@

That’s it. I’m done. I’m not reading one more book telling me how to listen to classical music. I’ve yet to see The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Listening to Lawrence Welk. But classical music has prestige. The ability to pretend to understand classical music carries great social status. I don’t care about social status; I gave up on that in kindergarten. Still, I feel inferior when others seem to know how to listen to classical music. I want to know how to listen to classical music, yet I’m not even sure you know how to listen to classical music. I am sure you can’t tell me how to listen to classical music. Why must you insist on telling me how to listen to classical music? Don’t you realize that telling me you can explain to me how to listen to classical music implies that I don’t know how to listen to classical music?

I’ve got enough inferiority complexes. I’m quite happy listening to Ludwig Wagner the way I do, which involves pushing “play” on my I-Pod. But that’s not good enough. No, I must understand how to listen to Ludwig Beethoven, Johann Verdi, Wolfgang Stravinsky, and all the rest. I even enjoy Giuseppe Stockhausen, thank you very much.

Hardened bread crumbs burst into fine white powder, sprinkling to the ground. Seeds crack under the weight of jaws clinching, and in an imperfect circle the birds gather round the old man and strut mechanically, their fat necks jerking. They welcome him as if he is one of their own, and he in turn accepts their embrace, and feeds them grain as everyday, assuredly white proso millet and milo for the dark-eyed junco.

The sky is layered pink then orange then blue with clouds of white cotton and gray mastheads splotched throughout. A slight chill fills the air like a cold hand on the back of one’s neck unexpectedly but is otherwise refreshing and silky as it passes from the nostrils to the lungs and presses against the gut.

Crouched, the old black man talks to the birds in low whispers as if they are his children. The birds of variegated species listen attentively, cocking their heads momentarily at his voice and scoop with their stout beaks into the ground seeds threaded underneath blades of grass still wet with dew and they mash the seeds near into dust, and the wet, green blades turn white with chalk.

Laggardly, the old black man rises from his crouched position in Washington Park and stands as erect as the arthritis buried deep in his joints will allow. Muscle, bone, and tendon like toothed pinions within a three wheel skeleton clock turn slowly but surely, never faltering though their movement so supine you are certain will one day just stop, the hand of the clock ceasing, time standing still. The body no more.

He stands upright and looks over his shoulder in my direction. Even from afar, I see the crow’s feet carved into his skin on the sides of each eye, brown and deep. His eyelid hangs droopily, weighted down by age and gravity, the skin loose. His eyebrows scrunch almost touching, three wrinkles to each side of the center of his brow, as he tries to make out the other figure in the park.

I had, for about a week now, been coming to the park each day around 4:00 PM to sit and watch the old man. I watched the way the birds greeted him each day, welcoming him as if he were one of their own, birds of one feather.

The old black man spots me. His arm shoots into the air, waving. I wave back. And he turns around and again reaches into his pocket scooping seed out for the birds and they flutter around his body, wings spread then tight against their bodies.

kurt suicide scene

A despairing friend called late one night to say that he was looking at a photo of himself as a toddler holding his father’s rifle.

“I have an appointment with that rifle,” he told me. “I’ve always known I was going to end my life with it.”

He’s fine now, thank God, but his remark brought to mind a journal entry I made as a teenager, in which I said that I was sure I was going to kill myself one day; it was only a matter of how and when.

In my head I have a quote I can’t attribute. I want to say it was Faulkner or Fitzgerald. Maybe Steinbeck. It noted (I’m paraphrasing) that we writers don’t compete with our contemporaries; we compete, rather, with the greats.

It’s possible it was Hemingway. Because there is another quote I can attribute to him, from a New Yorker profile of him:

I started out very quiet and I beat Turgenev. Then I tried hard and I beat de Maupassant. I’ve fought two draws with Stendahl, and I think I had an edge in the last one. But nobody’s going to get me in any ring with Tolstoy unless I’m crazy or I keep getting better.

Even besides that profile, the idea of wrestling with the greats sounds like Hemingway, especially considering his running with bulls and hunting on safari and writing hills like white elephants and shooting himself in the face. Hemingway’s always struck me as though he was born smack-dab in the middle of a mid-life crisis he never actually grew out of, only they didn’t have tiny sports cars back then, so he had to over-compensate in other ways.

I got this idea, of rings and fights and competitions, in my head when I read that The Nervous Breakdown’s founder, Brad Listi, will be having a conversation with Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk in mid-May at LA’s Largo at the Coronet Theater.

Fight Club the book was published a week and a half before I started college. I don’t remember hearing much about it until Edward Norton and Brad Pitt signed on to do the movie. Now, this doesn’t mean people weren’t talking about it. I could just be forgetting. I could have missed it for one reason or another (who am I kidding? I was probably studying).

“I want you to hit me as hard as you can.” I’ll not spoil the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet (though, really, it’s been ten years. What’s the statute of limitations on spoilers?), but I think pretty much everyone knows Fight Club‘s story is its title. It’s about a guy who meets a guy who wants to be hit as hard as possible, and I guess it becomes about male dissatisfaction and aggression and coming to terms with the fact that we’re not the rockstar gods we assumed we’d grow up to be.

Or something. There’s a lot of punching. Also some fucking Helena Bonham Carter (in the movie). Also some shit blowing up. Also, Meatloaf (again, movie) and his boobs. Also, a penguin.

***

I think one could make the argument Fight Club is about men dealing with emasculation; I’m not sure I would, but Fight Club is the sort of book—along with The Great Gatsby and American Psycho, for two—that makes me consider the idea of feminist literary theory, and seems to corroborate the necessity for a complementary masculinist theory. I’ve heard it argued that such a thing is not necessary because the male viewpoint, in a patriarchal society, is the default; I’m just not sure of that, and I tend to hesitate in making generalizations.

Still, I wonder if there is some connection between the idea of a fight club and masculinity. That single Y chromosome, despite its diminutive stature, is enough to change a lot, physiologically speaking, and the defining characteristic of male gender is a penis and testicles, the latter of which produce testosterone. So do ovaries and, to a lesser extent, certain adrenal glands, but when it comes down to testosterone, an androgen, a hormone that causes the body to exhibit stereotypically male characteristics—deep voice, hair growth in some places and loss in others—the primary source is the testes. Testosterone also increases protein synthesis in muscle cells, contributing to their growth, which is why bodybuilders use steroids, and bodybuilders’ balls shrink because their bodies suddenly think they have enough testosterone that the testes don’t need to produce anymore.

That increase of testosterone causes many other side effects, one of which is increased aggression—roid rage.

Which brings me back to the central question; not whether Fight Club is a male movie, but rather: who would you fight?

One of the movie’s jokes (among other things, it’s a deeply black comedy; is it really about masculinity, or is it satirizing masculinity? Must the two be mutually exclusive?) is when Brad Pitt and Edward Norton discuss which celebrities they would fight. Pitt, if I recall correctly, cites Lincoln, noting he was tall and probably had good reach.

In perfect deadpan, Norton states, simply, “I’d fight Ghandi.”

***

In finishing coursework to earn an MBA in marketing, I’ve had to write several business plans, and others concerning marketing and international strategy. Most of these documents contain a section that requires me to assess my competition.

Now, when it comes to these assignments, the courses always offer the option of using an already established company as model; some students choose companies like Google or Apple or Microsoft.

Me, I choose myself. I’m a bit of a narcissist like that. But seriously, I’m earning the MBA for the same reason I earned an MPW; for writers, I think knowing how to reach readers is as important as being able to produce something valuable to reach them with, so I think—especially nowadays, with Kindles and iPads and nooks—that writers should know business as well as they know craft.

Problem is, every time I choose to do a business plan concerning me, as an author, I have to write another section about my competition. The results always strike me as inherently wrong; am I really competing with Dan Brown or Timeline or The Time-Traveler’s Wife or The Historian or The Raw Shark Texts? I don’t think so (though that may be why I’m having such a difficult time selling the damned thing).

In a superficial way, the comparison makes sense: shelves, whether in book stores or readers’ homes, are finite, and only so many pages will fit on them. Writers vie with each other for precious shelf space.

But in another way entirely, we don’t. In that entirely other way, we compete not with each other but with ideas, with culture. We compete for attention. The fact that there’s room enough on the Internet for everyone might be both its greatest benefit and disadvantage.

To go back to the idea with which I opened: if we are to compete with anyone, should it not be with the greats?

***

Growing up Catholic, one of the expressions I most commonly heard—besides “You need to put on your God glasses” and “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed”—was a question: what would Jesus do? Now, as my last TNB essay quite obviously demonstrated, when it comes right down to that question, I really don’t have a clue: I figure ride a pony, exonerate an unfaithful wife, have a meal with his friends (it’s worth noting I originally wrote “wife” there, then erased it. Freudian what?), die on a cross, that sort of thing. For me, wondering what he would do is fraught with more uncertainty than the situations during which one might actually ask it.

Still, the idea of role models, of mentors, is always useful, especially when facing a difficult choice.

I faced a difficult choice in 2005, when I decided I wanted to go to graduate school for writing. Articles about How to Choose the Right Writing Program for You tend to make the cover of magazines only writers read; you know both the articles and magazines I mean without my enumerating them. There’s probably an ampersand in the title, and each one tends to have a monthly quota of one article with a list of Ways to Pump Up Your Novel, one concerning How to Structure Your Memoir, one on a group of Agents’ and Editors’ Inside Secrets to Querying and Publishing, and finally one by a Current Best-Seller Encouraging Writers to Follow Their Dreams. We writers read each of the first three because we hope one day to write the last.

Most of the articles on choosing a writing program mention things like residency and financial considerations. Common advice is to choose a program whose faculty has written books you’ve enjoyed, or in the style or genre in which you hope to write and publish, but that just made me think of the writers I’d read: Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Crichton, JK Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Nick Hornby, TNB’s own Richard Cox. I’m fairly sure none of those writers went to grad school for writing—Crichton went for medicine—and only one, Gaiman, taught (at Clarion West).

I always wanted to be a mega-seller, but none of the faculties seemed to include really popular writers. I fear that dichotomy; if you look at the sorts of books millions of readers read nowadays . . . well, how about we note that the books that earn critical acclaim from prestigious institutions are often not the same as the books that dominate the best-sellers lists? That when New York publishing people start talking about the NBA on Twitter, most readers would probably be surprised they’re not talking about the Knicks?

I remember the relief I felt when I saw USC’s website. While there were a few names I didn’t know, I’d heard of Irvin Kershner; he put my first memory ever onto a screen. I’d also heard of Marc Norman; Shakespeare in Love is one of my favorite movies. I’d also heard of Janet Fitch; I’d loved her novel, which had been chosen for Oprah’s bookclub. I wasn’t yet familiar with Sid Stebel, who became a valuable mentor, but Ray Bradbury said he was great, and Bradbury I knew.

Am I right that it’s a maxim that students are supposed to, ultimately, defeat their masters? As a teacher myself, my aim is for my students to master the techniques I’ve demonstrated to them so they can find their own ways, but I keep thinking of martial arts movies in which the students fight the master to achieve enlightenment. I’m thinking of Christian Bale fighting Liam Neeson in Batman Begins, of Neo fighting Morpheus in bullet-time.

I keep thinking of Fight Club and of Hemingway’s ring.

Truthfully, I never had much time for the greats. Fitzgerald could have used a better editor, Faulkner a POV. Hemingway was a pansy who overcompensated via hypermasculinity, Poe a drunk who married his cousin, Cheever a closeted bisexual who seemed to hate himself and his wife. Dickens wrote like he was paid by the word, and Bukowski should’ve flushed his beer-shit prose. O’Connor’s Catholic guilt bored, while Austen’s propriety grated and Bronte’s melodrama depressed.

So none of them.

No, I’d fight Shakespeare.

When I wonder about role models and mentors, I don’t consider the cross. I always ask myself: what would Shakespeare do?

(I mean besides Anne Hathaway.)

This week marked an anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and christening; he died on April 23rd, and was baptized on April 26th. There is no record of his birth, but custom at the time was quick baptism, so he was probably only a few days old; he might well have died on his 52nd birthday. He was called a lot of things in his time, including an upstart crow, but maybe not a genius. Really, he was just a writer who sat down every day to write words for actors that the great masses of audience would love, and they, by most accounts, loved him for it; his work was as popular as Rowling’s or Brown’s, and we’ll see if their stories last as well.

When I wonder what I should do, I always wonder what he would have done. Mainly because I want to do better.

***

Truthfully, of course, this is all flawed. When it comes right down to it, I think we writers know we’re in the ring alone, and we only ever wrestle ourselves.

The Nervous Breakdown’s Literary Experience, recorded 26 March 2010 in New York City. Featuring Uche Ogbuji, Daniel Roberts, Tod Goldberg and Kristen Elde. Produced by Aaron M. Snyder, Megan DiLullo, and Kimberly M. Wetherell.

Does She Lick?

By Irene Zion

Poem

I just got an e-mail

that a little old lady needs a therapy dog,

so I call the phone number

and speak to the daughter

who herself sounds elderly.

Her voice is all trembly

and quavering.

 

She is taking care of her 94-year-old mother.

She says she’s tired all the time.

She’s sorry she sounds tired;

she was taking a nap when I called

because

she was up half the night

because

her mother had diarrhea

and she had to stay awake

to keep her mother cleaned up.

 

Her mother is very clean.

Her mother is her life, she says.

 

She says, the last person who called

had a Rottweiler

but that was way too big a dog.

 

I said, I have a big dog too,

but although she’s about 90 pounds

she’s a Golden and

gentle as spring rain.

 

Oh, she says, oh, that’s big.

 

She has a big heart, I say.

 

Does she lick? she says,

my mother doesn’t like to be licked.

 

I say, she kisses,

yes she does,

she licks.

 

Oh she won’t like that, she says.

 

I ask, did your mother

have dogs when she was younger?

 

She says, not that she knows of

but she did find a picture of her

once, a long time ago with

a tiny little dog.

Maybe seeing a dog

would be good for her,

she didn’t know, it might not

even have been her dog.

 

I say, my dog isn’t tiny

and she does lick

but she makes people happy,

but some people don’t like dogs.

You should know that not everyone

wants a dog near them.

 

My mother is my life, she says,

She has some help during the day, she says,

but really it’s up to her.

 

I say, look here, I have to go away for a week.

Why don’t you take my e-mail?

 

I don’t have a computer, she says.

 

I say, okay then, take down my name

and phone number

and think on it while I’m away.

Call me when I get back

We could just give it a try, I say.

I took care of my mother too, I say.

 

You did?

You took care of your mother? she says.

 

Yes I did, I say.

 

She is speaking louder now and faster.

I think that this is the lady who needs

the visits from a therapy dog.

 

The last place she called said a therapy dog was

$150 per hour for two hours, she says

and she tells the guy

that her mother can’t take two hours of anything

but he says that even if it’s 20 minutes

it’s still $150 for two hours.

 

I say, our organization is all volunteer.

No one has to pay for a therapy dog visit.

I would love to come visit with my dog, I say.

 

She says she’ll think on it.

Big dogs are a problem

and then there’s the licking,

her mother won’t like that,

she’s a clean woman, she says.

 

I said that’s okay.

You just think about it

and give me a call.

 

She says, you really took care of your mother?

 

Yes, I did, I say.

 

My mother is my life, she says.

 

Still, I say, still

you could take a little break,

have a cup of tea,

read a magazine,

if your mother decided she liked

to spend some time with my dog and me.

 

My mother is very hard of hearing;

you should know that, she says.

 

At 94, few of us will have good hearing, I say.

 

I just don’t know, she says.

I’m so tired, I can’t hardly think.

Did you find you got really tired? she says.

 

Yes, oh yes I did get tired, I say.

 

I hope this would be good for my mother

but I just don’t know, she says,

the dog is so big.

 

Big dog, big heart, I say.

 

She licks, though, she says,

I wish she didn’t lick.

 

Is there parking around her place? I ask,

Oh yes, she says, that’s not a problem.

She has a house.

She’s lived here fifty years;

been in the same house fifty years.

 

How wonderful that

she can stay in her own house,

because of your care, I say.

 

I just wish your dog were small,

she says, and didn’t lick.

 

Dogs lick, even tiny dogs lick, I say,

it’s one way they get to know a person.

 

My mother’s a very clean woman,

she says.

 

I’m sure that’s true, I say,

cleanliness is good.

 

So, you took care of your mother,

she says.

 

Yes, I say, it can make you tired.

You think about it while I’m gone,

I say, I understand if you prefer to wait

for a tiny dog

like the one in the picture.

I’ve never myself known a dog

who didn’t lick, I say.

 

I’ll call you when you get back,

She says.

If 30 is the new 20, I’ve got a little over two years until I need to start seriously thinking of starting a band.

I like the name ‘Mantell’ for my would-be band. I’m not sure what kind of music we’ll play. Obviously, there will need to be some rock in there. How else will I be able to excuse the leather pants I want to wear to myself? Impossible.

But I’m also starting to get the idea that we could also be into some more of the atmospheric electronica. I could happily be John Graham. He’s got that whole cool-sounding English accent that tinges his vocals and makes them sound all the better. I hate him for it, even as I am seduced by his world-weary Limey tenor.

I’m getting a divorce.I know, I know, it’s horrible, just terrible, let’s all look at the floor and tell me how sorry you are for me, while I mumble “I’m fine.The kids are doing well.I’m taking care of myself.”

Our relationship is marked by beer. Like a long line of bottles in varying shades of brown, green, and amber, the seasons of our love correspond with the tastes and textures and names of beers.

Together, over 14 years, my husband Doug and I have run the gamut—from obscure, handcrafted beers to expensive English delicacies to gourmet homebrew to cheap domestics, and now, finally, to our favorites—the comfort beers we’ve settled on, the brands and varieties we always know we can bring home and the other person will appreciate.

At first, there was barley wine. Intoxicating, rich with perfume, it was a new taste for me, one I hadn’t even known I was ready for. On our first date, at the very outset of what would be a steady, satisfying, several-years-long courtship, Doug and I sat on stools in a restaurant called The Meeting Place and chose from a menu of hundreds of beers.

I scanned the long lists of bottles and drafts, imports and domestics, and felt nearly overwhelmed by all the choices in front of me. Would I pick correctly? Would I, first of all, enjoy what I chose? Would I impress Doug with my selection, or would I feel stupid and regret this?

Flustered, I went for what sounded both quaint and exotic: barley wine. Two small, potent bottles later, I was weak in the knees. (Photo: Dogfish Head Brewery’s Olde School Barley Wine)

We moved on, together, to double bock, the perfect tonic for the stirrings of early spring lust. The rest, as they say, can be left to the imagination.

That first spring and summer, our love blossomed like lilacs, refreshingly sweet, and we spent every weekend together. I’d take the train out from New York City to meet him in what now seemed to be the country—suburban New Jersey—where Doug lived and worked as a carpenter.

Friday night always began with a careful selection of beer. If we were going out for Mexican food, the choice was obvious: Dos Equis with fresh-cut wedges of lime. Otherwise, I left it up to Doug. He knew his beers.

Having just moved back east from the Pacific Northwest, he introduced me first to all his Seattle and Portland-area favorites: Red Hook ESB, a sweetish, yet astringent amber; and the Rogue Ales—especially Dead Guy Ale, a German-style Maibock, malty and rich.

From there, we moved down the coast to Northern California, finding a new favorite: Red Seal, a copper-red pale ale, generously hopped. (Pint glass here filled with–you guessed it–Red Seal Ale)

 

We discovered wheat beers together, which to me are especially delicious with their light-as-air foam, their fruity (yet buttery) tingle on the tongue. I developed a special fondness for the delicate, coriander-tinged flavor of Texas’ Celis White (it is, sadly, no longer brewed).

Dinners out in the city usually meant Indian food and—for me—a nice bottle of Belgian raspberry lambic bought at the little bodega on the corner of First Avenue and East Sixth Street.

Doug gamely tried the lambic, but he prefers bitter brews with bite and soon dismissed my newfound confection as “a girl drink,” or “champagne.” He opted, instead, to go native, drinking Indian beer such as Kingfishers with Indian food; and Sing Ha with Thai dishes; or else he stuck with his perennial favorite: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

A trip to Colorado meant an opportunity to eat and drink at the distinctive Boulder breweries—the Walnut Brewery and Oasis, among them. We sampled the goods everywhere we went, trying little glasses of perhaps 10 different beers, and we left the brewpubs carrying 12-packs of our favorites, seasonal specialties such as apricot ale, things we couldn’t buy at home. We drank some of the beer while camping in the Tetons and lugged the rest back East with us on the plane.

The next step in our relationship was living together, and as soon as we’d found an apartment with huge windows, glossy wood floors and an adequate kitchen, we bought a homebrew kit.

Doug and I started out nervously, like new parents, carefully sterilizing everything, conscientiously stirring a bubbling cauldron that contained the makings of a batch of honey-colored, wheaty lager.

We bought new bottles for this baby—lavishly thick, 22-ounce green ones with hip, metal swing tops. In our eagerness to sample our creation, however, we didn’t leave this beer to age quite long enough.

Our first homebrew we declared a disaster—too sweet and flat. We forgot about a case of it, and moved on to something more ambitious (my idea, I admit): a double-chocolate porter.

This beer we did not touch for required months of fermentation. When we did taste it, the beer was rich and thick, bittersweet, and it poured with an impressive head.

We (dumbly) shared the porter with our friends and our stock was soon depleted. Oh, well, we thought. We still had the corner store on Indian Row, and our local beer emporium, which was finding new beers all the time—continually challenging our tastes—to sustain us.

At this beer emporium, Doug discovered an English beer—available only around the holidays—called Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome. It comes in large, clear pint bottles, the copper-brown ale just beckoning to be quaffed. (Photo: the big, bad WW–not sure what year this bottle is from.)


The taste of Winter Welcome is both rich and clean, nutty-sweet yet dry. Doug also likes the labels; each year the painted illustration changes (think goose or chalet, horse-drawn carriage and so on), giving him good enough reason to not recycle the bottles. Winter Welcome is Doug’s favorite beer of all. He told his best friend, Mike, about it, sharing a bottle to explain its magical taste.

This could have been a mistake. Now Mike buys out the beer store’s supply of Winter Welcome each Christmas, and the only way Doug can even get any of his favorite beer is to stop by Mike’s house.

***

As the years went by, our relationship strengthened, and the beer drinking picked up speed, as well. I bought Doug books on beer. He read them carefully, dog-earing pages, scribbling notes in the margins, determined to seek out the few gourmet beers he hadn’t yet tasted (ones from small craft breweries housed in defunct Midwestern fire stations, or remote corners of Alsace-Lorraine).

But then, suddenly (the change shocked me), Doug was no longer very interested in microbrews. He wanted reliability, he said—and a more palatable price tag. At this point, we were engaged and living out in the wilds of Eastern Long Island, in a small cottage near the beach.

We were far from a decent grocery store, let alone one with any impressive selection of beer. Doug reverted to drinking Rolling Rock and Bud, and occasionally (when he felt like splurging) his old standby: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

When I asked him what was going on, Doug said it was simply a new phase of his life: he was settling down. At first I worried, but then I came to see his point. Doug had played the field and now he knew what he liked, so what was the point of continuing the game?

Doug and I got married and took a very long honeymoon in Belize. While there, we savored the crisp, new taste of Belize’s own beer: Belikin. This is a beer we still haven’t been able to find in the states (though I think it may be available somewhere in Texas).

A by-product of our honeymoon, we soon discovered, was a baby. I, of course, drank no more beer as soon as I realized I was pregnant. We packed up house and moved to Iowa so I could attend grad school after the baby’s birth.

Away from family and friends and plowing through our savings to furnish our apartment and stock up for our child, Doug stuck to drinking inexpensive, domestic beers. When the time came for our daughter’s birth, I reminded Doug to pack a special bottle of champagne that my cousin’s husband—a wine dealer—had given us. He did so, and for his own nerves, tucked into a cooler two cans of beer.

I was appalled to find, the next day in the hospital, two (untouched) cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Why on earth had Doug chosen such a pedestrian beer?

He said he didn’t know why, or it was simply a strange combination of desperation, flightiness, and worry. Doug had reportedly reached for the first beer he saw in the supermarket. He was very nervous about becoming a father, and he hesitated to celebrate just in case (he’s a pessimist) something should go terribly wrong.

But everything had gone fine. We had a beautiful, nine-pound daughter.

Doug toasted her with Pabst (I am still appalled), and promised we’d drink the champagne at home.

All these years later, we still, of course, find ourselves going through phases of life, as well as phases of beer. We appreciate beer, and just as people enjoy different music on different occasions, so it goes with beer.

We need to get another beer-making kit and try that again (now that our kids are big enough to keep themselves occupied for a few hours). This past Christmas, I intended to brew beer as gifts, but I just got too busy.

Think we’ll try it again this year, though. Boiling up a batch of beer during what is sure to be a hot summer will nevertheless be worth it in the winter. (Especially since walking down to the basement for more beer is much easier than visiting the annoying Pennsylvania state liquor stores…the beer drinking lately has waned just because it’s such a pain to buy beer where we live now. You can’t even leave a PA store with three six-packs. No, you have to leave the third and come back for it separately…. I can’t even imagine the purpose of such an insipid law.)

The hardest part of homebrewing this time will be agreeing on what type of beer to make. We’ve done it all, had them all. But we still recall the taste of that forgotten first batch of homebrew—the one we opened too early, dismissed too quickly.

When Doug and I stumbled upon some dusty, untouched bottles a couple of years later, we ventured to try that first beer again. Its taste was now mellow, delicious—redolent, somehow, of fresh-mown hay and clover.

Like our love, it had only grown richer with age.

 




Having been a fan of David Goodwillie’s excellent 2005 memoir, Seemed Like A Good Idea at the Time, I was a bit apprehensive when I heard he was publishing his first novel, American Subversive. I feared the worst: the dreaded second book bomb. It’s almost a cliche, to follow a great book with a flop. Then I read the book.

American Subversive, a tale of contrasts, is no disappointment. The book’s main characters are Aiden Cole, a self-absorbed entertainment blogger in NYC, and Paige Roderick, a southern Belle turned eco-bomber.   They meet after a bomb explodes in Midtown at the Barney’s on Madison Avenue. The intended target, an oil company, is not immediately discerned; the bomb has been detonated on the wrong floor by mistake.
The usual suspects are reigned in.  Aiden receives an anonymous email, along with a photo of a woman fleeing the scene. The woman is identified as Paige Roderick. This is the woman behind the blast, the email tells him. But who in the hell is Paige Roderick?  Should he go to the cops or break it in his blog?
What follows is the melding of two lives, in what struck me as a cross between Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang.
I caught up with Goodwillie as his book tour came through Ohio and asked a few questions. I followed up later on the phone.

What attracted you to this subject matter?

I was interested in the idea of people with a broader view of society. Americans grow up with a somewhat narrow mindset of how to proceed in the world.  There’s always a good guy and a bad guy, and capitalism is the only way to go. I grew up in Europe, and when I was in Paris there were always Communist demonstrations and nobody was ever alarmed. I think in America we grow up filtered from political events and sheltered from democracy.

Communist was a bad word when I was a kid. I didn’t even know what it meant until I grew up!

Exactly. I wanted to explore this theme via Paige and Aiden and bring two sides of their generation together.

Was there any autobiographical aspect in the character of Aiden?

No, not at all. I saw myself as neither of the characters in the book, but rather somewhere in the middle. I’m not apolitical and tend to be an avid news watcher, but I tried to keep the book agenda-free.  I didn’t want it to be any kind of a liberal screed. I wanted readers to make their conclusions.

In your book, Aiden works for a fictional website called Roorback.com, a sort of Gawker-like venue. Are you going to be putting up a real life Roorback soon?

Yes, I hope to have it up and running in a few days. It will have the same name and be run by professional NYC bloggers who will be assuming the identities of the characters in the book. It’s part experiment, part promotion.  We don’t know where it’s going yet.

You’ve been accumulating some accolades lately, including a nice mention in Vanity Fair. I was reading David Lipsky’s recently published conversations with David Foster Wallace, and Wallace speaks often about how praise and publicity really put the pressure on him to make every word he wrote bear the mark of a genius. Do you feel any similar pressure when your work is praised?

I don’t feel pressure in the sense that David Foster Wallace did. Wallace was in his own realm of genius and I can see him feeling the need to live up to that. My pressure comes from simply getting my book read and having it out there. Writing is my career, so I have to make sure readers know about my work so I can keep on writing. I think Wallace felt that art should speak for itself. The writer needs to be in the wings and let the world focus on the art and not the artist.

Did you have trouble switching from memoir-mode to fiction?

Novels are harder to write.  You have to pick and choose your characters.  You have to invent their world and keep the suspense going. Part of being a literary writer is to challenge yourself over and over—unlike a guy like, say, Dan Brown who basically writes the same book again and again. Joshua Ferris, who’s a friend of mine, recently came out with a new book [The Unnamed] which was completely different from his first novel, Then We Came to the End, which had a lot of comic schtick. And people were surprised when his second book was nothing like his first.  But I think in the long run Ferris will be much more appreciated for making this move. It took a lot of courage.

Sometimes it takes a lot of courage to know when to stop writing, too. I think Harper Lee knew she had said all she had to say in To Kill A Mockingbird.

That too. Salinger included. Hard to stop though, if you are a compulsive writer!



David Goodwillie is working on another novel while he follows the Mets in what he hopes will be an amazing season of victory.




I’ve always felt it was too easy for a person to be labeled a “porn star.”

The criteria seem to be that you have had sex, on camera, for the purpose of distribution, and that many people have seen it. But such criteria say nothing about one’s history, accomplishment or following. The real problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a linguistic distinction between the entry-level and the career-minded varieties of porn star.

Consider that, to be a movie star, you probably have to have at least one major motion picture out, maybe two, and you have to have been invited to appear, for that movie, on at least one talk show. To get that far, chances are good that you paid your dues: maybe a Lifetime special, definitely a rapist or victim on Law & Order: SVU. And that’s just by modern standards, where buzz is generated much more quickly, and the masses catch all their star news virally. When it comes to the classic star hierarchy, we’re talking about the A and B listers, and even then we’re dealing with maybe eighty people in the whole industry (two of which are Tom Cruise).

Becoming a rock star is a bit easier. One song on the radio will do, and really, if you get up on any stage, belt out a few notes, swagger around a bit and generally act sweaty, most people will give it to you as a kind of honorarium, as something you’ve earned by way of presence. “He’s such a rock star,” in the common vernacular, has come to indicate an attitude more than it does any kind of real success in the music business.

The label “porn star,” however, has the unique properties of being both literal and inclusive. That is, you must have been in a porn to be a porn star.  Cut and dry.  But once you’ve hopped that first gentle bar, you’re in for life, right at the top.  Even if the act was years ago, the distinction then becomes “ex-porn-star.”

The labeling issue is further confused when you consider the relative ease of getting a great many people to watch you in a porn.  Get a small part in an edgy indie movie, and a few thousand might see it. Write a song and some of your friends will be kind enough to listen. Take your pants off on camera and the world will click twice to see what’s going on down there.

Clearly, the title/suffix “star” has been too widely granted. We don’t yet have a good word for an “amateur porn star.” In fact, we stare the absurdity right in the face, because the proper terminology would be just that: “amateur porn star.”

Film critics offer a grim solution to this problem. Whenever the moniker “movie star” isn’t enough, they call an actor a “superstar,” or, ever more often, a “mega-star.

Porn-Mega-Star” has all the charm of an end villain in a Transformers spinoff, but at least it differentiates.

My solution?  Simplify things. We need to establish a base term for, um, entry level porn actors. Instead of “porn star,” we could call someone a “porner” (I also considered “smactor”). A “porner” is anyone who has been in a porn.

With a little effort and some skill in marketing, a porner could eventually work his way up to official porn stardom.  And so on. Such labels might even have the effect of legitimizing a career ladder which has long been dubious at best.

Now, if only we could figure out summer internships.

Mania!

By Ryan Day

Essay

When I was 10 we lived in Augusta, Georgia. A friend of my mom’s adopted a baby. The baby was a giant. Not literally a giant. It was neither jolly nor green, nor iron, but it was a really big baby. My mom’s friend insisted that the agency told her that the father was a professional wrestler. She was convinced, due to the size of the baby, and the strangely morose eyes that sat above big black half moons, that the father was the Undertaker. This was a serious point of pride for the mother, not to mention a really cool origin story for a kid that may one day need one.