seriously, the guy has a point

I got metaphorically spanked a couple of days ago. Folks have been talking about the Fearless Girl statue ever since it was dropped in Manhattan’s Financial District some five weeks ago. I have occasionally added a comment or two to some of the online discussions about the statue.

Recently most of the Fearless Girl discussions have focused on the complaints by Arturo Di Modica, the sculptor who created Charging Bull. He wants Fearless Girl removed, and that boy is taking a metric ton of shit for saying that. Here’s what I said that got me spanked:

The guy has a point.

This happened in maybe three different discussions over the last week or so. In each case I explained briefly why I believe Di Modica has a point (and I’ll explain it again in a bit), and for the most part folks either accepted my comments or ignored them. Which is pretty common for online discussions. But in one discussion my comment sparked this:

Men who don’t like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl.

Which — and this doesn’t need to be said, but I’m okay with saying the obvious — is a perfectly valid response. It’s also one I agree with. As far as that goes, it’s one NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio agrees with, since he said it first (although, to be fair, probably one of his public relations people first said it first).

But here’s the thing: you can completely agree with the woman who responded to my comment AND you can still acknowledge that Arturo Di Modica has a point. Those aren’t mutually exclusive or contradictory points of view.

Let me apologize here, because I have to do some history — and for reasons I’ve never understood, some folks actively dislike history. It’s necessary though. So here we go. Back in 1987 there was a global stock market crash. Doesn’t matter why (at least not for this discussion), but stock markets everywhere — everywhere — tanked. Arturo Di Modica, a Sicilian immigrant who became a naturalized citizen of the U.S., responded by creating Charging Bull — a bronze sculpture of a…well, a charging bull. It took him two years to make it. The thing weighs more than 7000 pounds, and cost Di Modica some US$350,000 of his own money. He said he wanted the bull to represent “the strength and power of the American people”. He had it trucked into the Financial District and set it up, completely without permission. It’s maybe the only significant work of guerrilla capitalist art in existence.

People loved it. The assholes who ran the New York Stock Exchange, for some reason, didn’t. They called the police, and pretty soon the statue was removed and impounded. A fuss was raised, the city agreed to temporarily install it, and the public was pleased. It’s been almost thirty years, and Charging Bull is still owned by Di Modica, still on temporary loan to the city, still one of the most recognizable symbols of New York City.

Arturo Di Modica (the one in the beret)

And that brings us to March 7th of this year, the day before International Women’s Day. Fearless Girl appeared, standing in front of Charging Bull. On the surface, it appears to be another work of guerrilla art — but it’s not. Unlike Di Modica’s work, Fearless Girl was commissioned. Commissioned not by an individual, but by an investment fund called State Street Global Advisors, which has assets in excess of US$2.4 trillion. That’s serious money. It was commissioned as part of an advertising campaign developed by McCann, a global advertising corporation. And it was commissioned to be presented on the first anniversary of State Street Global’s “Gender Diversity Index” fund, which has the following NASDAQ ticker symbol: SHE. And finally, along with Fearless Girl is a bronze plaque that reads:

Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference.

Note it’s not She makes a difference, it’s SHE makes a difference. It’s not referring to the girl; it’s referring to the NASDAQ symbol. It’s not a work of guerrilla art; it’s an extremely clever advertising scheme. This is what makes it clever: Fearless Girl derives its power almost entirely from Di Modica’s statue. The sculptor, Kristen Visbal, sort of acknowledges this. She’s said this about her statue:

“She’s not angry at the bull — she’s confident, she knows what she’s capable of, and she’s wanting the bull to take note.”

It’s all about the bull. If it were placed anywhere else, Fearless Girl would still be a very fine statue — but without facing Charging Bull the Fearless Girl has nothing to be fearless to. Or about. Whatever. Fearless Girl, without Di Modica’s bull, without the context provided by the bull, becomes Really Confident Girl.

Fearless Girl also changes the meaning of Charging Bull. Instead of being a symbol of “the strength and power of the American people” as Di Modica intended, it’s now seen as an aggressive threat to women and girls — a symbol of patriarchal oppression.

In effect, Fearless Girl has appropriated the strength and power of Charging Bull. Of course Di Modica is outraged by that. A global investment firm has used a global advertising firm to create a faux work of guerrilla art to subvert and change the meaning of his actual work of guerrilla art. That would piss off any artist.

See? It’s not as simple as it seems on the surface. It’s especially complicated for somebody (like me, for example) who appreciates the notion of appropriation in art. I’ve engaged in a wee bit of appropriation my ownself. Appropriation art is, almost by definition, subversive — and subversion is (also almost by definition) usually the province of marginalized populations attempting to undermine the social order maintained by tradition and the establishments of power. In the case of Fearless Girl, however, the subversion is being done by global corporatists as part of a marketing campaign. That makes it hard to cheer them on. There’s some serious irony here.

And yet, there she is, the Fearless Girl. I love the little statue of the girl in the Peter Pan pose. And I resent that she’s a marketing tool. I love that she actually IS inspiring to young women and girls. And I resent that she’s a fraud. I love that she exists. And I resent the reasons she was created.

I love the Fearless Girl and I resent her. She’s an example of how commercialization can take something important and meaningful — something about which everybody should agree — and shit all over it by turning it into a commodity. Fearless Girl is beautiful, but she is selling SHE; that’s why she’s there.

Should Fearless Girl be removed as Di Modica wants? I don’t know. It would be sad if she was. Should Di Modica simply take his Charging Bull and go home? I mean, it’s his statue. He can do what he wants with it. I couldn’t blame him if he did that, since the Fearless Girl has basically hijacked the meaning of his work. But that would be a shame. I’m not a fan of capitalism, but that’s a damned fine work of art.

I don’t know what should be done here. But I know this: Arturo Di Modica has a point. And I know a lot of folks aren’t willing to acknowledge that.

 

 

 

thoughts on sand

I was walking along the lake shore, not thinking about anything in particular. Just casually looking at the birds, watching the dragonflies that hunt the small ponds along the lake, listening to the gulls arguing, enjoying the way the sand shifted under my feet. Here’s an interesting thing about sand: it behaves more like a liquid when it’s dry, and more like a solid when it’s wet.

I was just walking in the sand by the lake, idly scanning the ground for interesting chunks of driftwood or colorful stones. And I saw this:

sand3

Somebody had lost a beach shoe. Nothing really out of the ordinary. And a dog had padded by. Also pretty common; lots of people take their dogs to the lake. At some point, a raccoon had wandered along the same bit of sand; the woods around the lake are a haven for raccoon. And now I was standing there. That layering of temporal events pleased me for some reason — four creatures had crossed that same little patch of sand, separated only by a period of time.

This sort of thing happens to me all the time. I see something, and neurons start firing in my brain. I saw that lost beach shoe and the dog’s paw print and the raccoon track, and thoughts start turning over in my mind. Because it wasn’t just us that had crossed that bit of sand. Dozens of creatures had walked, slithered, or hopped across that same spot. Thousands of dozens. Millions of thousands of dozens. I mean, some three hundred million years ago, this entire area was under water; it was the sandy bottom of a great inland sea — a sea that dried up, only to be replaced by another inland sea a couple hundred million years later. Then that sea dried up as well. Now there’s just sand.

sand1

 

Well, not just sand. There’s also a lake. Six thousand acres of water. Almost ten square miles. Not a natural lake, though. Technically, it’s a reservoir — a man-made lake; an intentional containment of the Des Moines River. The lake was created about 50 years ago to try to control the periodic flooding that plagued the city of Des Moines for over a century. The flooding also troubled the native people who’d settled at the confluence of the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers seven thousand years earlier.

We know people lived here seven thousand years ago because we’ve found their bodies. A woman and a child, well-preserved skeletons sealed in a layer of sandy clay deposited by a sudden flood. It’s only relatively recently that humans developed the technology (and the audacity and arrogance) to dam up the river and create a lake. The dam and the lake hasn’t put an end to the flooding, but it’s certainly reduced the damage.

sand5

A lost beach shoe and a raccoon print in the sand, and my mind went caroming off of disappearing Paleozoic seas and banging into ancient human settlements and human high-handedness toward nature. But even while a chunk of my brain was knocking around notions of time and human presumption, I couldn’t help being drawn by how gracefully the water and wind have shaped the lake shore.

I found myself paying attention to how the moisture content of the sand shifted its color along with its consistency — how the farther I got from the water, the more pale the sand became. I started to notice how the granularity of the sand changed — how some was more coarse and some was incredibly fine. I paid more attention to how the wind revealed layers of different color in the sand, how driftwood bleached into various subtle shades.

sand4

There was something wonderful and beautiful about how dried leaves gathered gracefully in fluid self-organized, breeze-driven groups. There was something fascinating about how different waterlines arranged themselves; you could gauge the strength of various storms by the arrangements of the detritus and the driftwood and how far they’d been driven from the waterline by the wind and the waves.

None of this is stable. It’s changing all the time. The change is sometimes radical and quick and violent, but mostly it’s slow. I know I can return to this same spot in a couple of weeks and find that same driftwood log and those same weeds; I know I can return in six months and find that same log, though it will likely be surrounded by different detritus. There is continuity. Continuity, but not sameness.

sand6

There’s a good chance that the next time I return to the lake, that lost beach shoe will still be there. The dog’s paw print and the raccoon track probably won’t. The sand, though, it’ll still be there. Long after I’m dead and gone, long after that shoe disintegrates, long after the driftwood deteriorates into nothing, the sand will still be there.

There are people who collect sand as a hobby. They’re called arenophiles. The word comes from the Latin term for sand: harena. That’s also the root of the word arena. What does sand have to do with an arena? The Romans understood that the best and easiest way to soak up the blood spilled from their arena spectacles — the gladiator fights, the chariot races, the beast contests — was to lay down a layer of sand. Before there was a Coliseum, there was sand.

There’s always sand.

 

pockets

A couple of decades ago a woman friend said this to me: “I’m always suspicious of a man who talks or writes about women’s issues, because there’s a good chance he just wants to sleep with smart women.” I suspect/hope things have improved somewhat since then, but I still take her comment to heart. I’m aware that it’s more than a little presumptuous for a man to talk about certain gender issues — partly because they’re usually issues created and perpetuated by men, and partly because it can easily come off as a guy telling women how to feel and what to think. And most women I know have had enough of that.

Still, I have thoughts and opinions (too many, some people think) and writing about them helps me clarify stuff that’s loitering about in my head. Stuff like this: a couple of days ago something awkward and unpleasant happened to a friend of mine. With her permission, I’m repeating what she wrote about the incident on Facebook:

This afternoon a total stranger commented on my (non-existent) pregnancy. I was sad and surprised to find that I felt not amused or irritated, but ashamed. I’ve never much minded my soft little belly; I really, really love food and I love beer and if this is the physical result I’m okay with that, as I live a life full of joy. But all of those good feelings were suddenly wiped away in two seconds after the woman spoke. I wanted to run out of the restaurant and hide, to cry in my car, and then to come home and work my abs relentlessly, to diet, to change my body, not for me, but because I felt, somehow, like I had done something wrong that I needed to fix, to apologize to her. It was weird, and it hurt, in a lot of ways.

What struck me most wasn’t that somebody said something thoughtless and hurtful. I expect people to do that, because humans fuck up on a regular basis. What struck me was her immediate reaction. This is a smart, confident woman; she’s active, capable, physically strong, determined. And she’s always seemed entirely comfortable in her body. And yet her immediate response to that absurd comment was shame. Her many friends responded to her FB post in a couple of ways. First, they reassured her that she looks great (which she does, but which is really completely irrelevant). Second, they excoriated the stranger for being insensitive and clueless (which she may have been, but which I think is also completely irrelevant). I love the fact that everybody offered her instant, spontaneous support.

But I think it’s also important to recognize and address the ugly fact that her immediate response to that thoughtless comment — that she felt shame — is an indictment of our culture. I think it’s important to keep acknowledging and discussing the fact that our culture routinely undermines women by keeping them focused on and distracted by an irrational beauty standard grounded in a body image that’s largely unattainable. And to compound that problem, the culture not only makes women think that whatever body shape they actually have is somehow wrong, it also suggests that whatever is supposedly wrong with their bodies can — and should — be corrected.

Again, look at what my friend wrote:

I felt, somehow, like I had done something wrong that I needed to fix.

This ‘fix it’ notion is pervasive and insidious, and only serves to further sabotage a woman’s sense of worth — and when I say pervasive, I mean seriously pervasive. We’ve created entire commercial industries that are basically devoted to fucking up a woman’s self-worth. Cosmetics, fashion, dietary products, surgical enhancements.Women are taught to ‘fix it’ by wearing the right makeup, by buying the right clothing, by eating less (or eating more), by having invasive surgery on perfectly healthy bodies. Consider, for example, the astonishingly complex, culturally masochistic relationship women have with shoes, then apply that to ALL their clothing decisions. Then also consider that women’s clothing generally costs more than men’s clothing — and women’s styles change more often, which means their clothing has to be replaced more often. That sucks on its own, but it sucks even more when you consider women generally get paid less, yet their wardrobe costs more (and have you ever looked at the cost of cosmetic products?). All this serves to keep women more poor than men, which makes them more dependent on keeping a job, which makes them more susceptible to putting up with shit from their employers.

And it’s not just their bodies and their clothing women have to fret about. Our culture judges them on their voices (too shrill, too masculine, too loud, too soft), on their laughter (laughs too loud, shows too many teeth, laughs too often, doesn’t laugh enough), on their emotions (too emotional, not emotional enough, too angry, too nice, too aggressive, too timid), and Jeebus Jeebus Jeebus how is it that women are able to keep themselves from climbing a water tower with a high-powered weapon and shooting all of us?

But they don’t. To me, this is the most remarkable thing of all — the amazing capacity of women to deal with all that and remain resilient. Look again at what my friend said:

It was weird, and it hurt, in a lot of ways

And it hurt — and it hurt in a lot of ways. But later that day, she’d moved on. I don’t know, but I suspect today if she feels any shame at all, it’s shame at having felt shame for something she had no reason to feel shame about.

I want to end this by saying something positive. I want to say that things are getting better for women — and it’s actually true. Or at least partly true. Reproductive rights are in jeopardy, women still lack pay equity, and the fashion industry continues to create clothing for women with a complete absence of usable pockets. But there’s a woman running for President of These United States. Despite three or four decades of being knocked down, she’s refused to stay there. Of course, even as president she won’t be able to buy clothes with pockets.

But as president, she won’t need them. So there’s that.

gibson got there first

William Gibson was there first. Of course he was. He almost always seems to get there first. I’m talking Pokemon Go, folks. Not the Pokemon part, but the Go part. The use of augmented reality for the enjoyment and/or education of…well, anybody.

In his 2007 novel Spook Country Gibson describes an art project referred to as ‘locative art’. Art that’s meaningfully tied to a specific location.

“Cartographic attributes of the invisible,” she said, lowering the bowl. “Spatially tagged hypermedia. The artist annotating every centimeter of a place, of every physical thing. Visible to all, on devices such as these.” She indicated Alberto’s phone, as if its swollen belly of silver-tape were gravid with an entire future.

Granted, what Gibson created in his head is a LOT more cool than Pokemon. His fictional locative artists created geo-located scenes depicting the deaths of celebrities — River Phoenix outside the Viper Room, Helmut Newton in the driveway of the Chateau Marmont. These scenes were invisible to anybody not using the tech, visible to those who were.

The concept of Pokemon Go is much the same — it’s not actually there, but it’s there to be seen. And in the case of Pokemon, there to be caught. I’m sure at some point Gibson will comment on Pokemon Go, but I wouldn’t even try to guess what he’ll think about it. It’s certainly not the sort of augmented reality he had in mind; he said he wanted locative art to be lowbrow, “almost like graffiti.” There’s nothing highbrow about Pokemon, but they are exceedingly commercial.

Gibson uses locative art as an example of the eversion of cyberspace. Turning cyberspace inside out. The ubiquity of cellular connectivity allows what used to be an activity located only in the “consensual hallucination” of the online world to filter into the physical world. In the novel, this sort of augmented reality artwork required a ‘visor’ and a phone. Niantic, the makers of Pokemon Go, have eliminated the visor. That means you — and anybody else — can now wander around your neighborhood and discover the shared hallucination of Pokemon lurking in the neighbor’s azaleas. Or on the sidewalk in front of a shop.

(photo by Kora Foto Morgana)

(photo by Kora Foto Morgana)

In 2007 Gibson, through one of his characters in Spook Country, says this:

“The most interesting ways of looking at the GPS grid, what it is, what we do with it, what we might be able to do with it, all seemed to be being put forward by artists. Artists or the military. That’s something that tends to happen with new technologies generally; the most interesting applications turn up on the battlefield on ir a gallery.”

Gibson left out gaming. Clever guy, Gibson, but not 100% prescient. The gaming industry sometimes seems to exist at the intersection of the military and art, and they’re quick to embrace new technologies.

Regardless of Pokemon Go’s long-term success or failure as a game, this mixing of the real and the virtual is very cool and has a lot of potential for creative work. I hope this sparks a lot more uses of augmented reality by the gaming industry, by artists, and maybe even writers. Why the hell not?

William Gibson. I declare.

proust – pivot – lipton

There’s a semi-interesting article in The New Yorker titled How the Proust Questionnaire Went From Literary Curio to Prestige Personality Quiz. I say ‘semi-interesting’ because it takes what I think is an interesting idea — the evolution of a questionnaire a lot of folks are familiar with — and turns it into a fairly pretentious exercise (which is a thing most of us love and hate about The New Yorker). The New Yorker is one of the few places where you’ll find a line like this:

It’s safe to say that, today, the Sainte-Beuvian paradigm has triumphed—if not among literary critics, then certainly in the culture at large.

I guess that IS safe to say, if only because hardly anybody would know what the fuck you were talking about, unless they’d read the article in The New Yorker. And maybe not even then. But despite that, it’s actually interesting to have some glimpse into the origins of the questionnaire.

I became familiar with the questionnaire because of James Lipton’s odd talk show, Inside the Actors Studio. Lipton interviews actors (or directors, and an occasional screenwriter) about their craft. It began in 1994 as a sort of filmed seminar for students in the Actors Studio Drama School — a one-one-one informal but intensely personal interview with somebody who actually works in the business. Over time it’s become a popular show in its own right. The show often reaches a pretension level that can rival The New Yorker, but I’ve never seen an episode that wasn’t worth watching. That said, I wouldn’t entirely disagree with the Sunday Times critic who described the show as:

“[J]ust a chat show on satellite, but the veil of education and posterity is held decorously high, so everybody turns up and talks with a smile.”

Each episode ends with Lipton asking a series of ten questions that he attributes to French television personality Bernard Pivot, who did a similar show devoted to writers. Pivot said his list of questions was inspired by Marcel Proust. Proust got the idea from a popular 18th century parlor game he learned from Antoinette Faure. And the green grass grows all around, all around. If you’re really curious about all this, then you’re probably the sort of person the article in The New Yorker was written for, and you should probably go read it.

Most folks, though, are primarily interested in the questionnaire — the actual ten questions themselves. Some of the questions are pedestrian, some are silly, some are insightful, but it was always interesting to see how various actors/directors/writers would answer them.

Obviously, I’m going to give the questions and my own answers — but I’m genuinely curious to see how other folks would answer them as well. So, here we go:

What is your favorite word? Ownself. It’s a Southernism, I think. At least I’ve never heard anybody outside of the Deep South use it in the same way as Southern folk do. It means ‘yourself’ or ‘myself;, of course, but in a more deeply personal and possessive sort of way. Saying “my ownself” or “your ownself” emphasizes the ownership of whatever the hell you’re talking about. For example, saying “I’ll do it myself” doesn’t carry the same level of investment or commitment as “I’ll do it my ownself”, which is less invested than “I’ll do it my own damn self.”

What is your least favorite word? Any hateful slur — kike, nigger, faggot, pick one.

What turns you on? Smart people.

What turns you off? Willfully stupid people. You know, folks who are capable of learning and understanding, but either can’t be bothered to learn or refuse to learn because it would make them doubt something they believed. Willfully stupid people can fuck right off.

What sound or noise do you love? Water rippling around stones.

What sound or noise do you hate? Leaf blowers. I fucking hate leaf blowers.

What is your favorite curse word? I don’t really have a favorite. I’m sort of partial to ‘cocksucker’, though it’s not an expression I use. I like it because it was used beautifully and creatively in the HBO series Deadwood. HBO’s The Wire did something similar with ‘motherfucker’, but The Wire‘s motherfucker lacked the deep, profound sense of commitment to obscenity that we saw in Deadwood‘s cocksucker.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Architect, maybe. Or investigative epidemiologist.

What profession would you not like to do? Anything to do with accounting.

If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates? I always have trouble with this premise. It’s like saying “If you had your own personal dragon, what would you do with it?” But you have to play the game by the rules, so IF heaven existed and IF there was a god waiting to greet me, I guess I’d like to hear her say “Hi, come on in, we have an extensive library. And there are no leaf blowers.”

So that’s me. What about you?

nobody cares

“Sometimes I feel like I should just give up.”

One of my writing students recently said that. In fact, I hear that with distressing regularity from my students. (As an aside, it still occasionally strikes me as improbable that I’ve become a Person Who Has Students.) That statement is almost never posed as a question, but the question is always there as a not-very-subtle subtext. Should I just give up? And that question always masks another question, which is generally phrased as another statement: I’m never going to be good enough to get published, am I.

The question at the heart of all this is an awkward question. It requires a graceful answer. It also requires an honest answer. As a Person Who Has Students, it’s my experience that honesty and grace don’t always dovetail together.

The graceful response is easy. “No, of course you shouldn’t give up. If you approach your writing with diligence and sincerity, you can become good enough to get published.” There’s some measure of truth in that. If you work hard at any craft — writing, cabinetry, weaving, brick-laying, pottery — you can improve. Most of my students have the capacity to be good enough to get published.

But most won’t. That’s the honest answer. Hard work doesn’t guarantee mastery, and mastery doesn’t guarantee success. The unwelcome Truth is that while most of my students have the capacity to improve, relatively few will actually fulfill that capacity; they either lack the necessary persistence or are prevented by circumstance from achieving it. And even whose who ARE good enough, may still not be good enough. Even if they produce excellent work, the first publisher to read it may reject it. And so might the second and third. And the fourth and and and.

Nobody cares about your zombie novel

Nobody cares about your zombie novel

Instead of responding directly to my student, I asked a question: “What matters most to you — writing a good story or getting published?” Everybody wants both, of course — and logically one should follow the other. If you write a good story, it’s got a better chance of getting published. But knowing which of those matters most changes your approach. If getting published matters most, then you let the marketplace direct the work. If the marketplace is hot for zombies, then you write zombies. Some folks will sneer at that, but there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a professional approach  Getting paid for your work is a wonderful thing, and the best way to get paid is to give the market what it wants. And down at the bone, a good zombie story is first and foremost a good story — just with zombies.

If it’s the writing itself that matters most, then your approach is different and the reward is different. In that case, story takes precedence over the marketplace. You might still write a story about zombies, but it’s the story that’s driving the process, not the zombies. And I’m going to repeat myself: down at the bone, a good zombie story is first and foremost a good story. It’s an issue of whether you’re writing a good zombie story or a good story that has zombies in it. In either case, it’s got to be a good story.

A few days after my chat with the student, I came across this video by Ted Forbes. You should watch it. Not right now, necessarily (because c’mon, I want you to keep reading this, don’t I) but at some point take a few minutes and watch it. It’s called Nobody Cares About Your Photography.

I don’t know Ted Forbes; we’re ‘friends’ on Facebook, which just about the most tenuous sort of human connection possible. I don’t think I’ve ever exchanged a word with him, but I watch his Art of Photography videos. I don’t always care about the subject matter, but it’s always worthwhile to listen to anybody who’s passionate about something talk intelligently about it. I’m pretty confident that if you listened to somebody talk passionately and with intelligence about lawn bowling, you’d learn something you could use in writing. Or in photography.

Forbes says nobody cares about your photography — and he’s basically right. In the same way, nobody cares about your writing. There are SO many writers out there (and so many photographers or lawn bowlers) that it’s easy for you, as an individual, to be ignored. And if you’re proficient enough to care about your work and intelligent enough to wonder about your place, you’ll almost certainly at some point wonder if you should just give up.

Forbes, I think, makes two important, related points. He says No more easy shots and The world needs work that matters. What the hell does that even mean? And how does it translate into writing?

I don’t think he’s saying you need to be trying to create work that will be of historical importance (if he IS saying that, then the poor guy is delusional — but still worth watching). I think when he says No more easy shots he’s basically saying not to do the same old shit you’ve always done just because you’ve always done it. Do different shit, or do that old shit differently. Don’t relax, don’t sit down, don’t do it in your sleep.

And when he says The world needs work that matters I don’t think he’s saying the work must be Very Important Work. I think he’s saying to think about what the work actually means and how it fits into our culture. That sounds impressive as hell, doesn’t it. But consider the works of P.G. Wodehouse. It’s fluff. But it’s incredibly well-written fluff. It’s not easy to write comedic fiction that light-hearted.

Does the writing of P.G. Wodehouse matter? I’d say it does. People need a bright, witty escape from the world. They need it and deserve it. The question isn’t whether the world needs another novel about zombies — or about elves, or former special ops soldiers, or a sharp-witted nanny who is kidnapped by Barbary pirates. The question isn’t whether anybody really cares about your elven special ops zombie romance novel. They don’t.

But they do care about stories. They care about what stories do. About what stories make them feel. About the things stories inspire them to think about.

The world needs good stories. Stories matter. Grace matters, honesty matters, passion matters, intelligence matters. Stories will always matter. You may not write one that finds its way to an enthusiastic reader. But you can try. If you can approach your work with grace, honesty, passion, and intelligence, then it might matter. It might.

Lawn bowling

Lawn bowling

If it doesn’t — well, there’s always lawn bowling.

 

michael herr — there it is

Michael Herr died a couple of days ago. There’s a pretty good chance you won’t be familiar with the name, but if you’ve ever seen a movie about the war in Vietnam — hell, if you’ve even heard there was a war in Vietnam — then Michael Herr has shaped your understanding of the world.

He was a correspondent for Esquire magazine who covered Vietnam from 1967 to 1969. Well, covered isn’t the right term. He didn’t report the news from the war; he reported the experience of Vietnam — and in 1977 he turned all those experiences into an astonishing book called Dispatches. It’s not a history of the war; it’s not a morality tale, it’s not one of those ‘war is hell’ stories; it’s a semi-hallucinatory account of what one war was like for one correspondent. Herr sort of dolphined through Vietnam — sometimes dancing lightly across the surface, and sometimes diving so deep that light barely penetrates.

Going out at night the medics gave you pills, Dexedrine breath like dead snakes kept too long in a jar.

That’s the first line of the first chapter of Dispatches. The entire book is filled with lines like that — lines so beautiful you read them two or three times, lines so full of dread and horror you wish you hadn’t read them at all because you know they’ll stick like cockleburs in your brain — and if you’ve already got a head half-packed with memories you wish you didn’t have, you don’t really need any more. And yet you’re grateful for the beauty and horror of those lines because they ring true, all the way down to the bone.

Herr wrote the voice-over narration for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and helped write the screenplay for Full Metal Jacket, the film by Stanley Kubrick. But nothing compares to Dispatches. Michael Herr was one of the writers who revealed to me the actual power of good writing. Dispatches had a profound effect on my life — on how I saw the world, on how I related to my family, even on how I’ve done the various jobs I’ve had.

Vietnam is what we had instead of happy childhoods.

I never served in Vietnam. I did my four years in military harness toward the end of the war, and I did every fucking thing I could do to keep my ass in the States. Both of my older brothers went through Vietnam, though. Marines, both of them. One completed a full thirteen month tour and came back physically whole, but emotionally fucked up. The other brother was only there for about five months, then spent about twice that long in the Great Lakes Naval Hospital getting rehab for the leg he nearly lost. He was in Recon; his team was essentially inserted into an ambush; they were hit even before they could set up a perimeter. Now he has a chunk of steel instead of a thigh bone, receives a disability check every month from Uncle Sugar, and the State of Iowa gives him a license plate that gives him a preferred parking space.

Herr wrote a great deal about the Marines. He spent a lot of time with them. Marines re-taking the city of Hue, Marines under siege in Khe Sanh. If those names aren’t familiar to you, and there’s probably no reason they should be, just imagine the worst combat scenes you’ve seen in movies, then add some 60s rock. Reading about Marines in Dispatches helped me understand my brothers; it helped me love them.

Herr also wrote about LURPs — the guys who did the Army’s long-range recon patrols. That was helpful because I eventually ended up working with a former-4th Division LURP. We were both private investigators specializing in criminal defense work, and sometimes that meant going to scary places and asking nosy questions of scary people. This guy was a little crazy and a little scary himself, so he fit right in. We worked as a team — he’d be armed; I wouldn’t (I didn’t like carrying a firearm — not because I object to them, but because I felt a gun would make me over-confident and less situationally aware; being frightened kept me alert).

Being a LURP had taught him two things in detail. First, how to keep watch. When we’d go someplace dangerous, he’d sidle off quietly to one side and just keep watch while I’d approach the subject and do the talking. He’d take up a position, silent and relaxed and vigilant, and he’d sort of blend into the woodwork. It also taught him about violence — to avoid it when possible, and to commit to it when it was necessary. Overwhelming, sudden, sharp violence.

Knowing he was there never stopped me from being scared, but there was tremendous comfort in knowing I wasn’t alone. I learned to trust him totally. Trust is a word folks toss around a tad too freely, I think. When I say I trusted this guy, what I mean was I was confident that if things went Oh Shit, he’d step up. No hesitation. He might not be able to save me from getting hurt, but I knew he wouldn’t leave me — and that means a lot.

I don’t think we’d have become friends if Dispatches hadn’t allowed me to peek into the experiences guys like him had gone through. In fact, I’m not sure we were really friends at all; we had very little in common. Just that bond of trust. I think it meant a lot to him that I trusted him so much.

I guess Dispatches served me as a sort of guidebook, offering insights into people I loved and relied on. The book is almost 40 years old, and it still helps me keep the horizon line fairly straight. When I have my own terrifying PTSD moments and nightmares, it actually helps to know mine are a mild version — that I’ve had pretty good luck to limit my own personal horror show to the occasional moment of panic and sweaty, gasping nightmare.

Hell, it even helps me just to remember this brief passage from Dispatches. Herr wrote about the practice of saying “good luck” to somebody:

…and though I meant it every time I said it, it was meaningless. It was like telling someone going out in a storm not to get any on him, it was the same as saying “Gee, I hope you don’t get killed or wounded or see anything that drives you insane.”

Obviously I haven’t been killed. The only physical wound I’ve received came from a rather aggressive Rottweiler. And I’ve only seen things that wake me at night, occasionally leaving me too afraid to go back to sleep. That’s unpleasant, but it truly counts as good luck, and because of Dispatches I’m able to be thankful for it.

Michael Herr

Michael Herr

I wanted to include a photo of Michael Herr from his Vietnam days — but I couldn’t find any that are worth a damn. He describes one, though:

Dana [Stone] used to do a far-out thing, he’d take pictures of us under fire and give them to us as presents. there’s one of me on the ramp of a Chinook at Cam Lo, only the blur of my right foot to show that I’m not totally paralyzed, twenty-seven pushing fifty, reaching back for my helmet and the delusion of cover. Behind me inside the chopper there’s a door gunner in a huge dark helmet, a corpse is laid out on the seat, and in front of me there’s a black Marine, leaning in and staring with raw raving fear toward the incoming rounds, all four of us caught there together while Dana crouched down behind the camera, laughing. “You fuck,” I said to him when he gave me the print, and he said, “I thought you ought to know what you look like.”

That’s the photograph I wanted to show. Not this trench-coated guy in a suit and tie. It’s not that the Michael Herr on the ramp of that Chinook is the real Michael Herr, but it’s the Michael Herr who exists in my imagination.