Thursday, October 29, 2009

Some thoughts on walls. With bonus reference to masturbation.

I work as a hired gun writer in the corporate world, and like everyone in office life, walls are very important to me. Increasingly, due to space constraints, money troubles, or sadism, many companies in recent years have moved employees into cubicles. I call them veal pens. I know from past experience that cube life is awful. Cubicles are designed in part to buffer noise, but they’re typically very ineffective. For six months at previous job I worked one cube away from a woman whose adolescent-Britney-Spears-attired daughter was tethered to her by the virtual umbilical of her cell phone. Apparently the girl had gotten caught smoking pot with one of the school bad boys and this was as close to affixing a Lo-Jack to her child as she could come without Social Services getting involved. She would call several times a day when she knew her daughter was between classes or at lunch, and especially every day after school. I heard half of the conversation about every bit of domestic family minutiae particularly that the girl was NOT TO HAVE BOYS OVER and NO she could not wear a lingerie top to school.

A current coworker told me about one cube-neighbor who had a habit of nervously rocking back and forth in her chair most of the day. "The chair creaked and squeaked. I tried to oil it, but it didn't work. I would complain sometimes but she was a transplanted New Yorker. She’d just say, 'Put on your fuckin' headphones!' I finally swapped chairs with her, but a couple of weeks later that one started squeaking. She was a chair killer."

Maybe worse than sound is smell. In cube life, if your coworker wears too much perfume or passes gas all day, you’re pretty much bathing in their odors. Another cube neighbor in my past was phobic about germs and had a hard-on for Lysol aerosol, spraying it all over his workspace at the beginning of the day and before returning to work after lunch, presumably in case someone had spread anthrax across his keyboard in his absence. Clouds of pine scent would waft over the partition and rain down on me like Agent Orange.

Everyone who's worked in a cubicle has one of these stories. In all of them it seems to me there is an underlying yearning for some solitude and space to yourself, a need which is increasingly disallowed in the modern office, the ethos of which typically prizes surveillance over privacy.

In my current job, there is both more and less privacy than in my cube life days. More privacy in that everyone in my group works in offices rather than cubicles, but less in that since I'm a contractor, I'm roomed with two other members of my team in an office smaller than ones occupied by one full-time employee. I don't mind much at this point because I like my coworkers and they're both women. In prior contracts I've roomed with men: typically tech geeks who were so invested in the virtual world that they neglect almost everything real-world, including and especially hygiene and housekeeping. During these times, I've worked in near darkness (primarily nocturnal creatures, tech geek eyes can only bear the illumination provided by their dim monitors) and a funky blend of B.O. and the aromas of old pizza and coffee. One guy was so gung-ho to get hired full-time that he would sleep in the office to show his dedication to pulling the long hours. With the poor ventilation it filled up overnight with the odors of his nocturnal gas emissions fueled by eating burritos and vending machine fare.

Certainly, offices represent status in the workplace. They indicate the inhabitant is important and valued and trusted enough to have privacy. The really important people have locks on their doors, a fact that is excruciatingly titillating to the rest of us, because, while it's never talked about, everyone knows that locks on doors mean office sex, either accompanied or solo. When such privacy is not provided, I tend to find it. Whereas some people are drawn to the furnishings or fine decor of a house or office, my eye naturally gravitates to closets, alcoves, and other secluded areas. I’m always wondering, “could I fit in there?” I adopted this practice as a child when I used to hide from schoolyard predators in one of the overturned tractor tires at the periphery of the schoolyard.

Since my jobs for much of my life have been menial and/or clerical, I've often had the luxury of having keys to storage rooms or other lightly trafficked places where I could hide from the Man, read a book, have a little nap, or perhaps indulge in a little stress-and-boredom-relieving office onanism. And let’s face it, sex is sweet, but sex on company time is sublime.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Korean Reunification

On Monday, I saw a documentary as part of the San Diego Asian Film Festival, called Tiger Spirit.
Korean Canadian filmmaker Min Sook Lee intended her project to focus on the elusive and possibly extinct Korean Tiger, which is an important symbol for the Korean fighting spirit.
During filming however Lee's attention turns to the 56-year-old wall separating the two Koreas and millions of family members.
The heavily guarded DMZ was created in 1953, following the 3-year Korean war that ended in stalemate and armistice between the communist-backed North and U.S.-backed South.
At the time, Koreans assumed reunification would shortly follow.
Separation then was 'merely' geographical. It has over the years become a wide cultural expanse. South Korea has opened to capitalism while North Korea of course has grown more isolated.
During the film, we meet former North Koreans who defected south and find themselves strangers adrift in a foreign country. They must attend indoctrination classes to repatriate. They rely on each other. They start families. Get jobs. But when they close their eyes, they still dream of the Korea they know in the North. They can never return.
However, the film culminates with a 3-day reunification event between family members separated during the war. Those who fled to the South are now well into their 70s, 80s and 90s. They are picked by a lottery to attend. Many who have applied discover that their siblings and cousins have died off in the five decades.
The reunions are tightly controlled and observed. Lee doesn't tell us exactly who is observing. We know the North Koreans are under watch, but we must also assume the South Korean government has its own interests in the event. Participants are allowed only two hours of privacy in a hotel room during one of the days.
Those who are selected see old men and women looking back at them. They try to communicate through the barriers of time and dementia. As the last meeting ends, the North Koreans board buses to return them to Pyongyang. Their old family members waving them off can be heard crying and breaking down as they see their siblings probably for the last time.
It's a heartbreaking tale created by one of the most enduring walls of the last half century.

Walt Whitman, Ad Man or Mad Man?

Here's an ad agency using Walt Whitman to sell jeans:

Can a poem sell? Of course. Should a poem be used to sell? Well, Walt's dead, so he has no say.

Teachers could see the ad campaign as a teaching tool, to sell students on poetry.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

In New York? Come to a reading!

A Reading to Honor the Artist in Wartime issue of Fiction International. At The Lounge, Hudson View Gardens, Pinehurst Avenue and 183rd Street, NYC, Sunday, November 8th at 4:00 p.m.

Featuring contributors to the issue:

  • Harold Jaffe "one of our finest literary terrorists / freedom fighters" – Paradoxa

  • Patricia Eakins "intriguing and entertaining" – Greg Boyd, Asylum

  • A Tribute to Daniel Berrigan, S.J. "[Berrigan] deserves a place of honor on this century's highest shelf." - Boston Post

  • Reading in tribute to Father Berrigan: Joel Allegretti, Steve Brouwer, Michael Crosby, Gordon Gilbert, Deirdre Mahoney, and Peter Martin.

    Harold Jaffe is the author of fifteen books of fiction and creative nonfiction, most recently Jesus Coyote (a docu-novel), and Beyond the Techno-Cave: A Guerrilla Writer's Guide to Post-Millennial Culture, a collection of creative nonfiction. Jaffe's books have been translated into Japanese, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Turkish. Jaffe is editor-in-chief of Fiction International.

    Patricia Eakins is the author of The Hungry Girls and Other Stories and The Marvelous Adventures of Pierre Baptiste (a novel), which won both the NYU Press Prize for Fiction and the Capricorn Prize of the Writer’s Voice. She is the recipient of two creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and The Paris Review has awarded her the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction.

    Poet, playwright, and biographer Daniel Berrigan, S.J., is an internationally renowned peace activist, a member of the Catonsville Nine and the Plowshares Eight. He was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He is also a recipient of the Lamont Poetry Prize, the Thomas Merton Award, the Pax Christi USA Pope Paul VI Teacher of Peace Award, and the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award. He has taught religious studies and theology in various universities and has been a contributing editor to Sojourners, a magazine of faith, politics, and culture.

    Suggested donation of $7 includes one free drink and free snacks. Reception after to meet the writers. For more information call 212-923-7800, x1342.

    Meta Roles II

    What is the role of a meta narrative. When is it used effectively?

    Meta narratives, which are secondary narratives outside of the main story line, serve to intentionally disrupt the main discourse.

    Author and SDSU professor Stephen Paul Martin said recently that writers who use meta narratives walk a fine line between annoying the reader – forcing the reader to see the work from a new distance - and losing the reader entirely.

    He said meta narratives are intentionally alienating – a reference to Bavarian playwright Bertolt Brecht’s alienation effect.

    Brecht used meta elements in his epic theater in the 1940s in order to discomfort his audience and wake them from the suspension of disbelief.

    According author and SDSU professor Harold Jaffe, Brecht's alienation effect compelled his audience to think about what they were viewing.

    "That is, it encourages the reader/viewer to be pent rather than purged in the Aristotelian sense," he wrote in an email. "The alienation works like conceptual art where thinking is privileged over feeling."

    Prompted by Dr. Jaffe to delve further into the alienation effect, I reached out to Martin via email and asked him to elaborate on his comments.

    Martin replied that metafiction is often called anti-fiction because it destroys the illusion that a conventional story relies on.

    “Another way to think about metafiction is to think about what we mean when we praise a work for being spellbinding, for being able to hypnotize us so that we believe that black marks on a white surface are actually people in places doing things,” he wrote. “One of the crucial disruptive functions of metafiction is to break this spell, to expose the verbal machinery that allows an author to weave a spell, to show us what the spell is made of, to show us how the magician/author performs his trick, and so destroy the spell's power.”

    In our modern culture, individuals spend most of their waking hours operating in virtual worlds -- at computers or in front of televisions -- being fed various fictional illusions from politics to consumer advertising. All of these are narrative fictions, said Martin.

    “There are also economic, historical, scientific, anthropological, and personal fictions that cast spells on us to varying degrees, and the combination of these spells creates a consensual hallucination we've been trained to call reality,” Martin wrote.

    Metafiction can help us to break this spell and create enough separation from the language of authoritative discourses for what they are -- thus neutralizing their power, he said.

    "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," Martin wrote. "Metafictions show us what the man behind the curtain is doing, and how he does it. They disrupt the flow of comforting and seductive illusions.”

    Thursday, October 15, 2009

    The money wall

    The rich love to create money walls between themselves and "the rest." It doesn't matter if the walls they erect ultimately boomerang and take them down.

    The argument of this fascinating and deeply provoking book is easy to summarise: among rich countries, the more unequal ones do worse according to almost every quality of life indicator you can imagine. They do worse even if they are richer overall, so that per capita GDP turns out to be much less significant for general wellbeing than the size of the gap between the richest and poorest 20 per cent of the population (the basic measure of inequality the authors use).

    Tuesday, October 13, 2009


    We're workshopping a story today about a helicopter pilot in Allied occupied West Germany. It's filled with detailed descriptions of post-Nazi Germany, but also a twist which promises to get mixed reviews. The third person character, McKay, is also writing the story, which is being reviewed by his wife Suzan.

    She is making various suggestions to McKay about revising the story. This is a meta approach attempting to make the reader an self-conscious party. The couple also discuss later details in the story, which foreshadows those events.

    At the chapter's conclusion, Suzan asks McKay what she looks like as a character.

    "Are we sitting down at a table? Are we drinking wine? Is it red or white? Do I look lovely tonight? Are you serious about sailing our boat to Hawaii?"

    "Sitting down, red wine, very lovely, quite serious."

    "Oh," she said. "Will you pour me another glass please?"

    Interesting technique. But does it fly?

    Saturday, October 10, 2009

    Drive In Saturday

    YMO - Cue

    Kraftwerk - Computer Love

    The Clash - Justice Tonight/Kick It Over

    Regarding FI

    Fiction International embraces the unique. That extends to various ways writers tackle narrative perspective. In the Freak issue, "The Dummy of the Ventriloquist's Dummy" is told through a dialogue between a ventriloquist and a pair of rebellious dummies. In "Haunting Your House," the narrator's benefactor is convinced his apartment is haunted by ghosts. We find that his apartment is indeed being visited, but by former Chinese tenants evicted and angry at the gentrification he represents. He just doesn't see them or their hatred, so they may as well be ghosts.

    Thumbing through FI's Pain issue, I'm reminded that narrative can be told through letters and memoir just as well as third-person omniscient.

    This is my first blog for Fiction International. I plan to make various observations on narrative process, which may be of interest to other writers. When I scribbled this out I was in a coffee shop with my reporter's notebook, also thumbing through some midnight story ideas.

    One strikes me: a confrontation between two writers over proprietorship of written work. One is miffed when he learns that his colleague has annexed some of his material into one of his own stories. He essentially wrote through the scene. If one writer constructs a world, are others allowed to 'pass' through? I'll write it out and see how it develops.

    Tuesday, October 6, 2009

    Alum: Roland Goity

    Ever wonder what happens to Fiction International assistant editors? Do they wind up sleeping in a dusty corner of San Diego, being harassed and arrested by San Diego's finest? Or worse - sleeping in a dusty office in a university somewhere?

    Worry not more: one alum, Roland Goity, is editor of the illustrious online journal Lit 'N Image - well worth a visit. While you are there, take a look at the gorgeous photographs of John Patrick Ayson, another FI alum.

    Saturday, October 3, 2009

    Gods and Little Girls

    Gods and Little Girls

    What is worse? To die silently, as life seeps from your wrinkles or to walk panic stricken through the streets worried about the meal for your little chicks? From one side of the river the other looks so enticing. You have a meal in front of you now. Life is good isn't it little chicken? And I can stroke your hair and help you braid it. I can be here with you. Before, I worked while servants prepared your meal on a silver platter and you ate in solitude. Is that better?

    I like that you're here.

    I do too. Tonight I like it. Tomorrow, I will wake up gaunt of worry before the sun rises and roam the streets in fear that there will be no food for you. I will beg in doorways for work and scour the sea floor for crabs with the net of my hands. And I will not rest until there is enough to fatten you like dough.

    And then we can be together?

    Yes, then we can be together again. Beneath the stars, and I can share with you more secrets of life.

    What is the biggest secret?

    The biggest secret is that comfort is meaningless. Comfort is like trying to hold water in your hands. People work their lives to keep the water from leaking through their fingers. No matter how much money they make, or how much comfort they have, they always find more worries. Everywhere they turn, there will be a worry waiting, like a skull smiling at them. The great masters knew this and painted it on canvases that once donned our foyer walls. But some ignore this secret, and they will ruin themselves and the rest of us trying to be comfortable. But no matter how much they toss and turn, their beds will never feel right. They may live longer than I, even though I am old, and they may look young with balms, but they are dying inside as the air seeps from them.

    Do they love?

    You want to talk of love little chick? Everybody should love. Let me tell you a story about love. Your grandpapa and I loved across a thousand years. I think we loved each other before we were born. When our love was already written, and welcomed us to it. That is how old love is. Yes, chicken everybody should love. When we are born, angels wait for us to open our eyes and drape love around us like a velvet robe. And they are happy because love wants nothing more than to share itself.

    Like me and you? Like when we nuzzle each other? Like when you wrap your shawl around me at night?

    Yes chicken. Like that. Are you finished eating? You go ahead and finish. I want you fat. I am old, and have already had my fill. Your grandmother needs just a few morsels, nothing more than a mouthful. Let me tell you more about love. When you were born, I heard angels. They were on either side of my ears, and they whispered over me to each other about your beautiful brown eyes. I said, I know, she has her mother’s eyes. And they said, her smile, look at the dimples her smile makes. And I said, yes, she has her mother's dimples. They said, it’s as if her eyes and mouth smile at once. And I whispered to you, because I didn't want to seem like I was eavesdropping, the world is smiling with you.

    Was mama beautiful?

    She was beautiful. A mother always thinks her children are beautiful. But I have ears too. I heard them say as they walked on the path outside our home that she was the most beautiful girl in the whole valley. Some of the old superstitious ones said she was too beautiful. They came and said a prayer at our doorstep to keep out jealous spirits. You know, some people believe that spirits are easily tempted. Beautiful girls, they say, cause trouble in the heavens between gods. Jealous spirits like that are very dangerous. Some say they will put a scar across a beautiful girl's face to make her ugly, or cast them with disease or lure them into the water and drown them. Then they will try to take the form of the beautiful ones. But they cannot take human form and become even angrier and more jealous. That's why old superstitious women say prayers and light votive candles at the church. They say beautiful girls make spirits even more dangerous which is hard on the village. Don't look so frightened chicken. Those are just old tales. But that's part of life and you should know this.

    Is that what happened to mama? Was she so beautiful that a jealous spirit hurt her?

    No. Your mama died while you were being born. Those are just stories. The only spirits I believe in are good ones: angels who watch over all of us. I told your mama just after you were born that I would look after you. I told her that you would never have to worry. I would make sure you had a full belly, and the rain would stay off your head and the ground would not cut your feet because you would always have a pair of shoes. I told her I would also teach you about life, and teach you how to live a good, rich life that would be meaningful. And when you fell in love and married, that's when I would leave this life, and not a moment before.

    Will jealous spirits hurt me too?

    No, that's enough talk of that. You are beautiful like your mother. There are no jealous spirits, so wipe that worried look off your face. You're through with your plate? Okay, I'll have the rest. Why did you only eat half a piece of bread? You finish this bread, and I'll take the rest of this drumstick. Okay. Besides, there's another tale if you care to believe it, that children who are watched over by their grandmothers are especially protected from jealous spirits. It's one of the most powerful medicines in the world. Grandmothers are the best protection for little girls in the world. So you have nothing to worry about. Do you have enough blanket? Okay. Now let’s go to sleep before you start worrying again. I want to be awake before the household finds us in their doorway. Tomorrow I will find us a better place to sleep and a bed for you my darling chicken. Tomorrow we will have our own dinners and a roof over our heads. There, close your eyes and nuzzle your head in my chest. That's good. Let's dream about angels and love.

    Thursday, October 1, 2009

    Can we make art with "fortunate failures"?

    In the "Notes From the Underground" blog, James Curcio speculates about "fortunate failures":

    You may set up a class on a div, and check it out in a browser and discover that it did something totally different than you had hoped, or you may apply a filter when producing an audio track, with similar results. Sometimes, those results are undesirable, and you backtrack. But other times, it drives things in a completely new direction.

    That for me, is creativity. Not the intention that got you started in the first place.
    Actually, both are creative. It's not a contest. You now have two potential artworks and are free to pursue both to their conclusions. One is serendipitous and the other intentional, not one good and the other bad or one legitimate and the other false.