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I first became familiar with Scott Cheshire’s writing through a very funny essay he’d written called “The Good, the Bad and Bumping Uglys” the tagline for which read: “Some thoughts on masturbation, Norman Mailer, and the Good Book.” Everything you ever wanted to know about Scott but were afraid to ask might well be contained in it. Which is to say that I was somewhat familiar with the basics of Scott’s biography—being raised in a Jehovah’s Witness household, his time spent giving sermons as an adolescent—when his galley arrived last fall. Unlike that essay, however, the novel seemed so serious, dark and full of apocalyptic wonder—just consider the cover itself, the flames!—a contrast to what I’d read earlier. And I slowly came to realize that this is one Scott’s strengths as writer, and as a person: the balancing act between the light and the dark.
Beneath all the eschatology of High as the Horses’ Bridles, there is an honest attempt to capture the human condition using language that is both assured and original, in a way I had not seen done in quite so vulnerable a way. This vulnerability shines through on almost every page.
More importantly, that same sense of humor I’d previously glimpsed was present throughout as well. This is a funny book, though it’s not necessarily always fun. It’s sad and mournful, incredibly tender, particularly in the interactions between a father and son. This is a story about love, first and foremost. One of my favorite and most memorable lines affirm this: “I’m not so sure faith is a thing that can ever be lost. Like every love we have, there’s always remnants deep inside us, in our cells.” For anyone has struggled with their own faith, or with love, you’ll realize how true this is.
Scott brings this struggle to the surface in a personal way while dealing with cosmic themes like time, life and death, the end of the world. This was an exciting book for me to read, primarily because I’d never read anything quite like it. And for that reason alone, I am very grateful to him for writing it.
I was asked to interview Scott in person at McNally Jackson on July 9. What follows are highlights from that conversation. But what’s missing is Scott’s real-time thoughtful delivery of his answers, not to mention his signature entertaining style of making words and scripture and pop culture come alive through a kind of spoken word that feels like a performance.
Paul W. Morris: For me, High as the Horses’ Bridles is a love story. And like the best love stories, it’s heartbreaking, full of tenderness and loss. It’s all about endings, the end of days, the end of relationships, the end of lives, which sometimes end very suddenly, sometimes mysteriously. It’s cosmic in scale, but also intimate, incredibly relevant to the present day. And so I’m wondering about beginnings. Can you talk about the genesis of the novel (pun not necessarily intended)?
Scott Cheshire: The genesis of the novel comes from my own time as a kid preacher, which I should say is not at all exotic within that culture. And that was a long time ago. But a few years ago I had a dream, and it was the dream of a vast and decorative ceiling, and on that ceiling was painted stars, the sun, moon, and heavens. I woke up wondering why. That day, I started writing what eventually became the book. And its working title was always “The Ends,” which served as something of a beacon for me while writing. I knew that no matter what the book was about “ends” in themselves; and so hopefully no matter how discursive the book might seem, it’s actually quite focused. Only it’s less plot-focused than it is consciousness-focused. It’s a book about, among other things, our human urge to frame time, to give it narrative shape. And we all do this, every day, in our own lives. At some point “The Ends” became the title of the middle section of the book (there are three sections).
As far as you calling this a love story, I say hurrah because for me it’s about love in every way. And not simply the love and loss between Josie and his ex-wife, or the love between Josie and his Dad, but about the root love at the core of religion or philosophy at their best. Love of knowledge, love for God—or maybe a better way to put it: God is love, which also means, of course, love is God.
PM: The writing is powerful, the language dark, mystical, and motivating. There is a performative aspect to preaching, which you capture so well on the page. I’m curious about how that translates when you’re alone, writing without an audience, as opposed to speaking to an assembly. How much of your own experience giving sermons informed the story?
SC: Well, thank you for saying so. For one, I want a story to feel as if it comes from a human mouth and so I read aloud everything I write to get that feeling. I pace back and forth in my apartment and read and re-read aloud trying to get a distinct feeling. In the case of Josie’s voice, I wanted it to read like spoken thoughtful language. As far as the opening section, I wanted it to have the cadence of a sermon, which is similar in some ways to the cadence of fast-paced plot. It’s about keeping a listener or reader enrapt. My own time on the stage was not nearly as exciting as Josie’s. But I remember the preparation, the fear, a little bit of the power. I wanted the reader to feel all of that, but I also wanted to deliver as much of a religious feeling within the reader as I could. To lift them up high and let them drop.
We’re all emerging from whatever reclusive hole we burrowed into after the end of our Writer’s Workshop, facing the light of day with bleary eyes, wondering who these strangers are who walk the streets. When we close our eyes, though, we still see visions of debauchery and beauty in equal measure. We’ll let workshop faculty member Matthew Zapruder explain it, with his poem “Poem for Wine” from Issue 49, The Ecstatic.
Poem for Wine
I don’t drink wine
though I love that not
of not remembering
the giant translucent
in my chest
something I don’t
know the name of
off and a pure wise
hilarity vector among
the conversation clusters
I float bestowing
my sometimes speaking
at others just silently
sparkling full of potential
and later I remember
I have always been
an exiled prince
who could but has not
chosen yet to return
to govern my fully
I’ve also never
then sat on a couch
in Peru 14 percent
a hot person
dressed like a rabbit
I do remember
an inevitable magazine
how to say it
would be to stand
above myself protecting
me as I turn
those sudden blessed
Matthew Zapruder is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Sun Bear (Copper Canyon, 2014). His poems, essays and translations have appeared in many publications, including Bomb, Slate, Poetry, Paris Review, and The Believer. Currently he works as an editor for Wave Books, and teaches as a member of the core faculty of UCR-Palm Desert’s Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing.
Now on the hills I hear the thunder mutter,
The wind is gathering in the west;
The upturned leaves first whiten and flutter,
Then droop to a fitful rest;
Up from the stream with sluggish flap
Struggles the gull and floats away;
Nearer and nearer rolls the thunder-clap,—
We shall not see the sun go down to-day:
Now leaps the wind on the sleepy marsh,
And tramples the grass with terrified feet,
The startled river turns leaden and harsh,
You can hear the quick heart of the tempest beat
The wind is gathering in the west;
The upturned leaves first whiten and flutter,
Then droop to a fitful rest;
Up from the stream with sluggish flap
Struggles the gull and floats away;
Nearer and nearer rolls the thunder-clap,—
We shall not see the sun go down to-day:
Now leaps the wind on the sleepy marsh,
And tramples the grass with terrified feet,
The startled river turns leaden and harsh,
You can hear the quick heart of the tempest beat
~James Russell Lowell, “Summer Storm,” 1839
Tonight I’ll be standing in a room of people and, for all I know, the only thing they’ll know about me is that I’m the woman wrote that one book, the one about getting kidnapped and raped by a man I used to love. I’ll stand in lots of rooms like this over the next few weeks — months, if I’m lucky — talking about the one story that has defined much of my adult life. I’ll be honest: at my weakest moments, I feel completely terrified of exposing myself in this very public way — by which I mean not only talking about such a personal experience to complete and total strangers, but also appearing in specific advertised places, at specific advertised times. Anyone could find me. Anyone.
The songs on this playlist have one thing in common: they remind me to be brave. They’re songs about strength, and righteousness, and self-determination, and even as I listen right now, these songs remind me who I am today. I am a woman who speaks up, who fights back, who doesn’t take shit from anyone. Yes, I’m also a woman who is — every day of my life — waging a battle against my own fear. These songs remind me that I’m winning.
Lacy Johnson will be in conversation with Nick Flynn tonight at Powell’s City of Books at 7:30 pm.
Lacy M. Johnson is the author of The Other Side and Trespasses: A Memoir, and she is co-artistic director of the location-based storytelling project [the invisible city]. She lives in Houston with her husband and children.
In 1928, dime novelist William Wallace Cook took to heart “Purpose, opposed by Obstacle, yields Conflict” in his how-to manual, Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots. The compilation includes 1,462 extensively diagrammed plots. Here are a few gems to get your Friday off to a productive start:
A pretends that a wax figure, X, is his wife
B pretends to be wealthy and merely masquerading as a shop girl
A, whenever he attempts to have X, a certain object of mystery, explained to him, meets with misfortune
B is convinced that several eligible men are in love with her
A finds himself under a weird psychic spell because of a birthmark on the face of his wife, B
B, out in a storm on a pitch-dark night, receives a proposal of marriage. Unable to see her lover, and scarcely able to hear him, she nevertheless accepts—and meets with a disagreeable surprise
A is married to an unknown woman by an insane clergyman at the point of a gun
William Wallace Cook was born in Marshall, Michigan, in 1867. He was the author of a memoir, The Fiction Factory, as well as dozens of Westerns and science-fiction novels, many of which were adapted into films. He was nicknamed “the man who deforested Canada” for the volume of stories he fed into the pulp-magazine mill. He spent five years composing Plotto before finally publishing it in 1928. Cook died in his hometown of Marshall in 1933.
Last spring, I taught an undergraduate fiction workshop that differed significantly from any other workshop I’ve taught or taken: I tried to have my students mimic the process I go through when writing a story. In most workshops, students are charged with creating two or three short stories in the course of fifteen weeks. But I myself have never written three short stories in a semester—at least, not since graduate school, when I was in a workshop that demanded it of me. I don’t know many writers for whom three stories in fifteen weeks is a habit, but somehow in workshops it’s become the procedure. The fact that that doesn’t replicate my own process seemed sort of weird after a while.
So I decided I would make an experiment with my students to have them go through the full process of creating a piece, taking the story from inception through stages of revision to its eventual polished ending. I insisted that they undertake the process of writing that I myself undertake. I dictated the stages, it’s true, but I am the teacher, and that’s my prerogative. It proved for an interesting semester, and I’m going to refer to what happened in the class as I present the process here. I’m also going to illustrate the process with a hypothetical story I wrote as I moved through the stages of the exercise with my class. So these are the threads being braided or woven or tied in knots in the course of this essay. I hope it doesn’t get confusing.
On the first day of class, I had my students write a five-hundred-word piece about an event that actually happened to them and that they understood was a story, something they’d tell in a bar or on a plane or to a friend. I had them write it in the first person and I capped it at five hundred words. The thing that I wrote, when we sat down to do this, began, “When I was five, my family was in a tornado,” which is true. That happened to me. My family was inside a car, in Kansas; all of us were there, including my little sister in utero. There are a lot of us, five children and my mom and dad. My little brother and I were three and five, and we were in what is called the “wayback” of the station wagon. We were on our way home from dinner at a restaurant in early September, and we saw lightning strike. We pulled into a parking lot and watched roofs ripped off houses, rain pouring down hard, and the wires from electric poles snapping on the ground. In the parking lot—this was at a strip mall—there was a Baskin-Robbins ice-cream parlor, and I can still remember the image of all the people behind the plate glass licking their ice-cream cones and looking out at us in our car in the parking lot, a parking lot that was full of cars, yet ours was the only one that had people in it, and ours was also the only one that was lifted up and turned over by the tornado—twice. With us inside it. We all survived.
You can see how this would strike a person who’d gone through it as a story worth telling, right? That’s a story! So there’s my autobiographical event. I had my students write about their own autobiographical event, some nugget of narrative that they intuitively understood had meaning. I wanted the event to be autobiographical because it’s important that writers have an investment in and an attachment to their stories, as well as some authority over them. They need to write what they know, what they care about. The tornado, in my family, was a defining event in our lives. I told that story for years and years and years.
But the autobiographical event needs to be given some freedom to become art, so the next step is to allow that story fictional leeway, because art is best if it’s not hampered by the constraints of factual anecdote. The next step for my students was to occupy the point of view of a third-person character related to the event and not the person they were in relationship to the event. They had to posit another character to oversee the story. In this way, the material is approached from a new angle, opening up the possibility for fiction.
In my own case, I didn’t want to be stuck in the point of view of a five-year-old. My pressing concern in 1966—when I was that age and in that tornado—was that I not wet myself. It was deeply important to me that I not pee my pants while we were in the ambulance. That’s a five-year-old’s concern.
And so, for my story, I would occupy the point of view of my father, or the father, he, him, the third-person character who was driving the car on the night the tornado happened and who was, oddly enough, the same age then as I am now, which puts me in the curious position of having intimacy with that point of view. I’m more likely to be the driver of a car full of people these days than I was then, obviously, and now I understand what it must have been like for my father to be the parent driving a car that’s then tossed into a tornado.
When I began occupying the point of view of the character who was my father, I realized that I didn’t want to set the story in 1966 because I don’t know what it was like to be an adult in 1966. I would set the story in the now, so that I could write from the point of view of an adult now. Would I place it in New Mexico or Colorado, where I live? No, because we don’t have very many tornadoes in the places where I live. I would keep the story in Kansas. So I’m combining the fictional, in that I inhabit the story from the point of view of a third-person character who isn’t me, with the factual, putting the story in a place where the event that I wish to write about actually happened. This merging of what is personal and what is fictional, what is factual and what is made up, starts happening for me in the process of writing a story.
That was a thousand-word draft. Every time my students went through a revision, I upped the word count by five hundred. It was an arbitrary, but manageable, number. By creating multiple drafts (by my insisting that each revision was its own draft and had only to attend to the requirements laid out for that draft), students revised with a single objective each time. The clarity of writing with a single objective seemed helpful. All the stages were accompanied by literature that provided examples, so we could talk about the stories they were reading, the writers they were modeling. And with every draft, they workshopped the pieces in small groups that changed with each revision so that they had new eyes on their material at each stage.
“The Only Solution to the Soul Is the Senses: A Meditation on Bill Murray and Myself” by David Shields
I’m in a swoon over Bill Murray because he takes “my issues”— gloom, rage, self-consciousness, world-weariness—and offers ways out, solutions of sorts, all of which amount to a delicate embrace of the real, a fragile lyricism of the unfolding moment. He thus flatters me that under all my protective layers of irony I, too, might have depth of feeling as well. I admire his slouching insouciance but don’t possess it, admire it precisely because I don’t possess it. I realize, of course, that a certain redemptive posture is the unique property of movies and movie stars, but Murray’s grace is manifest at least as often outside his movies as in them. The first line of his book, Cinderella Story: My Life in Golf, is “The light seems to come from everywhere.”
In the last decade there have been a few exceptions—primarily Groundhog Day and Rushmore—but Murray has been so good in so many bad movies that it’s as if he makes bad movies on purpose as a way to demonstrate the truth of Denis Leary’s dictum (to which I subscribe), “Life sucks; get a fuckin’ helmet.” Murray’s movies, in general, suck; he’s the fuckin’ helmet. In a self-interview in which he asked himself to explain why so few of his films have succeeded, he replied, mock-solemnly, “I’ve had lots of good premises.” The Razor’s Edge being, again, an interesting exception, Murray seems to believe that, given the horror show of the universe, the supreme act of bad faith would be to appear in a pretentious work of art aspiring to be beautiful, whereas my impulse has always been to try to find in art my only refuge from the storm.
Murray’s metaphor for the Sisyphean struggle is: “In life, you never have to completely quit. There’s some futile paddling toward some shore of relief, and that’s what gets people through. Only the really lucky get a tailwind that takes them to the shore. So many get the headwind that they fight and, then, tip over and drown.” Life is futile; failure is a sign of grace; Murray is fuck-up as existential fool. His loserdom is the exact opposite, though, of, say, Woody Allen’s, who seems intolerably sniffly by comparison. I’m much, much more like Allen than I am like Murray, which is why I admire Murray (Jewish adoration of un-Jewish stoicism). Asked to name people he finds funny, Murray mentions Bob Hope, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Eddie Izzard—WASPy wise guys, goyish slackers, no whiners allowed.
In Meatballs, Murray is counselor at a summer camp for losers. When they’re getting demolished in a basketball game against a much tonier camp, Murray instructs his charges to run around pantsing their opponents. Forget the score; fuck the rules; do fun things; give yourselves things to remember. Camp director Morty takes himself and the camp way too seriously (so many blocking figures in Murray movies are officious Jews; what’s that about—Hollywood’s knee-jerk self-hatred?) and so Murray leads all the other kids in always calling him “Mickey,” turning him into a mouse. The great crime in any Bill Murray movie is self-seriousness, because as Murray’s fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde said, “Life is too important to take seriously.” Wilde also said, “The only solution to the soul is the senses,” which is a key to Murray’s appeal: he’s in touch with his animal self and teaches the kids to be in touch with theirs. We’re all meatballs; we’re all just bodies. If I were a girl or gay, I’d have a searing crush on him in this movie, because just the way he carries his body seems to say Here is fun. I’m where fun happens. When he (crucially: unsuccessfully) courts another counselor, he does so without an ounce of earnestness. Losers are winners; they get that life is an unmitigated disaster. At one point he leads the campers in a chant, “It just doesn’t matter, it just doesn’t matter, it just doesn’t matter.” My problem is that even though I know on an intellectual level that “it just doesn’t matter,” on a daily level I treat everything as if it does.
Murray’s shtick—anti-star Star, anti-hero Hero, ordinary-guy Icon—is built in part upon the fact of his unglamorous appearance. In sketches on Saturday Night Live, Gilda Radner would often call him “Pizza Face,” and it’s obvious he’s never done anything to improve his deeply mottled skin. (Seemingly half my adolescence was spent in a dermatologist’s office.) Murray’s absence of vanity allows him to get to emotional truths in a scene, as opposed to, say, T. Cruise, whom you can tell is always only concentrating on one question: How do I look? I was cute enough as a little kid to appear in an advertisement for a toy store; my father took the photographs, and here I am in the family album, riding a plastic pony and brandishing a pistol with crypto-cowboy charm. Although now I’m certainly not handsome, I don’t think I’ve ever quite outgrown that early narcissism. Murray’s not fat, but he has a serious paunch; as opposed to some middle-aged buffster like Harrison Ford, Murray’s fifty and looks all of it. Bless him for that: it’s a gift back to us; he makes us all feel less shitty. He posed for a New York Times Magazine profile wearing a drooping undershirt and with uncombed, thinning, gray hair. It’s a comparison Murray would surely loathe for its la-di-da-ness, but the photograph reminds me of Rembrandt’s late self-portraits: a famous man who understands his own mortal ordinariness and is willing to show you the irredeemable sadness of his eyes in which that knowledge registers.
Murray’s sadness is not other movie stars’ pseudo-seriousness; he seems genuinely forlorn—always a plus in my book. Speaking to Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Murray said, “Movies don’t usually show the failure of relationships; they want to give the audience a final, happy resolution. In Rushmore, I play a guy who’s aware that his life is not working, but he’s still holding on, hoping something will happen, and that’s what’s most interesting.” Gross, stunned that Murray would identify so strongly with someone as bitter and remorseful as Herman Blume, tried to pull Murray up off the floor by saying, “I mean, you’ve found work that is meaningful for you, though, haven’t you?” Murray explained that Blume is drawn to the energetic teenager Max Fischer, who is the founder and president of virtually every club at Rushmore Academy, but “sometimes it makes you sadder to see someone that’s really happy, really engaged in life when you have detached.” He said this as if he knew exactly what he was talking about.
The Razor’s Edge—a film which he had desperately been wanting to do for years and which he co-wrote—is his ur-story. The first part of the Maugham novel is set in Chicago, but Murray moved the first part of the film to Lake Forest, next door to Wilmette, the North Shore suburb in which he grew up. The bulk of the book and film are set in Paris, where Murray spent a year, studying French and Gurdjieff and fleeing from post-Ghostbusters fame.
Surrounded by cripples and sybarites, amoralists and materialists, Murray’s character in The Razor’s Edge, Larry Darrell, travels to China, Burma, and India searching for meaning, and the best he can come up with is: “You don’t get it. It doesn’t matter.” It just doesn’t matter. Such is the highest wisdom a Murray character can hope to achieve: a sort of semi-Zen detachment, which only deepens his dread (sounds familiar to me).
Angst translates easily to anger. Discussing megalomaniacal celebrities, Murray said, “Whenever I hear someone say, ‘My fans,’ I go right for the shotgun.” In Kingpin, Murray plays an impossibly arrogant bowler who, in one scene, says hello to the two women sitting at the next table. The less attractive woman responds by saying, “Hi,” and Murray says, “Not you [nodding to the less attractive woman]. You [nodding to the more attractive woman].” Murray can access his own cruelty—he ad-libbed these lines—but isn’t defined by it. He simply doesn’t radiate malevolence, as, say, James Woods used to do, but neither is he cuddlesome-cute, à la Tom Hanks; this mixture keeps me productively off balance, makes me unsure whether to embrace him or be slightly afraid of him.
He seizes the regenerative power of behaving badly, being disrespectful toward condescending assholes. In his self-interview, in which he pretended to be discoursing with Santa Claus, he said, “I was at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards one year. They called me up when somebody canceled two days before the thing, and asked me to present some awards. So I went, and one of the funniest film moments I’ve ever had was when they introduced the New York film critics. They all stood up; ‘motley’ isn’t the word for that group. Everybody had some sort of vision problem, some sort of damage. I had to bury myself in my napkin. As they kept going, it just got funnier and funnier looking. By the time they were all up, it was like, ‘You have been selected as the people who have been poisoned; you were the unfortunate people who were not in the control group that didn’t receive the medication.’” This is a little amazing, even shocking to me; I fancy myself something of a literary troublemaker, but I can’t imagine being quite this publicly dismissive toward the powers-that-be in the book world (privately, of course, I’m acid itself—what bravery). I suppose his career is less dependent than mine is upon good reviews, i.e., he’s actually popular; still, he has what Hemingway said was the “most essential gift for a good writer: a built-in, shock-proof shit detector.”
Hemingway’s hometown of Oak Park is about twenty miles southwest of Murray’s hometown of Wilmette; both men have or had a gimlet-eyed view of the disguises the world wears. It’s more broadly midwestern, though, than only Hemingwayesque, I think. Dave Eggers, who grew up in Lake Forest, has it. Johnny Carson, who was raised in Nebraska, and David Letterman, who was raised in Indiana, also have it—this quality of detachment, which is a way of not getting sucked in by all the shit sent your way, of holding on to some tiny piece of yourself which is immune to publicity, of wearing indifference as a mask. I strive for the same mystery in my own persona but fail miserably, since it’s so evident how much neediness trumps coolness.
Murray is, in other words, ironic. He’s alert to and mortified by the distance between how things appear to be and how they are. In Michael Jordan to the Max, a grotesquely worshipful IMAX film-paean, Murray, as a fan in the stands, says, “It’s like out of all the fifty thousand top athletes since, you know, prehistoric times—brontosaurus and pterodactyls included—he [Jordan]’s right there.” This is a modest example, but it betrays Murray’s impulse: to unhype the hype, to replace force-fed feeling with something less triumphal, more plausible and human and humble. In Stripes, Murray delivers a rousing speech to his fellow soldiers to encourage them to learn overnight what they haven’t learned during all of boot camp—how to march. “We’re Americans,” he says, “we’re all dogfaces, but we have within us something American that knows how to do this.” Murray saves the speech from sentimentality by mocking the sentimentality. I’m not really in this situation, Murray’s character seems to be thinking; I’m not really in this movie, Murray seems to be thinking. That reminds us, or at least me, of our own detachment and puts us in the scene, thereby making the moment credible and, ironically, moving. Here, as in so many other Murray movies, he somehow manages to install a level or two of Plexiglas between himself and the rest of the movie. At its most dire, Murray’s persona is simply anti-feeling; at its most fierce it’s anti-faux-feeling. This is what gives his persona such an edge: it’s unclear whether his self-mockery is saving grace or Nowhere Man melancholia. It’s both, obviously, to which I can attest or hope to attest. Maybe detachment is a way to get to real feeling; maybe it’s a dead end from which no feeling arises.
Murray’s characteristic manner of delivering dialogue is to add invisible, ironic quotes around nearly every word he says, as if he weren’t quite convinced he should go along with the program that is the script, as if he were just trying out the dialogue on himself first rather than really saying it to someone else in a movie that millions of people are going to see, as if he were still seeing how it sounds. The effect is to undermine every assertion at the moment it’s asserted. As a stutterer and writer, I’m a sucker for Murray’s push-pull relationship to language; it’s undoubtedly one of the main sources of the deep psychic identification I’ve always felt toward him. In Tootsie, as Dustin Hoffman’s roommate who’s a playwright/waiter, Murray says about his work-in-progress, “I think it’s going to change theatre as we know it.” Murray says the line in a way that no one else could, simultaneously embodying and emptying out cliché. We’re aware that he’s full of shit, but we’re also aware that he’s aware he’s full of shit. For which we adore him, because he reminds us how full of shit we are every hour of every day. He’s also a welcome relief from Dustin Hoffman’s earnestness.
His pet technique for underlining his self-consciousness is knocking, loudly, on the fourth wall. Serving as guest broadcaster for a Chicago Cubs baseball game, which Murray once said is the single best performance of his life, he answered the phone in the adjoining booth, stuck out his tongue at the camera, called down to the players on the field. At pro-am tournaments, Murray wears goofy outfits, jokes with the crowd, hits wacky shots—in an effort to tear a hole in the sanctimonious veil surrounding the game of golf. At a Carnegie Hall benefit concert with a Sinatra theme, Murray, backed by a full orchestra, sang “My Way”; Murray told an interviewer, “I basically rewrote the lyrics and changed them around to suit my own mood. I started getting laughs with it, and then I was off the click track. I mean, there’s a full orchestra playing to its own charts, so they just keep playing, you know. And the fact I’m off the lyric and talking and doing things—it doesn’t matter to them. They don’t keep vamping; it’s not like a piano bar. They just keep going to the end. So I said let’s see if this big band is going to stay with me here, and they didn’t. They just kept barreling right ahead. But I managed to catch them at the pass. I headed them off at the pass and turned it around and got out of it again.” It’s crucial to Murray’s comedy that the orchestra is there, playing away, serious as society—the formal straitjacket he wriggles out of.
By far my favorite joke I’ve heard recently goes:
What do you notice when you first enter a story? Who is talking? Who are they talking to? Where are they standing? What’s going on in the background? Is there a background?
There are two primary reasons why people read: boredom, which is my disease, and the need for reliable information, which is my constant motivation. I want to know everything. And I do, indeed, pick up books just to get the information that, in my upbringing, I missed. But I cannot tell you how many stories I pick up, and two people are having a conversation about their sex lives—which is a great place to begin, sex is always a good place to begin—but I don’t know who they are, and I don’t know where they are. It makes me crazy to step into a story and not know where I am. It makes me crazy when characters are arguing about sex, and I don’t know what sex means for them. The story seems to take place in no place.
Most Americans no longer have the history of growing up in a town where their parents grew up and their grandparents grew up and handed down stories about what came before. We no longer necessarily know the story of nobody goes down that road at night because the colonel killed a bunch of people out there and the ghosts walk the roads. Used to be that story was told for generations. No more. If you’re American, you’ve probably moved at least three times in the last decade. You probably do not live where you were born. Almost surely, you do not live close to your parents. Almost surely, you have to invent the place that you are writing -about.
And you’re jealous of people you think come from a place that is generally recognizable—Southerners, who all have porches and pickup trucks and grandmothers (never mind that bunches of Southerners come from Atlanta); Bostonians, who can remember that last great blizzard that shut down the city; people from the Chicago projects; Jews from Staten Island or Queens or the Lower East Side, who eat pickles and go to the Second Avenue Deli and also have a grandmother. Everybody knows these places and the people in these places are all assumed to share the same food and the same language. Their place is a given.
But if you’re from a place that no one knows, you have to invent it on the page.
I grew up among truck drivers and waitresses, and, for me, the place where most stories take place is the place that is no place for most other people. The truck stop: no place. The diner: no place. The grocery store: an empty landscape that you do not ascribe as being a real place. But for me those places are real places, with a population I recognize and can describe, a people I love even if they do not always love me.
I can give you detail. I can describe for you the tile they use in most truck stops because truckers have a horrible tendency to puke after having drunk great quantities of beer on top of chili. I know the colors of those tiles. I know, in fact, why 7-Elevens are designed the way they are. I’ve worked there. I recognize why diners are they way they are—why, in fact, I’ll make more money waiting on a booth than on the counter. Those places are real places for me. You probably read my stories to learn more about diners. And waitresses. And truck drivers. And I read to learn about the Jews in Brooklyn, the fishermen of Maine, and the combine drivers in Iowa. I’m lusting after those people I know little about: Bostonians who run along the Charles River in shorts even on snowy gray mornings, South Americans who live halfway up a hillside and speak Portuguese, Amish who somehow wound up in Hawaii and live out near Hilo and grow mangoes and passion fruit. All of these people are profoundly exotic to me, and I ache to know their secrets—especially their secret places.
Place is often something you don’t see because you’re so familiar with it that you devalue it or dismiss it or ignore it. But in fact it is the information your reader most wants to know.
When I went to college, I would sneak into other people’s dorms and look in their rooms. I wasn’t out to rob anyone but to learn about who they were and what they had. That, too, is place. All the stuff you’ve got that you don’t see is place—and me, I am your reader, and I want to know all about it. Your reader comes into your narrative to steal knowledge—who you are and what is all around you, what you use, or don’t use, what you need, or fear, or want—all that sweet reverberating detail. It is just like me going into those dorm rooms and taking a good solid look around. Your stuff provides telling details from which I can derive all kinds of information about you. I can imagine your self-consciousness, your prejudices, your need to be in control, and maybe even what you are willing to risk or share or not risk or not share. I am making you up in my mind, deriving you from clues you provide, you and your story.
So let’s review what place is.
Place is visual detail: manicured grass or scrubby weeds, broken concrete or pristine tarmac glistening with morning dew. Place is conditions: weather, atmosphere. Are the roads crowded or are they empty? When you step outside your house in the morning and you hit that clean, cool sidewalk, are there people walking around? Are they looking at you or are they looking away? Are you lonely? Are you nervous?
Place requires context. Is it responsive? Does it notice me? Or is it porcelain, pristine, and just ignoring my passage through? Are there people on the street who flinch when I smile at them? Is there a reason they do that? Place is where the “I” goes. Place is what that “I” looks at, what it doesn’t look at. Is it happy? Is it sad? Is it afraid? Is it curious?
What I am trying to say is that place is not just landscape—a list of flora and fauna and street names. That’s not place, that’s not even decent research. Which brings me to my other point.
I cannot abide a story told to me by a numb, empty voice that never responds to anything that’s happening, that doesn’t express some feelings in response to what it sees. Place is not just what your feet are crossing to get to somewhere. Place is feeling, and feeling is something a character expresses. More, it is something the writer puts on the page—articulates with deliberate purpose. If you keep giving me these eyes that note all the details—if you tell me the lawn is manicured but you don’t tell me that it makes your character both deeply happy and slightly anxious—then I’m a little bit frustrated with you. I want a story that’ll pull me in. I want a story that makes me drunk. I want a story that feeds me glory. And most of all, I want a story I can trust. I want a story that is happening in a real place, which means a place that has meaning and that evokes emotions in the person who’s telling me the story. Place is emotion.
So I’m going to say some unscrupulous, terrible, horrible things that are absolutely true in my mind, if not in yours:
Central Florida is despair.
New York City is sex.
California is smug.
Boston has never gotten over Henry James.
Seattle and Portland lie about their weather.
Iowa City is one hotel room and a chlorine stink away from the suburbs of hell.
I keep a list. I keep track of the places I have been and what I have decided about those places from stories I have experienced or read or heard or dreamed. It’s a writer’s game, but also a game for anyone who grew up with a sense of not knowing much and trying to figure out what everyone else knows or thinks they know.
Now I’ll tell you the place I don’t want.
As we will be at writing camp all week, we’ve decided to send little rays of craft sunshine to those of you couldn’t make it out to Portland for t
he Reed College dessert bar our annual Summer Writer’s Workshop.
Kicking off The Open Bar’s craft week, Charles D’Ambrosio’s essay from The Story About the Story: Great Writers Explore Great Literature.
Salinger and Sobs
In the days immediately after my brother killed himself I’d go into the backyard and lie on our picnic table and watch the November wind bend the branches of a tall fir tree across the street. Really hard gusts would shake loose a raucous band of black crows and send them wheeling into the sky. They’d caw and cackle and circle and resettle and rise again, crowing, I guess, a noisy mocking counterpart to the flock of strangers in funerary black who’d shown up to bury my brother. About a week after Danny’d put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger and a couple days after his lame orthodox funeral at our childhood church, I went for a walk along a street of patched potholes that runs around Lake Union (near where, a year or so into the future, a future I was sure had ended tragically the night Danny shot himself, my other brother Mike would pull a similar stunt, jumping off the Aurora Bridge and living to tell about it, thus revealing to me the comic, the vaudevillian underside of suicide), and saw a scavenging crow jabbing its beak into the breast of an injured robin. The robin had probably first been hit by a car. It was flipped on its back and badly maimed, but it wasn’t carrion quite yet. One wing was pinned to its breast and the other flapped furiously in a useless struggle for flight and thus the bird, still fiercely instinctive, only managed to spin around in circles like the arrow you flick with your finger in a game of chance. The robin was fully alive, but it was caught in a futile hope, and I knew this, and the crow knew this, and while the crow taunted the bird, hopping down from its perch on a nearby fence, pecking at the robin, returning to his roost, waiting, dropping down and attacking again, I stood off to the side of the road and watched.
I’ll tell you the ultimate outcome of this lopsided contest a little later, but for now I bring it up only because, some years ahead, fully inhabiting my aborted future, I often ask myself a koanlike question re. my brother that goes something like this: if I could intervene and change my own particular history would I alter past events in such a way that I’d bring Danny back to life? Would I return the single rimfire bullet to its quiet chamber in the gun and let the night of November 26, 19__, pass away in sleep and dreams or drink or television or whatever the anonymous bulk of history holds for most people? Would I uncurl the fingers from the grip, would I take away the pain, would I unwrite the note and slip the blank sheet back in the ream and return the ream to pulp and etc., would I exchange my own monstrous father for some kindly sap out of the sitcom tradition, would I do any of this, would I? And where would I be? Would I be there, in the room? Would my role be heroic? And where exactly would I begin digging into the past, making corrections, amending it? How far back do I have to go to undo the whole dark kit and caboodle? I mean from where I sit now I can imagine a vast sordid history finally reaching its penultimate unraveled state in the Garden, under the shade of the tree of knowledge, begging the question of whether or not I’d halt the innocent hand, leaving the apple alone, unbitten.
I’m a little wary of prelapsarian schemes in much the same way I’m leery of conspiracy theories, both of which only seem to describe the limitations, like Hamlet’s nutshell, of the holder’s mind. You don’t really want to crash down the whole universe just to satisfy your situational unease or your incapacity to see the whole picture, do you? You don’t want a life based on your failure to understand life, right? If I were able to undo Danny’s death would that mean, too, that Mike’s suicide attempt would never occur, or would it simply mean that he’d find an alternate, more surefire lethality than leaping over the rail of Seattle’s most famous suicide spot, a spot that’s worked just hunky-dory for hundreds of others? Or would my remaining brother drown or die of internal injuries instead of, as it turned out, smacking the water, breaking his pelvis, destroying his bladder, dislocating his shoulder and yet, that screwed up (plus I forgot to mention his chronic schizophrenia), still having the presence of mind to kick off his boots, swim for shore, pull a quarter out of his pants, and call an ambulance for himself, easy as a man catching a cab? Would that little miracle not happen in this revamped history of mine? Would I just be trading one brother for another? Would I even be writing this, or would a lovely silence reign over my uneventful life, leaving me free to consider other, happier fortunes?
I’d never read J. D. Salinger or John Knowles, both staples of the high-school curriculum, because somehow out of the always ripening ambient culture I’d picked up a whiff of the East Coast, of the uppercrust and hoity-toity and, ipso facto, at least for me, a kind of irrelevance, irrelevance tinged with a defensive countersnobbery that’s so characteristic of the West. I couldn’t identify with the prep-school scene. I thought it was socially atavistic, some stupid idea invented in England. So instead of the boarding-school experiences of Salinger or Knowles I read Joyce’s Portrait oƒ the Artist as a Young Man strictly for its creepy Jesuit milieu and the way Stephen Dedalus used difference and snobbery to escape. The reading of Portrait was itself a Dedalean act of snobbery on my part, a pose I hoped would piss off the jocks at my Jesuit boys’ school. Why? Because I was a jock, but had recently quit all sports in order to take up managing my misery full-time. At that age, at sixteen, seventeen, I read fiction because I needed advice on how to live, and I needed it to be totally free of judgment. I wanted to see how other people did life. I had exiled myself from the kind of order found on the athletic field, and the alternatives that presented themselves most obviously at my school were to become a dope fiend or a scholar. I tried both and bookishness stuck. By reading I hoped to get as far as I could from Catholic homiletics, and quickly discovered that the best place for moral-free advice was really good fiction. Immediately I saw that stories looked squarely and bravely at lives without criticizing or condemning them. Admittedly, wanting practical advice is a pretty primitive idea of what a book should do, but that’s the sort of literary sense I had, treating novels and stories like the self-help manuals that cycle through the decades, reinventing relevance. I didn’t know any better, and probably still don’t. Anyway, I came late to The Catcher in the Rye, as an adult, and thought I’d be somewhat cold to its charms.
I wasn’t. Right from the beginning my reading of Salinger’s work was lopsided, eccentric, obsessed with the reclusive writer’s legendary silence and the theme of suicide that seems to stitch a quilt out of the extant work. As is always, perhaps inevitably, the case, the unbalanced weight my own life brought to the material gave the work this off-center, wobbly orbit, and even now I can’t seem to read the stuff any differently. It’s all about Suicide and Silence. Suicide is first mentioned when Holden, standing on a hill above the football field, says the game with Saxon Hall “was the last game of the year, and you were supposed to commit suicide or something if old Pencey didn’t win.” Other direct mentions of suicide or thinly veiled threats run through the story. The very word has a casual suggestive presence in Holden’s vocabulary. He volunteers to ride on top of the next atomic bomb. And then there’s the story he tells of James Castle, the boy who leaps from the window, killing himself, while wearing a black turtleneck he’d borrowed from Holden. It’s now generally a given in the literature of suicidology that every attempt is ambivalent, that some degree of chance is worked into each plan, a savior chosen, an opportunity for rescue extended, a tortured hope hidden near the heart of the suicide’s rapidly constricting universe. For instance, suicides tend to move toward society—and possible intervention—the closer they come to making and carrying out concrete plans. And of course The Catcher in the Rye takes its title from precisely this sort of ambivalence, and the story itself, in some ways an extended riff on saving and being saved, is otherwise full of specific strategies for rescue—with Holden nervously alternating point of view, vacillating between rescuer and rescued.
The passage below gives the book its name and is obviously as much about Holden’s hope for himself as it is about the fantasy of saving others:
I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye . . .
I generally don’t read biographical gossip about writers, and don’t know a thing, not one scrap, about Salinger’s life (other than the silence), but the theme of suicide feels authentic to me, and so does his recurrent big family thing, two elements I share with—who? Salinger, or his various narrators, or both? I don’t know. Like the Glasses (let’s say), we too had seven kids, and one thing that seems to happen in large families more often than in small is that nicknames flourish, partly because there’s always some little kid around who can’t pronounce the real names of his older siblings. Little kids forming their first syllables corrupt those names, and the corruptions stick because they’re cute or funny or whatever. Salinger’s Glass family seems to be all nicknames except for Seymour. As the oldest child, I too was somewhat exempt—more namer than named—but a good example of the process from our family would be my sister Patricia, who quickly migrated from Tricia to Trish and then skipped sideways to Didya before finally arriving at Did. And Did’s sisters were Mugs, Gith, and Bean, and Did called my brother Danny Mr. Sobs, or plain Sobs, because when they played house he was always the baby. These goofed-up, singsong names recall Franny, Zooey, Boo Boo, etc. And too, in large families, children form their own fairly populous society, separate from the parents, and the nicknames become a kind of argot, a secret language, whereas in small families, I imagine, there’s more of an emphasis on vertical and direct contact with the adults. Anyway, Salinger’s use of nicknames, the proliferation of them, and the fact that the oldest, Seymour, doesn’t have one, has always been for me an important detail in understanding the work.
In Salinger’s work, there is an ongoing failure of the various narrators that occupy center stage, a failure to find a separate and distinct identity outside the corporate idea of family. Holden is a little bit D.B. and Allie and Phoebe, and Buddy is Seymour and Zooey, etc., etc. People from big families tend to have this intense group identity. I don’t know why, even though, for instance, I fall easily into the first-person plural when asked about my past. My gut instinct, looking back, is to use “we.” Is it size alone that accounts for the blurring of identity in a big family? The fact that you grow up crowded into the same bathroom, brushing your teeth in front of a mirror that has three or four other foamy white grins reflecting back at you, is that it? Or the way you end up wearing some other kid’s clothes, or finding a favorite outfit, years after you last wore it, in your brother’s drawer, as if he were just another, later edition of you—is that it? Possibly. Privacy, too, is a problem. You rarely get time alone. And with so many competing parties, a constantly negotiated peace accord is necessary if you hope to get along; and for the simplest things, for using a car on Friday night or choosing a channel on the television, you end up working closely, and in concert, with the other kids. In our house, taking this closeness a step further, we institutionalized the buddy system, a permanent arrangement in which every older kid was assigned a younger, and you were strictly accountable for that child’s safety at crosswalks as well as his mischief in the aisles of supermarkets and his happiness during the long wait to buy new play-shoes at Penny’s. As the oldest, my assigned buddy was my brother Danny, the youngest and rowdiest.
For Salinger’s narrators, there’s never sufficient separation from the family, at least that sense of family defined horizontally by siblings. Holden really only loves D.B., his dead brother Allie, and his sister Phoebe, mistrusting everyone else. Nobody outside the circle of family seems to make any sense to him, or at least they aren’t given the same ample room for oddity he grants his brothers and sisters. Other people simply aren’t real to Holden, not in the solid, reassuring way family is. My point here, in discussing identity and family, isn’t to draw near a psychological reading of the work. In fact, it seems to me that the decade of the fifties, which saw the first flush of a mass psychological processing of life, right away meets in Holden Caulfield its staunchest resistance. (In Seymour—An Introduction, Salinger writes of the psychiatric profession: “They’re a peerage of tin ears. With such faulty equipment, with those ears, how can anyone possibly trace the pain, by sound and quality alone, back to its source? With such wretched hearing equipment, the best, I think, that can be detected, and perhaps verified, is a few stray, thin overtones—hardly even counterpoint—coming from a troubled childhood or a disordered libido.”) There doesn’t seem to be anything really wrong with Holden, and yet everything is messed up. The conceit of the novel is that Holden’s telling the story from inside an institution, and you can imagine, you can hear in the loud nervous prose, that he’s making a direct appeal to the reader, going over the heads of doctors and nurses and various experts who don’t get it.
The subject of big families might seem fringy but it brings me to the organizing idea of authenticity. It’s a central question in all the work. What is real? What is trustworthy? Holden, of course, is famously on guard against phonies, watchful for insincere people or hypocrites, anyone giving a false impression, the pretentious, impostors and perverts. In “Bananafish” the trite phone conversation—the false narrative—between the wife and her mother is brutally wrong about Seymour. It’s untrue, it says nothing real or accurate about the world. And Buddy Glass, the narrator in Seymour—An Introduction, says, “I can usually tell whether a poet or prose writer is drawing from the first-, second-, or tenth-hand experience or is foisting off on us what he’d like to think is pure invention.” It’s not so much the content of this statement but the very issue of authenticity that piques my interest. The ability to detect authenticity is a critical faculty, something all of us develop, more or less. You can fail on either side, you can be gullible, easily duped, or you can be too skeptical, believing nothing. And with Holden, for example, it’s quite clear that something else, a voracious doubt, is driving him to question even the simplest interactions with people. Nothing is authentic for Holden, and his problem is not so much a superficial sorting of the true from the false—he can’t figure out how we come to know anything at all. That’s the noise, the frightening disturbance in the story, and it will only stop when Holden finds the authentic thing, the real (what?), or when he’s too exhausted to continue.
What can Holden rely on, what does he trust, what’s real for him? Holden’s response to life is like a body in shock, to withdraw into the core of identity, in his case the family, in order to keep the self functioning and alive. There’s a love and warmth and security to the way Salinger writes about family, a kind of bulwarked intimacy most readers respond to, that sits in contrast to the false, unfriendly, wolfish world huffing and puffing right outside the door. What I feel reading Salinger is an emotional power that comes from the writer’s ingrained assumption of the value and integrity of family, in particular the idea of family defined by siblings. Family is worthy of trust. The siblings in Salinger are fiercely loyal and extremely close to one another. So there’s that clear separation of family from everyone else, but something in-between is missing, some understanding—for the writer, and for Holden. Holden can’t negotiate the boundaries between himself and others—Antolini’s touch freaks him out—and can only imagine returning to his family as a refuge. But it’s my suspicion that that refuge isn’t really a haven the way Holden imagines it—nor is it safe for Salinger, who seems to defang his work by taking the parents out of almost every story. You wonder, where are the adults in this world that’s populated almost solely by precocious children?
This is guesswork, this is supposition: the real stress in Holden’s life comes from having no safe place, with his family offering him the least security of all. This remains unstated on purpose. In the injunctive first paragraph of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden says his parents would have “about two hemorrhages apiece” if he “told anything pretty personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They’re nice and all—I’m not saying that—but they’re also touchy as hell.” It’s that “touch,” rather than Antolini’s, that’s really got Holden running. It should be obvious by now that I don’t see The Catcher in the Rye as a coming-of-age story, especially not in the dismissive or pejorative sense; to me it’s no more about the anxious life of an average teenager than Huckleberry Finn is. The feelings Salinger’s trying to pinpoint don’t really have much to do with the fluctuating moods of a representative teen; adolescence isn’t the source of Holden’s outsized feelings. Possibly because I came to the book as an adult, for me it’s never been about the typical, but rather the
exceptional; it’s not meant to illustrate a phase of life we all pass through and share but instead to explore a disturbing and extreme loss of identity that leaves this one boy absolutely alone. And the depth of that loss comes from the fact that it’s not directly his, but his family’s. My guess is that in high school students learn that Holden doesn’t go home right away because he knows he’s going to be in big trouble. He’s been kicked out of school again. He’s failed and disappointed his parents once more, and his odyssey through New York is fueled by guilt and contrition. In my reading he doesn’t go home after leaving Pencey because home is the problem. His real expulsion is from the family, not school, and his sojourn through New York renders that loss in literal terms: we see the resulting anomie, the thoroughness of his horror. Two very different engines drive the respective readings. In one, he’s ultimately headed home, in the other he has nowhere to go, and never will.
Here’s the assumption behind my guesswork. Suicide is a kind of death that makes you doubt what you know about the deceased or what you can ever know about anybody. It strikes clear to the core of identity, reaching down into the heart of your life. Since my brother died I haven’t slept a single night alone with the lights off; I wake up afraid, and I have to know where I am, I need to see right away. And when I go out, I always leave a radio on, just so that when I come home I’ll hear voices or, more precisely, I won’t hear the silence and get all spooky imagining the surprises waiting for me. By a curious mechanism my brother’s death has extended the vivid fears of my childhood into my adult life. I find that I’m alert in ways that adults don’t need to be, and I’m ignorant of things grownups care most about. When a suicide happens within a family, that organism takes on the taint just as much as any individual. But that taint doesn’t necessarily mean the dissolution of the family; it might have an opposite effect, banding the family together even tighter than before. (I felt like shameful secrets had been aired publicly, and I was first of all defensive, protective.) In reality, I think both things happen: you’re pulled together, and that intense proximity exposes lines of cleavage that had begun cracking years earlier. The suicide is just a piece finally falling out. And from then on the family story can’t be the same. Its identity must include death, a death shared in the blood. The old narrative breaks at precisely the moment you need it to speak for you. This death, this suicide, is shattering to what, at that exact moment, is your deepest need—family, security, identity.
In the spring, the dogs stopped barking. By then our windows were held open with tomato cans or washed-out jars of jelly. In the dark of the kitchen, we sat barefoot and halved grapefruits, looking toward the window with the pulp between our fingers, licking the tart from our teeth, and longing for the sound. The rooms in our house were hot and silent and sticky. We drank seltzer over ice and sometimes said nothing, squeezing the juice from limes into our glasses, listening instead to the freight whistles from the north. the dishes rattling in the cupboard, the dirty ones in the sink.
The windows of our house faced other houses and parked cars and power lines. From the bathroom in the back of the house, you could climb to the roof above the mudroom, where I used to go in my sandals and listen to the foghorns and watch the tops of barges, passing silently like old ships. In the streets came traffic sounds, some boys I used to know, some girls, the way they laughed and kissed and tossed beer bottles by the necks toward the sewer grates and under the tires of cars.
In the shed below, my mother soaked combs and scissors in a jar by the window and waited for me to sweep the clippings of hair, which I always did after she had gone to sleep. There was only one stylist chair and a sink near a pasta bowl from which to fill warm water and rinse men’s razors, running your thumb along the blades. I’d never seen her cut my father’s hair, but sometimes the way her fingers would float across a man’s scalp, touching, trimming, the way she concentrated or squinted or smiled, it was so heartbreaking that I had to sit down.
When she went into the house, I knew she’d use her toothbrush and still place it in the cup next to his, next to mine. When the rooms were turned down and the lights all shut but for the lamp in the front window, just in case anyone came home, she might feel along the walls, coming toward my room. Her knees might find the pocket of my knees and later we would sleep with the fans turning the humid air and no breezes coming in through the screen.
Alone I liked to kick the soot from old shingles and watch the lights in Mrs. Otto’s house turn on and then off and then on again. I liked to braid my hair or touch my ankle and try to see stars and think about the way Gabe’s hands were nicked and red, from what, I didn’t know, not then. I imagined curled wood shavings on the floor by his work boots, the sharp teeth of a table saw. Toward the river, the summer nights smelled like motor oil, like clay. There was always the distant sound of traffic from the south-bound cars along the gypsum plant where the plumes of smoke came and the lights blinking all night long, there was always a door closing, a shuffle in the leaves, the smell of something sugary, something raw, something sweet.
Alissa Riccardelli holds an MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College, and a BA in English from Manhattanville College. Her work has appeared in Nano Fiction, Stumble Magazine, The New Orleans Review, and others. She lives in Queens, NY.
This week’s Tin House Reels feature, Cactus Flower, portrays a love between two men whose relationship seems defined by a settling mutual calm. Seungha Yoo uses no dialogue in his film but casts mood changes with the smallest interruptions of daily life: a coffee maker percolating, the scratch of a television set, the ocean at the shore. Despite his protagonists’ consistent emotional stillness, Yoo’s film is affecting. Like the work of Maira Kalman, Yoo’s animation finds meaning in the mundane acts of city life.
“There is no enthusiastic expression of their love in this piece,” Yoo told us. “But I think this is also one form of love…a couple who are so natural for each other so they don’t even have to express their love loudly.”
Yoo drew the characters in Photoshop, painted background textures with watercolor and acrylics, and compiled it all in Photoshop and AfterEffects.
Seungah Yoo is an animator and illustrator from Seoul, Korea. He has produced work for SBS TV, the CalArts Winter Institute, and the WOW Film Festival.
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 email@example.com. You may also send us a file directly.
Courtney Maum and I met in 2011 at a reading we were taking part in for Slice Magazine. I remember being pulled into her work (about a fetus nonetheless), the way a person is magnetized by sounds new to him—how her style traversed terrains of seriousness, levity, humor, and unabashed honesty. Maum’s debut novel I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You tells the story of British-born artist Richard Haddon, who is reevaluating his career, his flapping marriage, and memories of his American mistress while living and working in Paris. When “The Blue Bear,” a painting Haddon had made out of pure love and anticipation for his child miraculously sells, these reevaluations conjure Richard into a rebirth of sorts, and Maum parses them with shockingly original intellect, humor, and wit.
Maum has been doing ‘writerly’ advice columns for Tin House for almost three years now, among them “6 Ways Reading Series Can Improve Your Writing” and “How Not To Hate Your Friends,” examples of her sensible approach to uprightness in others and her own writing. And, as if to give herself a playful pat on the back, Maum is responsible for the hilarious “Celebrity Book Review” series on Electric Literature, a refreshing, often mocking imagining of celebrities writing book reviews–my favorite is John Malkovich.
Maum and I shared words over email, and I was gratified by her openness and frankness with which she sees fiction and real life.
Matthew Daddona: In Roberto Bolaño’s Monsieur Pain, the narrator Pierre Pain describes a movie to us as he is sitting in the theater—the characters, plot, motivations, lighting. How much of your narrator’s art did you feel was worthy of describing while writing? Were there bigger descriptions of pieces that you tossed away?
Courtney Maum: Thank you for asking me a question that starts off with a Bolaño reference. I feel like we should be sharing a pisco sour now. I did get rid of a huge chunk in the beginning where Richard goes into great detail about his “key series” of paintings that feature former lovers. It hit way too early in the novel, and plus, Richard’s already told the reader that he’s been having an affair, so I didn’t think it was necessary to belabor the fact that he’s had LOTS AND LOTS OF SEX.
MD: Your narrator, Richard Haddon, is a likeable fellow, albeit one harboring remorse, guilt, and misplaced love. How hard was it to center these myriad of emotions? Given that he is your narrator, how were you able to balance what Richard tells us and the subconscious traits we pick up from him?
CM: I think that a lot of us have likeable assholes in our lives, but they’re so much easier to tolerate off the page than they are in writing. It was really hard to get the balance right with Richard. In the first draft of this book (which I wrote ten years ago), I failed: Richard was funny, but he didn’t have any remorse for his actions and thus it was impossible for a reader to feel any empathy for him. I feel like the published version is almost written in real time in that we are taking this journey with a man who goes from feeling proud of his wrongdoings to terrified of them and their ramifications.
MD: I love this line describing Lisa Bishop, your narrator’s mistress: “Lisa Bishop, evil colonizer of Englishmen’s hearts.” Your Paris setting automatically elicits a romantic feel–you say, “Paris at night is a street show of a hundred moments you might have lived.” Does Paris make it easier to write a love story? Or are there conventions you have had to rail against?
CM: The biggest convention I had to rail against was of the American in Paris. I think, subconsciously, that that is why I chose to make Richard Haddon British, so I could still take digs at the French and the Americans without the narrator having to identify with one of those camps. But I agree with you: Paris simply being Paris automatically imbibes the page with a certain romance, so I’m grateful to the city for doing some of my hard work for me.
MD: Work means a lot to your characters, especially, I think, to Richard’s wife Anne, whose reliance upon her husband’s success, opinion of himself, and happiness informs how she thinks her family is holding up. How do art and “work” inform one another?
CM: I want to answer your question with a question: why the quotation marks around “work?” I think of work as something you are paid to do, and I think of art as a passion. Rare and fortunate are the few who get to have these two realms overlap—and Richard Haddon does. But the thing about art—whether it’s visual arts, literature, film, or another genre entirely—is that art in itself is unreliable as an income generator. Tastes change. Trends change. And desires change within the artist himself. We see this in Richard who becomes disgusted by his most commercially successful work. Many artists have an internal gag reflex that goes off when their work starts to earn them money. We want to be successful, of course, but there is a certain cachet that comes from being the underdog.
MD: Your writing is sharply perceptive, and often very funny. When does Courtney Maum say, ‘Okay, now it’s time to write a funny line or scene, and now it’s time to sit up straight and be serious?’
CM: The readiness for a shift change is actually ruled by my ear. I think of writing as a musical composition, and the former pianist inside of me can feel when it is time for a piece to get lighter or darker. That being said, I’ve put two jesters in this novel: Dan and Dave. The minute they arrive you know you’re in for a little comic relief.
MD: You were living in France for a number of years, correct? Were you always researching? Or did you have to go back once you found your story and undergo a new research process?
CM: I lived in France for five years in my twenties, and go back every year because, being a clever girl, I went and got myself a nice, French husband. I didn’t research at all for this book the first time I wrote it. Back then, in 2003, I wasn’t professional about my writing: I didn’t research, I didn’t outline, I didn’t stress. I was very romantic and naïve about the process—I would wait until a mood hit me, and then I’d just start writing. But you can’t pay your mortgage by being verbally romantic! So now, I write like a goddamn professional. I research, I outline, I stress. When I returned to this project in 2013, I had to do a lot of research about the Iraq War because I know things about the conflict that Richard wouldn’t have—the story takes place in 2002, right before the war breaks out.
MD: The gallery owner, Julien, is a fascinating character. His riffs and rants and exhortations blow off the page with such speed and delight and, in many ways, he’s like a watchdog between Richard and his work, and Richard and his marriage. How did you conceive this character? How important is he to the novel?
CM: I think Julien is very important. Richard only admits to this once, but in addition to being his gallerist, Julien is his best friend. He’s his confidant, his ally, but he’s also his business partner, and that means that he gets to be unflinchingly honest when he thinks that Richard is making the wrong decisions in both his art and his life. To a certain extent, he’s Richard’s conscience.
MD: References are abound in your novel: literary ones like T.S. Eliot or Watership Down, current events like the Gulf War, and many cultural ones pop in and out. Were these items you were reading and watching or thinking about while writing?
CM: I am so grateful to have this opportunity to call attention to my little known and little understood college major: Comparative Literature. Studying how literature was affected by the art and film and architecture of the same time period trained me to always be thinking in terms of comparisons. I like using comparisons and references in communication—I think it brings us closer. For example, if I tell you that I had a weird Saturday night, that doesn’t mean much. But if I tell you that my Saturday night was like a French fry with no ketchup, a picture is painted.
MD: Is there a place you always have wished you could write about, but feared doing so?
CM: I’m obsessed with Mexico, and about the reasons why North Americans travel there. I started writing about this obsession in my chapbook, “Notes from Mexico” but just barely scratched the surface. I deeply, deeply want to live in Mexico City one day. But what are you going to do, you know? I’m thirty-five. I have a daughter now. I have this whole life. And what the hell do I know about what is really going on? It’s a naivety born of privilege to think that I can just go there with my computer and observe people and write. I don’t know anything about the real Mexico, the one tourists don’t see. So I have an attraction-repulsion thing going on with both the country and the feelings it stirs up inside of me.
MD: Would Americans and Parisians read I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You differently? How so? How did this inform your detail-writing?
CM: I honestly have no idea how French people would read I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You. French literature is elegant and quiet, and even humorous writers, like Anna Gavalda and Michel Houellebecq, manage to be funny in very discreet ways. This book is loud. It’s the difference between someone at a dinner party who is entertaining the whole table with a slightly drunken story and the person at the end of the table who is telling a very strange but funny tale to just one person to her right. My hope with this book is that Americans like it, and that the French end up liking it because Americans like it—which is how things have worked out for hamburgers and craft beer in Paris, so maybe I have a chance, too.
Courtney Maum is the author of the novel, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You. The humor columnist behind the “Celebrity Book Review” series on Electric Literature, a frequent contributor to The Rumpus, and an advice columnist for Tin House, she splits her time between the Massachusetts Berkshires and New York City. She’s also the author of the chapbook “Notes from Mexico” from The Cupboard Press.
She is also largely responsible for the (now famous) karaoke night at the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop.
Matthew Daddona is a poet, fiction writer, and reviewer based in New York City. He is a founding member of FLASHPOINT and is editor of the Tottenville Review. His most recent writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Gigantic, and The Brooklyn Rail.
Imagine the quintessential fresh-from-the-land Midwestern bounty of my Mennonite childhood and you might also imagine the quintessential spread this sort of landscape suggests. Yes, there were Mason jars with halved peaches nestled in perfect stacks, bushels of sweet corn sheared from the cob then packed in juices sweeter than honey. There were braids of onions hung in the carport and a basket of soft pears sitting by the front door, ready to eat.
But, let me tell you, there was also The More-With-Less Cookbook and this, the Bible of Mennonite gastronomy, would be the undoing of the Yoder Family kitchen and of, no doubt, countless other Mennonite kitchens across the heartland formerly full-up with lards and butters, refined flours and sugars, heartbreakingly delicious cheeses, and let’s not forget gravy. But this one book, first published in 1976 and now in its 47th printing, ended an Eden I can only now conjure by imaging what non-Mennonite folks must think our diets are like, that long table of creamy casseroles, clouds of buttery mashed potatoes, whipped creams that invoke heaven itself, pie, pie, pie.
Instead consider this: millet.
Consider: legumes out the wazoo.
Consider: ubiquitous bran, whole wheat flour everything, non-fat dry milk powder as substitute, and liver, all items on the Economical Sources of Protein Index found at the front of The More-With-Less Cookbook, subtitle: suggestions by Mennonites on how to eat better and consume less of the world’s limited food resources.
In the foreword to my 25th anniversary copy, a pleasantly delusional woman named Mary Beth Lind claims that the recipes contained within the consecrated pages of this book will “help recapture the joy of preparing and eating adequate and appropriate food,” but for me, all this sort of cooking has ever done is fill me with a feral drive to find and devour anything within the Little Debbie family of snack foods.
As Doris Janzen Longacre, the author of the cookbook, writes in the preface to More-With-Less, “Our interaction with food will express our faith.” The concept of “more with less” is not only frugal; it’s holy. And my mother, with aspirations of becoming the most righteous of all Mennonite cooks, took this message to heart, her copy of the good book stained with tomato sauce and oiled with melted margarine.
But here’s the thing: sometimes she went off-recipe, sometimes even off-book. Sometimes my mother went off-earth into full outer space floating around up there oxygen-deprived in the deep black hole of frugal oblivion and it’s here, at the furthest reaches of space and time, that we encounter her most diabolical-yet-probably-nonetheless-ordained-by-God-Himself creation.
It was called The Soup Container.
She kept it in the freezer.
It was a faded cottage cheese container with a piece of vaguely sticky masking tape on the lid that innocently read “Soup” in my her perfect cursive.
If ever there were two tablespoons of yellow juice left over in the Corningware dish used to cook green beans, this slurp’s-worth of liquid was still too much for the compost bucket. One single bite of tater tot casserole? A half ladle of spaghetti sauce? Juice from the venison roast? None of it could be wasted.
I stood in the darkened kitchen contemplating what to do. Could I ever-so-silently pour the bean juice down the drain? Might I be able to very quietly feed the last tot to the cat?
Instead, from her post at the empty dinner table, as she crocheted a fussy little angel from delicate threads, my mother read my thoughts. This was a power granted her by God. Without looking up from the tiny halo she was forming in her hands, she commanded, “Rachel. Put that in the soup container.”
And so I retrieved the soup container from the freezer and pried off the lid. Inside a solid chunk of corn kernels huddled in a layer of mixed broths that was marbled with opaque wisps of creamed something or other. I dumped in the next layer—chop suey or lentil soup or cooked squash—and silently returned the sacred vessel to the icy depths.
Dread. Nausea. Raw fear. These are what accompanied Saturday “leftovers” lunches, when my mother cleaned out the week’s remnants from the fridge and, once every month or two, retrieved the soup container, sometimes even two soup containers, from the freezer and dumped it in a stainless steel cauldron.
I was supposed to feel I relieving world hunger, helping starving children, being a responsible and kind global citizen. Yet still I watched hopelessly as the soup chunk slowly melted into a ripe swill of every meal we’d mostly consumed over the last thirty days.
At the table, as we prayed, heads engulfed in the sacred steams wafting from our full bowls, I asked God to please help me to get through my bowl of soup, to make it taste ok, to keep me from thinking of vomit. But the smell… a note of fish, a note of Chef Boyardee, a note of compost-pile vegetable. And then, as we opened our eyes from prayer, the soup itself, pale off-brown green, bean sprouts and lima beans festering in the broth, ground hamburger and sweet potatoes waterlogged at the bottom.
“Fucking gross,” my teenaged sister said, after which she was banished to her room without lunch.
I hated her.
I smiled at my parents and touched the spoon to my tongue. I would be their favorite child. I would be a model Mennonite.
I would go to heaven.
Rachel Yoder edits draft: the journal of process which publishes first and final drafts of short stories, essays, and poetry along with author interviews about the creative process. Her writing most recently appears in The American Reader and Blue Mesa Review and is forthcoming in The Normal School and The Chicago Tribune. She lives in Iowa City.
On nights when there would be a cultural house dance, the brothers would leave for the village early, hitch a ride beyond the dom kultura to the abandoned land where, long ago, for one near-orphaned year—their father drowned, their mother lost to grief—they had lived as boys, slept in the straw inside their uncle’s izba, sharing the farmhouse with his nesting hens, woke mornings to the scent of fresh-laid eggs, the crackle of kindling catching, Dyadya Avya huffing the stove into heat, smiling at them through the smoke. All around the there had stretched the vast collective versts of the kolkhoz. All day they had worked the fields beside the kolkhozniki. Farmers who were now gone as their dead dyadya, fields overgrown as Avya’s grave.
Now, getting off whatever truck or tractor they had ridden out, Dima and Yarik would stand in the receding rumble, the thrum of crickets in the chest-high grass, the swallows chattering in the empty barn, sometimes their uncle’s old Yurlov rooster belting out a call. They would let it finish—such crowing: so long, so lonesome, its brood all gone—before they crossed the road into the Cowbane-choked field. Side by side the brothers would push through the knapweed blooms, the high seedheads of Cagongrass, towards the forest, into the trees, until all around them the world was made of birches. Above: the canopy of small leaves stirring. Down from it dropped trunks so white they seemed a thousand beams of sunlight piercing to the forest floor. And the brothers walked among them, the shrushing so synchronous someone listening from afar would have thought it was one man, walked until they came to the place they had always known as theirs.
Once, it might have been a hunting cottage, its walls collapsed in dark log piles now, or perhaps some eremitic chapel reverberating with the mumbles of a wild-eyed recluse. When they first found it, there seemed a steeple engulfed by caved-in roof, a bulbous dome subsided into rot, a door decayed as if to invite them in. And in they had burrowed, hauling at rocks, digging a tunnel, two small boys with bruised arms and faces blackened but inside a hideaway just big enough for them. Through it tree trunks grew, their bark rough as rooster legs, their roots spread out like talons and, lying in the soil-scented dark, the brothers had named it Baba Yaga’s after the fabled hut atop its two hen’s feet, whispered stories of the witch beneath a forest floor abloom with mushrooms. On the mound above hundreds of them grew—purple blewits and golden chanterelles, ox tongues stiff and red, milk-caps and pheasants backs and puff balls huge and white—spread bright as a quilt beneath the trees. Each time the boys left they picked it apart, filled their baskets. And each time they returned to it regrown.
Even now. Through, full grown themselves, their adult eyes recognized the remains of a bench, the bowl of a ladle, a stone stove fit with a metal basin filled with rocks, and they knew it was just some old banya, a bathhouse peasant farmers might once have used before the State took over and let it rot. Still, the darkness stirred their dreams. Lying beside each other, they would talk of the day they’d buy back their uncle’s izba, move together out to the farm, spend the rest of their lives working side by side, live out their years just them alone, out here, together.
Down in the mushroom scented dark, their voices would drift into silence, their breathing into sleep, falling in synch until it seemed slow and heavy as the huffing of some hibernating bear. Sometimes they’d wake to the wo-hoo, woho-uhwo-ho of Ural Owl calling to its mate. Sometimes they’d hear the distant keening of a kolyosnaya lira, sometimes a burst of laughter on the breeze. And if they slept until the dancing had already started, it would come to them across the field like the dom kultura’s pulse, a throbbing that, when they crawled out from their warren, would seem to shake the stars.
In the field they’d join the flickering flashlight beams of all the others swarming, follow the tractors and trucks that crammed the road, feel the bonfire on their faces as all around everyone would clamber through the doorway into the hall. Inside, the air would be all smoke and wet-wool waft and heat of the crowd, alive with thuds of mud-matted boots as they all surged upon the dance floor, laughter in their eyes, vodka in their cheeks, whoops and cries and the guitar’s sudden strumming, the plucking of the gusli, the fiddler bending to his bow. Hands on hips and waists, boots banging down, the crowd would begin to dance. Barinyas and troikas, kamarinskayas and khorovods. The brothers wading in. Dima with his high-kneed stomps, Yarik’s horse-in-harness prancing. Until the musicians would break, the crowd would clear, the clapping would begin: the Cossack competition. Always, if the brothers were there, they danced it. And if they danced it, they won.
He mounts the shaking platform, lays the weight of his fingers on the delicate wings. No more Red-eye. No more stand-by or baggage or weight restrictions. From now on he will go wherever he wants whenever he wants and take along whatever he wishes to, one carry-on bag or ten, one suitcase or a thousand. And he will remain airborne to his long heart’s content. For his best ideas come to him 40,000 feet above ground while strapped in an aisle seat with a cup of coffee steaming up from the slim rectangle of his tray table and strings of cloud framed in a little square of window. Frequent flyer. Always on the go.
When he was seven years old, his grandmother told him the story of the Flying Africans, the earliest known Transatlantic Flight, causing him to understand aerodynamics as a thing to live by. He began to thread his way through passages of Leonardo, Newton, and Liang, mull over the treatises of Cayley, Francesco Lana de Terzi, and Werner von Braun, review and improve the schematics of the Montgolfier and Wright Brothers, Zeppelin, and Langley, putting their thoughts into his own language, a tireless record stretching across several decades and filling twenty notebooks the size of folios.
Heading out into the world, he examined firsthand ancient instrument panels unearthed in the jungles of Peru, surveyed pre-colonial airfields in the Congo, and catalogued magical carpets on three continents. Gazed through the slot of his diver’s helmet (his own personal pressurized cockpit) into inky ocean depths to chart the crash sites of downed fighter jets.
Many such exploratory missions, necessary groundwork for the numerous vehicles he has engineered over the years: a kite sliced from linoleum, a mobile pieced together from flypaper and Popsicle sticks, a crude dirigible ballasted from condoms (latex more preferable than rubber), a helicopter spun from wire and string, a glider constructed of mangrove, bamboo, and banana leaf (an object lesson in objects), and his singular achievement, a prototype for a single-person flying apparatus.
Bearing his history, he checks his gauges, adjusts his belts and straps, and takes to the sky, already thinking ahead to his next flight in a craft indistinguishable from air, made of air itself.
Born and raised in Chicago, Jeffery Renard Allen is a Professor of English at Queens College of the City University of New York and an instructor in the graduate Writing Program at The New School and the low residency MFA writing program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Allen is the author of five books, most recently the novel Song of the Shank (Graywolf Press, 2104), which is loosely based on the life of Thomas Greene Wiggins, Blind Tom, a nineteenth century African American piano virtuoso and composer who performed under the stage name Blind Tom and who was the first African American to perform at The White House. The novel was featured as the front-page review of both The New York Times Book Review and The San Francisco Chronicle. Allen is the author of two other works of fiction, the celebrated novel Rails Under My Back (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000), which won The Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Prize for Fiction, and the short story collection Holding Pattern (Graywolf Press, 2008), which won The Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. As well, he has published two volumes of poetry Harbors and Spirits (Moyer Bell, 1999) and Stellar Places (Moyer Bell 2007). And his work has appeared in numerous periodicals, including The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, Bomb, The Chicago Tribune, StoryQuarterly, Callaloo, Ploughshares, Writer’s Digest, Black Renaissance Noire, Poets & Writers, Triquarterly, Kweli Journal, St. Petersburg Review, Buzzfeed, and The Nervous Breakdown. Allen has received numerous accolades and awards, including a fellowship at The Dorothy L. and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at The New York Public Library, a Whiting Writers’ Award, and a grant in Innovative Literature from Creative Capital. He is represented by Jodi Solomon Speakers bureau and the Cynthia Cannell Literary Agency.
Sometimes when I’m feeling particularly sore I treat myself to a massage. I always consider this carefully since I don’t have much cash to throw around. How much am I hurting today? Will a massage be worth the few tips I’ll make during a slow lunch shift, five hours of my life spent scooping out melted votives and prepping drink garnishes for customers who inevitably push them aside? More often I decide against it and get by with my husband’s well-intentioned but brief backrubs. Occasionally I see a friend who knows to hug me tightly so that a couple vertebrae crack beatifically in his embrace. But when the e-mails requiring a professional-voiced response amass in my inbox and double shifts at the restaurant keep me from settling into my writing, I turn to skilled help.
My massage parlor sits on the edge of Nolita, a neighborhood known for its tony boutiques and the perfectly accessorized crowds that stroll its small streets. But beyond the parlor’s basement-level entry, all signs of the area’s swank disappear. There are no aromatherapy candles or scented oils on the premises, or a receptionist in a thoughtfully spare waiting room to offer kombucha to clients. At Spring Wellness Tui Na, the overhead fluorescence illuminates the dirt stains on the waiting room’s worn carpet. The densely packed fish tank common in Chinese establishments buzzes in the corner with its own artificial light.
On the few occasions I’ve visited, my arrival has interrupted the employees on lunch break pushing rice noodles into their mouths. It’s not the most tranquil scene, but I don’t kid myself: I go here to save money. But more than that, I seek the firm touch, the golden fingers of these rigorous women. Usually the masseuses are resting on the black pleather loveseat meant for clients, but one of them always sets down her Styrofoam container and leads me into the darkened adjacent room.
A double row of cots lines the interior of a space more suggestive of an infirmary than a sanctuary of holistic pleasure. The hospital-style curtains, too narrow to fully surround any one bed, offer passersby a peek of you struggling with your jeans or diving for the bed to hide your naked torso just as the masseuse jerks the curtain open with a brusque Ready? My favorite pair of hands belongs to a petite woman with permed hair and fading blue tattooed eyebrows. She punches my forty-five minutes into the small digital timer as I sink my head into the bed’s cutout, lined with fresh sheets of Bounty. Around me, various timers sound off. With each series of cruel beeps signaling the dismissal of one client after another, I dread the conclusion of my own pampering.
Well before this necessary reprieve from daily stress, my pleasure in the rejuvenating power of touch began in college. But as always, before anything there was my mother. In spirit similar to settlers who put their children to work on the family farm, she seemed to have birthed my siblings and me so we could honor her body, or at least take part in its upkeep and well being. When he wasn’t in his room with his basketball cards, my older brother was usually on the living room couch pounding my mother’s legs with his teenaged fists, his eyes vigilantly following The Simpsons or the Celtics onscreen. At the height of her work as a housekeeper when she and my father were cleaning four or five houses a day in the old monied towns of south shore Massachusetts, my mother longed regularly for this brute force to stun the ache in her joints.
As my sister spent more time with her friends, I took over the task of tweezing my mother’s armpit hairs. Except for a few coarse strands, my mother didn’t have much underarm fuzz, and yet as soon as I announced I was finished, she’d arch her arm higher alongside her head and insist I scan the two-by-two inch slab again, more carefully. She always knew when my mind wandered because I would absentmindedly clip her flesh between the tweezer prongs. She’d yelp; I’d giggle and apologize but inside I still sulked, certain that no one I knew suffered through a chore so strangely intimate. She didn’t even offer remuneration—allowances didn’t exist in our family. It was as though she were getting even with us for the burden of carrying us in her womb, for misshaping her once taut, youthful body, for the turmoil and headaches she endured for and because of us.
I escaped this bitter chore by leaving for college. I roomed my first year with a high-spirited, charismatic blonde from Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. We had some serious issues, SZ and me; she was a Leo and I am a Scorpio. On the one hand, we drove each other mad—my lonely freshman depression dampened her pep and her odd combination of passive aggression and possessive craze incensed me in all kinds of ways. SZ was the kind of person who would say Wouldn’t it feel nice if the fan was on because she was too lazy herself to get up. Once she rang my phone while standing outside our window and threw a fit as she watched me ignore the call. Still, we cared about each other a great deal, which is probably why we had so much trouble.
Turbulence aside, we had fun that year. To de-stress we treated ourselves to dance nights: lamps dimmed with scarves, sticky weed in SZ’s glass pipe, Enigma’s Trilogy album. From her trunk of belly dance costumes that she lugged from Tennessee with photos of her dance troupe—tanned blonde girls wrapped in bright veils—taped to the inside of the heavy lid, we pulled midriff-baring tops with billowy sleeves and silk harem pants. We tied coin scarves to our hips that jangled when we moved. When the room felt small, we ran through the dorm corridors to the spacious stairwell landing in front of the window and practiced head slides and rib circles, oblivious to the crowd of people watching and clapping from the dark lawn below.
That was the year I existed outside myself. I spent most of my time in a private study room at the library, slumped over asleep in a chair with the books I always fooled myself into carrying pushed aside on the desk. When the library closed for the night, I’d return to my dorm room and crawl into bed. Sleep was the only thing that came easily, though each time I woke up I seemed more awkward and inarticulate than the day before.
I wanted to flee the familiarity of myself, to make noise and to shatter out of the tiny, confining space I felt I just barely took up. But I was also desperate to hold onto other intimacies, things that were once recognizable but suddenly were not. I knew when I applied to college that I would study fiction but realized once I got there how little I knew about something that once seemed innate. I could read it and talk about it, maybe, but writing it was something else. With belly dance there was no shame in not knowing, or an impulse to claim to know. It was freeing. SZ taught me the steps, and I followed gladly. Her self-possession and confidence were so close—just beyond my reach—that I felt I could soon inhabit myself again.
To end we’d climb into her bed that she regularly dusted with a perfumed white powder and take turns massaging each other. SZ’s strong hands intuitively sought out the stones in my neck and shoulders. She rubbed them until their hardness shrank. My returns? They were lame, my feeble fingers merely pushing and pulling her skin into different directions. I could feel frustration in her restless shifting and when she could no longer bear my efforts, she suggested I practice the belly dance hand exercises she’d taught me.
Alternately she turned to a short, bald Bosnian guy everyone called Mini-Vin because he looked like the actor Vin Diesel minus about three feet. While at Sarah Lawrence, Mini-Vin’s interests ranged from fashion to opera to some book that taught men how to trick women into sleeping with them. He’d allegedly dug mass graves in Kosovo. In the beginning of the spring term he dabbled in acupuncture and massage, keeping a pack of needles he’d ordered online in his backpack and visiting girls in their dorm rooms. I’d return to our room after class to find him straddling SZ on the floor, kneading her oil-slicked back or sliding his thin, long needles into her skin, not understanding why his shirt was off. In a moment of weakness, I gave in to what would turn out to be magic paws; Mini-Vin would baste my own back like a pig for roast with Mazola corn oil laced with drops of tea tree.
Over time, my hands developed their own power and sensitivity to the arrangement of SZ’s musculature, and I was finally able to reciprocate properly. This was the link missing on our nights and now I felt the richness of releasing my friend’s body from kink and pain. I could make it feel cared for just as she did mine. This discovery of connecting with another human being—not through forced, mangled words or ambiguous social cues—but through the simple physicality of touch relieved me.
I returned home that spring break stronger. I’d recovered from the initial shock of living and learning with different people. I’d packed my second semester with dance and movement classes, and I was in the best shape I’d ever been. More importantly, the focused rigor of dance forced me out of my head and helped me begin to look people in the eye again. In my mother’s room, when she demurred at my command for her to strip, I pulled her pants down, sat across her lumbar, and gave her the massage of my life.
“Where did you learn to do this?” my mother asked, craning to stare at me.
For the beginning dancer, the necessary foundational exercises that develop strength and mobility may seem repetitive and simplistic. It will be difficult to understand fundamental skills such as balance, weight transference, and efficient frame alignment. Through exercise, the dancer gains experience and a willingness to reassess physical habits. Locating and feeling skeletal relationships will become habitual when she builds muscle strength. She will begin to negotiate her relationship with gravity.
Whatever the tradition or school, I was not a good dancer. Though I could always get down on the dance floor at parties, once there was any kind of formal instruction or choreography I’d trip up, always lagging three or four beats in middle and high school musical numbers. On top of that, my college body, still gravid with sleep in morning classes, protested against my commands for it to move. But it was mostly my mind that got in the way. I’d fixate so intensely on a movement’s technicality that when I considered a simple concept like opposition in walking, my body would revolt and paralyze the act. By thinking too much about walking, the alternation unraveled: my right leg began to move with my right arm, my left leg with the left arm, like a drunken robot.
Although it may look relaxed, the contained subtle movements of belly dance take great muscle control. The focus in this dance, unlike most Western dance forms, is on natural isolations of the torso muscles rather than sweeping paths of extremities. There is one important connection between modern and belly dance: feet. In both styles, the dancer’s feet are planted to the ground. A useful modern dance exercise involves spreading the toes as far apart as possible, the weight evenly distributed across the entire foot. I liked imagining that the bottoms of my feet, callused and tough, had sprouted roots to the earth.
With all the bodies around in dance class, it’s difficult not to pick up on the various things you both love and find flawed about your own. Feelings of envy and inadequacy aren’t uncommon. But you get past this. You begin to understand that people dance to express themselves, or to simply feel good. For women especially, it’s a celebration of the body that we learn from an early age to protect and keep hidden. Women have always been most beautiful to me in motion. Whether it’s ratty Hanes or bright Lululemon, our lines are best emphasized through soft cotton and stretch nylon. Without judgment or shame, we jut our asses into the air, push ourselves into planks, submit into child’s pose. We bicycle our legs—long, plump, short, skinny, chicken, bowed—into the air.
With SZ I continued informal belly dance lessons. We snuck into darkened campus studios after hours. One weekend we rented a car and headed to New Jersey with two other girls for a belly dance convention. In a concrete building directly off the turnpike, thousands of women in coin jewelry flocked to watch Suhaila Salimpour, a gorgeous olive-skinned woman from California, with thick hips break down hip lifts and snake arms. I remember the exuberance in hearing my wavering ululation, not yet tested outside our dorm room, join the high-pitched howls of the women around me as we watched a tribe of women flawlessly execute a cymbal dance with chiming zills strapped to their strong, elegant fingers.
At one point I looked around that convention hall, noticing that except for my friend Sheila—a curvy Persian girl who was also by far the most natural and experienced dancer of our little college crew—we were surrounded by hundreds of the mostly white faces of middle-aged women, their eyes rimmed with Wet ‘n Wild kohl. Everyone wore Middle Eastern costume, some more elaborate than others. And I, in SZ’s ankle-length amethyst skirt and ivory crepe choli, a chain of polished, jade-like stones I’d just bought at the fair encircling my hips, stood among them, celebrating an art form so blatantly appropriated. My shame began to pound in rhythm with the loud Arabic music playing overhead.
Although most people think of belly dance as a dance for male viewing pleasure, it’s most often performed among, with, and for women. A few years later in Paris I watched women dance for each other in the city’s many Middle Eastern dance clubs. It was celebratory and playful, sisterly and sexy. But above all, it was powerful. I watched women bring rowdy audiences to silence with the lift of an arm.
Whatever the origins and evolution of this dance, I felt then that it had the ability to break down the social programming telling women what our bodies should look like and what to do with them. I needed this inclusive spirit, its invitation for contact and community. Women of all different ages, shapes, and histories undulated their torsos and isolated their chests. To participate, I only had to learn. It didn’t require mutilating my feet for years to raise en pointe, and it didn’t make me starve myself to fit the form’s aesthetic. In fact, I wished pretty hard for more flesh on my boyish hips for a more substantial shimmy.
For years after, I studied different kinds of movement and dance. I choreographed a piece for performance in Paris, and there, too, I took incredible West African dance classes. Every week I clapped and leapt until I gasped for breath. During breaks, I sucked on crystallized ginger pieces the instructor brought to class in a clean, linen satchel. I became versed in the physical language of each style I took up. I studied the vocabulary and articulations that live within and through each gesture.
I’m not sure that I would attend that belly dance festival today. I’m as open to the physicality of the dance as I used to be, but I’m not sure if I’ve let go of all of the old judgment I felt for myself and my belly dance sisters for taking pleasure in a tradition that didn’t belong to us. But who would I be hurting if I did?
That weekend in Somerset, New Jersey, I learned how to use shoulder accents to punctuate a beat; exploded into laughter with my friends as I tried to pull off bouncing ‘earthquake’ shimmies, tripped on traveling steps, and snake-armed until my biceps were sore. I low-kicked one after another, played with tossing my head, then stepped back to watch more experienced dancers tilt and circle and loop their hips into infinities.
How do I explain the severity of a hard floor, how its refusal to receive your body can feel like a cold stranger, or worse, an angry, withdrawn lover? How do I explain the devastation over this disconnect, as though the floor were a living, rebuking being, and the relief of feeling your body finally sink against its surface only after a series of small, repetitive movements, a sacred offering of gestures? Ten light drags of the knuckles, ten flicks of each wrist and hand. Ten slow turns of the head, left to right and left again, all against that worn, blonde wood floor. Then, suddenly—assent. Euphoric gratitude.
It took that first year of college, of being both still and in motion, to make me feel like myself again while accepting I’d changed. Simultaneously I learned how to feel my own and other bodies through movement—simple and radical—and when I wasn’t dancing, I was in stasis. Touching or being touched. Isn’t that what we’re trying to do?
Late one summer night before I’d left for college, I came into the living room to find my mother power walking on the treadmill. Soft flesh and hazy lighting filled the television screen. Laughing, I said, “Mom, what are you watching?”
Her frank act of watching porn—girl-on-girl, not a male phallus in sight—embarrassed me. But she was simply enjoying the female bodies. If I could do it over again I wouldn’t have laughed. It shouldn’t have surprised me; my mother used to watch the Spanish soaps on Telemundo for those glamorous actresses with full lips and big hair though she understood nothing they said. She didn’t need to understand; she watched for their beauty. I envy my mother’s freedom to ignore story. I’m mostly so locked into words that physical communication—not of mind or mouth—is hugely affecting and appealing.
At art exhibitions I tend to read curatorial statements and wall texts before looking at artworks. I’ll catch myself relying on the descriptions to understand the art, rather than allowing myself to feel it before rationalizing. With dance I’m usually not thrown a lifeline for context. I’m driven to feel, not interpret. I wonder if my mother’s choice to forgo narrative is not so much a choice. Her lack of language skills pushes her to cultivate that appreciation of beauty, or pain, or fear without explanation or words.
From the other side of the curtain, the male masseuse at Spring Wellness burps. He follows up with a guttural cough, then sneezes expansively. I imagine a spray of saliva misting the back of his client. But she’s kinder than I am: she offers a quiet bless you.
So there it is: I can easily find men vulgar through actions like these, however involuntary. What is acceptable to this male masseuse—grungy flip-flops, lunch breath, and an onslaught of bodily emissions—strikes me as inconsiderate and gross. Is it because I believe a woman wouldn’t behave this way? Is it a cultural difference?
Even in this dank cavern of massage, I recognize that the women here are more focused and empathetic to my needs. My pleasure is not the male masseuse’s priority: the pressure he applies is decent but never in the right place. His mind wanders, just as mine did when I stooped over my mother’s armpit years ago.
When the female masseuse rubs me, it is an extension of herself, a projection of how she wants and needs to be touched. This is the understanding. Her cool, light hands run down my neck, my back, locating my pain and anxiety. The coaxing, the slow kneading, fist rolling over the reef of my spine, skilled digs behind a shoulder blade. Little sighs and grunts escape from me and those around me. And from the masseuses in the room, suppressed giggles—because, as I recently discovered upon raising myself up to gather my hair, the minute I tuck my head into that cutout and close my eyes, that curtain gets pulled right back open. The masseuses communicate with each other as they work on our bodies through knowing glances and private smiles.
Eventually, that little timer above my head goes off. My time is up, but for several minutes after the beep, my lady gives me a few extra squeezes on my shoulders, presses her fingers into the hollows behind my ears and the back of my skull. For you, her gestures say, and I know that by my deep, even breathing and the way my body has fully sunken into the bed, she feels my gratitude radiating for her gifts.
Titi Nguyen’s essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, The New York Times, Paris Review Daily, Witness, and elsewhere. She will be a tuition scholar at this summer’s Bread Loaf conference in Vermont. Find her work at titinguyen.net.
A couple weeks ago I got into a cab (grey 2008 Toyota, three hubcaps, broken air conditioning) and the radio was on and it was the World Cup match between Germany and Portugal and the commentators were commenting as fast as they could in French about the defense strategy of the Germans when, twelve minutes into the first half, forward Thomas Müller scored a penalty against Portugal’s goalkeeper Rui Patricio and the cab veered toward the sidewalk (to the right like Müller’s penalty kick) and I told the cabbie where I had to go, (“Don’t know it. You sure?” he said. “Can you check?”), but there was nothing to check, I knew the address was right and he was talking in a low voice to himself and “grumpy” wasn’t really strong enough to describe what he was acting like and I said, “So who’s the favorite?” And he looked up in the rearview mirror at me like, “Really, lady?” and I knew (thought I knew?) that these two teams were from what had been called by some the “Group of Death” along with the US and Ghana who were playing later tonight and so far between me and the cabbie it had just been a couple words but he could see that I was serious, but maybe what he couldn’t see was that I knew who was favored and what some of the odds were, that the German lineup included Khedira and Boateng and Lahm, but the cabbie was riveted to the voices of the commentators in a way that wasn’t “grumpy” at all but more enchanted and he said, “Germany’s favored, Germany,” and we were rolling (barreling?) through the streets placedelaBastilleruedelaRoquette dodging pedestrians (pedestrians dodging us?) because there had been some train strikes and plane delays and then a taxi strike (yesterday? tomorrow?) and construction work going in all directions, that starts in the summer here, like every summer in France.
During the summer of 2006, with the World Cup in Germany, almost anywhere you went in Paris (café, bistro, friend’s apartment) the TV was on with the games or someone was covering the daily routine of les Bleus at their camp at the Schlosshotel Münchausen (sixteenth-century castle, renovated), or covering the coverage of a team that France would be playing. There was a lot of excitement after the stunning 1998 French win in the World Cup against Brazil (3-0, Man of the Match Zinedine Zidane with first goal in the first half at 27 minutes, the next at 45+1). Although no one had mistaken me for a sports fan before in my life, that July I started watching the games and haven’t stopped since.
The cabbie was thoroughly knocked out by soccer. He’d been a second division goalkeeper for years, he told me, on a team in a suburbs not far from here, as he drove (careened?) through the streets, he said, “Looky in there,” inside a Chinese restaurant with the doors wide open on the streets. People eating? Someone slicing lemons at the bar? “No,” he said, “over there,” and pointed to the back wall of the restaurant right by the mural of the painted tigers (three of them, stylized orange and black stripes, mouths cracked back, some idea of “roaring,”) where a screen displayed the deep green gem that was the field, the two goals at either end of the field like netted shores, a tangle of players knotting and unknotting themselves in the late afternoon Brazilian sunlight. He didn’t see the street for the soccer in his eyes. “Tu vois?” the cabbie said, “you see?”
His teams were, he said, In This Order: 1) France, 2) Italy (this was before their elimination by Uruguay and the game where striker Luis Suarez took a bite out of the shoulder of Italy’s defender Giorgio Chiellini, 3) Holland (a distant third for him and third place didn’t matter so much he said, but whatever, you gotta give a third place, it’s like some sort of balance you know?, but remember, he told me, you block Robben, you solved some math on the field”). I asked about the US team. “Hey there,” he said, only he said, bahh, alors, “you’ve got Klinsmann for a coach and he’ll take you far,” and then he said that the US team was strong this year, and good, very good, but that they play differently than the European teams. “A different way to approach the ball.” He hoped the very best for them, he really did (though he couldn’t get it out of his mind that attacker Landon Donovan hadn’t been picked for the team, “he’s got a beautiful game, he really does,” he said) and he hoped they’d do good, “real good” against Ghana later that night. (The US won 2-1).
He started talking about the other teams and strategies and offense lineups and specifics of statistics that were as vast and minute and perfect as a chemical equation (I’d never been mistaken as a fan of math or chemical science either) and right then you didn’t know who was driving what where and fostering any team spirit in the backseat was hard. “Goalies are the key to the game,” he said. “Gigi Buffon, Čech, Neuer. Strikers are one thing, they’re real good things, but goalkeepers are kings. The kings of the kings on the field,” he said, only he said, les rois des rois sur le terrain because all of this was still happening in French and there was velocity in what he was saying even more than there was in the way he was driving. He was definitely going “out of his way” to tell me things. There were lots of dark and difficult things about soccer, “lots,” he said. “Tu vois? You see?” The cabbie had retired from soccer a few years ago and now his kingdom reached the length of the dashboard and the ends of one-way streets with their blasts of red lights and the horns clacking like cheers bursting from fans. He was the goalkeeper of late nights, the keeper of doors and dented cars.
Tremors When The Patient’s Hands Are Held Out
They have grown into each other like two sun-exhausted creepers; a combination of indistinct markings. An outsider might wonder if these are the original patterns, or if there has been some constant irritation to produce this blurring together of striation.
Once they were young and strong enough to stand with stiff shoulders. They never looked at one another except to grieve that the other was still there. You, their eyes said as they snapped themselves apart like press-studs.
Their children have gone into other lives. Tarani, now forty-one, is living in Boston. Sunila is relieved; at least it’s not India. Until this year, when Tarani became pregnant, Arjun didn’t speak to her much. He knew she disliked him when she was growing up, but she seems to like him now. Maybe the anxiety of a late pregnancy has softened her. Arjun believes that a lot of people dislike him for reasons he will never understand. He lets his small hesitancies drop here and there, like elderly rose petals.
Murad left England for Cairns, Australia, to work as a tourist guide. He is now forty-four. Just imagine, Sunila with her palm to her cheek. A grown man, slightly more than middle-aged, even. He owns a kayaking shop, whatever that is. His accent changed: a gradual lengthening of vowels as though he stretched into another culture. It takes some adjustment of the ears to speak to him on the phone when he calls from this other world. They marvel at their once silent child’s business acumen suddenly flowering in a strange, hot place where they have Wollemi pines, tea trees, mud crabs and something called a queenfish.
They show their visitors the map of Australia in the World Atlas. Cairns is an orange smudge on page seventy-six and the sea next to it is a rich, deep blue. The visitors admire the colour combination and note the Great Barrier Reef. Arjun and Sunila nod proudly as though Murad owns the Great Barrier Reef too.
They feel they ought to be more entertaining, but have lost the energy. They look about as if the energy might be lying under sofa cushions, or snagged on curtain hooks.
They talk about their children much more now that they are gone. It is the way of parents. They argue with barely enough energy to contradict each other. Sunila osing touch 133 remembers Tarani’s hair was long. Arjun recalls it was short. He knows this is so since it shocked him. He had not thought she would ever get her hair cut so short. He shakes his head wonderingly; it was as though she had suddenly changed sex. When she visits, he marvels at how it’s grown long again.
Even now they fight each other with their exhaustion. Arjun wills himself to wake at six, to crumble into clothes as fast as his disobedient hands will let him. He can do very little alone. Soon he will do less and Sunila will be forced to bathe him, take him to the toilet. She will wonder how long she can keep it up, this attendance on every little thing he wants.
The early spring sun shows petulantly behind breaking clouds as they walk slowly to the local shops; Arjun with his walking frame, Sunila with the pull-along bag. His walking frame catches on the smallest pebble, the tiniest crack. A dog ambles by and stops to sniff his shoes. He is delighted with the insult. ‘See this fellow? He has no respect. Get along with you, you old tramp.’ His voice is fond over this attention. The dog salutes him with a cocky glance and a half-laugh, coral tongue dragging out of the left side of its mouth. It trots off, its liver and white markings jogging under the deep green of the privet hedges flanking the road.
Even now they fight each other with their exhaustion. Arjun wills himself to wake at six, to crumble into clothes as fast as his disobedient hands will let him. He can do very little alone. Soon he will do less and Sunila will be forced to bathe him, take him to the toilet. She will wonder how long she can keep it up, this attendance on every little thing he wants.
I was Leon Termen before I was Dr Theremin, and before I was Leon, I was Lev Sergeyvich. The instrument that is now known as a theremin could as easily have been called a leon, a lyova, a sergeyvich. It could have been called a clara, after its greatest player. Pash liked termenvox. He liked its connotations of science and authority. But this name always made me laugh. Termenvox−the voice of Termen. As if this device replicated my own voice. As if the theremin’s trembling soprano were the song of this scientist from Leningrad.
I laughed at this notion, and yet in a way I think I also believed it. Not that the theremin emulated my voice, but that with it I gave voice to something. To the invisible. To the ether. I, Lev Sergeyvich Termen, mouthpiece of the universe.
That mouthpiece is now atop the sea, aboard a ship, in a rectangular cabin the size of an en suite bathroom at New York’s Plaza Hotel, the hotel that was once my home. This vessel is called the Stary Bolshevik. The walls are made of steel and painted eggshell blue. There is a cot in the corner, a frayed gray rug on the floor, and I sit in a folding chair before a desk that is also made of steel, also painted eggshell blue. The bare lightbulb glows. When the weather is rough, as it is now, I am as sick as a dog. I clutch my sides and listen to the drawer beside my bed sliding open and slamming shut and sliding open. The room rocks. I go to the toilet in a tiny closet, and then I come back and stare at what I have written. Rows of symbols−qwe asd zxc, the the the, lt, cr, lt, cr (((((((((&. I wonder who will see these pages. Will I send them away, like a letter? Will I keep them in a safe? Will they drown one night, in seawater?
On the other side of the hall there is another room like this one, lit by its own incandescent bulb. It is filled with my equipment. Some of this equipment is delicate and easily damaged. When the waves heave, it would be reassuring to go across and unfasten the cases’ clasps, check that all the wires are coiled, the batteries capped, the tubes intact. Check that my theremins still sing. For the last seventeen years, a day has rarely passed that I did not hear their sound. From Archangelsk to New Haven, in palaces and shacks, I traveled and taught, performed for longshoremen and lords, and almost every night I was able to reach across the room and find the electrical field of one of my humble theremins, coaxing current into sound.
But the door to my cabin is locked. I do not have the key. Just a typewriter, just paper and ink, just this story to set down now, in solitude, as the distance widens between us.
When I was fourteen years old, one of my teachers at the Gymnasium introduced the class to Geisslers−glass cylinders, vacuum tubes. They came in wooden crates, wrapped individually, like wineglasses. I say like wineglasses but really to me they were like intricate conch shells, the kind of treasures that wash up on a beach.
Professor Vasilyev must have recognized my fascination, because one holiday he let me take a vacuum tube home. I kept it wrapped in butcher paper, strolling with it in my jacket pocket, one hand resting over it, and in my mind’s eye it was an emerald. At home I experimented with wires and Fahnestock clips, spark coils, and the new lamp beside Grandmother’s bed. While my parents thought I was practicing piano and violin I was crouched over a wooden board, assembling circuits with brass screws. I knew to be careful: I had been tinkering with machines for years, phonographs and an old wireless set, Father’s camera. At the end of the break I wrote Professor Vasilyev a long letter proposing a demonstration at the upcoming Family Day. I delivered the letter together with the vacuum tube−intact, undamaged−into his hands. He took more than a week to answer. I remember it was a Friday. He called me aside after class, drummed his fingers on the desktop, stared at me from under patchy eyebrows. “All right, Lev,” he said.
On Family Day there were displays by the wrestling squad, the botanical club, one of the choirs, and a class recited parts of “Ilya Muromets” from memory. Vova Ivanov sang a song about seagulls. After this, Professor Vasilyev clambered onto the stage. In his gentle voice he explained to the audience that some of his students were about to distribute Geissler vacuum tubes. We were lined up and down the Gymnasium aisles, crates of tubes at every corner. We passed them hand to hand as though we were building something together. Soon all of the parents and uncles and aunts and grandparents had Geissler tubes in their laps. They turned them over and over, like wineglasses, like seashells, like emeralds. Then Professor Vasilyev asked everyone to look up at the ceiling. What they saw were the sagging lines of fourteen crisscrossing copper wires. I had pinned them up myself as Professor Vasilyev held the ladder. We had hidden the induction coils in a broom closet.
The ceiling wires now flowed with electric current.
They made no sound.
“Please raise your Geissler tubes,” said Professor Vasilyev.
One after another, they lifted their little glass tubes. They held them up with their fingertips. The feeling I had was the feeling you get as you pass through a gate and into a walled garden. As each vacuum tube entered the electrical field of my lacework of wires, one by one, the Geisslers began to glow.
I felt then what I have felt many times since. It is the moment you forget the electricity, the conducting metals and skipping electrons, the tubes and wires and fundamental principles; standing with hands in pockets you forget these things and for a hot, proud instant you think it is you who did this, who made the tubes glow, you clever mouse.
This is the hubris of the inventor. It is a monster that has devoured many scientists. I have strived to keep it at bay. Even in America, among ten thousand flatterers, I tried to concentrate on my machines, not their maker.
Perhaps if I had been prouder, this story would have turned out differently. Perhaps I would not be here, in a ship, plunging from New York back to Russia. Perhaps we would be together. If I were more of a showman. If I had told the right tale.
But Lev Sergeyvich Termen is not the voice of the ether. He is not the principle that turned glass into firefly. I am an instrument. I am a sound being sounded, music being made, blood, salt, and water manipulated in air. I come from Leningrad. With my bare hands, I have killed one man. I was born on August 15, 1896, and at that instant I became an object moving through space toward you.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): Ellen Bass charmed the socks off me when she read “At The Padre Hotel In Bakersfield, California” at the Writers @ Work conference in Alta, Utah. I loved its slyness and honesty, its willingness to walk right up to the real stuff of this world. I immediately bought Bass’s collection Like a Beggar and read it in happy fits and starts on the plane ride home, then the subway going to and from work, meting it out carefully poem by poem so as not to slurp it down too greedily. Bass’s poems in this book all have that same charm of “At the Padre.” They take pleasure in engaging with the thingness of living—zippers, planets, peaches, telephones for transacting affairs, feet—without any preciousness, with smarts and grace. Totally recommended to cure you of things you didn’t even know were ailing you.
Tony Perez (Editor, Tin House Books): Nameless New York pot dealer with kind eyes makes house calls to bougie New York clients. That’s the through-line of the web series High Maintenance, but if it’s thin, it’s also elastic enough to fit more genuine pathos and humor and surprise into five minutes than most TV shows can develop with season-long arcs and sacks full of cash. Each episode revolves around one of the guy’s clients, but how substantial a roll he himself plays varies—along with the running-time, tone, style, and just about everything else. Creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair (who also plays the affable dealer) have given themselves just enough scaffolding to make the whole thing feel cohesive, to make you compulsively click that next arrow until you’ve exhausted Vimeo’s supply, but they leave themselves the freedom to reinvent the show each time around. (Tip: Don’t sleep on the credit sequences.)
Cheston Knapp (Managing Editor, Tin House Magazine): ↑ \o/
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer): Martha Baillie’s novel The Incident Report is structured as brief reports written by Miriam, a librarian in Toronto. The plot involves romance and mystery, but so far the most compelling bits are Miriam’s descriptions of the library’s odd patrons, which remind me (for better or worse) of my twelve years as a clerk in a small-town bookstore. [Editor's Note: Matha Baillie's upcoming novel The Search for Heinrich Schlogel will be published by Tin House in September, 2104, alongside an ebook of The Incident Report.]
Meg Storey (Editor, Tin House Books): I love a nonlinear narrative told from multiple points of view that interweaves the lives of characters who, on the surface, seem unconnected to one another. I also love a fictional retelling of a historical figure or event. And, of course, I love beautiful prose. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Colum McCann is one of my favorite authors. McCann’s most recent novel, Transatlantic, is all of these things. It’s the story of Frederick Douglass’s trip to Ireland in the 1840s to promote his book and gather support for abolition. It’s the story of Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown, the first two pilots to cross the Atlantic. It’s the story of Senator George Mitchell and his role in the Good Friday Agreement. And it’s the story of an Irish woman who has lost her son to the Troubles. But most importantly, it’s the story of how all of these people are connected and it’s a reminder of how our actions and decisions can affect those who come after us, even those who live thousands of miles away and hundreds of years later. The scope of McCann’s work doesn’t prohibit the intimacy he creates in his portrayal of each of these lives and the sensitivity with which he handles them.
Heather Hartley (Paris Editor, Tin House Magazine): In his 1934 song “Volver,” King of the Tango Carlos Gardel sings, “Veinte años no es nada,” “Twenty years is nothing,” and given the popularity of and affection for his music over the decades, Gardel was spot on. His tangos are full of swing and longing and syncopated rhythms and for early (or late) summer evenings, his “Adios Muchachos,” “Por Un Cabeza” or “Mano a Mano” are serene and spirited and sound even better with a little glass of something cool to drink. Kick off your shoes, find a makeshift dance floor and a partner, and dance to some tunes by the Brunette Boy from Abasto.
He told me to mute the Taxi TV. He told me I should meet his eyes in the rearview mirror. The better to hear him; the better to see him. He was cruising in the slowest lane. He was in no hurry. He had some things to say. He asked, did I know why they call it The Big Apple? He would tell me: It was a long time ago. There was the apple tree, and the snake hanging around. Did I remember? The snake, he gave an apple to Eve; he said, here is a delicious fruit, ripe fruit. And what happened with that? They started to find out who they were. When you come to New York, it is like eating a piece of the apple. You find out who you are. What is inside people comes out. You can see your friends change. It might be better, or it might be worse.
He told me, men are turning gay because women work too much. They want careers, they come home late and tired, they’re all business. Men go to the bars and they don’t come back.
He asked, would I like to take Atlantic Ave. or the BQE? It was my choice. I was in charge.
He told me people in America should speak English. If you want to keep your old traditions, no problem, you can keep 20-30%. When he lived in Virginia, he spoke more English. In Virginia, he told me, life was better. Slower. On the West Coast, life is better. Here, you are always working, and for what? You get old, and then you die. He would like to live in California. Maybe San Diego. Not L.A. This city is corrupt, he told me.
He told me he doesn’t remember his dreams. He would like to, but he wakes up with nothing.
He asked me, do you have a husband? Do you have a boyfriend? I lied: yes.
He told me he makes dumplings by hand, from scratch. To save time and money. In the evening, watching a movie, he makes 200, 300. Easy. He freezes them. They’re good for two weeks, a month. When he’s hungry, they’re there. He can boil them, fry them, eat them in a soup.
He told me he could teach me. Would I like to learn? He told me, sooner or later you will be a mother and this will be a good thing to know. Children, they eat so much.
He told me, there are two times when men cry: when somebody dies, and for big love. One time he cried for love. Not anymore. He loves his wife, sure, but he’s not going to be crazy the way he was. He’s learned his lesson.
He asked, who did I think was in charge of the world? He told me, women are. Men, they can’t live without women. A beautiful woman? The way she walks? Did I see what he was saying? She has a lot of power. That’s the reason they burned girls at the stake. Witches.
He told me, a long time ago there was a man who was the king, and a woman next to him. You think he ruled the world? No. She did. Why? At night, when it came time to —— she told him what to do, how to be. Her words came from his mouth.
He told me, you and your boyfriend, you will not be equal. There is no equal. One is supposed to be on the top and one on the bottom. It doesn’t matter, man or woman. He told me, you girls are supposed to have a gentleman next to you. To make you feel like a woman.
He asked me, didn’t I agree?
He’s been in this life many years, he told me. He likes rock music, but his wife prefers jazz. With her, he listens to what she likes. He wants her to be happy. She’s a cosmetologist, he told me. She makes her own soaps and creams. Maybe she’ll start a business. I asked him whether they have any children. Yes, he told me, of course. Why else would he have a wife? Two children, a boy and a girl—a daddy’s girl. She studies well. He tells her, the most important thing you can have in this life is an education.
He asked me, Court Street or Henry? He told me my neighborhood is a good one. He told me he stops at Starbucks every morning before his shift. Four shots of espresso, with steamed milk. Sure, sometimes his heart hurts him, but it’s okay. He’s still strong. Four shots will keep you awake.
He told me, the tomatoes he found at a roadside stand in North Carolina were so delicious. They smelled like home. He bought a whole case of them, still green. When he wanted one to turn red, he would put it in the sun. It only took a few hours, it was so hot. He doesn’t even like tomatoes, but these he would just eat, like an apple.
Kate Brittain lives in Brooklyn. Her writing can be found at Vol. 1 Brooklyn and The Paris Review Daily.
Orland Nutt makes short films that are intended to “transport the viewer to somewhere no one else can take them.” Drawing inspiration from poets, dancers, TV personalities, and other experimental filmmakers, Nutt creates something new and wonderfully bizarre.For this week’s Tin House Reels, we’re happy to share Nutt’s short I am Into Your Fire, which is a collaboration with actress Amanda Riley and composer Matt Marble. Riffing off part III of the poem “Aisles of Eden” by James Broughton, a mountain woman tells of her passionate love, while diving through and igniting what Nutt calls a “psychedelic mountainscape.”
On using poems as the backbone of his shorts, Nutt says, “A great poem doesn’t really need a video made from it. When I choose to make a video from a poem, it’s because I think there is something there that I can strongly relate to and because I think I can add a new spin on it, offering a new meaning or interpretation. I don’t want to change the meaning of the poems I work with, but to change the context, and the world that they reflect upon.”
“I tried to take a very lusty love poem that sounds very intimate and intense, and set it up as a wild woman’s call into a desolate landscape,” he says. “I tried to create a persona that is unfamiliar, a little bit frightening, and yet exciting and intriguing, a kind of gleeful mountain witch.”
To create the ethereal landscape that serves as the film’s backdrop, Nutt combined live footage shot in the Colombia Gorge with After Effects-altered desert landscapes, the likes of which call to mind the surreal set design of early Star Trek episodes.
Riley’s performance, which incredibly pulls off the melding of a mountainscape and heroine, was inspired by various beastly women in films like The Profound Desire of the Gods by Shohei Imamura and Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees by Masahiro Shinoda.
Through these disparate influences, Nutt has created a video filled with the kind of majestic intensity one often associates with a shaman. And like those fabled mediums, Nutt has tapped into that sacred space between the visible world and an invisible spirit world, albeit with a knowing wink.
For Portland readers: the Northwest Film Center will be holding “An Evening with Orland Nutt” at the Whitsell Auditorium on July 10th at 7 PM. Nutt will be present to introduce several of his films, including the premiere of his newest work “Bear of Heaven.”
Orland Nutt is an experimental filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. He works at Bent Image Lab, a stop-motion and CG animation production house, as a compositor on international ad campaigns, feature films, music videos for bands such as Radiohead and Modest Mouse, and television series.
Alison Pezanoski-Browne is an editorial intern at Tin House. She is a writer and producer, focusing on music, documentary, and experimental media. She is currently pursuing her master’s in Critical Theory and Creative Research at Pacific Northwest College of Art.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also send us a file directly.
During yesterday’s fourth straight loss for the New York Yankees, we were reminded of this David Shields poem, from Issue 43, Games People Play. May the “gorgeous dream” never die . . .
THE SADNESS OF THE YANKEES FAN
of the Yankees fan
in his knowledge
that his gorgeous dream
is made of money.
This is America, though:
capital of capitalism.
I was once
wildly in lust
with a girl
fond of saying
it’s not the bulge in front;
it’s the bulge in back.
I’ve lived my life for art,
which I know
is not immemorial.
Illusion, baby, illusion—
whatever the cost.
David Shields is the New York Times bestselling author of fifteen books, including Salinger (co-written by Shane Salerno); How Literature Saved My Life; Reality Hunger, named one of the best books of 2010 by more than thirty publications; The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead; Black Planet; Remote, winner of the PEN/Revson Award; and Dead Languages, winner of the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award. He lives with his wife and daughter in Seattle, where he is the Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Washington.
I first met Kate Zambreno on the page. When I was the editrix of Chiasmus Press, the editors selected five manuscripts as finalists for our experimental novel contest. I read the last five. The names had been removed. I was completely torn in my decision, because two of the manuscripts literally ravaged me. The writing in both was intelligent, fierce, brave, original. What to do? So I brought my decision to the other editors, who happily informed me that I needn’t struggle with choosing. They had both been penned by Kate Zambreno. My next struggle was simply deciding WHICH astonishing manuscript to publish; we published O Fallen Angel, a book that remains unparalleled in my opinion.
My next meetings with Kate happened over the territory of language, writing, ideas, chaos, mess, monsterhood, psychosis. We discovered we had equal interest (though a better word would be obsessions) with Dora/Ida Bauer, the heroine of Freud’s failed Hysteria case study. We also found a mutual drool over the paintings of Francis Bacon, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigges, the face of Falconetti, the suspended violence of desire in Hiroshima Mon Amour, blondes, monsters, Laughing Medusas, much more. I’m no longer surprised by the women and men I meet inside the territory of language, writing, ideas. I’m no longer surprised that we find our way to one another. I am fascinated by how deep the “relationships” between writers can be, inside words, those tiny intimate galaxies. In Kate’s books readers will rediscover what it means to be a reader–for her writing will both dismember and remember you–and how writing can still “happen” to you.
“Sometimes after work she takes a bath and watches herself in it. Sometimes she forces herself under water. She pretends she’s dead. She pretends she has drowned…After her bath she gazes at herself in the mirror. Is this what I look like? She marvels at the stranger in the mirror. The stranger looks so solemn, so serious. She smiles. The stranger smiles back.
I too study her, a curious object. Like a prickly piece of fruit. I experience horror at my former self. Is that me? Can’t be me. Can’t be. I was never that young… She is dead. Dead and gone. Dead and gone. Gone. Gone. She is gone. I have mourned her. I have murdered her.
Later, when we look back at ourselves, we marvel at our emptiness, our youth. The shiny surface. We forget the confused upheaval stirring deep within back then, a revolution that we stifled daily.”— Green Girl
Lidia Yuknavitch: This moment in Green Girl captures for me something vital about both the story, but also about other women you have written about or created as characters in Heroines and O Fallen Angel. This moment is like a hummingbird’s motion to me. A glimpse. A rapture. A catching of a girl becoming. There is even a moment captured between character and narrator and author, as if three women were simultaneously present on the page, briefly. Nathalie Saurraute called them emotional intensities, micro-movements, in Tropisms... Can you talk a little about what moments of becoming—or whatever you would call them, mean to you artistically and personally?
Kate Zambreno: I like that. I definitely think of all of my writing as working through emotional intensities, both in terms of style and embodiment…something I’ve been thinking about lately is how I want my books to be like nervous systems, thinking of Deleuze’s description of the paintings of Francis Bacon. (That’s our first point of contact, Bacon, the ecstatic letters your Dora writes to Francis Bacon.) For inspiration to try to get myself to write I’ve been reading David Sylvester’s interviews with Bacon, and he talks about how he’s influenced by photography, like Muybridge’s serials of wrestlers, but that he doesn’t want to paint from the photograph, instead he wants to deform a feeling. That’s what I wish. To deform the photographic. To write a feeling.
So, my portraits that I write, all coming in some way from a memoiristic impulse (while using framing, style, fiction, for distancing), are about the swirl, the chaos—the deformed feeling. The girls or women never become, or other characters, like Malachi in O Fallen Angel, my version of Septimus Smith, my Woolf-man. They are often in process, deformed, intimate and tender grotesques. They are always becoming yet not allowed to become, and agitating against a dominant narrative. Some like Maggie in OFA are stuck, suicides. Others like Ruth, the narrators in Heroines and Book of Mutter have more movement, hopefully insight, as to their lack of freedom. There’s a cruelty I think always to the portraiture, a furious intensity, even when directed towards myself—hopefully also an empathy.
2. Voice and Silence
If I have communicated anything to you I hope it is the absolute urgency to write yourself, your body, your own experience. The absolute necessity for you to write yourself in order to understand yourself, in order to become yourself. I ask you to fight against your own disappearance. –Heroines
LY: I read Heroines as part reclamation story, and part authorial discovery story. Who is a woman writer. Who was she. Is it me. Embedded within those braided stories is a violent litany of all the ways in which women and girls are silenced or disappeared. What is at stake in the creation of voice, body, story for women writers now? And is it necessary to read the voices that came before us, as you did, to relocate and even dislocate the women writers of the past in order to forge a language of our experience and design a space for our stories to exist?
KZ: You’ve quoted from the last two pages of Heroines, which ends in a sort of crescendo manifesto, inspired partly by Cixous’ “Laugh of a Medusa” and its invocation to write the self, the true bodied text that the institutionalized patriarchal world dislikes. The “you” I am speaking to here is anyone who feels illegitimate, who feels dismissed and marginalized, but who desperately wants to write, who cannot publish, or publishes to very small audiences, to write anyway, to write as a form of becoming, to keep diaries, to refuse to be silenced. I think I am saying here, write your own specific experience and subjectivity.
I am very glad that this ending spoke to so many, many who write me to tell me just that. Although I do think in some ways it’s a departure from the rest of the book, which is mostly exploring in fragmented anecdotes this one, heightened, nervous consciousness, an unnamed narrator who feels herself haunted by and acting out all of these ghosts, inhabited like a dybbuk, these souls of former suicides, and feels pushed to tell these stories, of a few wives and mistresses of the great men of modernism who either had difficulty writing or didn’t write and exploring all the ways they were silenced in their contemporary and dismissed in historical memory.
But, ultimately, I can’t and don’t want to speak for all women writers. I think the danger of this contemporary conversation about women writing is how commodified and institutionalized it’s become, how dangerously mainstreamed. Not only that, but even this conversation around counting omits so many crucial factors in terms of visibility and difference, I think what’s really at stake is so complex in terms of power and capitalism and identities and bodies that it cannot be answered in a panel or an interview, but the real nuanced conversations aren’t happening, not really. I think there’s all kinds of dismissals still, all kinds of dumb commodity boxes, so I think ultimately looking at literature in terms of identity politics in this mainstream conversation—like ever since I’ve moved to NYC all I’m ever asked to be on is a panel on women writing, to only do events with other women writers, or to do readings because it’s Women’s History Month—I think that can be quite limiting, and actually repeats and reinforces these problems. Also that these events as they’re proposed to me rarely feature women of color, queer writers, trans writers, i.e. the great majority of these events trying to engage with the problem of women writers feature women writers whose stories are pretty mainstreamed, as well as their aesthetics and politics.
For me to make a space for myself as a writer, I had to give myself permission to become a writer, in secret, on days I was not working, at night—but that permission didn’t come from big publishing houses, that agency cannot come from having an agent. It didn’t come from small presses either—I was rejected for years from the majority of the small press, as well as from every agent I applied to, Green Girl was rejected at least 100 times (an existential postmodern 300-page novel about working retail, turns out: not really publishable), Book of Mutter almost that much, mostly because I had fewer places to send it. Eventually after I wrote and rewrote and finally published I have achieved some level of institutional acceptance and material success (still really earning money only through teaching), but it might go away, because I will always write what I want to write, and afterwards, if it all goes to shit, I’ll still be reading and writing.
My mom did most of the cooking—fried chicken, meatloaf, pot roast—but my dad fed me. The first Saturday morning after payday, he got me up before 10 to accompany him on his monthly grocery shopping trip. Our destination? Bakers, Safeway, and Piggly Wiggly—three big-box, chain stores within a mile of our house on the edge of the suburbs. Armed with sale ads and cut coupons, we’d fill our cart with the best deals in the neighborhood.
Grocery shopping was high entertainment for me, like a carnival. You’d think I came from the other side of the world the way I marveled at the avocados and the variety of pasta sauces. Company representatives lined the aisles serving samples. My dad and I ate our way through—bits of hot dogs baked in crescent rolls, corn chips with cheesy jalapeno dip, Dixie Cups of Pepsi-Cola, mini vanilla wafers. We’d start where most grocery stores have you start, in the fresh produce. Then we’d move up and down the aisles methodically one by one, find the dairy in the back, the bakery on the far side opposite the freezers with the frozen pizza and popsicles.
My dad sent me on investigation missions to save time, although we took all the time in the world. Were the bananas ripe? Did this store have Oreos on sale? Or he’d have me help him find the best prices. If a 12 oz. can of orange juice concentrate made 48 ozs. of juice and cost $1.00, was it better than paying $1.20 for a 58 oz. bottle of premade juice?
We always saved the best shopping for last, Schlotzsky’s Deli, where they specially cut whatever we wanted to try—liverwurst, ham salad, havarti cheese, rollepolse. I’d eat anything except the blood sausage and head cheese. We’d go home not needing lunch.
My dad My dad grew up during WWII, a pastor’s son in Osakis, Minnesota, where he was always hungry and always happy to devour any leftovers set on his back porch by the church women after Ladies Aid meetings and Bible studies. The Midwest was just discovering pineapple and pimentos. He learned to love bite-sized cucumber on rye sandwiches, green olives on toothpicks, and egg salad on crackers, anything abandoned by more discerning and better-fed eaters. My grandma, who survived polio, arthritis, two miscarriages, and cancer in both breasts, was a health nut before there were health nuts. She showed my dad pictures of starving rats to let him know what would happen if he refused to eat his vegetables. It’s a wonder she didn’t kill anyone off with her underdone chicken, cooked rare to avoid destroying the vitamins.
“I vowed my children would never go hungry,” my dad told me once on the way to the grocery store. He’d buy me anything I wanted—Froot Loops, Hostess CupCakes, strawberry swirl ice cream. We lived on sandwiches of Spam/Velveta Cheese/Hormel Chili on soft, white buns broiled open-faced in the oven. We rotated meals of La Choy Chow Mein, tuna noodle casserole, and SpaghettiOs. Sunday night was reserved for frozen dinners and I’d stand in front of the giant upright store freezer for ages, debating between Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes, peas, and cherry cobbler and cheese enchiladas with Spanish rice, corn, and a brownie. I knew my bologna’s first name was o, s, c, a, r, and I ate it for lunch with a slice of American cheese, a leaf of iceberg lettuce, and a smear of mayo on Wonder Bread, accompanied by a tall glass of cherry Kool-Aid.
After our huge grocery shop, we’d indulge for a week before the treats ran out. Once the goodies were gone, I’d play one of my favorite games at lunch. I’d sit on a blanket in the backyard and pretend I was Heidi living in the Swiss Alps with my grandpa and my goats. I’d rip hunks of hard brown rye bread straight off the loaf and heartily bite chunks of what I instinctively called “real” cheese, unsliced rounds of Wisconsin cheddar. This was the best meal, a slight tang to the bread and a saltiness to the cheese, mixed with the fresh smell of cut grass and dandelion stems. I washed it all down with a gulp of cold, clear water.
Rebecca Idstrom lives in the Bluff Country of Northeast Iowa, where she eats produce from her organic garden and refuses to buy her children anything made with artificial food coloring. She does occasionally enjoy a bag of Lays potato chips.