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Feeling Truthy in Beijing

I have been skimming the surface of what it means to devote one’s life to writing — especially memoir — and find that it is easy to dive into a thicket of truth, fiction, and everything in between.

Because I used the word “thicket” I am reminded of the tar baby but have the vague recollection that the tar baby is not an appropriate metaphor and that Uncle Remus is super racist. I haven’t read the books since childhood (I also had an Uncle Remus board game, as I recall) and can’t really comment. Nevertheless, I feel like a child made of tar. I grab for the branch of truth but little bits of me gloop off and land on fiction and pretty soon the thing that I am writing seems more true than whatever was objective fact because I have literally shed my body on this tree of fictiony-non-fiction and created not just a run-on sentence but a new truth. This truth seems “better” and “improved” by the fictional elements only because it is new. Let it sit for awhile — I usually find that whatever was closest to objective truth is actually much more interesting, if for no other reason than that it has the sheen of fact.

I am writing this because, of course, This American Life has had to broadcast an entire hour of retraction over their episode “Mr. Daisy and the Apple Factory”. Mike Daisy fabricated a tale to make a point but labeled it incorrectly as non-fiction (or, in his mental gymnastical terms “allowed it to be labeled journalism by This American Life”). Note that the previous parenthetical is not a direct quote — I made it up! But he did say something like that…

Hey man, there’s a great tradition of muck-raking fiction. I still remember Sinclair Lewis and The Jungle from high school. How about that Soderbergh fictional movie adapting the non-fiction book Fast Food Nation? There are other, better examples I am sure — the point is, labeling the thing “fiction” and framing it that way doesn’t necessarily make your point less valid, only more honest.

Which brings me to my favorite topic: me. I recently published a personal essay type piece in The Morning News (I love that site!) called “How to Officially Forget“. Because it mixes events from twenty years ago, a few months ago, and my own internal reality, there are bits of it that are completely made up. Like, for instance, my friend from Beijing does not actually have wings. But that’s clear, right? In the context? And certainly I tried to introduce some unreliability in the narrative — moments where I question my own recollection — so that those things that happened twenty years ago are properly contextualized as my own faulty memories, not researched fact. I certainly believe that it is all true — but it is quite possible that the order of events is messed up. I’m not sure if my friend gave me that stick of candied hawthorn berries at the movie theater or at a bus stop — in my narrative it’s at the movie theater. Anyway, what is not clearly marked as memory has been researched as best as one guy and the TMN editors are capable of — the name of a book that I saw, a reference to The Color Purple, some things that are a matter of record regarding Tiananmen Square.

I suppose the point is that I feel that I have been on that precipice — teetering towards fiction but hanging back because, really, if you present something as true it better be as true as you can make it. And, further, the truth is more interesting (for me) because I don’t have quite the imagination that Mr. Daisy does. I could not make up my friend — XiaoYing — if I tried. She was an original. Yes, she lived in a hutong. And yes, she was in Tiananmen Square in 1989. And if her wings are actually strap-ons held together with duct tape, I will present them as such. My memory’s angels are imperfect beasts.



2012: The BEST so far…

It’s only January 4th but not too early to start making the 2012 “best of” lists.

Best Media of 2012: The Year So Far

10: Best song I’m listening to right now: “You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up” by James Carr.

9: Maybe OK album I listened to for the first time yesterday (1/3): Fleet Foxes — I forgot the name of the album. It seemed pretty good, but I wasn’t paying a lot of attention.

8: Favorite Kiss: In the kitchen, while making bean soup.

7: Best New (to me) Show: I started watching “Misfits” on Hulu. Yeah, it’s good. I wish they used a more dynamic color palette, though. Like, I know everyone is washed out — must the sets be so muted too? Or is that a Hulu thing?

6: Book of the Year: I’m reading Joe Haldeman’s “The Forever War“. It’s great! Recommend!

5: Game of the Year: The 20 hours of Elder Scrolls: Skyrim I played on my day off, January 2nd.

4: Best night of sleep: Definitely last night, 1/3. Getting back into the work rhythm.

3: Favorite Child of 2012: Still my only daughter. But the year is still young!

2: Best Mayan Lord: Has to be Lord Pacal. He looks a bit like Bob Dylan. Who’s your favorite ancient Mayan ruler?

1: Best Bygone Bureau article: Has to be the “Best of Bygone Bureau: 2011” There’s no competition.

A small and unimportant observation for 9-11

I learned about the 9-11 attacks while living on the island of Pohnpei. Our television option then was Island Cable which provided a few stations (like CNN) via satellite and most other stations on a two-week tape delay. They shipped in VHS tapes of US network shows from San Francisco to the main island cable station where they popped the tapes in and the few subscribers who lived in the main Kolonia (the one town on the island) viewing area got delayed American Idol, etc.

So any major news item effectively happened twice; once via satellite and again two-weeks later. There was a window of time where, for instance, one could see what the media had to say the week before Princess Diana’s death. Or watch the coverage from 9-10 which, as I recall, was a pretty slow news day and had a lot of scary information about shark attacks. The shark attacks were worse than usual in August and September 2001.

9-11 (a holiday on Pohnpei, BTW, commemorating liberation from the Japanese) happened live on CNN and again two-weeks later on ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX. Would you watch it all over again?

I thought of this today because Guardian UK is running a “live re-enactment via Twitter” of 9-11 on @911tenyearsago. This seems vaguely wrong. Doesn’t it?

Or will the re-enactments now take the place of the real events — a kind of “stations of the cross” version of 9-11?

That’s all — nothing important; just a thought. Perhaps we would understand our world, our media, our news better if we watched it once live and once two-weeks later.

Marjorie Grene, you are/were awesome!

I am abashed and taken aback — even more than my usual taken-abackness — that I hadn’t read nor had I heard of Marjorie Grene until I opened up my trusty eight volume Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Paul Edwards complete and unabridged version) and read the Heidegger entry (much better than actually reading Heidegger). Here I found a few eye-straining small-type pages of beautiful, clear prose written by Marjorie Grene. It’s rare to run across a philosopher who writes such gorgeous prose. Anyway, today my hero is Marjorie Grene, who died at age 98 in 2009.

It’s a bittersweet find — I won’t get to hear her lecture. On the other hand, she has several volumes of books to look into. The most promising for a low-level intellect like myself looks like “A Philosophical Testament

In the meantime, there is an appreciation in the NY Times and, even better, a lengthy interview in The Believer.

Image by Charles Burns (of course!) from The Believer.

Strippers Protest Ban on Use of Pictures, 1959

Today I was researching Lowman Pauling, genius guitarist for the finest (and first?) soul/gospel/R&B outfit of the late 50’s and early 60’s: The “5” Royales. So naturally I ran across a defunct German blog: Ich war ein boser blog un wurde recycelt zu Hotrod Hussies (Google-translates as: I was an angry blog and was recycled to Hot Rod Hussies). Ignoring all browser warnings, I intrepidly trudged (clicked) into the defunct German blog hoping to find out if the last years of Lowman Pauling were happy ones and came across something altogether different: an expose from a 1959 skin-mag called “Sizzle.” (NSFW, if your boss is afraid of big 50’s-style boobs — a healthy fear, admittedly.)

Turns out the newspapers of the day had banned exotic/burlesque dancers from advertising any of their talents from the neck-down. It was to be stripper-heads only for those family-oriented Los Angeles newspapers. This brought out the Exotic Dancers League to protest for freedom of “sexpression.” Here, look:

I’m sure this was all just a bit of hoo-ha to drive the clientele to the burlesque joint.

The best photo, and the reason to bring this matter up at all, is the photo below:

OK – the line of leering guys, the multi-culti and leggy gals, the protesting dog with the “T’AINT FAIR” sign, the marvelous perspective lines — it’s enough to give a third-wave feminist po-mo culture critic the flop sweats. What does it all mean??!?

Postscript: More information regarding the buxom blonde above at the Burlesque Historical Society.



Alone in a Pesthouse

Back when I was researching the smallpox for a musical (true story!), I came across this wonderful NY Times article published September 11, 1892. Here’s an excerpt and a link to a .pdf version of the article:


How a home was broken up by the ravages of smallpox

Mr. Green is a sturdy, square shouldered man of middle age, who seems to regard life much as any other in his class regard it, taking such miscellaneous jobs as he can find and toiling at them with all his strength. One would not think there is much sentiment in his make-up, or that his heart had ever been rung by any of the griefs that are supposed to leave their marks in whitened hair and wrinkles; yet in a single week this simple man passed through one of the most trying ordeals one can well picture. It was during the prevalence of smallpox in the town of Pittston, Penn on the banks of the Susquehanna river several years ago. At that time Mr. Green was a prosperous merchant of Pittston, with a happy home, a loving wife, and six children.

Here’s the link to the rest of the story. (A .pdf file)

The article makes quite an impression on the strength of its eloquent, if condescending, prose. The story is quite incredible as well. Mr. Green breaks out of the Pesthouse, where none survive, crosses the muddy river, and heads to the home where his entire family died. Smallpox is a bitch.









The Pesthouse above is from here.

A Wobbly Confession

Read this article in The Morning News.

It’s about being young, becoming a union member, and trying to organize a Borders store. It’s not really a “Borders” article, though if you are interested in that sinking behemoth it may provide a little bit of insight (which is about as much as I have to give — I worked there fifteen years ago.)

As a side note, every time I drive through Indiana (it’s the main obstacle between me and Chicago) I think of good old Eugene V. Debs. Where are all of the Indiana socialists these days? Why did it take reading Vonnegut for me to ever hear about him?

Debs was from Terre Haute, Indiana — also home to Clabber Girl baking powder. Coincidence?


End Time Tabernacle










This double-wide trailer is home to the End Time Tabernacle. That’s appropriate: Tabernacles are generally tents or temporary structures, at least in Biblical terms. Also, this tabernacle is where, I guess, one can hear about the End Time —  where better than a beige trailer in the Kentucky hills? All in all, a great example of old architectural saw that form follows function.

Expertise and Writing and Star Trek:Voyager

About 10 years ago I decided to give up on being smart. Knowing things has never been my strong suit — oh, I know my fair share of stuff like the origin of the term “crazy bread” — but whatever I happen to know, the internet knows better. Or at least more thoroughly.

So when it comes to writing, which is a silly and annoying thing to do, my reaction is to turn inward. Whatever you think you are an expert in, someone else knows better and has a blog about. The world of ideas is accessible from a search bar. What can I possibly add? I am only an expert in my own experience.

There is a vast repository of collected wisdom regarding Star Trek: Voyager. This has ceased to be amazing or interesting or even useful. What would freak me out now would be if no pages at all existed. What if you typed “Captain Janeway” into a search bar and nothing happened? Weird, huh? It would have to be some kind of temporal rift or space-time anomaly. Yet there are literally people alive today who do not show up on a google search! Strange, but true. I wonder how they experience the world.

I have watched five episodes of Star Trek: Voyager today. It rained. The power went out twice. I was going to go to the Cincinnati Bengals training camp, but the rain kept me away. I went out on my bike during a break in the clouds, but didn’t know where to go. So I ended up doing circles in a half-complete sub-division on what used to be someone’s farm. Nobody noticed me coasting down the roads through the empty lots, overrun with weeds. My need to explain things runs headlong into actual experiences — the truth of which I can only set out in fragments. I was on my bike. Uncertain about where to go. Nothing happened. Everything happened. I came back home and considered the cat who was considering a bird who was drying her wings and sitting on the fence post. Nobody was tracking us. We were alone.


Existential Psychoanalysis

Check our my latest article for the Bygone Bureau “An Existential Psychoanalysis of a Yellow-Robed, Faceless Wizard.”

Hopefully you don’t know anything about Existential Psychoanalysis because 1) I mean, c’mon, there are other things to spend your time on and 2) I probably got it all wrong. Anyway, what I like is that the theory rejects the idea of the subconscious. I find that kind of liberating.

So, yeah, whatever, the actual article is full of needles and butts and dirty liaisons with snake-beasts. The usual.