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On Madeleines and Memory

There is an undeniable connection between food and memory. One taste of a familiar, yet long forgotten food can transport you back in time to places that no longer exist. In Swann’s Way, a simple madeleine serves as a bridge to the past. As the narrator struggles to catch hold of the memory that begins to form when the tea-soaked cookie hits his tongue, I couldn’t help but reminisce about my own experiences with the petite shell-shaped sponge cake.

My mom has always been filled with big ideas when it came to baking. An avid collector of recipes and gadgets, she seemed prepared to embark on whatever culinary journey she desired. But when it came time to try a new recipe, she found herself caught on the cusp, overwhelmed with fear that her creation might be a flop. This fear is rooted in real experience: she once doubled the ingredients of an angel food cake. It rose out of the tall cake pan, growing like a creature in a horror film. Not only were the ingredients wasted, but there was no cake for dessert, and she was left to clean the charred batter from the sides and bottom of the oven.

About twenty years ago, she ordered a madeleine pan from a catalog, raving about the madeleines that her mother used to bake. My grandmother at first followed a Julia Child recipe, but then branched out to other varieties: chocolate dipped, orange flavored, and a traditional vanilla. When the pan arrived, my mother was delighted. As a child, I was excited by the scallop shape, tracing my fingers along the grooves. But as quickly as my mother had talked herself into splurging on the pan, she talked herself out of actually making the cookies. “All those grooves could be a problem,” she worried. “They might burn and stick. Besides, I’m not even sure about this recipe…” And with that, the pan languished on the shelf for another ten years. Soon it was 2003, and I suppose I tried to talk her into giving the madeleines another try. I have no memory of it, but the thick stack of recipes printed from the internet, all with the dates and long URLs, indicate that in the early aughts, she seemed ready to tackle the madeleine.

But it was not meant to be, and the pan continued to sit unused, still in its plastic sheath and now bundled with yellowed recipes, for another ten years.

Upon reading Proust, and his powerful description of the madeleine as a device of memory acquisition, I realized that I was the sole shot that this pan had for ever being used. When I called my mother to ask about the whereabouts of the mythical madeleine pan, she hemmed and hawed, claiming that she might never be able to find it. But it was actually in plain sight, resting upon the cookie sheets that she used quite often. For years, she had moved the madeleine pan every time she reached for a cookie sheet, but had no memory of even seeing or touching it.

Armed with the pan and a stack of ten-year-old recipes, I decided to harken back to my grandmother, and used Julia Child’s traditional recipe. It was probably the very recipe that my grandmother followed, though now shining from an iPhone screen, rather than in a worn and splattered cookbook.

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Posted in Carte du Jour, Essays

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Devilled Smelts & Violet Soufflé: In the Kitchen with Alice B. Toklas

In Chapter Nine of The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, “Little-known French Dishes Suitable for American and British Kitchens,” there are more than fifty recipes including one for devilled smelts, a fish dish made with two kinds of mustard and anchovy paste, and a violet soufflé dessert doused with a substantial tablespoon of Kummel, a clear liqueur flavored with cumin, fennel and caraway seeds. Reading through the two recipes, both seem much more suitable to other people’s kitchens instead of my own, since my limited cooking skills don’t go a lot farther than the end of a soup spoon.

Although the two recipes are brief in length, they seem long on kitchen savvy—or maybe that’s just the way I read them. From the opening line of the devilled smelt recipe, it seems a bit complicated: “Clean, remove fins, wash and dry six smelts.” The washing and drying parts could probably be done without a lot of cooking smarts, but removing fins without some sort of shield or trident sounds potentially dangerous. Toklas must have been too busy cooking during the early decades of the twentieth century to worry too much about it—poaching bass for Picasso, whipping eggs for Francis Picabia, preparing countless dishes for Gertrude Stein and generally feeding a large portion of Paris.

In her own words, Toklas says that the Cook Book, published in 1954, is a “mingling [of] recipe and reminiscence,” and the reminiscing part seems less trouble-free for me to follow than the recipe part. After reading recipes, lingering over the grocery list, organizing kitchen utensils, imagining how the crockery would be filled with phantom perfectly prepared dishes—maybe even dabbling with the idea of ironing a table cloth—there’s always the critical part of actually getting down to cooking, when kidding around is over and it’s time to do stuff in the kitchen. That’s when it gets tricky for me. Maybe there could be some sort of consolation to be had in Toklas’ response to the hullaballoo about her succès de scandale recipe for hashish fudge, when she purportedly said, “What’s sauce for the goose may be sauce for the gander. But it’s not necessarily sauce for the chicken, the duck, the turkey or the guinea hen.”

And there’s a lot of fowl in the Cook Book, including over twenty recipes for chicken. The one for “Chicken in Half Mourning” is probably a pretty accurate portrait of how poultry would fare in my kitchen. (Although the section of the recipe where you add in enough Madeira wine to immerse the chicken seems like a directive I could get behind.)

It’s springtime—open the windows, leave your cares, soufflé your violets, devil your smelts and serve.

Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House and the author of Knock Knock and Adult Swim
 (forthcoming), both from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems, essays and interviews have appeared in or on PBS NewsHourThe Guardian, and The Literary Review, among others. She has presented writers at Shakespeare & Company Bookshop’s weekly reading series and lives in Paris.

Posted in Aperitif

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A Moody Fellow Finds Love and Then Dies

 

 

1 /

Everyone gets to die. Not everyone gets to find love first.

Some people don’t even get to look.

This novel is about a moody fellow who got to do all three. His name was Moody Fellow.

Moody looked for love for a long time before he found it. He looked in some, not all, of the wrong places and in quite a few of the wrong ways. It didn’t make things any easier that, from the beginning of his search to the short-lived sweetness that marked its end, he was a terribly—and we do mean awfully—moody fellow.

But enough ado. Let us begin at the beginning.

 

2 /

There was a tremendous rupture of some kind, totally unprecedented, or else it was a rerun of something that had happened many times before, maybe somewhere in space, except no, this rupture created space, at least this time around it did, space and everything in it.

Eons later, a girl kissed Moody Fellow.

I like how scrawny you are, she told him, snapping her bubblegum. That’s why I kissed you. Can I borrow your math homework?

Okay, said Moody.

Moody was twelve years old and didn’t know much about life. He thought the girl would give him back his homework when she was done with it. If you were as pretty, he reasoned, as this girl was, with her blond hair and everything, why would you need to be dishonest? But this thought was interrupted by another: He’d been kissed! Not on the lips, but still, it was a thing that had never happened before, at least not to him, and now that it had, he felt like the king of all creation.

Take as long as you need with the homework, he said, handing it over.

The girl flashed him a smile and took off down the hall. She never kissed Moody again, or spoke to him, or gave him back his homework.

It made him mad that she didn’t give it back. But he didn’t tell anyone he was mad.

 

3 /

Moody’s second kiss foisted itself upon him four years after the first. It happened on a Wednesday, in the wake of algebra. The bestower of the kiss was an awkward girl Moody’d been informed liked him, as in liked. He’d been avoiding her, but now here she was, upon him in the hallway. His main concern as she leaned toward him pursing her anemic lips and squeezing shut her eyes, which when open were slightly crossed, was to make sure no one who mattered witnessed the event. Those who mattered numbered three: Moody’s best friend, Tall Jim; his second-best friend, Jorge, an exchange student who was Moody’s doubles partner on the tennis team; and, three, the girl on whom Moody at that time had a crush, a skinny girl with explosive hair, an extensive collection of brightly colored miniskirts, and a name that doesn’t matter anymore, though it did at the time, quite a bit, to Moody and, presumably, to the girl herself, else she wouldn’t have changed it after graduation. She had the locker next to Moody’s, and one of the reasons Moody liked her so much (in addition to how he was struck speechless, though not literally struck, by her amazing limbs, all four, and not literally speechless either) was that although she could outpeck him in terms of the social pecking order, she always, when the two of them happened to be at their lockers at the same time, had a friendly word for him. And not always a mere word—sometimes they had actual conversations, the sort in which views were exchanged. Moody learned, for instance, that this girl believed the space-time continuum was like a many-colored soap bubble, its colors constantly shifting, which seemed about right to him, god how he wanted to kiss her. When they crossed paths elsewhere than at their lockers, she ignored him. It was as though she too were struck speechless, but not in a good way.

While he scanned the hallway for the three who mattered, Moody managed to angle his face away from the approaching face of the awkward girl, so that her lips would meet not his lips but, say, his cheek or, as it turned out, his jawbone, or rather the skin that kept it mercifully from view. She didn’t seem nearly as awkward from close up, he noticed as he turned away. There was a mole-like blindness as she came at him with eyes closed that stirred within him something tenderer and less sure of itself than pity would have been. Whatever it was, it wasn’t desire, as the girl saw clearly when she opened her eyes to the post-kiss universe. The ache she felt was no less painful for being something nearly everyone who has ever lived has experienced.

I have to go to history, Moody said.

I’m sorry, said the girl.

You’re okay, said Moody, not knowing what he meant by it but knowing he intended it as a kindness. Then he hurried away, relieved that those who mattered hadn’t seen.

 

4 /

Around this time, Moody explained to his piano teacher that although it might be true that other people needed to practice the piano in order to get good at it, he, Moody Fellow, did not intend to approach music in quite that way.

I’ve noticed that, said his piano teacher, a short, solid woman who was six decades Moody’s senior and had heard this kind of thing before.

I want to play by pure feeling, Moody said. I want to play by inspiration, you know, in the moment.

Moody meant what he was saying. He thought people like Beethoven had been struck by the lightning bolt of pure musical feeling and had created beautiful music on the spot, while still warm from the lightning bolt. And he wanted to be the same way when he played Beethoven. Surely the great man deserved no less.

I’m not here to teach you musical feeling, said Moody’s piano teacher. You have that already. I’m here to teach you how to work.

Moody didn’t want to work, at least not at music. He worked at tennis. It didn’t occur to him to try to play a tennis match based on pure, in-the-moment feeling, with no preparation. No, what had made him the second-best player on his high school team, behind his doubles partner Jorge, were the thousands of hours he’d spent on tennis courts, endlessly running, hitting ball after ball to different spots on the court, with different spins, at different speeds, with different goals in mind. None of this seemed like work to Moody, for he loved every moment of it. He loved the sounds of the game—the pock! of the ball being struck, the squeak! of a player’s sneaker as he or she abruptly changed direction. He loved the sport’s Euclidean geometry and the way it was a contest of wills. He was, he would later think, both physically and psychologically addicted to tennis. He didn’t see why anyone else wouldn’t love it too, for instance girls. In a sign of how poorly he understood those fair and mysterious creatures, he thought he was more likely to win girls’ admiration by scooting back and forth along the baseline, getting every ball back deep with topspin, than he was by performing the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata, which, because he rarely practiced, he couldn’t play very well.

In tennis, love equals zero. But although our teenage protagonist lost his share of tennis matches, that is not what we mean when we say that, before he died, a moody fellow named Moody Fellow found love.

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Posted in Fiction

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Your Weekly Forecast: Ernest Hemingway

“When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.” ― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Posted in General

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What We’re Reading

Kenzie Halbert (Editorial Intern, Tin House Books): My recent introduction to A.M. Homes has stuck with me as one of my favorite reads of the new year. May We Be Forgiven focuses on the complex paternal bond between the protagonist and his successful yet insane brother George. The first thirty pages of the book are so rife with action, that it was at times overwhelming. In the midst of chaos, Homes continued to draw me in through her language, and I couldn’t seem to look away.  If I’m being honest, I was skeptical about how the rest of the book would keep my attention when it seemed like the remaining 400 pages would have to be solely devoted to cleaning up the catastrophic events of the first few chapters. To my pleasant surprise, the rest of the book is just as, if not more, engaging than the introduction as Homes examines familial bonds, mental illness, adolescence, and mid-life crises. It was a gift to be guided through the uniquely tumultuous journey of the protagonist by such a beautiful writer. Homes is committed to the honest portrayal of the darkest parts of her characters; she left me waiting for the protagonist predictable demise, but surprised me again with an ending so fitting that I was sad to see it come to an end.

Brandi Dawn Henderson (Editorial Intern, The Open Bar): At this year’s AWP, in panel after panel, I heard presenters mention Spork Press. So, when I came across a few friendly-faced guys behind their booth in the book expo, I stopped to take a look. All of their books are hand-crafted by these same nice folks out of their office in Tucson. To be honest, it was Saturday, the last day of the conference, and my brain was a little (a lot) glazed, so I put zero thought into the book I selected and bought from them. I was delighted, though, when I unpacked all my swag at home and began to flip through the thoughtfully-designed pages; I’d ended up with Colin Winnette’s Animal Collection, a totally quirky and wonderful book of fiction that runs a gamut of experiences all based (both literally and metaphorically) on the theme of animals. Even though I was exhausted after driving home from Seattle following an extraordinarily long few days, I made it through half the collection that first night. The next morning, I couldn’t wait to dive back in and finish. I went back to my favorite chapter, about baby cheetahs, and followed my fiancé around the house, reading it to him out loud. It’s the kind of collection that is surprising, curious, and smile-inducing. It is also weird and made me nod a lot in perplexed agreement. It’s the kind of collection that makes one, as I ended up doing, want to find out what else Colin Winnette has written, and to order it right away while still chuckling about the Naked Mole Rat’s troubles at Cheron’s Dine and Eat.

Victoria Savanh (Summer Writer’s Workshop Intern): Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories. These stories take place in the same world as her brilliant novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, faerie-crossed England. Each tale is charismatic and whimsical, often paired with dark, menacing undertones, much like the world of Faerie. Clarke’s enchantingly crafted Austen-esque pastiche is also a pleasure in itself. Among a few of the delightful things to be found in this collection: appearances made by Mary, Queen of Scots and Queen Mab, a Rumplestiltskin retelling, and a tribute to Neil Gaiman. Enjoy it as a companion to the novel or as an introduction to Clarke. And now (anxiously awaiting!) there’s the Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell mini-series to look forward to.

Molly Dickinson (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): I was at Powell’s, preparing for an overnight flight to Hershey, Pennsylvania this week and couldn’t say no to Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies. Maybe it was the mutually simple and bold cover, maybe it was the fact that the book jacket called upon similarities to two other favorites of mine, Philip K Dick and Jorge Luis Borges, or maybe it was just the delightful taste of Marcel Theroux’s name on my tongue; regardless, it came home with me. My discovery of the words inside has been no less thrilling than my encounter with this book on Powell’s shelves. The narrator is humble yet assertive (impressive, considering he is an academic), and there are equal parts mystery, fantastical plot detail, and simply beautiful prose. Theroux writes, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” and so presents us with a world of magical realism, where dead men can appear at our doorstep and die again. I’m relishing every page of Theroux’s artful craft, and I’d highly suggest you do, too.

Posted in Desiderata

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When the Rain You Asked for Comes

Flash FridaysYear I turned foreman, a guy I used to know by Cocaine Tommy calls me up and asks can I get him a job. Says he needs a fresh start after a 180-day bit in the Big Muddy River so he can do right by his kid. Can I give him a chance?

So I did. I always liked that scraggly jailbird, and anyway we apprenticed together and used to be tight. And he did try to do right by his kid as far as I could tell. Sam, her name was. Six years old. We’d see her all the time because her Meemaw—the mama’s mama—would swing her by every Friday for Tommy’s three hours’ unsupervised. Jane, that was the Meemaw’s name, took care of Sam since the mama couldn’t.

She was a tough old lady, that Jane, but kind. Right before Memorial Day, she let Tommy take Sam for a long weekend as a reward for keeping out trouble. I remember because she dropped off Sam on a Thursday night.

“Don’t you call sick,” I warned after Jane drove away. “Tomorrow’s a work day.”

Tommy tousled Sam’s stringy hair. “I ain’t calling sick. It’s gonna rain.”

Above us the sky showed nothing but blue.

“How you figure that?” I wanted to know.

“Sammy, baby, we’re going to show Mr. Jerry here how to make a rain turtle.”

“A turtle, Daddy?”

“Rain turtle, baby. We’ll make it from pebbles—and it’s got to be actual rocks, not dirt—then draw a circle around it with a twig off a tree, and then spit on the top while asking the Great Spirit for rain.”

At “Great Spirit,” Sam giggled. Tommy grinned. He said he learned the trick from Sam’s Peepaw before he died, and the Peepaw learned it from some type of Indian back in the Great Depression.

“Oh, and we can never forget where the turtle is, baby. That’s the most important part. You have to knock it over when the rain you asked for comes.”

Tommy and Sam made their turtle beneath a sapling on the side of our garage, and sure as shit, the next day I had to call it in for rain. Damned thing netted Tommy a four-day weekend. At work that next Tuesday, as a special fuck-you to me, he wore a T-shirt he picked up at the Fox River Family Fun Fest. “Friday Fishing Derby,” it said. “Rain or Shine, We Cast the Line.”

 

Two things happened after that. First was drought. Brutal heat and dryness. Not a drop of rain for weeks and weeks. Second, Tommy got back together with his old lady. Said they were going to do it right this time, get their acts together. Goal was to get Sam to live with them by fall.

I was happy for them, but addicts are volatile and two in love explosive. Wasn’t long before Tommy started coming off the rails. Sloppy work. Frequent lateness. Some bullshit about needing a more reliable car. After a few months, I could hardly recognize the guy. He lost weight and packed on grease and filth. He looked his worst when I found him on his hands and knees one afternoon looking for what he said was a lost bag of weed.

“Back to work,” I remember telling him. “We’ll track it down later.”

“Come on,” he pleaded.

“‘Come on,’ what? Little bag of grass? I’ll give you some of mine after work.”

“Look, I’m just really freaking about getting caught, OK? Like one of these kids around here finds it and tells their parents or maybe worse the cops?”

I laughed. “Like the cops will care.”

Tommy tucked his chin to chest and whimpered.

“Goddammit, Tommy, what’s wrong with you?”

“Sam, Boss. I can’t fuck this up. Jane is super-pissed about me and Suzy, and so is my bitch P.O. They’re not going to let us see Sam any more, OK? I’m dying. Suzy’s dying. Every night that woman cries for her baby.”

“After the job, Tommy.”

“Yeah, but—”

“Listen, if your kid is so important, maybe you shouldn’t be smoking at all.”

“You’re right. You’re right.”

“OK then. Jesus.”

“Just help me find the bag.”

I remember clenching my fists and thinking hard about the Polish brutes in the day labor pool out by Army Trail Road. “Look, Tommy,” I told him. “I’ll help you, but you make the choice: we finish up the day first, or we look now. We do it now, I want you gone as soon as we find it.”

Tommy nodded vacantly. “OK.”

“OK, what?”

“OK help me find the bag.”

So we looked. Stupid thing showed up in some mulch near by where he thought he lost it. Tommy snatched it up before I could check it out, but I doubt it was buds he had in there.

I never saw Tommy again after that. Years later, though, I did bump into Jane. On a rain day, matter of fact. Terrible storm, it was. Sheets of rain crashed down on cars and trucks, and I had to pull into the Olympia Grill on Route 59 to wait it out. Jane worked the smoking section—empty but for me—and we had ourselves a real nice chat. She even showed me a picture of Sam all grown up. Two full sleeves of tattoo ink covered her arms. Beautiful work, too—not at all like the blurry blue jailhouse scratching on the neck and chest of her old man. At first I thought it was blossoms and berries she had on there, but looking closer I saw it was tackle. Oversize fly-lure showstoppers on her shoulders, and brightly colored spoon lures, spinners, and bladed jigs trickling down.

According to Jane, Sam rented a chair at some high-end salon near the country club in Aurora. Said I should stop by some time. She’d turn my white hair blonde again. Give me highlights. Bring out my eyes.

 

Big Hark is a writer from Chicago.

The Open Bar is now accepting submissions for a new feature, Flash Fidelity: Non-Fiction in 1000 Words or Fewer. Submissions to The Open Bar may be sent in the body of an email or as an attachment, with the category of the submission in the subject line, to theopenbar@tinhouse.com.

Posted in Flash Fridays

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Tin House Reels: Edwin Rostron

Visions of the Invertebrate, this week’s film at Tin House Reels, is a dance of geometric shapes set to electronic sounds, a collaboration between artist Edwin Rostron and musician Supreme Vagabond Craftsman.

Working with a musician opened up possibilities for Rostron’s storytelling: “Supreme Vagabond Craftsman and I wanted to make something where his music and text came first, and the visuals followed.” This turned into a cross-genre dialogue. “He gave me recordings; I started animating. I showed him the drawings, and he gave me more sounds. It continued like this until it reached a natural conclusion. I like something unnatural and artificial in electronic sounds, and I wanted to connect with that sound through straight lines and movements.”

Rostron creates motion that could more easily be approximated with animation programs, but he chooses the labor-intensive process of drawing each frame because it allows him to dissolve the thinking mind into visual art: “I didn’t use the programs that I could have used to move the shapes–it is all drawing after drawing. There are 12.5 different drawings per second and thousands of separate drawings in the whole film. I draw one shape, put it on a lightbox, and redraw it again, moving it a little further in the direction it’s going, making it slightly bigger or smaller if it’s changing shape.”

“While I could achieve motion more easily with software, I wanted to not know what would happen next; I wanted to draw the next tiny change and the next tiny change but never consciously know where it was going. This is my ‘thinking through doing.’”

The final stages of his creation (you can better understand this painstaking labor by watching the test video for Visions) include an almost masochistic erasure of the meticulous work he has done by hand: “I artificially flat photoshop-color it to make it ambiguous as to how it was made. I guess this is pretty perverse! I was originally going to have it more ‘dirty’ with the smudges and creases of the paper more visible (like they are in the test) but when I saw my work with the bright flat colors, I much preferred it.”

“It’s hard to for me to explain I guess, but this film could only ever have been made in the way I made it.”

Edwin Rostron earned his B.A. in Fine Art at Sheffield Hallam University and his M.A. in Animation at the Royal College of Art. He has taught Animation at Kingston University, worked in galleries, and has done other freelance work to support his art. Edge of Frame, his blog, is an exploration of experimental animation that features interviews with animators who inspire him.

Tin House Reels is a weekly feature on The Open Bar dedicated to the craft of short filmmaking. Curated by Ilana Simons, the series features videos by artists who are forming interesting new relationships between images and words.

We are now accepting submissions for Tin House Reels. Please upload your videos of 15 minutes or less to Youtube or Vimeo and send a link of your work to tinhousereels@gmail.com. You may also send us a file directly.

 

 

Posted in Tin House Reels, Videos

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Cussword ABC’s

Flash FidelityMy uncles taught me cusswords to the tune of the ABC’s. I was six. This was Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the mid-eighties. We were standing outside my grandparents’ house, my uncles wearing jeans and flannels and hooded sweatshirts, and holding cans of Old Style. They’d tossed me an empty and every time they took a swig, I’d prop the can to my mouth, and tilt my head back for those last drops of beer. They took a picture. I still have it—dark hair, half-Filipino boy with chocolate brown corduroys and a navy blue zip-up hoodie over a collared shirt, standing next to my German Caucasian uncles—beards and ball caps, tattoos and wild eyes.

Around us, maple leaves spiraled from branches, filling the sky yellow and orange.  A rusted out Datsun truck was parked in the gravel driveway, its hood popped open. One of my uncles was changing the oil. The other two lingered around the driveway, working to polish off a twelve pack. I scampered around the front yard clutching the empty beer can, kicking up fallen leaves until one of my uncles flagged me over and started singing.

“Just like this,” my uncle said. He held my shoulder and sang to the tune of the ABC’s. I sang it back to him.

“Shit-fuck-asshole-motherfucking bitch—”

“Just like the ABCs,” he said.  I kept singing. All three of them were doubled over.

We all practiced the song, standing around the truck with the hood still propped, oil draining into a bin they’d slid underneath the engine.

People drove by in cars, on motorcycles. We all waved. My uncles offered me swigs of beer. I guzzled a few times, spilling on myself. I felt lightheaded. I sang louder. I drank more. They slapped their knees and egged me on. A cool breeze shifted the leaves around the yard. My grandfather sauntered out of his two-stall work-garage and into the driveway. He adjusted his hat. “What’s all the racket out here?” he said.

“Changing oil,” one my uncles said.

“Don’t be giving that boy any beer,” my grandpa said. I was still holding the empty Old Style can.

My uncles smirked and told him they were looking after me, that everything was just fine. My grandfather stepped away and into the house where my grandmother watched late-afternoon talk shows, chain-smoking Kools.

When my grandfather went inside, I started singing again.

“Shit-fuck-asshole-motherfucking-bitch-communist bastard-eat my shit—”

I paused to admire my uncles, bent over, faces contorted in laughter. But I also stopped because that’s as far as we’d gotten with the song.

I darted away, feeling invincible. I climbed the ladder of a fort made of metal pipe that my grandfather had built. I got to the top rung, eight feet off the ground, and sang the cussword ABCs as loud as I could. My uncles nearly fell over. They reached into the twelve pack for the last of the beers. I climbed down, hopped on a swing. I swung back and forth until my stomach hurt, queasy with motion sickness. But I still sang. I jumped off the swing, ran around the outside of the house, scaled the maple tree, dribbled a basketball between my legs, sat on a lawn chair, kicked at the gravel, sang the song, sang it for my uncles, sang as loud as I could—their laughter, frothy with Old Style.

Four empty oil quarts sat off to the side, next to the house. The twelve pack was gone, and one of my uncles ambled over to the Datsun, unlatched the metal pole support, tucked it away, and slammed the engine hood shut.

“We’re going in, kid,” one of them said.

I sprinted over to the swing set where I’d left my empty. I picked it up and raced back to where they all stood, waiting for me. We walked into the garage, the four of us, together—pals, compadres, equals.

A few hours later, when my mom and dad came by to pick me up, my uncles were sitting in the living room, working on a new twelve pack of Old Style, my grandmother’s cigarette smoke wafting toward the ceiling.

When it was time for me to go, my uncles sat up in their chairs. One saluted me, the other two raised their beers. I waved to them, said goodbye. I hugged my grandmother, like I always did, and then I went to search for my navy-blue hoodie. When I found it, in a pile next to the front door, it was still wet around the collar—spilt drops of beer. Leftover from my uncles’ generosity.

Keith Lesmeister lives and works in rural northeast Iowa. An MFA candidate at the Bennington Writing Seminars, his stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming online or in print at American Short Fiction, Meridian, Harpur Palate, River Teeth, Midwestern Gothic, Museum of Americana and elsewhere.

Posted in Essays, Flash Fidelity

Comments: 1

Correspondent’s Course: Athletes in Fiction

At first brush it would seem books and sports do not belong with one another. The cliché has them sitting at separate tables in the lunchroom. Nerd v. Jock. And, in current culture, one is forever tightening its grip on our hearts, minds and money—this last Super Bowl, despite being basically over by halftime, was the most watched TV event… OF ALL TIME—while the other, however overblown it may be, seems to be simultaneously protesting and promoting its disappearance into the night.

However, books and sports are more in line than we might think. The writer and the player spend countless hours practicing and perfecting. They nurse an improbable, though necessary, belief in themselves. Meanwhile, the reader and the watcher grow attached to the set-up, easily-distillable dramas the writers or players produce. They have favorite practitioners and become emotionally attached in ways that help create their identities—favorite book or sports teams are common online profile inclusions.

Nobody opens a book hoping there will be no drama and no one watches a game to see both teams playing politely. We gravitate to both in part because they can serve as a proxy exploration of our own troubles. Think of it like an itching stick that gets that spot on your back you’d have to break your own arm to get on your own. We go there. We feel things. We leave. We go get dinner. We drink a beer. We recap. Hopefully, we are entertained as well.

The two mediums are empathy machines. In books, we are transported to other points of view and so are allowed different life experiences. We can relate and, so, show mercy. Sports, at their best, do the same. At Sochi, NBC managed to tie the sadness of a miscarriage into skeleton racing, the cavity of a too-soon lost brother into downhill skiing, and the buoyant naivety of youth into the new Olympic sport of slopestyle.

At the intersection between books and sports are memorable characters for which trouble or triumph does not end on the field. It bleeds into everything; it adds to what they become. If the larger form is an empathy machine, then these characters are the handles to which we hold as we are pulled through something we would not be able to experience on our own. The character’s time on the field of play informs their time off of it and visa versa—just as our time reading or watching informs our day-to-day.

Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom – Rabbit Angstrom: A Tetralogy, by John Updike
In many ways, Rabbit is a deplorable character, constantly letting down everyone he encounters on his bumper-to-bumper-to-bumper journey through life that makes one wonder, will he ever learn?

In other ways, he is American, and so sympathetic to Americans, because he continues to buy into the sports metaphors he can’t seem to shake from his time as a high school basketball star—try harder, practice better, play smarter. Rabbit knows something many of us are loath to admit knowing ourselves: it’s not always the best player or team that wins; it’s more often those willing to bend the rules, dive on the floor, bark at the ref, take advantage.

Roy Hobbs – The Natural, by Bernard Malamud
There’s an odd scene in The Natural where star slugger Roy Hobbs devours an ungodly amount of food while a kaleidoscope of characters and frantic happenings twirl around him. This is what his life as a star player has become and Hobbs charges through the excess and glitz, never doubting his ability to juggle it all. In the end, it triggers the downfall of his baseball dreams.

A bit of an older take from when full-saturation sports celebrity was a relatively new phenomena, the excess and attention that take away from the purity of the gift still rings true. See the movie for a happier ending. Of course.

Reno – The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner
As an artist and a rebel, Reno seems anathema to the sports world. But she is also a former ski racer who captures the world land-speed record while driving the Spirit of Italy.

She is constantly meditating on speed’s gifts to moment and art, but she also revels in the simple fact that she is the fastest. When it comes to racing, the most basic of sports, the earliest competition any of us did (last one to the car is a rotten egg!) the ever-cool, alternative Reno can’t help but care, even as she’s promising us that she doesn’t, not really, not at all.

Hugh Chance – The Brothers K, by David James Duncan
Papa Chance’s baseball potential and baseball failure ripple through his entire family. His talent was supposed to be the golden ticket out of whatever troubled them. Then an accident involving his thumb and a large machine derailed this hope.

And so the up and down drama of the book begins. Better, worse, best, worst, we follow the Chance family as we would a tight baseball game. Lead-changes and life changes abound. Papa Chase struggles with communication and oftentimes slips into brooding and wondering what could have been. But there is also something deeper in the book: an obsession with spirituality and religion. Something always present in sports and literature.

Henry Skrimshander – The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach
Young Henry is allowed to continue his baseball career almost by accident. Noticed shagging balls at the end of his senior season in high school, he is saved, by a matter of minutes, from going back to his hometown and hanging up the glove forever. This luck—good and bad—goes on to permeate his time throughout the rest of the book.

Luck as a not uncommon angel is a widespread sentiment. The good life is just there and it will only take the right crack of the bat, the right grip of the ball, the perfect position of the sun for everything to come together. When Henry sinks into a deep depression, the reader is not wondering if baseball is good for him but when he will get back to the plate.

Dreams coming true are always just a swing away.

Hank Stamper – Sometimes a Great Notion, by Ken Kesey
Hank is stubborn and aloof and proud and also a former high school stud, star of the football team and the best swimmer around. He lived the life of small-town royalty. His stubbornness only helping him… up until it didn’t…

And so, when his brother, Leland, comes back into the fold with the express purpose of tearing Hank down, we enter a strange place of both cheering little brother on and hoping his slimy ways backfire.

Even though Hank is no longer the sports star he once was, it’s all but impossible to credit it. When he’s defying the town, it’s the athlete we see, strutting in the end zone, celebrating.

That’s the duplicity of a sports star. When they play for your team, you love them; when they face off against you, all is fair game. We want them taken down for their overconfident preening, but often fail to appreciate that their cockiness may be the very thing required to do something like play well in front of screaming fans, or for that matter, create a world on the page.

Timothy S. Lane graduated from the University of Oregon with a journalism degree and worked as a sports reporter for The Molalla Pioneer before pursuing a career in publishing in New York City. His writing has appeared in The Good Men Project and Pology. Rules for Becoming a Legend (Viking) is his first novel. He lives with his wife in Portland, Oregon.

Posted in Correspondent's Course

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Whitman Illuminated

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full

hands;

How could I answer the child?… .I do not know what it

is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful

green stuff woven.

From Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself, illustrated by Allen Crawford, coming soon from Tin House Books!

Posted in Poetry, Tin House Books

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What We’re Reading

Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer): I’m a religion-obsessed, secular Jew with grand plans for a spiritual road trip. Obviously, there aren’t a lot of books that cater to that sort of thing so I was excited when, after thoroughly confusing a Powell’s employee, I found Daniel Radosh’s Rapture Ready!: Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture. Radosh (also a secular Jew) began investigating contemporary evangelism after he attended a Christian music festival with his sister-in-law. Though he’s critical of many aspects of the culture, he approaches each situation—from Passion plays to extreme Christian skateboarding competitions—with a genuine desire to learn and understand. Radosh doesn’t tend to delve deeply, but Rapture Ready is a great introduction to the intersection of Christianity and consumerism.

Diane Chonette (Art Director): During rare moments of stillness in our household, there is a stack of books at the ready. This week’s favorite has been the wonderful edition of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet published by BabyLit (Gibbs Smith). It is a counting primer that starts with “One Balcony”. This series of board books is beautifully illustrated and offers just a little toddler taste of what the classics hold. Our other favorites are Moby-Dick, Dracula, and Alice in Wonderland.

Thomas Ross (Editorial Assistant): After the AWP conference in Seattle, I had to make some space on my bookshelf by selling some books at Powell’s. Of course, I left Powell’s with a few new ones, so I basically broke even. One of those new ones was Bark, Lorrie Moore’s new collection. The first story, “Debarking,” is one of the best stories I can remember reading. It’s funny, cool, lightly mean. Favorite line: “It wasn’t he who was having sex. The condom was having sex and he was just trying to stop it.”

Heather Hartley (Paris Editor): I’ve been reading Françoise Sagan’s slim collection of essays, With Fondest Regards these past days. Published in 1984 long after the scandal and fame of Bonjour Tristesse, this collection includes portraits of everyone from Billie Holiday to Orson Welles as well as vignettes about the high life in Saint-Tropez and the low lights of the casino there. “Whisky, gambling and Ferraris are better than housework,” she wrote, and With Fondest Regards offers reflections à la Sagan for a very early spring.

Posted in Desiderata

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Some Time Away

Flash FridaysIt began at the next morning’s breakfast on the wooden patio, when every color began to look off, as if a fluorescent light hung above his head, and Dylan could even hear the buzzing in the center of his ear. The lake looked wasted by overly green algae while the mermaid’s skin—or, rather, the skin of the actress playing the mermaid—gleamed sallow and sickly. They sat under a garish striped umbrella, orange, red, blue, and even the tablecloth they ate on appeared discolored as if it had hung for a year in a cloud of somebody’s smoke. This put Dylan in a ferocious mood, as it did when it happened at home, when all the colors changed on him, no warning, and he’d have to sit indoors with his eyes closed, his wife asking, “What is wrong with you now?”

“Edward, I wanted to thank you for saving me yesterday,” Aria said, enunciating the words as if delivering a theatrical speech. Her voice sounded coarse and cheap. “Your generosity is heart wrenching, your courage commendable. Should you ever be able to visit the bottom of the sea, I know my father there, king of all seas, would be most grateful to see you.”

She poked the fried egg with the tip of her knife, the yolk spilling yellow all over the plate. The color seemed obviously obscene. He kept glimpsing Aria’s thighs, he couldn’t help it, as she crossed then uncross her legs. The fin wasn’t in today’s script.

“Actually,” Dylan said, staring into his cup of gray coffee with the sugar cubes dissolving in the center. “I’d rather you not talk today, actually.”

Aria shrugged, shoving another bite of egg into her mouth. “Seems a dumb way to stray from the script.”

“Your voice isn’t what I thought it would be.”

 

I always wanted to be a noble. How they go about rescuing things on horseback or on their special adventures. I’d miss nothing about my real life, he had written in the journal in his cabin.  

He wrote, Please do not make me go back to who I was, please.

 

In the afternoon, when every window in every cabin looked stained, when the mermaid’s hair was the color of dishwater, when he couldn’t bear to sit inside any longer on the loveseat which was the hideous pink of something made raw—he asked Aria to put back on her fin.

“I’d like to save you again,” Dylan explained, wanting the mermaid collapsed in his arms and cold like yesterday, when he had inhaled her sweet sea smell and everything was correct. He already had on his swim trunks. “Just wear your fin and swim out and wave your arms like we did before. I’ll come and rescue you. For five minutes. You don’t mind do you.”

Aria rolled her eyes. Dylan didn’t watch her legs walk up to the loft of the cabin.

“I need to be carried,” she shouted down to him minutes later.

“But you don’t have a voice,” Dylan pleaded.

“Then carry me.” He carried her to the water, where a motorboat was anchored in front of him, several hundred yards out in the lake. A man with mirrored sunglasses and a fishing rod waved at him. Dylan ignored the boat—this was his fantasy, he paid for it, it was no one else’s. He ran his hands over the smoothness of Aria’s fin, then he let her go.

She swam out, flipping her fin like a dolphin might, but when Dylan motioned her to stop, Aria only swam out further, now on her back, moving through the water with circling motions of her arms. She reached the boat. Dylan watched the fisherman lean down to lift her out of the water.

“No!” Dylan shouted, but the mermaid sat in the boat for minutes that felt like an hour, relaxing on her back, her fin flipping like a wing, while the fisherman reeled in one fish then another. “Get in the water!” Dylan yelled. “Aria!” He ran up the stairs to the cabin and found the butler changing the sheets in the bedroom. Dylan blurted out what was happening. The butler glanced out the window. “I don’t know who that man is,” he said. “She’s in the water now though. Get out there and enjoy yourself, okay? It’s your last day.”

When Dylan walked out of the cabin again, the motorboat was sputtering north, and the mermaid was flailing, as she was supposed to, in the correct spot of the lake. She splashed with her hands, making the high-pitched shrieks a mermaid might. Dylan pretended at first not to see her. He crouched down next to the roses in the garden and fingered a thorn. He savored the rose, which didn’t smell like anything, maybe they were fake. He glanced up to scan the lake. She splashed again, loudly. “I’ll save you,” he shouted, he dove in the water, swam out, he grabbed her arms, he dragged her back to shore, he called her “foundling” and toweled her off roughly on a flat rock with the towels the butler had brought for them. I want to carry you in my pocket like a pearl. I want to open you like an oyster. Once his breathing steadied, he asked her to swim back out for him to rescue again. She swam back out. Was rescued. Swam back. Was rescued. He wanted to carry her back in his teeth. He wanted his life to be like this always. To have a purpose. The motorboat man was gone, he was non-existent. Her skin reddened each time he saved her, her wig dripping, and she began to swim more slowly, more limply, until the butler grabbed his arm, when he was about to push Aria into the water again, to inform him their dinner was growing cold and it was time to come inside.

 

Debbie Urbanski’s fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Kenyon Review, New England Review, The Southern Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and the UK science fiction magazines Interzone and Arc. She is at work on a linked story collection about aliens and cults.

The Open Bar is now accepting submissions for a new feature, Flash Fidelity: Non-Fiction in 1000 Words or Fewer. Submissions to The Open Bar may be sent in the body of an email or as an attachment, with the category of the submission in the subject line, to theopenbar@tinhouse.com.

Posted in Flash Fridays

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Tin House Reels: Rivkah Gevinson

This week, Tin House Reels screens Rivkah Gevinson’s short film Shut Eye, an animation of elaborate parts—buttons, cupcake liners, lace, teapots, cloth dolls with outsized shoes—set to a song that relates the pieces.

Gevinson capitalizes on the surprises that happen as an animator transitions from single, still images to the way those pictures move forward on film. Gevinson builds a video through that wild dialogue between static and moving art: “An animator is blind to how [a sequence actually moves] until watching what’s been recorded. My narrative only begins to develop once I’ve begun to see how the images run in playback. Once I have a sense of that, I’ll tailor the sequences towards the story. This process is a great lesson in letting go of control in the moment, and editing later. One moment is determined by what came before it and what comes after it–no moment is in a vacuum.”

Shut Eye, her response to a song of that title by Stealing Sheep, surprised her with its darkness. Her first images “turned out to have a very eerie tone that I hadn’t anticipated or planned. I began with the drawings of the girls with their faces cut out–and when I registered how they appeared in playback, it was totally creepy. I decided to go with the creepiness, and eventually hints of characters and narrative emerged, as well as new sets and choices of pacing. I can only get a sense of tone or atmosphere by way of movement once I’ve recorded several frames.”

The result is a video that feels fresh and powered by something other than the thinking brain.

Gevinson describes video, like music, as a way to explore time. Videos and music demand that we experience them at their own pace—and giving way to pace means giving yourself over to the art in a specific way. When looking at photographs or paintings, she said, you have “personal time; you can be with them alone, up close.” There is room for dawdling, “for nostalgia and daydreaming.”

But in moving images, one frame is ushered off by the next, which comes with a new set of demands: “Music and film are a sequence of moments. The viewer can only refer back to moments by way of memory.”  Both arts ask for acts of memory from the audience. “When I listen to music or watch anything time-based, I have to allow the piece to unfold; I resist pegging the piece as any one statement, but rather am carried by the changing soundscapes and visual transitions, patient and trusting of the piece. It’s like being carried.”

This process “reminds me of the process of events in my life. It makes it easier for me to let go of certain things, which ultimately encourages me to accept failures and take risks.”

Rivkah Gevinson graduated with a BA in art from Skidmore College. She is Norwegian-American, soon to be based in Berlin. In June, she went to Norway on a grant, photographing the country for 6 months, exploring the summer light and how it changes with the coming of winter. Her project considered light’s role in Norwegian culture, values, and everyday life, and she is working on a resulting photo book. Gevinson is currently animating a video for a Norwegian song by Nina Gaarden, alled ‘Uskreven Sang,’ or ‘Unwritten Song.’ “The sentiment of the song is very close to my love for the kind of automatic creative processes that stop-motion is conducive to. The first line of the song is translated to, ‘Sometimes I have to find answers in an unwritten song.’”

Tin House Reels is a weekly feature on The Open Bar dedicated to the craft of short filmmaking. Curated by Ilana Simons, the series features videos by artists who are forming interesting new relationships between images and words.

We are now accepting submissions for Tin House Reels. Please upload your videos of 15 minutes or less to Youtube or Vimeo and send a link of your work to tinhousereels@gmail.com. You may also send us a file directly.

Posted in Tin House Reels, Videos

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Donna Tartt and the MacGuffin

I read The Goldfinch last summer when my partner Dustin and I cat-sat for a friend in Woodstock for 8 days, a busman’s holiday. I was working on my novel, he was working on our script, and we wanted to go off and be in the relative quiet of the woods as we did this, to our friend’s massive converted barn loft house and two nervous cats, one of which we would never see. I had just received an advance copy of The Goldfinch, and when I was not working on my own book, I was reading hers.

“What is it about?”, Dustin asked me, curious, as we took a walk on the second day of our trip. He hadn’t seen me so absorbed in a book in a while, and to be honest, neither had I. I tried to summarize it, and as I did, I could see I was both describing it and yet also mangling it with some sort of literal blow-by-blow description that had at first seemed like the most straightforward way to proceed. I gave up, and promised to try again afterward, and simply returned to my movement, between reading it and writing.

There are times in the writing of novels when it is impossible to read anything else. All other books fail you because the one you want to write is the most urgent, and must, necessarily, annihilate the others. But then sometimes there is one, or two, but usually one, that can keep you company, and most writers will tell you that that book you keep on the desk while you write, that is an intimate relationship. It’s one part protector, one part angel, one part obsession, one part teacher. Sometimes it is always the one book, sometimes there’s a rotation. The Secret History had been there with me for a while because of the structure of it, an elegant addition to a group of novels I was using to think about retrospective structure and point of telling—that is, where the narrator is telling you this from. I was using Brideshead Revisited and The Secret History before The Goldfinch was a surprise addition—as if it was tagging along with its wicked older sister as soon as it had been born.

From the beginning, I found the intimate atmosphere of the novel seductive, especially the way it knew its characters so well, and the way it reminded me of how much I just loved to read in the old days, before I ever aspired to anything besides reading. And in this way, the act of reading it reminded me of who I was, also. But the truth is, the novel fascinated me for many reasons. Beyond the characters and atmosphere, there were the massive paragraphs, the fantastic style to it, the way it is a sort of long explanation from the narrator to the young woman he fell in love with as a boy, telling her how he fraudulently inserted his way into her life, and has accepted he will never have her. The novel asks a question, of whether anything can really be “restored”, or if that is only a fiction too–and one that is destructive at best for both the one who believes it and the one who sells it. And along the way, it does a great many things.

The Goldfinch opens in Amsterdam, in a hotel where the narrator, Theo Decker, is holed up, mysteriously staying to himself, reading newspapers, drifting in and out of sleep, worried for reasons we’ll understand only near the end of the novel. The atmosphere is one of suppressed urgency, an elegant mind in disarray, but it also reminded me of when my mother would give us paregoric as children—there’s the feeling of fever and opiates (these turn out to be literal). The narrator describes not having the right clothes for the weather, staying too long, dismaying the concierge. He then describes a dream he’s just had about his mother, dead now for many years, so close he feels he can touch her, but he can’t, and then he tells us why, and with that, the novel opens, and we move to the last day he spent in her presence.

This is the day she took him to a meeting at school as he faced possibly being expelled, and then became carsick, and then they walked until they got to the Metropolitan Museum, where they went inside to see some favorite paintings, because there was so much rain, and then bombs set by terrorists went off, trapping Theo in a wing where only he and a much older, elegant gentleman have survived. This man is gravely injured, though, and so Theo keeps him company until help arrives. Soon it is clear to them both this man will die before they are rescued, and so he gives Theo two missions: he hands him a signet ring, asking him to memorize an address and go there to deliver the ring, with news of his death. And then there is the matter of a painting, knocked off the wall. The Goldfinch of the title. He asks Theo to take it for now, to make sure it is safe during the melee. The man then dies, and Theo manages to escape the wing. In the melee, he gets home to wait for his mother, who never returns—she has died in the attack, he learns the next morning. Now he is home alone with the painting, which he knows he must return, and yet he cannot, after all he has lost, quite let go of it.

The source of so many happy memories of her, in other words, becomes the place he lost her.

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Posted in Essays

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The Settlers: An Exclusive Essay from The Believer

As you may have heard by now, both Tin House and its beloved, smart, and good looking literary sibling the Believer are offering up a joint promotion where for only $65,  you’ll get a year’s subscription to both magazines (Subscribe today! Here!).

To help move product celebrate this unique partnership, we decided it might be fun to swap Lindsay Lohan blog content for a day.

Be sure to click over to the Believer’s Logger to read an excerpt from Lacy Johnson’s forthcoming memoir, The Other Side (Tin House Books).

Over on our side of the fence, we are thrilled to be running an essay from our good friend Katie Arnold-Ratliff, whose “The Settlers” appears in the current issue of the Believer.

A survey of the Raison D’être Dramedies, a film genre created to console existentially disappointed baby boomers with magical realism.

Discussed: Steve Martin, A Stationary Exercise Bike, Demographic-Specific Ambivalence, Woodstock,  The Winnowing of Life’s Possibilities, Mass Psychological Unrest, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,  What Else a Guy Could Want, Transcending One’s Imperfect Childhood, A Few Dozen Acres of Fertile Iowa Farmland,  The 1919 White Sox, The AIDS Crisis, Sympathetic Faintheartedness, The Full Existentialist Moon

In the opening scene of L.A. Story (1991), weatherman Harris K. Telemacher—played by the film’s writer, Steve Martin—rides a stationary exercise bike in the middle of Echo Park, and captures, in voice-over, an ambivalence experienced by many middle-class, middle-aged Americans in the late  ’80s and early ’90s: “I was deeply unhappy, but I didn’t know it, because I was so happy all the time.”

Martin was born in 1945, at the vanguard of the baby boom. His was the generation that spent its formative years being courted by advertisers, who wielded sufficient cultural clout to make the Beatles the Beatles, and hula-hooping a thing. Reaching adulthood in the throes of the Vietnam War, boomers swelled the ranks of the student-protest movement, bathed in the mud of Woodstock, and railed against an outdated establishment (which happened to be populated by their parents). As Ray Kinsella, Kevin Costner’s character in Field of Dreams (1989), says, “Officially my major was English, but really it was the ’60s.” Martin and Costner’s generation was convinced of the efficacy of civil disobedience and, like no generation before it, of the centrality of individualism.

The thing about young people, though, is that they grow up—and what becomes of a bunch of kids who sloganized “Don’t trust anyone over thirty”? By the 1980s, 3.4 million baby boomers found themselves surviving various stages of midlife and its particular torments: the death of one’s parents, the weight of responsibilities financial and familial, the winnowing of life’s possibilities. These sorrows bedevil mid-lifers in any decade, but the ’80s presented a unique wrinkle. The era was, after an initial slump, a boom time, and consumption was famously conspicuous—so a wide swath of boomers, both materially comfortable and professionally accomplished, watched themselves become the establishment they had once hoped to tear down. They moved to the suburbs, became Reagan Democrats, and acknowledged that the revolution had failed: government was still corrupt; American society, with its moral panics and televangelists, was enduringly uptight; and the idealism that boomers had once cherished had largely leached from their lives. They were deeply unhappy, despite being so happy all the time.

 

Mass psychological unrest has a way of trickling down, to borrow the locution of the period, and in the late ’80s and early ’90s, this conflict seeped into commercial film. There arose a micro-genre of sincere but funny existentialist narratives, all featuring boomer-aged protagonists who attempted to clarify what really matters and pinpoint how one ought to live. The most interesting of these existential-crisis films—call them “raison d’être dramedies,” or RDDs for short—include L.A. Story and Field of Dreams, as well as Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), Mr. Destiny (1990), Defending Your Life (1991), Groundhog Day (1993), and Heart and Souls (1993). In each, a boomer, usually dissatisfied, interacts with a magical or supernatural force and, as a result, arrives at a conclusion about the meaning of life. Many movies of the era dabbled in goofy fantasy—Back to the Future (1985), Weird Science (1985), and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), to name a few—and others mined the supernatural for a sentimental wallop, like Big (1988) and Ghost (1990). But RDDs used their conceits to ponder philosophy’s basic question, the one a generation might suddenly need answered upon reaching an especially fraught middle age: what’s it all for?

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Whatever Happens, I’m Having a Good Time: An Interview with David James Poissant

David James Poissant’s debut collection (Ed. note-Out Today!!!), The Heaven of Animals, promises us a book teeming with wildlife, with metaphysical questions, with people yearning for answers, and the stories deliver. A key strength of Jamie’s fiction is that in one breath he can both make us laugh and raise what Faulkner called “the old verities and truths of the heart.” Take, for example, the opening of “Me and James Dean.” The story concerns a husband and wife and the wife’s dog—the titular James Dean himself, an “old beagle with a nose like a coke fiend’s.” The story’s first line possesses Nabokov’s compression and dark humor, delivered in a spot-on contemporary voice to rival the best writers out there today: “Jill’s had James Dean since college, a gift from her parents before they died—car crash—which makes him extra-special to her, a last link to her ancestry or something.”

Jamie and I attended the MFA program at the University of Arizona, where we met and became friends. He arrived to our first class in the program without a pen, and he asked to borrow one. I handed him a spare Bic. Then, he said very politely that he was sorry to bother me, but could he borrow a piece of paper, too? He made me laugh that day, he made me laugh when I read his first story for workshop—a story in which he coined the genius term “ass font,” for the ubiquitous script on the derriere of sweatpants, shorts, and the like—and he has been doing so ever since. I had the pleasure of editing his work during my time on the editorial staff at The Southern Review. Watching his collection burst into the world is, for me, like viewing a time-lapse movie made from an event I observed in full; I had read many of these stories in manuscript form and in literary magazines over the years, seen them evolve, and now relish the treat of finding them collected and presented so beautifully.

I talked via email with Jamie about ring-tailed lemurs, the spiritual realm, and the importance of voice.

Cara Blue Adams: How did you select the stories for the collection? And how did you choose an order? The opening and closing stories are perfect bookends—the first (“Lizard Man”) gives us a father/son relationship and the last (“The Heaven of Animals”) picks up that relationship fifteen or so years later—and it occurs to me that reversing their order would make this a very different book. I’m curious about how you planned the collection’s arc.

David James Poissant: What’s the Facebook expression? It’s complicated? There are so many answers to that question. When I originally conceived of the book, it included several stories that didn’t make the final cut. My thought was that the “safest,” most marketable collection would be one that included all of my realist stories of a uniform length. So, no short-shorts, no longer stories, and definitely no glowing babies. But after Millicent Bennett acquired the book for Simon & Schuster, she insisted that we worry less about safe and more about excellence. “Let’s just make this a book of your best,” she said. And I’m so glad that she said that.

Together, we read through about thirty stories that I had published between 2005 and 2012, and another five or six that I’d finished but had yet to publish at the time. We settled on seventeen stories that I knew intuitively were my best, and, in the end, we had to lose one of those because the book just got too long. But I hope to see that story along with a few of the others, and some new ones I’ve written these past two years, in a second collection on down the road. And I’m thrilled to see this collection turn out so wide-ranging. If nothing else, it’s certainly a more interesting book than it would have been otherwise. Some of my favorite writers (Ron Carlson and Stuart Dybek spring to mind) have been sandwiching short-shorts between longer stories, and allowing the magical to brush elbows with the real in their work for a long time now. I’m glad to have gotten the chance to structure this book similarly.

The order of the stories was tough, and Millicent and I spent a long time on it. We didn’t want all of the saddest stories lumped together. We didn’t want all of the weirdest stories lumped together. And we didn’t want to create a pattern, like: long, long, short. We juggled stories for a long time, which, in retrospect, is kind of funny, because I can’t remember the last time I read a collection from beginning to end. I tend to skip around.

But the one thing that never changed, the one thing my agent loved from the beginning and my editor loved from the beginning, and that I’m thrilled to have kept, was this idea of “Lizard Man” and the title story as bookends. I love when a collection gives you characters that you don’t know will reappear, and how, when they reappear, it’s a gift. I hope my readers are happy to see Dan again fifteen years later in the closing story. I also like how the last story leads the reader out of the South. Much of this book is set in the South, and I love to write about the South, but I enjoy writing about Tucson too, and Ohio, and other places I’ve lived in and visited. Ending that way almost felt like me giving myself permission to write whatever (and wherever) I want after this.

CBA: The book’s final line—“It would come, the end, when blue met blue”—has a gorgeous metaphysical weight. The question of faith is alive in these stories. How do you engage this perennial (and perennially difficult) theme?

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Amtrak and Letting Go

For many of us who attended AWP in Seattle, the biggest obstacle in returning home was a wicked hangover and/or an overpacked suitcase full of booksFor Jen Fitzgerald, the odyssey was a bit more complicated.

 The bus driver’s palm was bloodied where the screwdriver had slid across it. He pried the panel off to check the wipers’ wiring. I slid past him and joined the smokers out on the side of Route 90 East, elevation over 3,000 feet. The blizzard had subsided but hung in the air as a threat to our three bus convoy en route from Spokane, Washington to Shelby, Montana.

I can push against this thing or let it take me where it will.

 

“Hey, do you want to take the train home?”

Flights were getting delayed and cancelled every few minutes. My inner control freak and nervous flyer knew I wouldn’t make it from Seattle to NYC on time. Uncertainty was chipping away at my sanity. A cross-country train trip, by myself, through states I had never seen and terrain I had no frame of reference for? It could be a “winding down” after the cacophony of AWP (a writers and writing professionals conference) and the seven months of work leading up to the successful release of the VIDA Count with its flurry of interviews and inquiries. Three days entirely to myself, my writing, and my thoughts sounded like divine intervention.

My husband bought me a ticket on the Empire Builder, Amtrak’s scenic route through the northernmost portion of the United States. I was to connect a few days later, in Chicago, to the Lakeshore Limited route ending at New York City’s Penn Station. Now, this was how to get home from a writing conference. The next day I boarded Train 8 from the magnificent King Street Station in Seattle, Washington.

We did not make it very far before coming to a stop and staying put. At 2AM, an assistant conductor called out,

There has been an avalanche at Whitefish and this train isn’t going anywhere. They are sending buses in the morning. I don’t know what time, and I don’t know where to. Try to get some good sleep while the train isn’t moving.

We don’t have avalanches in Staten Island so this word carries with it a pretty heavy connotation of destruction and death by suffocation. I asked if everyone was okay and received confused looks, as though why would she think anyone was in the wilderness? We’ve come up in two very different population densities; in NYC, someone was always there. The falling tree limb always crushed a jogger. I searched online with whatever signal my phone could offer, I tweeted @Amtrak, I checked Google maps to place myself geographically, to somehow control the situation enough to be comforted again. I resigned myself to gratitude that I wasn’t gasping for air under 20 feet of snow and fell back to sleep in my partially reclined position.

 We sat in a holding pattern for much of the morning. The Amtrak and bus staff had reached a point where they pre-emptively didn’t take anyone’s shit, even if you had no intention of giving them any. My suitcase was packed for air travel and weighed over 50 lbs, besides my two “carry on” items. I bore them on and off the train, through the station. Around 9:30 A.M., we boarded buses for Shelby, Montana safely past the derailment and avalanche.

Washington and Idaho boast mountains that bound upwards from every possible angle. On the White Pine Scenic Byway, the distant pine trees are like stubble on the peaks. At an elevation of 4,800 feet we crossed over to Montana, into a blizzard where our wipers quit working.

After a brief stop and futile attempt to fix them, our driver had to navigate down the mountain as conditions worsened with one wiper flopping like a dead fish every few moments, and the other completely vertical in the driver’s line of sight, moving only two inches to the left or right. The convoy found a wide side-street in Missoula to merge my bus with the other two buses. The cramped passengers were not happy to see us, refugees again.

We were offered only a brief reprieve at truck stop where “Sleeper Car” passengers huffed through pursed lips and made statements like, “surely Amtrak will be reimbursing for all of this…”

Montana is a constantly unraveling carpet of snow and frost and peaks. The sky actually is bigger there, embracing the country-side, stretching arms out just over the next hill, further and further. I let myself be mystified by place and, in that, lost time.

The ease of losing time is a rare experience for me. I’ve thought of my adult life as 90% preparation and 10% action. If I could research, plan out a dozen probabilities and their greatest possible outcomes, I would be in enough control to know that if anything went wrong, I had only myself to blame. When others were given control over my life, they left me broken. There must be a formula one can follow: safest distance to keep others at while still balancing the possibilities for love and suffering.

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Memory: Diane Cook

From the current issue, and available to read online, Diane Cook’s “Moving On” is a cool, unsettling story of grief and starting over. We asked her a few questions about writing and reading.

Tin House: What was the biggest obstacle in writing this story?

Diane Cook: I had to wrestle this story from being just an interesting premise to being a real story with a character I could begin to understand. The first draft of the story was only five pages and it just set up the world, the place, and the stasis of the women there. Then, the women who run were introduced, and so, the idea that it is possible to try to fight for something. And the window friend showed up. But still, the narrator felt more like an observer watching this world with no clear desire of her own. In revision, she began to be curious about running and to act out a bit. Then she wrote the letter. That was the last new thing and to me it is the most important part of the story. This made it a real story about a woman in the midst of a struggle who acts how she would act. That resignation is her action felt honest to me, and dare I say, relatable.

TH: When you read this story in the future, what do you think you’ll associate with the period of writing it?

DC: When I wrote the story, I was thinking a lot about how my family had dealt with the death of my mother a couple years earlier. Or, specifically, how they’d all seemed to be able to move on with life while I couldn’t at all. Of course, we were all just dealing with it in different ways. But I kept feeling this outside pressure to be grateful for the time we’d had with her, when all I wanted to be was very, very angry and mournful about the time we’d never have again. Thoughts about this positive thinking grief culture and the pros and cons of moving on fueled the story at first. Then, of course, it shifted to be about more.

TH: Do you have any writing rituals?

DC: I always go for walks. Mostly one a day, but sometimes I’ll work myself up and have to go on two or three separate walks. This works best when I can walk in the woods or some other natural place. Things come to me as I walk and I’ll take notes on my phone which will get put into my computer later. I guess part of my ritual of writing is spending a large chunk of the time not actually sitting down to write.

TH: The last sentence you underlined in a book?

DC: I’ve been carting around a copy of [Edward Abbey's] Desert Solitaire with me since college but didn’t read it until this January, when I spent a month in the desert. The book is radical, occasionally dated and silly, and a beautiful marvel. And though it’s dated in some ways, it feels very of the moment, for me anyway. I’m glad I read it now instead of when I was 20 and more of a poseur than a real thinker. I’m in the process of moving so the book is packed. But I had noted a line in my journal and according to the e-reader version it is a very underlined passage. Here is a bit:

“We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to go there. I may never in my life get to Alaska, for example, but I am grateful that it’s there. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope;…”

TH: What is the next story I should read?

DC: I really freaked out over Rebecca Curtis’s recent story in The New Yorker, “The Christmas Miracle.” I thought it was the most exciting story I’d read in a long time. I even made a loud noise when I got to the end, a noise like you might hear at a sporting event. I don’t remember the last time I whooped at a short story, if ever.

Diane Cook‘s debut collection, Man V. Nature, is forthcoming from HarperCollins. Her stories appear in Zoetrope, Harper’s, Redivider, and Guernica. She was a producer for This American Life.

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Your Weekly Forecast: Frances Hodgson Burnett

“Listen to th’ wind wutherin’ round the house,” she said. “You could bare stand up on the moor if you was out on it tonight.” Mary did not know what “wutherin’” meant until she listened, and then she understood. It must mean that hollow shuddering sort of roar which rushed round and round the house, as if the giant no one could see were buffeting it and beating at the walls and windows to try to break in. But one knew he could not get in, and somehow it made one feel very safe and warm inside a room with a red coal fire.” ―Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

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Dealing on a Friday

Some might accuse us of kicking March Madness off a little early this year, but what’s so mad about selling two different subscriptions from two different publishing companies for 20 percent off our two different prices?

For only $65 you’ll get a year’s subscription to both the Believer and its beloved West Coast literary sibling, Tin House. Think about it: double the essays, double the interviews, double the poetry, plus sides of fiction, music, and more. But you’ve got to act fast: like most fits of seasonal madness, this deal is only good through March!

Subscribe today! Here!

 

 

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Competition

Flash FridaysMany of the male patients present with a sexual dysfunction we call the Errol Flynn disorder, after the actor who developed similar problems late in life.

My wife Sandra says I behave towards these patients as if they were love rivals or younger siblings. She believes their treatment only leaves them more dysfunctional, and that I’m like a person who repairs the broken leg of a chair by breaking the other three legs. This is the type of criticism that only a few people can offer you. Sandra has her own surgical practice, specialising in the correction of benign gynaecomastia, or “man boobs”. We use the same small private hospital near Bondi Junction, in a low-rise tower clad with glass that trembles like lake water. Every Thursday my wife excises unwanted gland tissue and fat from men’s chests. At home we eat large meals. Sandra drinks red wine. To me the world appears unsympathetic, even hostile, crowded with troubled men who might burst into the house and machinegun us in bed.

Without exception the Errol Flynn patients come alone to their initial consultation. First we discuss their sexual and medical histories, including any exposure to dangerous chemicals. They explain their problem: when the patient makes love to his partner he finds it impossible to ejaculate within a comfortable period of time, before sex becomes tedious or otherwise unpleasant for them both. Sometimes the patient cannot climax at all. In these pre-op consultations we may as well be following a script:

ME: There are two components of the treatment we offer: first you take a levocarb drug─something originally designed to treat Parkinson’s. We find it has other purposes. The second component is the implanting of a 2cm-long device in the base of your penis. This implant sends an electrical charge to your testes, which then produces ejaculation.

TYPICAL PATIENT: I’ve read about the procedure.

ME: Then you’re aware the implant and drug interact? The treatment won’t work if we use one without the other.

TYPICAL PATIENT: I want this done soon.

ME: Do you have questions?

TYPICAL PATIENT: No.

ME: You’re about to have an electrical device installed in your penis and you don’t have questions?

TYPICAL PATIENT: When can I book the procedure?

I’ve never encountered a problem in the operating room. Some men bleed slightly more than others. Once the device is installed, no one wants it removed. We don’t offer revisions. My advice is that patients should abstain in the first week after surgery: the wound must be allowed to heal before they go ahead and refine their new facility. By four weeks they should be able to ejaculate without manual or visual stimulation, using nothing more than the power of will. Some patients compare this novel sexual ability to a remote control.  At three months they can bring themselves to orgasm 20 or 30 times a day. They say it’s like pressing a button in the mind. At will they become erect and within a minute or two, again at will, without needing to grip themselves, they blow their load.

After surgery these men don’t want to be the person they were before.

If you’ve wondered whether very frequent ejaculation leads to weight loss, then I have the answer─it does not. My favourite patient, Thomas, was heavy before treatment and today he remains 15kg overweight. At his first consultation he sat there practically curled up, probably wanting to die. That’s changed, we changed him last year.

Unlike the others, Thomas has a standing appointment every month; at these check-ups we monitor long-term effects of the treatment. Today I ask, “What’s happening with your weight?” And Thomas says as usual, “Nothing’s happening.”

We know the treatment cures addiction to pornography. These patients no longer want lurid input from their environment. Thomas refers to his implant as “the on/off switch”.

I’m told his problem with pornography began in his late 20s, a time when he was married and yet infatuated with a female co-worker at some marketing company. This colleague preferred women. Still Thomas was fixated on her. One afternoon Thomas invited the colleague home for dinner with his wife, suspecting the infatuation would be settled that night, either quashed or consummated. Here he was correct. Instead of cooking dinner they drank several bottles of wine and the three of them had sex in the kitchen. Once, he described the scene for me in terrible detail. The day after their triangle, Thomas observed that his wife and the colleague were hitting it off in ways he hadn’t anticipated: he kept returning from the next room to find them kissing on the couch. If anything, his wife seemed a little homophobic before the orgy. Soon she left Thomas and moved in with his beloved colleague. Acting definitively, he quit his job to counter the jealousy and regret. At home he became obsessed with lesbian pornography. His sexual dysfunction presented.

What we do to these men is no worse than the way they come to me.

Today Thomas says he’s no longer interested in “romantic or sexual relationships”─and that’s the biggest change. He asks if the drug is producing this indifference, and I tell him, “It’s not one of the side-effects.” Next Thomas confesses to feeling guilty about his offhand autoeroticism, and queries whether he is “evolving incorrectly”. I say there’s no such thing as mistaken evolution. Thomas will no longer be controlled by jealousy, nor mesmerised by images. He’s my favourite because he was the first patient to fulfill every aim of the treatment─Thomas has lost the desire for sex and love, and possesses only the want for sensation. I’d like all of them to reach his state of obsolescence.

Between my wife and me, unfortunately, there is unresolved discussion of the treatment, and about what Sandra describes as my overdeveloped sense of competition.

These men will never trouble the world again. They possess extraordinary attributes. No harm is done.

Andrew Pippos lives in Sydney. His fiction has appeared in N+1, Fifty-Two Stories, Meanjin and Seizure.

In addition to Flash Fridays, The Open Bar is now accepting submissions for a new feature, Flash Fidelity: Non-Fiction in 1000 Words or Fewer. Submissions to The Open Bar may be sent in the body of an email or as an attachment, with the category of the submission in the subject line, to theopenbar@tinhouse.com.

Posted in Flash Fridays

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Tin House Reels: Kate Jessop

This week’s featured filmmaker, Kate Jessop, started off as a visual artist and musician and “accidently ended up as a filmmaker after being slipped a copy of Final Cut Pro.” At the age of 26, armed with her new toy, she made a narrative film called Desires, which would go on to be shortlisted for the Virgin Media Shorts Award and showcased at over two hundred independent cinemas in the UK.

Jessop makes the kind of films that we’ve been working to identify and promote at Tin House Reels—the child of digital art and poetry. “I love the interdisciplinary nature of working with poetry and animation. Both mediums are based on rhythm which is the intervening structure between the two,” Jessop said.

Jessop’s On Miles Platting Station is an adaptation of Simon Armitage’s likewise titled poem. A muted collage, it follows an imagined trip on a rickety train from the Pennines into the dangerous crowds of central Manchester.

“I grew up in the same Pennine village as Simon Armitage,” Jessop said, “and would often take this train into Manchester. When I realized he had written a poem based on this journey, I knew I had to adapt it to screen—it being particularly personal as it signified my journey out of childhood into adulthood and my own life in Manchester.”

Jessop creates work that is part of the growing cultural language for short films: She routinely adapts poems into short films for Comma Film, a wing of Comma Press and has collaborated with Southbank Centre in London for events like their Festival of Neighbourhood, creating accessible shorts that capture a poem or a mood for festival goers.

On Miles Platting Station by Kate Jessop from Tin House on Vimeo.

Kate Jessop is an artist and filmmaker who has undertaken artist residencies in Berlin, Reykjavik and Manchester Metropolitan University.  Her film When the Telescope Came, won the Femme de Fantastique Award at January’s London Short Film Festival. She is active in film education and programming, as one of the cofounders of Girls on Film, a group supporting women’s work in a number of festivals.  Her Desires toured extensively internationally as part of the Best of Women in TV and Film International Showcase.  On Miles Platting Station is also available on the BBC Film network.

To see her list of upcoming screenings and events, go to http://www.katejessopfilms.blogspot.com/

Tin House Reels is a weekly feature on The Open Bar dedicated to the craft of short filmmaking. Curated by Ilana Simons, the series features videos by artists who are forming interesting new relationships between images and words.

We are now accepting submissions for Tin House Reels. Please upload your videos of 15 minutes or less to Youtube or Vimeo and send a link of your work to tinhousereels@gmail.com. You may also send us a file directly.

 

 

Posted in Poetry, Tin House Reels, Videos

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The Order of Things

From Issue 49, The Ecstatic, Jay Nebel speaks of the spiders we often find within the predictable order of things.

I hate spiders.
There, I’ve said it. I hate walking face and teeth
and nose into their webs
while they spin and wrap and suck the blood out of flies.
My mother brushes them into her palms
because she feels guilty,
escorting them like admirals
to the sidewalk. I hate the idea of them
as much as I hated lectures
in college, except I could sleep
through the professor droning on about the homosexual
tendencies of monkeys,
the industrial revolution or Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.
Tonight, I smashed one with a nineteenth-century Russian novel
for crawling across my desk.
I know. I’m upsetting the order of things.
I’m drowning the wold that hunts the deer that ingests the grass
that wants to swallow our bodies whole.
My wife says, Think of something nice.
I picture unicorns, puppies, and fluffy white kittens,
while daydreaming about punching my neighbor
for cutting down the hedge.
I wonder if God feels repulsed by the sight of us.
Before bed every night
I sweep the sheets for little eight-legged creatures amassing tanks
and airplanes and karmic nuclear missiles,
coming for me while I reach around to grab my wife’s breasts.
One friend pours tens of them into her garden from a paper sack
to save the tomatoes.
It is miraculous, she says. A thing to be seen!
How they multiply, the waves
of spiders growing over the leaves.
My three-year-old son came into the study last week
in his Superman Underoos, turned off my reading lamp
and said in his tiny voice, You don’t need any more light.
This is what I tell a spider
before I kill it.

Jay Nebel‘s work has appeared in numerous journals. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and son. His last speeding ticket was over three years ago, and thankfully, there are currently no warrants out for his arrest. 

Posted in From The Vault

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Watermark Books

More than once in my own fiction, I’ve called Wichita, Kansas a dusty, grown-up cow town. There’s truth in my phrase, but also some exotifying. These days, Wichita is a city with wide streets and a Barnes & Noble spacious enough to fit multiple 747s; the once-patch of prairie is now populated with sprawling aircraft plants, megachurches, and strip malls. Those strip malls have worked their way into my fiction, likely because they overwhelm the landscape of my childhood. However, I’d also like to think it’s because Wichita taught me of their possibilities—that gems may be hidden behind those flat, sterile facades. And because one of those gems has always felt like home.

Watermark Books lives an unassuming-strip-mall existence in the heart of Wichita, blending into a landscape that grows stranger each time I come home. I’ve lived away for nine years now, having rooted myself in the mid-Atlantic, and every year, a bit of Wichita escapes me. Now, when I return, it’s flatter, its buildings are larger, and its trees are further between. On a recent trip home, my family picked me up at the airport, and we drove until we pulled into an amply-sized parking lot, as you do on every errand in Wichita. The six of us shuffled through a door covered in posters for upcoming author visits and reading series at the local university and sat down at a table, newly reunited. Flying in earlyled to a coffee craving, making a Watermark stop was a given. We caffeinated, caught up, and from time-to-time, popped up to bring a book to the table. Here I was, back at my second home, a place that’d watched me grow up.

When my mom first took me to Watermark Books, I was a confused five year-old. A building full of books that you could take home forever? Bookstar and Barnes & Noble had yet to dot the strip mall landscape, and the only book-centric buildings I knew of were libraries. We plopped down in the children’s section and browsed for hours, just like we did at the library. But then we took some books home. And kept them forever. Now, each time I enter the store, first stepping into the well-curated fiction section, I’m transported beyond the strip mall landscape. Home as a place of transportation? It sounds oxymoronic, but home to a teenager is often the place that takes you beyond your tired surroundings, hinting that the rest of the world is around the corner, waiting. That I, like a novel’s heroine, might someday live in Dakar or Istanbul.

The exemplary selection continues across the genres, each compressed into their own cozy nook: non-fiction, children’s, young adult, philosophy, religion. It’s all there, and every section comes with a plush chair, inviting and wonderfully dangerous in its ability to strip my sense of time. Every corner of the store is risky that way. Customer reviews appear throughout the store, tucked into books as bookmarks. Each bookmark holds a handwritten review, and often, I’ve spotted familiar names. In browsing, I’ve learned there’s no better way to sell me a book than to sandwich locals’ praise in its pages. These reviews democratize the displays, letting customers speak above the marketing, truly making Watermark the city’s bookstore. Posters lining the bathroom walls advertise new releases and favorites; has there been any other bathroom in America that has pushed me so to become a more voracious reader? Quite remarkable, too, I’ve realized in growing older, is the selection of literary magazines. Watermark dependably carries publications that I’ve traipsed around multiple NYC bookstores in search of. Once, I picked up an issue of Boulevard to find an article that summed up my entire undergrad and graduate literary education: a piece on writing fiction, co-authored by my professors Jean McGarry and William Black. Coffee in hand, reading the philosophies I’d internalized through dozens of seminars, my Baltimore and Wichita homes melded into one.

Over time, Watermark Books has become more than a bookstore to me, and perhaps, ultimately, that’s what makes it home. If it were a storyteller, it’d be able to write its share of my own life story. I’ve played Scrabble there. Gone on dates. Later sat plotting revenge against said dates. Skipped school. Cried to my best friend. Tried fighting the good fight, be it organizing students for Darfur or fighting injustice in the local ballet world. Sat on a bench outside the bookstore, reading The Bell Jar, simultaneously hating/loving the book for brushing up against my own teenage angst. Tried writing novels. Failed writing novels. Dreamed of the day I might return to Watermark Books for my own book launch party. And that thought is often what keeps me going, draft after draft.

Patrice Hutton is the director of Writers in Baltimore Schools. She’s currently a graduate student in writing at Johns Hopkins University. Her writing appears in The HairpinOutside In Literary & Travel MagazinePrime Number Magazine, and Mount Hope Magazine. She tweets at @patricey. 

Posted in Book Clubbing, Essays

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Art of the Sentence: Jamaica Kincaid

“I milked the cows, I churned the butter, I stored the cheese, I baked the bread, I brewed the tea, I washed the clothes, I dressed the children; the cat meowed, the dog barked, the horse neighed, the mouse squeaked, the fly buzzed, the goldfish living in a bowl stretched its jaws; the door banged shut, the stairs creaked, the fridge hummed, the curtains billowed up, the pot boiled, the gas hissed through the stove, the tree branches heavy with snow crashed against the roof; my heart beat loudly thud! thud!, tiny beads of water grew folds, I shed my skin…”— “The Letter from Home,” Jamaica Kincaid

When I first read Jamaica Kincaid, I was in college and taking classes in both fiction and poetry. At 82 pages, At the Bottom of the River is as slim as a book of poems. I used to carry it around in my purse. You can’t use it to flatten out a poster or clobber a mouse. In those few pages, my understanding of fiction transformed radically. This was a writer who took risks: shifting narrators, wildly metaphysical sentences like, “the blackness fills up a small room, a large field, an island, my own being,” entire stories made up of one single sentence.

These sentence stories unravel and expand like endless bridges. They have the ability to simultaneously suspend and propel the reader. We trust her semi-colons and follow until we are surprised to find the period. We stand on that rock of a period –with water all around us, and ask: how did we get here?

In an interview with Jonathan Galassi at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Kincaid speaks about sentences: “I so like to walk around with a sentence or two in my head. Of course with me, a sentence can be a couple hundred words. It would be easier if my sentences were five words: I see the cat jump. But I have no such luck.” Her one-sentence stories have this walking quality, as if we are circling a lake in multiple ways in order to see it better. The difficulty of Kincaid’s long sentences, tucked into seemingly simple language (“I milked the cows”), challenges and stretches me. They are akin to fractals – comforting in their repetitive structure, disarming in their very existence.

“Girl,” Kincaid’s most anthologized one-sentence story, reveals a mother-daughter relationship through directions of negation (“don’t sing benna in Sunday school”) and interrogations. The voice is rhetorically manipulative and repetitive, leaving the reader exasperated. I’ve taught this story time and again; each time I return to “Girl,” I am overwhelmed by its forceful voice, unfolding over three pages. Like the daughter, I am stifled through language and the ongoing rush of semi-colons – a kind of emotional scythe.

Yet, there is another one-sentence story in this collection worth attention – the seemingly quiet, unassuming “Letter from Home.” Hidden in the middle of the book, this sentence is certainly strange. Even the title, “The Letter From Home,” isn’t quite what we expect. Who is the recipient of this letter? Is “Home” writing? How can this story be a letter if it’s addressed to no one?

Kincaid’s sentence begins with a litany of actions, a kind of checklist of the day: “I milked the cows, I churned the butter, I stored the cheese…” In particular, the narrator owns these actions: “I” did this. Immediately, we enter this singular interiority, quite different from “Girl.” This survey of the mundane eases us in, creating a familiar rhythm, in four syllables or so. Right when we settle into our easiness, Kincaid hints at the extraordinary. After a fly buzzes, we have “the goldfish living in a bowl stretch[ing] its jaws…”

This zoom-focus is another reason why I love this sentence. When our perspective changes, everything appears extraordinary and unfamiliar. From the vast exterior of milking a cow, we zoom into a goldfish’s mouth (which I can only imagine is gold). And in just a few moments, this specificity zooms out again: “there was movement, it was quick, there was a being, it stood still, there was a space, it was full, then there was nothing…” We zoom so far out that we leave tangible space itself. And we are forced to grapple with this dizzying movement.

This constant zooming always felt metaphysical to me, which is another way in which Kincaid measures the mundane with the extraordinary. The self, the one who milks cows, becomes electrified with curiosity: “I felt my skin shiver, then dissolve…” Here, the self is formless, disintegrating away from the concrete, domestic world of stairs, curtains, and pots. And later: “I saw something move, I recognized the shadow to be my own hand…” I can’t help but think of John Donne’s “A Lecture upon the Shadow.” Yet, rather than Donne’s “brave clearness all things are reduced,” we have an (equally brave) expansive obscurity.

The sentence begins to sway as “the house sway[s],” with the use of parentheses – moving into the cavern depths of the sentence: “(Is the Heaven to be above? Is the Hell below? Does the Lamb still lie meek? Does the Lion roar? Will the streams all run clear? Will we kiss each other deeply later?)…” From questions of the divine to the tangibility of kissing, language sways as we consider how life began.

Depending on where we position ourselves, what we see can change and move. That which is quiet can become violent, and then quiet again. As much as there is beauty, there is also terror: “the cat licked his coat, tore the chair to shreds, slept in a drawer that didn’t close…” These three actions occur almost simultaneously. Plus, there’s something about that stubborn drawer that brings us closer to the scene –to the point in which we want to close that drawer. We want to wake the cat and push against the drawer with both hands.

At the end of the sentence, we reach a place of decision-making. From to-do list certainty to the vastness of the earth spinning on its axis, we are confronted with a man who appears suddenly and without reason: “He beckoned me, Come now; I turned and rowed away, as if I didn’t know what I was doing.” Her refusal to go is not surprising; what’s strange about this ending is her appearance of ignorance. She knows exactly what she’s doing, and yet she hides that knowledge. And here, at the end of the sentence, we want to know why. But we row away as she rows away, somewhere else.

After reading and re-reading Kincaid, I now see the sentence as a conduit – as an arm reaching out to the next sentence. This is exactly what “The Letter From Home” does, across stories. The last word of the sentence is “doing,” which picks up in the title of the next story, “What I Have Been Doing Lately.” As a poet who loves length, I hold Kincaid’s sentences dearly, as a measured refusal of breakage. Or, rather, a celebration of a labyrinth we can’t help but wander through.

Jane Wong is the recipient of fellowships and scholarships from the U.S. Fulbright Program, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Fine Arts Work Center. Her poems have appeared in journals and anthologies such as CutBank, Salt Hill, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Mid-American Review, The Volta, The Journal, Best New Poets 2012, and The Arcadia Project. Her most recent chapbook is Kudzu Does Not Stop. She holds a MFA from the University of Iowa and teaches literature at the University of Washington.

 


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