Sunday, November 15, 2009


Petula in a RaincoatHappy birthday to Petula Clark, seventy years old today, who sings one of my favorite songs ever, "Don't Sleep in the Subway." Although it was a modest chart hit in 1967, I had never heard it until a few years ago when I was making a New York City mix for two friends who were about to move to Brooklyn. I looked for songs with "subway" in the title and it popped up. Listening to this song for the first time (the first several times, actually) was a delight-ambush: it starts off perfectly enough, with its brisk, cool, bustling first verse, but then it suddenly switches up into a grandiose orchestral cry, and then, whoa!--a steep dropoff into the minimalist chorus, like a reverse Pixies, all hush and pizzicato.

I played it again and again and again.

Nothing else in her oeuvre sounds quite like this or grabs me like this. But this is so perfect I couldn't ask for anything else.

Petula Clark, "Don't Sleep in the Subway"

Saturday, November 14, 2009


I have joined the esteemed club of Owners of Depocketed iPhones. Specifically, the ones that make their suicide leap from back pocket into the sparkling waters of the toilet bowl. The same ingenious design that makes the iPhone so sleekly delicious to the touch also makes it treacherously slippery.

Confession: I've had my iPhone for a year, and I am afraid that I am one of Those People: an iHole. I reflexively touch my pocket to make sure it is there; like a tamagotchi pet, it must be tended, stroked, checked upon every few minutes; I can mobile-upload a moment before it's even over, no, before I've even experienced it; I have been known to lie in bed post-contact-removal, myopia be damned, holding the thing three inches from my face as I scroll through my horoscope or tap my way through Word Wars. Sitting three feet from the door, I pull out the iPhone to check the weather. I know! Look, I'm coming clean here. Don't judge.

And now, following its watery plunge*, it has lain dark and still for two and a half days, tucked in a bag of rice. 

Which supposedly sucks the moisture out. No sign of life yet, but it's also possible the battery has run out. And I dare not plug it in yet for fear of braising the innards.

After a few initial anxious hours, I have not only adjusted to phonelessness, I have embraced it.**
a. Whomever I'm with, I'm just with.
b. A radical concept: making a plan and then carrying out that plan as planned.
c. Punctuality is once again not merely a general area of time, but an actual point. (A punct?)
d. I am not fondling my back pocket all the time, which must have looked weird.***

Today my friend and I drove down sunny roads through corn fields to the bulk-foods country store, phone-free and listening to an old R.E.M. tape. In my 1996 Honda. And time was totally itself again.

Let's not worry for now about the nightmare I had last night wherein a girl was violently thrown off the roof of Harkness in front of me and had blood shooting out of her thigh and I, phoneless, could not call 911, only yell it.

* Clean waters, for the record.
** For now.
*** See also: revelation when I removed my nose ring after nine years of fidgeting with it.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


Here's a link to download the Liz Phair Girlysound demos. Although strangely, many of the songs that I have on my double-disc bootleg-traded version I got several years ago do not appear here, like the afore-posted "Sometimes a Dream (Is What Makes You A Slave)," unless it's retitled here, and some songs (like "Hello Sailor" and "Ant in Alaska" were not on my version.

Either way, totally worth it: go get 'em, tigers.

Monday, November 2, 2009


Stephen Elliott came here on Friday to read from his new book The Adderall Diaries. I'd known him from the Stegner mafia, though not well--he's a person whom it's easy to know a lot about (for the obvious reasons) without really knowing. But his visit proved to me once again the pleasure of having houseguests. I know, I know! Houseguests: people often dread them. But I love them. I have this place that's sort of too big for me, and I have a guest room, and I'm incorrigibly social, and I live in a town of eight thousand people. One of the most interesting things in Oberlin is the people who come through, the visiting artists and writers and editors and critics who have nothing to do with our everyday student-o-centric college life and everything to do with the whole rest of the world. New faces are so exotic here. We get excited and spend hours drinking too much wine with them at the Feve or Black River or in our living rooms and talking their ears off. Stephen is a great houseguest. I recommend him to anyone. Emmett will back me up on this.

I dragged Stephen along to my radio show and we played songs and bantered a lot between them. Stephen talked about how publishing is the least fun part about writing a book--the writing is fun, and the time between finishing the book and its publication is really fun, and then when the book actually comes out, it can make a person miserable. We know people who have suffered this, lots of them, great writers with great books that do well. Then we played "Johnny Sunshine" by Liz Phair and we realized that Liz Phair went through something similar. Exile in Guyville was one of the greatest albums ever and she could never quite recover from it. So I followed up "Johnny Sunshine" with my favorite song from the unreleased Girlysound demos, "Sometimes A Dream (Is What Makes You a Slave)." Which I think says it all.

The way Stephen does his readings is he reads a little, then he takes questions, then he reads more, then takes more questions, then he reads more and takes one last round of questions. I think every writer should consider doing this. One thing he talked about is how people are weird about being written about. They may say, "Sure, you can write about me," but what they really mean is you can write about two things: 1) their good side, and 2) their bad side. What freaks them out, what they don't want to see in print, is a side of them that they didn't see in themselves--the things you see that don't fit with their own perception of who they are.

Another thing he talked about was memory. The only rule of writing memoir, he said, is that you can't intentionally lie. Memory is what you've got. And it's not always going to match up with someone else's. He cited as an example one of his friends from the group home recounting a story of the two of them that Stephen is pretty sure never happened. But what can you do? he said.

Here's a funny related moment. Stephen's been writing up notes from his book tour and publishing them on The Rumpus. Here's the one he wrote about Oberlin, including this moment in my dining room:
I started to talk about a girl that wasn’t really my girlfriend anymore, and a note I had sent to a few people, not many, asking them to link to my book on their Facebook pages and encourage their friends to purchase it. I imagined this girl purchasing twenty copies of The Adderall Diaries on and pulping them because money and books don’t mean enough to her. I was leaning against the entry to the living room where Chelsey sat at the table. I couldn’t quite bring myself to say it. Instead, I said, “You know when you try to do something with integrity, and you just fail?”
And it's so true: we both busted up laughing and he was wiping tears from his eyes with the napkin and I said I had just the very day before told my students to take note of when people use the second person to mean not you but one or I or not-just-me-right?. But in my memory what he said was, "You know how you try to do things with integrity, and sometimes you just fail?" Of course exact words are always elusive; neither of us could remember it exactly even when we were trying to recount it an hour later. What amazes me is that I swear, swear he was sitting across the table from me. Not leaning against the entry. And he wrote this less than 48 hours later. But which one of us is right?

Memory! Such a slippery critter.

Liz Phair, "Sometimes A Dream (Is What Makes You A Slave)"