Writing the “Tell”

Here’s a writing exercise that focuses on that key element of writing:  the “tell.”  The tell is that moment when people tip their hand and you can see their plot, their strategy, their ax to grind. Tells exist in poker (that clearing of the throat).  They exist on the witness stand (the tapping of the foot).  We have observed them among our friends (that look of annoyance that comes in a blink of an eye).


Great tells exist in gesture—gestures like a man sitting down as a woman stands before him—a clear sign that in a Henry James novel, which takes place in Victorian England, the man is carrying on an affair, that the two have come to a point where they have dispensed with the formalities, that he feels he no longer needs to stand up when a lady is in his presence.  This exchange is witnessed by Isabel Archer in Henry James’s great novel Portrait of a Lady and it is in this moment that she realizes that she has been tricked by her husband Gilbert Osmond and his older lover Madame Merle.   They were only after one thing:  her great and sparkling inheritance—a diamond solitaire against a black velvet gown.

Great tells can also exist in obsessions—opaque signs of darker stiller waters.  Great tells are moments of intuition—the tarot pack on the table of life.  We can look to fiction for fine examples, but when we look to our own lives, we learn so much not only about our craft but ourselves.  I’m going to unpack a tell from the anecdote of my own life and maybe it can give you something to work with when you work on your own work.


One of my friends is getting rid of her family encyclopedias—or at least trying to get rid of them—if her mom will let them go.  She’s about to go to Europe for 2 years, to flit about France and Germany, so that her egghead husband can do complex mathematical research.  And so she has been putting her life in order—selling stuff and visiting friends.  She’ll be gone a long time on a great adventure.  And now she is in La Jolla at cottage by the sea, looking at the accumulation of life and wanting to put some order to that world, too.  There are so many objects that amass like barnacles on the slow-moving ship in a home that has been kept in the family for generations.


So she put out a desperate call to her wide network of friends—friends who might france_germany_locatorcherish these artifacts, which now are so quaint in this age of Google.  For her, they represent a simpler time of America’s midcentury—the easy luxuries of mass-produced knowledge and TV dinners.  A time when America’s rising dominance after the successful prosecution of a World War, meant that every house could afford these books bound in the gold and red that is supposed to simulate the fine Moroccan leather of a country gentleman.

My parents had a set of Encyclopedia Brittanicas.  They were a gift from our church sponsors after we arrived to the United States as refugees from the Vietnam War.  And they were for years prominently displayed above the den television next to a bust of the Statue of Liberty bedecked with a strand of fake pearls.


One of my most poignant memories comes from the Brittanicas when my father attempted to explain the difference between a Coup de Grace and a Coup d’etat.  He reached for those trusty Encyclopedias and showed me the entry, featuring a black and white photo of a man who had gotten a bullet through the head as the final act of kindness in a massive take-over.

“A Coup de Grace can be a part of a Coup d’etat.  But a Coup d’etat does not always involve a Coup de Grace.”  He pronounced the word “Grace” the French way, not the way that my school teacher did, butchering it into the French word for “Fat.”  I think that at some point, he drew me a Venn diagram to drive home the point, showing the way in which two very distinct things can overlap at certain points but remain completely different.

President Ngo Dinh Diem, shaking hands with Eisenhower

President Ngo Dinh Diem, shaking hands with Eisenhower.  He would later be deposed in a coup d’etat.

It would take me many years to realize why this distinction would be so important to my father, why he would reach for those high-up-on-the-shelf Encyclopedias.  I never asked him.  We don’t really talk of such things.  It seems too morbid, too somber.  But I can guess.  And my guess is that it was because so many Coup D’etats had been the natural consequence of my father’s adult life—a life in a war zone that had come as a result of French Colonialism.  My father, a military man of more than modest rank, probably knew people who knew people for whom the Coup de Grace would have been the denouement of a Coup D’etat.  And a Coup D’etat probably meant the possibility of advancement—maybe demotion—or death.

The Coup de Grace upon the battlefield would have been a generosity—a bullet to the head that would relieve a friend or foe of his suffering.  My father did his military studies in the United States and trained in the graduate institution that produced all the great generals—Eisenhower, Petraeus, Powell.  And the first thing you see when you walked through my childhood home was his diploma—a diploma that signified that he had completed a course of study for which a Coup de Grace was an honorable thing and a Coup d’etat was a conceivable operation, the mechanics of which you studied in order to possibly one day enact it.  And so my father’s teaching me this basic lesson in the horrors of war—a lesson that he delivered with much patience and kindness—was also a tell of sorts:  a sign that the ghost of a life that he had left behind was still with him, even if he was a new man in a new world.  Even if in civilian life, he was just an accountant.

Is this a Coup de Grace?  Or is it an execution?

Is this a Coup de Grace? Or is it an execution?

So here is your task:  Design a tell.  Do it in the form of a dialogue—a tic, an obsession.  It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as a dialogue about shooting somebody in the head.  It can be as simple as an obsessive discussion of beekeeping or horseracing or veganism.  Look toward those moments in your own life where you figured somebody out in the small gesture that lays bare their strengths and their frailties.  But in the process of returning and returning to the topic, make that tell tell something telling about its teller.

To the Farmer’s Market

Every Saturday, I take a long drive—a drive that is supposed to end at the largest farmer’s market in the area—but which first takes me through all the areas where there lie, like mermaids in the ocean blue, my one true weakness:  garage sales.  I pretend that I’m not really looking for them.  I am really after something else.

At the farmer’s market, there are pasture raised chicken eggs in blues and oranges and browns.  There are psychedelic cauliflowers like coloring book fractals, done up in prismacolor.  There are miles of ruby strawberries, nestled in their plastic baskets.  And a fresh seafood truck that sells real smoked King Salmon by the pound, among a riot of mussels and clams—the fillets of halibut and snapper—resting on the shimmer and drip of melting ice.


As soon as I write this blog, I’m out the door.  “We need more eggs,” my wife will yell after me.  Those eggs are famous.  People come for miles around just to get those eggs.

But my drive is really for the garage sales—those red hot messes that spread out like beached seaweed on the lawns, those regurgitations of the Jonah’s whale that is capitalism.  You see, I’m a fundamentally nosy person and I like to peak into the lives of strangers who are now exposing a bit of their deepest darkest desires—their regrettable consumerism—to anybody with a dollar.


At one sale in South Pasadena, I came across some hippie artists.  They were middle aged with crow’s feet and the freckled leather skin of women who are not afraid of the sun.  They dressed like extras in a stage production of Huckleberry Finn, with overalls.  And they lived in one of those run down stucco rentals.  It smelled of incense.  All about their lawn was strewn the gatherings of their spiritual journey—books on Zen poetry and vintage tchochkes that must have been rescued at some point from a Goodwill.

It was a two-woman sale—one Asian, one white—and they had that mystical way of talking that only dyed-in-the cloth hippies have:  words like manifesting tippling off their tongues like smooth stones scudding across the glass surface of mighty rivers .  When I arrived, they were both discussing the prevalence of the third gender throughout all cultures–a sign that bisexuality was the natural order of things.  “There is the berdache,” said the Asian woman who wore an intricately woven straw hat on her head.

“That’s the crossdressing shamans, right?  They dressed like women and did women’s work and were honored for their status between worlds.  I think they were psychic.”

“Right, it was the arrival of Western culture that taught Native Americans to hate being gay.”

“I think it’s Indian.  I think they prefer Indians.”

“I can’t get away with that,” said the white woman.


The Asian woman changed the subject.  I could tell she knew this to be true.  And she wanted to make her friend feel better  “Then, you know, isn’t there the third gender—you ran across them during your travels in India?”

The woman perked up.  “Yes, they’re recognized by the Indian government now.  They’ve got representation in Congress or Parliament or whatever you call it.”

The Asian artist woman had just finished laying a bunch of gourds out front.  They were Chinese gourds, dried, yellow and painted.  The brushwork was masterful with images of beautiful women in traditional robes who were no doubt demi-gods.  I picked one up.

“Those are my teacher’s work,” she said.  “She’s a white woman but in 1975, she was invited to go to China to reintroduce this ancient tradition.  The cultural revolution got rid of a lot of old traditions and people were eager to know.”

She went on to explain:  All across Asia after the era of gunboat diplomacy and puppet-statesmanship, the practice of cultural cleansings came into prominence—cleansings that weree about returning to a native past, a native purity, a native identity uncorrupted by outside influences.  Still, a lot got lost.  Christianity is obviously foreign but, then again, so is Buddhism.  You can see the slippery slope that happens when bureaucrats engage in social engineering.  At some point, glasses are suspect and all the intellectuals are wiped out and all the knowledge that they represent is lost in the blood of a Killing Field.

“Yeah, I had a teacher in grad school who did the same thing.  He went to China and brought back the I Ching and reintroduced to the locals a tradition that they had only heard of but were never allowed to practice.”


That teacher was a white man who was a specialist in Native American literature—a man who was credited with inventing the discipline.  He was a real muckety-muck, who flew in once a week from Santa Fe to teach his seminar.  And I remember hearing him read this excerpt of his encounter with fishermen on one of those mighty Chinese rivers and watching the men play the I Ching, which he had pulled from his pocket, well into the evening as the sun set.

There was something so off-putting about that professor’s story.  But he was really proud of it.  He was preparing it into a book—part academic, part memoir—about his travels to China.  There was a power trip underneath it all.  In this act of giving and sharing, there was a power trip.  Even if it whatever he did did some good, there was always that power trip.

Of course, this phenomenon of people of color finding themselves—the bits of their identity—boomeranged back to them through a white person is nothing new.  It is a common experience.  It is perhaps defining.  White people have written the books on the mythology that people of color read to understand the indigenous tradition that they have sought to reclaim.  And that visit to the anthropological museum…its white walls, festooned with the regalia of the exotic, are curated by the invisible hand of others—those not yourself, those not your people, those not your ancestors—who return to you a bit of yourself glistening like a coin tossed into the air.


“Do you want it?” said the Japanese woman.  “We’re clearing out the studio.  I can give you a good deal.”  But I knew I did not want those gourds.  They were not my style.  I already had too many things in my house.  And the price she called was too high.  I wondered about the money that would be left in my pocket to purchase those pasture raised eggs, which were supposed to be my goal, after all, in the first place.

Pho Is Now the New Ramen and People Are Pissed!

Bon Appetit just put out a viral new video, highlighting the work of a chef-owner…and, in the process, nearly wrecking his career. The chef is Tyler Akin—a bro with a five o’clock shadow and a telegenic soft-spoken demeanor who looks like he could totally hang out with you at a frat house kegger but totally object to the widespread non-prescription abuse of rohypnol. The food is Vietnamese pho—the food of my people—that bowl of hot noodle soup that is the cure-all for a night of regrettable decisions and hang-over.


The schtick is simple. Pho was billed by BA as the next trendy food item—the new ramen. Tyler Akin was supposed to lay down the law—the method, the process, the sequence of gestures—with which you genuflect before the bowl of steaming goodness.

But the video went viral for all the wrong reasons. Viewers—not just Asian viewers—savaged poor Tyler Akin. He was appropriating. He was Columbusing. It was food-gentrification—the take-over of the culinary Sesame Street by NPR liberals and their SUV strollers.  For those who have witnessed this phenomenon before–with ribs and tacos and fried chicken–the entire disaster that was the BA video was all too familiar.

The video was brought to my attention by a childhood friend—a nice Jewish boy who wanted to know if this was appropriation? If the restauranteur was overstepping? If it was kosher? So after much deliberation, I wrote him a much-too-long note and I will distill it for you: First, I would assess Tyler Akin’s advice and look at it for what it truly is. Second, I would make a distinction between Tyler and the ways that he is framed.

From where I sit, Tyler’s pronouncements are actually not that terrible. It may be offensive to Vietnamese people who really know how to consume pho and don’t need a white boy’s advice. But his advice is pretty okay: take a sip first, try not to load down the soup with sauce. Some of his advice is crazy and would get you quite literally slapped: use a shit-ton of limes or twirl your chopsticks like a barbarian. This is genuinely crazy-talk and I would stop listening to any self-procalimed “expert” if they talked like this.

But I probably wouldn’t condemn him to the third rung of a fiery Guantanamo. And over-all, I’ve heard variations on this advice before—advice that has been repeated in iterations by the likes of the bestselling cookbook author, Andrea Nguyen, who is not only a specialist in Vietnamese food but a bestselling author who is about to come out with a book dedicated exclusively to the national dish, pho.


Andrea Nguyen

Still, there are some problems with his advice, not so much for its content but for its provenance: I know exactly where Tyler got his information. He got it from Andrea Nguyen. He is basically reciting the exact advice—in the exact sequence—that Andrea Nguyen gives about eating pho in a widely read article (except for that crazy talk about the limes and chopstick). How do I know? I’ve read Andrea Nguyen’s work and I have a Ph.D. in literature…so I have an eye for things like intertextuality. And I have a nose for plagiarism because, you know, my bread and butter was sending kids to the Dean for just this kind of shenanigan.

Don’t get me wrong: What Tyler Akin did is not plagiarism. The food-bro is simply reciting what others have said before him. And what has been said before him doesn’t need attribution, because this is general knowledge. And it is subject to Fair Use.

But the problem with Tyler’s advice is that it’s not theoretically sophisticated. It’s an oversimplification and a distillation…and it loses its nuance. For example, an outsider might explain to you about the broad outlines of kosher but somebody immersed in the traditions might explain more systematically the logic behind the restrictions. Andrea Nguyen, for instance, explains why you don’t add any sauce to the soup before you taste it: it clouds the soup; the purist tradition from which pho descends comes from the North of Vietnam where they are so persnickety, they don’t even add vegetables, let alone sauce; the soup is meant to be tasted at its very essence.

This is something that a connoisseur of pho—someone like Andrea Nguyen—knows and can explain. So Taylor, who mentions none of this, comes off as a frat boy teaching another frat boy moves—plays—that he can use to get some action on a date.

The larger issue for me is not poor Tyler who is really a pawn in the media game. It is Bon Appetit. Bon Appetit could have used any number of really great Vietnamese chefs, writers, critics to disseminate this message. Why not Andrea Nguyen, who has a masters and actually performed research in Asia about foodways and has several bestselling books on Vietnamese cuisine?

Why not Diep Tran, who comes from a Vietnamese family famous for her pho—a restauranteur who has been consistently named to Pulitzer Prize Winning Critic Jonathan Gold’s List of great places to eat?

Diep Tran

Diep Tran

These people are not only great chefs, they are highly educated. AND they not only speak amazing English but have stage presence. There are literally dozens of great chefs, restauranteurs, writers who are Ivy-League trained and fully capable of talking about the food.

But I think that ultimately, Tyler Akin was given the opportunity because of the optics: He is white and he makes the scary Asian food not-so-scary. Let’s face it: Everybody wants to look at a white guy—especially a white guy that looks like him. After all, you might seriously have drunk a foamy beer out of a red cup at a kegger with this charming rascal, and he would definitely have been your wingman. No doubt about it: that bro would tell you if some ass-hat slipped a funny pill in your boozy Natural Light.

Writing Exercise : How To Get Away With Murder – The Flashforward

“How To Get Away With Murder” is a hit television show that is legal procedural, soap opera, and mystery—and it’s narrative-candy:  it’s like a long-lasting gum…a good chew, bursting with tons of flavor.  I’ve been binge-watching it through its two season run and the question on my mind is how it keeps holding my interest…how I can chew and chew and not spit that wad of rubber-nothing out my mouth.


The show follows a sassy black law professor, named Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) and her multicultural team of first year students—the black guy, the gay guy, the latina princess, the hard-around-the-edges-pretending-not-to-be-poor-mixed-race-country-girl-from-the-bayou.  There’s even a token white boy, who is of course a stereotype of privilege—the son of a judge who is from Kennebunkport.  Each of her students vie for a trophy—a figure of blind Justice holding her symbol, the scales–a prize that gets them out of taking an exam and into her good favor.

Each episode involves the team solving a murder of some sort and saving a client, usually in a dramatic court room presentation of evidence in which the charismatic Annalise Keating—barely restraining her emotion—exonerates her clients before a grand jury.  Needless to say, there is all sorts of un-reality to this show.

Tthe show  has its faults:  it is actually quite conventional and very quickly moves from legal procedural into steamy soap opera—the very thing I despise the most.  Still, I was riveted.  I kept binge-watching.  And I kept binge-watching.  And I wanted to know why.  And I think I know why.  And the reason why is this:  the show has the novel element of the flash forward:  We get snippets of an unfolding crime that is the master plot that the season is building toward—the sun—which is the solar system around which all the planet of lesser crimes revolves.

We get to see a murder unfolding but we only see parts of it, up-close.  The trophy banging upon a head.  Blood.  A hand.  Bits and pieces of confusion:  a shovel digging a shallow grave.  A panicked voice, whispering ohmygodohmygodohmygod.

Each episode opens with this flashforward.  Each flashforward follows the same design but is different.  So there is more information revealed—a dance of the seven veils.  Tantalizing.  Teasing.  Inviting.

This kind of device holds your interest well after the novelty of melodrama and soap opera and Perry Mason showboating begins to wear on your interest…and make you want to spit out that gum, which long ago should have lost its flavor.

Novelists have long exploited this type of device.  We see it as the italic openings to books—flash forwards that seem to make a promise of how the novel will reach its moment of climax.  And in this moment, the writer is using something like a pick up line:  accosting us, like a stranger on the street, with the promise of dinner and a date and an adventure on a vibrating motorcycle along a bumpy road that will end in the woods with a postprandial smooch.


Some of the great postmodern writers—writers like the African American genius Toni Morrison—use it at the beginning of every chapter.  The short italic opening—the repetitive opening that initiates each chapter of The Bluest Eye–involves a repetition of a series of lines–a Dick and Jane narrative that all little kids learn in elementary school.

Such a narrative gets progressively jumbly…then jumblier…then jumblier…the words mashed together to display the disorder in the life of a girl whose world is falling apart.  And so we begin to get a sense of how the world of the protagonist will fall apart…and we wait to see exactly how this will happen.

So here’s a suggestion for your next writing project:  Write a flashforward for your book.  Write it as an italics opener—that moment when Babe Ruth points his finger out the park and spits out the cud he’s been chewing in his mouth before preparing to hit that home run into the grand stands.  This opening just might hold your reader’s interest longer.

But ultimately, it can be a tool that only serves to sharpen your focus:   You can always take it out later if you don’t like it.  Putting those italics in might be exactly what you need to show you where you need to go:  your focal point, your climax, your sacred promise to the reader who is your solar system—your one and only—the sweet focus of pleasure that lives at the center of your mouth.

Postmodernism in the Mini Mall: Tuesday Bassen and Zara and Originality

I’ve been thinking about one of my age-old obsessions in art and literature and music: In this age of autotune and sampling and vintage—an age of accelerating remakes, revivals, knock-offs—is there really such a thing as theft or plagiarism or copying?  If there is now nothing new under the sun, can we stake claim to the fool’s gold of originality?  This is something that has come stuck in my mind, an old vinyl record skipping and returning—skipping and returning—to the same refrain in a song that I am sure I have heard so many times before:  a siren song that I carry in the pocket of my heart like a letter a soldier does, a missive from a great and unforgotten love.

These are in, again.

These are in, again.

What prompted this?   I heard about a new shop that opened in hipster Chinatown.  Friend’s Mart, it’s called.  The shop is the brainchild of Tuesday Bassen, a graphic designer who found herself in the eye of a storm when she caught the clothing manufacturer, Zara, ripping off her designs.  For those not familiar with her work, Bassen makes snarky little pins and patches that she is selling on Etsy.  It turns out that this piracy is a common practice for the megaconglomerate-clothing-manufacturer, which routinely trolls through sites like Etsy to take, steal, plunder.

Examples of Appropriation by Zara

Examples of Appropriation by Zara

Tuesday Bassen is not the only independent designer whose works have been stole—ummmm…appropriated—by corporations like Zara.  But she is the most notable one with the most documented cases of theft.  And now, Tuesday Bassen is embroiled in a law suit and, in the process, has emerged as something of a graphic arts celebrity.  What has threatened to destroy her, ironically, has translated into the fan base (and the capital) necessary to open up a store front for artwork–a storefront that represents the work of those small, independent designers whose labor has been ripped off by corporations with deep pockets.

friend mart's

Friend’s Mart occupies an old Chinese Bakery. They didn’t remove the sign, which is both an expression of an ethos and, also, cheap.

Of course, the thing that complicates this is that so much of the graphic arts nowadays relies upon unoriginality as its starting point.  And part of the joy of looking at Tuesday Bassen’s work comes not so much from the feeling that she is an artist with piercing vision that invents out of whole cloth but, rather, that she is an artist that does the exact opposite.  Our enjoyment of her work comes solely from what postmodern scholars call the wit of the “belated”—that feeling of having arrived well after everything meaningful has been executed.  In other words, she is no James Joyce, that great modernist novelist who famously declared he would, “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”


Artists like Tuesday Bassen aren’t “makers” in the traditional sense.  They are not visionaries who seek to produce true acts of invention. Ezra Pound could command his fellow modernists to follow that great catch-phrase, “Make It New!”  But Tuesday is not about newness.  She is about the reworn and retread.  We can see this in so many of the cute little Etsy-esque creations in the catalog of rip-offs that has made the rounds, going viral and bringing Tuesday her fame and fortune.


Here is a diary that says “Keep Out” with a lock in the shape of a heart; the only significant contribution of the artist is not so much in the creation of an actual object.  That diary was already an object which already existed in time.  Rather, any newness came in perhaps the choice to depict this repository of secret thoughts within a certain flattened childlike perspective view.


Or there is a crystal ball–the kind that is often used in signage to advertise the services of clairvoyants.  Underneath it is the words “psychic” and the replication of the reflection recast as little squares.  The thing to realize is that such signage is not really the creation of the artist.  But the creation of a collective of anonymous artists involved in the folk craft of sign-making.   Put another way:  the crystal ball exists as a found object in the built environment of the urban landscape—immediately recognizable at freeway exits and the windows of old ladies in crumbling neighborhoods.

The sign is a part of our visual lexicon.  It exists on the level of stereotype:  infinitely reproducible and reproduced in reproductions…and now reproduced in another reproduction.  What is the contribution of the artist except to now think something like that is worth reproducing again?  Is that an original thought?


Zara had this to say to the official complaint made by Tuesday’s lawyers:  “We reject your claims here for reasons similar to those already stated above: the lack of distinctiveness of your client’s purported designs makes it very hard to see how a significant part of the population anywhere in the world would associate the signs with Tuesday Bassen.”

This slap-down was crude and effective…but perhaps not the best PR move.  Tuesday Bassen responded by doing what all young millenials do in this age of internet activism: she photoshopped Zara’s words and juxtaposed it with her originals and their copies…and then she tweeted and instagrammed and the rest is viral history.


Most people think that we live in a Postmodern moment.  And that if there is one truth to the realities of the Postmodern, it is this:  that there is nothing new under the sun.  This may be true, but I would add a little more to that hypothesis:  we may all know that there is nothing new but we are nagged by the desire to claim that there is something that can be seen as original.

In this nanosecond of the timeline that is the Postmodern Moment, then, we find ourselves at the crossroads of art, looking back nostalgically at ideas of originality that are altogether impossible in this cut-and-paste world.  Yes, there is nothing new under the sun.  This is something smart people have been saying for well over the last fifty years–first among brainiac philosophers, later among theorists.  But this is only half of the artistic lie that we tell ourselves.

A Bestselling How-To Manual About Being Unoriginal

A Bestselling How-To Manual About Being Unoriginal

As the years have passed, this idea that we must embrace unoriginality has gained greater traction, moving out of heady academic circles and into our popular culture.  We see it in Ted Talks like the one that the record producer Mark Ronson gave, which disabused us of the idea that there was anything left in the world of musical ideas–anything except samples.  We also see it in little manuals like Steal Like an Artist, which became so popular that it could be bought at Museum Gift Shops and Urban Outfitters.

mark-ronson-ted-talks-history-of-sampling-video-main (1)

Mark Ronson delivering a Ted Talk about Sampling in Popular Music–arguing that nothing is new–appropriately wearing the clothes of an extra from the movie Grease.

And so that leaves us with that question—a stuttering needle stuck repeating over a hairline fracture that divides two eras—that question that is burning to be asked as if it were the elegant curve of a squirrel’s tail (bushy and erect and upward) in the canopy of a tree that frames the horizon of an infinite skyline:  Is it okay if my next novel is somebody else’s novel—word for word?  Or should I recognize that I am living in a moment of transition–one that looks backward and forward–and stick in a few words of my own, here and there, for good measure in this great book that I have been shopping around to a few select agents, which I have come to tentatively title Crime And Punishment?


The Mystery of Meatpacking

This week, NPR ran a story about meat packing—a story that explores the hidden costs of this industry in one of the most carnivorous countries in the world. It was essentially an update of Upton Sinclair’s classic work, The Jungle–a piece of muckraking journalism that changed the safety practices (and hygiene) of Chicago’s meatpacking industry.

Some things have changed in meatpacking. Some thing have not. The industry still uses the labor of recent labor, desparate to get a toe-hold on the sheer cliff that is the American rise.  NPR’s story emphasized the strain of injury in a mechanized, assembly-line world where repetitive actions destroy bodies attached to immigrant lives:  a broken world where health care, sick leave and worker’s compensation are all minimal.


It got me to thinking about mystery novels are all about exploring small microsystems in a vast network. And how the detective novel became such an American form, precisely because, in such a wide wide world, there exist pockets that are themselves as big as this country—pockets that remain enigmatic, intriguing, fascinating.  The mystery novel is a piece of reporting by a liar who makes everything up and attributes none of his sources.

I once lived in Central Iowa when I was a professor of Creative Writing at a small liberal arts college. So, I’m familiar with aspects of the NPR story: since Upton Sinclair’s time, it might surprise you to learn that a lot of meat processing is no longer located in the hub that is Chicago, that place where railroad lines could ship in livestock and ship out carcasses. Almost all is now perforrmed in small towns–pockets in the Midwest–that are wholly devoted to this kind of industry.

Most of those towns are dying–subject to the forces of brain drain and rust belt decay.  I used to joke that my town in Iowa suffered what I called the “Ashton Kutscher effect”:  anybody who was good looking or could do math left.  Or they at least try to make it in one of the bigger cities, like Des Moines.  This is another way of saying that little towns are good fits for new populations.  They are open to new immigrants who need them.

The great state of Iowa was the first state to host Vietnamese refugees after the Fall of Saigon.  And that had much to do with their charity and Christianity.  But it was also very much self-interested:  Iowa has one of the fast aging populations as young folks create that vacuum to the coasts where they try to see if they can be the next Superman or Vampire or Werewolf.

Recent immigrants will revive the small towns that created the genetic admixture that fuels the billion dollar industry that is Hollywood.  The new immigrant labor is a pivot point:  it allows the geriatric population an extended lease on life in their small slice of Mayberry.  Very often, the workers are refugees or recent immigrants. It is not uncommon to come across a whole town full of Mexicans or Vietnamese or Somalians.

Marshalltown, the town next to mine, was filled with Mexicans who were all reputed to have come from the same town in central Mexico.  They all worked for Swift and Co., doing pig slaughter.  “Swifts,” as the locals call it, is one of the major purveyors of pork product to America’s breakfast table.  And Marshalltown was but one of six towns, scattered throughout the Midwest, that were company towns under the thumb of this mega-conglomerate.  All six were raided by ICE in 2006 and the pig processing residents, deported or scattered or cowed.

Main Street Marshalltown

Main Street Marshalltown

I actually took my students on a field trip to Marshalltown for a senior seminar on immigrant labor.  But beyond this academic familiarity, I actually had relatives in Nebraska–a family of ten–whose entire town was organized this way, around cheap Vietnamese refugee labor.  They slaughtered cows, though, because Nebraska is filled with corn and livestock.  And it is easier to keep the slaughterhouses close to the forms of production where cost of land is cheap and regulation is low.

Most of my life, I did not know I even had these relatives.  I met them for the first time in Vietnam in 1993, right after college. We had been separated by two decades of economic embargo.  This was my Roots journey—one that was technically illegal, one that would finally give me the opportunity to see my alien birthplace. I was sure I would find out if my name was Toby or Kunta Kinte.

The relatives were waiting to immigrate to the USA through the “orderly departure program”–a program for soldiers who worked with the USA, soldiers that then suffered years of punishment after the new regime came into power. When Communists punish you, they punish your family and they crush you financially. I’ve heard some of the stories and they can be vicious.

These stranger-relatives were only days away from leaving when I arrived. They didn’t know where Nebraska was (I said it was very far away from Cali and it was famous for corn). They asked me if 7 dollars an hour was much money (I said you could live on it but not save). But their plan was for all ten to show up, pool their money and work until they could pay off their parents’ house. Then, they could do what they wanted with their lives.

It didn’t sound like a great plan and I told them so. But they said it was better than living under Communism. And my parents helped them by giving them the down payment on the house.

When I first met these cousins, they were just counting the days before they were to be gone. But the upshot after a few years on the slaughterhouse floor: several passed out on the bloody concrete after a few years of repetitive work and the incentive of overtime. Many felt trapped by this rotten bargain made at a moment of total ignorance–a bargain which would mean that they would never get educated and would be stuck in this life of measuring out their days by the count of cutting carcasses.

I saw them again, shortly after the father of the clan–my father’s half brother–passed out on the cutting room floor. They flew to Los Angeles and we hosted them. It was a sad reunion and there was something hollow in the hollow of their eyess.  We took them to Disneyland, which is something they had always wanted to see.

What to Do If a Friend is in the Psyche Ward

Here’s a riddle for you:  My nephew is in the psyche ward and it doesn’t upset me one bit.  The key to unlocking the mindset behind this cold-hearted, shameless declaration is simple:  At this point in my life, I’m an old hand at psyche wards.  I kind of know them inside out.

Don’t get me wrong:  I am not now, nor have I ever been, a patient of a psyche ward.  But this blog actually started as a result of a good friend’s confinement to a psyche ward in Southern California.  He was experiencing suicidal ideation and walked into the ocean with a box cutter and called 911 before he bled out.  The fact that he had a weapon of his own destruction in his cargo pants meant that he was put away for observation.

I visited him in the psyche ward where he was held for mandatory observation.  And it turned out that I was kind of a psyche ward ninja:  The staff loved me.  I said all the right things.  I felt totally kind of at home.  I knew just what to do.  And I brought an air of joy to everything.  It was like I was a prodigy who found his musical instrument and started banging out some crazy glissandos on a shiny lacquered baby grand.

My mystery novel was just a fun exercise I would do to while away the time with my friend as he went through recovery, and it would eventually become a project about my friend—the spider at the center of a glistening, dewy web–the Ivy-league drop-out alcoholic deliveryman, who finds himself in the seamy underbelly of LA’s fashion scene.  And my Ivy-league friend would become something of a writer himself—he’s written two mysteries at this point, one of which is in talks to be bought by a major Hollywood player.  He’s happy and healthy and not dead.  So, this is a long way of saying that the psyche ward is not a bad beginning at all.  It is actually the best place to begin your life narrative—in medias res—that place that the great Greek philosophers say is the traditional starting point of the pinnacle of all artistic achievements:  the epic.

In the interim, I’ve helped a lot of other people out in their suicides.  So, I kind of know the ropes.  And funny thing: I never really seek out the suicides nor do I relish the psyche wards…not like the way those Gothic people seek out black skinny pants and lip liner at the mall.  But like the prodigy, the instrument of my exceptionalism always seems to find itself in my hands.

So here is a list of some things to do when visiting a friend in the psyche ward:

  • Take the Serenity Prayer: You know that Alcoholic’s Anonymous Prayer about God granting you the ability to change what you can and the knowledge to know what you can’t…Take it seriously.  Recognize that you probably can’t change much.  And that the burden for your friend’s transformation falls upon your friend.
  • Don’t be a Bummer: Most people show up at psyche wards looking like they saw a ghost.  They have RESTING FUNERAL FACE.  And they act sad and this is totally self-defeating.  Flip the script.  Act joyous…joyous the way that New Orleans funerals move from dirge to dance.  This is the best possible place for your friend to find herself—a place designed to give her help.
  • Bring Food: I brought my friend his favorite, an In N Out Combo meal.  I had just gotten off the plane from Mexico and brought back a sampler of Mexican sugar candies.  The sugar candy made him an instant hit, both among the mostly Latino staff and the patients who all craved sugar.  One woman took the tiny little sombrero that came with the basket and wore it on her head.
  • Bring some kind of Care Package: Nice coffee or teas are the bomb.  People also like socks or underwear or house slippers.  They also like some kind of beauty product.  Don’t try to overwhelm them with crap.  Just ask yourself what you know they like.  If they are a coffee-head, find their brand.  Remember that a gift is a signature of care, so it must be edited like a designer’s Fall Collection.  Pick an idea and go for it.  As long as it shows some care, they will appreciate the hell out of it.
  • Bring Reading Material: They’re going to have a lot of time under observation.  I like to give graphic novels—they’re trendy and they’re great for people who may have low attention spans.  Once I bought a set of vintage comic books from the reject pile of a comic book store—probably no more than 5 bucks for 20 issues of The Avengers.  It got passed around by everybody in the ward and my friend assumed a position of power and significance—the lord librarian, the keeper of the book.  This is my signature gift.  If you find yourself in the psyche ward and you are a friend of mine, expect a graphic novel.  And go ahead:  I give you permission to steal this idea and make it yours.
  • Bring Stuff to While Away the Time: Crossword puzzles, Sudoko, Coloring books—these are all great.  Just remember that Coloring books can be tricky, because of restrictions about the pencils.  Card games are great:  Uno is ever popular and will allow people to sublimate aggressions and come together as a group of friends, not crazies.
  • Stop with the Blame Game: Don’t blame yourself.  Don’t blame your friend’s friends.  Don’t blame her parents.  Blame is debilitating.  It’s just another way to avoid dealing with the reality of the situation:  the psyche ward is where your friend has found herself and only herself and her therapist will benefit from figuring out whom to blame.
  • Figure out what you CAN do: You may succumb to savior complex.  Don’t go there.  Re-read my first and most important note—the one about the Serenity Prayer.  Get your ass SERENE-AS-FUCK.  But figure out what small measure you can take.  It can be something so simple as making casserole meals for a caregiver, offering a ride, coordinating a joint visit, stopping by an apartment to pick up clothes, checking to see what bills need to get paid.  Think churchy.
  • Silence = Death: Don’t let people suck you into their shame.  This may be your friend’s narrative.  But it’s also YOUR NARRATIVE.  So tell everybody.  It’s actually healthy for you.  It’s also productive…because there may be one person out there who knows how to do some shit that’s really un-churchy and technical…like getting on disability.  Somebody might be dating a bankruptcy lawyer and might be able to help with credit issues.  Somebody might have a cabin in the woods that might be perfect for a brief vacation in life.  If you keep your pie hole shut, you will never be able to tap these people.
  • Write a Card: They’ve got a shit load of time to spend doing nothing.  So, they will reread that card and reread it and reread it.  So your visit is nice but it will have greater impact if you actually write them a card.  And don’t just buy some Hallmark card and sign your name.  Write some actual stuff down.  Most people really don’t do this.  And a card not only is good for reinforcing your message.  It is still one of the primary metaphors of sentiment, of feeling, of care.


Stranger Things: An Awesome Netflix Experience


Stranger Things is one of the hot new shows on everybody’s lips, and I’ve been watching it nonstop as the forest fires rage through the dry brittle Southern California landscape.  It feels like Christmas here, what with the white flakes floating through the air.  We’re not supposed to go out for fear of the damage we could do to our lungs.  But you have to go out every once in a while…to see that roiling orange ball of gas–that thing we used to call the sun–veiled by the welter of gasses that are now a part of our air.  You’ve got to leave it to pollution:  It makes everything in the atmosphere look like it were a painting.


The Netflix show is a paranormal thriller, wrapped into a mystery, with elements of horror—one part Steven Spielberg, one part Stephen King.  A young, nameless girl appears in the lives of young teenage boys—a nerd-group, the fourth of which has mysteriously gone missing at the same moment she has landed in their lives (coincidence?).  The girl arrives almost pre-verbal—her head shaved—sporting only an Auschwitz-like tattoo stamped on her wrist.  It is her name:  011.

Eleven is not unlike ET—a supernatural creature from another world who has to be hidden from adult eyes.  She can even do ET-like things, like manipulate radio signals to communicate long distances with things that should not exist in our mortal coil.  And this seems to be the modus operandi of the show, which exploits as its main appeal, the way that it is built on other narratives:  specifically, the greatest hits of eighties narratives.  We are feeling much nostalgia for that moment nowadays, even if some of us never lived through that time of regrettable fashion choices and synthesizer music.


In this vein, the boys are not unlike the heroes of suburban ET, especially in the way they ride their bikes through the streets.  They are also like those kids from the Goonies.  They hide 011 and slowly discover that she is gifted with psychic powers—powers like telepathy and telekinesis.  So, she’s kind of like King’s first bestseller Carrie.  We slowly see that she has escaped a local government laboratory—Firestarter anyone?—where she has been trained to become the Cold War machine that she is.  011 is formidable.

The narrative occurs in the landscape of a small town in the heyday of the eighties when such towns were still prospering.  We’ve got a sheriff—the figure who functions as the primary figure of ratiocination.  He’ll get down to the bottom of it.  Yes, he will.

We’ve also got that most Stephen King element:  the weirdos and social types that occupy a small town:  the rich boy, the middle class family, the trashy divorcee who lives in a double-wide trailer—all these people are represented and done so richly.  Stephen King knew these elements so well, having grown up in rural America and, later, having moved to rural Maine.  (When he was run over later on in life by a drunk driver on a rural road, the driver would say “I was just going to the store to get a Marses Bar,” and Stephen King would lament that he was almost killed by one of his own characters.)


This is probably the mystery I think about the most as the sky roils with its blood orange sun above me and the ash of a thousand acres falls upon the city and ruins my paint job:  What has become of originality?  Yes, the show is absolutely fun to watch and some of the best watching I have experienced in a long while.  But the show is a greatest hits—a pastiche—and it looks back with nostalgia to an era that, with all its faults, was all about what was new.

Binge-Watching Showtime’s Penny Dreadful

I’ve been binge-watching the television program, Penny Dreadful—a show set in 1891, the latter end of the Victorian era.  For those who have been living under a rock, the Victorian era, one that has long suffered harsh judgement, has returned with a vengeance into fashion.  Nowadays, we see hip young men with waxed moustaches and tweed waistcoats upon which dangle gold watch fobs at all the juice bars across this fair nation.  Penny Dreadful is eye candy, if you’re into that kind of thing—the illegitimate love child of Guy Ricci’s take on Sherlock Holmes.


The show follows a motley crew of occultists as they embark upon a quest to find that most typical of Victorian quest-figures:  a young fair-haired woman, Mina, who is abducted by the evil forces of the dark side.  Mina is the daughter of a famous Victorian explorer, Sir Malcolm Murray, who has charted deepest darkest Africa—a virile old patriarch played by a former James Bond, Timothy Dalton.  He is joined by Mina’s childhood friend, Vanessa Ives—a woman dressed perpetually in black who is gifted with occult powers:  tarot, clairvoyance, curses, hexes, spells.  The backdrop of the show is smart:  the late Victorian era was as much consumed by advances in science as it was fascinated with the occult.

As we wend through this labyrinthine world of Victoriana, we encounter the greatest hits of the period—hits both literary and historical—that would make any English major feel that their accumulation of useless knowledge is worth it. Dr. Frankenstein is recruited to become one of the crew.  Later, we meet Dr. Jeckyll who is rewritten as an Anglo-Indian from the colonies.  Dorian Grey is a fellow traveler.  We encounter Dracula.  There is even a werewolf, played by the long lanky Josh Hartnett who has aged well over the years.


The attention to historical specificity is both the shows making and unmaking.  If you love the Romantic poets, you may feel smugly superior in catching all the references to Wordsworth and Blake and Keats.  They are everywhere.  And the show attempts to lodge itself in specific historical moments like the death of the great poet, Tennyson–a smart narrative device.  There is also an intelligence in the way the show methodically works through all the obsessions of the Victorian era—obsessions like Egyptology, theosophy, taxidermy.  For someone trained as a literary critic, binge-watching this was brain candy.

But for a literary critic, there are many gaffs, too, that come as a result of the shows commitment to historical accuracy.  For instance, the show opens up at a traveling Wild West show in London where we encounter the sharpshooter, Josh Hartnett.  The show tells us that the date is 1891 but any literary historian can tell you this is well-nigh impossible.  1893 is the year that the American frontier closes, according to the anthropologist Victor Turner.  He made this declaration at the Columbian Exposition of 1893, across from the Wild West display with its assembled spectacle of Indians and Cowboys.  It was only after the Columbian Exposition of 1893 that these shows would pack up and rove across Europe.  And so when we encounter Josh Hartnett, it is in all likelihood no earlier than 1895…if we take into account the time lag of travel.


But the genius of the show is that it takes into account these historical inaccuracies by the central metaphor that is embedded into the title: Penny Dreadful.  The Penny Dreadfuls were broadsides that were sold cheaply to a mass audience.  They were descendants of the novel, which were a popular form that had risen into bourgeois respectability and out of the reach of the beggar’d masses.  Penny Dreadfuls were the precursors of comic books and reveled in elements of the sensationalistic and lurid:  murders, suicides, supernaturalism.  They often cribbed from other sources, anthologizing, digesting and skewing the material for mass consumption.  And they made no claim to any accuracy.


Writing Exercise: Brexit

“Exit, pursued by a Bear”

—–Shakespeare, Winter’s Tale, Act III, Scene 3


Brexit just happened—that decision by the UK to leave the umbrella of the European Union.  The decision is a consequential one, and already there have been wild fluctuations in the world markets as the British pound has hit a 30 year low.  Over night, the UK’s credit rating has fallen.  Jobs will most likely disappear.  Brits will now have to get a visa and go through customs when they travel to the new “abroad” which is the continent.  And it is altogether possible that this will spell the end of a United Kingdom, as Scotland pushes to secede from the union.


On the bright side for Americans, interest rates will not go up and, therefore, we find ourselves in a position to overextend ourselves on a house we can hardly afford.  Of course, we also may lose that job that allows us to pay for the house.  Why?  Because the dollar is so strong that it means nobody can afford to buy the products we make.  Soon there will be lay-offs and defaults on mortgages nationwide.  Me:  I’m not thinking about any of that.  I’m busy planning a vacation to the UK so I can go shopping at Harrods!

Brexit has made me realize that fiction depends so much upon exits:  their consequences, intended and unintended.  The complications are where it’s at.  And Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction—“exit, pursued by a bear”—resonates across the centuries because our imagination is pitched toward the emotional meanings of an exit:  fear, loathing, absurdity.


Perhaps this is why the reporting of Brexit has become so much cloaked within the many metaphors of the exit:  exits are part of the way we are hard-wired to see the world.  Take a look at the headlines.  Brexit is a break up of a marriage—an abusive relationship come to an end, a terrible fall from grace in which man is forever cast out of the Garden.

So here is your task:  find a moment for an exit in your story.  It can be at the beginning, middle or end.  But perhaps to make this exercise work best, you should put it front and center.  Think of this moment not as an everyday exit but as a Brexit.  Think of all the ways it can have unintended consequences, how it can rear its ugly head.  Think of the people who benefit from the backdoor—those carpetbaggers who will show up at the Harrods of somebody else’s life and loot their shelves.  Think of the ways a Brexit also metes out its ironic punishments—the way that same carpetbagger will return home to a house repossessed and nowhere to store all the many treasures that they have carted off from that fabled department store far far away.