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Saturday, April 22, 2006
Running With Scissors
About a year and a half ago I crashed in Chelsea, MI with the other wannabe degenerates in my little brother's bachelor party crew at the home of one of his good friends. Naturally, I was up at the crack of fucking dawn, despite having spent my 6AM hour watching a porno on a fifty-something inch TV. Here's what I wrote about it in the wake...
Now, Darrin doesn’t just have a television. He’s got a fifty some odd inch monstrosity. And speaking of fifty some odd inch monstrosities, have you ever watched a porno on a giant TV? What might or could be sexy becomes off-putting, to say the least. I mean, there were times in this thing (yes, I woke up out of a sound sleep at 630AM to watch a porno. I am exactly that skeevy.) that if the woman in there was life-sized, she would have been over twelve feet tall in reality. Not to mention the cock. Thank god the thing wasn’t in 3D, we’d all have had nightmares for a week.
Anyway, around 9AM I rolled off the couch and since the rest of the crew was still sleeping, I figured I'd better get out of the house and find something to do, otherwise I'd end up as the rude guy watching TV while everyone else was still sleeping. The plan was to buy a book and hit a coffee house for a couple hours.
I purchased the afore-linked Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. I hadn't heard of it or him, but the reviews on the back of the paperback hinted it was a biting and funny memoir of growing up in a fairly fucked-up environment.
Great. Fucking. Book. Highly recommended, so long as you don't think you'll get hung up on the gay parts. Anyway, the memoir follows his youth through a psychotic mother, dickhead father, living with a different crazy-ass family, and being a willing party to molestation. Somehow, it's not the most depressing book you'll ever read. And it's being made into a movie, which surprises the ever-living shit out of me.
Entertainment Weekly has an interview up with Burroughs, where he talks about his writing style and turning this book into a movie. One part of the interview really grabbed me:
Are you tired of being revealing?
That quote sound like it might resonate with someone like me? Absolutely. When I finished Scissors I was left with that pit-in-my-stomach feeling that I had just gotten a glimpse into someone's soul, and that while I may not have felt comfortable seeing everything he wanted me to see, he was able to find the context and emotion behind these things to take you through them with full understanding of their impact and consequence.
This is where nuance and building an adaptable framework of context is crucial to opening up on this level. I mentioned a portion of the book talks about "being a willing party to molestation." On the surface, this is stomach-churning bile-inducing topic matter that most people would instantly pigeonhole as "wrong" or "fucked up." While it certainly is both of those things to some degree, you end up feeling a different kind of sympathy for Burroughs than you'd expect. It's not an "oh, that's terrible being taken advantage of as a youth by an older man" sort of thing, it's more of a "this kid is finally figuring out who he is, but what he ends up wanting and getting is going to screw him up even worse than he realizes."
I think on some rare days I get most of the way there with my own memoir stuff. I've always been conscious that there's shades of grey in all these pieces of my past that need to be understood to put these things in their proper perspective, and on my best days I think I know how to shade you away from the black-or-white knee-jerk you'll instinctively have to the topic. One of the things that's been said about me before is that I "close all the loopholes on the way to making my point." I think that's the type of construction that works when writing about yourself.
Ultimately, we all have the ability to have the same set of emotional reactions to our own lives. Granted, some of us are more finely tuned in different directions than others, but at its most fundamental level we all experience joy, sadness, anger, etc. Where I tend to feel most effective as a writer (when it is that I am feeling effective as a writer) is when I'm able to bring you through the motivating factors as to why I'm having the emotional response I am, which allows you to feel sympathy/empathy in the proper context.
That's where so many writers (I mean "bloggers" more than I mean "authors") fail when talking about their own lives. Stringing sentences into paragraphs on a personal matter needs to be more than just a rapid succession of declaratory statements that take the reader from point A to point B and beyond. Whether it's talking about your past, a failed marriage, your nightmare date from hell in college, or discussing your latest Vegas trip, there's side roads you're just flying by on the interstate, and it's a shame because the scenic route can often be emotionally rewarding. For both of us. Understand where and how you want your reader to relate, and put him in your head while you take him there. Easier said than done, but that's basically it.
I joke around that I'm just another web hack who likes to tell stories about his past. That's true to some extent, but I also very much see myself as a memoirist (certainly not of Burroughs' caliber) as well. Again, from the interview, Burroughs was asked a question about James-fucking-Frey, whose book seems to have ruined America's ability to "trust" a memoirist. He was asked if it's allowable to have a "fuzzy definition of history telling." Burroughs said,
This seems like a simple concept, but the difficulty in talking about your own past lies within the nuances of truth and how they change as your perspective changes. Burroughs' memoir is so strikingly effective because it's obvious that he's not looking back as a revisionist. He blatantly refuses to recontextualize his youth, because that would be dishonest and untrue to his emotional responses at the time.
Back when I was writing more steadily about my broken relationship with the ex, there were two types of posts on that subject I'd write. The first would be memoir-style, the second would be an attempt to capture my feelings as they stood at the moment I was typing. My ex, however, interpreted both in the same way. When I'd get an email, it'd usually be something along the lines of, "I can't believe you still feel that way, it's been so long." Obviously, she's a revisionist, and has never really understood what it is I'm doing here. But if I'm able to pull that response from her, I know I'm likely doing my job with the memoir portions of the story. I'm really proud of that, but I'd like to be more consistent in my ability to reach back emotionally like Burroughs. I have a great deal of admiration for his book, not because it's "brave," and not because he "came out of a fucked-up situation so well." It's because his book pulls at you emotionally the way a memoir ought to. I really recommend it strongly if you like my style, if you're a fan of "This American Life" on the radio, or if you're interested in putting more of yourself in your writing. Read the book though, I'll lay odds the movie won't touch the truly difficult stuff.
Friday, April 21, 2006
The Fight In Me
I have an odd little competitive streak sometimes.
I call it odd because it's really only the little slights of life I tend to get worked up about. Take every single fucking leg of my commute over the past nine years for example. Invariably, I'm sitting patiently in the left lane behind two or more other cars slowly and steadily passing traffic when some jackass flies up on my right flank thinking he's going to squeeze into the deliberate two-car length I leave in front of me.
You wanna play NASCAR? Let's ride.
There's a woman I have to do business with from time to time that comes into every single fucking phone call with a totally unnecessary antagonistic attitude. Threw me a bit the first time, but despite the inflammatory rhetoric I've been known to trot out here on occasion, I will not be baited. You want to be a bitch? I can coldly answer your questions with no friendly elaboration. Good luck making my Christmas card list.
I don't get competitive at the poker tables or playing board games. That's just goofing around. Inconvenience my ass, and I'm bound to get all wound up about it.
Now, I know I'm fairly capable with the keyboard. I can put words together fairly easily at times (obviously not lately), and I can get competitive in this arena to be sure. Now, if a certain someone I traded a couple emails with is reading this, I'm not talking about you. I am talking about the new movie Thank You For Smoking.
Got great reviews, came out of the whole film festival scene and sounded like something that would be a solid biting satire on the bullshit that is "spin," and the relationship our government has with lobbyists. In the first ten minutes it's established that this Nick Naylor is the man with the silver tongue, the guy who can turn the sympathy generated by a cancer patient against the anti-tobacco spokesdork who brought him on the Joan Lunden show. You really got the feel up front that this guy would spend 90 minutes gleefully dancing on the fringes of the truth, evading questions and constructing strawmen before torching them with empty rhetoric.
After the scene from the trailer on the Joan Lunden show, which was the opening scene of the movie, there really was exactly one more moment over the next eighty-eight where Naylor and his twisted-ass logic got to shine (with the Marlboro Man). Everything else was either brutally screwed up by the screenwriter/director (Ivan Reitman's kid), or featured our protagonist as an observer to the lunacy that went on around him.
Not to spoil the movie, but a plot with an likeable anti-hero like Naylor is probably going to feature a point where he hits a low point, then redeems himself in the eyes of the world. Problem was, for a guy who spent a decade publicly sparring with those that would have us believe cigarettes are dangerous - and winning - some minor setback is going to have him in the fetal position in his messy living room with empty pizza boxes strewn about? Fuck no. And then the redemptive moment was a complete fucking throwaway line at the end of the part in the trailer where he makes William H Macy say, "I will not apologize for Vermont's cheese." The screenwriter, all 28 years of life experience behind him, had a chance to give Eckhart a meaty speech that could have wrapped up personal choice, the Bill of Rights, governmental interference, parental responsibility, the long history of tobacco farming in this country, the nobility of the American agriculturalist and life, liberty and the pursuit of motherfucking happiness all in one snarky soliloquy.
Instead, he settled all the characters debts with six words: "I'll buy him his first pack."
Jesuschrist, a hundred monkeys and a hundred typewriters... My god. I can't for my life figure out how this movie got made. Maybe they showed the first ten minutes at the festival, and filled the last eighty with a huddle of puppies play-fighting over a bone. I can't figure it out. I was totally struck with the feeling that I could have done a far better job with that scene, and probably the whole fucking movie for that matter. Hell, I know smug and can write that faux-indignation that comes more with the delight of arguing than actually having a point. Give me two weeks, I'll have that last speech be his motherfucking Oscar clip.
Instead, a movie that should have worked on one level veered sharply off-course and never returned. And I was left with the nagging feeling that I could have done a far better job.
Where's my motherfucking movie check Banky?
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
Scratching An Itch
I have committed to carrying at least two Band-Aids around with me at all times. I use three products daily on my face. I cannot wear cotton underwear.
Ah, psoriasis... Every time the weather changes my skin starts to freak out and I'm stuck on the defensive trying not to peel my patches raw. Honestly, in the wide scope of things my psoriasis is like a little head cold compared to a severe case's whooping cough. I've got little plaques on my fingers, head, my left arm pit, and, uh... where the sun don't shine. But it's annoying and I always find a way to make it worse before it gets better.
Take the spot on my head, for example. It's a dime-sized patch on the left side of the back of my skull near the top. I've been prescribed a steroid (which comes in a little can like mousse) and some other sort of clear solution for it. Problem is, the body adapts to the steroid and the solution is ridiculously ineffective. So maybe once a month the patch flares up, I pick at the dying rubbery skin that's built up, and I end up clawing that spot of my head to a raw mess. Then I start back up on the steroids and can get it cleared up in a couple of days.
I'd grow out my hair to hide the spot if I didn't look so goddamn stupid with a head full of it. Mean Gene and G-Rob I am not. I've got two colicks (however you spell that, I'm not bovinating that word because it looks twice as stupid that way - and yes, I did just waste an entire sidebar explaining away a "w") up front, one in back, and no ability for my hair to do anything besides how I had been combing it for two years before discovering clippers - over on top, back on the sides, goofy motherfucking colick wave framing my forehead. Shaving the head is easier, looks better (in my opinion), and I get away from the haircut of my youth.
Not that I spent my entire youth with the Parker Lewis standard issue haircut. Not a chance. I did the flat-top for awhile, then at some point I paired it with a mullet. And in the early days of college? I grew my hair fluffy out to a near shoulder length and parted it down the middle. That lasted until I saw myself in a mirror and nearly kicked my own ass on principle.
I went another couple years before doing the head shave thing for the first time, which was actually motivated by the following logic:
If you can go to Chicago and fuck your ex-boyfriend, I can damn well shave my head.And so it began.
Actually, that same weekend I passed up cheap, easy drunk-ass sex with an ex-girlfriend who showed up unexpectedly at my doorstep out of some sense of loyalty to the woman I'd eventually marry who was at that moment boinking her ex-boyfriend in a luxury hotel. Did you follow that? I could have had a sexy curvy barely legal Mexican-American restaurant hostess naked in my house for a night, but instead chose to remain celibate for the girl I wouldn't end up porking for another twenty-four months.
Ah, young love.
Anyway, psoriasis is the type of affliction you just have to live with and attempt to manage lest it rage unfettered across every square inch of your body. For the face and head I use Cetaphil soap, cleanser and moisturizer nearly every day. It's non-comedogenic, which I haven't looked up but I assume means not-full-of-bullshit-that-makes-you-smell-like-the-Queen-of-England. I wear lycra/spandex type boxer briefs to cut down on the irritation "down south." And I try to wear ball caps as much as possible to hide the irritation on my scalp. Where I really have a tough case to manage is on my fingers. My left thumb, both pinkies and my right ring finger all have irritating plaques on (or near) the pads, and I try to use the topicals (cream and clear, but I still can't hit a curve ball) as per the directions. Problem is that I eventually have to wash my hands, touch something, put my hands in my pocket or something that rubs the cream off, and as a result I've had maybe three or four days over the past two years without irritation, compared to the 20 days a month I have plaque-free on my head.
These little plaques spread this rubbery and eventually dry and crusty dead skin in thick layers over the top of raw wounds. It itches like a motherfucker and if you manage to pull the dead skin off the top you're basically left with an open sore for all the world to see.
I claw at the one on my head, which thanks to the soft skin of the scalp comes off in huge clumps that feel almost like latex or rubber cement when rolled between my forefinger and thumb. It's really fucking gross to watch I'd bet. But pulling the plaque away is preferable to letting it harden and crumble, falling to my shoulders like an eczematically improbable case of dandruff. The ones on my fingers get a lot of attention too. I tug at corners of loose skin with my teeth ("Don't eat your psoriasis," I've been told) and pull until I hit the bordering good skin. I keep the plaques under Band-Aids most days, but when I don't I pass time at work with a pair of large scissors working to remove all temptation to nibble at the wound.
And I found a weirdly satisfying style of personal grooming yesterday as a result. I had the scissors out and was lining up a barely exposed flap of skin on the pad of my left thumb, just above the knuckle bend for surgery. Since the flap was hanging down off the north end of the pad I positioned the flat edge of one of the scissor blades just below the inside of my knuckle and the top half of the scissors was sitting above the flap looking to guid the cut home.
Thing was, I had a patch of dry abrasive skin just above the knuckle crease that was really tough. I couldn't pick at it - it just wouldn't yank away. But the minute I crossed over the top of that centimeter-high patch with the scissor blade it was almost moan-inducing it felt so good. I spent a good ten minutes shaving single cell layers of skin off that patch with the scissor blade like I was whittling a tree branch, and jesus christ did that really do it for me.
Had you asked me five minutes in if I wanted to trade my scissors for fellatio, I would have had to think about it. Not long, but I would have had to think. It may be disgusting to cut your dead skin away with office scissors while sitting at your desk, but who exactly am I trying to impress anyway?
Bill Simmons @ ESPN
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