Pacific Northwest

The tour continues. Wednesday, June 15 I’ll be reading at Third Place Books in Lake Forest, WA. I’ll be joined by Seattle area writers Samantha Updegrave and Kristen Millares Young. If you’re in the area, come out and see me. If you’re not but you know someone who is, send them this Facebook invitation.

The next night, Thursday, June 16, I’m reading at Powell’s Books. The reading is at their Hawthorne location. Razorcake contributor Keith Rosson will join me. If all goes well, my Ig Publishing tour mate, Ron Tanner, will be there, too.

Now here’s a picture of some chairs that I saw along a bay in the Puget Sound. Below that is a piece I wrote about being on tour in Seattle in 2008.

Chairs on Whidbey Island

Seattle

In Seattle, one of the local weeklies had a blurb about my reading at Elliott Bay Book Company. The weekly said that my new book was about a “bartender [who] goes on a road trip of self-discover.”

The book is absolutely not about that.

I happened to be standing on the Seattle waterfront when I read the weekly, a bit south of the famous fish market but still surrounded by a tourist district that I’d taken a wrong turn into. I paused for a second to remember a time when the independent weeklies that you found in every city used to actually be independent and actually cover events in those cities. In the next second, I wondered what happened to this imaginary bartender’s “y” on his road trip of self-discover.

I wandered as far away as I could from this little tourist district, gradually forgetting that stupid little blurb and remembering, still, that this was my nineteenth and final city on the summer tour I did to promote Train Wreck Girl, and, while it hadn’t been the road trip to self-discover that the Seattle Weekly billed it as, I had seen some things crisscrossing this continent.

Metaphysical Ukuleles in the World

Here’s a roundup of some stuff that’s been written about my new book. The first is a playlist I put together for the book for Largehearted Boy. I matched a song with each of the stories in The Metaphysical Ukulele, and I wrote a little about the book, the authors I focused on, and the songs themselves. It’s a badass playlist, if I say so myself:

Book Notes – Sean Carswell “The Metaphysical Ukulele”

kerouac_tuning_in

The second is an essay that Tobias Carroll wrote about the legacy of Beat writers. The essay is interesting in itself. He concludes it with a couple of paragraphs about my Jack Kerouac story and The Metaphysical Ukulele. It’s worth a read.

The Beats, Revisited: The Shifting Legacy of a Literary Generation

And then there are reviews in the trades. These all came out a while ago. I’ve just been slow posting them. If you’re curious about what critics have to say about the collection, click the links.

Publisher’s Weekly
Library Journal
Kirkus Reviews
Vol. 1 Brooklyn

Calling Twin Cities

I’ll be in Minneapolis this week, reading at Magers and Quinn on Friday night (June 3, 7:00). Bizarro author, Razorcake contributor, and part-time drag queen MP Johnson will read with me. I’ve never had a dull event in Minneapolis. Hopefully, this one will be as fun as readings in the past. Here’s a link to the bookstore’s events page.

Scroll below the picture to get a Replacements song in your head and read a vignette I wrote about reading in Minneapolis in 2008.

MPLS Skyway

Take the Skyway, high above that busy little one way.

Minneapolis

After I finished my reading at Arise Bookstore in Minneapolis, the God Damn Doo Wop Band took the stage. And, by “stage,” I mean the empty area in front of the chairs in the backyard of Arise. It was one of those perfect Minneapolis days that apparently don’t happen all that often but seem to happen every time I’m there. It was sunny, temperatures in the low eighties, an even cooler breeze. The sun was starting to set behind the bookstore. The band sat on a low wall.

The God Damn Doo Wop Band: three women who know how to spend their money on boots and tattoos and hair dye, who, more importantly, know how to sing doo wop songs. They launched into three-part-harmonies about boy troubles. On the one hand, they seemed like an authentic throwback to the Staten Island doo wop of the fifties. On the other hand, it was something totally fresh and original.

One of the band members is named Annie. She used to be in the Soviettes. She didn’t wear boots. Her Vans were worn through just above the big toe. As she sang, her big toe popped out of the hole in her shoe. A little red toenail kept the beat.

Summer Book Tour

15-Feb-VOTM-MCASD-Carswell-Reads-580x435

I’m heading out on a book tour to celebrate the release of my new short story collection, The Metaphysical Ukulele. As the chalk outline of a corpse in the picture above suggests, it’s gonna be killer.

Here are the dates:

May 23: Greenlight Books, Brooklyn, NY 7:30 PM

May 24: Inkwood Books, Haddonfield, NJ 7:00 PM

May 25: Newtonville Books, Newton, MA, 7:00 PM

June 3: Magers and Quinn, Minneapolis, MN 7:00 PM

June 15, Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, WA, 7:00 PM

June 16: Powell’s, Portland, OR 7:30 PM

June 21: Warwick’s Books, La Jolla, CA, 7:30 PM

June 23: Book Soup, West Hollywood, CA 7:00 PM

June 29: City Lights Books, San Francisco, CA 7:00 PM

Come out and see me. It’ll be fun!

Readings!

My new book, The Metaphysical Ukulele, will be released this week. I’ll be doing a handful of readings all over to promote it. The first one is this Thursday, May 5, on the campus of CSU Channel Islands. It’s free and open to the public. There’ll even be free food. Unfortunately, you have to pay $6 to park on campus. I’ll be reading with my colleague, Sofia Samatar, who also has a new book out. It’ll be fun! Here’s a poster.

Sean Sofia Poster

There will be more readings coming up: some East Coast ones at the end of May, and Midwest and West Coast ones in June. I’ll post the complete tour schedule next week.

Love and Gravity’s Rainbow

Gravitys_rainbow_coverFor the past several years, I’ve been working on a book about politics in Thomas Pynchon novels. It’s been a hell of an undertaking. I’ve reread all of Pynchon’s works several times. I’ve read hundreds of books and academic articles about Pynchon’s novels. I’ve studied economic and political and literary theory. I’ve written several drafts of a book, published a few chapters in peer-reviewed journals, found a publisher, and finished one round of edits. The book is under contract right now with the University of Georgia Press. It should come out sometime next year.

In the meantime, I wanted to do something lighter, something that reminded me why I was first attracted to Pynchon’s novels a couple of decades ago. I wrote an essay about the love stories in Gravity’s Rainbow and how they helped shape my own real-life love story. The folks at The Millions were gracious enough to publish it. You can read it here.

My New Book!

Ukulele-231x346I have a weird hobby. Periodically, I’ll get obsessed with an author. I’ll read a bunch of his or her works. I’ll read stories about the author’s life. I’ll decide I want to understand how this author does certain things stylistically. To figure this out, I’ll give said author a metaphysical ukulele, then make him or her the protagonist of a short story. The story is typically rooted in fact, but the ukulele makes sure it never stays that way.

Over the past few years, I’ve written a dozen short stories about my favorite authors and their metaphysical ukuleles. These stories have been published in literary journals and anthologized in places like the California Prose Directory. Last spring, I put the stories together into a collection and sent it out to a handful of publishers I really admire. Ig Publishing was the first to get back to me. They offered to publish this book.

Now, the galleys are printed. The book is out for review (if you’re a reviewer and want an advance copy, contact robert[at]igpub.com). It’s available for pre-order online. It’s scheduled to be released on May 10.

I’m pretty excited about it. If you can’t wait to read it, you can listen to a teaser here. It’s me playing a little uke and reading the first story in the collection.

Foot-Loose Rebels

Illustration from Razorcake #70 by Brad Beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #70 by Brad Beshaw

The supervisors of San Luis Obispo County tried to attack free speech this week. I happened to be in town to witness it.

The crux of the problem, according to county supervisors, was the Occupy movement. The county’s chief administrative officer, Jim Grant, claimed that the Occupy encampment presented a hazard to public health and safety, though he didn’t clarify exactly how. He suggested an ordinance that required any group assembling on public or vacant lands to obtain a permit from the county before doing so.

As he should have expected, a shit storm followed.

I wasn’t involved in the shit storm. I just happened to be doing some work in San Luis Obispo County that day. I was in and out of my truck a lot, and my radio was tuned to the public station. I listened to meeting of county supervisors addressing the issue. This may sound like a dorky thing to do—listen to a county supervisors’ meeting on public radio—and maybe it is, but the meeting was exciting on this day. A couple dozen people came to the meeting to scold the supervisors and Jim Grant in particular. Each person had an opportunity to speak for a few minutes. The beauty of this came in numbers. As a citizen, we can all speak at public meetings like this. We’re all allowed somewhere between three and five minutes. When twenty-four people come to the meeting and use all five of their minutes, supervisors have to hear about this shit for over two hours. Suddenly, you have an effective protest on your hands.

The protestors struck me as interesting. Sure, there were a couple from the Occupy movement who spoke. They were the ones being targeted. They needed to be there. But also members of the Tea Party spoke against the ordinance. They realized, of course, that if Occupy has to get a permit, so does the Tea Party. One former Republican congresswoman from the area approached the podium to say that, sure, she knew what it was like to be protested. She wished everyone agreed with her all the time, but democracies are built on dissent. One incredibly nervous guy from a former Soviet bloc country stood up to say that, prior to immigrating to the US, he’d been imprisoned for ten years for speaking out against the government. “Free speech is the most beautiful thing in America,” he told the supervisors. His anxiety seemed to be stealing his breath, but he found enough air to add, “Don’t touch it, for God’s sake.”

Finally, after two dozen people from across the political spectrum castigated the supervisors, they voted to toss out the ordinance. Jim Grant apologized.

The whole debacle gave me the urge to write a column about one of the greatest moments in American history: the Wobblie free speech protests in Missoula, Montana.

 

In 1909, a team of organizers from the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) traveled to Missoula, Montana in an attempt to organize the workers in the lumber and logging industries there. As part of their organizing strategy, the Wobblies set up soapboxes or other makeshift stages on corners in the business district of Missoula and just started talking. Passersby would sometimes stop and listen and sometimes not. From a contemporary perspective, the Wobblies may seem a bit crazy. At least, from my perspective, when someone is standing on the corner of the street speaking to no one in particular, I assume the person has a mental illness. In the early twentieth century, this type of soapbox preaching was common. Think of it as a direct action blog. The Wobblies weren’t the only ones preaching on corners. The Salvation Army had their own soapbox in downtown Missoula, as well as a couple of other organizations.   The speaking on the corner wasn’t exactly the problem. The listening was.

According to a few accounts, the first wave of Wobblie speakers didn’t generate much interest. That changed when a woman who called herself “Gurley” came to town.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was nineteen years old and six months pregnant when she hit Missoula. She’d been agitating for workers’ causes since she was a little kid and her parents took her to socialist meetings in Brooklyn. In her autobiography, The Rebel Girl, she traces her activism back to her four great-grandfathers, who’d all taken up arms to fight the British occupation of Ireland. Her presence in Missoula was one more incident in a long heritage of actions geared toward social justice.

Even at nineteen, Gurley was famous among the workers. She did two things differently than other speakers. First, she drew a crowd. This shouldn’t be ignored. People in power will always let you say whatever you want as long as no one is listening. When others gather around to hear what you have to say, those in power lend an ear to hear if their power is being threatened. And it was. In particular, Gurley attacked the local employment agencies. These agents were in cahoots with various lumber and logging companies to hire migrant workers for a week or so, charge them a finder’s fee for the job, split the fee between the agency and the company, fire the worker after a week, and hire a new sucker. Not only did Gurley criticize this, she set up her soapbox in front of the three most prominent employment agencies and criticized them to their faces. The migrant workers, hearing how the scam worked, hesitated at the doors of the employment agencies.

The second thing Gurley did was attack the soldiers from Fort Missoula. They walked past during one of her speeches. She accused them of being hired thugs for corporate interests. They went to city leaders and threatened to “clean out the whole bunch” of Wobblies. The sheriff intervened to keep the peace.

The peace didn’t last for long.

Under pressure from employment agencies and local industry leaders, the City Council passed an ordinance restricting free speech. Three Wobblies—including Gurley’s husband, Jack Jones—were arrested. A fourth man who wasn’t a Wobblie was also arrested. A guy named Herman Tucker was working in the U.S. Forestry Department office upstairs from the soapbox when one of the Wobblies was pinched for reading the Declaration of Independence. Tucker was so incensed at the Missoula police that he came downstairs, got on the stage, picked up the copy of the Declaration that the Wobblie had dropped, and started reading where the last guy left off. Tucker went to jail with the rest of them.

At this point, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and her fellow Wobblies developed a strategy that they would employ in free speech battles throughout the western US for the next decade. They put out word for all “foot-loose rebels to come at once” and aid in the fight for free speech. Loggers, miners, migrant workers, and other activists hopped on trains from all over the country (though mostly from Butte and Spokane) to join the orators in Missoula. Gurley picked several spots throughout the town’s business district and sent speakers to all of them. The sheriff and his men chased them all down and nabbed them. When one speaker got arrested, the next one took his place. The Wobblies were careful to give their speeches before dinner time at the jail so the City would be forced to foot the bill for feeding them. The City, for their part, made sure to release the Wobblies before breakfast time.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was arrested at this time. For some reason (perhaps because she was so young, famous, and pregnant), she wasn’t housed with the other inmates. She demanded a jury trial. Charges were dropped. This triggered the next step in the rebellion. When speakers were arrested, they started demanding jury trials. This meant that the City would have to foot the bill to prosecute dozens of “disturbing the peace” cases. They’d have to populate dozens of juries. The activists added to this problem by refusing to leave jail—even when the jailors tried to kick them out—until their trials. Suddenly, the City had to foot the bill for housing and feeding these protestors.

Meanwhile, the Wobblies kept up their speeches. Before long, the Missoula jail was overcrowded. Speakers were imprisoned in the basement of a downtown building. The Wobblies, never a quiet group, spent so much time in jail singing, arguing, yelling out the window, and generally raising a ruckus that local businesses started pressuring City officials to resolve the situation. The mayor first tried diplomacy. He sent the chief of police to meet with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. He offered to stop harassing the speakers provided they just stay off a couple of downtown streets. The Wobblies refused. They had the City against the ropes. There was no reason to back off. The next day, city officials gave up. All of the charges were dropped. The orators were all released. The Wobblies were able to continue speaking and organizing.

This became the pattern for larger free-speech fights in a handful of cities from San Diego to Spokane. A whole host of anti-free-speech ordinances were defeated. Workers were able to organize to bring about social changes that built the American middle class: the eight-hour workday, the five-day work week, employer-sponsored health care, minimum wage, child labor laws, overtime compensation, Social Security, equal rights for women and minorities in the workplace, disability insurance, unemployment insurance, collective bargaining, employer-sponsored pension plans, etc.

Perhaps this is why, when we study American history in high school, we all spend so much time studying Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the Wobblies, and the freedoms that unions have earned for us. Perhaps this is why, when we talk about heroes who have fought for our freedom, we talk about activists like Gurley and the twenty-four San Luis Obispans who showed up at the county supervisors’ meeting. Perhaps this is why I always see bumper stickers that say, “If you value your freedom, thank a protestor.”

Okay, maybe I’m being a little facetious with that last paragraph.

I do want to take a few seconds, though, to recognize that sometimes activism does work. Sometimes, we do affect positive change in our lives. Sometimes it only takes twenty-four people to do it. Sometimes those twenty-four people couldn’t sit down and have a conversation about politics for three minutes without wanting to strangle each other, but if they can recognize when they do agree and focus on that one specific thing, they can get something done.

It’s easy to feel jaded about contemporary politics. It’s okay to feel that way. I look at my whole list of freedoms that American workers earned during the twentieth century, and I can’t ignore that most of those things are being threatened today. It bums me out. I also recognize when cynicism becomes a dead-end street. At those moments, it’s helpful to consider the paths people have blazed out of that cul de sac.

 

Author’s note: This is the twenty-fifth and final chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #70.  For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.

Downtown Safari

Illustration from Razorcake #63 by Brad Beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #63 by Brad Beshaw

A group of senior citizens out on safari descend on the downtown post office. They wear wide brimmed hats—the same kind Curious George’s keeper wore—and huddle together close. One member of the group is clearly the guide. I can tell because he wears a vest and speaks with authority. He points out the post office mural, which was painted in 1936 by a local artist named Gordon Grant. The ceiling of the post office is about sixteen feet high, and the mural takes up the seven feet of wall from the ceiling down. It shows workers engaged in the various industries that drove the economy of this area back in the thirties: they farm; they pack oranges; they work on oil rigs; they operate machines in factories; they load trucks. “Notice,” the tour guide says, “that all the faces of the workers are exactly the same.”

I look up at the mural. What the tour guide says is true if you discount the fact that most of the faces have different noses, different chins, and different hairlines. The hues of their skin varies, also. The faces do all seem to conform to the artist’s style. The eyes and mouths look pretty similar.

The tour guide adds, “And they’re all looking down.” Which, again, is true if you discount the fact that several of them are looking up.

Perhaps because I’ve spent so much time looking at this mural, I start to really pay attention to the tour guide. I turn my gaze from the mural and to the guide. I notice that all the faces of the senior citizens on safari are not the same. While they do wear big hats that protect them from the sun, their faces differ. Some show that loose elasticity of someone pushing or perhaps even beyond eighty. Some stare intently at the mural. Some don’t regard the mural at all, instead checking out the people in line or the homeless dude camping by the front door. The tour guide doesn’t seem to be looking at the painting. His eyes focus inwardly, on a memorized passage about a mural that he doesn’t bother to glance up and see at all. He has a thin, gray beard, slumped shoulders, arched back, and a round belly. If a cartoonist turned him into a character, the tour guide would likely morph into a tortoise.

He says, “Most of all, you’ll notice that the workers all seem unhappy. This is because the artist, Gordon Grant, was a communist. So all the workers are communists. That’s why they’re so unhappy.”

This makes me want to leave the line and ask the guide a few questions. First, if an artist is a communist, does that mean that everyone he paints becomes a communist, too? When Diego Rivera painted Mussolini, a Klansman, and the Pope in one of his murals, did Mussolini, the Klan, and the Pope all become communist? And what about being communists would make the workers unhappy? My understanding of communism—which comes from having actually read The Communist Manifesto—suggests that, under a communist regime, the workers would share equally in the wealth produced by their labor. Wouldn’t that make them happier than the real farm workers of the thirties who were divorced from the wealth of their production, who were frequently beaten or arrested or starved out for attempting to organize, who were paid wages that either barely allowed them to feed themselves or weren’t enough for them to feed themselves?

I don’t walk over to the tour guide to ask him any of these questions. I just keep listening.

“And how did the town react?” the tour guide asks himself. “Well, this was a Republican town. They were not pleased at all with this socialist painting.”

Again, I want to ask questions. What makes a town Republican? Was there some halcyon past when entire towns agreed on a political standpoint? It seems to me that most people don’t wholly endorse one party or another, but pick and choose based on specific issues and candidates and their limited choices in elections. Was that not the case in the thirties? And what did it mean to be a Republican in the thirties? Did the town stand behind Hoover, despite the fact that his policies were part of the reason the nation was flung into the Great Depression, despite the fact that he called upon McArthur to violently suppress World War I veterans who marched on the White House looking for pay that they’d been promised but never received?

And was Grant a communist or a socialist? I know that communism is a socialist platform in the same way that a square is also a rectangle, but just as not all rectangles are squares, not all socialists are communist. The terms are not interchangeable. Communism has, as one of its principle tenets, the abolition of private property. Socialism is simply a community or government project that seeks to enrich the community without turning a profit. The examples of socialism we could see on this safari, for example, are the post office that we’re standing in, the street that runs in front of it, the park across the street from it, and the city-funded tour that the tour guide is leading. So, when the community railed against socialism, did they rail against the post office itself? Did they rail against the public road that led to the post office? What was their united opposition?

The tour guide chuckles as he describes the sad descent the artist, who ended up committing suicide. When he’s done, he leads the safari out of the post office and onto further points of interest.

My poor wife has to hear me ramble about everything wrong with that tour guide’s thirty-second presentation.

 

Part of what chaps my ass about this tour guide’s presentation is his total dismissal of the painting. I love that painting. I live downtown. I run the mail order of a non-profit book publisher, so I spend a lot of time mailing books at that post office. A lot of that time is spent standing in line. Which makes sense. I live in a heavily-populated region of an overpopulated world. In a lot of cases, more than one member of the population wants to do that same thing at the same time, in the same place. So we have to wait for others sometimes. It’s no big deal. Still, I greatly appreciate Grant’s mural at the post office. It’s a respite from all the advertising clutter that surrounds me. Instead, here’s a piece of art that gives my thoughts a field to roam around in. I like that the art matches the landscape of my life. I love that it focuses on workers—both men and women—in their daily activities. I wish I lived in a society that supported more of this art. I wish that our public spaces would offer more things like Grant’s mural and fewer things like billboards.

I also love that, if you had the time to stare for hours at this mural, you’d probably come up with different ideas about it than I do. We could talk about our different interpretations. All that I ask is that, unlike the tour guide, you actually look up at the painting before generating your ideas. Art is so much better when you actually look at it.

 

The other thing that bugged me about the tour guide was how much his presentation mirrors our cultural discourse. He works exactly the way that much of our media works. In short, you have someone who knows very little about the issues he’s presenting, has almost no concern with whether the information has any bearing in fact, uses language that he does not have control over, discusses an issue devoid of the context surrounding the issue, and delivers the information in a way that is needlessly simplistic. And, like the rest of the safari, we spend too little time asking questions about the information. Instead, we tend to either accept it because it’s easier to accept the opinions of others than to do the research necessary to form our own opinions, or we get frustrated that so much of our information is delivered by dubious presenters like the tour guide, so we largely tune out. In both cases, we lose opportunities to understand our world better. It’s a shame.

 

After leaving the post office, my wife and I head into downtown. The safari is now at the corner of Chestnut and Main. The tour guide points at the old downtown theater building. He’s too far away for me to hear what he’s saying, which is lucky for my wife, because that means she won’t have to hear my rebuttal. Our former neighbor Shirley is on a collision course with the group. Shirley lived in the section eight housing that was next to the first apartment my wife and I shared here. She’s crazy. She has some sort of dissociative disorder. Some days, we could hear Shirley screaming at her empty apartment, using the voice of an angry older male. Sometimes, she would pace up and down the stairs, talking to herself in another voice. Sometimes, she sat on the steps and talked like a very young girl. We lived next to Shirley long enough for me to recognize five or six distinct voices she used. One of those voices was of sane Shirley. I’d frequently chat with sane Shirley. Nothing too specific. Just the typical neighbor chat: stuff about the weather or day-to-day activities. One time, she baked me cookies.

Shirley approaches the safari. It’s clear she’s out of it. I can tell by the way she’s charging toward the group like she might sack the tour guide. My wife and I get closer. Shirley charges past the group, then stops to wait for the traffic light. The group heads east toward the library. My wife and I cross Main. Shirley doesn’t recognize us. She doesn’t even react to me when I wave to her. Instead, she cocks her hips and waves her hand at the traffic light with the type of flourish a model uses at a car show. She talks about the traffic light. I can’t make out what she’s saying, but I recognize her teenage girl voice.

We end up following Shirley for a couple of blocks. She keeps up her routine, flourishing her hand at points of interest downtown in her own dissociative mimicry of the tour guide. She points out benches, an ATM machine, an Italian restaurant, a white lady in yoga pants who’s walking a dog. I can’t make out a word Shirley is saying. Still, I think she’s so much better at this than the tour guide.

 

Author’s note: This is the twenty-fourth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #63.  For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.

The Myth of the Real

 

Illustration from Razorcake #61 by Brad Beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #61 by Brad Beshaw

A few weeks ago, an old buddy of mine from my undergraduate days at Florida State University rolled through town. He told me he was coming ahead of time. We made plans to grab a burger and a beer at the local brew pub. I knew there would be some problems, largest among them the fact that people who are my age are getting old, which I cannot understand because I’m staying the same age. And this buddy, I’ll call him Dane—because that’s his name and he doesn’t read Razorcake anyway—has belly-flopped into middle age. Suburban home. SUV with a McCain/Palin sticker still on it. Christmas cards with pictures of his kids on them. Kids named Hunter and Aspen. He has a hairline that looks like the toilet seat in a public restroom and a belly that rubs the finish off the bottom of his belt buckle. He’s gonna hate me if he ever reads this. Still, when I see him, I have to squint real hard to see the guy who, when I knew him, was living with his girlfriend, started having an affair with her best friend (who, not-so-incidentally lived with them), completely fell for the best friend, and moved his stuff into her bedroom (two doors down the hall). As you may have guessed, neither girlfriend became the mother of Hunter or Aspen.

As you may not have guessed, it was good to see Dane. We shared some stories that I love to relive through the retelling. He told me about what some of our old friends are up to. I told him about old friends he’d lost touch with. The beer was good. I gave him no shit about ordering a salad and much shit about his bald noggin. He tried to come back at me with some crack about my gray hair and couldn’t figure out if I was serious or not when I told him I die it that color. We talked about politics and it didn’t matter that we were on opposite ends of the spectrum because the world’s not gonna change the way I want it to and he doesn’t act on his political beliefs, anyway. And then he pushed my buttons.

He said, “Are you still doing that magazine? What was it? Razorcookies?

“Kinda,” I said. “I still write a column for it.”

“But you’re not the guy anymore? What did you do? Sell it?”

It took a while for me to explain to him that, yes, ten years ago I moved out to California to help start the magazine and that, for four years, I did half of the work on it: editing; proofreading; working with writers, artists, photographers, bands, and labels; laying out columns and interviews; adjusting the resolution of photos so they’d look okay in newsprint; wrestling with distributors; mailing subscriptions; dropping the originals off at the printer and picking up the thousands of copies in a truck; loading and unloading them; so on and so forth. There are even a couple of early issues where, if you look real closely, you’ll see that I wrote about a third of the content. For the next few years of the zine, I gradually backed off. I did a little less and a little less until I now only write a column. Amazingly, volunteers have come along to take up all the slack I left. In fact, volunteers now do almost everything that Todd and I used to do in that ratty old Razorcake HQ of old. I told him that I was never the guy and the magazine was never mine. That Todd and I had started it together, so technically, the two of us would’ve been the guys. But we never were. Even from the first meeting, it was way bigger than me and Todd.

Dane got hung up on a few points. How could we have volunteers? Who got paid? Who made the money off it? He was particularly pissed off that I didn’t sell “my half” of the ‘zine to Todd. He kept asking me what would happen if the magazine got big. “Like Rolling Stone big” were his exact words. What kind of money would I be entitled to? He looked at me like I was retarded for never getting paid money for my labor, for not holding on to some sort of future entitlement to money. He thought the whole idea of a not-for-profit magazine sounded vaguely socialist. I’m pretty sure Dane, like most Americans, doesn’t really know what the word socialist means.

Dane is not the first person I’ve had this conversation with. I could kinda see where it was going. And, sure enough, he said, “Anyway, at least you finally joined the real world.”

This statement, this sense of the “real world,” is what gets me worse than anything. I did the only thing I knew to do. I pointed to the pub TV, which was tuned to ESPN, and said, “What do you think about ol’ Jimbo Fisher.” Because Florida State alumni will always be willing to talk about Florida State football. And this is the real reason I pay attention to football at all: so I can have something to change the subject to when I get stuck in situations like this.

 

I guess I should be vaguely pleased that a someone like Dane would acknowledge my job—teaching literature at a state university—as real. Most people of his ilk see English as a waste of time. The fact that most people of Dane’s ilk are functionally illiterate doesn’t seem to matter to them. Though, in fairness to Dane, he’s not functionally illiterate. I’m projecting characteristics of others with whom I’ve had similar conversations onto him. Either way, I know that what I teach has nothing to do with his definition of real. I know that the only thing that makes my job real to him is the fact it pays me a middle-class salary and it’s a job middle-class people can understand as being middle-class. And middle-class, to him, is the real world.

This magazine, on the other hand, is somehow unreal. I mean, obviously it’s real. You’re holding real paper in your hand as you read this. That’s real newsprint ink sticking to your real fingers. It’s as real as the crap you’re taking while you read this. And this magazine was even legitimated—not by Dane but by others with whom I’ve had this “real” conversation—by being sold in Barnes & Noble. But the situations that allow this magazine to become reality are unreal. Volunteers. Community. Not-for-profits. Twenty-first century punk rock. If I’m to understand Dane, these are not part of the real world.

When I explained the reality of Todd to Dane, things became even more unreal. How could a man in his late thirties spend all his time in his basement, running a magazine that has no aspirations to make big-time money? How is he going to retire? How can he raise a family when he’s doing that? When is he gonna join the real world?

And this is what is so difficult for me: that even now, even among my friends, I’m still being sold only one way of life. It was bad when our parents were telling us that we had to grow up, go to college, get a job, get married, buy a house, have kids, work for a company for forty years, and retire with a pension. It’s worse when you’ve already grown up and your friends, the very same people who rebelled with you in your youth, are telling you the same thing. It’s even more ridiculous when we look at a world where some of those things cease to be an option. Buying a house may have been a good idea once upon a time. It may be a good idea again sometime in the future. But right now, putting down on a mortgage that’s gonna cost twice as much as rent for the same place, just so I can own it when I get to be in my seventies is a little ridiculous. Working for a company for forty years—dull as that may have been for our grandparents’ generation—isn’t really even an option for our parents. No company keeps their employees that long. When your salary gets too high, they lay you off and hire someone who’ll work for less. And there are no pensions anymore. I mean, there are. I’m paying into one. I’m just not so naïve as to believe I’ll get any money back out of it. And the alternative, something like a 401K, seems like even more of a sucker’s deal to me. I don’t believe for a second that, if you let Wall Street handle your retirement, you’ll be able to retire. That seems the ultimate unreality to me.

So I think of Dane and his real world seems a fantasy to me. He thinks he owns a home, but he doesn’t own it. The bank does. They will until at least 2030 or so. He thinks he drives an SUV. There’s no sports. There’s not much utility. It’s just a station wagon with a high roof and an effective ad campaign. He thinks he lives in the real world, yet most of his free time is spent watching television or playing around on the internet, which are both modes of escape out of the real world. Nearly everything about Dane’s life is a fantasy he’s bought into. Even his name is a fantasy. He’s not Danish. Even his son’s name is a fantasy. Dane isn’t gonna take Hunter hunting.

And it’s not that I’m trying to make myself feel superior to Dane. My name is a fantasy, too. Sean is as Irish as they come, and I’m not Irish at all. My life is not much more rooted in reality. I spend most of my time reading fiction and teaching about fiction. Everything about my life is about making sense of the fictions that surround us. So I’m not trying to get on a high horse. I just think about where Dane and I met in the first place, which was a creative writing class. I remember Dane writing hilarious short stories. He’s embarrassed about that now. And I think of him rejecting a world of creativity and self-expression so he can hole up in some corporate marketing twat’s mundane fantasy version of a reality… Which is fine. He can make his choices. But I think of it and what makes me most upset is not that he gave up his own creative outlets to do it. It’s not even that Dane thinks Todd is somehow unreal because Todd never gave up his creative outlets.

What makes me most upset is even the possibility that I’ve somehow entered this world of reality with Dane.

 

Author’s note: This is the twenty-third chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #61.  For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.