Saturday, November 13, 2010

This Morning’s Reading

A clear winner in P&W’s litmag Q&A, and some thoughts on R. T. Smith…

Looks Like We Should All Look Into n+1

The current issue of Poets & Writers has a one-pager titled “The Journals Agents Are Reading” (pg. 82)—an enticing bit of headline-writing for writers with better submission habits than my own. (Definitely something I need to work on.) Predictably, the agents interviewed, for the most part, demurred at choosing actual “favorites,” but exceptions to that rule produced a clear winner: Three of ten agents actually did choose a favorite, and it was the relatively new journal n+1.
Said Chris Parris-Lamb of the Gernet Company: “That would be n+1. There are other places I turn to first for short fiction, but n+1 is the only magazine I read from cover to cover.”

And Jim Rutman of Sterling Lord Literistic: “I think I will risk minor ridicule for pretension and go with the still young upstart n+1.

And finally, Anna Stein of Aitken Alexander: “I have to say, for now, n+1. They came on the scene only a few years ago, but they’ve introduced the kinds of writers that no one else would go near, and I’m talking about important literary writers who push the envelope (and whom we see six months later in the New Yorker…)
Of course, there are a lot of other great recommendations and insights in the article, but I think it’s safe to say that if you’re as out of it as I am and haven’t yet had a gander at n+1, now might be the time to do so.

R. T. Smith Serves Up “Straight Shots”

One of my favorite litmags—one of the few I subscribe to and read cover to cover on a regular basis—is The Missouri Review. The current issue features a short piece from a writer I’d never read before, though I expect many of you will know him well: R. T. Smith has been published in Best American and the Pushcart Anthology, and has a number of story collections in print. But it appears his recent works—including this wonderful story, “First Meeting,” in The Missouri Review—have been short monologues from sometimes hateful, sometimes lovable, but always troubled characters. In “First Meeting,” we hear a despicable alcoholic’s lengthy monologue at his first AA meeting:
“Only a fool tries to get between a man and his story. Listen up, I am in constant search for His will on the questions of my future behavior and all other matters. I go down to the Maury’s snake turn, where the old dam left a spillway, and there I stare at the pure white water tumbling and parley with the Man Himself, as I understand Him, and He listens and gives me signs. It was not for nothing He let me be hauled back from the flames of Hell on three occasions, and I can tell by your scoffing looks and righteous sounds that you believe yourselves better than me, more in tune with rescue and the Higher Power, maybe based on some quota of meetings or agreement to forgive each other, though not a one of you has ever put a heel on the other’s neck.”
Smith compares these short pieces to traditional “stories” (even questioning whether they are “stories” at all), and concludes that, if a story is “a full pitcher of plantation punch meant to be savored gradually,” these short pieces are “more akin to straight shots, undiluted, brooking little restraint, down the hatch with full burn.” I would agree with that assessment, and would add that Smith has, with this one at least, achieved the story writer’s ultimate goal of packing a boxcar full of tense intimacy and emotion into an easy flow of words that can easily be consumed in 20 minutes time.

Monday, November 1, 2010

I can be reasonable, but...

My trip to Washington for the Jon Stewart / Stephen Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear

At the Rally to Restore Sanity on Saturday, Jon Stewart led the charge for what he called “reasonableness.” He gave out “Medal of Reasonableness” awards, and the official rally T-Shirt was a take-off on the classic “I’m with Stupid” design, only with the “Stupid” crossed out and replaced with “Reasonable.” I know all this because I flew to Washington to be at that rally, but I’m here to say to Jon Stewart and his erstwhile partner in sanity Stephen Colbert,…

Guys, I can be reasonable, but…

Flying into Washington and having the screen on my flip phone go white?? Come on!

You realize how useless a phone is without a screen, right? Even a lame flip phone like the one I’m carrying even though pretty much everyone on the planet, including my sister who just moved back to the U.S. from Argentina and her five kids, all have smart phones. Send a text? Nah. Dial any of the dozens of numbers stored in my contacts list? Nah. Use it as a watch? Nah. (And no, I don’t wear a wristwatch.) Handicapped as I was, though, I pressed on, and…

I can be reasonable, but…

Sitting on a Washington Flyer Shuttle for two-and-half hours to get into the city from Dulles? Come on!

Seven other people on that shuttle, and I probably don’t even have to ask you how many got dropped off before I did. Foggy Bottom? Check. Downtown? Check. Georgetown? Check and check. Dupont Circle? Check. My father-in-law’s cousin’s place in Petworth? Oh yeah, that sounds like last place to me! Good thing the restaurant was only a block away, or I never would have gotten my pasta bucket inside the 10:00 closing time. That was all Thursday, so I had a full day to sightsee before rally day, and…

I can be reasonable, but…

Falling deathly ill in the International Spy Museum?? Come on!

When I got on the plane at SFO, it was seasonal allergies: runny nose, burning sinuses, a Victorian lady cough every now and again. When my friends Mary and Susan and I rode the Metro over and went into the Operation Spy experience, a little more nose-blowing, but still nothing serious. But then, a half-hour through the Spy Museum exhibits, it started to hit me, and a half-hour after that, it was chills, fever, shaking, weakness, a thrashing sore throat and a pounding headache.

I made a command decision to relocate myself from Petworth to Mary’s and Susan’s hotel, lay in provisions, and quarantine myself for the rest of the day and night in hopes of beating the dreaded thing into submission in time to make the rally the next morning, but then…

I can be reasonable, but…

Spending the whole damn day and night coughing and blowing, unable to breathe or sleep, swilling Nyquil to no avail, and then waking the next day no better off?? Come on!

I was in a hotel 2.6 miles away, about a 9-minute cab ride. I had my Rally cap and my Keep Fear Alive t-shirt. I had my Rally posse and the posse had a plan, and I had to tell the posse to go on without me because I just couldn’t move.

I can be reasonable, but…

Watching the Rally to Restore Sanity on a 15-inch laptop computer screen from only 2.6 miles away?? Come on!

It was 1:30 p.m. before I was ambulatory and conscious enough to get the computer out and open up And truth be told, I wasn’t sad, really, until I saw the crowd shot from the boom camera, until I saw the National Mall covered with the mass of people that I came to be a part of, people sick and tired of the culture of fear, people desperate for someone—some leader, some media outlet, some person or persons of influence somewhere—with the courage to just be reasonable.

I did see, on my 15-inch screen, as Jon Stewart took the microphone at the end and said, “We live in hard times, not end times,” and, repeatedly, “You go first, then I’ll go.” And those words and the message embodied in them kept resonating with me for the entirety of my trip home.

…Sitting in the bistro of the One Washington Circle hotel completely surrounded by Muslims, hearing the music of their language and seeing the joy and compassion in their eyes and their movements.

...Finding the bartender at the airport willing to learn as I taught her how to make hot toddies, and then enjoying the fruits of her quick education.

…Waiting on standby for two flights at Dulles and seeing the respectful gratitude of those who made the flights and the dignified resignation of those who didn’t.

…Smiling, all of them smiling, all of us smiling with each other. “You go first, then I’ll go.”

And those words still resonate with me now.

Yeah, sometimes it’s hard to be reasonable, but the fact is, for the vast majority of us lowly humans, it’s actually much harder not to be.

My deepest, sincerest thanks to Mary Rich for not only hosting me on my one reasonably healthy night, but also braving that same DC traffic to transfer my stuff to my quarantine hole for me. Thank you, Mary!

And also, thanks to Mary Dateo and Susan Hill for raiding the local CVS Pharmacy in a heroic effort to get me well in time for the rally. Didn't work out, guys, but I got a lot better a lot faster for all your efforts and the various drugs and provisions you delivered.

Thanks to you all again for taking such good care of me!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

How to Meet a Woman (Or at least a 500-pixel image of one)

Internet Marketing uses fantasy to sell the promise of a college degree

A gorgeous blonde in a tight blue sweater, peaking out from behind a tree in the quad. The same blonde, leaning against the Humanities building. Another blonde, this one slender, in the midst of a golden field of mustard flowers. A lovely dark-skinned woman, Latina perhaps, perhaps East Asian, leaning back in her tailored suit against the Business building. Take you back, college boys? Or, if you’re not a college boy, take you anywhere? Like, to what your imagination has told you college must be like?

Well, forget the fact that, for most of us anyway, college wasn’t anything like that, and just feast your eyes on these images, images from ads on the Internet, ads for colleges, yeah, online colleges. It’s like they’re saying, “Check it out, click this ad and get an online degree, and look at all these girls you’ll never, ever, ever get a chance to meet!

The ads from Argosy University, one of three institutions marketed by the Education Management Corporation of Pittsburgh, feature women who will attract the eyes of prospective male students, but are more likely intended to represent prospective female students: one exhibiting the attire and posture of a newly minted professional, the other embodying the freedom and happiness a college education can bring. Of course, whether intended for male prospects or not, the fact that these women are extremely attractive ensures that the males will certainly not be shooed away.

The University of Phoenix, one of five institutions marketed by the Apollo Group, Inc., of Phoenix, takes a somewhat similar approach, though here you have just a tinge of titillation. In the last ad shown, you have a lovely dark-haired girl in a business suit gazing with something between good cheer and adoration into the eyes of a young cohort. The prospective male applicant, the guy sitting in front of this ad with his hand poised on the mouse, is of course meant to see himself as the cohort, sitting happily across from this engaging beauty. All he needs to do now is somehow put out of his mind the pesky fact that it’s an online degree! (You can do it, man! Just click the damn ad! Click it! Click it!)

But, a web property of EducationDynamics of Hoboken, NJ, has to be, of all those represented, the least burdened by scruples. Here we have the absolutely scintillating blonde, peaking out, leaning back, blue eyes aglow, light blue sweater taught around her. She’s definitely the star of these ads, but occasionally you’ll see another, like this smiling—some might say, rockin’—headphone-wearing youth, who can be meant to represent nothing other than a prospective fellow student at the college of your choice. Once again, bust out the hammer, ‘cause someone's gonna need a knock over the head: It’s an online degree, man!
Anyway, good fun as it is wagging my finger, I’m also quick to give a tip o’ the hat, and this one is earned by Kaplan University, the educational institution of Kaplan Inc. of New York. This ad features a character this despicable, middle-aged blogger can relate to. Fair warning, though: Some people just might be too cool for school.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Of Fathers and Sons, Part 3

Posted 1/23/2010

Thoughts on our children, and what they bring.
Part 3: “Children of Men”

In the last installment, I talked about the tumultuous years that led up to Matthew’s birth in 1978. The years since then have been everything years can be for a large family like ours: painful, trying, routine, joyous, triumphant. But the bottom line is, all is well today—so much so that, when it came my time to speak at the Man Shower, my first words were, “Matthew, you’re going to be a good father because you had a good father.” Our parents have 19 grandchildren now, and three great-grandchildren. Our father has been remarried to a stepmother who is a much-loved and appreciated member of our family, and our mother’s strength through difficult times continues to serve as a shining example as eight of the nine of us (Matthew being the exception) move into middle age.

As the Man Shower closed down in the wee hours, and Matthew and I prepared to leave Kai’s house, Kai thanked me for the story I had told of Matthew’s arrival in the world, pointing out that it was a perspective that only I, of all those present, could have given. He then handed me his copy of the 2006 movie “Children of Men,” Alfonso Cuarón’s gripping apocalyptic tale, which stars Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Clare-Hope Ashitey. In the film, which is based on the novel by P.D. James, a world gone infertile has descended into chaos after 18 years with no new children. Kai gave me the DVD and asked that all I do in return is “watch it and write something about it.” So here we are.

In the doom-laden world of “Children of Men,” it is a cynical and disillusioned office worker named Theo (played by Clive Owen) who must give the planet hope by carrying out the simple, yet unbelievably challenging tasks that all the sons and fathers at the Man Shower spoke so poignantly about: caring for the mother, and caring for the child. In the film, Cuarón holds a magnifying glass to these challenges by creating a post-apocalyptic wasteland where Theo and a young mother (played by Clare-Hope Ashitey) must run from angry mobs and dodge bullets and bombs. But more importantly, he magnifies the effect of the new child, the import of the baby’s arrival, and the humanity that arises out of the most unexpected places when a baby’s cries are heard.

Twelve days ago, Matthew and Nanette brought their new son, Mateo, into the world. The boy whose arrival was such a blessing now has a baby of his own. Mateo, gladly, will not be called upon to rescue, by his very presence, a family reeling from a jarring transition. He will, however, have an effect on his little family no less profound and no less important. He’ll change them, he’ll challenge them, and he’ll fill them with joy. In fact, I’m sure he already has. We hear constantly about the momentous times we are living in, but all momentous times are made up of smaller, equally momentous events like these. So welcome, Mateo. Thanks, Kai. And once again, in case I haven’t said it in a while, thanks, Matthew.

Of Fathers and Sons, Part 2

Posted 1/21/2010

Thoughts on our children, and what they bring.
Part 2: Welcome, Matthew

In the last installment, I mentioned Matthew’s arrival into our family. Here’s the condensed version of how it happened and what it meant to us:

In 1974, our father left the house for good, and our family was shattered. Within just a few years, an older brother had turned to drugs, another had decided to forego college, as had an older sister, and two younger sisters had dropped out of high school. What had been a bright future for all of us was now looking very bleak indeed. Certainly, our parents’ split cannot be blamed for all of that, but there is no doubt that it contributed, just as there is no doubt that there were a very many less visible and less dramatic ill effects, from uncertain and awkward moments, hours, and afternoons to divisions within the family, particularly along gender lines. Then, as often happens in troubled times, it was tragedy that pulled us together: In the spring of 1977, a beloved uncle, our mother’s only brother and one of our father’s best friends, was tragically killed by a drunk driver. There were many, many tears; there was an Irish wake; there was a huge hole in our extended family that could never be refilled. As one would expect, our parents reached out to each other for consolation and support. I can only imagine how desperately they must have needed it, and I can’t imagine that there could be anyone else, for either of them, who could truly understand the depth of their loss. From my teen-age viewpoint, the main thing I saw was that my father was present again.

A few months passed and there was a family meeting, which turned out to be a bit of a shock: instead of a reconciliation, which some of us had expected, our parents announced that our mother, 44 years old, was 3 months pregnant. That baby, of course, was Matthew, who came to us in the summer of 1978, four years after my father had left the house, and within months, as I understand it, from when our parents finalized their divorce.

At the Man Shower, I tried to describe all this, but was emotionally overcome and only able to say, “It was broken, and he fixed it,” pointing to my now 31-year-old baby brother. What I would have said if I could have was that our family was, as I’ve said, shattered. Our common purpose was beleaguered, and our common love was in disarray, and this beautiful, feather-light, completely vulnerable little baby forced us all to remember who we were, that we were a family, that we had not only a shared existence, but shared aspirations as well. Despite the fact that I didn’t say all this, Kai—who knows Matthew as well as anyone—seemed to divine it somehow, which led him to bestow on me a small gift.

Next: “Children of Men”

Of Fathers and Sons, Part 1

Posted 1/20/2010

Thoughts on our children, and what they bring.
Part 1: The Man Shower

It is just a month now since I joined in a gathering in Downey, California, for what was fittingly dubbed a “Man Shower” (think, “baby shower, but with whiskey”). The guest of honor was my baby brother, Matthew, and I’m not kidding when I say “baby brother,” not because he’s a baby—he’s not—but because he is a full 18 years my junior, so to me, he will always be a baby of sorts.

The Man Shower was the brainchild of Matthew’s friend Kai-Ping Liu, and if you don’t know Kai, I strongly suggest you check out his blog, the website and music of his band, Centrevol, and the music of his former band, Concept6, in which Matthew was the drummer, and for which Kai was the creative force. He is a truly inspired soul. At a Man Shower, one eats continuously, drinks finely aged Scotch, smokes cigars—from the superb to the suspect—and plays croquet. And, once all the eating, drinking, smack-talking, and wicket abuse has subsided, the festivities turn toward the thoughtful and conversational, because Kai is as much a contemplative soul as he is a creative one.

So, most of us being older, wiser, and more experienced than Matthew, we all offered our advice and observations about the impending change that he and his wife, Nanette, were facing. When the time came for me to speak, I had no personal experience of fatherhood to share, because unlike Matthew, I have chosen not to be a father. I did, however, have a couple of things to say about children coming into a family, and what they can mean to us, because Matthew’s own arrival was pretty unique. He is the ninth child in our family, and 11 years younger than his closest sibling. To put that in perspective, in the first 8 years of their marriage, our parents brought 7 children into the world. But that’s just scratching the surface.

Next: Welcome, Matthew