Game of Thrones: East African Bathroom Edition, Season 1

Me back under the mosquito netting.  It’s dawn and I am considering crowing back at the rooster next door.  How does one curse in rooster?  Let’s just say I look remarkably calm after my first bacteriological dark night of the soulThat restaurant is permanently off my list.  And I do feel emotionally stronger having survived.  Yes.  Whatever doesn’t kill me . . .

Snapshot_20120613_1

Reasons

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you. – Bradbury

And if you can’t write, maybe just get drunk.  A teacher of mine once said, “I’ve known a fair number of writers who spent their time drinking when they should have been writing.  And I’ve known even more who were writing when they should have been drinking.”

True, that.  True, that.

“Don’t try,” Bukowski said.  But trying is all there is.  All he did was try.  If he’d stopped trying, he’d have died long before writing Post Office, Ham on Rye, Women, Hollywood, “The Most Beautiful Woman in Town,” “Kid Stardust on the Porterhouse,” and the stories in the posthumous Tales of Ordinary Madness, outstanding things that people need to read and talk about.

So try.  You’ve got to be tough to be a writer.   Think: James Crumley, Andre Dubus Sr., Raymond Carver, Kurt Vonnegut, Flannery O’Connor, Vladimir Nabokov, James Baldwin, Shirley Jackson.  These are some of the people who define tough. They ate nails.  Pour one out for Charles Bukowski, too, even if you don’t buy his romantic hustle and don’t believe he was as hard as he tried to seem.  If a person writes one good story, that is direct poof that that person took a handful of nails and got down to business.  One good story, in itself, is something amazing.  There are people who would pay big money to produce just one and can’t or won’t or think they can’t.

What about P.D. James, John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, Charles Willeford, Ursula LeGuin, John Fante, Denis Johnson, Truman Capote, J.D. Salinger, Melanie Rae Thon?  Read them with reverence and awe.  Go take your hat off at the grave of Theodore Dreiser.  Go absorb some brilliant Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and then apprentice yourself to Michael Ondaatje and Paul Bowles and Isak Dinesen and learn all you can about the work of Somerset Maugham.  What?  You haven’t read anything by Maugham except The Moon and Sixpence?  Shame on you.  Shame.  Go to the library and get The Razor’s Edge.  Now.  And while you’re there, get Labyrinths by Borges and anything by James Jones and everything by Anita Loos.  Will you?  Will you read John Cheever?  Will you start?

So try.  It’s a miracle that any stories get written at all.  And the aforesaid writers produced many good stories in spite of the undeniable and obvious fact that the universe hates, fucking hates, serious art and artists of any kind.  And the world especially hates writers who aren’t in the service of momentary commerce.  In fact, all good writers are exceptions to the rule that says if it isn’t easy, you have no business making art, and if you were any good, you’d have made it by now.  That’s the publishing industry talking.  That’s the Random House Marketing Strategy.  That’s the substance of jacket quotes and blurbs that say so-and-so is the Next Brilliant Voice of American Literature.  Forget that.  There are no rising stars.  That light you see up there is already dead.

It takes so long to get any good at making art, especially fiction writing.  It takes so much endurance and dedication and authentic, highly personal unattractive suffering.  Once you get an idea of how badly the process is going to mess with your life—usually several years after you’ve made a serious investment into becoming a fiction writer—you’re either hooked on the energy and don’t care or you’re in the process of losing things.  You may and probably will lose spouse, custody, car, respect of family / friends / self, teeth, your temper, your self-confidence, your identity as a functional and enfranchised member of grownup society and, without a doubt, that crappy job you’d hoped would give you more time to finish your novel.  Maybe you’ll lose all of the above and be reborn as some purified Zen idiot who only knows how to write and lives in a flop house.  And maybe that will be the way for you.

I got hooked on the energy of the creative process and stopped caring around 1997.  Although I’ve had many moments of caring—convulsive episodes of remorse and dread that come on like a special kind of writer’s epilepsy, I’m still at it.  My worst moments have coincided with various losses from the list above.  But I still have my teeth and my spouse and no one ever took me that seriously as a functional adult anyway.  So losing that one was moot.  Otherwise, it has been a long road to get a book and 20 stories in print.  I’m proud of that because I have to be, because that’s where my 20s and most of my 30s have gone.  Now I’m 38 and getting close to books 2 and 3—a new collection of stories and a novel.  And that has to matter to me.  I have to care.  I’m compelled to try, to keep going, to fight, to get up every day and put my time in even if those nails hurt when I swallow them.  Like a junkie who might die from cold turkey, I’m too far along to ever get out.  I have my bad moments.  But I’m never quitting the juice.

So when I came across the quote at the top of this post from Ray Bradbury—I think I read it once before, years ago, in an interview with him or something—I started to think about being in east Africa and about writing and isolation.  I started to think about what it means to keep calm and carry on as an artist when most of the “reinforcing hits” from the outside world (the sort of identifications that our culture uses to let us know who we are) have vanished.  It’s easy to keep trying when people are telling you that you shouldn’t give up your day job.  That was pretty much my MFA program and at least major sections of my PhD.  The hard part is when you find yourself in a culture that doesn’t even care enough to want to starve you out.

Most people here in Bujumbura are grateful that the political situation is reasonably stable.  They like the fact that they can work, that their families are okay, that the government isn’t systematically killing them.  If I said something like, “Hey, I’m having a bitch of a time with closure in this story I’m writing,” I’d likely get a polite smile and a thumbs-up.  If I said something like, “I’m doing this working artist thing because it really matters to me,” the Burundians I’ve met would likely agree—with all their characteristic tact and quiet reserve—that it is a very good thing to do.   But a population worried about typhoid and tomorrow’s dinner may also tell you to take your difficult plot arc and try to eat it.  Will your characterization take away my daughter’s fever?  No?  Ah, excuse me. . . .

Most writers here, the few there are, work in isolation—way more isolation, it seems, than is usual or necessary for the creative process to work.  I think it might be different in neighboring countries; though, I hesitate to speculate at this point.  I can say that Burundi is still recovering from the last 20 years of political instability.  And as a foreigner here, as one of the few North Americans, I’ve often found myself turning inward, focusing on how my professional, artistic, cultural identity contrasts with the dominant ethos of the people here.  I’m told there is a gentility in Burundi that does not exist in many other parts of Africa.  But I might extend that: there is a gentility here that does not exist in many other parts of the world.  How, then, does a 38-year-old writer construct himself in a context where the sort of social friction that fueled his work in the USA simply does not exist?

My only answer—at least, the only one I can come up with right now—is to keep writing and hope the question answers itself.  Keep trying.  Don’t stop.  And this is what I recently told a student from years ago who emailed me with the Big Question.  No, she was not proposing.  She wanted to know what I thought her chances were for a career in creative writing if she went to a MFA.

In my capacity as a creative writing instructor, people are always asking me the same thing: whether I think they have talent to, you know, go pro.  I try to be nice about this when they ask me, but I have no idea how to answer this question.  I can say, look, you submitted two great stories to the workshop.  I think they’re great because I liked them and felt moved by them in certain ways.  Please note that not everyone felt the same way in the critiques.  Also understand that my opinion is just one among many.  I do not have the ultimate secret formula for quality writing in my back pocket.  I can tell you what I see.  And maybe I see more than the student critiquers because I have been doing this longer and to a more intense—some might say desperate—degree.  But that’s it.  Only YOU can determine if you have talent.  You do this by trying to produce something of value every day.

Most often, I say: I have no idea and then feel bad when they decide I’m being disingenuous.  I imagine that in the minds of most adult humans, the same script is running daily (given certain variations): what if I lose the house?  What if she’s really going to that motel on I-80 instead of yoga class?  What if I fail, I freeze up in the clinch?  What if the deal falls through?  What if that spot on my leg keeps changing color?  What if I can’t perform?  What if they already know I’m a fraud?  What if they’re laughing at me behind my back?  What if it all goes away?  What if inside me there is just an empty void?  The writer adds two more: what if I’m deluding myself about wanting to be a writer?  What if everyone who says they like my work is lying?

Well, what if?  You don’t have to eat too many nails to be a writer—not handfuls, at least.  Maybe you just swallow one roofing nail every day you can’t write.  After a while, you’ve got a stomach full, poking through to other organs, tearing you up little by little.  I don’t know if Ray Bradbury ever ate nails; I know less about him than some others.  But I do know he wrote some very cool novels.  I know he learned things about being an artist that I don’t know—yet.  I know if I try hard enough, I will eventually discover such arcana.  Even if I’m the only person in Burundi writing a story set on a train in Nebraska.  Even if I’m in an empty room with a notebook and a bowl of rice with Pili-Pili sauce next to me.  Even if I have to eat nails.  Even then.

The Bullets

Leaving the country is a lot like dying.  At least, this is how people act when they learn that your destination will be a place where the dominant skin color isn’t white.  As soon as you say you’re going, friends and family, even soon-to-be former co-workers, begin to mourn.  And eventually you stop telling people about your destination because it only accelerates the grieving process.

It’s true: you might be going away for a long time, maybe for good.  Still, it’s not the length of time that makes you seem terminally ill to your friends.  It’s the destination.  Your friends have all seen the same Hollywood films, the same highly mediated news footage, listened to the same spots on NPR that depict the countries of Africa as chaotic pits of destruction.

Stereotypical assumptions that go back at least as far as the 18th century suddenly begin to emerge in your friends, who are otherwise intelligent and sensitive people.  Won’t you get a disease?  Don’t they have insects there bigger than small dogs?  Dirt floors?  Burning cars?  Dusty jeeps full of angry, heavily armed young men rolling through the streets?  One in every six people dying of some kind of retrovirus?  Beheadings?  The tattoo of distant ritual drums in the night?  No Wi-Fi?

Such questions run on ignorance like the worst hearsay-fourth-hand impressions founded largely on the unkind fictions that necessarily emerge when vast economic and geographic distances stand between cultures.  It’s as if your friends stop hearing themselves, stop seeing (if they ever did) that such concerns are veiled only by an inherent legacy of racism that seeks to remain invisible at all times beneath worries about health, safety, and cultural backwardness.

In your last week at work, Jim pulls you aside and says, “Don’t bullshit me.  You own a vest?”

“A vest?”

“You know.  Kevlar.  For the bullets.  Travelers can get them now.”

The bullets.  The bullets constantly flying through the air between the disease-ridden mosquitos and crazed death threats.

“Got a Koran?” he says.  “Seriously.  You haven’t thought of this?  Where’ve you been?  Put it in your carry-on.”

“It’s a predominately Catholic country, Jim.”

Jim looks at you with a wide-eyed concern, his lower lip quivering.  “I heard it’s hell on earth.”

“Really?  Where, exactly, did you hear this?”

“What happened to you?” Jim says.  “Normal people just do Xanax and a therapist.  They don’t run off to Africa.”

You decide that your friends have also read the same books about death and loss.  Everybody seems to understand that the denial phase is supposed to follow the bargaining phase for the terminally ill.  And when you say positive things about “that place,” you’re obviously in denial.

You receive emails with subject lines like, We’ll Remember You Fondly and Concerned But That’s Life, Right?  The mother of an ex from long ago sends you flowers with no card, just a wreath.  People start unburdening themselves, explaining, clearing the air, making their peace.  Several of them may have taken Xanax beforehand.

Nearly all of them mean well.  Nearly all of them are uninformed and strangely proud of it.  Yes, there are dangerous elements on that continent.  Yes, you must take anti-malarials and get vaccinated for Yellow Fever and Typhoid.  Yes, there is a history of abject poverty and political instability of some of the countries through which you will travel.  And yes, most of these elements can be found elsewhere in the world as well.  But never in such lethal concentrations, goes the objection.  When you reference the malaria problems in Alaska, the glories of south central Los Angeles, or the entire catastrophe of Detroit, most objections of this sort stop.

The mundane logistics of going take up all your time, all your emotional energy, and you catch yourself thinking that maybe Sarah from admin is being extra passive-aggressive today.  Then you realize: no, she’s just composing a potential eulogy, envisioning how she’ll redecorate your office as soon as you depart, as soon as you’re departed, dearly.

People wonder out loud if you’ve learned the language at your age, which is inconceivable since everyone knows only children can learn new languages and certainly not full-grown Americans who’ve lost their virginity, paid taxes, and had full-time jobs.  You tell them you will be able to get by at first with what you’ve learned from Rosetta Stone and that you’re not worried about it because you’re a quick study with languages.  No one believes you.  They shake their heads in dismay or nod condescendingly: you are either crazy, stupid, naïve, or a secret genius-which they have already decided is the least likely option.

Instead, they ask about the hospitals, whether, you know, germ theory is understood by the “native doctors.”  Those still capable of politeness take a more circumspect approach: This is so fascinating.  Now, is western medicine very present there? You tell them that people drop dead on the street for no apparent reason, that the local hospitals practice leeching and diagnose through spirit communication.  Everyone nods.  That’s what they thought.

As JFK drops away beneath the plane, you listen to the hiss of the cabin air, the hydraulics of the landing gear being retracted.  There are four connections and twenty-seven hours of flight time ahead of you.  When you land in Bujumbura, Burundi, you will have moved one day into the future.  You start a new page in your journal with this line: There is no way to truly know a thing unless you live it.  Then you close the journal.  The rest of the page will have to remain blank for the time being.

006

The Replacements

It’s an old story.  Boy meets girl.  Boy marries girl.  Kids.  One of them dies, is imprisoned, is atomized in a steel box, gets deported, is spontaneously liquefied while buying a hot dog, is eaten by bears, runs off with a radio preacher, or goes out for a pack of smokes for 30 years.  Everyone is sad.  Remaining parent remarries.  Kids remain sad.  What about mom / dad? they ask.  Was all that love stuff just an act?  To which the universal response is always: suck it up, junior.  It’s my lifeSomeday you’ll understand.

Meanwhile, the new replacement spouse initiates a scorched earth campaign to eradicate any lingering trace of the dearly departed, which includes the kids.  They’re packed off to boarding school, to their pedophiliac uncle, or to social services.  And, you know, fuck them for being so inconvenient.  Suddenly, all is quiet.  But Replacement Spouse is bitter: this isn’t what I wanted.  You want me to be HER and quit asking me to wear her dresses!  The surviving parent is bitter: this isn’t want I wanted.  You’re obsessed with yourself and your meatloaf tastes like warm manure!  Everyone is sad again.

Alcohol is purchased in significant amounts.  Books speculating on the possibility of finding happiness in second and third marriages are read while the aforesaid alcohol is consumed.  She criticizes his sexual inadequacies to her friends.  He blogs about her obsession with Elizabeth Gilbert novels.  Misery.  Radioactive fallout (It was manure, you imbecile).  The kids grow up swearing not to be like their parents.  They fail.

Zombie-wedding-theme

There are many variations on this theme, but such is the through line.  The idea of “through line” comes from Stanislavski and is closely associated with his concept of the “superobjective”:

When objectives were strung together in a logical and coherent form, a through line of action was mapped out for the character. This was important in order to create a sense of the whole. Stanislavski developed the concept of the superobjective that would carry this “through line of action.” The superobjective could then be looked at as the “spine” with the objectives as “vertebrae” . . . . These objectives, when strung together, revealed the superobjective, the logical, coherent through line of action. Stanislavski called this superobjective the “final goal of every performance.”  (Sawoski 6)

With this in mind, our superobjective, the final goal of our performance, is not the happiness of the boy, the girl, the Replacement Spouse, or the kids.  It can’t be.  The vertebrae are all wrong.  They’re fractured.  Our characters are in psychological traction.  They’re emotional quadriplegics.  And instead of a functioning spine, the “logical, coherent through line” points to an abundance of potential suffering, right to it, like the Devil’s lodestone.

And like the lodestone—an ancient magical item “held in high regard as a Powerful Amulet and all-around Good Luck Charm because its Magnetic Influences are supposed to attract Power, Favors, Love, Money, and Gifts” (Yronwode)—the through line of our story functions as a Bad Luck Charm, attracting Injuries, Hate, Penury, and Loss, a cursed item of power.  Or maybe it’s like Tolkien’s One Ring, leading our poor love hobbits straight to Mount Doom instead of a cozy faux-Ireland with ergonomic sunken houses and lots of comfort food.

Old stories are the most powerful.  And this is one of the oldest, older than Macbeth, older than the short stories about crocodiles and honey jars found in the pyramids, perhaps older than writing itself: look for a Replacement Spouse and you never, ever get the Shire.  You get displacement, disrecognition, self-alienation.  But the saddest thing about this story, maybe the reason it has always been classifiable as a tragedy, is that it proceeds from a faulty assumption: people can be optimized like things.

Juice-in-jar

My significant other got liquefied and all I got is this lousy T-shirt.  And the bit of her I was able to pour into this jar.  I think it might be her elbow.  And it’s depressing to have to look at that on mantelpiece every day.  The brilliant short story writer, Sam Lipsyte goes so far as to have his protagonist in “Cremains” take down his mother’s ashes and mainline them like heroin.  So if you’ve read his Venus Drive, maybe that appeals to you as an option.  But think about it.  If you line up three or four shots of Old Elbow tonight, what’s left for tomorrow?  That’s real loss—not just losing dearest but getting faded on her liquefied remains and having to live with the knowledge that you could have just picked up some Midori on the way home.

People are not things.  Replacements cannot be found.  Loved ones will go the way of all flesh.  And we must then either make amends to our memory of them or ask hell to let us in.  In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud writes that “By abandoning a part of our psychic capacity as unexplainable through purposive ideas, we ignore the realms of determinism in our mental life.  Here, as in still other spheres, determinism reaches farther than we suppose” (278).  How far it reaches on our through line, how far it determines our final cause, depends on the extent to which we are willing to cower like mindless puling beasts that know neither reason nor truth.  To what extent are we willing to sacrifice what we have, which is to say, what we remember, in our attempts to avoid pain—our best and only teacher?

“We are only what we remember of ourselves.” – Trevor Goodchild in Aeon Flux

Japanese By Spring

(or Why Robert Downey Jr. Owns the Role of Tony Stark and You Are Not Worthy)

1. Alien Slave Planet

Once, long ago, I had the misfortune of riding in a truck being driven at high speeds by a drunk PE teacher.  We were in the mountains.  His name was Dick.  We’d just spent three days at a beginning of the year retreat where the administrators of the high school frowned and grinned and perspired in front of us like survivors of an airstrike.  The food was bad; they ran out of coffee the second morning; and the team building exercises were run as if they’d been designed by a New Age Stalin.  We played a lot of group games that weekend and fell in love with each other all over again.

But not everyone could withstand Pictionary and “3 Things You Didn’t Know About Your Partner” at that level of intensity while metabolizing all the usual faculty venom.  Part of me admired Dick for tippling a pint of whiskey at the back of the room throughout that last day.  He seemed closer in spirit to the students than the teachers most of the time.  He drove like a student, too.

“What I don’t get,” he said, “is this continued credit bs.”  We hit a turn and, because the truck had no seat belts, I was able to enjoy a second of antigravity.

When I caught my breath, I said, “Well, if they pay us to go back to school, that’s good, right?”

We caught air from a bump and then went through another curve without slowing.  “Useless.  They should be paying us for all the extra crap we already have to do just to keep the job.  That’s where the money should go.”

He wasn’t necessarily wrong.  We all worked unrecognized overtime and were constantly reminded that although positive suggestions were always welcome, complaints would be dealt with severely.  It seemed that what Dick was saying could be construed as a complaint.  His red ball cap was ratty and he chain smoked.  He owned a variety of nylon windbreakers that he must have bought all at once.  I liked him, but I thought that he might have been working at the high school a little too long.

“Shouldn’t we like learning?” I asked.  “I mean, isn’t that the whole point?”

Dick glanced at me with a crafty expression on his face.  “Shit, Mike, I got my degree.  I’m done learning.”

That’s when it happened.  ZANG!  All the stained glass windows in all the churches of the world shattered simultaneously.  The ears of babies started bleeding.  Stars went dark.  The dead walked the earth once more.  And enormous diseased birds of prey circled above us, knowing that it wouldn’t be long now.  The end was nigh.

2. Hustle: on

At the time, I might have been young enough to feel horrified that one of my colleagues would say such a thing.  But I was also old enough to know that I was seeing something unvarnished, something real in the way Dick seemed to think he’d put all that learning behind him.  I have never forgotten that moment even if, in my memory, Dick wears his ball cap on sideways and I hold onto the handle above the passenger side with both hands for most of the ride.  Done learning?  Done?  Really?  I remember thinking: doesn’t that mean you’re done with life?  But I didn’t say it.  Instead, I concentrated on shielding the truck with my mind whenever Dick swerved too close to the trees by the the road.

There are so many problems with the idea of being “done learning” that I don’t know where to begin.  Sure, we can just roll our eyes and dismiss Dick as ignorant.  In many ways, he embodied the negative stereotype of the high school PE coach.  He spent most of his time in the small mobile trailer on the upper field that functioned as an office and a storage shed for equipment.  At faculty meetings or when he was commanded to sub a class, he had a certain air of bitterness–a displaced person now forced by tyrannical inhuman masters to spend time in an alien culture he despised.  He was a lost soul.

But let’s forget about whether he’s still out there somewhere screaming at adolescent boys to “Hustle!” or whether he had a shot too many one night and decided his truck could fly.  If we get past the superficial reading of my anecdote about Dick, we can look at his attitude about learning as a crystallization of a disturbing trend in US culture that’s hard to stomach if you believe anything good about education: the concept of the “knowledge marketplace” as legitimate and desirable commodification of learning.

In “The Challenge of the Knowledge Marketplace: How Will the Land-Grant System Compete?” the American Distance Education Consortium Panel (ADEC) offers the following definition:

One way of looking at the knowledge marketplace is through the three basic building blocks of communication and education – knowledge, data, and information. In our current environment, when knowledge (broad-based understanding) is combined with data (specific bits of information), information with significant value is created. This process invades all facets of our lives, from buying products, to making decisions about investments, to remaining competitive in our professions. Educational opportunities occur when potential learners – people who have a need or desire for new information – gain access to that information at a time and place they need it.

As someone who earned an interdisciplinary IT / business masters online through distance learning, I can say with a certain degree of first hand authority that this is exactly how learning takes place in such programs.  Knowledge, data, and information are treated as items that can be delimited and placed on a metric.  They must be treated this way in order to be delivered and evaluated meaningfully in an online format.

This is not necessarily a bad thing.  As Sarah Churchwell points out in “The Internet: is it changing the way we think?“, “Knowledge is not the same thing as information, and there is no question to my mind that the access to raw information provided by the internet is unparalleled and democratising.”  And the accessibility of distance learning means that this democratization extends to those who would be otherwise unable to go to school.  That’s important and its one of the great virtues of distance learning.

Unfortunately, the great drawback is that by interpreting learning in the marketplace language of deliverables and skill sets, we have shifted the emphasis away from the process of philosophically motivated inquiry.  Instead, we are moving towards a static model in which students “signal their traditional academic attainment and continued non-institutional learning by aggregating these accomplishments into a meaningful and dynamic profile” (ThinkStache).  In other words, it is possible to be done learning if you have the requisite number of notches on your belt or bullet points on your resume.  This horrifies me even though I believe that distance learning is viable and important and needs to exist.

3. Yukkuri hanashite, kudasai!

So I’ve started learning Japanese and I’m starting to see that it’s one of the coolest things I’ve undertaken in my life.  I am horrible at it.  I can’t remember any of the Kanji yet.  And I essentially know nothing.  But so what?  This isn’t the knowledge marketplace and I’m not done learning.  So when will I be fluent?  Everyone asks me this.  I tell them I have no idea.

You’ll excuse me if I quote Nathaniel Branden at this point.  He’s one of Ayn Rand’s homies.  I know, I know, but this is one of the good passages:

Observe, in this connection, the widespread phenomenon of men who are old by the time they are thirty. These are men who, having in effect concluded that they have “thought enough,” drift on the diminishing momentum of their past effort—and wonder what happened to their fire and energy, and why they are dimly anxious, and why their existence seems so desolately impoverished, and why they feel themselves sinking into some nameless abyss—and never identify the fact that, in abandoning the will to think, one abandons the will to live.  (116)

And why, when they have to leave their office on the upper field and sit through 50 minutes of sophomore biology they feel lost and abandoned in the vastness of space.  Branden is making an important point about learning: it’s a process of growth intrinsic to life.  Every creative artist knows this.  There is never a point at which you can step back and declare that you have arrived.  You’re always-already arriving.  To think only in terms of static qualities–deliverables, commodities that can be acquired for future display purposes–is to embrace intellectual death.

I will not ever be fluent in Japanese.  I will always be pursuing fluency.  In this, I avoid an “existence [that] seems so desolately impoverished.”  Don’t we all want to do this–to grow and become more than what we were?  I suspect that even Dick might have agreed with me had I put it to him like this.

4. Enter: the Tony

This is also why I loved The Avengers just as much as I’ve loved the Iron Man films.  More than any other “driven billionaire playboy superhero” type Tony Stark is almost Discordian in his genius–chattering, obnoxious, manic, constantly worrying away at some problem even if he had to create it just to give himself something to do.  And Robert Downey Jr. plays him brilliantly, gives him levels and a sense of roundness.

Tony

He’s a synthesis of Sherlock Holmes, Seth Godin, and Errol Flynn on speed.  Downey shows us that Stark knows he’s smart enough to get away with it before you say something unduly nasty.  So I think these simple superhero action films aren’t actually that simple.  Rather, they’re complex in ways that run contrary to the prevailing theme of intellectual stagnation twisting its way into the Academy from military-industrial complex.

I’m less interested in laser beams and hideous alien invaders from the 24th-and-a-half dimension as I am in the American public being presented with an image of brilliance that doesn’t function in terms of deliverables.  This is ironic because Stark is supposed to be an uber-scientist-inventor.  His entire shtick depends on a fancy exoskeleton and how it can keep him alive.  But Stark comes across as someone who would be doing amazing things even if he had no money and no lab and no super-suit that can save the world in 50 explosions.

Moreover, in The Avengers, Joss Wheedon stays true to the way Marvel Comics has always treated scientists, professors, and artists–as superheroes in their own way.  Stan Lee, in particular, has always shown a great degree of respect for any kind of creativity.  And this has always come through in the comics and in the Marvel movies, even the mediocre ones.  We should thank both of them because everyone knows an artillery barrage will always mean box office revenue.

Maybe this time, it’s less about money and more about story, which is to say, more about people, process, narrative arc.  Maybe someone’s inner transformational arc is more interesting than the arc of a bullet.  It’s something that comic writers have been thinking about since The Amazing Spider-Man came out in the early 1960s: what if we made the superheroes less monolithic and more human?  Well, what if?  And if we choose to make them flawed yet brilliant, emotionally complex yet open to an existential dimension in human life, what then?

Tony Stark is never going to say he’s done learning.  That’s what.

Studying

Works Cited and Referenced:

Branden, Nathaniel and Ayn Rand.  “The Divine Right of Stagnation.”  The Virtue of Selfishness: a New Concept of Egoism.  New York: Signet, 1964.  Print.

Naughton, John.  “The internet: is it changing the way we think?”  The Guardian.  14 August 2010.  Web.  15 May 2012.

The Avengers.  Dir. Joss Wheedon.  Paramount, 2012.  Film.

“The Challenge of the Knowledge Marketplace: How Will the Land-Grant System Compete?”  ADEC. 29 June 1998.  Web.  15 May  2012.

The Discordian Society.  Principia Discordia, 2012.  Web.  15 May 2012.

ThinkStache.  HASTAC, 2011.  Web.  15 May 2012.

Note: You can thank me now for not naming this post, “Getting Past Dick.”

Note: Pictures related to Marvel are used without permission in my little blog post that no one will care about. Plus, I have no money.  And I really, really liked The Avengers.  So please be gentle.  If you really want me to delete the images, I will.  Then I will cry.

The Hounds of the Grass

I needed an old-fashioned set of fingerprints made.  So I drove down to Fresno from Yosemite to be printed.  I spent 45 minutes reading an ancient People in the LiveScan office–a small reception area that looked like it had been designed for a dentist.  Eventually, Faye the Fingerprint Girl came out with a clipboard and called my name.  She took me down a long gray hallway to her office.  She had tiny sailing ships glued upright on her long blue nails.  The nails also had waves drawn on them.

“I like your nails,” I said.

“Oh.  Thanks.”  She blushed, turned in place to set the fingerprint card on its base.  Faye was 22, maybe 23.  She was very thin and had bone-straight black hair in a middle part.  The name tag on her blouse said Faye Your LiveScan Print Technician.  Her jeans had elastic across the back.  Who under the age of 45 wears jeans with elastic across the back?

Fresno, I said to myself.  Fresno does.

She started rolling the fingers of my right hand on the ink card.  But then she took a big step back and looked at me.  “Nobody does ink anymore.  What did you say you needed this for?”

“I’m going to Japan.”

“Riiiight.”  She laughed, rolled her eyes.

“Really?” I asked.

“No shit,” she said.  “But that’s unprofessional of me.”

I had no idea what we’d just communicated to each other.

Her office was in disarray.  Crumpled papers.  Stacks of three-ring binders.  Overflowing trash can.  Vertical blinds half turned.  Motes of dust hung in bands of late afternoon light.  Faye smelled like the enamel paints I used on models as a kid.

“Next hand,” she said.  I gave her my left and watched the sailing ships work while the humidifier on her desk sighed.  It was shaped like a fish jumping out of the water with pursed lips.  A little column of steam shot up between them, went soosh.

“You know, I’ve always wanted to try that.”

“Try it?  Japan?”

“Being unprofessional,” Faye said. “But yeah.  If that’s what you want to call it.  I need your thumbs.”

She aligned my thumbs beside each other on the ink pad and on the card.  Then she slid the card off the base and framed it for me with her hands, making a decorative gesture across the bottom edge and saying, “Voilà.”

“Thank you.”  I felt lightheaded from the vaccinations I’d had earlier.  I held onto the edge of her desk.

The fish sighed.  Faye looked at me. “Sorry I got you dirty.”

“It’s just ink.”

She laughed and nodded like the ink was now our private joke.

“Can I have the card, Faye?”

“Only if you really want it,” she said.

I said I did.  Then I went out and sat in my car for a while, rolled down the window, and looked at the clouds.

Rolling the Hard Six

Countdown to Africa continues.  The next battery of inoculations takes place tomorrow, after which I will tutor my nephews and collapse on the floor twitching and mumbling.  At the same time, I’m doing additional paperwork for Japan.  This crazy life I’m leading is at least keeping me awake.  The best case scenario will have me employed in both places as well.  Worse case?  Well, there are many fine parks and golf courses all over the world in which I could sleep.

The good news is that I might have a real second book manuscript ready to go soon–a collection of short stories that will precede the novel I hope to finish while abroad.  I should have enough down time to finish it.

I’m betting on a lot of things coming through for me in the next few months.  Let’s hope the dice stay toasty . . .

You know I once was a gambler, boy, but I lost my money soon.
Yes, I once was a gambler, boy, but I lost my money soon.
Yes, I lost all of my money some other, some other gambler can have my room.
– “Gambler’s Blues,” Otis Rush

The Genius of Imitation

mission24: perseverance
mission24: perseverance (Photo credit: greenkozi)

Creating reproductions of other works requires an extremely high level of technical proficiency.  One’s subject matter will always be personal, but I want to encourage my students to deliberately acquire new technical skills by taking on the aesthetic of the writers they read.

In this sense, every text is a potential writing instructor.
 
I have taught myself a lot by doing this assignment.  For example, by imitating Melanie Rae Thon‘s imagistic descriptions, I learned how to make an idiosyncratic first person voice graphic.  By imitating Hemingway, I learned greater control of the line, of syntax, as a mode of characterization.  By imitating Thom Jones, I learned to appreciate tragicomic realism, which led me to the work of Denis Johnson, which ultimately led me to Maupassant and Isaac Babel.

I want my students to learn to see how one writer connects to another stylistically and thematically.  I tell them to imitate everyone.  Fill notebook after notebook.  This is how one practices, how one acquires a technique that can render and evoke anything the story needs at any point.

And it never ends.  We should use the library as the ultimate resource for self-education, the ultimate art studio.
 
None of this will cause a writer to forget herself or her own voice.  On the contrary, it will enrich her style, inform her subject matter, and teach her more about who she is as a working artist.

http://doctormike.posterous.com/the-genius-of-imitation