Cassius's Storybook, part two
Cassius's Storybook, Part Two
Cassius, now six. A second book in the series: Bear and Friends. (His sister, when she was five, penned Eliza Goose).
Ok, Cassius is five now. His sister, when she was five, penned Eliza Goose (published here), so we worked on a tome for him. Here it is. He wrote it in August, and we're just putting the finishing touches on now. He looked at the pictures and came up with the lines. He also art directed.
The Good Men Project: My Last Fight
The Good Men Project: "My Last Fight"
Again, I thank Lisa and Noah for their indulgence, and I worry about the tag. But, here it is, my last fight (I hope).
… The cabbie would have driven away, but when I got out, I left the door to my side of the taxi open. He had to get out of his side of the car, walk around, and close the door, which he did. More heated words, and he came at me. I know when someone is coming at me with bad intentions, so I tapped him on the chin.
There’d been snow, and he went flying into a snow bank. Kelly marched off, and I followed, explaining that the guy had come at me. She informed me that the man had been weeping before he got out of the cab. ...
Largehearted boy: All the World's a Grave
Largehearted boy: All the World's a Grave
Ok, I'm going back and retooling this post a bit. In 2008, David Gutowski posted my All the World's a Grave playlist to largeheartedboy: http://www.largeheartedboy.com/blog/archive/2008/11/book_notes_john_3.html
I'm writing another playlist for him (my third, there was also one for Tales of Woe). This one will be a list of the "top, great, best" fifty songs about New York. I'm compiling the NYC playlist for the new edition of Snowball's Chance, and this time around I've put together a youtube playlist to embed. Which brings us to the reason for the revision of this post: I also went back to the Grave playlist and made a youtube playlist for it. So, without further ado, the youtube playlist for All the World's a Grave:
"Reed has brought music's remix culture to literature with stunning results." —David Gutowski, Largeheartedboy
originally posted 11/21/08, revised:
The Good Men Project: This is Not a Toy
The Good Men Project: "This is Not a Toy"
Ok, I had a kissing babysitter, which is evidently quite common, and I liked it. I don't agree with the tagline, but regardless I am grateful to Lisa and Noah at the Good Men Project, for allowing me to keep company in a category that I doubt applies.
… She was almost a teen, and I was on the cusp of too old for a babysitter—a sophisticated nine. She went to public school, but was studious, upright, arriving with an armful of books. She didn’t wear a backpack, she carried her books in a pile, bound in a strap. We sat on the couch and talked. She and her friends were beginning to have parties—so-and-so liked so-and-so and she liked so-and-so and at such-and-such party so-and-so and so-and-so made out. She practiced kissing on me; I was cooperative. …
My five-year-old daughter and I made this in 2009. She looked at the pictures and came up with the lines. I'm afraid it takes a second to load. If you have it, full screen of course.
Brooklyn Rail: How Arthur Phillips Stole My Bike
Brooklyn Rail: How Arthur Phillips Stole My Bike
published as: Arthur Phillips Stole My Bike in the Brooklyn Rail (where it looks better):
Arthur Phillips (left) and John Reed. Photo by Dustin Luke Nelson.
April 18, 2011.
7:30 a.m. The alarm. Meh meh. Clock radio, but I’m too deaf for music to wake me up; I lost my hearing, or made it go away faster, with 20 years of Judo. I reset the alarm for 7:45 and lie there, in a sand of bliss, knowing that the tide of a long day has just rolled in.
I have to get to 311 Henry Street, Brooklyn Heights. From my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, Google mapped it at 37 minutes, but it will be longer. I don’t want to take the R train, or a taxi, which will run $20 – 25.
The Wednesday before, my computer started melting down. I came home at 8 p.m., knowing I had 20 minutes of work to do, then spent eight hours “fixing” the computer. On Friday, the computer died. As of Monday, I was copacetic, my anarchist tech guy was on the way, and between my office and my wife’s laptop, I was keeping up. E-mails, teaching, and working on Bikini Bloodbath Shakespeare (my “directorial debut,” which voice-overs a low-budget horror movie with a new script culled from Shakespeare).
For several months, I’d been going back and forth with Dustin Luke Nelson. Dustin and his wife, Ashleigh Lambert, run the le Poisson Rouge reading series, where I’d read the previous February, as well as maintain the InDigest website. Dustin and I had been struggling to come up with a good idea for his InDialogue series.
Then I got an e-mail, spam, from Arthur Phillips. He had a new book, part of which was similar to my fourth book. In All The World’s A Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare, I disassembled the works of Shakespeare, and reassembled them, line by line, into a new Shakespeare tragedy. Hamlet goes to war for Juliet, captures her, and returns to find that his mother has murdered his father and married Macbeth. Lear, Juliet’s father, mounts his army. I have a footnoted version on my website: lines, meter, structure, all Shakespeare. Very occasionally, a play may appeal to a bookstore readership. In 2008, taking the prescribed course for such a work, Penguin released Grave through Plume.
Phillips’s 2011 book, The Tragedy of Arthur, includes a new play by William Shakespeare. A 200-page fictionalized memoir prefaces the Elizabethan-styled play. Abridged, the length of a short quarto, Phillips’s play mimics one of Shakespeare’s histories.
I first remember meeting Phillips in 2008, at the Brooklyn Book Festival, where a Shakespeare troupe read scenes from Grave on one of the outdoor stages. April 25, 2009, at the Center for Independent Publishing’s annual Writer’s Conference, I moderated a talk on “Writing Process”; Phillips was a panelist. He was promoting his novel, This Song is You. My friend Brando remembered Phillips as “the Jeopardy Champion.” Phillips, indeed, had been a winner on the game show.
I e-mailed Dustin, and Dustin said, “Of course,” and I e-mailed Arthur, who said he was aware of my book, and agreed to a talk. That was generous of him; his book was likely to be well-covered. The overlap was incidental.
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
7:45. I get up, and can’t decide what to wear. What does one wear to . . . this? I’d have to be able to teach in it. René Ricard, a flamboyant poet who lived in my mother’s loft when I was a kid, would say: “Wear the most expensive f-ing thing you have!” Advice that makes me look public school. P.S. 41.
7:55. Get stuck on my wife’s computer. Our recording studio for Bikini Bloodbath Shakespeare has fallen through. Too late to bike. R train to Brooklyn. Travel time: 47 minutes. I don’t want to take a taxi, and have a creeping feeling that the interview has been called off, though neither Dustin nor Arthur has e-mailed to cancel. Thirty dollars on a taxi to nothing is too awful to contemplate. I can’t decide whether to think of him as Arthur or Phillips.
I grab sunglasses—don’t wear them often—and slip them on in the elevator. I’ve also spritzed myself with cologne. Gray Flannel; I picked the brand 14 years ago, and have gone through 1 1/4 bottles. A woman is pleasant to me in the lobby, and I realize I haven’t made this much of an effort—suit, sunglasses, hair, cologne—in months.
8:15. On the sidewalk. I’m not going to be in Brooklyn Heights by 9:00, not by subway. I don’t want to take a taxi. Since I started getting myself ready for school, second grade, I’ve been telling myself I could be ready in five minutes.
I start down 52nd Street: R train at 49th and Seventh Avenue. On the corner of 10th Avenue: a pair of lost tourists. Mother and daughter. Their map is unfolded.
“You need help?”
“No,” says the mother.
“Where can we rent bicycles?” asks the daughter.
“There are two places nearby,” I say.
I take a closer look at her. Blond, a cross between Siri Hustvedt and Allison. On our one date, Allison made fun of my not knowing what the Twin Cities were. She pressed her fingers, shaped like an L, against my forehead.
“St. Paul?” I ask the daughter.
“Minneapolis,” she answers.
I point. “There’s one on Ninth Avenue between 52nd and 53rd, but the one between 55th and 56th is better.”
“Thank you,” says mom.
Then the daughter asks me how to get to SoHo on a bike, if that’s possible, and I work out the route for them on the map.
I’m not going to get to Brooklyn Heights by 9:00. Forty-seven minutes to Henry Street, and it’s 8:27. If I don’t get lost, I’ll be there at 9:14. Fifteen minutes late. I don’t want to take a taxi; I trudge back to 11th Avenue and hail one.
I tell the cabbie where I’m going, and he brightens up like I’m going to JFK.
Sometimes cabbies get impatient, make a sudden turn when they see a red light. I’m not paying attention, and my guy turns off the highway at 23rd. We hit traffic.
“Mercury is in retrograde,” he explains.
“I know,” I say. People have been telling me for weeks.
9:07. The taxi pulls up. Forty bucks. We’d overshot the address by a block, and I walk back. 9:10. Dustin is there. Phillips isn’t. I order coffee. Self-serve, from a carafe. Phillips shows up at 9:15, wearing sweats, and fuzzy like a yeti.
“Dog hair,” he corrects. “Always.”
He looks like a man who lives in deep isolation. But also like he’s chosen to look that way.
There’s a Baudelaire prose poem that I talk about in my classes:
Baudelaire is on a train, sitting across from a pair of bedraggled beggars. He has a baguette—a poet with day old bread. The beggars watch with hungry eyes. Baudelaire eats down to the stale heel of the bread. He can’t tear the heel, so he tosses it, whole, to the two beggars. One exclaims, “Cake!” and the two beggars claw at the crust, and each other, until there’s nothing left but crumbs.
The three of us, me, Arthur, and Dustin, opt for a table outside—even though I worry it’s too cold. Dustin turns on the tape recorder. I’m freezing. We talk de facto—what gave you the idea blah blah. I have a notepad, and Phillips jokes that I’m better prepared than he is. Grave got okay review attention; I did do a few interviews: Internet, print, radio. As we talk, I get a greasy feeling in my gut, and fight the suspicion that my Q&As are coming out of Phillips.
Mercifully, Phillips asks if I want to go inside. We do, and I refresh my cup at the carafe. We finally stumble onto something we differ on, when Phillips alludes to his hatred of the “anti-Stratfordians.” He cites the common criticism, “those guys just can’t stand the thought that a man of the people could write these plays.” It’s a straw-man argument directed at the Oxfordians, who credit the plays to the Earl of Oxford. There are many candidates in the “authorship question,” which, to my mind, misses the point. Shakespeare worked in a time without the encumbrance of a cult of identity, and without copyright as we know it. People collaborated, and Shakespeare was a head writer/producer who worked with other writers—think today’s Hollywood system. In Shakespeare’s work, there’s bound to be extensive evidence of other writers, because Shakespeare collaborated extensively. Few Shakespeare scholars would disagree, and as for specifics, I pick up the Shakespeare biographies, then put them down and pick up a Shakespeare play. The choice persists: Shakespeare, or mediocre speculation on Shakespeare?
Which leads back to the “authorship question.” The New Historicists have allowed themselves a process of a fortiori speculation. They draw broadly on Shakespeare’s period, and extrapolate. It’s a creative process, narrative non-fiction, and makes for improved reading. But free association, however informed, is not exclusively historical. There are maybe 20 Shakespeare facts that biographers revisit—spinning yarns of threads. The “anti-Stratfordians” arise from the same practice. As if to say: “If you’re going to make things up, so are we.” In and of itself, the “authorship question” is inconsequential to literary history; there is unlikely to ever be sufficient evidence to reconcile the fractals. Rather, the debate is preliminary to a healthy advance in how we think about creativity: the enduring impact of the Shakespeare library is perhaps the greatest argument in the arts that the biography of the creator isn’t that important to the understanding, the appreciation, of the work itself.
Phillips talks about immortality, about how he wants it, and I want it too. The mundanity exhausts me. As a teenager, I told my father’s friend, Charles Munch, that people are sperm—to which he observed I was speaking for myself. I look into Arthur’s face, and he seems so suburban to me, and I remember he’s from Minnesota. He asks if immortality is what I want. I talk about local arts. Shakespeare’s London had a population of 250,000. Global population today: 6.75 billion. One out of five people on Earth speaks English. To seek a line of descent, from the “greats” of the Western arts, is a fantasy—even if there is such a thing as “genius,” which recent science calls into question (“genius” may be common, if not inherent, to the human genome). “Genius” is a facile justification, best suited to marketing and oppressive conservatism.
Phillips talks about his perceived overlap with Shakespeare. A character named Arthur turns up in the King John series. While I worked on Grave, I found similar evidence: “John is the author of all,” from Much Ado About Nothing, etc. Phillips touts a birthday shared with Shakespeare; no record of Shakespeare’s birthday exists, but the celebration is traditionally coupled with St. George’s Day. I mention that I share a birthday with Charles Dickens—something I hate hearing myself say.
It ill beseems this presence to cry aim
To these ill-tuned repetitions.
Some trumpet summon hither to the walls
These men of Angiers: let us hear them speak
Whose title they admit, Arthur’s or John’s.
Phillips and I hesitate to be critical of each other—though I can see he questions my choice to update Elizabethan words. Most of the updates to Grave were minor, spelling, but on occasion I contemporized a word that had evolved. “Porpentine,” for example, was a nearly irresistible indulgence—but since “porcupine” was metrically identical to “porpentine,” and since Shakespeare would have opted for the contemporary term, I yielded to usage. Excepting superficial edits, I upheld the Shakespeare—the poetic logic, the complexity, and the variation in the meter—which is where Phillips made his concessions to readability. His meter is metronomic with very little poetry. His use of Elizabethan words is light garnish, not broth—“sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
In defense of Phillips’s streamlined narrative, Shakespeare’s histories are less poetic, all that furniture moving, and contemporary productions of Shakespeare are pragmatic distillates, as is Phillips’s play. While Grave is full-length, 27,000 words, the length of Richard III (Hamlet is 32,000 words), I also cut a short version, a “quarto,” honed by readings, smaller productions, and university productions. Even in Shakespeare’s times, a full-length production outside of London was unusual.
That our projects are simultaneously very similar and very different invites inquiry, but we evade confrontation. The major selling point of each book, a new play by William Shakespeare, is identical. The fault line—the big distinction—could be expressed (with assorted prejudices) as fiction vs. literature, realism vs. experimentalism, readability vs. pretension, “slick” fiction vs. “quality” fiction. The division doesn’t always hold, but the logic goes like this: in “commercial” fiction, content follows structure. In short, the story content takes on the structure that best meets the market. An easy example: Harlequin romance novels have formulas, the bodice must be torn off on page 64, etc. The story is fitted to the structure. In “literary,” or “experimental” fiction, structure follows content. The content defines how the story is told. For example, a paragraph about a bee is shaped like a bee. That self-awareness is modernism, post-modernism. Arthur, which adopts post-modern techniques, is nonetheless essentially commercial; Phillips sought the market, readability, and a category that worked (the novel)—and to those ends sacrificed as required. I sought the content first; I sacrificed structure, categories, to write what I thought was the “real thing.”
That political discussion would also betray our cordiality, Phillips and I are left with little to say. Content follows structure = the individual follows society. Structure follows content = society follows the individual. Phillips has produced a Shakespearean play that equates the life of a contemporary author with Shakespeare; it is a justification of today’s writer life, today’s creative life, today’s upper-middle-class life. My intention—to write the anti-war play that Shakespeare, beholden to royalty, couldn’t write—is subversive. An act of subversion with subversive objectives. Perhaps an author can never trust his/her own intentions, but on a conscious level, Grave was my answer to the question: how does one write revolution?
I ask Phillips if, given his title, The Tragedy of Arthur, he considers his play a tragedy, or a history. He knows that I’m thinking it’s a history; Shakespeare’s histories are, as a category, his least compelling oeuvre. Phillips says it’s a history. A moot point, he knows; his book is a novel.
It is assumed by most of us that Shakespeare is the greatest dramatist in the world … But take the poetry and the incredible psychological insight away and you have artificial plots that were not Shakespeare’s own to start with, full of improbable coincidence and carelessly hurried fifth-act denouements.
Novelizations of Shakespeare’s plays have been coming out steadily for 200 years. Phillips, with his fictional memoir, avoids the pitfalls. The subject comes up—Chris Adrien’s The Great Night, an update of Midsummer, was released at the same time as Arthur—and Phillips says it’s been done, and I tease him, “Maybe that wouldn’t stop you.” The joke doesn’t come off, but I don’t regret it. Arthur and Dustin ignore me; I know the jibe won’t make the edit.
Phillips offers a startling comment—he thinks his play could have been written by Shakespeare. In his book, his fictionalized persona flirts with the assertion, which I’d assumed was pretense. Phillips repeats himself several times: Arthur could have been written by Shakespeare. He’s serious, the attitude of a forger. In 1796, William Henry Ireland took the same stand, but after one performance of his play Vortigern and Rowena, the jig was up. (The story of William Henry Ireland and his father, Samuel, is the source material for the father/son story in Arthur.)
Phillips, backing away from the mic, asks if I think his play could have been written by Shakespeare.
For meter, Phillips played with word order. The reversal of word order was a hallmark of standard Elizabethan fare—standard bad Elizabethan fare. Shakespeare sought emphasis in alternate word order. While I didn’t see anything out of place in Phillips’s play, the language lacked range. Ren’ Fairs abound; it’s not particularly difficult to indicate an era—but it is difficult to represent an era in the span of its curious complexity. Arthur is faithful to Elizabethan English, but calling it representative would be like calling Dick and Jane representative of 20th-century English.
During the interview, we talked about some of the bad plays—Titus, Timon, Pericles, even the of-dubious origin Edward III—and I can certainly see Phillips taking part in the writing of one of those. Those projects were undoubtedly collaboration—either Shakespeare contributed a few flourishes or an outline, or was possibly Bowdlerized after his draft was completed (the term “Bowdlerized” dates to the 19th century, and Thomas Bowdler’s sanitized productions of Shakespeare).
“I think Arthur could have been a collaboration with Shakespeare,” I say carefully.
Phillips switches up his question, asks if I think Grave could have been written by Shakespeare. I know that my pace is faster than Shakespeare’s and that Grave, even though it’s all Shakespeare and all sounds like Shakespeare, also sounds like me.
“I think it could have been a collaboration with Shakespeare.”
There’s a 5,000-word essay at the end of Grave. Phillips asks why it’s at the end: a criticism. In fact, I had considered putting it in the front. I originally wrote a 15,000-word essay, which I thought to break up into a 5,000-word intro and 10,000-word outro. Wanting to emphasize the play, I trimmed the essay and relegated it to the back; Phillips put the essay in the front, and wrote more like 40,000 words. A different gear ratio.
The interview ends with the “what are you working on now?” question. Mixed Martial Arts comes up. What a loser I am, but I ask that Dustin turn the mic back on. I have a notion for writing a narrative history of the new fight game—I did that stuff for 20 years. It’s a book that I don’t think has been written, and there’s an obvious social relevance—it’s a borderless, raceless sport, which integrated the world in very much the same way boxing integrated America. I also have a fantasy that Phillips will step into a cage and fight me. Would be fun—we could play it up. Throw down the gauntlet in Elizabethan verse.
A Little Little Grave
When were you a man? Or didst beastly form
infect thy mother’s womb? Part man, in graces,
more dog, in appetite and gross submission.
You are a tame man: go as you would come,
take as you would follow, fat as tame things.
Yet dogs must eat and meat was made for mouths,
and thou, who lovest not this cur, art brother—
a sweet boy ripe in mischief. Play boy, play,
thou art a lesser villain than myself.
‘Tis naught to use thy brothers brotherly,
and I am but a mangy, beggar’s dog,
born to cries aloud, curses, and deep exclaims.
Shouldst thou have thy marble mansion, and I
a little little grave, an obscure grave,
but few odd friends will remember: there lies
two kinsmen digg’d their graves with weeping eyes.
Many a poor man’s son would have lien still
and ne’er have spoke a loving word to you;
ay, you may think my love is crafty love
and call it cunning: do, an’ if you will:
if you must use me ill, why then you must.
I warrant I love you more than you do me,
and curse the birthright that gave you no heart:
to hang your banner on the outward wall;
to stand within the arras and rush forth;
to demonstrate, of lives lifeless, the life
of battle; to laugh a siege to scorn.
Thou art better in thy grave than to answer.
But would you bear your fortune like a man,
yet but young in deed, we would be young again,
both accout’red like young men: the prettier,
braver, your mincing steps turned manly stride,
your reed voice speaking of frays like a fine
braggart—of how you played the flouting jack.
Prince Arthur or Sir John: stranger and stranger.
One better not born, one better-part dead.
Come, go we in procession.
Whose title they admit, Arthur’s or John’s,
‘tis nothing but conceit, some nameless woe
of forefather’s grief, of brother’s excuse.
All little jealousies, which now seem great,
and all great fears, which now import their dangers,
would then be nothing: truths would be tales,
where now half tales be truths.
Come, brother beast,
the sun is high, and we outwear the day.
I stay but for my guidon: to the field!
Let’s fight it out and not stand cavilling thus.
Read here, young Arthur: there’s my gauntlet.
Now I’ll stand back, and let the coffin pass.
As we step outside for a photo, Phillips says he’s been boxing for six years—which I’ve heard—but that he doesn’t spar. I’m guessing he’s saying he won’t fight me.
I ask him if he teaches anywhere, and he acts insulted. I’m teaching three classes at two schools: Fordham and New School. I’m also an occasional at Columbia, and in fall, New York University. I don’t often exceed two classes a semester, but I stepped in at Fordham at the last minute. Years before, I spent some time in Cuba, where teaching is thought of as a human responsibility. Three classes is too many, but how could I not cherish something that makes me a better person? For a moment—just as we cross the street—I hate him. The guy just insulted every Nobel Laureate on Earth.
We part with a hug.
Dustin and I take the subway; Dustin is ambitious, capable, intelligent, and, good God, from Minnesota.
11:20. I get to my office, Crosby Street, which I still have from my glam days before the economic whatever-this-is. I want to find a few hours for my fight game proposal. I also want to look at a couple of scenes from Bikini Bloodbath Shakespeare.
I call a theater director I knew in college. We pick up a conversation from two years back. A reading of Grave: the cast non-white, or largely non-white, like Lee Breuer’s The Gospel at Colonus, to disassociate Grave from its sources.
We wonder what happened to our college friends—we’d had big plans for our lives together, but gone our separate ways. Me, to graduate school.
“Oh, wait,” I say, “I know what it was.”
“Yeah. It went down exactly like it was supposed to go down. First, they rip you from your family, put you in school; then they rip you from your community, ship you off to college; then they rip you out of the college community. At every stage in your life, whenever you might forge meaningful relationships with people, they make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“Who is they?”
“You know who ‘they’ are.”
“What did Columbia do for you anyway?”
“I don’t know—kept me from being a danger to society.”
“I mean, it helped a little. People who went to Harvard don’t act like I’m a peasant.”
Then I call Clove Breuer, who’s in the city for a few days. She was my closest friend at Friends Seminary, the private school I went to after P.S. 41. Her parents: downtown theater people. My parents: downtown artists. She went to Brown, where I was admitted on transfer (after a year at Tulane). Probably unwise, I opted for Hampshire.
I tell Clove what happened; I sound like a child.
“Who is he?” she asks. I tell her, but she’s never heard of him.
“The Jeopardy guy—he won Jeopardy,” I clarify. She still doesn’t know who I’m talking about.
“He went to Harvard, then bummed around Prague, where he wrote a novel, Prague,” I say, but that doesn’t help, and I start to apologize for mentioning it all.
“At Harvard, they train people to do that.”
She’s saying that Harvard trains people to commercialize ideas.
Clove has some possible contacts for me on a reading, and she asks, “What do you want?”
“Out of a reading, or life?”
“Life, I guess.”
I don’t know what I want. “I want to run through the street, screaming, ‘The king is dead!’”
Clove invites me to a benefit for the theater company her parents founded, Mabou Mines. It starts at 8:00, Paula Cooper Gallery, Chelsea.
I get my few hours of work done.
2:20. Five minutes to spare.
I see I have a reply from a friend I e-mailed the night before. She has the same last name as the professor I replaced at Fordham. The professor, a writer and Shakespeare scholar, had passed away suddenly, and at her memorial service I noted a resemblance. My friend agreed, there was a resemblance, and yes, both families hailed from the middle of the country. She wasn’t aware of a relation, but she couldn’t be certain—typical of Mercury in retrograde, she wrote.
I race out of the office, now five minutes late. I do some reading on the train. The class is a good group, but shell-shocked by the loss of their professor. Today, they read work aloud, game show style, and elect winners to represent the class at the undergraduate reading later that night. The game-show doesn’t elicit the hysteria it did in the fall semester, but we choose representatives.
5:15. Class ends. I hang around, talking to students.
5:45. I race home, eight blocks and a few avenues. I have to be back at Fordham at 7:00 for the reading.
When I walk in the door, I’m starving. I see a tub of steak on the counter. The kids are running around. My wife is at her computer, and on the phone. I don’t know when they could have made the steak. Maybe lunch? My wife is busy with her call, and I move for the tub. She looks up, nods vigorously, points to the steak, and turns back to her laptop. I can see the steak is heavily spiced, Italian medley kind of thing, even though it isn’t aromatic. I peel off the lid and select a patty of meat. It’s squishy, been refrigerated. Big bite. A sponge. Not steak. I’m gagging in the sink. My wife is looking at me, having forgotten her call—she hurries to the bedroom, not to be distracted. The kids have appeared; they stand in the kitchen, watching me with their lemur eyes. I’m retching and rinsing out my mouth. When I turn around, they’re still there.
“What was that?” I ask.
“The mold experiment,” says my daughter, six-and-a-half.
“The mold experiment?”
“Yeah,” says my son, four.
“When did you start that?”
“A long time ago,” says my daughter.
“What did it taste like?” asks my son.
“Uh,” words elude me, “not good.”
The children wait for a better answer.
“It tasted not good, with soap,” I say.
“There was soap in there,” says my son.
My daughter explains, “We wanted to see what it would do to the mold.”
The pair reports that I didn’t bite into a sponge, but a dinner roll, which I’m instructed to return to the glass tub.
That morning, my taxi driver had told me about his seven children. I marveled that he’d managed seven; he assured me that it wasn’t the same where he was from. Back in his village in Pakistan, his kids would roam “like pets.” Everyone in the village knew everyone else, and the kids would drift from uncle to aunt to cousin, often for days at a time. In Western culture we tend to assume that people without money are poor. The process of drawing people into capitalism, stripping them of their land and family so that they’re dependent on work and government, is the fundamental impoverishment. My wife and I are homeschooling our two children; American society is not set up for that. Far too often, I leave her alone for “the bedtime ritual.”
6:50. After dinner, all from scratch, I grab my bike and head back to Fordham. The best thing about the bike, which I picked up off Craigslist, is the gigantic basket. The fruit lady gave it to me and the kids.
The reading is a challenge for me acoustically, but I get through, laughing with the students. I finally get a chance to chat with Willie Perdomo, a poet I admire. He went to my high school, Friends Seminary, where he briefly dated Clove.
8:40. The reading lets out, I hurry down for my bike; I can ride to Chelsea, drop into Clove’s thing, and be home not-too-late. My bike isn’t where I locked it.
The equation of Arthur—Shakespeare = a contemporary writer living in Brooklyn—perpetuates the fallacy of Shakespeare as a lone author, and the arrogance of a Bed, Bath & Beyond demographic. The argument, hostile to the arts, is that creativity falls outside community and economics (in reality, Shakespeare and his accomplishments came of a collaborative community, and the coffers of the Queen). But I can’t imagine an artist consciously driven to make him/herself bigger by making the rest of us smaller; I can’t imagine such a need, such a void. That Phillips’s book is assimilative propaganda is dispiriting, not evidential. Something’s in the air, a few people come up with an idea. Happens all the time. And yet, I think, here it is: Arthur Phillips stole my bike.
8:55. I run into my house and grab my skateboard. Skate down to Chelsea. Wrong kind of board for a long ride, so it’s slow going. The Minnesota tourists pass me on their way back from SoHo. We wave.
9:30. I arrive at the event, asking if Lee Breuer (Clove’s father) is around, I have a book for him to sign, but he’s in Europe: getting video-conferenced in.
I talk to people I’ve known my whole life: theater people. Gay men still fabulous, hard-edged artists, earth-mother producers. I can’t shut up about the Phillips thing; they’re patient. A few “famous” downtown people are there, people I’ve been seeing at events like this since I was four. There can be something terribly sad about talking with them, about the monstrosity that puts distance between us, and/or the monstrosity that makes me remember them too well.
In Grave, I count four major influences. First: Lee Breuer’s production of The Gospel at Colonus (performed in 1985). Second and third: Ruth Maleczech (Clove’s mother) as Lear in another Mabou Mines production, 1990; the performance of an actor, whose name I don’t know, who played Iago in a 1992 summer production in Maine. Fourth, one of those famous downtown people: he encouraged me after I had written the first act of Grave, when I was a junior in college, and then he turned up again, years later, when I had written the second and third acts. He pointed out that the work was, as much as art can be any one thing, an expression of radicalism. That Grave was without category, my primary market concern, was an unavoidable structural conclusion.
Lute, Clove’s baby brother, is mid-30s now. He walks in through the gallery doors, with his daughter in his arms. She’s slightly younger than my children, and in her face I see so much of Lute, of Clove, of their parents, and of my own life that tears fill my eyes. Weirdly pathetic, but I’m so overcome with emotion I can barely speak. The child, exhausted, flumps over Lute’s shoulder as he carries her to the car service. Her child eyes watch me.
After the benefit, there’s dancing. My preferred cocktail appears—one of my fab uncles. I dance with Clove and Caitlin, the first girl I seriously made out with. Seventh grade. The DJ mixes in ’80s songs for us: “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” and “Born To Be Alive.” Caitlin and I bust couple moves we came up with for the school dance contest.
I have to get home. I grab my skateboard. Clove walks me out. She’s about to tell me that Mercury is in retrograde, so I tell her I know. She says she was going to tell me it hasn’t been in retrograde for a week.
I step onto the sidewalk, not looking forward to skateboarding uptown. A car pulls up. A taxi. Another 10 bucks if I take it. Fifty dollars on taxis in one day. I can’t bear it. I glance at my watch, 11:22, and climb in. The driver pulls away. I look out the back window: a couple of tourists are running after the taxi, trying to wave it down. I feel like a bougie pig, and sink low in the seat. The cab hurdles up the avenue, a straight shot through Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen to my apartment. I pull out my hearing aids. Silence. It’s a city of kindred spirits and ghosts, and in the pale orange of the streetlamps, I sense the laughter, all the laughter, of humor, hubris, and honor.
* Ed.’s note: The Brooklyn Rail is not accusing Arthur Phillips of stealing property.
Los Angeles Times, my version: "The Two Types of Assholes"
Los Angeles Times, my version: "The Two Types of Assholes"
Well, as it turns out, my fault, but we put up the wrong version. That was on Jacket Copy for the Los Angeles Times.:
I’m posting my version, uncensored, here.
Jacket Copy, Summer Reading: John Reed on 'The Dark Knight Returns'
John Reed has written novels -- "A Still Small Voice" and "Snowball's Chance" -- as well as stranger assemblages. What do you call a play made up entirely of mixed-up lines from six of Shakespeare's best-known plays? Reed called it "All the World's a Grave," and Penguin published it in 2008. This month, Reed returns to shelves with "Tales of Woe," a bleak, black book full of true tales of undeserved suffering, illustrated with grim original art by Kiki Jones and others. "This is not Hollywood catharsis," the book proclaims on its back cover. "This is Greek catharsis: You watch people suffer horribly, then feel better about your own life." John Reed took a sideways response to our questions: This is, sort of, his essay about summer reading, and growing up.
JC: Do you remember reading a book or books during a specific summer?
JR: A few things, I can tell. I can usually tell a martial arts guy: he'll have a look like "I could move a lot faster, but it hurts too much." And, probably related because a lot of martial arts guys were abused as children—or are living something down—I can tell when someone had an alcoholic parent. A person too good, too facilitating, probably as he or she had to be through childhood. I didn't learn that at Al-Anon, no doubt the better course, I learned that in the arts. I grew up in the artworld, stayed somewhat, and have added in a writer crowd. Nothing more obvious—"I was a neglected child—" than that smiling asshole author shot. There's one of me on the back flap of my first book.
Which brings me to the two types of assholes. 1) The kind that cares what other people think. 2) The kind that doesn't.
It was while reading The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller's update of the Batman legacy, that I realized my life, or the quest of my life, would be to transform myself from the first kind of asshole to the second. I haven't always succeeded, and I still rip my shirt of my back three times a week, but I think my development as an author—from Civil War love story to Tales of Woe, twenty-five true stories that just get worse—shows promise.
The Dark Knight was a momentous event to the comics community. It was an avalanchian erosion of hard boundaries: between mainstream comics and underground comix, between adult and juvenile comics, between the comic book and the book. The four-part series had better art, better writing, and a more complicated narrative. Batman, the aging hero who was as if the personification of the Comics Code (which legislated that law enforcement be depicted as just and upstanding) is transformed into a decaying 80s hero. A Clint Eastwood cowboy who's lost his sense of right; an investigative detective who's gotten too close to the pathology of the serial killer; a hero struggling, struggling, not to become a villain. That was the best part about it. Not the struggle to stay heroic, but the inevitable fall. The Dark Knight didn't rekindle my interest in superheroes, but here was this jag on the timeline: this comic book that was really a book, and art and text and a direction that would dispatch the Comics Code, which was a creative death sentence; and this plausibility of asshole enlightenment. Batman was an enlightened asshole. Or, at his best he was.
Not long before, I'd read Machiavelli's The Prince, which is only going to work if you're a prince, and Anton LaVey's The Satanic Bible, which is, fittingly, a largely plagiarized rip-off. The best I had done to satisfy my own sense of theology was The Gospel of Thomas, which iterated the popular notion that God is inside you, or something akin. Not for two years would the villain postulation be succinctly framed and illustrated in the Batman universe—not until The Killing Joke, by Allan Moore and Brian Bolland, did a piece of shit like the rest of us come alive with the punchline (becoming the joker)—but still, in The Dark Knight, I caught an inkling of a contemporary treatment. The appeal of the villain, of asshole type #2. Only the villain seeks freedom.
JC: What year was it, and how old were you?
JR: My second summer in the South of France. The previous year, I'd travelled to the Côte d'Azur because, after what I'd perceived as an injustice, I'd flunked my sophomore year of high school french. At that time my mother's art career was over the moon, and my father's was improving—and my grandfather, who had a little money and some wisdom, suggested I remediate my difficulties in view of the Mediterranean. The reasoning behind a second summer: ostensibly, my certificate in Intermediate French; really, because the first summer I'd returned to New York with a 24-year-old investment banker.
At 17, I was past my prime. 1986: I'd been wearing high tops and army pants. 1987: I was in shoes. I wouldn't say I had crossed over, but I was standing on the shoreline, and if I wasn't yet a young man, I was no longer a boy. I'd grown, I was taller, and drugs had started to bore me and make me boring. I'd broken my nose several more times, fighting. I'd read too many books. I'd launched my on-again off-again performance "Clarity Corner," in which I would answer any question, any question at all. I was reading philosophy and occult opinings, and not managing to take it seriously. I'd have insights like, "The truth must invalidate itself," meaning to say that the measure of any subjective truth was the balance of its fallibility, and have debates about it with Germans. Perhaps I was still a beautiful youth, but as far as the older women (twenty-four seemed "older"), the stick on the fly paper was gone. I'd become moody and, worse, self-educated.
Having known none of the upper middle class stability that I chose to see everywhere in popular culture, I lavished open-mouthed attention on women who wore co-ordinated beach attire, and issued pat answers for every occasion. (Now, older is, hmm, Sarah Palin age: Tales of Woe features two Sarah Palin Pin-Ups.) The previous summer, I'd come close; my investment banker was a former president of Kappa Kappa Gamma and went to one of those schools. One of those schools that, with my grades, I was unlikely to get into. But she was secretly troubled, Jenny P, and I think more intrigued by my need for physical intimacy than motivated by desire; I wasn't too interested in sex (more like, sexual acts; sex was too intimate), and my big trick through that summer and most of high school was to pass out with a woman in my arms.
JC: Where were you?
I settled into my redux enrollment at the Collège International de Cannes with little expectation of romance, or whatever it is a 17-year old male expects of inter-gender relationships. I shunned the other Americans, who weren't from New York; the Scandinavians were alternately out-of-my-league or talking about getting pregnant and going back to their single-mother utopia; the Austrians looked like they belonged in SS uniforms; there were no Icelandics, who I'd had a rapport with in '86 (fellow islanders?); the Italians were looking to marry each other; and the French had no use for me whatsoever.
Which is where my acceptance of villainy comes in.
JR: Why was the book/s significant to you then?
JC: I was drinking heavily. '86, it was Black & White whiskey, which was reasonably priced at the supermarché. '87, I found this cheap vodka with a blade of grass in it. (Until this writing, that was all I had of the memory, but a quick internet search recovered the brand. Żubrówka, or Bison Vodka, is a rye distillate flavored with herbs and coumarin, a toxic substance which is a prohibited food additive in the United States.) Intermediate French class, which commenced weekday mornings at 9 AM, came suddenly, and lasted four hours—in other words, forever. After class, I slept on the beach and rested up for an evening which would abruptly land me at the next 9 AM commencement of Intermediate French class. That year, I arrived on a Saturday, so by the second or third day of classes, I was in my groove. Nine AM, in class, staring into space. The French teacher, an elderly woman who'd brought up several sons, took a liking to me, and I was charmed by her hauteur, and we danced several times at the mingles, so I was generally ok on the academic front—not failing, and not getting yelled at for being how I was. The trouble in French class: blonde-haired, green-eyed Jill P (yes, same initials as the previous summer), who was really worth staring at. In the evenings, I wore brown chinos and my striped yellow button up, threadbare, and jumped around the campus in my wingtips. Daytime, it was my beach attire: a cotton t-shirt (Miami Vice), and a pair of torn, black Superman shorts. The tear ran up the seam to my hip. I knew I was a mess, and that Jill had witnessed my assorted idiocies, and that she caught me staring at her all the time, so I finally gave up. Just kept staring. New addition to the daily itinerary: go to class, and stare at Jill P for four hours. She'd sometimes look over at me—I'd be staring still, staring still—and she'd quickly turn away, too unsettled to even whisper "creepy guy" to her friend. And I'd keep staring, not guilty, not self-conscious. Is Zen the word? It was some other form of enlightenment—not a sinful delight, but still sharp, a divine entrancement of Hecate.
JC: Have you re-read the book/s?
JR: When I think of Jill that summer, I picture her the moment we first talked, leaning far, far away from me. And I picture her a few hours later, in her red dress, lying under me, on my twin bed under a window that looked to the sky. And I picture her on the beach, reading a book. A thick book. She'd settle behind her glasses and turn the pages.
Jill was a 27-year-old teen counselor from the middle of America, and engaged, which was ego fulfilling, though I'm not sure anything we did would have counted as infidelity—mostly kissing in the dark. Years later, she sent me a picture of her newborn. Radiant child. I don't have the sense that there's any more to that past—any discussion or postscript—but I would like to know what book she was reading.
A reader will sometimes find a thread—a thread that connects one book to another to a hundred others. Superhero benchmarks, in graphic novel form, have enticed me—Venom, the Death of Superman—but I'm otherwise unengaged by the genre. The Dark Knight shares themes with The Ogre, by Michele Tournier, and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, and The Dwarf, by Par Lagerkvist—all books that have impacted me. Whether or not I've picked up The Dark Knight again, I'm sure I've revisited it in the pages of other books. Not only to say that comics are derivative and that I've come across the sources, but to say that reading is always a return to our internal library.
JC: Have you returned to that place?
JR: I did return to the South of France. By then, I was in graduate school, and I was the responsible adult, looking out for my sixteen-year-old brother. I was an asshole—though I can't boast the intention. Toward the end of the summer I met a Parisian woman who vacationed in Cannes. We'd get on airplanes and meet at customs, and I'd tour her around my city, and she'd tour me around hers. I wasn't fluent in French, but I was almost competent, and I fumbled through some cocktail parties in Paris. At the time, I was playing a lot of Judo, and working out in the gym, and I casually brushed aside the little French tourist photographers who were everywhere, snapping pictures that they'd try to sell me later. They talked too fast for me to understand them, but I treated them with a polite New York City disdain—which I suspect resembled something very similar to an Iowan meathead dislike. Several years later, while playing "friends for sale" on facebook, I was named nicknamed "mystery man" (something like that, in French), at which point it was revealed to me I'd been dating the daughter of a political celebrity, and the photographers were paparazzi.
JC: What are you reading this summer? Will you be taking a vacation (and bringing any books)?
JR: I imagine a mountain of crumpled paper scraps—book recommendations. People often recommend books, rarely read them based solely on a recommendation. The call to a book is at odds with mandate, final judgment, last word. The sublime purpose of a book is to fail, to perfectly articulate inexpressible experience.
We are as if locked in an eternal battle of the creative and the bureaucratic. The barbarian hoards—occupied by Rome to this day. I sometimes survey a cocktail part and catch sight of the ongoing conflict. Institutional power or personal fulfillment. The library with Romanesque columns or the communion with a book on a hilltop.
The elevation of heroes has always been a convenience of the hierarchy. A narrative template of good and evil, of civilization and discontent: oversimplification is the fundamental act of historical storytelling. It is the weave of the fairytale. Jesus himself is more likely an amalgam of revolutionary thinkers than an in-fact personage.
Numerical arguments, steady as worms, progress, render to compost canonical literature. In 1800, there were one billion people on Earth. Today: seven billion. Let's say the population is 99% more literate (very conservative) and include women in the author pool (I apologize for my boys' book list). That gives us, for every great writer in 1800, 1,386 great writers today.
Eventually, borders will collapse, and the order of literature and the arts will follow. Perhaps some new form of localism will emerge: perhaps our great monument to the human spirit will be the human spirit; or perhaps Rome will rule unopposed, and our aristocracy will find justification for itself in the past, and the rest of us will blink our eyes in the dark.
Our present age is one of hero worship, of blind adulation for the greats, which is why literature is so boring: "every hero," to recall Ralph Waldo Emerson, "becomes a bore at last." The truth: right now, there are thousands of people writing at Melville's level, and thousands more writing novels of murder and loss finer than anything Dostoyevsky ever wrote.
I lack the courage for the best summer books, the best summer vacation: I'd ditch my required reading list, and go somewhere unexpected.
Largehearted boy: Tales of Woe
Largehearted boy: Tales of Woe
David Gutowski just posted my Tales of Woe Playlist to largeheartedboy ... http://www.largeheartedboy.com/blog/archive/2010/08/book_notes_john_10.html
"These stories are especially horrifying since all of them are true. No happy endings, no redemption, just bad things happening to good people for no reason. Reed, like the ancient Greeks, brings catharsis to the reader through observation of others' suffering so that we may feel better about our own lives (and relatively trivial burdens)." —David Gutowski, Largeheartedboy
"Tales of Woe is a dark book, both thematically and physically. John Reed tells twenty-five stories of undeserved suffering in the book's black pages with white type, broken up by vivid illustrations by an assortment of artists. ... Before you pick up that next horror novel, I'd suggest Tales of Woe instead, because sometimes reality is scarier than fiction." —David Gutowski, Largeheartedboy
Penguin Books Guest Author: All the World's a Grave, 9/12
Penguin Books guest author: All the World's a Grave, 9/12
Ok, I resisted writing about September 11th yesterday. But now, it's September 12th. The not so dreaded 9/12. The first thing I want to say about 9/11: Happy Birthday Uncle Norman. My pathetic, crazy uncle died a few years before 9/11. He was only 28—beset by misfortune and abuse his whole life—but at least the poor bastard died before his Holiday was the new D-Day.
So, I've been mulling this idea over with friends of mine—by email and live. And, after their consultations, I'd like to present a new plan for 9/11 in NYC.
Next 9/11, 364 days from now, precisely one year from yesterday …
Toga Party. Citywide.
I extend the invitation to New York, and the world.
Please, forward this invite to anyone you think might make a good guest, and have them show up, where shall we say? Downtown.
It is fitting that so many people have contributed to the dreaming up of the 9/11 Toga Party—and of course especially fitting that they are all New Yorkers. I imagine the festivities will meet, in some circles, an appalled reception—but we are New York. More charming than Romans, and lean enough (unlike those in the middle of the country), and pale enough (unlike them Californians), to wrap ourselves in Togas and look just fine (or, no worse) and make a night of it.
Perhaps not as larky as a Midsummer Night's Dream, but more along the lines of the tragi-comical Winter's Tale, or Cymbeline—it will be an evening of toothy smiles in the darkness, and ice-cubes melted in viscous Gimlets. We will howl at the moon, and kiss in dark elevators, and throw strawberries from rooftops. Togas will drag in gutters, and everyone will be wet with sweat and the sticky juice that oozes from the night.
All The World's A Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare, is a September release out with Penguin/Plume (my book), and since I am here to speak about it, I will say that, in it, my intention is to capture something dark and hysterical. That laughter of the Tragedy. Shakespeare is at his funniest in the Tragedies, not the Comedies—few would argue otherwise.
Where there is a hole in contemporary literature—we are far too lauding of the Cannon, of "greatness" that is more a convenience of glossy magazines and academic fossils than it is a reality—I have taken aim, and pitched in me pebble. Go celebrate Shakespeare, but at the same time, sit in—protest the atavism of dusty tomes and suffering school children. Go to a bookstore, and pick up a brand new book, and laugh and cry with the living—with an author who is somewhere out there, as fleshy and blinking as you.
No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Then you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it; for I love you so
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O, if, I say, you look upon this verse
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse.
But let your love even with my life decay,
Lest the wise world should look into your moan
And mock you with me after I am gone.
—Shakespeare, Sonnet LXXI
Where do we start? An event page? A bullhorn? Who will lead the charge? There is no void in the spirit of New York; we are overflowing in our souls with vibrant discursions, unlikely necessities, and 9/11 could no more leave a footprint in our natures than a man could leave a footprint in the sand of the ocean shore.
We will strip down and reclad ourselves in a healing sheet—reduce ourselves to our naked bodies and preference of raw cotton, and celebrate a tomorrow surely to come, when we will clothe ourselves again, anew, reborn, as a New Yorker is reborn everyday. We are here, in NYC, to begin fresh. We cannot mourn lost neighborhoods or restaurants; we cannot lament Golden Ages now gone. We know—we who live here know—the city will take away everything you love, but it will always love you.
It will love everyone who steps off an airplane or a boat, wrapped in rags, looking to stay up late, to struggle through the darkness, to see light glimmering on the harbor—to see a new dawn.
So let us all don our togas, and extend our arms, and play the humble host.
Penguin Books Guest Author: All the World's a Grave, 9/11
Penguin Books guest author: All the World's a Grave, 9/11
Recap: I've just published this book, All the World's a Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare. The project takes the works of Shakespeare, and remixes them into a new tragedy (all the lines are from Shakespeare). As the title suggests, it ends in the death of everyone. Wednesday, September 10, 2008 (yesterday, that would be): subatomic particles traveling at the speed of the light, set to collide. The 7.7 billion dollar experiment—employing a 17-mile long donut shaped Hadron Collider—is designed to duplicate conditions believed to have been present at the big bang. Scientists who object to the plan—Professor Otto Rössler, Dr. Walter Wagner—have mounted international lawsuits seeking to halt the experiment. The two predominant theories of our destruction: instant, via little black holes; or, after a four-year wait, a slow-simmering implosion caused by quasars inside the Earth.
Well, as it turned out, when they switched on the thing, they were only warming up the engine, which will take three months, so the world didn't end yesterday. It will end around the time we swear in the next president. Or, in four years and three months from now, when we swear in the president after the next president.
Obama: "You can put a pig in lipstick … it's still a pig."
Obama: "You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change. It's still gonna stink."
Democrats, prepare to face your doom.
On the order of full disclosure, I was a Clinton (Hillary) person. And I'm pretty sure we, as Democrats, blew it. The fact: Clinton and Obama weren't that different policy-wise. But Clinton was more experienced, was a far superior debater, and had a far more developed platform. So why didn't we pick her?
Obama's recent remarks, which the Republicans are right to highlight, characterize an unsettling centerpiece at the Democrat's table. This race, as the Democrats have framed it—the Democrats have defined the parameters of this election—is about physical beauty. Clinton, despite the long, long hours at the salon, the gazillions at the hairstylist, and the many anesthetized mornings under the knife of the friendly neighborhood Barbi-maker—was still no Barbi Benton. (And Palin? Striking resemblance, no? You may not be able to find "nude," "naked," "topless" shots of Palin, but Benton, no problem.)
This resentment towards Palin for being a beauty queen (who cares?) hits the raw nerve, already quivering with guilt—the Democrats rejected Clinton because she wasn't hot enough. They were willing to put up with a woman, but she had to be hot. And in their attempt to prove they weren't sexist or bigotted, they chose a black man—of course, they chose an incredibly handsome black man, which proves the point. Physical beauty. The Democrats made this campaign about physical beauty, and now they're running against Barbi Benton, and they're going to lose for it.
Even if it is the end of the world, it's hard to not appreciate the poetic justice.
To go back to the earliest known antecedent of Obama's pig remark:
As a jewel of gold in a swine's snout,
so is a fair woman which is without discretion.
—Proverbs, 11: 22
The caution touches on a deep thread of misogyny in the bible, and pits the Democrats and Republicans in a battle of who can be punier. In that contest, the Republicans are sure to triumph.
And up to this very minute, the Obama supporters refuse to acknowledge the mistake, to admit complicity in this fundamental political stumble.
You sign your place and calling, in full seeming,
With meekness and humility; but your heart
Is crammed with arrogancy, spleen, and pride.
You have, by fortune and his highness' favours,
Gone slightly o'er low steps and now are mounted
Where powers are your retainers, and your words,
Domestics to you, serve your will as't please
Yourself pronounce their office. I must tell you,
You tender more your person's honor than
Your high profession spiritual: that
I do refuse you for my judge.
—King Henry VIII, II: iv
To speak of Obama as a uniter, a healer in the cast of Robert Kennedy or Martin Luther King, while at the same time engaging in such petty-minded sniping, is to open Obama to justifiable accusations of arrogance and unfounded snobbiness.
Mr. Shankbone—a somewhat unstable once friend of mine—exemplifies the Obama supporter/Palin denigrator, and perfectly demonstrates the trifling insentience of a losing campaign. (I say this with some trepidation; Shankbone, a prominent Wikipedian, is as well known for his selfless dedication as his bullying tantrums. Wikipedians, please protect me from this brute.) From the very beginning, he was seduced by the "smooth dispose" and "manly voice" of Obama, where the "reed voice" and "mincing steps" of awkward Clinton left him bloodless. Shankbone and his ilk have set us on a long road of media-friendly presidential candidates. And as much as they may deny it, as much as they may hate it, as much as their panging guilt will have them cast aspersions at the beauty queen, Palin, they are the sponsors of this Pageant.
Who did they pick to run for President? Forget qualifications—all that aside. They picked the Armani model (Banana Republic on a bad day). And the Republicans? They picked the K-Mart model (Pottery Barn on a good day) and one has to appreciate the shrewdness, the broadness of their choice. It's no coincidence that Sabine Ehrenfeld and Sarah Palin look so much alike. Sabine Ehrenfeld, a spokesperson for Overstock.com, is the ideal American everywoman/superwoman. She sold us all Special K cereal—and Palin will sell us crap like that too.
A goodly medicine for my aching bones! O world! World! World! Thus is the poor agent despised! O traitors and bawds, how earnestly are you set a-work, and how ill requited! Why should our endeavor be so loved and the performance so loathed? —Troilus and Cressida, V: x
Penguin Books Guest Author: All the World's a Grave, 9/10
Penguin Books guest author: All the World's a Grave, 9/10
My third post as the Penguin Books guest guthor. "The End of the World, Maybe." It looks even better on the Penguin website: http://us.penguingroup.com/static/html/blogs/today-end-world-maybe-john-reed
Today is the end of the world, maybe.
I had planned to write a nice little piece about that. Something reflective—a remembrance of all the beautiful women I've seen sitting alone at bus stops. That sort of thing.
It seems worth remembering: the world, the women at bus stops.
For those of you who aren’t paying attention: today, Wednesday, September 10, 2008, scientists are set to collide subatomic particles traveling at the speed of the light. The 7.7 billion dollar experiment—employing a 17-mile long donut shaped Hadron Collider—will duplicate conditions believed to have been present at the big bang. Scientists who object to the plan—Professor Otto Rössler, Dr. Walter Wagner—have mounted international lawsuits seeking to halt the experiment. The two predominant theories of our destruction: instant, via little black holes; or, after a four-year wait, a slow-simmering implosion caused by quasars inside the Earth.
The thing I especially don't like about the quasars: that would put the end of the world at 2012, which is exactly the year my old friend, Daniel Pinchbeck, touts as the world-ending year. It would be incredibly annoying if he were right, and for that reason alone, pray with me for our salvation.
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate!
—Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida: Act I, scene iii
The stuff of bad science fiction? Dire apocalyptic portents?
Could be. Could be. (Work a half-day!) My new book—All The World's A Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare—imagines a grim end. The last line in the play—"Take up the bodies"—is the only line I put in there for myself. I'm no actor, but I could deliver those words, I believe. (All the text in the book is taken from Shakespeare; the Shakespeare canon is shattered, and reconstructed into a new tragedy. More at alltheworldsagrave.com.) And yet, I still have trouble getting heated up about this end of the world forecast. I'm not predisposed to the Pentecostal premonitions that are reportedly at the seat of Palin's beliefs, or the Psychedelic Shamanism that poofs the Earth for Daniel Pinchbeck.
And neither do I think Sarah Palin is the anti-Christ. I know, I know, that is not really a singing endorsement, but I insist—she would be fun to play ping-pong with. My defense of Palin—that she's not the anti-Christ, that the story about her pregnancy and her daughter is absurd—has met such resistance from the Left that I mourn the rationalism of mankind. Everything has to be so absurdly extreme and divisive. The whole point of being a writer, an independent thinking, creative person not beholden to any religion or creed, is that we can be reasonable—that we can dip into our martini and toss off a few lucid remarks and not be foaming-at-the-mouth fundamentalists. This war, I really worry about it. This debt, I worry about that too. And, for Palin's pro-life, bible-thumping "work of God" attitude: that also worries me.
But what worries me most is the intolerance. That the conservatives would be intolerant—as a force of constancy—that makes sense to me. But that the progressives would react to Palin with such ribald antagonism—that strikes me as the end of the argument, the total ceding of the Democrat's campaign. In a war of idiocy, the Republicans will always win.
We should be truthful and airy—and take to our secular fight with a broadness of purpose that harkens to the Kennedys (and to Obama at his best), and to Shakespeare.
Shakespeare loved his villains, and we love his villains—perhaps more than his heroes. If there is any paradigm for the progressive argument (after Jon Stewart), it is William Shakespeare. Big and complicated and honest as the ocean. Why must we be reduced to dirty, putrid puddles by the inanity of politics?
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
—Cassius in Julius Caesar: Act I, scene ii
The Democrats, as the party of change, have to do more than beat the other guy. They have to win the election; they have to convince the country that progress is required, that we have to do something different. The Republicans, as the party of conservatism, have only to convince us that we should be more afraid of change than stagnation. The Republicans don't have to win, they just have to beat the Democrats. They don't have to offer change, modest reform is fine—and in this case, that may be enough. The Democrats have once again made the mistake of thinking the Republicans can't win; well, in a way, they can't, but they can, as usual, beat the Democrats.
Democrats have to do more; a thin campaign and negative accusations won't suffice. Clinton (Bill) talked about change until he convinced us he was serious. He picked up a saxophone and sang stupid songs. No matter how modest his tastes, his talents, he had creative spirit; he had more than the other guy. The great moments of the Democrat party are those when the American ideal of giving, of caring for beyond oneself—our puling, whining wanting selves—is ignited in the American people. "Ask not what your country can give to you, ask what you can give to your country."
Love her, love her, say that you love her.
Democrats are going to have to do something special; they're going to have to reach into the slimy green recesses of the American intestine and extract a shining surprise of humanity. "An epic battle of good verses evil!" Not good enough.
You are dull, Casca, and those sparks of life
That should be in a Roman you do want,
Or else you use not. You look pale and gaze
And put on fear and cast yourself in wonder,
To see the strange impatience of the heavens:
But if you would consider the true cause
Why all these fires, why all these gliding ghosts,
Why birds and beasts from quality and kind,
Why old men fool and children calculate,
Why all these things change from their ordinance
Their natures and preformed faculties
To monstrous quality—why, you shall find
That heaven hath infused them with these spirits,
To make them instruments of fear and warning
Unto some monstrous state.
—Cassius in Julius Caesar: Act I, scene iii
Penguin Books Guest Author: All the World's a Grave, 9/9 2
Penguin Books guest author: All the World's a Grave, 9/9
My second post as the Penguin Books guest guthor. "Would Palin Censor All the World's A Grave?" It looks even better on the Penguin website: http://us.penguingroup.com/static/html/blogs/would-palin-censor-all-worlds-grave-john-reed
"All The World's A Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare." It is, as advertised, a new play by W.S. All of the text is plucked from the known works.
The question leveled at me: in Heaven's name, why?
After much wearing thought, the short answer ...
That's sort of like asking me why I exist, and as to that: I'm not sure.
Many months ago, when I could still entertain the question—before the answer become so multi-faceted and lugubrious and overwhelming—I penned an essay, an answer. Penguin/Plume mercifully whittled down the 30 pages to 13 (which can be found at the end of the book).
The reasons ...
Culture: an American atavism. Education: the uninspired U.S. classroom. Personal: me, the street-urchin "mutt." Literary: buy new books. Technological: the ways we have changed, the ways literature is growing. Political: our wanton war.
The answer after that: I'm a writer. You know what the mountain climber will say.
Sarah Palin. Would she sneer? Would she be curious about ATWAG? Well, Shakespeare is the purvue of priviledge—perhaps she'd see the project in a favorable light. The best of the Republican party extols independence and discovery—and is generous in attributing those virtues. But, I have recieved many, many emails forwarding me the articles about Sarah Palin's inclination to censorship—and I have no doubt my second book (given the unlikely circumstance that a Vice-President or someone of that stature ever noticed it) would have made the black list. A satire of George Orwell's Animal Farm, Snowball's Chance brought capitalism to the farm, and got me accused of "blaming the victims of terrorism," by people who hadn't read the book. (Always annoying to be reviewed by people who haven't read the book: so I'm naming Cathy Young, who did exactly that, and wrote about it in the Boston Globe, and Christopher Hitchens, who did the same on the BBC.)
Censorship and Creationism, despite Governor Palin's charms, strike me as an unfortunate pairing.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness. —Matthew, 23: 27
That said, I am also dismayed by Mr. David Shankbone's attempt to pit Michele Obama against Sarah Palin in our war of "Love Letters to ... " Facebook groups. Shankbone, right now, has a quickly gaining headcount of twenty-five, while I have stalled at twenty-eight. I question the very premise: that we can compare somebody's wife with the Vice-Presidential candidate. Sarah Palin is Governor Alaska—an ice queen, maybe, but we should appreciate her achievements.
And so what if she censored my books? As if it would matter. I recently blurted out, in front of maybe thirty people, that "bestseller" was two words. (Is it?) What we're looking at here is beyond any petty economic or moral concern (all debatable anyway); we could have an uncontested national first. The first woman Vice-President of the United States of America. And then: the first woman President of the United States of America. And then, maybe: the first Queen of the United States of America. And then, most momentous of all: the first known down-syndrome King in the history of the world.
So, not so much Lady Macbeth; you have to go with Cleopatra. John McCain as a too-old Antony (but there's a precedent for that, think Patrick Stewart as Macbeth).
Another precedent: Laura Roslin on the new Battlestar Galactica. When her character, the Secretary of Education, was sworn in as President—as the next in line of a U.S. Government almost entirely dessimated—I was nearly in tears. It brings tears to my eyes even now. And Roslin looks quite a bit like Palin. Coincidence? Well, maybe it did help us along towards Palin, butter the corn a bit. But it's more the other way around: the whole campaign is straight out of central casting. The war hero, the svelte black man, the steady old mountain-man (or, bore), and Palin, the gun-toting beauty queen.
No, no "naked," "nude," "topless," pictures of Laura Roslin on the internet, either, that I can find. (Sabine Ehrenfeld, the other look-alike—you may have some luck there.)
MILF, GILF, V-PILF, all amusing, and a little dismaying, but lust and larks aside, Palin and the Laura Roslin character evoke something similar. Palin is the good daughter—the one that went hunting with Daddy—and in that, we can trust her to pick up the torch, to wave the sword if need be, and yet to always be part girl, part pigtails, part Laura Engells. (Melissa Gilbert is still young, everyone; Ronald Reagan also started as President of the Screen Actors Guild.) Imagine, in the last moments of Lear, Cordelia waking up in her father's arms, and saying, "Yes, Papa, I forgive you." It is as if we have been forgiven: Palin, who identifies herself as a feminist, is the good feminist, and she represents a painless reconciliation. A quick and umbumpy transition into equalish rights.
They say there are no second acts in politics: but for John McCain, Palin is a second act; and for a woman in the 2008 election, Palin is a second act. And if the McCain/Palin ticket takes the Whitehouse, that's about where one senses we'll be: somewhere at the outset of Act II. And while I know myself to be far too silly and peripheral to stump for a candidate, to punish anyone with my endorsement, I will allow myself a dramaturgical notation:
These five act sort of things tend to end in tragedy.
Or, is it a comedy?
Paper Magazine: Valentine
Paper Magazine: Valentine
As published in Paper Magazine, 2004.
When I follow him I am always three steps behind. He is too young for fatherhood. His strides are long, and I run two steps for each step I walk. I have no time to stop, but I do. She is holding the hand of her grandmother. They seize the marble floor of the Metropolitan with prim, crisp footfalls. They are not from my part of town, or the city, even. The girl has blue eyes. Her hair rides her shoulders, catches on the blue wool of her coat. I can see she wears plaid tights. I know her—the ones like her—she sits at the head of the class, she knows the answers. She organizes her pencils into plastic satchels that zip. I am tattered and thin. My jeans are worn-thru at the knees and the heels. My jean jacket has a lining of clumpy fake fleece, and an unraveling corduroy collar. My eyes are brown and humorless. She is serious too, and only fleetingly narrows her eyes in my direction—but her ample cheeks seduce me.