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A Picture of Love

Flash Fidelity

I stood up in a close friend’s wedding fifteen years ago in this same temple, and now his son is up there reading Hebrew in cracking sing-songese. I don’t come here unless there’s a wedding or, like today, a Bar Mitzvah. Each time, I hope to connect with the historical groaning that infuses the chants; sometimes I feel a tingle that wants to become a smile, but then I look at my watch and wonder how much longer the services can possibly go on.

My five-year old son sits next to me in a blue sport coat, clip-on tie, and a yarmulke that falls off every time he turns his head. He points at the stained glass high above us and whispers, “Is that a picture of love?”

I lean toward him. “What did you say?”

Slightly louder than a whisper, he’s incapable of whispering, he repeats, “Is that a picture of love?”

I don’t know how to answer. All at once I don’t want to say no, am not even sure I understand the question, am not convinced that I heard him right, and can’t believe he could grasp that love might be captured that way. I look through the prayer book, the English side, trying to find the word “love” in case my son overheard it, but I can’t find it, and besides, the singing is all in Hebrew and means nothing to either one of us.

“Where?” I ask.

“The colors,” he says, “is that a picture of love?”

My five year old son sees in the stained glass a picture of love, and I feel the tingle growing, maybe I have to come back here, and back again – if he can see it, then I have to come back until I can see it.

I glimpse my friend in the front row, catch the widening of his face with age, and I know I look the same. We’re forty, our grandparents are dead and our parents are breaking down, popping pills and saying prayers to try to stretch their failing bodies further into the time of their grandchildren’s lives. Our own bodies have started to hint at what’s to come: I’ve had cancer once already, though of the entry-level variety, and know enough people like me that I’m no longer surprised when someone my age announces it: skin cancer, breast, ovarian, leukemia. When my friend was getting married, when we were twenty-five and rising fast, these things only happened to old people, to aunts and uncles and sometimes teachers.

I look again through the prayer book, nowhere near the line we’re on, I’m certain. “Reveal yourself, our King, and reign over us, for we await you.” I read this line over and over again. Then, I lean to my son. “Tell me again, buddy, what do you see?”

“Up there,” he says, louder than before, “a picture of lava.”

I nod, and then roll my eyes at my silliness. “I get it. Where’s the lava?”

“The red and yellow lines going down, is that supposed to be lava?” he says. Of course: the two stained glass columns lean inward, the ocean tiles at each base giving way to molten colors at the peak where the columns meet. A flame cast in iron rises out of a concrete monolith in the center. “Good eye,” I whisper to my son. “That is a picture of lava.”

The rest of the service is uneventful. We leave early when my son can no longer sit still. Not that I can blame him.

 

Jonathan Chudler lives and writes in Michigan.  His fiction is forthcoming in Story|Houston.

Posted in Flash Fidelity

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Cutting Teeth: A Late Night Interview with Julia Fierro

Julia Fierro’s keenly observed debut novel, Cutting Teeth, follows the intertwining stories of a group of thirty-something Brooklyn parents over the course of one summer weekend. They’re packed into a beach house together, and close quarters force everything that’s been seething beneath the surface out into the light. Fierro takes on relationships and the gauntlet of parenthood with genuine compassion and honesty, going deep with her characters, turning over all the ugly bits. She was equally candid and thoughtful in our conversation about the book, which tackles many of the very issues that she and I are both mired in as mothers to young children. We conducted this interview via email, each of us squeezing it in late at night after our respective kids had gone to sleep.

Cari Luna: The book opens on a note of deep anxiety: anxiety of the new parent, anxiety of the information age. It’s most explicit in the character of Nicole, who’s struggled with it since childhood, but there’s an undercurrent of anxiety running through all of the characters. Can you talk about this both with regard to your own experience and to the community of parents you’ve created in Cutting Teeth?

Julia Fierro: The first scene I wrote in Cutting Teeth, which remained the first scene in the book, revealed to me the kind of story I needed to tell–a story that, as you mentioned, is very much about the anxiety unique to the “information age.”

We consume information in every waking moment. We are plugged in at all times. Part of me loves this kind of life, full of distractions that pull me away from my own thoughts, often a burden because of my obsessive-compulsive disorder. I am a true consumer–listening to audiobooks on my way to work, checking my iPhone every ten minutes, laptop always open, hooked into my computer to watch streaming TV at night when I can’t sleep. The white noise, so to speak, of all the information–the Internet, the iPhone, even the new TVs in NYC taxicabs (that used to be the quietest place for me)–lulls me, but it also keeps me in a constant state of awareness. Watch out. Beware. Pay attention. I think this creates a sense of heightened alertness, especially for parents, because what if you stopped paying attention for a second and missed an important piece of info–the info that would help you keep your family safe?

The opening scene at the playground was what I had to write first, because it created the hyper-real, and often hyper-anxious, tone of the novel. Of course, I wasn’t actually thinking any of this consciously when I started writing Cutting Teeth. It’s only in retrospect that I can make these kinds of interpretations. I write fast and in long stretches when I have the time, and I write to escape, so while I may have an outline of scenes, and a bunch of detailed character sketches at the start of a book, I don’t always know why I need to tell this particular story, or what the point is. I know what kind of experience I want to give the reader in the moment, and that, with my knowledge of the characters and the mood, is enough to keep me writing and moving forward.

The playground scene is also the purest moment in the book for me in an autobiographical sense. I was that woman on the playground mistaking mundane things as warning signs of impending doom, seeing danger everywhere, and I imagine that most readers, whether they are parents or not, experience moments of heightened anxiety, when it feels as if time both slows down and speeds up. For me, that most anxious time was in those early years after my first child was born, when I suffered from postpartum depression and anxiety, when it felt as if I’d been handed a precious object without any operating instructions.

This by no means devalues the different kinds of pressures and anxieties and lack of support that our mothers and all the previous generations of women faced, and I do feel so incredibly fortunate to live in such a privileged time.

I know how easy I have it. But this is the point I think I was interested in exploring: even though many of our lives are quite comfortable, and we have so little to fear rationally, I think people, and maybe mothers especially (perhaps, a leap here, it is even biological), do fear so much. Log on to any chat room, message board, especially those that are anonymous where people feel safe in confessing their darkest worries, and you’ll see this wave of panic, sometimes subtle, and sometimes deafening. My grandmother gave birth to seven children in a dirt-floor house with no electricity or running water. She brought children into a war-ravaged world with an uncertain future. And yet I hear mothers, today, talking on the playgrounds of the most affluent neighborhoods in Brooklyn (or posting links to articles about climate change on Facebook) about how they too have birthed children into an uncertain world. That fear is universal and spans generation after generation.

CL: Absolutely. There’s a feeling as a parent, particularly as a new parent, of “How do I keep a child safe in this world?” that can be terrifying. But as you point out, this isn’t unique to our generation. That we, in fact, have it much easier than our parents and grandparents in so many ways. But the incredible volume of information that comes at us can be overwhelming. As can be the pressure to “do it right,” to always be measuring yourself against other parents’ choices. Brooklyn is infamous for this, and perhaps unfairly. But the “Park Slope parenting culture” does have a certain reputation, and you play with that in this novel. What is it about that culture that led you to explore it in your work? And how does it relate to the realities of parenting outside New York City?

JF: I think the self-scrutinizing perfectionist parenting style, for lack of better terms, is more specific to a certain class of parents, particularly mothers, whether they live in Brooklyn or the wealthy Chicago suburbs or San Francisco. These are mothers who, before having children, worked very hard in their careers, which doubled as their identity. They are ambitious in a way that is manageable when you have only yourself, and maybe a partner, to care for. But some of that effort has to be sacrificed in those early years of parenting.

I completely understand why Meg Wolitzer titled her 2008 novel The Ten-Year Nap. Women who have ambition in their work and in their identity as a professional, no matter the field, are often forced to abandon careers they spent decades building because part-time work and adequate maternal leave is nonexistent. They are expected to pause their ambition and put their career on ice. Of course, there are infinite reasons to make this sacrifice for your children, and I’m sure most of these women would tell you the sacrifice of work for family is worth it–and for me, personally, it was– but it is a huge shift in their lives and focus and identity.

They were one version of themselves in life before children (which can mean life up to their forties since women can wait longer to have children now), and another version of life after. Their identity has to split–even if, like Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In, the controversial book women all over the country are reading, they have childcare and financial support. Even if a woman has a wonderfully supportive partner who stays home to take care of the baby.

When I wrote Cutting Teeth, I was essentially examining the American mid-life crisis that occurs when our expectations for life don’t match up with the reality. Yes, these are privileged people, a specific group of Americans who are, on the surface, blessed. They should be happy, but they aren’t, and they are aware that they are not and that they should be, and this awareness makes them loathe themselves.

What also interests me is the judgment of women especially by other women. So much of America’s fascination with the celebrity of wealth is triple-sided–we adore the privileged, we envy them, we detest their inability to see and accept how fortunate they are. I think this is one of the reasons that reality shows, like Real Housewives of New York City, are so popular. I think this is why my father’s favorite show was Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

It surprised me when I realized I was writing a novel about privileged parents, when my own parents raised me so differently. I was the first privileged generation of my family, my father having grown up in poverty in Italy during WWII and my mother having come from working class Irish-Americans. Now I live among the wealthy young parents of Brooklyn and live a privileged life, even if it is one we can barely afford.

My parents wanted me to grow up among the affluent and so they moved to a wealthy area on Long Island where I would absorb, almost as through osmosis, the habits, tastes, and awareness of a higher class. For this reason, I will always be drawn to writing about the American Dream (my father’s story), status hunger, and The Great Gatsby-esque revision of one’s story. Tiffany, the character in Cutting Teeth I love most in many ways, was an embodiment of that. She rewrote her story and rose from a rural working class to the elite urban class. Her need to feel accepted and to belong is what makes me feel so much sympathy for her, despite her actions in the novel.

All mothers, of all classes, have something to struggle with–guilt, disappointment, the consequences of bad choices—but women judge themselves and each other so harshly. Each woman’s experience as a mother, or a woman who chooses not to have children, is so unique to her own story, but yet we still feel compelled to type each other. Rich mom. Corporate mom. Bitchy mom. Crunchy mom. Sanctimommy. I can only think that this is because we are still at the beginning of a real conversation about women and the balance between family and ambition and work, and I can only hope that the conversation will grow more nuanced as our daughters become women, and become mothers if they choose that life.

Writing about motherhood is so rich and intense for me, since my feelings about the topic are always shifting, revealing new aspects about the experience to me even now that my children are 4 and 6. I worry so much about saying the wrong thing when I’m talking about women and motherhood, and I often feel as if there isn’t a place in the literary discussion for books and stories about motherhood. Maybe this is just my insecurity, or the fact that I know so many writers who’ve chosen not to have children (and I respect that decision greatly), but I do find myself holding back on talking about “mom stuff” when in a literary crowd.

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Posted in Interviews

Comments: 2

The Bear at the Front Door

Anyone interested in creative writing has probably already heard the phrase, “the bear at the front door.” But if you’ve never had the chance to take a college creative writing class or else simply can’t remember anything that was said in the college creative writing class you did take because you were too busy evaluating your instructor sexually, then you might be wondering what this phrase means exactly. I fall into the first category, since I spent my time in college studying a real subject (American Cultural Studies with a minor in Falling Asleep with the Television On). So while I have heard the phrase “bear at the front door” mentioned by my writer friends, I have little to no idea what it means. When, as frequently happens, the subject comes up at a party, I just nod aggressively while filling my mouth with handful after handful of crudités.

I suppose I could figure it out by picking up a book on the craft of fiction, but reading a creative writing guide feels like one step closer to reading a self-help book, which in turn would be one step closer to addressing my crushing addiction to collecting steampunk beanie babies, a can of worms I’d rather not open at the moment (especially since I finally have my storage unit filled with doll-sized aviator goggles the way I like it). Instead, I have decided to complete my knowledge on this bit of creative writing arcana using the same tool with which I have filled in the many other gaps in my education: broad, sweeping assumptions.

Figure 1: A vest from the Maul Fashion Collection

When discussing this subject, my writer friends often seem to be talking about the various ways to write the opening of a story. So let’s assume that a maxim among those who have studied the art of creative writing at the college level is that it is ideal for works of fiction to begin with bears at front doors. Of course, the only way to test this theory is to put it into practice.

No bear:

Henry and Alice stood by their front door. There was nothing at it and nothing happened. Henry looked like he was about to say something, but then he didn’t.

Bear:

Henry and Alice stood near their front door. Suddenly they saw through the window that there was a bear at it. They opened the door and stepped out onto the porch, where the ferocious beast gave them both a meaningful look.

“I am your son,” the bear said.

Henry and Alice and the bear all hugged each other and wept.

Even I was skeptical at first, but clearly the story that begins with a bear at the front door is far more interesting. We can therefore state definitively that we have unlocked the meaning of this phrase. Though, it does seem silly to suggest that every work of fiction should literally begin with a bear at a front door. So, for our purposes, let’s amend this craft tip so that there just needs to be a bear mentioned somewhere in the first paragraph.

That in itself seems like easy enough advice to follow. And yet, even some truly great writers have allowed their work to suffer by failing to include even a passing reference to a bear. Just look at the openings of these famous novels before and after I fixed them:

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Posted in Das Kolumne

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What We’re Reading

Desiderata

Michelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): Blake Bailey’s The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait is one of those books of which I read a glowing review and then the memoir slipped my mind as it waited on my library queue. But I’m glad the book’s description didn’t stick in my head, and also that I didn’t read the cover copy, because it meant I got to experience the mixture of uncertainty and growing awareness as the narrative took shape and its focus emerged. It’s a family story, starting with the birth of Bailey’s older brother to their college-student parents, and it is so swift, lucid, and nonjudgmental that even when I wasn’t sure of the book’s aims just yet I was thoroughly engaged. By the time Bailey’s handsome, wild older brother, Scott, is a teenager, it’s becoming clear there is some fairly intense conflict in the house, but as the years pass it becomes evident that Scott’s lack of inhibition, his drug use, and his emotional neediness are well beyond the typical, or even extremes, for any teenager. He will loom over the rest of the memoir, as the family attempts to deal with him or leave him to his own devices. (See, now I’ve ruined for you the reading experience I had—the irony isn’t lost on me. My apologies) The book is not morbid or sentimental, but funny—I have been chuckling over one line all week—and painfully frank about this family’s—or any family’s—inability to help its most incorrigible member.

Tony Perez (Editor, Tin House Books): Needing a quick break from LBJ’s political ambitions, I decided to listen to the audiobook of Walter Kirn’s Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade between volumes of Robert Caro. I found myself making excuses to partake in headphone-appropriate activities: exercise! cleaning! walking my best friend’s terrible dog! I’m a sucker for true crime, but Kirn’s at his best when he’s explicating the nature of deception, in our complicity–even willingness–to be deceived. Now I have to go buy a physical copy just so I can underline all those passages that have since been nagging at me.

Rob Spillman (Editor, Tin House Magazine): There are perfect reading weeks when my “must read” pile for work coincides with my “must read” for pleasure. In the next week I’ll be interviewing Rachel Kushner (Saturday, at the Brooklyn Public Library) and Anthony Doerr (Tuesday, at Greenlight Bookstore), so in preparation I am rereading Kushner’s The Flamethrowers and giving myself over to Doerr’s incredible new novel All the Light We Cannot See. With both I am struck with the precision of language coupled with the ambition of scope and scale (with Kushner, the 70s New York art world contrasted with 20th century Italian political history and Italian motorcycles, among her many other obsessions; with Doerr, World War II, the intricacies of locks and radios and the lives of those swept up on both sides of the war). One of the pleasures of rereading a great book is seeing how well it was put together when you already know the pieces. The Flamethrowers certainly passes that test. With All the Light We Cannot See, I simply gave myself over to Doerr’s mastery and will worry about how he pulled off this feat on second read.

Heather Hartley (Paris Editor, Tin House Magazine): “You look like a real thug,” sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti told his good friend James Lord who was sitting for a portrait for him in Paris in the 1950s. Despite this comment—and a few other cheeky and uncheery observations—Lord records his singular experience of being an art model in a tiny studio near Montparnasse in his compact, memoiresque book, A Giacometti Portrait.  Engaging and candid and modest, the book is a sort of portrait within a portrait of both men and examines the relationship between artist and model and artwork, and more generally is a glimpse into the by turns harsh and lush art world in post-World War II Paris. First published in 1965 for a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, A Giacometti Portrait retains its novelty, its sincerity—and a few pithy remarks. Very cool bonus: grainy and evocative black and white photos of the evolving portrait.

Thomas Ross (Editorial Assistant):

” . . . no boy wanted to imitate his mother. No boy aspired to that yielding, self-effacing kindness, that quality of service. Boys wanted either to break things or build them. But now it was his mother who stayed with him, not for what she was to others but for what she had always been to him alone, one small being where all her affection was concentrated—for how she had loved when it mattered most.”

Happy Mother’s Day! (via Lydia Millet, from How the Dead Dream)

Posted in Desiderata

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Saturn Devoured

Flash Fridays

Ma always said that my father hadn’t been a real soldier. He’d been at the Battle of the Bulge but he was just a guy with a stretcher, fetching the wounded and the dying. He killed himself when I was seventeen and the following year I joined the army and I became a real soldier.

I went to Vietnam just as the French armies were pulling out and heading to Algeria. They went knowing what it means to be defeated and determined not to let it happen again. Even in Paris, the Algerians protesting the war were rounded up and thrown into the river.

I went to Paris with my wife when we were young.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said, and I thought about bodies washing up on the banks of the Seine. After Paris we went to Spain and saw a bullfight because my wife thought it would be exciting, but she covered her face with her hands and moaned softly, “Oh, no, no, no!”

A man patted my shoulder, nodded to my wife, and said in English that foreigners weren’t used to the bullfights. He told us that the bulls were eaten after they were killed.

“Eating must be, killing must be,” he said. “And the bulls know it’s better to die fighting.”

After the bullfight we went to the big museum in Madrid and saw Francisco Goya’s paintings. There was one called Saturn Devouring his Son. I read in our guidebook that Saturn was Zeus’s father, that to prevent his children from becoming more powerful than him, he ate them. In the painting, the father sits the dark, his limbs twisted like a creature that crawls instead of walks. His fingers are ripping into the back of a perfect human body, decapitated and bloody. But if you look at his eyes, at just his eyes, you can see he’s afraid.

Goya painted war before you could watch it all day on TV. Right now they’re showing the protests in North Africa. If I was a young man in Egypt I’d be burning cars and waving flags. I was like that as a kid. I was in a gang. Not like these drug dealers you get today. We were all right. We’d just go around and beat the crap out of people. But I wouldn’t say I was bad growing up. I mean, I grew up, which is more than some folks can say. And I liked the projects, you know. I understood the projects. Sometimes they talk about the projects on TV and I guess it’s a different place now. I wonder how they’d show the projects and the war zones if there were no cameras and all the reporters had to go into the field with a canvas and some paint. Goya sketched women fighting and dying. He painted that young man with his arms raised and his mouth open. Things they don’t show on TV anymore.

I watch TV a lot these days. Usually, it’s the 24-hour news cycle but I like those programs about animals too. I know a lot about animals now. There are fifty different kinds of kangaroos and male platypuses have venomous stingers on their feet. Pigs are as intelligent as three-year-old children. Chimpanzees are our closest relatives and they wage wars against one another. They have strategies and weapons and no real reason for it, just like our wars. Emus cannot walk backwards.

I look away from the television and my wife is standing on the stairs, holding the phone against her chest. I can tell from her face that I’ve been talking to myself again. What did I say this time? Something about the bullfight? That night the girl was a raging bull and she died fighting. I don’t know what I was. I can’t imagine in her black, shining eyes what I was. It would have been all right, I think, if I never had a daughter. My wife looks away, presses the phone against her ear, and goes upstairs.

She’s talking to our daughter about the protests in North Africa, about what is going to happen now. Of course my daughter is watching. She’ll be happy to see them tearing down old regimes and puppet governments. Overthrowing old gods and destroying their pyramids. But I know how it goes, how the persecuted become the persecutors. My wife’s voice drops to a whisper and I know they’re talking about me. Sometimes I hear my wife saying that after all these years the memories and the drinking finally caught up to me, but that’s just what she needs to tell herself. She needs to say that I am sick and that Paris was beautiful.

But the truth is that sometimes chimpanzees eat their babies. Sometimes wolves fight to the death for the right to piss on a certain stretch of Arctic land. Sometimes a man will tie a girl to a table and sometimes he will slit her throat. And there will always be the chimpanzees and the wolves and the men who stand by and watch.

As I turn off the TV, a final image of angry protestors flashes on the screen. Who knows what they will be in the moment of fear and defeat when power is theirs to lose. They will be too afraid to be human. I think that’s true of everyone, except my daughter, who is undefeatable. She looked at me with such disgust and asked if I believed in anything anymore.

“Yes,” I should have said. “You.”

You, you, you. I should have said.

I sit in the dark and feel my back flatten and horns erupt from my skull. Muscles bulging, nostrils flaring, and hooves beating the ground, because sometimes we need to tell ourselves that it’s better to die fighting.

 

M.C. Williams is from Ossining, New York and currently lives and writes in Madrid.

Posted in Flash Fridays

Comments: 1

Tin House Reels: Noah Saterstrom

Noah Saterstrom knows that wonderful things can often come from rushed processes. In 2010, he challenged himself with a “Work-a-Day Page,” his blog on which he posted a new painting every day or so. “The discipline of daily [postings meant I was presenting] works that I might be tempted to see as too incomplete, peculiar, half-baked or difficult. Of course, some of the most poignant imagery falls into these categories.”

Four years later, Saterstrom has posted more than 800 works on his blog. He is in the process of carrying a similar notion–of expressing instincts before they are codified by too much technical deliberation–into filmmaking. Using tools like animation software, which he is not formally trained in, he is making art that is rough around the edges but rich in impulse.

“A lot of new media work now,” Saterstrom said, “is made by artists whose natural medium is non-video-related, who speak in the heavy accents of their native medium, whose technical abilities are poor, but enthusiasm high. I don’t know how videographers and animators feel about it, but the flood of new media work is exciting to me.”

“As a painter, I long to make images that seem to move as time passes. But what I actually make are still images. There is a similar longing for writers, I think: They use language, alone, to cast images for the screen of the eye, or wall of the mind, or however Ezra Pound put it. Movement is outside the bounds of painting in the same way that images are outside the bounds of writing, but the longing for those qualities are there, strong and nagging.”

With love of those impulses, we are pleased to screen Saterstrom’s Babboo’s Moving Pictures. “Creating the movie was trial and error,” Saterstrom told us. “I tried chalk boards, dry erase boards, and different stop motion apps.  Since each frame was being painted on the same surface, there was no room for mistakes. If I got something wrong, I’d trash it and start a new painting.”

Babboo’s Moving Pictures is primitive. I painted an image, say, of a cannon. Then I photographed it. Then I painted over the image on the same canvas, photographing twelve shots per second of film. The whole action is finally captured in a single painting. I find that very romantic.”

So do we……

A visual artist and founding editor of Trickhouse Magazine, Noah Saterstrom grew up in Mississippi and was educated at the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland. His paintings, drawings, installations and animations have been shown most recently in Seattle, WA; Brooklyn, NY; New Orleans, LA; Tucson, AZ; and Glasgow, Scotland. He has collaborated on books with Anne Waldman, Laynie Browne, and Kate Bernheimer. He lives with his wife Julia and daughter Vivian.

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

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

Posted in General, Videos

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Renaissance

Lermontov’s house is gone now. The foundations have crumbled in upon themselves; the mock-ups of the reconstruction are now covered in graffiti. There will never be any reconstruction. The restaurant called Pur Pur, with its Victorian lampshades and Friday night chanteuse, has closed down without warning. We trade black-market rumors about the reopening.  Of course, we don’t know anything. In Tbilisi, nobody knows anything.

Construction stops, sometimes; sometimes it starts again. A neon casino called the Shangri-La cascades light into the gardens of the patriarchate; we speculate that the patriarch himself is getting a cut. A funicular now links what remains of the Narikala Fortress to the new Rike Park, astringently manicured, home to a statue of Ronald Reagan and the foundations of a new Philharmonic, which resembles nothing so much as a severed pair of legs. The slums by the bathhouses have been restored: they are smooth, pastel, and uninhabited.

Hugo used to tell me that I was destined to be a chronicler of Tbilisi. I would start my own brand of Georgian Romanticism, he said, or perhaps its Renaissance – I’d translate poets like Vazha-Pshavela and Alexander Kazbegi, run barefoot across the Greater Caucasus, ride horses into snowdrifts, host foreign academics and literary salons over vanilla tea in the basement of Pur Pur. He left incomprehensible voicemails; he sent me impassioned text messages at three in the morning, demanding that I read his latest poem. He sent me twelve-page emails, detailing how and why my newest article fell short of his aspirations for me, and hinted that my prose style would improve if I became a Catholic.

Photo: PAATA VARDANASHVILI

Hugo was seventy and inexplicable, like everything else in Tbilisi. He taught English in a small and flea-bitten village outside the capital, and frequently frustrated his superiors by spending his lessons lecturing to seven-year-olds about Hieronymus Bosch. He composed etudes on the tuneless piano in the village’s only restaurant (he was, he said, a classical composer by trade); he wrote sonnets in praise of the idea of ultima thule: the dragon-swept badlands beyond the borders of cartographers, where the Romans feared to go.

He wore the same suit every time I met him – oversized tweed with an appallingly turquoise tie and a scarlet scarf that bundled him up to the chin, stained prodigiously with grease.

He offered little of his past. He spoke, vaguely and variously, of studying Ancient Iranian at Cambridge; of an affair with the wife of an Oxford don; of a hushed-up controversy, involving Parisian monks. In his youth, he said, he’d been promising. He’d taught English for a few years in Japan; he’d slept on every sofa and in each spare room in England.

Hugo was adept at trading charm for sustenance. “You fairy creature,” he said to me the first time we met. “I’m positively skint.  You don’t mind buying these coffees, do you?” He ordered ten meat dumplings and an enormous cheese pie and made a few stuttering fumbles for his wallet before leaving me with the bill. Continue reading

Posted in Essays

Comments: 2

The Vulgar and the Divine: A Conversation about Erotic Literature

The magic of encountering the erotic in literature occurs when the reader bears witness to a character’s essence: to the marrow of their inner life. This inner life is populated by secret desires. It betrays a terminally human condition at once hopeful, petrified, and ravenous. In drawing out a character’s essence through details of sexual contact, the writer renders emotions palpable and imbues sensation with poetry. The power of the erotic, I suppose, is that even at its most basic, it portends to evoke at once the vulgar and the divine.

As I desired to bring a light to a type of writing which is far too often cast in shadow, I recently spoke with five writers whose work in various ways renders the erotic in fiction. Included in this conversation were: Melissa Febos, author of Whip Smart: , a memoir of working as a dominatrix in New York City; Amber Dawn, author of the writing-and-sex-work memoir, How Poetry Saved My Life, and the Lambda-award winning novel Sub Rosa; Jill Di Donato, author of Beautiful Garbage, a novel best compared to Breakfast at Tiffany’s if Holly Golightly lived in the seedy underbelly of New York’s 1980s art world; Rachel Kramer Bussel, a writer of erotica who has also edited upwards of fifty anthologies ranging from tales of lesbian awakening to entire collections about male submission; and Ella Boureau, whose erotic debut, a story by the name of “Cottonmouth”, was selected for the Best Lesbian Erotica anthology then immediately, and somewhat infamously, rejected. Cottonmouth tells the story of two young female cousins who share in their first lesbian experience. The encounter involves a snake.

While each of these authors writes in a style distinctly her own, their work shares a particular focus on sexual experience. As such, I asked them to think back to their early experiences of sex in literature, and to recall their influences. The result is a discussion ranging from Victorian poetry to the eroticization of female madness and BDSM in which we consider the work of anyone, from James Baldwin to Anais Nin to V.C. Andrews, with equal weight. We do so in the democratic spirit of erotic writing, and with the hope of illuminating a thing or two about what it is, exactly, that makes a work of literature sexy.

Whiskey Blue: In 2013, Flavorwire compiled a post-Fifty Shades list of the sexiest books of all time. Starting from number one, the top three all-time sexiest books were Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and Nicholson Baker’s Vox. What are your top 3 sexiest books? Have these influenced your writing?

Melissa Febos: Nin and Miller definitely made an impression in my late teens, but I can’t say whether or not they influenced my writing. I’m tempted to say not, but that seems hubristic. The most influential sex in writing exists as a kind of enormous collage for me: sewn-together pieces of all those books I devoured as a girl, snuck from my parents’ shelves, from the library, thrift stores in my hometown; all before I knew what sex or writing were. I only knew the swelling impulses in me, how they crashed and crashed and quieted only when I read. Among that wildly divergent list would be A Garden of Sand, The Color Purple, The Rubyfruit Jungle, Clan of the Cave Bear, Lolita,My Secret Garden, and many of those chubby paperbacks that I now see ladies on airplanes reading, books that are direct descendants of Valley of the Dolls.

Jill Di Donato: I’m in awe of Anaïs Nin’s writing, which I find sexy, intelligent, progressive, a little manic, and somewhat elusive. Little Birds is a gem as well as Delta of Venus. I like reading Neruda and Rilke. Andre Breton’s Nadja is also a favorite because the sexiness is mixed with female objectification and madness, and it’s all very cryptic. In life, I don’t find female objectification sexy, nor am I a fan of the male tendency to fetishize female “madness.” But in literature, I give myself carte blanche to explore whatever I like. Sometimes, especially when I’m reading, I want to feel owned: I find suspense intriguing, as well as the tension between vulnerability and independence. I’ll never forget how fast my heart was beating the first time I read Pride and Prejudice as I was waiting for Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy to get together. Perhaps my desire for sexy romance comes from the fact that sex is displayed so graphically in everyday life; I want to do a little work. In turn, I want my readers to work for the sex I give them.

Rachel Kramer Bussel: I’m a little ashamed to admit that I haven’t fully read these erotic classics; the erotica I started out reading was more modern; mainly short story collections. Virgin Territory and Virgin Territory 2 edited by Shar Rednour were very powerful for me; they are both true lesbian erotica first time stories, which I read long before I slept with a woman for the first time. What struck me about those collections was how varied the stories were. Also, on account of being true stories, they had a different tone than most erotic fiction. They had details about the women’s lives that you wouldn’t normally find, and the vividness of those stories and variety of sexual descriptions and scenarios stuck with me.

What I consider some of my best stories are pretty much 90% true, and are often the darkest ones, such as“The End,”a breakup erotica story that made it into Best American Erotica 2006, and“Espionage,”which is based on a true story about going to a party at the home of a man I was having an affair with. I learned from those anthologies that darkness and deep emotion have a place in erotica. Of course the tone is going to be different than in more humorous or happy stories, but those real, sometimes sad or painful emotions, can make erotica all the more powerful because people relate to it.

Amber Dawn: The book that still remains the most titillating to me is Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti. I’ve always found Victorian poetry perverse, but the allegedly-lesbian poet Rossetti so overtly eroticizes the relationship between two sisters and their dark otherworldly desires.

“She cried ‘Laura,’ up the garden,
‘Did you miss me ?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me.’”

That’s my kind of nursery rhyme!

I think we should all be grateful for Macho Sluts by Patrick Califia for joyfully portraying some of the still under-spoken stories of kinky queers. When I was younger I was desperate to read about all the spitting and boot licking and kneeling and whipping and crying and loving. In the late 80s/early 90s, Canadian Customs repeatedly prevented this book from being shipped across the boarder to Little Sisters’Bookstore in Vancouver—which makes Macho Sluts even more alluring to me. Getting my hands on a copy was a victory act. 

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler is not an erotic novel. It’s a dystopic future survival drama. What compelled me while reading this novel is that the protagonist, Lauren Olamina, has hyper-empathy, an“illness”that allows her to feel a heightened sense of empathy and connectivity to the people around her—she is especially aware of other characters’pain. Despite being burdened with heightened empathy, she doesn’t push people and strong emotions away. Instead, she draws them closer. With very few sex scenes, this isn’t exactly a sexy book; it’s a very sensual book. The heightened empathy of the protagonist impacted me as a reader.  I felt sensually stimulated in a way that I don’t always experience when reading erotica.

Ella Boureau: Another Country by James Baldwin, La Bâtarde by Violette Leduc, and Dorothy Allison’s Trash. It was in reading Another Country that I realized it was possible to write a serious work of fiction without leaving anything out. And you know, Baldwin doesn’t mess around. He gets right to it, and too bad if you aren’t ready. The sex scenes in that book are integral to the story, and they crackle with tension and wanting; the characters and their motivations deepen; the power dynamics are made clear. In reading it, I felt just as naked as any of the characters.

I think all of these authors have in common the fact that their narratives move in and out of sex organically. It would be impossible to cut it out, because the stories wouldn’t make sense anymore. Erotic longing is entrenched in their understandings of fear, humor, adventure, power, desire. It is so rare to see that in literature, and yet, it’s undeniable that we are all sexual beings, so why are we so bad at writing sex? Is it really so much harder to avoid cliché in sex than any other topic? I would say no, I think it has more to do with the fact that we both trivialize sex and are trained to “turn a blind eye” to it because it makes us uncomfortable.

Whiskey Blue: When you think of sex and literature, what kind of writing comes to mind? Is it The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, or the Marquis de Sade? Anais Nin or John Updike or V.C. Andrews? I want to know what erotic literature means to you.

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Visit

“It kept right on snowing almost to April,” I’ll tell my grandkids when they come visit, ignoring me, staring at their holodex. “My sister—your great-aunt Mallory, kiddos—well, we couldn’t believe it, watching the snow falling.”

There was so much snow that winter that my father built a luge in the backyard.

It was twenty years ago, 1994. The Winter Olympics were in Lillehammer, sending us images of a Norwegian fantasyland, where hotels were carved out of glaciers and beds were layered with the skins of winter beasts I could only conjure in weird, sweaty nightmares. During breaks in coverage of alpine skiing, hugely bearded men with chainsaws danced outside venues, carving ice sculptures with quick, precise, terrifying slicing motions. Then chiseling features into the ice with delicate-looking picks. Frozen statues of speed skaters, bears, and gold medals threw glimmers at TV cameras. And those cherubic, plump little Norweigian kids, man, now they had a real winter. That’s what Mallory and I thought. Those little brats! With their ice hotels and their bearded ice sculptors and the Olympics in their hometown.

All we had was Cool Runnings, which had come out in October.

But it started to snow in January, a little every day,” I’ll say to them, my angels, my son’s kids, my spoiled little lumps of joy—a hundred years from now maybe, who knows. And instead of melting, the crystalline white blanket in our suburban New York backyard built on itself. It piled up to the fork in our twisted magnolia’s trunk, sixteen inches off the ground, and went on accumulating. The hemlock that separated our yard from the Garetys’ to the west sagged with snow, its branches shrugging beneath the weight. Every few minutes, one of the boughs would give way, and a torrent of watery ice and snow would spill into the garden below, where Mallory and I waited to be buried.

They’ll come for visiting hours with their father, probably. And when they want to know what winter was—when my own little cherubic decedents look up from Angry Birds MCX on their mini-holodex for one second (just one goddamned second!)—ask questions of wheezing Grandpa A-J, who smells like stale bacon air as he endures yet another round of treatment in the hospital’s StemCellz© care unit, I’ll close my eyes and brainlink these images of the winter of 1994 to them.

My father.

There he is, kiddos,” I’ll say, eyes closed as I begin to send the series of pictures, sliding deep into distant reverie. In the memory, he’s wearing his rabbit fur-eared hat, forcing an orange push-shovel through the heart of the backyard. His face ties into a squeamish little knot of pain every time he lifts a load of powder above his waist; though he’s careful to maintain a slight but apparent downward slope to the path he’s carving.

He’d torn his rotator cuff the summer before. Or rather, over the course of the previous 25 summers, slowly chipping away at it with topspin second serves. Fraying its fibers until the last one snapped awkwardly in September. He tugged straight through it with a career’s worth of one-handed backhands, dealt to older and older opponents, themselves now with replaced knees, receding hairlines, metalloid hips, sutured ligaments, and baroque mid-life crises involving Porsche Carreras and stained short shorts.

That winter, I watched him from the kitchen window, lifting myself up onto the stainless steel sink and looking past the thermometer mounted outside. The snow found its way down, down, down. On the other side of the house, in the living room bay window that faced the street, I set up a weather station to monitor incoming storms (Mallory was the on-screen talent, distracting our rapt parents with her dinnertime reports as I, unseen, scooped inedible pot roast off my plate and crumpled it up into napkins). I assembled Lego satellite dishes and drew on pieces of cardboard: weather maps and Hi/Lo pressure systems depicted in Crayola marker. In my predictions, the forecast for Central Park always called for ten inches of snow, and much, much more North and West of the City, where we lived.

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Your Weekly Forecast: Muriel Spark

“It is one of the secrets of Nature in its mood of mockery that fine weather lays heavier weight on the mind and hearts of the depressed and the inwardly tormented than does a really bad day with dark rain sniveling continuously and sympathetically from a dirty sky.”Muriel Spark, Territorial Rights

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What We’re Reading

Desiderata

Michelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): I’m reading Dana Goodyear’s Anything That Moves, her investigation into modern culinary outliers, whether it is eater and writer Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for LA Weekly, or a supplier to chefs of all foods outré, or people dedicating their careers to persuading Americans their next protein source should be insects. It’s a completely engaging, intelligent, and bright book, and though I’m only about halfway through it is hard to imagine she will top the indelible image of Gold, dangerously over-caffeinated after a day spent testing espressos, making a spectacular exit from a restaurant: bursting into tears, dashing out, and catching the bus home. This is what a food obsession will do to you, people. It happens to me once a week.

Brandi Dawn Henderson (Editorial Intern, The Open Bar): I was recently pleased to come into a copy of the almost-released Cobalt Press collection, Four Fathers, a collection of poetry and fiction by Dave Housley, BL Pawelek, Ben Tanzer, and Tom Williams, with a foreword written by Fathermucker author Greg Olear. Mine is an electronic copy, which I intended to download onto an e-reader after taking just a brief peek at the file on my computer to see what I was in for. Many hours later, the day dim, I realized I was still in my pajamas and that I’d greedily consumed the entire collection. Rarely have I been exposed to literature that offers a glimpse, let alone several different perspectives, on how men feel (I mean, really, deeply, in their heads and hearts feel) about the roles and responsibilities that come with bringing children into the world. In Dave Housley’s piece, in particular, I felt so completely drawn in to the chaos and confusion of his protagonist’s experience with fatherhood that, for those 37 pages, I was a father. My emotions were all over the place as I dedicated the entire day to scrolling further and further into the complex dimensions of fatherhood. As soon as I read the final words, I blinked against the fading light; then, more than the need for the food or water I’d denied myself during my literary binge, what I really needed most was to call my dad.

Thomas Ross (Editorial Assistant, Tin House): I’ve been reading three books from our friends at Wave Poetry in Seattle in preparation for a reading in Portland this weekend. Cedar Sigo’s Literary Arts makes the personal lyrical, covering love affairs, creative relationships, and life as an artist with an energetic music to its lines. In Etruria, Rodney Koeneke drops cultural references from the ancient Etruscans to Frank O’Hara to the internet, managing to sound brilliant even as he ends the collection with the line “drunk drunk drunk drunk drunk drunk drunk.” However, it’s Wave’s big, important collection/reissue of Robert Lax’s New Poems, Sea and Sky, and a handful of other poems that has most of my attention. Poems (1962-1997) makes Lax easily available in the US for the first time in a good long while. Wave reached out to currently Portland-based poet John Beer, who spent two years as Lax’s assistant on the island of Patmos in the late nineties. The simplicity of Lax’s poems can be surprisingly overwhelming—their repetitive language and narrow, columnar forms belie not a hidden complexity, but a meditative, expansive power. Beer’s introduction places Lax historically, personally, and spiritually with Lax’s friends and contemporaries like Merton and Reinhardt.

Victoria Savanh (Writer’s Workshop Intern): The first time I saw Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of The Virgin Suicides was at a birthday party in middle school. We were shocked. It was chilling, profound, and within a few hours we watched it again, not quite understanding why it resonated so deeply with us. I’ve only just now gotten to the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides thirteen years later and the story is perhaps more profound with nostalgia’s effects. I still feel pain for the five Lisbon sisters and their tragic acts, but beyond the events, the story is a mesmerizing reflection on the trauma of leaving childhood behind. It had me laughing and crying along with the collective narrators, a group of young men looking back on their adolescence (told in first-person plural) in suburbia. It’s elegiac, painful, and so sweet, moving fluidly between sweeping romance and stark reality, peppered with plenty of dark humor. The Virgin Suicides is not as much of a downer read as it sounds! So many parts are laugh-out-loud-reread-line-and-laugh-again funny. This is one gem of a coming of age novel. Also, for good complementary reading (or just on its own) check out Leslie Jamison’s essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.”

Liz Lampman (Editorial Intern, Tin House Books): I may not remember much from my college lit courses, but I do remember a few good books. This week Aamer Hussein’s collection of short stories, called Turquoise, jumped off my shelf and into my welcoming hands. From the first Akhmatova epigraph to the final (and my favorite) story, “The Needlewoman’s Calendar,” Hussein brings Karachi, Lahore, and London to life by blending ancient songs and stories with the intimacy and hardship of his memorable characters. Turquoise is careful, culturally rich, and musical.

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Fishing Shack

This fishing shack exists on state land in New Jersey. It once belonged to the family of a federal judge who sold the land to the state. It dates from the turn of the century, and such shacks were once a very common sight on the Eastern Seaboard. This is one of the last, and it now rests on a dune, about 200 feet from the ocean.

My friend Bill is its caretaker, and I’ve been helping him with repairs for years now. There’s no heat, toilet, or electricity: we use oil lamps when it gets. I’ve spent the night there a couple times, and the wind can rattle the shack pretty hard in the early winter. Bill said he once feel asleep out in the dunes one night, and he woke up to find a fox dragging him by his trouser leg. Lots of raccoons out in the dunes, too. Fat ones.

Bill can be seen walking towards the sea in this spread, filling in as Whitman. It’s my tribute to a beloved friend.

Allen Crawford is an illustrator, designer, and writer. He and his wife Susan are proprietors of the design/illustration studio Plankton Art Co. Their most notable project to date is the collection of 400 species identification illustrations that are on permanent display at the American Museum of Natural History’s Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. Under his pseudonym, Lord Breaulove Swells Whimsy, he wrote, designed, and illustrated The Affected Provincial’s Companion, Volume One, which was optioned for film by Johnny Depp’s production company, Infinitum Nihil. He lives in Mt. Holly, NJ.

Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892) was an American poet, essayist and journalist. A humanist, he was a part of the transition between transcendentalism and realism, incorporating both views in his works.

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Haunt

Flash Fridays

I was riding the 81, just cruising down Fig, mentally stripping this blue-haired girl four rows ahead. She was maybe twenty five. I couldn’t tell whether her eyes were open or closed.

In those days, I liked watching bus crowds. I liked watching groggy riders, imagining where they were coming from. What they were leaving behind.

Somewhere past Olympic, I noticed someone standing over me. I raised my eyes and saw a Goliath dude looming. He scratched his head and dandruff snowed onto my lap. I waited for him to speak.

“Get out my spot,” he said. “That’s my spot.”

“No.”

“That’s my spot.”

“Stop talking to me.”

“I ain’t gon’ stop shit,” he said, folding his arms. He snorted and wheezed. I could smell the pot fumes. He was rocking faded camos and half his face was wispy beard.

Shaking my head, I scooted up against the window and he sat. I went back to imagining my girl naked but I didn’t want to get her memory mixed up with my seatmate’s scent so I stopped. I was depressed. I wanted to step out of my skin. Nobody was looking except Goliath.

“Hey,” he said. “Hey.”

I started counting how many people on the bus I would never meet. Started imagining how everyone would die.

“Hey.”

Fat Latina lady in the front would choke on a toothpick. Her kid would get hit by a bus.

“Hey.”

The driver would have a heart attack. Obviously. And my blue-haired girl would OD on heroin. I wondered how the undersides of her knees smelled.

“Hey. You think the end of the world’s coming?”

I squirmed and looked over at Goliath. He was tapping out some weed in his lap.

“What?”

“Nothing,” he said. He licked his lips.

Despite the crowds, the 81 is lonely as hell. Seats with primary colors. Monitors explaining how to report a crime. A few dozen miserable fucks, their faces holding the same sorry twist.

Goliath squirmed and said, “Hey.”

“What the fuck do you want from me?”

“You want to see something?” he said, smiling. I stayed quiet. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of fur. Black, beady eyes. Dead mice. I reached out and grabbed one by the tail, holding it against the light. We both started laughing. No one gave us a second glance.

 

I followed the blue-haired girl off at a station full of scarecrows. The sun felt thick. Maybe I could’ve scooped some off the pavement if I’d tried.

We went into Central Library. The security guard flashed me a frown. I trailed my girl into the book stacks, past people who looked smarter than I felt. I was more interested in tasting her ear than anything else. I’d read somewhere that a girl’s ear is like another sex organ, right into her head.

I still had one of Goliath’s dead mice in my pocket and I jiggled it around as I passed the front desk. There were more books in this one room than I’d seen in my life. My girl floated between two racks and stopped, so I went around to the other side. When I reached her I was shaking, but I pressed up against the spines until I could hear her breathe. I pulled a couple books and opened up a hole.

“Hey,” I said.

She looked up.

“Hey, I think I love you.”

There was no one within a hundred feet. Still, she asked, “Are you talking to me?”

I nodded, licking my lips. “We could go somewhere. I know a place.”

She played with her hair, twisting strands into yarn.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’ll put it in your ear.”

She choked on her spit and walked away. Shit. Hadn’t meant to say that. I considered following her but decided against it.

Someone once told me if you strung out all your veins they’d go a mile or two. I used to have nightmares about that, where my veins were all infused into others’. People I knew. Beautiful women. Like some kind of fucked up Frida Kahlo. I meandered for a couple minutes and then found a book about somebody famous. I sat down, fingering the guy’s moustache with my thumb.

 

Security picked me up a few minutes later and took me down to a gray room in the basement. I sat down at a metal table across from a sweaty widow’s peak.

“We can’t have you sexually harassing our patrons,” he said.

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Everyone needs to feel safe.”

Nobody had a gun. They hadn’t checked my pockets. Hadn’t found my mouse.

It wasn’t fair. I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I only wanted to taste this blue-haired girl. Only wanted to smell her knees. I felt like I might cry.

“You know,” the guy said, leaning over the table, “I could make this the worst day of your life.”

I started laughing and pulled out my mouse. I laid it on the table and stroked its tail. Someone said, “Oh my God.” I leaned back in my chair and looked the guy straight in the face.

“What exactly am I supposed to be afraid of here?” I said. “Can you tell me that?”

 

Back on the bus, I asked everyone if they thought the world was ending. The only people who responded were the kids. They pointed and told me I was bleeding. Their mothers ushered them away.

Everyone fit in their seats like teeth in sockets. Everyone but me. I knew I’d lived longer than I was supposed to. I wanted to pull out my eyes. Wanted someone to lick my wounds. We kept coasting. Outside, Los Angeles whipped by, like a film being rewound.

 

Jackson Burgess studies at the University of Southern California. He edits Fractal Literary Magazine and leads a weekly poetry workshop on Skid Row.

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

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I tramp a perpetual journey…

 

I shamelessly indulged myself here, placing myself in the book. This particular passage has always resonated with me, because for years I’ve wandered alone through the Pine Barrens of Southern New Jersey, which is a 1.1 million acre national reserve, the first in the US. It’s the largest remaining piece of wilderness left on the seaboard between Washington DC and Boston. Very rare species of animals and plants live here; some of them live nowhere else.

In the winter I hike into the more dense swamp areas, but in summer I mostly stick to my kayak, mainly because the plants I’m interested in grow near the water, mainly orchids and carnivorous plants. I patrol these areas, keeping an eye out for poachers who steal orchids and turtles, as well as irresponsible off-roaders who sometimes rip up the delicate bog habitats where the endangered tree frogs live.

Governor Chris Christie has been using corrupt means and strong-arm tactics to break the Pinelands Commission (which regulates the use of the Pine Barrens), so his rich friends can gain access to this land. We’ve successfully fought off a gas pipeline project, but the state senators are trying again. It’s a constant fight. A perpetual journey.

My friend David Kessler (who also put together the trailer for this book) is shooting a film about the Pine Barrens.  I assist him as a guide through the more obscure areas.

Allen Crawford is an illustrator, designer, and writer. He and his wife Susan are proprietors of the design/illustration studio Plankton Art Co. Their most notable project to date is the collection of 400 species identification illustrations that are on permanent display at the American Museum of Natural History’s Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. Under his pseudonym, Lord Breaulove Swells Whimsy, he wrote, designed, and illustrated The Affected Provincial’s Companion, Volume One, which was optioned for film by Johnny Depp’s production company, Infinitum Nihil. He lives in Mt. Holly, NJ.

Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892) was an American poet, essayist and journalist. A humanist, he was a part of the transition between transcendentalism and realism, incorporating both views in his works.

Get your copy here!

 

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Memory: Seth Fried

 

“Hello Again,” Seth Fried’s winding story in the current issue functions as a brief history of many futures. We recently made the story available to read online, and asked Fried a few questions about writing and reading.

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

Seth Fried: In the first draft of this story I used the word “universe” about eighty times. After weeks of grueling revision I managed to get that number down to just over thirty.

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

SF: In the future, my robot butler will read this story to me while I sit in a leather armchair in a penthouse apartment, sipping whiskey out of a large snifter and stroking the head of a luxurious white cat. I will sit in stunned silence, my own words reminding me of what a brilliant and uncompromising artist I once was. “That’s enough, Robo-Butler,” I will say, raising my hand for him to stop. Then a single tear will roll down my cheek and I will turn away from Robo-Butler, ashamed.

TH: Do you have any writing rituals?

SF: I actually think that ritual behavior can be damaging to the whole creative process. So before I write I like to chant “No rituals! No rituals!”  while I swing a thurible in a circle over my computer and hop from foot to foot.

TH: What was the last sentence you underlined in a book?

SF: “She looked like a tomato struggling for self-expression.” -P.G. Wodehouse, from Right Ho, Jeeves

TH: What is the next story I should read?

SF: If you like what I tried to do here, then you’ll probably love any one of these:

“Priscilla” by Italo Calvino

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges

“The Tower” by Steven Millhauser

Seth Fried‘s stories have appeared in numerous publications. He is the winner of two Pushcart Prizes and the author of a short story collection, The Great Frustration.

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Walt Whitman, an American…

I imagine the structure of “Song of Myself” as that of a cone standing on its point: it starts with this authorial “I”, the self, and gradually expands to include as much of life as it can, gradually encompassing everything, and ultimately dispersing, ending with “you”. So by the end of the poem, the “I” is actually all of us.

I wanted to make explicit the confrontation of the “I” of the poem and the author Walt Whitman. We have this universal incarnation of the poem’s “I” lounging in the void, studying one of its millions of avatars, who also happens to be its creator. It’s comical but it also hints at the general gist of the poem.

This is one of the key spreads in the book, because it is a big turning point in the poem. In the 1855 edition, this is the first time you learn the name of the author.

 

Allen Crawford is an illustrator, designer, and writer. He and his wife Susan are proprietors of the design/illustration studio Plankton Art Co. Their most notable project to date is the collection of 400 species identification illustrations that are on permanent display at the American Museum of Natural History’s Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. Under his pseudonym, Lord Breaulove Swells Whimsy, he wrote, designed, and illustrated The Affected Provincial’s Companion, Volume One, which was optioned for film by Johnny Depp’s production company, Infinitum Nihil. He lives in Mt. Holly, NJ.

Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892) was an American poet, essayist and journalist. A humanist, he was a part of the transition between transcendentalism and realism, incorporating both views in his works.

Get your copy here!

Posted in Tin House Books

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Net Neutrality

Dear Readers,

The FCC, under the guiding hand of a former lobbyist for the cable and wireless industry, has proposed changes to regulation that will allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to charge companies for a “fast lane” to their customers. This, in effect, does away with the concept of network neutrality, the idea that all information on the web should be treated the same. The ramifications of allowing wealthy companies to prioritize their data over others’ are vertiginous and terrifying.

Tin House contributor, Cory Doctorow, sums the nut of the issue up nicely in an article he wrote for The Guardian: “The ISPs say they only want to get paid for the use of their service, but the problem is, they’re already getting paid. You pay your Internet bill every month. Netflix, Google, Yahoo, the Guardian and Boing Boing all pay their Internet bills every month. The ISPs aren’t seeking to get paid, they’re seeking to get paid twice: once by you, and a second time because you are now their hostage and the companies you want to do business with have to get through them to get to you.”

It is not always easy to see exactly how power is allocated and asserts itself on the Internet. We can chalk this up to the Pollyannaish belief that power simply doesn’t exist on the Internet, the commonly held stance that it is open and accessible to all, a completely democratic sphere of interaction. Critics have rightly and nobly begun to debunk this myth. This recent move by the FCC, though, is as much of a smoking gun as we’re going to get. It is another clear example of how corporations are wielding an inordinate amount of influence in Washington, entrenching us further and further into an alarming status quo.

It has been Tin House’s great privilege and honor to participate in our culture as an independent magazine and books publisher. We fear that these new regulations might affect our ability to do that successfully. Realizing the Internet’s early promise to be a truly democratic place, an agora where all voices are not only welcome, but heard, begins with this issue of network neutrality. The fight starts here. Let your representatives know that you don’t want to have to look back on these as the good old days of the Internet, that its best days are yet to come.

Sincerely,

The Editors

http://act.freepress.net/sign/internet_FCC_court_decision2/

http://www.savetheinternet.com/sti-home

http://www.fcc.gov/page/fcc-establishes-new-inbox-open-internet-comments

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Get Your Salon On, Enlightenment Style

Long before salons were a mecca of hair care products, swanky swivel chairs, and cosmetology services with mysterious and complicated names, the salon (beginning in the sixteenth century in Europe) was a hot spot for philosophical debates, intellectual discussions and general confabs of all sorts and traditionally—and quite exclusively—hosted by women in their homes. Not that all of this couldn’t happen in a modern-day salon, it definitely could, just most likely with a reduced amount of royal swag like crowns, tulle, or swords festooned with the family crest.

Etymological history points to the idea that the word salon first appeared in French in 1664 during what was named le Grand Siècle, although it might have been something of a surprise for the French that their word could actually derive from the Italian word salone or sala, referring to the spacious reception halls of Italian villas and mansions. More than a century before some of the most sought-after French salons appeared on the scene, the Italians had settled down for some serious metaphysical natter and nibbles with local and foreign nobles. In the mid-1400s, Giovanna Dandolo, wife of the Doge in Venice and a generous patron of the arts, was well known for her gatherings of artists. Around the 1550s, Italian poet, philosopher and famed courtesan Tullia d’Aragona showed everyone that you didn’t have to be a Medici princess to throw a festive salon party (but then it probably didn’t hurt either).

Madame de Staël

It wasn’t until the early 1600s that French salons came more into prominence and given some of the disparities between founding salon dates in these two frequently-competing countries, if the expression “to beat someone to the punch” had existed back then, the salon situation between Italy vs. France could be a good illustration of this phrase. (More recently, in the 2006 World Cup final against the French, Italians were ecstatic when Gli Azzurri, their national soccer team, incarnated this expression by beating ancient rivals Les Bleus in a fierce penalty shootout 5-3 after a 1-1 draw and with France playing with only 10 players on the field.)

In Paris in 1607, the Marquise de Rambouillet opened her celebrated salon near the Louvre and in 1652, one of her habitués, prolific writer Mademoiselle de Scudéry opened her own rival salon in the Marais where she crafted the art of classic rhetoric. Famously satirized by Moliere in two of his plays, Mademoiselle de Scudéry—along with many other brilliant women—was part of a larger movement of women writers and women with literary aspirations called les bas bleus, the bluestockings. Theirs was a fascinating, complex, intellectually vibrant and sometimes controversial group and although it might not always have been considered a compliment to be a part of their group for numerous reasons that could be deliberated in at least one more month’s column if not more, the blue stockings were a vital part of the growth of and enthusiasm for the larger literary world.

And although salons were run almost entirely by women, both men and women took part—from pretenders to the throne to philosophers like Voltaire to the inimitable letter writer Madame de Sévigné. Throughout the eighteenth century, there were over twenty-five well-respected and fashionable salons, mostly located in Paris. This included one hosted by Madame de Staël who duly noted, “One must chose in life between boredom and suffering,” and in between these slightly gloomy options, you could choose to check out or start up your own local salon. Starting a conversation doesn’t cost much, it can be done anywhere and you don’t need snazzy blue stockings, a custom-designed drawing room or an advanced degree in ancient philosophy to take part—just a couple friends, a little bit of inclination and a few chairs.

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

 

 

 

Posted in Aperitif

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Astronaut

 

The passage speaks of the parity between the body and the soul, and an astronaut (the physical) in space (the ethereal) lends itself to this idea. The passage also celebrates motherhood, and most astronaut suits have the bodily proportions of an infant, so when I added the hose it naturally suggested an umbilical cord. An added bonus is that this passage also talks about the equality of men and women, and the astronaut suit hides the sex of whoever is wearing it.

This spread comes after a cluster of pages that are very dense, so I decided to open it up a bit visually, keep it simple so that the viewer’s eye can rest and pause before pressing on.

 

Allen Crawford is an illustrator, designer, and writer. He and his wife Susan are proprietors of the design/illustration studio Plankton Art Co. Their most notable project to date is the collection of 400 species identification illustrations that are on permanent display at the American Museum of Natural History’s Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. Under his pseudonym, Lord Breaulove Swells Whimsy, he wrote, designed, and illustrated The Affected Provincial’s Companion, Volume One, which was optioned for film by Johnny Depp’s production company, Infinitum Nihil. He lives in Mt. Holly, NJ.

Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892) was an American poet, essayist and journalist. A humanist, he was a part of the transition between transcendentalism and realism, incorporating both views in his works.

Get your copy here!

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On the Tongue

Flash Fidelity

The dumplings were not as I remembered.

I had recalled them in exquisite detail: their pliant, near-translucent skin, the spiraling closure of exactly eighteen hand-wrought folds. The pressure of chopsticks squeezed the skin enough to lift a dumpling from the base of the bamboo steamer basket, but not enough to rupture it before it had been deposited into the mouth, upon the tongue, where, because the temperature of the broth within was hotter than the outer skin, and because the meat within was firmer and more substantial, the dumpling possessed a living, organ-like quality; it seemed to pulse, and biting into it gave one the impression of biting into a beating heart.

When you bit into a pork and crab dumpling at Din Tai Fung Restaurant in the Chaoyang district of Beijing, the skin ripped to release a surge of fragrant broth. As the broth pooled in the lower pockets of your mouth, you chewed into the soft lump of meat, seasoned with ginger, chive, sesame and soy, a dark flavor, fermented and faintly sweet. The whole process —bite, chew, swallow—took a few seconds. The sensory experience contained within those seconds is, I think, the closest I have ever come to ecstasy.

• • •

The year we lived in China, my fiancé and I made pilgrimages to Din Tai Fung on special occasions: Christmas; birthdays. We’d order pots of pu’er tea and pitchers of chilled plum juice, chicken thighs marinated in Shaolin rice wine, chopped cucumbers in vinegar and sesame oil, dumplings by the dozen. We’d eat ourselves into a stupor and then, in states of dizzy bliss, wander back out into the city to walk the long way home.

Three years later, after we were married, we returned to Beijing. My former fiancé, now my husband, had been awarded a Fulbright to do research in China, and I’d come along for a few weeks to get him settled.

I was afraid of the year ahead, the thousands of miles and dozen time zones that would separate us. We had already been apart for two years by then, attending graduate schools in different states, and I feared that a terrible, non-geographical distance was growing between us. But I couldn’t articulate these fears to my husband, nor even to myself. I was not willing to admit the possibility of doubt.

Before I left Beijing, we returned to Din Tai Fung and ordered our favorite soup dumplings. Were they as flawless as they’d been three years earlier? I don’t know. I was distracted, and couldn’t taste much at all.

• • •

I had not eaten soup dumplings since then, but recently I had occasion to attend a conference in Seattle, which is home to one of the only branches of Din Tai Fung in the United States.

The restaurant was miles from the conference, technically not even in Seattle but the nearby suburb of Bellevue. Still—as I assured friends I was trying to recruit—it wasn’t impossibly far, and the dumplings were worth it.

So one night, a friend and I set out from Seattle to add our names to the restaurant’s long wait list. Other friends would join us within the hour. As our taxi crossed Lake Washington toward the suburbs, I rested my hands on my fluttering stomach, giddy with anticipation: soon I’d be in the presence of the sublime.

Everything after that was wrong. Din Tai Fung Beijing had been an upscale restaurant of leather banquets and white linen tablecloths. Din Tai Fung Bellevue was in an overlit mall of furniture stores and video arcades; it was as loud and glaring as any cheap chain.

The friend I’d come with fell ill soon after our arrival and caught a cab back to Seattle. Then my other friends called to cancel after getting terribly lost en route. I hung up and paced the halls, contemplating the sadness of solo mall dining. My friends called back minutes later to say they’d come, after all, but they did not sound pleased about it.

I kept pacing. I took a photo of the restaurant’s exterior and debated sending it to my husband.

It was nine months since he’d returned from China, and we were no longer together.  We’d been undone by predictable things: time and distance and change. Since we’d separated, I often wrote letters to him with no intention of sending them. I wrote them in my head, or on the back of a napkin, or typed them as memos on my phone. There were things only he would understand, things I didn’t know how to tell anyone else. We’d been together nine years. I’d only ever been to Din Tai Fung with him.

My friends arrived after more than an hour in the taxi, looking battle-worn and grim. When we sat to eat, their eyes flicked impatiently around the room, their jaws pulled tight. At least our food came quickly: soup dumplings in bamboo steamers, side dishes of shiny greens. “The dumplings are really good,” my friends said, which was their kindness to me, because we’d arrived at this table at great time and expense—it wasn’t worth it—but we were stuck here, in horrible Bellevue, at the horrible mall, and they were trying to make the best of it.

I was trying not to cry. The whole ordeal was my fault, and in forcing it I had profaned a thing I loved.

I stretched my chopsticks toward the steamer basket and began another letter to my husband in my head. I’m sorry, I wrote, the dumplings were not as I remembered.

But I raised one to my mouth anyway, and set it on my tongue, and perceived for a moment the hot and pulsing heart of it before I bit through the skin.

 

Ariel Lewiton‘s essays and stories appear in Vice.com, The Paris Review Daily, Ninth Letter, Wag’s Revue, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program and is a former writing fellow at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She lives and teaches in Iowa City.

Posted in Flash Fidelity

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Grass Baby

 

Allen Crawford’s WHITMAN ILLUMINATED: SONG OF MYSELF will be hitting stores any day now, and it’d be tough to overemphasize how beautiful the book came out. The linen cover stamped with Walt’s likeness, the richness of the color, the texture of the paper . . . it’s something you just have to hold and flip through and pore over to really experience. But, of course, it’s Allen’s vision that carries the thing. So for the next week, we’ll be running a few of our favorite spreads along with the thinking and inspiration behind them.

 

Whitman’s poetry generally shuns metaphors, which makes them a challenge to illustrate. His scope in “Song of Myself” is especially broad, so he tends to make lists or point at things, and then his gaze moves on. He rarely ever stops to meditate over a single subject, like William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens might. But in this particular passage, he speaks of the grass as being a “babe of the vegetation”, which gave me license to combine these symbols of life (a blade of grass, a baby) and then combine them with a sly intimation of death (a shroud, a mummy), a theme that also runs throughout the poem. The art in this spread may have a strange, even unsettling undertone, but it isn’t sinister. Death in Whitman’s work isn’t really sinister: it’s just another phase in life’s endless cycle.

The concentric circle motif throughout the book is meant to allude to the patterns found in microcosms (cells, motes of dust) and macrocosms (planets, galaxies).

Allen Crawford is an illustrator, designer, and writer. He and his wife Susan are proprietors of the design/illustration studio Plankton Art Co. Their most notable project to date is the collection of 400 species identification illustrations that are on permanent display at the American Museum of Natural History’s Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. Under his pseudonym, Lord Breaulove Swells Whimsy, he wrote, designed, and illustrated The Affected Provincial’s Companion, Volume One, which was optioned for film by Johnny Depp’s production company, Infinitum Nihil. He lives in Mt. Holly, NJ.

Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892) was an American poet, essayist and journalist. A humanist, he was a part of the transition between transcendentalism and realism, incorporating both views in his works.

Posted in Tin House Books

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Your Weekly Forecast: Charles Dickens

“There are times when, the elements being in unusual commotion, those who are bent on daring enterprises, or agitated by great thoughts, whether of good or evil, feel a mysterious sympathy with the tumult of nature, and are roused into corresponding violence. In the midst of thunder, lightning, and storm, many tremendous deeds have been committed; men, self-possessed before, have given a sudden loose to passions they could no longer control. The demons of wrath and despair have striven to emulate those who ride the whirlwind and direct the storm; and man, lashed into madness with the roaring winds and boiling waters, has become for the time as wild and merciless as the elements themselves. —Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge

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April Gems

Desiderata

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): In reading Susan Orlean’s My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who’s Been Everywhere, an anthology of her best travel writing, I’ve been thinking about what makes Orlean’s nonfiction genuinely charming where others’ writing in the same vein can feel twee to me. So much of her material here might seem to write itself; how could an essay about tiger hoarders in suburban New Jersey or little league basebull under the thumb of Castro be anything less than a slam dunk? And yet there’s plenty of nonfiction out there that I think misses these shots by trying too hard, by being too smug or too contrived or too cute instead of letting the greatness of the story be the greatness of the story. I’ve come to hate that adjective “quirky” and most of the not-so-truly-quirky stuff it often tags. It’s a term that one might be tempted apply to these essays, too—but they’re better than that, because Orlean approaches them with heart and honesty instead of ironic distance. Let’s call them instead perceptive, precise, well-researched, engaging. I recommend you read them all, especially the one about the tigers.

Heather Hartley (Paris Editor, Tin House Magazine): Samba + jazz + bossa nova = the rich and languid tunes of Brazilian singer Bebel Gilberto, daughter of super-famous singers João Gilberto and Miúcha. Her cover of Bob Marley’s “Sun is Shining” from her 2009 release “All in One” is best listened to with a chilled drink in hand, and most every track on her 2000 album Tanto Tempo is cool and smooth. For me, the most delightfully soothing tunes from Tanto Tempo are “So Nice” and “Samba e Amor,” and a little glass of Sancerre—or an icy glass of beer if preferred—pairs beautifully.

Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer): I only knew two things about Under the Skin before watching it: the basic premise (a woman, played by Scarlett Johansson, roams the streets of Scotland, preying on men . . . something something aliens) and that it’s based on a novel by Michel Faber, the author of the story collection, Vanilla Bright Like Eminem, which I enjoyed, but also The Crimson Petal and the White, a novel that I still loathe eight years after slogging through it. My concerns vanished within the first minute, when it became clear that director Jonathan Glazer took his stylistic cues from Tarkovsky (specifically Solaris) and Kubrick, among others. The movie is a slow burner with a bit of an art film vibe. It’s gorgeously shot and Johansson is superb. Creepy, seductive, and sad, Under the Skin is my favorite film of the year, so far.

What Time It IsThomas Ross (Editorial Assistant): I’ve tried to get into Sting’s new rock opera or concept album or soundtrack or whatever the hell he calls The Last Ship, but to no avail. I don’t know if it’s the heavy-handed production on the album not striking me right or just the bone-deep itch I have to listen to Todd Terje’s It’s Album Time over and over, but I can’t finish The Last Ship. While Sting repeatedly mines narrow swaths of Quadrophenia, Terje is all over the place, blending spacey disco and bossa nova with house and techno touches, occasionally turning singer-songrwriter for a spell or glitchily scratching a track to shreds. It feels like it might have been written for a great remake of a nineties video game—I keep expecting that old drawn-out sung “Seeee-gaaaa” tag that preceded Sega Genesis games, or the sound of Sonic the Hedgehog picking up gold rings in a Casino Night zone . . . Maybe that’s just me. Regardless of your touchstones, Terje plays the past against the future and comes up with a bright, dancing album that provides a perfect counterpoint to the dog-driving-a-car theatrics of Sting belting out “The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance.”

Cheston Knapp (Managing Editor, Tin House Magazine): Been a good month, culture-wise. Read Matthew Zapruder’s incredible new collection of poems, Sun Bear, in which he bends and bubbles syntax like Chihuly does glass. Turns out Tony Doerr’s new novel, All the Light We Cannot See, is as good as the excerpt we published last spring promised it would be. But my most impactful media experience came in the form of a cocktail. One part Adam Curtis’s documentary, The Century of the Self, and one part Astra Taylor’s new book, The People’s Platform. Curtis’s movie is, hands down, a masterpiece of the documentary form (h/t to another Curtis, White, whose The Science Delusion should be out in paperback soon). It shows how Edward Bernays used Freud’s (his uncle’s) ideas to found what we know as PR and marketing and then how that trickles down to give us our current conceptions of happiness as self-realization. Movie’s moral can be summed up swiftly: shit is fucked. And then Taylor. Lord. This book cuts through all the Pollyannaish hype of Internet enthusiasts, all the apocalyptic talk of its naysayers, and dwells in a kind of littoral zone of ambiguity. It is so, so good. It feels like it’s been written in conversation with Lewis Hyde’s two classics, The Gift and Common as Air, as well as Trow’s Within the Context of No Context. But it is wholly her own, wholly new. If we’re not careful, she seems to suggest, future generations could make a documentary about us called “The Century of the Persona.” Basically, this is a book that we should all be reading (or at very least buying).

Masie Cochran (Associate Editor, Tin House Books): The NBA Playoffs mark my favorite time of year—the best basketball played by the best teams.  Not to mention the best postgame interview fashion. I love the ritual at my house during The Playoffs. Out come the good luck t-shirts and the game time grub. We stand until our team scores and for the last two minutes of every game. I vacuum, sweep, or fold clothes when we are losing. I yell D-FENCE and clap along with the home crowd when we are winning. Right now my team is off to a shaky start, but with this guy on the floor I think we can turn it around.

Tony Perez (Editor, Tin House Books): 

Posted in Desiderata

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Jasper Johns

Flash Fridays

My dad had waited for Trina his whole life.  That’s what he told me anyway.  Trina had one leg and that had something to do with it.  He couldn’t explain it.  He just kept saying, “She has one leg.”  Then he’d look at me quizzically.  When I tried to give words to the thoughts, he’d just shake his head like I didn’t understand.  “She has one leg,” he’d say again.

The day of the wedding, we all waited in a Lake Tahoe government marrying office for the minister.  The ceiling was short and we could hardly stand without our heads touching it.  My dad sat in the front next to Trina.  She wore a red pants suit and black cowboy boots.  You couldn’t tell she was one-legged.  The fake leg was plaster and the night before in the woods by the lake, she let me knock on it.  It sounded hollow.

“You’ll break it,” she said.

“O.K.,” I told her.  “I’ll break it.”

Then she threw back a drink from a bottle of wine and flashed an inky smile at me like a smear of stars in the sky.

The minister arrived, a man in his sixties, short, balding, wearing a three-piece suit.  He stopped in the door and leaned against the jamb.  He was drunk.  Then he fell down and crawled to a podium at the front of the room.  He was holding himself on one elbow on the podium, flicking through a pile of papers stacked there.  He pushed his glasses up on his nose and held them there with a hand around an eye.  He pointed at the open door and someone in the back closed it.  He looked at my dad and smiled.  Trina grabbed my dad’s hand and held it in both of her hands.  It was the middle of summer but my dad wore the leather motorcycle jacket he’d worn since I was a kid.  I painted an American flag on the back for him when I was twelve, copied from an art book I took out of the library and never returned.  I still have the book.  It’s sitting under a toolbox beside the water heater.  Shit tends to disappear but I still know right where that book is.

My dad had found the jacket.  He walked into the house one afternoon and said, “I got a new jacket,” and threw it on the kitchen table then spread it out on its back, the arms laid straight out.  It was beat to hell, like someone wore it in a motorcycle crash.

“I can see you in that,” my mom said.  She’d come in from some part of the house without us noticing.  She was smiling.  She had long teeth.  She had hard teeth and proved it once by biting me on the foot.  She said that all of her people had hard teeth.  Something in the soil, she said as if they had all gone around finding teeth in the fields and pressing them into their gums.

“Looks antiquated,” I said.

My dad glanced at me and then looked away quickly.  He didn’t like to look at me.  “Why would you say that?” he said.

My mom bit the end of her finger, staring at me apologetically, like she’d forgotten to teach me something important.

“Don’t people like antiques?” I said.

“He reads too much,” my dad said.  I couldn’t tell if he was talking to my mom or to himself because she’d made a fast exit.  Dematerialized.  She’d been practicing white magic with her friends.

“Where the fuck did she go?” I said.

“Fuck if I know.”  He turned back to the jacket.  I stood a little closer to him in the haze of our shared manliness.

“In any event, I like your new jacket,” I said.

He put it on and examined the road-rashed sleeves.  “It’s not new though, is it?  Maybe it is an antique, like you said.”  He tried to look at me, but it was hard.

“Where’d you find it?” I said.

“Oh you know,” he said.  “Shit turns up.”

“You mean like how shit disappears?”

“Something like that.”

“Turn around,” I said.  There was a big splotch of pink paint on the back where the colors should be.  “Wait here,” I told him and went to my room and under the bed where I’d hidden the art book.  I flipped through it and found what I was looking for, the Jasper Johns painting of the flag.  Carefully, I tore out the page.  Then I took it to my dad and showed him.  “I’ll paint this on the back.”

He was nodding slowly, staring at the page I was holding.  “It looks like the flag, but it’s not,” he said.

“Something like that,” I said.

Later, I tacked the Jasper Johns page over my bed.  It stayed there for a long time, years probably.  Then one day it was gone, but I couldn’t tell you which day or even what year.  It was just gone, like things are sometimes gone without you noticing.

 

Aaron Peters is a graduate of UC Irvine’s Programs in Writing and a 2013 recipient of the Henfield Prize for fiction. He lives in San Pedro, CA, where he is working on a novel.

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

Posted in Flash Fridays

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Tin House Reels: Jasmine Holt

Tin House Reels is pleased to screen Jasmine Holt’s The Mariner, her interpretation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of The Ancient Mariner.

Holt made her film in response to a graduate school assignment to animate an assigned audio clip. Although she first felt limited by not choosing the poem or the voice for her film, the process of call-and-response with someone else’s poem opened possibilities in her creative process. “I first thought of creating a partially-underwater collage in a sink, using the imagery of ships and sailors to my advantage. However, I quickly realized that it was impractical to put a paper collage underwater. The next idea was to try using fabrics to create a stop-motion animation in Adobe Photoshop and Premier. I ended up making most of my imagery on an embroidery hoop, stretching transparent fabric samples and adding layers, via Photoshop, from magazines and other found materials. I spray painted my type. I love typography, so I wanted to be in full control of the type. I love the resulting effect—those spray painted words on fabric. I picture them being on tote bags and t-shirts.”

Holt does think of the blurred lines between art and other parts of popular culture, like movies, clothing, and advertising, with optimism: “The lines between disciplines are blurring faster in the creative world, and it somehow seems that maybe now we shouldn’t have to pick one discipline; we should just learn how to visually communicate ideas. If we design something stunning or memorable, we plant ideas. When I see a great advertisement, or I watch a really intelligently designed movie, or a title sequence, or anything that clicks in my brain and says, ‘Keep this on your reference list,’ it strikes me that one day, I could be one of the people who help make those cleverly designed pieces. I strive to design things that people want to put on their mental reference lists.”

Her interpretation of Coleridge is one of those memorable objects:

Jasmine Holt is studying art at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design (DJCAD) in Dundee, Scotland.

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

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

Posted in Videos

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