Thursday, August 30, 2007

How Nancy Drew Saved My Summer

Last week, the editor of the Emory Wheel asked me if I could contribute a mini-column (200-300 words) to the paper about how I spent my summer "vacation".

The piece appeared in the Emory paper on Tuesday; what follows here is that piece...with pictures.

a mini-column:

A week after I graduated from Emory, I sat at my parents’ kitchen table, grinding my knuckles into my forehead. I was miserable. I had nothing to do. Life had been school, summer, school, summer for so long, but suddenly there was no school, and my summer dream of a career-making internship at Turner Broadcasting was a no-go. I had no money and no back-up plan. All I had was home. I had nothing to do.

Some of my friends moved to big cities, while others traveled overseas and posted their pictures on Facebook. They fled their parents’ houses for a world that boomed with new energy I could imagine, but not quite feel.

But then I started working at a used bookstore. It wasn’t a full-time job and it didn’t exactly pay the bills, but it was mine. I clinked open registers and counted sales, shelved books and vacuumed floors.

I met a sweaty bearded man who loved Nancy Drew and a rural father who loved books on sexual positions, despite his five children and pregnant wife. Spurred by a passion for creative writing, I blogged under self-imposed deadlines. My life was not on pause after all.

I would have never guessed last year that I’d spend the summer after graduation in a used bookstore, or the fall thereafter mulling an offer to teach English in South Korea. That new energy I wanted? I found it, and I don’t want a back-up plan anymore.*

* The Emory Wheel.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Snowball, Part 2

Part 1 was posted on Thursday

personal essay:

Two years later it’s bar mitzvah season, parties every Saturday night in hotel ballrooms and country clubs. And I was dancing with girls. Three on a bad night, seven or eight on a good one. My hands on her hips, her hands on my shoulders. Swinging back and forth like a pendulum, sometimes even making eye contact. I wore contact lenses now, no more clunky glasses. Parted my wavy hair to the left. I was still short, but as Rabbi Danziger had told me on my bar mitzvah day, I was a man.

One of those Saturday nights in late January. We’re in a wood-paneled ballroom for Kim Friedman’s bat mitzvah party. There’s a huge projection screen in front, Will Smith shaking from side to side in a pink button-down and leather jacket, telling us to get jiggy with it over a scratchy beat and a chorus of na na na na’s. So far it was the just another bar mitzvah party, the same loop of Puff Daddy and Spice Girls videos, the same chips-and-salsa refreshments, and the same girls in dresses red, blue, black, and white. Most of the guys wore Polo shirts, khakis, and dress shoes, a couple in coat and tie. The cool ones grinded with the girls of teased hair, too much eyeshadow, and breasts, while some dude named Morgenstein ignored the thumping music and tried to fix his wristwatch outside the restrooms. I had danced to almost all the fast songs and a couple of the slow ones. It was time to take a break.

I walked past Morgenstein and into the hallway, sitting against the wall and across from Amanda Cowell. We exchanged smiles. Sometimes in English class Amanda wrote little messages in my notebook. In seventh grade terms that meant we were friends.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“You having fun?”

“Oh yeah!” I said with just a touch of sarcasm. After all, it’s not too cool to say you’re having a blast at a bar mitzvah party, even if you are.

“That’s cool,” she said with a smile. “I just want them to play a good song.”

A few steps down the hallway Amanda’s friend Caitlin and my friend Chris chatted and flirted. When Getting Jiggy With It ended, Caitlin seized Chris’ hand and took him back into the ballroom. Amanda and I sat there and watched.

“Let’s go dance,” she finally told me.

Deana Carter’s Strawberry Wine swooned from the speakers as Amanda and I made our way through the pendulum-swinging couples and into our own little spot. A single yellow light crested against half her face, faintly shining on her soft lips. She’s wearing a beige dress, a soft fabric outline of birds across her small breasts. Our first time dancing together. Like straw-berry wine and se-ven-teen. It’s the usual bar mitzvah slow dance until I inched closer, my hands resting a little more firmly against her hips. She followed suit, her hands smoothly moving past my shoulders and landing on my back. Did she really just do that? More sad guitars from the speakers. Amanda wasn’t tall but to me she was a giant. On my tip-toes I could only reach her neckline. Cautiously my sweaty hands wrapped around the small of her back. Slowly we pulled each other closer. I could smell her perfume, something fruity, strawberry maybe. Was this happening? I snuck a look up at her face and her eyes went everywhere but at me. A few scribbled notes in English class, and now boyfriend and girlfriend?

The song changed and now my face was at the outline of the birds’ beak on her breasts. I should ask her out to a movie, I decided. That Spice Girls movie was PG-13; it looked bad, but so what? I could buy her popcorn. At my side I saw Chris and Caitlin, their bodies close but not as close as ours. Amanda and I were so close and so sweaty but we didn’t care or at least I didn’t. What was she thinking? Did she like me like that? This had gone way beyond pendulums.

The main lights sprang on with a fast rap song. After a few fleeting moments, we backed away from each other, distant smiles as if we had just woken from a dream. Across the dance floor I searched for Chris, wanting to tell him about Amanda, to ask him about Caitlin. Was this the night we’d get girlfriends? To the back of the ballroom I looked and there, standing right there, was my mom. My mom. Purse at her side, waiting for me. I couldn’t approach Amanda now, not with these lights so bright and not with my mom in the audience. It was all over.

“Did you have fun?” she asked as I approached her.

“Yeah,” I said, distracted. Sure enough the dance floor was emptying. Again on the projection screen came Will Smith in his pink shirt and leather jacket, another round of getting jiggy.

“Ready to go?”

I looked back at the floor but there was no sign of her. Maybe she was in the restroom, gossiping to Caitlin about what happened or what didn’t. Or maybe she realized when the bright lights came on, we couldn’t have each other anymore. I didn’t know, and maybe I was too scared to find out. Maybe.

“Yeah, I’m ready,” I said.

My mom gave me a kiss on the cheek.


Atlanta, Georgia. A night in early May. A mess of college students outside an illuminate nightclub. Faint sounds of pulsing bass: boom-ka-boom-ka-boom-ka. Waiting, waiting, waiting. The air sweats beer and cologne. Short-skirted girls yell into tiny cell phones, guys in silk shirts and black pants exchange complicated handshakes. I shift and squeeze through the stop-pushing-me crowd. It’s been six years since bar mitzvah season. I’m nineteen-years-old now, a college freshman. “Dirgesh,” I call out, spotting some friend-of-a-friend like a face in Where’s Waldo. He’s nursing a Sprite bottle, label ripped to white, a murky brown liquid sloshing about inside. “What’s in that?”

“Tastes like shit but it’ll get you fucked up.” He talks too close and too loud. “Want to try some?”

A twist of the cap, a sniff, a grimace, and finally a labored gulp.

Boom-ka-boom-ka-boom-ka. Goes down like pineapple-tinged gasoline, a little earthquake in my lungs. Another grimace. I nod thanks and return the bottle. We’re waiting to get into Club Eleven50. Tonight’s the last party of the year. I stand in line with my friends from Turman East dorm: Vijay, Amrit, Arun, Ashish, Deepak, Sandeep, Steven Tam, and Eric Li. I’m the token white guy. All of them are drunk and I’m trying to get there.

Finally our hands are marked with Xs and we’re in. Through the tiled foyer we walk past a crying girl, mascara seeping down her face: boom-ka-boom-ka-boom-ka-BOOM-KA-BOOM-KA.

Eleven50 is all high ceilings, plush sofas, rainbow strobe lights, so many people you can barely move. The parquet of the dance floor is buried beneath a sea of shuffling black shoes and high heels. I bump into some sweaty-haired dude; “Excuse me man,” I say, but he just ignores me. SHAKE IT, SHAKE IT, COME ON, SHAKE IT LIKE A POLA-ROID PICTURE! I try to muscle onto the floor but the sea of shoulders refuses to part. Where are Amrit and Ashish? Steven and Eric? Deep in the mass of bobbing heads, that’s where they are, swallowed by the crowd of dirty dancers and lone drunk guys half-heartedly “raising the roof.” I should sit down.

With a plop I sink into one of those plush sofas. A warm Corona and a sip of Dirgesh’s drink is the only alcohol in my system. Not enough to dance without a conscience. The strobe lights intermittently flash on faces: a girl with Rapunzel hair and a beer in her hand, Ashish, huge smile, grinding behind a caramel-skinned beauty with big eyes, Dirgesh in his white button-down, rubbing sweat off his neck.

“Alex, yo, why you not dancing?” Deepak hovers over me, armpit sweat making two distinct splotches on his shiny blue shirt.

“I’m coming,” I say, rising from the sofa to follow him through the tangled heap on the dance floor. The strobe showers us in pinks and purples and greens. Up two steps and we’re on a stage, the music bruisingly loud here. A Thai girl in a flowery low-cut blouse palms her knees and swerves her hips. She appears in front of me, back turned, gyrating into my lap. I do my thing: head bob, right elbow up, left elbow up. Like that she's gone, just vanishes into the crowd. Just like that.

I bob my head to the lispy surround sound of Biggie Smalls. I love it when you call me Big Pop-pa, he says, prompting our hands to wave in the air like we just don’t care. I love it when you call me Big Pop-pa.

I throw one elbow up and then the other. This is my dance. Here comes the lightning-quick slide to the left, a hard stomping of the right foot. A step back and then a step forth, chest bending, a step forth and then a step back, chest rising. This is my dance.

“Hey, Alex!” It’s Ashish’s friend, this Bollywood-beautiful girl with gold specks on her forehead. Pulak. She’s walking toward me. “Do you like this song?”

“No, not really,” I say, my shoulders swaying to the music. “Do you?”

“Yeah!” Her face shutters on and off with the strobe lights. Separated by two feet, we kind-of-sort-of-but-not-really dance with each other. Five seconds of that and then, with a smile, she walks away. I love it when you call me Big Pop-pa.

I watch Eric Li’s hand brush against the Rapunzel-haired girl’s hip before exploring the rose-tattooed small of her back. They don’t even look at each other, somehow both involved and isolated, bodies teasing and touching but minds in whole other galaxies. Tomorrow Rapunzel-girl will wake up late, take a long shower, and swallow two asprin with an orange juice. She won't remember this moment, the tingle of Eric Li's hand against her tattooed skin. She might not remember Eric Li.

I escape from the nightclub and into the tepid May air, leaving behind the faint trail of boom-ka boom-ka boom-ka. Sure it’s the last party of the year, but it’s the same as all the others: sloppy kisses between strangers and puking girls in the bathroom stalls. I gaze up at the illuminate Eleven 50 sign. All year I’ve done this same routine: get wasted, go to the clubs, and look for that perfect girl. But do I really think that I’ll find her on a sweaty dance floor?

“Where are you?” moans a sideways-walking drunk into her cell phone. “I’m hella-fucked up, Stacy! Hella-fucked up!” She brushes past me and trips over her heels. “Where are you?” she repeats. I finger the button of my red silk shirt and scratch at the black X on my hand. This nightclub scene is not for me.

After that fifth grade dance, I’d sometimes spot Madeline Carter in the hallways. She’d flash that toothy smile of hers and my stomach would cave in. When I left Farmington Elementary, I thought I’d never see her again, but a year later, I did. It happened at the grocery store. I was wearing contact lenses, a collared shirt, and nice pants without a belt. I looked cool. I wanted her to see me and be impressed. I don’t know if she saw me.

After Kim Friedman’s bat mitzvah party, Amanda Cowell and I no longer swapped notes in English class. Because she switched schools, I didn’t talk to her until just last year, when we stumbled upon each other at the Borders bookstore back home, five minutes of chit-chat between the two of us. Amanda’s going to Penn; she’s smart, but kind of pretentious. Her voice has a sharp lilt to it, as if she’s a U.N. diplomat. I didn’t realize that when we danced to Strawberry Wine.

The line in front of Eleven50 is still long and winding, the girls still shouting on their cell phones, the guys still talking to each other too loudly, their foreheads sweaty, their smiles drunk. Maybe the perfect girl hates nightclubs; maybe she’s crashing for finals on the third floor of the library; maybe she’s singing to herself in the shower, or maybe, just maybe, she’s dancing in her pajamas, alone in her dorm room, her speakers blaring. She could be anywhere, but one day I will find her.

And we will dance.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Snowball, Part I

“Snowball" is a coming-of-age story about dancing with girls: from doing the Hammer with my mom to staggering through a blur of college women in a boozy nightclub.

In between, there’s fifth grade awkwardness, bar mitzvah swagger, and a little bit of growing up...but not too much.

Since this is a longer piece, I've divided it into two sections: part one is featured here today, with part two to follow on Sunday.
personal essay:

It was the night of my eleventh birthday and I was ready to party. With my mom. In the dimly-lit living room of my house, my birthday present Space Jam soundtrack booming through our stereo speakers with a song about slam dunks. I cranked up the volume knob. The song screamed with thumping bravado, shaking the walls. HERE’S YOUR CHANCE, DO YOUR DANCE, TO THE SPACE JAM!

With a smile on her face my mom swayed her hips and let her hands massage the air. “Come on, Alex!” she said, waving me on to join her. I smiled sheepishly. WAVE YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR IF YOU FEEL FINE. That night I stood four feet, eleven inches. So skinny my ribs showed. My glasses were too big; my nose crinkled beneath them. I wore a Chicago Bulls t-shirt, multi-pocketed Bugle Boy jeans, and Air Penny basketball shoes. Eleven years old. What would my friends say if they saw me dancing with my mom? What would I tell them to make it sound cool?

“Good song!” my mom said, still massaging the air. Juiced up on Cherry Coke, I shrugged these doubts away. Who cares? I just wanted to dance. And so I joined her.

On the parquet floor of our living room, my mom and I sweated all the way through the Space Jam soundtrack. This was my dance: stand straight and still, then jump, left leg crosses right, jump, right leg crosses left. Jump, cross, jump, criss-cross, over and over and faster and faster. Then the Hammer, left leg skidding back and right leg hopping forward then skidding back, left coming forward, jump, cross, jump, criss-cross, Hammer, and then a three-hundred sixty degree spin. My heart pumped fast and my feet kept moving. This was my dance. More cross and criss-cross, more Hammer, more spins. I wasn’t even thinking about my friends and what they’d say; I was just dancing. With my mom. On my eleventh birthday. It was awesome.

I rewound the tape and played it again.

A few months later. It’s springtime, a Friday night at the Pickering Community Center, a boring building with one big room and a fireplace. Flashing rainbow lights from D.J. Steve’s tabletop. And I'm too sexy for your party Too sexy for your party. A group of girls with messy hair and no make-up, giggling. All those guys in Umbro shorts and neon t-shirts flicking open cans of soda. A few parents scattered in the back, watching, pointing, smiling. This was the fifth grade dance.

That’s me hiding in a dark spot at the edge of the dance floor, right by my best friend Andy Nishimoto. For fun we’d typically quiz each other on state capitals, but we really never talked about too much else. So sexy it hurts. Andy didn’t even want to dance. Probably never did, I thought, not even with his mom. But all that night I hadn’t danced either. No jump and cross and criss-cross. No Hammer. A few times I almost did my dance but then I’d look at those giggling girls in jeans. They loomed over me like mountains. I felt like a little kid.

The lights dimmed and the so sexys faded. There was whispered buzz among the crowd. From the speakers came the soft tinkling of a piano chord. A slow song.

My eyes darted across the room, past the darkened corner of parents, past the refreshment table, finally landing on Madeline Carter and her long sunstroked brown hair and her twinkling hazel eyes and her toothy smile. She was beautiful. My stomach turned over on itself.

D.J. Steve called out two names to get things started, because there was no way a pair of fifth-graders were going to start slow-dancing on their own. The victims were Lindsay Tolson and John McManus. Lindsey shouted "No!” racing into a wall of her girlfriends, trying to escape, trying to disappear. Mariah Carey hit a high note and finally, finally Lindsay succumbed and grazed her hands against John’s shoulders. She glanced back at her friends and at her mom in the corner. John just stared at his toes the whole time.


They separated quickly and looked for new partners slowly. There at the edge of the circle was Madeline. I had talked to her only twice before: the first time was in gym class after a relay race, the second time was when I borrowed her pencil in class. That was enough for a crush, but dancing with her? Dancing with a girl? Still, John McManus approached Madeline and just like that, they were dancing. How? How in the world did he do that? My feet refused to move.

"Capital of North Dakota?" Andy asked me, hoping to jumpstart one of our state capital games.

I didn’t want to play along. The game of snowball had accelerated; there were now five couples swaying to Mariah Carey's falsetto. And in the thick of it was Madeline, so cool, so beautiful. She talked to all the boys with whom she danced, little laughs between them, like it didn’t mean anything, like nobody was nervous and nobody was scared. Snowball was called again and Andy and I remained on the sidelines, waiting to be asked to dance or maybe just waiting to go home. My eyes began to water, just a little. Snowball again.

“What’s the capital of North Dakota?” Andy repeated.

The dance floor was filling up, D.J. Steve was bobbing his head, the parents were nodding along to the music. Some guy with a crew cut and a Starter jacket asked Madeline to dance. She smiled. My glasses felt heavy on my nose. Could not move. Scared. I was too scared to walk up to any girl, much less Madeline. My throat tightened as if swallowing a marble. I turned to Andy.

If he really wanted to know the capital of North Dakota, I’d just have to tell him.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Good Poetry, Bad Poetry: Fly, Blue Bird, Fly!

writing on writing:

Once upon a time, I figured that poetry was easier to write than fiction. Anybody could slap a few random words together and find a hoity-toity wannabee who'd call those words "deep" and "probing." Right?

blue bird rising
by Mr. Wrote This in Twenty Seconds-Man

chirps like chocolate on a bright battery

shine on me, now

men of a thousand faces

laced, razed

land, gone.


She cries.

"blue bird rising" is about the abuse of Native Americans upon Columbus' conquest of the West. The title ironically evokes the rise of modern America ("blue bird rising"), while the "bright battery" symbolizes the co-opting of Native American culture. The "men of a thousand faces" are the Cherokees, Seminoles, and Apaches beaten down by imperialism. Finally, the "She" who cries is the spirit of all oppressed peoples.



"blue bird rising" is about nothing. I'm Mr. Wrote This in Twenty Seconds-Man. I wrote nothing in twenty seconds. However, I did spend time and effort in writing the paragraph explaining the meaning of my bullshit. What's funny is I started to believe in my blue bird, thus giving myself a little window into the world of bad poetry, its criticisms, and its praises.

But that's the key word: bad. Good poetry is a whole different beast, and I respect it beyond measure, for every single word, capitalization, punctuation mark, and line break counts. If you change one syllable, the whole piece collapses.

While "good" fiction and good nonfiction can survive without a word or two here or a sentence or two there, good poetry needs every single thing it's already got. That fact is intimidatingly impressive, and something I only began to appreciate once I tried slapping not-so-random words together.

What follows are three poems I wrote for Taije Silverman's Intermediate Poetry class at Emory. I haven't written much poetry since, but the class and its exercises have pushed me (I hope) into becoming a savvier writer when it comes to economy and honesty of words. Yet I'm still learning. You could say that this blue bird is still rising.

Sorry, I couldn't help myself.
(Note: Poems should be read aloud. You want to feel the words on your tongue. It's more fun that way. Trust me.)

Scrabble King

(co-written with Zachary Travers)

He always likes to whine about the score.

He lays the letters down and splits a smirk.

I don't want to play Scrabble anymore.

I think that he's a triple-letter whore.

He uses words like Zek and Auk and Irk.

He always likes to whine about the score.

He hasn't kissed a girl since 94'.

He thinks the ladies love him. He's a jerk.

I don't want to play Scrabble anymore.

An irritating bastard and a bore,

he reads the dictionary while at work.

He always likes to whine about the score.

He just biked home back from the comics store.

He bought a life-sized doll of Captain Kirk.

I don't want to play Scrabble anymore.

Whenever we play Scrabble on the floor,

he yells "You cheater!" Then I go berserk.

He always likes to whine about the score.

I don't want to play Scrabble anymore.

Locker Talk at Sweet Briar High

Like honestly,

Just because I said

you had pudge on your hips,

herpes on your lips

and zits on your tits,

gives you no right

to call me a bitch.


like honestly?

If you say you’re sorry

I won’t hate you.

You’re not that ugly.

The Thirteen-Year-Old Boy at the R-Rated Movie

Very back row,

end of the aisle,

you sit.

Don’t you get caught,

don’t go get popcorn,

big risk.

Spot the ushers?

Sink into your seat,

don’t split.


movies are not you.

No shit.

You sweat, you wait

for a boob or two

or six.

Your bar mitzvah

did not prepare you

for this.


Thursday, August 16, 2007

Roger Federer is a Loser

Note 6-21-09 : This column keeps coming up in search engines when people search for "Is Roger Federer Jewish?" I guess the random assortment of words on this page, along with my own mini-biography, convinced Google I would have the answer to that question.

Well, Roger Federer is not Jewish. He's Catholic.

I hope you stay for a minute and check out the following column.

Take Care,

a column:

He crushes you with serves that paint the lines and volleys that cut the angles. He puzzles you with the softest of drop shots and the deepest of forehands. He kills you, and he doesn't even break a sweat. He's notched eleven Grand Slams: five Wimbledons, three U.S. Opens, and three Australian Opens. He recently won forty-one matches in a row. John McEnroe called him "the most gifted player that I've ever seen in my life."

Roger Federer might be gifted, but he is a loser. Just like me.

This August, Federer lost to Novak Djokovic in the Montreal Master's Cup final; in the fall of 1998, I lost to some guy whose name I forgot in the first round of a Boys 14s Novice Tournament. In 2006 and 2007, Federer lost the French Open final to Rafael Nadal; In 2002 and 2003, I lost the Lausanne vs. Briarcrest High School match to my friend Matt Wiseman. Roger, I know how you feel. There are days when you're not the best player on a single court, much less the best player in the world.

Wait. Am I crazy? I'm not really comparing myself to Roger Federer, am I? The closest I've come to a Grand Slam is sitting in the cheap seats of the U.S. Open, where approximately 3.4 million people stood closer to the court than I did. But like Roger, I've lost matches. Like anyone who's ever held a racket before, I've lost matches. And even while I "retired" from the Tennessee junior circuit, graduated from high school and college, started a part-time job, and pondered and planned (a little) for my immediate future, I still can't forget that Alex Gates came back from two sets down to beat me at State Qualifying seven years ago. I still can't forget how Lee Cook stayed stoic as I screamed at the fence and slapped my thigh with one too many "Come on's." I still can't forget Henry Gindt's truck-full of Mississippi girl fans out-cheering my mom in the stands. I still can't forget all the matches I should-have-could-have-God-how-I-would-have won.

I'm a naturally nostalgic person, but I don't always remember the good times of the my career: I played #1 for my high school squad, I won a couple local tournaments, and I finished in the top twenty of the Boys 16s state rankings. Sometimes, I was the one who came back from two sets down; I was the one who kept my composure through a thousand deuces. I may not have had the softest of drop shots or the deepest of forehands, but I could play. And I could win.

But whenever I enjoy the memory of a long-ago victory, the memory of a loss always follows. The hard truth is that every victory, however satisfying, was really just a stepping stone to defeat; if not in the next match, then in the next tournament, or the tournament after that. If only I improved my serve, I could have made it to Southerns. If only. It's easy to play with ifs and create revisionist histories, for unless you're Roger Federer, you never truly hit the top of the game.

But there's nothing depressing about that. Why? Because as we know, the greatest winner in tennis loses too. The rest of us athletes might not have his skill set or bravado, but we might have his fight. We might have his passion. Even when we struggle through a country club match that nobody's watching, we pump our fists and yell "Come on!" like it's Roland Garros. We hustle and we swing and we lose and we do it all over again, fumbling towards a perfection we can feel in our nerves when we smack a screaming backhand.

And sometimes, we win. And when we do, it feels so good, almost good enough to remember.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

If I Were a Middle-Aged Woman Looking for Romance...

a romantic investigation:

If I were a middle-aged woman, what would I read? Would I follow the plucky heroines of Janet Evanovich mysteries? Would I bow to the wisdom of Oprah's Book Club? Or would I try something a bit more funky, or dare I say, sexual?

Norah Hess' Raven makes me question that old maxim "never judge a book by its cover," because I get the feeling that this book demands to be judged. You want let's-get-sweaty-in-the-grass passion? it seems to ask, then dive into these perfume-scented pages and enjoy, brother.

So here's my challenge: I want to get inside the heads of the women who buy these novels. I work at a used bookstore, and tomes by Hess and writers like her sell consistently well. These books are regular reading for millions of women, so it wouldn't be fair of me to tease Raven strictly on the basis of its cover art.

I need to read the book, or at least a chapter of it. Now.

So turn down the lights, throw the dog outside, and join me for a journey into a world with "lust stabbing out of bold, hungry eyes," the world of Raven.

Fade In...

Page One

Meet Raven: dark hair: green eyes, and world-class gozangas. It's the first page of the book and we're off and running with two mentions of "breasts" and one mention of "nipples." No time wasted in getting down to business.

I'm thinking about the thirtysomething black lady who bought this book the other day. She read the first page with its "breasts" and "nipples" and she kept going. Godspeed.

Page Fourteen

No nipples on page fourteen. Raven's dad died from an Indian arrow and her grandpa was struck down by a lightning bolt. When's this story take place? Are we in the wild west imagined by Back to the Future III? Are we in the backwaters of Idaho in 1997?

"Take all you can from life, Raven. If you don't, it will take from you."

Page Eighteen

"The name is Chance, Chance McGruder," says our hero in Stetsons, introducing himself to Raven. Chance is to seduce her in exchange for money, since Raven is desperate to relieve her dead husband's gambling debts. Oh!

With help from the backcover, Norah Hess' vision begins to crystallize. Chance? Gambling? Her love will be a game of "chance"? Ante up, indeed!

Page Twenty-Two

"Pink-tipped mound...tongue swirling...mouth drawing...slow sucking...tongue darting...core of her femininity." I tried to chop these phrases at the right places before they became too graphic, but you get the idea. Is this the page when the typical Hess reader starts fanning her face and tugging the folds of her blouse? Or does she read these passages in a waiting room, as if the "core of her femininity" is inside an AARP Magazine? These things I wonder.

Page Twenty-Four

"Hold on, honey, while I take you to heaven."

Page Twenty-Five

"Let yourself go, honey. Hang on to me and together we will climb that mountain."

Revelation: Guys named Chance can pull off climbing-mountain euphemisms when getting freaky.

Fade out...

I failed. I didn't really get into the heads of the women who read these books, for my own head kept getting in the way. But I still learned a few things, like sometimes, you not only can judge a book by its cover, you should. And different books are for different people. Period. There's nothing groundbreaking in that statement, but it does reflect today's YouTubed and Tivoed society. Because we're offered so many choices, Norah Hess' Raven can enjoy a steady shelf life in used bookstores without even touching certain segments of the population. I suppose it's a good thing this book has an audience, though I still feel that "pink-tipped mound" describes a Baskin Robbins flavor better than it describes a boob.

So I bid good-bye to Raven and good-bye to Chance McGruder. Maybe I didn't give you guys a fair shake, but at least you still got each other. Enjoy climbing those mountains, and good luck getting to heaven.


Thursday, August 9, 2007

Harry Potter and The Dawson's Creek

a report:

When it comes to Harry Potter, I don't know the difference between a prisoner of azkaban and a half-blood prince. I don't know the rules of Quidditch and I don't know if Hermione is "legal". I haven't read The Deathly Hallows; in fact, I haven't read a single book featuring the world's favorite boy wizard. What I do know about the billion-selling series I've gleaned from Newsweek cover stories and Conan O'Brien one-liners. As someone who considers himself fairly in tune with the changing waves of American pop culture, what's my excuse for missing out on Harry-mania? The answer to that question is simple: Dawson's Creek, Season Three.

Don't laugh. As Capeside High School junior Pacey Witter puts it, "Dawson Leery and Joey Potter have been apart for months now. The whole summer has passed and the whole world is waiting to figure out what's going to happen." Fine, the "whole summer" Pacey's citing is the summer of 1999, and the "whole world" is the show's fanbase of sorority houses and teenage girls' bedrooms...and me, a male college graduate of 2007 weened on The Wonder Years and The O.C.

Even while I see Dawson's Creek as an overwritten and downright cheesy melodrama, I can't help but find something ridiculously comforting in enjoying a pop culture phenomenon once it's long past its sell-by date. In a given episode, Dawson's is liable to weave punchlines around Crash Bandicoot and Janet Reno, and I'm liable to enjoy all the 90s arcana. Part of the thrill is superficial: Crash Bandicoot? Janet Reno? These subjects of Capeside quips are stuck in a time capsule, forever safe from hanging chads, Dubya, "it's niiiice" Borat impressions, and hell, the Harry Potter movie adaptations. For all their SAT vocabulary and smarty-pants references , the Creek kids of 1999 don't know anything about anybody named Condoleezza. And I do. Take that, Dawson.

I might be doomed as a lonely Creeker, but I'm not alone in reviving yesterday's pop culture favorites today. Take a look at the front page of's DVD section on a random August afternoon and you might find Footloose and the first two seasons of The Muppet Show featured more prominently than recent releases like 300 and House: Season Three. On the site's list of 100 best-selling DVDs, you'll find seasons of Home Improvement and Full House in between seasons of Grey's Anatomy and The Sopranos. While another pack of kids, teens, and adults rip through the final pages of The Deathly Hollows, there's another audience hooting and hollering at Tim Allen's Tool Time. This rise of 90s entertainment goes beyond the class-clown antics of VH1 nostalgia, for the fans of Dawson's Creek and Home Improvement enjoy the shows even without wisecracks from Last Comic Standing rejects. We don't mind being un-hip, and I don't mind being ignorant of muggles.

"The [Potter] books came out when I was in my literary snob phase," says Steven Stein, intern at the Austin American-Statesman and adventure-book connoisseur. "I felt they were beneath me. When I became less of an asshole, I was too far behind to catch up."

Stein's words got me thinking: do I ever want to "catch up" with the Potter Nation? Or am I content waiting for eight-years-ago twists in the Dawson-Joey-Pacey love triangle?

In 2012, I might crack open Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, but for now, count me among the few, the proud, and the non-Potterfied.

My apologies to J.K. Rowling, but it's time to play Crash Bandicoot.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Oscar's Soup

short fiction:

I felt a prickle in the back of my throat like a dry leaf. It hurt like hell to swallow.

"Eat your soup, Oscar," said my mom, arms crossed, forefinger tapping the bald head of her elbow. Her limbs were toned and shiny, but I could beat her in arm-wrestling because my guns were big, blubbery, and lethal. What could I say? Being a fatso had its upsides.

"Tastes spoiled," I said, gripping the drippy spoon. I was fourteen and I had a bad fever; I was in no mood for crappy soup. "You want me to die of food poisoning?"

She stole my spoon, raised it to her lips, and slurped.

Then she spewed the broth all over the tile floor.

I laughed hard.

"Fine, you win," she said. "It does taste a little funny."

It tasted like dirt. And I knew dirt. Ate a handful in first grade and would have tried more if Miss Zeeman hadn't stopped me.

"Dirt," I said aloud, grinning to myself, even as my forehead pounded so hard that my skin threatened to turn itself inside-out. "Tastes like dirt."

"I'll get you something else." She pulled away the sloshing bowl. "If that's what it takes for you to eat and get better. "

And then the soup talked.
Or it moaned.

I wasn't sure, but I did know that it was engaging in very un-souplike activity. The sound from the liquid came guttural, throaty: "Ugg," it croaked with a baritone, liquid burbling like Jurassic Park, "ugggggggg."

My mom and I locked eyes. This. was. weird.

"Ugg." A tiny bubble expanded to the size of a softball. It popped. "Uggggggggggg."

"What's happening, mom?"

She didn't answer.

It grumbled and bubbled like something physical and real, like something taking its last breaths, like something about to die.

And then it stopped.


Everything was normal again.

"I think," my mom began, carrying the bowl to the sink, "that both of us are feeling a little bit loopy." She upended the bowl, spilling the gruel down the drain with a glug-glug-glug.

My throat constricted: harder than before. I felt something painful deep in my mouth, pulsing or red, I didn't know what but it hurt. It hurt.

It hurt.

"Ugg," I growled. "Uggggggggg."

"You have a fever," my mom whispered, touching my collar bone. Her hand wobbled, like she was drunk. "It's just a little fever." That's when I noticed her crying. I wanted to say, "Don't cry, mom, you're right. It's just a little fever. And it's weird and all but don't cry."

But all I managed was "Ugg."

She gripped my collar bone tighter. It should have stung but I didn't feel a thing. Numb. I was numb. The way the tears dribbled down her cheeks, the way she tried to ignore them: she looked like a little girl. A scared, little girl. Not my mom anymore.

"Uggggg." I stuck a finger into my throat and retched, spewing out a stringy gray mess. The murky strands fell to my chin and hung there, dangling. I probably looked like a mental patient.

But my throat was clear. My head stopped pounding. My mom wouldn't let go of my collar bone and only now did I feel her sharp claws.

"You can let go now, mom."

"Marianne." He shook her through the heavy covers. "Marianne, are you okay?"

She opened her eyes. Early morning. Bedroom tinted in bluish grays. She noticed her hand clinging hard against her collar bone. With a blink she released her grip, feeling the bruise, deep and self-inflicted beneath her flowery nightgown.

Ken, with his stubbled chin and morning breath, loomed above her, his face inches away, concerned but calm in this light of dawn. "You were having that dream again, weren't you?" His eyes stoic, glazed. "The soup dream, wasn't it?"

"I don't want to talk about it."

Outside the sprinkler hummed, its revolutions spritzing water against their windows. A car honked lazily.

"The kid was sick." Ken stood up from the bed, tugging at the wrinkled neck of his undershirt. "You can't blame yourself forever, Marianne."

"He was fourteen years old." She felt too tired to argue, but she couldn't help it. "If it was your son, you wouldn't be so flip."

"I want you to get out of bed today."

"Oh, really?"

"Before noon." He tripped toward the bathroom, flipping on the light, a too-bright glow before the open doorway.

She turned to the nightstand and the framed picture of Oscar, twelve, posing like a football star on the Destin shoreline, fists clenched, floppy biceps flexed, an expression on his face that said now, now, I may look like a little kid but I'm strong. I am strong.

"I heard his voice."

"What's that?" Ken called from the bathroom.

"In the dream," she swallowed hard, the taste of a dry leaf. "I heard his voice in the dream."

The bathroom door clicked shut. With a swish the shower started running.

And then she got out of bed.


Thursday, August 2, 2007

Dear Producers of "So You Think You Can Dance,"

a letter:

I know what you're thinking: we're a smash-hit television show, watched by millions of wannabe rump-shakers a week. We're younger than Dancing with The Stars and hipper than American Idol. We've got pretty ladies, pretty boys, and pretty judges. Who's this letter-writing guy think he is, telling us we're missing something?

Who am I? Four words: The Ultimate Dancing Machine. I tango like my last name's Iglesias. I don't cha-cha-cha; I cha-cha-cha-cha. I unironically swivel my hips to the Macarena, because swivel-hipping is serious business, and the Macarena is my erotic bookstore. I shimmy and I shake and I never break a sweat. I make voguing look manly. I'm just that good.

But there's more. I got moves you've never dreamed, much less seen. I snap my teeth and I twitch my elbows to the left and to the right. I palm my nipples and then release them from hiding. Palms on, palms off. Like window shutters, open and close, open and close, faster and faster. Peek-a-boo. I gnash my teeth again. I call this dance "The Janet Jackson."

There's more. I make see-through cups with my thumbs and index fingers, sliding them over my eyes, like I'm peering through binoculars. I whip my head from side to side, peering, peering, peering, until I point my "binoculars" up at the sky. I call this one "Are you there God? It's Me, Margaret."

And finally, I do the Hammer. Before you shake your head: I do the Hammer while levitating seven feet off the ground.

Pick a sidewalk and I'll show you. I kick it off with the typical slide-up slide-down conveyor-belt hustling. Go Hammer. Go Hammer. Go. I speed up my sliding, my two legs switching and clicking like mad metronomes. No thinking. Just hammering.

Moments later my feet give way, like a balloon swelling, inching airborne ever so gracefully. I'm floating, and my legs keep sliding.

You can't touch this indeed.

So fine, maybe I'm not classically-trained. Maybe I'm not television-friendly. But let me answer the question you keep asking America:

Yes, I think I can dance.