August 28, 2009
This is a song I finished recording last night called “Pale Fire.” I’ve had most of the instrumental elements of it sitting around for a while, looping themselves along, but I just couldn’t figure out any lyrics for the life of me. I finally decided that, as usual, I needed some kind of device to help me actually “write,” so what I decided was I was going to do was make the lyrics be solely from the titles on The Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list and so try to make like a standard indie rock love song but one which was a collage completely composed of these titles of important old books. As it turns out, this is actually kind of a really, really difficult thing to do, so after expanding my list to include the Time 100 and “composing” some torturous “verses” like “It’s An American Tragedy / that you won’t fall in love with me” and “We’re in the Tropic of Cancer, you’re a capricorn / let’s go To The Lighthouse and eat buttered corn,” I basically gave up on that shit and just scrawled out another pseudo-ironic song about not being able to express myself adequately. At this point, I have basically done a kind of indie rock Exercices de Style of songs about not being able to express myself adequately (witness: bricolage, lipogram, the Artist’s Way, cool love, and meta-summer-jam; there are others). The only things that remain in this version from the original concept are the chorus (which invokes Play It As It Lays, The Remains of the Day, Tender Is The Night, Heart of Darkness, as well as Pale Fire) and the half-whispered breakdown.
I’ve never actually read Pale Fire, just in case you think I’m getting too smarty-arty or fancy pants or whatever (somewhat embarrassingly, I realize actually haven’t read any of the books that I shout out in the chorus, although I think I skimmed the Sparknotes of Heart of Darkness for AP English). When I lived in Korea, I had a real problem with finding books; there was only one bookstore in my city with a decent English language section and this selection was “decent” at best. People who read English language writing in Korea apparently really love Paulo Coehlo, in addition to approximately one billion books on Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, Warren Buffett and success in business. There was the occasional surprise and I was forced to read classics which I might never have enjoyed otherwise, but mostly buying books there was kind of a bust. So what I ended up doing was listening to a lot of audiobooks I downloaded off the internet; I listened to The Trial and The Castle, I listened to On Beauty, I listened to My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, I listened to No Country For Old Men, as well as many others (to be servicey for a second, the only decent blog for bootleg audiobooks is Audiobook Corner; although their selection is way too fantasy/sci-fi for my taste, they occasionally have something lovely or just weird. The best place I’ve found is The Pirate Bay, where you can get stuff like Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce or a valu-pack of Orlando and To The Ligthouse as well as a lot of more contemporary and popular stuff. If you are more legally inclined and moral (good for you!), Audible always has some introductory offer where they will give you a book or two for free if you cancel before the trial period’s over). Anyway, my favorite audiobook I’ve ever listened to is Jeremy Irons’ reading of Lolita. Early last fall in Korea, when I was working evenings, I was into this routine where every morning I would get up at eight o’ clock and hike along this quiet two-lane road through these rolling and twisting verdant and sun-dappled hills for 45 minutes to get to this little local beach where I would usually be the only person around and then, after having run and swum and tanned there for a while, I would hike back for 45 minutes. Along the way, I listened to Lolita, which was one of the better reading (er, listening) experiences I’ve ever had.
Though I haven’t read Pale Fire, earlier this summer, having loved Lolita so much last summer, I tried to read Ada. This was an experience that was at first extremely frustrating (the information overload of the first thirty pages), then somewhat pleasurable (getting used to the language play and kind of beginning to enjoy it), then extremely pleasurable (the beautiful imagery and metaphor used to detail Van and Ada’s time together), then kind of whatever (progression and extrapolation of narrative), then kind of frustrating again (weird science fiction elements and plot meandering), then incredibly frustrating (just insanely punny and dense paragraphs for seemingly no reason at all) and then I gave up and read a Tom Perotta novel, I think. Writing this, I just dug my Ada out of the bottom of my laundry basket, where I hid it because I was mad at it, and I see that I have marked the exact paragraph where I gave up on the book; it’s this one, from page 379:
“–I got stuck with six Buchstaben in the last round of a Flavita game. Mind you, I was eight and had not studied anatomy, but was doing my poor little best to keep up with two Wunderkinder. You examined and fingered my groove, and quickly redistributed the haphazard sequence which made, say, LIKROT or ROTIKL and Ada flooded us both with her raven silks as she looked over our heads, and when you had completed the rearrangement, you and she came simultaneously, si je puis le mettre comme ça(Canady French), came falling on the black carpet in a paroxysm of incomprehensible merriment; so finally I quietly composed ROTIK (“little mouth”) and was left with my own cheap initial. I hope I’ve thoroughly got you mixed up, Van, because la plus laide fille du monde puet donner beaucoup plus qu’elle n’a, and now let us say adieu, yours ever.”
So, um, yeah, that is a really complicated way to describe little kids having sex! This thing I did right here, my “Pale Fire,” is just, like, a rock song, you know, with guitars and drums and stuff, it’s not really all that complicated, despite whatever meta-underpinnings may be present. It’s too trebly and overdriven, like a Times New Viking outtake or something, but I printed the effects when I recorded so there wasn’t much I could do about it besides try to soften things up after the fact with reverb and EQ. I watched Miley Cyrus on the Today Show this morning and I would say she rocked about 35% harder than this song, which, you know, good for her! In her interview with Natalie in the Plaza, Miley said she is going in an “edgier, darker rock” direction on her next record, so maybe I will head the other way, just to stay competitive.
August 27, 2009
Today while I was eating lunch, I finally read Michael Pollan’s New York Times Magazine essay “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,” which I think probably everybody who cares about it at all has already read and talked and forgotten about by now, but whatever, I’m behind on things lately. I will just start by saying that I am not predisposed to like Michael Pollan very much; in fact, I kind of sort of really hate him and actually just hearing his name makes me slightly tweak in reflexive annoyance, the way other people react when they hear a name like “Heidi Montag” or “Chuck Grassley” or whatever. This is really not directly because of Michael Pollan or anything he has written or said or done; I don’t so much dislike Michael Pollan (who I’d never even really read before yesterday) as much as I dislike what he represents (to me, at least) and, especially, who he represents. What Michael Pollan represents to me is yet another blockbuster example of the most salable strain of the new American narrative nonfiction, these “big idea” books which are concerned with using clever structural and rhetorical tricks to “prove” and “explain” things about “important” topics that could “change your life” and/or “the world” (see also Gladwell, Malcolm), very often doing these things at the expense of beautiful English prose and deep examinations of the soul and spirit and general delight in the aesthetic pleasure of reading and writing and language. While I (obviously) find this sort of stuff to be offensive and bad, I could get over this aspect of my hatred pretty easily, partially since it’s just my own petty personal taste to prefer Play It As It Lays over Lay It, Play It: The New Californian Style of Choosing Your Own Adventure, but mostly since I have no idea how true any one of these vague and mean criticisms that I’ve made of Michael Pollan’s work actually are, having not, you know, read any of it.
No, mostly I kind of hate Michael Pollan because a lot of people in my cultural class and in the areas of the internet and media that I read love him and love even more to go on loudly and annoyingly about their self-important ideas about various gastronomical causes and concerns, to espouse their foodie manifesti and harangue and meringue me to the point where I become so nauseous that I have to induce vomiting. I mean, god, if I hear one more nouveau-gourmand or culinary life hacker repeat that fucking Pollan t-shirt slogan “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” just one more time, I swear, I’m just going to fucking kill his ass and eat him right there on the spot, I’ll shoot him in the head (to avoid contaminating the bulk of the meat with bitter, acrid gunpowder) and then carefully butcher him into cookable chunks (I basically learned how to do this from reading the Tuscany section of Heat, I think) and finally roast his corpse over dry cedar chips in a large, rustic, wood-fired oven; when the skin of his belly is crispy and succulent, I will serve all his various loins and filets on a bed of arugala and radicchio and some ridiculously named hydroponic designer micro-greens that I will buy at Whole Foods; I will make a thick, dark demi-glace of his blood.
But I digress. Um, what I’m basically trying to say is that when I started to read the Michael Pollan thing in the Times Magazine, I was not coming at it from a very nice and loving and receptive place, okay? As I read his essay about how people watch a lot of cooking shows on television and don’t ever cook themselves and instead eat unhealthy processed foods while they watch cooking shows and how this is a bad thing, mostly, I was sitting on the couch in my boxer shorts and watching the Food Network and eating my lunch, which today consisted of one and a half pop tarts (strawberry, uncooked, fiber-added), a banana (yellow, of South American origin), and a large glass of milk (organic, fat-free). My lunch was delicious and filling and eating it was making me very happy and full and satisfied, the way that food is supposed to make you feel, I think. On the giant television which hangs on our living room wall in the place where people might once have kept a painted portrait of their family, Giada di Laurentis’s breasts were making pumpkin ravioli in wide-screen HD. As I ate my strawberry pop tarts and scanned the first few paragraphs of the Pollan thing, I kept getting distracted by le visioni della bella donna out of the corner of my eye and watched her as she kneaded dough, dusted things with ephemeral coatings of flour, licked her thick, plump lips.
As I finished eating, the television now on CSPAN and muted to help me concentrate, I continued to try to read “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch.” Despite my aforementioned inherent distaste for the material, I made myself read it, the way a child who forces down some disgusting vegetable because his parents wont let him leave the table until he’s eaten it all. As I read and as time went by, a very curious thing began to happen to me; I began to feel this wonderful warm feeling throughout my whole body, in my heart and my skin and my brain, this cellular electricity, this tingling of the nerves, this strange sensation of satiety. At first, I thought this was just my blood sugar skyrocketing because of the pop tarts I had eaten and all of the partial hydrogenated high fructose corn-syrup they contained, perhaps even the effect of some new and innovative chemical additive in them that my body had not yet built up a tolerance to, but I soon realized, though, that, no, that wasn’t it that at all — what it was was that I was actually enjoying this Michael Pollan essay, that actually it was, you know, a really good and smart essay that was also really nice and fun to read. “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,” though it advances various arguments and makes various points which I variously either disagree with or just don’t care about at all, and though it no doubt will add more fuel to the foodie fire that often frustrates me, is also a really thoughtful and belletristic piece of long-form nonfiction writing which, as it goes on, raises a lot of fascinating, non-polemical ideas about food and television and culture and is even garnished with some nicely rendered personal memoir for good measure.
Part of me wonders why I was so surprised by this, by how much I liked it, by how easily I forget good things that I’ve enjoyed in the past, the way you might forget a wonderful dish if you don’t eat it for a while. Though it would probably never come to mind if you asked me to name my favorite book of all time or what book I would take to a desert island with me or whatever, probably one of my favorite books I’ve ever read and one I return to again and again is The Man Who Ate Everything, a collection of Jeffrey Steingarten’s food writing for Vogue magazine, a book I’ve read probably ten or fifteen times, maybe even more. When I first read it, I found that his voice in those essays was exactly the sort of voice I wanted from a writer; funny yet serious, learned yet ever receptive to learning more, a smart and friendly and cultured person sitting across the table from you who was going to tell you some interesting things in an interesting way you would enjoy. I liked that book so much that one day when I was in college, I went to the library and spent hours tearing fruitlessly through piles of back issues of Vogue in the hopes that I could read something new of his that I hadn’t read before, some uncollected gem. When I come to think about it, I’ve actually read a decent amount of food and cooking writing over the years, though it has never been something I’ve focused on. I read Heat (mmm), I read Julie and Julia (yeah), I read the book by the guy who writes the the blog The Amateur Gourmet (eh), I read about a third of Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires (overcooked). I will take any Calvin Trillin I can get my hands on and devour it hungrily, licking my fingers afterward to get at any the excess sweetness. In the newspaper every week, I used to read Bruni and continue to read Bittman and Sifton; on the blogs, I occasionally check in with Ruhlman and Knowlton, though they aren’t really part of my regular reading. On the counter in her kitchen, behind a fruit bowl, my mom has The Art of Eating, a biblically-proportioned collection of MFK Fisher essays that I occasionally and very pleasurably dip into when I’m standing around in there waiting on something or someone, often while I’m waiting to eat.
All of this reading is despite the fact that I really could just not give a shit about food or cooking at all. Don’t get me wrong, I like eating and I like cooking and I do both fairly often, I just don’t really care about either of those things, neither of them is all that important to my life or thought or identity, the way they seem to be for a lot of people; food for me is pleasure and fuel and maybe a social binder but not much more than that, it’s tasty gasoline and crunchy coal for my internal furnace. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong at all with being interested in food on a deeper level; I’m just saying that, personally, I’m not. I cooked a lot of my own food in college, much more than anyone else I knew, but this was not out of some ideological agenda or deep moral purpose, it was just because I didn’t really have any money and because my mother had always cooked most of our meals at home when I was growing up (because we didn’t really have any money) and because of this, I knew that cooking my own food was a generally pleasurable and economical and healthy way to live and the way that I had always lived and so so I lived that way. My favorite thing to cook is roast chicken, which I like to cook because it’s easy and cheap and really fucking good when it’s hot out of the oven. There is something kind of amazing about eating the crispy, crackling skin off the steaming bird, but at the same time I don’t really see it as “a minor miracle of transubstantiation” (Pollan’s phrase), I just see it as some good fucking chicken I’m eating. Michael Pollan discusses these primal, magical memories he has of watching his mother cook and I have plenty of those, too, but they’re not really any more special than the memories I have of playing with her or going places with her or watching television together. I mean, I’m not a chef or gourmand or even a very good cook; I have my rotation of regular dishes that I make and I make them well enough, which is good enough for me because, as I’ve established, I don’t care that much about food above a certain standard of quality and satiety. When I lived in Korea, where a great many exotic and wonderful culinary delights were available for me to avail myself with whenever I wanted, I ate basically the same thing for lunch every day for weeks at a time: tuna gimbap, curry ramyeon, a piece of fruit, a small chocolate bar. There were probably fifty different restaurants within a two block radius of my apartment, all with unique and special and home-made dishes and preparations which I couldn’t get anywhere else and I ate the same thing for lunch everyday because, well, I liked it and it tasted good and what else did I need to think about? That was all I cared about re: food, to be satisfied.
So why do I read those books, then, why do I keep reading about food if I don’t care about it that much? Why do I watch Top Chef and Chopped and Iron Chef and et cetera if I have no interest in cooking like the chefs on the shows, if I will learn nothing from them, the way women once learned (or at least tried to learn) from Julia Child? Michael Pollan advances a couple of interesting ideas about this in “Out of the Kitchen…” One of these ideas is that what much of the audience in middle class America is taking from food shows are not lessons on cooking but a kind of cultural capital, a way to feel and seem more sophisticated than maybe we actually are, to improve ourselves, a way to not be intimidated by the foods of our economic betters. I find this is probably somewhat true of my own experience with food culture; even though I’m perfectly happy making and eating a simple salad from pre-washed lettuce out of a plastic bag and basic vegetables I buy at the supermarket, there is something I like about knowing the names of various gourmet ingredients and preparations and Wikipedian factoids about technique and style and food culture; it does make me feel slightly richer and more upper class to speak of sriracha and vichyssoise, as if my culinary vocabulary were currency that I could actually spend somewhere.
The other thesis that Michael Pollan goes on about, the more interesting idea, I think, is that “the reason we like to watch cooking on TV is that there are things about cooking we miss. We might not feel we have the time or the energy to do it ourselves every day, yet we’re not prepared to see it disappear from our lives entirely.” Pollan argues that we watch food shows to create this simulacrum of what it feels like to cook, to regain some of the joy of cooking without actually taking part in the act of doing it, which is something that he says changes in our society have kept us from. He talks at some length in the later parts of the essay about how cooking is tied very deeply (biologically, socially, culturally) to human identity and so, in this country we live in where we don’t cook anymore, watching food shows is this way of sort of unconsciously yearning for this animistic, physical, familial something from our past that we miss without even knowing that we miss; he says that “we might not feel we have the time or the energy to do it ourselves every day, yet we’re not prepared to see it disappear from our lives entirely.” Faulkner has this phrase about using language to describe sadness, that it’s “a gap to fill a lack,” and I think this is kind of what Pollan is saying about how we watch Rachel Ray and Ina Garten and what they mean to us, these fake mothers in their Potemkin kitchens who are trying to remind us what love used to be.
“What?! You’re telling me Bobby Flay strikes deep emotional chords?” (this is the one really annoying stylistic tic of Pollan’s essay; he keeps talking to this fake audience surrogate who is meant to represent us but who is just dumber than life itself). Anyway, the whole argument that M.P. makes about our yearning and desire for something important and almost lost from our identity is a very compelling and complex and also really just kind of poetic and beautiful thing, an argument that I have trouble completely refuting in part because I think that it’s very likely true in some ways but also because even if I could prove it wrong, I wouldn’t want to because I think it’s beautiful, the same way I don’t want to argue with a poem or get pissed off at the way sunshine feels on my face. While I think the argument is valid enough, though, I just think that maybe there’s a simpler explanation for why people are tuning in to all these food shows on television, which is just, you know, that they’re good and fun and entertaining to watch.
Like, I think I watch a good food show on television because it’s a good television show, first and foremost, not because of its nutritional content or because I think it will “teach me something” or because it’s reaching deep down to some primal ur-cook residing inside of me and trying to claw his way out. I don’t watch Barefoot Contessa or Giada at Home because I care about the recipes or techniques contained within them or because I feel deeply that Ina Garten is some sort of living Venus of Willendorf, I watch them because the HD photography on those shows is absolutely exquisite; I watch the dishes in those shows the way I would look at a beautiful still life of a bowl of fruit on the wall of a gallery or museum. Maybe I watch Good Eats to learn a little bit about food, but mostly I watch it because it’s pretty rare to see a clever and quirky and formally inventive, auteur-driven show like that anywhere else on television. I watched the original British Kitchen Nightmares because it was a beautifully made, touching, kitchen sink (pardon the pun) docu-drama; I watch the new American one because it’s a white trash car crash. Anthony Bourdain’s shows have always been really strongly-voiced first person autobiographical television memoir of the type which just doesn’t exist in many other manifestations in the medium. These are the reasons I watch these shows above all else, because they’re good shows. My dad noted the other day while we were watching the first episode of the new Project Runway that after watching however many seasons of the show that he’s watched, hours and hours and hours of television, he still doesn’t have the first idea about how you would go about making a piece of clothing, he doesn’t understand any aspect of how any single step of the design or garment construction process would even work in theory or in practice. I agreed with him, that he was right and that I didn’t have a clue either and we hadn’t learned anything at all and wasn’t that weird? We mused on this for a second and then we watched the rest of the show anyway and it was entertaining and we enjoyed it and I’m so glad that spacey hipsterina got voted off right away. My dad and I don’t watch Project Runway because we’re deeply invested in the idea of making and wearing clothes as a basic facet of human life and we don’t watch Top Chef to soothe the phantom pain of some lost deep and primal connection to our food; we watch them because they’re fun, well-made, dramatic and entertaining shows with captivating characters and interesting plots.
In the same way, I read good food writing not because I particularly care all that much about food but because really it’s just good writing and I like to read good writing, no matter what it’s about. I read and reread Jeffrey Steingarten not because I particularly care that much about food (I’ve never cooked or thought about cooking one of his recipes) but because he’s a good writer with a good voice who’s so good that he makes me care about food at least for the span of his essay. If Calvin Trillin decided that instead of eating and food he would rather write about nuclear reactors or plumbing or calculus, I would happily read any of that stuff; for me personally, the subject is irrelevant, I just want the pure pleasure that a good literary artist can offer me. One of my very favorite things to read, the thing I look forward to every week, is a regular online New York Times column called Scent Notes. Scent Notes, written by “professional perfume critic” Chandler Burr, is a weekly review of a new fragrance from Yves Saint Laurent or Givenchy or [insert famous and expensive designer here]. I have never personally worn perfume in my life; I have never bought perfume for anyone in my life; I have no real interest in doing either of those things in the future of my life and even if I did do one of those things (most likely the second one), I would probably never be able to splash out the cash necessary to buy one of the fancy perfumes reviewed in Scent Notes. Yet despite all of this, Scent Notes is one of my very favorite things to read and I love to read it and I think it’s so good and I look forward to it every week (though Burr seems to be on sabbatical now?!). Every column is like this incredible post-Montaigne spritz of charm and elan and gossip and knowledge, this distillation of criticism and poetry into a tiny bauble full of linguistic essence. A recent review of a new fragrance by Clinique began:
“The single most persistent and complex problem with criticism of art, in any medium, is arguably the problem of historical context. In what era and under what aesthetic was the object created? And how, then, can we critique it, given that it was conceived for people whose sensibilities differed from ours? Is it successful because it speaks to us now or because it spoke to them then?
Any number of classic perfumes pose this problem. Exhibit A: the prewar Guerlains. If the classics are, to use the industry term, “re-orchestrated” (updated to fit contemporary olfactory style in order to sell better in 2009), then all bets are off. These scents are the equivalent of Beethoven sonatas done as a Jay-Z-produced mash-up. Which is fine — they appeal to the kids and move product — but they’re no longer Beethoven.
On the other hand, to the degree to which these works of scent art are still faithful to their 19th- or 20th-century originals, the historical context problem surfaces. Let’s say we take them on their own terms today, and let’s use Clinique’s Aromatics Elixir as a case in point.”
This is all for a review of this liquid stuff that you spray on yourself that smells good! I consider myself pretty articulate and that’s about all I could every say about a perfume, I think, yet here Chandler Burr has written this vibrant piece of prose about it which involves and invokes history and music and poetry in ways that I couldn’t imagine, which takes me somewhere that I hadn’t been before and exposes a new world to me, an essay which is as interesting a piece of criticism as anything I’ve read lately in Bookforum or the LRB (okay, maybe that’s a stretch, but it’s still really good!). I found reading his column to be an amazing experience, maybe as amazing as I found reading Harold Rosenberg when I was studying art history in college and maybe even more amazing, in a way, because I could look at a Rauschenberg or Pollock the way that Rosenberg did and I could see and understand some of what was there and what had happened to make it without his help, I had some grounding in why it was important and good and could give you some fairly educated thoughts on it of my own. However, I bet that if you sprayed some of Clinique’s Aromatics Elixir in the air in front of me and and asked me step through it, though, and tell you what I thought of it, I would say, “Um, yeah, that smells pretty good” and that would be about it, and yet here is this person who can take something as simple as a smell and weave all these gossamer threads of thought together around it into a little tapestry for me and you to witness every week, this paean to perfume.
There was a great deal of Internet controversy recently over one of Cintra Wilson’s Critical Shopper columns in the New York Times Styles section; if you’re reading my blog, I’m pretty sure you heard all about it, but for the purposes of writing this essay I have to summarize it anyway, I guess. In the column, Cintra reviewed the new JC Penney store which opened in Manhattan, in the process of which review apparently offending a great many women by making comments which they interpreted as being snarky and “New York elitist” and very offensive to those who are overweight. While I am suburban, Southern non-elite on record as thinking that Cintra Wilson is a funny and wonderful writer, I would agree that maybe this particular column wasn’t her best work or whatever, although I find some of the criticisms of it to be a little absurd. First of all, I think it’s kind of ridiculous to expect a fashion critic for the New York Times to give a positive critique of a place as inarguably dowdy and downmarket as Penney’s; as I discussed the other day with a fellow blogger, this would be like expecting Sam Sifton, when he becomes the the new Times food critic this fall, to hand out glowing and eloquent reviews of the menu options at Hardee’s and Wendy’s, since that’s where “real people” eat in “real America,” you know, and, then, if he dared to criticize the crudeness of the flavors of the Chili Cheese Thickburger or to note that repeatedly consuming fast food like this would probably make you fat, the bloated massses would rise together from their couches and potatoes to leave comments and blog entries calling him “an arrogant New York bastard” who didn’t understand anything about this country or the way “we” live here. After the JC Penney Critical Shopper was published, the blogs boiled over with passionate populist epistles about the importance of stores like Penney’s to the people who shop there, the affordable fashions that they offer to people around the country who can’t afford anything else and who still, of course, need clothes to wear, the public service that this store provides. I don’t disagree with any of this, it’s all very true, but, you know what, Hardee’s offers lots of people around the country affordable food that keeps them going every day, too, that keeps them from starving; they too do a service for this country that can’t be denied. Does that mean that they should be heralded by the esteemed critics for the most important cultural arbiter in our country? I don’t think so, personally, I don’t really think the Charbroiled Chicken Club sandwich is worth that, although I guess that might make me an elitist.
The reaction to this one specific column, though, is really just a representation of something much larger, I think. I’ve talked about this previously at length, but the Critical Shopper is one of my favorite things in the entire New York Times every week; it’s part of the Styles section, which is my favorite section of the Times and which basically every media blogger finds some way every week to deride as “irrelevant” or “ridiculous” or “worthless” or “stupid,” criticisms which have, of course, intensified exponentially in the wake of the JC Penny piece. These criticisms, while overly snarky and very easy to make, are often valid enough in their own way. When Chandler Burr was hired as the New York Times‘ perfume critic, the Columbia Journalism Review was one of many news outlets to do a story about how ridiculous it was for a newspaper to have a perfume critic “in this age of newsroom cutbacks and insufficient coverage of “gathering threats” overseas and at home.” That was back in 2005, when newspapers still, you know, had money and stuff, and this tension felt between “real journalism” and “unnecessary and frivolous” criticism has only intensified since then. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the argument that says if we only have a certain amount of money for our media that our priority should be to spend it on “important” things like government oversight and hard news and what have you, I get it. If you held a gun to my head, I would agree with you that, yes, of course, covering health care reform is much, much more important than publishing a review of a new fragrance by Dior (actually, I would probably insist on intense, round-the-clock coverage of the gun you were holding to my head, to be honest).
At the same time, though, I don’t think a world without poetry and art is really a world worth living in. Yes, something like perfume criticism or even critical shopping is completely and totally unnecessary and irrelevant, but it’s kind of wonderfully unnecessary, it’s gloriously irrelevant, it’s this great privilege we’re given to watch a very clever person’s mind deal with a stupid and frivolous thing and it’s a privilege I don’t really want to live without. You can say that makes me shallow, you can say I should care about more important things in the world, more serious things, and you’re right, I can’t argue with that, but I also can’t change how I feel, I can’t change what gives me pleasure and what doesn’t, and the Critical Shopper column is one of the most pleasurable reading experiences available to me every week. In the most recent Critical Shopper, Mike Albo describes the experience of visiting Hollister, another chain store that any mall denizen of a certain age is familiar enough with. Here is just one paragraph of his critique:
“On the way down I stopped in the fragrance room and sampled the Laguna Beach body mist. It smelled like Jolly Ranchers being breathed on my face by Hayden Panettiere. Here the store also sells its California fragrance, which is spritzed on the mannequins every hour; it’s a noxious concoction that, I assume, is distilled from mink sex glands and the tears of broken-hearted teenage girls.”
I had been enjoying the essay up until that point but this Hayden Panettiere simile was the thing that really drove me over the top, pleasure-wise, the cherry on top of this sundae of an essay. You could go back through the archives of the Critical Shopper and find at least a couple shining sections like this in every single piece and very likely a whole bunch more, gleaming gems of sentences and haute couture phrasings, ginned-up descriptions and fizzy, ephemeral tones, clever voices and news ways of thinking and feeling about the world all centered around and focused on something as ordinary as clothes, these patch-work bits of prose that serve to defamiliarize and recontextualize the simple pieces of fabric that we wear on our bodies every day to cover up our nakedness.
It’s funny, because all these Critical Shopper essays are, in a way, like science fiction to me; they describe a world which is almost completely alien to my own, like a distant planet I can see up in the sky on a clear night. I don’t come from a ton of money and I will very likely never have a ton of money because I live in a world short on money and I’ve chosen a life that will not logically lead me to having much money in the future. Whatever, this is not a poverty pissing contest, there are many people who have lives that are much, much harder than mine, I’m not complaining at all. Besides, I think not growing up rich has been really good for me in all the obvious ways; I was raised by my parents was to not define myself by how much stuff I had, what I wore or how I looked, that it was what I did and thought and learned that was really important. As a result of my upbringing, though, I’ve never spent much on clothes. When I was a kid, I remember shopping at Belks and Walmart and JC Penney, which I think Cintra Wilson rightly derides for being ugly and provincial, even though it provided the clothes of my childhood; when I was an adolescent, I moved on to Old Navy and the Gap, those faux-cool arbiters of lower middle class un-style; when I was in college, I went to thrift stores and vintage stores and back to the mall again; when I lived in Korea, where my dollar counted for more than in the states, I went to Uniqlo and shopped from cramped, small stalls in underground markets and malls. I can think of exactly one time in my entire life that I have spent more than seventy five dollars on an article of clothing (a perfectly fitting suit jacket in a Japanese department store which I spent the equivalent of $200 on, holding my breath as I handed over the cash; a button fell off the first time I wore it). I’m kind of a little embarrassed to admit all of this, worried what you’ll think of me, what some random stranger in “New York” might think about me and my sartorial poverty, and then I’m embarrassed to be embarrassed, that I’ve so internalized these silly notions of class and worth and beauty that I even care about them, that they take up space in my head that I could devote to more useful stuff. The truth is, I would be anxious and afraid to even just walk ino the stores that are reviewed in these columns I read every week, scared that the people inside of them would be able to instantly tell that I didn’t belong, that I wouldn’t buy anything, that I couldn’t really afford to be there. The glittery, shimmering objects that are described in the Critical Shopper are things which are very literally out of my reach; I will probably never touch, just physically touch any of the things I read about there, much less own them or maybe even be friends with the kind of people who own them. I can’t buy any of these stupid, expensive things because I don’t have that kind of money, the money it takes to buy them.
But all that doesn’t matter so much to me because I what I can do is read beautiful sentences about them written by great writers and imagine the things for myself, see them in my mind’s eye, inside. Because in the space of imagination anything is possible, I can do all that for free, it doesn’t cost me anything but it still gives me something for my nothing, some nice feeling inside that I can enjoy for a moment, a gap to fill a lack. All I may be doing by doing this kind of Styles section reading is empty consumption, taking in worthless words about worthless things that don’t help me improve myself or improve the world around me in any way, empty thoughts about stupid possessions in pursuit of pure, frivolous pleasure, but, you know, whatever, I don’t care, these words make me and other people happy and if they make us happy, that means they have some worth, even if they don’t discuss the intricacies of important contemporary issues or are perfectly politically correct and socially responsible or are even completely cruelty-free, as Cintra Wilson’s last column probably wasn’t. I’m looking at the Wikipedia page on Michael Pollan and thinking now after reading it and his wonderful article that maybe my impression of him was stupid and wrong; the summary of his latest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, describes arguments “that the reductive analysis of food into nutrient components is a flawed paradigm.” Apparently, in the book, he “questions the view that the point of eating is to promote health, pointing out that this attitude is not universal and that cultures that perceive food as having purposes of pleasure, identity, and sociality may end up with better health.” I agree with all this reductive simplification of his ideas that I’ve pasted from Wikipedia, I really do. Sometimes food doesn’t have to be nutritious and healthy, sometimes it doesn’t have to be ethically sourced and fair trade, sometimes it doesn’t have to fill you up and make you stronger and better and healthier, sometimes it just has to taste really good and make you happy to eat it because it tastes so good, make you so happy because of its good taste that you want to share its goodness and happiness with another person, the way I’m sharing this Michael Pollan essay with you, the way it’s on the table between us and we’re talking about it and enjoying it together, you and me. These words taste good and sometimes that’s all we need.
August 25, 2009
“So far as he is serious, the artist is continually tempted to sever the dialogue he has with an audience. Silence is the furthest extension of that reluctance to communicate, that ambivalence about making contact with the audience which is a leading motif of modern art, with its tireless commitment to the “new” and/or the “esoteric” Silence is the artist’s ultimate other-worldly gesture; by silence, he frees himself from servile bondage to the world, which appears as patron, client, audience, antagonist, arbiter, and distorter of his work.
– Susan Sontag, the aesthetics of silence.
“I say catastrophe is an answer because I believe cliché is a question. We resort to cliché because it’s easier than trying to make up something new. Implicit in it is the question, Don’t we already know what we think about this? Don’t we have a formula we use for this? Can’t I just send a standard greeting card or paste in a snapshot of what it was like rather than trying to come up with an original drawing? During the five months of her trial Joan persistently chose the term voice or a few times counsel or once comfort to describe how God guided her. She did not spontaneously claim that the voices had bodies, faces, names, smell, warmth or mood, nor that they entered the room by the door, nor that when they left she felt bad. Under the inexorable urging of her inquisitors she gradually added all these details. But the storytelling effort was clearly hateful to her and she threw white paint on it wherever she could…”
“We are surrounded by seemingly innocuous clichés…whose repetition deadens language…We’ve gotten used to sounds too meaningless to be truly numbing but too common to remain constant irritants; such formulaic phrases are the trash of language, a byproduct of failed thought, an attempt to give the appearance of saying something while generating verbal anonymity.”
– Ann Beattie, ambient sound in fiction. (audio)
– Nina Simone, time in music.
– Me, making a stupid, tired joke.
August 25, 2009
“I once read a Chekhov story which described a minor character as ‘trying to snatch from life more than it can give’; maybe I have turned into such a person, unable to accept what is given, always trying to tear things up in order to find what is ‘real’, even when I don’t know what ‘real’ is, unable to maintain the respect, the dignity of not asking too much or even looking too closely at the workings of the heart, which, no matter how you look, can never be fully seen or understood.”
Mary Gaitskill, “Lost Cat”
Last week, I had the worst panic attack that I’ve ever had in my life. I’ve had plenty of panic attacks in my life before last week, but, maybe because of this regularity, I had gotten so used to dealing with them that they didn’t really, you know, “panic” me anymore; a panic attack had become a simple, physical thing that I would quickly and easily deal with through breathing and concentration, as simple as popping a pimple. This panic attack last week was different, though, different mainly because it was never-ending and uncontrollable and made me feel very sure that I was going to die very soon. I believed completely and totally and literally last Friday afternoon that I would either die that day or that something even worse would happen (like I would, because I was uninsured, rack up tens of thousands of dollars worth of medical bills which would bankrupt my family and ruin their lives in the process of my dying, that I would “take them down with me”). No matter how badly or sadly I’ve felt at various points before in my life, I’ve never felt anything like I did then, not even close, I’ve never felt I was going to die. Thankfully and luckily and wonderfully (there are never enough stupid adverbs to describe being alive), I was helped and supported and given medication and reassurance and love and didn’t die and am still alive and living and et cetera and no longer think I’m going to die (at least any time soon), though it took me several days after the attack to get to this point of not feeling constantly like I was going to die anymore and I am still working pretty actively to not have this feeling.
Now that I don’t constantly feel like I’m going to die anymore, though, I keep having the urge to write about the experience of feeling like I was going to die, which seems like a pretty significant experience in my life and an interesting one, too, an experience with many facets which I would like to explore in language and thought. When I think about my experience in this writerly context, I think there are so many good images and thoughts and scenes in it, and by good I mean “affecting” and “sensual” and “interesting,” I mean good in a literary context, not good in a more general sense, since there was nothing really “good” about my experience in a more general sense, it was horrible and awful. Though I am actively trying to avoid actively thinking about dying right now at this moment, I just can’t help myself, I keep finding myself writing down stray phrases and sentences and images which I think will make good parts of this essay I will eventually write about the day I felt like I was dying, I keep finding myself creating outlines and making mental notes and then stopping myself from doing so, stopping writing because I’m afraid to start.
I’m afraid to start writing this essay about the experience of feeling like I was going to die because I’m afraid that writing about the experience of feeling like I was going to die will make me feel that way again and that’s a way I don’t want to feel again, especially not right now, with it so soon in the past behind me that I’m not even sure it’s over. I feel like in order to really write this essay well, and by “well” I mean in a way which is “affecting” and “sensual” and “interesting,” and has a literary quality, not “well” in the medical sense of “well-being,” I feel like in order to write it “well,” I will have to make myself feel the way I felt then, when I felt like I was dying and couldn’t breathe and couldn’t think and just sat on the hard tile floor holding my chest and shaking. I am struggling with this issue some because while I feel that writing about my feelings will likely help me “get over” them in various significant ways, I will have to go through them in order to do so, go through in order to get over them, and I don’t know if I’m “strong” enough to do that right now, though to use the word “strong” in that cliched emotional context offends me deeply as a writer even though I feel its truth as a person. I’ve always hated the idea of “writing as therapy”; even though I write about myself and my feelings often, I am always more concerned with craft and metaphor and image and rhythm and form, not with anything like “expressing myself.” Most of the time when I’m afraid or anxious about writing, which is often, it’s that I’m afraid or anxious that I’m writing badly (in the literary sense) or about things which aren’t “affecting” or “sensual” or “interesting”: it’s a confidence problem, really. The odd thing about this experience I’m having right now is that I have none of my usual problems with confidence; I somehow know that I can write this story of feeling like I was going to die really well, I know that I can describe it in a powerful and affecting and interesting way, I’m not worried about that at all. I’m just kind of scared, I think maybe, of how well I can write it, I guess, I’m scared of writing it so well that in the process of doing so I will be inside of it again and that’s not a place I want to be or a place I want to take any other person. It is very difficult to feel like the thing that makes you the happiest in the world is also the thing that makes you the saddest and that is where I am right now, stuck in the middle with you.
I am afraid to write right now and so I read instead. This morning, I read the story “Lost Cat” by Mary Gaitskill in Granta. I read the story because the story has been popular in the sections of the Internet that I read regularly and also because when I was about twenty, I read the Mary Gaitskill short story collection Bad Behavior and thought that it was by far the best short story collection that I had ever read, though afterward I found that I never really loved any of Mary Gaitskill’s other books in the same way, save maybe for Two Girls, Fat and Thin, which I thought was very entertaining but not nearly as “good” as Bad Behavior. Mary Gaitskill’s other books, like her novel Veronica, especially, were just too dark for me and too sad, maybe, they took me into places where I didn’t want to be; I stopped reading Veronica after reading just a little bit of it because I just couldn’t handle feeling the way it made me feel anymore. Even though I thought that Mary Gaitskill was an amazing writer who described these dark places of hers very well, who could write exquisite shadows and the most beautiful wounds in the world, I didn’t want shadows or wounds from writing, I wanted words that would me feel full and happy and whole, not the other way around.
This morning, I read “Lost Cat” and I loved it and I thought that it was so sad and good and beautifully written; reading it reminded me of how much I had loved Bad Behavior when I was younger even though this essay was so much more complex and sprawling and mature than any of the stories in that book had been. Near the middle of “Lost Cat,” on the fourth page, Mary Gaitskill introduces the story of two children that she and her husband have spent time with for several years as part of this program called the Fresh Air Fund. As I read this part, I was reminded of hearing Mary Gaitskill tell the same story about the children in a radio interview I had listened to with her a few months ago, an interview she did in June to promote her latest collection of stories, Don’t Cry. It turns out that Mary Gaitskill has written and spoken about these children at various lengths in several different places: in the Washington Post in 2005, she wrote a story about her experience with them called “Love Lessons“; in O Magazine in 2008 she wrote a much shorter story about the kids which also introduced the narrative of “the lost cat” called “Letting Go – The Lost Cat“; in Granta this month, she wrote the very long story that I read this morning, “Lost Cat,” which is about her experience with the children and the cat and a lot of other stuff, life and death and everything else.
In these different versions of the same stories, similar moments appear and reappear variously in scene and summary, they are shifted and molded and cast in different colors and tones, are painted with different words and phrases; the names of the children at the stories’ centers change from “Christopher” and “Isaiah” (in the Post story) to vague, unnamed “Dominican kids” (in the O Magazine piece) to “Cezar” and “Ezekiel” (in the Granta story). This is not some James Frey kind of thing; besides those names, nothing of the concrete world changes in the different stories, just the writer’s perceptions of events that she’s experienced, her thoughts and feelings and memories and the way she tells them to us, what she decides to give us and what she decides to leave out and how she decides to put it all together.
Reading the different versions of the stories of the kids, I was somewhat reminded of the controversy in 2007 about the difference between the Lish and Carver versions of Raymond Carver’s most famous stories, which ones were better, which were more “complete” and “true.” I know that when I first heard Mary Gaitskill tell the anecdote about spending time with the kids in the radio interview, I thought it was kind of interesting or whatever but I was also kind of bored and wanted her to get back to talking about literary technique and how she wrote her stories, the things I wanted to hear from her at that time. “Love Lessons,” the Post story, is a good enough essay (and when I say “good enough,” I mean “much, much better than I could write”), but some of it in places seems crude and detached, the dialogue is off, somehow, the scenes aren’t quite as believable and true and clearly and perfectly rendered as they are in the later “Lost Cat” in Granta, you just don’t feel as close to their teller or the things she’s feeling or thinking or experiencing. When she was talking about the kids in the radio interview I listened to a couple months ago, Mary Gaitskill stopped her narration of her experience with the kids several times to say something like “I can’t really describe it” or “I can’t really explain it,” and this was after she had already written out and published this story several times; she still just couldn’t get it out the way she wanted to, she still couldn’t say it right.
Ever since I told my family last week that I thought I was going to die, my mother, who is the one who saved me from feeling like I was going to die by just being a great mother to me in general but also by taking me to the doctor and having him tell me I wasn’t going to die also and then give me medicine which helped me get rid of the feeling that I was going to die, my mother has stressed the importance of talking about how I feel inside to her and to others. “You have to tell us how you feel,” she said. Talking about the way I feel has always been difficult and complicated for me and I anticipate that this will not change easily or quickly or just by reading something in a magazine or on the Internet, but I found it helpful in the middle of this experience of mine, this really bad situation, to see how Mary Gaitskill navigated the difference between talking about something and writing about that same thing in different forms, to see how how she has over a period of time processed and reprocessed the material of her life into words to make it all into this story I read this morning, this story about a lost cat and some kids and stuff which helped distract me for a little while from thinking about feeling like I was going to die.
August 24, 2009
Every day at eight o’clock in the morning, the alarm in the kitchen goes off and the dog goes to it and I go to it and I turn it off and she turns around and then we go away and back to whatever we were doing before it went off, the routine finished, the day resumed, time ticking along at a regular rhythm. Whatever we were doing before the alarm went off is usually reading the newspaper (me) and sleeping (her). The alarm that bothers us by going off is caused by the watch in the kitchen, a cheap digital watch with a pale green face that my mother bought at a discount store so that it would be possible for the various members of the family to know what time it is when we are under the water in the ocean, though we rarely take it into the ocean and mostly just leave it in the kitchen, on edge of the counter, where the alarm goes off every day. The thing about the alarm going off every day is that because the alarm goes off at a certain pitch or with some particular combination of audible and inaudible harmonics, it bothers the dog somehow, it affects her, and because it bothers the dog somehow, it bothers me somehow, we are both bothered, and this bothering does not go away until the alarm is turned off and so that’s what I do every morning, hear it go off and turn it off and then go on living at a regular rhythm, the day resumed, like sand through the hourglass and et cetera. This has become a normal and expected thing, a repeated beat, a regular song and dance routine. When the alarm first started going off, the dog and I were both surprised to be bothered by the alarm but now we (or at least I, since I’m not sure really what the dog thinks or feels or if she has the capacity for such memory) are regularly bothered by it, we are routinely bothered, we are conditioned to be bothered.
There seems to be no way to turn off the alarm. Initially, of course, there were instructions that came with the watch which probably explained this process clearly and efficiently in a technical manner but we no longer have the instructions because I threw them away with the packaging for the watch on the day that the watch was purchased, because how complicated could a cheap watch be, I thought. At first, the alarm went off at midnight, an important and significant time for most electronic devices which contain time-keeping elements, but now it goes off at eight o’clock in the morning because one night when it woke me up at midnight, I got up and went over to it in the darkness and mashed a certain mysterious combination of buttons which lit the face of the watch and my face in the glow of the watch’s face and made me able to change the time of the alarm from midnight to eight o’ clock in the morning somehow. I don’t know how I did this and I also don’t know why I chose eight o’ clock in the morning as the time that the alarm should go off; it was an unconscious or at least a subconscious decision, some automatic operation of my mind and body in concert that I wasn’t really in control or aware of. Occasionally in the morning after the alarm has gone off, when I am completely or at least mostly conscious and therefore in control and aware, as much as we or I can be those things, I press at the buttons on the watch in order to try to affect the alarm in some way, either to turn it off or to turn it down or at least to change the time at which it goes off to another time. This is how buttons on things are supposed to work: you press them and a certain response happens, there is input and there is output, action and reaction. These buttons don’t seem to work that way.
The sound of my phone ringing makes the rhythm of my heart go up by about ten BPM, I’m pretty sure, though I haven’t tested this with either a doctor or metronome. I think that my phone ringing also contracts my lungs slightly, that it dries my throat and tightens my shoulders and almost instantly does certain other small and slightly unpleasant things to parts of my body that I can’t really control, things that the sound of the tone from the phone automatically enacts in me without my even thinking about it at all. It doesn’t matter if I’m expecting a call or if I’m not expecting a call, if I want to talk to someone or if I don’t want to talk to someone, whether I’m in a good or bad mood or not in a mood at all, my physiological response is the same, my body reacts to the sound in this particular way, ring ring. There is this condition I read about called “email apnea” where apparently when many people check their e-mail they actually stop breathing for a moment or two as they check it, just do not breathe, apparently, and this is, you know, bad for them and causes stress or death or other serious health problems. I don’t think I’ve ever really experienced this phenomenon but I have my phone ring thing and I think maybe it’s kind of similar, though maybe not, who can tell, I’m not a doctor. I’m not a doctor but I don’t think this is some sort of pyschological disorder or something, really, like it doesn’t ever stop me from answering the phone or talking to someone or anything like that, it’s just this reflex that I feel somewhere inside when the phone rings and I hear its sound. I’m constantly changing the ringer on my phone, in the hopes of finding a ringer that might bother me less and make this response disappear, a ringer that I would be happy to hear, would want to hear, even, but I’ve never found one good enough to make me want to hear it, not even close. Over the various phones I’ve had throughout my life, I’ve used various abstract chimes and synth melodies and recorded fragments of favorite songs, and while some do make me less whatever about the phone’s alarm, none of them make my body’s responses go away entirely. Right now what I have as my ringer is a recording of my own voice which says, in a calm and measured tone, “Your phone is ringing, someone is calling you, you should talk to them,” and this works okay for me, although other people sometimes find it disconcerting andor weird and so I mostly just keep my phone on vibrate (though even the sound of the vibration causes some discomfort). When I was a little kid, we had an old rotary telephone that had an analog ringer made of metal bells and it was so loud when it rang that it shook the end table that it was sitting on and you could hear it from any place in the house and even from outside sometimes, if you were sitting on the porch for example. Now we don’t have that phone, we just have all the various chirps and bongs and whacks of our own personal phones, the boom boom pows of contemporary telephony. My brother has a fragment of an Of Montreal song as his ringer for incoming calls, which he likes because he likes Of Montreal and has positive conscious and unconscious associations with the sound of them and so wants to hear them often, whenever people call him (tangentially (this is all tangential, but), tangentially I have positive associations with Of Montreal also but my brother’s ringer is the song “Suffer For Fashion” which has a very fast tempo and would probably give me a heart attack if it was my ringer on my own phone all the time). For a time last year after his phone broke, my father was using my brother’s old phone, which had Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side” as the ringer for incoming calls. My father personally liked this ringer because of certain associations with that song or with my brother or both but was embarrassed when it went off in public or in business meetings and people heard the tiny Lou Reed inside his phone sing, “Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side” to them and so eventually he changed it to a more generic ring. When I was in high school, I worked as a receptionist in the school office and so had to answer the phone often and was very quickly very good at answering the phone and dealing with “the community” and et cetera, even though I didn’t really like answering the phone or talking to the people on the other side of it or whatever, I was able to make my physical aversion to phone rings go away because I had to do the job. I think that maybe by answering the phone so often, I was able to create a new condition which overrode my preexisting conditioning and made me able to hear the phone ringing without feeling very uncomfortable and unhappy and physically different. Once I left this job, this conditioning was forgotten. There is the saying that “old habits die hard” but often old habits just die, because you don’t do them anymore and so they are no longer habits.
I don’t know if what I dislike most about a ringing telephone is the knowledge that there is person on the other end of the phone wanting to talk to me who I may or may not want to talk to (social) or an issue with the medium of the telephone in general and how that medium limits my personal expression (creative) or an aversion to the intrusion of digital alarms and alerts and technology in general into my daily life (societal) or just some abstract and mysterious combination of synapses firing and chemical being released in my brain (biological), I don’t know what it is, the thing that makes the telephone ringing annoy me the most of all sounds, I’m not sure, it’s weird, I know that, although you probably don’t need me to tell you that. You probably don’t need me to tell you any of this but here it comes anyway, right through your eyes and into your brain, word after word after word, and it just keeps coming and coming. My subconscious reaction to my phone ringing is unique among other daily sounds; I know, for example, that even though it represents a very similar intrusion into my personal space by another human being, the sound of a knock on the door doesn’t bother me in the way that the sound of a ringing phone bothers me (though, conversely, the sound of a knock on the door greatly bothers the dog, whereas she doesn’t even seem to notice or even hear a ringing telephone). I don’t know why all this is so or what it means particularly, if it means anything, which it probably doesn’t. Maybe I feel this distinction because a knock on the door is an intrusion into my physical space and a telephone ringing is an intrusion into my mental space and I more closely guard my mental space than my physical space, I care more about it? I’m not sure, who knows, who cares, here is a short story about somebody knocking on a door:
One day when I lived in Korea, a man knocked on the door of my apartment while I was drying off after taking a shower. I quickly wrapped my towel around my waist and opened the door and the man standing outside the door handed me a very large and heavy burlap sack full of rice and then turned and walked off down the hallway without saying a word. The door swung closed behind him and I just stood there in the foyer holding the rice, unsure of what had happened exactly or what I should do about it. I had not ordered a large and heavy burlap sack of rice for delivery as far as I could remember and didn’t know anyone who would have sent me such a thing as a gift or present. Part of me wanted to go after the man and give him the rice back, since I was worried he might get in trouble with his boss for misdelivering the rice, but I was wet and wearing a towel and besides I did not know how to say, “You have delivered this large and heavy burlap sack of rice to the wrong address” in Korean, I did not know anything like that. Eventually, I set the sack down on the floor and started to get dressed, thinking about things I could make to eat that would go with rice or if I could somehow maybe give the rice away to my students as “prizes.” About two minutes later, there was another knock on the door, and without even thinking, I picked up the sack of rice, opened the door, and handed the sack back to the man who was standing there, waiting for it. The man took the rice, nodded at me, and then walked off down the hallway without either of us saying a word to each other the whole time. This was one of the most effective and satisfying moments of communication I had with another human being in an entire year of living abroad.
These are the sounds that make the dog instantly and automatically get up and come over from across the room, no matter what she is doing at the time: the sound of the alarm on the watch, the sound of keys jangling on a ring or smacking against a countertop, the sound of the metal links of her collar clicking against each other, the sound of a knock on the front door, the sound of the front door opening (not the sound of the front door closing), the sound of the sliding glass doors to the balcony unsuctioning and being slid open (not the sound of them being closed), the sound of a plastic bag crinkling, the sound of a paper bag crumpling, the sound of food hitting her bowl (sometimes also the sound of food hitting the floor, if the sound is loud enough), the sound of one of the compartments in the refrigerator being opened (not the sound of the refrigerator itself being opened), the sound of tupperware unsealing (though this may be more the smell than the sound, I think), the sound of the vacuum cleaner vacuuming or just being rolled across the tile floor (this sound actually sends her running in the opposite direction, as opposed to the other sounds previous listed; the sound of a large bag of grocery store ice being slammed against the countertop to break it into cubes also does this), the sound of me doing or undoing the velcro on a pair of my swim trunks, the sound of my father doing the same, the sound of any pair of shoes being tied, the sound of her toy squirrel squeaking if it is stepped on, the sound of other people out in the hallway, the sound of a voice calling her name.
I condition my hair every day of the week but I shampoo it only about twice a week. If you’re bored you should just stop reading now, don’t bother going any further. This conditioning and shampooing routine is a thing that I do without even thinking about it, really, though it is an important thing, I think, thought I don’t really think about it or its importance either way very often or at all except now in order to make some words about it. There are reasons behind the particularity of the routine, I’m pretty sure, but I don’t remember exactly what they are or where they came from, I just do the routine because it’s my routine and my routine is the thing I do because it’s the thing I’ve done, I condition every day and shampoo about twice a week. This routine has been my shampooing and conditioning routine for years and years, ever since well I can’t remember exactly, though I think it has to do with something my hairdresser told me once when I was younger. I have thick curly hair that has a tendency to be emotionally and spiritually unruly and once when I was younger my hairdresser who used to be a graphic designer told me something about how I should not shampoo very often in order to avoid ‘frizz’ and general dryness and I extrapolated his vague and general advice somehow into my very particular routine, which I have followed for a long time without even thinking about it much, though I guess I think about it enough to follow it, just not enough to question it, a sort of calm, routine faith without torment or angst. My (former) hairdresser used to be a graphic designer and I used to like knowing this fact, as if my hair was art and the salon was a studio; now sometimes Sharon Stone flies my hairdresser in to do her hair for special events and I’m proud of this, that someone who once did my hair sometimes does Sharon Stone’s hair, I like knowling this fact, even though my hair’s not like Sharon Stone’s at all, I like knowing this fact because she’s a celebrity and that makes her hair interesting and makes interesting someone who does her interesting hair once did my hair, too. If in the Autobiography Gertrude had discussed Picasso’s hair care regimen people would have been very interested in reading about it because he’s a celebrity, although at the same time if Gertrude had described her hair care regimen in the Autobiography people would probably not be very interested in (or as interested in) reading about Gertrude’s hair care regimen because she wasn’t a celebrity (or at least wasn’t a celebrity like Picasso was a celebrity), and what I like to think about this is that the difference between me and Sharon Stone is the same as the difference between Gertrude and Pablo, though that really overrates me and and underrates Pablo, for sure, and anyway this line of thought is stupid since the salons Gertrude held were different than the salons where I get my hair cut, you know. When my hairdresser told me to stop using shampoo often, I had very, very long hair so the concerns he raised about “frizz” and general dryness were more serious and made the routine more important to me then, but even now, when I have very, very short hair and these concerns are not so great, when I don’t even have enough hair to “frizz,” really, I still follow the routine because it’s my routine and my routine is the thing I do because it’s the thing I’ve always done. We all have a lot of these kind of routines and follow them without thinking about them much at all because if we had to think about everything in the world all the time we would never get anything done, not even simple things like shampooing our hair or getting dressed much less the economy and insurance and war and et cetera, but we don’t think about our routines really because we can’t because we’re too busy living and being people in the world, that takes up a lot of time, living and being and et cetera, it doesn’t leave time for much else. The way my hair looks and feels the two days a week after I shampoo it is the best that my hair ever looks and feels and the difference is often kind of dramatic from the one day to the next, the pre-shampoo hair and the post-shampoo hair, women talk about bad hair days and the drama of those but as a man with short hair, I don’t really have those, I just have average hair days and then very good hair days, the days after I shampoo being my very good hair days and all other days being my average days. It would be nice if my hair could look and feel very good every day, I think, but I know from experiments with routine I’ve tried that if I shampooed my hair every day or even every other day that my hair would not be the way I want it to be owing to certain uncontrollable factors but besides all this to shampoo every day would mean a complete and total change to my routine and I don’t know if my brain or my hair, which is on top of my brain and hides it from the general population of the world, could handle this. Just like my brain, my hair has been conditioned to respond in a certain way, conditioned by conditioner, and so I only shampoo twice a week, though sometimes three times, I guess, sometimes three times by design, if I feel a personal need for a very good hair day that day, and sometimes three times by accident, if I lose track of time and movement and the progression of days, which is a thing that sometimes happens to me and everyone, I think, to lose track.
My family is trying to train our dog to to sit up on her hind legs independent of any support and stay sitting that way, balancing in the air as if she is a human person who exists in the vertical plane instead of a dog who lives in the horizontal. This is unnatural, yes, but also adorable, as are many things people try to make dogs do. I think this adorable and unnatural posture makes the dog look somewhat or very much like a meerkat in addition to looking in some ways (posture, poise) like a human person and so the command that I’ve associated via repetition with the training and conditioning we’ve been doing is called “meerkat.” This sitting up vertically on her hind legs independent of any support is an unnatural posture for the dog, who is also not a particularly small or thin or young dog or a dog who is in any real physical way like an actual meerkat, and so to get her to go into this position on command and stay up there without any physical support is taking a lot of training and conditioning and work and it’s all been difficult, if entertaining. The first phase of this “training” involved me making the dog sit (a bit of conditioning she had previously internalized, when she was just a baby) and then squatting behind her and pulling her up into a vertical position myself, my arms around her ribcage to support her, with me all the while repeating over and over again the word “meerkat,” in order to help create an association in her mind between the sound and the posture, a connection which might create a memory which might help her to react the way I wanted her to react, to create a new reflex inside of her as strong as any other. The second phase of the “training” involves using treats in order to coerce the dog into getting into the meerkat position herself, without any kind of physical support from me but only out of a desire for the treats, which I hold in front of her snout while saying “meerkat” in order to attempt to create another trained brain association, the idea that if she gets into the proper position and stays that way she will be rewarded. At first, I used standard dog treats and bits and scraps in order to drive this conditioning, but quickly realized that these were not ideal because as soon as the dog had the treat in her mouth, she would lose all interest in sitting up like a meerkat and would run away to sit under the coffee table and eat her treat (the dog is a bit of a hoarder). The solution I have found in order to make the dog stay in meerkat position longer is to give her treats which take longer to eat and so require her to stay vertical for a longer time to eat them, though this is far from an ideal solution and I am still looking for something better. The most effective treats I’ve found for keeping the dog in meerkat position are a metal spoon covered in a thin layer of sour cream and a small bowl which once held pasta and was coated with a residue of butter and/or Asiago cheese. With the inducements of these treats, the dog was able to stay unaided in the vertical position for over ten seconds, which is impressive, but the impressive effect was somewhat diminished by the fact that she was eating almost the whole time she was vertical and that once she had finished eating, she quickly dropped out of position. One of my reservations about the training system at present is that eating these treats is probably making the dog gain weight and I worry that as she gains weight, it will be yet harder for her to sit up unsupported in the vertical position, that even as her mental conditioning grows stronger and stronger, her physical conditioning will only become weaker and weaker and she will never progress in her training as a meerkat, she will never “make anything” of herself or “become” anything, the way that I would like her to. This is not an actual worry I have but just a sentence I wrote to fill a space. The third and final phase of the “training” is for the dog to go up into the meerkat position with only a verbal command, without any treat as an incentive, just by reflex and conditioning and training. This is not a thing which has happened yet, though we continue to try very hard every day, the both of us.
My younger brother visited the family recently on his vacation from college, where he is majoring in acting. At night, the two of us sat on the balcony and we looked out at the ocean and the traffic in the street and he smoked cigarettes that he bought at a gas station and I drank red wine that I bought at the grocery store and we enjoyed this. My mother has been angry and distressed that my brother smokes cigarettes ever since my brother started smoking cigarettes and told her about it, which was sometime last year, I think, though I’m not sure. I have for a while taken to trying to defend my brother’s habit from my mother’s criticism, maybe since I feel we all have habits and behaviors which we have conditioned ourselves to enjoy but which others might find bad or unhealthy or wrong for us. Cigarettes have always made me sick personally and I hate their smell and what it does to my clothes but I have a couple beers or a glass of wine or cocktail at the end of the day basically every day and I like this and find it relaxing and nice, the drinking routine and the effects that it has on me routinely. In the past, I drank more alcohol than this, sometimes much, much more, and sometimes in the past this seemed like a good and fun thing to do so, but certain events happened in my life to convince me that drinking a lot of alcohol is not right for me and is not a habit that I should have and so I stopped “binge drinking” and “getting drunk” completely and have not done so in a long time and am happy about this change in my life. Still, I like my moderate, measured, responsible daily drinking and find it is important somewhat to help me relax and “de-stress” and continue to do it in a routine way which seems fairly healthy and okay and might even be approved of by certain doctors or studies in peer-reviewed medical journals depending on which way the wind is blowing that particular day. One of the strange things to me about my drinking and my brain is that sometimes I don’t even have to have a sip of the drink that I’ve poured to begin to relax, I don’t even have to pour the drink, I just have to think about the fact that I’m having a drink and that does it for me, my shoulders unclench, my chest loosens; the physiological response to the concept of drinking and the relaxation it gives me is sometimes that strong, seriously. For a while, I had a similar reflexive response to Big Macs; when I was in college and smoking pot every day, I ate a lot of Big Macs, as is natural in such circumstances, and then later, after I had stopped smoking pot for a very long time, when I would occasionally eat a Big Mac, I would find myself having this strange feeling, as if I was high, not from the Big Mac but from the idea of the Big Mac and the mental associations with that idea that made my brain release certain chemicals and fire certain synapse which made feel a certain way, like I was high. I sometimes wonder about whether these reactions that I have are good things or bad things or if they are just natural things which is valueless and abstract.
Though I had defended my brother and his cigarette habit for a while for the complex reasons previously discussed, I have to say that the first time I watched my brother smoke, I completely changed my mind about his habit and decided that I thought he should stop immediately. The first time I watched my brother smoke, it was windy out and so he had to shield his cigarette and lighter with his hand in order to make it light and he did this and I found myself shocked and disturbed by how natural it was for him, how normal, like it was a thing he had done a thousand times and didn’t even have to think about it, which I guessed was true. As I watched him, I was reminded of all the times I’ve smoked cigarettes in my own life in the wind at night and how I always felt so unnatural doing this wind shielding and cigarette lighting motion and just all of it, really, the dealing with the hand business of how to hold and where to hold my cigarette and the lighter and once it was lit how to inhale correctly and exhale and ash and all the other associated behaviors and motions, how it was completely obvious to anyone watching me try to do these things that I was not a smoker because experience and training had not conditioned my body to smoke correctly and naturally the way a smoker does. My brother, though, he was lighting his cigarette and smoking this way in this natural practiced way and it scared me, he took the first inhale of his first cigarette and it was like a reflex, all the tension went out of his body, he fell back into his chair as he took the smoke inside of him, filled up like a balloon, and I saw it and the next day I saw him unconsciously hitting the top of his pack the way I’ve seen friends and acquaintances and people in bars do for whatever reason people do that and I was just like, oh, no, he doesn’t just smoke, he’s a smoker, and that scared me I guess because even though we all have habits and conditions, smoker often die from the their habits and conditions, and even though we’re all dying slowly in some way or for some reason or combination of reasons, me included, smokers often die in faster and much more unpleasant ways and they smell bad while doing it. I told my brother all these things and then poured myself another glass of wine
In the park, while we are walking together, the dog smiles. She smiles constantly, she is never not smiling when we are in the park together walking, she is always smiling, I think it would be impossible to make her face do anything else, even with force or violence, not that I would ever use force or violence of course since I love the way she smiles and want her to do it forever and always. Still, though, it is so much smiling. Occasionally the dog steps on sand spurs blown into the grass from the dunes and they catch in her fur and skin and this pains her, but though she may howl or limp, she does not stop smiling, she always smiles; even as I pull the tiny thorns out of the warm, soft inside of her paw, she smiles. When she pees, smiles, when she takes a shit, she smiles, when she chases after squirrels and birds, she smiles. Sometimes she stops smiling to chase a scent, because she has to close her mouth in order to smell more efficiently, I suppose, but as soon as she raises her head from the grass she is smiling again, always smiling.
At least that’s what it looks like she’s doing. She is showing her big and shiny teeth, her lips are rolled back, her eyes are sparkling, her tongue is lolling about, her tail is wagging; given these signifiers, I don’t know what else could you call this expression but a smile. People in the park look at her smiling face as she walks and smile at her and me and tell me, “Oh, she’s so cute/pretty/beautiful/et cetera.” People have praised my dog’s smile in English and French and Spanish. probably in other languages, too, and in most cases I smile back and/or say thank you to them. My dog is a much more social animal than I am and I don’t think she has ever met a person or animal she dislikes (besides squirrels and birds) and she always wants to meet everybody (even squirrels and especially birds) whereas I often dislike people and often am so closed off as a person that I don’t even give myself a chance to dislike them and I don’t want to meet them at all (although I have no problem with squirrels or birds). For aesthetic reasons, I have never liked the way my face looks in a neutral, constant smile and so very rarely do I walk around smiling like the dog does, but still I walk along beside her and let her smile be spread all over the world, for everyone to see, and I try to smile to match as much as I can, as much as my brain makes my body able to do, because I want to smile like her, because she looks so happy..
Yet despite the fact that I’ve been talking about the dog smiling so much and that other people have recognized it also, she is not really smiling, I don’t think, or at least she is not only smiling. The smile, I don’t think, is a thing she has chosen to do, the way people choose to smile at her, I think it is a conditioned response to activity, a reflex. The reason the dog’s mouth is open in such a way is not (or not only) because she is happy, but because it has to be open in such a way in order to enable her to breathe. She “smiles” because by walking in the park and being stimulated by the various stimuli there she has reached a certain level of aerobic activity which makes breathing through her nose inadequate and so she has to breathe through her mouth. In order to make this breathing possible, her body makes her mouth move into an open position, a position that looks like a smile to humans like me and the other people in the park, who often ascribe human traits to animals because that is our nature, to try to relate to other things by making them like us. That doesn’t mean that they necessarily are, though, however much we want to believe it. Maybe my dog isn’t smiling, maybe she is, maybe there is no such thing as smiling for dogs and this is an invisible mask that we place on their faces with our perceptions and language.
I can’t tell if the dog is smiling or if she’s simply breathing hard from exercise but sometimes what I like to think is that, for her, these things are one and the same, that her emotional responses are tied directly to certain physical stimuli, as if happiness were a reflex. I don’t know anything about science or biology or want to know really, there’s enough stuff in my head already, I just like to think my idea is true because I like my idea and it makes me feel good and I want to feel good about my idea and otherwise. I exercise almost every day, run and walk and swim, often doing the first two of these things with the dog, and I know almost every day that I am “happier” because I have exercised than I would be if I had not exercised, because exercise has made certain synapses in my brain fire which has caused the release certain chemicals in my body which make me feel happier or at the very least I have convinced myself through repetition and conditioning that this is true, that I am happier for having for having exercised. My physical way to happiness isn’t like my dog’s, though, the relationship between the two isn’t so direct and clean and sometimes it doesn’t work at all, sometimes the feeling of my body moving quickly through the world and experiencing various stimuli doesn’t make me happy, as much as I wish it did, my body just doesn’t work that way sometimes. People often ascribe human traits to animals, people try to relate to them by making them like us, and I do this too, sometimes, like trying to teach my dog to sit up vertically, but on the subject of happiness I don’t like to think that my dog is like a human, I don’t like to think that she is like me in anyway, I like to think instead that she is like a simple machine, instead, that all she has to do is push the happiness button and she automatically becomes happy, every time, without fail, action and reaction, input and output, as if happiness is a reflex. I like to think that that happiness is this simple for her, that the way my dog is always smiling when she’s out in the world and walking and smelling and seeing and feeling is because she’s always happy, that in these conditions she could be no other thing but happy. I don’t know anything about science or biology or whether this is true in any way but it’s what I like to think, anyway, because I love her.
I have prayed before every meal or snack or piece of food I have ever eaten for many years, despite the fact that for large stretches of this time I did not consider myself religious. If you consider that I eat on average four times a day and that I have prayed this way roughly every day for roughly seven years, this means that I have prayed about food alone more than ten thousand times just since I was sixteen or so, not counting any prayers before that. That’s a lot of times and a lot of prayers. Since I was a kid, the prayer that my family always said at meals was, “Bless us so Lord, in these thy gifts, which we are about to receive, from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.” I prayed this way when I was too young to have any real notions or feelings about spirituality and I prayed this way when I considered myself an atheist and I pray this way now, when I consider myself religious, though maybe not a Christian that the language of the prayer that I say before eating denotes. I didn’t and don’t really say this prayer out of feeling or desire or because I believe in the words of the prayer but simply out of conditioning and training, because it was what my family always did before we ate ever since I was a little kid, the way you wash your hands or putting your napkin in your lap; it was a learned behavior, nothing more, nothing less. Sometimes when I was a child I would be called on to lead the prayer at reunions and other large family gatherings and I would sometimes be momentarily terrified that I would forget the words, because the prayer had become such an unconscious thing that I couldn’t think of the words for it unless I was saying it in context. Just thinking of the words of it to write it out above was kind of difficult and took me a second and I’m an adult whose said it thousands of times. My grandfather and certain other members of the family crossed themselves when they said “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” but I never did this because in the moment I could never remember whether I was supposed to go to the left or the right first when crossing myself (I still don’t know). My parents only required prayer at family meals (not in public, at restaurants or friend’s houses, and not with snacks, which were apparently not important enough to require prayer), but when I was in high school, I decided to begin praying every single time I ate, no matter what I was eating or where I was or who I was with. I wouldn’t do the whole family prayer, though, which would have been embarrassing, I would just bow my head imperceptibly for a second and think about the idea of prayer and that would count as prayer, that would be enough for me and/or God. When I was in high school, for a time, I actually prayed between twenty and thirty times a day, even though I was at the time an avowed atheist and/or “secular humanist.” This contradiction didn’t really bother me, partially because I was a teenager and teenagers constantly contradict themselves as part of the natural process of adolescence, but also because I didn’t pray then in the way you think of prayer, which is a verbal or at least lingual thing addressed to whatever person or thing it is you’re praying to, in which you either talk or think or recite from memory some combination of words which is meant to mean something either to yourself or that person or thing you’re praying to or both, words which created an effect, action and then reaction. The way I “prayed” then, when I was doing it thirty or forty times a day, which was a lot of times, to be sure, too many times, was kind of like the way I prayed before meals: I silently put my palms together, closed my eyes for a fraction of second, like blinking, and then opened my hands and eyes again, finished in an instant, ready to resume the day. Before I started praying like this, I once had a teacher in high school who said, discussing the separation between church and state, “You’ll never get rid of prayer in schools as long as there are tests in schools” and everyone laughed at this because it was folksy, homespun wisdom delivered with a smile. I never really prayed over tests, since who gives a shit, really, but mostly prayed over various small moments in my day where I felt that I needed love or support or some kind of divine intervention, because I was afraid that something was or wasn’t going to happen if I didn’t pray right at that particular moment. When I went to college, I became a lot happier and more whole than when I was in high school and I stopped praying in this repeated and constant way and I have never started doing so in this way again, even in difficult times when I’ve been very sad, I don’t pray that way anymore because I think it’s the wrong way to pray, partially because it was prayer only about myself and not about other people, which are who prayer is supposed to be mostly about, I think, and also because it was just too much, too many times, like if my prayers had a message I think they were diluted by this tiny constant pinging of the heavens, this way of praying (now I only pray at night and before meals, which is “more reasonable” to me). What I couldn’t figure out about my prayers back in high school is if I was really and truly religious and spiritual and believing or if I just had a mild case of undiagnosed obsessive compulsive disorder, a disordered desire for conditioning and routine and habit, an irrational belief that a repeated action would cause a certain reaction, input and output. This is a paradox I never resolved completely, since how could I, but at this point my thoughts and beliefs have evolved enough to make having an answer unimportant to me.
As you read, your mind becomes conditioned by the words and their combination and you begin to see patterns emerging and hidden things coming into focus, lines being drawn from one place to another and certain areas being highlighted in color and shade and light. You begin to feel that you understand where things will go because you have seen where they have been and where they are going, you are at the same time following and leading the words that you read. There is the common expression “train of thought,” as though thought is a thing that you can ride from one place to another, from the start and down a long and winding road to some eventual conclusion, the end of the narrative, the last stop. There is the common expression “it’s like riding a bike” which is about doing things after you’ve trained yourself to do them and how easy and free they become to do then, how nice and wonderful and good and fun. The conditioning you create in your mind by reading exists in the macro sense (how you read in general) as well as in the micro sense (how you read a specific writer or a specific work or a specific word) and this conditioning helps you to read more and better and differently. It is such a simple process, this, as simple as walking or biking or riding a train, you read a sentence and then you read another sentence and, as you progress through these various combinations of words, you become stronger and faster and different, you have thoughts which you couldn’t have had before you had read so much, things which before you wouldn’t have been able to notice or understand or use, yet now these thoughts emerge and come into focus and can be thought by you and held in your mind and rotated so that different angles may be seen. The other day I listened to an interview with this writer in which the writer was talking about a book that she had written that I had loved but that not many other people loved and in talking about how many people didn’t love her book, the writer said that what she thought the reading experience should be like is not walking or biking or riding a train but like being an amateur musician who plays a piece of music written by someone else. You sit at your personal instrument with the other person’s piece of music, she said, and you try to play it to the best of your abilities, you do what you can to make the notes sound and sing and ring out through the air around you. The more pieces you play, she said, and the more you work at playing them, the better and more perfectly you can do so, the more talented and conditioned you become as player, and because of this work and conditioning you will find that you can enjoy the process and the playing and the music all the more wholly and fully. Maybe it is true that you will find you are even able to take some very, very boring piece of music, like an aria about shampoo, and because you are such a good reader from all your practice and work you will be able to make even this thing interesting and fun and a worthwhile experience for yourself. Of course, maybe you can’t make this happen and maybe this isn’t your fault, maybe the piece of music just isn’t good enough to satisfy you and its author has wasted your time with all his stupid lyrics about shampoo and/or conditioner, his weak melody and repetitive rhythms, but you don’t know that unless you’ve tried it (just like he didn’t know, either, until he tried it) and sometimes you find that the act of trying can be satisfying even if the thing you’re trying isn’t worth your attention, whatever anything is worth. In this model of reading as play, you can only get from things what you bring to them as player, you have to take an active role in the process in order to be satisfied, and the more active role you take, the more satisfied you will probably be. Personally, I liked this analogy about writing and reading and playing music that the author of the unpopular book talked about, and what I liked most I think is not the idea itself but is that when the writer described the idea, my mind automatically made this connection, drew this line through the fog and history and darkness inside of me, and I realized that this music thing might not have been the writer’s own original idea but perhaps an idea she borrowed from something written by Barthes, from an essay he wrote about music in a popular book he wrote about images and music and text, a book I read when I was in college and kind of vaguely remember, though I smoked a lot of pot at the time. When I was in college, I read a lot of Barthes and he was one of my “favorite writers,” I thought, except the thing was I didn’t actually read a lot of Barthes because his writing was often too complicated and difficult for me to understand and really “read,” so I more “looked at” him than read him, if that makes sense, if you know what I mean. I would get a stack of his books from the library, which was always easy because mostly no one else was checking them out, and then I would take my stack home and just open one or another of them on a table and try at reading it, running my eyes over the words and turning the pages, tracing the footnotes, drawing lines and seeing connections, but honestly I think really I ended up looking at them more than reading them, seeing the words instead of understanding them, and though I may have gained a certain level of fitness from this activity and learned something and been made better for it, the way all exercise is in some way valuable, I was never able to make myself read Barthes the way that I wanted to read him, the way I thought I should, the way I thought was ideal and good. Maybe this was his fault, and maybe it was mine; maybe it was nobody’s fault at all and not a thing that anybody should worry about, I don’t know. I didn’t “get much” from the experience but I was still happy enough to have had it, I would still rather have had it than not had it even though I guess by most rational metrics it was a “worthless” experience, like reading ever has any real worth, but you know what I mean.
This is all getting so long and worthless and I feel really wrong about it, to keep going on like this, it is like such TMI but not the good kind of TMI like where someone is telling you a convoluted anecdote about something really interesting like an embarrassing sexual encounter or the physical comedy of bodily functions, but just in the formal sense of too much information, I just keep giving you more and more of it, right, piling on the words and their combinations and it seems like a lot of it is very boring and not important or things you need to know that will help you in your life, that will have “worth” for you, whatever that means, that will not be “worthless.” I looked up TMI in the encyclopedia and it turns out TMI does not only mean “too much information” like we think it does and use it when talking to each other but also stands for something else, which is “transmarginal inhibition,” which is “the body’s natural response of shutting down when exposed to overwhelming stress or pain…to overwhelming stimuli.” The pioneering research on TMI was done by Pavlov, the scientist who studied reflexes and reactions, most famously making a dog’s mouth water by ringing a bell. When Pavlov rang a bell, his trained dog’s mouth watered because he’d trained it to do so by ringing a bell when he fed it. TMI, the encyclopedia says, is worst in people who are “highly sensitive persons,” of which I think I am one, since “highly sensitive persons” apparently “process sensory data much more deeply and thoroughly due to a biological difference in their nervous systems” and a highly sensitive person is the kind of person I am, maybe, either in the metaphorical or clinical sense. I wonder if my TMI, the kind I’m giving you now, is a response to the other kind of TMI, the kind that maybe I’ve felt at some or many or all times of my life, this feeling, this way of being in the world and being affected by the world. I don’t know, I’m not a doctor or psychiatrist but I am a writer and an editor. I’m a writer and an editor I know that this thing I’m giving you is not the way things given are supposed to be, aesthetically, editorially, but this is the way I can make them right now, this is what I have to offer. I sit here and I think that I should cut out the parts of this thing which are boring and compress this essay for you, make it smaller and neater and tighter in order to for it to be more aesthetically and editorially perfect, more compressed, more “worthwhile,” but then I think probably that if I cut out the boring parts of this then there would be nothing left at all and this is a thing that I think is true of life, too, not just what you are reading here but the world around the words, too. The way I am trying to make myself see this thing and make you see it is that the more information I give you, the more time we get to spend together in this space, in this place where I promise nothing bad will happen to you and everything will be okay, even if it won’t be funny or exciting or surprising, even if it’s just boring and quiet and still. Would you rather have a crazy and amazing hour with someone you love or would you rather have a pretty decent week with them? Personally, I would rather have the week, but that’s me, you might be different, although if you’ve read this far I don’t think you are, I think maybe you’re like me, thank goodness, bless you, I’m sorry if you’ve had a bad day so far, try to relax, okay? The kind of reading you’ve been doing here in this space isn’t that exciting or amazing I know, but I’m making myself think about it like the expression “it’s like riding a bike.” Sometimes when you’re riding a bike you’re not riding anywhere in particular and you’re not looking at anything in particular and it is by all accounts a boring and worthless experience and yet it still makes you kind of happy anyway, to pedal along down the road aimlessly and ride around in circles, it is a satisfying experience, isn’t it? Isn’t it? I hope so but I worry that it’s not, which is the way I almost always feel about myself around most other people, but like I said, you’ve given me a lot of time and thought and so I’m trying to trust you, even though it’s hard for me.
I get this e-mail every day now which sends me about a thousand words of Swann’s Way, which is a very long novel of a highly sensitive person’s life and thoughts. I have received a hundred and ten of these e-mails so far, so I have received about a hundred and ten thousand words of Swann’s Way, give or take a few. This is really a lot of words, even for someone like me who likes to read. I would like to think that I am being conditioned to read Swann’s Way by this daily reception of it and all its words, the way I described reading conditioning working before, but you know what, I’m not reading it, not really, not the way I want to or think I should, that I think would be the right way to read it. Every day, I let my eyes run over the words that are delivered, the entire thousand words or so, but most of the time my eyes don’t catch on much of anything and the words disappear and I forget them and then they’re gone. Lately, I’ve looked every day at the words of description of Swann’s life and thoughts (before that, I looked everyday at the description of the other character, Marcel, and his life and thoughts) and I guess you could call what I’ve done with those words “reading,” though I think that would be a stretch, probably. Most of the time I don’t really read, I think, because most of the time I find Swann’s life and thoughts kind of boring, the way most of our lives and thoughts are kind of boring. Swann’s life and thoughts are less boring than my life and thoughts, probably, almost certainly, though he is a fictional character in a novel and so that makes the contest between the two of us somewhat unfair, I think (I also get daily delivery of Montaigne’s Essays which describe his life and thoughts and he was a real person and yet still probably is also less boring than me in both life and thought, sadly). Anyway, Swann’s life and thoughts are most of the time boring to me but sometimes when I’m reading about his life, though, some days, my eyes will catch on a good thing described in the words in the book about him and I’ll follow that thing, draw a line and highlight a phrase and ride the train of thought, like the other day when I read about Swann hearing a piece of beautiful music and how much it moved him, this moment stuck out to me, amid all the boring conversation there was this moment, I saw it and my eyes read the words describing it and they transmitted signals to my brain which triggered certain synapses or released certain chemicals into my body which made me see and feel and think things and I was reminded that I guess I am happy to still be living with Swann every day, however much I think that he’s mostly a boring person with boring thoughts who takes up so many words and so much time to express himself.
Today, the alarm went off again like it always does every day, in the kitchen at eight o’ clock in the morning. I’m sure that if I tried hard enough and worked at it long enough, I could find a way to turn off the alarm, to make it go away and not go off every day. I know that this must be true, I bet it probably wouldn’t even take more than a couple minutes, really, if that, even, to turn it off. To be able to turn off the alarm is a thing that has to be possible and that probably has to be simple, too; the watch is a machine, it is not so complicated, all it can do is count time with numbers as it was programmed to do, nothing more, nothing less, all it does is follows its routine and counts the time and sounds the alarm every day at a certain point in the time, it acts in predictable ways, action and reaction, input and output, the way all machines act. I said to you at the very beginning of this thing that the watch’s buttons don’t work right but that wasn’t really true, I think then that maybe I wasn’t talking about the watch, maybe I was talking about myself or maybe nothing at all, I can’t be sure, all I really know is that at the time my fingers were moving over the buttons of the keyboard quickly in a way that felt good and free and their movement was making my brain work in a certain way, a mental response to this physical stimulation which was caused by a thought which was brought about by the alarm, I think, I can’t be sure, and together somehow in the fading echo of the alarm my brain and fingers pressed the buttons under the keys in a combination that made that sentence about the buttons on the watch, whatever it even means, whatever it says to me or to you about anything. On a machine, all the buttons work all the time as long as the machine isn’t broken or damaged or flawed in its creation; the watch in the kitchen isn’t broken or damaged or flawed in its creation and so I know that there must be a way to turn off the alarm, there must be, there must. I sometimes or often feel that I am broken or damaged or flawed in my creation, that my buttons don’t work properly or correctly or create the responses I want them to when I press them, but I am a person and people are not machines and the watch is a machine and machines do work, they have to, they must. To be clear here, the watch is not a metaphor, it is not a symbol, it is a real thing made of metal and plastic with a certain number of buttons and a pale green face on which numbers can be seen constantly changing in line with the progression of time as it ticks by. There are certain number of buttons on the watch (four) and a certain number of combinations of button presses which can create a certain number of responses behind the watch’s face; unlike the numbers of combinations of letters of language used to make words and sentences and paragraphs, these numbers of combinations are small and finite and I know that if I tried these combinations one by one, systematically, that eventually I would be able to turn of the alarm and make it go away and stop ringing.
I don’t turn it off, though, for whatever reason, I can’t be sure, probably because of feelings and routines and conditions, some combination of all of those things in my brain and in my body and in the world and et cetera. The alarm goes off in the kitchen in the morning and the dog goes to it and I go to it and I turn it off and she turns around and then we go away and back to whatever we were doing before it went off, the routine finished, the day resumed, and most days when the alarm goes off and we go to it, my mother at the table looks up from her crossword puzzle and laughs at this, a routine laugh, not a laugh of surprise or excitement but one of familiarity, of the coming of a thing which has come before, and most days my father, if he is still home and has not yet left for work, turns from the news on television for a second and rolls his eyes at this repetition that the dog and I are making, our usual progression and his usual expression, the interlocked repetitions like the teeth of the gears in an old clock turning together to count time, and I see these reactions, their reactions and my reaction and the dog’s reaction to the alarm, these conditioned responses, and I know in this moment that another day has come after the last one before it and another will come after it and that no matter how bad things may seem to me in the moment, how hard and dark, I know that it is a new day and that I am alive and that we are alive and that there are things to look forward to in the future, things to pray and hope and dream for and on and about, there are good future things which are scheduled to occur, I know this, there are things, there are, even if those things are nothing more than alarms which exist only to be turned off every day for really no reason at all.
August 14, 2009
Once, when I was in college, I almost allowed someone to take a shit on my foot for seventy five dollars. It was my right foot and this person was my roommate and we had been sitting together on our back porch and getting high and chewing the fat (literally–I think I was eating jerky, as I often was in those days). It was a lovely morning in April, dewy and fresh, liquid light dripping through the leaves of the trees and dappling the overgrown grass and crushed beer cans in our white trash backyard with beautiful and complicated patterns of sheen. It was humid out but not yet hot; there was a soft breeze blowing and breaking up the clouds of smoke around us into tiny invisible particles. I remember watching a small bird land on the rim of an overturned trashcan just before my roommate squatted over my leg, his sweatpants sagging down around his waist and exposing the edge of his boxers as he tried to “feel it out,” to see what it would be like to shit on my foot, if he really wanted to, if it was going to be worth the seventy five dollars. I don’t recall exactly how we got on the topic of him shitting on my foot but we got there somehow and then we couldn’t get off of it, it seemed that there was nowhere else to go for quite some time.
It all started out as a joke, I’m pretty sure, but then I changed it into something else, somehow, probably because of the state that I was in. The state that I was in that almost led me to allow another human being to cover my foot with his own hot personal waste for fifty dollars, besides my perpetually poor finances (living off of scholarships and student loans, etc.), was that I had just been rejected from every single one of the graduate schools that I had applied to in the fall — the writing that I thought was good enough to prolong my relatively charmed life in the shady groves of academe was not, in fact, good enough; wise people behind large desks at various schools around the country had decided that this was true, it was not good enough, I was not good enough, for a variety of reasons, and because of these decisions and these reasons all of my plans for the future were now off and cancelled, and because they were now off and cancelled very soon I was going to have to go out into the darkness of the world alone and find some kind of life and work for myself with a liberal arts degree, no internships, no skills, no contacts, very little work experience, and no idea what I wanted to do. I hadn’t gone to the trouble of getting or doing any of those things, see, because I thought all that I really needed was my amazing and powerful ability to put certain words in a certain order in order to create certain feelings and/or thoughts, a skill I soon found that you can not exactly put on your resume after “Strong Leadership Abilities.” All of this was happening to me in the spring of 2007, even before the economy fell off a cliff and exploded into flames, spreading shrapnel everywhere, but it still seemed like a pretty big deal then, to me at least, though I understand of course that mine was a bourgeois problem and I am and was so lucky in so many ways and, god, I’m already tired of listening to myself go on about it when I should be talking about the the shit and my foot, which is what you’re really interested in, right?
Anyway, this is all to say that when my roommate offered to pay me fifty dollars to shit on my foot, I didn’t just turn it down out of hand, I thought about it. Like I said, though, the idea at this point wasn’t even really something “to turn down,” it wasn’t an “offer,” I don’t think, it was just a joke, I’m sure that’s what my roommate intended it to be, a little bit of verbal hyperbole, a funny punchline to some riff of mine about sadness and poverty and humiliation. I’m pretty sure my roommate intended it be a joke because how could it not be a joke, because what rational middle class adult person would ever agree to such a humiliating and awful thing for such a (relatively) small amount of money? As we laughed at the absurdity of the statement, though, at the joke, my mind seized on what he had said, somehow, for some reason, probably because of the state I was in, either the aforementioned emotional/financial issues I was having or just that I was pretty fucking stoned at the time, you know, whatever, and then I heard myself saying that I would let him do it for a hundred dollars, would let him shit on my foot, and suddenly it had changed, it wasn’t a joke anymore, it was an idea, it was an event which might well occur at some point in the very near future.
We sat there and smoked and ate jerky, we watched the highlights dance across the crushed beer cans and the single serve foil bags of chips that littered the yard, the gnats and bees and butterflies fluttering and buzzing about, and as we sat there we went back and forth on the money, on how much money I deserved to be paid to allow him to shit on my foot, not theoretically or hypothetically but in the real world, real shit and real money for it. My roommate was a business and accounting major and so he probably had the upper hand in these negotiations but I didn’t particularly feel taken advantage of because of his skills. Eventually, we settled on a price of seventy five dollars, a number that we both found reasonable and worthwhile enough. The money taken care of, it was then time to figure out the particulars of the event, of which there were many, including which foot he would shit on (I settled arbitrarily on the right foot, he allowed me the choice), where the foot shitting would take place (the back porch was as a good as place as any, we decided), whether I would be forced to watch as he shit on my foot (initially I wanted to be able to cover my face with a towel so I didn’t have to watch (or smell) what was going on but he said that was against the spirit of the thing, that it wouldn’t have the same effect, and eventually I came around to this point of view), how long I would have to sit there with his shit on my foot before being able to wash it off (two minutes), who would have to clean up the shit afterward (at first I balked at the idea of cleaning it up myself, but there seemed like no other way, really, who was going to do it?), and so on and so forth.
I know it all sounds ridiculous but I just thought, like, how bad could it possibly be? I mean, obviously the physical fact of it was completely disgusting to me, sure, and that the idea behind it felt even worse, since it said some very demeaning things about money and power relationships and my relationship in relation to those things. What will a person do for money, what kind of humiliation will he suffer, how much will he debase himself? I didn’t like those questions or their answers or what the answers said about me, about the power I had in the world and the people who held it over me, but I did like the idea of seventy five dollars and the food and beer and/or beer and food that I could buy with them. I also didn’t think that my roommate, who was a good guy, was really doing it all do to demean me or put me in my place or make some point about Foucauldian power relationships, I think he just saw it as a scatalogical bit of College Humor style college humor, some (literally) funny shit. Also, physically, I just didn’t think it would be that unbearable, I mean, I had walked my dog and picked up her shit hundreds of times and that was with my hands, which I ate with (!), whereas this shit was just going to be on my foot, albeit my bare foot, without the protection of a plastic baggie. I did find myself getting a little nauseated as my rooommate described the various disgusting things (burritos, corn, prunes, Indian food) that he was going to eat in order to make his shit grosser and more voluminous. “I’m going to save that shit up for days, boy” he said, “I’m going to fucking explode all over your foot.” This troubled me, of course, but hey, there were apparently whole groups of people on the Internet who found the experience of being shit on to be sexually arousing; they made movies of shitting on each other and being shit on and playing with the shit and rolling in the shit. Being shit on not only didn’t disgust or humiliate them, it gave them pleasure. I didn’t think it would give me any pleasure, I was pretty sure of that, but I thought that at the very least that it was an interesting experience I could have, something about which I could write a thoughtful personal essay someday.
The negotiations between the two of us were going along pretty well until my roommate introduced the idea of recording the event. Up until then, the biggest point of contention between us had been how many people would be allowed to be present when he shit on my foot. I had initially said that no one should be present besides the two of us, that this thing we were doing wasn’t about an audience, it was about the experience of him shitting on my foot, how that would make him feel and how it would make me feel and what it would mean, and that anything exterior to that shouldn’t be included, that that wasn’t part of the deal. For personal reasons which I didn’t say out loud, I also wanted it to be a private event, since the kind of girl who would be attracted to someone who let people shit on his foot for money, if she existed, was probably not the kind of girl I was interested in and I wanted to have plausible deniability over the event, which I was pretty sure would be brought up over and over at many social occasions for some time. My roommate insisted, though, on two things: 1. That if he was going to shit on my foot, this had to be a public truth, I couldn’t deny it or lie about it, I had to admit it and own up to it, this was part of the experience that he was paying for, and 2. That there had to be some kind of audience; he said if he was going to shell out seventy five dollars to shit on my foot, he wanted some people to see it, it couldn’t just be the two of us. He proposed throwing a party (he would even pay for the kegs) and shitting on my foot there, in the middle of things, as some sort of sideshow main event. I quickly shot this down and asked for a counter-offer. We eventually settled on a group of 5 close friends of ours, all men, who would be allowed to present at the foot shitting. He wanted to charge them an admission fee in order to recoup his investment, but I told him that was wrong, that he was paying me his money to put his shit on my foot, this was not some kind of Pay Per View event.
“Okay, fine,” he said, “Well, before we do this shit for real I want to go see if I can find the cable for my camcorder.”
“Fuck no, you can’t tape it,” I told him.
“What?” he said.
We argued about recording the event for some time. My roommate was vehement about wanting a video document of the event; he assured me that he wouldn’t put it on Facebook or Youtube or in any public place, that he wouldn’t show it to too many people, that it was just a private record that as someone buying something he should be entitled to have. I told him, though, that documenting the experience was a non-negotiable thing, that I couldn’t allow it and it was a deal-breaker. I think this was slightly before the concept of viral media became such a major part of our mainstream consciousness, but I still knew that somehow the video would get out, would be released, and that once it had gotten out and been released it would keep moving and growing and becoming more powerful and I would lose control of the story and the event, I would lose whatever small amount of power I had left. If there was no video, I felt like I would be okay. I knew that because of my ability with words and putting them in order that if there wasn’t a document of the event, I could describe the shitting in the best possible light, in a way that would make it seem not so gross and humiliating and awful but instead funny and daring and interesting. I knew I could do this, could tell this story with charm and elan, could spin a tale that would be about more than shit and feet, that might even make me seem brave or strong or cool. There would be other accounts, of course, from my roommate and those five people present at the shitting, but I felt that because of my skills with rhetoric and composition that I could make my point of view the dominant one, that I could control the narrative and use it to my advantage.
If there was a document of the event, though, if there was a video, I knew that suddenly my words would no longer have any real value, no matter how carefully I crafted them. I knew that each frame of the video would be worth a thousand of my words and that I couldn’t complete with that, no matter how good of a writer I thought I was, and so in the end I knew that I couldn’t allow a video of a person shitting on my foot, however much I wanted to get paid. It would just be too embarrassing. The talks broke down over this issue and soon the thing was over and forgotten, an ephemeral idea that had died and faded like smoke in the breeze or shit spiraling down a toilet into pipes hidden below the surface.
I’m telling this story because I got this e-mail recently from someone named Sarah at a company called Whooga, offering me a hundred dollars to advertise her company’s products on my blog, right here in the space that your eyes are moving through now. Whooga is an Australian company which makes sheepskin-lined Ugg boots in a variety of colors and styles. After I read the e-mail a couple of times and realized that it wasn’t actually spam (“Whooga” seemed like some sort of randomly generated captcha word at first), I went to the website and looked at the boots, to see if I wanted to advertise them. The website was kind of ugly, but in the pictures there, the boots seemed warm and soft and nicely made. They looked like perfectly lovely boots. I wrote this first thing in my reply message to Sarah at Whooga, I wrote, “Dear Sarah, the boots look lovely.” A lot of people think Uggs are ugly and/or cliche but I have to say that there’s something I find oddly attractive about them, especially the ones that have a thick fur cuff on top. You might think that this is weird or perverse or whatever but then as we’ve discussed there are people who enjoy being shit on and playing with that shit, so I think my Ugg thing is pretty vanilla, at least comparably. When I was in college, the spring of my junior year, all the sorority girls seemed to decide that the most fashionable everyday outfit of the season was to wear both Uggs and gauchos together at the same time (often with a sorority tee or oversized sweatshirt on top) and for whatever reason I found this combination ridiculously and irresistably arousing. I knew that each item was on its own an affront to fashion and style and that together they were even worse and yet somehow they both turned me on so much and seemed to make their wearers that much more lovely and beautiful. Anyway, this is all to say in an overshare-y kind of way that I have no problem with Uggs in general or the Uggs that are sold by Whooga in particular.
Before I decided whether to accept the ad, though, I looked on Google Blog Search to see if there were other sites that were doing advertising for Whooga, to make sure that the thing was legit and also to see how it was done; I had never had any advertising before and knew nothing about the process. As it turned out, there were many sites that were advertising Whooga Uggs, in fact; most of them were, of course, fashion blogs or women’s blogs. I clicked around to see what was out there. The ads that I saw on the blogs mostly took the form of testimonials in which the blogger regurgitated the Whooga ad copy to some degree or another and then let their readers know that Whooga had made an “exclusive” personal discount offer available only to readers of the blog, that if they used a certain customized coupon code (usually the name of the blog) that they would be able to buy their boots for less than the list price. None of the blogs I read disclosed that their owners had been paid for these posts; maybe they had and were purposefully omitting this information, maybe they hadn’t and weren’t, I don’t know.
I felt uncomfortable about all this, though, either way. Of course I wanted to take the ad and take the money; even though this was a relatively small amount of money that would make no difference in the general state of my life, it wasn’t nothing, it was still a hundred dollars, and besides, I would be paid for my writing and wasn’t this the blogger’s goal, to monetize, to turn words into gold? I felt uncomfortable taking the money, though, for a couple of reasons. I felt uncomfortable first of all because of course I can’t write a testimonial for a product that I haven’t used, because that would be immoral, a lie, false advertising, and I wouldn’t do that. If I have anything with my readers, it’s a certain level of trust and connection and if I blew that on an ad for fur-lined boots, I would have nothing at all anymore. I also felt uncomfortable taking the money for another reason and this was because I thought that to put an ad on my blog would be a complete waste of Whooga’s advertising dollars, that they would probably have a better chance of a return on their investment from many, many other sites. In my e-mail, I actually started to describe my abysmal traffic stats and low posting numbers to show why Whooga would not want to advertise with me, but I eventually took out the sentence because I felt it was just too TMI and emo and unecessary.
Part of me just wanted to say “fuck it” and take the money, of course; if they were offering me money to advertise here, why should I care if I wasn’t the best platform for their product, that wasn’t my decision, that was theirs, and they had decided to offer me money for an ad; all I had to decide was whether I was going to take it. Telling them things about why they shouldn’t advertise with me wasn’t my responsibility, I knew, and yet somehow I felt wrong about not telling them, guilty. I mean, to complete and totally oversimplify the global financial crisis, the reason that we have such problems in the world today is that people are very greedy and that in order to get more money to satisfy their greed, they lie or misrepresent things at the expense of other people. If I took this advertising money knowing that there were much better places for it, would I in any way be participating in similar actions? I mean, t wasn’t like Whooga were a big and evil corporation with tons of money to burn, this was a small, “proudly Australian” company that sold boots made from the fleece of sheep, they were a small business just trying to make it. I wasn’t talking to some faceless corporate automaton; in her e-mail, the Whooga spokeswoman used cute and endearing Australian expressions like “keen” and “sort out.” What if she placed her ads and spent her money incorrectly and because of this the boots didn’t sell and because of this she lost her job or the company went bankrupt? That would be sad and bad and wrong and I would be in whatever tiny way responsible, because I was greedy. After wrestling with these issues for a while, I sent back this e-mail, which never received a reply:
So now that story is over and I don’t have an ad and I don’t have a hundred dollars, all I have is me and this and you. Big deal. I am not telling you this to be self righteous or anything, because I am proud of what I did, because I think it is a good thing to not be a “sell-out” or whatever kind of punk rock bullshit that is. I do not think this is a good thing I did, I do not think I should be proud of it, I think it’s a problem with me personally, inside, a problem with myself that I don’t know how to fix, that I don’t know if I even can fix, ever. When I sent back the e-mail, I told myself that I wasn’t going to accept the ad for the moral reasons I described above, that was the justification I gave myself, but deep down inside of me I know that’s not actually the truth at all, I know that the real reason that I didn’t take the ad was not because I had any moral problems or anything like that, it was because I knew that if I refused the offer and didn’t take the ad that I could tell this story about the situation, I could write about it and share it with people and have them read what I wrote. For me, it was so much more important and valuable to have something to write about and share than to have a hundred dollars and this is wrong and bad and I don’t want to feel like this or think like this because I think it’s just one of the main reasons that my life is so fucked up right now, that I privilege this simple activity of being able to put certain words in a certain order above all other things, that I make this abstract and solipsistic act more important than money and life and the world, more important than everything. I don’t want to feel like this, I don’t want to be like this, but I don’t know any other way to feel or be, this is just how I am.
I’ve been having a whole lot of trouble writing lately and I’m not sure exactly why and I can’t seem to do anything about it. It’s not for lack of trying; I have probably 25 or 30 thousand words worth of stuff in drafts from the last month or so alone but I just can’t seem to make any of them into anything I’m proud of or anything that seems important or worth sharing with other people. I look at things I wrote and shared with other people before, in the recent past, and I don’t understand in any way how these things could have come out of me, where they came from, what person wrote them and how he did it. The words and their arrangement seem foreign, alien, disconnected from me, like I’m a snake and the sentences are old skins I shed and left in the grass. The feeling that I’m having a lot of the the time now is the feeling like when you’re in the middle of being really, really sick and you think that if you could just throw up, it would make you feel completely better and normal, but no matter how hard you try and how long you stick your head into the toilet, you just can’t make yourself throw up, nothing comes out. You try and you try and nothing comes out, it’s like your body is empty, but you know that’s a lie, that it’s not empty, because you can still feel the waves of stuff pulsing through your body, in your blood and bowels and bones, the stuff inside you that’s making you sick, and you know that if you could just get it all out of you then everything would be okay again.
Then, somehow, by some technique or other, you do it, you finally manage to make yourself throw up and you get it all out of you but even though you’ve done it and gotten it all out of you, you find that you don’t feel any better than you did before and, now, in addition to feeling so bad, you also have to clean up this vomit that you’ve gotten all over the floor and there’s nobody in the world that can clean it up but you and you’re still sick. It’s a pretty awful feeling that I’m having but I guess it would be even worse if I let somebody shit on my foot, metaphorically or otherwise, so that’s something, at least.
August 9, 2009
I brought the gun to school because my students were being “repugnant,” “repulsive,” and “revolting,” because they wouldn’t respond to any of my attempts at discipline, because I just couldn’t take it anymore. Sometimes during my breaks, when I wasn’t hiding in a bathroom stall or chasing after things stolen from my desk, I would look up words in the thesaurus to try to describe why I hated them so much, to put names on my feelings, but there were just never enough synonyms for “bad” or “mean” or “evil” to do them any kind of justice. To be honest, nothing short of handcuffs and a squad car would really do them any kind of justice, was my feeling at the time. My students spat, cursed, and threw things through the air; they bought, sold, and used drugs in the middle of class; they wrote and drew awful things on their desks and in their books and up and down the walls–the whole room was covered in scrawled drawings and misspelled profanity. When I signed up with the program, I was told by the placement coordinator that my assignment was “lucky,” that teaching elementary school would be “easy,” “comparably,” because the kids hadn’t been “corrupted” yet, the way older students often had in “this kind of urban environment.” “You can still make a difference in their lives,” she said, “that’s what’s so rewarding about it.” My first day, when I was turned around writing vocabulary words on the whiteboard, a third grader drew a penis on the back of my shirt in black magic marker and I walked around the entire day not knowing this, just hearing kids laugh at me and seeing them point and feeling like I was going to die. To “put it mildly,” I was at my “wit’s end” with the students and I had only been teaching for about a month — it had been the hardest month of my entire life.
The “last straw” for me was when, on the Friday afternoon before Labor Day weekend, a few of my fourth graders started a small fire in the back of the classroom and used it to roast a hamster they had stolen from the science teacher earlier in the week. After holding it hostage in a pencil case and feeding it Cheetos and Skittles for several days, they had killed the hamster with a taser built from a disposable camera and then skinned and cleaned it with an exacto knife “borrowed” from the art room. I had smelled the smoke when they started the fire but we had all of our windows open to let in fresh air (the school’s AC was broken) and I just figured that some random building in the neighborhood was on fire, which in my short residence there I had found was usually the case in our neighborhood. When I realized that the fire was inside the classroom, I tried to put it out with the extinguisher mounted by the door but the extinguisher was empty and produced no foam but only a kind of watery farting sound that made the students erupt in laughter and so instead I stomped out the fire with my own two feet, in the process destroying my brown loafers, the medium-well hamster, and the small, self-turning spit that my students had constructed from pencils, gum, rubber bands, and paperclips. The students were fairly angry about the ruined hamster meat, which they had marinated all morning in a bottle of Diet Coke with Lime, but they were most annoyed that I had broken the spit, the engineering of which even I had to admit was complex and mechanically sound. “We just trying to learn, motherfucker,” said Laquanda, showing me a concept sketch she had done on a piece of graph paper. The pink cartoon hamster she had drawn there looked a lot cuter than the brown and black pile of skin and bone and ash I had to scrape off the floor after the bell rang, and, maybe because of the strawberry-scented crayon she had used, it smelled better, too. Later that afternoon, as I sat at my small, hard desk grading geography quizzes and working on lesson plans and inhaling stale smoke, I decided to buy a gun. That will teach them, I thought.
I bought the gun from my brother Michael Jackson, who stands outside the chicken place in my neighborhood every day selling drugs. Michael Jackson is not really my brother, of course, like in the family sense, but whenever I see him, which is whenever I go to the chicken place, which is often, he says, “What what, my brother?” and then gives me dap and tells me about his day and how business is going and all the various gossip of the neighborhood.
The first time Michael Jackson gave me dap, I thought he was trying to hit me or steal my wallet or something and I leapt away from him in fear. Afterward, I was so ashamed of my reaction; even though I had seen people do fist pounds, knuckle bumps, and other such hand gestures in movies and music videos and plenty of other urban entertainment I had looked up on the Internet, I still flinched by instinct at the sight of an incoming black fist and jumped back toward the curb, my arms up, fists clenched, shaking. I was pretty sheltered growing up but that’s still no excuse for how I acted; prejudice hides deep within all of us, every one, blocking the truth with long shadows. Luckily, Michael Jackson wasn’t mad at me for being scared of him for being a large African American man in the inner city, he just laughed and smiled and said, “Naw, man, it’s cool, be easy, be easy.” It was kind of hard for me to be easy at first, I’m not naturally easy, but soon enough I got the hang of it and now I give and receive dap with no problem at all and this is exactly the kind of cross cultural exchange that I was hoping for when I signed up with the program and moved to the inner city from the small town where I was born and lived my whole life up till now.
Michael Jackson’s name is not really Michael Jackson but the people who buy their various drugs from him call him that and so I call him that, too, which really makes me feel like a part of the local community, like an adopted member of a large and colorful extended family that I never knew I belonged to. One time I asked Michael Jackson why everybody calls him Michael Jackson and he said, “Cause I walked on the moon, motherfucker.”
“What?” I said. I thought this was some kind of slang-type expression, but he told me he was telling the truth, honest, “for real.”
“Yeah, I was a astronaut back in the day, right after I came out of Jefferson,” he said. “Went up to the moon in bout ‘05/’06, did science and research and all sort of space-type mess: fixed jacked-up satellites, cranked the buggy, shot rocks with laser beams. You know, moon shit.”
“Really?” I said. I didn’t believe him of course but I pretended to anyway, to keep the dialogue going. It’s always important to maintain a dialogue especially with people who seem different from you, that’s how you learn real and important stuff. “I’ve never heard anything about that,” I said, “I thought people stopped going to the moon a long time ago.”
“Naw, naw, see the government cover all that up,” he said, pausing to take some money from a stooped middle-aged woman who was using a plastic grocery bag as a hat, “see, they don’t want nobody to know nothing about the blackstronauts, don’t give us no health insurance, no matching 401k, bullshit. Not even some kinda scholarship like in the Army and shit! Space program’s fuckin’ slavery, white boy, modern-ass slavery.”
The kind of cross cultural exchange that I don’t want is drugs, which are what Michael Jackson tries to sell me every time I see him even though I’ve repeatedly told him that I don’t want them and that I won’t ever want them. I don’t smoke drugs personally and I never have and I think drugs are really bad and awful and have a multi-fold negative impact on both individuals and communities as a whole which is statistically verifiable and true (I studied this in one of my courses at the University of Phoenix Online). However, even though he’s a drug dealer and also possibly involved in a gang (I’m not sure, but there are certain signs that I’ve read about), Michael Jackson is a person who always says hello to me and wants to talk and who I like to consider my “friend,” and, in my new community or just in my life as a whole there are really not many people who have wanted be friends with me (for various reasons) so I just try not to think about MJ’s drugs and the problems they cause for him and others and society, however much they may trouble my conscience.
The night after the hamster fire, I went over to the chicken place and got some dap from Michael Jackson and then told him that I needed to buy a gun and asked could he sell me one, please. The chicken place where we “chill” is called the “Chicken Shack,” although on the off-white sign-board hanging over the door some of the letters are missing so really it’s the “Chkn Shk.” The dinner special costs $5.99 and comes with a choice of two sides, although there are only two sides (mac and cheese and mashed potatoes) so it’s not a choice, really. When I got to the chicken place, Michael Jackson was smoking a cigarette with one hand and eating a big chicken leg with the other and when I asked about the gun he was in the middle of a bite and he suddenly started coughing up a storm, like he was either choking on a bone or else there was a whole weather system blowing around inside his lungs. I patted him on the back until he stopped wheezing.
“Come on, what you need a gun for, asshole?” he said. “Yo, don’t shoot an AK, just smoke some AK, be cool, all right? It’s a holiday.”
“No, listen, Michael, I need to make a statement, I really do,” I said, “and to make my statement the way I want to, I need a gun. A handgun, preferably, but I guess I’ll take whatever I can get.”
“A statement?” he said. “Yo, buy some posterboard, tag a building, get a plane to skywrite that bullshit if you need to, fuck. You can’t handle a gun, you too tight, white boy. Ha ha, tighty-whitey, shit, that’s good, I should call you that.” He took a picture of me with his phone and began typing in this new nickname.
“Okay, you can make fun of me all you want but I really need a firearm, really bad,” I said. I felt like I was about to cry or something and hoped that he couldn’t see it in my face, this sign of weakness. “Are you gonna help me out or what?” I asked. “I thought we were friends.”
Michael Jackson exhaled a big, fat cloud of smoke and looked at me really hard for a long and quiet time. It was like his eyes were testing me or something, trying to figure out some essential fact about who I was. After what felt like minutes or hours he finally told me in a low and different voice that, yeah, he could probably get me a 9 sometime over the holiday if I gave him the money now, like right now. Whispering, which seemed appropriate when talking about a gun for some reason, I asked him if an 8 or a 7 might be more affordable as a starter gun (I really didn’t have much money on my teacher’s salary) but apparently the subject was closed and, you know, that was fine, I was happy to be getting a gun at all and that he wasn’t mad at me or anything for asking him, that we were still, you know, “cool.” I passed him the cash that I had withdrawn from the ATM earlier and he walked up the block a little and made a phone call. When he came back, he told me to stay home and wait, to expect the gun to be delivered sometime between the hours of 9 and 12 the next morning.
“People deliver guns?” I asked.
“Yeah, what you think this shit is, the fucking Wild Wild West or something?” he said, and lit another cigarette. “We civilized.”
That night, I went to sleep watching “Dangerous Minds” on DVD. I had gotten it at the library uptown after searching for movies about teachers teaching in inner city schools, in the hopes that I would maybe be inspired or learn something that I could use in my own life, but sadly I found both it and “Stand and Deliver,” the other movie I checked out, to be unrealistic and dated and not very helpful to my situation at all, although Michelle Pfeiffer is certainly a lovely woman, that can’t be argued. The next morning, at 10:30 AM on the dot, there was a knock on my door and a gruff voice yelled, “Delivery!” I went to the door and the deliveryman was gone, I just saw the edge of his afro cutting around the corner, but in the hallway in front of me there was a small cardboard box with a FedEx label on top of it, my name written on it in red pen. I opened the box right there in the hallway, like a kid on Christmas, I just couldn’t help myself. Inside, underneath a pile of packing peanuts and shredded newspaper, was the gun, my gun. It was beautiful and terrible and I couldn’t stop holding it.
When we came back to school after the Labor Day weekend, I brought the gun with me, wrapped in an old t-shirt and then a hand towel around that and all this hidden in the zipper pocket of my bag under my gradebook. Being so cautious about having the gun seemed a little silly, since on the streets of my neighborhood I saw guns every day, morning, noon, and night, sometimes held out in the open or even being fired but more often in telltale flashes of metal against peoples’ skin and clothes, little shines and glints. Guns were everywhere here. Still, I was nervous about my own personal gun for some reason, those kind of first day of school nerves you get when you’re on the edge of something new and different and unpredictable. I told myself that maybe my students had changed over the holiday or that I had changed and become a better teacher somehow, that maybe I wouldn’t have to pull out the gun at all, maybe it could just stay in my bag the whole day and then I would take it home and sell it at a pawn shop or bury it in a very deep hole. Maybe things would be different.
Things weren’t different. I pulled out the gun ten minutes into first period, just after the morning announcements. I had passed around a science worksheet about the planet Saturn to the fifth graders and was walking around trying to help some of them with their reading comprehension, which on average seemed fairly poor. The mornings were the easiest time to teach, I had found, because the students were too sleepy to really fight with me or get into much trouble. Almost all of my kids were at least looking at the worksheet, if not actually filling in the answers, all of them except for Keshawn, a corn-rowed boy who was sitting at his desk in the back left corner of the room and weighing and bagging drugs with the help of a portable digital scale.
“Please stop doing that and do your worksheet, Keshawn,” I said to him. He grunted at me, not even looking up from the scale, his fingers sealing baggies almost unconsciously. I gave him another worksheet, since the first one I had passed out was covered in drugs by this point, but he just pushed it off of his desk and kept working. The paper floated slowly to the floor.
“Do you need a pencil?” I asked. Having school supplies was a big problem for these kids and I tried to keep extras around which I had paid for with my own money, though I found that these were often stolen and used against me as weapons. Keshawn’s eyes were beady and tight, focused perfectly on the tiny numbers displayed on the scale. I put my hand over the readout, so he couldn’t see it, so that he would have to pay attention. He looked up at me.
“What I need is for you to go the fuck away,” he said, and spat at my feet. He missed, but it was the thought that counted, really, as is usually the case with spit. When I removed my hand from the scale, he paused for a second to put on some headphones and then went back to his activity with no loss of momentum or facility. A few kids nearby turned around and snickered at me. I felt my face get hot and I knew that I was starting to turn red. The kids sometimes called me “Mr. Cherry Kool” which I at first thought was a compliment (they were calling me both “Mr.” and “Cool”) but which I later found out was because somebody said my red face looked like the Kool-Aid man.
“Oh, yeah, sure, I’ll get you a pencil, Keshawn” I said, and then went back to my desk, where I opened my bag and pulled out both a pencil (which I put in my pocket) and the gun. I had been practicing holding the gun all weekend, in various positions and with various movements, but it was still surprisingly heavy in my hand. Guns never seem heavy when you see them in movies, people juggle them like they’re tennis balls, but my gun seemed very heavy and I kept worrying I was going to drop it and it would burst into flames or otherwise explode. I took the gun and went and sat down on the front edge of my desk, facing the students and trying to seem as strong and powerful as I possibly could.
“Class, could everybody look up here for a minute, please?” I said. A few groggy heads rose from desks, drooling. I raised the gun and pointed it at a random stain on the room’s back wall, like the way they tell you to focus on a certain neutral point if you’re nervous when speaking in public. I sat there like that for a minute, pointing the gun at the wall. Slowly, I heard the kids begin to whisper and hiss at each other about oh shit and do you see that shit and what the fuck, a fucking gun and et cetera. This was exactly the kind of reaction I had been hoping for, but I pretended to ignore them and just squinted down the barrel of the gun at the stain on the wall, as if I was lining up a very important shot.
“I hope everybody is getting their worksheets done,” I said, my voice cracking a little, my eyes still on the target. “I hope nobody’s doing anything they’re not supposed to be doing, because if they are, well, there’s going to be a problem,” I said, emphasizing the word “problem.” I got up from the desk and walked up and down the aisles of the class, my arms swinging gently as I went, the gun going back and forth, back and forth, hypnotic. As I walked, I looked down at my students’ faces, trying to hold their eyes with mine, but as soon as they had gotten a glimpse of me and the gun coming, they would look down at their papers and suddenly be concentrating very hard on the reading.
I came to the back of the room. Keshawn had been so wrapped up in his work with the drugs and the music in his headphones that he hadn’t even noticed the gun or the scene it had created. I tapped the gun against his desk a few times and he looked at it for a second, thinking, and then looked up at me, silent. He removed his headphones.
“Here’s your pencil, Keshawn,” I said, pulling the dull 2B out of my pocket and handing it to him. He took it with the tips of his fingers, as if he was scared it was going to bite him or something. He looked so small, suddenly. I waited for a second and then, using the arm that was holding the gun, I swept all of the drugs and plastic bags off of his desk and onto the floor. The other kids squirmed around in their seats to see what was going on but when I turned and swept the gun over the room in a wide arc, they all went back to their work. I picked up the scale and stuck it carefully into Keshawn’s backpack, which had a picture of a cartoon frog on the front. Then I gave him another worksheet. He printed his name in the top right corner and began to read.
“Do you need any help?” I asked him, lightly resting my hand on his shoulder. Without looking at me, he slowly shook his head no and so I went back up to my desk and sat down. My heart was going a mile a minute, but I didn’t want them to know, they couldn’t, so I just tried to sit there like I was made out of iron and steel, like the gun was a natural extension of my body. I looked up and saw that a few students weren’t working but were just staring at me, their eyes large and unblinking. There was no talking anymore, no fighting, no music thumping out of hidden earbuds, nothing, just scribbling and erasing and breathing, peace and quiet.
“Yo, that shit ain’t even real,” said Anthony, one of my brightest and most talkative fourth graders. We were practicing fractions.
I had been using the gun all week, in every class, and had been seeing some pretty good results from it, some impressive stuff. In the presence of the gun, most of my students had become quieter, more respectful, and, well, surprisingly smart. A lot of their educational deficiencies, it seemed, were really just behavior problems, and the gun had all but killed behavior problems. The kids didn’t yell or scream at me anymore and I no longer feared physical violence when I turned my back to the blackboard or bent over to pick up a student’s dropped crayon or eraser.
That said, things weren’t perfect, since I wasn’t really teaching my students, we weren’t really “bonding” or “sharing” or “becoming a family” the way I wanted us to, the way all the books said we should. They were just kind of afraid of me, really, some of them were terrified, I’m sure, but I figured that gaining their respect was the first step on the road toward wonderful and important and life-changing things for us and when I held the gun in front of my classes, I felt like I held their respect in the palm of my hand, all of it tensed under my trigger finger.
“It ain’t real,” Anthony said again, staring at me. The other kids looked up from their fractions to see what was going on.
“Yes, it is real,” I said, putting down my red grading pen. I picked the gun up off of my desk and waved it around as proof of its reality. “See?”
“No it ain’t real,” he said.
“Yes it is,” I said.
“No it ain’t,” he said.
“Yes it is,” I said.
“No it ain’t,” he said.
“No it isn’t real, not ain’t, isn’t,” I said. “Use correct grammar.”
“Oh shit, you said it isn’t real, ha ha! Ha ha, stupid, use correct thinking,” he said and all of the kids started cracking up, all of them, slapping each other on the backs and knocking their heads against their desks, howling, showing teeth and tongues and the little black holes of their throats. I sat there as they laughed at me and I felt like I couldn’t move, like I was frozen. This couldn’t be happening, it just couldn’t, not now. I had to do something.
So I got up, walked over to Anthony’s desk, and stuck the barrel of the gun against his temple, my index finger on the trigger, my thumb over the safety. The gun was cold in my hand because I hadn’t held it in a while, it had just been lying on my desk, waiting. I pressed it hard against Anthony’s head so that he could really feel what it felt like to have the gun pointed at him, how cold and dark it was.
“Do you think it’s real now?” I said, in this deep, serious voice that didn’t even sound like it was coming out of my mouth, this, well, gun voice. The class went silent and a few kids put their heads down on their desks and covered them with their arms and I immediately felt terrible about saying it and especially saying it in such a way, just the worst, and among these kids, too, with their lives and the things they had probably seen at home. This was wrong, I had never directly threatened a student before, with the gun or otherwise, and I knew that it was the wrong thing to do, he was just a child, after all, God, what was I doing?
“God, I’m really sorry, Anth–” I began to say, before realizing that while I was standing there feeling guilty he had taken the gun from me and was now pointing it at my chest, both his little hands wrapped tightly around the grip.
“Bang bang,” he yelled, closing his eyes and squeezing the trigger twice. Nothing happened. The students looked perplexed; so did Anthony. I was slightly confused as well, though of course relieved to be alive. Anthony turned the gun over in his hand, found the safety, flipped it to the other position, and then pointed the gun back at me. He pulled the trigger again; nothing, just a little click.
“I told you it won’t real,” he said, slamming the gun against his desk for emphasis, “I told you!”
“Wasn’t,” I said quietly, “not ‘won’t,’ wasn’t,” but he didn’t hear me, none of them did, they were all laughing and shouting and bouncing up and down as Anthony ran around the room with the gun pretending to shoot all of them, a big, wide smile on his face. The word spread between my kids and by lunchtime all of my classes knew about the gun and it no longer held any power among even the best and brightest students, the ones who actually wanted to learn. Unloaded, the gun held no power and so neither did I and things were just like they had been before.
I had to take three different buses to get to the store that sold the bullets because there are no stores that sell bullets in my area. Because of crime, poverty, the recession, and other issues, many of the stores in this community have closed up and moved out to the suburbs or the richer districts uptown — this lack of infrastructure causes a lot of problems and inconveniences for local residents. It’s a sad state of affairs. I tried to buy bullets from Michael Jackson but he said there wasn’t much of a profit margin in bullets so he and his associates didn’t sell them, personally, and he didn’t know anybody locally who did. I asked him where somebody on a budget should go to buy bullets and/or gun accessories and he said the Super Walmart on the east side of the East Side probably had the best prices. “They got everything, man,” he said.
I was on the buses for a little over two hours, a bumpy, smelly journey that felt like it took much longer than it actually did. The last bus dropped me off at the edge of an enormous parking lot; in the distance, through thick clouds of fog, exhaust, and barbecue smoke, I could just make out the Super Walmart logo, the big white letters with the star in the middle. Sweating, I hiked along the rows of cars up to the entrance, wishing that my bicycle hadn’t gotten stolen the day I moved into my apartment in the city. Inside, the store was cool and clean and brightly lit, like some kind of giant refrigerator; a smiling woman near the door said hello to me and and handed me a laminated map and a red plastic basket for my shopping. The basket had a cupholder and so I bought a soda from one of the vendors at the entrance and sipped it through a long straw as I walked. Even though I’m morally and ethically opposed to big box retailers after reading a very important book on the subject last year, it was still kind of nice at the Walmart, really, I can’t lie. It reminded me of home, of Mom, of the days when things weren’t so hard and difficult and complicated in my life. When I was a kid, we used to ride out to the Walmart every month or so in the truck and mom, who usually made me eat a very strict and healthy diet, would break the rules and buy me Icees and hot dogs and cotton candy until I just felt like I was going to die of happiness.
On the way to the sporting goods section, which my map told me was about a half hour trek, depending on my pace, I walked through the toy department, along big, tall aisles filled with figurines and vehicles and other dreams and wishes wrapped in cardboard and hard plastic. On one aisle, two boys were playing with a tiny remote controlled flying saucer that hovered in mid-air and made several annoying noises. I stopped and watched them for a minute, pretending to look at a badminton set that gave you electric shocks if you missed a point. The boys were having so much fun with the saucer, making it flip and roll and abduct small plastic people. They would drive the craft to the point where it was about to crash into the ground but would somehow pull it out of the dive at the last possible second, safe and sound. When I was a little boy, I dreamed of being a decorated pilot like my father, but then when I was a teenager, after the war started and then the other war started, my mother made me promise and then double-promise her that I would never enlist, that I would never leave her for some hot, dry place where I could die alone just like he did, for no good reason at all. It was hard to forget my dreams and stay at home with her, but this is a thing we do for the people we love, I guess, and, besides, I didn’t really have anywhere or anyone or anything else, it was just me and her and it had always been that way, really. After she died two years ago, I stayed around the house by myself for a while. To pass the time and try to make friends with other people, I started taking online college courses in various interesting subjects: astrology, wine tasting, cyberfeminism, African American studies, green energy, the history of Latin America, modern popular culture. There were so many things in the world to learn about, it seemed, things I couldn’t imagine or even imagine imagining. I was home-schooled from K-12 and I always thought that my mom was giving me everything that I needed in order to live my life when the time came for me to live it, but it turned out that there were a lot of gaps in my knowledge and experience, gaps wide enough that sometimes it seemed to me the whole world could fall through them.
I had never thought of being a teacher, but eventually the insurance money ran out and the house was repossessed by the bank and there were no jobs in our town besides at the slaughterhouses and I don’t have the stomach for that kind of work. Widespread teacher shortages in the city meant that there were lots of opportunities to work there and at the same time “have a culturally enriching experience in an exciting place.” The website for the program said you didn’t have to have a teaching certificate or even a full college degree, just a certain number of credit hours and a desire to learn and serve the public. There was even an enlistment bonus, just like in the military. I was kind of scared about coming to the big city, since all I knew about the place and the kind of people who lived there were the often scary things I had seen on television and read on the Internet, but at the same time the experience seemed exciting and powerful and important, like exactly the kind of thing I need to change my life and start over again, to become a real person in the world. The promotional literature that I read said I could “be a hero” to my students, to the community, that I could really “make a difference” and “be a part of something.” I wanted to do those things, I really did, with everything I had inside of me, I just wanted to do a good job and be a good teacher and have friends and love and happiness, that’s all I wanted, to be a part of something. It wasn’t working for me, though. I had tried so hard and studied so much and it was still all going wrong, it was, and that’s why I bought the gun and that’s why I needed the bullets and that’s why I was at the Super Walmart.
It ended up taking me about forty minutes before I made it to sporting goods — there was a tram station along the way, but there was a long line and I didn’t really feel like waiting for a ride. The sporting goods section, when I finally got there, had at its center, in between the aisles of balls, bats, and bikes, a row of big glass cases filled just completely to the brim with all sorts of guns, hundreds of them. It was amazing: there were pistols and rifles and shotguns in seemingly every possible size and color as well as a range of bows, crossbows, and hunting knives, all of the weapons perfectly polished and gleaming under the big fluorescents. I looked up and down the racks for a few minutes, my mouth hanging wide open, amazed at all the possibilities, the many different things you could shoot and be shot with. When I finally approached the counter, a nice older man wearing a blue vest greeted me and I told him that I needed to buy some bullets.
“Okey-doke, now what kind of weapon are we talking about here?” he asked.
“A pistol,” I said.
“All right, what caliber?” he said, leaning against the counter.
“Oh, um, I’m not really sure about that,” I said. Guns were complicated and it seemed there was so much to learn. I pulled my gun out of my pocket and showed it to the guy, so that he could be sure to give me the right kind of bullet.
“Good lord, son, put that away, put it away,” he hissed, looking quickly from side to side. A mother who had been examining yoga mats nearby shoved her stroller behind a two story basketball tower and then lunged in after it. An older couple took cover behind some canoes. People were so weird sometimes. I stuck the gun back in my pocket and pulled my t-shirt down over it.
“God, it’s not loaded,” I said, “that’s why I’m here, I don’t have any bullets.”
“You know there ain’t concealed carry in this state anymore, don’t you boy?” he said. “You can’t just be pulling out a gun in the middle of the Walmart like that.”
“That doesn’t seem fair,” I said. “It’s my gun and I should be able to do whatever I want with it.”
The man’s face relaxed and he signaled for me to come a little closer.
“Listen, I agree with you, buddy,” he whispered, “I do, you know, what with the goddamn gangbangers and the border jumpers and all of them coming at you left and right wherever you turn, you can never be too careful. Listen, I get it, you ain’t gotta tell me, all right?” He looked around for passers-by and, when the coast was clear, put his foot up on the counter and rolled up his left pant leg to show me a small silver pistol he had strapped to his calf. A pair of fat children ran down the aisle chasing a runaway skateboard and he quickly pulled his leg down. “The law is the law, though,” he said, “and you never know when Big Brother’s watching, so you gotta watch for him, you gotta be vigilant at all times.” He handed me a pamphlet on the subject which I told him I would read later, for sure, although personally I found his racial slurs and profanity to be ugly and offensive.
“So are you after any sorta game in particular?” he asked. I was confused.
“I’m not playing, sir, this gun is for very serious stuff, I thought you understood that.”
“No…” he said, looking at me funny, “what I mean is, what are you planning to shoot? What kind of animals?”
“Oh, I don’t really want to shoot anything,” I said. The idea of ever shooting something with the gun was terrifying. When I was eight, I shot a bluebird with my cousin’s air rifle on a dare and the pellet didn’t kill it so my dad made me crush its head between two rocks. That’s one of the only memories I have of him, really.
“So this is just for self defense, then?” he asked.
“I guess you could say that.”
He unlocked a big cabinet and from inside it laid out an array of colorful cardboard boxes on the glass countertop. It was interesting; there were so many different brands and logos and yet, inside the boxes, all the bullets looked exactly the same and did, I assumed, exactly the same thing. The man detailed the minute differences between them for my edification and I listened carefully and tried to be a good student, but the choice between most of the bullets seemed like the difference between Coke and Pepsi or Sprite and Sierra Mist. I was very interested in a brand of recycled, environmentally-friendly rounds which apparently burned clean and produced no harmful emissions but, in the end, I bought the store brand bullets because there was a sale on and they were buy one, get one free. I also picked up a cleaning kit, a trigger lock (for when I was storing my gun at home, to be safe), and some other assorted accessories. While I was still at the Super Walmart, on my way out, I also got a haircut, bought new socks and underwear, and chose a small plant for my apartment from the garden center. They really did have everything.
I brought the gun into school the next day and, after showing the kids the full clip as proof that the gun was both real and loaded and thus deserving of their respect, I took each of my classes on a short field trip out to the playground. We walked through the halls silently, in a single file line, me at the end of the line with the gun hidden in my pocket. As we went along, I imagined a bullet traveling out of the end of the gun through all of their bodies one by one, toppling them over like little baby dominoes. On the playground, they sat cross-legged in the scraggly grass, their hands in their laps, lips zipped (we called this sitting “Indian style” when I was in school but that’s an offensive term that thankfully society has left in past). I savored the silence for a moment as I stood there in front of them, all of their eyes fixed on me, giving me their full attention. Each class was the exact same way: rapt, engaged, silent. It was amazing, it was the first time I had ever really felt like a teacher, that I was a person who had this gift that I was going to give to my students and they were going to receive it, were going to take it in and learn from me and be better for it. After I felt I could make them wait no longer, I pointed the gun into the air, took a deep breath, and fired one, two, three shots up at the sky, the bullets ripping through the air and then disappearing somewhere up there, some place in the clouds we couldn’t see. Each time I fired, the students clapped and cheered and smiled and laughed. When the shooting was over and I lowered the gun to my waist, they all got up and gave me a standing ovation, as if I had defeated some horrible villain or won an important contest. Afterward, we went back inside and worked on Social Studies and World Geography and writing in cursive.
On Fridays, the third graders had show and tell. The items that were brought in were usually not very educational–various toys and dolls, bootleg video games, gold chains, baby teeth, novelty candy–but it was still a fun activity and an easy transition into the weekend. I leaned back in my chair and enjoyed the “vibe” as one of my students sang a song by Mary J. Blige a capella. As she sang, I stroked the barrel of the gun absentmindedly with my index finger, feeling its contour, tracing the line. Ever since I had introduced bullets into the gun equation about a month prior, things had been going absolutely swimmingly. The students were adorable and enthusiastic and had almost completely kicked both profanity and in-class smoking. They called me “Mr. Johnson” and raised their hands before they spoke. They were all doing their homework, every day.
“Keisha, that was beautiful, I think you should be on Idol next season,” I said, after she had finished. She beamed, curtsied, and walked back to her seat.
“Okay, who wants to go next?” I asked. Most of the students raised their hands high, their arms stretched towards the ceiling and shaking with the excitement of potential participation, some of them even whispering “me, me, me.” Their excitement made me feel so good, it was like my heart was filled with sunshine and rainbows. I aimed the gun left and right and back and forth through the class (my new way of calling on students) before settling on Dwayne, a quiet boy with a small head and big glasses. Dwayne walked up to the front of the room carrying something wrapped inside a large brown paper bag. When he got to the lectern, he put the bag down and ripped it open to reveal a sawed-off shotgun, which he held high over his head so everyone could see, his arms straining under its weight. The class oohed and ahhed and craned their necks to get a better look. I stood up and pointed my own gun at my head, which was my sign for everybody to be quiet, and then approached the lectern.
“Dwayne, you know you’re not supposed to bring any guns from home for show and tell,” I said, “we’ve talked about this before.” Two weeks ago, a small girl with pig-tails named Shivonne had brought in her auntie’s Mac-10 and I thought I had made it clear to the students that this was not allowed, that it was not okay. The shotgun was gigantic, it looked ridiculous in the the boy’s little hands, like the way ants look when they’re carrying things many times their size.
“I just wanted to share, Mr. Johnson. My brother made this all on his own, ain’t it cool?“
“I understand that Dwayne, and yes it is cool, you should be proud of your brother, but rules are rules and the rule is that you can’t bring a gun to school, okay?”
“But you gets to have yo gun,” he said. “That’s not fair. That’s not equal rights.” He looked around at the other students, his eyes pleading for sympathy and understanding, but they all stared down at their desks, silent.
“The rules are different for teachers and students, Dwayne,” I said sternly, holding out my hand to show that the discussion was over. Dwayne pouted for a few seconds, considered his options, and then reluctantly handed me the shotgun. It had a nice feel to it, although the stock had been hacked off in a kind of ugly way — the butt end was rough and poorly finished, it could have used a little sandpaper. I pumped the shotgun several times to eject the cartridges in the chamber and then put it in one of the cubbies in the back of the room until the end of the day, when Dwayne came and picked it up to take home.
One day in November, Elizabeth, another one of the first year teachers placed here by the program, came to my door during third period and asked if she could see me for a second. I put a student in charge of the lesson and then went into the hall to find out what was up. Outside, Elizabeth said she just needed to talk to someone, someone who would listen and who wouldn’t throw shoes or staplers at her while she spoke (she showed me several bruises on her forearms). I could tell that she had just been crying but had been trying really hard not to look like she had been crying; her face was shiny from smeared tears. I told her she could tell me whatever she wanted, anything and everything, in part since new inner city teachers have to stick together, of course, but also because I had had kind of a big crush on Elizabeth since I met her at teacher training at the end of July. She went to school in the Northeast and ate complicated salads in the break room and on Casual Fridays wore these soft, faded jeans which fit her body just perfectly, like denim skin. Her hair was the color of a fresh Twinkie.
Elizabeth told me that two of her students were holding another student hostage in the craft closet. Apparently, he had stolen a cell phone from one of them and refused to return it. She had tried to get them to let him out of the closet and go back to their seats, but the boys had duct-taped rusty compasses and sharpened pencils to the end of meter sticks in order to form rudimentary spears and when she approached them, they pointed these at her and told her to back the fuck up, bitch.
“I can’t take it anymore,” she said, shaking. “I just can’t handle them. They’re…god, they’re fucking animals.”
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” I said, stroking her upper arm and telling her to calm down and breathe slowly and rhythmically. I found her comment about “animals” to kind of offensive and un-politically correct but I let it go because she was obviously in a bad way emotionally and of course I myself had been in a similar place not so long ago. Having empathy for even those whom you disagree with is an important thing that makes the world a better place. I had taken to wearing the gun shoved in the back of my pants instead of in a holster; I thought that this was too informal but my students had told me it was “more dope” and I wanted to show them their opinions were important to me. After Elizabeth finally stopped crying, I pulled the gun out of my pants and showed it to her. She looked at me like I was holding, well, a gun, okay, which I guess I was, but like I was holding something dangerous and evil and bad instead of something wonderful and helpful and good, something that would solve her problems the way it had solved mine.
“Jesus,” she said, “did you confiscate that from a student or something? We should call the SRO.”
“No, no, you don’t understand,” I said, turning it over in my hand to show it off to her, “it’s mine.”
“What do you mean it’s yours?” she said.
“I mean I bought it, it’s mine, it’s a teaching aid,” I said. “It was kind of expensive but I really think it was worth it. For the kids, you know?”
“What the hell are you talking about?” she said, stepping away from me like I was some kind of monster. She looked angry and confused and confused and angry; her face was flushed from all the anger and confusion and crying but even though she was mad at me, it just made her look more lovely in my eyes. I sighed. Sometimes the smartest (and most beautiful) people can be the slowest to learn important life lessons.
“Follow me,” I said. I checked on my class, where DeAngelo was proctoring a short quiz on the American Revolution, and then we walked together down the hallway to her room. The door was closed but even from outside, the yelling and screaming and loud hip hop music were near deafening.
“Okay, you go in first,” I said, cocking the gun and getting myself ready, “I’ll cover you.” Elizabeth looked at me like she was scared in several different ways, but then went in anyway. When she opened the door, the volume inside the room somehow increased and, as she entered, balls of paper and crayons and erasers flew through the air around her as if there was some kind of school supply tornado in the room. She ran and hid behind her desk. I held the gun out in front of me with both hands, like a policeman in a movie, and then slowly entered the room, sweeping it over the class, letting them know they were all my targets. Things quieted down pretty quick. I kicked the classroom door closed behind me and then pointed the gun at the boys with the spears in the back of the room. They dropped them and, a minute later, another boy stepped out of the craft closet. He looked at the gun and froze.
“Did you steal somebody’s phone?” I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said, looking away. I stepped down the middle aisle, advancing upon him rapidly, the gun aimed right at his head.
“Did you steal somebody’s phone?” I asked again, louder.
“Yeah, yeah, okay,” he said. He pulled it out of the pocket of his basketball shorts and gave it back to one of the former spear-holders. I lowered the gun and the three of them walked back to their seats quietly. I went up to the front of the room, picked up the lectern, which had been flipped over on the floor, and stood behind it. As I spoke to the students, I held the gun at chest level, aimed at the back of the room and angled down slightly so that it seemed it was pointing at all of them at once.
“Everybody listen up, ” I said slowly. “Your teacher is a beautiful and intelligent woman and you should pay attention to everything she says and follow all of her directions. This is how you will learn things that will make your lives better and give you the possibility of a happy and productive future in our society. Do you understand?”
The students nodded in unison. Eventually, one boy near the front raised his hand. I pointed the gun at him and signaled for him to speak.
“Yo, can I hold that for a second?” he said.
“Maybe if you behave,” I said, “talk to your teacher.”
The next Sunday, Liz (“Call me Liz,” she said) and I met at a vacant lot near her apartment and shot cans and bottles that she had been collecting for recycling with the gun. She was nervous about shooting the gun at first, even about holding it, but I told her that she would do great, that soon it would feel natural and good and right to have it in her hands. The first time she shot, I stood behind her and wrapped my arms around her arms, my hands around her hands. “Breathe in, hold it, and fire,” I said. As she breathed in, her back arched up into my chest and we stayed that way for a second, held together with tension like there were giant rubber bands around our bodies. She was warm and soft; her hair smelled like some exotic fruit whose name I couldn’t pronounce. Then she pulled the trigger and shattered a large green bottle of organic wine, the gun’s kick echoing through both our bodies.
“I did it,” she said, looking back at me. Her face was flushed but she was smiling proudly.
“You did,” I said, taking the smoking gun from her. The smoke made my nostrils tingle in an exciting way, the way I imagined people felt while taking certain drugs. “That was a great shot, good job, you’re a natural.” I’ve always been awkward around girls because, well, I’ve never really been around any but my mom for extended periods of time, but having the gun made me feel confident and big and strong, that I didn’t have to be scared or nervous; it was an accessory, it was a fashion statement, it gave me something to do with my hands.
In the vacant lot across the street from us, a group of children were playing pick-up baseball. Some of them were my students and they begged me to come over and watch their game, “just a minute,” they said, “just a second,” but I told them that right now I was busy with Ms. Stein and they went, “Ooooohhh” and laughed and made loud and exaggerated kissing sounds. The two of us shot all afternoon, we were out there probably four or five hours, went through several cases of bullets. If one of the kids’ stray balls landed in our lot, whichever one of us wasn’t shooting at the time would run over and throw it back to them. We stopped for a little bit around three to sit on the curb and eat a picnic lunch Liz had packed and then went right back to shooting. Down the street, someone was burning leaves in a trash can and the smoke drifted over the block and filled the air around us with the smell of fall. Old women in lace-cuffed dresses and elaborate hats passed us on their way home from Sunday lunch; we waved at them and they gave us nasty looks and we laughed and waved again. “Are y’all crazy?” one lady said, blocking her granddaughter from us with her body. At one point, a police cruiser pulled up on the street and the officer rolled down his window.
“Everything all right over here, folks?” he said, squinting at us.
“Oh yeah, Officer, just shooting a gun, no problem” Liz said, before squeezing off another couple rounds into some Diet Pepsi cans.
“Okay, well, be careful,” he said, and drove off.
After a while, I began to structure more and more of my curriculum around learning about the gun and about guns in general. The books I’ve read about education say that whenever possible you should tailor your curriculum to suit the students’ interests, that this is how they learn best, and though my students still cared about hip hop, gangs, cartoons, and et cetera, now they were most interested in the gun, which I sometimes wore in the back of my pants and sometimes wore in a shoulder holster inside my jacket. My third graders drew pictures of the gun on construction paper, color-coding and labeling its various parts (I put the gun on the overhead projector so that they could get the shape just right). The fourth graders had a tournament in which they tried to spell the names of various gun makes, models, and manufacturers that we had looked up on the Internet (“Ha ha, Kalashnikov ain’t got no “U” in it, you lose, Diamonique, go sit down, girl.”). The fifth graders delivered presentations on the history of firearms, from the invention of gunpowder in the Tang Dynasty all the way up to the development of the first repeating rifle, the Winchester Model 1866, and the impact that it had on modern warfare (my favorite report was from Ciara, whose glitter-covered purple posterboard described the Second Amendment as “the right to bare arms.” When I corrected her spelling to “bear,” one boy raised his hand and said that he thought the Constitution was only for people, not animals).
I changed the behavior chart on our wall from a night sky covered in felt clouds and shiny star stickers to a fake ammunition rack in which each student had cardboard “clips” that were filled up with macaroni “bullets” whenever they got good grades, helped others, or showed leadership qualities — the student in each grade who had the most bullets every week got to take the gun apart and clean it in front of everybody. If the whole class earned a certain number of bullets by the end of the week, we went out to the playground on Friday and had a gunfight with small plastic water pistols I had bought in bulk at Walmart.
Over the school’s winter break, Liz and I spent a lot of time together, some of it shooting the gun at various targets around the neighborhood, some of it doing other things, things including watching independent movies, cooking dinner with organic, gluten-free ingredients, and having sex with each other in her soft, warm bed. It was the best time of my life so far. On Christmas Eve, I gave her something that I had bought at an antique shop uptown. “I know we haven’t been together very long,” I said, handing her the velvet-lined box, “and I hope you don’t think it’s weird, but I really want to give this to you. I just saw it and I thought it was beautiful like you and I wanted you to have it.” It was a long, thin, pearl-handled revolver which dated to early in the century, probably the twenties, handcrafted and detailed with beautiful swirling lines and curlicues in the silver finish. You couldn’t use modern ammunition in it but by now I was packing my own bullets anyway (both for the fun craft of the activity as well as to avoid giving money to the big arms corporations) so that really wasn’t a dealbreaker at all. The seller described it as an “heirloom” gun, “vintage,” but I managed to talk him down to a reasonable price.
“It’s beautiful,” Liz said, spinning the cylinder and then hugging me tight. “I just want to hold it forever.”
On the first day back to school in January, I was arrested. It was about twenty minutes before the morning bell and I was helping one of my fourth graders, Jasmine, to draw a large multicolor unicorn on the whiteboard. Most of my students came to class early at this point, either to get help on their homework or just to hang out, and since that day was the first day of school after the break, a lot of kids had come early, eager to discuss Christmas presents and snowmen and fun things done during vacation, excited to get started on our new class projects and activities. We were having a perfectly good time when the principal knocked on the door and then came into the room, accompanied by two police officers. The principal was a large African American woman with a tired face who often seemed as if she was literally carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders, as if gravity pushed on her just a little harder and caused her to bulge at the seams. She gave me a tired smile.
“Mark, baby, I know this is going to sound crazy, you know, but we’ve had several calls to the tip line and these officers have to follow procedure and all that, so, now, tell me, are you carrying a gun?” she said, unable to say the last part without laughing a little in spite of herself. The officers, too, looked like they thought this was a ridiculous waste of their time.
“Well, yeah, I am,” I said. I pulled the gun out of the back of my pants and held it out in front of me so they could all see. The officers yelled, “FREEZE, DROP IT,” just like on TV, and I froze and dropped it (or, really, dropped it and froze — how could you freeze first?) and then the two of them tackled me right into my desk. It was pretty painful, it’s a hard desk and the officers were big guys, but besides my own pain, I felt bad about the kids, that they had to see this, that they had to see me, their teacher, in this position. It didn’t seem right at all, it didn’t seem fair. The officers cuffed me and read me my rights and, as they did, the kids cried and screamed and tried to come pull the officers off of me, wrapping themselves around the men’s legs and pounding them with little fists; the principal tried to get them all to be quiet and sit in their seats, but they wouldn’t listen to her, they just kept yelling at me and her and the situation. As I was pulled out of the room, the kids started throwing things at the officers, pencil cases and textbooks and cans of soda, but I told them to stop, to behave, that I was going to be fine and that they had better be very good students for whatever substitute they got or I would hear about it.
The officers dragged me through the halls toward the exit and the principal followed alongside us. It felt like my feet were barely touching the floor; I hadn’t even had a cup of coffee yet. The principal just kept staring at me, as if her eyes could burn holes in my body if she stared hard enough.
“Are you out of your goddamn mind?” she said, huffing and puffing down the corridor. “What is wrong with you, boy? A gun?”
“Talk to my kids,” I said, as the officers pulled me through the doors into the wind and snow outside, onto the dark pavement. “That’s all I ask. Just talk to them.”
The jail was cold and damp and unpleasant. While I think that many of the myths about urban life as seen on television and in the movies are inaccurate and misleading, the images you see of jail are probably right and accurate enough, jail isn’t a very nice place to be, physically or mentally or emotionally. I mean, it wasn’t unbearable, and it was probably less crowded and dangerous than the school, actually, but it was so unpleasant and gray and boring; I sat and stared at a wall and then, when I got bored with that, I sat and stared at another wall, and this was what I did for most of the day. I was never attacked by another prisoner (I was in solitary most of the time), but I still really missed my gun and reached for it out of habit more times than I could count. Guns were actually a good ice breaker when I was at lunch with the other prisoners, we were able to pass some quality time talking about the relative merits of semi-auto versus full auto and whether hollow points really were a superior bullet. The food they gave us was awful, though, it was really just different colors of mush, a green pile and a white pile and a brown pile and a blue pile (this was dessert) and I wondered if it was better or worse than what was served at the school, since if they were similar then it was no wonder that many students would refuse the school lunch even though it was free and they didn’t get enough nutrition at home.
I mean, I knew it was going to happen eventually, of course, it was amazing that it had gone on this long, that I had been able to use the gun in class for months without being caught or getting in trouble or going to jail. What I had told my students on the first day was that the gun was our little secret and that they shouldn’t tell anybody about it, not their friends, not their parents, not their other teachers, nobody. I think that at first that they kept the secret out of fear that I would shoot them with the gun, probably, but, as time went on, I like to think that they kept it a secret out of their love for me, because they liked me being their teacher and them being my students and they didn’t want anything to happen to this relationship. Of course, not all kids could keep the secret, kids aren’t great at that, it’s not their best quality, so occasional rumors spread through the school about how Mr. Johnson was teaching his kids using a gun, was firing his gun in class even, and using it to discipline bad students. Who would believe such a crazy thing, though? I’m sure most anyone who ever heard about my gun just thought that the kids were making stuff up.
Jail was boring and gray but it was mostly sad. The first night, I laid on the padded slab in my cell and looked up at the ceiling and felt sad about various things in my life, not all of them jail-related. I mean, I was worried about my future and the trial and everything (I guessed there would be a trial, that was generally how these things progressed, it seemed), how long I would have to go to prison, what would happen to me there, but mostly I was just sad that I wasn’t with my kids, that we weren’t together, that I wasn’t teaching them and I wouldn’t ever again. I just hoped that they had a good substitute who was sticking with my lesson plans instead of reading a book and letting the kids do whatever they wanted. As I fell asleep, I tried to imagine that the day’s events had never occurred, that school had just gone on as normal and expected and everything was fine and great and wonderful. In my dreams, though, this fantasy kept breaking; in my dreams, I saw all of my students grown up and living on the streets, using drugs at the ends of dark alleys, robbing stores and banks and people’s grandmothers, and, mostly, over and over again, from every possible angle, I saw them shooting each other with guns, the blood pouring out of the holes in their bodies like runny ketchup.
By the morning of the second day that I was in jail, I still hadn’t talked to any detectives or been charged with anything, which I thought was odd but figured was the result of some extension of the Patriot Act or something. I guess I could have complained or asked for a lawyer, but I’ve never been that kind of person, really, I don’t like to cause a scene. The breakfast mush was slightly more agreeable than the previous day’s dinner mush, although this might have been because I hadn’t eaten much of it the previous day and so was pretty hungry by breakfast. At around 10 AM, an officer came to my holding cell, opened the door, and told me that I was being released without charge and to get out now, okay? I thought that this was odd, too, but I really didn’t want to question it and stay in jail, so I took my belt and wallet and keys from the man and left the building. Outside, it was cold and snowy and I didn’t have a coat because I wasn’t wearing one when I was arrested. I started to look for the nearest bus stop when I saw that the principal was standing on street in front me, holding my gun in her gloved hands. She looked at me for a second as I approached her and then handed the gun to me — it felt so good to have it back again, it was amazing to feel its weight. I slipped it into the back of my pants and we walked over and got coffee at a chain place down the street from jail.
“So did you talk to the kids?” I asked, sipping my latte.
“They talked to me,” she said. “How did you do it?”
Apparently, the police had tried to get the students to move to another classroom so that they could search my room for evidence to use in the case against me, but my kids had formed a human chain and refused to be removed, shouting that the officers were hurting them, that they were touching them inappropriately. When the police had left the room for a moment to regroup and get more help, the kids had jammed the door shut with carefully wedged textbooks and blocks of molding clay and then barricaded it further with stacked desks. The principal tried to trick them into letting her in by offering them all the candy and chips and sodas they wanted, but they told her that they didn’t need any food (“especially not no high fructose, partial-hydrogenate poison,” Diamonique had apparently said), that there was a sink in the room for water and they could go a long time without eating for their beliefs if they had to (“We did units on civil disobedience and nutrition last quarter,” I told her).
Once the door was secure, the kids began writing letters to the principal about how I was a good teacher and they wanted me and the gun back with them in class and I should not go to jail, letters which they folded into aerodynamically efficient paper airplanes and flew out the window toward the office (I started to tear up at this point in the story). When school ended and evening came and the students showed no signs of being ready to leave, the principal called their parents (the ones that she could get on the phone) and reminded them that the kids were on a field trip (didn’t they remember signing the permission slips?) and that the bus was running late so she couldn’t say exactly when the kids would get home. The kids had stayed in the room all night and the principal sat in the hallway outside the door, reading their letters and listening to them play and study. Sometime early in the morning, around three or four, she had decided to get me out of jail and bring me back to the school and informing the kids of this decision finally got them to come out (“They all hugged me at one time,” she said, “It was the biggest hug I’ve ever had.”). It turned out conveniently that the principal’s brother was the local precinct captain, so by coordinating with him she was able to keep the whole thing quiet and off the record and get me out of jail and this is how we were sitting together and drinking coffee now.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said, showing me a few of the letters the kids had written. “Their vocabulary, their sentence constructions, their ideas. It’s so far above grade level. I don’t understand how they improved so much so fast. What did you do?”
“You’re not gonna want to hear this, but it’s the gun,” I said, making a fake gun hand gesture to emphasize my point. “I mean, we worked really hard and I’m a much better teacher than when I started, definitely, but I don’t think any of it would’ve been possible without the gun.”
“Shut up,” she said, “shut up, shut up, shut up.” I shut up. We sat there and drank our big coffees slowly until they were gone. She went to the counter and got us refills and croissants from the barista and we sat at the table and ate them in silence, too. The croissants were flaky and and warm but it was obvious that neither of us were really enjoying them, that we were just chewing so we wouldn’t have to talk.
“I can’t have guns in my school,” she said, finally. ” I can’t. I can’t even believe we’re talking about this.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Why not?” she said. “What kind of question do you think that is? Because it’s crazy, because it’s insane, because it doesn’t make any damn sense.”
“Why does it have to make sense?” I said. “It works, you can’t argue with that and that’s what really matters, right? Why do you care if it’s crazy as long as it works? Just let it work.”
I pulled the gun out of my pocket and slid it across the table to her, right next to her giant cup of coffee. A woman walking by our table shot me a scared look but in that moment, I didn’t care about her, she wasn’t important, I could only really see one thing: the principal as she looked at the gun there in front of her, as she thought about it. She sat there like that for a while without moving or drinking or doing anything, just breathing and thinking, thinking and breathing. Then suddenly I saw her arm coming up from under the table, her hand moving through space toward me, and then she picked the gun up, holding the grip tenderly at first and then squeezing it tight, her flesh molding around the steel, her finger slipping into the trigger guard like she was putting on a wedding ring. She sat there holding it for a second like that and then stuck it in her purse and said that we had some things to talk about.
Within a few days, the principal had gotten guns to a core group of teachers in grades K-8 for testing, to make sure that my experience with the gun wasn’t some kind of fluke or anomaly; after a week, positive results were being reported across the board. The teachers in the sample group raved about their guns and how much they helped in the classroom, with the kids, what valuable educational aids they were; other teachers not included in the test stood in the break room and complained under their breath about how unfair the situation was, how they should have guns, too, how their students should also benefit from what guns had to offer. By the middle of February, the whole school was armed, everybody: teachers and coaches, staff and janitors, every single secretary.
Obviously the big problem with implementing such a program was where to get all of the guns, since guns are not exactly affordable and we needed a lot of them in order to have a gun in every classroom, which was the principal’s mandate from the very start. We talked to arms manufacturers about possible educational discounts and wholesale prices and a few were enthusiastic, excited even, but they all insisted on advertising being posted all around our school which we didn’t think would send a good message to the students or the community. There was a discussion about waiting and trying to work the guns into the budget for the fall somehow, but the principal said that she wanted guns in the hands of her teachers now, not at some vague point in the future, and besides, there would never be enough money in the budget, there was never enough.
What we ended up doing was having a gun drive, a day on which members of the community could come to the school and donate their used or stolen guns with no legal repercussions or fear of prosecution. Upon being donated, the guns were unloaded, wiped clean of all DNA evidence, and stamped with new serial numbers so that they couldn’t be traced back to their previous owners. Participants could even apply for a tax credit if they liked, based on the value of the gun or guns they donated, and the fliers that we posted around the neighborhood stressed that this was an important thing that the community needed to come together and do in order to help its kids, for their future. In the days before the drive, we encouraged our students to get their parents and step-parents and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins to donate as many guns as they possibly could, promising the kids a big pizza party with a DJ and snow cones and a moon-bounce if we received a certain number of guns on the day in question. In the end, the drive exceeded our goal by several hundred guns and we were able to trade the excess to the police department for safes and trigger locks and classes in gun handling and ownership.
Most teachers carry small, low-caliber pistols for their portability, weight, and ease of handling in various classroom situations (I myself now have a classic .357 Magnum, which I feel looks sophisticated and professorial, like a tweed jacket). The coaches tend to prefer large assault weapons of military vintage; these guns are more visible from across a basketball court or baseball field than pistols. Janitors have found that certain hunting rifles slot perfectly into their cleaning carts, right next to the mops. Administrative staff vary in their preferences, although sleek machine pistols that have high fire rates yet are still small enough to fit inside of desk drawers and regulation size filing cabinets seem to be popular, especially among the ladies. The principal, vice principal, and guidance counselors all have matching double-barreled shotguns which are engraved with the school crest and which they keep mounted on ornamental wall racks in their offices, nestled between class pictures and colorful crayon drawings done by favorite students.
At the end of the year, after guns had been in most of the classrooms for only a few months, our national standardized test scores were up 26% — in my class, which was exposed to guns the longest, almost all of the students were in the 90th percentile or above in every single subject. It was unbelievable, nobody had ever seen anything like it in the history of the school. Some kids jumped several grade levels in reading or math in just a short time with guns. When the scores were released, it turned out that we were one of the only schools in the district with an A rating — not even some of the rich charter schools in the suburbs could match our scores. Obviously, such a radical and amazing turnaround meant that we were the subject of some scrutiny by the school board, and, when it was revealed by the local and then national media that our success was in large part due to the use of guns in the classroom (we couldn’t keep this a secret forever), there was of course widespread uproar and outcry. Gun control advocates denounced us and protested outside of the school with signs and slogans; popular right wing talk show hosts put their full support behind us and our embrace of the Second Amendment (I think they’re evil, but we appreciated the help). Across the nation, there were speeches and articles and newspaper editorials both pro and con, but in the end, however people felt about guns, they couldn’t really argue with test scores like ours, they couldn’t argue with success like we’ve seen, all they had to do was look at our students and see how happy and smart they were and how well guns were working for them. We were wary of putting the kids in the spotlight at first, what with the disruptions it might offer to the educational process, but because of all the public criticism, we really wanted to show the kids that they should be proud of themselves, so one day in June, the principal and several students traveled to New York City with me to appear on the Today Show; after our interview with Kathy Lee Gifford, Anthony read his favorite Langston Hughes poem live on air and Keisha sang a Beyonce song.
For the eighth grade graduation ceremony in June, after the last student had walked across the stage and received her diploma, everyone went outside to the playground in their dress-up clothes carrying their construction paper diplomas. In front of the monkey bars, a group of teachers stood in a long line and fired their guns into the air in unison. As they did, a small fireworks display was triggered in the sandbox behind them, filling the sky above the school with color and light in tribute to the students and all their hard work. Everyone clapped and cheered and celebrated the day.
At a “get to know your coworkers” barbecue that Liz and I held this fall, just before the school year started, one of the new teachers assigned here by the program told me that there’s this thing about stories involving guns, which is that if you tell a story about guns, the guns have to be fired by the end of the story, often in the direction of some important person or thing in the story, killing or at the very least significantly maiming that important person or thing. “It’s a basic rule of drama,” she said, sipping her beer and looking down warily at the newly issued Beretta she was wearing on her hip. I laughed about it at the time, since I could tell she and most of the other new teachers were uncomfortable about having guns and I wanted the mood at the BBQ to remain light and cool, but, personally, I found this rule about gun stories to be a horrifying and awful concept, however “basic” it may be to “drama,” and thankfully it’s a rule which is not true of the story of our school, which was recently described by a recent book as “the exception to the rule” about failing inner-city schools.
There have been accidents, of course. I mean, there are always accidents in life, especially when children are involved, you know, but I can’t discount for a second the fact that some of our accidents probably wouldn’t have happened if guns hadn’t been present at the school. No one here has ever died from a gunshot wound since I introduced the first gun two years ago, but there have certainly been injuries to both students and teachers, sometimes ones that the school nurse hasn’t been able to fix with band-aids and aspirin. These are ugly things that when I think of them my heart sinks into my chest and I question everything I know and believe about the world. One older teacher’s gun misfired in its holster and broke her femur, leaving her in a wheelchair for months and using a cane to this day. On the playground, a kindergartner named Brandon caught an accidental ricochet from a gym teacher’s AR-15; the bullet passed within an inch of his tiny little heart. Some teachers take the disciplinary effect of the gun too far; a few have smacked unruly students in the head with the butts of their guns, causing concussions and, in one case, a skull fracture (these teachers were, of course, immediately dismissed, as is anyone who abuses the power of their gun). There was a pilot program at one of the high schools that I can’t even think about; suffice it to say that it’s important to introduce the guns to students very early on and not wait until they’re older. Still, despite all of these admittedly bad things that have happened, I still think we are much better off with the guns than we are without them and very few people here would argue with that.
With the money from some of the speaking engagements that I’ve done since our program became famous, Liz and I bought an old row-house near the school, which I hope to have completely fixed up by the time the baby’s born. I’m not very good at home improvement, sadly; I don’t find a hammer or drill to feel nearly as natural in my hand as a gun does, but I’m doing the best I can. I’m pretty good with a paintbrush, though, which is important since it seems that everything here is being painted over and made new and clean. The community, thanks to an influx of public interest coupled with dramatic drops in the local crime rate, is becoming rapidly revitalized; Michael Jackson says that it’s becoming “rewhitealized” but I tell him that’s silly, although there are more white kids at the school this year, certainly, and there’s a Starbucks and a sushi place opening just down the street from me. Michael Jackson is still selling drugs on the corner, by the way, and I still think that’s bad, personally, but everyone has to have their place and their position in society and after everything that happened with the gun, I don’t believe in condemning people just because they’re doing something I find personally uncomfortable or unpleasant.
Of course, I don’t presume to say that guns are the solution for everyone; they aren’t, they can’t be. All places are different, all people are unique; life is a complex and difficult question and there are no easy answers for it. All I know is that we tried this thing here, in this place, with the guns, and it’s working, I know that, I see it every day, on the streets of my neighborhood and in the hallways of the school, in the smiling faces of the kids as they play. When I see their happiness and their joy, I know that this is what is most important, to try, to do whatever it takes to make things better. Like I said, guns may not be the right answer for you, but there might be some equally unorthodox solution to the problems that you face, problems that may seem huge and insurmountable, like mountains or other large and intimidating objects. I don’t know the answers to your problems or if there even are answers, really, but what I can tell you from my own experience is to not be afraid to try things, to play with ideas which at first feel strange and weird and wrong, to give them a chance. You never know where they might lead. I mean, I decided to bring the gun to school from a place of complete fear and desperation and loneliness, because I didn’t know what else to do, because I was very sad. The gun was just a random thought in my head that I seized on for some reason, I don’t know exactly why, but I did and I tried it and we played with it and now look at how things have progressed, look at the way our story has turned out, look how happy we are.
August 9, 2009
So I disappeared for a while! I wish there was some interesting story behind it like I went on a trip somewhere exotic like South America or the moon or I got swine flu or something but really what happened is that at the beginning of July, since I had done so much writing in June, I thought I would give myself a couple of days off from writing in order to relax before coming back refreshed after the Fourth and really banging out some pages but then when I tried to come back refreshed after the Fourth I couldn’t write anything at all probably because I had been a total dumbass and stopped writing and gotten out of my routine and lost my inspiration and all that bullshit and this inability to write triggered kind of my sort of yearly kind of complete nervous breakdown (which I usually have in the fall or winter, not the summer!) and so because of the nervous breakdown I could really not write anything for a while and then after a lot of frustrating stuff I started to be kind of productive again but that productivity was channeled into writing several long things that were taking forever to finish and so I am just now getting some things to the level of acceptability that makes it possible for me to show them to you and so that’s why I’m writing this here now and am “back” or something like it or whatever. Also, just FYI, from now on there may be a little more fiction than usual interspersed between the personal essays and multimedia collage and all that because I’m trying to work up a portfolio so I can apply to grad school at the end of the year so that hopefully at some point in the future I can stop being a depressive loser and start being a happy and productive member of society (this is what happens when people go to graduate school, right?) and in order to keep myself writing stuff I need to post it here because I find that I have a lot of trouble writing without an audience which probably says something deep and profound about we live in public and oversharing and etc. but I could really care less about all of it as long as I’m making stuff and people are experiencing it. Anyway, thanks to those who expressed concern about me being gone while I was gone and thanks to everyone else for bearing with me.