An Interview with Ira Brooker by Jimmy LeChase

I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by the very funny and generally pleasant comedian Jimmy LeChase for his Made of Bees blog. It’s one of the most flattering things with which I’ve ever been involved, so of course I’m sharing it here, because I enjoy people saying nice things about me.

Jimmy here.

Ira Brooker is one of my favorite writers, and that’s a big, big deal to me. Especially since I had no idea who he was 5 years ago, but the internet and Twitter are a wonderful thing, so through a group of friends Ira and I started to follow each other and got to know who each of us was from a comfortable distance.  Then one day he gave me a stern tweeting to after I made a bad joke about how people should raise their kids. Ira is, from what I can tell, an amazing parent with a son that will one day rule the world, but I didn’t really know that at the time. I got mad, but decided not to wade into a fight with a stranger. Instead, I waded into his writing and, boy, did that ever humble me. 

Ira writes the way I wish I could write. That’s the simplest way to put it. Some of his pieces have moved me to tears and others have motivated me to commit to my own art on a deeper level. Not that what I do (telling jokes to rooms full of strangers) is any great endeavor, but when I get down and out and looking for a reason to push through and get on stage, I read something from Ira.  

He’s a friend now, and that boggles my mind how that all happened, but to me he’s more than that. He’s an inspiring person in my life that has helped me define who I am and what I want to be, and the best part is he doesn’t know that and I’m sure it wouldn’t change him if he did. Enjoy the interview, I loved getting to do it.

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Thanks for doing this, Ira. You’re one of my favorite writers, and I’ve never had the chance to ask one of my favorite writers this question before, so here goes: why do you write?

Well jeepers, thanks much. That’s probably the second or third most uplifting thing somebody could say to me.

As to why I write, I have no idea what else I would do. Ever since I learned how to write, it’s just been what I do. I don’t want to say that it’s easy for me, because I’ve definitely put in my share of work and worry as a writer, but making words do what I want them to do has always come naturally to me.  I also learned early on that other people enjoyed the way I put words together, which in turn taught me that I really like praise and attention. I’ve been fortunate enough to make a living out of writing, but honestly as long as people keep giving me accolades I’d still be showing off my words at every opportunity.

The flip side is that I’m not very good at much else. I’m hopeless at working with my hands. Face-to-face interaction tends to give me cold sweats. Put me in charge of anything financial and I’ll be bankrupt and/or jailed for accidental fraud within a month. The only non-writing career in which I ever showed any acumen was making coffee. I’m a damn fine barista, actually, but I’ve got a kid and pre-school is insanely expensive these days.

You write about a lot of different things, and you do it so well; which is part of the reason you’re one of my favorite writers, but the other part of that is how sincere you are. Do you make an effort to have that come through or is it just natural to you? I know sincerity is hard to force, but some people can pull it off.

I suppose I’d say sincerity does come naturally for me, but it took a lot of time and effort for me to learn that it does. Like any aspiring author, my original dream was to write the great American novel. In my mind that always meant coming up with a Big Idea, some kind of mind-blowing plot or iconic character that would make readers sit up and say, “Whoa, I’ve never seen anything like this before.” My old notebooks and hard drives are littered with the carcasses of Big Idea novels that never got past the third page.

As I got older, though, I realized that the art I respond to most viscerally isn’t about Big Ideas at all. The stuff that hits me hardest is earnest and honest and born out of personal experience. That doesn’t mean just first-person, soul-baring essays – although I do dig those and write quite a lot of them – but also things like Maria Bamford mining the humor from her battles with mental illness, or Lou Reed channeling the pain of his friends’ deaths into a pair of unflinching albums, or Tim O’Brien daubing his Vietnam experience with surrealist escapism. Sincere joy is a little harder to come by, for whatever reason, but I think of the Rhymesayers crew rapping about how cool it is to live in Minnesota, or Megan Stielstra’s essays on the wonders of parenthood, or even William Faulkner – that eternal beacon of light – realizing that “my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.”

Learning how to tap into that sincerity was another thing altogether. I give a lot of credit to Columbia College Chicago, where I got my MFA in Fiction Writing. I really can’t say enough good things about that school. For one thing, the teaching methodology puts heavy emphasis on introspection. A good portion of class time is dedicated to visualizing the places, people and objects you’re writing about and understanding what each one means to you. For another thing, Columbia was where I really picked up on the concept of creative nonfiction. It doesn’t sound like such a big deal in hindsight, but taking creative nonfiction courses at Columbia College was the first time I really latched onto the idea that I could write artistically about my own experience. It didn’t have to be formalized as autobiography or memoir, and it certainly didn’t have to adhere to the cut-and-dried essay format I’d had drummed into me in public school. It’s a kind of writing I’d always done, and I’d say it’s probably the kind I’m best at, but seeing it validated as a real form broke a lot of things open for me.

When you try to do things that maybe go against what you’ve been taught or are a little risky it means the world when somebody comes back to with “that was good.” Do you remember the first time you had that moment where somebody other than yourself came up to you and gave you that “attaboy” you needed to keep you going after it forever? 

I remember the first laugh I got very well, but with writing it isn’t as instant, so I’m really curious what your “I’m doing this no matter what” moment was. 
In first grade I wrote an essay about a turtle. I think it was maybe five sentences total. My teacher entered it in some sort of school district competition and it wound up being included in some display of student work at Valley View Mall.  I grew up literally in the woods, deep in the farmland of Western Wisconsin. My first grade class had, I believe, 13 kids in it. So having my work shown at the mall in The Big City (La Crosse, Wisconsin, population 51,000 at the time) felt like a genuine taste of celebrity. I dug it.
Do you think about the size of your audience much now, or is that inconsequential to what you’re trying to accomplish? Also, do you know what you’re trying to accomplish?

I guess I don’t think about audience size so much as I do audience quality. I’d absolutely like to get as many eyes on my work as possible, but at this point in my life it means more to me to get reads and responses from people who I know appreciate solid writing. That said, it’s always uniquely gratifying to hear from a new reader. I’ve developed some cool relationships with people who have Googled their way to one of my blog entries, or who’ve seen one of my stories shared on a mutual friend’s timeline. As wonderful as it is to hear feedback from people I know and love, it’s nice to hear that I pack a bit of mass appeal.

It’s hard for me to say I’m trying to accomplish anything in particular. I suppose any time I can give voice to feelings that other people have been struggling with, I feel like I’ve served a purpose. Like, for whatever reason, I seem to have a knack for articulating pain. Whenever I’m hit hard by a major tragedy or a personal loss, my first reaction is to start writing it out in my head. By the time I sit down at the keyboard, the story pretty much flows out fully formed. I don’t have to think much about word choice or structure or any of that. It’s just a natural process and a necessary part of my therapy. And I’ve found that people can really relate to these stories. The biggest responses I’ve ever gotten have been to my most painful pieces – stories about Hurricane Katrina, the Newtown shootings, the death of a friend, the death of my cat, the death of Lou Reed. These are all things that shook me deeply and haunt me to this day. Writing about them helps me to cope, and it’s helped even more to hear from people who read the stories and found something to identify with.

I think all great writers, like you, have an uncanny ability at articulating, manipulating and crafting pain into something that goes beyond expectations. That’s one of the things I like the most about your work. Not to gush too much, but as sad as some of your pieces are, I always come away from them feeling better because of how powerful your writing is.  Okay, done fussing over you.

Your Lou Reed piece in particular really stuck out as coming from a special place inside of you, and I’ve read your words about Lou Reed often over the years, so I know he’s a hero of yours. How important are heroes to you? Not just in your writing, but in life in general. 

Criminy, you’re going to spoil me for the rest of the week. Thanks, mate.

I’m a big hero guy. From a pretty early stage, I was interested in the artists as much as the art. Back in grade school I could rank all of the regular Archie Comics writers and artists dating back to the ‘60s (Samm Schwartz was my favorite artist, Bob Bolling my favorite writer). I used to get these huge, scholarly histories of comics and their creators from my local library and read them over and over. When I got to middle school I discovered The Beatles and educated myself on them so thoroughly that I could pick out all the factual errors in my school library’s copy of The Beatles Forever. At the time I didn’t know why I found these things so fascinating, but now I can see that I was picking apart the artists’ styles, figuring out how they made their art work and unconsciously folding it into my own repertoire.

I’ve always girded myself with my heroes and made them part of my identity, probably to an annoying extent. When Lou Reed died, I got a flood of condolence texts and tweets before I’d even said a word about it publicly. Any time William Faulkner comes up in the news, I know I’m going to get links from all of my writer friends. It’s weird – my wife is a scientist, and she doesn’t do the hero thing at all. She has favorite artists, of course, but she regards them as just people who make great music or entertaining TV shows. I once got to interview Eric Bachmann from Archers of Loaf and Crooked Fingers, a guy whose music has meant the world to both of us, while sitting at my favorite bar. It was all I could do to keep from babbling like a fool, but my wife just sat off to the side and waited for us to wrap up. That’s kind of nice, in that her lack of heroes keeps me grounded lest I ever get too big-headed about the importance of what I do.

One more thought on heroes: over the past decade I’ve been lucky enough to live and work in communities full of artists who regularly awe me. At Columbia College I sat in classes taught and attended by some of the most astonishing writers I’ve ever encountered, people who nurtured other artists and taught us to make the most of our talents. People who founded reading series and literary journals and inspired me to do the same. People who wrote honest-to-god books that rank among the best stuff I’ve read in recent years. And now for the past year I’ve been fortunate enough to edit Minnesota Playlist, a theater magazine focused on arts in the Twin Cities. Every day I interact with and edit work from theater artists who create incredible things. Soul-searing monologues performed in the producers’ kitchen. Dance routines that twist my stomach in knots. Existential horror pieces drenched in literal buckets of stage blood. It’s easy enough to pick out heroes from afar, but lately being a part of these arts communities has been my biggest inspiration. They’re collectively my biggest current heroes.

There’s no good segue for this after what you just said about your heroes, but I need to ask about The Simpsons, because I’m not sure I’ve ever met anybody with as frightening a knowledge of the show as you. Plus, you have a damn gift when it comes to being able to communicate via screengrabs from the show. Why is The Simpsons so important to you, and how big of an influence has their humor had on your writing and your life?

A few years ago I started writing an inventory of the 100 greatest influences on my sense of humor. I was going call it “Why I laugh?” which is, of course, a Simpsons quote. It eventually wound up being too big and abstract of a project for me to complete, but there was no question that The Simpsons would be in the number one slot. The only possible rival would be David Letterman, but as important as Dave was to my formative years, he never permeated my daily existence to nearly the degree that The Simpsons does even two decades beyond its heyday. I don’t think I could hope to pinpoint how those first eight seasons have influenced me. At this point they’re just woven into my being. It would be like trying to figure out what kind of influence speaking English has had on me. So much of what they did at their peak is so incomparable. I think back on the layering of the humor, where the writers would come up with a perfect joke, build on it with two or three organically related jokes, and then cap it off with a non-sequitur that pushed the whole gag into outright brilliance. I’ve never seen anything else like it (Arrested Development came as close as anyone has). Sometimes I’ll stop and consider that a human brain conceived of “Hollywood Upstairs Medical College” as a throwaway gag and I’ll get chills.

As to the screengrabs, I’ve always had a freakish talent for trivia. It’s just how my brain works. I have instant mental access to far more meaningless pop culture flotsam than I really ought to. The Simpsons thing started with my brother and I being bored at our jobs years ago. We’d be having an email conversation and inevitably one of us would say something that brought The Simpsons to mind, and then we’d go back and forth sending each other relevant screengrabs, visually riffing until we ran out of images or got busy at work. I quickly learned that there is a Simpsons image to respond to virtually any stimulus. So now when I see you post a Facebook status about wanting a robot to do your workouts for you, my mind immediately sorts through the files and pulls out an image of Mr. Burns forcing an anaphylactic Smithers to pedal him around on a tandem bike. It helps that virtually every frame from the show’s classic years has been preserved online. (The classic years are seasons 1-8 in my book. My knowledge starts to taper around season 9 and falls off completely somewhere in the mid-teens.) Like most of the best skills, it’s impressive only to a select few and entirely unmarketable.

If you were hard-pressed to pick a favorite moment from The Simpsons could you do it? 

This is easily the toughest question you’ve asked so far. My favorite episode is probably “Homey the Clown,” but then there’s “You Only Move Twice,” and then there’s “Lemon of Troy” and “Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk” and “Homer the Great” and on and on, and I’m not certain that any of them contains my favorite moment.

One moment that’s always stuck with me, and it isn’t even really a joke, is a tiny flourish from “Lisa’s Date with Destiny.” Bart is trying to talk Lisa out of dating Nelson and reminds her that Milhouse likes her, to which Lisa responds, “Oh please, Milhouse likes Vaseline on toast.” The scene could easily cut right there, but the “camera” lingers for a second on Bart, who adopts a thoughtful look and says, “Hm.” I find that little extra beat weirdly beautiful. I love the ambiguity of it. Is Bart learning new information about his friend? Contemplating what Vaseline on toast might taste like? Tacitly admitting that Lisa has a point? Whatever it is, it speaks to an internal life beyond the confines of the episode. It’s completely unnecessary to the plot – it doesn’t even get a call-back within the episode – but it adds so much. It’s the kind of flourish you just wouldn’t see on any other show of the era, and that’s what I cherish about The Simpsons.

How important is humor in your writing? I’m a comedy nerd so I have to wring this out of you.

This is something I struggle with quite a bit. I’m fairly confident that I’m a pretty funny guy, and I think I write some pretty funny stuff. But sometimes when I’m in the process of writing, I start to get really self-conscious about whether what I’m doing is funny enough. Then I start looking for places where I can wedge in another joke, or pushing the piece in a different direction that lends itself more to humor, and before long I end up with something that’s neither as funny nor as focused as I want it to be. I have to remember that it always works better if I just trust my own voice and let the writing unfold the way it wants to, not the way I want it to. Most of the time, those pieces end up generating more laughs than anything I’ve tried to force.
Of course, like I said, my most widely read pieces tend to be my saddest ones. If someone read only my “greatest hits,” they’d probably come away thinking I’m some kind of dour, tortured artist type. That’s not me at all, but I suppose I can’t complain so long as my work connects with people.
I’m gonna go all James Lipton on you to end this, because I’m terrible at interviewing people, so let’s wrap it up with some weird “no-thinking-allowed” questions, okay? Here goes:
 
Last song you want to hear before you die?
David Bowie’s “Memory of a Free Festival.”
 
If you could only use one swear word for the rest of your life, which one would you pick?
Goddamn.
 
Ever get so angry you punched a wall?
Yep.
 
Which style of beard do you most prefer?
Full-face, trimmed to medium length, tapered to a gentle point at the chin.
 
How long will it be before the Timberwolves win an NBA championship?
I’m starting to have my doubts that they’ll ever even make the playoffs again, but I’ll be an optimist and say next year.
 
Favorite place to drink in New Orleans?
Either Snake & Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge or Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop.
 
Least favorite place to drink in New Orleans?
Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville.
 
Finally, bring it on home with the best words of wisdom you’ve ever received or thought of yourself. 
One of my favorite Lou Reed albums closes with the line, “There’s a bit of magic in everything, and then some loss to even things out.” It isn’t easy, but I strive to always look for the former and be able to accept the latter. There are worse ways of dealing with existence.
irabrooker
Ira Brooker, ladies and gentlemen.
Now that you’ve read this entire interview, you should go check out anything (and everything) Ira has written by clicking on the handy links I’ll provide at the bottom of the page. Before that, though, I just wanted to thank Ira again for doing this interview, because like everything he writes, I learned a lot and felt better at the end of it. That’s  an incredible gift for a writer to have, and it’s only one of the few gifts that Ira Brooker has at his disposal. Seek out his words and be better for it. 
You can find a lot of Ira here:

Eulogy for Orwell

Orwell the kittenBorn of rebel blood, he emerged mewling and messy in the darkened recesses of a magnolia-scented alleyway, licked clean by a mother whose face he would never remember but whose spirit he carried with him always. The fledgling family plucked from the alley weeks later by horrible helping hands and shuffled off to a new reality, the pungent laissez-faire of the side streets replaced by four sterile walls and a tiny window deemed well out of reach of anyone but his captors. His mother impossibly, indefatigably scaling the bare wall with his squalling sister in her jaws, driven by self-preservation and the call of the streets, dropping her charge gingerly from the sill and climbing down to repeat the unthinkable ascent three more times until at last the family was reunited in the swelter of their natural habitat. The escape would be short-lived, the kidnappers tracking them down the next morning and cornering the progeny. His mother dancing, hissing just beyond their reach, the barbed ultimatums of fight or flight ricocheting around her skull until she finally saw the futility of the situation and was forced to choose freedom over family. His frightened squeaks serving as his uncomprehending goodbye as he watched her tail melt away into the shadows of a sultry New Orleans evening.

Entering the home of the new abductors frightened and defiant, a defensive ball of angry striped fur. These new people, these sweaty, shaggy, uptight outlanders, one soft and one hairy, not at all like the few other people he’d had the misfortune to encounter. Liking them even less. Being carried to the bathroom, the indignity of captivity now magnified by an actual cage, one with a handle lest he forget what a portable piece of property he really was. Stashed in the bathroom, the door closing behind him, tossed again into a four-walled prison, not that the size of the cell mattered much. Passing the first day with his bristled back pressed against the rear of the cage, resisting the new people’s pitiful cajoling to come out and play. Eventually overtaken by the proverbial curiosity that was the curse and the cliché of his kind, venturing out long enough to snatch a few morsels and a lap of water from the bowls that the soft one and hairy one had left as offerings. Miraculously returning to the cage safe from harm.

Orwell and familyFinally earning their trust enough to be freed from the bathroom prison, biding his time, waiting for their inevitable exit. Once left alone, darting for the tightest, safest space in his purview, a tiny hole at the back of the oven. Hearing their frantic search echoing through his metal cavern hours later, their timorous calls tinged with fear at their memory of his escape artist mother. The soft one finally making a last-ditch check of the oven’s underbonnet, her voice flooding with joy at the sight of two luminescent eyes twinkling out of the darkness. Both the soft one and the hairy one cooing with joy at his return from a daring escape that never was. Deciding this living arrangement might not be the ordeal he’d presumed.

Gradually acquiescing to their advances, gaining confidence, finally willing himself to accept a life of comparative luxury within the walls. Taking advantage of the long, unobstructed runway, indulging his frequent caprices for racing and hiding and stalking those big brown insects that crunched when he pounced on them and devoured them shell and all, invariably vomiting up his chitinous snack minutes later until he discovered the trick of flipping them onto their backsides and slitting their bellies with a single, surgical claw so he might feast on only the fatty, digestible goo inside. Not even lonely for the streets once an appropriate period of mourning had passed, discovering that he preferred the outdoors from a spectator’s seat. Spending hours crouched by the sturdy screen door, his wide, round eyes giving him an appearance of perpetual astonishment, studying the endless parade of neighborhood ferals, hardscrabble, half-tame grifters and brawlers who took food where they found it and likely would not see more than a handful of summers. Any envy in his gaze tempered by the knowledge of the ever-present dishes of food and fresh water waiting in the bathroom. Even befriending one of these outcasts, a scruffy grey longhair who came to the door most days and sat silently by his side, the screen separating them like a penitentiary visiting room although they may not have agreed about which was the inmate and which the visitor.

Orwell and Abbie watching catsAnd then an adopted sister, a tiny grey kitten oozing affection, often literally, snuggling unabashedly into the people’s laps and purring until their shirts were wet with her contented drool. Any threat he felt from this interlocutor quickly fading away in the face of her innocuous obsequiousness. If anything her presence proving a boon, she flinging herself headlong into aspects of pet-hood that never came quite naturally to him. Settling smoothly into their roles, she the doughy ball of love, he skittish and feisty, still clinging to a hint of his near-forgotten wild beginnings. Becoming a team, scampering after each other, tumbling across the hardwood, knocking knick-knacks from shelves that should have been beyond their reach. Curling up together in a furry, grey-brown yin-yang when the clinging cold of a Deep South winter settled over the city.

Orwell in a blanketJostling about in carriers and open cabs as their curious little family headed north, first to a sprawling, creaky Chicago flat. Passing long days bickering with birds and watching the world pass through the sheer curtains of a second-story window. Then a mid-winter move to Minnesota and a cramped apartment, the smaller quarters making him anxious with confinement and cold. That stopover proving mercifully short-lived, the soft one soon enough loading he and his sister into the box-bulging car, the terminus a full-fledged house with stairs and sunbeams and endless nooks and crannies for hiding away. In the warmer seasons even a screened porch, he and his sister basking daily in blissful sloth until the sun faded away. If this was the reward for his years of mildly grudging domesticity, he was happy to have it.

Settling into old age as a cranky curmudgeon, stalking the darkened rooms at night meowing at nothing in particular, simply savoring the echo of his voice in the cavernous space, indulging every now and then in a throwback to kittenhood, pouncing on his sister – she now fat and slow and more indolent than ever – and nipping at her nape until she yowled and the hairy one shouted at him from the bedroom. Pacing the bedframe slow and persistent, nuzzling and cajoling the soft one into lifting the bedsheets so he might slither under, then twitching and flopping in an orgy of warmth until the hairy one inevitably had enough and ejected him.

PalsPeering tentatively at the mysterious bundle of cloth and flesh that appeared in the house one frigid afternoon, a squirming, guileless thing that was undoubtedly a living creature, but of what kind? The new thing eventually proving itself not a threat but not the same kind of partner that his sister had proven to be either. Keeping his distance from grabbing hands and unchecked slavering, learning to dread the shrieks and squeals the small one emitted at unpredictable intervals. Finally coming to understand the too-rough petting and startling exclamations as a new kind of love, savage and unchecked, summoning a deep memory of the ragged side-street fraternity of his own infancy. The two finally bonding in a friendly rivalry, jockeying nightly for plum position on the soft one’s lap with the hairy one droning and turning pages in storybooks. Curling beside the small one as he slept, savoring the flutter of tiny breaths against the fur of his neck.

Becoming slowly aware of the thing growing in his insides, knowing not what it was but understanding somehow what it meant. Slowing down as his comfortable accumulation of fat and muscle melted away, shrinking him to skeletal in what the people said seemed like days but to him felt like agonizing eons. A visit to those dreadfully soothing other people in white, they peering at his ochred ears and exchanging grim glances. The strange faces a queasy whirl broken only by the soft one’s tears confirming what his insides had told him already.

Hugging OrwellThe coming weeks a bacchanal of tuna fish and canned foods, the one-time delicacies tasting less rarified than they once did but still palatable, and palatability now seeming more than enough. Gravitating in those final days again to the bathroom, retreating to birthplace of his domestication. Spending hours sprawled on the bathmat, saturnine, leonine, staring into an unknowable void that intrigued as much as it frightened. Venturing downstairs only for occasional attempts at eating, the wet food and even the tuna fish soon losing their appeal until only the aromatic tuna water provided him any solace. Submitting wearily but gladly to the hairy one’s tearful attempts to reunite the family on the couch, relishing the scratching and caressing until it inevitably became intolerable, he shambling back up the stairs to his adopted womb.

Rousing himself from his bathroom trance one morning to follow a movement barely glanced in the corner of his eye. His cloudy eyes focusing on a yellow wisp of a spider wobbling along the tiled floor, a peculiar sight so deep in the mire of winter but a welcome one just the same. A sudden stirring inside him, an awakening of an impulse so long dormant that he scarcely recognized it, gathering the remnants of his strength, retracting his torso and pouncing on the doomed spider with all the ferocity of his youth. Pain and confusion rolling aside for a few blissful seconds of noisy gobbling, the spider’s feathery limbs flittering down his throat, offering nothing by way of sustenance but tasting for all the world like one of the clumsy, squirming insects he had taught himself to vivisect on the splintered floor of that long-ago home. The thrill of the hunt fading rapidly, settling back onto the bathmat exhausted but somehow glowing, flush with an understated ecstasy, his awestruck eyes awash in images of hardwood floors and dingy carpets, of streets and strays and siblings lost and found, of sunsoaked afternoons and blanket-swaddled mornings, of lizards and birds and squirrels roaming aimlessly behind glass, of nibbled leaves and dancing toys, of licked ears and fuzzy embraces and intertwined tails, of little hands and soft laps and hairy faces and of home and of life and of love of love of love of love.

Why Does Minnesota Still Go Crazy for Prince?

Prince!Originally published on mnartists.org on October 30, 2013 

I PULLED UP TO THE CURB OUTSIDE A NONDESCRIPT OFFICE building around 1:15 a.m., happy to have found parking within a quarter-mile of Paisley Park. Just in front of me a couple of young men slithered out of a rusty station wagon, one of them clutching a bottle of bottom-shelf whiskey. “Hey, hold up, we’ll walk with you!” called one of the flannel-bedecked dudes as I tried to hustle past. I’d hoped I could get by with just a friendly nod, but no such luck.

We were all in this lonely expanse of Chanhassen at such a ridiculous hour for the same reason: Prince’s freshly announced 2 a.m. “Pajama Party.” I hadn’t been able to make it out to his 9 p.m. show a couple of weeks earlier, and I certainly wasn’t going to miss the chance to see Prince play his home turf in the middle of the night for the relative pittance of $50. No matter how the show went, I figured, the story would be more than worth it. I’m not as hardcore a Prince fanatic as some folks in these parts, but I’m a big fan. I own all of the old classic albums and even most of the newer, less revered stuff. I keep up to date on all of his latest eccentricities and outrages. Even when Prince goes through periodic creative lulls, I take it as my duty to stay informed.

That didn’t seem to be the case for my traveling companions. As we hiked up the hill toward the Paisley Park complex, they grumbled about the Princely teetotaling that would prevent them from keeping their buzz rolling once inside. “I know he’s a Jehovah’s Witness, but what kind of musician doesn’t at least smoke weed?” wondered one guy. His buddy brought up thesemi-infamous performance during the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s George Harrison memorial set, where Prince’s flamboyant guitar soloing on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was interpreted by some as self-indulgent and disrespectful. “I mean, he played great, but you don’t have to be a dick. George Harrison wasn’t a dick!”

I held my tongue through all of this, but my instinct was to say, “Well yeah, but he’s Prince!” As if that were justification enough. I’m not alone – that seems to get him a pass for pretty much anything, especially here in Minnesota. But why is that? Why do Minnesotans grant Prince so much leeway? For that matter, why are we still fascinated with everything he does, especially when the last time most of America paid him any mind was the 2007 Super Bowl? Why were hundreds of pajama-clad people huddled outside his studio in 40-degree weather at two in the morning, eager to sacrifice 50 bucks and a night’s sleep to witness a vaguely defined event that wasn’t even guaranteed to include a Prince performance?

As it turned out, I had plenty of time to mull it over during the two-plus hour pause between Paisley Park’s doors opening and anyone actually appearing on stage.

Our fair state isn’t unique in loving the story of a hometown kid made good (or bad), but it often feels like we’re a little more enamored of that trope than some of our neighbors. It’s why no local review of a Josh Hartnett movie can exclude a mention of him being born in Saint Paul, why every new Coen Brothers project is a gala event, and why a Soul Asylum gig can still pack a house two decades after Grave Dancers Union. It even extends to people who only lived here briefly – witness the fervor with which City Pages covers the misdeeds of any formerTwins or Vikings player. And considering the adoration we heap on the likes of Bob Dylan and F. Scott Fitzgerald, native sons who left the state and seldom, if ever looked back, it should come as no surprise that we’re even more enthusiastic about the artists who put down roots here. Garrison Keillor stayed. Louise Erdrich stayed. Slug and Brother Ali stayed.

And Prince stayed. I think that’s a big factor in why he continues to mean so much to the Minnesota arts community. Those of us who live here know full well what a great scene we have, and for the most part we truly appreciate it. But that pride is a tough thing to translate. No matter how many times you tell your East Coast friends that the Twin Cities have more theater seats per capita than anywhere outside of New York, or that the local music scene is so overstuffed with talent you wish you could be at a different club every night of the week, you’ll likely get little more than glazed eyes and a polite nod. But remind them that Prince lives here and you’re pretty likely to get an “OK, I’ll give you that one.”

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Why were hundreds of pajama-clad people huddled outside Prince’s studio in 40-degree weather at two in the morning, eager to sacrifice 50 bucks and a night’s sleep to witness a vaguely defined event that might not even include a performance by the man himself?

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Actually, you probably don’t even have to remind them. When I moved from Minneapolis to New Orleans after college, I quickly found that most Louisianans knew three things about Minnesota: it got cold as hell, the governor used to be a wrestler and Prince lived there. People would ask if I’d ever been to the club from Purple Rain, if I ever ran into Prince around town, if it was true that he liked to pop into little clubs and play sets unannounced. This was 2001, arguably the trough of Prince’s career, and still people from the other side of the country were fascinated by this weird little genius and his dedication to a state best known for being borderline uninhabitable five months out of the year. It was as if, by some curious transitive property, Prince’s history of excellence conveyed excellence on Minnesota in general, and even rubbed off on me in particular. (By way of contrast, plenty of people outside of Minnesota know Bob Dylan is from here, but in that case it’s considered more a point of trivia than an integral piece of his identity.)

Consider that Prince is pretty much the antithesis of the stereotypical Minnesotan. The traditional, Prairie Home Companion-approved caricature paints us as a bunch of taciturn, white-to-translucent Scandinavians passionlessly discussing ice-fishing conditions in goofyFargo accents. (Full disclosure: I fulfill at least 75% of that stereotype.) That’s a pretty sharp contrast with an elfin, African-American rock god who sweats sex, exhales funk and poses nude for chart-topping album covers. For the Minnesotans who love him, Prince is that cool friend from high school we make sure to introduce to all of our newer friends as evidence that,see, we’re cool enough to meet with this guy’s approval! We who live and work here know our arts scene is actually populated with talented, creative people from every conceivable cultural background and walk of life. But, sadly, for many non-Minnesotans, all the Hmong photographers, Latino rappers, Somali playwrights and Native American novelists in the world make for a less impactful argument than, “Yeah, but Prince!”

I don’t know if I’ve come up with any real conclusion here. Do Minnesotan artists see Prince as an extension of ourselves? Is it just that we’re as dazzled by talent and celebrity as anybody else? Or maybe we just dig the exotic appeal of a megastar throwing impromptu public parties at his compound. Seriously, does Springsteen do this for the folks out in Jersey? Does Wayne Coyne invite the people of Oklahoma City over to chill in his backyard?

Whatever the case, it’s an undeniably cool relationship for a community to have with one of its most famous sons. And it was a good feeling to step through the doors of Paisley Park and know that, after nearly 40 years, Prince still cares enough to ask us all over to his place for the night (albeit at 50 bucks a head). And when he stepped out and served up an early morning of blistering guitar rock, he seemed to earnestly appreciate that all of us still cared enough to come out and see him at that ungodly hour (and pay him 50 bucks a head). Of course, his emergence on that stage didn’t happen until we’d all waited patiently on increasingly wobbly legs through a uninspiring two-hour DJ set and no less than five consecutive mixes of his sort-of-OK new single.

But hey, what are you gonna do? He’s Prince!

The Secret Grace of Summer Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers

Alec Soth at the Summer Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers

Alec Soth at the Summer Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers. Photo courtesy of Carrie Thompson and Little Brown Mushroom.

Originally published on mnartists.orgJuly 16, 2013 

“ALL OF THIS COULD JUST BE A MASSIVE FAILURE, one never knows,” Alec Soth shrugs, his slim frame curled into a Thinker pose as he rests in a swivel chair in the converted garage space that serves as his studio and office. He’s speaking about the Summer Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers, a recent arts workshop held at Little Brown Mushroom, the Saint Paul publishing house Soth co-founded. His “take it as it comes” attitude is fitting to the project, as Soth and his fellow instructors envisioned the camp as something of a repudiation of the glut of tightly scheduled, for-profit workshops that dominate the photography landscape.

As an internationally celebrated photographer, Soth gets invited to participate in those workshops all the time. “I’ve always avoided them for a variety of reasons,” he says, running a hand over his dark, close-cropped beard. “If it’s somewhere else, I don’t want to just fly off and go do a thing in Cuba or wherever. It always sounds exotic, but then that’s also problematic. They tend to be very expensive for the participants so that it can make money. And that’s fine, but it attracts dentists.”

Affordability and accessibility have always been cornerstones of the Little Brown Mushroom philosophy – their photo essay books generally retail for less than $20, with pricier special editions available for serious collectors. The idea is to produce high-quality artwork that stays in the price range of students, casual arts patrons and other folks who can’t or won’t pony up for the usual high-end art books. Not long ago, it dawned on Soth that the same ethos could be applied to those big-ticket workshops.

“I thought, I keep getting asked to do these workshops, but what if I did a workshop here? Because I’m hungry to be involved in education in some way, but I also want to do it on my own terms,” Soth explains. Once the seed was planted, the framework came together quickly: Little Brown Mushroom would invite artists to apply for a free, five-day workshop based in the cozily industrial confines of the company’s Saint Paul offices. Making the workshop cost-free was hugely important, not just because it kept things affordable for the applicants, but also because it provided Soth and his collaborators with a little more room to move. “It relieves some of the burden of having to fulfill a specific expectation,” Soth says. “It’s free to be more experimental. Also, it allowed us to cherry-pick really interesting applications. We got a ton of applications, really fascinating ones. We could’ve done it 20 times over. The only negative to this whole process so far has been saying no to people with these wonderful applications.”

That freedom also allowed the Summer Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers to focus on perhaps the stickiest aspect of the Little Brown Mushroom mission: exploring the possibilities of photo-centric narratives. In a side room the staff refers to as “The Cave” stands Soth’s sizable collection of photography books. The library ranges from well-known classics to recent obscurities, but in Soth’s eyes the real jewels are a smattering of books that attempt to wed photos to some sort of overarching narrative. There are children’s books, Mexican fotonovelas, even a few more adult-oriented artistic efforts like Daniel Seymour’s A Loud Song. Soth has long explored the intersection of storytelling and photography in his own work, most recently in his series of LBM Dispatch collaborations with author and Little Brown Mushroom team member Brad Zellar.

“The thing about Little Brown Mushroom is it’s always a combination of text and image,” Soth says. “We use a storybook, like Little Golden Books, as sort of a template for visual storytelling. It’s really storytelling at its most basic form. And then something like these “dispatches,” that’s more modeled after newspaper journalism, but also something like Lifephoto essays. It’s kind of a dated thing, but Dorthea Lange and Paul Taylor collaborated,Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell, these writer-photographer collaborations. It’s kind of a bygone era.”

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You don’t have to go to Cuba to find exotic people and places. It’s exotic right here. Menards is very interesting. One can do a photo workshop here in the Midwest as well as anywhere else. In some ways it’s better, because it helps you avoid some of the clichés of these sorts of stories.

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Despite Soth’s fascination with and enthusiasm for narrative photography, he’s not convinced that it’s a particularly effective format. “Truthfully,” he says, “I don’t think they go together very well, images and text. I think they fight each other. But I feel hungry for it. As an artist, [this workshop] is a way for me to play around and experiment with other artists in terms of, ‘what are the possibilities of this?’”

With that loose mission statement in hand, Soth and the Summer Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers staff – Zellar, photographers Carrie Thompson and Ethan Jones, designer Hans Seeger, visual artist Jason Polan and filmmaker Galen Fletcher – sorted through the more than 400 applications and picked out 15 attendees from all around the world. The final roster included artists from corners as far-flung as Germany and Venezuela, with just one Minnesotan in the mix. (In the interest of getting as diverse a selection of perspectives as possible, the staff intentionally decided to limit the locals and only consider applicants with whose work they were unfamiliar.)

The campers roll in on Tuesday with little idea of what to expect from the undertaking. Much of their trepidation has to do with working in teams. “Collaboration is kind of a new thing for me,” says Jeff Barnett-Winsby, a photographer from New York. “But it’s definitely something that I’ve been enjoying. I think a lot of photographers [are concerned that], because our work is so representational, it’s also easily replicated or at least emulated. It makes for a really insecure artist. Those artists are notoriously bad at collaborating, because you have to give up control and authorship. I think we did a really great job — but maybe I’m just talking about me.”

When we speak, before camp starts, Soth admits that he himself has only a basic idea of how the week will unfold. “We’re going to pair people off for the first day to do little collaborative projects. Ideally we’ll get as much of a mix of mediums between those people as possible,” Soth explains. “They go out and they have to generate some sort of story. It can be a very simple thing… It’s like a children’s book, the primal form of storytelling. Like, ‘I went to Hawaii. I saw the dolphin.’ Except in a more sophisticated way: ‘I went to Menards. I photographed someone in a wedding dress.’”

He’s not kidding about Menards, either. Exploring the untapped wonders of Saint Paul, especially the nearby Saint Anthony and Midway neighborhoods, is very much a part of the workshop agenda. William Faulkner once said that a key to his success as a novelist was the realization that “my own little postage stamp of soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.” Soth clearly abides by a similar philosophy.

“They’re going out in this vicinity,” he says. “A big belief of mine is that I don’t have to go to Cuba to do a photo workshop, or to see the exotic people. It’s exotic here. It’s interesting. Menards is very interesting. One can do a photo workshop here as well as anywhere else. In some ways it helps to avoid some of the clichés.”

And so it is that a group of international artists and writers find themselves checking in at Al’s Diner in Dinkytown, wandering the woods outside of the city and otherwise immersed in the marvelous mundanities of the Midwest. The unstructured nature of the undertaking foments some peculiar – and, it seems, welcome – digressions. Easter Trouble Press founder Jim Reed, a fan of Soth’s work who traveled from Frankfort, Germany to take part in the camp, finds himself inspired to experiment with William Eggleston’s “democratic camera” concept during the group’s trip to the forest. “I decided I’m going to drink beer and get intoxicated, in the spirit of Eggleston, and go around and sit and stare at objects, try to give objects their full worth the way that Eggleston gave objects their full worth,” Reed says. He eventually evolves that idea into a sort of conceptual Easter egg hunt for the other campers.

There are probably a lot of arts workshops where that sort of thing wouldn’t fly, but as far as Soth is concerned, anything that helps an artist tap into a vein of storytelling is fair game. “Part of the name, the whole ‘Socially Awkward’ thing, is that photographers and writers are generally more reclusive people. Certainly I was. That’s part of my reason for doing it. But I am interested in storytelling as communication. Wouldn’t it be interesting just to experiment with this form of presenting material in a slideshow? And in part it comes from personal experience, because I’ve been forced into this situation. I’m not saying I’m good at it at all. I give the standard slideshow, like an artist’s lecture. But I thought there was potential here for something.”

From the look of things around the Little Brown Mushroom offices on Wednesday evening, after the second full day of workshops, the campers are finding the challenge daunting but are eager to rise to it. A dimly lit back room hums with quiet energy as duos hunch over MacBooks and try to pull loose narratives out of their day’s outing in the forest. Soth and some Little Brown Mushroom staffers mill about up front, chatting about upcoming projects and allowing the artists to go well over their allotted work time.

It’s pushing on past 8 pm when the instructors finally give the “pencils down” call. The campers have prepared a series of slideshows in which they’ve tied their photos together with some manner of narrative thread. It’s a practice run for the camp’s grand finale, a live slideshow event in front of an audience at The Soap Factory, complete with a DJ set by Brad Zellar and snappy patter from comedian Brian Beatty. The campers, who didn’t know coming in that there would be a performance element, seem both sheepish about sharing their day’s output and grateful for the chance to get in a few dry runs before the big event. While they come from a broad range of artistic backgrounds, theater is not the first item on anyone’s résumé. The storytelling is loose, brief and laced with in-jokes that make it clear that the group already has a fair bit of bonding under its collective belt. There are still plenty of bugs to work out, but it appears as though they’re making heady progress toward Soth’s goal of unearthing some new revelations about photographic narrative.

“I think it’ll be fun,” Soth says of the then fast-approaching performance. “Part of the thing about showing it to an audience is, it’s not that you have to entertain, but you have to engage on some level. I think there’s a tendency in the art world to sort of forget about the audience. ‘I’m doing this for myself.’ If you’re faced with an audience, there’s some sort of obligation to engage with them on some level. Make it compelling, so it’s not utterly boring. But maybe even making it boring is OK. If you choose to do that, that’s OK.”

That last sentence could be a thesis statement for the Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers, and that overriding sense of OK-ness seems like a solid groundwork for many more camps to come.

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Related links and noted event details:

Little Brown Mushroom’s Summer Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers ran from July 9 through 13. The camp culminated with an event, The Socially Awkward Storytellers’ Slideshow and Dance, on Saturday, July 13 at 7 p.m. at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis. For more information, visit www.littlebrownmushroom.com.

Why Venus DeMars’ Art Matters More Than Her Audit

Venus DeMars and All the Pretty Horses

Venus DeMars on stage for the “Audit Hell” tour stop at Triple Rock in Minneapolis

Originally published August 1, 2013 on mnartists.org

LET’S SET ASIDE FOR A MOMENT THE DEBATE on whether or not Venus DeMars and Lynette Reini-Grandell are professional artists. For one thing, the details and ramifications of the couple’s battle with the Minnesota Department of Revenue have been covered thoroughly in both local and national forums, and this piece is unlikely to bring any new facts to light.

It seems more important, now, to focus on their work. Whenever an artist becomes a cause célèbre, there’s a real danger of the cause eclipsing the art. For instance, thousands of casual observers know Robert Mapplethorpe only as that photographer who got that museum in Cincinnati charged with obscenity. It would be tragic if this current unpleasant business with the tax man led to Venus DeMars and Lynette Reini-Grandell likewise becoming “those artists who got audited.”

That’s a big part of why the recent “Audit Hell” fundraiser at Triple Rock was such a vital event. Its stated purpose may have been to raise funds and awareness for the couple’s tax fight, but the night was just as important as a timely reminder of the work they do that gives meaning to the whole thing. The first half of the night was structured much like one of DeMars’ lesser known recent projects, a series of artists’ salons hosted in her Warehouse District studio space. Those gatherings are endearingly intimate affairs where a rotation of poets, writers and musicians take the stage to share warts-and-all artwork with a room of sympathetic listeners. The work itself can be hit-or-miss, depending on your personal tastes, but the gatherings themselves succeed on the strength of the supportive community they draw, eager to embrace each other’s art. Here’s the thing: It’s one thing to pull off a cozy vibe in the confines of one’s private studio and quite another to swing it in a venue like Triple Rock. But our hosts pulled it off admirably, with Reini-Grandell serving as an affable emcee and DeMars working the room with a soft-spoken sweetness belied by the leather, feathers and nipple tape of her iconic stage suit.

Still, in the early going, the Triple Rock audience seemed divided between those who came out to immerse themselves in the art and those who came to support some friends and have a party. A small klatsch of engaged listeners watched intently at the front of the room, while back by the bar glasses clinked and voices roared. At times the din from the rear threatened to drown out the poets and singers on stage. It’s a real shame, too: not only were the rowdier folks missing out on some fantastic work, such a dismissive reaction to the performances effectively undercuts the substance of what’s at stake. They’re making a show of support for the cause, maybe, but not so much for the art.

And you know what? Those who did pay attention really got their money’s worth. Reini-Grandell’s personal, expertly observed poems covered subjects from sexual congress to the inconvenience of updating internet passwords with equal grace. Kris Bigalk wrung laughs and thoughtful nods from the room with poetic observations on motherhood and a clever excoriation of people who claim “my dogs are my children.” Trailer Trash frontman Nate Dugan took his usual act down a notch with an elegant acoustic set which culminated in a rousing, ’60s-style protest song.

And, good as that song was, it was another mark in the event’s favor that overt political statements didn’t dominate the evening. Yes, there were plenty of “Screw you, taxman” asides – most vociferously delivered by an admittedly soused Jim Walsh. It’s powerful that, despite the urgency of the cause, it was evident that the folks on stage and most of those in the crowd were there for the sake of the art. That made Andrea Jenkins’ presence in the lineup all the more welcome. A powerful political poet, her thundering ruminations on racial, economic, and transgender justice finally silenced even the buzz coming from the back of the room. She struck a searing chord that carried us all through the rest of the evening – it was political art done right.

Financial concerns be damned (as real and as scary as they may be),the strength of the work on stage declared the “Audit Hell” tour stop at Triple Rock, once and for all, to be a celebration of art and artists. If the crowd wasn’t galvanized already when Venus took the stage for a brief acoustic solo set, they certainly were by the time she wrapped up her chilling take on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” People flocked to the silent auction tables to bid on donated artwork as the full band portion of the evening drew near.

The rest of the show was all sound and sweat and an increasingly out-of-control dance floor. Magneto Effect cranked out an affably dark set of gloomy glam, and Pennyroyal came awfully close to stealing the whole show with their effervescent, energetic indie pop. But of course the night belonged to Venus DeMars and All the Pretty Horses. If the stress of the audit is wearing Venus down, it sure didn’t show in the performance — a muscular set that spanned the band’s nearly two-decade existence. DeMars’ deep, distinctive growl rolled around the room and pushed aside thoughts of anything but the music. From the slow burn of “Crystalline” to the ferocity of “White Horses” to a “Where Are We Now?” that arguably eclipsed David Bowie’s original, this was a valedictory statement from an extraordinary artist.

The Audit Hell fundraiser served its stated purpose, raising money, awareness and spirits at a time when all were sorely needed. Even more vitally, the show put the art of Venus DeMars, Lynette Reini-Grandell and their friends front and center. Whether professionals or hobbyists, martyrs or heroes, these are indisputably artists. Reini-Grandell will always be the poet who turned Tennessee Williams’ undignified death into a penetrating reflection on mortality and legacy. DeMars will always be the songwriter who penned the lyrics to “Crashed Again” and the guitarist who laid down a devastating solo on “White Horses.”

Those are things no taxman can take away, and in the long run that’s what matters most of all.

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Related links and information:

For more about the artists and to keep track of current gigs, visit: http://www.venusdemars.com/. Details about White Horses: A Tribute to the Music of Venus DeMars, an album whose sales will help defray the costs of the couple’s tax troubles: http://www.venusdemars.com/whitehorsestribute/

Alternate Ending

For David

In the alternate ending you don’t die.

In the alternate ending you take my advice and call your cousin in North Dakota, the one who’s working in one of those new oil boomtowns way out in the middle of nowhere. You take him up on his offer to land you a job, maybe something in human resources or some kind of staff psychologist position. It might not be something you’re 100% qualified for, but the company is willing to overlook that because folks with multiple advanced degrees are in short supply out on the range. If you have qualms about the damage your new employer is doing to the environment, you can remind yourself that you’ve done questionable things for a paycheck before, like that year in New Orleans when you worked for the law firm that specialized in screwing over Katrina survivors. That time you eased your conscience by volunteering for Ninth Ward rebuilding projects. This time you take the job and tell yourself you’ll donate a good chunk of your salary to conservationist charities and you don’t die.

In the alternate ending you move into a little trailer in one of the makeshift towns they’ve thrown together on the prairie. It’s not much, but it’s home. You spent enough time in FEMA trailers to know that a lot of people are making do with a whole lot less. Hell, you lived in a converted shipping container for two years when you were in grad school in Amsterdam. So you settle in to your new home and put your nose to the grindstone, spending your days listening to the hopes and horrors and histories of a bunch of hard-luck cases who all want so badly to believe that this is the gig that’s finally going to take, that hard work and the emptiness of the plains will be the magical combination that finally forces them to get their shit together and start building a real life. And you can’t help but sympathize with these burned out husks who couldn’t pronounce even the titles of half the books on your shelf, because if you’re honest with yourself, isn’t that what you came here to do as well?

In the alternate ending you don’t die alone.

In the alternate ending you talk the company into footing part of the bill for more schooling, telling your supervisors that the business is going to need some fully certified professionals on staff if the town keeps growing at its current rate. You spend your nights studying and corresponding with your professors over the web and weekends making the six-plus hour drive to Grand Forks for in-person classes. You might as well, because there’s fuck-all else to do in this town except drink. (And you’re still doing that too, of course, just maybe not quite as much as in the past because your studies keep you busy and anyway, when you live this far out, the mark-up on a bottle of Beam is about three times what it costs back in civilization.) The few times your cousin has talked you into going out with your co-workers you’ve just wound up feeling lonelier than ever because there’s no one in this bunch that you can talk to, I mean really talk to. And maybe that gets you thinking about the old days enough that you decide to call me, and I don’t answer because I’m writing or putting my kid to bed or something, and I won’t get around to calling you back for another week because I’m kind of a dick about returning phone calls, so you sigh and just watch one of your 30 Rock DVDs on your laptop for the umpteenth time. When I do finally call you back our conversation is awkward and stilted because neither of us is any good on the phone. We trade in-jokes about our days behind the counter of the crummy New Orleans coffee shop where we first met. I talk about how I’m definitely going to make the trip out to see you soon since you’re only one state over, even though we both know that we’re nearly a full day’s drive apart and I haven’t had that kind of free time since I’ve had a kid. Still, before we hang up we both say, “It was really good to hear from you,” and we mean it and you don’t die.

In the alternate ending you finish that PhD. It isn’t the most prestigious degree on your résumé, but it’s the most useful in your current situation. You’re strangely sad to wrap it up. Your commute was harrowing but at least it offered some relief from empty North Dakota flatlands and oil derricks. You stick it out for a few more years at your job, long enough to let the company feel like they made a good investment in you. You move out of the trailer and rent a nice one-bedroom apartment downtown (there is a downtown now, the boomtown having shed its “boom” and become just a town proper). Eventually you rent the storefront downstairs too and launch the private practice you’ve been secretly planning for ages. The first couple of years are shaky, as mining town roughnecks don’t necessarily take kindly to psychoanalysis. You wisely keep yourself on hire to the company so as not to burn any bridges. Between that and assorted court orders and nervous breakdowns, you’re able to keep the business afloat.

In the alternate ending you don’t die alone in a studio apartment.

In the alternate ending you become something of a local icon, a character about town. By this time other educated professionals have moved in, looking to capitalize on the opportunities available in America’s final frontier – school teachers, doctors, journalists, government bureaucrats. You form a fast friendship with this group. You meet every morning before work at the coffee shop up the street, the one that carries the New York Times, has open mic night every Friday and is derided by the locals as “that hippie place.” You all sit at the big round table near the door, sipping decent Central American blends and pontificating on politics, the books you’ve been reading and the hopelessness of the town’s sizable redneck populace. One of your buddies nicknames you “The Professor” and it sticks. Soon your every entrance is greeted with a chorus of “Hey Prof!” Your standard response is, “That’s Doctor Prof to you!” and everyone chuckles lightly as though they haven’t heard the same joke a hundred times over and you don’t die.

In the alternate ending one of your coffee shop compadres brings along a fellow teacher one morning, a fellow teacher who happens to be a rather attractive lady. He tries to act as though it’s not a set-up but he’s not very good at this sort of thing and you end up asking her out on a date almost out of pity for him. It turns out he’s a better judge of character than you’d have guessed. You and she strike up a friendship that quickly blossoms into a full-fledged relationship. Part of it is that you’re both aching for companionship in this lonely expanse, but there’s more to it than that. She’s older than you by seven or eight years, divorced for nearly a decade. She makes no effort to hide the damages of her past. She doesn’t apologize for them or dwell on them either. She makes it clear from the start that she never intends to marry again, which is fine by you. As much as you dislike loneliness, you’ve always cherished solitude. The two of you settle into something like a partnership, keeping your separate apartments and sleeping over at one or the other’s several nights a week. There are grumblings from some of the more conservative parents about her loose behavior, but she is an excellent teacher in a school that struggles to maintain a full staff. One morning you wake up and realize you are the happiest you’ve ever been.

In the alternate ending you don’t die alone in a studio apartment in a city you never liked.

In the alternate ending I drop you a line out of the blue one day. I have a free weekend coming up, so I suggest that we meet in New Orleans and revisit some of our old haunts. It’s been a few years since we’ve seen each other, not since you flew in for that psychology conference at the Saint Paul Radisson. It never takes us more than an hour or so to fall back into our old easy manner. We get a hotel down in the Marigny and spend the weekend watching live music, catching up with the few old friends who still live there and eating at all the places we couldn’t afford when we were twentysomething baristas. On our last night in town, we stagger into our hotel room far drunker than befits two men of our age and refinement. We slump into easy chairs on opposite sides of the dusky room and talk about the old days, rehashing the same anecdotes we’ve been passing back and forth for decades. We laugh like hell even though there’s a bit of sadness behind the laughter, a mourning for the pair of eager, young coffee shop dreamers who have somehow faded into these drunken, middle-aged day-jobbers. When we part ways at the airport the next day we hug, a good, solid clinch. I’ve never been much of a hugger but I know you are, and there’s something so infectious about your sincere embraces that I can’t help but squeeze you back and you don’t die.

In the alternate ending you don’t die. You don’t die alone in a studio apartment in a city you never liked, out of work and out of money, worried like hell about your future and your family. You don’t die two months after I last visited you, leaving me with a final image of you slumping out of my car and trudging up the sidewalk under a grey Chicago sky. You don’t die with me wondering if I could have done anything to help other than advise you to call your cousin in North Dakota and take him up on that job offer you told me about.

In the alternate ending you don’t die.

But I don’t get to write your ending. And neither do you. Ultimately, I don’t know if anyone gets to write any of our endings, or if all of our endings were pre-written long ago, or if endings just happen in the moment with no forewords or postscripts. All I can do is be grateful that we got to help each other write some of the middle bits. Those are usually the parts I like best anyway. As for the ending, I can write alternates upon alternates, sending us spiraling off into endless adventures we never got around to having until I lose sight of what made the original narrative so special. Or I can swallow hard and look the real ending, the only ending, the immutable ending, full in the face.

In the end you die.

You die.

You die.

You died.

53-word rejects

I like when artists are forced to confine their work to strict parameters. Ironically, I think there’s something freeing about stripping away unfettered freedom and seeing what you can do within an established template. As such, the 53-Word Story Contest has become something of a white whale for me. It’s a weekly competition in which writers are given a thematic prompt and a limit of 53 words, no more, no less. At the end of each week, one winner is published on the 53-Word Story site, with a chance of future publication in an anthology.

53 is not a lot of words, obviously, and spinning a satisfying narrative within that space is a heck of a task. I’ve submitted a number of times and have yet to win. I intend to keep plugging away. In the meantime, since the contest is on hiatus for the summer and there really aren’t many other venues for 53-word stories, I figured I’d post my rejects here, along with the prompts that inspired them. Some are better than others. Take a look at them if you’d like to see how I deal with tight parameters. (And try to seek out the great Patricia Ann McNair’s multiple winning entries if you’d like to see it done right.)

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Prompt: Write a 53-word story about waking up.
Changes
When Mr. Hoiberg assigned “The Metamorphosis” Haley realized her purpose. She stole her dad’s Ambien. She studied Zen concentration. She pored over books on occultism and entomology. Every morning she awoke from uneasy dreams and rushed to the mirror. And every morning she was crushed by the same reflection, so terribly, tediously human.

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Prompt: Write a 53-word story about the North and the South.
Downstream
You wade into the Mississippi, the chill of a Minnesota morning dappling your body with goose bumps. The cola-brown water envelops you, washing your detritus downstream. 1200 miles away I sit cross-legged on the New Orleans levee, remembering your touch as I patiently wait for the river to deliver a trace of you.

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Prompt: Write a 53-word story including the words “road” and “aspirin” in which someone is in danger.
Trip
The baggie opened midair, pills shattering into rainbow dust in the rearview mirror. Alan pulled over. The cruiser blared past, bound for some unknown crime up the road.

“Can you get high if you take enough aspirin?” Greg asked after a long pause.

“Fucking hope so,” Alan muttered. The sweats were starting already.

**********

Prompt: I don’t remember the prompt for this one.
Tuesday Morning
Susan shielded her eyes with her palm and squinted into the morning sun. The billboard over her bus stop read, in giant black letters, “I EXIST.” She glanced across the street. A small crowd peered up at an identical sign reading, “YOU EXIST.”

“I don’t need this kind of pressure today,” Susan muttered.

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Prompt: Write a 53-word story about someone going up.
High Ground
I hear him striding up behind me in the parking garage, baggie of fruit slices crinkling in his grip. Even his footsteps sound lean and lanky. I swear he smirks as I stop at the elevator and he lopes ahead to the stairs.

One day he’ll have a heart attack on those stairs.

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Prompt: Write a 53-word story in which someone is  breaking something in.
Past Tense
“How old?” The cashier nodded toward my son.

“Two last Thursday,” I smiled.

“Fun age. My daughter’s six.” He paused. “Was. She was six.”

“Oh. I…”

“No, I gotta get used to it. My daughter was. My daughter was. My daughter was.”

He walked away with my $5.57 in change. I didn’t follow.

**********

Prompt: Write a 53-word story in which a character stands up for something they believe in.
Veteran’s Day
All around the stadium they rose, old men in “NAVY” caps, boomers in pea-green jackets, young guys in Vikings t-shirts. On the sidelines players clasped helmets over hearts. “America the Beautiful” began to swell.

“Dad, veterans are supposed to stand up,” I whispered.

He stared straight ahead. “Sometimes sitting down is standing up.”

See how we are

I am afraid.

My wife works for a state agency that runs environmental tests for public safety. People sometimes get upset with her lab when test results don’t turn out the way they’d hoped, especially since some of them see her agency’s very existence as an example of government intrusion on personal freedom. On days when I work from home I bring our son down to visit her at lunch time. While they play, I often work on my laptop in the lobby of the State Revenue building across the street. There is a lot of foot traffic in that building, much of it irritated-looking people trying to resolve tax issues. There have been several lockdowns and evacuations in the complex since my wife has worked there, all of which have turned out to be false alarms.

I am afraid.

My son’s pre-school is on a busy intersection right downtown. His classroom has a large picture window facing out toward the street and a security door with a passcode that could be easily cracked. I work for a sizable corporation that has been struggling to adapt to the new economy. It is generally a pleasant work environment but uncertainty and tension bubble just below the surface.

I see a lot of live music. Most of the shows I see are in small, dark, crowded clubs. The bands play loud. People drink heavily. The exits could be blocked with very little effort. Our family goes out to restaurants two or three times a week. We go to grocery stores, malls, gymnastics classes, coffee shops, museums, art galleries. We spend countless hours in public spaces where people mill about and anyone could enter at any time.

I am afraid.

One night in late December I have a dream. I am waiting in line at a second-floor business, possibly a bank or a DMV. A place where the queue moves slowly and no one much wants to be there. I’m checking my phone when out of the corner of my eye I see a scowling woman unzip a duffel bag and pull out something long and thin and black. My stomach seizes and a collective gasp sweeps across the room. I glance behind me and see that I have a clear path to the exit. In a split second I decide I can do more good outside summoning help than I can inside as a hostage or god knows what. I bolt for the door and down the stairs before the woman notices.

Outside it is warm and humid. The sky is jet black, the stars obscured by the thrumming glow of the city. I turn on my phone and start to dial 911 when a cry from above makes me look up. My wife leans out of a second-floor window. She holds our son out at arm’s length. I choke, as I had no idea they were inside the building. I never would have run had I known. Before I can speak or even think, my wife thrusts the boy out into the night sky. I run to catch him but can’t get there in time. He lands on his backside on the dew-dampened lawn, miraculously unhurt if rather stunned. I race to his side and scoop him into my arms, my mind racing with half-ideas of how to rescue my wife.

Suddenly I hear someone else call my name. I look up and see one of my closest friends standing in another window holding his own young son. We lock eyes briefly before he too flings his arms outward and sends the boy soaring through the air. I hurriedly set my son down and sprint to catch the falling child, but again I am too late. The boy hits the sidewalk face down and does not move again. I stop cold in my tracks, gaping at the tiny form on the pavement. The wet thud of his impact is still reverberating in my ears when a staccato burst of sharp cracks from above splits the night.

I wake up panting, panicked, staring at my bedroom ceiling in near-paralysis.

I am afraid.

But I get up. And I go out. Because this is how we are. This is what we do.

How To Shop For Records At Goodwill

Originally posted on MadeLoud, April 29, 2011

Once upon a time, thrift stores were treasure troves for retro music lovers. The onset of cassettes and CDs in the ‘80s and ‘90s convinced a lot of people that their vinyl albums were worthless relics, and the record bins of the nation’s secondhand stores teemed with desirable titles retailing for a fraction of their musical value. Sure, the hardcore collectors kept the prices high for certain primo LPs, but by and large retailers could scarcely give the damn things away. These days, the situation is a bit different. As professional crate-diggers picked the shelves clean and internet reselling gave the public the idea that they could make a few bucks on their dusty vinyl, the thrift store cupboards grew increasingly bare.

That isn’t to say that budget-minded record shoppers should give up entirely on their local Goodwill. To the contrary, there’s still plenty to be gleaned from a trip to a thrift shop music aisle. You just have to think realistically and know what to look for. Let’s parse the pickings at your average Goodwill by taking a look at some of the most commonly occurring record categories.

Regional Favorites

One of the eternally endearing facets of Goodwill is its lack of homogenization. Just as the clothing racks are filled with giveaway shirts from area merchants and high school fundraisers, so too do the record racks abound with local flavor. This is an especially nice feature for traveling disc junkies, as what’s old hat in a particular region might be new and exotic to outsiders. Visitors to Minnesota can stock up on kick-ass polkas, Texas sojourners can grab a stack of Tejano standards, Tennessee tourists can gobble up forgotten country crooners, and so on.

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Nondescript Compilations

It appears that there was a period somewhere between 1960 and 1975 when every American was legally required to own several of these scattershot proto-mixtapes. They’re often tied in to some corporate promotion and usually sport nondescript titles like Super Sounds or Golden Memories. They’re the musical equivalent of those Reader’s Digest Condensed Books collections that have clogged rummage sale dollar bins since time immemorial – unchallenging, unremarkable and thoroughly undesirable. Unless you spot one with a specific song you’ve been looking for, don’t waste your time wading through this vanilla hokum.

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Genre Standbys

The Goodwill record bins offer curiosity-seekers a fantastic chance to bust some boundaries. Due largely to sketchy record label contracts, many artists from the ‘60s through the ‘80s saw their best-known tunes endlessly repackaged on cheesy Greatest Hits discs. These collections turn up on secondhand racks all the time. If you’ve been meaning to dig a little deeper into, say, classic country, this is a fine place to start. While zeitgeist-grabbers like Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings might be hard to come by, ten bucks can get you a priceless primer full of artists like Charley Pride, Eddy Arnold, Tom T. Hall, Skeeter Davis, Kitty Wells and more. The same principle applies to classical, Easy Listening, mainstream jazz and a host of other genres.

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Church and Christmas Music

Even in the age of resurgent vinyl, certain genres find themselves left by the wayside. There was a solid audience for undistinguished renditions of classic hymns and Christmas carols long ago, but that target market generally hasn’t purchased new music in a many a year. If for some reason you feel the urge to drop the needle on a staid performance of “How Great Thou Art” or “Away in a Manger” sung by a random men’s choir, your local Goodwill more than likely has your hookup several times over.

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Occasional Gems

Like we said before, the days of finding super-rare, out-of-print treasures on the Goodwill shelves are pretty much over, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find some choice cuts every now and then if you’re willing to settle for sirloin rather than filet mignon. You probably won’t snag a spotless first edition of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, for instance, but a weathered copy of his Live at the London Palladium? Well worth the 49-cent investment. You’ll probably have to head to a real record store for The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, but the right Goodwill at the right time might yield Smiley Smile for a mere buck. Be forewarned, though: you won’t score anything quite so desirable on every visit. Patience is a virtue, here as everywhere.

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Just Plain Weirdness

Now we reach what’s possibly the number one selling point for music shopping at Goodwill: When all the records are less than a dollar, you can afford to do a little gambling. That’s an especially good thing considering the endlessly weird selection at most Goodwills. Take, for example, I Will Not Forget You, a mysterious Christian album whose cover features a terrifying, androgynous demon child nestling into the palm of a severed hand. That freaky scene might not be worth five bucks to you, but for 49 cents, how can you not welcome that into your home? The same goes for Deanna Edwards’ Peacebird, a vaguely religious, thoroughly ‘70s collection of uplifting pop ballads about death. Any album whose titles include “Teach Me to Die” and “Folks Don’t Kiss Old People Anymore” is worth a bit of pocket change.

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Barbra Streisand

There might be some Goodwill stores in America with no Streisand records on their shelves, but they’re few and far between. Barbra is to Goodwill what “Law & Order” reruns are to basic cable. Why is the Divine Miss S such a thrift store staple? Well, she was massively popular for an inexplicably long time, especially with folks who might be classified as casual music fans. Many of those people probably donated their scant record collections once their kids gave them CD players for Christmas. A significant portion of them probably also, well, died. In either case, their Streisand LPs joined their kin in the queasy limbo of resale dust-collection. At this point, their only hope for release from this purgatory is an ironic purchase by some stoned hipster or club DJ. A sad fate to be sure, but in the case of Barbra Streisand, the punishment might just fit the crime.

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Eight Of The Most Surprising Samples In Hip Hop History

Originally published on MadeLoud,  Aug 25, 2011.

 

Playing “spot the sample” has long been a favorite pastime for hip-hop fans. While it’s easy enough to pick out the endless parade of James Brown, Funkadelic and Meters samples, some producers make their audiences work a little harder. With the assistance of the invaluable whosampled.com, we’ve assembled a smattering of rap’s most surprising samples.

Del the Funkee Homosapien Samples The Monkees

Del hit it big on college radio in the early ‘90s, largely on the strength of the sardonic, infectious single “Mistadobalina.” His lyrical evisceration of the titular music industry sycophant was so thorough and personal that it’s hard to imagine “Bob Dobalina” being anything but Del’s own creation. Dedicated followers of ‘60s pop, however, already knew Bob well from the Monkees’ exceedingly strange filler track “Zilch.” “Zilch” isn’t much more than a minute-long cacophony of nonsense phrases, one of which is Peter Tork’s repeated intonation of “Mister Dobalina, Mister Bob Dobalina.” In its natural habitat it doesn’t seem much like a future hip-hop hook, but it’s hard to argue with an icon.

Xzibit Samples Barbra Streisand

One of the more surreal moments in recent Academy Awards history came when a visibly befuddled Barbra Streisand announced Eminem’s win for Best Original Song in 2003. The Academy could scarcely have selected a better embodiment of the bland old establishment to pass the torch off to Hollywood’s new age. Unhip though she may be, Streisand samples have turned up on tracks by everyone from RZA to Royce da 5’9”. Maybe the most fascinating repurposing comes from producer Thayod Ausar and the decidedly non-easy-listening Xzibit, whose 1996 “Paparazzi” samples not just any Barbra, but 1976’s Classical Barbra LP. Xzibit’s grim cautionary tale about the pitfalls of fame and fortune pairs surprisingly well with the lilting strings and ethereal vocal of “Pavane (Vocale).” Babs may not have been ready for hip-hop, but hip-hop appears to have been ready for her.

Master P Samples Tom Waits

Tom Waits’ distinctive percussion and impeccable hipster credentials would seem to make him a natural sample source for backpack rappers, but only a handful of artists have taken the bait (Atmosphere, De La Soul and 3rd Bass among them). Perhaps the unlikeliest MC to dip into the Waits well is hipster kryptonite Master P. The off-kilter swagger of Waits’ “Underground” propels “I Got the Dank,” a deep cut from P’s early LP The Ghettos Tryin to Kill Me! Channeling a macabre meditation on the lives of the dead into a prototypical weed and booze ballad may seem a little suspect, but of course Tom has a long history of lyrical debauchery himself (although his rhymes tend to run a tad deeper than “chronic sack, gonna fuck with the endo / You ain’t down with the mob you out the window”).

Devin the Dude Samples James Taylor

“Right Now” is a standout track in the Devin the Dude catalog for a number of reasons. One, it’s just a remarkably mellow groove. Two, it starts out as a goof about a stoned plane ride and morphs into a moving rumination on the fragility of life. Three, it accomplishes all this on the back of an acoustic guitar riff from one of James Taylor’s cheesiest chunks of Lite FM fodder. “Shower the People” might sound like the title of an R. Kelly B-side, but it’s really just Taylor incessantly encouraging us to shower our friends with love. Kudos to Devin for pushing the tune into some deeper territory.

Insane Clown Posse Samples Nipsey Russell

The catalog of Insane Clown Posse sample sources reads mostly as you’d expect: plenty of early gangsta rap, a bit of classic rock and a whole lot of cannibalizing their own songs. At least 1991’s uncharacteristically low-key “Life at Risk” goes a bit farther afield, calling up Nipsey Russell’s soulful performance of “What Would I Do If I Could Feel?” from 1978’s The Wiz. A legendary comedian baring his emotions as the Tin Man in a sociopolitical Wizard of Oz adaptation is a far cry from standard Insane Clown Posse fare. The sample never gets around to Nipsey’s vocal, but the song’s melancholy air is in full effect. The jazzy organ and piano riff add smoky flavor to an atypically thoughtful ICP track, albeit one that’s still littered with requisite amounts of murder and misogyny.

Bone Brothers Sample Bauhaus

At this stage of its existence, hip-hop has been mashed up with nearly every conceivable genre, from country to metal to show tunes. Goth, however, has never taken much of a foothold in the rap game, despite the cult popularity of horror-core acts like Tyler the Creator and early Gravediggaz. Given Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s penchant for dark themes and occultism, it makes some sense that spin-off group Bone Brothers would be among the few to sample goth godfathers Bauhaus. It’s still an iffy match on paper, but in practice a dreary guitar lick from “She’s in Parties” paints a moody landscape for the grim, fast-paced flows of “The Struggle.” Plus, could there be a more perfectly mismatched pair of Petes than Peter Murphy and Petey Pablo?

Wiz Khalifa samples Yoko Ono

Once reviled as little more than a coattail-riding harridan, Yoko Ono has recently gotten her much-deserved props for being a trailblazer of art rock. Hip-hop, not so much, but Wiz Khalifa’s super-chill “The Statement” gets some good mileage out of Ono’s weepy, classical-tinged “Beautiful Boys.” Given Yoko’s sometimes puzzling history of protecting her late husband’s art, it’s hard to imagine what she’d have to say about a deeply personal ode to her family being turned into an introspective weed anthem. If her Twitter account is any indication, though, it would probably be baffling but poetic.

Shaquille O’Neal samples Phil Collins

OK, so it’s not like sampling “In the Air Tonight” is especially noteworthy. Dozens of producers have fallen under the sway of those irresistible percussion licks over the past 25 years. Nevertheless, the odd triple feature of Phil Collins, Shaquille O’Neal and special guest Bobby Brown on 1996’s “Edge of Night” is bizarre enough to merit a mention. It would easily rank as Collins’ weirdest public threeway if Mike Tyson and Zach Galifinakis hadn’t come along 13 years later.

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