Saturday, August 28, 2010

Bathroom Monologue: One Million Words

"They say you have to write a million words to get really good at writing. I don’t know who “they” are – I’ve tried to avoid learning it, because learning the “they” behind any such claim tends to deflate it. Now I’ve focused and picked my word. It’s the master word: “word.” All the other ones tumble out of it, you see. So I’ll write it a million times, but not all at once. My hand would cramp. Instead I write it a hundred times a day. That’s 3,000 words a month, and 36,500 a year. In a couple months I’ll pick up the pace, when a measly hundred words gets dull. The target is a thousand a day – that’s 365,000 a year, which means in just three years I’ll be passed a million and hanging with Gore Vidal or some shit. I’m on a good roll so far. Get distracted now and then, wanting to write another word. Maybe a shorter word. Sometimes I want to write full sentences or ideas. I have a separate notebook for that – the garbage stuff, not the million-word craft. After I’m famous I’ll revisit these vanity notebooks with their dialogues and stories and see if they were worth anything. I imagine, one million words along, they’ll all look like kiddy crap. Nothing you’d learn from."

Friday, August 27, 2010

RAQ Questions for 2010

It's that time of year when I have the excuse to ask,

"Have you seen my rack?"

It's actually "RAQ." I pronounce it that way because people make amusing faces.

Rarely Asked Questions is my birthday tradition at The Bathroom Monologues. Until Friday night, September 3rd, I'm requesting all readers leave questions they don't normally ask anyone. They can be questions about me, my writing, or anything entirely unrelated.

-What's the boiling point of Tungsten?

-What does my mother's snore remind you of?

-If he wants to avoid the conductor and skip the fare, what is the best time for a Mummy to hop the Baltimore light rail?

Your questions are entirely up to you. I'll compile them and answer at least one question per person on September 4th - my birthday. That's how I celebrate. With my big RAQ.

Please leave your mysteries and queries in the Comments section of this post.

Bathroom Monologue: In Sheep's

This story has been redacted pending possible publication!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Bathroom Monologue: $600,000,000 Man

The scream made him drop his magazine. It was from the suite. Lo leapt over the table and hurtled down the hall. He was about to barge shoulder first into the door when it opened inward.

Out stepped Yul. The goblin carried what looked like laundry bundled in his arms.

"Hey Lo," Yul greeted. "Remember how you said the guy is worth six hundred mil?"

Lo tried to get around him. For a little guy, Yul was brilliant at getting in the way.

“Yeah? What’s going on in there? Is he safe?”

Yul lifted his bundle. A limp hand fell out of one sleeve.

Lo looked down at it, eyes going wider, then narrower in realization.

"Well this is at least 15% of his body mass. Nuts to bodyguarding, we're set for life."

"Yul! Human arms don't grow back!"


"They don't grow back, you moron goblin." He pulled up his sleeve to show leaf patterns of scars. "Fell on glass when I was a kid. Still have nerve damage."

"What kind of budget immune system do you people have?" Yul shook his prize arm at Lo, extending their client’s index finger and wagging it shamelessly. "Well I'm not giving it back. He's rich. Let him buy another arm. I'll call you after I pawn it."

Before Lo could tackle him, the goblin ducked and charged between his legs and fled for the stairs. Lo sighed slowly and tried to calculate an apology that would save his job. Hopefully the blood loss would leave his employer more amenable.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bathroom Monologue: A Little Bit of Alright

There is an audio version of this monologue. Click the triangle on the left to listen, or this text to download the MP3.

It's often quoted and seldom understood, but to be called "a little bit of Allright" is high praise. Allright is not sold outside of certain alleys in Europe, and thus the expression's global unpopularity is understandable. Nonetheless, a little bit of Allright is a fine thing to be called and a finer thing to be given. It will thicken stew, mend your bones and make you appreciate that kid of yours who shows no tangible potential.

Allright is highly valuable and often ripped off, but generic brands are to be avoided. AllLeft is next to useless, as even the maddest liberal has some policy or aspect of humanity he would conserve (perhaps at the expense of all the others). AllRight, with the capital ‘R,’ is no better. It’s distilled from a conservativism so thick that its points of origin are waiting for miracles, not causing them.

If you’re confused, check the label. The Ingredients should read: “Ingredients: Inexplicable.” Then below, in yellow text, it ought to read, “EXTRACTED FROM CENTER OF THE EARTH.” Knock-offs will claim to come from a trendy beach somewhere. True Allright can only be harvested at the earth’s molten core, where all unfulfilled hopes have descended, dropped from well-meaning hands. They are thought a foul thing, unfulfilled, empty, the disappointments of their owners. It seldom comes to mind when you’re purchasing a tin of Allright, but you’re likely buying back some of your own shortcomings. It’s something to muse on while you spread it on your toast or toss it in the air at weddings. My, how pigeons love it.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Killing To Kill a Mockingbird

It’s been an interesting 50th anniversary for Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It was to be the next in a string of arbitrary holidays, like celebrating Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday or J.D. Salinger’s death – the subject isn’t invited, but is celebrated by renewed praise and the feeling you should go read that thing they did. We were going to throw such a casual festivities for Ms. Lee’s book of childhood lessons, but an unusual thing happened: party crashers.

Last August, Malcolm Gladwell took to the pages of The New Yorker with a befuddling argument. He began with a history lesson of the real politics in the Deep South, suggesting things were more optimistic than how Lee portrayed them by describing racial progressive James Folsom. Yet paragraphs later Gladwell trumpeted lynching and the power of the KKK. He panned Lee’s “hearts and minds” approach to change. He demanded a political approach, though he failed to explain why that would be better and tenuously ignored that political changes often come through winning hearts and minds.

Gladwell closed by comparing Lee’s approach to George Orwell’s criticism of Charles Dickens: that Dickens pointed out problems without fixing them. But he had forgotten his earlier complaint. Lee gave us the solution: change as people and the systems made up of those people can work for good. Her solution was “hearts and minds.” It was an initiative still hailed today by millions of people who recall having their views changed or emboldened by the book. His criticism was typical Gladwell: a startling premise, entertaining research, and unconvincing logic.

Since then several prominent papers have published broadsides. The most interesting one came in June of this year, from Allen Barra of the Wall Street Journal. Barra was rebuffed for primarily being a sports writer. As someone who is pro-Lee and who has written about rednecks experimenting to see if shit would literally roll downhill, I hope to neutralize that sad ad hominem argument.

Instead, let us deal with Barra’s grievance. He claimed To Kill a Mockingbird was not intellectually open-ended. “In all great novels,” he wrote, “there is some quality of moral ambiguity, some potentially controversial element that keeps the book from being easily grasped or explained.” It rings somewhat true. Certainly college kids can stay up late arguing Homer’s opinions on the divine, or the thesis of Candide, or why Tom Sawyer returned at the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

But it only rings somewhat true. Most of Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain’s social satires can be grasped in seconds; it’s not their ambiguity or complexity that impresses us. And Barra’s ideal disqualifies all the dystopian classics: George Orwell's 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 are pretty obvious about everything they’re jabbing at. Every canto of Dante’s The Divine Comedy is easily grasped; we analyze it for autobiographical and cultural details, but such avenues are still open with Harper Lee as well.

There are ways in which the obviousness of intent can make us reject art. Repugnance of intent might stir us to hypocritical rejections; State of Fear's anti-global warming agenda turned the SciFi community against Michael Crichton. When theme overrides fiction, it can break the deal; Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy gets too preachy even for many atheists. But To Kill a Mockingbird is about Scout growing up under a father figure she never quite clicked with, and his attempts at lessons and paternal authority are entirely germane to the plot. If the novel's anti-racism fills up Barra’s memory, he misses that while it is the theme of the final act, it is not the entire book. The book is about the life of children in a small Alabama town and Scout's relationship to her passive father.

The prodding of To Kill a Mockingbird continues. There is some iconoclasm to it; editors probably didn’t mind getting more clicks and attention. Flannery O’Connor’s insult that it was only a children’s book was quoted over and over; and a dozen called it a collection of aphorisms (Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw’s best features are quotability, but okay). There were callow complaints that it was too liberal, or its perceived liberalism was too flimsy.

The novel's liberalism has taken a particularly half-hearted beating. Nobody wants to support Jim Crow. The mantra of these critics is that the novel exposes the “limits of liberalism.” No writer has yet explained this one very well. It’s a self-effacing throwaway, written by liberals who should (and probably do) know better. Liberalism, especially the touchy-feely-make-life-better variety, has no limits. It’s responsible for a chunk of the U.S.’s trillion-dollar-deficit and, if you ever think liberalism can’t fail any worse, turn on Fox Radio to hear their next nightmare scenario. To avoid wasting anymore time, here’s one more sentence about whatever "limits of liberalism" might have to do with this novel:

A nice guy (not a patented liberal idea) takes a case for a minority (more of a liberal thing) and shows his daughter an ideal of bravery (not a patented liberal thing) and staunch moralism (sort of a conservative thing), before the book ends without him running for mayor, governor, senator or president (the sorts of offices where the powers of liberalism are tested closer to levels one might consider limits), and with no legal policy changing (absence of liberalism).

There was also iconoclasm in defending To Kill a Mockingbird, and its defenders could be equally baffling. For instance, Jesse Kornbluth at The Huffington Post cried feminism. Harper Lee is a woman and so may be targeted for more mistreatment than her male peers. There is anti-femininity in some of literary academia; accusations that Truman Capote had to write this book for her certainly feel tinged with chauvinism. Yet there is something inauthentic to the anti-female defense. Fellow southern ladies Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor never had their classic status attacked with the vehemence Lee is seeing. Alice Munro is treated as one of the foremost living short story writers, and the offbeat critics are just as fond of Lydia Davis. Women are very accepted in best-selling mainstream fiction, with representatives like Anna Quindlen, Patricia Cornwall, Agatha Christie, J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer. At its most plausible, an anti-feminine bias would leave Lee more likely to be criticized, but not to cause this criticism.

Kornbluth also asserted that Atticus Finch was “a feminized man.” His personality appeared tempered by the better angels of feminism: in touch with idealism and feelings, willing to stand up for the right thing. If it seems messed up to you that those items are thought essentially feminine instead of human, well, you’re right and I agree with you. Yet post-feminism in America, it is marginally more acceptable for men to be in touch with our feelings, and post-cynicism, we’re told to shelve our ideals for pragmatism. These conflict, and so the feminized Atticus Finch would rile even more people.

That feels incomplete. We have popular idealist characters even in today’s post-cynical media. It may be less the feminized component to his ideals, and more the geographical. To Kill a Mockingbird is small town, Middle America and Deep South all at once. Many people on the coasts bear an irrational hatred for such locales. No number of megachurches in New York City and Los Angeles dissuade them from bashing the South’s religiosity. Iowa can legalize gay marriage before New York and the stigma stays. Harper Lee can write a novel where a white guy defends a black guy, and he’s dismissed as “folksy” and “down-home.” The same month, we watched race riots in Oakland. Atticus Finch’s problem isn’t that he’s feminized. It’s his accent. He’s affirming Sarah Palin’s notion of a Southern parent who knows what’s right. Never mind that he was invented fifty years ago, his creation had nothing to do with the current culture war, and that his existence in no way suggests people from other regions can’t be deeply moral (a proposal Finch would probably find mortifying). It is not an all-conquering bias, or else millions of people on the coasts would not love the book as they do, but it is there.

Something else is there. The more you read of this debate, the more you sense the essence of most debates. A lot of people read a book that affected them deeply. Other people weren’t affected that way. Both groups clad themselves in the aesthetic of reason to defend how they felt. When it becomes difficult to substantiate their position, they attacked the other (heck, I nearly damned my home state a paragraph ago). The only people likely to change sides are those who were utterly oblivious that there were any other sides at all, and in their surprise, trip over the line. We’ll see how things shape up for the 75th anniversary, or whenever Harper Lee passes away – whichever bizarre holiday falls first.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Bathroom Monologue: His People’s Story, OR, Listening to Desmond Tutu does this to me, and I’d like to apologize to him

Right? So God wakes up from this fantastic Technicolor dream full of ideas. Peace. Velocity being distance traveled divided by time. Angels and comets and waves that are simultaneously particles. Things that make no sense in the real world but are so coherent in sleep.

God really likes this dream, so He makes people and tells them what they did in the dream. He sends angels and comets across the sky and lets light illuminate them. Whole universe, constantly expanding just like in that dream.

People have all this overhead and in their heads. Peace. Velocity being distance traveled divided by time. Tolerance and witch-burning. But the people can’t even understand their own dreams, let alone those above. Soon they’re tugging on each other’s scalps and setting things on fire, always yelling, “Why God, why?”

God comes over and asks what the fuss is about. One little human goes, “Why did you make the warlord kill my brother?”

God goes, “Don’t give me nonsense. I was out giving Saturn rings.”

They say He filled the world with evil, so God takes all the humans over to a rainbow. He points at it, names all the colors and says, “See? Very nice.”

The people look at it a while, develop a theory of optics and say, “See, God? It’s just a trick of the light. It’s not really there.”

And He says, “Yes, just like in the dream.”

They don’t get it, kill each other some more and blame Him. God thinks what from the dream would fix this, and goes, “Ah-ha!” And He goes to bed.

That’s how the creation story goes with my people. I like it better than yours, but that may just be the familiarity.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Bathroom Monologue: Exaggeration

Nobody has headaches; they have migraines.

Nobody throws fits; they have nervous breakdowns.

Nobody has ideas; they have revelations.

Nobody’s smart; they’re geniuses.

Soldiers went from shellshock to post traumatic stress disorder

Wars became foreign conflicts

Deaths became collateral damage

Yet every new Apple product is a Gutenberg Moment.

Every long movie is an epic.

Every crime is the worst act in the history of its context.

It’s a hyperbolic curve of thought.
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