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Soldier On

By Greg Olear

Essay

“And as commander in chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan.”

—President Barack Obama, December 2, 2009

 

History, as the old saw has it, is written by the victors.

Had the South prevailed in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln—who suspended habeus corpus, jailed dissenting journalists, and pursued a military strategy based on attrition, maximizing casualties on both sides, all to bring to heel those states who had legally declared their independence—might well be viewed as a dictator on par with Hitler or Stalin, and Ulysses S. Grant a war criminal. Instead, their visages adorn our currency, and the widely held, albeit bogus, view of that internacine conflict is that it was fought to free the slaves. Thus Lincoln is honored, disingenuously, as a champion of blacks.

In truth, war is never the clear-cut Good versus Evil described by St. John the Evangelist and George W. Bush. Consider the Second World War. The prevailing mythology is that the U.S. entered the fray to save the Jews and prevent a Nazi takeover of the world. So fanatical is this belief that to suggest otherwise amounts to heresy.

In Human Smoke, his brilliant pacifist’s history of the events leading to Pearl Harbor, Nicholson Baker suggests otherwise. I bought and read Baker’s book last spring, because the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, a liberal whose columns I agree with most of the time, slammed it with such vitriol.

In a March 31, 2008, column entitled “Yes, It Was a Good War,” Cohen (who, incidentally, supported enthusiastically our ill-advised foray into Iraq) begins by lauding Baker as “a supremely talented novelist”—in other words, a guy who has no truck with actual non-made-up events—before pronouncing Human Smoke “dead wrong and very odd,” and concluding thus: “World War II was fought for several reasons but above all—and proudly—because the only way to stop the killing was to stop the killers.”

Cohen dismisses Baker’s thesis with derision: “Is any war, outside of direct self-defense, worth fighting? Baker suggests that even World War II was not—that the Jews perished anyway and that the war consumed more lives than anyone could have imagined and that, somehow, pacifism would have worked its magic.”

At times, his arguments have all the complexity of a four-year-old’s. Were the pacifists right?  Cohen replies, “No, they were not.”

Well, OK then.

Based on Cohen’s column, I expected Human Smoke to be a long treatise in defense of pacifism—the make-love-not-war ruminations of a bleeding-heart novelist on his high horse. Not so. Baker tells his story in short blurbs, most no longer than a page, that encapsulate primary sources. These are presented as dispassionately as possible. For example:

Winston Churchill wrote Joseph Stalin a letter. It was July 28, 1941…Churchill assured Stalin that England would do all it could do to help Russia. “A terrible winter of bombing lies before Germany,” he wrote. “No one has yet had what they are going to get.”

Human Smoke is 474 pages long. 472 of those pages consist of these short blurbs. Only on the last two pages does Baker editorialize, but by then his point—which has eluded Cohen, who almost certainly did not read the entire book—has been made:

War is hell. All war, without exception.

 

It was a similar visceral reaction in an otherwise staid newspaper that drew me to The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell’s Nazi opus that is, in many ways, a fiction companion piece to Human Smoke. In this case, it was Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times—with whom, like Cohen, I generally agree—throwing the proverbial tomatoes.

(Originally published in French as Les Bienveielles, The Kindly Ones won the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française and the Prix Goncourt in France three years ago. HarperCollins reportedly paid seven figures for the English-language rights, raising eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic. The English translation, by Charlotte Mandell, came out earlier this year, to decidely mixed reviews.)

“The novel’s gushing fans,” Kakutani writes, “seem to have mistaken perversity for daring, pretension for ambition, an odious stunt for contrarian cleverness.” The Kindly Ones, she avers, is “[w]illfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent” and “reads like a pointless compilation of atrocities and anti-Semitic remarks, pointlessly combined with a gross collection of sexual fantasies.”

And the kicker: “Indeed, the nearly 1,000-page-long novel reads as if the memoirs of the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss had been rewritten by a bad imitator of Genet and de Sade, or by the warped narrator of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, after repeated viewings of The Night Porter and The Damned.”

In other words, Kakutani hated the book. Which, perversely, only piqued my interest. If not Höss by way of Patrick Bateman, I was expecting a bloated epic in the vein of Elfriede Jelinek’s Lust, a brutal work of questionable quality that was nevertheless lauded in the land which apotheosized Jerry Lewis. What I found instead was something altogether different: challenging, depressing, overwhelming, but riveting—and not at all pointless.

In one respect, Kakutani is bang-on: this is not pleasant stuff. You don’t want to bring The Kindly Ones to the beach. You don’t want to suggest it for your book club. You probably don’t want to read it at all. There is so much grisly material here that even if you excise the hundreds of pages concerning the Jews, you’d still walk away shaking your head. The experience of a German officer in Stalingrad alone is a horror show. As the novelist Michael Korda, a Littell admirer, wrote on The Daily Beast: “This is the real thing, a journey into the belly of the beast, a chance to live through the doings of mankind at its worst, a book that is relentlessly fascinating, ambitious beyond scope in that it tries to show us in every unforgiving detail what we least want to see, and which never once lets the reader, or the Germans, off the hook. You want to read about Hell, here it is.”

Which begs the question: why would I—why would anyone—want to read about Hell?

To make sure it never happens again.

“I am a man like other men, I am a man like you. I tell you I am just like you!” Maximilien Aue, the narrator of The Kindly Ones, insists at the end of the prologue. And while most of us are not matricidal former Nazi Obersturmbannfuhrers with a taste for sisterly sodomy, the guy has a point. Littell’s book couldn’t be more timely. In the two weeks it took me this summer to complete this leviathon of a novel—983 pages, tiny margins, small type, no paragraph breaks for quotes, and enough verifiable horrors to make the Saw franchise seem like an episode of Barney—President Obama declassified documents confirming what most of us already knew: despite assertions to the contrary by former president George W. Bush, the United States was engaging in torture.

Never mind who was right and who was wrong. The supposed Land of the Free was capturing people, holding them without trial, and torturing them, on the pretext of national security—just as the Nazis did to the Jews in Germany in the 1930s. It’s hard not to read The Kindly Ones as a cautionary tale.

And now, ominously, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize has announced a plan to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. I trust Obama’s judgment, and I believe that he understands the consequences of sending soldiers in harm’s way more completely than his predecessor could ever hope to. If he believes that the defense of the United States mandates that many troops fighting half a world away, I might arrive at the same conclusion myself, knowing what Obama knows.

But after reading Baker and Littell, I’m not so sure.

 

1984

Do not let the wheat and umber curtains fool you. This picture was not taken in the 1970s. It was taken in 1984. I know this not because I can see the time stamp on the back of this Kodak moment – all I have is the .jpeg my cousin, the blond-haired baby on the left, now a grown man, just sent me – but because I have deduced its age by observation. My cousin looks barely one; my brother looks about four; my sister, about two. Any earlier, and I would’ve been wearing the eye patch I wore to correct my lazy eye all of 1983. Any later, and I would’ve had teeth missing. I’m the oldest. The four-eyed girl clutching Grover and a picture book at the center.  

We really were that happy.

This isn’t actually a post from Melbourne. I’m writing it from a sparse and ambiently-lit hotel room in Christchurch. So that little ‘Melbourne, Australia’ tagline is a lie.

But that’s 2009 for you.

Dear 2009,

Fuck you. And fuck the horse you rode in on.

There’s less than a month to go until you’re gone, 2009, and let me tell you, I’m really looking forward to your inevitable demise.

Maybe you think I’m being unkind. Maybe you think I’m being unfair. Maybe you think I’m letting my emotions get the better of me. Well, frankly, I don’t care what you think any more. Not. One. Bit.

I had such high, high hopes for us, 2009. You kicked off at 12:00:01 on January 1 (2009) and things were already looking up. I had a new job, a new country, new friends – I had just about a new everything. Finally, I thought. Finally, everything’s gonna work out for ol’ Simon. 2009, you’re the year for me! You’ll treat me right, I’ll treat you right – I think at long last, I’ve found a year I can trust. Together, we’ll grow. Together, we’ll laugh. Sure, we’ll argue from time to time, but it will only be over silly misunderstandings, and once we’ve got it all sorted out, we’ll laugh again. We’ll go for long walks in the country, we’ll stay up late at hip and arty downtown coffee houses, we’ll watch The Sopranos together and have conversations that ripple between seriously discussing the very human monsters that dwell within us all and laughing over the quote ‘Cunnilingus and psychiatry brought us to this!’

We were going to do so much laughing, 2009. Oh, and don’t get me started on the sex! When we first met, you were wild, and mysterious, and promisingly flexible, and I thought that maybe – just maybe – you were the year that had it all.

But no.

During your tenure the Global Financial Crisis went from push to shove to hit-you-over-the-head-with-a-shovel. Sarah Palin became a best-selling author.Transformers 2 came out.

At this juncture, 2009, I’d like to teach you a saying. A saying that has become near and dear to my heart, that has become a mantra – a creed, if you will – that I hope and pray I am man enough to live by.

There’s no need to be a dick about it.

Never quite got the hang of that one, did you, guy?

Look, I know, I’m not perfect. Believe it or not, there have been times when I, too, have been a dick about things. I can’t say I’ve handled everything that’s happened throughout the last 339 days as well as I could have. All I can say is, I always did my very, very best to make sure people understand how attractive I am.

But you, 2009. You made promises, and then you broke them. Sure, you delivered a little. At first. You tantalised, and you teased. And then you snatched it all away and then some. In a way that felt kind of like you telling me you were going to give me a million dollars, giving me the first hundred, and then eating my pet cat¹.

And as I stood, shocked and slack-jawed in the well-appointed kitchen of my imagination, watching you pick your teeth, I summoned the courage to ask: where’s my million dollars?

You mumbled something vague about the cheque being in the mail, then said you felt we needed to take some space. On your way past me, you asked ‘We cool?’ and put up your hand for a high five.

I’m not quite sure when the high five of hope left my heart, 2009. But somewhere in there, it did. I think it was the morning I woke to find you drunk and naked, face down on my couch, moaning about Jagermeister and leaving my car in a bad neighbourhood.

Subsequently I found you had relieved yourself in my dishwasher.

Which isn’t to say you were a total write-off. There were some real high points in there (Hey. TNB. Consider this a shout-out). Even the low points have helped me face things that are probably better off faced.

But really, you probably could have come through with some more on the win front, 2009. And I’m also kinda sick of growing as a person through hardships and confrontational experiences. If personal growth has to be on the menu, then, for the love of God, just make Deepak Chopra fall out of the sky and land on my house.

I feel owed. More so than usual, I mean. Yes, I’ll admit, I suffocated you a little. Yes, I could have made fewer loud references to how much I enjoyed 2003. Yes, I tried to shank you one time.

But that, and you, will all soon be in the past.

So here’s the deal. In 2010, I will happily bear my share of the load. I will face my fears, exorcise my demons, and return my friend Dean’s DVDs. I will happily humble myself at the feet of the people I have treated badly and beg for their forgiveness (OK, I don’t mean I’ll be happy as I do it, because then they might mistake the smile on my face for insincerity, and they’d get upset, and it would turn into a whole thing, and it would probably be a bad scene).

What I ask for in return – your end of the deal – will be simple. All I ask for is millions and millions of dollars. And I’ll handle the rest.

Baby.


¹ Oh, right, that’s not just a metaphor. You killed my pet cat, 2009.²

² You know who else eats pet cats, and is much better than you? The Alien Life Form from Planet Melmac. That’s right, 2009. I preferred goddamn ALF to you in your entirety.

Elizabeth, in one sense your book, Raising The Perfect Child Through Guilt and Manipulation is a satire, since it sort of skewers the genre of parenting books.  Yet, the book actually has a lot of really great parenting tips.  How on earth did you strike such a balance?  Are you some kind of sick genius?

Oh, you are so sweet.  I think this book came from such a real place, that it was actually very easy to find that balance.  My number one goal with the book was to entertain people with funny stories about my family, and my youth growing up Catholic in Las Vegas, (the same stories that people have been loving for years in my personal life) and to disguise the whole thing as a twisted parenting guide.  As the process went along I found that I actually had a lot of good advice for people.   I guess this shouldn’t have surprised me since I have the best parents in the world, in a lot of ways this book is a love letter to them.


Do you feel weird about using real people from your life in your stories?  Do you think this will come back to haunt you?

Let’s just say, If I were to do this again, I would have done more than just change the names of certain people, I would have “changed distinguishing characteristics” –which is a phrase I see a lot of in memoirs, but did not notice before I set out to write this book. I’m sure the phrase has been around forever, I just never thought about it, and always glanced over disclaimers at the start of books.  But, now I see that and think, “shit, I should have done a little more of that changing distinguishing characteristics business!”  I also see “some characters have been combined for the purposes of story-telling.”  I really wish I had thought of that.  Even if it weren’t true, I wish it said that at the beginning of my book.  That way, someone could reason, “Oh, this character must be me combined with some asshole.” At times I do feel a twinge of bad conscience (to use my cousin Jim’s favorite phrase…see, there I go again, not appropriately shielding people’s identities!)


Is it just my imagination, or would this book make an amazing Christmas gift, stocking stuffer, or Hanukkah gift?

Great minds think alike, yes it totally would!


Since this is part memoir, part instructional satire, do readers sometimes confuse the first person narrative stuff with the fictional examples and think that you have a bunch of relatives even sicker than some of the real ones?

Yes!  My own family has been grilling me about different parts, “Who is cousin Donny?  Who is that supposed to be?”  I have to explain that cousin Donny is totally made up, as are other examples in the faux instructional sections.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some real things weaved into those sections as well, but I prefer to keep people guessing as to which are which.


You’ve mostly made a living writing comedy pilots for television, how is writing a book different?

Well, there’s a lot less “white on the page” when writing a book, so it was a much more intimidating process in the beginning.  Screenplays and television scripts aren’t meant to be read, I mean, they are, but that’s not the final destination, so you don’t feel as obsessed over every single word of description as you do when writing a book.  (Or, I should say, “I” since I am not speaking for every other human who has written a book and a script, OR AM I? Whatever, you get the idea.)


Is there talk of turning this book into a television series?

Yes, there has been talk, but right now it is just talk.  Hopefully one day soon my dream of seeing a television version of my mother will be realized.  She really is such an amazing, hilarious, strong character, and I believe that America is ready for her to be the center of a sitcom!  They are clamoring for it!  The only thing even close to my mother on television was Carmella Soprano.  Growing up, my mother was kind of like Carmella Soprano, but without the guns hidden in the foyer, and with a much nicer husband.  Don’t even get me started on the endless hilarity that is my father.  I will not stop until there is a show that revolves around characters based on my parents.  America, you can thank me later.


Wow, those are some pretty big proclamations, “America is ready…” “America, you can thank me later.” Don’t you worry that the satire impaired will not recognize the over-the-top comedic boastfulness inherent in those phrases and think you are a pompous jerk?

It’s funny you bring that up.  Did you know that 12 million Americans are satirically impaired?  But, together, we can do something to ease their burden.  Please visit my website to find out how you can help (Jog-a-thon information to follow).


Thank you so much, Elizabeth, you have been a delight!

No, you have!


Tighty Whities

By Don Mitchell

Humor

Do your your underpants express the you you hope they do? What about the locker room or the doctor’s office or when they’re sitting on the chair for the body worker to see (unless you’ve hidden them under your clothes, which is fairly nuts . . . here she’s going to be handling your naked body but no way, no way can she see your underpants) or like if you’re undressing for the first time in front of a lover. Can there be situations in which your underpants make things go very very wrong? Sure. I’ll tell you about it.

Last winter I was visiting some people I know, free spirits, California. I was complaining that I didn’t have enough briefs for a long trip because I buy them so rarely the stores never have the same kind the next time I need some, and I don’t know whether the new kind’s going to work for me. I have only a little vanity but I do have some, and I like to see if what I’m buying looks stupid, like a Speedo on a fat Russian at a Black Sea beach. And they won’t let you try them on, and I buy 3 packs, to save a few bucks, so that’s a lot of money wasted if I don’t like them. It’s overwhelming, so I put off going, and then I get stuck without . . . .

So I’m complaining about my underpant holdings out there in Fallbrook, California, where probably nobody wears underpants anyway. Fallbrook, California is the Southern California headquarters of the Aryan Nation. My friend Lake told me that they picketed one of the banks, something about illegal immigrants, surprise surprise, but nobody paid any attention to them.  I figure if there’s a town full of ex-military people spilled out from Camp Pendleton and when the Aryan Nation demonstrates nobody pays any attention, well, that most likely is a place where nobody wears underpants.

But I was wrong.

Out in Fallbrook my friend Rob listened to me complain, went to his bedroom, and came back with some tighty whities. He said, “Here, take these since you’re short.”

Short?

He said, “Notice the logo,” which I had noticed and pegged as some silly hangover from those fashion days when clothing had large model and serial numbers printed on it. Dude! My shirt has a lower serial number than yours!

So these underpants are marked 2(x)ist. And?

Rob said that meant they were sized for guys with big dicks.

I said, “Oh great, I wear these into the locker room and other guys say, ‘Hey check out asshole over there, guy wants us to know he’s got a big one.’”

I took them anyway, hoping that not many people knew that secret code, except maybe for the Aryan Nation guys. Rob gave me one 3-pack, and then two more, so I ended up with three 3-packs — that’s nine white Y-fronts.

Upside is that now my underwear drawer is nicely integrated. My black Calvins and my white 2(x)ists.

But the downside is huge. Forget about the dick advertisement.

The problem is that they’re white Y-fronts. When all my black briefs are dirty and I put on the white jobs, I become my father. I become my 95 year old uncle in his baggy tighty whiteys standing there talking to a doctor about his hernia. I become every limp old dude out there, me in my white Y-fronts, just like them.

What if somebody sees them? One time I was going running and it was chilly so I didn’t wear my shorts-with-liner, which meant I had to wear underpants with my lightweight tights. I had nothing else but the 2(x)ists and I thought, Jesus Christ, what if I get hit by a car and have to go to the emergency room and I’m unconscious?

And the ER doc says to the nurse, “So how old you think this guy is?”

And she says, “I’d say 70 or 80 from those loose tighty whities.”

And there’s worse. Like I only opened one of those 3-packs, I left one in Hawai’i, and brought one home to Colden. So there’s a 3-pack of white Y-fronts in a drawer in my house in Hilo. And one of my friends is going to use the house and he’s a very cool gay guy.

He opens the drawer, “Gah! Gah! And I like Don,” he says, “This isn’t something I wanted to know about him.”

The other sealed pack’s in the garage here, in the metal cabinet with the laundry detergent, the paper towels, that kind of stuff. I tossed it in there. Let’s say that my favorite plumber Bob’s at the house and he opens it looking for teflon tape. It’s all over for me, then. He’s going to say, “Oh shit. Look what happens when you run out of something. You got to see stuff you don’t want to see.”

Or what if somebody goes into the laundry hamper?

Comes to the house when they’re hanging on the line?

If Ruth gets angry at me and tells? Emails everybody she knows, with pictures?

So, yeah, you say, throw the damn things out. Stop worrying, get rid of them.

But how? What if the garbage guys see them? It’s not like your homemade porno tapes that you can put in the microwave or pass a magnet over so even if the garbos grab them there’s nothing to see. The bag might burst, and there’s the evidence, right there.

They’ll say, “We didn’t know he was that kind of guy. He seemed all right, but look at this. Next Christmas, we won’t even take his tip.”

I told my friend the Rolfer about all this and she tried to help out. I figured I could tell her because she’s worked on my old body. So she brings over a box of Rit dye. Black. But what if the Jim the UPS guy comes while I’m dyeing them?

“You need to sign for this. Uh, maybe I’ll do it for you.”

He probably won’t take his Christmas card, either.

So I’ll bury them in the yard. Gotta be the back yard. But what happens if the septic tank has to be fixed, and leach field dug up? The last time the septic guy came to pump we got started talking classic British motorcycles, AJS, Ariel, Norton.

He turns up the tighty whities with his Bobcat, he’s gonna say, “Saw a nice sixties Honda 50 step-through over in East Otto, thought you might be interested?”

Even the Japanese beetle grubs under the grass, waiting to grow up and attack my plants, one of them’s gonna go, “Shit, this milky spore grub control’s rough on me but you guys over there, looks like you’re getting it from milky tighty whities. Christ, whoever owns this place is a loser.”

We all know writing can be tough. So every once in a while, you probably surf around the Interwebs, looking for funny sites to distract yourself from your cursor blinking on your blank Word doc. Maybe in one of those comedic searches you’ve even run into a much-loved site called Pets Who Want To Kill Themselves. Maybe you’ve chuckled at a huge black terrier stuffed into a squirrel costume, or a chihuahua dressed as a turkey. And maybe, just maybe, you laughed.

Well prepare to chuckle again- WordHustler turned the mastermind behind this hilarious site, writer Duncan Birmingham, loose on WordHustlerInk to interview his most challenging subject yet: himself. Birmingham is a successful screenwriter who managed to turn his popular blog into an even-more popular humor book published by Random House! How did he do it? What’s the secret? And, most importantly, how did they get those boxing gloves on that pit bull?

WordHustler Duncan: Duncan, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. Can you tell our readers how this book deal came about?

Real Duncan: Sure, Duncan. I spent three years slaving away on a novel nobody would publish. A year later I started a blog with photos of pets dressed in sombreros and R-rated captions and I got a book deal within the month.

WHD: Why pets?

RD: Mailer, DeLillo, Roth; they’ve all focused on the human condition in America. I thought it was time that a writer was brave enough to tackle the pet condition in a post 9/11 America.

WHD: Oh boy, is this really going to be that kind of interview? Seriously, what made you start this blog?

RD: I’d gotten a couple holidays cards with the family pet all dressed-up in antlers or a Santa’s hat and just looking like they wanted to bite someone’s face off. Those are the only holiday cards I keep on my fridge all year long. I found similar photos on the internet, came up with a title that made me laugh and started a tumblr site-which is very easy even for a Luddite like me-where I linked to the photos and did little captions. Pretty soon people were sending me their own pet photos.

WHD: What kind of pet do you have?

RD: Currently, none. I’m allergic to cats but am ramping up to get my first dog. I’m researching breeds now. I have to be content to dress up my friends’ pets for now.

WHD: But you hate dressing up pets?


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RD: Wrong! I love it. The Pets Who Want To Kill Themselves ethos is that I like to poke fun, but deep down I know that pets who are dressed-up, toted around in baby backpacks, married off and groomed into ninja turtles are probably the most beloved pets of all. When looking for the perfect photo submission, the term I use is “over-loved.”

WHD: Do you think a blog is a good way to get a book agent’s or a publisher’s attention?

RD: It depends on the type of book. My book deal came around the same time as a few other blog-to-book deals (This Is Why You’re Fat, F*ck You Penguin) and so my blog got a lot of attention in these articles proclaiming the death knell of publishing. So certainly for a concept that is humor-based and doesn’t have a lot of text or has an interactive element, the blog is a great way to get attention. Otherwise, I think a blog can be helpful as a way to build a fan base and get your name out there. Certainly there are many examples for non-fiction writers getting traction for their work from their blogs. For fiction writers, it seems a little trickier.

WHD: What was the process for you?

RD: It all happened very fast. Most of the photos are submissions that were emailed to me, but a few were photos I sought out on a Flickr or pet sites and requested the owner let me use. Some people heard the title and shut me down cold, but most had a sense of humor about it, were excited to show off their pets and were very sweet and encouraging about the whole endeavor. So basically, I combed through hundreds of photos and weeded out the best 160 for the book. The tough part was resisting posting a lot of them on the blog first cause they’re just so good you can’t wait to show them off.

When it came time to caption the photos, I read lots of Vice Do’s and Don’ts , dug up my The Far Side collections for inspiration and tried to think of each photograph like a one-panel cartoon. Some of the captions are omniscient narrator, but most are the pets speaking with emotions that range from suicidal to sardonic. I’m a method writer, so I was sleeping on the floor and crawling around on all fours for weeks while writing this thing.

WHD: You write for film and TV as your day job. Is there a Pets Who Want To Kill Themselves movie in the works?

RD: It’s very hush-hush, but yes I do have a script that’s kind of The Incredible Journey meets The Night Porter-type thing with tons of franchise tie-in potential. We’re out to talent now. I’m legally obligated to keep quiet, but let’s just say we’re hoping to get a certain leading man whose name rhymes with Dom Grooze. Arrggh, I’m such a blabbermouth.

Well this blabbermouth sure seems to be full of good info! Thanks to Duncan for the spectacular introspection required to delve into the depths of one’s own soul. What are you doing to market your own work in an original and attention-getting way? Take some time to not only perfect your projects, but your writing personality, because that’s what really catches that agent or editor’s eye.

But, as we all know, writing has gone to the dogs. :)

Irene Zion reads a piece called “The Party Began Before We Even Got to Africa.” Produced by Aaron M. Snyder and Megan DiLullo. Questions or comments about our podcasts? Please email us.

http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/wp-content/uploads/audio/TNB Spotlight_ Irene Zion.mp3

In Kentucky the comments sections of one of the state’s largest newspapers have been particularly aflame lately, as have posts at several of my favorite, whip-smart kidlit bloggers weighing in on the stories. The controversies in question? Books that teenagers want to read.

Well, yippe-ki-yay. It’s December and it’s snowing in Texas. While people skid across the highway and spin into guardrails, I’m sitting in front of this blinking cursor, drinking coffee, while something with a piano in it winds its way out of speakers and into my head. It’s cold and my plans have been interrupted. Not just my weekend plans either, but all of them.

I find myself somehow acutely aware of everything around me. Instead of inspired I feel sadness. Not the depressed, debilitating kind, but the kind that is just there. It’s a part of me that is playing spectator and is unhappy with what he’s seeing. He sees what’s missing instead of what’s there. He sees the things that he can’t have instead of the things he can. He stands with his toes on the cliff’s edge, looking down at some incredible valley below instead of running into it.

He is tunnel-visioned. People see what they are looking for and right now all he knows is this uneasiness. It’s not even a conscious decision at this point, but instead something that has been around for such a long time that it’s grown comfortable, like old leather.  Memories come back like waves on a beach, each one washing in and leaving something old and forgotten on the shore. Always at this time of year. Always December.

Four years ago… I’m driving a new car, a super-cushy bank account, Christmas in five places, my family and my girlfriend’s at the time. I’m standing on stage in my own little empire, small and trivial, but mine nonetheless…

Three years ago… I’m dating a girl that I’m crazy about. There’s a concert in Shreveport. I go to Los Angeles to hang out. I’m eating dinner with the executive prouder of the Academy Awards. He couldn’t care less who I am, he’s just a friend of a friend, but it’s no less cool to me. I have huge plans. I’m anti-Christmas and she is committed to changing my mind about that. She buys me my favorite shirt and I get her a cat. It will end quickly and awkwardly in the almost immediate future.

Two years ago… I’m in St. Louis. I go on stage in ten minutes. My phone rings as I walk through the mall attached to the comedy club. I don’t have time to answer this, but I know she snuck away to call me. A few days later, an empty apartment, laying on the floor and staring at the ceiling… Everything has changed. The truck is packed. I leave for good in the morning. This could be a horrible mistake or it could be amazing. Now I’m flying to DC. My dad’s going in for surgery. My brother calls and tells me that things didn’t go so well. It’s a coma. Showtime is in an hour. Be funny now, Slade. I’m in the airport headed home. I read an email on my Blackberry that makes it a bit better, for the moment anyway. I spend Christmas day listening to piano music in the hospital lobby.

One year ago… This is a first. I’m not just disenchanted with Christmas, I’m dreading it. I’m packing my stuff again for my fifth move in twelve months. These Christmas carols are torturous. Certain people are gone forever, and other people are harder to reach. Oh, that’s why. Great. I’m back in DC now. God, this is déjà vu. I want to call my dad to say hello.  I instinctively pull out my phone and then silently slide it back into my pocket.  A year later and I still do that.  I bury my iPod in my backpack because every song reminds me of something. I send a text message. I don’t get a response.

This year… it is snowing. The DC club is closed now and I’ve decided that I never want to see that city again. Every time it comes up, I lose something else. More is gone every year. I watch as it deteriorates and fades around me. Maybe this is what it’s supposed to be like. Maybe I’m being stripped down to my emotional skeleton for a reason. I’ve given up trying to understand or make sense of other people’s actions. Find some solace in having been wrong about them. It makes you human. It pushes me to find congruency in my own life, a balance between what I say and what I do. I never want to contradict myself like that. Just click “delete” and move on…

It’s okay to feel this way this year. Just this year though. Immerse myself in it. Succumb to it. They tell you that you can’t, that you have to pick up your head and regroup and pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Who has bootstraps? I’m okay with the experience of it. Not every Christmas is blinking lights and children’s laughter and sugar cookies and sleigh rides. Sometimes you are allowed to watch it all from the street, through frosted windows, standing in the cold, wet air.

It is snowing.

It could be any of us outside that window, fogging up the glass, and if it’s you, take some comfort in the fact that you’re not the only one standing in that street this year.

“As the mother of a child with autism…”

I don’t have anything else to add to that, but I got your attention didn’t I?  Don’t feel like a sucker.  You’re not the only one.

It has come to my attention that whenever I say, “As the mother of a child with autism…” people instantly pay attention.  They presume I’m wise and sagely, and they’ll take virtually anything I say as gospel.  It’s quite fabulous really.

The statement could be followed with something as simple as “…I like kids chewable vitamins” and people will take this into serious consideration.  “Hmmmm…maybe chewables ARE better for kids than gummies.  I mean, she would know; her child has autism.”

I didn’t ask for this.  I didn’t plan on having a child with autism.  I didn’t want to have a child with autism, but “lo and behold” I do.  And it sucks.  But when you have a child with special needs and you’ve put in the hours and years of dedication to the process of helping that child as I have, shouldn’t I enjoy a few of the perks?

Well, people thinking I am really smart is one of them.

When I say ,”As the mother of a child with autism, I buy mostly organic fruit,” it is met with a collective, “Oooooooooooooo.”

When I say, “As the mother of a child with autism, I have my kids ride their bikes at least twice a week,” I hear a united, “Aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh.”

Believe me, I don’t actually think I’m saying anything interesting or even noteworthy.  I’m usually not.  And God knows, whatever I’m yapping about is almost always unsubstantiated.  I’m a busy woman.  Sure my kid has autism, but that doesn’t mean I know any more than the average bear.

But people can’t help but think I have something valuable to say.  It appears to be a natural gut reaction to think, “Oh, she’s the mother of a child with autism.  She must know a lot about child development.”   Or, “Wow, her kid has autism.  That sucks.  Even if I don’t agree with her, I feel sorry for her and I’m going to give her whatever she wants.”

I’d love to say I’m above it, but I’m not.

It’s wonderful.  If I’m at school and I want my daughter to have a better seat in class, I just say, “As the mother of an autistic child, I think my girl should sit in front.”  If I’m out with friends at a movie, I can say with accepted authority, “As the mother of an autistic child, I think the characters in that movie were well-drawn.”  Or, let’s say we’re driving to the valley and I just don’t want to be stuck on side streets.  I’ll say, “As the mother of an autistic child, I think we should take the highway.”

I suppose I shouldn’t expose myself to the world and tell people I’ve figured this out, and I certainly shouldn’t use my own family’s misfortune to take advantage of others when I can get away with it.

But I did, and I do.

And tonight, I’m going to go out to dinner with some friends.  I’d like to have a couple of cocktails, so I’m thinking I’ll casually ask, “Who wants to be the designated driver?”  We’ll all look at each other and then I’ll point to one of them and say, “As the mother of an autistic child, I really think you should be the one driving.”

And it will work.

At long last, I’ve found my silver lining.


Please explain what just happened.

I have no idea… actually I just had an ice cream and was about to fall asleep before I realized it was 8PM and I should really try to stay awake… so here I am answering these questions, hoping it will keep me awake.

 

The protagonist in your novel Tetraktys is a cryptographer (among other things). What is cryptography?

Cryptography is about is the study of secret codes. It used to be the exclusive province of spies, diplomats, and the military. The advent of computers, though, has woven it into the fabric of our everyday lives. Cryptography today secures banking transactions, munitions, critical infrastructure, automobiles, etc., etc.—not to mention the activities of ordinary computer users. Every time a little lock appears in the corner of your web browser, as when you make an online purchase or log into your bank’s web site, cryptography is at work protecting your communications.