Harsh Words for Small Children (Part 1)

The following story was written by an actual eight year old named Becky, who is now an adult (and whose debut novel comes out next year). This piece will appear on the Toast in a month or so, just FYI.

Tootsiroll

One day a dog had 7 puppies. Candy, Bubbles, Spot, Flower, Brownie, Bambi, and Tootsiroll. Tootsiroll was the runt. All the puppies had spots. There were 6 nipples on their mother, Apple. One day Flower went up to Bubbles. They talked and had fun. Soon they let all the puppies join them, all except Tootsiroll. Nobody liked his face because he didn’t eat enough because nobody ever let him. Apple noticed this and started waking Tootsiroll up in the night when everyone was speeping. Tootsiroll would suck and suck. Still none of the puppies liked him. They were all as mean as they could get to him. They woke up extra early so Tootsiroll wouldn’t get a nipple to suck because they didn’t know what happenes in the night. They took as much room up on the bed so Tootsiroll would have to sleep on the floor. They took more than one toy each so Tootsiroll couldn’t play with any and they did lots more awful things on purpose. One day they couldn’t find Bambi. They looked everywhere. Soon Tootsiroll got an idea. He looked under the bed and there he was. He barked. All the puppies came running. Everyone was proud especially Tootsiroll and they always respected him.

Becky,

First off, please include your name and an approximate word count on the first page of your manuscript. Also, see the handout you received on the first day of second grade, which describes my preferred formatting guidelines RE: margins and spacing.

Now, let’s begin by talking about your title: Tootsiroll. While I’d love to believe you are aware of the technique known as “sensational spelling,” in which words are deliberately misspelled for effect (see Led Zeppelin, Froot Loops, and Bryan Adams), we both know you’re not. You’re eight. You’re barely aware of the technique known as “wiping yourself after you poop.” But you’ve at least seen a Tootsie Roll, haven’t you? Never forget that good writing starts with good reading.

Your story begins with the introduction of your dramatis personae. But Becky, do you really expect the average reader to be able to keep track of all these characters? Give us time to get to know your puppies as individuals. To that end, I urge you to reconsider your decision to describe all seven puppies as having spots. We need to be able to differentiate between them. Maybe one has spots, one has mange, one is a little bit racist, etc. (Keep in mind, these are just suggestions. The divine spark has to come from you.)

The abrupt sexualization of the story around the fourth sentence (“There were 6 nipples…”) felt forced to me, particularly coming from someone half a decade out from the onset of puberty. Not everyone can be a Nicholson Baker, Becky. At this point, you’re not even a Jenna Jameson. I felt similarly skeptical when the story became an allegorical commentary on anorexia (“…he didn’t eat enough because nobody ever let him.”). Laurie Halse Anderson has really exhausted this subject in fiction, so you shouldn’t broach it unless you have something new to say. As my writing professor at Columbia told me, an issue may be topical, but so is Preparation-H.

Now, a quick word on structure. While I respect the way you’ve attempted to channel the sentence-by-sentence efficiency of Hemingway and the overall flash-fiction concision of Lydia Davis, there is such a thing as too simple. A couple of adjectives or adverbs aren’t going to kill you, Becky. Remember, it’s called “creative writing,” not “instructions for putting together an IKEA-brand kitchen island.”

I do appreciate your decision to feature dogs in the story. The anthropomorphization of animals has a long and impressive pedigree (Ha!—see that’s the kind of wordplay this story could have used a little more of!) in fiction. Consider Orwell, White, and even Kafka. However, the worlds described in these authors’ books are internally coherent, while yours is (and I’m going to be straight with you, Becky, as I know you’d want me to be) a piping hot mess. How about a little bit of context before you launch us into the story? Where are these dogs? Are they in someone’s home? And what’s the deal with this bed? If it’s a human bed, six puppies are simply not going to be able to spread out in such a way as to keep a seventh puppy from also enjoying the bed. If it’s some kind of special dog bed, this only raises more questions. Who built the bed? Some sort of carpenter dog? Have these puppies chosen to forego the proverbial dog pile for some other sleeping arrangement, and if so, why? Does it have anything to do with their distant, loveless mother figure, who functions here as little more than a milk dispenser?

This brings us to your conclusion. Becky, I can’t understand why you would fail to address the fact that Bambi is clearly dead, and that what Tootsiroll has found must be the corpse of Bambi. Otherwise, why wouldn’t he have come out from under the bed when he heard his brothers and sisters calling his name? Tease out the implications here. Which of your characters has both the means and the motive to kill? How about the maladjusted, malnourished loner, starved both metaphorically (for attention/affection) and literally (for milk)? Let us not forget that the first crime mentioned in the Bible (assuming you don’t count sex before marriage or apple theft!) is fratricide. This dark ending would be made even more chilling by the fact that Tootsiroll uses the murder of Bambi as his means of finally securing the respect and love of his other brothers and sisters (see Whipple and Finton’s “Psychological maltreatment by siblings,” Vol. 12, Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal).

Final Notes: Becky, there are intimations of a compelling psychological thriller hidden somewhere in this hackneyed family drama. However, a worrying thematic immaturity, to say nothing of a grasp of the subtle poeticisms of the English language I would be generous to call jejune, do nothing to bring them out.

Final Grade: D+

On The Top Ten Literary Suicides (Organized by Emo-ness)

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10. Dumbledore (Harry Potter)

Let’s face it, the dude was already about 800,000 years old when he kicked himself in the bucket, and apparently he had magical cancer or whatever, which means his big pratfall is really more like ghosting out of a party than straight-up suicide. But here’s my take on it: Dumbledore didn’t care much about the whole Elder-Wand-Don’t-Think-About-It-Too-Hard-Or-It-Dissolves-Like-Play-Doh-In-Battery-Acid-Plot-Contrivance fiasco. Instead, he jumped off of Hogwarts because he was depressed. And why was he depressed? Because his creator had kept him stuck in the closet for over ten years, then trumped up a retroactive homosexuality for him because she hadn’t won any GLAAD awards yet. Dumbledore wasn’t ready for the inevitable media firestorm, so he chose to end it all. Study Question: Does Rowling’s murder of her beloved gay wizard qualify as a hate crime? All the straight characters seem to make it out alive…

9. Anna Karenina (Anna Karenina)

When somebody breaks up with me, I just watch a lot of Scrubs and cry in bed. Not Anna. She THROWS HERSELF UNDER A TRAIN. I don’t wanna condone suicide, but that is a baller move right there. Levin was probably all like, “Damn. Why’d I marry a little wiener like Kitty, when that Anna chick is throwing herself under trains and shit? I bet she was crazy-go-nuts in the sack.” Study Question: Is it more or less emo to throw yourself under a high-speed train, such as the Acela?

8. Antony, Cleopatra, Eros, Iras, Charmian (Antony and Cleopatra)

Did you know that five characters commit suicide in this play? First, Cleopatra pretends to commit suicide, which makes Antony so sad that he tells his buddy Eros to kill him, which makes Eros so sad that he kills himself instead, which makes Antony feel like a pussy for not killing himself already, so he kills himself, which makes Cleopatra so sad that she kills herself, which makes her two maids super sad that they don’t have a steady income anymore, so they kill themselves too. Study Question: Wouldn’t a giant ceramic urn of poisoned Kool-Aid been more efficient, both practically and dramatically?

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7. Javert (Les Miserables)

Okay, bear with me here. Javert is basically the computer from WarGames. Think about it. The computer is programmed to carry out WWIII. Javert is programmed to capture Jean Valjean. Both of them lose their mind when faced with a logical contradiction. In the case of the computer, it’s playing Tic-Tac-Toe. For Javert, it’s realizing that the “criminal” in question is actually a pretty good guy. The computer shuts down. Javert swan dives into the Seine. But not before singing an emo power ballad. Study Question: When Russell Crowe is singing, don’t we all kinda wish we could jump off a bridge?

6. All the Characters (Girls)

Okay, I’ll admit it: this is neither literary, nor something that ever happened. It’s really just a fantasy of mine. Study Question: Does Girls suck donkey? Study Answer: Yes.

5. Little Father Time (Jude the Obscure)

Alright, this is a dark one, so prepare yourself. LFT is a little boy who convinces himself that he and his half-siblings are the reason his parents are so bummed out all the time. So one day, he kills himself and the half-siblings, leaving behind a one-sentence suicide note: “Done because we are too menny.” Holy Kevorkian. If that isn’t emo, then neither is wearing thick mascara and listening to The Cure wearing a Nirvana t-shirt and also you’re in the suburbs and you have a biology paper due tomorrow and life is pointless. Study Question: Would you murder your siblings if it meant saving them from a life of pain and dishonor? What about to keep them from having to watch Girls?

4. Gollum (Lord of the Rings)

Tolkien’s Gollum (played in Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptation by Steve Buscemi) is willing to jump into hot lava for a little gold ring.  Which basically makes him indistinguishable from every woman on eHarmony. Heyoooo! Study Question: Would replacing “eHarmony” with “Christian Mingle” in the above joke improve the punchline?image

3. Romeo and Juliet (Romeo and Juliet)

There’s nothing more emo than giving yourself the old mortal handjob for love. So Juliet gets fake poison from a Friar, while Romeo gets real poison from a dude named Apothecary (which is a badass name, BTW). Juliet takes the fake poison. Romeo sees her, thinks she’s dead, and takes the real poison. Juliet wakes up, finds Romeo dead, notices that he didn’t leave her any poison (#dickmove), and stabs herself. Double emo. Study Question: Do you think either Romeo or Juliet watched Girls before committing suicide, and if yes, were they more bothered by the terrible acting, the abysmal writing, the lackluster direction, or simply the pestilential cloud of nepotistic inbreeding that floats over the entire operation, negating the show artistically even as it drags Lena Dunham and her hipster coven even more inevitably into the zeitgeist, like a mortally wounded animal hobbling beneath the porch to die?

2. Seymour Glass (A Perfect Day for Bananafish)

Seymour was a savant. He was the star of a game show. He was professor at Columbia by the age of 20. Then he went to war, and it made him SUPER SAD. He tried to kill himself once, by slitting his wrists, but he must’ve missed all the good veins. He survives, and ends up eloping with some chick named Muriel. On their honeymoon, he’s like, “On second thought, life is still shitty. I’m a bananafish stuck in a hole.” So he shoots himself in the head. Muriel is RIGHT THERE ON THE BED next to him when he does it. But he doesn’t give a fuck. Because he’s fucking Seymour Glass, emo king of literature. Study Question: If Holden Caulfield killed himself at the end of “The Catcher In The Rye,” would he steal the emo-king suicide crown from Seymour? What about Max from “Where The Wild Things Are”? Doesn’t he already have a crown?

1. Sylvia Plath (Real Life)

Okay, so she’s not technically a literary character, but she sorta is, right? Plath once described her sadness as like “owl’s talons clutching my heart,” which definitely sounds like a rejected Morrissey lyric. And that’s just the tip of the emoiceberg. Check it: “I talk to God but the sky is empty.” Emo. “I desire the things that will destroy me in the end.” Mega-emo. “Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well. I do it so it feels like hell.” HOLY FLAMING SHIT IN A STUDIO APARTMENT THAT’S EMO. Sylvia Plath is the human manifestation of emo. Study Question: Does Sylvia Plath qualify as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and if so, why didn’t Zooey Deschanel or Kate Winslet play her in the movie Sylvia? Also, on a scale of 10 to 10, how much do you think Sylvia Plath would’ve hated Girls?image

Special Mention: All the girls in The Virgin Suicides. I only skipped it because it seemed a little on the nose. I think the title is what does it.

On The Games I Play (Usually in Brooklyn)

Brooklyn sure is a fun place to live. Even if you’re doing nothing more than sitting on a bench watching people pass by, there are so many games you can play. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. Creepy Guy with his Daughter or with his Russian Mail-Order Bride? 

2. Ironic Hipster or Actual Cowboy?

3. Crazy Person Talking to Himself or Owner of Hands-free Headset?

4. (Seen from Behind): Child or Dwarf?

5. Baby or Old Man with Benjamin-Button Disease?

6. (At Restaurant): Actor or Professional Waiter? Just kidding. It’s an actor.

7. Ironic Hipster or Actual Lumberjack?

8. High-five, Traditional Handshake, Fist Bump, or that Handclasp where the thumbs intertwine and then you briefly hug and then you pull your hands away with a little bit of tension in the fingers which is then sometimes followed by a Fist bump?

9. Date or Networking Opportunity?

10. Sir-ah-cha, Shri-rah-cha, or Shree-rah-cha?

11. Real Band or DJ?

12. Real Band or Performance Art?

13. Real Band or Prank That Is Being Filmed In The Hopes the Video Will Go Viral?

14. Ironic Hipster or Actually David Byrne?

(You make David Byrne sad.)

On Aluminum, Amateur Pornography, and More: GMAU Part 1

Last year, I started writing here and there on the amazing reference book known as Garner’s Modern American Usage (or GMAU, which you should buy). I’ve decided to occasionally discuss ten of my favorite entries in blog form. Here we go.

1. Aluminum – The English chemist Sir Humphrey Davy named this element “aluminum” at the beginning of the 19th century. A few years later, “aluminium” was offered as being more “classical” in sound, because it matches up well with other elements (sodium, magnesium, potassium, etc). So the next time an Englishman corrects you on your pronunciation of “aluminum foil,” tell him that the original English pronunciation of the word actually matches up with the current-day American pronunciation. Then make the poor bloke some tea, and hold him while he weeps.

Amateur – This word refers to a hobbyist, not a beginner. Garner calls out “amateur pornography” as a problematic term, given that the amateurs in question are usually paid. He fails to note that, unless you are a porn star or a prostitute, all the sex you’ve ever had has been, by definition, amateur, no matter how good at it you think you are.

American – This word is annoying and bizarre. Obviously, anyone from any country in the Americas should be able to lay claim to it, and yet, we in the US have totally arrogated its usage. Garner suggests it’s most likely because of the lack of a good alternative. And honestly, do you really want someone to call you a United Statesian?image

Amok – This word is awesome. In Malay, it’s a noun denoting a homicidal frenzy. Also, it’s pronounced “amuck,” but you should try not to spell it that way, because it’s a mistake based on the pronunciation (the original Malay word is amok). Thom Yorke spelled it right on the cover of the last Atoms for Peace album, and even if he doesn’t know how to spell “Tom,” we should still defer to his judgment.

Amphibology – This is the term for a sentence like “I love you more than Justin Bieber,” which has two grammatical meanings (i.e., either “I love you more than I love Justin Bieber” or “I love you more than Justin Bieber does”). It’s also a true sentence, insofar as I love every human being who is reading this blog post more than I love Justin Bieber and more than Justin Bieber loves any of my readers (even you, Selena Gomez). And Justin, if you’re reading this, then please change the word “more” in the above sentence to “less,” creating a downward spiral of love in which I love you less than I love Justin Bieber (you), such that my love for you (Justin Bieber) asymptotically approaches zero.

Prochronism – You probably know the term anachronism, but have you ever heard of a prochronism? It’s used to describe a reference to something made at a date earlier than the thing in question actually existed. Could be used mystically, or for crazy coincidences. For example: “God Bless You!” (If anyone sneezed just after reading that, that was a prochronism.)

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Anachronym/Retronym – An anachronym refers to something that lives on in a figurative sense even though its literal sense has been rendered obsolete by a change in technology or culture. The clearest example is given by Garner: dial. You still “dial” someone up, but odds are good you don’t actually spin a dial to do so (unless you bought some vintage P.O.S. from Restoration Hardware or SkyMall, in which case, shame on you and your children unto the 9th generation). A retronym is used to refer to a new term applied retroactively to something. Garner points to ice skates, which were known simply as skates until the invention of roller skates necessitated a means of differentiation.

And – “It is rank superstition that this coordinating conjunction cannot properly begin a sentence.” I only point this out because I probably begin 5-10% of my sentences with the beautiful word and. I absolutely love it as a sentence starter, because it allows one to simulate the stream of consciousness feeling necessary to any good close third-person narration without sacrificing grammatical coherence to a bunch of run-on sentences. SIDE NOTE #1: Garner says a list construction without a terminal and implies that the series isn’t complete. Rhetoricians call it “asyndeton.” An example: “After spending twenty years in prison, he wanted so many things: the love of a good woman, a freezer full of ice-cream sandwiches, all of Friends on DVD.” Without the terminal “and,” we sense that this is not a complete list of this man’s desires. We also sense he has strange tastes, and that the writer of this blog post is getting tired. SIDE NOTE #2: “On the question of punctuating enumerations, the better practice is to place the and introducing the final element.” That’s right. Garner is all about the serial comma. Suck it, anti-serial-comma people.

10 Awesome Animal Adjectives –

Cancrine: Crablike

Lacertine: Lizardlike

Pavonine: Peacocklike

Ranine: Froglike

Scolopendrine: Centipedelike

Soricine: Shrewlike

Struthionine: Ostrichlike

Vespine: Wasplike

Viverrine: Mongooselike

Zebrine: Zebralikeimage

Anniversary – Look at the word, you moron. Just look at it. I’ll wait here while you’re doing that. Ho hum. *whistling noise*. Okay, are you back? Do you already see the problem? The next time you hear some guy say, “I’m taking my girlfriend out tonight for our six-month anniversary,” I want you to punch him in the face. Then stand over his prone body, watching the blood gush from his broken nose, and shout: “OH REALLY? It’s the yearly celebration of your six-month anniversary?” Then kick him in the stomach and say, “I’m gonna beat your ass again on the anniversary of this beating, ONE YEAR FROM NOW!

On My Many Celebrity Sex Partners of 2013

As this astonishing year moonwalks towards its conclusion, I figured I should jump on the reminiscence train and give a brief summary of my doings in 2013. But given the sheer breadth of my accomplishments this annum, I thought it prudent to focus on one particular category of activities: namely, my many sexual encounters with celebrities. They are listed below, by category.

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Musicians: 2013 was a really good year for me vis-a-vis sustained sexual congress with pop stars. As you probably already know, Miley and I were together up until the VMAs, and I rebounded at the after-party with Taylor Swift (who still smells like John Mayer; word on the street is it takes 300-500 showers to get his spore completely off the skin). I wouldn’t call my dirty weekend with Linda Ronstadt a “relationship,” given that I’ve already referred to it in numerous publications as “a carnal Olympiad.” I don’t know much, but I know I enjoyed it. In the fall, I fell in with a certain popular boy band that shall remain nameless (but believe me when I say that they don’t all point in one direction, if you get my meaning). Finally, because December is a time for charitable works, I threw one to Britney Spears, who I think we can all agree really needed a win this year.

Film Stars: The entire cast of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”. I couldn’t decide between Peeta and Gale, either!

Authors: This year, I decided to sleep with the most successful 5 romance novelists in America. Well you know the old adage, “Those who can’t do, teach”? It ought to be, “Those who can’t do, write.” Talk about disappointments! E.L. James insisted on using a safe word (the sissy), Nora Roberts actually wrote a book while we were doing it, and Nicholas Sparks plied me with roses and chocolates when he knows I prefer calla lilies and salted caramels. 

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Politicians: I’m proud to say I stayed strong in 2013, and didn’t answer a single one of the drunken sexts I got from Anthony Weiner. I did respond to the lewd pictures Rob Ford sent me, but only to suggest he see a doctor about that growth on his left testicle, which appears to have developed both ears and the capacity for love. And while I don’t want to go into details, I will say that Olympia Snowe turns out to be anything but a moderate in the bedroom. Ha ha! More like a radical! Ha ha! But seriously, she scared me.

Gymnasts: Mary Lou Retton. Finally.

Other Athletes: There are sports other than women’s gymnastics? Thanks, but no thanks.

Scientists: You’ll be happy to know I maintained my 18-year streak of bedding every winner of the Nobel Prize in both Physics and Chemistry. I’m consistently amazed by how desperate each of them is for human contact of any kind!

So that about wraps it up. 2013 sure was a banner year for me spending time naked with famous people!

New Years Resolution: Stop calling Jennifer Lawrence every time you feel lonely. She treats you like her best friend, but she’s like that with all of America.

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On Owning A Television

Recently, a friend informed me that she didn’t “own a TV.” This is a fairly regular piece of hipster arrogance that needs to be shut down. Let’s begin:

You own a TV.

You do.

It’s in your pocket, or on your desk, or in your laptop bag. If it is possible to watch a TV show on a device in your possession, you own a TV. End of discussion.

Even this jerk owns a TV. Because a TV is no longer a gigantic black cube full of vacuum tubes. We know you don’t have one of those. Neither do we. Only poor people have real TVs anymore. Us first-worlders demand that our screens do more than just display passive entertainment. We demand the right to pause our favorite shows so we can check our Facebook walls and our Instagram feeds. We demand the right to watch pornography for free, whenever we want, without having to pay for it by view. And most importantly, we demand the right to tell total strangers who merely asked us if caught the season finale of Homeland: “A TV? What? You mean one of those things with buttons and remote controllers? No, I do not have one of those. Would you like one of my homemade scones?”

What follows is a handy-dandy list of ways to respond to the many excuses offered for this most ridiculous of claims: I don’t own a TV. Enjoy.

Excuse #1: I don’t watch TV, I just watch name of a specific HBO show.

Answer: You know the slogan “It’s not TV, it’s HBO”? Well that’s a load of marketing bullshit. It’s TV. It lasts for 30 minutes or 60 minutes and you look at it on a screen. And if you watch it, you’re watching TV. The fact that The Wire isn’t Wife Swap does not make it any less TV, you moron.

Excuse #2: I don’t watch American TV, because there are so many commercial breaks and they always stretch out the stories for as many seasons as they can. I only watch British television.

Answer: That’s TV. It doesn’t magically become cinema just because it came from another country, you condescending jagweed. I liked the British version of The Office too. But you know what?When it played in England, it played on the TV. English people took a dirty English bowl out of their English sink, filled it with English Cheetos, sat down on their English couch, and ate those Cheetos while watching that show. On their English TV. It’s TV.

Excuse #3: I tried watching a couple episodes of whatever show it is you’re telling them is really good, but I don’t really watch TV.

Answer: You watched TV. You did. If you watched a couple of episodes, you watched TV. You know what I don’t do? Have sex with piglets. Have I tried it a couple times and then decided it wasn’t working for me? Nope. Never had sex with a piglet. You watched TV, you virgin who can’t drive. Deal with it.

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Excuse #4: I only watch the news.

Answer: That’s TV. Those are TV Channels that the news is on, you moron. And just because it’s unscripted doesn’t make it any less televisual. Besides, you’d be better off watching old episodes of Captain Planet than anything on Fox, and Rachel Maddow probably isn’t telling you anything you don’t already know. The news is TV, you human sack of old garbage.

Excuse #5: I just use Netflix.

Answer: And are you watching television shows on Netflix, you miserable vomitous mass of pretension? If you read a book on a Kindle, are you no longer reading a book? If you have sex in a confessional booth, are you no longer having sex? You don’t have a single friend, do you?

Excuse #6: I’m not messing with you. I don’t have a TV, or a computer, or a smartphone. I live deep in the woods, in a cabin that I built with my own hands. Every morning, I wake up with the sun and go out to check the traps. I skin and gut the animals I caught during the night, drying the pelts and curing the meat. I fish. I hunt. I chop wood. I swim naked in icy rivers. By the light of the moon, I dance the dance of untrammeled man, and all of God’s creation shines down on and through me, and I feel myself one with the universe.

Answer: Wow. Consider me duly impressed. You know what you’d love? Man vs. Wild.

On Spending Time Alone

This past summer, I traveled for about six weeks on my own. I saw a few people I knew, and I met a few new people, but I spent the vast majority of my time unaccompanied (by which I mean alone, not without music; music plays wherever I go). This has inspired me to make a list of things everyone ought to do alone regularly. Here it is.

1) Go to the movies. Movies are the dumbest social activity of all time. You talk in the lobby for five minutes. Then you sit parallel to another human being in the dark for two hours. You pretend that you’re going to talk about the movie afterwards, but you never do, because it’s late now, and you just wanna go home so you can watch TV. So why involve another person in the first place? Go alone. Then you don’t have to share your snacks, or the armrest.image

2) Go out for a nice meal. And I mean a nice meal. I’m sure you regularly eat Chipotle on your own. Good for you. But try going somewhere serious, with multiple courses and a waiter whose only job is to scrape breadcrumbs off your tablecloth with that weird metal thing. When you go to a nice restaurant alone, the staff immediately assumes you run a successful hipster foodie blog, and they treat you like royalty. More importantly, everyone in the place will think you are melancholy and romantic, particularly if you are pale and spindly and look as if you’re about to succumb to late-stage syphilis.

3) Play music. While it’s true this one technically requires that you know how to play music, you don’t have to play it very well. If you can strum three chords on a guitar (or a ukelele, or a hammered dulcimer), you can do this. Basically, go somewhere with lots of people, sit down, and play music. Lots of things will happen. People will try to give you money. People will talk to you. Other people with instruments will come and play. People will try to sell you drugs. Maybe you’ll buy some. Maybe you’ll find out they’ve been laced with a powerful hallucinogen. Maybe you’ll trip balls and wake up in the back of a van being driven by a clown, and Mariah Carey will be in the passenger seat humming the theme to “M*A*S*H”. I don’t know. Shit gets crazy when you play music alone.

5) Do it. It’s sex with someone you love.image

6) Wander around a seedy neighborhood. The world’s not as dangerous as people say. As you continue to not get robbed and beaten up and left for dead in an alley, you’ll begin to realize this. You’ll become more trusting and loving. You’ll give more generously to charity. You’ll maybe use up the rest of those drugs you bought while you were playing music. This time, you’ll see your own death, waiting at the end of a slow tunnel of light like a troll crouched under a bridge. And Mariah Carey will be there again, singing “Hero” this time.

7) Make friends. The best way to not spend the rest of your life alone is to spend some time alone. You meet the best people when you’re on your own. Primarily because they feel sorry for you. Whatever. I’ll take it.

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On Berlin

Things I learned while in the great city of Berlin:

1) These guys really know their Hawaiian-style (???) coffee:image

2) There was a time when entering the American zone meant you had to NOT have guns.image

3) You want to ride the slide, little German kid? Not until you’ve climbed the TOWER OF DEATH and proven you are A GLADIATOR!image

4) There are still giant dance halls that look like something out of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (which I do know isn’t German, BTW).image

5) Vietnamese remains as difficult to translate into English as it ever did. (I draw your attention to the translation for Bo Xao Dua. Yum!image

6) There is a store that only sells pianos and old books. Let me be buried there.image

7) Thank God, this actually happens in real life. Cheers.

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On we go.

On Stockholm

Things I learned in Stockholm:

1) Public art in Sweden is obscene. I bet the Swedish Chef got with some of these chicks.

2) The Swedish word for We are currently out of that is Slut. No joke. It’s everywhere.

3) Medieval Swedish royalty loved to bedazzle their weaponry. They didn’t win a lot of wars, but you know what they did win? The prize for most bedazzled scabbard. And that ain’t half-bad.

4) Sometimes, when you’re in Sweden, it kinda looks like you’re in Miami Beach.

5) If we run out of hipsters in Brooklyn, we can import some from Sweden. They’re healthier too, because of all the free health care.

6) This one’s so fantastic, I wrote the text right on the picture.

7) Finally, the most important thing I learned in Stockholm: Swedish dogs are very tired.  

I feel you, dog. On we go.

On Losing Lovers and Novels

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Last week, the This American Life podcast that was auto-downloaded onto my phone was a rerun—“Babysitting,” Episode #175, from January 2001. It’s one of the most popular episodes that TAL has ever run, in terms of audience response, specifically because of one story.

It’s about a couple of kids, a brother and sister, growing up in the 1930s (or I think it’s the 1930s, I haven’t listened to it in a while). They have this strict Catholic mom who is basically crazy; at one point, she scares them by saying that her doctor told her she was probably dying, and all because her children were causing her so much stress. Life at home is so terrible that the kids come up with a genius plan to get away. They invent an imaginary family and tell their mom they have to babysit for this family’s imaginary kids. And they keep the charade going all summer. They even spend a few nights sleeping out on the beach, because they’d rather be there than at home. And the heartbreaking ending is that, in spite of how his mom treated him, the boy (now a man in his sixties) is still taking care of her, even though she doesn’t even know who he is anymore. It’s an incredibly affecting story, and I recommend you go listen to it here as soon as you’re done reading this little post.

The story is particularly important to me, because after I heard it the first time, many years ago now, I knew I had to turn it into a novel. With my mom’s help, I managed to track down the sister of the man who told the story on the radio, and she gave me her life rights. With the legal stuff taken care of, I let my imagination take over; my book takes place in a different decade, and in a different place, than the original story. I worked for over a year, and was deeply proud of the result, certain that I’d managed to capture the magic of the story while adding my own…uh…whatever it is I have to add to things.

Unfortunately, the novel was a total failure. I sent it out to about 800 agents, and no one even expressed a whisper of interest. After four months or so, I gave up, and started on the next one.

Letting go of a book is painful. After all, you’ve just spent a couple years of your life thinking about little else. And it’s not just about the two or three hours you spend writing every day, but the countless hours of unconscious thought that go with them. The unfocused brain is a powerful tool; it crunches numbers all the time, while you eat overcooked pasta or fight with a loved one or watch Parks & Recreation. When you’re working on a book, that book becomes a program that runs underneath everything else you do. A dozen times a day, lines of dialogue or description come to you. And as long as you’re not having sex or riding a roller coaster, usually you can get to a computer and write them down before they disappear. 

Over the course of many months, you watch your book grow up. First it’s an ugly, awkward thing, mewling and puking in the nurse’s (i.e. your) arms. Then the whining schoolboy, the lover, the soldier, and on and on, through the stages of life (hopefully stopping before second childishness, sans teeth, sans eyes, etc.). You fall in love with it. So when it turns out nobody wants it, when your book dies a childless and friendless bachelor, you can’t help but mourn. And that mourning is no different from any other mourning.

In the past few weeks, I’ve finally had to let go of a lover, someone who has been the centerpiece of my wide (often too wide) orbit for almost five years. It’s been a long time since I dealt with anything like that. I’m not sure I am dealing with it. Grief is the solar eclipse that we glance at only out of the corner of our eye, because our parents told us we’d go blind if we stared at it.

Then that episode of This American Life showed up in my iPhone. And I remembered that I have dealt with loss. Because lovers and novels aren’t so different. Both demand the preponderance of your attention and love. Both become a part of your psyche and personality. Both serve, in one way or another, as a cloister, keeping you safe from the big scary world, with all of its scary people full of scary needs and desires that you don’t understand or know how to satisfy. Both fill you with pride when you think about how they made you grow. Both fill you with despair when they remind you of how you came up short.

I have no conclusions. I just felt this parallel and wanted to write about it. In the past month, I’ve finally seen a book “succeed” (whatever that means). At the same time, I’ve watched a relationship “fail” (whatever that means). I hope this is a coincidence, but it’s so hard to be sure. 

I mourn. I celebrate. 

I celebrate. I mourn.

On we go.

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