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

Sunday, August 28, 2011


A few days after I moved into my temporary apartment in New Orleans, Gilligan moved into the apartment next door.  The unit was also owned by my landlord, Scott.  Monday night I walked out the door into the after-dark heat and saw Gilligan, a skinny, white hipster in a wife beater and straw hat, talking to Scott.  Gilligan had recruited two local kids to move his things from the U-Haul truck into his apartment.  I went to get food.

When I came back, the same kids were moving his things to another unit owned by Scott.  Scott explained that Gilligan wanted more space.  Scott would accommodate as long as M cleaned up the new unit which wasn't ready for occupancy.  Before I get in the door, Gilligan stopped me.

"Hey, Scott tells me you're a grant writer."

"He did," I said.

"Yeah, man.  Hey, I'm from Mississippi, but I'm coming here from New York.  I'm a musician, but that's not what I'm down here for," he lit a cigarette and squatted on the broken pavement.  While he spoke, the next door kids moved his things, one weird shaped box by one strange instrument at a time to the new unit.  "I've been traveling around from one city to the next.  I'm working on making this non-profit website where people can post videos talking about how much they love the United States, how much they love their city.  Because it's all about love, man."

I looked over my shoulder at his truck.  "Love" was written on the windshield in spray paint.  It took another ten minutes to escape his monologue.

The next day, Scott was amused and horrified.  "Last night Gilligan brought a woman home and I told him he couldn't have house guests without prior notice.  A few minutes later I heard this ding-ding-ding sound and I went outside and found them in the U-Haul.  The guy is serious about this love thing."  I hadn't heard anything, but for some reason this seemed reasonable.

A few days later, Scott was fuming on the porch.  "Do you know what he did?" Scott demanded.  "He hasn't paid rent.  I've driven him all over town to get health insurance, to get registered, to meet people in the music scene and he hasn't paid rent.  Today I told he needed to pay and he wrote me a fucking poem!  He even folded it up into a little airplane and threw it at me.  It's all about love and talking about how I'm the man.  Man, suck my dick."

The next day I could sense that fox holes had been dug between the two units.  Scott was in the kitchen, pacing.  "He hasn't cleaned up the place.  He keeps says that was never our agreement, but it was.  Now he's pissed off because the unit doesn't have air conditioning when I told him it didn't and if he wanted air conditioning he could live in one of the other units.  This is ridiculous."

Over the next week, Gilligan-updates became a regular and entertaining feature of my day.  I never witnessed any of this, but I could sense a tense, wrathful paranoia settle around my apartment and the two immediately adjacent.  It reminded me a little of 2008, when all anyone could talk about was how the word was Ending, but I still went to work every day.

After I got home one day, Scott carried in a bag full of locks and knobs.  "I removed all the locks from his apartment," he declared.  "He tried to change the locks.  Last night he broke into Naomi’s apartments and tried to steal one of the air conditioning units.  I'm done with this."

On Wednesday I had to stay late at the office working on a grant.  Grant writing is a strange process.  You're responsible for the financial health of an entity in which you have no time or ability to invest yourself outside of the facts and numbers.  It's a delightfully absurd and alienating endeavor.

When I walked into my apartment, Scott, two very large friends of his, and one of the other tenants - a young woman, bartender from New York named Naomi - were sitting in the living room celebrating.  Gilligan was gone. He had, once again, broken into Naomi's apartment and sat there until Scott and his friends came and forcefully evicted him.

"I think there's something wrong with that guy," Naomi said.  "He started hanging around the bar where I work.  My coworkers said that he made them nervous.  He slept with one girl and ever since all three of them don't want him around.  My manager banned him from the bar for life."

"He got banned from a New Orleans jazz club?"  Scott looked at her with shock and revulsion.  "There's no greater low."

Yesterday I came home to discover my apartment locked.  Due to a complicated series of poor decisions, I didn't have a key and so I called my Scott, my housemate, and anyone I could think of who might reasonably know how to get in.  My housemate, Lee, eventually called me back.  "Dude, didn't you here?" Lee asked.  "Gilligan came back and started something in the street.  He and Scott were both arrested."

"Oh," I said.

It was a hot night and the street lamps were shining.  Across the street a high school party of Hollywood proportions was in full, angry swing.  There were kids on the street screaming into their cell phones, beer in hand.  About a tenth of the houses on the street are blighted, but two streets over all the houses are newly renovated and the pavement is fresh and flat.

And that's mostly how things stand.  There really is no conclusion to this story.  No revelation.  I asked a friend to move me out that night and now I'm crashing at another Americorps member's house.  It just seems odd to me the way stories relayed and related suddenly turned my one-time home into a locked apartment.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

So, You're the Grant Writer

My landlord introduces me to everyone saying, "This is Sam, my housemate.  The grant writer."  At first, I found this flattering, but lately it's becoming a little unnerving.  My identity, it seems, is inseparable from my duty as an Americorps member.

The past week has been a Harrowing trial of orientation and job training.  My colleagues are all, predictably, very well educated, adventurous individuals with some pretty impressive stories.  Whenever we have to introduce ourselves, we do so going around the room, rattling off some personal details and stories and then fading in with the rest of the exceptional lot.  This has not been the case for me.  It seems every time I say my name, one of my superiors looks at me with an intrigued, hungry look and says, "So, you're the grant writer."

When I worked for the Iowa State Seed Lab a few winters ago I remember being introduced to all the researchers and staff.  All of them were middle aged professionals in white coats.  The HR woman then pointed into a corner office where a young woman in a blue bandana and grungy clothes sat slouched over her computer wearing gigantic headphones.  "And that's our grant writer," said the HR woman.  The grant writer waved without looking up.

That's what I feel like I'm supposed to be.  Some harried goblin, squirreled away in the corner who has worked out an understanding, a pact with the world around him.  Leave me the fuck alone and I will bring you Money.

My week has felt much like I imagine life must be for a priest at Notre Dame.  Called to a position of peace and contemplation and surprised to find Americans at every turn.  Unable to find Solace anywhere else, I've mostly locked myself in my room with A Dance With Dragons, my notebook and trying to avoid listening to Simon and Garfunkle's "I Am a Rock."

But, I have a Desk.  And I've found coffee shops, bananas, bars, and Bourbon Street.  Mostly I'm very happy to have a desk for the first time in my life, one where I shall conduct Work and Business.  Furthermore, it is not as hot here as I thought it would be.  I mentioned this to one of my colleagues, the PR woman.

"Yeah, it's a cultural thing, really.   Everyone loves to complain about the heat even though it's the same heat every year," she said.

These are my very muddled thoughts right now.  I have sequestered myself in the Who Dat Cafe and have spent the afternoon writing and reading.  A good day by any measure.  Still, this is a poor excuse for a post.  Please forgive me.

I have faith that in a few weeks I will get my barring and suddenly everything will become clear.  But last night my landlord told me, laughing, "You're in New Orleans now!" as if to negate all further discussion on subject of clarity.  He added, "One thing I will say about this city is that it's a great place to grow.  To find yourself.  It's a free place.  As far as the nightlife goes, alternative lifestyles, music, sex, drinks, all that stuff."  Now I have a mental association between being young in New Orleans and an erection.

A few minutes later, the musician who moved in next door, also my landlord's tenant, texted him.  The guy hasn't been paying rent.  The landlord is prepared to change the locks.  My landlord stared at the phone, baffled and angry, and then looked at me saying, "Do you know what he did today?  When I asked him for rent, he gave me a poem!"

This evening I shall go out and sing karaoke.  I only hope they have the Gin Blossoms, Oasis, and Counting Crows.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Lay of the Land

Leaving Iowa I was surprised by how gigantic the country is and how much of it looks the same to me.  That was how I felt driving from Freiburg to Paris.  I was carpooling with a guy delivering German language Vogue magazines for weekend sale in the city. To get to Paris we drove through Verdun.  It was hard to imagine that on those peaceful hills that looked so much like the Midwest one of the bloodiest battles in history was fought.

About a hundred miles outside of New Orleans I-55 abruptly emerged from cedar forests into wetlands.  The interstate stands twenty feat above swamp and mossy forest and up there you're fully exposed to the sun and the sky.  It was wholly different from any place I've ever been before.

I'm living in the 7th Ward in a very poor neighborhood and, as far as I can tell, I'm the only white guy here.  I have not been in the city yet 24 hours and so I'm still overwhelmed.  My landlord, saint that he is, took me out to dinner and introduced me to the neighbors.  The neighborhood spirit does feel familiar, even if the houses do not and the only shade doesn't come from trees but power lines.

I've got a map.  My roommate knows where all the local branches of the library are.  People are beginning to know my name.  It seems that several have heard about me already and know me as "the grant writer."  My first meal in New Orleans was catfish and I was shocked that someone had figured out a way of making it taste good.

The heat, though infamous, is not that bad.  It could get worse, but I'll enjoy this oven while it lasts.

End of thought, for the time being.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Book Review: Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird

Though I just finished reading Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life I have heard about it and been assigned excerpts from it in several of my writing classes.  I think it is everyone's favorite book on writing, even if they disagree with it.  After reading the first two pages, I decided that I didn't care whether or not I learned a damn thing from Lamott about writing; it was just fun to read and that was good enough for me.

In that respect, Bird by Bird is a wonderful and refreshing contrast to King's On Writing.  It's a charming, hilarious, wonderful book and I would recommend it to anyone.  I think that the LA Times review did it the most justice by describing Bird by Bird as "warm" and "generous."  In the end, I do think that I learned more about life from Lamott than I did about the craft.  This is probably why intro to creative writing teachers assign this book all the time.  Freshman writers need about as much advice on art as they do on any other aspect of their lives, so Lamott is a good and thoughtful catch-all.

Anyway, enough generalizations.  Onto the meat of the review.  ... And here is where I run into problems.  Bird by Bird is, for lack of a better term, a bit scatter-brained.  This isn't a criticism, because it really works here for a variety of reasons.  It just makes a sum-up difficult.  Lamott breaks the book down into chapters, but those chapters are generally brief, capricious essays on themes more than in-depth discussions on aspects of the craft.  It's a peculiar book, but that's not a bad thing.

Part of the reason this meandering style works is because Lamott is a master of the illustrative anecdote.  Throughout the whole book there are seamless transitions from the frame of Lamott's writing seminars, to stories from her life, to discussions on method and art.  Reading Bird by Bird is kind of like being led around the playground by a three year-old in the grips of a sugar rush.

Where Lamott excels, though, and I've noticed this in her other writing, too, is in her visceral descriptions of paranoid rumination and malcontent, vicious cycles.  Reading Lamott is very cathartic.  I thought I was the only person who felt a whirlwind of gratitude, hatred, self-loathing, and inspiration following a crit group.  This is probably the real Reason why everyone Loves this book.  It speaks to our darkest, most chaotic feelings as sensitive individuals, absolves us for it, and then tells us to move on.

I want to hug this woman.

Frankly, I thought that this would be a very easy review to write, but I'm struggling.  So, I'm going back to Lamott's very early piece of advice on writing: small assignments.  What I really want to talk about, what fascinates me about the book, is Lamott's philosophy on writing.  She has a lot to say about the craft, style, publication, jealousy, libel, assignments, and a plenitude of of other topics -- in fact, she has a book's worth of things to say -- but her Introduction is what sticks with me.

She begins with the frame of her own life as a teacher and writer and says that a question she's frequently asked in interviews is, "Why do you write?"  Her standard reply is to quote John Ashbery and Flannery O'Conner, "Because I want to and because I'm good at it."  but she goes on to describe her students' motivations to get published and become famous and she says that she tries to help everyone come to see that writing, creating, engaging with the world as an artist is a miraculous, beautiful compulsion.

Why write?  Because we all deserve and need to share our own particular experience.  That is what I love about Lamott's philosophy and where I agree with her completely.  The book is saturated with raw enthusiasm.  Lamott wrote this book for You, individually, so that You would have the courage to tell your own story and see that as a right, not a privilege.  Or Lamott is far better at duping me than I'd care to admit.

Something else that Lamott mentions in the following chapter about reasons to write struck me as, if not unique, then at least an unusual defense.  She says that the greatest reason to write is, essentially, for the love of books.  "... Books are as important as anything else on earth.  What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you.... My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I'm grateful for it the way I'm grateful for the ocean.  Aren't you?"

This is why Bird by Bird is fantastic.  Because it is an altruistic message that encourages the reader to be grateful and generous.  Right now, I'm going through a challenging transition in my life.  I owe my mental stability to friends, family, A, caffeine, liquor, and books.  Lamott and George R.R. Martin are helping me get through this.  As a result, I want to read and write more.  It seems like the least I can do.