Post #125: From the Files of the Wonderful and Utterly Unexpected

So, here’s a strange one. I won an award. For my writing. That’s never happened before. It wasn’t a major award or anything, and I suppose it’s obnoxious to gush, but I can’t deny it feels good to know some people out there noticed.

It’s a piece you may have seen before, as I featured its publication on the blog. It’s an essay I wrote about my father entitled “On Becoming–and Not Becoming–My Dad” and it was featured in Kids Vermont in June, 2013. If you haven’t read it, you can link to the essay here.

But about the award. There’s this thing you’ve never heard of called the Parenting Media Association. They host an annual Conference in Philadelphia where they honor contributions to journalistic efforts related to parenting, looking at publications all over the East Coast. There’s a personal essay category in which, unbeknownst to me, my essay was a candidate, and ended up winning Silver (2nd place, if you don’t follow Olympic parlance). Until I heard from the editor a couple weeks ago, I had no idea this was even a possibility.

There’s no money or anything, but I do understand a certificate of some sort will be forthcoming, and I have nice spot on the fridge picked out.

It’s the little things in life, friends. It has to be.

Post #124: Dallas Buyer’s Club

hr_Dallas_Buyers_Club_10I know I’m not alone when I declare it was a great year for film this past year, and I’ve been seeing more movies than usual, trying to make my way through the Best Picture Nominees . I’ve seen everything but Philomena and American Hustle. I caught The Wolf Of Wall Street the other night and felt an odd confluence of enthrallment and boredom, and then, after seeing Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey sweep the acting awards at the Oscars the other night, watched Dallas Buyer’s Club last night. I didn’t know much about the latter, only that it was about AIDS and that the performances were supposed to be magnificent.

Now, because I’m a loser I not only watched the Oscars but read the day after critiques of the speeches and hosting, and yes, looked at all the candid and red carpet photos I could find. Like many, in my day after investigation, I stumbled into poignant reactions to both Leto’s speech for Best Supporting Actor and McConaughey’s for Best Actor. One writer declared Leto’s an improvement over his Golden Globes speech, during which, apparently, he came across like a pretentious ass and paid no homage to those afflicted with or victims of AIDS, or to the trans or queer community, to which he is obviously indebted since he plays a trans character in Dallas Buyer’s Club. His Oscar speech was rambling, but really interesting. He gave his mother an extended nod, and also got political, drawing attention to current unrest in the Ukraine. Still–and I’ll admit I didn’t even notice when watching live–I read the next day about the fact that he didn’t mention the queer community at all. Didn’t seem like a major offense, given the intensity of the moment and the time pressure when you’re up there in front of a billion people world wide. But interesting all the same. I wonder here about responsibility. Lupita Nyong’o, in her speech for Best Supporting Actress, spoke movingly about Patsy, the real life slave on which her 12 Years a Slave character was based. I’m paraphrasing, but she said something about how she knew the sad irony of so much joy entering her life because of so much pain having been in someone else’s. It was a lovely sentiment, and very appropriate. And yet, I think it’s a little heavy handed to get in a tizzy about who a big shot actor does or doesn’t thank at the Oscars. Let’s not get too carried away and go pretending that any of these people are humble.

McConaughey’s Best Actor speech I missed because I’d fallen asleep, but I watched it the next morning and was entertained by how scripted and prepared he sounded–not disingenuous, just ready–but this time I did notice his lack of mentioning of either the real man he portrayed in the film, who died of AIDS in 1992, or those who’ve been afflicted by the disease. He talked about God, his family, and himself. He basically said that he was his own hero, which was weird, but I think I knew what he meant. Again, not a major offense, and in some ways, who really gives a shit, right? It’s the Oscars, why are we even having this conversation?

So, anyway, I watched Dallas Buyer’s Club last night. It’s good. It didn’t quite live up to the hype for me, but it’s a really powerful film that tells the story of a straight man’s man in Texas, an avowed homophobe, who’s afflicted with AIDS because of loose sex and drug use and given only thirty days to live. He lives far longer than that. When he realizes that the AZT the hospital is giving him is actually toxic to his system, he seeks unapproved but better drugs elsewhere–Mexico, Israel, Amsterdam–and his short term health improves. What’s more, he start’s a “Buyer’s Club” in which other AIDS patients can buy a membership and obtain the drugs and supplements they need that are better for them than those approved by the FDA and being given to them by real doctors. The trick is that none of the products he’s selling are FDA approved, and that’s where the trouble starts, and why we today know Woodruff’s name and, presumably, why his story was made into a feature film.

And yes, the performances are top shelf. Both actors immerse themselves in the material.

My only trouble with the film was the nagging feeling that I’d seen it before. Shortly after becoming ill, Woodruff befriends Rayon, a gay male ported by Leto, and one can predict that Rayon, who seems to forgive Woodruff his gruff machismo and aggressive homophobia, will be the moral center of the film. One can also predict that this friendship will make Woodruff a different man and that he’ll become more gay friendly in the process and realize how false he’s been living and all that. Now, I don’t know what happened in real life with these human beings. The film has gotten some flack for overdoing it, suggesting that the real life Woodruff was probably bisexual and certainly not the almost comically grand gay hater that the movie makes him out to be in the opening third. One is left wondering if the set up is as such so that his transformation can seem all the more compelling. More, shall we say, Hollywood.

I was reminded of a headline I’d seen on the Huffpos a few weeks ago urging the Academy Awards NOT to give Dallas Buyer’s Club any Oscars. Seemed odd. I didn’t read the article then because I wanted to see the film and wanted to avoid spoilers, but I went back and found it and gave it a glance this morning. You can check it out here. In fact, do that, then come back.

Personally, I find Mirkinson’s tactics a little heavy handed in suggesting that DBC is actually a milquetoast film that plays it safe for straight America and doesn’t properly acknowledge the gay or queer community. He takes the film to task for Rayon’s character being thin and too morally “right,” a prop, he accuses, so that Woodruff, the safer straight character, can achieve the moral victory that audiences need in order to feel good about themselves. Basically, he calls the movie chicken shit, and suggests that it shouldn’t win any Oscars because it tells the tamest possible version of its own story.

I’m not suggesting Mirkinson’s fully correct here, but I do think he makes some powerful points about the filmmaker’s intentions, and one’s that are nearly worthy of the weight of his criticism. One point on which I disagree with him is that Rayon’s character is paper thin. I found the character compelling, and though I saw it coming, when Woodruff grows as a man and their friendship becomes more genuine, and more urgent, I felt something. I also wonder if he’s a tad naive here. The idea that Hollywood waters stories down to make them more palatable to mass, white, straight audiences seems just a tad self-evident to warrant such vitriol. And would Mirkinson rather the film NOT have been made at all? It’s story is still an important one. And yet, it’s hard not to applaud his gusto. And so I do.

Post #123: Well Said, Eudora Welty

Some lovely passages from Eudora Welty’s memoir to brighten and enlighten your day…

“The events in our lives happen in a sequence of time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order, a timetable not necessarily–perhaps not possibly–chronological. The time as we know it subjectively is often the chronology that stories and novels follow: it is the continuous thread of revelation.”

“Writing fiction has developed in me an abiding respect for the unknown in a human lifetime and a sense of where to look for the threads, how to follow, how to connect, find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists. The strands are all there: to the memory nothing is ever really lost.”

“Characters take on life sometimes by luck, but I suspect it is when you can write most entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page.”

“That summer, lying in the long grass with my head propped against the back of a saddle, with the zenith above me and the drop of distance below, I listened to the mountain silence until I could hear as far into it as the faintest clink of a cowbell. In the mountains, what might be out of sight had never really gone away. Like the mountain, the distant bell would always be there. It would keep reminding.”

 

Post #122: Andrea Barrett

A recent book that blew my mind was Andrea Barrett’s collection of stories called Servants of the Map. It was one of those books that, while reading, I could feel burrowing into my writer’s subconscious, re-arranging the wiring for what’s possible and what I want to be able to do in fiction. Here’s some thoughts on Point of View in a story from that collection, ‘The Forest.”

“The Forest” contains an astonishing twenty-four changes in point of view in only twenty-five pages of text. It’s a remarkably fluid and almost basketball like passing of perspectives back and forth between its two main characters, Bianca and Krzysztof. In the story’s early going, the changes in perspective—initially indicated by white space—seem geared to help us witness a party (and its guests), at which our two main characters find themselves, from different perspectives. That it does. Yet, by the story’s end, when Bianca and Krzysztof sneak away from the party and begin sharing details of their pasts, Barrett’s intention for such fluid, frequent (though risky) changes in POV grows more deeply linked to experiencing not just the story’s action from different perspectives, but its profound themes as well.

We open in the POV of aging and well-regarded scientist Krzysztof Wojciechowicz, who has just arrived at an esteemed colleague’s party at which many celebrated scientists are present. Krzysztof feels out of place. So too does Bianca, the young woman who helped chauffer Krzysztof to the party and is bitterly transitioning away from the world of science and academia. In the opening sections, the point of view shifts back and forth between them, trading off every couple pages.

On the micro level, when Krzysztof and Bianca meet, we’re in Krzysztof’s POV where we learn he “could not help noticing that she had lovely breasts.” A few pages later, now in Bianca’s POV and learning how she fits—or decidedly doesn’t fit—into this party dynamic, she stops to consider the strange elder scientist, noting “had it not been for the lizardike graze of his eyes across her chest, she might have felt sorry for him.” It’s a subtle moment—in fact, it could easily be played for comedy in another story—but Barrett seizes on it as a way to develop character and make the most of these new eyes through which we’re seeing the action. What do we learn? Krzysztof, though elderly, still can’t help a peek at a young woman’s chest. He wonders: “How was it he still felt these impulses?” This question raises the stakes of his indiscretion, and the fact of his looking matters even more when we learn that Bianca has not only noticed, but been miffed by the unwanted glance. Without the shifting POV, this moment can’t happen.

Similarly, in the first Krzysztof section, Bianca comes off as brash, agitated, and dismissive of Krzysztof. In the very next section, in Bianca’s POV, she sneaks to an upstairs bedroom and smokes a joint. Directly after this, back in Krzysztof’s POV, he awakes from an accidental nap to find Bianca “cross-legged on the grass, watching over him.” Something’s changed in her; he can feel it. “She seemed happy now; what had he missed?” Krzysztof doesn’t know she’s high, but he doesn’t need to. Here Barrett uses the shifting POV not just for character development and tension, but for dramatic irony as well, and to establish a gradually building closeness between them.

The macro benefits unfold more gradually as Krzysztof and Bianca’s perception of one another becomes more sympathetic and round. More human. For instance, Krzysztof recognizes that Bianca has spirit and he seems intrigued by Bianca’s complex relationship with her sister, Rose. Bianca’s sense of Krzysztof changes even more dramatically when he invites her to share some rare vodka he’s brought from overseas, and, buoyed by his kindness, and several shots of bison vodka, she finds that “…this man, whom at first she’d felt saddled with and longed to escape, was some sort of magician.” Barrett consistently justifies the change in perspective by showing us such powerful and revealing character insights.

Mid-way through the story, as Krzysztof and Bianca grow friendlier, and as their conversation shifts from the party to their pasts, especially their mothers, Barrett stops tipping her hand with white space and begins changing POV both more fluidly and more often. For instance, at one point we are in Krzysztof’s POV and he’s telling Bianca a long story about his mother, who helped keep the bison population alive in Europe, yet in the middle of his story, “Bianca interrupted him—he seemed old again, he was wandering. And crossing and uncrossing his legs like a little boy who had to pee.” When Bianca interrupts, the perspective shifts, yet the action continues without interruption. It’s this seamless story movement that keeps the increasingly shifting POV from growing cumbersome.

And yet, the “head hopping” that Barrett engages in walks a fine line and might, in lesser hands, detract from the story. In The Power of Point of View, Alicia Rasley writes that “the indiscriminate shifting from one character’s POV to another’s” is “like being trapped in a car with a driver who keeps changing lanes every ten seconds.” Good advice for those of us still learning how to use and harness point of view. What keeps this feeling at bay in “The Forest” though is both Barrett’s control and purpose for the shifting POV, and also the fact that she only shifts between two characters. If she changed perspectives as frequently with, say, four or five characters, or across more settings, the effect might be whiplash and harder to sustain or justify.

In the end, the characters end up witnessing the same climactic moment—a cluster of deer who come each day to feed in a patch of nearby forest—but end up focused on different things. Her time with Krzysztof has sent Bianca thinking of her mother and of the complex relationship she has with her sister. Krzysztof, though clearly affected by remembrances of his mother and the early part of his life, still seems more physically in the present. On their way back to the party, Krzysztof invites small talk and Bianca asks him about the bison his mother helped protect. “How pleasing that after all she’d paid attention to his stories,” he thinks. Though affected by the deer and his thoughts, he’s still very aware of this lovely young girl he’s ended up sharing the afternoon with.

Their connection to their past, and to their mothers, informs why they end up connecting in the present. Barrett’s shifting POV makes the context of their relationship richer and more deeply felt. It also helps deepen one of the story’s central themes, the sense of longing for and deep consideration of a past that has influenced the present. The story takes a darkly comic turn when Krzysztof hurts himself on their brief sojourn and Bianca has to bring him back to the party with braces on his legs. Rather than face the music, though, Bianca peels out of the driveway with the esteemed guests looking on, incredulous and worried. And yet, this ends up being a profound shared moment. “Back, Krzysztof thought” as they’re driving away, “back across the ocean and Europe toward home; back to the groves of Bialowieza, where his mother might once have crossed paths with Bianca’s grandfather.” In this moment for him, their lives have become joined both in the present drama and in the lingering past, uniting them more deeply. And yet, Barrett gives us one final shift in POV to show the ways in which their shared experience has affected them differently. “He thought back but Bianca, her foot heavy on the accelerator, thought away. From Rose, their mother, their entire past.”

It’s rather amazing what Barrett achieves in “The Forest.” On first reading, I felt aware of frequent shifts in POV and was impressed at how seamless it felt. On closer examination, finding just how often she changes POV and what she’s able to achieve as a result—just the simple fact that she pulls it off—I feel excited to explore how shifts in POV can deepen and broaden my own stories.

 

Post #121: Ramen Revelation

And now we bring you a brief, but necessary tribute to noodle soup.

I’m a life long lover of ramen. That warm, salty seniorita that fills my deep bowls and warms my winter nights. (I really am just talking about soup, y’all, so just stop right there.)

I mean, what’s better than warm flavorful broth swimming with succulent noodles? Nothing, that’s what.

My mom always kept packages of Maruchan Ramen around the house when I was a kid (pictured below). Chicken flavor. Oriental. Shrimp. It was just always there. Peanut butter and jelly. Egg sandwiches. Ramen. It was always a staple. A quick lunch. A late night snack. Two cups of water and three minutes and you’re in heaven, slurping away.

 

Until recently, I thought, with a naiveté that at the moment seems borderline unforgivable, that my beloved ramen bowls were, well…real ramen. I never weighed them in terms of their authenticity, or their relationship to other versions of ramen that may or may not exist in the world. I pay a little attention to food and food writing, and if you do, you’ve no doubt noticed that ramen is trendy right now. Trendy enough, anyway, for ramen shops to be popping up all over and for McSweeney’s new food mag Lucky Peach to have dedicated their entire first issue solely to the subject of ramen. Long story short, come to find out, instant ramen, which I will still always love no matter what, is pretty much the Kraft Mac and Cheese of its species.

For today, I had a bowl of ramen that changed everything. Take a look.

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Here. I’ll put it beside a bowl of instant ramen, the kind to which I feel such old time affection. See if you can spot the difference.securedownload

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The broth. Good God the broth.Not to mention rare cooked beef. Fresh sliced red chills. Cilantro. Scallions. Bean sprouts. Slivered red onions. Lime wedge.

It came with a spoon that would better be characterized as a small ladle.

Friends, consider my mind blown.

It was ten degrees today in Cambridge, MA, where I’m holed up for my MFA residency, and the bowl of ramen on the right sent the light through the window in a way I’d never quite seen it before. I saw generations of Japanese people slurping down bowls of this stuff, whole empires relying on it for comfort and sustenance. Battlefields made less bloody. Winters less harsh. Lover’s faces more beautiful and necessary. Stomachs a little happier. Lives a little more fulfilled.

Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s just soup.

Except it’s not. It wasn’t.

Happy eating, world.

 

Post #120: Happy New Year!

Greetings, and a very merry New Year to all of you out there. I guess it’s customary this time of year to make resolutions. But I’m struggling. Last night I resolved to drink less this year, then promptly poured myself a beer. So…well…there’s always 2015.

Some brief apologies for the extended wait between posts these last couple months. The hate mail, which I know comes from a place of love and real pain on the part of our loyal readers, has been piling up on our desk. And rest assured, we read every last piece of it, and try to reply personally as often as we can. Chalk it up to this: I’m starting a low-residency MFA program and the prep work, along with the end of the teaching semester has been kicking my already  bruised ass. We’ll resolve to serve you better in the new year.

Until then, here’s a few recommendations to ring in the new year, as well as one urgent observation.

You should watch…

The Newsroom on HBO. I had listened a little too loudly to the bad buzz on Sorkin’s latest. And though he’s reminding me of Woody Allen in the way he repeats both themes, motifs, and plot points, assuming his genius excuses such blatant repetition (which it kind of does), the show, especially the second season, is definitely worth watching. A great ensemble cast. Whip crack dialogue. Laughs. And a nod to serious issues of the moment, even if they’re delivered with a bludgeon to the head. This guy is one of the great screen writers of all time.

You should see…

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. There’s some hit or miss moments, but you get to spend almost an entire hour with a giant dragon voiced by Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch.

You should listen to…

“Foreverly” by Billie Joe and Norah. This is an odd one. Greenday’s Billie Joe Armstrong and jazz/pop chanteuse Norah Jones teamed up to record a whole album of Everly Brothers tunes. The results are spare, haunting, and beautiful.

You should eat…

More Peanut Brittle. I proved this holiday season that it can be eaten as an entire meal without losing consciousness.

You should read…

Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro. I’d explain why if they hadn’t just given her the fucking Nobel Prize. She’s that good.

And finally, one urgent observation…

Black bean sauce really doesn’t taste that much like black beans.

Happy New Year’s from all of us here at The Almost Right Words. We wish you a healthy and productive 2014.

 

Post #119: How To Avoid Brushing Your Teeth, by Leo (Age 3)

It’s like this.

The first and most important thing if you’re trying to get out of brushing your teeth is avoidance behavior. Master this art and you might never have to brush your teeth again. Parents play tough, but they all have a breaking point, and it’s all about knowing how to find it. You might run away laughing, for instance, and then turn that into a game which will prove aggravating and distracting since it’s the opposite of what you’re being asked to do. This might even result in a time-out, which will totally prolong or maybe even negate having to brush. Milk this set-up by crying a lot and pretending the time out makes you really sad and upset, all the while thriving in the glory of having abated the dreaded brushing. Another thing to do is simply pout and yell “no” when they tell you to brush. They hate that and might get caught up in the logic of your tone or responsibility or disappointing the dentist or some shit. All I’m saying is there’s lots of ways to play it. Be creative. Try some different stuff out. And if you ever find yourself really stumped and desperate, just shit your pants. Chances are you’re fresh out of the bath and have clean jammies and diaper on. This will immediately draw their ire and distract them away from you brushing your teeth.

But let’s say you can’t avoid it and your parents are feeling stubborn. In that case, just play dumb, man. That’s my policy. The more you make it look like you don’t know how to brush your teeth, or stand still, or stop babbling, the better. Just go deep into that pose like Daniel Day Lewis or something. What I like to do is just chew on my toothbrush like it’s Bubble Yum. Sometimes I don’t even hold the handle. I’ll just chew on it like a country bumpkin on a piece of wheat. Don’t move it around or anything. And whatever you do, don’t make any kind of a swishing, back and forth motion or they’ll just back right off and make you do it yourself. The more inept you make yourself seem, the more likely that one of them will just swoop in, say “here, let me.”

Whatever it takes, really. I don’t sweat the judgment or how it might make me look, either. I’ll save that shit for when I’m older.

Send any suggestions.

Post #118: Good For What Ails You

phish-danny-clinchA few weekends back my lady and I jumped in the car after work on Friday and took in Phish’s two night stand in Worcester, MA at the DCU Center. I’ve never seen the band there, but the room goes back a ways in Phish lore and is said to be a space that always brings out the best in the band, high praise indeed for a place that normally houses minor league hockey.

If you’re reading this but you’ve never seen Phish live before, it might be too late to convince you to do so. Maybe you’re an old dog afraid to learn a new trick. Maybe you’re jaded. Maybe you’re short on concert cash. Maybe you live in a place like South Dakota or Alabama where the band just never plays. Maybe you believe the rumors. But I can assure you that seeing Phish live is a concert experience unlike any other. And I’ve seen a few concerts. I’ve often told my father, who I know would never be caught dead at a Phish concert but absolutely loves live music, that if he could ignore the obnoxious fans and their strange hypnotic swaying, he’d genuinely enjoy the music. Be impressed by what the band can do. Phish is one of, if not the greatest improvisational rock band of all time. And I’m including all the other great ones in the mix when I say that. And no, I’m not being hyperbolic. I’ve just listened to a lot of music and thought about it a lot. Phish deserves mention in the pantheon of improvised music, regardless of the esteemed company they’d be asked to keep. As their fan base ages and their relevance wanes (Phish will never enjoy the cultural kitsch of the Dead, alas), I worry that their legacy will be far smaller than it should be. For their music reaches levels of joyful virtuosity that I’m at a loss to find a superior to outside of jazz (whose greatest practitioners I don’t mind saying, are on a whole different level.) A band so great deserves more.

I first saw Phish at Saratoga Performing Arts Center in the summer of 1995, right after I’d graduated from high school.  Seven of us piled into a Civic hatchback and drove the two hours each way from Oneonta, New York to SPAC. The band was then so unknown to me that I actually thought they were Rusted Root during most of the first set, having listened to a friend who claimed RR was the opener (not knowing that Phish always tours alone). At one point, I asked “when does Phish start?” only to have my friend say, “this is Phish, asshole.” That show is a fond memory but didn’t necessarily spark my love for the band and its bizarre, addictive music. That happened in college.

My college roommate Mike spun Phish bootlegs from breakfast, lunch, and dinner our freshman year. I hated the music at first and I dreamed of killing first my roommate, and then the members of the band. The music just sounded like a horrible screeching blob to me. Whiny, out of control. Too fast and wild and unpredictable to enjoy. But the more I heard, the more the chaos began to separate, and when it did it broke into melodies and songs and I began to pick out bits of beauty, humor, oddity, even genius. There were musical parts of astounding complexity and cleverness, and some of most supple and lithe guitar playing I’ve ever heard (courtesy of Trey Anastasio). If any song did it that year, it was the version of “Stash” from A Live One, the band’s first official live release. Listen to it. After that I fell for “You Enjoy Myself” and “Reba” and “Gumbo” and other Phish staples. The more I heard, the more I perceived a secret club, one I didn’t necessarily want to be a full time member of, but one I knew I’d enjoy visiting from time to time.

When I met my wife, she just happened to be an on-again, off-again Phish freak, having seen the band thirty times already by that point. We started to see the band together when they were nearby and that was that. I let down my guard, stopped worrying about the drugged out hippies that sprung up like mushrooms and wanted my ticket for free before the show and wanted to sell me grilled cheese after. I mean, who were these people? I’d heard about the Dead’s fans, dedicated masses who traveled from place to place with the band, recording its shows like gospel and trading the tapes, gorging on variations of the same song. But I’d never seen musical love like I saw from Phish’s fans. It was a little weird, but more than anything it was kind of beautiful. It made me jealous. I wanted to love music that much. The band’s unique sensibility and vast and quirky song catalog inspired a level of dedication worth of tunneling into, and which often seemed to result in a sort of insider’s addiction. Loving Phish become a sort of secret knock.

It also became a punch line. Hipsters and doubters have always looked down on Phish, assuming their fans are deluded and their music subpar. But fuck them. I’ll write about them later.

Over the years I’ve been to probably twenty plus Phish shows, no grand number compared to any number of more dedicated or obsessive fans–my friend Leah has seen well over a hundred–though that twenty is still a good five times more than I’ve seen any other band or musician. I’ll keep going until they stop.

When we drove down to Worcester, I hadn’t seen the band in a couple years and though I was tired from a long week teaching, I was buzzing for the buzz. We just made it into the DCU Center before lights out. And out they came.

Honestly, these days, at times it’s hard for me not to feel like the band isn’t treading water a bit. They’re now thirty years into this thing. They’ve broken up officially once, but more like twice, and at times you wonder if the personal chemistry is still there. There were some moments in the first set on Friday night where I could honestly feel them not playing with focus and passion. Like they were watching the clock a bit. Trey was particularly sloppy in that first set, botching lyrics and guitar parts beyond the playful, experimental norm. Mediocre Phish is still far better than the energy and variety you get from nearly any other band, but they set the bar so high, anything less leaves me distracted. And going into set break, that’s how I felt.

And then the second set completely blew my mind. All it takes is one good jam and all is forgiven. And the second set was absolutely dripping with them. I won’t geek out and give you the play by play. It doesn’t feel like the right thing, and it’s hard to do Phish’s music justice with descriptions. Something about their chemistry, when it’s on and they’re flying, defies description or simple understanding.

But try this.

The Greeks hold that perfection is attained not through exact harmony and balance, not through the simple balance of a square, but through the proper combination of contrasts. Through a balance of imperfection. Opposites working together to create a unique understanding, a rare harmony. Phish is sort of like that.

I could keep trying to explain it, but I’m not sure you’d understand.

PS…do yourself a favor and listen to this Tweezer from Tahoe from this summer. But if you do, really listen to it. Give it the time it’s worth. It’ll give right back.

 

Post #117: One Man Book Club, Part Three (Herman Koch’s “The Dinner”)

dinnerI know, I know. You’ve been salivating for the next installment of our series One Man Book Club (for the un-initiated, prior to now we’ve discussed Pride and Prejudice and The Family Fang). Lucky for you, so has our beloved intern here at The Almost Right Words, Zane Kai, who suggested we read Herman Koch’s The Dinner. We did so, and the other day, as has been our custom, Zane and I caught up over a cup of coffee on our work breaks and had a discussion about the book, which Zane recorded for posterity. Namely, for you.

Zane Kai: Well, well, well.

Benjamin: Well, well, well? What’s that supposed to mean?

Zane Kai: It’s supposed to mean, mister, that it has been way too long since our last book club chat and it’s about time! Readers have been getting in touch and requesting more!

Benjamin: Don’t get too excited Zane.

Zane Kai: Well, darnit, I am excited! I’ve missed our little chats and I am just DYING (puts hand over heart) to hear what you thought of The Dinner.

Benjamin: I’m actually pretty curious to hear what you thought about it as well, because, to be honest, I can’t really decide. What a strange book, don’t you think?

Zane Kai: I do think! It was almost like reading several books at once, the way it blends genres and tones.

Benjamin: Yeah, agreed. It begins as a sort of set piece, almost like a one-act play. These people are going out to dinner. The narrator and his wife and another couple, who there’s clearly tension with. It then turns out to be his brother and his brother’s wife.

Zane Kai: And the brother isn’t just his brother, but is also a big time candidate for a major political position and, unless I’m wrong, they’re on the cusp of some major election cycle.

Benjamin: Yeah. I think that’s right.

Zane Kai: And then, since we’re sort of summarizing, the dinner itself starts and, it’s narrated in first person, and the narrator is reacting to lots of things, commenting on the cost of the food at the restaurant, the overbearing wait staff, and how annoyed he is that he knows the whole place will be in awe of the fact that his brother, the famous politician, is eating there. It’s all very domestic at first.

Benjamin: Right. Right. Except for a seed of foreshadowing, planted early, that there’s something up with the narrator’s teenage son, it all feels very Cheever and Raymond Carver.

Zane Kai: And then, the bottom drops out.

Benjamin: Yeah. Sort of. Wait. What do you mean?

Zane Kai: Well, there’s kind of a spoiler alert here, don’t you think?

Benjamin: Yeah. Do you think we shouldn’t…

Zane Kai: Uh, hey, if you’re reading this, please know that we’re able to divulge some revealing details about a twist in the book.

Benjamin: So anyway, it turns out that the dinner is not just a dinner. It’s been arranged, and for an urgent conversation, because both couples have recently learned that their teenage sons beat up and killed a homeless person, and have filmed themselves beating up others. The crime has been on the news and footage from the ATM camera where the killing happened, but the footage is grainy and the boys’ faces are obscured, but both parents know immediately it’s their kids and now they’re holding onto this secret, trying to decide what to do with it.

Zane Kai: One thing I wanted to ask you about is how the narrator’s character changes over the course of the novel. At first, he’s a somewhat familiar, overly judgmental narrator, but perhaps no different from you and me. But…

Benjamin: It turns out he’s got major issues of his own.

Zane Kai: I’ll say he’s got issues! He beat up his boss and has some serious anger management issues.

Benjamin: What’s interesting about it is the implication that the narrator, this father, quietly knows that his own violent tendencies and problems controlling his anger, have now gone on to negatively affect his own son, a boy who has not only committed this violent act, this accidental killing, but may not even feel that bad about it.

Zane Kai: Totally.

Benjamin: But, I don’t know…

Zane Kai: What?

Benjamin: Well. It’s a powerful revelation, and in this situation, certainly a haunting one. But from a writerly stand point, it’s a little nail on the head for my taste, you know?

Zane Kai: I disagree! I totally do. I think you’re being too influenced by the intimacy of first person.

Benjamin: Maybe.

Zane Kai: What did you think of the ending?

Benjamin: Totally lost me.

Zane Kai: Really! Oh, I loved it.

Benjamin: Yeah, I just…I don’t know, I don’t want to say it wasn’t believable, because I hate when people say that. It’s such a cop out, lame ass criticism.

Zane Kai: So, what then?

Benjamin: I just didn’t find it satisfying.

Zane Kai: Why? I thought it was a fantastic transfer of power. All this time you think the narrator, the father, is going to be the one to flip, and then it turns out to be the wife.

Benjamin: But that’s what I mean. I just didn’t find it in sync with the rest of the book that she would actually physically harm her brother in law in order to keep him from going public.

Zane Kai: She was doing it to protect her son! You never know what people will do to keep their kids safe.

Benjamin: Yeah, maybe.

Zane Kai: It’s one of those storyteller black holes, I guess. Where you take the reader in this purely speculative place where pretty much no one knows how they would actually respond. Like whether you’d eat your friends flesh to stay alive or something. Until it’s you, you don’t know what you would do. And…morally, she turns out to be the weak link.

Benjamin: Yeah, that I agree with. And like. The politician seems like the thin and insubstantial character in the book, but that’s just the smoke of first person, as you were saying. Just us seeing things from the brother’s POV. The truth is that he’s the one who’s willing to sacrifice his son, even willing to see him go to jail so that he’s accountable for what he did and doesn’t have to walk around with this festering wound of guilt his whole life. He’s also decided to end his political candidacy.

Zane Kai: I just saw you look at your watch.

Benjamin: We need to wrap this up and get back to work

Zane Kai: I guess I have to ask, would you recommend The Dinner?

Benjamin: On the whole, yeah. A very unusual and exhilarating book. Taut and very well written, if a bit uneven. Just don’t blame me if it also kind of pisses you off.

Zane Kai: Can I just add one more thing.

Benjamin: No

 

Post #116: Billy Collins

billy_collins_1Billy Collins is probably the most famous living American poet whose name is not Maya Angelou. A pillar of American letters, he’s about as well regarded critically and popularly as it’s possible for a poet to be while still drawing breath, and living in a country that doesn’t much give a shit about poetry.

Because I live in a great city (Burlington, VT), I learned that Billy Collins was doing a free reading last week up on campus as UVM at the lovely, though horribly humid and hard-benched Ira Allen chapel, and my better half and I double dated (yeah, that’s right, double-dated to a poetry reading, sucka!) to watch Mr. Collins.

If you don’t know Billy Collins’s poems, you should. Even if you’re not a poetry fan. As someone once said, Collins writes poetry for people who don’t like poetry. That’s a bit trite, but kind of true. And his poems might just trick you into loving poetry. They possess the fairy dust of every day life at its funniest and most enlightening. His poems are easy to read and follow, yet never shallow or simple. They are always fresh, yet instantly recognizable.

In the hour he was on stage, Collins actually didn’t read all that much poetry. I’d sort of expected he’d read twenty or thirty poems and then slip away into the night. But he was also there to discuss poetry and in particular a book of poems he edited called Poetry 180, which he intended to be poems that could be read aloud to high school kids as little poetic nuggets. Poems that could be appreciated on the first pass. He talked a bit about his philosophy for writing poems, which is to craft poems that tend to start in the concrete and then venture gradually into the not so concrete, perhaps even abstraction or a dream state. He talked about poetry’s tendency to plunge a reader into a dark basement and make them search for a flashlight, and how his method is the opposite, to craft poems whose “game” is easy to spot. Poems that aren’t trying to hide from the reader, that desire to make their intent a bit more clear so as to increase enjoyment and accessibility. Yeah yeah, you’re thinking, rah rah rah. It’s poetry! Who cares?

But I was there; it was damn interesting. It was a packed house. People were riveted.

If nothing else, it’s always a thrill to see in the flesh an artist who you’ve long admired from afar. He was dapper, self-depricating, hilarious, and completely lovable. I kind of wish I could hang out with him, or that he was my uncle or something.

So you can better smell what I’m cookin, here’s a clip of Collins reading one of his most famous poems, and one he read for us the other night, “The Lanyard.” It’s the blend of funny and sweet and sad that so many of his poems possess. He was a bit more dynamic the other night than in this clip, but you’ll see what I mean.