Sunday, May 29, 2011

Hot Concrete

The city’s got a feeling summer. Hot concrete. Horizon’s obscured, by buildings or distance or mist. It’s key to choose a city with some green. It gives you that feeling of wet that will permeate your skin -- get under your skin -- get into your clothes. So you’re never quite dry. That’s how you know it’s summer. You’re never dry. Not entirely.

The smell is sweet; sour; sickly; death and birth at once. Baby birds dead on the sidewalk, gray bodies bordered in lines of pink and blue, eyes bulbous and closed, open beaks. Grown birds too, in the same positions -- heads back, stomachs distended, flies and gnats scattering as you walk past. People on porches watch you walk past, they say the neighborhood is changing, not for the better; they say nothing at all and wish you would notice them; they don’t even notice you pass. Stone stairs up to wooden porches, vines and leaves creeping in. You have to push past them. Lines of ants along one step. Occasionally they get inside. They find pop cans. They find cat food.

Inside you hear voices even clearer than out. Kids playing in a pool you can’t see. A woman walking up one side of the street, then the other, then on a block you can’t see but can still hear -- “Britt! Britt! Britt! Britt!” After ten minutes someone yells in response -- not Britt -- and the first woman calls back, “Fuck you, she can hear me!” Hellos, laughs, drunk on booze or the lateness of the hour. It’s always a holiday weekend, especially in the middle of the week.

During the day. Dog walkers, people on cell phones speaking quietly, people who will cross the street whether you’re dangerous or look dangerous or they are. People crane their necks to see in cars or other houses. It’s suspicious, or it looks natural. Radios from cars, from back porches, from roof porches. You can see people who can’t see you back. Somewhere, someone can see you you can’t see back. Around five the bar puts out its patio tables. There is no rush for seats. That comes later, and inside. Things happen there every night. It’s not on a calendar. You just have to go.

At night, blue light from TVs. From your window the street looks orange. It’s the light from the streetlights. There are so many because of the churches and the school. It’s a price you pay. The trade off is that there are also green things, a lawn that is mowed, and lots of street parking.

You worry that no one here knows you. It doesn’t take very long to be known. That’s been a problem in the past. Be more careful this time. Be more patient. Be humble and self-aware. You don’t have to take this advice, just know that it’s good. Remember what you told yourself a long time ago, when you felt very similar: It matters what you do when no one is looking.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Where I Write

(very much inspired by this piece on the Rumpus by Chloe Caldwell).

On the left sits Testimony for Man, a history of the City of Hope medical center outside of Los Angeles. It's on top of a Verizon bill I'd rather not open. An iPhone I found under an overpass in L.A. has the headphones plugged in. I use it as an iPod. Most recently I listened to an episode of This American Life about a reporter who confronts the man who raped him when he was a kid. He has an elaborate plan to murder the rapist, but changes his mind when his parents discover what happened by reading an ancient diary. The reporter says, "If you have a secret and you don't want anyone to know it, never write it down." That's a paraphrase. He also says, "Avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengence is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord." That's from the Bible. Under the iPhone are some tax documents I'd also rather not look at.

A tiny framed painting by James Kochalka leans against an external hard drive. I bought the painting at Wizard World Chicago many years ago, when that was the city where I lived. I like it a lot, and I always keep it near the place where I work. In front of the painting is a cross-stitched Abraham Lincoln K gave me for my birthday this year. Next to that is a small bust of Abraham Lincoln that I bought at Lincoln's birthplace in one of my cross-country drives. That particular drive was in 2008, from Oakland to Ohio, and I bought two of the same bust. I kept one and sent one to SJ. I have a lot of Lincolns in my office, and they're all related to girls in one way or another. What does that say? About me, about Abe?

There are speakers plugged into my computer. My current MacBook is a replacement for the one I spilled Coca-Cola on when I lived in Ohio after grad school. I think it's lasted the longest out of all of my computers. I probably shouldn't have written that -- I'm not superstitious about much except for computers.

On the other side of my computer is a Cincinnati Reds gnome my mom sent to me before my Los Angeles-Vermont cross-country drive. She asked me to take pictures of the gnome as I drove, and I did, even though some kids were a little too-cool-for-school about it. But I thought it was fun, and it was something my mom asked me to do. There are a lot of little action figures next to gnome -- a cylon, Captain Marvel, Thanos, two Spider-Men and a Green Goblin. I don't know what to do with them, but sometimes I pick them up when I'm reading, or when I'm thinking about what to write.

There's a picture frame with family photos in it, also something my mom gave to me. It has pictures of my dad and Ma, my parents' dog Daisy, our backyard in Ohio, a family photo from several Christmases ago (we're all in the picture, so I think it was taken by AM), and a picture of my dad, my brother, Grandpa Jent's tree, and me.

There's a rock in front of the frame, but I don't remember where it came from. Possibly the beach of Lake Champlain, from the visit K and I took here last year, when we decided to move to Vermont. There's a rubber D&D Grell monster, and a heavy lead Watcher statue Pato gave me for my birthday this year. There's a white NBA sweatband I sometimes wear when I'm writing. There are two pens, my current journal, my wallet, and a stack of books: DK Eyewitness Mythology (from K, from birthdays past), the Tanakh, The Emperor of All Maladies, and They Called It the City of Hope, all for work. Beneath the books -- more bills, mostly paid.

Behind me there's a pillow AM made for me long ago, that I use to rest my feet on when I want to write and recline. A calendar, a page torn out from an oversized comic book, Galactus the Devourer of Worlds, and a printer that hasn't worked lately. A copy of Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, and a robot action figure.

Up ahead of me and to the left I have hung up a map of my novel. There's a book case with the books I'm not currently reading, but that I like keeping close -- Popeye comic strips, D&D books, theses and books my friends have written. On top of the bookcase is another Abe, this one wearing Mardi Gras beads, and a concrete Elvis that Sharon gave me longer ago than almost anything else that's happened to me that even counts, as a grown-up anyway. Across from me is the open doorway to the kitchen that won't be mine much longer. I'm terribly nervous that I won't find a place to live with an open workspace like this one. I tend to romanticize where I am, whether that's a good idea or not. I can never imagine finding friends, or finding places to spend my time, that will be as rewarding as the ones I currently have. But then, I always do. That's not to diminish the friends I have, or have made in the past -- every one matters, and I mean it. But there are just *so many* interesting people in the world. They're everywhere, all the time. I want to meet as many as I can.

I'm terribly nervous, and terribly excited.

Saturday, April 02, 2011


I just packed up two boxes of books, and in the second box I included volumes 1&2 of American Elf, the daily comic strip diary of James Kochalka. American Elf was where -- long ago, in the distant early-aughts -- I first heard of a town called Burlington, Vermont. Flash forward several suns, and I've been living on the outskirts of Burlington since last October. You can tell you're in my part of town when you see the spooky boat in the woods.

I came here most recently from LA, which is where I moved after grad school in San Francisco (with a stopover with family in Ohio for a few months in between). When I arrived in LA, I thought I'd be there for a few years at least (and at most), I thought I'd finish my book there, look into some freelance writing gigs, maybe even start teaching. And it's certainly not Los Angeles's fault that it didn't work out that way -- it's a big town with lots of opportunity if you can grab it, and I had a hell of a writing group during my year there. This is a sizeable chunk of said writing group on top of/inside of a giant ball made of sticks at Disneyland.

My reasons for leaving LA are becoming mistier the longer ago it was, but I do think it was the right decision to go. Most of the folks I knew were writers or stand-ups, and they were working their asses off to find/keep/create jobs that I would have entertained as day jobs, but that I would never want to fight for. And there are a LOT of people there who are willing to fight for those jobs, so what was I gonna do? My girl and I grabbed our cat and headed east to Burlington, "the West Coast of the East Coast."

Well, Vermont -- I hardly knew ye. Last week I took a job that will take me down to Baltimore as soon as I can find a place to lay my head down there. I have a cautious excitement about the move. I'm excited to be going back to a larger city -- they have zipcars there! -- but I went for a run yesterday along the Lake Champlain bike trail, and I'll definitely miss the water and the trees and the outdoors here. All the same, for reasons personal, creative, and emotional it's been a struggle to find my people here. Going through a break-up recently has made me feel especially island-like up here on North Cove Road, and a train trip last weekend to Baltimore to visit writerly friends was just what I needed and wanted to clear my head and reassess the next few years. And there just doesn't seem to be a downside to working a job that keeps me creatively engaged, living near people I love who are really good writers (hi Adam and Kate Lynn!), and, frankly, having a new town to explore. I've been moving around a lot for the past few years, and I thought with all my heart that Vermont was going to be home for the foreseeable future. But this weekend a friend said -- "You get used to that life after awhile, of moving to place after place." So maybe I just embrace that for now. I'm finishing a new draft of my book by early summer, and I'm looking forward to a break in the cold. In the billboard of life, Baltimore is the dude with one eye, and I am the girl with the bulbous head.

Friday, April 01, 2011

We're Oscar Mike

Last week I spent about 24 hours on a train, traveling down to Baltimore and back. I was visiting friends and taking some writing time and getting away from the lingering winter for a long weekend, but with that much time to kill on the train, I did a lot of watching-the-world-go-by. This is Battleboro.

I also watched some TV. I successfully made it into, and out the other side of, Generation Kill, an HBO 7-episode series adapting Evan Wright's book about his time embedding with the First Recon Battalion Marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The series was produced and largely written by David Simon and Ed Burns as their follow-up to The Wire, and it can be similarly difficult to penetrate at first. I'd watched the first two episodes of Generation Kill at least twice before, and never continued through the rest of the show. But over six days and in between train rides, novel rewrites, and long, long drives between Baltimore and DC, I watched all 7 episodes about the drive through Iraq, to Baghdad, and into the unknown of occupation. It's essentially a road trip movie in and of itself, except this road trip involves firefights, Ripped Fuel, and occasionally state-sanctioned murder.

I can't speak from personal experience, but I've read reviews from soldiers -- including some of the Marines Wright was embedded with -- that have called Generation Kill the most accurate portrayal of the life of the modern American soldier. What's important about that isn't just the accurate portrayal of facts -- there's a Booklist review on the book's Amazon page that says:

Today's American soldiers, Wright says, are young men who are "on more intimate terms with the culture of the video games, reality TV shows and Internet porn than they are with their own families." (One 19-year-old corporal compares driving into an ambush to a Grand Theft Auto video game: "It was fucking cool.") Wright also explores how today's pop-culture-driven soldiers differ from those who fought more than three decades ago in Vietnam. A perceptive, often troubling examination of soldiers' view of war, peace, and combat.

And that's a big deal when you're giving those young men guns and telling them to go save the world, but I think it's also a big deal in our day to day life. It's a question of pop culture that's been clouding my vision lately. Reading the AV Club, or Ain't It Cool or any comics website ever, you get the sense of consumption without thought. Sales numbers are reported (box office receipts or paycheck amounts), and reviews are produced heavy on snark and light on introspection. There's a taking in of media and no regard for narrative or the struggle of art or what we think about when we think about ... anything. It's all novelty, irony and sales figures.

That's not an across the board condemnation of reviews. The AV Club tries -- I thought their Glee/Community equation a few weeks ago was insightful in its simplicity -- and io9 regularly posts more in-depth articles than your average bear, like this exploration of why the new V series was a failure of storytelling AND not very much fun as nostalgia junk food, and this long article on when it's the right time to show your kids the Empire Strikes Back or Wrath of Kahn, as well as pop science blogging (The Strange, Sad History of Lobotomy and How Many Groups Reached the Americas Before Columbus? are recent examples). Unfortunately, it suffers from the revamped Gawker layout that keeps me away from that entire family of sites these days.

Meanwhile ... I had a whole digression planned on Marc Maron being condescending toward Joe Rogan on his WTF podcast last week, and basically telling him that he's a bad person for making a living hosting Fear Factor for six years, but I think that just comes down to the fact that Marc Maron can be condescending, and that he thinks liking Fear Factor is wrong because he doesn't like Fear Factor. Instead, I'll leave you with some thoughts on Dragon Age II!

If you're not a video game/fantasy nerd, you might not be aware of Dragon Age II. It's an action role-playing game that features the option to romance lots of different kinds of white people -- male or female! The controversy in previous games like this has been that gay or bisexual romances were possible -- if you made a male character, you could engage in an awkward and clothed cutscene with another male character. So, you know. Gays! In our video games! Scandalous, right?

None of these romances are particularly sexy, whether they're male-male, male-female, female-female, or elf-whatevs. The characters move awkwardly and no one ever takes their medieval fantasy underpants off. But the scandal regarding Dragon Age II comes from one particular gamer, posting on the game's bulletin board (there are still internet bulletin boards!) that having so MANY options for romance infringes on his rights as a straight male gamer.

"In every previous BioWare game, I always felt that almost every companion in the game was designed for the male gamer in mind. Every female love interest was always written as a male friend type support character. In Dragon Age 2, I felt like most of the companions were designed to appeal to other groups foremost, Anders and Fenris for gays and Aveline for women given the lack of strong women in games, and that for the straight male gamer, a secondary concern. It makes things very awkward when your male companions keep making passes at you. The fact that a "No Homosexuality" option, which could have been easily implemented, is omitted just proves my point. I know there are some straight male gamers out there who did not mind it at and I respect that."

No kidding! Now, this probably wouldn't have gotten any more coverage than your average internet troll, except that one of the writers on DA2 followed it up with a thoughtful, incisive, and overall excellent rebuttal:

"And if there is any doubt why such an opinion might be met with hostility, it has to do with privilege. You can write it off as "political correctness" if you wish, but the truth is that privilege always lies with the majority. They're so used to being catered to that they see the lack of catering as an imbalance. They don't see anything wrong with having things set up to suit them, what's everyone's fuss all about? That's the way it should be, any everyone else should be used to not getting what they want."

There's more in the link above, but the story morphed even more when a petition was posted online to have David Gaider fired for stereotyping gays by having one of the gay romance options in DA2 gain "rivalry points" if your male character spurns his romantic advances. The petitioner's argument being, I think, that this implies that all gay men aggressively pursue sex, whether the object of their affection wants it or not. I don't think that's the POV of the character in question, but regardless of that -- one of the gentlemen from Penny Arcade (it was Tycho, but to be honest, I can't keep track of what their real names/character names are) posted in a blog this morning to say:

"It reminds me of when I first saw Samus Aran's face in Metroid: Prime, my face, flashed inside the visor, saw my eyes, which were her eyes, blinking at the brightness. These are truly alien experiences for me, and I'm exposed to them and enriched by them because I didn't have to fill out some questionnaire before playing the game to make it aware of my sacred boundaries. I wasn't given the option to check the "No Homos" box, or to choose an elf with a less bewitching accent. Instead, I was dropped hip-deep into the Inferno Round of a moral quiz show. I just want to shake these people sometimes. Hey. That feeling, the one that you're feeling?

"That IS the game."

I'll repeat it for emphasis: "That feeling, the one that you're feeling? That IS the game."

If you experience art and you're left feeling sullied, unusual, confused, angry perhaps -- that's the point. If you get everything you want exactly how you want it, left with no questions, nagging desires, or sense of wonder -- well, it might have been a nice way to spend a few hours. But then what?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Know me, mortal. Know me, and know fear.

It's been a pretty intense morning of self-loathing + self-indulgence that's seen the arrival-by-post of my 19-inch Galactus action figure...

...mixed with a breakfast-through-lunch marathon of LOUIE, trying to watch the entire series before it's zapped away from Hulu Plus after today.

I've owned a lot of action figures in my time, but never one so large, that also talks. Pictures of Galactus and my cat (for scale!) surely to come.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

You bet your pointed ears I am.

A lot's been written on Star Trek and sex since the original series aired, was cancelled, was re-discovered and resurrected, but in re-watching the first season at an episode-a-week pace I'm pleasantly surprised at how damn sexy it is.

The pop culture understanding of Captain Kirk is that he was hopping from planet to to planet, doin' it with any green-skinned alien he could find. But about 2/3rds of the way through the first season, the truth is subtler and more interesting -- he's a character of barely contained sexual desire. Early on he confides in Dr. McCoy (not yet rebooted as Karl Urban, still the pleasantly, crotchety DeForest Kelley) about his secret yearning for Yeoman Rand, the lady with the great hair who brings him his meals of brightly colored cubed food. Yeoman Rand clearly has the hots for Kirk, and when Kirk is split into two beings in "The Enemy Within" his "bad self" tries to force himself on Rand. But when he's a complete being, Kirk is committed to his ship -- even though he clearly wants more, kind of from everyone, kind of all the time. The best example is the infamous back rub scene from the cold open of "Shore Leave"... which our Captain enjoys what he thinks is a vigorous backrub from Mr. Spock, then immediately loses interest when he finds out its from unnamed Yeoman. No wonder there's so much slash fiction on Spock and Kirk. They're pretty smoldering together.

It's not just Kirk. One of the earliest episodes to air was "The Naked Time," which saw the crew with their most secret desires unleashed. It's the episode where the iconically greasy and sword-wielding Sulu comes from, but even before that we see Sulu trying to sell another male crewman on the benefits of fencing as they tend to alien plants -- one of which is clearly someone's puppet-hand. There's just a tension in the air on that ship, man.

Those are some of the instances when the sexuality of the Enterprise is overt. In every episode you get soft-lighting, eyeshadow on everyone, big leather boots, dark pantyhose and little skirts. In "Arena," when McCoy announces that he's looking forward to a meal that's cooked and not "reconstituted," Spock accuses him of being a sensualist -- to which McCoy responds "You bet your pointed ears I am."

There's no doubt that a big source of the under-the-surface sexuality from the original Star Trek is Spock -- and I haven't even gotten to the second season's "Amok Time" when Spock goes into heat. What the most recent Trek movie does to turn up the sex is to marry Spock's devotion to logic with Shatner's version of Kirk and his constant struggle to keep is sexual desire in check. I think it makes them both less interesting characters.

I had a passing familiarity with the original Star Trek as a kid. My brother was a big fan, but I only became invested in it with The Next Generation series. I would sit in a lounge chair with a pillow across the arms and pretend to pilot the ship -- just like Data! -- every time it was on. I would get so excited to be watching TNG that I would literally run circles around the room during the commercial breaks, to the point where my mom would threaten to turn off the TV if I didn't calm down. But it was pure nerdy excitement -- as much as I love TNG to this day, I can't say the show was all that sexy. Even if I had a big crush on Lt. Tasha Yar, those uniforms just don't have the same base appeal as the original.

And even in the episode where Riker falls in love with one of the genderless J'naii, it's nowhere near as kinkily titillating as Kirk hiding in a cave from the dude who played Lurch, waiting to attack him with ... um, a stalagmite.

It's impossible not to lean forward and beg these impossibly restrained, impossibly attractive, Starfleet officers to just get it over with and kiss already. Each other, aliens, anyone. Though it's true that Kirk does give in to those baser desires from time to time -- including the famous, first-televised interracial kiss between Kirk and Uhura in the third season episode Plato's Stepchildren -- it's the restraint and the innuendo that makes the original series so enjoyably, tensely sexy.

When the 2009 reboot put Kirk right into bed with a green alien, it was direct and it was used for comedic effect. It played on our memories and feelings about Star Trek more than it respected or recreated what Star Trek really was.

And worst of all? It just wasn't that sexy.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Memory & Monsters

These days I'm spending time with On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears by Stephen Asma, a book that explores the idea (so far) of monsters and memory. I'm not very far, but one of the things it addresses -- an idea I ran into first on a History Channel/Discovery Channel entertainment-doc about monsters -- is that the myth of the cyclops -- a giant, one-eyed man -- might have come from people in antiquity digging up mammoth bones.

It seems almost too simplistic to consider, but, you know -- you're a dude, you're digging in the ground, you don't know anything about dinosaurs or mammoths or species-gone-extinct. You find this in the ground, you do your best to explain it. That's not to say people in antiquity were stupid or any less imaginative than we are in 2011 -- it's just to say that they had a different foundation for understanding the world around them. Asma also theorizes that the idea of the satyr may come from reports of monkeys in India ("India" apparently meant "anything in Asia where something weird happens"). Dog-faced men from lands beyond may have been baboons (I think). It's all a way of understanding the world. An interesting anecdote comes from Pliny the Elder, who discounts the idea of the werewolf (as DZ might call them, the wolfmans), because according to the story, a man goes into the woods, becomes a wolf for nine years, then becomes a man again only if he's managed to evade any human contact for that near-decade. Then he puts his clothes back on -- the same clothes that have been hanging on a tree for nine years -- and returns to civilization. Pliny, who believed in satyrs and manticores and cyclopses, found the idea of clothes just hanging from a tree for nine years beyond the ken. And the thing is, I totally agree. Better a dog-faced man than a shirt that's just going to hang there for nine years. Nine years!

O Brother Where Art Thou, probably not the best Coen Brothers movie but the one I think about the most, has a cyclops. He's played by John Goodman with a Southern drawl. The movie kicks off with a claim to be adapted from The Odyssey, by Homer, which is honest and direct. I don't know if I've ever written a single thing that I didn't steal from someone else, knowingly or not. O Brother is about a captain of men trying to get home to his wife, having adventures that waylay him, and then when he gets home, he has to battle his wife's new suitors. In my bones I love the archetypal story that is retold in another time. O Brother might not hit the Odyssey beat for beat, but the heart of it is there. It might even reach different conclusions -- but that's part of the struggle. Take this story that is in our bones, tell it right now (even if it's set in a time not our own, we are telling it now), and see how it's different.

Amanda Bynes dressed up as a boy in She's the Man, which is based on Twelfth Night, and which sticks too close to its source for its own good. It's not a bad movie, but it's not a surprising movie, either. I felt the same way about Rango this weekend. Both movies are charming in their own way, both take their stories from stories we already know in our bones (in Rango's case, it's a more general American Western place), but neither of them move beyond their inspiration to talk about what that story means today, the way O Brother does. And that's what I'm trying to talk about -- it's important to tell our stories again, often and imperfectly, and to change them a little bit every time.

I was going to try to tie this all into making shopping lists, and how I do it for groceries and should do it whenever I leave the house. I know I need to buy new pants and new shirts, but when I go out I talk myself out of it, because spending the money seems silly, and buying clothes feels indulgent. But when I go to the grocery store -- it says "oatmeal" on the list, but I don't want oatmeal right now, on a Sunday afternoon, and though my guts tell me not to buy it, I am going to honor the covenant of the list and the wishes of my past self, and I am going to buy oatmeal. And then, Monday morning, all of a sudden I am grateful that I bought that oatmeal after all. Had I listened to my bones, I'd be stuck with just toast.

But I'm not sure how that relates anymore.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Papa Dies Many Times

This is one way Papa died.

We’re on the bridge and he’s telling me stories of his life.

You know. Uncle Roy, twenty dollar bills, true things and false things also. A kid approaches, black and poor like Elvis would sing about, dribbling a basketball. No -- it was a pink bouncey-ball like you’d buy for three dollars at a Rite-Aid, from a wire bin, only he didn’t buy it, he stole it, because like I said, black and poor.

Anyway. He’s bouncing it down the sidewalk and it’s giving him his only joy in life. He’s never even smiled before today. The ball hits a rock on the sidewalk -- the ball ricochets out into traffic -- but I spring into action to save the black boy’s happiness. I don’t even realize I’m flinging my own self into danger as I grab the ball and bounce it back to the boy. I have no regard for my own safety or future.

But Papa knows.

“Noooo!” he cries, leaping after me, grabbing me in mid-air, flinging my body back onto the sidewalk. He bellyflops onto the road, where is body is crushed by semis, giant vans, and a carriage drawn by eighteen horses. His body is pulped and destroyed.

I am orphaned. But I will revenge him, I swear it.

* * * * *

This is one way Papa died.

Same as the one where he’s crushed by horses, except there is also a hail of gunfire. Probably from gangsters passing in a limo.

I will revenge him, etc.!

* * * * *

One night at supper, he suddenly burst into flames. He burned down to ash, blacker than broiled crumbs.

* * * * *

This is one way Papa died.

He leaned on the bridge and looked down at the sick river. He had one knee up on the curb and both elbows rested on the railing. I tried to imitate his posture. He spit down into the water, releasing a thick clump of phlegm that he watched all the way down. I tried to spit too, but could only muster a thin streak of saliva that stuck to my lip. The wind blew it back into me, splotching my shirt. I wiped my chin and looked over at Papa, but it didn’t look like he saw me.

“What else about Mexico?” I say.

He doesn’t look at me, but he answers. “There’s a lot about Mexico. What do you wanna know?”

Sometimes when he asks that it means he’s willing to tell a story, but he wants you to pick it. Sometimes it means he doesn’t want to talk.

“I don’t know,” I say.

He shrugs his shoulders. He smirks but doesn’t smile. He arches his eyebrows down to the brown water beneath us. “I should tell you about your destiny,” Papa says.


He turns to face me, crosses his ankles, and leans one elbow on the railing. “I ever tell you I’m a merman?”

“No,” I say, trying to wrangle my lips not to smile.

“It’s true,” he says, holding his hands palm-to-palm, and wriggling his arms like a fish. “Breathing underwater and all that shit. You know what that makes you?”


“Half merman.”

“I thought I was half Indian.”

“You’re half all sorts of shit,” he says. He slips out of his leather jacket and rips his t-shirt right off of himself. He has tattoos most people don’t ever see. There’s a lady on his forearm, knees together and hands on her hips, wearing a dress. Farther up, on his bicep, there’s another lady, in swimsuit bottoms but no top. On his bicep, over his heart, written in small cursive letters, it says Rosa.

“I ain’t saying you should go jumping into rivers,” he says, “maybe not today.” He stands on one foot, and then the other, pulling off his black cowboy boots. He unbuckles his belt and his bluejeans fall down to the ground. His legs have gone scaly and silver. And when your mama and sister asked what happened here today, you make something up. If you tell ‘em I went back to sea, your mama’s likely to join the navy and go looking for me. And that ain’t what I want.”

He steps up onto the railing and his toes have all melded together, making his feet end in slithery fins. His legs have started to fuse together too. His chest and his arms still look the same. His head is still Papa. But by the time he hits the water he’ll be fish from the waist down, sliding and slithering through the water.

“What am I supposed to do?” I say. My face is getting hot and my throat feels scratchy. “Am I going to turn to a merman some day?”

Papa shrugs and smiles. He says, “It’s a mystery, man.” He leaps off the bridge and doesn’t a sound when he hits the water. It’s raging whitewater now, for some reason, and he’ll get away with the current in no time.

Son of Merman, I guess. That’s me.

* * * * *

Friday, March 04, 2011

So You Are 30

Congratulations! Despite what everyone in grad school said behind your back, you finally made it. Well, I have some good news and I have some great news.

The good news is that you are finally, undoubtedly a grown up. Someone resembling Sean Connery is going to approach you any second now to explain how tax codes work, tell you the best ways to cook meat, and give you a money clip and a drink mixer set. He will either approach you from behind and hug you by surprise, cupping one of your breasts with one hand and your nutsack with the other, or he will approach from the front and simply say hello. Either way -- make sustained eye contact with everyone you see for the rest of the day.

The GREAT news is that you make the rules now. You can give unsolicited advice on subjects like tie-tying and road trip directions , you can set bedtimes, and you can vote -- not in the regular, general elections, but in secret ones that decide important stuff, like if there should be a revolution in Egypt, or what network shows get cancelled, or if Justin Bieber gets a Grammy (better luck next year, Biebs!).

I can tell you from personal experience that your life has just automatically gotten better. You will never have any more troubles, you will always know the answers to everything, and you will get along with your wife forever. Here, look at me, back when I was 29:

Pretty gross!

But look at me now, on the verge of 32:

Drinking a tumbler of whiskey and wearing xmas sweaters in March. I make the rules!

Happy birthday, brother. May we forever duet Islands in the Stream.

Friday, January 21, 2011

I cannot stop thinking about the Fantastic Four.

Though I've long been a Marvel Comics nerd, I have only recently read the first year's worth of the FANTASTIC FOUR, which essentially birthed the Marvel Universe as we know it. Though the series continues to this day, the first 102 issues were done by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, introducing not only Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Girl, the Human Torch and the Thing, but also Doctor Doom, the Skrulls, Galactus & the Silver Surfer, the Inhumans, and in fact, a new approach to comic book storytelling. It was a treasure trove of titans what tussled, true believer!

In the beginning the FF were more like science adventurers than super heroes. Their familiar blue costumes weren't introduced until issue 3, and when they gain their super powers in the aftermath of a rocket flight gone awry, they all react with varying degrees of horror. Johnny Storm is terrified when his body catches fire for the first time as the Human Torch, and Ben Grimm lashes out in anger as he transforms into the rocky Thing -- seemingly irreversibly, although over the FF's first 9 issues he is changed back to puny Ben Grimm just about every other issue, if only momentarily.

Another early hallmark introduced in the first issue, and one of the things that set the Marvel Universe apart from other superhero books, were the heroes' tendency to fight one another just as much -- if not more -- than the villains.

The Thing and the Human Torch, in particular, bicker back and forth as a matter of course. I've been reading these as part of the Fantastic Four and Silver Surfer - Complete Comic Edition DVD-ROM you can still find on Amazon for about $40, which means all of the original ads and letters pages are included in the scans. And sometimes you can see the staples too! But the printed letters -- assuming they weren't all completely made up by the Marvel Bullpen -- love to point to this bickering as proof that the gang at Marvel were writing their heroes as real people with flaws, and not the interchangeable do-gooders you might find in other books. Superhero comics in 1961-62 didn't offer the same pacing and characterization you can find in comics today, but it was a radical change from what was expected on the newsstand. There's even one issue that asks the question, on the front cover no less, "What happens to comic magazine heroes when they can't pay their bills and have no place to turn?" Well, they get evicted, go to Hollywood and make an action movie, of course!

Today, Doctor Doom is considered to be the Fantastic Four's greatest villain, and while he does appear as early as issue 5 with a delightfully weird plot to force the FF into making him rich...

...I would be remiss in my blogging duties if I didn't point out that the best part of this issue was seeing the Thing, by way of a time travel paradox, actually BECOMES the source of the Blackbeard tales in first place.

(Spoiler alert! He gives it up on the very next page.)

But even though Doctor Doom seems tailor made to be the arch-foe of our brave heroes, there's no doubt to me that the breakout star of these early issues is Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner. Introduced in the very first issue of Marvel Comics in 1939, Namor is re-introduced to a 60s audience as a bearded amnesiac who the Human Torch awakens from a stupor when he throws him into the ocean. He goes on to become the FF's greatest frenemy, constantly tussling with the dudes and constantly kidnapping and/or proposing marriage to the Invisible Girl. In fact, he offers Sue Storm her best chance at developing anything close to a discernible character -- and probably makes her the most interesting of the title characters. Reed Richards is a scientist, Ben Grimm is a quick-to-anger lunkhead, Johnny Storm is a hip cat teenager -- but Sue Storm, whenever Namor is around at least, is a woman wrestling with feelings she isn't comfortable with. She's supposed to be true to her Fantastic Foursome, but her thought bubbles -- and, sometimes, her actions -- reveal that she has feelings for Namor that she can't quite reconcile.

Namor shows up in 3 of the FF's first 9 issues, and his issue 6 team-up with Doctor Doom is the first time where I was aware of Jack Kirby's artwork taking a step beyond workhorse storytelling. The pace of these FF issues is frenetic, with lots of action occurring off-panel and lots of captions used to explain what would otherwise be hard-to-decipher series of events. But when Namor is doublecrossed by Doom and left to perish along with the Fantastic Four in a skyscraper that is hurtling through outer space (just go with me here), Namor prepares to hurtle through the vacuum of space to confront Doom directly.

Seeing that image was the first time I was truly caught up in the dynamic visual storytelling of Kirby's FF run. By all accounts the powers of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby reach dizzying heights as the book continues, and I'm excited to read more. I don't know enough about the behind the scenes story of the 60s Marvel Bullpen to say why this 1940s character of the Sub-Mariner was brought back in the pages of this comic, but it seems to have ignited something in both Lee and Kirby that propelled the entire series to new heights. The Sub-Mariner is a Prince of Atlantis who awakens from a walking coma to discover that nuclear testing in the oceans have destroyed the undersea city that was his home, and scattered the people who were once his subjects. He becomes a lonely king, sitting in an otherwise empty undersea castle watching land-based television shoes and daydreaming of a girl who can turn herself invisible.

The Sub-Mariner goes on to sell the treasures of the sea his people had spent centuries gathering in order to buy a Hollywood movie studio, and therefore trick the Fantastic Four into what he believes will be situations of certain death -- all so he can have the Invisible Girl for his wife. She balks at the offer -- but also makes it clear that, had he simply adjusted his wooing for a land-based lady of the 60s, she might have been down.

Fisticuffs ensue, in which once again the Sub-Mariner's presence brings out the best in Kirby...

Those eyes! That forehead! It's no wonder Sue finds him hard to resist. Alas, the rest of the Four escape from the traps Namor had set for them, and he agrees to live up to his end of their contract.

FF #9 is the last issue with a 1962 date, and its ending is a fitting "season finale," wrapping up a trifecta of Namor appearances and establishing the team as a globe-trotting quartet of beloved superheroes. The Thing has started hanging out with Alicia Masters, the blind daughter of supervillain the Puppet Master, and though he seems to be force-transformed into a human state by things as varied as stress and thunderbolts, his desire to turn his powers off is a compelling through line of these early issues. The Human Torch has the otherwise most dynamic personality of the group, but that's really only because he's tagged with a teenage sensibility and a fondness for cars, pretty girls, and the superhero spotlight. That said? Sometimes he looks like a pug-nose Willem Dafoe.

But it's still Namor who comes across the strongest, and going by these 9 issues alone, I'd say he was the Fonzie to the Fantastic Four's Happy Days. Maybe the realities of comic book publishing in the 1960s made it hard to write a book solely about the longing of a misunderstood undersea king, but by making him the regularly appearing guest-star in a science-fantasy serial, Lee and Kirby managed to create a complicated, multi-dimensional superhero who sticks in my head long after I've finished the books in which he appeared. By flipping forward a few covers, I've discovered that I have to make it all the way to issue 14 before Namor makes another appearance -- but in the meantime I have more Doctor Doom, a guest-shot by the Hulk, and the introduction of the Impossible Man to keep me busy. I'll keep you posted.


Wednesday, January 05, 2011

BNB: men talking in the basement

Uncle John sits huddled in the basement under a heap of sweaters and blankets and many pairs of socks. His feet look bloated and too big. He waves me over. There's a coffee cup in front of him on the table, but also a bottle, black and gold-capped. He sits in front of his radio, but the radio isn't on.

"It's the women in this family," he whispers. "They do not speak."

I approach him and bounce from foot to foot. It's cold under the earth.

"I hear boys at work talking, right, Berto?"

I say "Yes," but of course I do not really know what he means. When Papa told stories he would watch you to see you were listening, but he didn't require you to nod or to agree. Uncle John needs to know that you know.

"Old boys, young boys, new married and long married. They talk about the mouths on their women. That they don't stop yappin, about their days and their jobs and the grocery store, and who said what and who cares anyway, this and that. And I sit and I wish, Berto, for some of it rub off on her." He points upward, to the first floor of the house above us, to Aunt Lydia up there unseen.

"Our women? They do not speak," he says. "They survive. Always moving. Never drowning. Like your Mama. I married into this family, but you? Berto, you come from shark stock."