And Then I Rented a Truck

As an aside to the typical (which is to say: rarely to never appearing) content of this (pretty much defunct) blog (which is also to say: a pretty much defunct form of writing), this summer I’ll share a few notes on the reno work I’m doing at our Canadian farmhouse, in gorgeous Prince Edward Island.

Quick context: the farmhouse had problems when we bought, indeed could only be bought because it had problems…namely a caving-in foundation and some rotted posts in the basement. A good deal, then! Easy fix, the contractor who looked at it said!

It was not easy. Just as securing a contractor proved difficult. The first — the one who said it would be easy — disappeared after a walkthrough, foisting the job toward someone else when it became clear I wasn’t buying his “offer” to take the Island stone of the foundation off my hands, save me money since I wouldn’t have to haul it, he’d just take it for free (and then sell it for thousands…). Several twists and turns appeared in finding a new, reliable contractor, one twist rather tragic (which I won’t get into here), a few other amounting to further disappearance acts, and the end result being two contractors, one to replace only one wall of the foundation (the one caving) plus concrete the clay basement floor, and the other to do the structural work…

…which proved to be substantial. Almost every joist. Almost every post in the basement. The sill plates. A carrying beam or two. A necessary whole house rewire. Surprising needs for a plumbing upgrade. A budget tripled, and the “good deal” now not so much.

I arrived Monday to finally see the fruits of this winter labor. And, in bullet form:

  • The electrical work isn’t finished, with the most troubling non-connection that of the well pump to the new 200-amp box. So no water. And it is a holiday (Victoria Day)…
  • And, the phone + internet is dead, coupled with my American cell not working in Canada, and the nearest public WiFi a half hour away (see: holiday).
  • Day 2, an electrician arrives on short notice (thanks!) and installs the last breaker. This isn’t the electrician who did the job (rather, who didn’t), and he isn’t super thrilled with what he sees in the new box. Lots of long loops for the new connections, making it hard to get new wires through, and also leaving open the (unlikely) possibility of one of the long strands of bare ground copper getting pushed into hot slots in the box, zap.
  • Day 2, the phone company does not arrive…then I find out they did…just when I wasn’t there and before I knew they would be trying to come…because I was 30 minutes away checking my messages to find out they would be by, oh, between 8am and 5pm.
  • Day 2, the hot water tank doesn’t seem to be heating, at all.
  • Day 3, the hot water tank leads to tepid water, after a good 18 hours of cooking, so I start a chilly shower, get soaped up, and then the water stops. Kaput. Dead. I towel off, leaving a protective layer of soap film, and want to call a plumber, but have no phone service.
  • Day 3, the weather drops 25 degrees, into the 30s, and the wall furnace to the currently unheated home is still 24 hours away from install.
  • Day 3, the new propane tank is delivered. That’s good.
  • Day 3, I spend an hour on the phone with the satellite company, because the foundation work meant someone sawed down the tower with the satellite on it, tacked it up facing a different angle, so unless the neighboring potato field is broadcasting, nothing’s coming to the dish; it takes an hour to convince the agent that, no, doing the diagnostic again isn’t going to work.
  • Day 3, the phone is reinstalled, the tech showing me that the foundation work meant, wham, the box was pulled off the wall, the wire severed (would have been nice if they’d at least told me they did that), and fresh shingles places where the box used to be. The tech spools a temporary line through the woods to the relay console, and later this summer a crew will trench and bury it. Back to communications.
  • Day 3, new plumber called.
  • Day 3, plumber diagnoses a short in one of the well wires, plans to return on Day 4 to fix it. You’re living here, he asks. I assure him the woods are fine, and I have enough bottled water to force the commode to flush when necessary.
  • Day 3, the plumber also suspects that the heating element is dead in the hot water tank. He’ll fix that, also.
  • Day 3, when the plumber leaves, the circuit holding the internet has tripped…foreshadowing.
  • Day 3, I drive to the City to get wood for my interior projects…new floors in the kitchen, in the eating area, in the bathroom…future projects include building cabinets, and finishing a wall that now has exposed understructure, rebuilding the gutting bathroom.
  • Day 3, the big box store won’t sell me wood — this is actually charming and helpful — because the guy working in the lumber area thinks my project would be better and more economical if I sourced the wood from a local sawmill.
  • Day 3, I buy a drier for the house, assure the sales person that it will fit in the back of my Subaru Impreza.
  • Day 3, the drier does not fit. We start to remove the box. I give myself a bad paper cut and start bleeding all over the box. She gets me a bandaid, and I apologize for being the worst customer ever. The drier still does not fit.
  • Day 3, I find out the big box store has a van to rent, which I rent. I won’t be able to make it back until after closing. No problem, they say. They give me a number to call when I get there, for the manager on duty, who can let me in to return the key, or I can return in the morning…but in the morning I have a plumber, and a furnace install, and a cable service appointment. So I drive 45 minutes home, drop the drier on the porch, drive back. Everyone is impressed with my speed.
  • Day 3, I return home to discover that the drier won’t fit in the door of the house.
  • Day 3, I take the pneumatic off the screen door. The drier still doesn’t fit.
  • Day 3, I take the pneumatic holder off the door jamb. The drier fits.
  • Day 3, the upstairs lights don’t work, the breaker having been tripped at some point. Maybe it happened when the plumber was looking at the tank, or maybe there are gremlins in the new wiring. Perhaps Day 4 will yield answers.

Draft Comments to the Russian Ambassador Enrolled in My Creative Writing Workshop

Dear Sergey,

Let me first say that it has been a joy to have you in this class, even if you’re not a student and, in fact, enrolled at a rival university. The valise of rare jewels of questionable provenance was completely unnecessary: Happy to have you aboard! (Do I need to disclose that on my taxes? I should check with HR, but you probably know better than they). Also, no, I’m not aware of the precise effects of radiation poisoning, but on an unrelated matter I have already alerted the registrar of the A you will be earning in this class at the end of term.

So, about your story. I love it. Though I’m not sure that the title “Oh Captain My Captain It is Russia Who Will Soon Contain Your Multitudes” is the best choice. Maybe something subtler? Try: “[Redacted Testimony from a Federal Grand Jury].” Brackets are fun, and my title doesn’t give away what happens in the story, which seems very much to be what you’re after.

On the plot: normally, I’m not a fan of conservative religious soft porn, particularly when overlayed with international intrigue and propagandistic tendencies. But you make it work. Seriously. It’s kind of Fifty Shades of Gray meets a long lost sophomore-year amateurish John LeCarre novel as written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, but not a bad Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, instead an alt-Soviet Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who wasn’t a traitor and instead wrote for the glory of Mother Russia. Seriously, your story is that good.

Though you might want to rethink the character’s names: Veep sounds like a muppet, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is oddly specific, plus that character is too shifty to allow for a reasonable suspension of disbelief. Side question: why does Donny keep looking at his phone? It’s all he seems to do in the story, which might be your attempt to suggest an infantile mind, or a narcissistic disorder of some sort, or maybe simple lunacy, but if he’s supposed to be the driver of the car in this buddy road trip story, well, that distraction seems dangerous to say the least. I mean, will they even be able to get to St. Petersburg? Won’t they crash along the way? Why would they even give Donny the keys? These are fundamental questions of believability, so please consider.

My favorite character by far, and one who you’ve mastered with uncommon grace and subtly, is Sir Gary Killer of Yaks. I admit to thinking the name seemed odd at first, but the character is so well drawn that I have nary a suggestion to make. I was sucked in by his dashing good looks and unrivaled intelligence. Though, could you vary your diction some? Using “Putin-esque” as a recurring adjective does create a lovely anaphora but I found myself hoping for more variety. Try “Vladmir-esque” or even “shirtless machismo.” Yes, they’re rather obvious synonyms, but I think you’ll like the effect. I could be wrong. You’re the boss.

Finally, I want to respond to your handwritten note that, as instructed, I set on fire before, again, as instructed, eating the ashes. You’ve requested a transfer from my fiction course into creative nonfiction (which you curiously referred to as alt-nonfiction – I like that change, but FYI it’s not the convention of the genre). I fear that this story would strain the limits of credulity too far if considered “true,” even if, as you suggest, it is “based fully on events that are real, accurate, and intended to undermine the global position of the evil decadent West.” You’re best where you are, in this fictional universe. I mean, were you writing nonfiction, well, I’d actually be worried about the fate of the nation. Ha ha! Seriously, kidding. If you want to switch, that’s fine by me. Your call.

In closing, let me reiterate that we have never met before, or even now. In fact, let me be very clear that I have neither met you nor ever talked to you, let alone invited you to actually lead the workshop instead of serving as a student, and if I have met and talked to you and written a detailed workshop response letter, it hardly sticks in my mind, despite the mellifluous resonance of your masterful prose.

Keep Writing,

Your Dutiful Servant and Professor

Progressive Infiltration

Dear Liberal Lovers of Justice, Freedom, and Goodness,

A simple proposal today: let’s all become Republicans.

Really, I mean it. Hear me out. (And, like, I have to imagine other people have had this idea, yes? It’s too simple for me to imagine this hasn’t become common knowledge, so apologies if you’ve heard it before). (UPDATE: yeah, like I thought, someone else had this idea before me (and I’m guessing probably before him, too), but he’s an astrophysicist/sci fi author, so he had an unfair intellectual advantage (okay, I’m going to undercut that joke now…because I’m tired of pretending that my Ph.D. isn’t as valuable as other Ph.D.s, or my field is less important…I mean, the joke is still funny, but stars aren’t inherently harder to figure out than literature, so there.)).

I’m in DC at the moment, which is an interesting experience of simultaneous patriotic ecstasy and crushing depression. On the one hand, I spent hours this afternoon in the National Portrait Museum, and I was in awe. That’s just one of like 47,000 Smithsonian museums in the city (alt-fact, so you might not want to quote directly), and they’re all free (not an alt-fact, and amazing. I lived for awhile in Paris, and I spent a fair amount of time at the Louvre and the the d’Orsay, but I had to buy a pass which, while reasonably-priced, still cost serious dough. In DC, we Americans have blocks and blocks (19 in all, not an alt-fact) of museums (plus one’s a zoo), full of world-class exhibits, and you just walk in. Fabulous. Truly. America loves the arts; it really does; don’t let the troglodytes convince you otherwise, or let them find ways to defund them).

I’m struck in DC, as well, by the sight of the monuments and buildings of our government. They’re architectural wonders, inspiring in the best sorts of ways. The structures around The Mall and Capitol Hill are physical manifestations of our democracy, marble and limestone metaphors to what we believe we are. Seeing it always makes me thrill, even when I know and think about the darkness of American politics.

Thus, the flip side, darkness is in full swing because of the occupying Trumpian Regime, a crushing reality. Does the depression side of the dichotomy need any further explanation?

We need tactics to retake what has been lost. We need to refill these structures with America. So, tonight, over Negronis at my hotel bar, I offered to two dear friends my (like I said, doubtfully original) idea for a political takeover. Let’s all register as Republicans.

I love the protest marches, and the phone calls, and the activated liberal attitude on display right now, but I’m worried that it amounts, in the end, to so much annoying noise to the GOPers in control. Take the DeVos vote, and the Sessions vote, and the chilling silencing vote against Elizabeth Warren. Party lines dictate that the PowerDudes get to do what they want. No amount of calls to, say, Pat Toomey, one of my two state senators, sways what he will do, because he knows he has the right-wing votes. He doesn’t need to vote against Trump, because he has the constituents to back him. In fact, he’s likely calculated that he needs to vote with Trump to satisfy the right-wing voters of PA who, might I remind you, voted not for HRC. I do believe, alas, his is probably an accurate assessment of the land: we might be mad about the voting realty of the GOP, but those of us who are mad probably also actually voted in the recent elections when Trump, y’know, won (yes, yes, not in the popular vote, losing by a lot…but our system is our system, and he played that system, and beat it). So, our anger might not actually be putting enough votes into the system to change things.

That’s the rub, all the way around: I imagine most of the people marching, and making signs, and calling and faxing and emailing and carrier pigeoning to constituent-dodging elected officials were, in fact, voters. Yes, we liberals and progressives are activated, but maybe not in a way that will counteract the numbers of votes counted in places, like my county in Northwestern PA, where conservative votes vastly outweigh the Ds. We want these protests to indicate a groundswell of non-voters, who will vote next time, and sway future elections. But do we have evidence that that is the case? Solid evidence? What if it’s just us? We know how we voted, and what happened.

Instead, let’s switch sides. What if we flooded the Republican party with us? I’m serious. We should do this. That would force the Republicans to shift their politics leftward, or they’d face a failure in their 2018 primaries. Many politicians govern based on their own fear. They want to be re-elected. They need to be re-elected. So they chase votes. A mass enrollment to the Republican side could both press incumbents to adjust their “views” or, in fact, lead to the appearance of a few fully-spined moderate Republicans who would press hard against people like Toomey, who have been content to pander to the extreme. Our move to the GOP might even get the shifty dudes like John McCain and Lindsay Graham to actually be consistently oppositional to the hateful rhetoric of Trump, instead of selectively so. Indeed, if we all joined the Republican party, we could dramatically shift the politics of the “right” toward the reasonable.

A few points to consider, as well:

  1. Dems would still run, good ones. And they’d be fine in the primaries where, in restricted states like PA, you only get to vote for candidates in your party. There’d be some Dem voters, enough to have a small but spirited primary season. The rest of us would harangue the Republican primary contestants and get them to be non-hateful,  etc.
  2. Then, in general elections, we’d all be free to pick whomever we want, either the Dems who are running and we’d typically be inclined to support or, in some cases, the surprising and exciting potential conscientious Republicans who would actually be able to make political headway again.
  3. Imagine how crazy the right-wingers would get if we did this! They’d probably try to find some way of making our membership in the GOP illegal, which would be amusing, because there would be simply no mechanism to do that.
  4. Which, were they agitated enough, could lead to one of the greatest, most-needed moments of our political moment: the nut job Tea Party Trump’s-Fine NeoFascist Alt Right Devil’s Pact people would calve off from the Republican glacier, since the prospect of having to deal with all of these liberals in their party would be too much to bear. We would ruin it for them. So they’d form their own party (the Nut Job Party, or whatever), leaving the actual Republican Party free from their alien bodysnatching. Real Republicans would blink in this new political sunshine, wondering what happened, and be grateful to just get back to having civil discourse with the Democrats, instead of choking down rightwing litmus test bullshit.
  5. Seriously, they’d be thrilled! But the GOP would be smaller, and much weaker, and either infiltrated by a bunch of liberals, making the Republicans once again actually the Party of Lincoln, or all the liberals would hightail it back to a re-energized and likely-dominant Democratic party.
  6. Either way, we’d restore the balance of politics.

So, I ask you, in all seriousness: if you’re registered as a D or even an I, why not consider switching right away to an R? It might feel, well, icky, but the feeling will pass. Because if we can get millions of people to march, we can also get millions to flood the Republican Party with progressive ideas. And I truly think this is our best chance to change the nature of political discourse in the country. Otherwise, we’re just going to keep marching, and calling, and then be disappointed when gerrymandered districts stay far to the right, no matter what we do.

That cliché: if you can’t beat em, join ’em. But better yet, by joining ’em, we can actually beat ’em.

P.S. I’m serious. This is not a joke. Do it.

P.P.S. Yes. Serious. Party affiliation can be changed easily, either online (the PA link to do so is here), or at your courthouse.

P.P.P.S. I. Am. Serious.

P.P.P.P.S. If you were ever to consider sharing one of my ridiculous blog posts, do it for this one. Let’s get this idea out there, because I think it gives us a fighting chance in 2018. It gives America a fighting chance.

Greasy Anti-Journalism

Dear Lovers of Real News and Truth and Democracy,

Back in my newspaper days, one of my first assignments was to establish a network of contacts to gather routine information from the monthly public meetings of the most rural townships in that rural county. No big deal, really. Or so one would think. After a few phone calls to these rural townships, I soon hit a wall of reluctance and suspicion. I thought this would be easy: so, can I call you the morning after meetings, get a run-down of the business? Sometimes, I told them, I’d come in person, but since I’d be covering so many meetings, in so many places, many on the same night, this Rural News Network would let constituents know what’s going on. Several townships said, why?, but reluctantly agreed. One, the smallest, outright refused. No way, no how.

This puts me in mind of Sean Spicer, of course, and Kellyanne Conway, and the Trump, and a new federal disdain for the job and purpose of the press. Think back to that first Trumpian presidential news briefing (like two weeks ago, but feeling like years in our anguish-adjusted calendar), when Spicer came out and bludgeoned the reporters, no questions allowed, about how inaccurate the objective overhead photos of the inauguration were. Then there was Conway talking about “alternative facts.” And then Conway talking about the “Bowling Green Massacre,” and the revelations that this was no mistake, actually a repeated lie, and then The List from the White House, about all the terrorist attacks the press hasn’t adequately covered, like the Pulse Shooting and the Charlie Hebdo shooting, that both dominated the news for quite some time. And, in the 30 seconds it’s taken you to read these first two paragraphs, whatever other seventeen lies, um, alternative facts have become politically expedient. Disinformation at best, here, and likely much worse: a concerted effort to undermine the press, cleave away public support, and offer alternate official realities.

There’s been plenty of coverage of this, which I hope continues, because the alternative (or the strategy!) of the bombardment is to wear us out, make us just say, fine. Let Trump go on his merry way criticizing the judiciary and pissing on the Constitution…oh wait…I think he might actually have hired Russian prostitutes to do that. But I’ve been thinking a lot, since Trumpageddon began, about the impact of his “leadership” on local journalism and local politics, the stuff that most directly affects our lives. So I recall the days back around Y2K (is Trump the late-acting glitch we were all waiting for?), as a reporter for my hometown newspaper in a small Southwestern Pennsylvania borough. I worry, today, about how the act of gathering news in such places could be damaged by what’s happening in Washington.

When Spicer and Conway offer declarations of a chilling counter-reality, lying about the details and offering not-so-veiled threats of censorship, I imagine the reluctant rural elected officials of my old newspaper beat — men who doubled as township supervisors and the road maintenance crew. I wonder how they might recognize in Trump’s pugnacious attitude a blueprint for dealing with troublesome reporters, how to deny them access and respect. If the President can do it (man, it’s hard to write that word, knowing it means Trump), why can’t I?

Back to that tiny, obstructive township. Stymied in my phone-based plan, I traveled the backroads in my unreliable Reliant to their township office, a large corrugated metal outbuilding that was chiefly the garage for their two dump trucks, one of which was at least fifty years old. The three supervisors and I sat on battered metal folding chairs in the small reception area, and surrounded by the smell of engine grease and diesel fuel they discussed the month’s business: this much gravel to purchase, and that road needs to be graded, and this small grant will be arriving from the state to replace their only bridge.

From one perspective, the details of this meeting were so minor as to seem insignificant. The men here were honorable in their task, and they had no reason to order extra road salt in some kind of baffling sodium-based embezzlement. But the reason I was there, and the reason my editor wanted these reports in the paper at all, was because the business of the roads was the business of the townships, was what tax dollars chiefly paid for. Beyond that, the establishment of a newslink to a rural township would also mean a reporter would have pre-existing contacts if something more significant happened.

The supervisors knew I was allowed to be there, so the meeting went on as normal. But I think, also, about how reluctant those officials and others were to talk to “the news media,” even about things as routine as stone purchasing. These local officials allowed me access to the meetings because they felt they had to, no doubt. They understood the sense of a free press, and the duty of public transparency for public officials, even if they saw it all as an annoyance. But if the president of the United States can cut the press out of news conferences, that also sends a message that public officials all the way down the line needn’t talk to the press either. It can begin with blocking the inconvenience of talking to reporters, which quickly means the public has no real access to what’s happening in government. Sure, at the local level, constituents can technically attend meetings (they’re public, after all!), but that’s not actually a reasonable possibility for many, particularly in rural places where people have to work non 9-5 shifts, and (not joking here) feed the animals, etc. The higher up you go in government, the less practical visitation and observation become. The press is crucial as a representative of the people.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the actions of Trump will necessarily lead immediately to the barring of reporters from local public meetings, whether it be township supervisors, or school boards, or city councils (Point: these are also places that voted heavily for Trump, and not accidentally, so there’s also that…). Instead, I fear that the disdain the top elected official in the nation displays toward both reporters and facts could lead to a reinforcement of the needless suspicion the supervisors demonstrated back in that garage, and that it could also lead to an emboldened resistance against fair and open communication with the press at all levels.

Local government matters. Even though many people take advantage of neither the right to attend meetings nor even the right to read about them in the local newspaper, that those rights exist and are vigorously exercised by local newspapers is crucial to a functioning democracy. In chastising the national media for covering truth in ways the president did not like — which is to say, for reporting the truth instead of working as a PR outlet for the Trump’s whims — Spicer and Conway offer a clear declaration that the people do not deserve to know what’s happening. Obviously, the idea of Trump communicating “directly” to the public via Twitter as a somehow purer form of unmediated Truth is a lack of directness, since the public would then have no means to evaluate the truth (or alternative facts) of the information delivered, no way to press (ha ha ha!) for clarifications, extensions, etc. Direct communication from the government, of course, is also the definition of propaganda.

Here’s the issue: in practice, the access of reporters to things like township meetings relies entirely on a shared sense of the rightness of that act. I have no doubt that had the supervisors of that rural township so many years ago felt in their rights to do so, they would have blocked me from their meetings. I just slowed things down, after all. They didn’t trust me, because why would I come to their meetings if I wasn’t looking for a malicious scoop? Yet the men at that rural township understood that as elected officials they had the responsibility to allow public access to their meetings through the intermediary of the press. They believed in America, deeply, and so they reluctantly let me watch them talk about the cost per ton of aggregate gravel.

America is different now, and the civics lessons of our school days can be quickly written off by following the actions of a president with apparent disdain for the fundamental tenants of a free democracy. The press allows citizens to know what’s actually going on, so that we can all be engaged and vital in our democracy. While even at the local level there are legal safeguards, and, yes, a reporter could file Freedom of Information Act requests to gain access to the invoices of, say, diesel fuel to run a township’s ancient dump truck, such things don’t either make sense or do much good for local reporting, particularly that of routine business. While national news agencies have the money and leverage to push back against Trump’s lies (at least for now), local newspapers and individual papers simply do not. If local officials begin to follow Trump’s example and deny access to information, Americans across the nation will soon lose contact with the governments that have the most direct impact on their lives. Trump is a stain that washes all the way down, dear friends. Already, Trump-style candidates are ramping up campaigns locally — I have no doubts about that. We need to be ready, and aware of the tremendous democratic costs associated with belligerent, anti-press sentiments.

Announcing My Non-Candidacy in the PA-6th Legislative, PA-50th Senatorial and PA-3rd Congressional 2018 Races…Probably…I Don’t Know

Dear Constituents,

In a fit of semi-late night, what-the-hell-is-happening, first weekend of Trumpian horror, I threw out a fast Facebook post. You might have seen it or, I should say, is anyone seeing this blog post? I mean, I had momentum with one big post…and then did nothing…so…hello? hello? Sibilance, sibilance.

Back to (or near) the point, the post declared some kind of semi-interest in running for elected office to unseat a troglodytic and anti-intellectual PA Rep in my local state district, or an early Trump-adopter US Rep in my local federal district. Later, I thought about the state Senatorial seat, which is also held by a Republican. Yes! Action! Election! Power! Resist! Change!

And, people said online and in person, go for it. And I was like, oh shit, what have I done, accompanied with lots of moments of, yes I will do this and I would be an awesome statesman, and I would hate every second of my life and but now I have to and oops and now I sound like former Texas Governor Rick Perry and oh, man, I’d be working with all sorts of Rick Perrys. Then a brief discussion broke out about whether or not I would be running to win or running just to shift the conversation, since my district (state and federal both) is rather, shall we say, firmly Republican and I’m, well, not. Then all sorts of private messages came to me, about what sort of politician (No! Statesman! I would be a Statesman!) I should be, and then oddball things happened on other Facebook posts when I suggested things like, if Trump orders special forces into situations with unclear intelligence, putting soldiers and civilians at risk, that’s bad no matter where your politics are and I got weird aggressively oddball responses like baby bunnies are the softest bunnies, which was clearly meant as some kind of dig that I’m not military enough to understand, but heard loud and clear as: shut the fuck up snowflake.

Like, politics, man. Wow.

So, as of now, with the understanding that I will change my mind a billion times, I ain’t interested in what I suggested I was exploring. And here’s a few thoughts on why, which I hope clarifies why I think not running is actually a more powerful act of resistance, one where I can make use of whatever sort of talents I have as a person who can bang on a keyboard fairly quickly and accurately and, to boot, not hate every breathing second of my life.

  1. The West Wing is based on Alternative Facts. What I mean by this is that I love The West Wing, and I think many of the friends I’ve heard thinking about running for office, as well as many of the liberal intellectuals around the country who are talking about running for office (scientists and writers and doctors and all sorts of people who use their noggins for a living) love it too. And it’s awesome, because The West Wing is based on a liberal romantic notion of what politics is supposed to be (and I mean that. I would leap instantly into any alternate dimension that offered politics that functioned like that show). The entire premise of the show is based on a belief in the Rational Reason of facts and argument. Politics in our real life, near as far as I can tell, is not. Instead, politics is based on fear-mongering (see: Trump) and passions, and wedge-issues, and the absolute inability to sway anyone through the force of intellect and reason. Studies back that up, as explained here. Also, I think the whole Trumpian nightmare is really based on a failed pilot where The West Wing was reimagined with characters of totally opposite traits, Jed Bartlett vs. Trump, CJ vs. Spicer, Toby vs, Preibus. Think of it like those couple of horrible Deep Space Nine episodes when they did alternate dimensions with an evil Major Kira (showing that evil=bad acting) and a wicked Dr. Basheer (acting as poorly as ever, but without the charm) etc. Trump’s presidency is like that.
  2. I believe in facts and reason. This is really a continuation of #1, but I can’t figure out how to make new paragraphs in a list, so whatever. My point here is that as a dude with a Ph.D., from a highly-educated (Republican, btw) family, married to a highly-educated woman, working with lots of highly-educated people, doing a job based on the inherent values of being highly-educated and thinking critically, I live in a (don’t call it a bubble!) world where ideas matter, as do the careful and spirited, noble and smart debate of those issues. Speaking for myself and imagining it holds sway for lots of people allured by the prospect of getting into politics to raise the level of discourse, the problem is the line I reference above: baby bunnies are the softest bunnies. That’s actually indicative of the level of intellectual debate that politics allows, and that the electorate engages. Trying to be a politician who acts with reason and intellect would be an exercise in frustration and futility. I’d get nothing done, and I’d be pissed off all the time.
  3. I’m an elitist. Yeah, well fuck-all, yes I am, if being an “elitist” is being someone who thinks you should think, and thinks that education is a noble pursuit and not a mark against a person (though I’ve lived most of my life in places where people actually consider those who are educated as somehow less-capable of thinking intelligently than those who are not…this is not to say people without advanced or even undergraduate degrees are not smart — I know many who are — but that it’s patently stupid to believe that education actually makes people dumber), that the arts are a crucial aspect of life, as is philosophy, and science (not mere technical innovation, by the way, which is what much of the politics supporting STEM really is…ask a scientist…they care about science, which is another way of saying, they care about thinking about questions and trying stuff out to see what happens…making valuable things is just a side thing), and nature, and justice, and all of the things that Trump and the brain-dead Trumpets hate. See, that’s me being elitist again. I’m saying people who believe in the ideas of Trump are stupid, and I say that because Trump’s ideas are stupid. And, worse (Equally bad? I dunno. Probably worse.) he’s going about it in a blatantly counter-Constitutionally and anti-Democratically and fearfully-autocratic way. Those who can’t see that are being…let’s see…stupid. See. Elitist.
  4. This would play poorly in my campaign. The thing is, I like saying “fuck” sometimes, which you can’t do as a politician in public, particularly in the context of a debate when I’d be tempted to say, are you a fucking idiot? This would be because the arch-enemy I see in my district, the PA-6th idiot (see here and his defense of those comments here), runs the most basic, mindless, cliched Republican platform ever: cut taxes, more guns, no abortion. I’d call that platform stupid, and when he tried to defend it, call him an idiot, fucking or otherwise. But, as you’ll see if you take a read around those links, he understands that his braindead platform plays well in his district. And he has no reason or capacity to engage the complexities of these issues, as I’d want to do in a campaign, because this isn’t The West Wing. Still, I’d argue this way: a) low taxes aren’t necessarily a benefit to an economically struggling county, particularly because the problem here isn’t so much high absolute taxes but high relative taxes, because wages are low and property values are low and the tax base sucks. So, taxes aren’t the problem, earnings and a stalled out Make America Great Again notion of economic development is. We might be able to actually improve our ability to attract new, progressive development if everyone just took down their Confederate Battle Flags (and did so because they actually realized they should disavow their bigotry). And, there it is, me campaigning badly. B) And abortion, dude, you’re a PA representative, so no amount of whatever anti-abortion stuff you do will change the, y’know, federal statute. Plus, if you’re saying you’re Pro-Life (which you ain’t, you’re just anti-abortion, like almost all those calling themselves Pro-Life but who support the death penalty, and war, and social injustice), then you need to be all about, for example, racial equality (like, why is the higher mortality rate of infants in the non-white community not a pro-life issue, since those actual babies don’t seem to matter nearly as much (at all) as the conceptual war over when a life begins…which, frankly, with the right-wing FundamentalFascist way of thinking, really sweeps back to the actual act of sex, which means logically, the current ProLife argument can extend abortion to include refusing to have sex with the man who wants to have sex, because that is the first point of life, that glimmer in the eye of a horny dude who wants to sling his sperm into an egg, and I actually think there’s religious doctrine that more or less backs that up, which is why birth control is verboten for many ProLifers…and let’s not even start on how free and open access to birth control actually lowers abortion rates, because women have the capacity to choose how to be sexual beings…but really you’re probably just afraid of sex itself, if you carry these opinions I’m critiquing, because sex is bad and sinful and dirty and all of that…so babies). Yep, another bad campaign move on my part. C) Guns. Again, this is largely a Federal issue. And, like, I grew up as a hunter in a hunting family, around guns, with responsible use and education about, actually won an NRA shooting badge when I was a kid (air rifle). And don’t tell me that protecting the “right” to own semi-auto tactical pistols and assault rifles is anything other than machismo out of control, fear-based neo-military phallo-gun love, and more or less a pretense for treason. Seriously. And stupid, because your AR-15 ain’t gonna save you if the Guvmint wants to take you out with, say, a tank, or drone, or missile, or whatever. (Which, spoiler alert, they don’t want to do). And deer, well, deer are not impressed by your black rifles. They think you’re being a wimp and are, in fact, embarrassed for you if you think you need one to shoot them, which, I know, is actually illegal in all states, but apparently some people are starting to agitate for the permission to hunt with assault rifles because, y’know, since the deer starting buying body armor and rocket launchers, things have gotten rough out in the woods. Hmm. Yes. Bad campaigning again.
  5. See. Imagine that stream-of-consciousness in a pubic debate. Awesome, maybe (to me!). Electable…um…no.
  6. Milo What’s His Fuck. That reprehensible right-wing “provocateur” actually drives politics as much as or more than the Senators and Reps in Washington. This might be because the latter group is spineless (yes) but also because they are bound by the rules of government (except for the Republicans now, who just vote to change the rules, because rules are inconvenient). So, maybe I’ll shoot for being a left-wing “provocateur.” But not hateful. In fact, I’ll be even more provocative, by engaging with reason and, from time to time, literature!
  7. Yeah, that would be my campaign strategy. Seriously. I’d have reading lists, links to articles and titles on a website, then hold open discussion sessions instead of rallies or speeches. I’d try to have the electorate read deeply and widely, and then we’d have conversations about my policy ideas relative to those readings. Like, I think this is an awesome idea. Let’s all read *The Hunger Games* and *The Prince* and this policy brief and talk about the intersections of dystopian fantasy, Machiavellian strategy, and recent Executive Orders. But I also recognize how badly received this strategy would be. Asking the electorate to do homework? Naw. Fox News is easier. (Or, frankly, CNN…it goes both ways).
  8. So a blog! Umm…yeah…I’m going to change the world with a blog. Can’t be less effective than running for office, can it?


Learning to Read our Trumpian Dystopia

This is what I’ll be teaching today and tomorrow, in my creative writing workshops:

Dear Students,

I am sorry I didn’t read your drafts. This seemed to matter more.

First: I love you, in a totally non-actionable, platonic, intellectual, but-still-don’t-tell-HR-I-said-this, literary way.

Second first: I love literature, and I love writing, and I want to talk today about the way that Donald Trump is a failure of narrative literacy, and how what we’ve just experienced is a remarkable – if harrowing – reminder of how our lives are defined almost entirely through story. More than that, the unexpected, shocking, terrifying, troubling, unimaginable happened last night because we, America, don’t know how to read and don’t know how to imagine.

This is why we matter, class. This is why teaching writing matters, and learning writing matters, and books matter, and reading matters, and serious reading and writing matters. It’s all we have. And I believe that’s actually quite a bit, is a solemn, serious, powerful tool.

Yet we’ve given up on it, or allowed others to give up on it. We can’t do that anymore. Because we failed to imagine the possibility of President Trump. We failed to imagine the potential narrative arcs of those in America who struggle. We imagined Trump into the White House because we don’t know how to read.

Look, there are words we need to deploy right here, theoretical terms that help to explain, analyze, and begin to sort where we are. Neoliberalism. Panopticism. State Ideological Apparatus. Propaganda. Jingoism. On and on. I encourage you to talk to theorists, and philosophy professors, and religious studies professors, and political science professors, and psychologists who have been studying how the human brain is literally transported through the act of reading, that literature teaches empathy, that reading is not an idle pass-time used to wile away the hours. Indeed, all of these things are vital. Notice, though, how the study of so much of what I’ve just listed happens in places and by people who are frequently denounced as irrelevant to the biggest issues of national concern, like economy, and economy, and economy. We’re in a place right now, a liberal arts college, populated by individuals who over the years have been decried as pointy-headed intellectuals, and ivory tower elites, blah blah fucking blah.

This characterization is no accident. This sidelining is no accident. Trump is no accident. The forces of, in particular, the neoliberal attack on thinking, education, and creativity in favor of vocational, “measurable,” value-propositional, corporate-speaking, business-minded, bottom line focused, spreadsheet-obsessed absences of imagination have led us here. We have decided to measure value in a narrow way, and that measurement does not include narrative.

Let me step back for a second to fundamental issues of story. You have a character. And that character has desires. And the character acts on those desires, along an escalating line of complications, until the desire is satisfied and the character is transformed in some way.

Donald Trump is a character. America is a character. Elections are built on narratives, and we have been failing spectacularly as readers, so the transformation isn’t so great.

I’m going to be direct and blunt here, because I think the particulars of this election signal something dangerous. Trump is our nightmare scenario. But we should have been able to see it coming – all of us – because Trump isn’t even a terribly inventive character. You write Trump in a story, and I flag that character as a cartoon, as a cliché, as too much of an oafish bad guy to carry a story to a satisfying end. Shit, Trump is a Disney villain. If you know how to read, he’s obvious, blunt, and not worth our time.

Yet here’s another thing: Trump knows how to work a narrative, and he knows that many people don’t. He’s a classic unreliable narrator, a first-person-POV, full-on narcissist, transparent in his attempts to badly persuade the audience to see him as the hero when we know he’s the villain. And he does this by spinning the easy narratives that we want to hear. And he succeeds because America doesn’t care enough about serious reading to understand how he works. And he succeeds, also, because as readers we fail to read the subplots, the desires and anxieties of the secondary characters who figure into the big book of elections. We trust the unreliable narrator, so we totally miss the point of the book. We root for Humbert Humbert. We vote for him. Or, just as dangerously, we recognize him as villainous but can’t understand how and why others might vote for him. That, too, is a failure of imagination.

What do the secondary characters of this narrative want, the ones who voted for Trump? Safety. Respect. Money. Power. At heart, these aren’t necessarily negative desires. But Trump understood how characters act toward releasing the tension of desire regardless of whether the release is positive or negative, and he offered a way to release it. In one direction: vote for him, a big middle finger to the establishment. In the other direction: be so consumed by righteous hatred of all he represents that we fail to recognize the real struggles of many Americans left out of the contemporary political conversation. His was a misdirection play, a narrative of deceit. And because America can’t read, America didn’t see how we all, as characters, were being led to a climax that would release narrative tension badly, against the core narratives of who we claim to be. And because America can’t read, America didn’t see how they, as characters, were being led to a climax that would release narrative tension badly, against the core narratives of who we claim to be. This book doesn’t end well for the characters, other than for the POV protagonist villain, who wins by telling the story he wants to tell so people hear what they want to hear and vote against, well, so much.

I’m optimistic, so I choose not to believe that nearly half of America is actively racist, misogynistic, bigoted, and corrupt. But I do see how a narrative can be built – by Trump and, broadly, many politicians acting in narrow self-interest and pretending it’s for the good of the nation – that exploits the desires of the nation and creates a narrative that convinces us to ignore evil and hate and pretend we’re voting well, and that also cultivates a narrative that encourages us to villainize and, therefore, fail to actually care about and address the real struggles of the voters waving their collective electoral central phalanges. I’ll say it again: America can’t read.

Think about the narratives spun:

Evangelical Christians believe, at heart, in justice, and generosity, and moral values – that’s a narrative! – but some (too many) vote for a character who spews anti-justice rhetoric and brags of grabbing pussies for sport. That’s a narrative, too, and one not consistent with the supposed core of a group of voters who, alas, were able to be led into a new narrative that didn’t fit. They are able to wash their hands of the affair and pretend that there’s something else in play, some story about moral values, and American theocracy, and truly God knows what.

Working class Americans believe in labor, and unity, and dignity. Yet some, too many, vote for an anti-union billionaire who claims, sure, I’ll bring back steel mills to a city that hasn’t had steel mills in decades and has, frankly, done fine reinventing itself. And they do it by selling out other workers, just because they can be led to a narrative of fear, that people who look different are scary. Racism is a narrative too, and Trump told it, and many read it uncritically.

And we liberals and progressives, too, throughout the election and certainly now think about rednecks and hillbillies and mouthbreathing non-college-educated whites who, yes, did vote for Trump but, no, are not themselves cartoon villains. That’s a narrative, and a long one (I wrote a book about that). Politicians have tapped into it for a long time, creating a separation between “common” and “elite” and making it clear that there can be no connection. And we contribute to it by discarding rural Americans as lesser, tsking at them when they vote for Trump (yes, a bad vote, don’t get me wrong), but never actually listening to the problems they face. Our narrative of dismissiveness makes it easier for the hateful narratives – of racism, and Make America Great Again, on and on – to take root and grow like poisonous, malevolent, weeds.

As Americans, we believe in our own national narrative, of fairness and equal access and the bootstrap mythos. Yet we’re a country that just elected a president who talks in opposition to all of that. How? Because he tells a story and we don’t read it.

I mean not a lot more than this, which I also contend is a lot: Stories dictate the decisions we make in our lives. Consider rationality for a second, and the facts of our recent election. You line those up, and you compare one candidate to the other, and even if you want to make some bullshit argument about “both are flawed candidates” you cannot get the ledger to balance. One is clearly, factually, wrong. The other is not.

Yet, in the end, we vote on story, not facts. And half the nation preferred the surface story of Donald Trump and failed to critically read the narratives of both candidates and of America itself. This is where we went wrong.

Oh, and we got there because neoliberal politics have been working for years to emphasize how unimportant soft, nerdy things like stories are. And why? Because they know the power of story to unseat injustice and allow for a truly engaged and powerful citizenry.

So here we are today, in a creative writing workshop, a place where many might think we’re wasting our time. How can we fight the injustice of the world when all we do is string words together, make stories up – in fiction – navel gaze and find deep thoughts in our own lives – in nonfiction?

I don’t think we’re wasting our time. Not at all. I think now, more than ever, we see how powerful what we do really is. We are practicing reading. We are engaging narrative. We write stories to shape narratives, so that people can understand a villain when they see one. We work hard to make sure that stories exist, and that good stories exist, complicated ones, so that people will engage life with a complex relationship to narrative. We read and teach others to read, and write, and teach ourselves and everyone how to read the stories written on the world.

You understand what I’m doing here, right? That I’m partly explaining why being literary is so important, and why being genre is not, because the latter is all about cheap characters and cheap solutions. Donald Trump is genre. I can’t be more dismissive than that. I really can’t. Yes I can: he’s the novelization of a low-thought, big-budget action flick that somehow becomes a bestseller. And, worse, for some reason people want to give him the Pulitzer fucking Prize for it.

We’re better than that. We aspire to literature because we aspire to understand the complexity of human experience, in part so we don’t fuck up an election.

Which we just did.

So think about, say, a local politician – re-elected in a landslide despite being all kinds of the wrong sort of idiot. And think about what he has said, echoing other national narratives, that students are wasting their time in majors like poetry and history and what he calls pre-Wal-mart majors. He wants to spin a narrative of fear, like Trump, that would suggest that you should be a productive worker to the economic machine and go to school to get a job. The risk, his story claims, is that if you engage in the sort of work we do in this very classroom you prepare yourself for unemployment.

Well he has it backward, and I won’t give him enough credit to suggest he knows this and recognizes the real threat. The real danger of us engaging in story is that he and others like him are at risk of being unemployed, tossed out of their intellectually-bankrupt political positions because we know how to read him, and America, and books. And that’s why we need to read and write.

Books have always been a threat to totalitarianism and ignorance, and ignorance always a tool of oppression. I’m fighting that fight by writing. And reading. And trying to spread narrative literacy so we don’t keep reading the same bereft narrative over and over again. We all do this so we can actually write and live the American narrative we want and deserve, that values all of us.

Thank you for joining me in that noble endeavor.

Ever better,


On Fragmentation

1. Is it a memoir if the text is divided into numbered entries, lyric nuggets that intersect loosely, puzzle pieces with edges rounded by overuse until the seams reveal air, no matter how tightly you press them?

2. Is air itself an act of memoir, gaps the fullest truth we can tell?

3. If, in fact, memoir requires a writer to consider the self from all angles, and if the memoirist is Maggie Nelson, and if the memoir is Bluets, does the choice to focus on a single color as inspiration create a through line of lyric gesture that can be read both as a cheating way to connect disparate ideas and a brilliant way to consider the way the discontinuity of life can be considered?

4. Unity is for fiction.

5. Poetic gesture cannot be considered only the domain of poetry.

6. How different, after all, are Descanso for My Father and Bluets? Each organizes around rupture.

7. A focal point, whether it is a lost father or a beloved-color, creates just enough distance for a writer to find the gap in which the self hides.

8. Yet the self hides well, always, can never be anything more stable than a shadow in a darkened room, a quick wink in the mirror, a dream forgotten as soon as you wake.

An Essay Surrounded by a Book

Sometimes, in prepping for class, I wonder if I’m really more interested in making extra work for myself, class-prep itself turned into some form of intellectual whittling, me occupying myself with something mundane as a means of avoiding other work piled up around the office. Case in point, this afternoon I gathered and transcribed the moments in William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways when he writes bits that I would consider “essayistic” as opposed to narrative. The sum of that exercise? About 3,000 words of personal narrative and reflection. Basically, Least Heat-Moon wrote a fairly standard-length essay, exploded it into pieces, then wrote a lengthy travel narrative around it.

(Tomorrow, to avoid work, I’ll retype all 400-plus pages of Blue Highways that aren’t essay…for procrastinatory balance).

From a process standpoint, I imagine that Least Heat-Moon more likely wrote these bits and pieces of reflection along the way of his revision, not as a stand-alone piece (obviously), so “exploded” isn’t precisely the verb to use. Still, there’s a curious effect to considering the way such a small component of the book evades the erasure of self that serves as the narrative strategy. Frankly, to me the book would not be teachable without these 3,000 words, since they function as the only clear presence of the shaping author at work. Without them, the book would be mere travelogue, exhaustive for sure, certainly exhausting, but without a sense that the author had an idea of what the trip amounted to. Blue Highways without the fragmented essay would be every never-ending slide show clicked to life by every over-zealous relative ever.

But with the essay, Least Heat-Moon gives us a sense of the internal arc of the travel. He writes the pathway of the circular arc of his project, a trip that sets aside the linear progressive-narrative of American travel writing and, instead, returns to where it started. Or, as Least Heat-Moon writes:

Ego, craving distinction, belongs to the narrowness of now; but self, looking for union, belongs to the past and future, to the continuum, to the outside. Of all the visions of the grandfathers the greatest is this: To seek the high concord, a man looks not deeper within – he reaches farther out. (241)

Now, first let me acknowledge and, for now, set aside the deep problematics of this book, a subject on which I carried forth in my last class for the full hour: William Least Heat-Moon is William Trogdon, and it’s impossible to know how much of the pen name is a fakeout put-on and how much is authentic recognition of his declared native ancestry. Certainly, the way he writes and, in particular, cites Black Elk, doesn’t earn a ton of credibility: Black Elk is cited more as authentic and authoritative by non-natives than his existing “works” (written not by him) are universally accepted as definitive explanations of any particular American Indian perspective. In this vein, Least Heat-Moon/Trogdon reads a far piece closer to New Age than anything else. Or, as scholar Philip J. Deloria writes:

In the 1960s and 1970s, many spiritual seekers turned to Sun Bear, Rolling Thunder, and other so-called medicine people for guidance in questing after the Great Spirit. There was nothing innocent about these searches. In an oppositional culture, one targeted Christianity as part of the authoritarian structure from which one sought escape. And, as we saw in political and communal discourse, the symbols and practices of many countertraditions blurred and overlapped. Hallucinogenic drug use could be knit together with Plains Indian vision quest rituals, known for the intense experiences that came with their mental and physical deprivations. The paperback edition of John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks (1972), for example, promised eager seekers an account of a “personal vision that makes an LSD trip pale by comparison…” (Playing Indian 168)

So, there’s that…which is big…. I’m not saying; I’m just saying…

But, back to this: the overall drive of Least Heat-Moon’s “essay” is a growing desire to avoid the solipsism of the ego, to seek answers to the collisions of his life by reaching out into the world instead of retreating into the self. Certainly, this is an impulse that echoes the desires of literary memoir: the writing of the self isn’t an act directed toward the navel. Ultimately, Least Heat-Moon had no book without this essay, as the narrative expectations of travel require transit. The character has to change: we know this nugget from plenty of creative writing aphorisms (and it’s a good one!). In many typical travel narratives, the change happens by switching places — that’s the progress, some recognition of the deficiency of the pre-travel state alleviated by the act of travel. But to his great credit, early on in Blue Highways Least Heat-Moon recognizes and declares the folly in destroying the past as a means to find the future (4). Instead, his trip is counter-intuitively more internal, even as it is expressed externally.

Here, again, problematics: what I want to say is that Least Heat-Moon seeks and finds the shape of himself within the people he finds across America. He is searching for a lost America and for a lost self, each of which resides somewhere in the past. But the problem, here, is how his vision of the ideal America is tied up in overly-romanticized visions of working class America, just as his notions of the American Indian are bound too often in pop-cultural imagery (again, deeply problematically, if indeed the author has Osage ancestry). Yet, in considering the authorial impulse of Blue Highways, we see the author writing through the reconstruction of self as, in fact, a recognition of self, what he describes as “the power not of visions but of revision, the power to see again and revise” (399). This is a useful and important mechanism that uses the past as the foundation of the future. Blue Highways is not a recovery narrative but, like Lying, a discovery narrative.

Reading the transcription I prepared, I’m struck by how it quite nearly works as an essay, despite the many pages of interruption. Certainly, I can see how Least Heat-Moon could have shaped the material of this reflection into a solid, perhaps brilliant 20 page essay (I don’t mean this, really, as an indictment of his decision to, instead, write a long book). Instead, I mean to foreground how Blue Highways functions only because at its heart lies the act of the essay: the journey is the point, but there must always be a sense of a reflective self considering the act of that journey, making sense of it through the lens of time.

From that perspective, Blue Highways achieves an interesting sort of literary feat. It circles back (how like an essay!), yet it appears to go nowhere. The text itself is dominated by the multiple wheres of the narrative, yet the effect of the book is hidden within the choices of a wounded, carefully-thinking author. To me, the greatest section of the book, and the greatest example of the power of his essayistic impulse, focuses on the mysterious disappearing banana slug in his van. During one of the longest essayistic interludes, he writes of epiphany: “My skewed vision was that of a man looking at himself by looking at what he looks at. A man watching himself: that was the simulacrum on the window in the Nevada desert” (219). But he always writes, immediately after, of losing track of a banana slug held captive in his van, and of worrying about what might happen overnight:

Somewhere in Ghost Dancing was a slug – horned, fat, gelatinous with primeval slime, and free to ooze its footless way anywhere while I slept: up walls, onto bunks, over eyelids, across lips. Of all the nights for this to happen.

The biggest hindrance to learning is fear of showing one’s self a fool. But this was ridiculous. Never had I figured on this kind of humiliation. (220)

Here, Least Heat-Moon has found his objective correlative. The slug is recognition of self, what he’s been looking for and avoiding all the time. Now, his best hope is to wake terrified as he feels it wriggle across him in the middle of the night. “It” being a banana slug, of course…or the self. There’s tremendous power in this self-recognition, and an equally insightful lens through which to view the rest of the book. Every choice he makes — every landscape described, every person met on the page — is really a reflection of the self Least Heat-Moon wants to find. Somewhere in the darkness between those images lies the slug of self, the humiliating recognition of what’s really going on. The hidden essay of the book just might be that slug.

The Invisible Self

Willian Least Heat-Moon begins Blue Highways with a series of very short chapters, setting the stage for the voyage he’ll soon take in his “truck” (let’s be clear: it’s a van) named Ghost Dancing. Chapter 3 starts this way: “A pledge: I give this chapter to myself. When done with it, I will shut up about that topic” (4). And he ends it like this:

With a nearly desperate sense of isolation and a growing suspicion that I lived in an alien land, I took to the open road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected. (5)

Then we’re off, climbing into Ghost Dancing with Heat-Moon (Is this why he calls it a truck? Because saying climbing in the van with Heat-Moon sounds a bit sketchy? Get in my van and I’ll show you America, yeah, America. But think of all the famous vans that have come to pass…the Mystery Machine of Scooby Do, the black van of the A-Team. Let us not dishonor the literary history of vans by calling Ghost Dancing a truck!)) as he travels the so-called “blue highways” of the country, the back routes, through towns off the Interstate, where we get the growing sense that the project of the book is to show some kind of real America to the reader and to the author.

But what of the self of that author, our narrator who quickly dispenses with the raw materials of his identity — age, marital status, van ownership — and promises to stay away from what Scott Russell Sanders describes as “the private, idiosyncratic voice in an era of anonymous babble” (“Singular First Person”)? And let me dispense with this idea straight off: Blue Highways is certainly written within that voice, is animated by the clear presence of Heat-Moon narrating this drive. There’s nothing objective about the voice, nor the project, and I don’t think Heat-Moon would argue with that. The shutting up about that topic that he references is the singular focus on the self as subject and not the denial of the power of the singular voice.

Still, the book is undeniably, about William Least Heat-Moon. About halfway in, after lots and lots of writing about other people, extensive quotations, and history, and exhaustive listing of the food he finds at diners, Heat-Moon winds up in the desert of Eastern Arizona:

What is it in man that for a long while lies unknown and unseen only one day to emerge and push him into a new land of the eye, a new region of the mind, a place he has never dreamed of? Maybe it’s like the force of spores lying quietly under asphalt until the day they push a soft, bulbous, mushroom head right through the pavement. There’s nothing you can do to stop it. (162)

“A new land of the eye” might has well be written “a new land of the I,” as the seeing of the moments to follow are the emergence of the vision of the self, the recognition that as much as he might deny it as the source of the project, the subject of Blue Highways is that, even when it isn’t. Really, what road book isn’t about the person on the road? On the Road is about America, sort of, but really focuses on Jack Kerouac. Eat Pray Love is about Elizabeth Gibert. The Songlines is about Bruce Chatwin. And on and on.

I mean this as no criticism, of either Heat-Moon or of the genre of travel writing. Quite the opposite: any book of travel that implies objectivity is false. The traveler is always the subject, even if the reader thinks he/she is gaining some kind of overview of a place previously unknown. There’s a reason, after all, that mid-century maps and guide books were sponsored by oil companies. They were the real subjects, urging travelers to know that about other places, that being the unstable need to pump gasoline into tanks to feed engines to turn wheels that take travelers to places. The literary travel writer isn’t, of course, in the business of selling oil or tires but, instead, peddles the self as a vehicle of transport.

I doubt Heat-Moon was ever ignorant of this fact. Heck, the first page of Blue Highways offers this idea: “A man who couldn’t make things go right could at least go” (3). Yet he proceeds with the attempt to subordinate the self as subject as he does this. While it’s possible that he took the voyage that makes the material of the book without a clear sense that he was looking for himself (but, c’mon, that’s precisely what the American road book is all about, and why a literary person hits the road at a time of personal crisis, at least partly), certainly he knew by the time of the writing that the self was an unavoidable subject. Still, the claim is made.

And, notably, this is a claim that has been made by every book under consideration this semester: Patricia Hampl recedes for the middle of her memoir. Harrison Candelaria Fletcher searches for himself via his father (and, ultimately, mother). Mark Doty finds himself in his mother (and, ultimately, his father). Lauren Slater finds herself by creating a fake self. Maxine Hong Kingston writes the self through the application of myth and story.

What gives? Particularly since that subject is an inevitable portion of any kind of autobiographical writing. Clearly, when we write from the perspective of the self, we write about the self, no matter how we seek to evade or subsume ourselves as subject.

I think the distinction lies between subject and singular subject, as this is the distinction I see between pop-memoir/autobiography/political memoirs and literary memoir. In the first category, the subject of the book is the subject of the book: the self matters most of all, because readers are drawn to the dramatic features of the individual. This, also, is why I consider a healthy chunk of even creative nonfiction as more-or-less the equivalent of genre fiction. For many books, “plot” matters more than anything else. In the case of popular nonfiction et al, plot equates to the singular personality of the writer. It’s no mystery, then, why the first titles that often come to the popular mind when hearing the word “memoir” are tales of personal triumph, degradation and recovery, medical trauma, and all sorts of melodrama. This, also, is why I admire what Lying does in the sub-genre of the medical memoir, since Slater absolutely resists the “requirement” to make this about recovery. Genre nonfiction lacks subtlety, and while Lying isn’t exactly subtle in the way of Descanso, Slater’s narrative is oblique, which I suppose is another kind of subtle: look at this so you can understand that, but don’t look directly at that.

Literary memoir focuses on a different sort of aspect of self. Sven Birkerts describes the function of pain in what he calls traumatic memoir in a way that I think does a lot to define how the self works in literary memoir, as sources that “create discontinuities in a life that often require different strategies of presentation” (145). I’d like to suggest that the writing of the self in careful memoir is always the writing of our own discontinuities, which are born partly of the multiplicities that are each of us and partly of the way other lives intersect with our own in creating our sense of self.

The desire to deflect, then, to write about others or, even, to claim a desire to not write about the self is a good faith recognition of the discontinuity of experience. This is, perhaps, the most important way that a writer can avoid the sort of solipsistic, navel-gazing work that dominates the nonfiction bestseller list (alongside soporific, terrifying guides to business management techniques). If we accept ourself as part of the subject of our lives, we recognize the way our sense of self develops through interaction and, perhaps even more importantly, we are able to write memoir that reflects the lives of readers as well as authors. A literary memoir helps the reader see him or herself in the author’s story. As Sanders writes, “I choose to write about my experience not because it is mine, but because it seems to me a door through which others might pass” (8). I’ll add that, in order to write about our own experience, we often need to pass through the doors of others.