Monday, April 29, 2013

A backyard with nothing in it except a stick a dog and a box with something in it

The last thing the world needs now, probably, is more commentary on Jack and Meg—but a decade later, this song still sends me. Among the things I love about rock and roll is its ability to surprise, the same great songs, riffs, hooks, or melodies renewing themselves, and us, by some magic formulae beyond most of us. I still hold my breath during the opening of the Kinks' "Til The End Of The Day," awaiting Ray Davies's delirious announcement, the rush of the London club vibe circa 1965, the band's electric, stomping entrance after the opening slashing chords, as excited at the prospect now as I was when I first heard the song as a kid.

Yesterday, "The Hardest Button To Button" from 2003's Elephant came on shuffle, and the demanding, insisting thwump thwump thwump thwump of Meg's floor tom grabbed me by the neck via my chest cavity, as it always does, and I submitted, as I always do, to listening again to the twisted tale of this dysfunctional 21st Century family unit:
We started living in an old house
My ma gave birth and we were checking it out
It was a baby boy
So we bought him a toy
It was a ray gun
And it was 1981
We named him "Baby"
He had a toothache
He started crying
It sounded like an earthquake
It didn't last long
Because I stopped it
I grabbed a rag doll
And stuck some little pins in it
Now were a family
And we're alright now
We got money and a little place
To fight now
We don't know you
And we don't owe you
But if you see us around
I got something else to show you
Now it's easy when you don't know better
You think it's sleazy?
Then put it in a short letter
We keep warm
But there's just something wrong when you
Just feel like you're the hardest little button to button
I had opinions
That didn't matter
I had a brain
That felt like pancake batter
I got a backyard
With nothing in it
Except a stick
A dog
And a box with something in it
The hardest button to button
It's the scary crash into "family" that kills me every time. He snarls the word—the assertion—and his voice sounds like regret and acceptance meeting warily in a private place, and then he and Meg push everything over with nerve and amps and every association and connotation we have with family is upended, made fun of, scorned, embraced, restated, soiled, elevated, ignored, clung to, subverted, and made necessary again. An infant with a ray gun and a rag doll full of pins. An earthquake. You think it's sleazy? Frame that at your Sears Portrait Studio. Because this family lives mostly outside the frame. You know/ignore them.

At its best, rock and roll reminds us that there's something fresh or sinister behind nearly every idea with which we've grown comfortable. It's over in three and a half minutes. Afterward, you have a new idea of "family" to deal with.

Here they are
tearing it up onstage in 2004:

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Over across carry bear

The metaphor is perhaps one of man’s most fruitful potentialities. Its efficiency verges on magic, and it seems a tool for creation which God forgot inside one of His creatures when He made him. (José Ortega y Gasset)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Stupefaction Playlist

I was happy to be asked by Tim Broun over at Stupefaction to come up with a playlist. I chose some of my favorite b-sides, from The Killer and Nick Lowe to Joe Tex and Hoodoo Gurus. At the site there's a Spotify playlist and some YouTube clips of the songs.

01. Big Blon’ Baby - Jerry Lee Lewis
02. The Greatest Lover In The World - Bo Diddley
03. Mr. Pitiful - Otis Redding
04. If Sugar Was As Sweet As You - Joe Tex
05. Sittin’ On My Sofa - The Kinks
06. Twelve Months Later - The Sheep
07. Concentration Baby - Dave Clark Five
08. I See The Light - The Music Explosion
09. Tally Ho - The Detroit Wheels
10. Feels Like A Woman - The Troggs
11. Truth Drug - Nick Lowe
12. Everything's Turning to Gold - The Rolling Stones
13. Babysitter - The Ramones
14. You're My Favorite Waste Of Time - Marshall Crenshaw
15. I Really Want You Right Now - Lyres
16. Be My Guru - Hoodoo Gurus
17. Batteroo - The Planet Rockers
18. Loyola - The Dictators
19. Jolene - The White Stripes
20. Remember The Ramones - The Fleshtones

Saturday, April 20, 2013

"What is startling about memory"

"Life is tough and brimming with loss, and the most we can do about it is to glimpse ourselves clear now and then, and find out what we feel about familiar scenes and recurring faces this time around."
What is startling about memory is its willful persistence and its obsession with detail. “Hold on,” it says. “Don’t lose this." The other day l unexpectedly found myself seeing the shape of the knobs at the top of the low iron posts that stand along the paths of Central Park—a magnolia bud or perhaps an acorn—and then, long before this, the way such posts looked when they were connected by running strands of heavy wire, which were slightly bent into irregularity and almost loose to the touch. Going down a path in those days you could hook the first joints of your forefinger and second finger over the darkly shining wire and feel it slither along under your touch. In winter, you could grab the wire in your gloved or mittened hand and rush along, friction free, and make it bounce or shiver when you reached the next post and had to let go. But what’s the point of this, I wonder: what’s my mind doing back there? A week or so before my father died, in his eighties, he told me he’d been thinking about a little red shirt that he’d worn when he was four or five years old. “Isn’t that strange?” he said.
                    —Roger Angell

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Abandoned, Ctd.

Disused bridge, P.A. Nehring Forest Preserve. DeKalb, Illinois.


Six weeks later:

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Roger Angell, Cesar's Inn, Harvey: it's where baseball lives

"We have an available shuttle bus to Miller Park."
I've been on a Roger Angell bender of late, as previous posts have made clear. Along the way I've written about Angell's marvelous ability to "turn the game slightly" (after Wallace Steven's definition of metaphor) and to see baseball in large ways; what I've neglected to celebrate are Angell's narrative gifts. For decades he's been a fiction editor at The New Yorker, and in his best baseball essays he brings to bear a fiction writer's eyes and ears for sensuality, mood, significant gestures, physical description, and telling narrative details—this week my favorites are his 1996 descriptions of Joe Torre: his "rumpled face" and his "prairie mortician's gait and glumness when he headed for the mound to remove a pitcher." Angell's storytelling gifts are are pleasingly on display in "Streakers" from the November 29, 1982 issue of The New Yorker, one of his annual season recaps. (He excerpted the essay in Game Time, the most recent of his baseball books, published in 2003). My favorite parts of "Streakers" dramatize the afternoon that Angell spent at Cesar's Inn, a small bar/hotel in Milwaukee, during the World Series between the Milwaukee Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals (the Cards won the Series in seven). At the risk of indulging what Phillip Lopate has elsewhere decried as the romanticizing of the saloon, I'll admit that, as a committed Fan Of Bars, especially of the townie-dive sort, I love the way Angell extols the simple virtues of Cesar's and of its locally-famous owner (Audrey Kuenn, wife of Brewers manager Harvey Kuenn), neither sentimentalizing the patrons nor condescending to them.

The passage is so alert and fun and well-written and packed with evocative details that I'll quote the bulk of it:
I belonged to the Brewers by now, in short, and my affection for the team and the town had been secured, if that was needed, by a noontime visit I had made the previous day to Cesar’s Inn, the West Milwaukee tavern owned and operated by Audrey Kuenn; Mrs. Manager. The place is only a few blocks from County Stadium—you can see the banks of lights from the front door—so it’s convenient for Harvey; the Kuenns live in the back of Cesar’s, with their rooms separated from the bar by a Dutch door, the top half of which seems to be open at all times. The bar is a low, smoky, exceedingly cheerful room, with cardboard cartoon cutouts of Harvey’s Wallbangers stuck up behind the bottles, and the roar of Brewer talk among the patrons competing with the big, electric jukebox—a good jukebox: the J. Geils Band’s “Angel in Blue,” Alabama’s “Mountain Music,” Eddy Duchin’s old “Time on My Hands,” Smokey Robinson, the Andrews Sisters. There is a pool table jammed into one half of the lounge, and the lights on the wall are imitation baseballs, with little crossed bats underneath. Photos and paintings of Harv everywhere, of course. When I was there, the folks at the bar were youngish men in T-shirts and mustaches and old high-school-team windbreakers and emblazoned industrial caps; they mostly drank Miller’s, but one man near me at the bar was working on Hennessy’s cognac with Pabst chasers. The clientele at Cesar’s Inn turns up in bunches after the shifts change at big manufacturing plants in nearby West Allis—Harnischfeger (overhead cranes) and Rexnord (chain belts) and Allis-Chalmers. The late shift sometimes includes men from another neighborhood plant—Gorman Thomas or Jim Gantner or Pete Vuckovich—in for a brew after a night game. On busy nights, Bob McClure and Mike Caldwell have been known to slip behind the bar to help out.
I introduced myself to Audrey Kuenn, a trim, extremely pleasant woman in blue slacks and a tan blouse, who told me that she had experienced a few moments of doubt when Harvey was named manager, back in June, because she didn’t want to lose her close friendship with the Brewer wives, who call her Mom. But it didn’t change; they all went on sitting together in Section 3, just as before, and screamed the team home. The Kuenns have been married for eight years (each was married previously), and now I asked Audrey if she’d ever seen Harvey play ball. “No, I didn’t,” she said. “It used to be the old Braves who played in this park, you know, Eddie Mathews and Joe Adcock and the rest”—the Braves won a World Championship in 1957 but abandoned Milwaukee in 1966, moving to Atlanta and leaving a very bitter feeling among local fans for their perfidy—“and I never got to see any American League players.” 
“He was something,” I said, and she said, “I’ll bet. But I don’t think I could have stood it, watching Harv—I get so excited.” 
Our conversation was conducted in fragments, because Audrey Kuenn had bar business to look after, and the phone kept ringing (the Kuenns are in the book, and one of the callers that morning was a man who told Audrey to tell Harvey to tell Gorman Thomas to keep his eye on the ball; “I sure will,” she said), and the Kuenns’ three dogs—Nicky and Jingles, the boxers, and Ugsly, the pug—seemed a bit restless, too, and no wonder. Then the bar talk and Series talk went up a notch or two when a young man and his girlfriend came in, bringing along their boxer, name of Harley, who had a half-embarrassed, dog-in-a-paper-hat look, because he had been painted Brewer blue from head to foot and nose to tail (blue hair spray, it turned out), with a tan “1” on his back and the Brewer baseball-mitt logo in tan on his forehead and a wiggly tan “Go Brewers” in script on each flank. “It’s better on his other side,” Harley’s owner told me, pointing to the message. “I got better at it the second time.” Audrey Kuenn Went out back to tell Harvey to finish getting dressed, because it was time for him to get to the park, and when she returned, just before Harvey came out and said hello to everyone in the place, and then goodbye to everyone in the place, she said to me, “When we got to the hotel in St. Louis the other day, I said to Harv, ‘Can you believe we’re here?’ and he said, ‘Never in a million years’.”
Nothing needs to be added here; I'll let the details do all of the work, as Angell does.

This recent, gloomy shot of Cesar's Inn is courtesy Google Maps Street View. 1982 must feel as if it's a long way away.

Top photo of Cesar's Inn via OnMilwaukee.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Next Big Thing: Liz Stephens

University of Nebraska Press (2013)
I'm happy to host Liz Stephens's Next Big Thing self-interview.


What is the title of your book?

Where did the idea come from for the book?
There are two answers to this. One: a poster on the wall of Utah State University which was for essay submissions. I was a creative writer, I knew that, but had no idea what “essay” really meant in a creative context (this was notably before getting an entire PhD as an answer to that question). I thought, well, nobody better find out I don’t know what that means, I better look that up. Once I had, I started writing in the first person and have never looked back. Secondly: once I accrued enough material, the shape of the papers after I kept shuffling them simply felt bookish. The length of the thought was bookish. I kept going, because I had more to say and I could tell that. Writing an essay of course feels very different not just at the end but from within. The idea itself has a particular scope.

What genre does your book fall under?

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Love this game. Well, my husband’s an actor, so he’d like to play himself, but I’ve broken it to him that he’s too old for the part now. What happened to Lili Taylor? Can she play me? And for him, maybe…who does working-class vulnerable guy really well? Ewan McGregor working an American accent? Of course these two are roughly our age but they are “Hollywood 40” so I think it’ll work.

What is the one-sentence synopsis?
A grown person sets out to figure out why she doesn’t feel grown up yet.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
The Days are Gods has just been released by University of Nebraska Press. I was lucky: the acquiring agent for the press was at a public reading of mine, the very first of any of the material for this book, and she was there to see someone else. I still remember who. She handed me her card afterwards unasked; her instincts were right, their list was perfect for this book.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Hm. Seven years. In the meantime I got two graduate degrees, got married and helped shepard my husband through his graduate degree, had a baby, started raising a daughter, bought and sold two houses as I moved across the country twice, defended a PhD, and wrote a book.

What other books would you compare to this story within your genre?
The book has been claimed to be similar to The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Erhlich, also to Mary Clearman Blew, Teresa Jordan, Pam Houston, Ellen Meloy. All Western memoir writers. But every time that claim is made it’s qualified, to say that mine is by an outsider, and younger (that’s only relevant because of point of view culturally), and not trying to claim to become authentic as a local in any way in the process.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Me. My full head. The women I mention above showed me the form and blew my mind, but the momentum to finish a book? The uncomfortable somewhat unwelcome drive to get a bunch of stuff off my chest in memoir form, which by implication I think is often saying, “You know? Know what I mean?” at the end of each chapter, that need was in me. I was not driven to get it done in order to say, “I wrote a book.” Willpower has no ideas.

What else about your book might pique the writer’s interest?
I don’t like distancing in writing. I like having the patience and tools to say things in the way we wish we had time to think them through, but being intentionally obtuse in print is just …showing off or something. No, that’s not right. It just has a different intention. But not all-inclusive certainly.  One of my students wrote the greatest thing the other day. He said, “Fiction seems to be about turning water (reality) into wine (better-than reality). Creative nonfiction seems to be where you say, ‘Look at this water I’m holding in my hands.” I love that.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Roger Angell and the Distant, Distant Past

In "Early Innings," an essay in The New Yorker on February 24, 1992, Roger Angell—perhaps inspired by the taut, ridiculously entertaining World Series of a few months earlier, perhaps tugged by thoughts of mortality and nostalgia, perhaps simply on assignment—turned his attention to his earliest memories of baseball, producing a characteristically warm, detail-rich essay on memory, longing, and time, a vivid snapshot of the Depression Era as recalled by a precocious ball fan and avid reader.

One paragraph in particular stands out as a striking illustration of the corrosive effect of late-Twentieth century's literal and figurative NOISE, and of the distance a fan had to travel, both in his imagination and in his city, to see and experience baseball. "Sports were different in my youth—", Angell writes,
a series of events to look forward to and then to turn over in memory, rather than a huge, omnipresent industry, with its own economics and politics and crushing public relations. How it felt to be a young baseball fan in the thirties can be appreciated only if I can bring back this lighter and fresher atmosphere. Attending a game meant a lot, to adults as well as to a boy, because it was the only way you could encounter athletes and watch what they did. There was no television, no instant replay, no evening highlights. We saw the players’ faces in newspaper photographs, or in the pages of Baseball, an engrossing monthly with an invariable red cover, to which I subscribed, and here and there in an advertisement. (I think Lou Gehrig plugged Fleischmann’s Yeast, a health remedy said to be good for the complexion.) We never heard athletes’ voices or became aware of their “image” Bo Jackson and Joe Montana and Michael Jordan were light-years away. Baseball by radio was a rarity, confined for the most part to the World Series; the three New York teams, in fact, banned radio coverage of their regular-season games between 1934 and 1938, on the theory that daily broadcasts would damage attendance. Following baseball always required a visit to the players’ place of business and, once there, you watched them with attention, undistracted by Diamond Vision or rock music or game promotions. Seeing the players in action on the field, always at a little distance, gave them a heroic tinge. (The only player I can remember encountering on the street, one day on the West Side, was the Babe, in retirement by then, swathed in his familiar camel-hair coat with matching cap.) 

I understand those of you out their inwardly sighing, or rolling your eyes. Every generation laments the purity of its past, its long-gone riches trampled and sullied in the name of dubious progress. In my time. Kids today! Etc. To his credit, Angell often catches himself when he's being mawkish, but I think that the origin of this essay, which seems to be highly personal and urgent, even for Angell, required that he shrug off any inner voices that might've said, This is precious. Angell really wants us to see how much the sport—less so, the game—has changed. The spectacle of the ballpark in the early 1990s seems quaint relative to the bombast we experience now—I sometimes have to plug my ears during games, but not at Wrigley!—and Angell has duly noted this in subsequent essays. Regardless, in 1992 the '30s and '40s must've seemed as if they stood in distant centuries to Angell.

He once saw Babe Ruth on the street!

Near the end of the essay, Angell describes living briefly in Missouri as a teenager; his father visited and became involved, with his son, in a pick-up game with some ranch-hands. The feasibility of such spontaneous, enthusiastic ball-and-glove sporting now, Angell marvels and laments, is minuscule. He worries about how sentimental he's becoming with these memories, but guards against it with intimacy, sincerity, and candor: the blended wellspring of any great essay, as "Early Innings" surely is. "We know everything about the game now," he sighs near the end,
thanks to instant replay and computerized stats, and what we seem to have concluded is that almost none of us are good enough to play it. Thanks to television and sports journalism, we also know everything about the skills and financial worth and private lives of the enormous young men we have hired to play baseball for us, but we don’t seem to know how to keep their salaries or their personalities within human proportions. We don’t like them as much as we once did and we don’t like ourselves as much, either. Baseball becomes feasible from time to time, not much more, and we fans must make prodigious efforts to rearrange our profoundly ironic contemporary psyches in order to allow its old pleasures to reach us. My father wasn’t naive; he was lucky.
Angell was 71 when he wrote "Early Innings." Two decades later he's still going; the ear-ringing, soul-damaging elements of today's sport haven't chased him yet.

We weren't naive; we were lucky.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Next Big Thing

Orphan Press (2013)
I've been tagged by Amy Newman in The Next Big Thing, a ​series of self-interviews where writers answer questions about their recent or forthcoming books, and tag other writers to do the same. I'm tagging essayists Barrie Jean Borich (Body Geographic) and Liz Stephens (The Days Are Gods). You can look forward to their interviews going live one week from today! (I'll be hosting Liz's interview here.) My Q's and A's:

What is your title of your book? 
The book is titled This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began.

Where did the idea come from for the book? 
I’ve been writing autobiographical essays for many years—mostly about childhood and adolescence—and I've always been thinking about a book. I gathered them in a manuscript that after a lot of tweaks and edits and some shuffling felt complete and thematic.

What genre does your book fall under? 

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? 
That's a tough question because, well, these are essays. They’d have to go with POV shots, I guess, and we all know how clunky and corny they can get after about 30 seconds. As for the other figures in the book, I’d have to do a wide, somewhat bizarre casting call of my siblings’ and friends’ doppelgängers. That would be wild.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? 
Essays that interrogate the edges of my suburban youth, exploring issues of spirituality, sex, violence, and myth.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? 
The book won the Orphan Press Creative Nonfiction Award and was just published by Orphan Press.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? 
I worked on the drafts of the essays and versions of the manuscript for many years.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? 
Any work of autobiographical nonfiction that takes to heart Montaigne’s notion of an essay as a weighing out, a sifting of ordinary experience for sense and sometimes-elusive meaning.

Who or what inspired you to write this book? 
Years ago I turned from writing poems to writing essays because the essay form felt freer and closer to the kinds of exploring I wanted to do in my writing, writing that usually begins in ambivalence or uncertainty, certainly in “not-knowing.” (I'm not as confident as Montaigne, whose self-starting charge “What do I know?” I usually amend to “What might I know?”) I’ve always loved Aldous Huxley’s line that “the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.” And I feel that I’m at home in sentences and paragraphs, the roominess in there, though I think my prose is also informed by my having written and read poetry for so many years.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest? 
Well...I’m spinning on a jungle gym on the front cover. So there’s that.


Here's the trailer for This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began:

You can buy the book here.