Friday, November 30, 2007


This is The Alibi, my neighborhood tiki bar. Usually I go to sing karaoke in the back room, where they provide free leis, deep U-shaped vinyl booths, and a sound mix that is 80% vocals and 20% tinny backing track. Plus the mic has a sweet spot that if you don't hit it, your voice drops out. So maybe that's not so much a sweet spot as an only-spot. Hint: it's in the dent.

I went the other night with one of my favorite new Portlanders, Donal. We stayed in the front part of the bar, which is way tiki-er and older than the back. There are palm trees and Xmas lights and a waterfall and a fireplace and huge candy-colored drinks that are so sweet your tongue hurts. And deep-fried macaroni and cheese wedges, which sound totally trashy but are crispy golden on the outside and silky and creamy on the inside.

That's Donal's reflection.

Also, did you know that Portland has a gay sports bar? It's called Joq's. Green carpet, glossy oak barstools, televisions, pool table, men in crewneck sweatshirts. If you want a taste of Midwest suburbia (with a twist!), I recommend it. Otherwise, skip to Starky's, a windowless diner/bar which looks on the outside like a weird suburban steakhouse from the '70s, and on the inside, as Donal and Michael aptly put it, like a 1980s airport lounge. Mauve walls and brass trim and lots of pencil art. And the sweet white-mustachioed bartender is the gay great-uncle you never had.

Friday, November 23, 2007


The other day a student from Taiwan brought me her essay about funeral customs there. Funerals last two to four weeks and involve several lengthy rituals--all pink and red are taken down (those are wedding colors) and replaced with black and white, altars are assembled, the body is put in what she called an "ice coffin" (she meant refrigerated, but I like "ice coffin" better) until the burial-OK lunar day on the calendar, and when the ceremony finally arrives, the family members don different kinds of fabric differentiating who was most important to the deceased, second-most important, etc. Most important: burlap. Second-tier: ramie. At her grandfather's funeral, her brother was on the burlap team; she wore ramie. Why? Because boys are more important. That blatantly.

But the detail that bowled me over was that they hire a professional mourner, called a siao nu, for the ceremony. This woman comes forth and weeps and wails at great length and volume over the body of this deceased stranger to her, transcribed by the student as such: "Oh Daddy, why do you left us? Don't go, don't go! Aarrrrrgh!" ("I didn't know how else to get across the sound she was making," explained the student.)

Since the Taiwanese are expected to keep their emotions quiet and to themselves, hiring a pro mourner is the way the family demonstrates how sad they are to lose their loved one. It is totally standard. This student, however, when I asked how she felt about it, wrinkled her nose and shook her head: "I don't like it." When she dies, she says, she wants a quiet, short funeral, like she has seen in American movies.

Monday, November 19, 2007


Today, my regrets and curses are many.

I rue that I am designing an extensive graphic-laden book project using Quark XPress (to be fair, standard in 2002, when I started);
I rue that I chose to install Mac OX 10.5 Leopard yesterday;
I rue that Leopard and Quark, it turns out, cannot make PDF babies together;
and that Adobe will not have a fix for this until January 2008;
I rue that all of this happened as the deadline bears down upon me, a charging bull of a deadline, snorting fearsomely as I wave my impotent Quark noodle;
I rue that I cannot uninstall Leopard, and even if I could, I cannot find my OS 10.4 Tiger install discs, nor can I downgrade without erasing my entire hard drive and starting anew.

Dear loyal and good MacBook Pro, I am so sorry I have burdened you with this g-damn stupid upgrade.
Dear readers, I am sorry for this angry nerd post.
Fuck Leopard.

Not that one, he's okay.

[UPDATE: I figured out a loophole! Save as a PDF through the print menu. It's not perfect--it won't process some of the images--but it saves me from transferring everything back and forth to my weary, creaky 2003 iBook.]

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Searching the New York Times this morning for a particular article about how the life stories we tell reveal the raw ingredients of our personalities, I stumbled instead upon "On Self," excerpts from Susan Sontag's journals. They're funny, introspective, sometimes terribly sad, populated by the likes of Simone de Beauvoir and Jasper Johns and Lillian Hellman and Maria Irene Fornes (whom she calls "I.", interestingly.) I couldn't devour them fast enough, even as I wanted to linger in each entry, rolling my favorite lines over and over in my mind. So I had to read it all twice. For example:
Early 1959, New York City
The ugliness of New York. But I do like it here, even like Commentary [to which she contributed]. In NY sensuality completely turns into sexuality — no objects for the senses to respond to, no beautiful river, houses, people. Awful smells of the street, and dirt.. . .Nothing except eating, if that, and the frenzy of the bed.

December 24, 1959

My desire to write is connected with my homosexuality. I need the identity as a weapon, to match the weapon that society has against me. It doesn’t justify my homosexuality. But it would give me — I feel — a license.
Being queer makes me feel more vulnerable.

August 8

Monday Morning

I must help I. to write. And if I write, too, it will stop this uselessness of just sitting and staring at her and begging her to love me again.
. . .
It hurts then to love. It’s like giving yourself to be flayed and knowing that at any moment the other person may just walk off with your skin.

Becoming aware of the ‘dead places’ of feeling — Talking without feeling anything. (This is very different from my old self-revulsion at talking without knowing anything.)

The writer must be four people:

1) the nut, the obsédé
2) the moron
3) the stylist
4) the critic

1) supplies the material
2) lets it come out
3) is taste
4) is intelligence

a great writer has all 4 — but you can still be a good writer with only 1) and 2); they’re most important.

January 4, 1966

The situation in painting is tight: like science.
One has to keep up, have a very keen radar. (To be relevant, to be interesting.)

While in literature, everything is so loose textured. One could make a parachute jump blindfolded — anywhere you land, if you push it hard enough, you’re bound to find interesting unexplored valuable terrain. All the options are lying about, barely used.

(Photo by Peter Hujar)
Here is Susan Sontag in 1975.

I know that some people say that when they die, they want all their journals and personal writing burned and destroyed. But what better time to crack it open? No one is ever going to know you again. All you are is words now. You get to just be, as Sontag calls it, the nut and the moron. The most important part.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


The disparity between Wordstock's graphic identity--clean, modern, minimalist, W+K-designed--and the actuality of its existence in the airless, windowless, mauve caverns of the Convention Center is what I imagine one experiences upon meeting an internet date. On the other hand, along with the awkward and dull parts of the date, Wordstock did yield worthy moments of insight and wit, and I saw a lot of friends there, reading and volunteering and vending and mingling. (I have never been on an internet date so I actually have no authority to make this analogy.)

On Saturday morning, I introduced Douglas Wolk for his talk on comics. I realized, to my shock, that although I have seen Douglas sing karaoke 700 times, I have never seen him read. He was great! He did not read from the book, but instead delivered a long, loving, and thoughtful complaint titled "Why I Hate My Culture." Meaning comics culture, which has long had "an incestuous relationship between audience and medium." Still, he posits happily, now is the Golden Age of comics.

"Nostalgia is poison," says Douglas, because it makes people misunderstand what makes the object of nostalgia good. (Which made me think of "Asleep and Dreaming" by the Magnetic Fields: "I don't know if you're beautiful, because I love you too much.")

These podiums are not built for short types, i.e. women. Look: it's Katha Pollitt in a box!

She could very well be wearing no pants.

I met up with my brother and we went to see cartoonist Matthew Diffee, who utterly stole the show with his New Yorker rejects (and some accepted ones.)

On having his cartoon chosen for the groanworthy weekly New Yorker caption contest: "It's kind of like getting accepted and rejected at the same time." Apparently they receive 9,000 caption entries per contest, and they have a computer program that groups all the like captions together. Thus did no fewer than 25 people come up with what had roughly been Diffee's original caption to his cartoon. (Tip: click here to learn the perfect answer every time.)

Cartoon editor Bob Mankoff (looming behind Diffee on the screen) tells aspiring cartoonists, "The New Yorker is open to anyone, the way the Yankees are open to anyone." Ten reasons cartoons get rejected: too lowbrow; too politically incorrect; too dark; too weird; too political; too difficult to get, and when gotten, not funny enough to justify the effort; too dumb; too bad; too dirty; all of the above. For all these reasons, the rejects he showed made me and Dan laugh falsetto-hard.

Note to Taylor Clark: You do not need to say "quote" every time you're about to read dialogue. (As in, "The three of them wondered how long it could last. Quote: 'I had no idea if we would make it,' said John.")

Perhaps I was simply maxed out at this point, but I could hardly pay attention to the Dark Horse Comics panel on graphic novels with Craig Thompson (Blankets), Shannon Wheeler (Too Much Coffee Man), and a guy who draws superhero comics--except when doe-eyed Thompson, whose eyelashes were visible from a hundred yards, spoke. He was that example of the quiet person being the one you really listen to, because it seems to mean more. Scratch the "seems to"--he was just more interesting and reflective than his panelmates.

Blankets is about being raised in his fundamentalist Christian family in Wisconsin, and breaking from it. It is 580 pages long and excavates all sorts of family dirt.

MODERATOR: "Was that cathartic?"
THOMPSON: [pause] "No."

I resist "catharsis" as an artistic trope so I was happy he said that.

Out with a bang: Jon Raymond and Tiffany Lee Brown read selections from the archives of Plazm while a video of a pair of hands flipped through back issues on a screen behind them, and I felt surges of nostalgia for the '90s. Poison, I know! But I fully indulged.

(Sitting next to Jon is Lidia Yuknavitch, who read a startling story that involved a bombing-orphaned girl watching a wolf chew off its own leg in the snowy woods.)

Friday, November 9, 2007


I have a few pet peeves pertaining to the way people write about women, and about the way people write about women writers. Some of them, we women bring upon ourselves. Goddess help us! (There's one right there!)
Here is a starter list:

1. The word herstory. Nancy Dye, president of Oberlin and powerful and practicing feminist, corrected this in a seminar I took with her sophomore year--it's false etymology ("history" does not derive from "his story.") Like "mandals" or "labradoodle," it may sound cute the first few times, then just gets cringey.

2. Is wimmin the plural of womyn? I never understood that. With all due respect to the great second wave feminist forebears upon whose shoulders I stand, etc., must we still employ these awkward misspellings.
I'm not putting a question mark there because I actually don't mean it as a question.

3. Estrogen. Good god, are we not more than a hormone? I have seen countless female bands described as "estrogen-fueled," a music festival in Chicago last year called itself (cringe) EstroJam, and in this week's Willamette Week, this listing appears:
WORDSTOCK: Women & Words
A quartet of smart literary babes, Janet Fitch (White Oleander), Carole Radziwell (What Remains), Alexandra Fuller (Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight) and Karen Karbo (How to Hepburn), kick off Wordstock with a chat on all things estrogen. 7 pm.
Really? Is this really a "chat" about "all things estrogen?" For one, it sounds desperate, as if the listings writer can't think of anything else that might be common to female experience. For another, what are "all things estrogen"? How many "things" can there be? And for another, the operating assumption seems to be that if the writers are all women, they will speak solely of woman-things. (Instead of, for example, talking about writing books.) Would anyone ever describe a panel of four respected literary man-authors as "a chat on all things testosterone"? Totally lazy. At least if they got right to it and called it a hen party, it wouldn't sound like a menopause info sesh.

Plea to the verbal universe: Look, I know I can be hopelessly literal. But can we drop "estrogen" unless we're actually talking straight up hormone issues? I just don't feel that my artistic and literary impulses, or my sense of community, are secreted from a gland.

"A chat on all things brain"--that I would go to in a second.

Monday, November 5, 2007


A quickie: Two of my favorite music-makers light up the inaugural day of NPR's surprising and delightful new music site.

Stephin Merritt constructs a new song, "Man of a Million Faces," in 48 hours. You can watch or listen. I heard it on the radio, driving home in the dark down the winding back roads, heat on, just my headlights and the farms and then Forest Park, and it was a perfect radio moment. He thinks about structure in such a fascinating way. This song is like a barber pole--it goes up and up and up. But you might not notice unless you were listening for it. When I hear him talk about song structure, I start to think about how I could apply it to story structure.

He is all about the waveforms. (Many of the beats on Holiday were, in fact, he made with hand-drawn waveforms.) Also, he hits the floor tom with a maraca.

And Carrie is all up in the Monitor Mix.

Friday, November 2, 2007


1. Front page story: Elsie Fearn, 82, dies in a car crash. (The driver: her 84-year-old brother, who survived.)

2. A man died of rabies after being bitten by a bat:
They were loading firewood into the friend's cabin when Hertwig noticed a bat on the door screen. He cupped his hand over it and removed it. ...Although he reportedly felt a "needle-prick," he did not believe he was bitten because no blood was drawn. He did not seek medical care immediately following the incident.
Only three other humans have contracted rabies in Minnesota in the past 100 years. (All died from it.) PUBLIC SERVICE: I heard this on This American Life, and it's true: Bats have tiny teeth. People don't always know when they've been bitten. If you find a bat in a room where you or someone else has been sleeping (or impaired or intoxicated), CAPTURE THAT BAT and bring it in to get tested for rabies. And you have to be vaccinated within 72 hours or you get rabies and die.

[I have a really great mental photograph, which I wish were a real photograph that I could put here, of my father in his boxers and T-shirt chasing a bat around the cabin with a fishing net. Maybe later I will draw an approximation and put it here.]

3. In her op-ed column Slices of Life, Jill Hertler invokes Hamlet as she poses the "age-old dilemma faced by families from Alabama to Wyoming. To truck or not to truck? That is the question." (Spoiler: her husband does get that pickup.)

4. A sampling of headlines:

5. And finally, the Incident Report, slim but memorable:
A caller reported his vehicle "stolen" after his soon-to-be ex borrowed it and has not returned it; A Park Rapids caller reported he'd gone to the pawn shop to retrieve his gun but someone else picked it up; A vehicle was reported sitting in Heartland Park with the doors open, no one around; A caller reported someone shooting a BB gun at his window; Two girls in a vehicle were reported running over traffic cones in Park Rapids; A Helga Township caller reported someone attempting to enter his home by rattling the door handle, asked for police patrol; An older fishing boat and motor washed up on shore in Mantrap Township; A caller reported his son's front license plate is missing; About 20 cows were on the road in Fern township; A woman in Park Rapids was reported to have put a note on a car, spitting on it and swearing.

Thursday, November 1, 2007


Linguistics-savvy commenter (kan det være Curt?) on my earlier post pointed me to snowclones, a.k.a. The New Y. (Basically: ____ is the new ____.)

Love! It!

Here is the chart, and the link to it with commentary:

Here's further elaboration on it, with media examples.

That said, Putin is maybe the new Mugabe.
For serious.