Saturday, September 13, 2014

I DARE YOU.

Below is a short piece of writing I did for my Creative Non-Fiction class last week. It is not particularly good. It is tricky though because I DARE YOU to read it and not be fooled into thinking it is good. It has all the hallmarks of good writing, however, on the whole, it just is not very good.

Anyway, the writing prompt for this one was difficult because it was vague: write about a trip you took alone when you were young.

This was also tricky because I do not want to write a memoir and have no interest spending my time writing mini-memoirs, but I am a dubious student and I do what I am told and - to be honest - part of the reason I am in school is so that I will be forced to write stuff I wouldn’t normally write.

So then, please read on! (And remember that I warned you that it is not actually very good.)

Oh, and just to prove the veracity of some of the claims made below, here is a picture of me at Pear Lake in Sequoia National Park (See?! I do go on adventures.)



.
.
.

Low Frequency Yellow.

Low Frequency Yellow
by james bezerra

The memories don’t seem to come to me with the same clarity and color that other people have. I remember the elements of fact. I remember in broad strokes. This is the quality that made me a good student of history. I remember how one moment flows into the next and I remember what was important about the moments. 

The moments themselves are rather flat.

The memories come to me that way. Flat.

They’re also liars.

I have trouble knowing what I remember and what my brain has colored into the empty spaces. My brain is just trying to help; making stereoscopic memories out of ones that might otherwise be only half memories.

It is like that with the bus.

Greyhound trips between home and the coast. Two hours by car, almost four on the bus. I remember those trips and I know that I remember them. Because I must remember them. Because I am remembering them right now. 

Only I’m not.

I would be lying if I told you that I remember the low frequency yellow smell of sweat that the blue seats gave off. I have no idea if they were even blue. I have no idea if they smelled like sweat. I don’t remember. Right now I can’t even summon the memory of a smell. I’m not sure that I ever can. I can recognize smell and that smell may ping the metadata of memory and bring something up on the dumbwaiter that we call ‘memory’, but is that the same as remembering?

I know that I used to hop the bus to my sister’s on the Central Coast of California. She was in school in San Luis Obispo. Her boyfriend managed the student diary and he lived there in a little foreman’s apartment off tiled the main lobby and I know that I would sit there in a beanbag chair on his little patio and I would look out west to Bishop’s Peak on the other side of the black ribbon of Highway 1.

But this is where the problems start.

Because that is not a memory. It is a construction. It is artificial. It is not untrue, but it also isn’t truth. Oh the dilemmas I have!

Here, watch this:

Dana was inside but she had Randy Travis playing in the little apartment as she washed plastic plates in the little stainless steel sink in the kitchenette. The slider was open and “Forever and Ever, Amen” was warbling out to me. She was into Randy Travis back then and he was at the height of his skill: a little country, a little bluegrass, a little bluesy. “You may wonder how/I can promise you now/this love that I feel for you always will be …” Plus he was good looking for a country star, then. That was right before country music finally got the pop music makeover. Blame Shania Twain for that.

I was about 13 and doodling my binder. Mom said I was burning through wirebound notebooks too fast so she’d made me start writing on loose leaf in a three ring binder. 

From the little concrete pad of patio out the sliding door I could see the freeway and Bishop’s Peak past that, the highest point in that skinny backbone of mountains that separates SLO from the true beach towns on the otherside

I heard Dana shut the water off and then she hollered out to me, “Hey ….”

Only I don’t know what she hollered out to me and I don’t remember if she was washing dishes just then when I was sitting out on the patio looking past the freeway to Bishop’s Peak. Though I may not have even been looking at Bishop’s Peak, because that was West of the patio but that exterior wall ran East-West, so to sit comfortably against it in a bean bag chair I would have been facing south.

These are the problems of memory.

I know that each of those facts is true. I know because I googled half of them.

My memory says, “What was that one Randy Travis song that Dana used to listen to?

My memory says, “Had Mom stopped buying me notebooks by then?”

An hour ago I couldn’t have found Bishop’s Peak on a map.

Are all memories this fickle? Trying to dig to the bottom of a memory and the walls start to collapse like the moat around a sandcastle. Memory just refilling itself and all I remember is the memory as if written on an index card: SLO-DAIRY-DANA-BEAN BAG-TRAVIS-BISHOP-PAPER.

I know that the bus was real. I remember those trips. Lemoore to San Luis on a bus was as much as my parents would allow me to do alone. I don’t know that I remember any one specific trip, but I remember the god almighty thrill of them. That feeling has never left me. Those bus trips were like hours with a slow tattoo artist while he inked the word ‘wanderlust’ across the red muscle of my heart. I remembered that thrill when I hiked the Waterfall Trail to Havasupai in Arizona. I remembered it when I backpacked above the treeline into the Tablelands above the Sequoias and stood looking out over desolate Moose Lake while the Great Western Divide stared back at me with all of its power and ambivalence. I remember that thrill every time I get on a plane and wait for velocity to collide with steel.

The low frequency yellow smell of twenty-year-old bus seats isn’t the thing then; isn’t what makes the memory matter. What makes the memory matter, then, is what it makes us do tomorrow. I feel the ink in the tattoo slosh with every breath I take and I think it is asking me, “Where to next?” and that’s what what matters most: the making of the memories, the next set of sweat-smelling seats on a bus to who-knows-where, the next move, the next adventure out there beyond the comfort zone and above the treeline.

From time to time though - I will admit - I do still hear a little ghost echo, “You may wonder how/I can promise you now …” it sounds like music from another room that has grown scratchy with age, “this love that I feel for you always will be …” but it does make the trip a easier; memories pack light that way.

.
.
.

THREE HOURS!


I had to write another one of those infuriating “constraint” exercises for one of my writing classes.

This was the prompt:

Mapping the world:  Take David Shumate's micro-narrative/prose poem, The Bible Belt (below) and replace each of its words with one of your own (and of the same kind—nouns for nouns, verbs for verbs, etc.) using a title taken from your neighborhood of Los Angeles.  

It has taken me THREE HOURS to get through the 135 words. I am not a happy camper right now. I have many very important other things to be doing right now!

Anyway, Shumate’s piece is below (his is actually quite good) and mine is in the next post (it is not very good and yet still required a whole lot of grammatical cheating.)


The Bible Belt

By David Shumate

It's a vast and fertile land. Soybeans and corn grow in this soil. Wheat and tobacco. A little sorghum. It's not dramatic terrain with ocean waves crashing against the cliffs. It's mostly gently rolling plains. Long stretches of prairie. You know you've entered it when the signs along the highway begin telling you what God wants you to do. Those who live here regard it as their duty to make these things known. Otherwise the rest of the country would be left in the dark. The bibles in this region are larger than elsewhere. Most weigh over a hundred pounds. It takes two strong men to lift them into a pickup truck to haul off to church. All the women dress up on Sundays. And all the white men shake hands.


.
.
.

An Adjacent Metropolis.


An Adjacent Metropolis

by james bezerra

We are the hot and cramped stipmalls. Spray tan and mascara smear in this heat. Asphalt and concrete. The thick 101. This isn't Hollywood dreamscapes beneath palm trees swaying over our success. We’re usually quietly mourning something. Potential pornstars among the homeless. She thinks she’s making it because her agent down in Studio City starts convincing her that directors need her to strip. We that survive this scab over as our penance and exploit the amateurs casually. Patiently a anxiety in the periphery will be pushing on the heart. A BMW on these streets is better than grace. Many fuck away the empty feeling. We drive three clogged freeways to move ourselves through the gaping Pass while going broke on gas. All the water disappeared down into pools. But all the starving potential lies here.


.
.
.

Friday, September 12, 2014

All Your Badger News.

It is very easy for us to get caught up in our own busy lives and to miss out on the important things and to forget that there is a wider world out there that needs our attention. Sometimes even when we want to keep abreast of the affairs of the world it is difficult to know where to even start; the world is a daunting place right now: Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, the Ebola outbreak, ISIS. There’s the independence vote in Scotland, the upcoming midterm elections here at home, the economy is still in a slog, the wealth gap is as large as it has ever been and the western US is basically out of water. Like I said: daunting.


In light of all that, the editors here at Standardkink want to do our part and keep you up-to-date on one of the important issues you have probably not paid any attention to, that’s right: badger murdering.

For those of you who grew up in urban environments, this is a badger:  





This is an angry badger:



This is a skeptical badger who has lost his optimism and sense of purpose because he just read some Camus or something:



This is a still from the upcoming Quentin Tarantino children’s movie “Furry Friends Who Grow Up and Try to Eat Each Other”:



This is a badger who just wants you to rub his tummy:



This is a story about how the Brits are near a complete social collapse of the sort not seen since the War of the Roses on account of a government-sanctioned experiment to murder a bunch of badgers. It has something to do with stopping the spread of bovine tuberculosis. Well Britain has unwashed badger-loving hippies too and - god love them - they are threatening to hide in the bushes and throw themselves between the hunters and the badgers when the shooting starts. I imagine it will be something like the end of “In the Line of Fire” when Clint Eastwood throws himself between John Malkovich and the guy playing the President.



Some of them are, apparently, also infiltrating the groups of hunters, to what end I’m really not sure.


Also of interest: there is a surprisingly wide array of pictures of badgers on the internet. For instance, here is a badger in a helmet:



 This is a badger who is too close to the camera:




This is a badger who is alone. So alone:



This is a baby badger who wants to know why you let them murder his mother:




.
.
.




Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Oulipos Made Me Do It.


I guess I should have warned you previously, but I am taking two (very) different writing classes this semester and a lot of the exercises I end up writing find their way onto this here blog. Well below is yet another of the weekly “constraint” exercises I’m doing for one of the classes. This is in the tradition of the Oulipo writers of the 1960s who - because they were French and hated themselves, or something - enjoyed imposing artificial constraints on their own writing. There are legitimately good things to be said about why these sorts of exercises are good for writers, though I’m still not entirely convinced that they are good for the writing.

Either way, here is the artificial constraint I was operating under this week:

Make a diagram of the house you grew up in and assign each of the rooms a letter.  Make little pieces of paper with each of the letters printed on them.  Make 10 each of these little pieces of paper.  Scramble them up and draw 25 of them. Then write a story moving from room to room in that order.

So that sounds … complicated, right? Well it was, but it also turned out to be kind of fun. I bent the rules some because this was supposed to be autobiographical and what I wrote is only mostly autobiographical-ish.

Between this autobiographical stuff and my creative non-fiction class, I am seriously getting annoyed with having to write about me. I have no interest in writing about me. What I like to do is this: I like to just make people up and then make them say and do stuff that I think is interesting. So yes, that is entirely about me, but in that situation I’m not writing about me. All I am doing there is bending a tiny fictional universe to my will.

If none of that makes any sense it is because I am very tired right now because I had a long day and I also spent almost an hour on the treadmill too! But I think I did have a point in saying all that stuff about writing … what was it? … thinkthinkthink … oh yeah!

Please remember that the piece of writing below is only autobiographical-ish. It is more true to tone than to fact. I would NOT submit this to my non-fiction class because I blurred things a little bit too much and borrowed a few too many details from people who are not me. Also, because of the constraints of the exercise I took a tact that is more atmospheric and interstitial than I normally would have otherwise. (BTW, I caually use the word ‘interstitial’ now, apparently. Thanks grad school.)


.
.
.

Some Information Concerning an Endless Series of Improbable Coincidences.


Some Information Concerning an Endless Series of Improbable Coincidences
by james bezerra

Bartleby’s shower door had been installed backward. Not the door, just the glass. Although - come to think of it - yes, it was the entire door, not just the glass. Though it did hinge outward properly, it did not hinge inward into the tall narrow tiled space of the shower itself. So it must have been hung upside down, which is both more and less odd. Less because it is understandable that the door might be hung that way by mistake, since the hinges would still line up. More because it meant the men who hung the door might have had to pause to decide which side went where. One side of the glass shower door was smooth, the other side was grooved. The little grooves were meant to channel the water downward. The men who must have hung the door must have thought that the grooves went on the outside. But why - Bartleby would often wonder while showering before school - would they have thought that? Were their own shower doors hung upside down as well? Had these men grown up trained by life to misunderstand shower doors? And if so, why had no one pointed this out to them when they went into the shower door hanging business? An endless series of improbable coincidences always seems more credible than admitting the possibility of a mistake. Or so thought Bartleby, back then.

The entire house was a bit of a camel - a camel being a horse, assembled by committee - and was littered with similarly Winchester-Mystery-House-ian peculiarities. The hall closet outside of D’s bedroom had a trapdoor. D had shown it to Bartleby once when she was hiding kittens under the house. She had rolled back the irregularly shaped patch of green shag carpet that was left over from the carpeting in the room Bartleby shared with R. Then she’d jammed a flathead under the lip of the door to lever it up. Technically it wasn’t a door because it wasn’t hinged. It was just a square of wood placed over the square hole in the bottom of the closet. The hole existed for easy access to the underside of the house. Though there was seldom snow, winters were cold enough to freeze the water in the pipes. If the water froze the pipes might burst. At the end of fall, shortly after the end of cotton-picking season, Dad would crawl down there through the hole to check the insulation on the pipes. The space was less than two feet high, but it ran the entire underside of the house. Once - some time later - Bartleby had crawled all the way to underneath the kitchen. Along the way he’d found the dry gray carcasses of birds. They were the first dead things he could recall having seen.     

He’d known he was under the kitchen because by the time he was eight he knew the layout of the house, but also because he could hear the long low thruuummmm of the washing machine. The washing machine was the kind that would move around on casters and connected to the kitchen sink with a plastic and rubber hose. The whole kitchen had been like. The stove itself wasn’t crooked, but the floor under it was and Dad had leveled the stove out by shoving a couple of red wooden blocks under the right side. This was a constant childhood annoyance for Bartleby because the red blocks were rectangular and perfect for building the walls of fortresses on the floor. The lack of those red blocks meant he had to build sections of his walls with the smaller blue squares, which were crap by comparison This left dangerous vulnerabilities in his fortresses. Eventually he started building them smaller so that they would be stronger. Bartleby had been small for his age, so he’d had to learn to think laterally so as to outflank his problems.

He had vague memories of Dad sitting there with him in the corner of the kitchen and showing him how to build with blocks. Dad was a tinkerer himself, hence the camel house. His degree was is Ag Science, but he’d been accepted into a graduate program as an architect. That was in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War. The same year Martin Luther King was shot on a balcony, the same year Robert Kennedy was shot in a kitchen, the same year Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, the same year North Korea took the USS Pueblo. It was the year that America inexplicably elected Richard Nixon President, it was the year of My Lai, it was the year Marcel Duchamp died. It was the year of the Tet Offensive, but Dad’s parents said he couldn’t go to grad school, because they needed him back on the farm. So Dad left grad school behind, left the student deferment behind, and moved with his pregnant wife back to the farm. That’s what Dad’s parents had been like.

The tinkering never went away though. He’d built the strangely skeletal, unmistakably ‘70s bookcases in the room Bartleby shared with R. He’d built the fence around the pool out back after designing the pool out back. He’d also built the entire house, though not really. He’d bought the house when it was forty-five minutes north up the 41 freeway. He saw it there on the outskirts of Fresno and bought it and immediately had it cut into pieces and put onto flatbed trucks and hauled out to the farm where it was reassembled, with numerous alterations.

The built-in linen closet just outside of Mom and Dad’s room had a bottom drawer that was filled to spilling with all of the family photos. Just overflowing shoeboxes of them. Nothing in order. Just a jumble of people and ages and places and faces from decades apart would be pressed together in there. Relatives who hadn’t lived long enough to know each other might be staring right into one another in that drawer. Those photos could prove anything. Once when Bartleby had been terrified of the face NASA found on Mars, Mom had taken him to that drawer and rummaged around until she found pictures of her honeymoon. She’s shown him a picture of a ridgeline in Hawaii that looked like a giant man laying down; like a god rendered in volcanic rock. She’d run her finger along the shapes of the man’s face and said, “See? Sometimes things just look like other things.” 

There were pictures in the drawer of the house all cut up into pieces. There were pictures in there of the backyard before there was a house in front of it. Dad had taken Bartleby to the drawer once to prove that the house had not always existed where it was today. It was a monumental and god-sized thought for the little boy Bartleby had been at the time: impermanence.

It is not much of an intellectual leap from impermanence to death and when he was seven Bartleby used to throw up at school and cry all day from the stress of having realized that eventually everyone he knew was going to die. A decade or two later Mom would tell one of Bartleby’s girlfriends that, “he was always the sensitive one.”

Death is complicated in the country. When D went to college Bartleby got her room. He would lie in bed, about twelve years old, and listen to the coyotes yelping in the slough on the other side of the field. They yelped like that after a kill. The braver ones would sometimes creep right up to the house. They’re pernicious little bastards, coyotes. Some of the farm trucks had cheap .22s behind the seats, just for scaring off coyotes. So sometimes death was a spectre. Other times it was commonplace. Sometimes very young Bartleby and older D and much older R would have to wait for the school bus next to the carcase of a downer cow from the dairy. Cow corpses would be scooped up by the tallow works truck as it made its regular route around countryside. Sometimes death was allowed to be a sad thing. Bartleby caught Mom crying once in the little bathroom next to Dad’s office. One or another of the dogs had been hit that morning. The dogs were always getting hit because that is what dogs do in the country.

That little bathroom was only vaguely rectangular, it had been one of Dad’s additions. It was just a small sink, a toilet, and a shower. The shower was lined with blue tile. The shower door had been installed properly. It was a good room for crying; very small, very private and the blue of the tile seemed to deaden the little bit of light that came in through the little window. It would always feel like an afterthought of a room and so it was a good place to feel all the things that didn’t have their own rooms to be felt in.

Dad had been bad at designing bathrooms. Yet it was the simple unfinished feeling of that bathroom that gave it its purpose; it hadn’t been designed as a dank little mausoleum. In his defense, Dad had at some point realized that he was bad at bathrooms. The drafting table in his office always had sketches on it. When he turned the garage into a game room and then built a new garage, it started on that secondhand drafting table. Mostly though the sketches were of places that didn’t exist and wouldn’t ever. Mostly they were of other houses. They were also always the same house. They were houses vaguely like the one they all lived in, but slightly straighter, slightly calmer. Mostly they were trial and error houses. Mostly they were the houses that he was trying to design around their lives. Mostly they were houses that he thought might work a little better. Houses where the dishwasher didn’t have to be rolled across the kitchen, houses where the stove didn’t require even one red block. They were houses that very softly called back to 1968 and to a sense of loss and to a feeling of fear. They were houses maybe he imagined very far away from the farm and from the dairy and from this dusty part of the Valley where the dead get left out next to the road and no one bats an eye.

When Dad wasn’t home - which was often - Bartleby would sit in the chair at that drafting table and he’d study the sketches. He learned to account for the space that a door takes up when it swings open. He figured out that on a sketch it is drawn like a right triangle with a puffed out hypotenuse. In that way Dad kept track of all the things that hadn’t happened yet.


.
.
.