Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Monday, January 28, 2008

Nom de Guerre

Today in class, a student raised his hand to ask a question. When I called on him, he inadvertently addressed me as "Mr. Homework."

Saturday, January 19, 2008


The following book review originally appeared in Whistling Shade, a quarterly tabloid published on real newsprint, in 11-point Perpetua.

67 Mixed Messages by Ed Allen (Ahsahta Press)

For his first book of poetry, novelist and Flannery O'Connor Award-winning writer Ed Allen (Straight Through the Night, Mustang Sally, and Ate It Anyway) has set himself a formidable task. Each of the 67 poems that comprise 67 Mixed Messages is not only a Shakespearean sonnet, but also an acrostic, and all of those acrostics bear the exact same message: "I LOVE SUZI GRACE." The first four words of the second stanza in each poem are also the same: "I love you, Suzi." The result is oddly compelling, intellectually satisfying, occasionally disturbing, and loaded with equal amounts of pathos and humor.

The sonnet sequence follows a narrative in which the speaker, a professor in Vermillion, South Dakota (home of the University of South Dakota), who shares a name and job with the author of the book, recounts his adoration, mostly from a distance, of a female student. What contributes to the mixed message quality of the unabashedly infatuated poems is that the narrator appears to be gay. So, in addition to the tensions created by the age difference and the issue of a professor's romantic interest in a student, there are also the questions of why and how he desires her.

The girl of his dreams-a girl with a reputation who goes to bars "where students crowd like sheep"-lives in a trailer on the plains where she watches MTV. His fantasies of Suzi are decidedly low rent. He imagines walking hand-in-hand with her in a mall in front of Sears, or bedding her between K-Mart sheets or in a Super 8. The apotheosis of his dreams is a trip together to Vegas and a chintzy wedding there. Meanwhile, Suzi's ambitions never seem to rise above her entrance in a South Dakota beauty pageant.

While the protagonist's imagination may not always rise above the lowest common denominators of commercial America, Allen, the author, is weaving in literary allusions to other sonneteers, and creating a narrative with elements of a journal. With a desert war playing in the background on CNN, the speaker of the poems travels east to attend a conference on Robert Frost where he reflects on Suzi, the war, and Frost, as well as a friend diagnosed with breast cancer. In fact, the emphasis in poems 23-32 shifts from Suzi to this friend and her illness, lending additional weight to what otherwise might easily be a superficial infatuation. Poems 34-36 then allude to the most renowned writer of sonnets-Shakespeare himself. Number 35 begins with a reference to the sublime-"If Suzi's eyes could look more like the sun"-and concludes with the banally ridiculous-"Call me extreme, but Suzi in the sun / Exceeds all spreads that Hefner's ever run."

Allen pulls off most of his sonnets with élan, but the book 67 Mixed Messages is most closely related to is not a volume of poetry, but Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. There is more than just a bit of Humbert Humbert in the narrator of these obsessed odes. One poem is titled "Suzi Disguised as a Body Pillow," and another, "What It Would Be Like to Have Suzi Looking up into My Eyes the Way Actresses Do in Porno Movies." Jealousy of and disdain for her boyfriends and her tastes permeate these poems. There is even a touch of vengeful bitterness at her aging at the end, with two of the final poems titled "Thinking about Suzi on a Day When I Don't Have Any Desire For Her" and "Watching Suzi Drive Away on a Day When She Looks Heavier." If Lolita was an ambiguous love song to America, Allen continues in the same key. The narrator is too old, educated, and cultivated to fall for the same things his young inamorata does, but he seems to envy her youthful, nearly mindless ability to immerse herself in the music, beer, and boys of the plains. Effete, if not gay, he is drawn in by Suzi Grace's bland midwesternness. In a land of know-nothings, this misfit might be able to pass-to fit in-if he could possess her. She would not just be a beard for his sexuality, but perhaps more importantly for his outsider intellectual status. At one point, Allen even claims he is willing to give up his position in academia to work in a slaughterhouse if he could have her.

The book is not without its shortcomings. Some sentences defy parsing, such as: "You can be as bad, / Greedy, promiscuous, dishonest, blind." And Allen's Z-lines often suffer from a sense that his self-imposed rules have forced him away from the mot juste, and has had to settle for an unsatisfactory approximation. Take: "Unkindness, when it comes from Suzi, feels / Zones far removed from what I know as pain." That may scan, but it certainly doesn't sing.

What is most pleasing about these poems is how Allen maintains the traditional form of the sonnet while addressing his humble subject matter, acknowledging that "Eros lives among the lawn-parked cars."

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Soundtrack for Today's Commute

Teenage Machine Age, Vol. 3: 2001-1988, Part 2, particularly tracks 19 & 20, “Tranquilizer Boy” and “Where We Go.”

Monday, January 7, 2008

A Thing of Beauty

A list of synonyms for 'fool' from my computer's thesaurus:

idiot, ass, blockhead, dunce, dolt, ignoramus, imbecile, cretin, dullard, simpleton, moron, clod, nitwit, halfwit, dope, ninny, nincompoop, chump, dimwit, dingbat, dipstick, goober, coot, goon, dumbo, dummy, ditz, dumdum, fathead, numbskull, numbnuts, dunderhead, thickhead, airhead, flake, lamebrain, zombie, nerd, peabrain, birdbrain, jughead, jerk, donkey, twit, goat, dork, twerp, schmuck, bozo, boob, turkey, schlep, chowderhead, dumbhead, goofball, goof, goofus, galoot, lummox, klutz, putz, schlemiel, sap, meatball, dumb cluck, laughingstock, dupe, butt, gull, cat's paw, stooge, sucker, fall guy, sap.

Never saw this one coming!

TIME names Charlie Watts Person of the Year?!

Hoops & Marinade

When I first returned to playing basketball as an adult after a few years away, I was disappointed with my game. There were the obvious reasons, like I was out of shape and practice, but there was another obvious reason that took me a while to see. Even as I started to be able to play without fighting for air after thirty seconds and the feel for the ball returned a bit, I felt flat. I wasn’t making plays, at least not good ones, and the defense seemed to be able limit my offensive options rather easily. Suddenly, one day, away from the court, apropos of nothing I can remember, it dawned on me: I had forgot about faking! It was a revelation.

I had returned to the court, but I had completely forgotten that skill I had practiced for hours as a kid, even (especially) when no one was around. The next time I played, I started faking, and suddenly the joy returned. For, in fact, for me, the pleasures of the game are not simply scoring or winning (those things actually happen a lot in basketball), but the rarer, more subtle and elusive pleasures like a steal, a blocked shot, or an effective fake. Scoring a basket feels good, but stealing a pass makes my heart beat faster. Winning’s better than losing, but at 5’10” blocking a shot makes me feel powerful in a way that few things do. And for a fairly straightforward guy, that moment of deceit when you feign one way and your opponent falls for it, and you slide right by him for a lay-up, or dish to a now open teammate because someone else is collapsing in on you in the lane, that’s transcendent.

Well, I had similar revelation regarding the kitchen the other day. I received an email from my friend Erin in which she mentioned offhandedly a marinade she had made, and the scales fell from my eyes. Though I had listed my improvement as a cook as one of my ten highlights of 2007, the fact was I hadn’t marinated a single thing all year long. Even as I was trying new combinations of ingredients and attempting new techniques, the thought of marinating something I was preparing had never really crossed my mind.

Like the fake in basketball, it seemed such an obvious fundamental. How could I have overlooked it? No wonder the chicken was the weakest part of my risottos. The meat should never be the disappointing part of a dish—and until that moment I hadn’t figured out how to fix that. I immediately made marinating more one of my New Year’s resolutions for 2008, and tonight I out-marinated 2007.

First I read Joy of Cooking to make sure there wasn’t some aspect I was ignorant of, and to see what they were suggesting for proportions and quantities, then I went about making me very own simple marinade for a pound of chicken breasts: ¼ cup olive oil, the juice from 2/3 of a lemon (it’s what I had on hand—I’m describing here, not prescribing), two cloves of garlic, and some salt.

A couple hours later I sautéed some onions in olive oil, then added the chicken, and a minute or two before it was done I added sun-dried tomatoes. I served the whole thing over couscous, and like my basketball experience years ago, the joy returned. The first bite of chicken sang with flavor. Instead of the seasoning being outside the meat, accompanying it, it infused it—it was part of it.

Too often when you are single, cooking and eating can seem like unrewarding activities. There is no one else to appreciate what you have prepared, so it’s easy to take shortcuts, which then make the food less satisfying. If eating alone sometimes feels like a necessary task, marinating allowed me to revel in the flavor of the food I had cooked. Dinner tonight was no chore to eat.