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*In a slight twist on the TNB self-interview, Tara Betts decided to hand over the questions to her “other half”—the person who knows most candidly—her partner, writer and organizer Rich Villar. They scheduled this interview in Tara’s cozy living room where she could be free to wear her fuzzy leopard print slippers amidst the well-stocked bookshelves next to a humming radiator.



So, Tara, what do you think about Rich asking you some questions for The Nervous Breakdown?

I think Rich will probably ask some good questions, simply because a lot of interviewers tend to ask the same questions. Rich will also put me on the spot, then snort and giggle about it later.


What are the differences/challenges between teaching creative writing to high school students and university students?

My experience with high school students felt more empowering to me as a writer. I had to think about how I approached the writing process and communicate it to other young writers for the first time when I worked with teens. More often than not, they really wanted to be involved in that process and exploring a range of writers. My college students are exposed to a range of work, but often seem more concerned with the grade or getting the right answer, when they should be concerned with reading and honing in on the possibilities of their voice and their experiences in life and with the page. Fortunately, some of them are engaged by all of that, so it makes the teaching worthwhile.


How has leaving Chicago affected your writing process?

I felt like it was much easier to concentrate when I lived in Chicago. The adjustment to living in New York was very difficult for me, but the upside to that was I found that my sense of discipline and the bombardment of stimuli kicked in, so now I feel like writing can come to me almost anywhere. It’s just a matter of me sitting still long enough and staying away from Facebook and e-mail.  I do miss Chicago deeply—the food, Lake Michigan, Buckingham Fountain, the shuttling rhythm of the el trains, and the passing cars sounding like sighs on the streets as the night quiets down. I miss all that. I find myself looking for beauty and the unusual in a place that’s unfamiliar, so it throws me out of wack. I’m slowly fashioning a sense of the familiar here.


If you had one-million dollars and a multi-use building, free and clear, what would you do?

No one would know I had a million dollars. Period. I might donate to charity or set up a scholarship at my high school, but I wouldn’t tell anyone. The building would probably be something where I could have a family-size loft to live with my husband and kids. I’ve always wondered if I could start my own bookstore or a small café with a tutoring program and writing workshops. I’d like it to have a place for events that I could rent out or curate events and exhibits. If the space could accommodate it, I’d host writing retreats there.  As far as my personal space, part of it would have to be a library, and I’d have to have space to hang art too.  I’d want a small playground for my kids too.


Since Publisher’s Weekly has an all-male top 10 books of 2009, can you fill in the blanks with an all-female top 10?

Top 10 women’s books of 2009 … This is difficult for me because their list would probably focus on fiction. There were lots of notable fiction books. Many of which missed out on awards like the National Book Award.

The books I enjoyed that were released in 2009 were: Prayers Like Shoes by Ruth Forman, Pink Elephant by Rachel McKibbens, and a memoir, Where Did You Sleep Last Night?: A Personal History, by Danzy Senna.

Unfortunately, these types of lists usually omit poetry, as well as writing by those who are not aligned with what is considered to be the dominant voice in letters.  I often find myself doing a sort of intellectual stockpiling where I don’t read stuff as soon as it comes out, but I will buy it. Sometimes, I read a book right away. Other times, it takes me a year or two to get around to it.

Books I’d like to read from 2009? I’d probably say Changing My Mind, a book of essays by Zadie Smith, Erica Fabri’s The Dialect of a Skirt, Psalm of the Sunflower by Antoinette Brim, I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde, Children of the Waters by Carleen Brice, and Sweethearts of Rhythm by Marilyn Nelson.


Will the world end once the Oprah show is off the air?

I don’t think the world will end, and I do think Oprah is going to move to cable, so she can do what she really wants, whatever that is. I’ve been in mourning a bit though because some crusaders on television are leaving. Oprah has one more season. Bill Moyers is retiring, and I can’t picture him not being there to interview Colin Powell in that crucial moment before Obama’s election or doing his investigative reporting or interviews with poets and people like Joseph Campbell. I cannot picture my East Coast news reporting without Tappy Phillips busting people, like “Excuse me, sir, don’t touch the camera. Let us know why you bilking this family when it’s 15 degrees below zero in their apartment?” This kind of coverage, a small portion of television, is not being encouraged. We have reality television and talk show hosts that I won’t berate. I’ll just hope that a couple of them will get better … maybe.


Is your husband-to-be a sexy so & so?

Now, see, this is where I go Beyonce and say I can’t talk about my relationship. If you are about to marry someone, what would YOU think?


What do you feel is your best poetic instinct?  What do you feel you do well?

My best poetic instinct is to tell a story and use the images that are most vivid to me to convey the feeling and idea of the story. I don’t think you have to beat people over the head to have clarity. Subtlety should be a poet’s gift, even if the subject matter is brutal and immediate. I feel like I’m good at looking at different types of writers and using their work as possibilities for what I can and cannot do. I try out their techniques sometimes. Other times, another poet confirms that I need to do what I do. We’re not supposed to sound alike.



Where are you from?

Right now? I live in Weirton, West Virginia (West Virginia, frequently the brunt of many a bad joke, is its own state, and I still am asked, “Where in Virginia are you?”). Weirton is a dying steel town not far from Pittsburgh, and my husband and I go there often. I write art reviews for the City Paper there as well. But there’s a very different landscape here than I grew up with. There are dynamited rock faces, soot-blackened mills, and ominous-looking power plants that, by night, glow pink with sodium vapor lights. And there are slots parlors…lots and lots of slots parlors—and race tracks, dogs in Wheeling and ponies in Chester. It seems different and exotic to me because I grew up in a more agrarian part of central Pennsylvania, where the colors were not so much black and brown but green and gold.

Please explain what just happened….

I can’t explain what just happened, that can get masochistic. Explaining is what you have to do when you’ve been put on trial. It’s always up for speculation and interpretation. “What just happened.”

I will tell you a story, that’s more fun. I was looking for a new location to shoot photos of my work and also have a vacation. I had gotten wind from a friend about an agave moonshine called Raicilla. That was all the inspiration I needed to begin my hunt. I found my love, my agave treasure. Which, in its creation, was probably sucked through a radiator, beachside, in Yelapa, Mexico. To get to beautiful Yelapa, one has to travel by boat. The green-blue water lapping onto the white sand was tempting me to bask like a sloth, but I had my agenda and only a few hours left before I had to climb back aboard the grey-haired speedboat headed for the “All-Inclusive Puerto Vallarta.” To my fortune, a very cheerful and large mustachioed man approached me with a huge Iguana relaxing around his neck. He asked if I wanted a margarita.  I said in terribly rough Spanish, “How about Raicilla?”

His squinty eyes flashed a mysterious smile as he told me to meet him under his cabana….

You’re a great author.

Why, thank you. But that’s not a question.


Oh … I think you’re a great author. Would you agree?

Yes, I would.


What’s the strangest place you visited?

A Christian wrestling match. To be fair, this was Ultimate Christian Wrestling where “good” wrestlers did battle against “evil” wrestlers. Fallen wrestlers, I kid you not, are actually resurrected at these matches. And you thought Rowdy Roddy Piper was weird.


When you say “you,” do you realize that you’re referring to yourself?

Yes.


OK. Just checking. So, did you ever feel uncomfortable?

Yep, the time I appeared on Jesus’ JumboTron. While attending a Baptist megachurch in suburban Georgia, the camera operators thought it was a good idea to focus in on the one Jew in the house among the 15,000 dancing faithful – thereby ensuring my fate as the proverbial Wicked Son in the eyes of my rabbinic father.


Since I’m you, I already know the answer to this next question: Has anyone tried to convert you?

Surprisingly, not one person tried to convert me while I was church-hopping. But since the book came out, well, that’s a different story. The most absurd attempt to win my soul for Jesus came from none other than Stephen Baldwin, the youngest of the acting Baldwin brothers. He’s a born-again Christian and, apparently, thought I wanted to be one, too.


Where can I go for more info about your great book?

Glad you asked. You can visit me online here: www.myjesusyear.com.



It’s midday on a Monday, four days before Christmas.  In typical schizophrenic fashion, the weather has decided that today should be sixty-four degrees of perfect sunshine and brilliant blue.  We mock winter here in the South, so much so that I almost feel like I owe an apology to my friends in the North.  It seems unfair that you should be digging out of a record snowstorm while I wear a t-shirt and crank up my motorcycle.  Of course, I immediately think of the three digit temperatures and sweltering humidity of July and August in Texas and feel instantly less guilty.

It’s a coffee day for me.  I’m on my second pot.  For whatever vices I have or have had, this is the one I am least likely to let go of.  I’ve kicked cigarettes and virtually eliminated fast food from my diet (except for Chik-Fil-A when I’m on the road or the occasional 3:00 am Whataburger run).  There are arguments both for and against the health benefits of coffee and I ignore them all.  I drink it because I love it.

Black and full of sugar.  I’ll leave you to write your own joke there.

It’s almost a ritual for me.  It’s my legal crutch.  It makes me comfortable.  Smoking was always something I had to find a place to do, but not so with coffee.  It’s universal.  Stuck in an airport or wandering the streets of some foreign city or in the green room before a show, it’s always there.  It clears my head and centers me.  Certainly pumping caffeine into my veins every single day can’t be the best of ideas, but it’s definitely not the worst.

I mean I could always be doing crystal meth.

I hardly drank coffee at all a decade ago.  The habit kicked in when I picked up a morning radio gig.  5:00 am every morning, having to be upbeat and alert and aware… you don’t do that without help.  We would load a full brick of dark roast into our coffee pot, courtesy of one of our sponsors, and drink the most delicious caffeinated sludge you’ve ever poured into a cheap Styrofoam cup.  Four hours every morning.  The habit stuck long after the station fired me.

The problem now is that there are a million options when it comes to what you can have.  Starbucks has seen to that.  Coffee is not meant to be run by the massive corporations.  Coffee should remain unique.  Chains have pushed out the small coffee shops I had become so fond of.  Back in my hometown I used to frequent a locally owned place thirty seconds from my house.  Unlimited refills and a faux-Tuscan patio kept me huddled behind my keyboard comfortably enough to churn out pages of writing.  I miss it.  Today I am a half hour away from the closest non-Starbucks.  That’s the big city for you.

Every once in a while I meet a friend of mine for Vietnamese food and we order cà phê sữa đá.  If you’ve never had it, try it.  Clear your calendar for the next few hours though, as it jacks your system up in a way some chain store’s house blend could only dream of.  It has enough sugar and caffeine to get Chev Chelios through a busy day.

That’s a random occurrence however.  For the most part I have to get my fix when I travel, because globally, they haven’t lost what we have.  Coffee still means something in other countries.  There are a few spots I’ve become a fan of in Amsterdam, where I’ve sat sheltered from the cold, wet, winter streets, drinking cafe au lait out of a perfect white porcelain cup.  The Dutch don’t mess around.  That’s the French’s strong point as well.  It’s almost been eight years since I sat in some café whose name escapes me, somewhere between Metz and Paris.  It’s possible that it was the beauty of the French countryside and the perfect weather, but my memory has filed that experience away as an unbelievable shot of espresso that I have yet to be able to recreate here in the States.

It’s more than just coffee.  It’s the experience.

If that is true, then no one understands it better than Ethiopia.  I was in Addis Ababa with my friend Sam a little under two years ago.  It was the first trip for both of us into the Horn of Africa, the area made up of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia.  It is third world to be sure, but they are the greatest caretakers of the tradition of coffee drinking.   After dinner I asked my friend Abrahim if he would order coffee for us and he obliged.  I’m used to having coffee brought to me, not the other way around.

We were led out of the restaurant and into a hut around back, lit by torchlight.  Confused, we sat around a little wooden table waiting for Abrahim to explain what we were doing.  Soon a young woman appeared with a bowl of green coffee beans which she presented us for our approval.  After getting the okay, she started a wood fire and roasted the beans as we talked.  They were shown to us again before she hand-ground them with mortar and pestle.  Three times we were poured tiny cups of jet black divinity.

Over the course of an hour, Abrahim told us stories of his family and his culture and his people’s history.  It’s what the coffee was supposed to do.   Rather than just wire you up and get you through your day, it was intended to bring people together, to get them to communicate, to enjoy each other’s company.   There’s beauty in any group of people that take their coffee as seriously as I do.  As they say in Ethiopia, “Buna dabo naw” – “coffee is bread”.

I couldn’t agree more.

The foreign affairs office was taking us out for Christmas.

“Where are we going?” I asked Judy, another teacher.

“I don’t know,” she said. “But I hope it’s a Peking duck dinner.” She paused. “Chuck’s going too.”

My stomach sank. “He is? I thought he was boycotting us.”

“I guess he’ll make an exception for Christmas.”

It was 1998, ten years before the Olympics, when bustling hutongs still snaked through the nation’s capital and the only coffee you could get was from McDonald’s. I taught English to graduate engineering students in Changping, a small town outside Beijing, and hated every minute of it.

I wasn’t sure which was worse, teaching apathetic students or being a foreigner with a Chinese face. Neither native nor foreign enough, I couldn’t blend in, nor did people believe I was American.

“But you look Chinese,” they’d say.

“I am,” I’d answer. “I’m Chinese American.”

Puzzlement. “But you look Chinese.”

My students could spot my long purposeful gait a mile away. (I tried to shorten it but didn’t have the patience.) Once in a store, some younger kids pointed at me. “Laowai!” they said, though I hadn’t said anything.

Laowai, old foreigner, referred to anyone, regardless of age, not from China. In The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan writes that when she stepped off the plane in China, she became Chinese. I became a laowai.

By December, I had been there four months and missed everyone: my boyfriend, my friends, my family. It wasn’t as bad as the beginning when I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, and was so terrified of teaching, several hairs on my head turned gray. The terror had dulled to an ache as I imagined the holiday hustle and bustle back home: New York streets crowded with tourists and shoppers, the modest tree my parent put up in their house in New Jersey, the Heat and Snow Misers duking it out on TV.

Unlike the Lunar New Year with celebrations that lasted for weeks, Christmas wasn’t a big holiday in China. Even under the modern Communist regime, there were very few Christians, at least those who’d admit to it, and all Western religions tended to be lumped together. My students used the sign of the cross to mean everything from Protestantism to Catholicism to Judaism.

Although Beijing may have had a more festive feel, in Changping there was nothing. We had the day off, but it was like any other morning. In fact, with no classes and students hiding from the cold in their tiny dorm rooms, it was worse. The campus was like an icy ghost town. The waiban was doing us a favor by taking us out.

We met in the courtyard between our houses. Judy and Ron, a fiftyish couple from Oregon, had been teaching all over China for the past decade. They were friendly with foreigners and natives alike, unlike some laowai who preferred to be one of a kind. Judy looked nervous.

“Will he talk to us?” she wondered.

“Don’t worry,” Ron said. “We’ll have a good time no matter what.”

Chuck, like us, was an American English teacher. Middle-aged and skinny, he had a thick thatch of steel-colored hair and a beak nose. He had been ignoring us since October.

We weren’t sure why. We knew he wasn’t happy about how the school was run, and was always making suggestions to Mr. Sun, the head of foreign affairs. The first time Chuck and I met, at breakfast in the dining hall, he had talked at me for half an hour about how terrible the Chinese educational system was, and that it was up to us to change it.

Us, change the system? All I wanted was to get through my next class.

After that I avoided him. “I have laundry to do,” I said by way of apology if we crossed paths in the dining hall again. Or, “I have to prepare my lessons.”

“You’re a very solitary person,” he told me.

Since then he had been giving all of us the cold shoulder. “Look, another foreigner,” he said once to Judy as she rang her bike bell at him, then kept walking.

One rare warm day, as the three of us sat on Ron and Judy’s porch sunning ourselves, he walked right by us, his hood up like blinders, and didn’t say a word.

The week before Christmas, Chuck’s family had arrived. It was hard to imagine the lone figure marching across campus in his parka as being close to anyone. But they seemed nice. Heftier than her husband, his wife Debbie had short brown hair and rosy cheeks. In their early 20s, his son and two daughters rode around on bikes in the bitter cold. Whenever they saw us, they waved and smiled.

The waiban arrived in their shiny black van. Mr. Lee, a youngish guy with floppy hair and a missing incisor, was driving while Mr. Sun sat shot gun.

“Merry Christmas,” said Mr. Sun, stereotypically squinty-eyed and big-toothed, as we got in.

“Merry Christmas,” we chorused back.

“Where’s Chuck?” Mr. Sun asked.

We shrugged.

He muttered to Mr. Lee in Chinese, “That other guy hasn’t shown up yet. Go knock on his door.”

People always seemed to forget that I understood them. “What is this nonsense?” one of my students asked in Mandarin when I tried teaching similes.

“Do you have a question?” I asked him in English.

He froze, then didn’t speak for the rest of the class.

Mr. Lee hadn’t moved. Chuck’s grouchy reputation preceded him.

“I’ll go then,” Mr. Sun said. Then to us, smilingly, in English, “I will get Chuck.” He got out of the car and jogged up Chuck’s walkway.

“Maybe he’s not coming,” Judy murmured.

Mr. Sun returned with Chuck and Debbie in tow. I was surprised to see that Chuck was smiling.

“Cold enough for you?” Chuck asked, climbing in.

We all glanced at each other. “My thermometer said 10 degrees,” Ron said.

“Worse with the wind chill factor,” I said.

Judy rolled her eyes. “Wind chill factor. Made up by meterologists.”

Mr. Sun shut his door. “Let’s go,” he said to Mr. Lee.

Being driven into Beijing was a nice change from the cold and smelly bus. Every Friday Ron, Judy and I rode it to go on various excursions: shopping for knickknacks, visiting museums, trying different foods. The other week we visited a Taoist monastery, where the monks padded around silently in blue and white, their uncut hair wound in complex spirals around their heads. Afterwards we ate hand pulled noodles, slurping noisily against the bitter cold. Ron had invited Chuck to join us multiple times, but he never did.

“Here we are,” Mr. Sun said.

To my delight, we were pulling up to the Grand Hotel Beijing, one of the fancier places in the city. It catered to foreigners and I missed being catered to. I was sick of restaurants with bones on the floor and gristle on the table. Even if they were confused by my Asian features and perfect English, the staff would be too polite to say anything.

Mr. Sun led us to the dining room, clean and spacious with potted plants and white tablecloths. Tiny white lights twinkled from the ceiling while holly and mistletoe hung in every corner. Christmas carols played softly. “You can have anything you want,” Mr. Sun said of the elaborate buffet.

Judy glanced around. “I don’t see any Peking duck,” she said.

Tired of Chinese food, I nearly wept for joy at the sight of meat loaf, roasted chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes, and bread pudding. It would be a merry Christmas after all.

As we ate, we talked and laughed like normal people, like friends. That day Debbie and her daughters had gone shopping in Silk Alley.

“Did you haggle?” asked Judy, a champion bargainer.

She hadn’t. “Ten dollars seemed like a good deal for a silk scarf.”

“Ten dollars!” Judy cried. That was eighty RMB. “Highway robbery.”

“We also visited Embassy Row,” said Debbie, deftly changing the subject. “We saw a lot of parents with their adoptees.”

Judy nodded. “It’s one of the last stops before they can go home.”

I had seen it too: white men and women pushing strollers with Chinese girls. I always wondered if they’d think I was a grown-up adoptee, and I’d have to explain that no, Chinese people did raise their kids in America.

As we left, I was surprised to see that Chuck and Debbie were holding hands. The strange crabby man seemed to be gone. Maybe he had simply been lonely all this time. Sometimes foreigners went off the deep end in China, Judy said. I certainly had.

We were quiet on the ride back to Changping. My belly was full of good American eats yet I still yearned for home. I wanted to wake up to hear English outside my window, not Chinese. I wanted to speak and understand without effort, to see other colors in a sea of black hair. I wanted to sink back into anonymity and not stick out as the foreign girl with a Chinese face and soldier’s stride.

Back on campus, Mr. Lee let us out in our courtyard. “Good night!” Ron and Judy called as they disappeared inside. “Merry Christmas!”

Chuck and Debbie waved. Their windows were brightly lit; I could see their kids moving around.

“Think the munchkins fared all right?” I heard him ask his wife.

“I think they’re fine,” she told him.

Later, after he left Changping for good, we’d raid his house for extra supplies. His family had gone home right after Christmas, and he had had several weeks alone. We were flabbergasted by the state he left. The living room floor was covered in peanut shells, the toilet tank lid lay broken in half in the hallway, and inexplicably, a plate of sliced raw mutton was left out on the kitchen counter.

“He was worse off than we thought,” Judy would say, shaking her head.

But for now I didn’t know this. For now I was jealous that Chuck got to have his family around him on Christmas morning, and that they’d be together tonight. Maybe he and Debbie would talk about what they ate, and the kids would be jealous, already craving U.S. fare. They’d tell how they went exploring, and how everyone stared, and they’d laugh and shake their heads because there was only a few more days of this, not months on end.

If Chuck could have all that, I wondered as I unlocked my door, why didn’t he want it all the time? Why did he leave? Did he prefer to be alone in a strange country where Jews were the same as Christians simply because they weren’t Chinese? Maybe where he was from wasn’t good enough for him. There he wasn’t special. Here at least he was a laowai.

I went alone into my dark house. I turned on the heaters and changed into my pajamas. I flipped on the TV and watched an incomprehensible Taiwanese soap opera. Later, before turning in, I’d etch another scratch mark on the paper I had taped to the wall, counting down the days till I could finally go home.


Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was a pill-popping, einsteinium-producing poltergeist chockfull of so many platitudes, plastic surgery procedures, and prima donna practices that the decibel level of his ego and inconsiderateness went far beyond earbleeding.

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was a noodle-brained non sequitur full of cortisone and conundrums; a logic-shrinking, Red Bull-drinking, half-baked hedonist, whose post-mortem love life was deader and more disinherited than dirty dishwater.

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was a Berlitz-bombing, name-dropping, scrawny-assed can-can dancer, whose tawdry romance with the ghost of Marcel Marceau had all the mimes from Peoria to Outer Mongolia screaming their fool heads off.

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was a gas-huffing, mescal-chugging Neolithic nose bleeder; a crackpot carpenter who, by day, made bivouacs from out-of-tune tubas and busted birdhouses, and by night dabbled in psychic correspondence courses on how to perform cesarean sections of the mind.

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was a glue-sniffing, whiskey-swilling, over-beaten piñata so filled to the brim with pharmaceuticals and Munchausen syndrome that he couldn’t tell the truth from a toothpick.

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was a dishonorably discharged Jell-O boned breakdancer; a spastic poodle of a groover, and drowsy duelist shot so full of lead that you could’ve used his head for a pencil.

Have a happy holiday season anyway, y’all!


And now, my fellow TNB’ers and adored readers, I’d be more than honored if you’d add your own Rudolph rant…


As we loaf near midnight in our first bed in Mexico City, Louisa’s kiss cooling on my lips, the red scrolled metal of the bed frame screeching like so many rodents each time we move to scratch, drink, caress, I hear through the skinny walls the laughter of the nighttime desk crew. It’s not a laughter I’m used to, not one I’d typically hear from the many nighttime desk crews I’ve encountered on my many car-bound U.S. crossings. It’s not a laughter that gels with the Motel 6s and sub-Motel 6s that have borne witness to much of my sleep.

This room has no TV, but has beautiful wooden nightstands. Over mine, the sole wall decoration hangs—a calendar boasting Diciembre, the Virgen de Guadalupe looking down upon the meager squares, doing their best (and failing) to represent our days here, her eyes deflating as gold rays shoot from behind her like the kitschiest sun in the galaxy. She must know what it takes to laugh like this. She must have the ability to describe it in a way that doesn’t point from a distance and exoticize. But I don’t. I am an otherer. And this laughter is other, and exotic as hell. It’s as simple as a pink balloon. This laughter is the toddler joy of dragging one’s fingers over balloon skin, eliciting from the thin rubber, that dribbling, speed-bump frictive joy. Simple as a light-stick. A set of iridescent jacks.

I try to commune with it, stick my tongue between my lips and blow. I haven’t done this in years, and the vibration is exhilarating. Louisa looks up from her book, Obama’s “Dreams from My Father,” and smacks me on the shoulder. This is the first time my South African wife is traveling as a U.S. citizen, a status we jointly pursued throughout seven years of marriage and thousands of dollars and now, here, in this cheap, ornate, cavernous Hotel Rioja just off the main Zócalo square in the Centro Histórico, each laugh-echo from the courtyard serves as our payoff.

Beneath the orange and green wool blanket, she brings her knees to her chest and asks, “Are you spitting at me?”

How do I begin to answer this? I’m exhausted from traveling all day, too exhausted to sleep. How to I go about telling Louisa of my stupid attempt to commune with this new laughter? That spitting like a toddler at a teacher is my only touchstone. The only way I know how…

“I’m must be tired,” I say, and I’m happy I do because she leans in and kisses me warm again. Behind us, on the wall, the Virgen doubtlessly gives us her garish blessing. Louisa goes back to Barack, I go back to jotting a few innocuous lines into my notebook, cracking, with a low hiss the can of Leon Cervesa Negra I picked up for about thirty cents at the convenience store on Avenida Cinco de Mayo. The beer is lukewarm, tinny and just what the doctor ordered. To be sure, it’s my only hope for sleep. Soon, the laughter dissipates, but the construction of Hotel Rioja amplifies the most meager of actions. I can hear the old hunched desk clerk click his pen open three floors beneath us. Our room is on the indoor courtyard; if we dared step from our cracked wooden door, we could peer over the railing down to the nucleus of the place, meditate on the smooth bald head of the desk clerk whose small coughs sound in this place like the roars of Armageddon. The traffic outside could be under our bed.

Louisa and I need this—our first time overseas after spending a year in Chicago nursing my mother back from cancer, a year confronting the demons of my childhood bedroom, a room I hadn’t regularly slept in for fourteen years; a room bearing the obsessions of my youth, a past I only thought I had moved beyond; a room far more forbidding than any Motel 6; a room that signified, in it’s Alyssa Milano-circa-Who’s the Boss pin-ups and autographed pictures of Walter Payton, the loss of our marital sanctuary.

We need this. A room with walls that lets Mexico in, that allow our remembered lives, remembered selves to seep through its pores, where we can collect them into this bed, this can of beer, these quiet swallows between kisses. Above us, another couple, having found sleep, snore a telenovela through our ceiling.


My friend Ron called from Savannah last week. It’s a ritual in which he reports from the Deep South where he lives with his partner Jason. Ron wanted to tell me about a new Web site he’s discovered, one which shows men and women masturbating live, all over the world. I can tell he’s excited by the discovery, perhaps not just from a sexual view point but from a sociological stance as well. Maybe.

“It’s amazing,” he tells me. “Everyone is beating it, all over the world! Czechs, Muslims, Koreans. Everyone’s doing it live, and on camera!”

I take a moment to drink this in. I’d been to enough porn shows in NYC to know that most of the people who take off their clothes do it because they need the money or they are the type that should leave them on. People who want to share this private moment with you are most likely the ones you don’t really want to view in their onanistic private ecstasies. It doesn’t really appeal to me, this cyber exhibitionism; some things should be left to the privacy of your own noir. But perhaps this is just me being a prude in my old age. I would certainly cause trauma to most viewers if I participated myself.

“But get this,” he continues, “do you know what the crazy thing about this site really is?”

I don’t. It seems like fairly cut and dried content. No subplots, no post-modern deconstruction or Marxist diatribes.

“I give up,” I say, “what is so crazy about your jack-off site?”

“Everybody beats it the same way,” he says. “Everybody.”

Again, I was taken aback. You mean I do it like you and you do it like me and we all do it the same way? Then I thought, Could this be it, could this be the one great thing, the common denominator that unites men and women all over the world? Men who believe in Allah, men who kill for a living, men who calculate taxes, women who live in nunneries, patients in mental hospitals, those who don’t believe in God? Could this be the one deep and running thread that stitches us all together regardless of whether we speak Swahili, Esperanto or Norwegian, the unity of keeping a common beat?

Believe it or not, this started out as my holiday blog, but I went astray somewhere. My intentions were good. I wanted to write about the great men and women, Lenny Bruce, Martin Luther King, Mother Jones, your mom and dad and mine and how they all sought to bring us together by celebrating our commonality rather than our differences. And once we accepted our common bonds, we could grow and learn to love our differences down to the minutest details, including whom we rooted for in the Super Bowl.

I live in a neighborhood populated by Somalians. I have tried to to take this theory of commonality to my streets. I have often wondered what mutual bond we share, the Somalians and I, what fat we might chew should we decide to sit down and share a brewski.  Or whatever native drink they might imbibe. Frequently, I encounter one of my Somalian neighbors in a line at UDF or Speedway and I try to see what they might be be buying so that I might relate and perhaps use as a way to slide a foot into their somewhat impenetrable door. A Red Bull maybe? Or some jalapeno Doritos? A quart of Millers?

No.

Try Lactaid. A gallon of distilled water. A jar of decaf. What do these people live on?

I stand behind them and compliment their colorful garb which is so vibrant as to send me into a brief spin of blotter acid flashback. Suddenly the walls are breathing and I’m inside a giant amoeba which is slowly digesting me. Just as quickly, I snap out of it.

“That’s a beautiful scarf,” I say with my friendly Midwestern howdy-bub smile.

“Nejezulblezookskalomboomyha!,” replies my fellow shopper in what seems to me a cross between a mild rebuff and a distant thank you. Somehow I have the feeling that my compliment  was returned to sender. I think to offer them a bottle of Yoohoo chocolate drink from my basket but think better of it. Such beverages might violate a deep cultural code. They may worship the cocoa bean and vow never to drink it, I don’t know.

They probably said something like it’s against my honor to talk to foreign dogs. Who knows? What would Lenny Bruce do? Mother Jones? I don’t think a bond of masturbation techniques is going to help us here. Common global denominators seems an elusive phantom.

Perhaps masturbation could be just a first step in dismantling our differences. No matter how we do it, online or off, we are just a planet of rabid self-abusers. While wallowing through another holiday season, it’s nice to think of the bonds that draw us together rather than those which separate us. There are bonds and we need to exercise them. Come on people! We share DNA, a love of beer and cable TV and watching Tiger Woods unravel. And now, with this news flash from my fried Ron, we seem to march to the same beat, at least on the Internet. With such common interests, can we overcome our differences? I believe we can. Get busy.

Happy holidays.