafts.
  • Teaching is a way of cultivating empathy, a quality necessary for writing.
  • Teaching and the desire to share are and ought to be generous and enthusiastic acts.
I was particularly intrigued by Barakat's enthusiasm for writing and teaching and her basic philosophy behind them.  Writing, as she describes it, is a Lonely Art and teaching is kind of Salvation.  Barakat is a Palistinian immigrant and so she often writes about exile.  "Most human beings are in exile," she said, meaning that we're all individuals struggling to make human connections with one another.

This is particularly intriguing since there is a socio-political angle to her humanitarian philosophy.  As a Palestinian woman, she grew up in a conservative society where she was not allowed to express herself.  Furthrmore, during the occupation, she was told by authorities that she and her people essentially didn't exist and should be quiet.  Writing, therefore, is an act of rebellion.  Saying Something is as important as the content of her writing.

Barakat also went on to describe, at great length, why education as a institution was so vitally important to women in particular.  She believes it is her, and every educator's duty, to encourage female students in particular.  Education has traditionally been a white male privilege and if we're really all dedicated to a humanitarian, egalitarian endeavor then we must ensure that women have equal access.

Things went downhill when the audience was allowed to speak and ask questions.  Most of the people in the room were educators, I gathered.  One man said (paraphrasing), "You said that one third of people on earth are denied an education.  But don't you think that in their own societies and cultures they are getting just as valuable an education from those around them rather than being brought into the patriarchal institution?  That's not my question, but I want you to think about that.  My real question is..." and I don't remember what it was.  Needless to say, the panelists were not interested in his Real Question either.

What I find interesting about his comment is that it's a pretty old criticism and was Supposed to be on the side of the two panelists.  About thirty years ago (I'm ball parking him), somebody needed to point out that the Institution was patriarchal and doctrinal.  In this context, though, it seemed like an antiquated and arrogant point of view.  Barakat and Dungy's response was essentially that institutional education can and must always be improved, but it's really our best hope.

Anyway, I could go on, but I'd like to gloss over the second panel and this post is already too long.

The second panel was "Young Writers Talk about Writing" and included five kids, four of them 18 and the last was 13.  Barakat moderated and I have to say that as enamored as I was with her earlier that morning, she can't interview kids worth a damn.  Barakat has a very rigid opinion of what a writer is and does, which is primarily social advocacy.  The Writer does a great service to society and must approach the craft with an appropriate gravity.  That seemed to be true of two of the writers.  One Kid, though, was having none of this.

At one point, Barakat asked how the panelists found their Voice, commenting, "I often feel like when I'm looking for my voice have to fight with so many other voices.  I'm holding them down with one hand and writing with the other... I'm lost in the wilderness."  The One Kid replied, "I'd say stay lost."  Later on the One Kid said, "Writing is my favorite toy," which didn't seem to jive with the others' view that writing is a solitary and painful act.

Anyway, that was Saturday.  It was hot and god awful and this post is beginning to resemble a mutant baby.  I think I'm going to go read Dances with Dragons now.

Friday, July 15, 2011

My Sarcastic Place

Usually when I work at the bookstore I sit at our ereader counter and demo the device or serve as on site tech support for customers.  This, I always thought, is ridiculous since I'm technologically impaired and I do not own nor do I wish to buy an ereader.  Still, I think I've gotten pretty good at my job.  At the very least, I can sell things and solve most problems.

Sometimes I have to wake up very early for shifts.  This is a Trial for me since I'm more of a night person.  Even though I pride myself on doing my job well and I generally think I'm good with customers, sometimes I slip into My Sarcastic Place.  Like the other day.  An Awkward Gentleman walked in just after my shift began and before I had my morning caffeine hit.  He stared at the ereaders for a moment and so I asked -- reluctantly -- if I could help him.

"No," he grumbled.  "I don't want one.  I'm just looking.  In fact, I'm morally opposed to them."

While I knew what he meant and I am confronted with this point of view every day, I was still tempted to ask him what he believes the word "morality" means.  Instead I asked, "Why?"

He glared at me.  "Because I love books.  Ever heard of them?  You can hold them.  Get mustard on them."

The problem is, I sympathize with this guy and every other person who feels this way.  What I loathe is Arrogance.  I tried.  I really did.  Fighting arrogance with sarcasm solves nothing.  But as he was walking away I said, "Actually, that's codex."

The customer turned and Glared at me again, very menacing-like.  "What?"

"What you're talking about is a codex.  It's been a particularly popular form of the book for centuries.  It's a book with a spine and text printed on paper leaves.  But there are also audio books, scrolls, and etexts.  They're all books."

"You've got to be kidding me," the man muttered and walked away.


When I'm not working at the tech support counter I'm usually a cashier.  My register is unusual because it's much lower than all the others so I'm constantly battling with customers to direct them to my counter rather than the four others that seem to be at the Appropriate height.  It takes getting used to, but I like it because it's a little different and more spacious.

The other day I came into work and found a Sorry For Your Loss card on the table in the break room addressed to the family of C.  I asked my manager about it and he pointed to the paper on the table.  There was an obituary for a very young man named C.  My manager explained that C had worked at the bookstore for years, but that he was born horrendously physically handicapped and so was confined to a wheel chair.

"That's why the cash register is lower than all the others at that end of the store.  That was his cash register," my manager said.

There are so many details in the world and it's rare that I stop and think, "Why is this way?"  I assume most things are arbitrary.  It's a powerful blow when the Unexpected Answer comes: "Because of C."

Monday, July 11, 2011


*Spoiler alert: Shutter Island (both the movie and the book), The Club Dumas, The Ninth Gate, The Illusionist, and The Prestige.

"I hate twist endings," most of my friends have told me at least once.  So do I, actually, except when I don't.  Recently I had the displeasure of watching Shutter Island and then reading The Club Dumas by Aturo Perez-Reverte.  Upon closer examination I realized why they both piss me off and, in my mind, represent one aspect of why twist endings don't always work.

Last summer I read Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane and hated it.  The atmosphere was fantastic, but that wasn't enough to make me overlook what Serious Flaws with the story and the themes with which it dealt.  So far, I haven't found anyone who agrees with my particular, philosophical grievances, so I'll just leave those for now.  After watching the movie, which is basically the book with actors, I realized a more technical flaw that bothered me about as much as the cheap, side-stepping conclusion.  The twist is that the protagonist -- Teddy, or Andrew -- is crazy.  This Revelation adds nothing to a second viewing and, in fact, robs the story of all dramatic tension.  The first time I read the book, it was a compelling story an investigator with a tortured past working to uncover a government conspiracy to perform human experimentation.  The second time through, it's just a story about a grand charade.  Watching the movie and knowing the ending I found nothing new or interesting, just all the ways that the writer and director cleverly tricked me the first time around.

This is how I felt about The Club Dumas.  I love the Ninth Gate, the movie based on the book, and I like it better now having read the source material precisely because it cut out the title storyline.  The movie is about a hard drinking, chain smoking, book antiquarian, Lucas Corso, commissioned to authenticate a book supposedly written by the devil and accidentally gets caught up with a satanic cult.  This storyline is taken more or less from the book, though simplified and partially amalgamated with the Other Subplot.

In the Other Subplot, the on in the book, Corso accidentally acquires an original manuscript chapter of The Three Musketeers and then is chased around central Europe by some Shadowy Types he assumes are trying to get the satanic book and the chapter from him.  He comes up with an elaborate web of connections between Dumas and the occult and eventually has a showdown with the mysterious Club Dumas... which, it turns out, is a fan club whose members have essentially dragged Corso into their elaborate LARP.  The criminal activity was not their doing (most of it, anyway) and was actually the doings of Coros' original client, the sadistic, billionaire, hobbyist satanist (who would've thought?).

Rereading that paragraph, I realize that these are pretty standard ingredients for a Good Mystery: Crushing Disappointment followed by the Horrible Realization.  And there are elements of the individual storylines I adore.  Corso develops a personal relationship with a character he later discovers to be the Devil -- see earlier post for relevance -- and she is one of the best portrayals of Lucifer I've ever read.  The book is also filled with book facts that make my little, bibliophile heart go pitter patter.  Lastly, I thought the whole storyline about the Club Dumas and the history of popular literature to be quite compelling.  Actually, I think I would've loved the latter, title storyline if it had been it's own damn book.

All the individual plotlines and the themes with which they are concerned are interesting in and of themselves, but not taken as a whole.  The book feels like Frankenstein's Monster at the end.  We've got satanism, the origins of Free Will, romantic trauma, popular literature, Disappointment, and post modern literary self-awareness all shoved together between the same two covers and no one seems to directly compliment the other.

This, ultimately, is why I believed that the twist is unsatisfying: it tears everything apart at the end rather than puts it all together.  For a post modern meditation on the absurdity of ascribing meaning to events around you that's perfectly fine (and you know I love me my absurdity), but that's not what the Club Dumas is.  I have no desire to reread this book (which is the True Test of the Twist) because I know exactly what I'd find: two storylines having nothing to do with each other and Perez-Reverte sitting on the last page smirking at me.

A better example you're probably all familiar with is The Illusionist and The Prestige.  Two movies that came out at about the same time concerning the same subject (19th century stage magic) that probably shouldn't be compared but often are anyway.  I feel The Prestige is vastly superior to The Illusionist and it can be best explained with the twists.

First, The Illusionist's twist changes everything in the story so that the antagonist is not in fact guilty of the crime he supposedly committed and the second half of the movie is revealed to be one big hoax.  Also, if you watch the montage at the end, where the camera circles around Paul Giamatti a couple times, you'll realize that it in fact Makes No Fucking Sense.  The director shamelessly pulls a fast one on the audience.  The scenes in the montage change pivotal clues in the movie so that on the first viewing it is impossible to divine the ending.  I don't really judge a mystery or thriller by its kindness to the audience (well, I do, but for this entry we'll say I don't), but changing key scenes in the movie to make the Happy Ending a surprise is sloppy storytelling on par with knocking down a foundational wall of a house so you can add on that pretty porch that will look so nice until the whole structure collapses.

Anyway, what makes The Prestige a far better movie, by contrast, is that the revelation does far more than change the way one sees the action playing out and the character motivations behind them.  The twist in The Prestige fits in perfectly with the complex web of themes that were developed throughout the movie.  Borden had a twin brother; this explains how he was able to pull off the Disappearing Man trick, but it also links the story to a 19th century preoccupation with dopplegangers and Gothic aesthetics.  More importantly, though, when you rewatch the movie you're not just thinking, "Oh, that's how they did it," but, "Oh, that's what it means."  Knowing the twist allows for a rich second viewing, when one can pick up on the nuances about duality, revenge, sacrifice, surrendering to obsession, and losing one's self that the first viewing won't provide.

Other examples of Good Twists are Donnie Darko, The Conversation (also one of the most frustrating movies ever made), The Sandman, and Fight Club.  For some reason I'm having a hard time coming up with examples in books because I haven't read much mystery, but also because I think novels rely less on this device.  There is simply too much material in novels so twists don't work as well, or at least a twist is less likely to define the whole work.  I mean, Ender's Game had a twist too, and a damn good one, but I wouldn't say it had a twist ending.  There's a twist in one of my favorite books, Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, but there again I'd argue that the twist permits a deeper meditation on the themes in the individual storylines rather than giving you one briefly satisfying "Aha!" moment.

And I lied.  I love twists.

Friday, July 8, 2011


One Sunday, A and I were walking and it seemed there was an unusual amount of broken glass on the pavement on the corner we live next to.  "Where do you think all the glass goes?" I asked.

"What do you mean?"

"Every weekend everywhere you go there's broken glass left by the drunks.  But you don't see piles of it anywhere.  I wonder where it all goes."

A thought for a moment.  "It takes hundreds of years to decompose."

"There's a Scandinavian town a friend of mine told me about," I remembered.  "Tradition is that everyone gathers in the central square and at the end of the night, when everyone's done drinking, they smash the bottles.  City authorities are so good at clean up that there's not a single shard left the next day."

A looked at the ground.  "The rain washes it into the soil.  Then it's probably ground to dust."

"The dirt's made of broken glass in Iowa City," I concurred.  Followed her gaze and imagined light gleaming off the black.  I resolved never to walk barefoot in the grass ever again.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Super Villain

The other day I was trapped at the Mill (the horror!) during a concert.  I hadn't really written anything in days and since there was no one to talk to while a techno-indie band played on stage I seized the opportunity.  There's no greater self-conscious act than writing in a moleskine notebook, in a bar, in Iowa City.

Part of Elliot knew he was going to burn down a house on the new street, he just didn't know which one.  His family moved to town in August.  It was a big step, his parents told him.  They'd been living in an apartment his whole life and now they had a house with a yard.

It took Elliot a week to decide why he hated the street.  It was the very thing his parents said he'd love: the yards with their fences.  In the apartment, everyone had been the same, equal, disappearing into identical doors to, he presumed, identical homes with cluttered furniture and an existence negotiated around things.  Here, everything was different.

The little boy next door invited him over to play in the backyard.  They played truth or dare.  The little boy's name was Grey and his greatest fear was dinosaurs.  The next night, Elliot went to his window, scratched on it with a rake and played a stereo recording of a velociraptor hissing from Jurassic Park.

Years later, in an adulthood of apartments, Elliot decided that capitalism was to blame.  Even in grade school he had a premature favor for egalitarianism.  That's why a week after the velociraptor incident in the dead of night he removed the fences from the Maker's yard.  They were gone on vacation and Mr. Maker spent the week before painting it.  When they got back the neighborhood was alive with talk about punks.  Elliot preferred to think of himself as a ghost in those final few weeks leading up to Halloween.  He was the "damned thing" that knocked over trash cans, banged on doors, and broke windows.  The Bean's cat disappeared one day in September.  Jameson's iPod and laptop were stolen.  Suspicion began, gradually, falling on the young couple that had just moved in with their sweet little son.

"What do you want to go as for Halloween?" Elliot's mother asked him tiredly the day before. She hadn't been sleeping well.  Neither had his father.  They regarded Elliot with great care.

"I want to go as a clown," he said.  It was the smile painted to his face that he really wanted.

After his parents went to the party and the babysitter was absorbed in her movie, Elliot snuck down to the laundry room with a box of matches.  It felt right.  It felt just.  The painted smile and the growing apprehension of the neighborhood nearly boiling over to action.

He hadn't burned anything since he was eight.  Everyone says he's a great architect.  It's his secret pleasure that one day all his buildings and everything else will come tumbling down leaving all to huddle around their fires together.  All equal.