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

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Ren Fest

After the Robin Hood comedy sketch at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, I saw the lead actor chewing carrots and hummus in a pottery shop across from the stage. I was still crying from laughter. The audience was still shelling out tips into leather caps. The proprietor, said, "Where's my old Rudy? You're not like this." The actor shook his head, "I can't keep doing this man. I'm too tired." "Where's my old Rudy?"

That was eight years ago. Two weeks ago, I went to the Ren Fair with A and D. The actor was still performing, still making the audience laugh. It's incredible what we all endure.


"Where You End and the World Begins" is now available on Daily Science Fiction.


Today, A and I are going to visit every St. Paul book store in a few mile radius around our apartment. This could take all day. And if it does it will be a day well spent.


During the month of October I've resolved to get my portfolio together and read nothing but Lovecraft and other horror. I need my fix, and what better month to do it?

Saturday, September 22, 2012


It was an unusually cold and rainy day in June when I sat with N and M and their friend, R, on the balcony talking about opera. R was talking about opera, actually, and we were listening. Three floors up, exposed to the unpleasant wind, and smoking.

"I really shouldn't be doing this," R said, waving her cigarette. "It's awful for your throat and I want to be a singer. But it's been a bad day and I deserve that."

She went on. "I've wanted to be an opera singer since I was little. I know it's weird that an eighteen-year old would want to be an opera singer, but it's my dream. Two years ago my parents, got me tickets to see X in Rome and I got to see her after the show. She sang for the people in the lobby and I knew that's what I wanted to do -- fill people with my voice down to their bones and make them shiver."

R was short and dressed all in black. Her hair and fingernails were black, too. She looked like she'd fit in better at a goth club than an opera house, but there she was, telling everyone who would listen all about her dream to cut all of us through the flesh and marrow with her voice.

Later, we went to Cafe Europa only a few blocks away. Their basement looks like an old bomb shelter and may have been during the war. Now it is a cozy cellar of mortar and stone. M and N spoke in German and I tried to keep up. Every time I said something, M covered her mouth, eyes wide and said, "Awe..."

Later, C arrived with a cohort of writers. It was a group of freshman exchange students from some New York college doing a two week writing program. C was their guide. We agreed to meet them for drinks.

Most of them ordered beer. The one teetotaler had water and we talked about this at great length. I had absinthe. It's a fun drink because it requires fire. When it works, you feel like the most interesting person in the room, especially if you light your cigarette off the flaming sugar.

After a few rounds, we talked about the Presidency.

"Worst job in the world," someone said.

"Who would want to be President?" someone else added.

"It takes years off your life."

"But what about the fact that you're the most powerful person in the world for a bit? Isn't that worth something?"

"But you'd have no privacy, ever. You're the most powerful person in the world and the Secret Service can't leave you alone for a minute. I mean, what if you just wanted to masturbate? You'd have to, knowing that one of the people responsible for your life knew what you were doing..."

Everyone agreed that this would be problematic.

Someone mentioned that there was a dance floor at Vauban and a decision was somehow made. We were there, at the tiny dorm dance floor, shortly after. Most of us were tossed by then -- C in particular. M, N, and I watched as he danced with one of the boys in the New York group, one we all knew was straight, closing the distance gradually every few steps.

N said, without looking away from the scene, "Sam, do you know the German word, 'Mitschuld?'"


"It means 'sympathetic guilt' or 'embarrassment.'"

"That's very German."

"It is."

We spoke with the teetotaler. He explained, "I believe in the purity of the body and it's against my faith."

"And you came to Germany?"

"Just for two weeks."


Note: My short story, "Where You End and the World Begins," was just published with Daily Science Fiction. I've been pleasantly surprised by the positive reviews on Facebook. Will post a link when DSF publishes the story for non-subscribers on their website.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Tribute to Donald Barthelme

Six months ago, my wife changed his name to Harry. That was the difficult part. If he had just kept "Chris" it wouldn't have been so hard for me to make this transition. Chris is a unisex name. "Why can't you just keep 'Chris'?" I asked him.

"Well," he said, "that would mean that I wasn't taking this transition seriously. That I would still be Chris and not a new person."

Christina was out, too. All "Chris" variations were beyond consideration. He had to leave all that was Chris behind.

"Does that include me?" I asked.

"No, honey," he said. "I could never leave you."

Two weeks later, we were talking about the election and Harry, a lifelong Democrat from a blue-collar we-work-for-a-living-and-pay-our-union-dues-thank-you said he was voting for Romney/Ryan.

"You've turned Republican?" I said.

"We need a change," Harry said. "The country is going to shit."

"But Romney represents all that is unholy and hateful," I said.

"He's not that bad. And he's different," Harry said.

"But he said not killing Muslim's was unpatriotic," I said.

"Now you're being hyperbolic," Harry said. "But that's good. We can have real political debates, now. Never change."

Harry started going to political conventions. Then, a few weeks later, he quit his job at the city and said he was going to go to law school.

"We can afford it," he said.

"You hate lawyers," I said.

"No," Harry said. "Chris did."

I'd never gone to college and that suddenly for the first time in my life made me feel inferior. I asked if he wanted to do this together. And he laughed and hugged me.

"Why would you want to do that? You love your job. You're happy. Never change," he said. "I love you just the way you are."

I took careful notes and carried them around with me everywhere. Pronoun charts, class schedules, Republican Party platform points, and, shortly after that, Lutheran articles of faith.

Harry converted. One Sunday, I woke up and he wasn't there and I assumed that he was just at the library early studying. But then it happened again the next week, too. And again. Harry was a diligent student, but when I confronted him and learned the truth I was surprised. All his life he'd been an atheist.

"I need more in my life," he told me.

"Isn't what we have enough?" I asked.

"What we have is enough," he said. "But what I have isn't enough."

Then there were the Bible study groups. They were polite and ignored me, and that, I think, is what bothered me. I wasn't one of them, hunched over the Book, cookie in hand, asking how Jesus came into their everyday life, and how this verse was so relevant because they saw withered figs at Hy-Vee today.

One night, I asked Harry if he wanted me to convert. "Don't be ridiculous," he said. "You don't believe in God."

"But doesn't that bother you?" I asked.

"Not at all," he said. "I pray for you, anyway."

That was comforting for a little while. Like everything, the study groups went the way of the pronouns, conservative rhetoric, and law text books and became everyday. So did the folk band practices, organic vegan food, transcendental meditation, Yoga, baseball card collections, wood carving, snake, bonsai trees, seances, Yo-yo competitions, and tarot consultations. But about a month ago, that was the day. I came home from work in a good mood, but on the walk back I got this feeling.

I poured myself a glass of water and sat down on the porch and was there until dark when Harry got home. Not really thinking, just sitting.

Harry sat down next to me on the wooden bench on our porch and said, "What a day. Torts is a bitch. What's wrong, baby?  You look stressed."

"I feel," I said, "like I need a change."

Harry didn't say anything for a long time. After a while, I tried to explain. "I just feel like there's something I need to do that I haven't done. I mean, I'm thirty-five and people tell me that I'm going to have a midlife crisis soon. Maybe I can head it off. What will happen when I realize that half my life is over? What will I do then? I mean, I drive a Toyota and I drink Jameson. Every day I go to work and wake up at 6:30. I read a few hours a night every day, and play the piano in a jazz band."

"And you're unhappy?" Harry asked.

"No." I said. "But I feel like I have to change something."

"What do you want to change?"

"Nothing," I said.

Two weeks ago, Harry asked me for a divorce. And I told him no. It was just too much to remember and to do, I told him. We fought. Oh, we fought over that one. But in the end, I convinced Harry it just wasn't worth it.

Saturday, September 8, 2012


During my first nonfiction class, my teacher told us a story. When she was eighteen she entered and won a place in a one-time workshop with a prestigious author whose name I don't remember. When it was her turn before the firing squad, the distinguished author ripped her and her work to shreds. The way she described it this was not at all in keeping with normal workshop decorum of constructive criticism. He made her cry.

After the class, the distinguished writer took my teacher aside and told her, "For the next three years, don't write a word. Go to Terrell County, Texas and get a job as a waitress. After three years, you'll have enough material to be a good writer."

Then she said, "Bull. Shit." Writing is about craft. And no one has the right to tell you what to do with your life or make a value judgement on your experience. That's why Lee Gutkind's article "The MFA in Creative Nonfiction: What to Consider Before Applying" in the most recent edition of Poets and Writers pissed me off.

In the article, Gutkind writes that the most important criterion a potential applicant should consider is "How much have you suffered--or experienced?" He elaborates, "I'm not contending here that young people can't write with power and beauty or that they haven't suffered. But it's often better to join the Peace Corps, take a job driving a taxi, or interact with a different culture before studying writing on a master's degree level."

Flannery O'Conner said something to the effect that if you make it through childhood then you've got enough material to write. All of our experiences, everything, is inherently interesting.

There's a scene from Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation that I particularly love, when Kaufman's meta-character sits in a screen writing class and asks the instructor, Robert McKee, how you write about the everyday world since it's mostly boring and nothing happens. McKee responds, "Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day... Every fucking day somewhere in the world somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else. Every fucking day someone somewhere makes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love. People lose it..."

Our everyday experience is a plenitude of bizarre wonders and miracles.

But this isn't what irks me about the "you need to suffer" philosophy of nonfiction writing. For one, this fetishizes and glorifies trauma. I think this can lead artists, young artists especially, to make stupid decisions -- I've met many who did. At worst, I think this devalues thoughts and experiences that aren't about this sexy suffering.

Chuck Palahniuk has a great essay in Stranger Than Fiction called "You Are Here" which criticizes the popular tendency to write about personal trauma. It's an ineffective and perverse form of exorcism. I'm not sure I agree with Chuck -- there's nothing wrong with writing as therapy -- but when you rest your life on life as story, trying to strong arm your memories into a thing that gives meaning to your suffering, you may need reevaluate your methods. Everyone has suffered. Telling the world is not a universal cure-all.

And that, I think, is what really bothers me about Gutkind's criterion of suffering. We're all filled with a wealth of material and memories, but not everyone who wants to attend a nonfiction writing program wants to write about themselves. There are whole galaxies of writing that fall under the category of "nonfiction." Just because the memoir and the personal essay are popular right now doesn't mean everyone wants to write them. What about those of us who want to write journalism, criticism, science articles, and social commentary and want to come at it from a different angle than the traditional disciplines?

What about those of us who just want to learn how to write more effectively about the facts? What if you just want to know how to best tell a true story, regardless if it's about suffering or not?

Saturday, September 1, 2012


This morning before he left, my roommate, the Viking, told me he and his fellow plant biology grad students were talking about plant volatiles. Volatiles are chemicals secreted by a plant when they are stressed -- like when a caterpillar is eating it. The chemical alerts helpful predators in the area to the plant's predicament, so a bird might come along and eat the offending caterpillar.

"So," the Viking said. "That smell of freshly cut grass is actually the cacophony of your lawn screaming in pain."

The things you learn when living with guy who reads biology textbooks for fun.


Last year I applied for six grad schools and was declined by all. After the initial embarrassment passed, I told a few friends and family and everyone said some variation on, "You know, you don't have to go to grad school to be a writer." This is no great comfort to me.

I'm a writer because I write. I don't expect two or three years of a grad program is going to transform me into a bestseller or award winning author. After I'm done, I'll probably find a job as a technical writer and that would suit me fine. In fact, that's basic the plan. I love writing and I'm not particular about form or content. I enjoy composing grants about as much as I enjoy writing stories.

Now I understand why people say they attend MFA programs to have more time to write. I worked full-time as an AmeriCorps member and now I have secured full-time employment again in St. Paul. Free time is precious. Writing time, even more so.

I'm far away from my workshop network. They're scattered throughout the country and world. The people whose opinions matter most to me have lives and have little opportunity to meet up at some mutually convenient location for a writing session or workshop.

After spending years toying with the idea, I have yet to actually try my hand at teaching. I have no idea whether or not I would be good at it, but I at least want to try. There's something deeply appealing about it, to me. Living in New Orleans, I helped put together and typically led a reading group called the Swimmers, which was the highlight of my week. I wasn't teaching -- we were peers -- but I got a kick out of guiding discussions and making notes to bring up particular subjects and I found that, after spending five years in literary analysis classes and workshops, I'm not half bad at it.

And, of course, I miss the academic environment. My job is intellectually challenging, I read all the time and write often. But there's a difference between having a personal library and easy access to an academic one, between a great Friday-night discussion on politics and literature and a class on contemporary world literature, between committing yourself to a life of learning and having the title "student." Well, here I'm being melodramatic. If you want an intellectual life you can live one.

So, no, I don't want to go to grad school to be a writer. I want to attend an MFA program because it would be a luxury. Because I've got unfinished business. Because I still hold out this small hope that I could teach and devote my working life to my passions: writing and talking about books with bibliophiles and writers.


New Orleans was a big city by my Iowan standards, but I've never lived in a place where I couldn't rely on my own two feet for getting around on a daily basis. It's still weird to me the ownership people feel over their bus routes. I was talking with a neighbor the other day who told me, "The 21A used to be my bus."

Three weeks ago, my first day at work, I took the 21A at 6:00AM (way too damn early, it turned out) and sat a few seats away from a woman hustling shots from a plastic bottle of gin. The other day, I sat across the row from a young woman telling a man, "I'm the most eligible bachelorette in town! I don't have diseases. I don't shoot up. I've got an apartment. Maybe if you factor in that I'm pregnant, I'm less desirable, but some people don't care."

LW told me a few days ago, "When I first got here, I used to hide behind a book when the crazies on the bus started acting up. Now I just watch and I'm amused. You should get some good material out of this."