Auld Acquaintance (Part One)

Emerson College.  Boston, Mass.  Spring of 1996.

I wrote a 250-word, two paragraph story on assignment for Pamela Painter's short short class.  This story concerned a woman who visits her mother, dying of Alzheimer's in a nursing home.  Together, they sing Christmas carols, though the dying mother has otherwise lost all powers of language and recognition.  This story was pulled directly from my own mother's experience with my grandmother, who'd passed away a few years before after a long slow decline.

I read the story aloud in class.  "That's sweet," Pam said after I'd finished.  "Now make it cruel."

Make it cruel.  This is the genius sting of Pam Painter's teaching in three little words.  (Janet Burroway has similar advice:  "Only trouble is interesting.")  Pam was the best writing teacher I've had, and I've had more than a few.  Pam killed your darlings.  She had no patience for those who didn't do the work, or who didn't invest their all into their writing.  She required her students to memorize and recite good writing, however we might define it, so that we'd learn to attend and respect the language.  (I memorized the last paragraphs of John Cheever's "Farewell, My Brother" and the opening of Quentin's section of The Sound and The Fury.)  Once, Pam made a student delete a Word document from his laptop computer so the he'd have to rewrite -- not just revise -- the short work of half-assedness he'd just shared with the class.

Fellow grad students at Emerson feared Pam Painter, and with good reason.  If you took Pam's class, you had to have the confidence enough to know you could do the work, and lots of it.  Years later, I was invited into Pam's writing group.  Another member mentioned having spent the previous day meditating in praise of Pam's great mentorship.  "Well," Pam said, "you should have been writing."

So...I rewrote the story, changing the point of view character and clicking into "Auld Lang Syne" as lodestone for memory, cutting away explanation for inference, hanging everything on this notion of cruelty.  Probably I'd been listening to a lot of Nick Lowe.

We were asked to bring stamped envelopes to class along with our final drafts, all of us sending off our manuscripts to Florida State University's Sundog: The Southeast Review.  I'd sent out stories before, and I'd slowly been wall-papering my Charlestown apartment's bathroom with rejection slips: The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Kenyon, Agni, Antioch, Cream City.  So far, I'd been published only in Drake University's student literary magazine (1989) and in a short-lived Marxist newspaper in Chicago (1991).  An unpublished runner-up in Milwaukee's Shepherd Express 1992 short story contest.

You learned to accept rejection, and you came to relish those notices that came on full-sized paper or with a human touch -- a signature, a few words of encouragement.  "This came close!" someone had written (by hand! blue ink!) on a form that came back to me from Story Magazine.

You've heard writers compare their works with children -- you raise them from nothing into near-adulthood, send them out in the work and hope they do well, etc.  Not in my experience.  For me, submitted stories were like the mash notes I passed to crushes from the 7th grade through way too late into high school: awkward and needly, both full of and unsure of themselves, bombastic but fragile.  Do you like me?  If so, check here.  So much pressure on 22¢ postage.

So off went the latest and last version of the story, its title changed from "Adeste Fideles" to "The Custodian," motoring to Florida under the protection of a security envelope and an Elvis stamp.


Put Up a Parking Lot

Boston, Mass.  Spring of 1995.

One of the other grad students was hosting a party out in Braintree.  I don't remember anything about the actual party beyond a general sense of red:  a walk from the Red Line T, a new construction condo of faux red brick, red Solo cups for your bottle beer.  (No one did kegs in grad school, as the transportation issue got in the way: no one had a trunk.  Better to ask that all comers BYOB, carry in twelve's from the package store on the corner.)  I feel like Chris was at that party, and also Chris.

What I do remember well is leaving.  A group of us called a cab, either in an effort to catch the last northbound train or because we'd missed it entire.  We filled the cab, one of us shotgun and the rest crammed in along the backseat.  I ended up in the middle, on the hump, pressed forward a bit to allow others to have girls on their laps.  (Yes, they were women -- aspiring poets and memoirists, women who'd go on to high profile jobs at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Brace, but because they were on boys' laps, they were girls too.  Alluring, intimidating, unknowable girls.)  I did not make friends easily that Spring, if indeed I ever have.

The cab held a thick tong of incense, masking something earthier and less legal.  The driver was thick and coal-black, a ringer for the actor Yaphet Kotto -- Lt. Al Giardello on NBC's Homicide, Fridays at 10 Eastern, a panacea for smart young men with inactive social schedules.

The cabbie wore a dyed orange dashiki and a little pillbox hat to match.  He was chanting along with some lush rhythms coming through the radio.

I could not talk comfortably with girls, less so women or children.  I inverted in the company of strangers or teachers or authorities of any stripe.  Small talk was a foreign language.  My tools were nervous laughter, self-consciousness, and lame attempts to look engaged without engaging with anyone.  I inspected bookshelves or stayed close to the booze.  Cf. Jona Lewie, "You'll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties," Stiff Records, 1980.

Who could I talk to?  Without any crippling self-awareness whatsoever?  Cab drivers.

I met the driver's bloodshot eyes in the rearview, his skin so dark that the whites of his eyes looked jaundice yellow.  Lined with weariness or herb, maybe both.  "What are you listening to?" I asked.  There was other conversation in the car, but it didn't involve me.

His answer in a kind of Carribean patois: "West African chant, man."  He issued some groove, spreading his hands wide and shimmying in his seat: picture Little Richard just about to hit the keys.

"Right on," I said, then ducked down to watch Boston at night out the side windows.  I felt him flicking his eyes towards me in the rearview: to the road and to me, the road and to me.

"Ay man, ay," he said after a while.

I gave him my attention, some negotiating going on with the couples to my right and left.

"Ay man," he said.  "You got beeg head, man.  You know you got
beeg head, man?"

I needed clarification on the direction of the conversation.  "You're asking," I said, "if I know that I have a big head?"

"Yeah, man.  You know?  Beeg head fill up whole window."  He gestured as to indicate all of the moon and stars.  He had the attention of us all, by now.

"I--," I said.  "Yes, I'm aware that I have, I guess, a large head." (It's true.  What can you do with a head this big?  Hats don't work -- they only serve to make the head look even larger, the hat by comparison a tiny monkey fez.  I can barely comb my hair.)

The cabbie met my eyes and nodded, proud of me.  "Beeg head," he said to himself.  "Ay, Beeghead Man:  what you do with beeg head, man?"

Again, needed clarification.  "What do I do with my big head?"

"Yeah, man:  whachu do?"  The others in the cab useless now, not daring to laugh for fear they'd miss something.

"Right now," I told the cabbie.  "I'm in graduate school..."  I wasn't sure how far out he wanted me to report.

"GOOD," said the cabbie.  "You fill beeg head up with BOOK."



Don't Stand So, Don't Stand So

A friend of mine coordinates English Composition courses for a college in a Midwestern state not far from here.  Every now and then, I get a copy of a student message worth consideration, much as we used to bark about students when we were both teachers here in Milwaukee.

Got this from female students this week:

Mr. [redacted], I was wondering who I should talk to regarding my current professor, [also redacted]. I am not satisfied with his teaching at all, he shows no respect for the students. If anyone walks in late he rolls his eyes at them every time. I got marked off on a rough draft because I didn’t have any resources, but no where in the requirements did it say that I needed any outside sources. I talked to him after a class and asked him and he then just told me that I need one. I was trying to understand and it felt like he was just shooing me away. I haven’t learned anything in his class because he uses examples from the 1990’s and doesn’t explain things very well, getting off topic in class sometimes. Then in a class period a couple weeks ago he was showing us a pepsi commercial from when he was a kid and when the clip was done on YouTube it showed suggestions for other related searches. There was a video of commercials that have been banned from TV and it was a girl eating a hot dog seductively making it look like something sexual. He then points it out to the class and laughs. I was disturbed at this, he then clicks on [another ad] because he was curious, the video then was a bunch of women eating different foods very seductively. It was very unprofessional and it should get brought to someones attention. Just wondering what I should do or who I should talk to?

I also have had meetings with other female students re: his showing of videos. One said "I felt that his desires [for the women in the ads] were on display for the whole class to see."
ME: "You mean that he was, um, 'interested' in the images?"
HER: "Oh, yeah.  he was totally creeping out on them."   
I have two more meetings scheduled today and tomorrow with yet other female students about, I am guessing, his porning out in class.   

This is followed by the firm but forgiving message he'd sent to the teacher in question.  But the "examples from the 1990's" stuck with me.  I felt the need to write a response in the character of the writing instructor in question, creating him out of the student's message and also getting in an old shot at the curse of the 3-Paragraph Theme, because there are some things of which I can never let go.


Your three paragraph theme regarding how much Rebecca Solnit hates the gym has led me to respond at length in writing of my own, not least because without proper context you might later off yourself like that one guest who was bullied so horribly on the Jenny Jones talk show.  Remember Jenny Jones?  She looked a little like Debra Norville, but was far sexier, particularly if you’ve seen her as I have, on internet video, taking down a footlong meatball sub.

In any case, I suppose I can’t fault the structure of your essay, in which you charge Solnit with first hating technology, then cars with a bit more specificity, and ultimately the modern practice of driving one’s car to a health club in order to walk on a treadmill.  Do they still call them Nordic Tracks, or perhaps Tracs, as we did in the 1990’s?  (By the way, is it just me or does that decade seem like only a few years back, rather than 20 years ago now?)  While your essay’s content may be questionable, your efforts to first introduce your topics, then enumerate them in order and in distinct paragraphs all to their own, and then succinctly summarize all you have to say in a one-sentence bang-and-done final sentence is, as we once said, pretty rad. 

Structure-wise, you’ve constructed a taught triple-decker BLT sandwich whose content looks larger and more glistening in your hands than it might otherwise. If we can remember the movie titled “Almost Heroes,” which nominally starred the late Chris Farley and the pre-post-Friends Matthew Perry, we might remember that something that seems like it might be good on paper will actually come out sort of bloated and half-dead.  While your paper goes only onto the top of a second page, I still had to take several breaks to watch an image gif of Ginger Spice licking a lollipop just to invigorate me to press on. I mean, your second paragraph was shorter than Urkel!  Some ideas need time and length — say, that of Arsenio Hall’s fingers — to develop. (Maybe it’s the word “develop” that reminds me, but do you know if any footage exists of Anna Nicole Smith visiting a Hardee’s?)

If I were to rate your paper between 1 and 10, with 1 being Janet Reno chewing a Chicket and 10 being Heather Lockyear sucking a bratwurst out of a bun, I’d put your essay at about a 4.  In other words, Courtney Love and rope licorice.

Please see me for conferences in the darkened basement hallway of the engineering building.  Also, I just want all the student’s to know that I’ll be providing Nathan’s Hot Dogs as a free snack to whomever’s interested.  (Have you seen the SBTB episode where Screech joins a competitive eating contest? That was a good one, right?)

Your Mack Daddy Composition Instructor,

Brian Hindshank

She's My Soft-Touch Typewriter

Franklin Bruno's book for 33 1/3  has struck a really interesting way to write about music. It's an abecedary of Armed Forces' song titles, motifs, themes, important figures in 20th century fascism, etc., with only passing regard to Elvis Costello's private life (beyond those things that illuminate or problematize items listed above). By organizing the book alphabetically by key terms, Bruno can deal with the album's themes of militarism and imperialism in both the political and personal arenas in a way that connects by inference and foregrounding and callback. The album itself isn't Costello's best, and may not even make it into my All Time Favorite Desert Island Costello list, but it's probably the most worth examination and consideration in exactly the way Bruno goes about it. 

Really the only aspect of Costello's personal life that plays a part in this book has to do with an ugly argument with Bonnie Bramlett and the Stephen Stills Band in a hotel bar in Columbus, OH, in 1979.  Costello says things in this altercation that, whatever the motivation (i.e., trying to irritate Bonnie Bramlett) and how great the intoxication, are pretty unforgivable.  (Although apparently his targets, James Brown and Ray Charles, did, or sort of did, forgive him.)  Bruno's concern is only how that complicates, underscores, and cross-cuts Costello's aim on this album to twin interpersonal behavior with imperial and impersonal state actions, particular in regard to Costello's own connection to black American beat music.

I've not read much of the 33 1/3 books but this was far different from the "fan's notes" I was expecting -- it's hard (and probably beside the point) to even detect whether Bruno even cares for Costello's record all that much, except as a kind of text to be read against its author's concerns.   If more of these 33 1/3 books approach their subjects in this sort of lit-crit way, rather than in a "How They Made It" or "What the Lyrics Mean" fashion, count me in.  I'm looking towards Lethem's book on Fear of Music, or maybe the one covering Paul's Boutique.