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April 30, 2010

Pain and Shame and Handicrafts // Liana Liu

From my interviews I have learned the following: people like hot people, and people reading books in coffee shops are constantly being approached by wannabe lovers. So today I asked myself why I have never been approached by a wannabe lover while reading in a coffee shop.

It was a moment of pain and shame before I realized that I don't ever read at coffee shops. In fact, I rarely leave my apartment. Take that, pain and shame! Unfortunately for you, I am boring. Fortunately for you, other people do leave their apartment and have amazing interactions with the outside world, so I ask them questions about it. For you, darling, only for you. Today's interview is with Kacee, instructor of literature.

kc.jpgWhat are you reading now?
I'm reading Ana Castillo's So Far From God. Have you read any of her work? It's a very exuberant style of writing--she includes recipes and magical things. Do you know Ntozake Shange? She has a book called Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo that reminds me of Ana Costillo's style. They complement each other because they are both women-centric and have elements of the supernatural and recipes and folk-pieces incorporated. (1)

That sounds great. So you're reading this at the coffee shop. Do people ever try to pick you up while you're reading?

Once I was reading at Fire Roast, in my neighborhood, and this guy asked me about what I was reading. He seemed kind of nice and kind of creepy, in that way where it's hard to tell...

And what happened?
Because I'm in a committed relationship I always manage to either explicitly or implicitly give the stop sign.

What's the stop sign? (2)
Turning back to my reading, or making an inconclusive comment, or mentioning my boyfriend. Sometimes I feel bad because I'm interested in meeting new people, so I feel bad that I cut off conversations too quickly because I'm attached and if I sense that sexual interest...

Yeah! Because you don't want to lead them on but at the same time, everything is so sexual! (3)
I'm curious about other people, but I've learned through experience. When I was younger, in my early twenties, I would often think, "Oh, he's not necessarily being sexual, we're just exploring each other as people and having discussions." (4) And I realized no, pretty much every guy who talks to a woman who is sitting alone in a café has some kind of sexual motive. Even if they are fifteen or seventy-five.

Has some seventy-five-year-old hit on you?
I had a good friendship with a seventy-one-year-old man which unfortunately kind of soured when he confessed that his feelings were more-than-friends. This was after I'd been driving him to his doctor's appointments and hearing about his diabetes and gas and other old-man ailments. We enjoyed listening to classical music together, talking about literature, and I encouraged him to seek social outlets in his building, an old people's building, and he said the ladies in his building were too old for him!

Wow! How did you meet him?
I was volunteering for a service that drives senior citizens. He's very dapper. He's Argentinean and has a very interesting life story. He was a diamond setter and also played the piano, he would play for ballerinas... (5)

Are you sure you weren't interested? Who doesn't like a dapper seventy-year-old?
Yeah, he always wore cologne and a nice outfit when I saw him, which is more than I can say for most men in their twenties.

Have you ever dated someone or refused to date someone because of what he was reading?
I dated this welder who really loved Louis L'Amour.

Sexy! What happened with him?
He was too much of a pothead. (6)

(1) Considering I spend so much time inside, you'd think I'd know every author mentioned is this paragraph. Alas, I know none of them. Pain and shame redux!

(2) Wouldn't it be cool if she had a stop sign made out of red construction paper and masking tape and took it out whenever someone needed to be stopped?

(3) Yes, it is.

(4) Wait, "exploring each other as people" is not sexual? See note (3).

(5) So this is what I'm missing by never going outside. Darn!

(6) I wonder if the seventy-one-year-old is still single.

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April 29, 2010

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New Uses for Lame Stuff that Technology has Replaced // Landrew Kentmore

Before companies made cars and trucks that could drive in the snow, people in places like Alaska and Canada used huskies and sleds to get around. When four-wheel drive was invented, it didn't hurt the sled or husky markets because sleds can still be used to go off sweet jumps and huskies are great pets for people who are really into wolves but not brave enough to trap a real one.

Unfortunately, a lot of old stuff is not as cool as a sled and not as alive as a husky. Here are some of my ideas of what we can do with lame old stuff that technology has replaced.

Letter Openers: With email, there aren't too many letters to open anymore, so letter opener companies should start selling their products as "affordable not-so-sharp prop daggers." This would be great if you were hitting on a girl who thought you were boring. While talking, you could randomly drop a really crazy-looking dagger (pimped-out letter opener) from your coat pocket onto the floor and then act all mysterious and say, "You weren't supposed to see that." Since it's not sharp you don't risk hurting your feet and the girl would think, "Maybe this guy who seemed boring is actually a secret assassin!"

Phone Booths: There's no need to stop at a phone booth anymore thanks to cell phones, but what do we do with all of the phone booths that are just around? We make them into affordable houses for people who sleep standing up! You could also put a bunch of pillows on the inside walls and sell them to people who are afraid of falling down!

Paddles: Motors are way faster than arms, so there's really know need to use a rowboat now that jet skis exist. That's why boat-paddle companies should try to break into the fly swatter market. Think about when you try to hit a fly with a normal fly swatter and miss. The fly gets away and lands somewhere else far away from you. So are you going to be a wimp and say, "That's the end of that," or are you going to get out your heavy-duty extended-range fly swatter (paddle) and send a message loud and clear to flies everywhere that no one messes with you and gets away with it?

Eye-Patches: With eye surgery getting super advanced, there's going to be a lot of eye-patches without any busted eyes to cover up. That's why eye patch companies should team up with the letter opener companies to really hammer home the whole I'm-secretly-an-assassin thing.

The sad thing is, if these things get popular in their new uses, they'll eventually get replaced by some new digital thing too. In fact, I think most stuff will keep getting replaced by digital stuff until we eventually live in the internet all the time. Once that happens, we won't need to worry too much about it, because we won't need to see all of the lame non-digital stuff around us.


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Originally published on landrewstake.com on January 6, 2010.

April 28, 2010

Bathroom Wall Graffiti, dislocated // David LeGault

I've been thinking a lot about Latrinalia, the study of graffiti etched onto bathroom walls. The term was coined in 1966 by folklorist Allen Dundes because he felt the term shithouse poetry didn't encompass the content that isn't in verse or poetic form.

There's a long-standing history in Latrinalia, obscene amounts of graffiti scribbled across the ancient city of Pompeii.

220px-Peoples_cafe.jpgIt's true that there isn't often much to the content of Latrinalia, but the ideas behind it are incredibly fascinating. A study of restrooms at an unnamed West Coast university showed that the main themes are sex, relationships, and drugs. It's usually anonymous and more often than not comes across as angry, confrontational.

There's a lot to be taken away from Latrinalia. Primarily, we know that there are thousands of people out there who are so desperate to let out some kind of thought that they have to scrawl it on the side of a bathroom stall. I see it as a form of self-publication: possibly the only outlet for an otherwise silent voice.

The bathroom wall can also serve as a type of confessional, a place where a person can admit to some kind of guilt or fear with impunity. Sometimes these exclamations are impulsive, which can be seen in the hastily penned "Me too" comments, or the crossing out and revision of a previous statement. In many ways, this type of response has found a new home on Internet message boards, though I'm more interested in the tangible form of the bathroom wall. However, I'm more interested in the conscious, pre-meditated Latrinalia, the stall occupant who has the foresight to bring a Sharpie and take the time to compose.

I find myself wanting to call the random phone numbers, to talk to these people, to see what they mean by "a good time." I always wonder if I should scribble my own name across the wall, to see if anyone else takes these words seriously.

This is the voice I long for in the books I read, the voice of someone with no other outlet for thoughtless aggression.

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Image Credit:
Photo courtesy of Winterwoo/Wikipedia

April 27, 2010

Indoor Fitness: Awesome // Jana Misk

Now that the weather seems to be consistently warm, I'm becoming increasingly concerned about my thighs. It's time to shed some "winter weight," as they say. But what kind of exercise is best suited to the recluse? And would it be horrible to call it "reclucise?" (Yes, clearly yes.)

Usually my body-image issues are triggered not by the change of seasons but by men. This time, though, the role of men in my dropping self-esteem is minimal. Mostly I'm just anxious about being seen in a swimsuit--though I've managed to go years at a time avoiding this particular humiliation--which is now a more significant possibility since my boyfriend does, in fact, enjoy leaving the apartment, and I'm pretty sure he'll stop loving me if I don't join him once in a while. Besides, body image issues are not sexy.

The problem I find with most fitness activities is that there are inevitably other people around, sharing the designated space with you. My favorites--weight lifting and yoga--are especially bad about this. Not only are other (fitter, happier, and more productive) people in close proximity, doing pretty much exactly what you are (unless you happen to have a home gym or are following Baron Baptiste videos in your living room, which get old very quickly)--but they are also, I guarantee it, observing you and judging your every graceless move. It's enough to send any socially anxious individual running for some Valium.

Outdoor activities at least allow a little more breathing room between points of consciousness, and things like team sports or, say, jogging/biking around a lake tend to discourage intense people-watching. But paranoia does not listen to such rational arguments, and those with agoraphobic tendencies are not going to like this option much.

So what is one to do besides attempt to stop eating altogether and begin pacing the apartment with a stopwatch? A few years ago I was introduced to something magical: the video game that made exercise fun. No, I'm not talking about Wii Fit--though you're close. I am telling you, friends, about Dance Dance Revolution.

"Dance Dance Revolution?" you say. "Do I look like someone who likes to dance? Do I? Dancing is my least favorite social activity. I'm still traumatized by my junior prom, which I didn't go to, by the way!" (For the record, I did go to my junior prom, but was in fact traumatized by it.) Well, DDR is a whole different thing. First of all, remember that no one has to see you play, and that the game doesn't care whether you look like you're doing epileptic jumping jacks (though your downstairs neighbors might not be happy about the epileptic-jumping-jack noises coming through their ceiling--you have been warned). The game only cares that you hit the correct arrow buttons at the correct moments. The few times I have played DDR with friends or family, my flailing has been the source of much amusement. But that's fine. DDR is not much of a workout when you play with other people anyway.

Are you going to object now that DDR is too nerdy for you? Give me a break. I'm not even going to respond to that, except with this video:

Clearly that kid is the awesomest person alive.

A few basics about the game itself: you start out with a number of songs you can dance to, which all come in four difficulty levels. Beyond game mode (for parties you can make empty promises about throwing) and training mode (which, unlike game mode, mercifully avoids booing you off the stage if you screw up too badly), there is actually a workout mode, which has a built-in tracking system that shows your calories burnt and your weight over time (if you want to enter this latter bit of information, which is optional). In workout mode you can play song by song, but more effective for a real workout is "course mode," in which you can choose from preset courses (song playlists) or create your own with up to 20 songs at a time--which comes out to 60 minutes of nonstop dancing, holy jeez. (Not recommended for beginners.) As you continue to play, not only do you get better, obviously, and therefore able to practice songs that are more challenging/fun (and that burn more calories), but you also earn points that eventually allow you to buy new songs to dance to! My version of DDR comes with a range of music, from pop to alternative to R&B, and lots of Japanese pop and techno that I like way more than I expected to.

The most beautiful thing about DDR, of course, is that you can fool yourself into pretending that what you're doing is about earning points and Getting Something Right (for which you get immediate visual and verbal rewards!) instead of about trying to make your body look the way everyone says it's supposed to (for which rewards are not so easily forthcoming).

So: gym membership or awesome video game? I think the answer is obvious. You're welcome.

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April 26, 2010

James Cameron As Champion; Angels Are the New Vampires // J. Lee Morsell

In my March 29 column, "The Real Avatar in Peru," I mentioned that Hunt Oil is prospecting to drill in the Amazon, and that indigenous protesters recently faced gunfire from police.

(I found this video with more information.)

CameronBrazil.jpgIn that column I also commented that we should feel uneasy about the way that James Cameron's blockbuster film Avatar might reinforce the notion that indigenous people need a white savior. This is not to say that white allies cannot be helpful. I have been interested to learn that, in February, Native American groups sent Cameron a letter asking that he highlight "the real Pandoras of the world," and that Cameron has since traveled to Brazil to meet with tribes threatened by the planned Belo Monte dam. If built, this dam will flood hundreds of square miles of the Amazon rainforest and dry up sixty miles of the Xingu River, devastating indigenous communities and displacing over twenty thousand people. Cameron has begun work on a 3-D documentary to raise awareness about the dam.

This is good news. I lamented on March 29 that,

given the formidable asymmetry of the conflict [in Avatar], James Cameron was unable to imagine a realistic way for the Na'vi to win, and he resorted to a magical solution: the planet Pandora herself joined the battle, mobilizing jungle beasts to enter the fray at the darkest hour and, like Holy Champions at the Apocalypse, drive out the corporate evil.

Maybe I shouldn't be so grumpy about fantasy solutions; Avatar's seems to be compatible with action.

The New York Times tells us that, in his meeting with the tribes, Cameron told them, "The snake kills by squeezing very slowly. This is how the civilized world slowly, slowly pushes into the forest and takes away the world that used to be." He complimented the people of the Xingu on their unity, saying "they needed to fight off efforts by the government to divide them and weaken their resistance . . . 'That is what can stop the dam,' he said."

KayapoWarriors.jpgOn April 21, the Guardian reported that indigenous leaders are warning that they are preparing bows and arrows for war should dam construction begin. Kayapó Raoni Metuktire, who toured the world with Sting in the 1980s and 1990s, said, "I think that today the war is about to start once more and the Indians will be forced to kill the white men again so they leave our lands alone. I think the white man wants too much, our water, our land. There will be a war so the white man cannot interfere in our lands again."

Another indigenous leader, Luis Xipaya, told Reuters, "There will be bloodshed and the government will be responsible for that." Xipaya is part of a group of one hundred and fifty Xikrin Kayapó people now occupying the construction site in protest.

Let's hope the dam gets stopped without the war Metuktire predicts. It seems bows and arrows would be more effective as a public relations weapon than as a military one.

It sounds like the next big thing in bestselling novels may be Danielle Trussoni's Angelology. Trussoni, a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, wrote an acclaimed memoir about her father, a Vietnam vet whose terrifying job in the war was to crawl into enemy tunnels. Now she's written the new Da Vinci Code, with a ridiculous plot about a young nun and an angelologist named Verlaine who must find an artifact of ancient power that will enable them to defeat dark angels. Trussoni apparently sold this book and the movie rights for very large sums.

I learned of Angelology in a conversation-cum-therapy-session with other MFA students who, as aspiring literary writers who would surely also love to get rich, were outraged. The initial sentiment could be expressed by the Gawker headline: "Crapsuck Angel Book To Be Made into Poopstink Movie In Six-Figure Deal." (Btw, where did Gawker find that picture of young Trussoni sitting in a toilet? If that really is Trussoni!)

Lucifer3.jpgBut the disgust was quickly softened by caveats like, "Well, you know, I'd do the same." I think many of us who aspire to write literature imagine that we could crank out Da Vinci Codes, if we ever stooped to do so. Which may or may not be true; Dan Brown does have an infernal power. My main memory of the Da Vinci Code is of being really pissed off at how bad it was--while compulsively turning the page at 4:30 a.m., even though I had to get up for work in a few hours.

Maybe Angelology is good. It is, I pray, possible for a book to be both popular and good. None of us has (yet) read the novel, of course. At least one review says it's more Umberto Eco than Dan Brown.

Dark angels. Remember how exciting Satan was in Paradise Lost? It is around Satan, not God, that the poem comes alive, an affinity that inspired William Blake's famous remark that Milton was "of the Devils party without knowing it."

Of whose party is Trussoni? It's a fancy cocktail party, now.

My friends teaching summer classes are in a race to enroll twelve students before their course gets canceled. The class to win the race, far ahead of "The Gurlesque," "Humans and Other Animals," "Introduction to Fiction Writing," and "Madmen, Junkies and Dreamers," is Brian Gebhart's "Visions of Apocalypse." Evidence that U of M students love the A-word.

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Image Credits:
Cameron/Brazil photo by André Vieira for The New York Times
Kayapó photo by Terence Turner: flickr/internationalrivers / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Lucifer courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

April 25, 2010

Art of the Author Interview: A Conversation with Robert Birnbaum

by J.C. Sirott

If an interview is a type of performance, then it follows that the director will play a large part in determining its success. Too often, authors are subject to flat, slacken interviewers who blurt a succession of pat questions that could just as easily be asked of one writer as another. Not Robert Birnbaum.

Simply put, Birnbaum doesn't ask authors the same questions other people do. In fact, a Birnbaum interview is much more of a dialog--a freewheeling, associative conversation. One encounters Stuart Dybek holding forth on whether Nelson Algren is more of a South Side or West Side Chicago writer, Edward P. Jones speculating on whether he should have become a father, and Birnbaum reminding authors about the anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. Birnbaum has interviewed everyone from literary superstars (Tim O'Brien, George Saunders, Joyce Carol Oates) to the criminally underrated (Julie Orringer, Frederick Busch). Birnbaum conducts interviews for both The Morning News, as well as identitytheory.com, where he is an editor at large. We conversed about his approach to interviews over email.

dislocate: What kind of preparation do you do before an author interview, and how well versed are you in a given author's work beforehand? Do you return to their work prior to an interview and read with a different eye than you might if you were just reading for pleasure?

Robert Birnbaum: When I began to have these extended conversations with writers, I was committed to reading at least the author's current title--that usually being the auspices under which they were engaging the book tour/charm initiative. In fact, I was interested in finding out everything I could about my intended co-dialogist. I soon discovered, of course, that I was in the minority of people engaging the author. I read the book, and the chats more often than not clicked.

I don't read my intended whatever's writing any differently because I am anticipating a conversation--certainly, I don't even feel obliged to like the narrative in question, though much more often than not I do.

All my reading is for pleasure. What may alter my satisfaction with something that I am reading is usually tied to the time frame I have in which to read it, and, of course, the usual travails of daily life.

dislocate: In 2003, you said to Frederick Busch, "The issue of autobiography in a writer's fiction seems to be belabored and yet that won't stop me from probing." Do you have any general, personal rules regarding when and when not to explore a fiction writer's autobiography?

RB: I don't think I have (m)any rules regarding my approach to my literary conversations. Frank Conroy writes in Dogs Bark, but the Caravan Rolls On: Observations Then and Now about going to interview pianist Keith Jarrett. Jarrett was noted at least for a while as a great improviser--I'm thinking of his Köln Concerts. And he said that before he began to play, he would sit at his piano and attempt to clear his mind of any musical thoughts. This in an attempt to be as spontaneous as possible. I think that's a good model. I approach my chat partner having read their work and maybe knowing something about them. That's about it. And for people I have spoken with multiple times I don't reread previous interviews, though that would probably be useful. Maybe I have become too lazy.

dislocate: Do you have other interviewers you admire? Favorite literary interviews that you've read?

RB: Not really--I don't find them interesting. Or rather lively enough. I am inclined to look for the subject, and frankly, these days, given the easy access to authors and the apparent desperation of publishers to gain every shred of possible attention for their authors, it seems that there is a deluge of author interviews. I actually don't like Charlie Rose's style, but he did a wonderful interview with Henri Cartier-Bresson. I was fascinated by an interview Chris Lydon did with Susan Sontag around the time of The Volcano Lover. I am ambivalent about Terri Gross, and when I lived in Chicago I occasionally enjoyed Studs Terkel's conversations. I suppose I am attracted to Amy Goodman and David Barsamian because of the people they interview.

There are two anthologies of interviews that I value. One is by Seldon Rodman, entitled Tongues of Fallen Angels (1974), which contains his conversations with Borges, Robert Frost, Hemingway, Neruda, Stanley Hunitz, Octavio Paz, Mailer, Ginsburg Derek Walcott, Vinicius de Moraes and Joao Cabral de Melo Neto. The other is a recent collection by Henry Kreisler--Political Awakenings, which includes Tariq Ali, Noam Chomsky, Elizabeth Warren, Shirin Ebadi, Michael Pollan, Daniel Ellsberg, Ron Dellums, Howard Zinn, and others. In the former case. I am enthralled by the subjects; in the latter, I am impressed with Kreisler's smooth and precise questions.

dislocate: In the same way Amy Goodman delves into issues not covered by the mainstream media in a substantial and more analytical way than the nightly news, do you see your longer, less canned interviews filling a similar void? Do you see your interviews serving as a sort of corrective to the more facile interviewers that authors often must contend with? And is the deluge of uninteresting author interviews harmful in any way?

RB: I don't think that the large number of author interviews is any more harmful than the huge numbers of books published or the large universe of commentators on subjects ad nauseam on the Internet. Large numbers and overpopulation are facts of contemporary life. And I suppose that, as in the matter of reading, it's better that people pay attention to writers and literature than watch the empty narratives of reality television or play Grand Theft Auto all day and night.

I occasionally wonder about the value of my conversations, and while I would find it impossible to conclude that they are worthless (I, at the least, am entertained), I would hope that they serve as digressive narratives about the writer involved (and I suppose me also), which should in some way illuminate something about storytelling. And reinforcing the meaning and centrality of storytelling in the human drama is very important.

On the infrequent occasions that I have reread one of my conversations, I have been impressed with their readability and coherence--though that is no doubt self-fulfilling, since my talks ought to be coherent to me. As an unrepentant political progressive, the only intention that attaches to my conversations is opportunity to air out the incongruities and contradictions of life in the post-industrial democracy known as the United States or its governments (which are devolving into jukeboxes--meaning throw some money in and it'll play your tune). I hope my chats are useful and stimulating, and given the obvious failure of people in a position to challenge the status quo to do so, I hope what I do is a corrective. And as to the notion of filling a void, I don't think there can ever be too much smart commentary in the so-called public conversation. I hope the work I do qualifies as that.

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April 23, 2010

Bubble Butt: The Musical about Airplanes // Liana Liu

When I was little I was only allowed to watch movie-musicals, the result being that I really like movie-musicals. Parents and would-be parents take note: it's pretty easy to brainwash your children! In any case, I've seen a lot of musicals, including The King and I. In fact, I can sing several of the songs from The King and I.

But I won't. Instead, I will tell you that I went to a bar/restaurant called "The King and I" where I met and interviewed Ryan, American Studies PhD student.

PICT0004.JPGWhat have you been reading?
Lately, my favorite thing I've been reading is Joan Didion's Miami. It's about the dilemma of Latin America-US relationship in the '80s. It's good; it's been making me really happy.

Do books generally affect your state of mind?
Yes! How could they not?

Since you have really strong feelings about books, how do you feel about the book choices made by the people in your life? Have you ever dated anyone you thought had terrible taste in books?
No, I don't think so. The biggest thing I don't understand is when someone reads a lot of science fiction mysteries. My brain just doesn't work in that way. A lot of people have told me they are in a mystery book club (1) and I'm like, what is this all about? The biggest thing is that most people don't read so it's kind of a bust. So generally, you assume people don't read anymore.

Would you rather date someone who doesn't read or someone who reads crap? (2)
I think the only thing that would really bum me out is that my dissertation and life has been about labor and unions and I think it would be really weird if people I went out with read management literature--like, how can I run my company more efficiently.

Like self-help?
Well, certain self-help. I think if you're having a hard time at a certain point you need to deal with your own issues, so I'm not saying self-help is bad. But corporate self-help, like, "how can I improve the lives of my employees when I'm paying them nothing" is kind of odious to me. I think that would be distressing... they would have to be incredibly hot to continue involvement.

Hot helps! (3)
Totally. (Friend: Like a huge bubble butt!) They'd have to have the bubble butt of all time!

Bubble butt? So that's a generally attractive feature? (4)

For me... no. That was really Lucas (refers to friend). It certainly wouldn't outweigh management literature. But it might out-mountainous it. Like if I'm grabbing it from a certain angle. Like, if I'm making out with him and I'm grabbing it in a certain way. But it would have to be really amazing to outweigh management literature.

Well, on the other hand, have you ever been with someone whose literary tastes made you think he was amazing?
Um... Now I'm trying to think about why I find people amazing.

OK, just tell me why you find people amazing, that's good. Not bubble butts, so...?
Um... (Friend: Pectoral muscles?) I feel like I'm the worst person to ask this because I don't have a type. I have had intimacy with very pretty, very femme guys that I had to figure out an inner butchness with that I did not think I had, but I found, and that was amazing.

Tell me about your inner butch self. What does your inner butch read?
It was like finding an emotion. It's like on the airplane when you put on the life vest and jump into the water. I pulled on the cord and it inflated, and I went into the water. That's basically what it was. You have to take control. It's like, whoosh, the life vest inflates and it all works out. (5)

Life vest? Is that a euphemism?

No! It was a metaphor!

No, I believe the life vest inflating is a euphemism.
That's a very shallow reading of my narrative.

I can't help it. (6)

(1) What?

(2) I think I would rather date someone who doesn't read. As long as they know how to read. Does that make me a bad person?

(3) Is it just me or are my interviews constantly reaffirming this belief?

(4) My friend used to work for a company that made underwear with butt pads in them, to create the illusion of a fuller, rounder butt. I asked her if she would get me one and she said she would but she never did. What's up with that?

(5) This interview may have been conducted with the assistance of alcohol.

(6) No, really, I can't help it.

April 22, 2010

Educational Technology: Online College // Landrew Kentmore

There is a lot of knowledge on the Internet. From reporters giving you the news to moms sharing secret teeth-whitening tricks, there are millions of people online ready to help you learn!

But if you want a certificate to prove you learned stuff through the Internet, there are only two things you can do: a) find a friend with a nice printer and a kind heart that recognizes the accomplishments of others; or b) go to an online college.

If you're like me, you imagine online college to be this awesome virtual campus where you build a 3D version of yourself with tons of muscles and superpowers to attend class, except you usually need to skip class to go fight mystical beasts in the woods just beyond the dorms. Unfortunately, this is not what online college is like.

college1.pngOnline college is actually a bunch of web pages and discussion boards called an "online classroom." Confused? Just imagine if the guy who invented chat rooms got all academic all of the sudden and thought, "maybe I should make a place on the Internet for people to get college degrees instead of girlfriends."

The only similarity between an online classroom and a normal classroom is that it's a square that has school stuff in it. A big difference is that if you stare at the online classroom for too long your eyes might start to water. This doesn't happen in a normal classroom unless you're taking a hands-on class about hay bales and you get hay fever.

There are good things and bad things about both kinds of classrooms. For example, if a spy was sent to gather information in your class it might be easier to see that he's a spy in the normal classroom, because you'll hear him whisper into his collar and see him start to sweat and get nervous whenever anyone says anything about spies. Then again, if you do have a spy in your class, it's less likely that you'll have to do hand-to-hand combat with him in the bathroom if you're in an online classroom.

college2.pngThere are some situations where you would want to use both the online classes and normal classes. Here's one of those situations: let's say you're a cool guy known for his awesome beard. In fact, your nickname is "Beard." Then this really attractive girl invites you to a party. When you show up, you find out that it's a shaving party, so you lose your beard. You might want to start taking some online classes while your beard grows back and then switch back to regular classes when it's full and awesome again.

Online college isn't right for everyone, but it might be exactly what some people need. If you work at a job all day, it's easy to go to online college at night. If you like to do stuff by yourself, online college lets you get your school stuff done from home. Also, you should think about online college if you accidentally started a fire in your closet that burned up all of your pants, because online college doesn't require pants!


April 21, 2010

The Artist Book, dislocated // David LeGault

I've spent the better part of the past week putting together a ten-page book. It's only a book in the traditional sense: it has two covers, a basic binding, a few pages.

But beyond that, things become complicated--this project is a mix of text, image, and nontraditional media (candle wax, fine papers, a string of film pulled from a VHS cassette).

439px-Humument_p001.jpgThe project is for a course in Artist's Books: a work of art projected through the book medium. The class is taught by some of the faculty at a local resource, the Minnesota Center for Book Arts.

The class has been a nice break from the other book I'm working on: instead of drafting text I spend my time working a paper cutter, cutting book board and making cloth for binding. I sew through countless sheets of paper, creating art out of thread instead of words. In the past few months I've learned the basics of stab-binding, dos-equis, and French bindings that weave pages together like a tapestry.

In any case, I'm constantly fascinated with the ways these projects open up the definition of the book. Take, for example, Tom Phillips' A Humument, created by altering an earlier text. Essentially, Phillips went through W.H. Mallock's A Human Document and covered up most of the text, creating a brand new narrative out of the already existing one. Here, we see the book as a kind of found text, rather than one purely generated by the author.

I've been thinking of how we can take the artist book form as a model for the more traditional form. I think of the rising popularity of the E-reader, how it transforms the book from artifact into nothing but text. I'm against this practice for a number of reasons (I like the feel of paper in my hands, the portability and resilience of a non-electronic form). What I like about the artist book is that it must exist as an object. How can we apply this to our more traditional text?

A few ideas come to mind, mostly in terms of typography/design. I think graphic elements (like those seen in A Humument) can bring additional meaning to a text. I think of more mainstream examples like Danielewski's House of Leaves that use design to a significant, non-gimmicky effect. Maybe this is what we should all be striving for.

April 20, 2010

The Joys of Connectivity // Jana Misk

Over the past few months I agonized over whether to buy an iPhone, iPod Touch or an single-function e-reader device like the Kindle. As I bemoaned my indecision, my boyfriend merely shook his head.

His BlackBerry's incessant beeping and blinking have been a plague on his peace of mind ever since he got the device last summer. He's only recently been able to leave it on the other side of a room for a few hours at a time (while he's at his laptop), though I think this may only be because its email function mysteriously stopped working last week.

ipodtouch.jpgHe's of a slightly different generation, though (amazing how a couple of years can separate one technological cohort from another); I've been fooling with computers since the age of seven, and logged onto my first Prodigy bulletin board when I was ten. I spent almost all of my free time in high school online, and if I'd been able to afford a laptop back then I probably would have slept with it tucked in my arms like a stuffed animal. These days, while I succumb to the temptations of constant connectivity as much as the next person, I like to think I manage it a little better than some. The question does arise for those who value their privacy and their social invisibility, though: how much of a benefit is it to have the internet and all its trappings available in one's back pocket?

After discovering last week that I'd left my laptop cable in a hotel room in Denver, I decided to finally allow myself to buy an iPod Touch as a substitute portable connectivity device--but really, mostly, probably, because I just wanted a new toy. Also I figured that checking my email only three hundred times a day might be pushing me into old-fogey territory.

The five days I've owned my iPod Touch have very much been a honeymoon period. My multitasking capacity has increased noticeably: I can read a (paper) book while lying on my couch or in bed, and don't have to sit up to attend to emails and IMs coming in on my laptop; instead I simply check my iPod Touch with my free hand. Believe it or not, this has made a big difference in my willingness to set down my laptop and actually recline with a book. (Pathetic? Yes.) I've begun keeping up with my Google Reader subscriptions for the first time since I set up my account a year and a half ago--the lack of ability to multitask within the iPod Touch's tiny window is an asset in certain cases. I click through links on Twitter--something I for some reason rarely do on my laptop. I check email between classes, and on breaks during class, which was helpful last week when six of my students emailed me during the first five minutes of the class meeting to tell me they were sick. I have constant access to my Google Calendar so I can record all those social invitations people throw at me when I'm out in public (ha . . . ha). In other words, the internet has become a richer place for me to roam thanks to this sleek little thing.

OK, as you've probably guessed, I have a bit of a problem when it comes to the internet. Who else would talk about the "richness" of the web like it's a good thing? Writers of the DSM-V might call it an impulse control disorder; people who bought iPhones and iPod Touches when they came out years ago are probably laughing at me for a different reason right now. But I like to think of my recent technological purchase as being about control. Sure, you might argue that the the Demons Behind the Internet control my behavior now better than I control my own. But, spending as much time at home as I have lately, it's comforting to know that some digital version of the world Out There is easily accessible, literally less than an arm's length away. I can ping a friend, send an interesting article to someone who would appreciate it, let my sister know I'm thinking of her--and the interruption of my solitude is minimal. It's a matter of pulling out a surprisingly unobtrusive piece of plastic--as convenient as a writer's back-pocket notebook--and connecting.

Naturally, there's a difference between connectivity and connection. I guess I happen to value both, despite my jealous protection of my alone-time. Professionally, having constant access to email, Google, and social networking makes me feel more efficient without giving any more energy to the online world than I did before. So far, I haven't felt the tug of obligation that so many people report upon increasing their connectivity quotient: "I have a cell phone now, so people expect to be able to reach me. I'm never free!" This may change, but today I am just as (guiltily) comfortable ignoring attempts at contact as I was a week ago. If anything, the guilt of not responding is lessened now because I respond more frequently. I can compose emails on the bus! No more staring out the window thirty minutes a day mentally composing and sending emails that my recipients never get because I forget to actually type them out when I come home.

(And let's not forget the beauty of Stanza, the iPhone and iPod Touch's best free e-reader app, which allows me to download and carry around of tens of thousands of free books through websites like Project Gutenberg. Free books were enough of a selling point that after I found out about Stanza it took me less than twenty-four hours to get to an Apple Store.)

Though I'm probably not the one to ask for an unbiased assessment of the perils and advantages of increased connectivity, I have to say that for this particular recluse, owning yet another internet device is working out well so far, in fact increasing the quality of my alone-time. I'm less reliant on the tyranny of the laptop screen, which means I get to spend more time looking at something other than an LCD monitor, and less time fretting about what would be on that screen if I were to look at it. All this, just in time to enjoy the quiet blooming of spring in Minneapolis.

April 19, 2010

Apocalyptic Visions of April 2010 // J. Lee Morsell

In the class I teach, we were discussing John D'Agata's essay on Henry Darger, the man who lived alone. When Darger died, his landlady found his wall papered in the faces of little girls, clipped from newspapers and magazines, all their eyes X-ed out with shiny graphite.

She also found a 15,145-page illustrated novel called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.

Elsie_-_lg.jpgMy student showed me a photograph: little Elsie Paroubek, a five-year-old murder victim, that Darger had clipped from the May 9, 1911 Chicago Daily News. When the clipping was stolen from Darger's locker at work, he wrote in his journal that "the huge disaster and calamity . . . will never be atoned for," but "shall be avenged to the uttermost limit." And so he began his novel.

It was an arresting picture, and it immediately struck me that Elsie's eye was a dark cross resembling the cruciform black hole at the center of the Whirlpool Galaxy, pictured in last week's column:

Later that week my mother had surgery near her eye, and she sent this picture:

My girlfriend says there is no cross over my mother's eye. I insist there is. My girlfriend says I should see that movie where Jim Carrey goes crazy seeing the number twenty-three everywhere.

These crosses and eyes: each gestures toward danger, frightens, gives the prick of thrill, glimmers. The little innocent (faced a monster, and was killed), the mother (faced a minor cancer, and escaped), and the black hole: since no light escapes, it cannot be directly seen by these eyes. In our imaginations (if not, it seems, in reality), black holes are a new existential threat--as I wrote last week, the Large Hadron Collider is even now trying to make black holes in Switzerland. The LHC black holes are expected to be so small and unstable that they will harmlessly dissipate, but some fear one could become self-sustaining and engulf us.

I admit it: I recoil from these images, but in a way that I enjoy.

Some people might say that recurring crosses cannot be an accident. I think they are evidence of a conspiracy between my consciousness and coincidence, like a joke. We see crosses everywhere. The apocalypse is nigh.

A magnetar is a near-black hole, an extremely magnetic collapsed supernova that emits pulses brighter than anything else in the universe. It spins so fast it makes one full rotation per second. It anchors space gases seven light-years in diameter. One thimbleful of a magnetar weighs one hundred million tons. Extremely magnetic. Attractive.

I listened to the new "This American Life," about Magnetar Capital, the hedge fund named after a near-black hole. Ira Glass suggests that Magnetar Capital helped bring on the financial crisis: they bought masses of the worst, riskiest subprime mortgages, effectively took out insurance on them, and made loads when their investments collapsed. Pretty devious. (The Securities and Exchange Commission has just accused Goldman Sachs of doing the same.)

Commentators seem to love to refer to this financial crisis in apocalyptic terms--a Google search for instances of "financial apocalypse" since January 1, 2006 turns up 38,800 results. The same search for the prior four years returns only sixty-two. This is not the first era in which people have thought about economics apocalyptically. A search not delimited by time returns a gleefully apocalyptic depiction of financial crisis from the 1981 thriller Rollover.

Notice that, in this rendering, the artist has depicted a magnetar's magnetic field lines in cruciform:

What we focus on. How we frame it. D'Agata points out that, in Darger's five-thousand-page autobiography, he never once mentioned that he was an artist. Instead, he wrote about his job washing dishes. Meanwhile, he was writing the longest novel in history. An apocalyptic novel.

Darger is thought of as a man raised by wolves: He was an orphan who spent his life alone. Every figure of a girl he drew had a penis. He may not have known that this was anatomically unusual. At the same time, his apartment was littered with crucifixes. His autobiography tells us that he attended mass four to seven times per day.

The myth of apocalypse reflects our desire to see the truth and find there an escape from evil. To keep the Cross in view. Or is the apocalypse the black hole from which no evil escapes to be seen? Maybe we know that the apocalypse never arrives, and we just like to think about it, to watch Rollover, the rollover, the weekly apocalypse, again and again: after all, the magnetar, the near-black hole, is the brightest object in the universe.

Image Credits:
Reproduction of Elsie Paroubek photograph courtesy of Wikipedia
Whirlpool Galaxy image courtesy of NASA/ESA
Magnetar image courtesy of Wikimedia and NASA

April 16, 2010

Coincidentally, Cookies! // Liana Liu

Who doesn't love a nice coincidence now and then? I have enjoyed several Minnesota coincidences. However, I recognize that hearing about other people's coincidences is just as boring as hearing about other people's dreams.

Unless you were in the person's dream. Or it was a sex dream. Or you were in the person's sex dream.

Thus, I'll skip over "what a small world" coincidences #1, 2, & 3, but I must tell you about coincidence #4: Eun Joo, English PhD student, because she is the lovely lady I interviewed today. We went to high school together! We didn't know each other then. But we know each other now! And it's wonderful!

eunjoo1.jpgWhat are you reading now?
I'm reading this booked called Clay Walls by Kim Ronyoung.

How do you like it?
I like it a lot. It's about a part of history that we don't get to hear about a lot: the early Korean communities of America in the 1920s.

How did you find out about this book?
I read part of it in an anthology, then I had a hard time finding a whole copy of it. I finally found it at the Hennepin County Library. They didn't have it at the University Library, or in Flushing (Queens) where I usually find my Asian American books.

When you're reading that book on the bus, do people ever come up and talk to you about it? (1)
They don't because the cover is white, and doesn't have any illustrations. On a related note, I had another friend who was reading a book called Orientalism, a critical theory book. She was reading it in a coffee shop, right by the window, and someone did stop on the other side of the window to point at the book, then point at her, then try to engage her in conversation.

So what happened? Did they engage? Are they engaged? True love? (2)
No, well, my friend was not willing to have a conversation based on that. (3)

Have you ever made a new friend or lover after being approached while reading a book?
I don't think I have. Usually when someone tries to talk to me while I'm reading a book, I hold the book higher so I can't see them.

Is that because they're not attractive?
Sometimes. Yeah, I think that would make a big difference. (4)

(1) Sometimes I wonder why no one has tried to talk to me about whatever book I'm reading on the bus, then I remember that I get horribly carsick and don't read on the bus. Maybe I should just hold a book and see if people will talk to me? I like a good stranger conversation.

(2) I am taking a screenwriting class and am now only able to see the world in romantic comedy clichés. It feels good!

(3) Me neither.

(4) For sure. What also makes a big difference is a snappy pickup line. Or a cookie. FYI.

April 15, 2010

More satellite stuff, please! // Landrew Kentmore

A while ago, most awesome stuff came through wires. Telephones had weird curly wires. TVs had a fat ugly wire that came out of the wall. Even radios had big metal wires that you would pull out and plug into the air (this wire called an antenna).

It was a dangerous time because there was so much stuff to trip on and get poked by. These days, though, we don't need to worry about so many wires because scientists invented satellites!

For those who don't know, satellites are the practical versions of spaceships. While spaceships are busy trying to take over forbidden planets and destroy rogue asteroids, satellites hang out around Earth beaming down our favorite shows and telling us what the weather's going to be like. Basically, satellites are like bagels and spaceships are like donuts. It's easier to make dinner out of a bagel but I would definitely be more excited to find donuts in the kitchen.
So while satellites themselves aren't totally cool, they make other stuff way cooler, like radio and telephones and television. In fact, I think we aren't using enough satellite technology. I want to see more satellite-powered stuff. Here are some ideas:

Satellite books: Nothing sucks more than opening a giant book that looked awesome at the bookstore, reading the first page and thinking, "Oh no! This book isn't exactly how I want it to be!" That would change with books connected to satellites! You could make adjustments like shorter, longer, more action, or less big words. You could even choose "make more southern" and then there would be an apostrophe instead of the g in -ing verbs!
Satellite electricity: Nobody knows what happens if a tree falls in a forest when no one is around, but everyone knows what happens if a tree falls on your power line: no light, no air-conditioning, and no surfing the internet on your computer (stupid, double stupid, triple stupid)! What happens when a tree falls through air filled with satellite waves? Nothing! (Also, satellite electricity would help the birdhouse industry, because without power lines, birds would need somewhere to hang out.)

Satellite iced tea: A while ago, tea was just a bunch of leaves. Then someone was like, "Hey, let's toss these in some water and ice" and that's how iced tea was born. For a while it stayed like that, until some smart guy was like, "What if we tossed a lemon in this stuff?" That started people putting all sorts of fruit in iced tea! With iced-tea scientists constantly inventing new flavors, it would be great to buy a bottle of iced tea that could download the most recent flavor so you don't have to live in the past!
Here's the one downside: the more stuff we make satellite-powered, the more satellites there will be in space sending and receiving waves of information. This is great for people who build satellites for a job, but if there are a bunch of satellites in space, they might run into each other. (And if the TV satellite and the iced tea satellite collided and then your TV screen turned to iced tea and spilled all over your carpet, that could be a big mess to clean up.)

April 14, 2010

AWP, dislocated // David LeGault

So I'm still recovering from the recent AWP Conference in Denver. It was a great opportunity to hear a lot of interesting talks on writing and shmooze with famous writers. Better yet, a few of the writers appearing in the upcoming issue of dislocate stopped by to say hello.

I've been trying to figure out the best way to recap my thoughts on the conference, but I think our Twitter feed of the conference covers it better than I possibly could. I've included all the posts from the conference below, including the necessary annotations:

1) First impression: so many satchels! 12:47 PM Apr 8th via txt
As I entered the convention center, I cracked a joke about how everyone (literally everyone) within my line of sight had some sort of leather messenger bag. It was funny until I remembered I too was wearing one, and then it was just kind of sad.

2) Fact: this year's totes are inferior to last year's 1:25 PM Apr 8th via txt
Seriously. They were some cheaper fabric, and without the zipper they couldn't be used as a carry-on for all those writers going home with a huge stack of books.

3) Jessica piazza, barrelhouse rep, challenges all to a dance fight. 2:11 PM Apr 8th via txt
Barrelhouse is doing a lot of great things with their journal: putting out solid writing that doesn't take itself so seriously. Plus, they were willing to put their reputation on the line at the AWP official dance party (more on this later).

4) #awp10 yet to hear a good question at the end of a panel. share the worst questions you've ever heard! 4:09 PM Apr 8th via txt
Although there are a ton of interesting panel discussions, the Q&A sections at the end are always awful, if not all-out embarrassing. Usually, they consist of self-serving questions ("well, in MY book, INSERT-TITLE/PUBLISHER HERE") or comments that make it evident that the audience member wasn't paying attention for the last hour and a half.

5) #awp10 Three cups of coffee + pulled pork sandwich= panel discussion in my innards 4:38 PM Apr 8th via txt
Did anyone actually buy those sandwiches? 9 dollars for a hot dug bun full of something vaguely resembling meat. I bought a Mountain Dew that cost like 4 dollars and never went back. Shame on you, vendors.

6) #awp10 hobart giving out 2 back issues, a shot of whiskey AND shot glass, all for 5 bucks. These guys rock. 5:31 PM Apr 8th via txt
One of the joys of the AWP book fair is discovering new journals that simply blow us away. Hobart is definitely one of them.

7)"Black warrior review loves 20 dollar bills" -bwr editor 1:03 PM Apr 8th via txt
I asked BWR for a quote about the conference, and they had just sold a number of subscriptions, and the pile of 20's was fairly substantial. Glad to see someone making some money here!

8) #awp10 fact: awp dance party = most glorious trainwreck. ever. 11:32 PM Apr 8th via txt
Imagine a couple hundred socially awkward writers. Now, imagine free, seemingly unlimited supplies of alcohol and a DJ playing some booty-shaking music. I went as a spectator and was simply blown away by it. (Rumor has it George Saunders showed up on the last night, but regrettably I didn't go that night)

9)"AWP is getting weird" -some drunk dude awkwardly grinding 11:41 PM Apr 8th via txt
See #8

10) #awp10 overheard: "i never expected a book fair to be this awkward." 10:26 AM Apr 9th via txt
Imagine those socially awkward writers from the night before. Now take away the alcohol and make them talk to each other. Yikes. Maybe we should go back to dancing?

11)#awp10 "the erotic poem is a vibrator made of words." -tony barnstone 11:04 AM Apr 9th via txt
One of many terrific quotes from the panel discussions.

12) #awp10 "i really like dislocate's shirt. also what's underneath it." -ander monson 11:50 AM Apr 9th via txt
Did anyone else check out Diagram's issue on a Deck of Cards? I love this journal.

13)#awp10 "for us to shed language we must shed our humanity"- brian laidlaw 1:48 PM Apr 9th via txt

14)#awp10 AWP Bingo target="_blank">http://wewhoareabouttodie.com/2010/04/08/your-official-awp-conference-bingo-card/ 8:31 AM Apr 10th via web
This is simply amazing. I think I Bingo'ed three or four times the day I discovered this.

15) #awp10 "writing biography is a satisfying circle of hell" -honor moore 9:34 AM Apr 10th via txt
As a nonfiction writer, I can agree/commiserate.

16) #awp10 "writing memoir is the equivalent of getting a 5 quart enema" -from the women writing memoir panel 10:20 AM Apr 10th via txt
See #15

17) #awp10 p73 poetry foundation ad in program: i liked this idea better when dislocate did it six months ago! 10:26 AM Apr 10th via txt
dislocate had a series of Mad Lib style re-imaginings of famous essays in preparation for our "Contaminated Essay Contest." A few months later, the Poetry Foundation is doing the same at their table. Coincidence? Probably.

18) #awp10 bummed the artists book exhibited was cancelled, wished more writers took note of the form 10:34 AM Apr 10th via txt
Super bummed that this exhibit didn't happen. I'll probably write more about the artist book later, possibly next week.

19) #awp10 "writing is an art, but publishing is a business"-rebecca skloot 11:16 AM Apr 10th via txt

20)#awp10 benjamin percy has the world's deepest voice 2:08 PM Apr 10th via txt
Deepest voice I've ever experienced, like sub-Barry White, like playing Tuba in marching band, like his stories are amazing and you should go read or re-read them immediately.

21) #awp10 "the ebook wont happen overnight, just like the opposable thumb didnt" 3:28 PM Apr 10th via txt
True, but for the time being, we love our books as artifacts.

April 13, 2010

Another AWP Survival Story // Jana Misk

Last week shortly after finishing my column, I discovered I'd unwittingly acquired a roommate. What started as the shadowy darts of paranoia in my peripheral vision became, over the course of a quiet afternoon, unmistakable glimpses of a furry creature streaking across my living room floor as I recoiled into a nook of my couch.

After a few more sightings I determined it was most likely a mouse. You may remember my remark last week that housecleaning duties had fallen too far down my priority list to be attended to. Of course, this development motivated me well enough to overcome my lethargy. I scraped the crud from my stovetop, washed my towers of dishes, and vacuumed the crumbs from the walkway between coffee table and sofa, all while wearing bootie-slippers to protect my feet from the intruder's potential defensive nips. I felt like a panicked elephant, and like a slob.

The next day I boarded a plane for Denver and AWP, where I got to forget for long stretches about the mouse and feel instead like a complete social failure. The first day I managed to start bravely at 8am armed with sixteen ounces of coffee (which had me twitching well past 2pm), and made it through three panels and a dislocate table shift before retreating exhausted to my hotel room at four. I even got back out of the crisp-sheeted bed for the University of Minnesota's reception with its ludicrously overpriced drinks ($7.50 for a vodka tonic? I moved out of San Francisco for a reason), and then Michael Chabon's impressively funny keynote speech, which went on only a little bit too long. But after that I was done, happy to spend the rest of my evening with reruns of Seinfeld, Friends and Family Guy. After the first day it only got worse: I didn't even make it to the much-anticipated George Saunders reading, apologetically citing stomach pain over having gorged on gumbo and a too-sweet hurricane at dinner, and again looked forward to my hours with Jerry, Elaine and George, even making a brief, exciting foray into The Office (to which I have still not become a convert).

Needless to say I never managed to make it to any of the after-parties, though I read about their pervasive awkwardness (which attendees, by their reverent tone, seemed to have hopelessly confused with awesomeness) via Twitter in my hotel room. My boyfriend, for the most part, lay beside me on our rumpled bed in pantsless solidarity, surrendering himself to the soothing numbness of syndicated television, though intermittently he fretted about missing the Opportunities that were passing him by six floors below.

When we tried to sleep, I sweated through the sheets and dreamt of being entombed in bookfair promotional materials. The stream of stimuli from the past day regurgitated itself in a hapless fervor through my subconscious, waking me every hour or so with panel moderators' voices whispering broken epigraphs at me. Once I recognized my inevitable state of overstimulation, I resigned myself to sleeplessness for the rest of my stay in Denver.

Luckily, by the final day of the conference it seemed I was not alone in my total burnout. I arrived in the bookfair at 9:30am, visited with a fellow dislocate staff member at our table, and casually spilled coffee down my shirt mid-conversation. He related sympathetically that he'd lost his own coffee only an hour before, and the next person I spoke to (of course I started the conversation with "I just spilled coffee all over myself" even though the stain was invisible on my dark shirt) told me he'd just seen a guy in the bathroom in the same situation. This may have been the closest I came during AWP to feeling a sense of community.

Does that mean I didn't get anything out of going to the conference? Not at all. It's widely understood that the phenomenon of AWP is itself bizarre: a bunch of what usually amount to socially awkward, introverted types being forced into constant interaction and excitement from 8:30am to the wee hours of the morning, three days in a row, and being expected on top of all of that to learn things and to network. Good lord. But maybe this arrangement can be seen as useful: with so many goals, so many opportunities, it's not too difficult to fulfill at least one of them. I went to a few good panels--one that took a feminist approach to examining the stigma against "confessional" memoirs, and another about the construction of "unlikable female protagonists" (are you surprised by my choices? I thought not)--picked up lots of reading material, even worked the room a little in my final-day delirium for the sake of dislocate. Do I have regrets? Sure: I didn't talk to a single author whose work I adore (particularly Steve Almond and Alexander Chee), I didn't choose panels based on who was presenting, I didn't try any microbrews, I didn't visit the Bodyworlds exhibit that happened to be in town. Do I regret skipping all those after-parties? Hell no. (I actually did slog through one for about five minutes on Saturday night, but left as soon as I had retrieved my waiting friend from a dance floor that was terrifyingly reminiscent of middle school.)

If you ask me, though, whether I enjoyed my four days in Denver overall, I don't think I have an answer yet. Mainly I'm proud of myself for having survived such an overwhelming throng of people for as long as I did. I'm sure it helped that I knew we all had some basic thread of common value running through us; in that sense, none of us were complete strangers to each other.

Now I'm back in Minneapolis, not quite feeling at home. The mouse hasn't yet made another appearance, but I'm still jittery sitting in my living room, flinching at the rustle of a breeze through my houseplants or the distant roar of a car engine, when all I want to do is allow sleep to carry me into the deepest depths of calm, to reverse all this coiling of my internal spring. My best hope, I think, is to lose myself in the books I brought home from AWP and let myself rest in someone else's conflict, drama, self-recognition.

April 12, 2010

AWP: A particularly satisfying circle of Hell

Then the airplane took off and my girlfriend pulled Sky Mall from the seat pocket. I was writing a review of a book I disliked, a review I wanted to finish, so I was irritated when she interrupted me to suggest that I order a stainless-steel wallet, "resistant to corrosive materials such as salts, acids," on page 28 of the 148-page glossy catalogue.

petloo.jpgI am alienated from many things that give other people pleasure, and I had never before opened a Sky Mall. My gf insisted that Sky Mall was "fun" and she offered as evidence ads for an underwater pogo stick and a "Go ahead and sleep in, your furry friend has his backyard in a box" indoor-Astroturf-with-waste-disposal-tray. At this I grabbed my own copy and opened it wide above the Bad Book, and enjoyed "'Bigfoot, the Garden Yeti' Statue" (disappointingly, it's merely "over two feet tall"), the "Eyewitness in your pocket" camcorder spy pen (1), and the "Sling Couture Fashion Face Mask." (2)

S.C.F.F.M.: the most captivating product in Sky Mall, if you ask me. H1N1 protective face masks in black-and-white leopard, confetti, or lingerie red velveteen. What a good idea. I once bought an unattractive (non-Sling Couture) face mask to keep on hand in case of an outbreak of avian flu, and I never wore it. (3)(4)

We landed in Denver, and a Qatari diplomat landed in that same city on that same day on a different plane. Before landing, the diplomat had snuck a cigarette in the cramped airplane bathroom, and a flight attendant smelled the smoke. When confronted, the diplomat reportedly made a sarcastic comment about blowing up his shoe. This was quite the faux pas, and Qatar is bringing him home.

hadron-tunnel.jpgWe had flown there for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, and I had shipped promotional dislocate refrigerator magnets to Denver care of a friend of a friend. The magnet recipient is a physicist who works for the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, the one people fear will create a black hole that will swallow the earth. Did you know that the LHC scientists are trying to make tiny, evanescent black holes? Did you know that the interior of the collider is believed to be the coldest place in the universe? Did you know that just a week and a half ago, on March 30, the LHC collided two protons at near the speed of light and produced a world record explosion seven million times as strong as splitting an atom?

I wanted to ask the Denver LHC scientist whether I should worry about the black holes (celebrity physicist Michio Kaku says no, that the LHC is as likely to make a dangerous black hole as it is a fire-breathing dragon), and I wanted to ask him whether the discovery of the elusive Higgs boson ("the God particle" (5)), for which they are hunting, would really lead to a theory that would explain everything, as people say. Even as collider proponents like Kaku have downplayed the destructive potential, they have played up the rhetoric of apocalyptic revelation. After the March 30 achievement, Michio Kaku said, "This is a huge step toward unraveling Genesis, Chapter 1, Verse 1--what happened in the beginning. This is a Genesis machine. It'll help to recreate the most glorious event in the history of the universe."

black-hole.jpgInstead the scientist and I discussed the Qatari diplomat. We'd only heard exaggerated rumors at that point, and we didn't yet know that there wasn't really a shoe bomb. "I don't understand why he should get diplomatic immunity," the physicist said. But I understood: governments don't want to be in the position of either defending or disavowing the bad behavior of their diplomats.

The conference swarmed with eight thousand writers. I conjectured what a writer's apocalypse would be: that dreamed-of moment when the lightning, nay, the atomic, nay, the proton blast of your lucid words lights all the world brighter than day, in a perfect synthesis of egomania and selfless service. It was in Denver that my girlfriend introduced me to the new technology that is bringing every tweeter closer to that apocalypse, the Tweetdeck. (6) Alexander Chee had quoted, in one hundred and forty characters or less, something he heard a Hyatt doorman say: never had he seen so many people visibly in pain as at AWP.

The weekend's events constituted, as Honor Moore described some writerly thing in an AWP panel, a particularly satisfying circle of Hell.

If I don't get caught smoking in the airplane bathroom, I'll be back next week.

1. I actually almost bought this.

2. No, I'm not getting kickbacks from Sky Mall.

3. Also, once I went to the grad student lounge to nuke my lunch and found an undergraduate creative writing class inappropriately meeting there. The student sitting the closest to the microwave was a young woman in a (non-Sling Couture) face mask. I butted right in to use the cooking appliance, subjecting the obviously health-conscious girl to microwave radiation. While I did so I felt concerned that her mask indicated, despite its prophylactic qualities, that the girl posed a health risk to me. Only after did the teacher reassure me that the student was perfectly healthy, and was merely guarding against the risk of contracting the virus formerly known as swine flu.

4. Some readers might consider these footnotes to be derivative of David Foster Wallace. I prefer to consider them derivative of Liana Liu.

5. The Higgs boson is only theorized to exist, and has never been definitively detected. It is suspected to be the source of all mass, and due to this miraculous power has been dubbed "the God particle." Many scientists dislike this appellation, and in a re-nicknaming competition last summer the particle was re-dubbed "the champagne bottle boson."

6. Read more about tweeting at the new Shouts & Murmurs in the New Yorker.

Image Credits:
"Pet Loo" photograph from SkyMall.com
Black hole photograph courtesy of NASA and ESA
Hadron collider photograph courtesy of Julian Herzog

April 9, 2010

Minnesota Twincest // Liana Liu

I like a good trivia night. I am lousy at answering the questions but good at coming up with team names, obviously. "Minnesota Twincest" is probably my best effort.

The name combines all of my favorite things: local interest, puns, twins, and the subversive erotic. Another one I like is "Single and Looking to Mingle." I have no further comments about that one.

Getting to the point, I cheated this week and interviewed my friend Patrick: writer, athlete, and all-around fabulous fellow. And he's from Minnesota! And he's a twin! However, he has no connection to incest, as far as I know. In fact, if he did have an incest connection, I would never have titled this column "Minnesota Twincest." Okay? So, no incest. I promise. By the way, his sister's a nun.

patrick.jpgHave you read anything good lately?
The best book I read lately is probably True Grit by Charles Portis. What's that about? It's a young girl narrator set in the old west, and on the first page she tells us she's setting out to avenge her father's death.

Why did you like it? You like avenging girls?
That's right. Blood and gore all over the place. No, there's very little blood and gore. There's actually a John Wayne movie based on it and the Coen brothers are making a new movie, not based on the old movie, but on the book, which is much better. (1)

So tell me, do you have any reading guilty pleasures?
I don't know if I have any guilty pleasures because I read lots and lots of genre shit, but I don't feel at all embarrassed about it. (2)

Good! So you're a pretty nonjudgmental guy about what people read, right?

But still, have you ever dated someone who read stuff you thought was nonsense?
This is going to make me sound terrible, but I have to say Tuesdays With Morrie (3). . . I know I sound like a bad person but I think it's a despicable book.

Because it makes the life lessons of this man almost more important than the life itself. It seems unfair to the guy. (4)

So you once dated a girl who really liked Tuesdays With Morrie?
I've actually dated many a girl who liked Tuesdays with Morrie. And I assume that's because they are actually better people than me. (5)

How did you know they all liked it?

Oh! (6)
Probably conversations, also, hopefully. I actually do converse with my former girlfriends.

Were these real relationships or only online relationships? (7)
I think the majority were real.

Good. So, have you talked about Tuesdays With Morrie with your lady friends?
I don't think I've ever 'fessed up that I don't like it.

Have you read it?
I have. In fact, I took a high school psychology class that was structured around the book Tuesdays With Morrie. We didn't read the book in class, but we watched the movie several times (8) and at the end of the semester the professor confessed he had never actually read the book because he thought the movie was so good. It was the made-for-TV Jack Lemon movie.

Was he a good teacher?
No. (9)


(1) As usual.

(2) That's the spirit!

(3) Is that the one about the dog?

(4) I guess it's not the one about the dog.

(5) Such modesty.

(6) Sometimes I forget that this is a thing.

(7) It's important to clarify.

(8) Several times? Really?

(9) Hell no.

April 8, 2010

AWP Bookfair Quiz: Win a Copy of dislocate #5!

Denver10.pngFellow AWP attendees, snag a free copy of dislocate issue #5--featuring Kevin Wilson, Nin Andrews, Peter Johnson, and an interview with Ethan Canin--by answering these four easy questions and bringing the correct answers to dislocate's table (A-4) at the AWP 2010 bookfair! (Answer sheets are available at the table.)*

* While supplies last. Come early to make sure you get yours!

1. Name three people who have been interviewed for Liana Liu's column, Reading People.

2. According to Kevin Fenton's article, "Social Media and the Anti-Social Novelist," what modern phrase might an ancient cave dweller have chipped into a rock that signaled the beginning of the social media impulse?

3. What two island nations have been discussed in J. Lee Morsell's column, The Weekly Apocalypse?

4. Name one author who has been interviewed for an article on dislocate.org.

Exercise Technology: Treadmills // Landrew Kentmore

If you ask a bunch of people on the street what piece of technology is the opposite of an air conditioner, most will say a heater. (Some people might get weirded out, which is fair because you are a stranger on the street asking about air conditioners for no real reason.)

A heater is a good answer, but not totally right. This is because, with certain heaters, if you leave stuff on them, you could start a fire. An air conditioner can't put out a fire, so it can't be opposite. What an air conditioner can do is make you feel less hot and sweaty. The opposite thing that can make you feel more hot and sweaty is a treadmill!

A treadmill is a machine that makes running in place not so lame. The treadmill's main competitors in the stuff-to-run-on market are streets and paths. The one big thing that streets and paths have over treadmills is that they work during power outages. But there are many upsides to using a treadmill rather than a street or path. For example, there are way less wolves, snakes, and gangs on treadmills then there are on streets and paths.

Right now, there are also fewer tree roots growing in treadmills that you can trip on, but that might not always be how it is. A million years in the future, if the world as we know it gets destroyed by computers and the jungle takes over again, you might be able to go to some place that used to be a city and find the ruins of a gym where trees have grown all over ancient treadmills. With these treadmills, you could trip on a tree root, but, since everyone will be super ripped from swinging in trees and fighting mutants at night, you probably won't need an exercise machine.

Until the future, treadmills are a great choice for getting in shape. One awesome thing about a treadmill is that you can use a TV with it. Most people put one TV in front of the treadmill. This is fine but I think two TVs would work better. Here's my idea: Set the first TV up to watch your favorite shows right in front of your treadmill. Set a second TV up behind the treadmill and load up a DVD of something scary and fast, like tornados, avalanches or cheetahs. Then, if you get tired and think, "I can slow down," you look over your shoulder and there's a tornado right on your heels!

If you're considering getting a treadmill, you might think, "I should wait and see if they come out with any new treadmills, so that I don't buy one that's obsolete." Here's what you need to know about this: treadmills can't get obsolete until legs change. So you don't need to pay attention to changes in treadmill technology. Instead, watch for changes in leg technology. When they change your legs, like if they give you robotic spider legs (awesome!), then you've got to be a bit more careful with your treadmill shopping.


April 7, 2010

Road Trips, dislocated // David LeGault

This morning, I was woken up to the sound of a vibrating phone, a message telling me "I'm downstairs, I'll see you in a minute." This week, I'm supposed to be heading to the AWP Conference in Denver, a 15-hour drive from the Twin Cities, and my ride has just shown up a day early.

cornfield.jpgAfter some frantic packing/showering/eating, we get on the road an hour later than expected, but still early enough to take on the excursion in a single, long-ass day packed into a Honda Civic.

For those of you who haven't experienced this drive, it primarily consists of the long, straight interstates through Iowa and Nebraska. This is the oft-mentioned flatness: the miles upon miles of cornfields on either side, broken up by the occasional rest stop or obscure roadside attraction. There's not much in the way of scenery, most of the time the smell of cows or fertilizer fill the car, and the only think keeping anyone awake is the constant stream of Mountain Dew that tastes all right at first until it eventually sticks to your teeth and your gut like some kind of paste. Most of the ride was through semi-serious rain, and we usually weren't able to sustain the posted speed limits, let alone speed through and cut off a couple hours (not to mention the water cast off of semi-truck tires, the white-knuckle tension of hydroplaning whenever we attempted to pass the slower-moving vehicles).

Still, I'm a Midwesterner; it occasionally feels necessary to make the drive through what most Americans consider "flyover country."

My students have been turning in short stories for the past couple of weeks, and I keep hearing about how frustrating it is to know how they want their stories to end, but feeling unable to make it happen on the page. I find myself telling them that they shouldn't force a story to end a specific way when the unexpected results are often more interesting. I think of it like this: there are several ways that the writer can approach their work (they can start with an idea, a situation, a rhetorical question, a scene, etc). In each case, it's going to involve a different writing process to reach the end result. There's no correct way to approach their writing--some may be faster, some may be more visual/scenic, some may drive halfway across the country before turning around and reaching the ultimate goal. The key is finding the path that works best for them, which involves practice, experimentation, and a lot of time driving through the middle of nowhere until you can find your way out of it. This is one kind of drive that probably works best without a road map.

April 6, 2010

When Alone Gets Ugly // Jana Misk

Anyone who says introversion is unhealthy can suck it. But while reclusiveness and depression are not the same thing, sometimes they co-occur, and it can be difficult to tell them apart.

I've noticed that for the past month or so I've been unable to muster the will to clean my apartment. Bags of recycling have sat in my hallway for at least two weeks. Dirty dishes are piled up on my dining table. I don't have a single clean utensil or plate. This doesn't help my lack of motivation to cook. It's not that I don't want to eat--though certainly my interest in food has decreased--but just that I can't be bothered to prepare anything that takes more than five minutes. Finally I've resigned myself to this fact and been trying to mentally prepare myself for a trip to the grocery store for a freezerful of prepared dinners, but that trip hasn't happened yet either--it can wait another day. Oddly, my fantasies around food lately have revolved around going out to restaurants where unobtrusive strangers will make me food. There must be something in the pampering aspect of the restaurant experience that I find comforting, like having my mother bring me soup when I was sick.

Luckily my boyfriend lives only a couple blocks away, so I get to escape my little rat's nest and retreat to his comparatively immaculate apartment, where our combined minimal motivation to feed ourselves seems just barely sufficient to make proper meals happen. It used to be that I would get sick of hanging out at his place; I'd begin to miss the fruits of my superior decorating skills. But when all I have to come back to is every surface covered with student papers, crusted dinnerware, and the still-unfolded laundry I washed ten days ago, it's easier to take another nap in his bed while he stares at his computer screen in the next room.

I'm grateful for him and for my friends who by now know the drill--that I need safe places to huddle in good company, and that the worst will be over soon enough. In a previous version of my life, I would have been pretty screwed right now. I would have been single, with tenuous friendships and nowhere to escape the ugliest parts of my internal landscape into a healthier kind of solitude. And yes: I believe that for some people there is such a thing as healthy solitude, even during a depressive episode.

The first time I became depressed enough for the authorities to be alerted, I was told that social activity and exercise would make my illness go away. As an angsty sixteen-year-old, I was quite sure this was bullshit, and that, more importantly, it missed the point. Something was happening. I was tapping into something true and real about the world, and these "doctors" were essentially telling me I could--and should--run away from it.

Do I still feel that way, eleven years later? Maybe a little. But I've now been through this cycle probably a dozen times. I know that it ends; I know there's a way for me to recover. And I've grown out of my adolescent myopia enough to recognize how important it is to make myself focus on the things in my life that I do enjoy, and to give myself those things as frequently as possible and without judgment. If that means indulging more than usual in my emergency chocolate stash, or blowing off work to take a long walk on a sunny day, then so be it. No sense in wallowing--it never, ever helps. Certain kinds of introspection can be useful, but I find that, in these situations, most often it's a matter of remembering how to take care of myself. And as it turns out, exercising and connecting with good friends can be incredibly helpful for climbing out of these holes.

depression.jpgThese thoughts may seem simplistic to anyone who is in the throes of depression. I'm not trying to trivialize this condition or suggest that it's easy to emerge from. If you're a reclusive type who's having a hard time discerning whether your current psychological state is just part of a streak of down days or a symptom of something more serious, there's a simple test I recommend that you take. Just answer this one question for yourself:

Am I staying home alone because I take pleasure in doing so, or because doing anything else seems unbearable?

If your answer veers toward the "unbearable" end of the spectrum, and has been that way for more than a week or two, it's time for you to find some help. Call a close friend or loved one; contact a trusted mental health professional or your local mental health hotline. Sometimes the only way we can find our way back to the quiet contentment of our inner lives is to reach out into the world for help.

Image Credit:

April 5, 2010

The Post-MFA Life: Illusions, Delusions, and Beer

by Liana Liu

Fiction writer Laura Owen is one of the funniest ladies I know, and this is reflected in her work. But the quirkiness of her characters--a magician who cuts off his own head, a suburban mom who wears grills--never overpowers the emotional impact of her work. Laura graduated from the University of Minnesota MFA program last May; here we talk about life after school, life during school, and the importance of commas.

LauraOwen.jpgWhat have you been up to since graduating?
I've been up to a lot of teaching. I teach composition at the University of Wisconsin--River Falls. It's about forty minutes away, so I live in Minnesota and work in Wisconsin, which is a little weird. I teach a lot: I taught three classes last semester and I'm teaching four this semester. Plus this semester I'm also teaching two classes at The Loft. Essentially, my life is teaching, teaching, teaching, hanging out, and teaching.

So with all that teaching, how's your writing going?
Well it's this really strange dichotomy in that I have been doing pretty much zero writing, which would make feel me more down-hearted except that my professional progress is further along than it's ever been. I was really lucky to have had a story published in American Short Fiction this past fall, and because of that I've been in touch with some agents. So I'm further along in the agent search than I expected to be, but at the same time I'm not really doing any writing, so it's this weird thing where I feel like people are professionally interested in my writing but I could not be spending less time on my writing.

That is weird! Are you talking to agents about your thesis?
Yes. My MFA thesis was a novel. At the end of the program, I really wanted to be graduated and feel like, "It's done! Take it, agents!" But since then, I've thought about the feedback I got from my professors and some of my peers, and want to do one more revision. I'm hoping to save some money and take the summer to do a revision. Then hopefully the agents I've talked to will like it. And then onward to fame and fortune! Of course, no guarantees.

No, I think it's pretty much a guarantee.
Yes, you're right.

Do you miss school? Your lifestyle has changed so drastically.
Well, It hasn't really. I have this anxiety like, oughtn't my lifestyle have changed more? But I live in the same apartment; I do similar work as the work I did in grad school, just more of it; and I hang out with a lot of my lovely friends who are still in the MFA program. I occasionally feel like the creepy old guy hanging out with high school chicks, buying them beer, but that's that.

That's great that you have a real job and you don't think it sucks.
Yeah, I'm working full time and I don't hate it, and I never expected both of those things. And I'm very happy about that. We sort of grouse a bit in the MFA program, wondering what we can really expect out of it, but it's true that it has enabled me to actually do a job that I like.

So the MFA degree will provide for our future!
It does. It might not give you fame and fortune right away, but it does qualify you to do something, which I think we sometimes forget.

How did school change your writing?
I think it changed it for the better.

I certainly hope so.
The big thing was not changing the way that I wrote, but just giving me confidence in myself as a writer. It's really easy not to take yourself seriously as a writer. You feel really stupid: yeah, you write things, but no one's publishing you, no one's reading you, and you're reading all this amazing stuff, and you feel like, "How can I call myself a writer?" But having other people reading my stuff seriously and carefully really forced me to take myself seriously as a writer, and that was really important, just to get over myself and write.

I also learned stuff about form. Julie Schumacher pointed out that my writing was just infested with commas and that I needed to learn the rules of comma usage. She was totally right: I was just putting commas wherever I felt like putting commas. So learning the rules of comma usage improved my writing about five million percent. Having really attentive readers who know a lot about how writing works can help you shed some of your annoying tics--then your work becomes more polished and confident and clear.

So, graduate school taught you how to use commas.
Yes. I don't know if this reflects well on graduate school or poorly on me, or the other way around...

Or positively on everyone!
Yes, I've learned comma usage. Which I thought I knew beforehand, but I did not.

Read anything good lately?
I just finished rereading this Balzac novel called Lost Illusions. It was really enjoyable. It's basically about how if you want to be a writer it's not going to work out for you and everything is really terrible and you have to give up all your illusions and become really cynical and jaded.

Sounds enjoyable!
Maybe it's not uplifting, but I really liked it. I try to appreciate his observations about literary life, which I think still kind of hold true, without becoming too jaded.

Yeah, you got to hold on to your delusions.
Yes! Delusions are really useful things.

Because how else can you go on? You can't go on without your delusions.
I totally agree. The moral of the Balzac book seems to be that you have to renounce ambition and live a modest, good life or basically become really cynical and use people in order to be successful. And I do believe--I mean, I hold on to the illusion that there's got to be a middle way.

For more on Laura, visit her website: http://lauracjowen.weebly.com/

Tuvalu's Coming Flood // J. Lee Morsell

Last week I wrote about the Maldives, the lowest-lying nation on earth, likely to be swallowed by climate-change-caused rising seas before the end of the century. The similarly fated Tuvalu is the second-lowest-lying nation: islands that are vulnerable slivers where the entire population lives below two meters elevation.

Tuvalu-approach-cap.jpgOn any normal day a particularly large wave might wash right up onto the streets and into the buildings of the capital, Funafuti. Tuvalu is also a place with daily rainbows. I read recently that the Church of Tuvalu places strong emphasis on the Book of Genesis, where rainbows are a sign of God's promise to Noah that he will not flood the earth again.

Tuvalu is one of the very poorest states in the world, with an average per capita annual income of $1,600 US. Its government has been a resourceful fundraiser, though, selling fishing licenses, postage stamps, passports (until it was determined that terrorists were buying them), and the use of its 688 area code. The latter earned 10 percent of the federal budget until the Church of Tuvalu objected that the money came from phone sex services.

Tuvalu received a windfall in 1999 when, like an angel from Heaven, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority designated that the domain name for websites originating in Tuvalu would be .tv. In 2002, Tuvalu sold the right to manage the .tv domain to a California-based company for millions of dollars. (Different sources claim amounts ranging from $12.5 million to $50 million.) For a country of subsistence farmers and fishermen, even $12.5 million was a lot of money.

What does a poor country do with a big chunk of money when it expects its homes to be flooded, its soil to be ruined by salt, and the entirety of its territory to be uninhabitable in fifteen to twenty years?

Tuvalu joined the United Nations at a cost of $1.5 million per year (plus New York City rent and salaries) in order to make its case that nations should fight global warming. In 2002, under the leadership of then-Prime Minister Koloa Talake (who brokered the .tv deal), Tuvalu joined with the Maldives and Kiribati to sue the United States (the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases) and Australia (the biggest emitter per capita) for causing the seas to rise.

But within nine months, Tuvalans voted Talake out of office, because, reportedly, they believed their government had already spent too much money on diplomacy to no avail, and they didn't want to go bankrupt fighting giants in court.

Daphna Baram of The Guardian tells us that, at the time of the .tv sale, there were only four cars in all Tuvalu, and people walked everywhere. They didn't need cars; though the nation's islands are scattered across 347,400 square miles of the deep Pacific, the total land mass of Tuvalu is ten square miles.

Tuvalu1-cap.jpgEven as Prime Minister Talake launched his groundbreaking lawsuit, the government spent $10 million tarmacking roads. People bought cars and motorbikes. And flip-flops: the asphalt was too hot to walk on barefoot. Whereas Tuvalans used to eat only fish, coconuts and pigs, now they started importing foreign food. Even as the government began negotiating with other countries in search of relocation options, a construction boom ensued.

Ninety-seven percent of Tuvalans are members of the Church of Tuvalu; perhaps people felt the rainbows ensured that their real estate investments were sound. But I doubt it. Baram interviewed one entrepreneur who was building Tuvalu's first discotheque, and asked him about the imminent end. "'Yeah,' he mumbles, 'it is really a problem . . . Maybe I will drown with all the money I spent here.'"

We might view the spending spree as a gesture of despair, especially in light of its immediate effects: With new cars, people stopped walking. The loss of exercise and the new food caused obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure. All that foreign food came with packaging. Tuvalans were used to throwing their coconut husks and fish bones right out the front door; they had no culture or system in place for nonbiodegradable garbage. And then people started abandoning their cars because they couldn't afford to maintain them. Now the islands are a mess.

Tuvalu-dump-cap.jpgIf not for the overshadowing existential threat, the story might sound like a parable about the simple life and the dangers of money, something affirming the sort of values implied by one Taiwanese volunteer who recently told reporters that Tuvalu "is so poor that there is only happiness left."

It seems it would be more accurate to say that they are so poor they're screwed.

In his testimony at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last December, Tuvalu delegate Ian Fry emphasized that Tuvalans "are not naive to the circumstances and political considerations that are before us . . . It's an irony of the modern world that the fate of the world is being determined by some senators in the U.S. congress." Then he explained that he was refusing media interviews because he wanted to be clear that this was "not an ego trip" for him, and he began to cry.

It's curious that he should feel compelled to respond to accusations of ego-tripping when defending the very physical existence of a country. We might ask what that says about the rest of us.

Image Credits:
Approach into Funafuti: mrlins/flickr
Funafuti Atoll Beach: mrlins/flicker
Dump at Funafuti: mrlins/flicker

dislocate at AWP Denver: free stuff!

We dislocators are excited to be attending this year's AWP conference in Denver, CO.

tunneling_quote1-198x300.jpgWe'll have a table in the bookfair, where you can enter a free raffle to win a signed copy of Kevin Wilson's short story collection, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth. We'll also be reporting on panels and exhibitors via Twitter--check out our feed for sound bites, literary gossip, and tips about the best giveaways at the bookfair!

Fellow AWP attendees: Take the dislocate.org quiz to get your free copy of dislocate #5 (retail price $10). Come to our table to claim your prize. See you there!

April 2, 2010

Contaminated Essay Contest Winners Announced

What a great time for the essay! Our Contaminated Essay Contest, judged by Lia Purpura, had more than double the submissions from our last reading period, and we're fortunate enough to highlight a wide range of styles and themes in the issue: we have form exploration (as is the case in our winning submission, "Reticulation" by Lehua Taitano, among others); we have hybrid forms that push against the boundaries of nonfiction (as seen in Brian Oliu's "C:\run iliad.exe"); we have personal essays that show us new ways to think about how we react to life's experiences.

We're delighted to receive such exciting, innovative essays, and we're excited to present you with a wide range of what the genre has offer. Thanks to all who submitted.

Winner: "Reticulation" by Lehua Taitano

Honorable Mentions:
Josh Garrett-Davis, "Pratincole"
Katie Jean Shinkle, "Air Hunger"
Nick Neely, "Tidewater"

No-Strings Doing It (Mom, Don't Read This) // Liana Liu

Dear friends, it's spring; it's really, finally spring! My students have shed their coats to reveal crop tops and short-shorts; I have exchanged my heavy sweater for a medium one. Everything is beautiful and love is in the air, and when I say "love" I mean "no-strings doing it."

And what do I mean by "no-strings doing it?" Well, read my interview with Grant, Graphic Designer, to find out.

Disclaimer: There was no "no-strings doing it" before, during, or after this interview was conducted. Or rather, if there was any "no-strings doing it," I was not involved. Always the bridesmaid, etc, etc. . . .

PICT0086.JPGRead anything good lately?
I recently finished Breakfast of Champions.

How'd you like that?
It's my first Kurt Vonnegut book so it was interesting (1) to get into it, but once I was a hundred pages in it was great. Yeah, I loved it.

Would you ever not date anyone because of the books they liked?
Probably not. If they're reading some right-wing BS and believe in it, maybe, but it's not based on the books they're reading. I'm sure a lot of people have read Sarah Palin's books and don't believe in what she's saying.

Say you go on a date with someone and she's like, "Hey, come up here, wanna listen to some records?" (2) and you see a shelf full of super-conservative books. What would you do?
I don't know. Is she like the president of the Young GOP Club? (3)

She totally is! Then, you know, you would have to step up to the challenge! Come on, there's some wine there. You can drink it.
Yeah. (His Friend: It could be . . . an encounter. But I don't know if there would be any dating.")

Yes! An encounter!
I'm actually engaged so no, I wouldn't have an encounter. (4)

But this is hypothetical!
Ok, well hypothetically . . . I . . . umm . . . I don't really care. I mean, I don't really care. (5)

So what does your fiancée read?
Well, the last thing she read . . . I had her read The Stranger by Camus. (6)

Did she like it?
Yeah, she did.

If she hadn't liked it, would it have caused a problem in your relationship?
No. I don't know.

Do you think she really liked it or just told you she liked it?
No, she really liked it. She has no problem telling me when she doesn't like something. She would not have told me she liked it if she didn't like it. (7)

Sounds like an ideal relationship!
It's solid. On literature, we're definitely on par.

Congratulations! Love means loving the same books. (8)

(1) "Interesting" is also my choice of word when I mean "SUCKS," fyi.

(2) Apparently I only have one pickup line and it's, "Wanna listen to some records?"

(3) Power is sexy!

(4) "Encounter" is my new favorite euphemism for no-strings doing it. Actually, "no-strings doing it" is my new favorite euphemism for no-strings doing it.

(5) In other words, hell yeah to no-strings doing it!

(6) Romantic.

(7) I guess she liked it.

(8) Upon further reflection, this is probably not true. I once dated a young man who only had survivalist-type books on his bookshelf. My favorite was
How to Survive in the Woods. The book was waterproof. So handy! Although our relationship did not work out, it was not because of our disparate literary tastes. I think waterproof books are really cool. When I was a little girl, I always wanted to read while taking a shower. I can't remember why.

April 1, 2010

Review: John D'Agata's About a Mountain

by David LeGault

9780393068184_300.jpgJohn D'Agata has already done a lot for the nonfiction world. His debut essay collection, Halls of Fame, combined innovative use of form with insightful prose that made readers re-consider the way a collection of short nonfiction could build to a bigger theme and meaning.

In addition to his writing, D'Agata is well known for his work as an editor; he's currently the Lyric Essay Editor for the Seneca Review and has assembled two nonfiction anthologies: The Next American Essay and The Lost Origins of the Essay. He's helped to highlight the ways The Essay can be used, how nonfiction is more than personal reflection or memoir.

In other words, nine years after Halls of Fame was first published, there's a lot of expectation for D'Agata's second book, About A Mountain. Luckily for us, the book lives up to its hype. Using investigative reporting combined with lyric prose, D'Agata opens up a world for the reader that covers environmental literature, memoir, and the science of communication. He shows us what can be achieved with the book-length essay.

About a Mountain follows a number of overlapping stories: primarily, the book covers the federal government's plan to store nuclear waste in a mountain range near the city of Las Vegas, and the story of a teenager who commits suicide in the city. Through all of these bigger themes we have D'Agata taking tours of waste facilities, experiencing the city of Las Vegas, and answering telephones for a suicide hotline.

Reading through About a Mountain, I couldn't help but make comparisons between this book and his earlier collection. In About a Mountain, D'Agata manages to keep the tightly packed lyric prose from Halls of Fame, but uses it to frame a commentary on the state of the environment and the ways communication breaks down over time. For example, midway through the book, D'Agata goes into a section that lists human fascination with the end of the world.

God initiated this obsession of ours when he explained to us in Genesis that everyone would be killed by a single giant flood. Roman prophecy said it'd happen in 600 BCE, the year in which Romulus was told in a dream that his empire would be destroyed. It will happen before I die, said Confucius to his pupils. It will happen twenty-nine times, said the Sibyl throughout her life. Four hundred eighty-three times, St. Clement later revised.

Although this listing goes on for another two pages, I think this does a good job of showing how D'Agata manages to build momentum with the escalating apocalypses in these shorter paragraphs, and he repeats this technique throughout the book. The writing brings in a lot of outside research and mythology, all which make the subject matter feel more crucial, dire.

One of the most interesting things about this book is its structure. About a Mountain reads like a book-length essay: the book is organized into a number of chapters, under a set number of titles, each an investigative question: who, what, when, where, why, and how. These titles repeat throughout the book, which gives a certain weight/theme to each section while connecting them to the greater pursuits of the book. D'Agata's use of chapters allows him to keep the fast-moving pace of his earlier work, as well as the ability to jump between different subjects and themes, while still tackling bigger, more complicated subject matter than could be achieved in a fifteen- to twenty-page work.

Another interesting aspect of the book exists outside of the main narrative: the end of the book includes an extensive notes section. Here, D'Agata includes expected information like article citations and secondary research, but he also includes wonderful asides. Here's one of my favorites:

63- There's a wonderfully absurd discussion about the origin of our dragon fantasies in Carl Sagan's The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Origins of Human Intelligence... A report submitted to the British Royal Society in 1764 suggested that dragons died off in Europe in the ninth century.

In addition, these notes tackle the problems of truth and shaping narrative in nonfiction, which provides an interesting lesson for aspiring writers of the genre.

Admittedly, the book isn't without flaws. I'm trying to avoid spoiling any major plot points, but I will say that the ending is abrupt and fairly unsatisfying. In a book that's so satisfying, the final ten pages feel like a misstep (but not an unforgivable one).

With that said, there are so many good things happening here that About a Mountain is worth your attention. It doesn't even matter that the Yucca Mountain range was quietly removed as a theoretical storage site for nuclear waste in the past several months: the environmental narrative still works as an effective metaphor for the problems with population growth, communication over generations, and the personal events of D'Agata's time in Las Vegas.

Old Technology From History: Steam // Landrew Kentmore

Water is different than gas. For example, you wouldn't drink a bottle of gas when you're thirsty. Also, you don't sweat gas when it gets really hot outside.

On the other side, if you fill your gas tank up with water, you're probably going to have some car trouble. But that doesn't mean water can't make stuff go. In the olden-days they used water to power all sorts of stuff, except it wasn't just water out of a faucet--it was steam!

Steam is what happens when you add a lot of heat to some water and then the water starts acting more like the heat than like water. Steam and smoke look a lot alike, but they are actually very different. To figure out whether you are dealing with smoke or steam, ask yourself these questions: is this stuff black and puffy and making me feel dizzy (smoke), or is it white and making my face wet (steam)? Is there a campfire nearby (smoke)? Or a shower (steam)?

Some things that steam has powered in the past include trains, cars and boats. A steam-powered boat seems pretty dangerous to me. Imagine this: you're a guy who works in the engine room of a steamboat. All of a sudden, the boat hits something and springs a leak. Water starts coming into the engine room. You might see all of this water and think, "Oh, I guess somebody wants me to turn all of this into steam to make the boat go faster," so you get to work steaming it up not knowing that you should probably go put on a life jacket and swim to shore.

Nowadays, boats run on gas and excitement, but we still use steam for other stuff. For example, you can pump steam into milk to make it taste artsy in coffee. Also, if you make movies, you can put steam over top of the sexy stuff and your movie can be rated PG-13.

Another place where steam is used is in the sauna. The sauna is the room at the gym that people go into wearing towels to sweat with each other. A lot of people like to go to the sauna after they're done working out to relax. I think it might be better to use the sauna before working out. With all that steam, you would be sweaty right away, so if you got tired after running on the treadmill at a not-so-fast speed for only five minutes, people would think, "That guy's so sweaty, he must have been working out for a long time, so I don't look down on him for not staying on the treadmill. He probably lifted huge weights for hours and hours. He's an inspiration to us all! I should get his number and give it to my sister, who's really attractive."

So next time you're drinking a glass of water, and you're thinking, "Water is so boring!" remember that when it gets really hot, it can do some really amazing stuff! (Also, remember that they make powder that you can add to water that turns it into iced tea. That can also make you less bored with your water!)