Your Resume?

Your Resume?

It doesn’t take much to grab my attention.

For example, I happened to hear an interview on National Public Radio with Peter Rosenberg, apparently notorious in the world of hip hop for his characterization of Nicki Minaj’s “Starship” as pop (read “crap”) rather than authentic hip hop.  Minaj took exception, cancelled her concert, and entered into a heated exchange with Rosenberg over the next few years.

Please understand that not only do I have no dog in that particular fight, but also have absolutely no credibility when it comes to music aired in the last three decades; I’m not stuck on Perry Como’s “Hot Diggity Dog What You Do To Me,” even though I can sing along.  No, I can bust a mean move with “Hey, Mickey, You’re so fine, you’re so fine , you blow my mind, Hey Mickey” It’s got a good beat,” as they used to say on American Bandstand.  You can dance to it.

I absolutely do not know real hip hop.  Rosenberg and Minaj live and work in a climate I cannot understand, but I did understand Minaj’s response to Rosenberg’s assumption of the role of “gatekeeper” to the world of hip hop.

“I don’t know your resume,” she said.  “I don’t know who you are.  What’s your resume?”

By resume she meant with what authority, with what experience, with what right  did Peter Rosenberg take it upon himself to pass judgment on her and her music?  It’s an interesting way of thinking about the judgments we make, similar to the principle underlying the word “warrant”.  Is this action warranted?  Do you have a warrant to search my car?

Peter Rosenberg grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, a comfy suburb of Washington, D.C., one of many suburban towns that included restricted covenants with the purchase of property; until the 1960’s, the purchase of a home in Chevy Chase was restricted to White buyers.  Nicki Minaj was born in Trinidad Tobago, was raised in Queens, New York, and has been active in the rap and hip hop scene since 2007. Rosenberg hosts radio shows, a YouTube series, Wrestling With Rosenberg, and considers himself a guardian of authentic hip hop as he expressed in an article in The New Yorker:

“I will go toe to toe with almost anyone in terms of knowledge, trivia, and love of this music.”

What sort of resume would warrant that assertion?  Does a resume in this case demand living experience of the culture that gave birth to hip hop?  Can appreciation, love, mastery of trivia, bring authority?  Minaj thinks not.

I’m thinking about my resume, including professional experience, of course, and a variety of life experiences.  I am a parent, a husband, a brother, a teacher.  I write every day but can’t call myself a writer.  I have studied English literature, medieval history, American film, Native American literature, and nuclear propulsion and engineering.  Not an expert in any of those fields, particularly engineering.  I am male and not much of an expert there either.  I love dogs and cats equally but live with dogs.  I can name every candy bar sold in New England from 1956 – 1967.  Undeserved blessings have come my way.  Unwanted trials have also landed from time to time.  I know something about injury and fear. I have been hired, and I have been fired.  I have lived in every quadrant of the nation and outside the United States.

Mistakes?  I’ve made a few.  I’ve hurt people I love.  More than once.  I’ve missed opportunities and squandered good fortune.  My juvenile record is sealed, so I don’t have to share much about that chapter.

At the other end of the spectrum, I was briefly a lay eucharistic minister, and I sang the National Anthem at a Green Bay Packer’s game in  Chicago. I haven’t been to church or Chicago in decades.  I have walked most of the Upper Yosemite and have hit a bear with a frying pan.  I belong to a fellowship of men and women who share experience, strength, and hope.  I know famous people.  I know homeless people.

“Who are you?  What’s your resume?”

With what authority can I claim the sort of absolute conviction about anything that Rosenberg does with regard to the true nature of hip hop music? I’m  no authority on children even though I love mine extravagantly and can answer trivia questions about each. I know a lot about sports but would not presume to instruct a linebacker in the proper method of bulldogging a two hundred pound running back to the ground.

I’m not sure I have a specific cultural identity; I have certainly been guilty of cultural appropriation as I’m not always sure when appreciation slides into appropriation.  As a young man, back when Bill Cosby was funny, I copied his delivery.  As a storyteller, I told tales from West Africa, from the Aroostook band of Micmacs; I told stories told by Jews in Eastern Europe and stories told by Polish immigrants in Pennsylvania.  I’ve told Appalachian stories and Lithuanian stories.

Because I loved them.

But, told them with what warrant?  What in my resume allowed me to attempt a dialect not my own?  I’m embarrassed now to think of the chutzpah I summoned to use words such as chutzpah (It’s somehow less egregious in print).

The universe delights in keeping me off-balance as was proved yet again as I began working on this piece.  The next time I turned on the radio, I caught the tail end of a conversation between Black authors describing the impact of stories collected by journalist Joel Chandler Harris (a White Georgian) and presented in Uncle Remus, His songs and Sayings: The Folklore of the Old Plantation.  The stories are presented in the dialect that Harris attributed to the slaves who had told the stories when Harris had worked on plantations as a boy.  Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Bear, Br’er Fox came from animal stories told by Uncle George Terrell, Old Harbert, Aunt Crissy on the plantation, closely related to stories told in Africa.

Widely admired when published, the stories were favorites of Mark Twain who read them to his children.  By the 1920’s, however, they were seen as stereotyping and demeaning the African-American experience of slavery.  The Disney version (Song of the South) made plantation life seem downright jolly (“Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”) and Uncle Remus appeared to delight in spending his days entertaining White children:  “Chillens! We’s all a-gwine home.”   Needless to say, Disney has buried the film in its archives, unwilling to add it to the cycle of films to be re-released in a regular rotation.

But the authors who spoke were grateful to have heard the stories told as they were.  The stories might have been lost had Harris not put them into print, and the dialect as well.  One author had heard the stories as read by his father and hears them in his father’s voice still. Harris did not own those stories, but perhaps at that moment they were his to protect.  We don’t know if Harris considered himself an expert on plantation stories; it’s unlikely that he thought of himself as a gatekeeper.

In closing I am reminded of yet another interview on NPR, this one with Johan Kugelberg.  Kugelberg is the creator of the Cornell Hip Hop Collection, the largest assemblage of artifacts associated with hip hop music.  Kugelberg, a former record executive and observer of pop culture, had sought the earliest artifacts of hip hop from its start in the South Bronx in the early 1970’s and donated that collection to Cornell University which has added to the collection in order to present the history of hip hop as it spread from New York City.  And, how it has changed.

Kugelberg grew up with skateboards and punk music.  He describes himself as an essayist on subculture; in an article describing his collection, the New York Post called him, “The Indiana Jones of Punk and Hip Hop”.

“In just a few minutes, the Swedish archivist and author produces an original manuscript of John Coltrane’s music dated from the 1950s; a 1982 Danceteria poster for one of REM’s earliest New York City shows; a 1984 invite to an advanced playback of Madonna’s second album, “Like a Virgin,” at a Chelsea strip club; a first-edition copy of Robert Frank’s seminal photography book, “The Americans” (signed to his publisher Barney Rosset); and a sweat shirt worn by Afrika Bambaataa during his early DJ gigs in the 1970s.”

So, Swedish punk skater travels to Cornell on a regular basis to work with others on the collection’s advisory board – Jorge “Popmaster Fabel” Pabon, MC Sha-Rock, Grandmaster Caz, and Zuu Queen MC Lisa Lee – on expanding the collection and preserving the history of the culture(s).  Kugelberg began this work in response to those who thought hip hop was unimportant.  As the Post reported, Kugelberg took a longer view.

“My only response was that it was like being in 1925 and saying country-blues isn’t worthwhile, or being in 1947 and saying that Charlie Parker is not worthwhile. Beginnings are always humble.”

The difference, I think, between Johan Kugelberg and Peter Rosenberg is that Kugelberg celebrates a culture and Rosenberg seems to claim ownership of a culture not his own.

Humility.  That’s a pretty good resume.







Save the Cat

Save the Cat

Sorry, cat lovers, no actual cat content in this piece, but the title is bound to attract readers who are fond of cats (or who definitely are not) and those who just want to know what kind of mess into which this cat has managed to stumble.

I’m writing about titles this time because I’ve come to believe that a writer without a title is a writer without a plot.  Successful writers seem to be able to invent a compelling narrative from which a title is bound to emerge.  Pride and Prejudice, for example, or Gone With the Wind.  Lots happens, characters bounce vividly from page to page, scenes and setting take the reader from the armchair to a different world, and, at the end, the author looks back and says, “Ah, this book is about the ways in which pride and prejudice play themselves out in a complicated romance,”  or, “Huh, an entire culture and way of life is no more.  It’s almost as if it has just gone with the wind.”

I, on the other hand, work backwards.  I start with a title and see what happens.  What happens is that I end up with a reasonably compelling title and a jumbled narrative contriving somehow to attach itself to the title I’ve chosen.  Had I started with Gone With the Wind, I might have ended up with a novel about tornadoes or gastric distress.  I had written one or two ungainly novels now securely tucked out of sight before finding a title that pulled me into trying to publish the book.  The Christmas Quilt was about a woman whose life had flattened.  She becomes a fabric artist, is befriended by an older and very wise woman, deals with lots of life stuff, and finally overcomes her family-of-origin issues in order to create a Christmas quilt for her mentor.  Memory’s Door was about a schoolmaster returning to the school he had attended.  Opening up memory … you get it.

In the midst of writing these, I turned to Save the Cat, a book by Blake Snyder intended to help screenwriters shape their work so that a likeable character does something likeable in the process of moving through key stages of plot development.  Snyder was influenced by Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces and suggested that audiences respond to what he called primal themes.  The Snyder school of screenwriting presents a version of an outline known as a beat sheet (The opening, the hook, the first plot point, the first “pinch point, mid-point,the second pinch point, the “lull”, second plot point).

Sounds relatively easy.

Yeah, but no.

I’m can come up with an opening:  Guy walks into a shoe store, tries on a shoe, and is transported to a land of unicorns and ogres.

That’s it.  That is as far as I get.  The truth is that I don’t want to read about the adventures of this imagined customer jarred out of a conventional life.  It’s dumb.  Even if this ostensible hero saves a unicorn, I’m not sure I care.  Would I buy a book entitled, Save the Unicorn?  Would anyone?

My eldest son generates narratives by the score.  He grabs a genre, immediately figures out what the beat sheet would look like, adds some snappy patter and a few highly original plot twists, and is off and running.  His screenplays actually work.  After listening to me waffle and complain time and again, he offered what ought to have been a slam dunk piece of advice:  Just use the plot structure of The Maltese Falcon.  Apparently lots of writers do, making use of the Falcon’s plot and following the often quoted advice given writers like Dashiell Hammett, “When in doubt, throw a body at them.”

So, I read the book, look at the movie and get completely sidetracked by “what’s it”, the Macguffin, the goofy undescribed something that sets the plot in motion.  Hammett’s book has an object known as the Maltese Falcon, but it could have as easily been the Nebraskan Gopher.  The “what’s it” doesn’t matter.

But it does to me … because it is the title of the book, and against the laws of God and man, I start with the title.  No traction, no beat sheet, no novel.  My version?  The Real Rothko, in which ill described characters get hot and bothered about a forged painting.  It’s not a bad title as Macguffin titles go, but who, what, where, and why?

Here are the titles currently under consideration should I find the chutzpah to try a novel again:  The Lone Gunman (obvious plot, angst, ammunition), Eating My Best Friend (plane crash/bus crash/crash of some sort, survival,ethical quandary, cooking) Queen of the Dairy (Coming-of-Age set in a Dairy Queen), Long Throw From Third (Rookie makes the Big League), The Forgotten (superheroes that didn’t make it), Too Close (claustrophobic tries to work on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange), The Dick Kazmaier Story (Heisman Trophy winner from Princeton who decided NOT to play in the NFL), Don’t Do That! (open to suggestion).

I explained all of this to a friend, and in the explaining came to the conclusion that I don’t seem to be able to tell a story, which is ok in writing non fiction or this blog or even plays. but not ok in writing a novel or for film. I’ve done three plays and feel ok about them, although they lack the kind of inciting situations that drives narrative; nothing much happens.  I can do voices, however, so conversation suits me pretty well.

Reunion pulls characters to a college reunion.  Years have gone by.  They have changed.  They talk, nothing much happens.  Oh, I guess the guy whose marriage is in trouble does not have an affair.  Plot hinges on something NOT happening.  Changelings brings a room full of transnational adoptees together.  If I could compose, it could be a series of vignettes, a musical like A Chorus Line.  But I can’t, so it’s still a series of conversations about growing up with curious notions of identity.

With a final apology to cat people who have inadvertently wandered into this confession, I return to the kind of writing I seem to be able to manage – conversational, mildly whimsical, and far, far from narrative fiction.

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An Alternative Canon

An Alternative Canon

I used to think I wanted to be a writer.  I love words, love to play with language.  I’m whimsical and occasionally thoughtful.  And, there’s the word thing – love ’em.

But … and this has been clear to me for quite a while, I’m not much of a story-teller. Not so great with characterization either.  So, when I read three original novels in the last few weeks, each packed with gripping narrative pull, vivid characterization, and brain-bending structure, I just erased the limp,vapid, obvious first draft of a very conventional novel and sat down to read in admiration.  It happens that both authors (Eleanor Catton and Jennifer Egan) are women who have won major awards, but they have come to prominence in the years since I last held students hostage in a classroom.

“Where are women in our curriculum?”  It’s a more than fair question and one that appeared weekly as the English Department met to sort out other less momentous affairs such as the determination of the angle at which classroom projectors were to be mounted.  Personalities largely overwhelmed principles in these discussions, so much so that I recall slipping into what I call my thousand yard stare.

I loathe meetings in virtually any setting and to almost every purpose which says more about me than about meetings or their purposes.  Here are the some of the weaknesses of my character that emerge in meetings:  pettiness, impatience, self-aggrandizement, sloth, an inclination to gossip, incessant fiddling, irresponsible doodling, and the ever-present temptation to play class clown, and many, many more.

All of which came to play as I sat listening to good-hearted people argue that the classics we taught were inherently valuable and other good hearted people argue that the canon did not include voices that ought to be heard.  At the time, I taught Shakespeare and Homer, the Brontes, Virginia Woolf, Louise Erdrich and Jane Austen.  My electives gave me room to introduce Shirley Jackson, Flannery O’Connor, Kelly Link, Heidi Julavits, Alison Bechdel, Zadie Smith, Kiran Desai, Patricia Highsmith, Molly Gloss, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Margaret Atwood, but there was a large and wonderful world of astounding books written by women that I had yet to discover.

Having left the classroom, free to read anything I like, I continued to read my favorites and happily stumbled into the realization that we live in a golden age of literature written by women, so happily that for the most part, I’ve read nothing but fiction written by astounding female authors.  I did lose a few months getting  through Infinite Jest, but quickly returned to reading authors I had not known.

I’ve written elsewhere about Emily St. John’s Station Eleven, the most moving and probably prescient dystopian novel I know, and I’ve filled pages in tribute to Louise Erdrich, starting with my appreciation of Blood Medicine and continuing with my fascination with the entire connected series of books following Love Medicine, from Tracks to The Painted Drum.  Margaret Atwood is back in favor as The Handmaid’s Tale has arrived on-screen, but inventive novels such as The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace are far less widely read than they ought to be, especially as The Blind Assassin won the Mann Booker Prize in 2000 and is one of the 100 best novels identified by Time Magazine.  Atwood defies description, writing within and beyond genre. I found her short story, “Death by Landscape”, just dark enough, just clouded enough to use with my honors sophomores.  They puzzled at the right level of uncertainty.

I’ve also written about Heidi Julavits, an author I admire so completely that I follow her on Instagram, hoping I’ll find she’s written another novel.  She’s busy, I know, editing The Believer Magazine and teaching at Columbia, but the The Uses of Enchantment came out in 2006 and The Vanishers in 2012, and I am growing restive.  Donna Tartt hit pay dirt with The Goldfinch, but Tartties (that may not be a real thing) are longing for a darker, quirkier, novel similar to her Secret History.  She is also a deliberate writer, having taken ten years between novels.

This article emerges, however, because  I’ve been locked in a dark room with Jennifer Egan and Eleanor Catton, well, with their work.  Each has written books that confound description.  Janet Maslin’s review of Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad attempted to evoke a sense of the novel:  “…spiky, shape-shifting … tough … uncategorizable.”

Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal drew similarly cryptic description from Adam Ross:

“Enter the New Zealander Eleanor Catton, stage left, delivering a wildly brilliant and precocious first novel (she’s in her mid-20s) that’s not easy to describe. Nonlinear and occasionally tricky to follow, it’s a series of plays within plays; and as in a piece of experimental theater, its characters often break mid-dialogue to confess in startlingly honest asides or snatch at one another’s thoughts, with lighting and music added during moments of high drama or hushed intimacy. The play’s not just the thing, it’s everything.”

Catton followed up The Rehearsal with The Luminaries, the novel that won her the Mann Booker Prize at the age of 28.  Equally indescribable and equally inventive in structure, The Luminaries reflects Catton’s fondness for tales of action and adventure, for Philip Pullman, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Avi, authors who so entranced her that she knew she was meant to be a writer.  So, rollicking and thick with historical texture, teeming with vivid characters, the novel is more than impressive enough at eight hundred and twenty two pages of scams, confidence schemes, puzzle and mystery set in the gold fields of mid Nineteenth Century New Zealand.  And then … as Catton describes the genesis of the book:

“This phase of reading and researching lasted for nearly two years, but it wasn’t until the very end of it that the idea for the novel was really born. As a lark I had been learning to read Tarot cards, and I chanced on a copy of Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies, the plot of which is patterned on a Tarot spread. I found the book a terrible struggle, despite it being very slim, and, while struggling through it, I wondered why it was that novels of high structural complexity were so often inert, and why it was that structural patterning so often stood in the way of the reader’s entertainment and pleasure. Did structure have to come at the expense of plot? Or could it be possible for a novel to be structurally ornate and actively plotted at the same time? I thought about the novel that I wished The Castle of Crossed Destinies had been – and this, at last, was my negative-charge influence, defiant rather than imitative, longed-for rather than loved.”

Negative-charged, defiant, rife with crossed destinies, supported by extensive astrological charting, packed with shipwrecks, gold fever, Chinese murders, a delicious array of dialects, and intricate plotting, all eight hundred pages flew by.  The hallmark of an exceptional book is that I envy those who read it from the first time, and this is one I intend to pick up again, reading it again as if I had no idea how this marvelous Tarot clockwork will inevitably pull me into many, many lost hours again.

I may not have the classroom I once knew, but I can offer an adult ed course in something like, “Wait!  You haven’t read these authors?”  We’ll see who signs up.

Terrible Ideas

Terrible Ideas

Not MY terrible ideas.  Seriously, why would I share those with anyone but my defense attorney?

No, I’m proposing but a few of the truly unfortunate ideas to plague mankind.  The really big ones.

Some ideas are so obviously misguided that we need not belabor them.  But here’s a short list:

Cheetos Lip Balm, riding a Segway down stairs, the Segway, the cinnamon challenge, invading Russia in the winter, My Mother The Car, sitting on dead whales to improve health, patterned tights, hydrogen blimps, leisure suits, carbonated yogurt, “Chinese Food Makes Me Sick” by the New Kids on the Block, Red Dye No.2, selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees, Hair in a Can, celery jello, the McLobster, Subprime mortgages, pop-up ads, the war in Iraq, The Singing Cats Christmas Album ( I have two copies if anyone’s interested), bringing rabbits to Australia, smell-o-vision, blue E-Z Squirt Ketchup, “Disco Duck”, the Daddy Saddle, bath bombs …

… and, in case you’ve missed the last decade’s Darwin Awards, let us not forget: riding a jet ski off Niagara Falls, soaking in a turbulent hot acid pool in Yellowstone Park, crossing a parking lot inside a methane powered 55 gallon barrel,  falling off a three-story building during a “high altitude spitting contest”, going up on the roof to fix the antenna during a hurricane, injecting cocaine into the urinary tract, demonstrating the safety of windows of the twenty-fourth floor, putting a marigold necklace on a tiger in the Calcutta zoo, jousting on motorcycles, and sneaking through a kitchen window, getting caught with head in the sink, and inadvertently turning on the water.

What’s worse than any of these?

Who is to say “worse”, except that any of the following can feel “end-of-the-world-just-smother-me-now” bad, and they are entirely contextual; what profits us in one setting is absolute disaster in another.

It can be tough to find the right measure of engagement, the right timing, the right motives.  Every great achievement probably started with a terrible idea. “Hey, Gandhi, why not make salt from seawater?”  “Hey, Martin, why not march to Selma?”  And then, there are all those ideas that seemed so good.  “Hey, wanna save time and take the Donner Pass?”

I’ll leave it to the reader to decide which fits the situation.:

Staying too long, leaving too soon, remembering who you really are, forgetting who you really are, the third drink, making the move, not making the move, grinning and bearing it, baring it, asking for more, not asking for more, sending kids to college, not reading directions, crying at movies, not crying at movies, forgetting to look both ways, adopting a cat, eating the last piece of cake, not eating the last piece of cake, taking up base jumping, looking ahead, looking behind, playing with chain saws, forgetting a birthday, counting birthdays, sending that email, opening someone’s diary, having children, not having children, not looking at sunsets, coming home, not coming home.

Saying yes, saying no.

Timing is everything.  In the words of Nashville philosopher Kenny Rogers, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run.”

Since most of us have seen a truly terrible idea up close and for years afterward, I’ll pass on the best advice I’ve been given, “Don’t make it worse.”

Not always easy.