Butt of the Joke

I’m broke and have a headcold and I’m solidly middle-aged. Well, not solidly. That would be awesome. I’m jigglyly, untenably middle-aged. Things are happening tonight, things that would require lipstick and synapses—one friend is doing a comedy set at a Latin drag bar; another is impersonating Anne Sexton at a bookstore magazine launch; yet another is hosting a vegan milkshake night at a kitschy diner near the extinct York theatre, where my friend Stephen Moses got shot and killed 25 years ago while he was making a call at a phone booth. He was wearing a beret and a vintage gabardine overcoat. He was 23, a painter, and he loved to use this one orangey color, a sort of carnal terra cotta, that I will forever associate with him.


Does god help those who sit at home braless playing online Solitaire? (What’s the opposite of helping oneself?) I know they develop these games so they’re as hard to quit as kettle corn, but I hate myself anyway. I meant to put on nice-ish shoes, but what’s the point? I certainly wouldn’t be able to think of anything witty to say, which is the one occasional advantage to being out of kneepants.

I used to do risky things like hitchhike and take pills I found on the street and have sex in alleyways. Now I fantasize about the perfect cappuccino.


Joel has a little high-tech collapsible footstool that he pulls out when he plays his guitar at the kitchen table. For some reason when he does this I picture Levon Helm, stub of a cigarette permanently lodged in his face, bootheel hoisted on a barrel of homemade rye. That scene in the Last Waltz when he, with his husky Delta drawl, tells Martin Scorcese what rock and roll is.

I mean, I picture Levon Helm ironically, by no means to suggest that Joel evokes pure Levon-ness, but more as a visual reminder of how everything, including me and Joel and the kitchen table and the “footstool” and the computer and the low, sharp shadow of late afternoon settling onto the neighbor’s stucco, is a second-rate version of its advertised self. I had a friend who liked to randomly make a sweeping gesture and say, “This is not as pictured in the brochure.”


The footstool is made partly of vulcanized rubber, which was discovered by accident when a scientist left some chemicals sitting in a lab overnight. Natural rubber deforms easily when it’s warm, its polymer chains waving flagrantly like hippies at an outdoor concert. Which is unacceptable for bowling balls and saxophone mouthpieces and portable footstools.

I feel sorry for babies. Hell, I feel sorry for everyone. We are ectopic spasms in an epicene top-hat, already outdated before we’ve even had a chance to twiddle ourselves.


And yet we can’t help being amazed, though we know it’s all been done before, backwards and in heels. I once wrote a line in a poem: “The first person who ever ate an orange/ate the peel.” At the time I thought it was a poem about falling in love. Tonight it strikes me as a sad cry, a fist waving at the sky, a reluctant black belt in becoming the perfect stooge.

Love Is a Battlefield

“How much can we ever know about the love and pain in another heart? How much can we hope to understand those who have suffered deeper anguish, greater deprivation, and more crushing disappointments than we ourselves have known?”  Orhan PamukSnow

My friend B was lamenting that his post-divorce Berkeley flat was small and yardless and couldn’t compete with the vast big-screen/rope-swing/nerf warfare-capable manse of his 15-year marriage. The kids were starting to grumble about sharing a room and the lack of space to stash their skateboards when they visited. I told him confidently that I grew up in a large home with a swingset, pitch-back, and ping-pong table on our backyard acre, and all I dreamed of was my feuding parents splitting up so I could visit a tiny urban apartment where I’d sleep on a fold-out couch like Mary Tyler Moore’s.


“They’ll come to appreciate your record collection and proximity to Saul’s Deli!” I said, a cheerleader for the single boho life. “They’ll beg to spend more time with your eccentric neighbors.”

He looked at me, puzzled. “They’ll be fine, of course,” he sighed. “I just miss how it used to be.”

From what he’d told me about his ex-wife, I couldn’t imagine how he’d miss any scenario in which she appeared even in a cameo. I shook my head to release the judgment. Couldn’t he see how far superior it was to be independent, free of the old patterns and habits that had made him miserable? How important it was for his kids to see him in a new role, as a smart, fun dad who wasn’t under the thumb of their controlling mom?

“When you’ve spent 15 years waking up every day with people who share your DNA, it’s hard to leave that,” he said carefully, as though diagramming the last sentence in Proust’s A la Recherche for a five-year-old. He wasn’t condescending, just baffled, I think, by how anyone could be so naïve. He looked very tired.


“Right,” I mumbled, tears leaping to my eyes. I was a tiny toy soldier, so proud of my celadon paint job, looking down at a Grand Canyon-sized rift of pain and loss and seeing only a postcard of a battlefield.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve been slapped in the face by my own spectacular limitations. I’m a novelist, for fuck’s sake, who can’t imagine colors outside the me me me palette, who has to be hustled by badgers into a neighborhood that’s not on my Google map. I honestly don’t know if there is such a thing as collective experience—a pool of knowledge and sensation and suffering that all humans dip into. Or are we each walking around repeating our own carefully wrought mantras, chanting louder when someone passes so as to drown their conflicting rhythms?         


Earlier this week I read an article in the Times about female genital mutilation, and how it’s (very) gradually declining in Africa and the Middle East. This led me down a rabbit hole of internet research—I was determined to find a photograph of a vulva that had been infibulated (excised and sewn up) early in life. This is hard to explain. I needed to see it in order to put my toe into that collective pool. I’m so myopic, so in love with my own tender pink happy place, that I knew I’d have to be wrested out of complacency with an image I could feel with my eyes. I found several. A few were on porn sites. Here is one from an Egyptian doctor’s blog.


Thou & It

"All actual life is encounter." —Martin Buber

I first heard that line at a panel on long-form journalism (“Dead? Or just dozing?”), but it has been rumbling in my ears lately, sounding particularly prognostic. You mean I’ve been hoodwinking myself all this time, merely feigning the ability to appear and disappear from the world at whim? I am not a walking fermata?


Quick break for a Buber recap: he was the Austrian Jewish guy who wrote IchDu (I & Thou), which explained how beings can rub up against each other’s “authentic existences” without content or structure—I picture Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières, or maybe Pooh and Piglet. The Ich-Es(I & It) relationship is where one being creates an idea that stands in for the other and then treats It like an object, probably jerking off on It and not even tossing It a towel to wipe up with.


Maybe I need to be a little more open to Du and a little less ensconced in Es. I don’t mean I should renounce introvertion or silence or onanism—I would explode in a fountain of my own guts if I had to interact all the time—but that I ought to stop pretending that I am the decider, that I can actually attach and detach according to my own will. As Bob Dylan wrote, “No one is free. Even the birds are chained to the sky.”

Last weekend my nephew graduated from CIIS (he got his Masters in East/West Psychology with a concentration in Psychedelic Rituals and Entheogenic Shamanism), and he decided that, instead of going to the commencement ceremony, the family should attend a tribal gathering with him. It was basically a big picnic in Joaquin Miller park, with more baked tempeh and drugs than macaroni salad.

I admit I started out cranky. I was getting a cold and was definitely in I & It mode; plus, the people-watching was exceptional. Lots of bare chests with leather holsters (for organic tobacco and fruit leather?); handlebar mustache/bowler hat combos (often paired with short shorts and knee socks); bodice lacings and tribal tats (very burner/Apocalypto vibe); plenty of bare butt shaking in tiny shorts (how do these girls look so good after they’ve done iowasca 100+ times?).


I turned down LSD, MDMA, mushroom chocolates, and homemade mead, but smoked some weed laced with pure evil and got mired in a conversation with a guy who introduced himself as Massive Bri (he said if a bigger Brian showed up, he was totally open to discussing a name change) about Scotch whisky. He had six flasks (in a flak vest) that contained a range from extra peaty to butterscotch sweet, and I tried them all. My favorite was a Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban from the Highlands, aged in a port cask so it tasted like mint chocolate & grapes, silk velvet on the tongue. Hello Thou.

What would Don Draper do? (A question that arises whenever I’m drinking Scotch.) He’d have his hand jammed in some gal’s “leather holster” before you could say, “Trap (trance rap) is not my favorite kind of music.”



“may stern particular Love surround your trite

how terrible selfhood with its hands and feet”

— e. e. cummings

For as long as I can remember I’ve had a fantasy about getting away with ______. Fill in the blank with whatever really bad thing you desperately want to do but know is immoral and revolting. A thing that if you confessed it to your friends, no matter how hard they tried to make their faces nonjudgmental and concerned-therapist benign—you would read the tickertape message scrolling across their forehead: I am sickened by the sight of you. Your closest friends would look into your face and feel vomit involuntarily rising to their throats. The dalai lama would think you were an asshole.


I could do this [blank] with arctic blood racing through me, never tell anyone, and never be punished. Thereby proving… what? That there is no God. That amoral freedom exists. That I can rewrite Roskolnikov’s botched trajectory. That I truly possess the intellectual and emotional fortitude to manage the ramifications of my crime, without requiring the “relief” that righteous people seem to crave.


I had a master role model for crime sans punishment. My dad was a suave, Don Draper type who managed to keep his hideous, aged portrait in some invisible attic we never encountered. Well, that’s not true; I saw Dorian Gray’s ugly head a few times. I still stumble upon its awful, heartless mien in my dreams, staring me down with its hideous half-smile, daring me to stick my tongue in.


I probably should have been in a punk band. I could have writhed onstage in a blood-stained onesie, and all this would be out of my system.

Yeah, I know that living an open-hearted, courageous life is the best revenge. I reject most of what’s in the Parental Handbook of Twisted Fucked-Upitude, and I’ve spent years building, and trying to adhere to, a more authentic, meaningful code.

Still, underneath all that, always, there is [blank].


Remember Glaucon in The Republic? He tells Socrates a story about a man who finds a ring that can make him invisible—so of course he uses it to his own advantage. His point is that no one really values justice for its own sake, and that if there were two such rings, a just person and an unjust person would use them in exactly the same way.

I like to imagine Socrates’ response: not what he says, which is something about the unjust man being a “slave to his own appetites,” but I like to think about his face. I think he would be unfazed; he would embody rationality—a stern and particular Love.




The Vowel

“I can’t take it anymore,” she often thought. But she could continue to take it. And she did.


For four more years she covered for the Vowel at work, rearranging schedules, subbing extra shifts, and making excuses when the regional manager stopped by for his semi-annual facilities observation. “You always seem to miss Alex,” she’d say when the pasty, perpetually dubious bureaucrat inquired about the whereabouts of her projectionist. “He ran down to the Lumiere to drop off some film reels,” she’d say, or “I told him to knock off early because he had a sinus infection,” when all the while she knew quite well he was wedged in the upper cabinet of the attic cup room (in the nook he’d fashioned from insulation foam and a sleeping bag), mumbling to himself or strumming out spastic tunes on his beat-up dobro.


She left him notes in the logbook in the projection booth, beginnings of stories she thought he might like, about giantess Claudia who crushes tiny men with her stiletto heels, or a former Rick James roadie who makes a fortune selling the Superfreak’s blood-stained jumpsuits on eBay. The Vowel would often continue the stories, but his passages were usually illegible—snot or tears or beer or saliva smeared his already shaky penmanship—except for a few salient phrases. Even so, she never failed to skip a breath when she saw his reckless handwriting, and she’d peruse the symbols in a kind of ecstasy, as though they were hands trawling her hair-trigger body.


His nickname was born when she hired a teenager named Lex, and people kept mixing up their names. Candy, who wore a white shorty Vespa helmet while she worked the concession counter (“There could be risk of head injury!”), mused that it was weird how one little vowel could cause so much confusion.

When nine hundred dollars went missing from petty cash, she concocted a plan to weave an old box of large Coke cups (whose wax coating was spotty, but somehow they never got returned to the distributor) into the inventory, twenty cups at a time. That was eighty bucks a night, and after a few busy weekends of a popular new gastronomic French film called Andouillette, she had offset the loss without prompting any accounting suspicions.


Sometimes she had to send Wyatt or Jeremy or Johnny into the men’s room when it was five minutes after showtime and the Vowel was still nodding in the single toilet stall. And sometimes she’d just thread and start the movie herself, hoping she’d remembered to switch the take-up platters in the proper direction (so the film wouldn’t end up in a puddle on the floor, as it had once when the Vowel was making out with his Italian girlfriend in the cup nook and she hadn’t wanted to disturb him).


Free Falling in a Slave State


It’s hard to perceive depth when you’re looking down at the earth from a jet’s window. The land is a relief map—rivers wriggle and farms square and suddenly mountains thrust like powdered meringue peaks from dark devil’s food furrows. Black ribs on an x-ray, fat spine galloping white. Is it the Rockies? Or a bracelet of local knolls, a dog-walker’s favorite spring ridge hike? I should know this, I think. Small and large exchange meanings from up here. Streetlit towns converge like the Pleiades, separate into points only when I squint.


This morning I was at Monticello. Top of a grand hill, and I didn’t mind that it was still too frozen for lush blooming gardens because thousands of bare trees crosshatched against the sky in every direction; I can’t explain why, but even the grey, beige, brown landscape felt historical. Tinsmiths and nailmakers, carpenters and joiners must have sent up smoke from their brick shops on mornings like these, and the white billows must have stayed sharp against the cold Virginia sky for minutes.


On the plaques and literature, I noticed, they refer to slaves as “enslaved artisans” or “enslaved people.” I understand the importance of not defining anyone simply as a slave, as though they have no other identity. But it felt somehow disingenuous to me, too, in the midst of this bootlicking celebration of Jefferson, the slaveowner. I imagine the board meeting where a UV critical race studies professor consulted on the wording. I bet TJ thought of them as slaves, though. I wonder if he thought of Sally Hemings as a slave when he was fucking her.


I love flying. Now, this is the proper perspective. (Funny, because in my fiction, I’m tied to the somewhat claustrophobic first person POV, or occasionally a tight third, never omniscient.) I feel weightless. Cognitive dissonance, I know—I’m obviously up in the air, look at the clouds below me! So I must be defying gravity! In Papua New Guinea I squoze next to the pilot in a teeny bush plane and the sense of freedom and utter invincibility (because I was so aware of mortality?) was extraordinary. I guess I am a bit of a thrill-seeker, after all, though mostly of the armchair variety. I envy animals their velocity and ventilation, but I like a hot shower and an iced scotch at the end of the day.

As Gregor Samsa Awoke One Morning


How many times have you sat in a drafty head-hung flat listening to someone you love, or someone you like, or someone you loathe, or someone you think you love or like or loathe only to later realize that your opinion was based on a tiny protruding crest of an iceberg-huge human life, listening to them explain that they plan to change, utterly? Some aspect of their character or personality has sucked them into a dark hole, and they intend to crawl back out into the light by hatcheting off that particular limb?

A lot, right? A lot of times? Now, how many times have you seen someone actually metamorphose?  

I’m thinking of two ex-boyfriends, both recent divorcés, who earnestly and at length described their imminent self-overhauls: they were tired of being lady-whipped and wanted now to experience nothing more than their true, free selves. What did they enjoy, for example? Neither knew, except that they had enjoyed taking orders for far too long. Perhaps they would go to culiinary school, take up water polo, explore the kama sutra. Need I tell you that both, almost immediately after dumping me, went on to marry nasty Cruellas with jet-black hair? (The black hair thing is just coincidence, I think, but you do need to cut it with really sharp scissors.)


Lest you think that my bitterness toward ex-boyfriends is skewing the evidence, let’s look at my own efforts to change radically. Fifteen years ago, I lost 130 pounds. The way I did it and the way I thought I did it turn out to be different: I thought I cut out sugar and fat and exercised slavishly. Here’s how I actually did it: for a while I believed that if I got thin, red would become green. The blood would be hosed off my past sins and tender shoots would grow from the pristine sidewalk cracks.

Intense hope can force change, but both are unsustainable. I’ve come to admire people who shrug off bold ambition. They seem clearer-eyed, less tangled in the exhausting conundrum of discontent. The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, in his new book Missing Out, writes, "I remember a child telling me in a session … that the reason he wanted to be bigger was because he wouldn’t have to want to be bigger."


My brother is a surfer, has been since he was a boy, and I like watching how he gets a read on a wave, paddles and ducks and sidesteps and then drops in, letting it absorb his effort into its great, frothy velocity.  

* While searching for an image of a dominatrix, I came upon a lot of cheesy, halloween-porn shots, and so I googled “spike heel crushing a man,” hoping for a cool, cartoony, Robert Williams-ish image. What I found was hundreds of shots of ladies in stilettos crushing kittens, often so that their guts were punctured and spilling out—a fetish I hadn’t known about and wish to never, ever see again. Can I have my virgin eyes back, please?!

The Next Big Thing Blog Hop

The writer Michael Klein ( tagged me on the Blog Hop, and so I must answer a few questions about my novel, Thrill-Bent, which came out a couple months ago.

It makes me feel like a bit of a strumpet to palpably self-promote. But here are a few naked ladies for you to rest your eyes on—just look up here whenever you get bored.


What is your working title of your book?


Where did the idea come from for the book?

At the suggestion of a friend, I started writing about what it was like to grow up with a dad who had Tourette’s syndrome. (Or, at least, that’s what it turned out to be, when a doctor finally diagnosed him in the ‘80s. When I was a kid, we just thought he was unusually adrenalized.)

I’d seen the documentary film Twitch & Shout, and it bothered me how the people with Tourette’s were portrayed as heroes with hearts of gold. People with tics, like people everywhere, have hearts made of various metals of diverse densities, weights, and conductivity rates. Plus, I suspect that having a neurological condition that frequently makes you the victim of public humiliation might have some consequences that are less than charming—like, in my father’s case, a tendency to pass along the baton of shame to others in his immediate vicinity.

Those little personal assays into memory constellations gradually opened to other kinds of writing; I wanted to explore more fully (psychologically) the concept of being physically out of control. It’s amazing the habits that people with Tourette’s develop in order to distract others from noticing and/or reacting to their tics.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Is there such a thing as a jewishy John Hamm? He could play the dad, and then I imagine a Lena Dunham–meets–Ghost World situation with a full-figured, fortyish protaganist in a cashmere sweater, and her winglady, Martha Plimpton.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Woman goes on roller coasters to better understand her obsession with thrills, ends up meeting a bunch of weirdos and realizing that it’s a ghost tightrope between birth and death, and the thing is to walk it with panache.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

The first draft took a couple of years, since it was Frankensteined together from a pile of scraps and notes and smaller pieces. Between that and the final draft, ten years passed. I couldn’t get the thing to gel, narratively, and I finally just started over from scratch.

I wanted to do something more specific than simply write a traditional bildungsroman (especially since my protagonist/doppelganger doesn’t exactly experience a moral growth spurt); I wanted to combine new journalism with an ardently subjective viewpoint and spawn a new kind of poetry. 

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?


A Confederacy of Dunces?

On the Road?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas?

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again?

Okay, seriously, I would be happy if it reminded anyone of Richard Hell’s Go Now.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

There’re lots of naughty bits that will make your nethers tingle. A shark bites the face off a baby. At one point, hands reach out from the book and massage your temples. If you ingest pages 234-246, you will experience a vibrant glow around your laundry pile. It will force you at gunpoint to laugh out loud.


I Whip My Hair Back and Forth

Is there anything more spectacular than wind? Besides Lil Wayne’s dental work, the Australian peacock spider, and fire, I mean?

imageIf I could draw or paint, you would be looking at a portrait of my brother, sister-in-law, and me standing on a cliff above Hapuna beach (Hawaii) in 50 mph wind, watching ten thousand white caps stutter the ocean like goosebumps. Little Palmolive-colored daredevil birds were riding the air currents spazzily, and all the palm trees prostrated themselves like Muslims at dawn. Bill and I were seriously considering jumping in and bodysurfing the huge swells, but we couldn’t figure out how to cross the white sandstorm that used to be a beach below us (not having packed our Lawrence of Arabia headdresses). Our hair was whipping around our heads (this is the detail my portrait would focus on, by the way)—brown, yellow, and gray swathes gyrating like some demonic froth. I laughed, jumped up and down, howled in hilarity. Then Shelly wanted to get back in the car because her contacts were weird.



The artist Henry Darger kept a daily weather journal, which is not surprising considering his hallucinogenic, often meteorological, dreamscapes. Wind and rain and general tumultuous elemental activity bear down upon the poor, bepenised Vivian girls and their overlords, the Glandelinians, often taking up 50 percent or more of his canvases. The weather—that most genteel of conversation topics—is what makes Darger’s watercolor panoramas overwhelming to the senses.

Which brings me to another topic: isn’t it remarkable that a human being is the only animal with an erotic imagination? For some reason being down among the flamboyant fishes has got me thinking about this. Of course, most animals fuck, but we alone (I alone?) think that things like high winds and the wet suck of sand are thrillingly amatory. We want our senses to be overwhelmed, thrashed, and we also want to feel fastened, secure. Adventure and safety are tied together, and if you try to separate them, you get couples counseling. Earth + Wind = Fire?


The flowery flounder (bothus mancus) is remarkably talented. Like the humble halibut, he has evolved two pop-eyes on one side of his face (perhaps that is why he wears a permanent frown). Patterned after Emilio Pucci’s 1964 scarf-print fringed maxi, the FF changes color to fit into his environment and escape being photographed by bright white tourists with disposable underwater cameras. I noticed one the other day when suddenly part of the ocean floor fluttered.

I know where I am. I’m somewhere between the top of the earth and the bottom of the sky. I’m humming myself a lullabye.

The Enormous Collage

A few years ago my friend Anne started going to church with her dad on Sundays. And not some ecumenical, lesbian-ministered, guitar-strumming church—the Catholic church! Deep knee bends and snacking on Jesus’ flesh-wafers. When I pilloried her weird choice (merely with a sidelong glance—we’ve been friends for 30 years), she explained that she found huge relief in the quiet gathering of people for purposes other than commerce or ambition or gossip or sex. A congregation of the earnestly pondering.

image*, **

For me, the rough equivelent has always been music clubs. I’m not saying CBGB is “a church of rock and roll” or anything like that; obviously, people go to clubs in order to get laid, glad-hand, do drugs, and all sorts of other ungodly acts. But I’ve experienced moments, while listening to live music in some beer-and-ass-smelling rock club, that were transformative in a way that might—if I were less of a knee-jerk cynic and more willing to toe the brim of new ageism—be described as epiphanic.

Like, when I went to the Rite Spot last Saturday. I have to admit that initially my main plan was to drink beer. I’d been drinking, bantering, flirting, and Sketchfesting for days, and my deep ambivalence about my social persona required a(nother) beverage. Henry Plotnick, who is 11, was playing a happy hour show. The place was packed with his parents’ friends, plus a few well-behaved kids drinking virgin margaritas. Henry sat down at the piano and began to improvise. 


One by one, we stopped chatting and texting and rattling the ice in our drinks and focused entirely on the boy. At first he pressed out a series of slow, quiet diminished chords, punctuated by eloquent pauses. He couldn’t reach all the keys so he had to keep sliding up and down the piano bench, which was fucking adorable.

Soon he was tearing it up like he was the bastard son of Keith Jarrett and Sun Ra. For an hour he employed bitonal blurring, rhythmic playfulness, modulations, haunting motifs. It was not a performance: he was following some compelling private route that led him through a labyrinth and back out again. We were entranced. (A few of us were asleep.) But I felt that thing that neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor talks about when she describes what it was like to have the entire left hemisphere of her brain shut down. She could no longer discern the outlines of her specific collection of cells, and she experienced the “enormous collage of this present moment.” 


For most of that hour, I didn’t think in words, which was absolutely mind-blowing. 

* I love this depiction of Jesus offering holy communion to a kid in a powder-blue suit (though I am slightly dubious about its historical authenticity… didn’t he invent the eucharist the day before he died?).

** Also, is Jesus wearing an Ed Hardy tee shirt?!