Friday, August 30, 2013

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

my 1980s

[Although many dissed it, I enjoyed this Wayne Koesten-baum essay reprint on Salon, so much so that I've decided to write a similar one in the same style.  Mine will be, of necessity, shorter for the simple reason I'll try to say something in fewer words and images.]

"Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose."
Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

I wanted to be the Next Great American Writer in the 1980s. I published one very bad novel and an interesting monograph on Jerzy Grotovski and a few short stories and poems. But I wrote many, many other things.  In my teens a professor told me I was a Renaissance Man and I took that to heart, wanting to whip off novels and poems with the same alacrity as Victor Hugo or Thomas Hardy; tellingly, I didn't enjoy reading either of them at the time. I envisioned myself forever sitting up late at night writing hard, amber-clear prose that never quite satisfied me. There is a wordless comic strip from Love and Rockets by Los Bros Hernandez from that time that shows one of the characters typing and smoking late into the night in a high garret room, suddenly crushing a sheet of paper with dismay, and that's how I saw myself. I often accomplished the sitting up late, drinking instead of smoking, but rarely found anything near solid, precise wording.
I was married when the 80s started and divorced about midway through. It was by mutual consent and there were no kids or property to dispose of so it was relatively amicable. We had sex nearly every day because we were young and horny and it was one of the few times we didn't fight. After we divorced and I lost nearly a hundred pounds I found to my surprise she wasn't the only person attracted to me and eventually I would gain a reputation, not undeserved, for fucking nearly everyone who approached me. For a while I enjoyed sex with men as a sort of vacation from the emotional messiness of sex with women, a kind of palate-cleanser between courses.
I read a tremendous amount, usually on walks and under trees, from silly novels to dense philosophies. I tried to find at least one important line from every book or poem or short story or essay and then typed it on a slip of paper and taped it to the swinging door of my kitchen. I'd been given a portable manual typewriter as a graduation present and it was on this I wrote nearly everything during that time. I had had a larger manual office model someone gave me during my marriage and it was on this I wrote my novel and the monograph, but one evening after reading On the Road I stood up suddenly and began to move methodically around my little apartment collecting furniture, clothes, books, kitchen utensils, everything I decided I no longer needed, and piled them in the center of my living room floor to give away. The office typewriter was among the last items to make the pile.
Today I have a lot of friends who hop trains and call themselves train kids. I did that only a couple times and only for short distances, always returning to my starting point. I was alone each time and spent the whole ride hunkered close to whatever I was holding onto: my first time I clutched a pole tightly, scared shitless I would be blown off and my body found by kids a la Stephen King's "The Body," and the next times I went I belted myself to something secure. I was a road kid, spending most of my time hitchhiking or in my own car. I always had luck hitching; it was always a matter of patience and not looking angry as the cars and trucks whizzed past me. One of the few times I hitched with someone else was one of the least productive hitch times of my career; we walked hours on the side of the New York State Interstate--we were headed to Buffalo--but we made it within twelve hours of our starting by dint of catching a train outside Rochester because it was dark and no one could see out thumbs. Whenever I hear the Pet Shop Boys' "West End Girls" I go back to that time and think specifically of riding around in the back seat of a car driven by a lesbian who would come out as straight within a year and who was showing us the city.
I acted in porn movies for a short time, a single summer, but it was enough to fund my life for a year. $500-1000 for a weekend's worth of work was great money. It was easier and less anxiety-producing than I'd feared and I loved the sex. I never thought about AIDS, not because this was before it or I knew no one who had it--I lost several friends to its depredations and I carry a healthy hatred for Ronald Reagan and his ambivalence to this day--but because I was stupid enough to think I was immortal. I actually came through those years of mostly unprotected sex without a single STD, leading my friends to joke my mother, like Achilles', had dipped me in the River Teflon. 

Authors I read for the first time that decade who played an important role in how I write: Susan Sontag, Jean Genet, Bruce Chatwin, John Gardner, Joan Didion, Thomas Merton, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Dominick Dunne, Tom Robbins, Louise Erdrich, Tim O'Brien, H.P. Lovecraft, Raymond Carver, John Le Carre, Henry David Thoreau, Rita Dove, Vladimir Nabokov, Charles Simic, Gore Vidal, Georges Simenon, Anne Tyler, Sylvia Plath, Audre Lord, D.H. Lawrence, Toni Morrison, Rita Adler, Carlos Castenada, Ursula K. LeGuin, Peter Straub, Stephen King, Clive Barker, John Irving, Thomas Pynchon, etc.
For years after my divorce I lived in New Paltz, the town where my college was located. The town is snuggled at the base of the Shawangunk Mountain range between the Hudson and Wallkill Rivers and is home to many freaks. I found myself fitting there like fingers that curl into a fist. Three years after my divorce, through some stunningly bad decisions, I was out of work and had to give up my apartment to a friend. I was in Manhattan for a job interview and, having waited too long because I was at a bar to catch the last bus out of the City, I found a quiet berth under a construction trailer on the overpass above the Grand Central Station. I was warm, safe, and it was astonishingly easy to get in and out without being seen. I ended up sleeping under that trailer for several months, until approaching winter made me decide it was time to visit my parents. They were against my returning to the trailer, or to New Paltz, where I might have slept on friends' couches, so I said, "Buy me a cheap car and I'll live in that." They found a 77 Dodge Aspen wagon for $500 and I spent a weekend making it habitable and then lit out for the road. I lived in it for three years, seeing almost all of the country and parts of Canada, before my mother's entreaties to come back out of it and go to graduate school prevailed. I disembarked in southern Minnesota and sold the Aspen and lived in a park seven miles from town, sleeping under a gazebo and riding my bike to classes. This was September, 1989, and in another nine months I would meet my second, or as she says, my last wife. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

wedding homily

One of the things I'm discovering in the course of conducting weddings is that some terms with which most seminarians and religiously-interested are familiar, like homily vs. sermon, are not understood by the general public. So that yesterday, after I'd conducted my tenth wedding with my ninth couple, the bride asked me, "Did you know all along you were going to change the service?" from the previous night's rehearsal. I said I didn't understand, and she said, "All that stuff about dogs and dirt you said, you didn't say any of that during the rehearsal." I said, "No, that was the homily, I hadn't finished it until this morning; but I mentioned last night during rehearsal, 'here's where I read my homily, about five minutes.'" It turned out she had no clue what a homily is, so my wife points out I ought to rephrase my comments about it in the future to "short sermon."

Here, then, is my short sermon from yesterday's wedding.

Most of you are aware that [the bride's] dog Mistie ran off a month ago. Some of you may be aware that my wife , [the groom’s] sister, and their [other] sister and I joined in searching for Mistie for two days before she was located safe among a nearby pack of dogs. I searched the north and southwestern ends of the farm property with one of our dogs.  What many of you are not aware of is that when I first moved to Wisconsin in the early 90s I worked the farm here with Joe and his dad in exchange for room and board.  If I hadn’t had the realization before then I figured out working here that I would never make a farmer.  I’m a good farmhand:  tell me to make this big pile a littler pile I can do that.  But it never occurs to me to make the pile littler. So when I didn’t have a shovel in my hands I wandered the property. Searching for Mistie gave me the opportunity to do that again.

          While I don’t ask you to take your shoes off, this is nonetheless sacred ground. This acreage hasn’t just fed [the bride and groom]; trillions of creatures that have wandered across it over millions of years found sustenance here. Some of those creatures are still around. If you’re a farmer or a hunter or just a wanderer like me you’re likely to recognize and identify a lot of them. My dog and I noted all kinds of life as we ranged over the farm, including twice visiting the spot we’re now standing. Mistie wasn’t here, but we took pleasure in looking here anyway. Dogs are great for experiencing the sacred, maybe because they have no agenda. My dog wasn’t looking for Mistie, he was just ranging with me. You people with dogs, watch them when you walk a new place.  Their ears are more alert, they hold themselves a little taller and straighter, and have a certain bounce in their step that suggests they’re dancing. 

Mistie, of course, made it back home.  This farm is home to Mistie and Buck, of course, and to [the bride and groom]. If you haven’t spent appreciable time here you owe it to yourself to do so.   This farm is home as well to turkeys and deer, coyotes and fox, rabbits and shrews, ants and gnats, the large-footed and the tiny-footed. It’s also home to trees and brush, rocks and soil, algae and moss, bacteria and protozoa, and good old-fashioned dirt. There is life here, not only in what breathes and grows but in the plate tectonics that shift like the earth’s crust is exhaling and push stone forward and up, a kind of growth. Some of you know that just a gram of soil may contain more or less a billion microbes alone. If you climb one of those deer stands you can get a pretty good aerial view of portions of the property and help gain a better perspective of just how much life goes on here. 

          Unfortunately, [the bride and groom] can’t demand rent from these billions of neighbors but on the plus side they are unlikely to stop in to borrow some sugar or the lawnmower.

          Like any other ecosystem, marriage is composed of living things. It’s in the nature of living things to grow. [Friends], you have no intention in your second marriages to have children but that’s not to say you aren’t raising a family. Consider the improvements you’ve made on this land. Consider the improvements you’re making on your home together. Then there are all these children, sons and daughters and grandchildren and nieces and nephews and grandnieces and grandnephews. Whether any of them continue to live here after you yourselves are dead doesn’t matter. Their being here now is an improvement, a gift to you.

But in addition to Buck and Mistie, in addition to the kids, in addition to the horses and cats and raccoons and mice and flies and tadpoles and corn and soy beans and aspen and milk weed and thistle and tiger lily and blackberries and fungi and earthworms and thermophiles and bacilli and rhizomes, your marriage itself is a living being that breathes and grows in the same mysterious manner all the other things do.  It isn’t, can’t be, an inert thing that, once this service ends, comes into sudden existence and, years from now, suddenly ceases to be. Your relationship, like the soil and grass on which we stand, is a holy thing and it has its own life.  Keep your marriage safe, keep it well, keep it fed. Like a dog, like a plot of land, it will reward you with long service, a kind of love itself.  

Monday, August 19, 2013

olana and memory

 In 1825 the young English painter Thomas Cole made a sketching voyage up the Hudson River.  Even by 1825 the valley was tamed and pastoral, hardly wilderness, but just to the west in the Catskill Mountains, Cole found a wild as yet unpainted landscape, with high craggy peaks, precipitous valleys and falls, and a dark forest that ranged ever westward to the Great Plains...[Like] many of the Romantic painters of his time, he was attracted to the noble, ancient scenery of the classical Italian landscapes, with its inspiring ruins and its tamed, pastoral vistas. But after his return to America, Cole discovered a land that was new to art.
His metaphorical landscapes of the Hudson River Valley found willing viewers in a swiftly urbanizing nation, and his work drew a number of fellow artists to the region...Although they painted outdoor scenes, these artists were not plein [sic] air painters. They would make sketching trips into the wilds and then return to their studios to construct immense, narrative canvasses depicting, sometimes with exaggeration, the pastoral landscapes they had witnessed. Although they never thought of themselves as a group, the painters were given a name, the Hudson River School. They spawned in midcentury another school of American landscape painters led by Frederick Edwin Church...[who] concentrated on the awe-inspiring wilderness of the American West.
In 1836, having found his querencia, Thomas Cole settled in the place, on the west bank of the Hudson in the town of Catskill.  His disciple Frederick Church had by the 1860s ranged far beyond the Valley and was best known for his bast canvasses of sublime, terrifying scenes...By the early 1870s Church was one of the most popular and also one of the richest painters in America, and when he decided to build his dream house, he returned to the wellspring of his inspiration. He selected a height on the opposite bank of the Hudson River from the home of his mentor and there constructed a great neo-Persian manor with sweeping greenswards and grand vistas down to the river. This was not simply a dwelling place for Church and his family; the site was carefully chosen for what the Chinese geomancers, had they been consulted, would term feng shui, a sparsely treed height above water where the air and the wind were propitious. Furthermore, Church designed aspects of his own life and travels into the house, layers of meaning and metaphor. Students of the design of the place, which he named Olana, see it as one of his greatest works of art.
--from Walking Towards Walden: A Pilgrimage in Search of Place by John Hanson Mitchell

As I was growing up Olana was a regular visit, both for school and for personal/ familial pleasure. One of my first memories of being outdoors somewhere unfamiliar I recognize now as among the great open space of the parking lot.  I associate the tang of cedar smoke with the place. Decades later, divorced and staying in my parent's driveway, I would cycle to the house and sometimes along the wooded trails that lead down to the road to the river; and later, remarried and smoking a pipe, I'd take our lone Good Grey Dog walking along the same trails, discovering all kinds of physical connections between the house and the adjoining property of the local community college.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

st. juggalo

I don't like the music of Insane Clown Posse but I'm not the audience for it either.  I do, however, like the fact that the Gathering of the Juggalos exists, and further that Juggalos and Juggalettes exist.  As with most distaff communities, it is meant to provide a family into which nearly anyone can fit. 

I don't know if I would attend a Juggalo Gathering myself, although judging from photo essays (most of them provided by Nate "Igor" Smith of the Village Voice) they are not unlike most Rainbow Gatherings, except with Faygo and more cigarettes.  There have been really well-done essays about the Juggalos as well as some trashy, sensationalistic ones.  There is even a backlash against writing so much about them (can a TLC reality series be far behind?). I haven't seen it written about but I've noticed in various photo essays the increase in the number of people of color, both Juggalos and Juggalettes, in attendance.  That pleases me.

But what I am most pleased by is the sense that anyone, of any body type and any ability, can be accepted as a Juggalo (so long as that person is not Tia Tequila, apparently, although to be fair I suspect her shit-tossing critics were responding to their being used for her publicity rather than their tribe's).  This is the impetus behind religions of the Book, that one can be a member of the hospitable desert tribe if one abides by certain rituals and accepts certain beliefs, no matter how one is born or the condition one finds himself in. Where you go I will go, and your people will be my people. There is no Jew or Greek, no male or female. When you pledge allegience to another person you pledge allegience to God.  Will we see in some far-off future a Juggalo-influenced adjunct to Abrahamic religious?  Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope came out a few years ago as Christians, so why not? Why not a Saint Juggalo, a Mother Juggalette? 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

I was a vigilante!

Reading this essay this morning reminded me how much I loved reading this type of novel back in my impressionable early teens.  In fact, I'm certain I read at least one of the Killinger! adventures (of which there were two) (and not to be confused with Nick Carter, Killmaster).  There is no forgetting that scene of cat-massage.

Mack Bolan, The ExecutionerRemo Williams, The Destroyer. Jason Striker, Master of Martial Arts. The Penetrator. The Enforcer. The Marksman. The Sharpshooter.  I inhaled these series like nitrous. I also loved the Doc Savage and Richard Benson, The Avenger, novels, but unlike them, these men who more often went by titles rather than names were quick to judge and quicker to kill. There was something liberating in all that.

Back then these books were so popular you could buy them at any CVS.  So how did guys like me end up not gun-loving, murdering, nasty pigs?  Maybe we got our ya-yas out vicariously and so on. While we imagined ourselves vigilantes and often felt the same way as Travis Bickle--"Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets" (this was years before I became a part of the scum) (yes, I read the novelization of Taxi Driver which, unlike Brian Garfield's Death Wish, is satisfyingly told in first person)--we were nonetheless distinctly aware of the difference between fantasy and reality.  I ended up writing vigilante fiction for a long time, none of which I published, all of which is now lost.  But the memory of who I thought I wanted to be tickles who I've become.

Monday, August 5, 2013

suzi quatro in san remo

I heard this song yesterday on my drive home and was reminded of this poem from a creative writing course I taught four years ago. It was an example of a type of poem I asked the class to write: a memory of a celebrity. The format was one I followed from whatever model we were using (from the 2009 Pushcart Prize collection). I rather liked it and am reminded, in rereading it, of the series of poems in the collection Famous Persons We Have Known by my friend Rick Robbins

 I can’t get her out of my head.  Like an

            ice pick jabbed over and over

                        into my hippocampus, she’s

burrowed into my consciousness.  Those lips,

            that mullet framing a face already running to fat.

                        Years later latex pants make

sausages of her legs.  She’s

            the girl of my dreams, circa 1974, now

                        in early 1980 singing her biggest hit, her worst song,

duetting on Italian television with a guy whose muttonchops

            are probably more familiar with English

                        than he is.  But

there she is, little girl face, this voice that can

            burnish steel, can melt the paint off a car,

                        siren song of so many coke dreams, hash reveries.

Drummers are the “Q” keys of rock music. 

I would be her drummer, fold her cellulite

in, zip up that latex.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

intercourse this book

I spent part of my afternoon at a bookstore, a passion I have, and was excited when I discovered that a book I'd heard of, Under the Overpass:  A Journey of Faith on the Streets of America by Mike Yankoski, was there.  I found the copy and settled into one of the overstuffed chairs that seem to have become rare in many of the chains, expecting to read through at least a chapter, maybe two.

But I barely had opened it when I growled "bullshit" and slammed it shut and replaced it on the shelf.  On the third page ran this exchange:
That's when the chaos hit.
"Who you think you are? You piece of...!" Marco, the undisputed leader of the gang at the mouth of the park, was screaming at a guy in front of him.
I frowned.  I don't know anyone who has spent any time on the street who would stop himself from saying "shit," assuming that's the word Marco was about to use.  Then I flipped through the pages:  not a single "shit," "piss," "fuck," "bastard," "asshole," or "damn." Not even a "hell" in the whole intercoursing book. 

That's when I saw this "Note to the Reader" nestled between the forward and the story proper:
Before you take the first step on this journey, I need to tell you something. Common street lingo isn't pretty.  People can pack more explitives and profanities into one sentence than you'd think possible. Vulgarities and crude insults become part of everyday conversation, even between friends.  But out of respect of our readers and the standards of this publisher [!], this element of street life is not present in the pages you're about to read.

Well, fuck that shit.  He presents a solid image on the cover above, looking for all the world like a real traveling kid straight out of LATFO.  But Such neutering goes beyond mere toning down:  for the past century writers fought a hard battle to present the language of the people as they speak it.  Even in the 30s and 40s we had authors using "sh_t" and "d_mn" in order to fulfill their contractual agreement not to sear the eyeballs of virgin readers.  No one in contemporary America is more subject to the whims of authors who are not members of their tribe than the homeless, hustlers, buskers, travelers and assorted street denizens.  To misrepresent their voices in order to save the wilting flowers of Multnomah Books embarrassment is not is not on a par with, say, causing them bodily injury, but it is like spitting in their eyes.

Mike Yankoski, you are not worth my time.
Update:  Would it suprise anyone that Multnomah, publisher of Under the Overpass, also published this book within our lifetimes?