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.

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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.

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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.

The Top Four Musical Comebacks of 2031

Robert Frost may have been correct that nothing gold can stay, but most of those gilded goods make their way back into circulation if you wait around long enough. That’s certainly the case in the music industry, where yesterday’s obsolete technology is today’s must-have hipster accessory, and half-remembered rockers resurrect 20-year old albums for lucrative summer tours. So which of today’s passé musical movements will get a second life in the 2030s? It’s impossible to predict, but that’s never stopped us from trying.

Compact Discs

Musical media never really die. They just hibernate and wait for nostalgia and hipsterism to run their courses. On the other side of the coin, even the hottest trend is just a temporary thing by definition. Sure, right now ideas like music clouds, 100% digital libraries and on-demand song services are intoxicatingly enticing. Once the novelty of it all wears off, though, all this space-age stuff will quickly become the new normal, and everybody knows that normal is boring.

As the mainstream embraces total musical mobility, the next generation of hipsters is going to fall in love with tangible objects. While the return of CDs probably won’t be as widespread as the vinyl record resurgence of the ‘00s, it will be at least comparable to the current cassette tape revival: a largely inferior technology resurrected by the formidable duo of nostalgia and irony. The utilitarian, portable nature of CDs makes them especially ripe for a comeback. The art school undergrads of 2032 will sport ostentatious Discmans on the train and host CD-only basement dance parties. It will likely be just as obnoxious as it sounds.

Radio

Commercial radio seems more and more redundant every day. These days most folks carry extensive music libraries in their pockets. There are dozens of online services that can tailor playlists to suit your exact personal preferences and introduce you to new artists who are right in your wheelhouse. With all of that at our disposal, the idea of sitting down to an hour of preprogrammed, corporate-mandated robo-playlists broken up by eight-minute blocks of screeching advertisements seems quaint at best, masochistic at worst. The Clear Channel model of radio appears destined to collapse under its own predictability in the very near future.

That doesn’t mean radio is done for, though. It just needs to return to its roots. Tom Petty summed up a generation’s worth of radio nostalgia when he sang about “the last DJ who plays what he wants to play and says what he wants to say.” When commercial radio is on the ropes in the coming years, look for a return of the idea of disc jockeying as a skilled position. Even in an era when everyone has the power to program a playlist while waiting for the bus, there’s something to be said for letting a true professional do the work. Look for the future of mainstream radio to take a cue from the college and independent stations that have been embarrassing it for the past couple of decades. Employing hosts with strong personalities, good taste and, most importantly, a little creative freedom just might ensure that broadcast radio is still a thing in 20 years.

Albums

Music writers have been penning obituaries for the full-length album pretty much since the day iTunes first went online. The long list of supposed killers includes the rise of ring-tone culture, the ease of buying a single MP3 online and the general shortening of our collective attention span. Somehow, albums continue to soldier on, but their omnipresence does seem to be on a precipitous decline. The full LP will never disappear completely, but the next generation of music buyers will likely no longer think of it as the default format for exploring an artist’s work.

Give it a decade or two, though, and we’ll see a return to prestige for the album. Anyone who’s listened to a “one-hit wonders weekend” on the local oldies station should be able to see why. There has always been a place for performers who can craft great singles. Produce enough of them and you’ll have no problem striking it rich. But if you don’t have at least one classic album under your belt, you’ll never command the respect of the critics, the industry or the historians. Cultural shift or none, sooner or later, the pop star of tomorrow will have to demonstrate some long-form skills or risk being derisively labeled a “singles artist.” Although it’s possible that those superficial labels will lose their power in the coming era. We all know what a well-adjusted, ego-free lot professional musicians are, right?

The Black Eyed Peas

If ever you’re bedeviled by the ubiquitous presence of an artist you truly loathe, it helps to remember that few things are more fragile than a pop culture cache. Today’s inescapable chart-topper is tomorrow’s county fair headliner and the next day’s Jay Leno punch line. There are exceptions, of course – did anyone think in 1998 that Britney Spears would still be a viable presence in American music thirteen years later? – but generally speaking the best way to kill off an earworm is to just wait a few months.

That should be a comfort to the myriad music fans who currently seethe at the very mention of The Black Eyed Peas. Yes, the band has had a string of imbecilic successes. Yes, Fergie and Will.I.Am have been elevated to positions of prominence that far outstrip their modest talents. Yes, “I Gotta Feeling” has a catchiness-to-annoyance ratio that could attract the attention of Amnesty International. All of that aside, the band’s mojo can’t last forever. We’ll be rid of them soon enough.

Except for their inevitable rediscovery by future generations of schlock merchants. Some of us remember when ABBA was just that cheesy bunch of Scandinavians who did that lame-ass “Dancing Queen” song. But shellac them with 20 years’ worth of camp value and ironic appreciation, and they become “the legendary hit-makers and Rock & Roll Hall of Famers who inspired “Mama Mia”!” Be sure to relish the inevitable Black Eyed Peas break-up while it lasts, music fans, because you won’t have long to wait before you’re watching Fergie pick up her Lifetime Achievement Grammy on the way to the Broadway opening of “Tonight’s Gonna Be a Good Good Night.”

David Fiske in 20 Polaroids

  1. One afternoon I called up my friend David. When he answered I began reading him Donald Barthelme’s short story “The School.” Once I reached the end of the story, I promptly hung up. We discussed the story the next day at work. No further explanation of the phone call was required.

 

  1. When I was living in Chicago and David in Massachusetts, he sent me a package containing, among other things, a Polaroid of himself sporting a pair of large, fake breasts under a tasteful white blouse. That picture hung on one of my kitchen cabinets for years afterward.

 

  1. Sunday mornings at the coffee shop were reliably slow, so David and I passed the time by cutting things out of the Sunday Times-Picayune and decorating the store with visual non-sequiturs. On each biscotti jar, for instance, we pasted a single panel from the comics section. My favorite was one of David’s selections, Curtis from Curtis gazing in mute horror as his father danced The Robot.

 

  1. One evening the power went out in our neighborhood of New Orleans. Myra and I weren’t sleepy yet, so we called David to see if the lights were on in his apartment. We spent the evening drinking bourbon, watching Cheaters and critiquing the published poetry of Thurston Moore. It turned out to be one of my favorite Wednesdays.

 

  1. My professors in the Fiction Writing department at Columbia College Chicago frequently stressed the importance of having a reliable “first reader” for one’s unpolished prose. I decided that David should be mine. For a couple of years I sent him everything I wrote that I was at all proud of. He wrote back promptly every time, usually with praise but sometimes with much-needed criticism. He once told me he thought he was falling in love with the teenage girl at the heart of my novel-in-progress. That was one of the best things anyone has ever said about my writing. I later named the main street in my fictional small town after him.

 

  1. On particularly maddening days at the coffee shop, David and I attempted to kill customers using only the power of our minds. We never mastered it.

 

  1. David had told me about his problems with sleepwalking, but I hadn’t witnessed it until one night when he was visiting me in Chicago. I woke up around 2 a.m. to the sound of David rummaging through my bedroom closet. When I asked what he was doing, he calmly reassured me, saying softly, “No, it’s OK. It’s me, Dave.” I eventually got him to leave the closet and head back to the couch. He remembered none of it in the morning.

 

  1. When David mentioned an upcoming trip to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, I remembered that my friend Matt, who lived there, had asked me for a mix CD. David agreed to make the delivery. He strolled stone-faced into the movie theater where Matt worked and handed him the unlabeled CD, then walked out without saying a word. Matt was completely baffled by the encounter until I called him and explained it all a few weeks later.

 

  1. On a sand bar somewhere on the Bogue Chitto River, David and I and our friends Roan and William squared off, charging at each other with inner tubes wedged around our waists. I don’t recall who won, but obviously there are no losers in a situation like that.

 

  1. David and I had an ongoing debate about men’s room etiquette. It began after he took one of the middle urinals in a four-urinal movie theater bathroom. A gentleman was already using the one on the far end, so I sidled in to the one alongside David. He held that I should have just waited so as to avoid awkwardness. My argument was that I would have left the standard courtesy gap had the other urinal not been occupied, but the laws of supply and demand ultimately trump social niceties.

 

  1. Some friends once invited Myra and me on a Honduras-to-Chicago road trip. On our way out of San Antonio, we somehow talked our hosts into making a detour through New Orleans so we could see our old friends Roan and Kristina. David was just getting back to the States after a trip to Egypt with his parents, so we assumed we’d miss him on this visit. As it turned out, David sped from Florida to New Orleans just so he could chat with us on a street corner for half an hour before we had to hit the road. Duly impressed, Myra and I hopped into our Scion the day after we got to Chicago and drove back down to New Orleans to surprise David with a return visit.

 

  1. Man and dogI collaborated with David on half of an absurdist play. We wrote it in the coffee shop’s log book during our down time. The only scene I remember involved a parade of clichéd American icons, including Marilyn Monroe riding Marlon Brando like a horse. David objected to me calling Marilyn Monroe a cliché. He really liked Marilyn Monroe.

 

  1. David was the first person I ever met who could match me NewsRadio quote for NewsRadio quote. If there’s a surer recipe for gaining my immediate respect, I don’t know it.

 

  1. When a music writing gig landed me an advance copy of Cat Power’s masterwork You Are Free, the first thing I did was drive to the coffee shop to show David. His envious, appreciative reaction was extremely validating. A month or so later David and Myra and I saw Cat Power play at the Howlin’ Wolf. It was one of the worst live performances any of us had seen. Myra fell asleep on her feet in the front row. I think David and I both learned something unfortunate about artistic heroes that night.

 

  1. There exists a photograph of David and me wearing a single, very large pair of men’s blue jeans, one of us in either leg.

 

  1. David and I regularly exchanged CDs, each trying to win the other one over to our personal favorite artists. I got him into Crooked Fingers, Bill Withers and Magnetic Fields. He got me into M. Ward, Mitch Hedberg and The Postal Service. I never convinced him about Lou Reed and he never convinced me about Bill Hicks.

 

  1. In David’s apartment after Katrina, he and I watched the debut of the New Orleans-set cop drama K-Ville. We decided that we would take a shot every time the show shoehorned in a gratuitous New Orleans stereotype. By the time Anthony Anderson got around to extolling the virtues of eating po’ boys for breakfast, we were pretty well in the bag.

 

  1. The night before we left New Orleans to move to Chicago, Myra and I had a bunch of our friends over for a last meal at Ninja Sushi and some drinks amidst our boxed-up worldly belongings. We doled out goodbyes at the end of the evening, with all the usual handshakes and hugs and half-teary well-wishes. When I came to David, he wrapped his arms around me and hugged me with all his might. At first I thought he was just being over the top, playing it for a laugh, but when he kept on squeezing I realized this was every inch a heartfelt, emotional farewell. I hugged him back hard, my heart splintering a little bit as I did.

 

  1. After David died last month, his parents sent me some things of his that they thought I’d appreciate. One of those items was a lovely, mahogany-toned lamp that had accompanied David on all of his far-flung travels. (In the decade or so that I knew him he’d lived in New Orleans, Massachusetts, Amsterdam and Chicago, and he and his parents had traveled to most corners of the globe.) The lamp is by my bedside now, on the nightstand behind the alarm clock, in a spot where I’ll be sure to see it every morning.

 

  1. There was a time when my next course of action would have been to send this list to David for his analysis. Even though we’d fallen out of that practice in recent years, I’ve been thinking I might want to start it up again. I know that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but god damn it, what does? So long, Dave. I’d say I miss you, but that doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Welcome to the machines

Originally posted on Rob Duffer’s marvelous fatherhood blog Experiments in ManhoodAugust 14, 2011.

The machines arrive each morning before seven. Their cacophony of beeps, clanks and belches is the first thing I hear upon waking. In the next room, my son Selby hears them too. I imagine he feels a tiny ripple of anticipation every day as the cobwebs clear and the sounds begin to take shape in his head. At 19 months, patience is far from his greatest virtue, but in this case he seems to have made peace with waiting. He knows he’ll be with the machines soon.

Selby is a city kid. More than a year and a half into this fatherhood bit, I still can’t quite get my head around that. I grew up in the woods. Not on a farm or in some rural subdivision, but in the middle of the deep dark forest in the hilly country of Western Wisconsin. My family’s nearest neighbors lived nearly a mile away across a corn field. Our only bathroom was a wooden outhouse handcrafted by my father. Our rare visitors had to maneuver a quarter-mile of rutted driveway interrupted by a fast-flowing creek at the midway point.

My son, in contrast, can hear the crackling speaker of the Wendy’s drive-thru from his backyard. He negotiates city buses as easily as any grizzled urban warrior. And his favorite form of daily entertainment is watching the machines. We live half a block off of University Avenue, the future site of Saint Paul’s much-anticipated light rail line. Nearly every day, I take my son by the hand and walk him up to the corner to watch men in yellow helmets tear up a major metropolitan thoroughfare using equipment half the size of our house. A few years from now, they’ll have built a state of the art rapid transit system that stops just outside our door. My son is absolutely enthralled by this, and why shouldn’t he be?

Watching him watch things is one of my greatest joys. The focus he puts on these earth-movers and hole-diggers is so intense that I suspect he could operate one from memory if he only had the size and strength. I can recall being similarly rapt when I was a kid, but it was the relative nothingness of sumac groves and babbling brooks that held me in thrall. Selby drinks in what Petula Clark called “the rhythm of the traffic in the city,” unfazed by churning traffic and passing vagrants. These are just the ambient noise of his everyday existence. I love to see it, but it also makes me uneasy.

Even though I’ve lived in cities for years, I’ve think of myself as a country boy at heart. When you’re raised on grassy pastures, starry nights and unbroken solitude, it’s hard to throw it over completely for the city. My wife Myra is in a similar situation, coming from a sleepy town of barely 1,000 people. For us, the Big City was a destination, a far-off place full of wonder and danger. For the boy we’re raising, small towns and farmscapes will be the exotic outposts. Will he dread visits to his grandparents’ homes, where the nights are silent and there’s no Target right up the street? Will he dismiss country folk as backwards yokels? Will he gag melodramatically every time we drive past a manure-coated cornfield?

I surely hope not, but as with most things, only time will tell. Maybe someday Myra and I will relent in our determination to be city folk for life and trade in culture and convenience for small-town stability. But for now, all I can do is offer Selby my halting guidance through an urban jungle I can barely navigate myself. And keep watching the machines.

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