The Working of a Criminal Mind

Back in my salad days–also known as grad school–I got a windfall: my family bought me a sports car.  It was a shiny silver sports car back when silver was a hot new color. The car looked just like a futuristic insect–all mandibles and antennae and exoskeleton–and it allowed me to upgrade the second-hand car that was my dreary graduate student life and enter into a glittering world where the hoi polloi gawked at me on the street.

boxster

I kid you not:  for a month, I  would rev my engine up to pretty girls and suddenly slow down–almost to a crawl–and give them a long, hard stare…and then speed up.  I almost felt kind of like a movie star, styling and profiling.

Valets game me a look of recognition when I tossed them my keys.  One of my friends visited LA for her mother’s funeral and during the long procession to the cemetery, she spurned all other cars–even those of family–to sit in my very own passenger seat and listen to Brasilian music blasting from my tricked out speakers.

There was one catch to my new change in station: I had to pay for my own insurance. This was no easy feat for a few reasons. First, my rates skyrocketed with the zoom of a flashy new car in my life. Second, I was dirt poor–ghetto fabulous–the condition of almost all idiots who decide to give up the money-making life and chase the dragon that is a Ph.D.

I had one resource at my disposal:  the English department had a listserv–an e-mail notice that reported the events of the department (books published and awards received and promotions gotten); at the end, there was a list of odd jobs that would come available: editing, tutoring, researching, grading, babysitting, ghostwriting–that kind of stuff. Sometimes it was touch and go: a lot of the offers could be scams; nobody really vetted the list; any fool could call in a job.  During my brief moments as a user of this list, I had already learned one hard-and-fast rule:  you had to watch out for the people who wanted you to help them with their memoir. They were crazy and always stiffed you.

Department of English

It was at this time that my eyes ran across an advertisement put up by a private party: a job doing some “research.” I called up and the man on the other line told me he was a detective.  I would never meet him in real life, and he preferred it that way.  “I represent another party who has engaged me to find someone qualified to handle a job of considerable delicacy–a job for someone with unusual skill sets.”

The man spoke just like those private dicks of pulp fiction: furtive and macho. I pictured him with a potbelly and a silk tie painted with the image of a hula girl. He had a voice that sounded like a leather shoe on a gravel drive way.  He said things like “Are you at liberty to talk?”

Silk Tie

Finally, he let the cat out of the bag: the so-called “research” involved looking at somebody–a Senator’s–doctoral dissertation and finding instances of plagiarism. “I represent a prominent doctor who is to testify before Congress and he will pay 50 dollars for each instance of plagiarism.”  The detective let it slip that the doctor was a proponent of universal healthcare and needed this evidence in his back pocket so that he could feel empowered when he was to stand before a committee of some sort.  “He guarantees that you will find at least a few thousand dollars worth of plagiarism.”

There were a lot of people out to get the doctor, people who worked for the Senator.  They were hounds and he needed this evidence to keep them at bay.  He wasn’t necessarily going to use it.  He just wanted it at his disposal.  My work for him–should I choose to accept it–was a gun in his pocket on a dark dreary night in a barren landscape of shadows.

Senate

My guess is that the detective was not being entirely straightforward.  My guess is that that last part was just a flourish, like a piece of scrollwork on fake antiqued furniture–designed to convince some bleeding-heart liberal in a world class English department (some idiot like me who clearly did not much care for the cash money that was raining down on the rest of the nineties) to take the job for the good of mankind.

But the private dick didn’t really need to add icing to this cake. You see:  Graduate students may make the decision to not really care about money but that decision was made a long time ago.  And then when they find out they have no money–that they live a hand-to-mouth existence–they are like drug addicts at the prospect of an angry fix.

My mind reeled. 50 bucks a pop! I could easily find forty to fifty instances of plagiarism.  If there was plagiarism, I was sure there was multiple instances of it.  I was sure that I could get a few thousand dollars.  “I’ll guarantee that you will make at least 800 dollars,” said the man with the hardboil potbelly voice–the man who voice was like a red silk tie with a hula girl painted with a meticulous hand.  A few thousand dollars would not only pay for my car insurance for a year, but it could also finance a few dates!

“Sure.”  I was all-in. That very day, a courier showed up at my house by the museum and delivered a copy of a thick dissertation–a dissertation that was so old, it had actually been typed.  I drove my shiny new car to the sad South Campus Medical Library, with its plastic sculpture of kidneys standing sentry before the door.  I checked out a hundred books from the bibliography listed at the back of the dissertation. Then, I rolled them out on a dolly.

stacks

I figured I would start off with the first hundred books and then come back for another hundred at a time.  There was no use in overwhelming myself.  And besides, I parked illegally in a little known spot that only gave me a 30 minute window of opportunity.  I would wait until the meter maid finished her cigarette and then when she left, I knew I had exactly that amount of time to get what I needed before she returned from her ticketing circle around the perimeter of the campus.  There was no way I could afford to pay the twenty bucks for my own parking, and I never thought to ask the man with the silk-tie tongue to front me the dough to get the job done.

Well, it was slow-going–almost like doing a puzzle. I set up a collapsible table in my dining room, facing the wall, with the stacks of books around me and started looking for patterns of plagiarism: key words, diagrams.  Plagiarists are like criminals:  they return to the same M.O. over and over again.  If you know how to shimmy a window, you keep doing that.  If you are a teller at a window who pockets the money and shorts the bank with a deft flick of the wrist, you keep doing what works.

And plagiarists, it is always true, always return to the scene of the crime.  They keep using the same works to plagiarize in the same manner.  This seems simple and straightforward in hindsight, but bear in mind that there is no manual for this kind of work–no book in the library about catching people who copy books in the library.  I just had to operate with this theory and hope that this theory was true.

And this is what I did for hours at a time.  The day disappeared before me like those exotic tropical flowers that shrink to the touch.  Long shadows cast themselves in the little dining room and I would look up and realize that the street lights had come on, and I would walk over to the kitchen and pour myself a whiskey on the rocks.

Looking for something like plagiarism is a purely mechanical form of reading. Yes, you have to decide upon a conceptual framework for your “fishing expedition.”  But once you do that, you are not really reading more than you are setting out the vast nets of your eyes to dredge from the deep all manner of oddities:  the double-faced irregular footnote that lies like the flounder in the deep; the block quote that appears like a puffer fish at odd intervals to fix your eye like a sphinx.

This is a special kind of reading.  It is almost a sloppy reading.  But it is a controlled sloppy reading that all academics can do up to a certain point, but that literary critics are actually trained to do so that they can consume huge tracts of books that cover the real estate of vast stacks like the lost continents of the Paleolithic era.

One saving grace that kept my brain afloat was this:  Every scholar has a workhorse in his bibliography and among the thousand odd books are a few that do the heavy lifting. This is the low hanging fruit.

I turned my attention especially to ferreting out the favorite works that the soon-to-be Senator returned to over and over again–the touchstones of his magnum opus. And I hoped and prayed that he didn’t do what I would do: omit the one work that he plagiarized from his official bibliography.  If he did that, I wasn’t necessarily screwed–my plan took that into account–but it would mean that I would have to look at the bibliographies of other books…book which would open into other books, exponentially, a fun house of mirrors that reflected upon each other into the theoretical possibility of something you might call “infinity.”  I hoped to God that the search would be easy and not hard, that the road would be a short one and I could find myself in the hard exoskeleton new-car loveliness of my little silver insect.

My new roommate would pass through with his visiting girlfriend.  He was a fresh-faced Midwesterner.  His fresh-faced Midwestern girlfriend, who was doing the Peace Corps thing in deepest darkest Africa, was visiting. “Hey there.  It’s beautiful outside.”  And I would think to myself about how sad and mis-spent the shriveled prune of my life was.  The roommate had just started grad school and he still looked young, with the elasticity of new dewy skin.  I suddenly remembered that it was Spring outside and that I had never bothered to notice.

When you are only half-reading and you are simply a human scanner, you can think a lot about how soul-crushing your life is, how you could still go to law school, how the condition of being human is the condition of intense loneliness–the condition of being one of a thousand dust motes floating through a room of long, darkening shadows.  In my darkest moments, I thought about running off to Africa, of selling my car and helping a small village with their water problem…in the blissful company of my roommate’s Peace Corps girlfriend.

Africa

The Senator, it turns out, was not so sly or conniving as I am.  He did indeed list the work that he plagiarized.  And so my work itself took a full week. And it was probably three days before I started finding some clues. Here’s what you need to know about the mindset of this work:  You get to looking and you don’t see anything and you hope to dear God that you will eventually see something but you know that something will only happen in a Eureka moment–not in drips and drabbles but in a terrible deluge.  And then you wonder if that Eureka moment is just a rationalization to keep you working on a job that has no end, like the ceaseless meander of footsteps across the dunes of a midnight desert–the traces of a lost traveler.

I wanted to quit more than once, but once I started to see a pattern–favorite strategies, intellectual watering holes–I got to seeing what kind of cerebellum this Senator had in his noggin. You see: everybody has a favorite move–the jump shot, the right hook, the knee to the groin.  Every move says something about its perpetrator.  And there was something that was reckless about a man who would plagiarize in such a brash way.

This is a man who knew he would never get caught–a man who knew that even in the unlikely event that he did get caught, he would never ever be adequately punished.  I could see his silhouette in the doorways of my mind:  private school, doting parents, nannies, housekeeper.  I was sure he went to one of those schools like Exeter, where they train up mediocrity among the gentleman class.

Exeter

I met the good doctor–a skinny balding man–in his fancy office in the nice part of Encino where everything is made of a higher grade of stucco. He was a Persian man and reeked of as much wealth as he did, cologne. He went through my meticulously collated list of plagiarism instances–well over 50 documented cases–and told me he wouldn’t pay for the penny ante ones. Then, he said he might: “I won’t pay for it unless you put your findings down on department stationery and write up a letter.”

This was a dirty trick–forcing me to work a week, forcing me to drive an hour on the 101 freeway during rush hour traffic to spring this on me. I refused–not only because I was pissed but, also, because I foresaw all the crappy things I’d have to do: first, I’d have to steal the letterhead kept under lock and key by the departmental secretaries; second, I would have to participate in an unsavory lie in which I misrepresented my role as a department spokesperson of some sort to people whom I would never know. I wasn’t going to do something even vaguely unethical when I just spent a week uncovering something, well, something patently unethical.

Standing in that office with its smell of chemicals, I took my little stand and told the good doctor that I could not comply.  And I knew that if didn’t take this stand now, I would be destined to not take any other stands in my life.  With my luck, some private dick would hire an ass-hole like me to dig up some shittiness in a letter I wrote long ago during a time consigned to the dustbin of my history when I was desparate to be carried through the world with precision and speed like a quicksilver arrow shot into an endless horizon.

money

In the end, I got the money. I didn’t have to write the letter. I don’t know if the doctor was a doctor or if he was even going to testify before Congress. For all I know, this could have been an elaborate ruse. Hell, this could have been part of a blackmail scheme of some sort. At the time, I didn’t think about it much. I was too busy counting out the dough and zipping about the city in my fully paid for–and temporarily insured–sports car.

The doctor, the detective, the senator–they are all a distant memory:  mere shadows on the wall of a dining room blackening with the greeting of an unforgiving evening.  But now and again, I will think of that moment–one of the strangest moments of grad school–as the moment I learned a little bit about the grasping, self-centered, desperate tunnel vision of a certain kind of criminal mind:  a mind that will stop at nothing to feed its lusts and get at what wants it wants.

The Parrot Should Be the New State Bird of California

There are parrots in my neighborhood—feral creatures who were once domesticated, tamed, and now free.  If you’ve never seen feral parrots, here is what you need to know:  They are loud mother-fuckers and they fly in great packs of emerald and vermillion, like thugs from a gang with outlandish colors.  If you have ever been in the presence of parrots like these, you will know it.

Aratinga_erythrogenys-feeding_feral_parrots

There was a time when feral parrots wandered all over Los Angeles.  I still remember them as a kid on the posh Westside, making their wild unmistakable ruckus.  It is one of my earliest memories in a refugee childhood where, somehow, through the grace of God and the whim of circumstance, I ended up in a good place with great schools and clean water.  This is not always the case with refugees, something my parents never let me forget.

I still remember playing in my back yard, smelling dinner, but resisting the urge to come in–the sky still had not darkened.  When one of those birds land, all of them land—and they stake out a tree or a telephone wire and, like a meeting of Shriner’s with little red Fez plumage, hang out in the arbor of their make-shift hotel lobby, yucking it up with their chums.

Photography of 2012 July 4th Parade hosted by Shriners in Charlotte NC

Those strange birds pretty much disappeared from the Westside at a certain point—a victim of the overexpansion of the city.  The Ballona wetlands, a marshland that served as a wildlife sanctuary–now covered in concrete, probably their resting place—is now stucco condos and strip malls…despite loud protest from conservationists.   The parrots have been displaced further east and their sanctuary has become the digs of new birds of passage:  tech workers and movie industry grunts who want to build their nests within striking distance of the seagull beaches.

I’ve long since left the Westside and my gritty new neighborhood to the East–Highland Park–still has some open spaces that haven’t been bulldozed.  There is Griffith Park—the largest urban park in the nation—that still is home to rattlesnakes and coyotes and cougars. There is the Audubon Center, nestled up against the hills and bounded by the freeway.  There is Eugene V. Debs park with its man-made reservoir.  And so when I moved to this area just a few years ago, I was surprised to suddenly see, to suddenly hear, these reminders of another time, another place.

Chicken boy is the emblem of the latest hipster transplants in Highland Park!

Chicken boy is the emblem of the latest hipster transplants in Highland Park!

There are 13 species of wild parrot that were brought from South America to the United States as pets.  Some speculate, that a major fire in Bel Air—that rich part of Los Angeles filled with sheiks and movie moguls—is the genesis of these creatures who were released into the urban-scape by their owners who saw no other way to save them in the face of natural disaster.

But to the people who live in my largely Latino neighborhood, the parrots are not the mascots of the wealthy, but metaphors of the immigrant spirit—its persistence, its hardiness, its collectivity.  There is a mural on a portal to one of our iconic stairways, upon which is painted the parrots that are supposed to be stand-in’s for the Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans that have come from further South to find their home.

This mural sits on the main boulevard and decorates the entry to one of the many stairways in our area.  Can you spot the parrots on this mural?

This mural sits on the main boulevard and decorates the entry to one of the many stairways in our area. Can you spot the parrots on this mural?

I am personally tempted to see the parrot as a metaphor of immigration.  The first time I re-encountered the feral parrots–a huge convocation of them–was in the city of Orange, a picturesque little town, anchored by Chapman University in Orange County.  Orange County is the adoptive home to Vietnamese refugees and houses its largest population outside of the United States.  And it is on the bucket list of every Vietnamese immigrant to visit the Little Saigon that is only a twenty minute drive from downtown Orange.

I was also an immigrant of sorts:  I had  just returned to California after a few years in the Midwest and, to be confronted with this spectacle in such a place as Orange County, made me immediately realize that the parrots are some kind of a symbol not only of my own migrations across the continent but, also, of the migration of my people across the globe:  we are the exotic domesticated–the feral and the invasive—incapable of being caged.

But now I realize that this is just me reading into things—reading into things with the kind of chauvinism that centers myself upon the looking glass of myself.  After all, Los Angeles is not just the place where parrots thrive.  Neither is the Southland.  Rather, we find parrots all over California.  And indeed there is even a documentary about the parrots of San Francisco, which makes San Francisco parrots more famous than their thug cousins in Southern California…even though we are so much closer to the movie industry.

Cape-parrot_Poicephalus_robustus-flock_Photo-Colleen_Downs (1)

And so the parrot is really a metaphor of our great state—of migrants in general, whether they are Midwestern bohunks who come to become actors in the machine of the movie studios, or sheiks from Saudi Arabia who buy up mansions that they will demolish and rebuild in Bel Air, or Guatemalans who cross to the other side to find new homes, or Vietnamese who wheel through the world in search of a place to land.  The parrot is our great State Bird.

Vietnamese Food/Vietnamese Art

A few days ago, I found myself in the desert of the city suddenly filled with an incredible thirst that can only come of walking:  I was parched.  I wandered into one of those mega-Ralph’s—bigger and better than your average supermarket—and looked at the long bank of overpriced drinks.  And there it was, next to the Almond Milk and the Kombucha:  “Soda Chanh”—a Vietnamese drink made of all-natural lime flavors.

It says "authentic," so it must be true!

Great packaging, no?

For me, a big sign that you’ve made it in mainstream American culture is when your food becomes turned into a convenience product for the busy-bee worker.  The Italians did it way back in the 80’s when their humble mom-and-pop eateries ushered in an era of carbs.  Now, we have frozen pizza, bottled spaghetti sauce, garlic bread—you name it.  Now, Italians are as American as apple pie.

Growing up as a Vietnamese immigrant among mostly white kids (or Jewish kids who didn’t make a big deal of the religion thing), I was pretty self-conscious of the kind of weirdo items that I brought to school:  their smells, their colors.  And I always made sure to fit in with a nice, absolutely tasteless bologna sandwich on white bread.

bologna

So, when all the Asian foods started showing up in the frozen food section, I began wondering:  Will there ever come a moment when Vietnamese food takes center stage?

Well, that day is coming.  We have that Sriracha sauce that has taken the world by storm (so much so that I see people wearing tee shirts with the rooster logo emblazoned on it).  And we have begun to see the slow creep of the banh mi sandwich (there is an entire cookbook dedicated to it, and an incredibly successful fast food chain “Lee’s Sandwiches” expanding from its base on the West Coast).

We even have Sriracha packets now!

We even have Sriracha packets now!

Even the pretty sucky attempts at using Vietnamese flavors by Western chefs is a positive sign–a sign of integration.  So what if Rachel Ray’s “Phunky Pho” is an atrocity that uses canned soup as its base.  At least we’re on television and someone in Peoria knows that we exist.

For me, though, the acceptance of foods also signals an acceptance of the Vietnamese presence in other sectors, namely art.  Will our film and literature take us out of the ghetto of doctoring and computer science?  Will we produce truly great art or compromise our art to pander to a Western palette?

dragonfish

We’ve had some astounding successes, too, in the past few years in terms of art–successes that have mounted and snowballed.  Just this year, the prize-winning writer Vu Tran debuted with a literary detective novel–Dragonfish.  And my good friend Viet Nguyen came out with a book–The Sympathizer–that has garnered critical acclaim.  In fact, he’s won several awards, including the Center For Fiction’s First Novel Award, and he’s an honest-to-goodness nominee for the esteemed EDGAR AWARD.

winnernguyen3

I feel humbled to be in their orbit in my small space dust way.  Both are luminaries shining bright and professors of English at top-rate institutions like USC and University of Chicago.  Of The Sympathizer, T.C. Boyle writes:  “The Sympathizer is destined to become a classic and redefine the way we think about the Vietnam War and what it means to win and to lose.”  And apparently, both of these novels–and novelists–are teaching the general public more about winning then losing.

I highly recommend these two novels.  The writing is amazing–crisp, clean, delicious. But thinking through this problem of creativity under the rubric of food also brings up some really important questions.  Have we watered down our distinctive flavor to pander to the masses?  Are we substituting flavor profiles for actual flavors?

This is not a question that can be resolved in the moment.  The moment is like that sandwich you bite into and enjoy for all its sensations.  The moment is not really that intellectual.  That only comes later when you can intellectualize the delight of the taste buds and talk about the talk of the mind.

Rachael Ray's Phunky Pho is an atrocity on too many levels.

Rachael Ray’s Phunky Pho is an atrocity on too many levels.

I have no readymade answers.  And I probably won’t have much to say on the topic until a few decades have passed.  All I can say is that I’m glad that there is more stuff out there to enjoy–more stuff that the American public can delight from.

As for that soda.  I bought it.  It wasn’t that great.  It was a watered down version of a drink I’ve known forever.  But it was all natural.  It came in a pretty package.  And it came with a big guarantee up-front that it was “authentic.”

David Bowie: Memories of a China Girl

David Bowie landed on the floating space debris of my consciousness with his big album “Let’s Dance”—the album that made him the kind of rock star that was no longer an asteroid but almost just a planet.  Yes, I know the voice behind Ziggy Stardust was already big.  Yes, I already had a passing acquaintance with his big hits through my college age brothers, but for me those albums were the music of the guys that used to terrorize me with threats and bullying and mean-ness.  This album felt like it was a message in a bottle intended just for me.

Bowie

We never had cable growing up (another way my parents abused us) but I encountered his music as a stranger in motel rooms when the younger half of us eight kids piled into the family Nissan and took one of my sisters on a road trip to medical school.  Whenever we arrived to that place in the in-between, there he was—an omnipresence—with his electric voice and his neat-pressed neon suits.  The music was so overproduced and shiney, it was like rich silk fabric spun with precious metals and we would sit on the edge of our beds and watch him sing for eternities.

The song my sisters liked was “China Girl.”  They were four beautiful girls—eminently dateable—and I was their youngest brother, their pet.  They weren’t allowed to go off with strange boys.  My parents were very strict.  But they dated anyway, secretly, and I was their alibi.

“I’m taking him to the library.”

“I’m taking him for New Years for a fancy dinner.”

“I’m taking him to see the fire works.”

The music in the car always seemed to be “China Girl” and then they would promptly ditch me with a few dollars in my pocket with instructions to stay put and never breathe a word of this to anyone.

China Girl

It wasn’t until many years later that I found out that “China Girl” was a remake of a song originally performed by Iggy Pop.  And it wasn’t until some time this year that I found out that “China Girl” is not about a Chinese girl at all but, rather, a French-Vietnamese girl that Iggy Pop met at a chateau.  Her name was KueLan—most probably a Vietnamese refugee like my sisters who found herself only a few short years after being a stateless person, suddenly in different orbits–in the sights of a rock star floating through the planetary ether.

Iggy Pop carried on an illicit affair with KueLan (behind her French boyfriend’s back) and their liaison produced these lyrics that some in this PC world now find unsavory—racist, even.  “I’ll give you television, I’ll give you eyes of blue, I’ll give you a man who wants to rule the world.”  And a case can be made—a case has been made by people far smarter, more skilled than me—to this effect.

medschool (1)

 

But I do know that this was a song that my sisters loved and I loved because my sisters loved.  And I do know that the guys they dated in our mostly white upper middle class community probably had “visions of swastikas in their head” and saw them, not so much as Vietnamese, but as Little China Girls.  And I do know that they were probably okay with that up to a certain point, because these man-boys offered something—something that expanded their worlds:  music, experience, knowledge.

Swastikas appear across cultures. In East Asia, they are a symbol of goodness but in the West they have become a symbol of racial purity. My guess is that both aspects are referenced in the lyric "visions of swastikas in my head."

Swastikas appear across cultures. In East Asia, they are a symbol of goodness but in the West they have become a symbol of racial purity. My guess is that both aspects are referenced in the lyric “visions of swastikas in my head.”

On the trip to drop my sister off at medical school, we were kicked out of the hotel by the manager.  I’m not sure if he was a racist but my father was convinced of that.  In my memory, he was a Vietnamese War Vet who was suffering from PTSD, but childhood memory is tricky and I can’t trust its reliability.  I just remember the feelings of anger, of fury, of turbulence as we stood in the parking lot with our hastily packed bags.  The crazy manager-guy screamed at us to leave the premises and he didn’t mistake us for Chinese.  He got the nomenclature right.  He called us “gooks.”

As we drove off, my Dad turned on the radio full blast.  On came that song with its ching-chong opening.  And I remember thinking that David Bowie’s electric body was left behind in that hotel room and I would never see it in my house but his voice would always be with me—haunting and resonant.

 

 

Writing Exercise: What Would You Do If You Won the Lottery?

I’ve got powerball fever. The jackpot is well over 800 million dollars—that’s clams, smackers, duckets. Me: I never play the numbers. Every once in a while for a birthday, I’ll buy some scratchers on a lark. But everybody’s got their eyes on the prize right now, especially in this time of extended recession. So this morning, I made breakfast—a calzone–and walked down to the liquor store, while that sucker was cooling.

calzone
At the liquor store, there were two women paying for a pack of cigarettes in loose change. “It’s up to 800 million dollars now, right?”
“I don’t know. It changes by the hour,” said the husky Armenian gentleman behind the counter. “You can check it up on your iphone.”
“I don’t have an iphone. That’s what I’d get first. An iphone.”

powerball
I bought three chances–three sets of random numbers–at two bucks a piece. Then, I went home and discussed a future with 800 millions dollars in hand with my wife as we munched on calzones with fork and knife.
“The first thing I’d do is leave this neighborhood. As soon as everybody here found out that we have money, we’d be sitting ducks.” That’s true. Our house is quaint and charming—a craftsman—but a security risk. “Then, I’d move to a better neighborhood.”
“I’d move to the ocean—maybe Santa Monica.” I was born by the ocean and grew up by the ocean.  For a brief part of a long distant childhood, I was a surfer. It’s only as an adult that I told myself that I hated the Westside of Los Angeles—the ocean side.  It was filled with shallow superficial people who snorted coke on their dining room tables and abused their maids.  But now, confronted with all this imaginary wealth, I knew that I would move back to the rich douchey side of town in a heartbeat. I am such a sell-out.
My wife had grander plans: “I’d buy a house in San Francisco, New York, Hawaii, Paris.”

Hawaii House
“What about Chicago?”
“Fuck Chicago.”
“Yeah, fuck Chicago.”
“Then, I’d buy a house for my parents.”
That’s when I started to worry. If she started throwing money around like that, we would soon be bankrupt. People would ask for more and she would not be able to stop herself. And what about all these houses. We would have to hire somebody to take care of them when we were not there and the cost would be prohibitive. What if those people stole from us? Or threw wild parties?
“I’d hire a management agency,” she said calmly, resolutely.
“You know that money doesn’t come to you in one lump sum. It comes in installments.

You can’t just throw away the money like that.”
“Well, what would you do.”
“I would buy a new car. But not a douchey one like those 700 series BMW’s every creep drives in LA. I would buy a low-key car but have it fully loaded—maybe a Tesla or a Volvo but a special edition.”

Tesla
We finished our meal by filling out the back of our lottery ticket with both our names. Then, we took pictures of it alongside our i.d.’s, just in case somebody broke into our house and stole it. That way: we would have proof that the ticket was ours when they tried to cash it in.
So here is the exercise—an exercise in character development: Identify a character you are having a hard time getting a sense of. Have her win the goddam-mother-loving-finger-licking lottery. And try to have her imagine what she would do.
The sky’s the limit with this exercise and the crazier the better. People become other people when they win their money. But in becoming other people, they are also expressing the true essence of who they are. Did you know one of the most recent lottery jackpot winners did with her 188 million dollars? She forked over 12 million to bail out her boyfriend who was in jail on drug and weapons charges. Sheesh.

My First New Year’s Resolution

This New Year’s Eve, I didn’t do much celebrating…and actually, I loved it…and actually, it was the most fulfilling New Year’s Eve…ever.  What did I do?  Well, I spent the New Years trying to help a local family in my neighborhood whose house was razed by a fire.  Everything was lost for this family of six—their house, their possessions, their Christmas gifts.

Highland Park Fire Frontal

To make matters worse, the family lives near the ground zero of the Rose Bowl, so every hotel in the area was booked.  Those that weren’t—the prices were jacked up to the hilt for maximal profit.  And so on New Year’s Eve, the family could not find any lodging anywhere within a 20 mile radius of their home that fit into their budget:  they were staring down the barrel of a night in their car.

Rose Bowl

“You always get too involved,” a good friend said.  “You need to set firm boundaries.”  But I was raised religious, and even though I am no longer much of a church-goer, a bit of instinct kicked in.  I found myself doing what people of my childhood do:  collecting warm clothes and donations.  The most New Years Eve thing I did was ruthlessly purge my closet and my storage unit:  it was actually exhilarating to get rid of stuff that you were only holding onto but didn’t actually need and giving it to somebody else.

I even did something that I’ve never done before:  I tried my hand at starting a GoFundMe page.  This itself is a major undertaking for a middle-aged man who grew up playing outside, not inside with computers.  But I did it anyway.  And this meant that up until midnight, I was trying to set up a page on the website—a task that a millennial could do in minutes but which took this old fool up until countdown time.

My entire day was sucked up by the running-around and the digital boondoggle and now at the moment of countdown, I was not at a party with my circle; I had canceled dinner reservations; now, my wife and I were sitting in bed, watching Netflix in our pajamas.  And of course, our house was a mess.

netflix

The family itself was six people—three generations.  They were happy that at least their three dogs hadn’t perished in the fire.  But the grandmother has health issues and the youngest is physically disabled—wheel-chair bound—and in need of constant care.  They lost all their medication in the fire and their insurance was questioning the need for replacement.

So, I was a selfish person—selfish in my act of giving.  And as my computer counted down to the New Years, I felt better than I have felt in a long time.  You see:  I would do it all over again.  I would do it in a heartbeat.  And for the first time, I actually made a resolution:  to continue trying to think about others, not my own needs.

Happy New Year!  I hope that you enjoy all the successes that the cornucopia of 2016 spills forth!  I hope you act selfishly—always—if selfishness does an ounce of good for somebody else.  If you want to contribute to the GoFundMe page, please follow this link.

Happy New Year

The Shocking Origins of the Christmas Tree

Christmas Eve is almost upon us…and traditionally, this is when folks get their Christmas tree.  If you do it right, you’ll get it the night before, decorate it, and break it down before New Year’s.  But this is no longer how we do it; we make the moment stretch—stretch to accommodate the long season of buying, of capitalism, of movies—rolling out like red carpets; we buy the Christmas tree at the beginning of December and festoon it with imitation German ornaments hand-crafted in China.  And then we worry as our little slice of Yule becomes old and brittle and ready to set the house on fire.

christmas tree

My neighbors do it right, though.  They’re the Volvo couple–classy in every way.  He’s a photographer who just had a show in Paris.  She’s a food stylist who always has parties where people take instagrams of the charcuterie.  They make all their food in Le Creuset Dutch Ovens.  Sometimes I see them in their picture window—her quilting, him lighting dinner candles—and I think dark thoughts about the inadequacies of my frozen lasagna.

This is how classy they are:  they only just bought their tree yesterday, they have yet to decorate it, they will promptly drop it in the bin the day after.  They are purists in every way and follow American traditions to the L*E*T*T*E*R.  It is incredibly stressful to live next to them.

They have two of these in matching colors!

They have two of these in matching colors!

But I console myself with smug thoughts:  one of the paradoxes about Christmas is that it is and isn’t about purity.  It’s a pagan holiday; its traditions, grafted onto an invasive species—the colonizing force propelling a religion that, like a barnacle underneath the great ship of conquest, hitched a ride from distant waters and plopped down in a new place, promptly eliminating all the flora and fauna that it touched.

The Christmas tree is a great example of that.  Not a lot of people know that the most typical—the most popular—Christmas tree comes from a little subtropical island that belongs to South Korea.  Cheju Island is a far flung outpost of Korea—an outlier of the peninsula, mainly because it sits in the Pacific Ocean closer to the equator.  Cheju enjoys a climate that makes it something like Hawaii.  And people go there for honeymoons or senior class school trips or the pleasures of legalized gambling.

Cheju Do

During the Korea war, American GI’s would go to Cheju Island for R&R—to get over the shell shock.  And the popular story goes that it is on that volcanic island that the commercial potential of the Korean Fir was realized by an enterprising young American.  I hardly have to describe it to you because if you are an American, you already know: the tree is a perfectly shaped cone and bushy and resistant to disease and fast-growing: in short, it is a sure profit with little loss during production.  It has the additional merit of being pure eye candy.

Korean-Fir-w-Matt-11-2014

The American GI story is how I heard it first from my wife who is of Korean origin and first gave me the account of the Gusang Namu, as it is called.  And this is how the story goes when it travels among her people—the popular story told by Koreans who relish giving this little fact of their hand in the great Western institution that they have taken to heart.  But it’s most likely a bastardized story with some truth-elements:  there’s just too much Romanticism in it all.

For me, the more important story is not a romantic one but a courtroom drama.  You see, Abies Koreana may have traveled to the US for commercial purposes after the Korean War, but it was first brought to the US of A by scientists in 1904 who housed the specimen in the Smithsonian.  Why is this significant?

Well, the fact that the Korean Fir Tree was collected by the Smithsonian means that it is “owned” by them, not by the country of origin.  And so this tree, like so many other natural resources, can be licensed…just as Monsanto licenses its seeds.  If you want to know more about the technical dimension of this legal issue, follow this link.

2000px-Smithsonian_logo_color.svg

1904 is a particularly significant period in Korean history—a time of great vulnerability.  You see, Korea was previously a Hermit Kingdom—a country cut off from Western contact until the last great imperial dynasty fell in 1895.  From 1895-1910, Korea experienced a time of flux—a “period between empires,” as historians term it–a time of great vulnerability that ended when Japan took over and turn it into a colony.

So, the entry of the United States in 1904 to take “specimens” falls at an opportune moment—a moment when nobody was on guard, when the virgin nation wandered its garden in the dark of the night without protection.  Korea is quite aware of this.  It pressed for “recovery of rights” at the International Convention of Biological Diversity in 2010.  I’m not sure if this action was successful but, if so, it would entitle the country to get a slice of the royalties not only for a tree that has become the symbol of an American celebration but also 20,000 specimens, 280 of which are being used commercially.

Korean Bride

So this is one angle in the story of the Christmas tree—one playing out in diplomatic circles–that is behind the tree that we all festoon with tinsel and twinkling lights.  I have half a mind to walk over to my classy Volvo neighbors and tell them this story of cultural imperialism and rape and legal shenanigans.  “Your Christmas tree is sheer hokum,” I’d tell them.  But I know that they’d just invite me into a candle light dinner of Le Creuset pot roast.  The man of the house would offer me a steaming glass of Christmas cheer.  And I’d feel just plain awful because I would prove to myself, once again, exactly how small and begrudging I always knew I was.

Merry Christmas!!!!

Happy Christmas and A Merry New Year: A Writing Exercise Done Backward

My wife is a foreigner—an immigrant from Korea who came to the United States for her master’s degree, married a local, and decided to stay.  And so, like Gulliver, who travels to distant lands where people are freaky–too short or too tall–she often finds the habits of our Great Country a little bit eccentric.

South Korea

This makes me, by default, her cultural interpreter—her tour guide:  the one chosen to explain the strange ways of the North American hominoid.  Far from being a hassle, it actually is an education.  You see, cultural insiders often take a million things for granted—things like a liberal exchange policy at any store you shop at (never in Korea where you will be screamed at), or unlimited napkins at the fast food joint (you only get one), or walking in the house with your shoes on (the most sinful defilement).

Topping the list is the fact that she doesn’t get my taste for campy Christmas movies:  those movies like A Christmas Story or Trading Places that I watch every year.  “Those people are so ugly,” she tells me.  “I don’t like to look at them.”

a-christmas-story-1

“Baby, that’s exactly what is so appealing about the anti-Christmas story—the thing that cuts against expectation.”  But how do you explain that to a cultural outsider?  Well, you actually have to dig deep into yourself and ask some hard questions and first explain it to yourself.

You see, Christmas—the commercial Christmas–was an invention of the Victorian period.  It is that period of mass-production, of industrialism when all sorts of nice stuff from cheap gifts to cheap furniture, became the norm.  It is the period of capitalism reaching full stride.

But it was also a period of severe fragmentation—of disruption, of unrest—the time when folks were swept from the countryside into the cities; a time when things fall apart and the center does not hold; so the memory of an idealized ritual—a readymade thing called CHRISTMAS–was necessary to make a nation always on the verge of crisis, come together like a quivering pudding fresh out of the oven.

Before the modern CHRISTMAS, people wrote actual letters.  After CHRISTMAS, they bought mass-produced prints by Currier and Ives–beautiful prints of the Christmas life that they could never really have.  And these became the template for poor people to entertain upper-middle class fantasies of domestic perfectness that everybody could attain for a dime.  Remember that line from that old Christmas sleighbell song:

“It’ll be nearly like a picture print by Currier and Ives

These wonderful things are the things we’ll remember all through our lives.”

Notice the word “nearly”?  The approximation of an approximation of an approximation? This kind of imagery formed the template for the avalanche of crap that would follow…the Norman-Rockwell-Miracle-on-49th-Street atrocities.

Reproduction of a Currier and Ives Stamp

Reproduction of a Currier and Ives Stamp

The anti-Christmas movies are about our failings to match up to that vision—our entrapment within a world dedicated to making us good workers.  Yes, there is A Christmas Story and Trading Places but they are only off-shoots of a mightier branch:  You have darker masterpieces like David Sedaris’s amazing Holidays on Ice (where he plays an elf at a mall) or Augusten Burroughs’s even darker You Better Not Cry (where the autobiographical author has a one night stand with Santa).

Trading Places

Trading Places

So here is the task:  take a holiday—any holiday—and turn its expectations on its head.  Import a gothic element—a note of ugliness that befuddles the arrangement of tinsel.  Get nasty and imagine how you could really shock and perplex and befuddle your relatives on this sacred cow holiday.  I swear:  the writing will take care of itself, because if there’s one thing we love that makes us all True Blue Americans:  we love to hate holidays.

Writing Exercise: Fucking with Sentimentality

Be forewarned:  this is a tough exercise–one of my toughest–mainly because it is based on mastering some high-level conceptual material.  But if you often fantasize about getting into an MFA program, you will quickly learn that those famous writers in their turtlenecks will force you to master this concept and get rid of this sin:  the sin of SENTIMENTALITY.

Sentimentality is the gratuitous exploitation of emotions—the kind of stuff that pulls at your heartstrings, the kind of stuff that prompts you to cry or beat your chest:  the image of a mother holding a child in a run-down shack–that is textbook Sentimentality.

quote-sentimentality-is-a-superstructure-covering-brutality-carl-jung-36-72-87

The great Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung despised Sentimentality.  And his indictment of it rested on the idea that it was hypocritical:  masking a disturbing violence that sits like a bloody imp feeding upon the soul of humanity.

Confused?  It’s best to illustrate Sentimentality with an example:

Recently, I’ve been getting these memes—short narratives distributed through Facebook—that are incredibly Sentimental.  One recounted the story of a teacher who mistreated a student because he was a misfit–poor, dirty, withdrawn.  The misfit gives her a gift—some perfume and a bracelet with missing rhinestones—and the teacher laughs.  It is only later that the teacher realizes the kid is  giving her his very best present. The punchline is this:  both perfume and jewelry belonged to his recently deceased mother and we suddenly realize that the teacher is a total bitch who should be slapped in the face and frog-walked before the tribunal of the world so that she can be mocked and hooted at.

Teddy Stallard

Of course, nobody in this story is real—not the student, nor the teacher.  What is real is the story’s enduring popularity.  The story was first published in 1974 in a religious magazine and has been edited, redacted, reworked, adapted, rearranged–all so many times that we know it has hit a nerve. What is real is the incredible violence that sits baring its teeth at the center of the story.  In fact, Carl Jung might say that it testifies to a certain kind of blood lust in all of us.

Why?  Ultimately, the story is about making an example out of people.  And the hypocrisy is that one powerless member of society (the kid) is exchanged for another (the teacher) who becomes a whipping post for moral outrage– the dog we kick for shits and giggles.

Sentimentality appears everywhere in our lives because it is mass-manufactured.  It is “kitsch”–cheaply produced and ready for mass-consumption.  If you’ve ever purchased a picture of a soldier kissing a girl as he returns from war, you have invested in a piece of Sentimentality based on a brew of patriotism, heroism, romanticism.  Such images are simply excuses to hide our true intentions—the glee that we feel in the violence enacted upon people in foreign lands and the violence we will enact on these “heroic” young men who are simply pawns of international diplomacy.

Aren't We Glad We Dropped the Bomb on All Those Fuckers?

Aren’t We Glad We Dropped the Bomb on All Those Fuckers?

In Misery, we see how that master of horror turns sentimentality into a commentary of the crippled writer.  If you recall, a famous writer, not unlike Stephen King, is captured by his adoring fan, Annie Wilkes,  who holds him prisoner.  This fan has a fantastic collection of little ceramic figurines–sentimental displays–arranged in perfect order.  And when the author-figure tries to escape her clutches, he accidentally disarranges her little assemblage and she goes buck wild.  She literally cripples him.

misery

For the MFA workshop, Sentimentality is bad.  But this is not to say that Sentimentality is bad in general—or even something absolutely to be avoided.  If you are a copywriter in an advertising agency or a preacher at a pulpit or a politician on the campaign trail, Sentimentality is incredibly useful. In fact, if you are writing genre fiction—detective, romance, true crime—Sentimentality is a useful tool if you know how to manipulate it.  Sentimentality is the bazooka that we carry in the knapsack of our hearts to pillage and maim and destroy while still looking human.

kitsch

Poster advertising an International Philosophy Conference on Kitsch & Sentimentality. Yes, this is a field of study!

So here is the task:

  1.  First, meditate on your favorite image of Sentimentality.  If you don’t think you have one, you are wrong:  they are the images that cause tears to come to your eyes.
  2. Then, Google that image.  Why?  Because it’s easier to study–to dissect–a concrete image that stands immediately before you.  Try to figure out how the sentimentality plays you like a piano–how it turns on the waterworks and manipulates you.
  3. Finally, use that image as a launching point for a vignette that utilizes sentimentality to manipulate emotions.

This is a tough exercise.  It may take some work.  But I guarantee you that it is worthwhile: you will learn something about Sentimentality from the inside out. You will know what the bazooka is like when you hold it in your hands.   And if you leave with nothing else from this exercise, you will at the very least learn about the kind of fiction that those turtleneck artsy-fartsy types don’t like in MFA programs.

 

 

 

National Novel Writing Month: Thanksgiving Writing Exercise

We’ve all had to suffer through this ritual:  sit around a holiday table and testify about the things we are thankful for, things we cherish in our lives.  Then, like Pavlov’s dogs, we are rewarded for our participation with the opportunity to grub down on a steroid-bird and a quivering lump of dye-infused cranberry jello.

Thanksgiving Contest - What Are You Thankful For?

 

I am grateful I have a job.

 I am grateful that my family is healthy and alive. 

I am grateful that Johnny came back from the war with all his precious limbs intact.

This is a touching exercise but it always seems so empty to me—a tin can you listlessly kick down the echoing tunnel of your mounting depression…because, you see, here is the paradox of Thanksgiving:  Turkey Day is the gateway to the entire season of dislike and ungratefulness, of dread and claustrophobia, of anxiety and powerlessness.  But we are all required to smile and play joyful in our scratchy snowflake sweaters as if we were lobotomized inmates in a very strict looney bin.

seasonal-depression-word-cloud

Thanksgiving is one of those times when Americans are MOST likely to self-medicate on booze.  Thanksgiving is THE moment when Americans feel like they’re losing ground to their neighbors and their over-ambitious nativity scene.  It is the red letter day when we are MOST likely to climb into the satin coffin of credit card debt.

Black-Friday

Thanksgiving is also that box on the calendar when you gird up our loins to confront those people whom you reluctantly call “relatives.”

It is the time of year when you might see that uncle who molested you and flash back to the smell of Jim Beam on his breath during those late night visits to “tuck you in.”

Or that long-distant cousin–the religious fanatic–who used to kick your ass every day after school and then warn you to keep your filthy rat-trap mouth shut or else, God help you, you will really get it. 

Or the spinster aunt who snuck away with your boyfriend behind the wood shed and returned to the dinner table with leaves in her hair and hay on her back. 

Thanksgiving is the time when we spend weeks researching the jiu jitsu moves to bust out during the dread moment when polite family discussions suddenly veer into the octagon of politics—that time Uncle Rudy spouts off about the place of women or minorities or homosexuals.

Meme

Yes, the true reality of Thanksgiving is not the glaze that lies on the surface of the ham but the meat that once belonged to a pig raised in the squalor of confinement—a poor animal living with the fact of death, the stench of suffering, the odor of sitting in your own poop waiting to be taken to the slaughterhouse.  So with this in mind, here is the exercise:

Instead of thinking about what your character is grateful for—her accomplishments, her aspirations, her desires–think about what she loathes, what she absolutely detests.  What sends her off the cliff?  What makes her nervous system fill with the adrenaline of dread?  What makes her hand itchy enough to grab grandma’s wedding cutlery and stick it in the ever-loving eye of Uncle Rupert–that first class child molester and blowhard–whose fact of existence is a blight on humanity?

stabbing

Start off with a list of grievances that are as sweet as frosting and as refreshing as peppermint candy canes.  Build it out into a ginger bread house of anxieties, of resentments, of traumas, of secret-hurts.  Then finish it off with the ideal revenge fantasy—the witch pushed into the oven screaming in agonizing pain as her skin burns to a charred crisp and her eyeballs pop out of the sockets of her head.

gingerbreadhouse

Let’s make this point absolutely clear:  This is not a sadomasochistic exercise.  This is not my condoning violence.  And no, you should not maim nor kill nor bludgeon those strangers you call “relatives.”

Rather, this is fundamentally an exercise in negative space—an exercise that defines a picture by what it is not.  In doing so, we are able to understand what is really inside the inside of the picture of your story:  the characters, the situation, the plot.  And as such, it allows us to see things in an entirely different light that challenges the ways we are compelled to see.

Why?  Because we WANT to see things as we WISH to see things.  And we WISH to see things as other people tell us we MUST see things.  We are all Pavlov’s dogs licking at the plate after the dinner bell has rung.

As a result, we often default into a list of empty desires, of echoing tin-can-cookie-cutter platitudes that we kick around.  But answer me honestly:  Who hasn’t wanted to confront an abuser, to flip over the dinner table, to storm out of the room and come back with a semiautomatic blazing cold hot lead into the hearts and souls of the so-called “friends and family” who have wronged them?

Not me.  I’m a veritable angel.  And I am grateful that I am alive and not in jail.  But YOU…I know I’m not as sick and twisted as YOU.  YOU are capable of anything.