Thursday, January 31, 2008


When I was in eighth grade, I lived a ten-minute walk from my friend Sarah's house. I used to play "So Cruel," from Achtung Baby, in my skip-resistant Discman, as soon as I reached the end of my block, I'd run lightly for two blocks, and I'd reach Sarah's house just as the last chords reverberated through me. It was a meditative ritual I never told anyone about.

I have no intention of describing or defending my fandom, except to say that the joy it brings me to see U2 live has not diminished in the fifteen years I've been going to concerts. That means I'm as excited now, rushing into an IMAX theater to see U23D, as I was at 13, rushing into Dodger Stadium, to see U2 ZooTV. That says just as much about the band as it does about me, I'll wager.

Because in truth, there is no other visual experience like this one, that I know of. The 3D reality is disorientingly real, even as you swoop in from the heavens to watch over Larry Mullen Jr.'s shoulder, or burrow into the depths of the mad, mad, gorgeously tan Buenos Aires audience.

I think about the people who will argue that it's "too big," and how many times U2 has heard that, and how frustratingly silly it is to think that rock and roll will ever be content as living-room size. It isn't the noise or the screen that makes U23D so large, I'll argue. It is that this 90-minute concert/art video lays claim to narrative, and musicians aren't supposed to have narratives outside of the ballad itself.

What's the narrative? Roughly: Men who know each other well do something beautiful together, try to help a crowd of people become better, more moral citizens, fiercer artists, and honest lovers, and never know if it's "worked."

At times, the people in the theater see through the eyes of Bono, the Edge, Larry, Adam. At times, they see through the eyes of the concert audience. At times, they become an omnipotent, flying, transcendent being with perspective no mortal human (without a crane) could have. We are given a gift of vision that is bigger, brighter, more distinct than those in the crowd. We are the bearers of dramatic irony--even Bono couldn't see the girls laughing or taking cell-phone pictures. Even they couldn't see Bono's shock when his flare lit up too quickly. We get to see everything.

This super-human perception is all-too-familiar in the standard omniscient narrator, and we slip into the position of all-knowing being as a reader without noticing it. But we don't get to do it quite as completely as movie viewers, usually, even with big panning shots and great sound. In 3D, on an IMAX screen, it is total. We are in the film. We are of the film. We are lost, and also, we are most powerful. This is a kind of moral stance, from which you feel utterly connected to all other human life, and that is why, when Bono sings Miss Sarajevo, when he sings Love and Peace (Or Else), when the great anger and grief at continued injustice coarses through, it is more moving than any romantic love song. Does U2 even do regular romantic love songs? I'd say no.

Love is always the higher power, which all people, even those in the throes of sexual jealousy or despair, must call upon and answer to. And Bono's hand-made headband, with the hypersymbolism spelling "COEXIST," is a demand that love makes on individuals, couples, families, cities, nation-states, religions, and so on and so on and so on...

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Susie Bright Lights Up The Booksmith

I have extensively borrowed a book by Susie Bright, "Full Exposure," by which I mean, I never returned the book to a friend with whom I no longer have contact. I moved the book from an apartment in Hollywood to my parent's garage to Cambridge, MA to Allston to Brookline to Cambridge, again, over the course of six years, and never read it.

Ask me why. Go ahead. I have no answer, at all. I'm actually quite ashamed. But now it's signed, to Vanessa, so I guess I've effectively stolen it.

After listening to her read and speak I think Susie Bright has been a hero of mine this whole time, and I just didn't know it. I read Full Exposure in anticipation of her Best American Erotica 2008 event, and had that uncanny experience of deja vu that happens when a writer articulates one of my own dearly-held but heretofore idiosyncratic beliefs: like the notion that all creativity is linked to, springs from, or is in some way interacting with the erotic body.

She was electric and charming, in her home-sewn dress and Earth boots, hanging out in front of the podium instead of back in the Green Room, discussing the death of her father, reading a story about a religious sexual sadist, and telling us of her admiration for her teenage daughter all in one moment. She was cozy in her body, her project, and her honesty, and I admired her not just for the work she's done to help people quit their prudishness, but for the embodiment of genuine performance she gave to us, a gift of love without the appearance of it being laborious.

At home afterwards, I opened up my very own advance copy of Boink: College Sex by The People Having It, a beautifully produced, glossy paperback goldmine of gorgeous sexy photos, sassy erotica, and deeply truthful essays by young people from Grand Central Publishing, coming out in February. I'm featured on the cover, and a story of mine made it into the collection (hence the plug!). The coincidence of these events, Susie and Boink on the same day, is far too delicious to ignore. In the generally exhausting conservatism of Boston's Higher Education Universe, where I spend most of my waking hours, I found a powerful reminder of such a large piece of my mission: bringing the juice.

It's possible that my involvement with Boink will have ripple effects in my career. But what is exciting about Susie Bright is that she's been able to MAKE a career of what other writers try to hide, do under another name, or do half-assed. I'd like to start a new genre called "philosmut," where the thinking is Derridean and the sex is blood-rushingly explicit. An experimental style that involves very sexy characters with HUGE brains. It's out there, I'm seeing bits and pieces in these anthologies. I think the army of writers willing to try is large, but the battlefield on which they're allowed to march is small. I know Susie says there's way more magazines now than there used to be, but write more than one or two sexy scenes in your novel, if you're a young female trying to debut, and it simply can't be mass marketed, unless you're willing to get a silly cartoon slapped on the cover and be told you're another machine producing "chick lit." Write a sexy scene that's not strictly hetero-focused, and you're automatically a queer writer relegated to a single stack in an independent store. Of course some great books get through, but hell, that's always been true. I'm feeling fiercely committed to seeing some more change in this situation during my writing career.

So Susie Bright is still relevant, necessary, and a wonder to behold. I wanted to invite her over to drink tea and tell stories and laugh, discuss issues that make us furious, cook a meal that makes us swoon, and read some philosmut together.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Caution: Inappropriate Games

This is a picture of a tea spread at Samovar in San Francisco. The tea is Rooibos Earl Grey, the adorable tiny containers are filled with milk and honey. This, along with the tofu/noodle/ginger/unidentified green vegetable bowl I ordered and devoured, are the perfect nourishment companions for a riotous round of inappropriate conversation games. Many people only play "drinking games." Pish posh to that, I say. Sure, play them drunk, but play them over tea, over breakfast cereal, and over late-night olive-oil-and-black-pepper-popcorn too, I say. Play them in the car with no food at all, if you must.

I'd like to be an advocate for inappropriate games. Here are a few of my favorites, which I have played in recent weeks with friends and people I barely know. What makes the games inappropriate? In my worldview, absolutely nothing. In my experience with the more socially conservative and privacy-oriented worldviews of others, they ask for "risky" sharing of personal information. Some of these I learned at summer camp. Some I made up, or people I like made them up. Do any of us need credit? Surely not. These games are our gifts to the world.

Hot Seat: This game is much like Truth or Dare, but without the Dare portion. One person is on the "hot seat," and one person times them for 5 minutes. During those five minutes, everyone in the circle bombards the person in the "hot seat" with questions of a personal nature. When they've answered for five minutes, they choose who goes next. A person on the hot seat may decline to answer one question out of their five minutes, but of course, they may be roundly criticized for doing so.

Cliff: This is a forced choice game. One player names three people: they need not be very famous, but they must be known to all players. For example: Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, Emily Dickinson. Each player then must choose one of three options: (1) live with forever but never be lovers, (2) have sex for one night and never see them again, (3) throw them off a cliff. Your choices reveal so much. (Live with Henry, sleep with Norman, chuck Emily off the cliff.) A variation of this game, which I do not recommend, is "Hardcore Cliff" where you name people in the room.

Gun To Your Mother's Head: This is also a forced choice game. One player presents a choice in this fashion: "Okay, Gun To Your Mother's Head, would you rather eat Larry Flynt's pants or allow George Bush to touch your breasts on television?" You must answer immediately, without hesitation, or "BANG!" your mother is "dead." You may say "clarification" if you are unsure what the choices are, but you may only ask for one clarification before you answer.

The Chin Game: This is a very good game to play with people you are just meeting for the first time. The object is to get the other person (who is unaware of the game) to cover or wipe their chin with their hand. The method is to alternate looking into their eyes, with a neutral expression, and glancing at their chin, with a pained/increasingly disgusted or horrified expression, as if an alien is creeping out of a mysterious crater-size pimple down there, then looking back up at their eyes and "acting normal" again. The game goes quickly, and my favorite way to play is to let the other person in on it right away. Then they usually go do it to someone else and report back in hysterics.

Confess!: During what would otherwise not be "gametime," one player points at another and yells "CONFESS!" The confessor then must announce something about themselves that they would not otherwise share.

Whenever I am attempting to solicit new people to play these games, I never advertise them as "fun." In fact, they very much are. But what I emphasize is that they tend to spark later conversation, deeper intimacy, and more honesty in daily communication. Once you are accustomed to people telling you to "CONFESS!" you start occasionally thinking "what am I hiding right now?" And this is the true value of playing them in regular situations, not just organized groups. I've seen many people discover their own preferences, for certain literature, body type, or academic field, while playing Cliff. I've had friendships change completely after questions answered and asked during Hot Seat.

Played well, these games can upset the balance in dramatic ways. I also use them as tools for writing. I think about what my characters are trying not to say. I think about whether they'd agree that Emily Dickinson is less necessary to the world than Henry Miller, and how they might argue about it. I envision them being offended that someone would name a game "Gun To Your Mother's Head," and what that means about their sense of humor.

So: Let's play a round of Cliff. It doesn't matter if any of the characters is already dead--in this universe, they all have a chance to live. One of these characters you must live with forever without being lovers. One you may have one night of passion with, but can never see again (they live out their natural life, somewhere far from you). One you must throw off a cliff. See if you can explain your answers. Here are your choices:

Vladimir Nabokov
Tim Burton
Miles Davis

Post your answers in the comments!

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Museum of Jurassic Technology

It's not a new museum, and it's not one of the major Los Angeles attractions, but the Museum of Jurassic Technology is my new favorite Southern CA oddity. Don't get hung up on what the name "means." What it means is: you are entering another world, where symbolic language holds as much importance as literal, where the poetic and thematic beauty of people and objects trumps their traditional place in the hierarchy of significance.

It's not the butterfly-scale mosaics that only become visible under a microscope, the sculptures of Goofy and Napoleon nestled in the eyes of needles, the room dedicated to Kirchner serenaded by a "Bell Wheel," the decomposing dice, the replica of Mary Saughall's horn, or even the plaque describing the problem of historical representations of the "Battle of Pavia" that make the museum such a necessary destination. It's the fact that all of these things are displayed and interpreted in ways that completely call into question our notions of (1) what is knowledge, and (2) what is important to know.

I recommend the museum for its content, absolutely. I fancy myself an amateur conisseur of independent, idiosyncratic museums, and there's no more eclectic, disturbing, and surreal collection of objects and stories on display, in that volume, that I know of. I recommend the place for the slightly menacing tea room, where even in bright sunlight the shades stay drawn, candles are lit, and a brass samovar steams with free English tea. I recommend it for its sweet little gift shop and reasonably priced publications.

But mostly, I want everyone I know to visit the museum to have their minds blown by how disorienting and shocking it is to be told, quietly and implicitly, that you are an impatient, narrow-minded, uneducated person, by virtue of the fact that you are tempted to listen to only two of five interpretive recordings on Georffrey Sonnabend's Theory of Forgetting, that you don't understand how to represent logic problems visually, that you are not spatially aware enough to make a new kind of cat's cradle, even with string in your hands, when a video shows you how. Or maybe you are, in which case, I am already impressed.

I continually asked myself, "why does this matter?" and continually the answer came: "because someone noticed it." Not everything in the museum is even "real," by empirical standards. In fact, there is an entire collection of "vulgar knowledge," a room dedicated to wives' tales and superstitions that presents each as simply something that was or is believed, with no discussion of whether the belief had been debunked. The debunking is irrelevant. The fact that at one time, people sent a child out to talk to the bees in the hive after a relative had died, the fact that that child was supposed to recite lines of verse to the bees, the sheer magical quality of that action, compounded by the magical quality of it being practiced for many years over a large geographical region, is the "mattering" of the museum.

I've never been in a museum that so carefully destroyed my notions of historical importance, so validated my sense of literary and aesthetic wonder, and so thoroughly disrupted my ideas about what is normal in this world.

Visit them!