Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Dream of Impermanent Buildings

I was driving through the country with a friend and an acquaintance, and we were all on our way to Asheville. Somewhere in our past, we had squatted a house—a mansion, in fact, labyrinthine and unlike any other. It was present in our minds because now it was lost. That was the thing about this dream: at one time, so much could have been ours.

Our plan now was to make the best of things by house sitting. The acquaintance, who was at the wheel, had the most experience at this. She had been on a lot of solo house sits in remote locales, she said, and I marveled at her bravery, as it was hard for me to sleep through the night in a strange place by myself.

I had heard somewhere that the Asheville Art Museum couldn’t afford to fix its roof and was going to have to close down. In the last few days before it shut its doors for good, its treasures were to be made available to the public on a frenzied first-come-first-served basis. Unfortunately, we were getting to town just too late to join the raid.

When we arrived at our house sit, I saw that it was my childhood home. The power was out because it was on the same circuit as the now closed museum, which it neighbored, although the two buildings were separated by a crumbling old garage, which at times became one of the museum’s abandoned wings. I had to make a long, fruitless, bureaucratically frustrating call in an effort to restore the power.

During this time, there was a news item, something so over-reported, it was hard to discuss anything else. A little-league football player had covered his face with bright blue eye shadow, and tempered it with a small spot of blush on one cheek. Bafflingly, little boys everywhere were beginning to consider this a masculine look.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Interview with Richard Nash

Check out my interview with publishing entrepreneur Richard Nash for the Boston ReviewNash, former head of Soft Skull Press, has developed an online literary platform called Cursor, a tool that indie publishers like Red Lemonade are using to experiment with how writers and readers interact. He discusses literary communities, the decline of big-box booksellers, and the future of the book as an object.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Jean Rhys, I Love You.3

This is the second of two parts. To read the first part, click here.

What I love about “The Lotus” is that the emotions taking place are so hard to categorize. Nevertheless, I’m going to try: Ronnie has invited his downstairs neighbor, Lotus, to Christine’s and his apartment, all the while viewing her with an attitude somewhere between pity and cynical glee. Christine feels toward Lotus something akin to envy, with a clear dose of revilement, all the while trying to play along with Ronnie’s condescending joke. It’s funny, though: am I projecting or is there some level of reluctant admiration on the part of the couple?

The ironic tone of Ronnie and Christine is what makes “The Lotus” feel so contemporary. Ronnie tells his wife about Lotus:

‘I think she’s damned comic. She’s the funniest old relic of the past I’ve struck for a long time.’

The inside-jokey objectification here reeks of hipsterism. Later, after he has escorted Lotus home, Ronnie even thumbs through a catalog of second-hand vinyl! My own couple, Remy and Poney Marie, have a similar throwback-inspired superiority toward / fascination with Myrne.

Lotus, like Myrne (a character from my short story, “face”), is an older woman with trashy tastes and a substance dependence problem. Both women also have a tarted up, sickly appearance: Christine, at one point, remarks that Lotus “looked awful.” Poney Marie has similar thoughts about Myrne, and worries that the former stewardess’s ugliness might sabotage her campaign. This aspect of their relationship forms a dissimilar, complicating element to the story I’m writing (which is perhaps why it’s starting to spiral a bit—even, at times, hinting at becoming a novel): business is at the heart of how Myrne and Poney Marie relate, which causes a constantly shifting power dynamic.

Another difference: where Lotus is a mass of insecurities on display, Myrne puts up a tough front. Reading “The Lotus” reminded me that maybe I need to temper Myrne’s toughness with some more obvious fears, that her vulnerability at times needs to be more apparent to Remy and Poney Marie.

What’s also interesting about Lotus and Myrne is that both women are literally out of their elements—albeit in vertically opposite directions. Lotus is a basement dweller, subterranean, who has ventured upstairs to socialize. Myrne, as a former flight attendant, once frequented the skies, but has since become entangled in the social nightmare of the book, which has grown so weighty, it’s bound her to earth.

Lotus—like Myrne and like me in the midst of that long, looming middle—is trapped. Myrne is literally stuck in the book; Lotus, a romance novelist in the midst of a manuscript (not five), is more figuratively ensnared.

‘The awful thing,’ Lotus said as she was going out, ‘is not knowing the words. That’s the torture—knowing the thing and not knowing the words.’

I’m sure Rhys understood this better than anyone—writing can always sort of wall you in. There’s a point where the book encloses you and is no longer yours. To make a punny, surface-level comparison, I’ve also heard tell of this happening with Facebook.

I’ll return to the subject of death in a moment, but first, while we’re trapped down here in Lotus’s basement, some questions: Isn’t there always a hint of death every time we sit down to write? On the surface, perhaps, we want to be remembered, and so, our hands over keyboard, there’s a part of ourselves that’s trying to outsmart the reaper. But writing, of course, in its purest form, is about discovery, about finding out what we didn’t know we knew. And the ultimate unknown: what happens when we die? How are things going to end? When we write, we—often unsuccessfully—feel around beyond those all-interring walls.

For me, the most chilling part of “The Lotus” is Christine’s willful ignorance of her own all-too-obvious mortality. In a sense, Lotus has risen from the grave to haunt Christine, coming up from the basement, white as a ghost, with falsely bloodied lips.

‘No, isn’t it distressing?’ Christine remarked to no one in particular. ‘Most people go on living long after they ought to be dead, don’t they? Especially women.’

While I don’t think Poney Marie—so far, at least—is as vicious as Christine, she is equally naïve, and consequently just as destructive. Like Christine, who is bored with slumming it, Poney Marie has hopes for a brighter future. At one point she follows Remy to New Orleans, after he convinces her of the city’s romantic charm. I think of Poney Marie as belonging to the cult of youth, the word cult used here not to imply worship, but rather a sort of limited vision. Christine also belongs to this cult, although it’s her encounter with Lotus that leads her unwittingly away from it. But while Lotus is emblematic of Christine’s dismal surroundings, I think I want Myrne to haunt a less explicitly symbolic frequency. Perhaps because she exists within the book, such an already overwrought symbol.

This is how “The Lotus” ends:

He could not help admiring the way Christine ignored the whole sordid affair, lying there with her eyes shut and the eiderdown pulled up under her chin, smiling a little. She looked very pretty, warm and happy like a child when you have given it a sweet to suck. And peaceful.

A lovely child. So lovely that he had to tell her how lovely she was, and start kissing her.*

Notice that twice Rhys compares Christine to a child. I see Poney Marie’s youth similarly ending in “face”, but I’ve never imagined her being quite as oblivious. There is disillusionment in store for her, I don’t doubt it, but I wanted from the beginning for her to be conscious of it. I also wanted somehow—and who’s being naïve now?—to have Myrne be Poney Marie’s salvation. After re-reading that final paragraph of “The Lotus”, though, I wonder if that salvation is meant to happen. Maybe I’m the one who’s in for some disillusionment.

I’m in the middle, you see, and it’s dark down here in my box, and, maddeningly, the end is obscured through miles and miles of dense dirt.

*The moment Ronnie starts kissing her here, Lotus’s loneliness hit me hard, and I thought again of Mike Leigh’s Another Year.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Jean Rhys, I Love You.2

I’m in the middle of writing a short story. I’ve been that way for a while now, in the middle—which is annoying, as I always feel kind of uneasy when something remains unfinished. One of my aims of this blog, though, is to explore my writing process, as well as to overcome my fear of putting unfinished things out in the world. So in the spirit of early sharing, you can read a draft of the story’s first few pages here. It’s tentatively titled “face”.

The story’s setting, funny enough, parallels my current state of suspension in the midst of a manuscript. It takes place in a book called the book, a place I think of as being a literal, physical manifestation of a social network along the lines of Facebook, an unwieldy, well-worn volume, dusty in some sections, moldy in others, a place where people must overcome large numbers of pages in order to communicate with one another. This meta shtick sounds gimmicky, I know, but I feel there may be an emotional cost to the extent which we now virtually interact, and my hope is that something about this setting can conjure or at least point toward this lack, which is otherwise so hard to pin down.

The characters that populate this setting form a triangle: a retired stewardess and a young straight couple who suffer a bit from a case of the hipsters. The couple consists of Poni Maree, a Portlander fresh out of public policy school, and Remy, a young man from a wealthy background who helped develop the book. The retired stewardess, Myrne, is singled out as a political candidate for Poni Maree to mentor and possibly install as a puppet dictator in the newly opened district of the book.

Danielle Steel made an appearance on The View a few weeks ago, where she mentioned that she abstained from reading while in the midst of working on a book, because she was too afraid of being imitative (She also mentioned that she had five manuscripts going at all times, which, well, I’ll stop there. Poor Danielle is too easy of a target, and for the sake of Lotus Heath, I refuse to pick on her. Besides, she looked absolutely stunning.). While avoiding clichés is a worthy goal, absorbing the techniques of other writers isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I had one writing teacher who encouraged imitation and even gave us the option of using a published short story as a template on which to hang our own characters and their interactions. Another teacher talked a lot about conversations that happen between works of literature. She assigned us the book Literature and the Gods by Roberto Calasso, a deeply spiritual text that discusses the ancient gods who refuse to die, who appear and reappear in books. The point is, I think there’s a kind of cyclical magic, a fortuitousness of discovery that often happens when looking backwards, one that’s often necessary to completing a creative work.

And here’s where Jean Rhys enters the conversation—or at least Jean Rhys as channeled through her short story “The LotusI read Rhys’s story—which is about writing and youth and death and loneliness and other great Rhysian stuff—a few weeks ago, when I was somewhat nearer the beginning of the middle of writing “face”. “The Lotus”, like my story, concerns a triangle consisting of a young, condescending couple (Ronnie and Christine) and an older woman (Lotus Heath) who finds herself an object of their ridicule. There were points when “The Lotus” gave me chills, like Rhys’s work often does, but it wasn’t until after I’d finished the story that I realized its triangle was not only eerily similar to, but also an ideal emotional template for my own.

Roxane Gay, in a recent interview with Caitlin Horrocks, author of This Is Not Your City, asked Horrocks if she wrote “toward or from a place of emotion.” Horrocks remarked that it’s a great question, and I would have to agree, as my answer is similar to hers: Toward. Emotion is essential to a great story, but it doesn’t come naturally to me—I have to work for it. That’s why finding a template like “The Lotus” made me feel like I’d struck gold.

Is this plagiarism? It’s often said that great fiction is characterized by its universality; I’d like to think I’m just trying to tap into that universe.

This is the first of two parts. The second part of this post is here

Friday, August 19, 2011

Jean Rhys, I Love You

“Why do people so expert in mental torture pretend blandly that it doesn’t exist?”

                                                                                                — J. R., “I Spy a Stranger”

Thursday, August 18, 2011


Oooooo, BART’s in trouble. The San Francisco Bay Area subway system has long been my archenemy. It’s not that I have anything against mass transit—I’m dependent on it and sincerely wish we had more of it. It’s just that BART is both ridiculously low functioning and outright hostile to its riders. Their draconian move last week to quash protests by turning off cell phones is no surprise to me, nor is their indignant defense of their actions. This is just business as usual for BART, and it’s time they are held accountable. Now that they are—finally—under fire, while we’re at it, can I air out a couple complaints?

  1. They shoot their passengers. Repeatedly. And get away with it. Repeatedly. Most of this list is quibbles, so I’m just going to get this one out of the way at the start. In 2009, BART police shot an unarmed young man execution-style while he was face down on the platform. They more recently shot a drunk old man and refuse to release any details about the incident. I think it’s generous to say that BART cops are ill equipped to deal with the public, yet they continue to carry around guns. 
  1. They shut down at midnight. Even on weekends. It’s a wide bay to cross, and there are no carless ways to traverse it late at night besides a $50 cab or an hourly, limited bus. So if you go across the Bay for the evening, you’d better make sure you’re on that train by 12. Again, even on weekends. This leaves people no option but to drunkenly drive long distances when the bars close down. It would be interesting to see if there was any decrease in accidents involving drunk drivers if the trains started running a couple hours later. BART’s overly defensive excuse for their limited hours is that they need to close down to clean the train cars.
  1. Those cars they spend four hours cleaning every night? Yeah, they’re carpeted. At least I think that’s carpet under that thick layer of black crust. Their seats are upholstered (somebody needs to let the bedbugs know about this) and when impacted, they release huge clouds of ancient dust. This supposed plushness is one of BART’s attempts to be something snootier than a mass-transit system. BART, if you need a consultant, you know where to find me. Let me start with this shocker: In high-traffic situations, non-wipeable surfaces are really hard to maintain.
  1. Another BART luxury is the LED signs they have in their stations. These scrolling signs will tell you to keep an eye on your backpack and to alert BART police if you see suspicious activity (suspicious activity such as, say, BART police?). They also let you know when the next Giants game is and what’s currently playing at the opera. Only rarely, though, will you catch a glimpse of when your train is due. Just one more clue that the system’s engineers either didn’t give a fuck or didn’t have the practical knowledge of one who frequents public transit.
  1. Their bathrooms are closed. At probably 80% of their stations, BART has decided to stop maintaining their bathrooms. Their reason, according to their LED signs: you guessed it, security. This means that after riding a 45-minute train, you might have to end up pissing on their luxurious carpet.
Now that BART has joined the likes of Visa and the Church of Scientology as targets of Anonymous, I’m hoping for some validation. I mean, I’ve spent years complaining to my loved ones about BART’s general shittiness. My dream is that the spotlight they’re now in will grow more and more unflattering, and their management will one day soon be forced into disarming BART police, running later, ensuring the public they won’t again infringe on first-amendment rights, and re-opening their damn bathrooms!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Wedding Review.3

Mercury was in retrograde, that was the word on the street, and so I almost didn’t make it to this one. Having neglected to line up a ride with a coworker, I took a train and two buses, then walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, then several miles through the country to arrive a half hour late. Getting off the second bus, tourists almost trampled me, as anxious as they were to leave their landmark viewing. Once across the bridge, I was confronted with a tunnel, a Pedestrians Prohibited sign, and a parked patrol car. I walked through the tunnel anyways, relieved to never feel the cop roll up behind me. The rest of the way, I held my thumb out; the one person who picked me up took me several hundred yards.

The ceremony had already started by the time I finally arrived—I saw them gathered far out in a mucky field. I stood at the front door with a platter of cocktails and watched them slowly trudge their way in. A little old man was being pushed in an off-road wheelchair with large, pontoonish, seafoam-colored wheels. The women’s stilettos plunged far into the soft earth. Something about it all made me think of Guns N’ Roses’ "November Rain," only artier, less drenched.

These were the kind of people who put out a tray of wheatgrass on the welcome table, then proceeded to drink seven handles of gin. Thank Goddess, they said, over cake that could make you shit glitter. By the end of the night, the women, their ankles so long unsupported in so many unforeseen ways, were melting against either their boyfriends or the walls.

I went home in a coworker’s car, the flat of wheatgrass in my lap.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Some Items To Be Placed on Funereal Shelves in Memory of Super Longs

Above is a sampling of merchandise from the old Super Longs, aka the Payless, aka International Super Store, one of the last remaining drugstores with any love in it. The following is an excerpt from an illustrated essay I'm working on about Oakland's beloved Super Longs:
The store’s high regard had a lot to do with its practicality: convenient location; vastly diverse stock; all-night hours for those who hated crowds and loved that special insomniac weirdness. At the same time, Super Longs was marked by its impracticality. In a time when all other motives had been crushed beneath the bottom line, the store’s survival was unreal. It was notorious for losing money, skated by on tradition and vanity, and in some early-morning hours, as you walked back through its empty parking lot, you could almost believe it was there solely as a favor to the citizens of Oakland. 
The piece will consist of cut-out merchandise and stockable shelves, and portions of it will be included in Janelle Hessig's forthcoming memorial fanzine about the store. I hope to include a longer version in the next issue of Runx Tales, out in 2012. Viva la International Super Store!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Dream of a Tolerable Prison

Somewhere in the background of this dream, a chaotic event: the calendar had somehow collapsed on itself (whether by accident or design, it was unclear), and several holidays—Halloween, Valentine’s Day, and New Year’s Eve*—were all happening at once. Much of the world thought that this was a sign of our last day on earth, and in the midst of the havoc being wreaked, I woke up in prison.

The prison seemed more like a commune: there were few guards and most of the inmates were women. There was also a kind of golden brown light. Our first task of the day was to perform an exercise where we stood on a yoga mat and waved our arms back and forth. My cellmate told me we were supposed to pay for the mats, but if I got rid of the price tag on mine, they would think I had already paid.

Our next task was a math lesson. My cellmate opened the book and showed me where all the dirty pictures were: a cartoon of a little girl with fully developed breasts, an educational looking silhouette of an uncircumcised penis. She went on to tell me she had wound up in jail after encountering an alien. When she said alien, I didn’t picture the big-headed, bug-eyed kind, but instead a brownish, four-legged beast.

It was a relief to be in a prison like this, I came to understand, like a womb away from the hell that was taking place outside. The buzz among the inmates was that the institution had somehow slipped through the cracks, and anyone who wound up incarcerated there was the envy of the rest of the prison system. And it was true: the only stress I now felt was that I hadn’t finished my math lesson.

*Is this Garry Marshall’s fault? 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Wedding Review.2

Our eating habits have become more furtive. A guest complained of our brazenness, which was considerable, it’s true, more so than I would normally advise. The spoils of catering are by rights ours, no argument there; it’s just that there’s something to be said for sustainability. Best not to flaunt rights which could easily be taken away. It’s fortuitous, then, that we’re dressed in black, like cat burglars; if you watch closely enough, maybe you’ll see us slipping into pantries or ducking behind bars, our hands positioned so as to shield your view from our loot.

The bride, once again, was oddly sympathetic. The groom, once again, was a poet. Why am I a caterer, you ask, and not a poet, such a way I have with words? Maybe because of the tedium of marriage, a tedium I expect some day soon to become my right. I have a hunch that a sympathetic bride might hesitate to call herself such. Bride, I mean, not sympathetic.

Pies are the new cupcakes, someone remarked, as, squatting, we shoveled said pie into our pie holes. Yes, pies, like cupcakes before them, are shaking the very foundations of marriage.

I went home with some better than usual champagne.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Friday, August 5, 2011

Dream of a Job Like a Family

In this dream, I had a job interview at a family-run print shop. The daughter was my friend; she had long, mouse-brown hair and glasses, and she’d cut the heels off the backs of her flip-flops. I imagined her feet being very calloused as she walked all around the print shop like this and her family lovingly ridiculed her. I waited in the kitchen to be interviewed, listened to the presses in the next room, and started to feel the enormous emotional weight that was attached to this job. The previous interviewee made his exit, and he was much younger than me, and more flashily dressed. I realized I was the one they were going to hire and began to relax.

The father was a very nice man who provided a strong sense of unity. There was something sinister about this,* but not sinister enough to prevent me from wanting to work there. Once I’d been hired, we all decided to go for a walk and then a drive. On the walk, I saw that the tips of every branch of every tree had been carved into a knobbish little head with comical features and gaping wide eyes. I pretended not to notice, and when it became clear this had been the work of the daughter, I was glad I’d kept my ignorance hidden.

On the drive, we were moving through mountainous streets, somehow magically past deadlocked traffic. The car felt like it might leave the earth in that way cars sometimes do when they’re climbing a hill and then dipping. I saw an animal: a wild boar I thought, and I remarked on it. The car was filled with laughter as everyone corrected me and I saw that they were right: the animal was really a black goat. This time I was sorry I’d let my ignorance show, and I tried to change the subject back to boars: “Do you have them around here? What are they called, javelinas?”

*This dream was probably influenced by the documentary miniseries The Staircase, directed by Jean Xavier de Lestrade, which had been present in my mind.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Dream of Two Sisters

This dream took place in the country. I had to scramble down through various ditches and cross several creeks via stepping stones, never really worrying if my feet got wet. I was trying to get to a house because I needed to talk to its occupant. I needed to confront them about something that would be hard to discuss. When I neared the house at last, I found that it was sided with cheap, sandpapery roofing material which was made to look like brick. As I approached the front door, I saw that it was one of two front doors: the house was a duplex. Knowing there were multiple occupants to confront, my anxiety now grew stronger.

What a relief when no one answered the doorbell, which was one of several doorbells, although I didn’t try the other ones. It was safe to say my efforts had been thwarted, and so I could now guiltlessly avoid the confrontation. I climbed back across the ditch and decided to sit for a while, it was so nice there in the country. I sat watching the house. There were several trees in its yard, one of which soon fell over with a peaceful little crash as it hit the ground. Even though the tree had been dead, I worried that I would be blamed. Another tree fell. It didn’t matter; I sat and listened to the water. Soon, two plump white women came out of the house and sat in the grass. They were wearing t-shirts and jeans, and were probably sisters. I watched them from across the ditch, thankful they couldn’t see me, as happy as they were to be talking on their phones.