I Keep Tearing Apart These Pictures Of You

I had no idea this was still on the internets.

American-Lit.com was a project I developed over the summer of 1999 while in a Multimedia Production class at Harvard. (The Office of Career Services there paid for that class for me -- and provided me the time away from work -- so that I would have the knowledge I would need to revamp the office website.) I spent the class trying to think of ways to merge nascent web design with fiction (see Pulse) and the study of American literature. I really dug the class, and spent incredibly long hours in the media lab trying to teach myself Flash and Shockwave. I worked right through July 4th -- completely spacing out on dinner plans with my aunt and uncle.

Many of the students in that course were either foriegn nationals or art students, all of us somewhat older than typical college age, all of us working on multimedia projects. There were parties, some of them on rooftops or warehouses. A Cypriot gave me a can of Red Bull (newly available), complaining that it was weaker than the European version. Everybody was listening to the Buena Vista Social Club. The whole experience made me wonder whether I should have pursued an advanced degree in web design or web development rather than pretty-story writing.

It's kind of fun to see how nineties my little abandoned web project looks these days, framed for giant boxy monitors and laid out with old skool html skillz. I had high hopes that the site would grow and get contributions from folks around the nation. I worked really hard on making the logo look type-written and Liquid Paper'd, and I worked tremendously hard on a cartoon about Marianne Moore and the Edsel that seems to no longer be functional. And it's all been just sitting out there for nearly a decade. There's also a comic strip about O. Henry and short short stories/ mini-biographies about Philip K. Dick and Sherwood Anderson. (It seems the actual domain name off http://www.american-lit.com/ no longer belongs to me -- I think I only bought a liscence for three years -- but the content seems to be housed on some Mac mainframe somewhere out there...)

Good speed into e-blivion, American-lit! Two thousand zero zero, party over, oops, out of time.


Down in the Tube Station at Midnight

A Russian zoologist found that stray Muscovite dogs had adjusted to post-Soviet urban life by commuting from the suburbs on trains. The dogs, who prefer the front- and rearmost cars and occasionally miss their stops when they fall asleep, have also learned to obey traffic lights in spite of their color blindness.
-- "Findings," Harper’s Magazine, June 2009.


Baikal lapped up a second Salty Dog and saw by the clock that he had missed the express. He would get the local – the five-forty-eight. When he left the bar the sky still held its gray; it was still raining. He looked carefully up and down the street and saw that the Borzoi bitch had moved on. He worked again at remembering her name – Miss Iska or Miss Kiska or Nistishka – and he was surprised to find that he could not remember it, although he was proud of the reach and retention of his memory and it had only been three-and-a-half dog years ago.

He’d first seen her on Poklonnaya Hill, sniffing demurely around the statue of St. George. She had a curvy brown topcoat that gave way to a white and fuzzy undercoating which seemed to be making its first show of the season. She was unadorned but for a simple collar of simple red nylon – or maybe green – which suggested she’d once belonged somewhere, a girl of the city who’d since been left to roam. As he got to know her better, Baikal came to feel that she was oversensitive and, as a consequence, lonely. She would often speak to him of what she imagined of his life – suburban lawns, a roaming pack of friends that would meet at dusk, bowls of kibble at the back door – and he felt her interest in all this spoke to a preoccupation with her own fallen status. It was not pity he felt for her but compassion. He led her behind the Red Army Memorial and sniffed suggestively at her hind quarters.

This was just dogs being dogs, two individuals seeking comfort in the moment, and she ought to have known that. When he trotted away, he made no effort to discern whether her whines indicated begging or sadness. He was a dog, but he’d never suggested otherwise.

The local was less than half full when he boarded it, and he leapt up to a seat on the river side and shook out his coat. He was no show dog – a typical, if slender, Samoyed, his tail curled nicely over his back, but he kept pride in keeping his coat clean and silvery-white. Other dogs, curled up sleeping or staring out the windows in vain attempts to discern the colors of the traffic lights, brought out in the coach the smells of hunger and wet fur. After his brush with danger, these odors seemed comforting and safe to him.

The train traveled from the imperial parts of the city into the surrounding slums, perhaps the very neighborhood that once had housed the Bozoi. He tried to shake her out of his thoughts, turning to watch the landscape – industrial and sad, full of foundries and radio towers blinking lights of indeterminate hue. “Is this seat taken?” someone said. It was the Borzoi. She was standing there, her head bent up at him with that quizzical and pointed look that called to mind the greyhounds in her family tree. “Do you mind if I sit?

“I guess not.” He remembered her name now – Miss Kiska. He’d been frightened when he first looked down at her, but her timid voice and the whatever-color bow at her neck reassured him. He scuttled over to make room on the seat for her, smelling her damp and musty coat. It wasn’t until she was full settled beside him that he noticed the butt of the pistol in her handbag.
(In case it's not clear, the above is kind of a cover version of John Cheever's "The Five-Forty-Eight," a great mid-20th century story of commuting and adultery. My version has Russia and dogs. Cheers!)

You Won't Find It So Hot if You Ain't Got the Do-Re-Mi

Quality-strained cell phone pictures from California...

Doug Kenyon's house in Sebastapol, CA.

A view of the Sierras from Foresthill, CA, during the wedding rehearsal. Doug and I were running late and took a "short-cut" as advised by the GPS on my phone. "Yankee Jim Road" took us winding down along a dirt road cut into the side of the canyon, across a corrugated tin suspension bridge, and alongside a waterfall before winding its way back towards civilization above. It would have been a beautiful drive had we not been traveling at a harrowing 25 MPH.

An extremely creepy giant statue of Claude Chana, gold miner and founder of Auburn, CA. At that city's Edelweiss Cafe, I had a tomato-and-avocado omelet that ranks among the ten best meals I've ever had. I figure that Giant Claude is holding an empty plate after ordering that same breakfast. (Number 35 on the menu, if you go.)

The groom (Jason, on the right) and a groomsman (Dan) play Guitar Hero immediately before the ceremony at the Forest House Lodge. They had fun hats on the wall, a nicely stocked bar, comfortable rooms, and a friendly staff. Good times. The wedding dinner included a fantastic and spicy Sichuan Fish and some genuinely delicious asparagus. Afterwards, Tim and Suzanne and I taught some 6- to 8-year-old girls how to play Blackjack for about as long as their patience would hold.

Jason Cabassi marries Jenny Kuo, Saturday, May 23rd. We wish them all the happiness in the world.


Unlike the last mountaintop wedding I attended, I did not get altitude sickness, nor was I chased by an elk, nor did I fall in a ditch. The closest I came to death at this wedding (aside from the Dukes of Hazzardry of Yankee Jim Road) involved being nearly missed by a pair of men's underwear in the parking lot of bowling alley. Oh, and the cryptosporidium I probably picked up from walking barefoot through goose poop.


Crab If You Want Her

Crabs remember being hurt.
-- "Findings," Harper’s Magazine, June 2009.

The Blue Crab

Her name was Sallie, and I met her on an outcropping on the Chesapeake near the crevice where my family used to take their summers. She was young, 19 molts or so, with blazing orange tips on her claws yet, and her shell – though soft and pliant and new – led one to imagine the rounded apron beneath. I worked up the nerve to send over some annelids on a clamshell, and when she raised her pinchers in a wave, I sidled over as fast as my ten legs could sidle. She placed her chelae in mine and we drifted left then right in a flirty tug-of-war.

I won’t say it was all oysters and clams – we were both cancers after all, and so maybe incompatible by fate. She thought I was cranky and bitter when the temperature shifted, and she could be cold and hard-shelled, but I honestly thought we had something that could last. I had planned to ask her to carry my sperm to the south end of the bay, where she'd keep it sacked through the warming waters before releasing her eggs that following November or December. I imagined our children making their way into the cold waters of the north, seeking out their father’s face among the busters along the coastline, and I’d recognize in them their mother’s softly smiling eyestalks.

And then one day, it happened. I had been out collecting seaweed and mollusks, and as I came up over the rocky rise, there she was heading steadily leftwards, buck and rider underneath some twerpy green-spotter from the shore. I never saw her again – maybe they ran off together, maybe they were wiped away in the undertow. That’s probably what they deserve. It took me a long time to get over that, seeing them together like that, with his seed all over her carapace. For a long time, I thought about just diving into one of those clay pots that litter the seabed, and letting them pull me up and away. I’m better these days and happily attached to a perfectly fine sook, but every now and again, when the winter turns towards spring and all the young men start releasing their pheromones, I think of her and the way she broke my soft-shell heart.

I Can't Believe You're Trampoling Me

Caleb and Olin ready to roll.

Sam and his father watch the races.

The inaugural meeting of the He-Man Cycling Society begins with the sharing of the animal crackers.

Sam on the trampoline at Wham-o's gym.

Caleb off the trampoline at Wham-O's gym.

Pile-driving off the turnbuckle, continuing the Wisconsin tradition of contributions to the professional wrestling industry.

Sam and Olin camping out.



Although I consider myself a non-practicing and creedless Unitarian, I have a strange attractions to Bible stories. David Maine's The Preservationist was one of the first books I reviewed on this blog, I'm a fan of the Brick Testament, and actually kind of dig Bob Dylan's born-again period. Some of my favorite people are gnostics, and at least one a seminarian.

(If I step back, what I'm actually fond of is the act of interpretation. Just as when Toots and The Maytals record their version of John Denver's "Take Me Home Country Roads," a story changes in the telling. Ten years ago, Reynolds Price wrote some vignettes about the life of Jesus for Time Magazine, including a haunting small-story about the resurrected Jesus watching -- and perhaps assisting -- in the suicide of Judas. "Make it new," said Ezra Pound.)

Interpretation is particularly fun with the books of the Bible, since the source material is so spare and minimalist to begin with. (Perhaps years from now writers will create new fables out of the 1980's stories of Raymond Carver and Grace Paley.) Since we're not told how Noah fit all the animals into a boat, since we don't know why Cain slew Abel, since it's hard to envision how a pebble might kill a giant, there's room for imagination and exploration in retelling.

Jonathan Goldstein does quite a bit of this in Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible!, working through a good chunk of the Old Testament and up through, in the final story in the collection, mere moments before the birth of Jesus. You may know Goldstein -- as I do -- from a version of his "Cain and Abel" story which has become a staple on "This American Life." It's a strong and weird story about the first brothers, the invention of brotherhood and of jealousy and of murder. In "Cain and Abel," and throughout the book, Goldstein has a way of describing feelings or impulses that are common to us modern folk but which would be entirely new to the first (from a Biblical point of view, anywho) fellows. Characters struggle with an all-powerful and unknowable God, as well as the demands of family and tradition. There's a playful approach to anachronism, which lightens the load and makes each of these stories breezy and approachable.

"Cain and Abel" probably remains the strongest story in the bunch, although the final story -- "My Troubles (A Work in Progress, by Joseph of N-------)" -- ranks a close second, with it's presentation of a sensitive and understanding Joseph as he prepares for (and worries over) the divinely-touched baby his wife is about to birth:

And worry I did -- worry that the baby might not even look like people, that he might be born with wings. Or worse, be born with just one wing. The thought of Mary holding a one-winged baby on her lap was enough to get me all weepy and sick to my stomach. If that son of a bitch Ezekiel made even one little crack about my illegitimate one-winged baby, job or no job, I'd strangle him with my bare hands.

The book, in it's move from the Garden to the Ark to the Tower of Babel and so on, does get a bit same-samey after awhile, and I didn't totally jibe with Goldstein's reinterpretation of King David as an aspiring humorist, but throughout there's a tone and approach that mirrors both the alien weirdness and metaphysical cruelties one finds in the source material.

(There's also a preface story to the collection which seems to suggest that all of the tales that follow are the invention of a not-particularly-devout Jewish dad over lunch at the delicatessen, which -- to my mind -- undermines and deflates the tales that follow, highlighting their artifice where otherwise they might have held real force. Luckily, as the father himself says unto his son, "Who reads prefaces?")


You Other Brothers Can't Deny

Anyone care to provide a caption?

Mother Should I Build A Wall?

Happy Mother's Day

(slightly belated)

to the Mothers and Grandmothers

give love and other sweets

invest themselves fully

fund all the wishing wells

keep the music flowing

...and special thanks to birth moms and foster moms for their good care and generosity

By That Soft and Shining Sea

The summertime urge to read a book each week has kicked off again, some impulse likely formented by the summer reading contests at the public libraries I frequented as a kid: Milwaukee East, Shorewood, and near my Grandparents' summer home in Lake Geneva, WI. Last summer I hummed along quite nicely at a book a week until I got sunk by an overly ambitious stab at a history of the Works Progress Administration, then was ultimately done in by somehow losing the copy of Savage Detectives I'd borrowed from the town of Shorewood. (I've since funded a replacement.)

I read Colson Whitehead's John Henry Days a few years back, which I'd picked up because I dig Americana and because I knew of Whitehead from reviews of The Intuitionist, his first novel about elevator inspectors. The Intuitionist has been on my to-read list since it was published in 1998. I used to walk it around the Harvard Bookstore, but somehow never took it home.

John Henry Days was a good read -- probably also a summer book for me -- though ultimately it has more to do with media junkets and Arts & Entertainment-section reporting than with issues of race, folklore, and American history. Whitehead can be lyrical when he wants to be, and he's a fine sociological observer of pop culture, much of which comes through in Sag Harbor.

Sag Harbor is a slice-of-life/coming-of-age/boys-being-boys sort of novel that ambles through Summer 1985, following Benjii and assorted friends in an African-American section of Long Island. They waste time, pick on each other, work stupid jobs, and obsess over music and style in a manner typical of teenagers through the ages, and watching all of this is fun because of both the familiarity and the foriegnness of Benjii's experiences. It's a bit like The Fortress of Solitude on vacation, or The Brief Life of Oscar Wao crossed with a John Cusack movie from the 1980's. And, to steal a line from a review I once read of Frank Browning's Apples, you can read this book lying in a hammock while a dog licks your feet without any loss of comprehension. It's fun and nostalgic and not at all ashamed to be so.

As it would need to be, it's a very evocative book. Whitehead explores what he calls the "heyday of Dag" (as a response to a slight or an insult) and chronicles the arrival of New Coke, but he's also able to call up the smell of a freshly-formed waffle cone in a resort town's upscale ice cream parlor or to recall the experience of lying in a cottage bed and knowing -- by the way traffic headlights cross the ceiling of the room -- that one's parents have returned, an experience I'm not even sure I had but which feels as rich and as real as anything. Whitehead captures kids coming to the end of their structureless summers, kids who are aware that they don't have much longer to live in such a carefree and formless way, kids who are trying to make the most of the time they have left before adulthood and college and work and so on. Sag Harbor in the mid-eighties seems not all that different from Lake Geneva, WI, in about the same era.

On top of all that, the characters Whitehead creates are black kids with summer homes, upper- and middle-class African American teens who are largely underrepresented in American literature. Sag Harbor presents the sort of dual consciousness such a situation suggests, and creates in each character a clear but not overstated reaction to what to some may have seemed, pre-November 2008, to be a contradiction.

It's a summer book, a good one to get your first stamp in the Super Summer Reader program at your local library. (Though you may want to wait until after September, for the full effect of the sandy dunes and salty air evokes.)

She Takes All The Red Yellow Orange and Green

Sam in our living room The Milwaukee Art Museum

Synecdoche, New York:

This movie annoyed and irritated me, and I found myself waiting for it to end, and yet I was unexpectedly moved at its ending. The film raises a lot of questions and interestingly offers no answers at all, which is part of why the movie is not entertaining or engrossing in the ways we typically want our movies to be. It stars Philip Seymour Hoffman at his schlubiest, and several of our more mannered actresses. It's weird and dark in the way that Charlie Kaufman-written movies tend to be weird and dark, but at the same time its void of the humor or mania that you find in Being John Malkovitch or Adaptation. Rather than amuse, this movie brought to the surface a fear of death, an awareness of the relentlessness of time, and a sense -- almost a panic -- that I wasn't doing enough with this life and the time I have. This probably sounds sort of false or academic, but I mean these things literaly -- this is a movie that left me in a bit of a panic. It seems no accident at all that by the following evening I was suffering a fever and head congestion related to a sinus infection.

I can't think of another movie that raised, in the viewing of it, actual existential dread. (Sure, late period Al Pacino movies but those create more of a general concern for the future of mankind but not the personal reaction of Synedoche.) I can't really recap a plot here, because there sort of isn't one, just characters for whom time passes and aging occurs. Along the way, you're left to ponder how to forestall or resolve regret, the relationship of art to the idea of the "examined life," and -- perhaps foremost of all -- whether an "examined life" is a worthy thing. Actually, fairly similiar questions to those raised by "Hamlet" -- death, indecision, failure, regret, suicide, persistance -- but with some 21st century immediacy and some cartoons.

So Synecdoche, New York is a depressing and at times tedious movie, and I'm eager to see it a second time.


The Smart Money's On Harlow

Here are some things I'd like to discuss with you, as soon as I have the time:
  • Synedoche, New York, a film
  • Sag Harbor, a novel by Colson Whitehead
  • The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk Festival 1963-1965, a documentary film
  • Grey Gardens, a documentary film
  • Life After People, both a book and a documentary film
  • April, a month, w/r/t cruelty
  • Sinisitis, an infection, and it's unrelenting campaign upon the nerve endings of my top right incisors
  • "I did it!", an exclamation, coming from a three-year-old.
  • My wife, a superhero, who advances on all fronts as her husband lies in bed complaining of fever and congested sinuses.
  • "I got all the f*cking work I need," an imaginary utterance, and its imaginary uttering throughout the month of April, which is, as Abraham Lincoln said, so cruel.
  • The glazed cruellers in the Student Union, very likely the best pure product our university produces.