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?