e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


Non-Academic Stuff I Read During Summer Vacation #5

Alright, second entry on my Chuck Klosterman kick. Between lugging boxes to our temporary apartment-home in Hamilton (we sold our house--yeah!), I read Klosterman's 2003 essay collection Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs and found the volume infinitely more interesting than Klosterman's more self-indulgent, overly confessional follow-up, Killing Yourself to Live (see my previous summer reading entry).

'Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs' allows Klosterman to explore his obsessions: The Real World, Saved by the Bell, Billy Joel, the 1980s Celtics-Lakers rivalry, mining each for cultural significance. What I love about his collection is the having-a-conversation-in-a-bar tone he adopts. This m.o. not only affects Klosterman's tone of voice, but also his attitude and approach to the subject matter. He knows his analyses are half-baked (albeit developed in vociferous detail) and invites his readers to point out just how half-baked his theories often are, and develop their own counter-theories. An example of what I mean...for Klosterman, Billy Joel is the only popstar in the rock and roll era who's *great* but not *cool*. He uses these categories with a winking, wicked sense of humor, all the while standing by the utter logic of his own taxonomy. But Klosterman wants to run into someone who can prove otherwise, dares his readers to prove otherwise. Tough to do--he's thought his theories through for hours and hours and hours.

This collection is lots and lots of fun. You can't help but laugh out loud once or twice per chapter. And Klosterman's got some smart things to say about what he unapologetically calls "low culture." Best thing I've read this summer.

On The Road

[More stuff from the 'writing with my students this summer' file. Also very rough drafty.]

The road from Tucson to New Orleans pretends the north does not exist. In Summer, 1999, a month before my wedding, I drove that road. Alone in my Ford Ranger pick-up, royal blue, I made my way across Interstate 10. Browns, grays. Saguaro cactus, tumbleweed. After the lights of Tucson fade, a dry expanse. Cars and trucks on 10 are salty pumpkin seeds, dryingon a cookie sheet in a low oven.

Semis cut through the one-hundred-and-ten degrees as Arizona becomes New Mexico. Still no cities. Over-priced gas. The radio scan button on continuous loop becase of no F.M. stations until El Paso. Finally a city. I-10 sits on al elevated plain through town, overlooking a valley, border at the bottom. Unadorned chainlink fence separates El Paso, USA, from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

A roadside stand. Three tacos and a bottle of water. Back on the road, a station from Juarez plays mariachi music, the only genre loud and brash enough to cut the heat. Trumpets, violins, a guittaron. Guantanamera.

Eastbound for hours and hours. Still not halfway through Texas. No fast-food joints. Ghost town gas stations with names I’ve never heard. No chains or franchises here. Barbecue brisket for dinner at a convenience store that sells live bait even though there’s no water for miles. Brisket comes on a styrofoam plate dripping with a maroon-colored sauce, part spicy, part sweet, all Texas. Speckles of peppercorns map that sauce and the tangy scent gets into your sinuses before the first, sitting-on-the-tailgate bite.

The sun is setting but the digital thermometer advertising a local feedstore still registers in the triple digits. I’ve driven nearly one-thousand miles since my 5:00 a.m. Tucson departure but I know I’ve got another hundred in me. Another hundred before I find a sign that simply says “Hotel.” No name except “Hotel.” It’s dusty. No cars in the lot. Not as bad as a place in Tucson called the “No Tell Mo-Tel,” with flexible hourly and weekly rates. But bad. I wake the proprietor with the night buzzer and pay with cash. Fill a pocket with Saltine packets from the counter.

Next morning I realize that West Texas somewhere, somehow, at some point became East-Central Texas. What’s the difference? One word: humidity. I’m on the road at 10:00 a.m. and now I’m sweating. And there’s some—not a lot—but some grass along the interstate.

More trucks. More higway. Day two miles click off at a slower clip. It’s a law. But I did well over half the trip on day one. Cruise control. Still water in ditches. The southwest is behind me, the bayou in front. Truck-stop salad and ice cream for lunch. I pace a semi with Louisiana plates for at least three hours, thankful the moist sun’s not as bright as the Tucson sun.

I find a radio station playing hip hop. Good stuff, too: Wu-Tang Clan, Tupac, an old Digable Planets song, some Spanish-language rap I’ve never heard before. I imagine Texas kids, living hours away from Dallas or Houston or Baton Rouge, worlds away from L.A. or Detroit or Brooklyn listening to gangsta rap in trucks, bedrooms, basements.

Welcome to Louisiana. Bridges over swamps where I look for alligators. The bayous form raodways like in Venice and primitive fishing boats dot the murky waters. Cloistered communities. Creole families whose language, food, religious, lifestyle mixes four or five eighteenth century cultures into one jumbalaya.

I’m hungry but I push through Baton Rouge where every car sports an LSU bumper sticker or license plate holder or both. Long humid stretch from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, but I can already taste beignets and muddy black coffee from the French Quarter. Already I’m bumping into drunk businessmen, spilling their hurricanes and slurring their “excuse me”s. I’m already smelling musky incense from Santeria shops. I can hear zydeco folk songs. All on that last stretch of I-10.

I’m only fifteen minutes from Versailles, the Eastside Vietnamese quarter, my final destination, when I see the ‘New Orleans City Limit’ sign but I exit 10 anyway. Two days in the car. A shower and bed await in Versailles. But I exit I-10 for one final round of freeway food. Oyster po’boy, dressed: hard French roll, soft in the middle, lots of salty oysters, deep fried, lettuce, tomato, pickle, mayo. Goodbye, Tucson. Hello, N’awlins.


What Scares You?

[I've been writing with students in my Writing Project workshop, a class for K-12 language arts teachers. This is a rough draft...still figuring out exactly what I want to say. Can't get the ending right.]

Summer 2002. Dissertation finished. Five-week summer-term teaching gig finished. Most days top one-hundred degrees in sunny Tucson, a city I’m departing in a few weeks, degree in hand, for a teaching job at Miami University. Trading the southwest for southwest Ohio. “But it’s a dry heat” for “oh the humidity.” Teaching assistantship for tenure-track. Ten years of college for, well, thirty-five more years of college.

Hopped up on Diet Coke and air conditioning, a friend and I decide we need a good scare, concluding that a midnight showing of The Exorcist at a local arthouse theatre would be the job. We both had tender childhood experiences with the holy trinity of horror cinema: The Omen, The Shining, and of course The Exorcist, the godhead of that evil triumvirate.

Because my siblings were a decade older than me, I accessed the horror genre at what I now recognize as probably too young an age. Slasher films at nine and ten. At ten or eleven, my brother’s copy of Stephen King’s Night Shift, a pulpy paperback with a cover picture of a gauzed-wrapped hand covered with realistic eyeballs, followed soon by anything twisted Hubbard Public Library had to offer, notably a creepy true-crime novel based on the Zodiac Killer and a cold-war comic about an astronaut abandoned during a space walk. Cable tv showings of The Omen and The Shining at perhaps eleven.

But I never saw The Exorcist until ninth grade religion class. If older siblings don’t warp you, Catholic school surely will. Our religion teacher, the newly ordained Fr. Francis, was doing a unit on church rituals. Naturally exorcism held more interest than, say, baptism or even trans-substantiation. A retired priest at the school, according to Fr. Francis, had actually performed several exorcisms during his incarceration at a World War II P.O.W. camp in northern Africa. We knew Fr. Sala as the quiet retiree who strolled around schoolgrounds and didn’t speak much English. Hair as white as the snow that covered the haunted hotel of The Shining. We could barely believe exorcism was a legitimate church ritual let alone that we had a real, live, 80-something exorcist in our midst. All of a sudden, Fr. Sala’s thoughtful countenance, incessant pacing, hours spent in the chapel, and fright-white hair took on new meaning. We never approached Fr. Sala.

But we did convince Fr. Francis to screen The Exorcist in class. Like no horror film I had ever seen. Zero comic relief. No foolish characters asking for their grisly fates. No contrived, far-fetched exposition. Just an exploration of evil. Just Satan in a kid’s body. I remember a kind of respect for the film, maybe stemming from all we had learned about exorcism’s real presence in church doctrine and church practice. I can recall subsequent class discussions about evil in the world, the devil, the unforgivable sin. Mostly I remember being scared.

So on that dry Tucson evening, my pal and I file into the theatre. The air conditioning chills us instantly. Turned up extra high, and I think of the bedroom of the film’s protagonist Reagan, frigid with possession. The theatre must be doing this on purpose to freak the audience out. I remember reading an article that the film’s director used dozens of air conditioners to keep the set freezing. In the same article, I read that the director shot a real gun to frighten Max Von Sydow and Ellen Barkin and capture on film their genuine fear. I tell my friend that if I see an usher packing, I’m leaving. She has no idea what I’m talking about.

Kids begin to file into the theatre. I’m the oldest person there. Mostly goth kids. Black eye shadow. Black Levi’s. Black blouses with frills. Black combat boots. a kid of perhaps fifteen sits down next to me wearing a frown and what looks like the puffy shirt from that episode of Seinfeld. Several don trench coats and it occurs to me that we’re at the only place in Tucson in August where a trench coat makes sense. My teeth chatter.

My friend and I grow self-conscious about our pre-show banter. We feel like chaperones with our loose khaki short, our conversations dotted with 1980s references, and our absence of angst. I’m suddenly aware of the ten-year high school reunion invitation resting behind a magnet on my refrigerator. I’m suddenly aware that I own a refrigerator magnet. I do math in my head to remind myself that I was probably just ten or eleven when these kids were born. When they entered the world, I was probably reading a library book about a serial killer or watching The Omen on HBO. Kharma.

Most seats fill up. The lights go down, mostly camoflouging the black-clad teens. A girl with body glitter emits sparkles. A purple Mohawk two rows in front of us refracts the glow of the opening credits. My last thought as the movie begins is whether this is their first viewing of The Exorcist.

Soon I have my answer. Once Reagan, the little girl played by Linda Blair, in a career-defining and probably a career-ending move, enters full-on possession mode, the theatre comes to life. The kid in the puffy shirt smiles what I take to be the day’s first smile. And the kids in the theatre know, and shout out with glee, all the words. It’s like going to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show. When Satan adopts the voice of the exorcist priest’s mother and gives the “Oh, Jimmy” monologue, the kids yell out the “Oh, Jimmy” monologue. When Satan growls, “Reagan’s not here, now undo these straps,” the kids yell out “Reagan’s not here, now undo these straps.” They love it.

Forget about the self-consciousness over age, coolness, credibility. No respect, I allow myself to think. The Exorcist isn’t camp. There’s no irony here. No comic relief. This is evil, damn it! I knew an exorcist in high school. We’re not watching Freddy Kreuger here. You’re not supposed to be having fun. Stop it. You take evil seriously. You take The Exorcist seriously.

Some people of a certain age (i.e., my age) bemoan mediocre, big-budget adaptations of The Grinch and The Cat in the Hat. For me, seeing The Exorcist with the goth set made an icon a little less iconic. I had to wonder whether a little healthy respect for evil was still part of the repertoire of the young horror aficionado. Take it from a former ten-year-old and a guy whose high school had a resident exorcist: that kind of respect keeps the nightmares at bay.


Non-Academic Stuff I Read During Summer Vacation #4

Finished Chuck Klosterman's Killing Yourself to Live in one sitting, which I suppose says something about its readability and sense of fun. And Klosterman IS both readable and fun; his columns in Spin Magazine are never pretentious. In KYTL, he drops lots of amusing comments about what he unapologetically calls "low culture" (is his use of the term ironic, unironic, post-ironic, what?). I laughed at his narrative of toggling between 80s retro radio ("Mr. Roboto"), classic rock radio (Rolling Stones), and back to 80s retro (Extreme): "Styx and Stones may break my bones, but 'More than Words' will never hurt me." You either think he's funny or you don't.

I was let down, though, by the self-indulgence. KYTL is basically a non-fiction version of High Fidelity, Nick Hornby's novel about a rock and roll geek and his failed relationships. Klosterman sets out to travel to sites of famous rock and roll deaths (the Great White fire of 2003, the Lynyrd Skynyrd crash site, etc.) and contemplate whether death is a ticket to eternal fame and/or credibility. Hence, the title. But Klosterman spends much more time revealing details about the three women he obsesses over, the three women who continue to haunt and define his personal life. Like the protagonist of High Fidelity, Klosterman (or his persona, if he can be said to have a persona--he does a pretty good job of ripping up any distinction between self and writerly self) revises relationships after the fact, creates his own narratives of romance and heartbreak.

I wanted more musings on the culture that has grown up around these memorial sites. The beginning of a smart analysis of said culture exists on the margins of KYTL, but Klosterman's bogged down--haunted--by the spectre of his three muses. And that's the point, I suppose. But he doesn't pull off the confessional, revelatory tone of a Sarah Vowell or my man Sedaris.


a short Tuesday note

Moving, an even less pleasurable experience than I remember. Boxes of books and CDs everywhere. Figuring out what furniture ought to make the move to Detroit and what furniture ought to make the move to the Hamilton, Ohio, Salvation Army. Eating a lot of Arby's because who knows where the pots and pans might be. Urghh.

If my niece Laila, eldest daughter on the Lazy J. Ranch, decides not to become a vetenarian, she's easily the next David Sedaris. Follow the link to read her hysterical, Sedaris-esque story of visiting the local animal shelter and then movin' out, motown style. Hope I can convince her to go to UM-Dearborn in a few years so she can take my creative writing class and teach the class and me a few things about humor and voice.


sleep deprivation and weekend in L.A.

I count myself among the ranks of the 30-plus (barely, by the way) set who *used to* thrive on little or no sleep. College: nights at Gaelic League (anybody know if Larry Larson still plays there on weekends?) until 2:00, followed by leisurely meal in Mexicantown or at American Coney (hot dogs in the hood are the best hot dogs of all). Grad school: working on the seminar paper through the wee hours. That was then.

Sunday night my red eye flight from L.A. to Cinci was delayed by two hours, which put the departure time at 1:00 a.m. Through most of flight, teenage girl next to me messes with her I-Pod, summons flight attendants, beats on her oversized pillow, rifles through gym bag, half of which is on my lap. I dozed for *perhaps* fifteen minutes. Due to time change, arrived in Ohio Monday a.m., 8:00. Drove straight from airport to Oxford. Cup of McDonald's coffee, change of clothes in the bathroom. In the classroom at 10:00 talking about writing workshops and teaching voice. Bottle of water and fifteen-minute doze during lunch. Attentive through afternoon presentation on the lessons the Pike Place Fish Market has for language arts teachers, given by one of my students from last summer's writing project class. Meetings and paperwork and catching up on emails and two blog entries from 3-5. Dinner at Kona's, cuz there was no way I was going to cook. And then, I was done. Haven't done an all-nighter in a long time. I know why.

On the upside, the trip to Cali. made the flight home and the dia del exhaustion worthwhile. Good pal Hung's engagement party and, as best man, I wouldn't miss the occasion. Engagement parties in Vietnamese culture are as sacred as the wedding day and traditionally include formal introductions of the two families. A neat ceremony--somewhat scaled back by Hung and Ann since the wedding is a bi-cultural affair (a combination of Vietnamese-American and Mexican-American) that consists of the bride's family going through a receiving line of all the groom's present relatives. I mean this line was long...we're talking Soul Train, here. Then, a series of speeches and toasts by the fathers of the couple, and presentation of gifts of fruit, liquor, and various small tokens from the groom's family to the bride's.

The subsequent meal traditionally consists of what I would call a "pig roast." Feeling that roasting a huge pig would be a bit overwhelming for the non-Vietnamese folks present, a local Asian market provided the meat, served on a platter with the pig's head as a centerpiece. And the couple ordered ribs and chicken from a local bbq to augment the traditional fare. After the meal, a round of toasts from lots and lots of relatives on both sides of the family, and lots and lots of champagne, culminating in a two-word toast, the most English I've *ever* heard from the groom's mother: "Ann, daughter." Few dry eyes in the house. Was the sleep deprivation worth it? Yes.


all quiet on the blog front

Not much time to blog lately...here's why.

House in OHio's been on the market for about a month now and a sale is pending. We're still moving ahead with much, much caution, as these things often collapse (sales and houses both). We're supposed to close this Friday, so cross those fingers. We re-did the dining room and I'll be happy if I never have to remove wallpaper again. The paint job made a difference and our potential buyers even commented on the dining room as a highlight of the house. Meantime, we've secured an apartment to hold our stuff and ourselves during our final months in the land of the buckeyes and the great swing state tragedy of '04. Meantime part deux: we've also started looking at some places in Detroit. More on that later, as time allows. Long story short: we're packing for two moves (and a garage sale this weekend).

Ohio Writing Project started today. Sadly, this will be my last summer co-teaching the four-week workshop. Teachers from K-12 come together for continuing ed. credit and an intensive writing experience. We're in the classroom from 8:30-3:00, Monday-Friday, so again: blogging's going to be tough. Happily, though, I tend to do lots of writing during the summer workshop. We devote one hour during the a.m. to writing each day, so my goal is to have my prep work done in the evenings and write along with the teachers every morning. Likewise, one hour of personal writing each evening is an OWP rule, and I hope to follow that guideline, even in the thick of packing for the move(s). Very rewarding four weeks--one of the things I'll miss about teaching at M.U.

Non-Academic Stuff I Read During Summer Vacation #3

I've read many of Elmore Leonard's crime novels and tend to prefer those with a Detroit setting. E.L.'s got a cool detachment when it comes to representin' motown. Clearly he loves the music, the grit, the people who inhabit the city and yet--despite that love--he never moves into the "love affair" territory with the D. He understands that a strip club's still a strip club. Two-bit hustlers are still two-bit hustlers. But, in Leonard's Detroit, oh what fun all that goes down at those clubs...and oh the things that come out of the mouths of those hustlers.

Recently finished E.L.'s Pronto, which eschews the D for Miami and the Italian Riviera. Not his best work, but Harry Arno makes an odd Leonard protagonist (and a more interesting one than, say, Chili Palmer). Pronto revolves around Arno's feud with the mobsters he's been bilking and the feds who set him up. Arno's enough of a confident, smart alecky crook that you can't help but dig his style. Yet as you get to know some of the folks in Arno's world, you like Arno himself less and less. Notice how your attitude toward Arno's relationship with his girlfriend Joyce changes as the plot speeds along. I'll keep Rum Punch and Pagan Babies at the top of my Elmore Leonard list, but Pronto will do if you've read those two already. Nicole and I are working through some LEonard short stories, too, which are also interesting and also not his best work.