Thursday, April 29, 2010

"Give me the business all night long": Layers in the Lyrics of Rock

Most of us don't expect much out of our classic rock n' roll lyrics. The most sophisticated devices we usually find there are some sarcasm or some overtly sexual double entendres. If we want our rock to have depth and meaning, we usually turn to folkier sorts of rockers, the ones who take up causes and provide scathing social commentaries. The Neil Youngs, the Joni Mitchells, and even sometimes the John Fogertys of acoustic- and vocal-driven rock wrote lyrics that were meant to be heard, and that delivered messages on several levels, between which they hoped their listeners would uncover layers of sometimes paradoxical meaning -- patriotism mixed with suspicion of the government, or naive nostalgia mixed with the wisdom of "there's no going back." But when we want to just rock out, we don't want the meaning to distract us. Arena rock, the best selling rock of the '70s and '80s, gives us that Dionysian escape through soaring vocals and repetitive driving hooks.

We might think it's futile to look for any sort of depth in our arena rock, our "popular" rock, but sometimes an overproduced, wall-of-sound, stadium filler screamed out by a "pussy god" in a muscle shirt can have a surprisingly layered message.

The song that made me start thinking about the words of arena rock was Billy Squier's "The Stroke." This song is an excellent departure from the usual subjects, because it uses some clever double meanings and analogies to deliver a somewhat unique message, and also to hook the listener in before they even know what that message is. The devices in the song are in no way sophisticated -- the analogy is obvious, as well as sexual like so many of the devices in songs from that era. But Squier used his audience's keen 1980s ear for sexy language as a way to pull them into a dialog that hasn't the least bit to do with that kind of sex, but another kind of expression of ownership or prostitution.

This song is being discussed all over the internet in song meaning forums where idiot kids leave comments like "totally about spanking it!" and "it's a hookup song." The kids obviously didn't notice that the speakers in the song keep addressing each other as "boy," and they don't mention anything about the song being "gay," so their ears must be so polluted they don't hear a thing. They do however, feel quite strongly that Squier's on-stage dancing is most "gay."

On the opposite end of the argument however, a bunch of rock nerd killjoys come into those forums and say "this song has nothing to do with sex," "Squier didn't mean that AT ALL it's about the record industry and nothing else," or my favorite, "it's so obviously about transactional analysis." Squier of course knew that "stroke" was a psychological term, but I doubt he sat there thinking "Oh yes, I'm going to write a clever song based on transactional analysis." TA is a post-Freudian type of analysis developed by Eric Berne, a guy who loved him some Freud (even if he disagreed with him and had to invent a new type of analysis because of it). No matter the origins of "the stroke," it's hard to avoid thinking about the term like a Freudian, that is, seeing it as a sexual metaphor applied to the psyche or ego. Whether this is valid or not, Squier knew people would initially hear it that way (along with the other sexual lyrics) and get pulled into the song -- hopefully hearing his real message by the end. Really, if it was all about a cool argument against the exploitation of musicians, would we have women rhythmically chanting "stroke!" a hundred times over?

Squier uses the girls chanting "stroke!" and the suggestive "stroke me" lines as a hook, but the lyrics to the verses and the ad lib in between the lines of the choruses use the sexual metaphors as more than just a marketing tool. (Ok, now you can start shaking your head every time I write "tool," "device," etc.) Once the transaction begins (firm handshakes and accusations of spreading "ear pollution"), the record exec gives the musician the once over and tells him he can "move quite well." Mm hmm. (More on that later.) After the first chorus of sarcastically asking for some strokes, the musician calls the record exec a "sinner." A strong word for someone who's merely a cheat or a scheister. It implies something a little more carnal, a cardinal sin. I think the most telling lyric comes in the second verse with "First you try to bed me/You make my backbone slide." Ok, "bed me" is a pretty obvious metaphor. "Bend over and sign this contract," is pretty much what the exec is saying. "Backbone slide" comes from an expression for losing your courage or giving into something (selling out in this case) but it has also been used to describe dancing, something the men are doing metaphorically during the transaction, and something the exec wants the musician to do quite literally, in order to earn his money. My absolute favorite line in this song, delivered in a tinglingly coy mix of disgust and seduction: "Give me the bus-i-ness all night long."

Who is speaking and who is being addressed in this song seems to shift around. It leads in with an announcement for the audience ("Have you heard?") and then describes the processes of the music business, and ends what could be another address to the audience, or another exchange between the musician and exec. But the overall meaning is not much altered if you aren't sure who's doing the stroking at any given time, or who is being sarcastically encouraged to participate. It's a two way street, with the record execs wooing the musicians and the musicians prostituting themselves with the help of some powerful pimps. Strokes are probably passed back and forth. Squier is disgusted with the record industry, but also with the musicians who allow it to dominate them.

It's also interesting to note that the album "The Stroke" comes from is called Don't Say No. Don't say no to signing me for this record? Don't say no to buying concert tickets? Who knows. But the message of "The Stroke" seems to be that, as far as record companies are concerned, even if musicians say "no" they always mean "yes." Please, yes!

I said I'd mention Squier's dancing, since the kids' "gay-dar" started bleeping when they watched the video. He doesn't look gay. He looks like a nerd who worked hard and made it onto the stage. (He's still a nerd. He works in public gardens and supports "native planting" efforts.) Well, the ladies certainly didn't find his "fancy dances" a turnoff. Sometimes he's a little Freddy Mercury-esque in his strutting, and sometimes he just looks like a silly Robert Plant imitation. But no girl would have anything bad to say about that hair of his, or his (sometimes pink) muscle shirts, or those 80s fit Levis. I was surprised to find he's already 31 years old in that video. Makes me feel pretty darn good about turning 30!

(I didn't launch into this post because of Billy's pelvic moves -- I've thought he was the shit since long before I knew what he looked like. I love Robert Plant's voice, and I always thought Squier had a similar sound but more masculine, and totally American. Plant, as great as he is, is like some kind of English folkloric nymph . Squier is a dude. I'd only seen one or two photos of him, so I watched his videos for the first time ever in order to write this! I was happy to find him a whole package deal of rock n'roll goodies. Im sorry, am I objectifying a man?)

So while most of the arena rock we listen to might not have anything interesting to say, I'm going to start keeping my ears open for little lyrical efforts on the part of the tight-pants-wearing, luxurious-hair-sporting musicians. Some of them are true artists, even if their album covers and concert ticket sales seem to somehow prove them otherwise. Someone was probably just stroking them "quite well."

Billy turns 60 on May 12.

"Lean on brick wall while holding guitar" must have
been the only executive-approved pose for his photo shoots.

"The Stroke" on YouTube

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Limits and Ends of Parody

I love a good parody. The British are especially adept at it in film, television and literature, and even some Americans of yore, like the Stooges, could handle the "device" without having it explode in their faces (exploding pies notwithstanding). Unfortunately, in pop culture today it's hard to find a good parody. The authors of the books, films, etc. that set out to parody often choose subjects they can't handle, mistake the ends of parody for disrespect, apply their parodies with uneven hand, and often confuse parody with its ugly, distant cousin bastardization.

Several problems might be going on here that contribute to bad parodies. First, pop culture attempts most often to parody pop culture, which in some cases is just crap begetting exaggerated crap. Second, many parodies are meant to be satirical, and to call attention to all the things that are wrong with a person, a movement, or a particular work of art -- but the parody makers don't realize that not all parodies are required to tear the subject apart without any respect or homage to the original talent or inspiration that might have been displayed there. Parody doesn't even have to make any use of satire. Third, parody might have limits -- particularly limits of form (i.e. the length of a parody piece, or the type of genre it parodies or chooses to deliver its message), as well as the less delineated limits of how much raillery, irreverence, and filth parody can deliver without becoming mere bastardization.

The first two problems of pop culture parodies and "all bad" parodies lead in to one another, so I'll talk about them in order. Pop culture is a mess these days (we don't need to go into detail here -- if you've any aesthetic or intelligence this is a truism), and people who are usually no more talented or intelligent than the makers of the messes attempt to make fun of the messes. This is good for a laugh when there is something specifically stupid about a new movie or TV show, and we can get a laugh out of a short SNL sketch or something. But we don't need a series of movies explaining how bad an original series of movies is, or movies conveniently labeled as the parodies for each popular genre (Date Movie, Action Movie, or whatever the hell). This is pandering parody. It makes reference to things everyone knows (Scream), tells them about things they already know (Scream is ridiculous), and doesn't provide any other form of entertainment or make use of any other technique.

An alternate type of recent movie parody that is more successful, but just as silly and pop, are some of Ben Stiller's and Will Ferrel's movies like Tropic Thunder and Anchorman, where parody and storytelling are mixed. These movies parody the war movie genre and the image of a 1970s lifestyle, respectively, but they also have other things going on. The parody is a (big) device within the movie, but not the entire movie. I'm not saying these films are what I feverishly look for at the library (yeah, I rent from the library), but they are funny. It's also interesting to note that they're not parodying anything recent. The writers know we already know those recent things are stupid.

Monty Python (who girls aren't supposed to like for some reason) are great at movie-length parody, and even pull off parodying Arthurian legends and, later, the life of Christ (a guy who Family Guy manages to bastardize repeatedly, awfully) in The Holy Grail and Life of Brian. These movies follow age old story-lines, but use a million kinds of parody from satirical social commentary ("We're an autonomous collective!"), ironic or non-sequitur situations (the chaste knight at the medieval equivalent of Hotel California), to one-liners based on the archaic or over-the-top language of the periods (grasping all the elements, obvious and subtle, of the parodied thing's style is important!).

Now that I think of some good parodies, it's getting to me how sick it is that the bad pop parodies are parodying things that are still being made, despite everyone knowing they're terrible! Not just a mess, but a bloody cannibalistic mess.

Those bad pop parodies are also committing that second offense of making the all-bad parody. But how can they do otherwise when their subjects have minimal to no redeeming qualities? So lets talk about other things someone might try to parody today. Of course we would parody Hitler or propaganda movies as all bad, all fodder for ridicule, something to be turned upside-down. But you wouldn't parody a beloved novel like that, or the life of a notable person who happened to have some quirks or skeletons in the closet. In fact, some of the most elegant parody happens when we parody things we love. The Pythons obviously know and love their Arthurian tales, and while they may not be devoutly religious, they don't maliciously tear apart the Christ story like crazed atheists. Especially in the case of the Knights of the Round Table, care is taken.

Family Guy,
on the other hand, exemplifies making fun of things without any respect for said things. Yes, even Jesus. They don't make fun of the absurdities of religion or people's perceptions about the Son of God (fine things to parody!), they just make Jesus do terrible things to people. They make babies do terrible things to people. Pretty much everyone just does terrible things to people. And animals. Some of it is non-sequitur. That makes sense, because you'll nervously laugh at anything that's out of place after Peter reads you A-Hundred-and-One Racist Rape Jokes while on the toilet. Not all of these things are supposed to be parody, but I'm sure Seth McFarlane thinks some of them are. His parodied NPR voice was funny, for instance, until a cartoon dog practically committed suicide because of it. Maybe McFarlane loves NPR. You wouldn't know it. He doesn't seem to care about anything, which is a real turnoff.

Another thing McFarlane parodies are "liberal ideals," i.e. concern for the environment and social activism. These traits are mostly exhibited by the dog, Brian. He is often hypocritical when it comes to his ideals, he is a drunk, has questionable motives (like everyone on the show) and while he's probably the second-most likable character in that cast, he makes liberalism and himself look bad with his parody, his exaggerated opinions and behaviors. The Simpsons does a similar parody with Lisa, but she has so many redeeming qualities, her lapses in behavior or judgement are cute and endearing, and lead anyone with similar opinions to identify with her struggles. (One of my favorite Lisa lines is "Dad, this goes against every feminist bone in my body, but can't you control your woman?!") The Simpsons gets the point across when it comes to making fun of radical environmentalists, feminists etc, but they don't do so at the expense of a character's appeal. The environmentalist/activist parody leads to internal conflict for Lisa and builds her, it doesn't just provide the one-dimensional contradiction that defines why we should be disgusted by her and laugh at her, like it does for Brian.

Care is important, but unfortunately for some rock star hopefuls, care is not enough to make a parody successful. The band Rock Sugar insulted my ears the other day when they received radio play in honor of an upcoming area show. I'm sure they love Journey, and I'm sure they have huge boners for Metallica, but their "Don't Stop the Sandman" is painful. They try to parody '70s over-the-top rock while parodying '80s metal. You can't do both at the same time, in one song. At least they can't. They don't make any attempt to look Journeyish, but they look very Metallica-ish, and cut back and forth between that look and the white wardrobe that's supposed to go with the '70s rock. The songs are not really woven together at all. It's just the "Enter Sandman" riff and rhythm all the way through both songs, and the singer goes back to Metallica style singing every so often by cuing us in with a Hetfield style "YuueeeeaAAH!" It's a darn shame, because the guy really does a good Steve Perry. They should have just gone for the Journey cover band angle. I think there's already a famous one out there. But they could have had a showdown. He does claim his hair is bionic. He might have won. But I think they're in it for more marketing money. (34 songs in a 13 song set!) I was happy to see that the band does not get unanimous praise from young rock and metal fans. There is another parody band called Steel Panther that I think does a better job. I wouldn't buy it or anything, but they at least have consistent costuming, singing, and do a decent job with the song lyrics (commentary on the rocker lifestyle) and arrangements on numbers like "Community Property." I really don't like Rock Sugar though, and I don't know why they think what they're doing is funny, even if they do really love the music they appropriate for their misguided purposes. I think both bands just jumped on the Spinal Tap train, but didn't have the humor to pull of the whole shebang.

Ok, let's have another positive example of subject-love leading to good parody! A recent movie where Brits take care of the stories they love, but lay into them with hard-hitting humor just the same, is Sean of the Dead. Zombie movies (which are mostly laughing stocks in their original forms -- maybe they scared someone in the '70s?) are parodied to death (then undeath), but the filmakers' love for zombies and the "zombie genre" is evident.

Zombies will provide the segue into my next complaints about today's parodies -- that the authors of it don't know its limits. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies hit the shelves awhile back, and it is not only an uneven, confused, half-executed attempt at parody (most of it is just Austen's original novel, semi-rewritten in not-so-wonderful imitation 19th century prose by the modern "co-author," with zombies cut and pasted in), but it is a novel length parody, which I'm not sure the human mind can sustain if there is not some other literary element and/or a compelling tale. Gulliver's Travels makes use of parody, but also many other devices and fun stories. Swift's parody essay on eating babies however, was focused on one idea, so it was very short. He based it on an appropriate format, said what he had to say, and got out of there, ending on a punchline. In the age of film and TV, maybe the appropriate format for P&P&Z and similarly "brilliant ideas" (the author's words) would be a short skit or a special episode of a show. A gimmick doesn't make a novel.

The book might be considered a novel length bastardization rather than parody, in the opinions of many readers. Bastardization is the introduction of debasing elements into something that was basically good or even great. Some culture folk have also started using "bastardized" to refer to characters and stories that have been poorly remade, like Tiny Toons. Anyhow, as fun as zombies can be, I'd say they are certainly a debasing element when introduced into a novel like Pride and Prejudice. Especially when they come with the promise of "Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem," and by their presence turn our Elizabeth into a bloodthirsty creep.

The parody is not really a parody. It just repeats what is essentially the same kind of period language Austen wrote (which already shows her commentary on high society and doesn't really need to be parodied), and adds awful creatures.

It is a shame that this didn't turn out a better parody of 19th century style and story, because those of us who love it most know it can be pretty hilarious. Like many other negative reviewers said of the book (I wanted to make sure I wasn't the only one wielding the single-star), I don't consider Austen's work "sacrosanct" and I'm not one of those followers who reads the chick lit novels about her life (which are probably good examples of "bastardization," even if the debasing element is simply someone's terrible prose). I prefer my ladies a little younger (ahem, Victorian ones that is), and more feisty than romantic -- but I don't mind poking fun at the whole lot of them. So like many of the others, I thought this might be a cool idea. It even makes a heroic attempt at sustaining a style and weaving the stories for the first...few...pages. To quote an Amazonian, it was "a very clever marketing ploy, but not much else."

When I first heard of all of these books, I was most tempted by Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, because of all the possibilities (sea monsters...what a broad category of destructive potential! Bless them...). Before I read anything, I thought I might even be a person who could be convinced by an unscrupulous editor to write such things. It might be fun, I thought. But I won't go near the rest of them now. I hear there are some vampires in the next one. They heard zombies went out of style, that vampires are hot. So the editor (not the "author") decided to re-bastardize an amazing woman writer to make her more like the ones who succeed in today's popular fiction market. You know the ones.

Parody has its limits. Parody is good for some aims, not for others. Parody works best when the thing parodied is a thing well-loved, or at least a thing well-understood. Parody is not "Any great work of literature" + "Monsters."

Monday, April 26, 2010

"From the Sandwich Board"

A painting that hung on the wall at the original Austin's.

Restaurant menus have long been a surefire place to find some good puffery and hyperbole. Different restaurant styles call for different methods of food embellishment. The high end bistros simply put the whole number with no dollar sign to play up the "it must be good because look at that price" factor, and boggle your culinary vocabulary with words like "reduction" and confit. Mid-priced chain restaurants rely on food photographers and their abilities to photograph things that were never food, but happen to look very foodlike. My personal favorite menus, however, are those of the local diner. They can't afford pictures. They can't afford laminators. Their prices are unintimidating. But their owners often have quite the knack for painting verbal pictures of mile high hamburgers and dripping sandwiches that shine through the stains on the paper and the smears on the plastic menu sheets.

I served at a diner while I was in art school. This place was itself hyperbole. Open since 1959 in a historic "strip mall" (in the 1950s that meant three stores in one building with a shared parking lot) near downtown Tucson, Austin's Ice Cream was a hit with young and old, rich and poor. Twenty-six ancient laminated tables, labeled with the letters of the alphabet, plus a fifteen seat counter stained with prehistoric splotches that I could not get out, no matter how many times the old people at the counter (where they thought the tip should be lower) told me to put more elbow grease into it. No more than four servers worked the floor at any given time, so serving ten or eleven tables was common. (For comparison, chain restaurants do now allow you more than three or four tables. This place had sixteen-year-olds hopping from fountain to floor like it was still 1959.)

Most guests expected the hectic scene at lunchtime, and very few were disappointed by the wait, or by the food that failed to live up to the owner's fantastic, neurotic, menu descriptions (you can find negative reviews of the food online, but the place wasn't exactly for foodies). Patrons sipped on malted milkshakes and chocolate RCs while they waited, and watched the kids run around behind the fountain counter, using our 50 year old soda jerk set-up that had been shipped from an ancient soda shop in New Jersey when Mr. Austin moved west to sell his creamy wares. Austin's was an experience.

I hardly remember some of the sandwich names, as I wrote them all in waitress shorthand. I do remember that the hamburger and cheeseburger had some ridiculous name that people would order it by (the supreme something-or-other). I always wondered why they didn't just say "cheeseburger." The old people, who left me tips of equal amounts pocket change and pocket lint, ordered off the tops of their grey heads. But the tourists and kids would always read the menu, and order exactly what it said there, no matter how silly it sounded.

The food titles were a little funny, but the descriptions were always the best. Everything at Austin's was succulent, juicy, fragrant, dripping, etc. To save money, the owners (no longer Austins since the '80s) made LTO (lettuce tomato onion) and C (cheese) optional on everything. Even burgers. So if you didn't ask for any toppings, you got a dry burnt burger on a bun. Under the menu headings for burgers and sandwiches, it said in small print "Lettuce, Tomato, Onion available, if desired." Passive voice on menus is also funny. The only person making the decision is the guest, but we can't address them. They're trying to read the menu!

My favorite part of Austin's menu was the title for the sandwich section: "From the Sandwich Board." That romanticized sandwiches for me (something I've curiously always romanticized), and I imagined them coming off a wooden chopping block in the front of a country deli with a daily chalk menu in northern Wisconsin or some crap, not from a stainless steel counter in the back of a hot galley kitchen with rubber mats underneath, sweltering in the desert heat that Austin's ancient windows (decorated with a schoolteacher's quaint seasonal renditions of painted, living hot dogs with red lipstick) couldn't keep out.

I really miss Austin's. There are no good sandwiches around here. A few years ago, Austin's closed its lifelong location near semi-bustling (at least interesting) downtown Tucson. It moved far east into the ugly sprawl to take advantage of lower rent. Unfortunately, that put it in a real, post-1980s strip mall, surrounded by chain restaurant competition and terrible traffic, and nowhere near the interstate, the downtown area, or the university. It lost the mystique, it lost the location, it lost its older guests who couldn't find it or access it in shopping mall land, and it lost the mid-town tourist crowd and all the U of A students seeking cheap sandwiches by bike or bus. Austin's closed this past December. They couldn't pay the rent.

Despite the exciting menu writing, the owners did not have the business sense to keep Austin's open through the recession. Though I loved their style. They refused to carry Pepsi or Coke products because RC is classic. They never remodeled to update their look, only to replace broken seats or equipment. They played classic rock all day, even when the 10:30am old lady crowd had to stuff their ears with carrot sticks to be able to eat their early bird lunches. They supported local artists with their whimsically painted windows. They gave jobs and supervisory positions to kids, not to keep turning them over like a fast food restaurant, but to give them a chance at some hardcore table waiting skills, and decent money for young folk. They used only vintage equipment for the ice cream making and storage, unless health regulations made it impossible or unsafe to do so. They made all their own ice cream, and tried some strange flavors like ginger and jalapeno, but kept all the old fogey favorites in those aged freezers. And most endearing to me, they did a bang up job on the silly, unillustrated menu writing. But they were also kind of strange, unfriendly, and obviously didn't completely know what they were doing.

I wrote a short story about a girl who worked there (based on my experiences, but not me). Here's the part at the diner, "Keller's". Now I wonder if Austin's comes off better in narrative or in description. I write a little different from this now, so it's weird to see the story again. Although, it's in the first person, and I guess the voice is Nicole's and not really mine. She's 21-ish, a U of A student, more of a boy than I am, and covered in ice cream.


They were playing the “lite rock” station that day, and I pained under the soft tunes as I mixed three chocolate shakes. The Kellers usually let us play classic rock in the restaurant, but one too many cranky old women had complained. Van Halen did sound kind of loud at ten in the morning, but that’s what they get for eating lunch at goddamn ten in the morning. It was after two now and we were waiting for the rush to ease off. But December was the height of Snowbird season, so no end was in sight.

I stabbed away at my three silver shake tins, pushing the stray chunks of ice cream down to get pulverized, ignoring the sawing sound and horrible vibration that ran though my hand and up to my shoulder every time the spoon hit the spindle. It was one of those work routines that had become comfortably monotonous. I purposely commandeered the six spindle machine, while the younger servers fought over the three open spots. I was a pro at milkshakes. Customers still complained sometimes, especially when it was a hundred and twenty outside and their milkshakes were not as thick as usual. It never got to me though. I was damn fast at sundaes too. One time a housewife who couldn’t tell that I was waiting on nine other tables walked out while I was making a banana split for her, three different goddamn ice creams with three different toppings. At least she left a tip.

At four o’clock, eight of my ten tables were full, and I was a little worried. At five we would start breaks, and I would be on third and counter – all my tables plus a possible fifteen seats at the counter, filled with spinning, dribbling children who order lots of shakes and don’t leave tips. Food was easier than shakes because I didn’t have to make it. Things were going well though, I had sixty in my pocket already, and most of the tables were finishing up. The awkward exchanges of my “How is everything?” answered with a food-muffled “Good” were through, and I retreated to the safety of the counter area to do the desserts. The desserts sold themselves, no suggestion needed. I had three ice cream orders in my head, and my hand was dipping quickly in and out of freezers, gloves be damned, gingerly placing perfectly formed scoops into the antique glass cups. I listened to the music of the freezer doors slamming and the glass dishes clinking to drown out Little Richard. My knuckles and arm hairs were sticky and colorful by then, even though I sometimes stopped to wipe off with a bleachy towel. It was amazing there were still hairs there at all. The muscle I had developed on my right forearm was amazing as well. I hoped I was the only one who noticed it. Left handed scooping was out of the question at these break-wrist paces.

A couple hours of spotty rushes went by, as well as a few games of Clyde and me stepping on each other’s feet. Clyde was the only other server there who was as old as I was. Both going into our mid-twenties and inexplicably stuck working at the ice cream shop. Fortunately for our dignity we both looked about fifteen. Though I don’t know if that helped or hurt our tips. We always daydreamed about working together somewhere that served alcohol, so we could “make bank” on the drink-inflated bills. It never happened though. Neither of us liked things to be expected of us, and at a fancy restaurant, people would expect things. And I wouldn’t want to dress nice around Clyde anyway. He already bothered me enough with the way he’d examine me in my ice-cream stained pink polo shirts and sticky ponytail.

I bent down behind the counter to squeeze the grimy chocolate juice out of the tattered brown hems of my jeans, careful to avoid pointing my butt in the boy's direction. When I popped back up to re-bleach my hands, there were Mike and Donna right in front of me at the counter.

“Weeelll, fancy meeting you here.” I gave my typical cheesy greeting. I liked it because I knew my friends would get it. Sometimes I thought we’d all been born in the wrong decade.

“Yes, Cheerio. We thought we’d pop in for a bit and have a taste of your wares.” Mike’s British was not that good.

Donna elbowed him in the gut.

“Jeez Donna!” His voice got high like it always did when she pissed him off.

“So are you guys eating?” I was hopeful.

“Yup,” answered Donna. “I’ll have the usual.”

“And I as well, love.” Donna threw another elbow, but he blocked it this time.

I was overly smiley and refreshed to see my friends, as if somehow their presence at the counter protected me from the self-worth crushing stares of the customers and the ever-escalating Clyde-tension. I had asked Mike and Donna to stop by when I was called in to work, but I figured they wouldn’t come – Keller’s didn’t serve alcohol.

I got them their usuals – Donna’s was invariably the double cheeseburger (PLU 187) and Mike’s the Santa Fe (PLU 118). I delivered their orders to the cook in Spanish (“doble hamberguesa con chips y una Santa Fe con muchas cebollas y mucho queso!”), which always gave the kitchen staff a hoot, and strutted back to the fountain. I made myself a chocolate RC and illegally hopped over the counter to settle in next to Donna and take my “break.” Since I was on counter I still had to get up if a take-out order came in or if someone needed help with their ice cream. Some break.

“So what are your plans for tonight?” I didn’t really want to drink again, but we probably would. I savored the syrupy chocolate mixture. We still made sodas old-fashioned style at Keller’s, with real syrup pumps and fizzy water.

“Fourth Ave,” Mike said, without an accent. “We’re going to park and walk around. Probably end up at Che’s.” Che’s was a socialist bar with lots of angry artwork on the wall, tritely lit in red from below. I wasn’t sure if the place was ridiculously serious or ridiculously tongue-in-cheek. The drinks were expensive and you had to order the nice ones or risk a faux pas. But the conversation was usually better than at the Bay Horse. My interest was piqued. Maybe we would get some dinner too, that didn’t include popcorn or the Bay Horse’s signature frozen Tombstone pizzas.

"Neee-coooaaal!" came the kitchen cry. My food was up.


I quit Austin's when I was 23, when I found out I was pregnant (what!?). No pregnant girl could work those tables, or even fit behind the counter. Of course I had to work somewhere though, and Providence (or Buddha or somebody) came through with a cushy, friendly job at school within two months of my quitting. I will never work at a restaurant again. But I wouldn't trade those long hours of diner din, awkwardness, sweet sweat, bleachy stickiness, and numbing hunger for anything.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Share the Blove

Lauren and I, after 10 days camping in Kauai.
I like these "what the hell is happening here?" pictures.

That's Blog-Love, friends.

My good friend Lauren just started one up, and here is an entry I found helpful.

Narcissicm vs. Arrogance

As you know, if you've been hanging around here, I've been writing about my own writing, writing about my own schooling, writing lots of things that some folks might call "arrogant" lately. This post lays out the difference between that nasty trait, arrogance, and the narcissism or self-love or self-interest -- whatever you want to call it -- that all writers share, whether they are the types who openly write about it or not. Seems we women are more likely to let these things out into the open, and this of course makes us the target for all sorts of negativity. (I left a long comment on Lauren's post, so I hope you'll read that too.) So timely, Lauren! And I'm glad you wrote it, because after this un-semester, I would have been afraid to say it myself.

On our good days we can weave our commentary together with our arguments -- the way Woolf does (and you're probably tired of hearing about her from us) in her essays. On our best days, we don't need the commentary. We don't need to explain ourselves. But I think without those bad days, and those in between days, when we let ourselves be vulnerable, let ourselves hash a thing out until it's beaten dead, we would not have the confidence (not arrogance!) that we have when we apply ourselves to writing something academic, something elegantly argumentative, something men, the keepers of logic, would approve of.

That's all. Go read Lauren!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Words are Hard

People get more excited and happy about art than about writing. Is it because words are hard?

I have several amazingly talented artist friends whose blogs teem with comments from adoring fans, who are also mostly artists. There is much discussion of the images, and even more praise. It is all deserved, and I join in the praising sometimes. I like peeking in on these communities. It's all very positive and gives me warm fuzzies.

But people just get so darn excited about pictures! About music! It's a minority group that gets excited about words. And within that minority group, the majority seem to be a serious lot. No one's going gaga for anyone's sentences. They're having cool discussions and being as somber as they can manage. Or they are instantly polemical, without any provocation.

I'm not talking about my own blog. Yes, I am a member of the wordsmithing minority, but as far as these interactions, comments, and discussions go, I'm talking about what I see on all the blogs, columns, etc. I read that are mostly comprised of well written word-content. Seriosity. Lack of excitement. No sense of humor. It's not always like that, especially among friends and colleagues, but when you compare the whole of writerland to the whole of artland, it's pretty bleak and unfriendly.

I have trouble writing seriously (at least in public) for more than a few paragraphs, and I certainly don't try to bring any kind of severity with me when I enter into a discussion on someone's work. Maybe I'm meant to be a humorist, and not an academecian. But do academecians have to be so stodgy? So competitive that they don't praise one another? I know many who are funny, light, and open outside the classroom -- but what about in their professional discourses? We're not lawyers. We don't need to put on a "trial face" or something. Wait, what do I know? Maybe we do. I'll be eaten alive when I make it to my first big conference presentation (there were nothing but friendly professorial faces and smiling younger students who had to "take my word for it" at the undergraduate one).

I admit there is a big difference between language and visual art in that we writers are always saying something, and someone is bound to disagree with it, or want to say it better. You can't disagree with a sketch of someone's best friend or a caricature of a 1960s actor. You could try to draw it better, but you won't. That's just not nice. Also, you don't mind if an artist friend posts a wobbly pen drawing, a work in progress. You accept that and love it, and can't wait to see the final result. For some reason, words aren't supposed to be seen until all their soft parts are covered up.

Maybe we should just scan in some scrawled notebook pages, and at least we wouldn't lose the immediacy and personality that our writing sometimes has before it hits the screen. It wouldn't lose its "aura."

Regardless of what our language is communicating, writers are often engaging in a kind of art when we start spraying words onto a page. Even those of us who like to think we are all analysis, all the time, do things with words that are outside "communication." We also do things that make us vulnerable -- and maybe we should do that even more often.

But as readers who are writers, maybe we should do this: Once in a while (not all the time, for we all love our discourse), if we read something really good, we should stop and see what the words look like (sound like, feel like -- choose your sense...everyone probably mediates words differently) and just take them in. This is how us wordmongers read literature, even the analytical sorts. And we should treat each other to that approach when it fits. Not just in the online community, but in writer's groups, at conferences, and in authoritative positions as writing tutors and professors.

So we all must know by now, that for much of the population... words are hard to look at, and pictures are easy to look at (though just as hard, if not harder, to create!). So we can't rely on every type of person with eyeballs to just come visit us in writerland and buoy us up. We have to rely on one another, because words are hard.

Afterward (All the stuff I left out as not to ramble or muck up my message with my usual autobiographical commentary. My new stab at brevity begets afterwards!)

I'm having a hard week, being miles and miles away from my closest "meatspace" friends, suffering only written interaction with them and with some good e-buddies. I was blaming the internet for not "keeping me in touch" the way it claims it can these days. Then I peeked in on some friends in artland, and I was so excited to see people talking and sharing so openly. I think I might "hang out" with them for awhile! Last night I called a fellow writer friend (on the phone! gasp!), one of the very few friends I have in the area, and demanded some human interaction time (she was more than obliging of course, so I probably didn't have to demand). So I get to have a Saturday night out, with someone who likes my words, someone whose words I like too. I'm sure it will be rejuvenating to say the least. And after the last hilarious email she sent me (a description of sci-fi/fantasy fans at a book signing), I'm trying to get her to start a blog!

So that probably explains these last two semi-autobiographical, exposing-the-soft-spots posts. I'm doing this blubbering and babbling while I can, before grad school starts up and a competitive environment makes me have to put on my classroom face, and get all severe up in here.

Afterward II

There were many helpful, even argumentative comments from professors on my undergraduate papers, even some that embarrassed me (a couple of giant red question marks will do that). But I don't think I would have the confidence I have now if it weren't for the occasional warm fuzzies. Professorly marginalia humor (Richard Westphal: "I'm surprised you didn't mention paradox more" next to the "A" on a paper on paradox) , the rare but precious unmitigated praise of an idea (Patrick Dunn: "This is SO SO awwwesome!"), and the pure reaction-to-prose comment (Sara Gerend: "Beautiful sentence!" Westphal: "...a pleasure to read in the bargain") made all my pains worthwhile. These scrawls on my papers are what I'll have to remember these people by. I think I mentioned many of my professors before, but these comments all flash back to me now, because today I picked up my cap and gown, and had to fill out an exit-interview form. "Who was the faculty member who meant the most to you and why?" That pushed a big, mixed-feeling sigh out of me.

Appendix A

Here's a post I wrote forever ago about writers commenting on a writer: "Attack of the Smartypants"

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"Pathetic" Comments

If you blog, for work or for pleasure, you sometimes get comments you just don't know what to do with. Some of them are obviously spam, others are trying so hard to look like they're not, and some, the most painful ones, are the comments you know mean well, that are probably sincere, and might even be from someone you know...but you just can't publish them. You have no idea what they mean, or they are so ridiculous that you may end up looking ridiculous yourself if you let them through.

I don't have to worry about spam on Blogger -- it amazingly cans all of it (more on Blogger comments later). On my Wordpress work accounts, however, I get fresh spam slices served up every day. Wordpress, I maintain, is awful. Even if there is some way to pre-regulate or block the comments on there, I'll never figure it out. And don't post your WP advice here because I don't want it, and this is not a work blog. Anyhow the WP spam isn't all bad since I'm writing for commercial purposes on there. Any kind of "pinging" gets the post out there, and then I get more comments -- some publishable, some just as spammy, but it's activity! And it's my job to manage it.

I wanted to share some recent Wordpress comments that went unpublished (at least until I caved), because while they are so obviously spam, I am intrigued by all the varied comment tactics and the efforts at "writing in English as a second language while trying to pretend it's your first." I'm sure they have classes on that in Mumbai. I even find some of the comments kind of cute, and feel sorry for the poor sap who's forced to attempt to sound professional by poring over thesauri to find longer or more fancy words for things which (most) English speaking people would just use short, everyday words. You will see how I struggle with all of this.

Most of the comments are praise, some use an increasingly common tactic of claiming they read your post somewhere else first (I guess this is to bait you into a discussion or argument), and some do both, in a backhanded compliment comment.

  • A flattering comment on "Dating for Dog Lovers"
"First I wish to say that I genuinely like your web site, just observed it last week but I've been following it increasingly since then. I appear to acknowledge with most of the thoughts and beliefs and this submit is no exception. entirely Thank you for a excellent webpage and I hope you preserve up the good function. If you do I will carry on to read it. Have a very great day."

I will most certainly "preserve up the good function," I entirely Thank you for your praise, and carry on! I really wanted to publish this one, and eventually I did. She/he tried so hard. And the site this linked to was just as heroic. Here's the first line from it:

"Children do enjoy sewing machines, just like males like video cameras."

I can also use a "Hello Kitty skin sewing machine" to create "a few cute tiny stuff" for myself. I do love a few cute tiny stuff, especially made of skin! The best part is the sewing machine resembles some kind of mutant kitten who is not Hello Kitty -- the explanation is that the machine creature is a love-child. "Hello Kitty had a a single night stand along with Bill the cat and that is the resulting infant." So you see I just had to publish that one, my misplaced ESL sympathies aside.

  • Another flattering comment
"So happy to digest such a entertaining post that does not resort to cheap rhetoric to get the topic fulfilled. "

Awww, thanks! This one got published (with the links removed) because it was my first comment. I had no idea "cheap rhetoric" was such a problem in the blogging community (outside of the politico blogs anyway). I thought that was more of a "Yahoo! News" thing. I will be more vigilant in my blog readership, Kinoki Footpad lady!

  • A negative comment on "Leashes and Lovers Book Launch Party"
"I read about [the event] some days ago in another blog and the main things that you mention here are very similar."

I approved this one and responded "Maybe that's because it's the same event. ;)" (Only at work would I use a winky smiley. As a writer who happens to do social media for a paycheck, my emoticons are strictly all work and no play.) Anyhow, if "I read this already" is your comment tactic, you should probably comment on something that is passing itself off as original content, not an announcement of an event which, in all likelihood, is listed somewhere else on the internet! With the same date and time even! Imagine that. "Trey Meacham" probably flunked his comment posting class.

  • A backhanded compliment on "Dating for Dog Lovers"
"Hello from germany. Appreciating the day time and effort you put in your blog and detailed information you present! But I thought I perhaps have learned that a couple of months in the past."

Maybe you did already learn about how to find a date who likes your dog... but this is all original content, buddy! Step off! Thank you for "appreciating" anyway. The comment author, Herr "Fabiane," is an online retailer of affordable German bedspreads. Harmless enough, but his native language is close enough to English that I don't find his ESL efforts heroic, nor do I find his product intriguing. His bedspreads are not even the result of a one-night stand between two cartoon characters! Sorry Fabiane.

So, my work blog comments can be taken lightly, even if I have to make decisions about them every day. However, my Blogger comments are a little harder to manage. Even though they trickle in more slowly, they have a very personal meaning (or lack of discernible meaning) for me.

Most of my friends, followers, and fellow writers leave consistently helpful, completely publishable, unembarrasing comments. In fact they make me look good by association! And I love that. So please don't think I am complaining about your usually wonderful comments. I wouldn't even dwell on this if not for the one comment I see every time I log in, because I just can't reject it.

There have been a couple times when I hesitated because of the obviousness of some friends' comments. These are the ones where I wonder, if I'm nice and publish this silly thing what will people think? They'll know I purposely let it through. I'm not always nice (in case you can't tell from reading this thing) so I won't publish everything just to please, but I do have that pathos for pathetic writing problem -- the one the ESL trolls bring out in me, and the one that, on rare occasion, an equal in native English will stir.

When a friend or other smart person writes something I don't know what to make of, I get that stomach tickly feeling, like the one I described when I made good clean fun of Matt Biro's "Dada Cyborg" book. (My ribbing on that book had nothing to do with confused writing -- I hadn't read it. And Biro left me a comment about it! My problem was more about that tingly embarrassingness of someone actually writing a book on that topic, and the even further embarrassingness of my own wanting to read the book. I'm not one of those square-glasses nerds who rolls around in piles of nerdiness, reveling in my own dweebosity, wearing t-shirts about how I'm attracted to the dweebosity of the opposite sex. Those nerds usually aren't even smart, and they don't write books. And I don't wear t-shirts with pictures, unless Kate Beaton drew them. I try to cling to some notion of a "sexy smart" person instead, which is nearly as delusional anyway.)

So about that stomach-churning tickly feeling. Do you know what I mean? Maybe I have even cause you similar churnings, dear reader.

I have published almost everything from friends and followers, despite my occasional stomach issues. I must admit I have that one comment sitting in my comment box that I don't know what to do with. There is a word in it I don't like.

I have also received negative comments, some that were obvious bait for something and were immediately deleted, and one precious angry one that I published because it was just so obtuse that it required a silly reply. That stuff doesn't bother me. It galvanizes me (to use another word I don't like).

No one should read anything into my use of the word "pathetic." It's got such a bad connotation these days. I even remember where I learned it -- from G.I. Joe, in the early '80s. I must have been four or something, when I heard some general call some private "pathetic" while standing on top of a combat-van looking thing that was surely based on a plastic toy. I could tell it wasn't a nice word. But whenever I use that word, I use the more etymologically correct, non-nasty definition. A pathetic thing is something that stirs pity, or "arouses compassion." And pity isn't all that bad either. My pity is nothing ugly. It's usually a type of endearment. I pity small animals, old men, and yes, writers both amazing and passable who have backed themselves into prose corners. So write yourself into a corner, arouse my compassion, and I guarantee I will have no idea what to do with your comment, except to hold it dearly in the little comment box for all eternity.

Friday, April 16, 2010


You have no idea how hard it was to just type "Brevity" and leave it at that. I am not brief. Text messaging does not work well for me. Nor do titles. I always max out my 140 characters on Twitter.

I'm not really worried about my non-brief academic writing, or even my non-brief blogging. I write pagefuls, but it's pretty dense. If I ramble I know I'm doing it. I reread everything I write, and I don't recall returning to papers or posts to delete huge chunks of dead weight.

What I'm really thinking about as far as brevity goes is why I can't write short titles, why I can't skip writing an introduction, and why I can't forgo telling my friends everything I'm thinking (as long as it's appropriate and makes some sense -- I do have a social filter!) in emails or messages.

I read the writing of some other English students, of professors even, and I realize that many of us are not brief. Some of us do leave huge chunks of dead weight hanging on. Cancerous growths of wordiness and rambling. Consistently long emails from one professor made me feel like I had license to ramble -- if he can do it so can I! But mostly these writers just make me want to be briefer than they are.

I took a poetry class. I wrote some exceedingly dense poems. Dense like fruitcake. But they went long sometimes. Long but heavy. Lead pipe poetry. There was one student in my class who wrote short, tight, dense poems, but somehow they were light as air. She was the only really gifted writer in the class, and I continually praised her (and admitted my envy) for her superb brevity. Her final poem had a balloon in it, and in the final line that balloon escaped through a hole in a storm cloud. An unforgettable image perfectly representative of her style.

Prose writing should not take the effort and manipulation that poetry requires. It should come a little more naturally. Mine comes naturally, but in continuous waves. Waves that never quite retreat before another breaks. Some are well formed, with nice swells that form crests, then crash to their foamy conclusions. Some are those silly sideways waves that meet one another and make a V in the water, contradicting themselves, splorting a little when they slap together, canceling out any momentous crash or even splash that might have been their potential. And like the tides, they might ebb and advance through periods of quiet and frenzy, but they never, ever, stop.

I imagine that students of English, especially the writers among us (I don't know what the hell the non-writerly students are doing, but I know they exist), experience similar thought-flow when writing, develop deflecting or delaying mechanisms for irrelevance and tangents, and under the surface are always paddling like hell to stay upright.

I just deleted the last paragraph of this entry. (It begins!) Here's a briefer one.

I must have learned to swim a little. As I mentioned, my long-format writing doesn't bother me. It's these concentrated bursts that I need to learn to manage. I must internalize the Shakespearean claim that brevity can make me witty, abide by my own thought that brevity can leave more to the imagination and is oh-so-stylish, and bank on the thought that other, more brief writers have left me -- that they are confident, and their thoughts are playing hard to get. Brevity can be irresistible.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

You Pick Two: My First Quarter at DePaul

My newest haunt

I get two classes this autumn quarter. That's rough. Coming out of my senior year of undergrad where I could take anything I wanted, and last spring's balls-to-the-wall semester of 20 credits (because I felt like it), this feels incredibly limiting! I think it's actually not a problem that I will only be dividing my attention between two course -- it's probably more like an opportunity. I'm sure they set up the graduate program with that in mind. We might have things we want to do on our own at this point. But if they only let us take two classes, why do they have to offer so much good stuff!

This actually isn't as bad as I make it seem. DePaul is on the quarter system, which means I'll get to take another four classes next spring (two in "winter" session, two in "spring" session). So it may be two at a time, but only for 10 weeks.

But as I load up my "course cart" (I'm putting in all my lovies and then comparing them) it's not just a juvenile inability to make decisions that's causing anxiety. It's planning the next two years (maybe a little less) so that I get everything I can out of this MA, a middle step I hadn't planned on taking in the first place.

I have divided my goals into two paths -- literature immersion (I call it that because we never get below the surface in undergraduate survey courses), and what I'll call professionalization.

Literature immersion is possible in so many ways at DePaul -- they offer some tight period and author courses (tight as in short periods within a single genre or author, but probably also "tiiiiight" as in "sick"), and special topics classes, like this quarter's "Angels and Devils in Medieval Literature." This semester there are two exciting ones for me, on 18th Century novels and on Modern American poetry. I need a few well chosen lit courses for the degree, and I need these personally because they're periods I can do things with, and I would really like to read within them more closely. But lo! The schedule presents to me so many non-literature courses I'm fixing to delete everything literature from the "cart"!

Down the professionalization path we find the intense, required literary criticism class that will train us to do our work, the research and bibliography class (that will train us to do their work -- I'm not just being a jerk, it's required first-year for research assistants), and finally we have "Teaching Literature." I'm not sure about the teaching -- I won't use it here, not anytime soon. But that lit crit class! I'm desperate for it, but I'm afraid I've done too much of that lately -- and I'm starting to spout fluff.

I must admit there's a middle path in between (and sometimes winding outside of) these two, and that's the linguistics and style track. I don't wish to be a linguist, but I like the philosophy that comes with it, and I am crazy about talking and writing on style. DePaul must have some resident style crazies, because there are four regular revolving classes in it, with special topics style courses cropping up here and there. On the schedule this semester is "History of English Prose Styles," and I just find that too exciting for English words.

So my personal dilemma for this quarter is to decide whether I'm going to dive into the literature, hover above it, or dissect it. We have to do all of these things, assume all these different roles, at some point. But my first quarter feels like a chance to start myself off on the right path, especially with only a year from fall until I begin filling out applications all over again. Are they going to want me to know how to teach already? Probably not, but what if I have to get a job? Are they going to want me to score higher on that damn literature test this time around? Wouldn't hurt. I would like to be less pragmatic and more open to whatever strikes my fancy about all these things -- but I'm old enough to know a year is a fleeting short time.

I'm sure none of this matters. Anybody got a coin I can flip? I might keep it too.

Here's what's in the little shopping cart, with notes and days so you can see the painful conflicts. I have no idea how seven classes ended up in there. (They say never go shopping hungry. Apparently I'm starving.) All seven courses count toward the degree requirements. Votes and comments appreciated, and then I'll have to leave five of these melting at the register (the teaching class is already looking a little soggy).

  • History of English Prose Style (incl. history of critical approaches to style) - W
  • Modern American Poetry (Frost, Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Williams) - M
  • Teaching Literature (mixes us with high school teachers. uggggh.) - Th
  • 18th Century Novel (Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Sterne) - M
  • Structure of Modern English (linguistics and stylistics) - Tu
  • Bibliography and Research (useful useful useful) - Tu
  • Studies in Literary Criticism (starting with Aristotle!) - Tu

If all goes well, by next quarter I will be able to choose my own classes without consulting magic 8 balls.
Photo credit: / CC BY-ND 2.0

I'll have to get back there and take some of my own now that the trees are alive again.
It was really cute, as I went through the flickr photos of McGaw Hall there were other anxious new students who labeled it with things like "My soon to be new digs!" I'm not the only English student who gets excited about silly things.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Research Conference

I presented the sum of my undergraduate efforts on Kerouac at a research conference yesterday. I won't go into detail on what I did with Kerouac this past year as I trudged through an independent project on On the Road (a project that amounts to the sole reason I get to wear a silly yellow honors cord thingy at graduation), because frankly old Jack and I need a break from each other.

Yesterday I felt like I was saying things I'd thought and written about ten thousand times when it came to the close dealings with the literature, but I also talked about a meta-road (I'd laid out my disparate research directions as three roads) to conclude. It was, after all, a research conference intended for all students across all disciplines, not a place to read a narrowly topic-specific 40 page paper without looking up. I've seen people do that too often. So I seized the opportunity to talk openly about literary research as an undergraduate student, vs. my speculations on what graduate students can expect down the line. Having applied much of my effort in my last year and a half of undergraduate work toward making sure I go to grad school, working on a thesis-like project was not something I lived "in the moment." The whole thing was reflective, and so the presentation was just as reflective as the active work.

In short, I admitted having begun a project looking for things that weren't there -- either in the literature or in "the conversation." I'd chosen to work on a novel that didn't even have much serious "conversation" going on. At some point, probably in her last semesters, a literature student gets the urge to just start a conversation! Papers upon papers she's written with scholars as her backers, always with a gang on her side. Soon she starts to disagree with them, snarkily, pettily. Then she learns how to show, with some measure of grace, that they might be wrong. Finally, she gets her own ideas straight from the text, and might glance around for some support -- and at some point she moves forward as a single voice, the scholars now just chiming in or quietly echoing here and there. I used the cheesy but pertinent metaphor here of "paving my own road." At least everyone could tell that "cue cheesy metaphor" meant "Okay, I'm done talking now." Conclusions are always hard.

I had quite a group of supporters come to see me speak, and I think they appreciated what I was trying to articulate. A former professor, the only female tenured professor of English at the school (I only mention that because I'm so impressed that she does everything at barely 40 -- two gorgeous kids, tenured, conferences every year, very cool and unlikely literary interests for a woman/mom...) made some great suggestions for how I could take my hodge-podge of undergraduate stuff and continue to do some more sophisticated work on it at grad school. We were on the same wavelength about female reader response as an approach to the most masculine writing of the 20th century (or any century). She shares my love of the words of men, and my anxieties about reading them.

The writing sample I submitted with my grad school applications, with some success, was on "Milton's Bogey." I didn't think it was completely representative of what I think are my critical interests, but it was the best...longest...thing I had. Turns out I really am interested in what "patriarchal poets" and their centuries of descendants do (or don't do) for the ladies.

You get excited about things that seem cool or something, or the hardest things to understand just for the sake of the challenge. Then what you really end up liking to write about might not be as cool or intense. But at that point it shouldn't matter.

I still like the cool things, the hard-to-read things. I will probably end up writing on them too. I might even become a scholar of someone I have yet to read. But for now, I'm happy that I have at least one confirmed critical niche, and happily surprised at how relatively un-theory it is.

Immediate Update: I just reread this and thought it sounds like I was kind of confident yesterday. More so than usual, maybe. It was kind of a breakthrough for me. But I must admit I was pretty hopped up on iced coffee, sweating like mad in my fuzzy black dress, and got a little swoony in the projector lights. Once I started talking it all cleared up. And amazingly I didn't say "uh" at all. It was good practice.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Le déjeuner sur les morts: An afternoon with the quiescents

T'was a fragrant day at Woodlawn cemetery. After much Manhattan hustling and bustling, Erica and I decided a day spent quiescently with the deads of the Bronx would be a day well spent. Fortunately for us, the Bronx is home to one of the most gorgeous enshrinements of "rest" we have ever seen. Not only do the mixed-architecture mausoleums and toppling tombstones invite the living to participate in their restful state, but some very famous once-livings are planted there, under and in sundry burial markers.

Our principal visitation was to the family plot of Herman Melville. We luncheoned with him on the grass and moss in his rural neighborhood. At the back of the cemetery (the back because it is farthest from the public entrance on Jerome) are the oldest graves -- behind Herman there lie the even more dissipated remains of civil war veterans, mid-19th century preachers and the like. Herman met the reaper in 1891, right around the time when the cemetery was undergoing a sea change (haha) from rural to landscaped. A couple of avenues to the southwest of Melville's dust begin the winding roads and religiously confused mausoleums, almost Hollywood in their refusal to commit to one style of afterlife. But back where Herman resides, forever in Catalpa, one can really rest. Mossy mounds, gnarly trees, and ivy skirts around crumbling stones are the only landscaping found there.

We brought with us an offering of a pen, the usual writer's gift to a passed author. Erica attempted to get an autograph in her Signet Classics copy of Moby-Dick, but Herman was rather taciturn, despite the heavenly weather. We leafed through some chapters of the book and found another suggestion for an offering. We found sticks fashioned by mother nature to look like "the crotch," and thought them a meet reminder of the singularity of Melville's Moby-Dick chapters. We presented our crotches for Herman's approval.

Finally, we thanked Herman for inspiring my first seriously academic literature paper (written on "Bartleby" in 2008), and congratulated him on having the balls to make fun of the Transcendentalists in an era when doing so was akin to denying that Brooklyn hipsters really are hip.

Taking our leave of Herman, we had one more stop to make before heading back out onto the mean streets of the Bronx. We had to visit Miles Davis! On the way to his flashy marker, I scanned the graves for Countee Cullen, whom I couldn't find on the map. I wanted to shake my finger at him for costing me about 10 points on the GRE literature test. He was hiding; unlisted. We passed scores of Italians (dead) with their Palm Sunday crosses drying in the sun, and at the north point of the Alpine plots, there was Miles. Shining, reflecting, sporting a trumpet as always. Someone had left him an Easter bouquet, still fresh, and perfuming the neighborhood as the sun beat on the roses.

We had brought chocolates to share with him (lunch with a writer, dessert with a musician!), but it was too hot for the melty stuff. We sat with Sir Miles and the unfortunate dead bluebird (he must have been Kind of Blue) at the foot of his grave, watched ourselves in his glassy surface, and thanked him -- for bringing together the black and the white of the blues, for fusing such varied and unlikely musical stylings that paved the way for bands like Traffic, Frank Zappa, Steely Dan, and Miles knows what else. Then we turned toward the west to find our way over the grave-dirt hill to home, out of the heat.

We saw immeasurable beauty in that place. But we also saw some cheese, some anomalies, some weird. This Flanagan tombstone (below left) must be much newer than its Flanagan. It has a 1930s modern sort of look to it, like the cover of an Ayn Rand novel. But J. Fred died in 1888. If that's not weird enough, J. Fred's grave looks like it's wearing a thong, and doesn't have the ass to pull it off. Even stranger is Robert Schoonmaker's tombstone (below right). Because Robert Schoonmaker is not yet among the quiescent. It is common practice, we acknowledge, to put one's name on a tomb next to one's wife or siblings, etc, at the time the tombstone is first engraved. This saves money, and it communicates one's desires to the rest of the family, while letting visitors know the deceased, already underground, has loved ones waiting to meet them in the hereafter. This prudent pre-planning was not the basis for our objection to Robert's stone. Just look at him! For God's sake! The kicker? (or no longer kicking...): His mother is the person under the stone! A photo engraving of her is above. Obviously Robert wants to be buried with his mama (who was ancient, and it would be very odd, considering the trend during her childbearing years, if she didn't have other children -- he musta been her baby!), and while he was only 54 years of age at the time of her death, he could not forsee himself ever wanting to be buried alongside any other woman. And he obviously wants to remind mom daily of what a talent and a card he was, so she can anxiously await their reunion. The best part is he called himself "beloved son."

Another frightening and poignant thing we saw was a marker for "Our Children." Children's graves are always difficult to look upon, but some of them seem to have the strangest circumstances. These children had all died on separate dates, but within years of each other. None made it past age 5. The first died in 1859, before the cemetery had even broken ground, so these children were collected and put here together at a later date. The Lawn plot where they rest is beautiful, and watched over by an angelic Hellenistic statue (someone else's marker), who shields her eyes and looks westward from her post on the side of the hill above Woodlawn's Prospect Avenue. I can't imagine the burden the parents of "Our Children" bore, and I can't imagine what they were doing wrong to lose five children in the course of a decade.

On a lighter note, Erica and I would like to thank Mamita's (Home Made Style) Quiescently Frozen Confections of Ozone Park, NY, for inspiring the title of this entry, and endowing us with a very useful word, one whose disambiguation page on Wikipedia trumps even that of the academically ubiquitous "reify." Curiously, the disambiguation page for "quiescent," populated with everything from quantum physics to in utero applications, still does not include the all-important culinary application for the term. That's a shame, because just look at this lovely tube of Passion Cream quiescence.

A little treat for you (since I already ate the quiescent pop): Wiki's map of Woodlawn, with many notable deads marked in their places. It is a thing to behold.

"Who tha f*ck left this tree here? What tha -- c'MON!"
If you don't write a famous novel, eventually people stop cleaning off your grave.