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

Sunday, November 27, 2011

On the new Orleans Fringe Part 2: Post

The Friday before last was something of a trial at work and so I was glad to join my coworkers for a beginning-of-the-weekend drink. We gathered at the Daq Shack across the street from the main office building where many generations of our people have met to forget what just happened. Evening came on quickly, despite the warmth. Five minutes after we arrived, the wind picked up and we had to shout at each other in the dark.

“Did you get all the emoticons I sent you?” one of my colleagues asked.

“Yeah. All of them. I liked the crab,” I said.

“We send those to you just to hear you laugh,” he explained. “We wait for it in the other office. There goes Sam again. Guffawing at something.”

“Sorry I didn’t laugh enough.”

People tell me that I have a very distinct laugh. Sometimes they say it’s a guffaw, and sometimes a scoff. It amuses some, but offends others. I know that if I ever heard someone in a crowd laughing the way I do, I would feel obliged to tell them that they are bad people.

Immediately after the drinks, I joined IB at her house and we biked into the Marigny.

“What’s on the itinerary?” I shouted as we crossed one of the Elysian Fields intersections closest to the levee.

“It’s a play called Marilyn,” IB called back, making a sudden right turn. I jerked my bike around to follow her. “It’s at somebody’s house and they only let in about twelve people so we have to hurry.”

A moment later we pulled up next to a tiny duplex. The cashier told us we had arrived too late and if we wanted to see the show we’d have to come back the next day about a half hour before the time. It was 7:00PM and no other shows IB wanted to see began until 9:00PM.

We retreated to the Lost Love Lounge so that I could eat and we could kill time. Lost Love sits on some hidden corner in the Marigny that I’m certain I could not find on my own. There is a bar in the front room, illuminated red through the haze of cigarette smoke. As you walk in the door, there is a gigantic bookshelf on your right filled with popular paperbacks. Proceeding through the bar you arrive at a little restaurant that serves Pho and has a tiny stage tucked into one corner. I ordered Pho and was surprised by the prices.

“I thought you said this place wasn’t expensive?” I said.
“It isn’t expensive.”

“This is expensive.”

“I’ve learned to stop worrying about money,” IB said, with a shrug. “It works out.”

After we ate we moved back to the bar where we somehow got on the topic of postmodernism.

“I’m already sick of this conversation,” IB said. “That’s all anyone ever talked about in college, ‘What comes after postmodernism?’”

“Postmodernism is all my professors ever wanted to talk about in college,” I said. “They came of age when that was the hip theory. People asked what comes next, but no one ever bothered to answer the question.  And for all that, I still have no idea what postmodernism is.”

“You don’t?”

“Well, what’s postmodern to you?”

“It’s a school of thought concerned with deconstructing and analyzing the modernist philosophy of absolutes. That’s part of it, at least. What’s postmodernism for you?”

“Every boring thing that came after modernism. Have you ever read John Barth?”

“And that’s all that the entire intellectual movement that currently informs our thinking means to you? It’s boring?”

I looked at my phone. “It’s nine.”


We biked quickly across town to the Shadow Box Theatre. I reacted to one sudden turn after the next until we finally arrived, ten minutes later, at the theatre to try to catch 33. I knew nothing about it but the name. As we locked our bikes, IB explained, “It’s a cabaret-style play about a theatre artist in Nazi Germany.” (The irony of us trying to reach this play after a conversation about postmodernism didn’t hit me until just now. BTW, hello, reader.)

The cashier at Shadow Box told us that we’d arrived too late and the show was sold out.

“The next show’s at eleven,” we were told.

Twice defeated, we decided to investigate the venue across the street. How to Be a Lesbian in 10 Days or Less had started 20 minutes earlier, but we decided to go for it.

How to Be a Lesbian is a one-woman show and I can’t say anything for the first half, but the second was great. The major themes and subject are pretty much covered in the title, so I’ll spare you. What I can add is that Leigh Hendrix (performer and writer) is an energetic and entertaining actress and a witty writer. The play fell somewhere between a stand-up comedy routine and a mocumentary. If there was a plot, I missed it, but that’s no fault of the artist.

We made our way across the street and I was proud that I hadn’t gotten lost. It was not until after we were comfortably seated in the second row that either of us bothered to look at the playbill, which was not for 33, but Tap and Unfailing Prayers to St. Anthony.

“What happened to 33?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” IB said.

The acting was good the dancing was great, but I don’t really have much to say about this one because I have no idea what happened. Mind you, I was exhausted and had had a few drinks, but try as I might I could not figure out what the play was about. It began with the main character, Gene (also the playwright), crouched over a candle offering a prayer to St. Anthony. From there the play dove into a bizarre dance routine that was an odd blend of Lost in Space, every Hollywood 1950s musical, and American Idol.

When the play was over, I asked IB, “What just happened?” to which she replied, “I have no idea.”

Tired and disappointed, we got on our bikes and started making our way back to Treme. We didn’t talk on the way and I kept a little distance behind so that I could see when IB turned. We came to an intersection in Elysian Fields where a large red pickup sat in the break in the median. IB passed by, but when I rode by the driver hit the gas.

“Hey! Stop!” I shouted and managed to get my bike mostly out of the way, but his bumper slammed into my back tire.

“Oh, man! I didn’t see you,” the driver called out his open window. “Here, I’ll pull over.”

I got of my bike on the median. I double checked to make sure that I hadn’t been hit and that my bike was all right. By the time the driver got to me, I was still shaken.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“I’m fine. I’m not hurt.”

“Is your bike all right?”

“I think so.”

“Sorry, man.”

“No one’s dead.”

The driver turned and meandered across the three lanes of traffic back to his car. He kept turning to wave at us and just barely managed not to get hit by oncoming traffic. A moment later, he was back in his car and driving fast down Elysian Fields.

“He was wasted,” I said, a revelation.

“And an asshole,” IB added

I got on my bike and pushed forward a foot before I realized that my back tire was untrue.

“Can you ride it?”

“No,” I said “Why didn’t I get his license plate number? Or his name? Or his insurance information?”

“A guy driving a car like that would have insurance.”

“Let’s go.”

“Do you want to lock your bike up?”

“No,” I said and hoisted the frame over my shoulder. “Let’s go.”

“Are you sure?”

“Let’s go.”

A mantra played through my head throughout the whole walk back. I stopped myself from saying aloud, Fuck this town. Fuck this town. Fuck this town.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

On the New Orleans Fringe Part 1: The Limiting Factor

Exhaustion prevented me from making plans and so I followed. Steph made all the arrangements and so, at the far end of the weekend, here I am and Cafe Envie with a semi-beginning. I just saw five shows at the New Orleans Fringe Festival and I picked none of them myself. It has been a remarkable experience, surrendering to the surprise.

But, I'll get into that later. On Friday one of my coworkers remarked that I look perpetually hung over. Apparently I'm exhibiting the signs of a rock star life with none of the benefits. All the edges seemed to have frayed. I told someone the other day that my fingertips are my favorite part of my body and I was as surprised as her. But it was my fingertips that said it, embracing a pen.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Addressing the Grievance

Law taught me about nonconformity. "If you want to fight a corrupt, patriarchal, capitalist system based on privilege, you have to remove yourself from it," he explained when I asked him why he was asking for change on Frenchmen. "I'm from Chicago. I dropped out of school and with the last of the money my bourgeoisie parents gave me I got a ticket here. Now I'm free."

"How does it feel?" I asked.

"I feel like a rock star," he said. "But not a sellout. Can I have some change?"

I asked him down the street Cafe Negril and bought us both quesadillas. We ate outside among the passersby. It was unusually quiet on Frenchmen that night. The air was spicy and, whenever the wind picked up, brass music and the scent of whiskey and beer hit us from the direction of the Spotted Cat.

"Why 'Law?'" I asked

"It's ironic," he said. "My last name is French. 'Droit.' I decided to embrace my name to emphasize my living outside the System."

"Did you just say that with a capital 'S?'"

"Only unintentionally. Capitalization is hierarchical."

This was August, just after I arrived in New Orleans. He said it was good that I work to rebuild homes, but that AmeriCorps was essentially just a part of the larger, unjust, inhuman machine. My clothes were a particular problem. Working in the office, I have to wear business casual.

"You're dressing like a classist," he said. "You can't even afford those clothes on your stipend."


"So tell them to go fuck themselves."

"Then I couldn't eat."

"So. I don't have job or a stipend and I eat."

"If I got fired then you wouldn't eat either."

"That's not the point."

We made a compromise. I would continue to wear my bourgeoisie clothes, but I would find other ways to undermine the System. I stopped using credit cards and shopped locally. When the election came up, I didn't vote and let everyone know that I wasn't participating. I decided I would only shit at Walmart.

The last part of my lifestyle change presented the greatest challenge. I don't live near any Walmarts. There is one on my way to work, though, and so I devised a system of detours. I never bought anything. I just used their paper and water, chipping away at their profit margin, and issuing an indirect, albeit not terribly subtle, protest.

Once I got into the rhythm, things got easier. Usually I would take my lunch break, walk to Walmart, defecate, and be back in plenty of time to actually eat and go back to the job. The only time I had a serious difficulty was during Tropical Storm Lee.

I biked through wind and rain all the way to St. Bernard Parish and by the time I arrived I was drenched and shivering. The greeter began to say, "Hello!" and stopped short. "Oh, honey," she said. "Why are you out in Lee?"

"I have business to attend to," I said and then carried out my social duty.

On the way out, the greeter waved to me grimly, looking pointedly out at the catastrophic rain. "You be safe."

When I got home I collapsed in bed and slept for the rest of the day. It was a long weekend, thankfully, because of Memorial Day. My throat was swollen and I could barely move when I woke up on Sunday afternoon. Law was there. He sat next to my bed with a cup of chamomile tea and honey. The storm hadn't let up at all and I could hear the cacophony on the roof and see water dripping down from the ceiling into a pan to a perfect rhythm. The lights were off.

"Are you awake?" he asked.


"I'm proud of you," he said.


The tea was hot, sweet and had a rich, herbal flavor. Sitting up was agony. I fell back on my pillow and felt a wave of nausea pass through my whole body.

"By now in Chicago it would be a lot colder. It would be jacket weather," Law told me. "You know, that's why things move at their own pace down here. The weather. It has a twelve month growing season. Why do things now when you can plant your crops any time of the year and be all right for food. In the north, you have to worry about starving if you don't plan ahead. "

He was quiet for a long time. Just as I drifted off, I thought I heard him murmur, "The cold weather makes me hungry."

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Book Review: William Zinsser's On Writing Well

I’ve tried to write this review a few times now and I think that the problem is that On Writing Well so thoroughly covers vast territory that it’s impossible to write anything that does the book justice. On Writing Well is William Zinsser’s opus after a lifetime of teaching and writing. All of my thoughts end up looking like introductory paragraphs and don’t really follow one another. I’m not giving up, but I’d rather just write this post and have done with it for the time being and come back to On Writing Well some other time.


I participated in ten writing workshops as an undergraduate and now have read a few books on the craft of writing. Every teacher and writer seems compelled, whether anyone asks or not, to answer the question, “Can writing be taught?” The reply is almost always some variant on, “No… but there’s a lot that can be learned.”

What I appreciate about On Writing Well is that Zinsser makes no apology. This is a book about craft and if you’re reading it you’re probably of the opinion that reading a thesis on writing as a learned skill will help you become a better writer. I have more Thoughts and Opinions on this subject, but I’ll leave that for another post.


What is immediately obvious about Zinsser, even after reading the first page or two, is that he is a phenomenal writer and teacher. I read a copy of the fourth edition, which I believe is the last, and his introduction is as cogent and thoughtful as the rest of the book. He explains that On Writing Well is a collection of essays dealing with subjects and themes he taught as a professor of nonfiction writing. With each later edition, he added more essays on innovations and changes he saw in the field of professional writing. Primarily, he used later editions to update the reading recommendations so that they were still relevant and to alter the text of the original to be less sexist. On Writing Well was first written in 1976 and so he often referred to the Reader and Writer with male pronouns. In subsequent revisions, Zinsser removed much of the presuming language as possible and in a later chapter discusses sexism in expository writing in depth.

Another major alteration was a chapter on the Word Processor. As a bibliophile and writing geek I thought this chapter was like an archeological treasure. I have never been compelled to use a typewriter and so I can’t empathize with his description of the former “slave labor” of writing. The work of writing, Zinsser explains, was revolutionized with the word processor. The chapter on the word processor is long and thoughtful, but basically Zinsser argues that now technology has given writers the greatest gift ever: the ability to endlessly and freely revise.

Zinsser’s favorite catchphrase is, “The essence of writing is revision.”  Writing is work and a craft and the only way a writer can really achieve a fine product is through careful, thoughtful revision. All writers and teachers eventually make the same point, but I think Zinsser’s lesson is a little more noble, that writing is work worth the payoff. This could just be my puritan-American sensibilities giving me a bias, but I think that his emphasizing the act and labor of writing legitimizes the profession.


In the chapter on business writing, Zinsser talks about a workshop he led with a group of school administrators. Their writing was muddled because it was too abstract, filled with sweeping passive and entirely conceptual statements. They were writing newsletters to parents that were filled with jargon and catchphrases that didn’t mean anything. He didn’t bother with a drawn out lesson how to use a comma and instead gave this simple instruction: find the humanity in your writing and use the first and second person as often as you can.

In my first nonfiction class, my teacher told us on the first day, “Use ‘I’ a lot. For some reason people are always afraid to say ‘I’ and so I want to be perfectly clear that you have permission to use the first person.” Her point was essentially the same as Zinsser’s, that abstract writing is eerie because no person is doing anything. We all crave a human connection.

One of Zinsser’s central points is that good writing has great humanity. Good writing is the effort of the writer to convey his or her particular point of view to another person. It’s about sharing and generosity.

Last August I had the pleasure of seeing Ibtisam Barakat give a lecture at the University of Iowa on teaching writing. She is a Palestinian woman who moved to America as a young woman. She says that her whole life has been spent, literally and figuratively, in exile. Then she said that she believes, “Most human beings are in exile.” We are in exile from one another, and by being an individual, living is essentially lonely. Writing, she says, is the attempt to fight against loneliness for your own sake and for benefit of your fellow human beings. I like that sentiment, and I think that Zinsser would agree with her.


There isn’t much about On Writing Well that I don’t like. Even his lamentation about the degeneration of writing was interesting because he makes such an eloquent argument. I distrust any talk about the “good old days” followed by “kids these days.” But Zinsser argues that there is a tendency in education to teach that certain subjects are appropriate and others are inappropriate subjects for an essay. The result is that people feel they must write what someone else (a teacher, an editor, a critic) wants.

His point is that you should write what you love, which is a lesson I’ve seen in many books on writing, but I think it’s interesting how he frames the problem with Audience. It’s not enough to just write what you want, you have to write without consideration for what someone else will think. Of course he’s not excusing bad writing, he’s just advocating self-confidence.


While I read this book I sent my dad an email asking him if he’d ever read On Writing Well because one of Zinsser’s mantra’s is that good writing is clear and concise. When I wrote essays in high school, my dad would proof read them and, more often than not, he’d circle a sentence or a paragraph and ask, “What are you trying to say here?” I’d tell him my point and then he’d say, “Good. Now write that.”

Writing clearly and concisely is a never-ending battle. Even though my dad gave me my first lesson on the aesthetic and utility of clean prose with as few frills as possible, I still appreciate Zinsser’s thoughts and tricks. Don’t be arrogant. Don’t try to show off. Just say what you mean to say and get out as soon as possible.


I could – and probably should – write much more about On Writing Well, but everything I write feels inadequate by comparison. If you believe, as I do, that good writing can be taught and learned, I think you will get a lot out of this book. Someday, if I’m ever permitted to teach a class on writing, I know that I will reference On Writing Well liberally.

In the meantime, I’m putting this one on the shelf. I know that I will come back to it soon.