Thursday, July 29, 2010

Talking essays

A personal essay is like a great conversation: an initial subject sparks an animated dash (maybe a measured stroll) that winds up and down among arguments, passionate defenses, mea culpa's, earnestness, humor, wryness, and unexpected digressions, the last of which make discussions between or among friends so interesting, and fun, and valuable. A conversation can go on for hours, or it can peter out in a few minutes. The shape stretches in many directions (sometimes at once) and when the conversation starts, the possibilities of direction and subject are infinite.

The danger comes when a conversation loses focus, when the center stops holding. That's when you get might get bored, restless, when sotto voce side conversations start, when the initial urgent subject dissolves into shallowness. What were we talking about again?

A familiar essay's center has to hold, no matter how far its limbs stretch, no matter how many issues it explores, no matter how many voices might enter, no matter how many digressions threaten its ballast. I've thinking about this lately about Montaigne's longer works. And Albert Goldbarth's many essays (that are in my opinion, undervalued). Also: Richard Rodriguez's great essay "Late Victorians" from Days of Obligation—it winds, it wonders about its many pieces, it delays, it forgets its opening subject and then returns; like a great, engrossing conversation (which it is, between Rodriguez and himself and between Rodriguez and his friend César ) it never fails to hold interest, it never fails to hold its center. It's a conversation that I love overhearing again and again.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Abandoned, Ctd

"If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace," Gaston Bachelard

"Abandonment" courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Friday, July 23, 2010

Putting Super Rock On The Map

Weird and cool: Google Maps, via Google Books, has produced a world map of all of the places mentioned in Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

"Colonizing the Past"

I've scribd my contribution to a "Symposium on Place in Creative Nonfiction" in the recent issue of Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts:
In autobiographical nonfiction, place is elastic, no firmer than smoke. Nostalgia carries with it the desire to return, and memory its own mindfulness, less the urge to go back than the desire to stay put and try to understand. An autobiographical essayist’s relationship to place has to do with his ever having left it. Memory erects a universe of civic construction, where things — fields, buildings, people — remain where you last left them. Physically return years later to the neighborhood in which you were raised and it can look like a cartoon image of overdevelopment, or decay. Changes look incremental to one who never left; to the one returning, the displacement can be overwhelming. But Nabokov insists: “One is always at home in one’s past.”
The symposium features Robert Vivian, William Bradley, Kevin Haworth, and many other interesting writers.

Do Family Photos Matter?

I mean, of course, beyond the family. I've written recently of my mixed feelings about digitizing my parents' boxes of family photos (a task I volunteered for). As I sit on the floor here at home and start to go through them, I'm struck not only by waves of nostalgia, psychic strangeness, and plenty of cognitive dissonance, but by the urge to share the photos, to essay them, yet tempered with a concern that no one will care about them. Why should they? Everyone has boxes, drawers, albums, digital folders crammed with family photos spanning decades, humming with the power to move, narrate, and transport. If I'm to write about them, at some point these images—of a generic and wildly personal kitchen full of small siblings, say, or of a yard or a basement common to thousands of families and unique to mine—will have to become personal, not merely private. Wallace Stevens says, "The absolute object slightly turned is a metaphor of that object." That's the necessary move: turn the photo slightly so that the figures in it morph into something universal, recognizable, knowable beyond the private boundaries of floor plans and the limited drama of siblings' shared glances.

Psychologists and visual theorists talk about shape constancy, by which we can recognize an object regardless of the angle at which we approach that object: we know a pen is a pen when we see it from above as well as when we see it head on; a door partially open is the same door that was closed; we recognize a child reaching for a parent, a dog blurring into a boy's arms, a complicated look on a sister's face regardless of what family's photo album we're looking at....


"In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little, human detail can become a Leitmotiv," says Henri Cartier-Bresson. When looking, collectively, at a candid photo not our own we pool in the great subject created of the small thing, the larger story with a cast of millions as acted by a family of four.


The Internet threatens: you are not alone, so you are not unique. This dynamic grows exponentially as day after day more people upload to Flickr, facebook, et al, their personal candid photos, easily accessed within seconds by millions of strangers. Where is the autobiographical writer in this, especially one trafficking in the photo album?
Vivian Gornick has one answer: "What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the larger sense the writer is able to make of what happened." That larger sense in a private photograph is in the ether outside of the frame, the mist where the rest of us stand waiting to connect without realizing it. The connection happens in a shared recognition of body types, body language, or domestic architecture, in the desire to fill in the blanks of our our photos, memories, lives with the others' narrative details. It's in the false mirror of the candid photo: there we are.

"Polaroid Land Camera 1000" courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

"The Alphabet In The Shag Carpet"

A new essay, "The Alphabet In The Shag Carpet," is up at Connotation Press:

Leaving our rented house to go to the beach for the day, I saw a dead bird on the driveway, its wings fresh and glistening. For a week I walked past the bird, early in the dewy mornings and late in the sun-burned afternoons, and each day the body turned out a little more, decaying, welcoming flies, then maggots, then air, reducing as something nameless moved in. The seven-day death march was odd and agonizing, as the bird carcass played out in public its private, humiliating dissolve. I squeaked by in sneakers, clutching a beach towel. My older brothers and sister walked by, disinterested. I had nothing to say about it, no one to say it to.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

My Thieving Memory

Variety Records, Wheaton Plaza, suburban Washington D.C., after highschool, the early 1980s: I'm flipping through records wearing a dress shirt, a skinny tie, and a jean jacket with black duct tape on the back in the shape of an arrow. Mod-light. A few punks (Skinhead-light) had prowled through the store a few moments earlier, and when they left one of them pounded his fist against the store's plate glass window, pointed at me and glared in adolescent pseudo-menace. He scowled and walked away, and it scared me a bit. When I think of that moment, I hear the Jam's "Set The House Ablaze" in my head, the song's martial, lockstep beat and militaristic whistling scoring laddish, faux-English boot-rumbling rabble-rousing in a lousy suburban mall. Was the song playing in the store at that moment? Maybe. Perhaps I'd listened to it recently, and through a synapse-gap leap it tattooed itself as the permanent soundtrack of that memory — or it happened later, as I replayed the incident in my head and unconsciously searched for the appropriate background music.

I'm curious about the ways emotion and music co-mingle, how a surge of strings in a film cues this or that emotion, how a minor key both brings on and echoes sadness. Or how a popular song's summer Zeitgeist might become the score of a summer's memory, even if the song and the memory never stood side by side, but were joined later in a kind of emotional chronology. That song was always playing that summer! we say, even though it really wasn't.


After visiting my uncles in Queens and Brooklyn when I was a child, my family would return home to Maryland, usually at the end of a long day; I looked forward to driving over the Brooklyn Bridge as night descended. Among my vivid memories of leaving town are passing rows of public housing, dented, graffiti-scarred elevated subway trains, wide, grimy avenues full of trash. These images are indelible scenes of the narrative-memories I have of New York City in the 1970s and of our family's visits and escapes.

Only recently did I wonder, while reading Jonathan Mahler's great Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning, if I'm not conflating those vivid pictures in memory's story-building factory with these:

These are from the opening credits of Welcome Back, Kotter, which I regularly watched during the years my family was visiting my uncles. My brothers and I used to joke that my New York cousins looked like extras from Saturday Night Fever, but I might have unconsciously buried a Kotter connection. Are these the images, not my own, that play through my slide-projector? I wonder what power popular culture has in manipulating our private, cherished stories, in aiding — or perhaps even creating — the memorable scenes that we lovingly reconstruct as own.

The high school used for the exterior shots in Welcome Back, Kotter was New Utrecht High School in Bensonhurst, about two miles from my Uncle Tony's house on 51st Street in Borough Park. I might've even passed it once, for all I know. What secret connections were at work, what is it that bridges a sitcom to my own past, and the stories I tell myself about that past. What's at work there?

Friday, July 16, 2010

I Remember That Future!

Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Past Visions of the American Future is a great book that celebrates the irresistible invention of posterity. Written by Joseph J. Corn and Brian Horrigan, edited by Katherine Chambers, the book began as a museum catalog for an early-1980s Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibit. Curating an absurd if powerful side of the imagination, the book documents great examples of humankind’s tendency to guarantee idealized futures, convinced by a century’s seductiveness that science and technology will indeed rescue us.

The authors write in the preface that their book “comprises some chapters in the history of the future . . . [I]n its broadest terms, this is a history of an idea, or a system of ideas—an ideology. The future, of course, does not exist except as an act of belief or imagination.” The imagination struggles earnestly to embody present-day values in a comically optimal tomorrow; in chapters titled “The Community of Tomorrow” and “The Transportation of Tomorrow” the authors crawl through popular magazines, trade magazines, advertisements, and World’s Fair catalogs, finding attempts by prognosticators to better today’s many petty nuisances — natural grass, crowded highways, dirty dishes, deteriorating housing materials, all manner of urban suffocation — by imagining their obsolescence in the future, obliterating today’s irritating truths with science’s magic wand. 

What’s touching, and funny, about Yesterday’s Tomorrows is the naiveté. My favorite chapter is “The Home of Tomorrow.” The authors cite an article titled “Miracles You’ll See in the next Fifty Years” from a February 1950 Popular Mechanics wherein “Science Editor of The New York Times” Waldemar Kaempffert promises us all that in the future we will, among other breakthroughs, eat food from sawdust, cook on a solar range, eliminate “bouts with the razor” by treating whiskers with a chemical solution, eat dinner on plastic dishes that will vanish magically in hot water, and shop by picture phone (the last made possible in the 1980s with QVC and Home Shopping Network, et al). My favorite: “because everything in [the] home is waterproof . . . [we'll do our] daily cleaning with a hose,” the living room provided, naturally (sic), with a drain in the center of the water-proof carpeting for when Mom aims an industrial-strength blast of scalding water at the sofa. 

“Xanadu: A Foam House of Tomorrow” (1983) was designed and marketed by Roy Mason. (To create grotesque “homes of tomorrow” we had to surrender to certain petrochemical seductions.) “Inflated forms are sprayed with a fast-setting polyurethane foam that creates a rigid shell, which can then be finished as a conventional house. The technique,” note the authors, “allows for infinite variations, though the ultimate result is bound to be fairly bizarre, eliciting comparisons with fungi, igloos, and cave dwellings.” The Xanadu mushroom homes suggest an acid trip through Alice of Wonderland.

King Camp Gillette’s “Metropolis” (1894) and Buckminster Fuller’s “Old Man River’s City” (1971) were two plans for “utopian” maximum-capacity apartment dwellings: the chief physical characteristic is a utilitarian facelessness (later evolving ironically via urban renewal city projects of the 1960s and 1970s into characterless apartment towers, windows of which were sometimes painted over with silhouettes of happy dwellers, assuring the middle-class speeding by on their trains home. Or was that an urban myth? Did I dream that?). It’s the kind of visionary self-deception nailed by Bill Owens’ brilliant photographs of 1970s suburbia, where foliage is meant to be “raked off” a tree before it falls naturally, where Astroturf is the ultimate dream.


“New and Improved." We fabricate and deceive our future with glee and invention. New Coke promised New Next Minute. I grew up near Greenbelt, Maryland, a community described in Yesterday’s Tomorrows as one of three designed by the Federal government in the 1930s, a “vision of a self-contained, decentralized community of the future,” which failed, at least in the inflated New Deal loftiness with which it was heralded at the ‘39 New York World’s Fair. I remember Greenbelt in the 1970s and 1980s as a suburb crowded with Marylanders who couldn’t afford the city and with transplanted Washingtonians driven from the city by traffic, rent, crime fears, and a crumbling infrastructure.

A macabre pleasure of mine when I was a student at the University of Maryland was to take the drive on Rhode Island Ave. out of College Park into and through the northeast quadrant of Washington, D.C., on my way downtown. Passing through the community of Riverdale (now Riverdale Park), a few miles north of the D.C. line, I’d see a civically-erected sign pretty easy to miss: “Riverdale: Community of Tomorrow.”

Boarded-up apartment buildings, notorious drug-laced parks, two liquor stores-per-block, and garbage-strewn sidewalks and storefronts competed with the imagery on that sign: a WELCOME spelled out against a dreamy, soaring silhouette of towering skyscrapers and gleaming office buildings. I haven’t been back to the town in many years, and maybe its present has caught up with the idealized future that the past promised.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Fleshtones on SWEAT

The Fleshtones weigh in here on Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band for Anne-Marie Mondan at Rock-Interviews.

Volume 2? How about Volume 3?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Space Age in My Basement

At the risk of sentimentality, I’m remembering a favorite toy when I was a kid. The AstroScope was a desk-top console with two knobs and faders; attached on a vertical neck was a bowl with a white drum stretched over it (and a faux radar antenna on top of that). Inside the bowl were mounted two jagged mirrors, and when operated they turned and reflected colored light against the inside of the drum. The result was a spacey, hauntingly quiet, multi-colored dance of circles and spirals that kept this kid mesmerized for hours. A couple of photos I found online, after (embarrassingly many) years of searching:

Check the “Spectre Control” panel and the “Input (Implosion)” and “Output (Peripheral)” knobs all wrapped up in a heady sci-fi treatment. I loved the AstroScope, and played with it in the air-conditioned cool of the basement. I forget now what narratives, if any, I’d use; I think I loved the abstractness of the toy, its kind of uselessness beyond the creation of infinite colors and shapes. A Toys "R" Us catalog advertisement promoted the AstroScope as an “Electronic Imagination Machine,” and that’s exactly what it was. So charmingly lo-fi now, the AstroScope allowed me to drift around in my head and play with aesthetics, with design for design's sake, without realizing it.

The Space Age drifted all around me. Major Matt Mason toys were strewn in various heroic poses on the basement floor, plastic rockets ascended and descended, the interstellar played out under the pool table. Playing on the Bonomo family stereo: astral 45’s by Deodato (“Also Spake Zarathustra [2001]”) and Vik Venus, the latter one of those novelty interview songs popular in the 1960s, this one a faux Q&A with astronauts that used Top 40 song snippets as answers. Also in high rotation in the Bonomo basement during these years, a record that’s immersed itself into my DNA, one my younger brother and I still obsess over. Journey To The Moon came out in the late-1960s on Buddah Records, an attempt to cash in on the Apollo lunar missions, twining actual astronaut/command control audio with acid-rock songs created by session players (“Sound of Genesis”). The album created an only-in-the-60s vibe, a trippy soundtrack of groovy, visionary instrumentals heralding the moon landings and all that they promised. The title track is awesome, actually, and is among my favorite rock & roll songs. Someone’s gotta reissue this record.
As I was rocking out to Journey To The Moon and losing hours with the AstroScope, I Dream of Jeannie reruns, and the myths of Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach, a vital era of the Space Age was coming to an end. The final moon landing occurred in 1972, the less-romanticized Skylab was soon launched, and the cumbersome Shuttle missions were in development. These events were special in my house, because for more than three decades my dad worked as an engineer at IBM, and much of his work was devoted to NASA projects. He was a member of the team that prepared IBM's proposal to design and develop NASA's RTCC (Real-Time Computer Complex) at Houston, Texas, which linked to world-wide NASA tracking stations and orbiting spacecraft, that monitored, commanded, and controlled all NASA manned spacecraft programs. My dad specified how computers processed tracking data, and determined and projected spacecraft orbits for command and control — all pretty cool, if baffling, stuff to me as a kid. I'd shyly admire the plaques and certificates from NASA on his walls, and the framed shot of the earth taken from the Apollo.
I wouldn’t understand the precise nature of my dad's work for years, but to me there was always a palpable and dreamy sense of the Space Age when I was a kid, when I crossed my eyes in front of the AstroScope, when limitlessness was the promise.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Essays @ Scribd

I've been hipped by the nonfiction writer Steven Church to Scribd, a cool site where you can upload pdf versions of documents. Periodically I'll be uploading essays and commentary of mine that haven't had much of an online presence. Here are "Occasional Prayer" and "Seams, Hinges, and other Disclosures" from Fourth Genre, "The God-Blurred World" from New Ohio Review, "Caught" from River Teeth, "Colonizing the Past" from a symposium on "Place in Creative Nonfiction" in Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts, and "Hyphen: Sketching The Bridge With Invisible Ink" from The Rose Metal Field Guide To Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets In Discussion And Practice.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

On being frank

I write a bit about candor and autobiographical essays here at Brevity's Nonfiction Blog:

What’s Whitman’s "perfect candor" anyway? I’m interested in an imperfect candor, hesitant, skeptical of immodesty, equally concerned with the rigors of art and the illicit pleasures of confession. My faults are interesting and worthy in as much as I can essay them artfully as landmarks in human topography, permanent things that outlast the weather, that will be here for the next generations to be troubled by, maybe care about. An imperfect candor might know when to shut up, or when (and how) to unpack a fault and rummage inside, and find something beyond the shock or the titillation of confession. The autobiographical essayist dwells in the differences, and the distance, between frankness and art.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


I can trace back my interest in the marginal to a lot of sources, not the least of which is my obsession with corners. When I walk or drive past back yards, city plots, parking lots, alleys — my eye’s natively drawn to the right-angle meeting of nothing and nothing, of blown detritus and the tossed-away. I like taking note of what gathers in a corner, not only old leaves or newspapers, but rusty equipment, half-empty industrial barrels, dated machinery, broken things. It’s a separate life there in the corner, or a parallel one, where stuff just goes. Gaston Bachelard writes that “The corner becomes a negation of the Universe,” but it’s always seemed to me as if the corner is the furthest point in the universe of the yard, the factory lot, the parking garage's fourth floor — a far-flung, grimly inevitable place where the Bartleby’s, busted lawnmowers, and paper receipts of the world end up.

Corners are invisible. We see them and we fail to see them. When I was a kid, feeling cranky, put-upon, ignored, or some other melodramatic condition I semi-created, I’d disappear underneath the end table of the L-section sofa in the living room. The sofa was far enough away from the wall that I could wedge myself behind it, drop on all fours, and crawl into the tiny space beneath the end table, where I’d curl up, curse my fate, and promise myself that I’d only speak when spoken to once I dramatically reemerged into the maelstrom of family life. That wouldn’t last, of course, and soon enough my adolescent funk would end and I'd be laughing and right again. But my strategy felt sound: no one could find me because no one sees a corner. It’s transparent. I’m transparent. There and not. You'd have to train yourself to see me, because I’m not talking.

My interest in marginalized people and things — from indie bands, nerds, loners, and local drunks whom I must resist romanticizing, to gloomy service alleys and the backs of buildings — continues naturally from my childhood interest in corners. The fear of a vanishing point in the dark end of the dimly-lit upstairs hallway always gripped me, but so did the commonplace corner of the back yard, where forgotten parchmenty leaves and last years’ missing notebook page broke my stupid heart. I risk sentimentalizing the ordinary here, but that’s a risk that any essayist takes. I like Bachelard’s charge: “But life in corners, and the universe itself withdrawn into a corner with the daydreamer, is a subject about which poets will have more to tell us. They will not hesitate to give this daydream all its reality.”

Bottom photo of a corner via Flickr Creative Commons.