Monday, September 29, 2008

COME TO OHIO

Maybe video-posting is slack blogging. But for serious, people:

I can't promise you a row of cheerleaders high-kicking, but barns, rolling corn-scapes, little old Main Streets, deep-fried food, and good people are in abundance.

Monday, September 15, 2008

"SUBSTANTIALLY FARTHER BEHIND THE SCENES THAN YOU'RE APT TO WANT TO BE"

More David Foster Wallace reading. Befitting the times, here's the article he wrote for Rolling Stone after traveling with John McCain for a week in the 2000 campaign: "The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys And The Shrub: Seven Days in the Life of the Late, Great John McCain."

Typical of his journalism pieces, there's lots of self-deprecation about his utter lack of qualification to be a journalist (or "pencil," as he calls them in this piece), and tangential descriptive passages that threaten to steal the show from his very thoughtful and astute political analysis.

On the press bus that follows the Straight Talk Express, known as Bullshit I:
What's hazardous about Bullshit I's lavatory door is that it opens and closes laterally, sliding with a Star Trekish whoosh at the light touch of the Door button just inside — i.e., you go in, lightly push Door to close, attend to business, lightly push Door again to open: simple — except that the Door button's placement puts it only inches away from the left shoulder of any male journalist standing over the commode attending to business, a commode without rails or handles or anything to (as it were) hold on to, and even the slightest leftward lurch or lean makes said shoulder touch said button — which remember this is a moving bus — causing the door to whoosh open while you're right there with business underway, and with the consequences of suddenly whirling to try to stab at the button to reclose the door while you're in medias res being too obviously horrid to detail, with the result that by 9 February the great unspoken rule among the regulars on Bullshit I is that when any male gets up and goes two-thirds of the way back into the lavatory anybody who's back there clears the immediate area and makes sure they're not in the door's line of sight; and the way you can tell that a journalist is a local or newly rotated onto the Trail and this is their first time on BS I is the small strangled scream you always hear when they're in the lavatory and the door unexpectedly whooshes open, and usually the grizzled old Charleston Post and Courier pencil will give a small smile and call out "Welcome to national politics!" as the new guy stabs frantically at the button, and Jay at the helm will hit the horn with the heel of his hand in mirth, taking these long and mostly mindless DTs' fun where he finds it.
On the chain hotel rooms where McCain favors staying ("Rolling Stone/RS" being the author himself, of course):
Rolling Stone, who is in no way cut out to be a road journalist, invokes the soul-killing anonymity of chain hotels, the rooms' terrible transient sameness: the ubiquitous floral design of the bedspreads, the multiple low-watt lamps, the pallid art-work bolted to the wall, the whisper of ventilation, the sad shag carpet, the smell of alien cleansers, the Kleenex dispensed from the wall, the automated wakeup call, the lightproof curtains, the windows that do not open-ever. RS asks whether it could possibly be coincidence that over half of all indoor suicides take place in chain hotels. Jim and Frank say they get the idea. RS references the terrible oxymoron of "hotel guest." Hell could easily be a chain hotel. Is it any accident that McCain's POW prison was known as the Hanoi Hilton? Jim shrugs; Frank says you get used to it, that it's better not to dwell.
Why McCain prefers dialogue to speeches:
In fairness to McCain, he's not an orator and doesn't pretend to be. His metier is conversation, back-and-forth. This is because he's bright in a fast, flexible way that most candidates aren't. He also genuinely seems to find people and questions and arguments energizing — the latter maybe because of all his years debating in Congress — which is why he favors Town Hall Q&As and constant chats with press in his rolling salon. So, while the media marvel at his accessibility because they've been trained to equate it with vulnerability, they often don't seem to realize they're playing totally to McCain's strength when they converse with him instead of listening to his speeches. It's McCain's speeches and 22.5's that are canned and stilted, and also sometimes scary and Right-wingish, and when you listen closely to them it's as if some warm pleasant fog suddenly lifts and it strikes you that you're not at all sure it's John McCain you want choosing the head of the EPA or the at least three new Justices who'll be coming onto the Supreme Court in the next term, and you start wondering all over again what makes him so attractive.
There's an expanded version printed in Consider the Lobster but the Rolling Stone one is right here right now. (Note: the glossary of terms at the end decodes DFW's funny acronyms. Might help to read it first) Read it all, it's more than worth it.

Sigh. Fuck.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

DFW

The thriller movie was rolling credits, the lights went half-up like a drowsy eye, and I fumbled through my bag for my phone. NEW TEXT MESSAGE. INBOX 90% FULL.

I opened the phone and read it. I gasped, high and sharp. I read it again. And again. My friend was sitting there next to me, paused on the edge of his seat. I felt frozen. I couldn't look at him. I didn't want to tell him. I didn't want to say it out loud, to hear it in my own voice. But what else could I do.

Biking home in the hot humid dark I cried as if I'd lost an old friend. One hand on the handlebar, the other wiping my eyes.

I never knew David Foster Wallace personally. He was simply one of my favorites from the first moment I read him. That was the story "Little Expressionless Animals" in a fiction class in 1995, and when I read it, at age 19, I felt like the possibilities of fiction were blown wide open. After that I looked for his stuff everywhere, read each book as it came out, hungrily snapping up literary journals whenever a new story appeared. At this point I have everything he has written--wrote--except the math book, and the three that he himself signed (Infinite Jest, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men) live on a special shelf of the bookcase with a glass door over the front, never mind that Infinite Jest in particular is as battered and dog-eared as you'd expect an enormous paperback that got hauled everywhere around New York for a month.

There's nothing I can add to the obituaries and testimonies to his singular genius as a writer, as a literary light. He was wildly inventive and innovative and funny and complicated and humane. He used irony not as an instrument of cynicism but a weapon against it. I feel lucky to have lived in his time and so, so sad he's already gone at 46.

A few essays and stories I love that are handy on the internet:
• "Consider the Lobster," from the essay collection of the same name
• "Ticket to the Fair," from Harper's (and later A Supposedly Fun Thing)
The funniest book review I've ever read
• This short-short, from Ploughshares, Spring 1998:
A RADICALLY CONDENSED HISTORY OF POSTINDUSTRIAL LIFE

When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed very hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.

The man who'd introduced them didn't much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one.

• His beautiful 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, which includes this troubling-in-retrospect passage:

As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.
And it ends:

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

"This is water."

"This is water."

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

I wish you way more than luck.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

INCIDENT REPORT #9

Catching up on back issues of the Enterprise. This incident report defies mere excerpting. Here is the entirety:

Friday, September 12, 2008

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Last week I went to see an evening billed as "Frank Rich in Conversation with Stephen Sondheim." I had been quite excited about this event--Frank Rich is one of the sharpest and funniest and most dramatic of New York Times columnists, befitting his theater-critic background, and his political criticism is some of the most vibrant and enjoyable there is (read him!), and Stephen Sondheim is, you know, Sondheim, gay musical-theater genius of our time.

However, a more apt title would have been something like Stephen Sondheim Reminisces At Length While Frank Rich Nods and Glances Silently at His Binder of Questions. I think Frank said two or three things all night while Sondheim merrily rolled along about Lenny (Bernstein), Jerry (Robbins), Dick (Rodgers), Julie (Styne) and Arthur (Lawrence.) (Do they call him "Steve"?)

I sat with notebook at the ready, as I always do at these things--I get a lot of ideas about writing from listening to non-writers (I give students copies of Diane Arbus's brilliant lecture excerpts published in her Aperture monograph.) I jotted down a few things* but not as many as I would have hoped. Sondheim's trip was more than reminiscent than revelatory. I gazed at Frank Rich, that good sport, and silently begged for banter, some probing back-and-forth. But no.

After more than an hour, Sondheim wound down and the floor was opened to questions and answers. At this point, most of the room cleared hastily and noisily, while the true believers scurried down from the balconies and out of the dark corners to the microphone stands like mice to the biggest cheese of their lives.

Which brings me at last to the first point of this post: QUESTIONS.
More specifically The Oft-Excruciating Rite of Post-Reading Q&A.

You can count on certain question archetypes to rear their heads every time. Key is that none of these are actually primarily questions, but rather vehicles to verbally reach out and fondle the Master and/or Oneself.

1. The Praise Question:
Fawning, ebullient praise, praise, praise followed by a tiny trembling question with an obvious answer. Usually starts with, "I just have to say."

2. The Hyperspecific Check-This-Out-I-Know-Your-Shit-Better-Than-Anyone-Else-Here Question:
"What do you think of John Waffelshnimper's 1989 orchestration of Company in terms of blah lah and dah?", etc.

3. The We're-Connected-You-And-I Question:
Name-drops some mutual acquaintance and explains how they are really just a handshake apart from being family. Usually delivered in smugly cozy it's-just-the-two-of-us-here tone. Question is an afterthought.

4. The But-Enough-About-You Question:
"Questioner" begins with a litany of own accomplishments and credentials; often includes overlooked artistic heroics, or service to community and/or humanity. Finishes with expectant pause for appreciative murmurs of validation or smattering of applause. Thus established as equally interesting and worthy of attention as the evening's star, proceeds nobly forth to converse with said star as peer and colleague. We the lucky audience are left to marvel that we have not one but two great minds in the room with us.

If you think of any others I have missed please tip me off.

Dignified genius J.M. Coetzee refuses to have Q&As, and I respect him even more for it.

ANSWERS.
On another tack altogether, my friend and neighbor Nicole J. Georges reveals herself as the lesbian Dan Savage with her hilarious advice blog, Ask Nicole. Do it, just ask her something. Nicole is witty and wise and her guest consultants have included Michelle Tea and the senior citizens she leads in zine-making workshops. (Yes, she has elderlies making zines of their lives. Fabulous.)


Sondheim tidbits:
• "From Lenny, I learned that if you're gonna fall off the ladder, fall off a high one. It's embarrassing to fall off a low one." Aim for "the big ideas."

• From Jerome Robbins: "Jerry would ask me, 'What is he doing?' And I would explain... And then he would say, 'What is he doing?' And I would explain again. And then he would say, 'Yeah, but what is he doing?'" Sondheim was talking about staging a number in your head, not just writing lyrics and music, so that the director has a blueprint from which he or she can invent. For writing, it also works, in two ways--what is the character doing, physically, in the moment (especially in dialogue passages), and what are they really doing, subtext-wise. Since as we all know, what people purport to be doing often masks their true intent.

• It's the 50th anniversary of West Side Story (!), so that dominated the "conversation." Sondheim said he originally wrote the line "Fuck you, Joe," which would have been the first cuss word used on the musical stage (trivia: first four -letter word on stage is in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, when Big Daddy says "bullshit.") However, the Fuck You Joe was squashed, because if put on a record, the record could not be shipped over state lines. (Obscenity laws.)

• Elaine Stritch, expert drinker, walking up to the bar post-rehearsal, 2 a.m.: "Just give me a bottle of vodka and floor plan."

Thursday, September 4, 2008

CAMEOS

My face and my flute, respectively, show up in these things.
New Thunderant video "One Man Show," in the trademark painful/hilarious style:

Chris Johanson installation at Deitch Projects in New York:

I can't wait to see (and hear) this. I love his stuff.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

NOSTALGIA LACQUERED WITH RAGE

Charles Baxter, I can't get enough of your writing about writing. I am now reading Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction for I think the fourth time (and not the last--I assigned it to my advanced fiction workshop this semester.) I read part of it every morning at my writing desk. I have taken to recording great lines in red ink in my notebook, interspersed with my own black-ink notations and story bits.

This morning I came upon this, a bracing and sharp observation that is particularly germane in this increasingly strange and obsessive Palin drama. Writing about how reactionary politicians "have done their best to co-opt the family and turn it into a kind of kitsch social unit," Baxter ties it into art:
The concept of "family values" is inherently rigid and inflexible. It's meant to stop thought. Good fiction and theater usually assume that "family values" should be in some kind of interesting uproar. To remove the contrast from within the family and to substitute an idea of uniformity is to kill off art for political ends. The family becomes a small molecular army, on the march for rectitude. Political representations of "family values" thus have a quality of poster art, and because they have a relationship to propaganda, they are nearly always tainted by a feeling of false surfaces. In other words, they have a mean-spirited wish to be endearing and cute. The result is a sort of nostalgia lacquered with rage, characteristic of the art of police states.
It's in the essay "Counterpointed Characterization" if you want to find it.

The only other thing I will say about Sarah Palin, because I literally woke up and sternly imposed upon myself a moratorium for today--I can't help it, I am fascinated and revolted on every level, as a media junkie, a feminist, a native of a rural small-town hunting-territory backwoods town rampant with teen pregnancy--oh my god, can you imagine if the mayor of like, Detroit Lakes became the Vice Presidential candidate?--anyway--is, you know this gravely-concerned refrain of "unwed teen mother, so sad"? Well, just as troubling and sad, in my experience, is a WED teen mother.

And just one more thing: I really like this knowledgeable and funny and informed blog Mudflats by an Alaskan writer, who, along with providing smart analysis from a depth of accumulated experience and knowledge, even provides the service of driving around Wasilla and photographing the bleak little town, which reminds me of Bagley or Wadena or something.

Now I have totally disobeyed myself.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

SUMMER NIGHT NOISE

This is what it sounds like outside my house at night. No volume adjustments have been made.
video
It is like the cricket Fourth of July out there, every night.

(Strangely, when people refer to my new location--a town of 9000 surrounded by cornfields--as "rural," my knee-jerk reaction is to protest. Rural? I live In Town! With neighbors whose houses I can (sort of) see outside my window!)

Monday, September 1, 2008

WHY AM I WRITING A SYLLABUS

Look, it could be so simple:

I like that How To Overcome Writer's Block and How To Write A Book are brief enough topics to be rolled into one two-hour workshop. In Cleveland.