The Devil, The Details

About a month ago, I ran across a headline that four homeless people had died of hypothermia in the San Francisco Bay area. I didn’t read the article. And, as much as I hate to admit it, the reality didn’t particularly touch me. This is despite the fact that, when I was employed as a foundation program officer, I had the privilege of working with some of the most amazing homeless organizations in the country, groups that actually organized homeless folks to fight for and win progressive change. This is despite the fact that one of the most radical of these organizations, one which will forever hold a spot in my heart, is based in San Francisco.

Fast forward to yesterday. I was sitting in a meeting about a campaign to end chronic homelessness in DC, when one of the attendees, Robert, mentioned the recent death of a homeless person in the city. Again, I shook my head and thought it was a shame, but had no emotional engagement beyond that.

Then he talked about going home from work on Friday evening and seeing the same homeless veteran he’d seen that morning, sitting in the same spot in the plaza in front of a private, university hospital. It was below freezing outside. Robert talked about going over to the man, a double amputee, and asking if he was in any pain. He talked about the man saying, “I’m not in pain, but the nine people in my head are.” He talked about walking into the hospital less than 50 feet away, and telling them that a man was freezing to death outside and being told by hospital staff to call 911. He talked about the dispatcher deciding to send the police, instead of an ambulance, about the police calling a hypothermia van that never arrived, about getting a buddy to help carry the man into the emergency room, about prying off frozen feces and ice-covered blankets and fighting battle after battle after battle just to get a dying man into a hospital. Thanks to Robert and his buddy, the man, Chris, is now in a room on the fourth floor of the hospital. Thanks to them, Chris is still alive. Read more »

The Best of the Best

‘Tis the season of gift giving, egg nog, reconciling Santa with Stranger Danger warnings, and, of course, a near-endless selection of “Best of” lists. I’d planned on throwing my hat in the ring and providing a thoroughly curated and deeply engaging list of the Best Fiction of 2013. I wasn’t even going to be held back by the fact that, over the past twelve months, I’ve read exactly one book that was published this year. But, truly, does the world really need another Best Fiction/Best Poetry/Best Nonfiction/Best Memoir/Best “Memoir”/Best Fan Fiction list? I think not.

Doesn’t the world really need, instead, more of a senior-superlative-style take on the year in books? Again, I think not. What the world needs now (aside from love, sweet love) is for a later post when I have more time. For today, I offer my nominees, and invite yours, for the Best of the Class of 2013.

 

Most likely to be used as evidence of the re-emergence of the short story:

Tenth of December, George Saunders

This is the first collection in years that I’ve wanted to re-read the minute I finished it. I don’t know the author’s work well enough to say this is “signature Saunders,” but, it is engaging and hilarious and, at its core, deeply humane. It also made it to every “Best Books of 2013” list I’ve run across. (As a side note, Saunders also delivered what is arguably among the best commencement speeches of the year. It’s worth a read.) Read more »

Some Cats are Allergic to Humans (or, Why Can’t I Title Anything?)

It turns out that those furry felines who can wreak havoc on the allergy systems of some people can themselves be allergic to humans. I’m a dog person myself, so while I was mildly interested in the ins and outs of cats with human allergies, I was more drawn to the syntax and word choice of the statement. “Some Caworst-book-covers-titles-12ts are Allergic to Humans” sounds like it should be the title of a poem. It would probably work as the title of a short story or essay, too, but those six words, in that particular order, strike me as inherently titular.

Like many writers, I collect groups of words from various sources — snippets of conversations I’ve overheard or participated in, interesting phrasing in news stories or craigslist ads, the remaining words left from a flyer pasted to a post and only partially removed. A good number of these fragments are jumping off places for me, meant to trigger a memory or mood, and not phrases I intend to use verbatim. But some of those scraps just beg to be titles.

Yet, I’m not very good at titling my fiction. In fact, I’m very bad at it. Of my (admittedly small) body of work, there is exactly one title that I’m satisfied with. Read more »

I’m Not So Special (and that’s okay)

Netflix shattered my sense of self a few weeks ago. It’s the nature of technological advances these days, and I should probably get used to everything I thought I once knew being undercut by the series of 0s and 1s that rule my life.

For many of us, it was Google that started this assault. We were bopping along through life, feeling all one-of-a-kind and uniquely us, and then a search engine came along and said it wasn’t so. I’m not the only Ericka Taylor in the world. I’m not the only black Ericka Taylor. I’m not even the only black Ericka Taylor with dreadlocks. Fortunately, that kind of realization is only briefly off-putting. After all, what’s in a name if you’re not a Capulet or Montague? The fact that an Ericka Denise Taylor who isn’t me resides in Florida doesn’t exactly bring on an existential crisis. Our names are, in the end, just identification markers, not things that define us. I’m betting that even someone whose name is truly exceptional, say Umberkrunktil, has at times been more annoyed by her name’s distinctiveness than she has reveled in it.

'Cause there's no one like you left.

Where you gonna go, where you gonna run, where you gonna hide? Nowhere.

That’s because, in the end, we all want to be special, but only to a degree. We’re a social species, and fitting in matters because it’s at the core of community. When you do a Google search for “hot tub, armpit” and the next term you were going to enter—“soreness”—pops up automatically, you feel better. Not only can you now avoid scheduling a doctor’s appointment, but you’ve gotten affirmation that it’s not just you.

For me, the scariest part of 1993’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is when Meg Tilly’s (snatched) character says, “Where you gonna go, where you gonna run, where you gonna hide? Nowhere. ‘Cause there’s no one like you left.” Those lines have stuck in my head for 20 years because the sense of being absolutely alone, of having no one who can relate to you in any meaningful way, is kind of a freaky concept. So, I’m at peace with the fact that Google’s predictive searching reaffirms that I am but one of many. Read more »

Post-what?-cial

Yesterday’s New York Times features an exchange, of sorts, between Baratunde Thurston (co-founder of Jack and Jill Politics, Director of Digital for The Onion, all-around funnyman, and author of the recently released How To Be Black) and Charles Murray (author of a new book on the state of white America, co-author of 1994’s The Bell Curve—wherein I learned my respectable IQ means I couldn’t possibly be black, and former youthful prankster who burned a cross next to a police station with his friends, “oblivious” of the racial connotations.)

Somebody didn't get the memo.

Both of the recent books apparently include series of questions about cultural identity and, “in the spirit of journalistic mischief,” Gregory Cowles had Thurston answer Murray’s questions and vice versa. Their answers are interesting and often pretty funny. It’s worth a read.

The response that surprised me the least and annoyed me the most was Murray’s reply to Thurston’s “How’s that postracial thing working out for ya?” Murray:

“Actually, pretty well. I’ve been noticing the last few years how normal and easy the relationships I see between blacks and whites have become. The bending-over-backward stuff of the 1970s and ’80s has largely disappeared, at least in my neck of the woods (rural Maryland). There’s a lot of just-folks-getting-long interactions around these days. It’s especially noticeable in my children’s generation, but people in their 50s and 60s also seem to be doing a lot better than they used to.”

I get his point. I mean, I’m black and nobody’s tried to lynch me in ages. I can’t even remember the last time I warmed my hands by the fire of a burning cross. Plus, there’s a black man in the White House, and what could be a stronger indicator of how little race matters in this country? Read more »

2011 Looked Like This

Despite a deep and abiding hatred of cold weather, I’ve always had a soft spot for December. Not only is it the month of Christmas and my birthday and extended breaks from school, but it is also a time for reflection as the year winds to a close. Below, you will find the most significant highlights of 2011. You’re welcome.

10 Weirdest Life Forms of 2011

I'm just as cute as a panda.

It’s kind of cool that we live in a world where new species are

still being discovered. Saving those giant pandas seems a little

less important now.

Read more »

Reading Fiction Makes You a Better Person

Occasionally, at a party or a bar or some other situation that requires engaging with strangers, someone will tell me, “I don’t read fiction.” The statement is tragic enough by itself, and it becomes more so when the person offers the inevitable justification: I prefer reading books that teach me something. Instead of going on a rant about fiction expressing truth, rather than mere facts, or waxing philosophical about the human condition, I usually just nod politely and wander off to find someone more interesting.

fiction probably makes you happier, too!

It’s not that I’m deeply offended by someone rejecting my chosen genre as a writer. It’s more that I find myself incapable of addressing the implicit question: What’s the point? To me, asking what’s the point of fiction is akin to asking what’s the point of poetry or music or sculpture or anything, really. In the moment, it never occurs to me to ask those who dismiss fiction whether they’re opposed to all imaginative works. Are documentaries the only movies they watch? Do they restrict their TV viewing to cooking and history channels? Are their walls adorned only with utilitarian objects? Do they see no value in beauty at all? Read more »

Where We Write (& What We Need There)

just dim lights and add smoke for the old-school coffeehouse experience

Back in the day, before there was a Starbucks at every third lamppost and when hanging out in coffee shops still felt avant-garde and faintly French, I mostly wrote in cafés. Specifically, I wrote at Stella’s, a hip, little spot near my undergraduate campus. Stella’s had big, comfy chairs that looked like they came straight out of the library of some Victorian novel, a stack of chess sets resting on the bookcase in the back, and classic jazz playing over the sound system. It was a little dark, a little smoky, and the first environment that struck me as being inherently writerly.

I wasn’t the only one. It was easy to tell that Stella’s denizens had spent precious hours purchasing just the right pens to complement their hardbound, spiral journals. Weekend mornings would find us there, bobbing our heads to Billie Holiday, making repeated trips to the counter for fresh caffeine, and smoking cloves instead of our usual Marlboros because the scene was just that cool. Despite all the posturing, most of us actually got some writing done.

Read more »

Serial Killer, Pedophile, Writer

Should we care?

According to The Huffington Post, a children’s book by Canadian serial killer Charles Kembo sold more than 14,000 copies in its first two weeks on Amazon. Kembo published his work under the pseudonym J.D. Bauer and, now that his identity has been revealed, some people are a little upset.

Andy Kahan, a crime victim advocate for the City of Houston, told The Huffington Post, “Parents will more than likely be horrified to find out that the book they either purchased or read to their children was written by a serial killer.” He goes on to say “Amazon should take the high road and immediately remove this fraudulent book that was written under false pretenses.”

I don’t feel his pain. Kahan’s thinking disturbs me—and not just because “Canadian serial killer” sounds more mythical than “meth-dealing unicorn.” First, writing a book under a pseudonym doesn’t really equate to “false pretenses.” (I’m betting Kahan was never up in arms about Emily Bronte publishing Wuthering Heights as Ellis Bell or Charles Dodgson writing as Lewis Carroll.) Second, the fact that Kembo is a convicted serial killer doesn’t make the book fraudulent. It’s not like he plagiarized it or pretended that everyone who bought the book would get a Porsche as an added bonus. The larger issue for me, though, is that an author’s deeds should have no bearing on how we respond to his or her work. Read more »

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