Illustration from Razorcake #41 by Brad Beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #41 by Brad Beshaw

I rode my bike down the Hoodlebug Trail in western Pennsylvania feeling like I was stuck on both sides of a time machine. The trail itself was paved over an old commuter railroad line that started in the Pennsylvania town called Indiana and ended in Blairsville. Little reminders of the old days still ran along the buried tracks. Groundhogs stood to peer across a fallow field, chipmunks scattered away from my shadow, a buck paused on the trail before racing down to a creek to drink. The ghosts of nineteenth century industry—coal mines and iron furnaces and the young growth of a clear-cut forest—floated around me. The trail also intersected little reminders that I was very much in twenty-first-century America: the wastewater treatment plant; the baseball field with a painting of the nuclear power plant below the scoreboard; the actual nuclear power plant behind the baseball field; the freeway that ran sometimes dangerously close to the trail; the iPod I had plugged into my ears, blasting the Descendents. As I crossed over Two Lick Creek, I caught a glimpse of a billboard through the trees. It showed a picture of a freeway and said, “DNT TXT N DRV.”

It took me a few minutes to figure out what the hell it meant. I kept trying to figure out what DNT stood for. Descendents Nuts Transfer? Donuts Next Town?

You, on the other hand, if you have a cell phone, if you’ve sent a text message before, if you don’t have the Descendents and donuts on the brain, probably knew right away what the sign said. You are one up on me. I was a mile down the Hoodlebug, thinking about something entirely different when suddenly Don’t Text and Drive popped into my head. Perhaps because this revelation hit me right in the middle of the song “Hateful Notebook” in the middle of the Trail That Is Twenty-First-Century America, my brain started reeling.

Earlier this past summer, I read a book called Orality and Literacy by Walter Ong. It’s the kind of book that you only read if you’re a geek or an English professor. Since I’m both, I loved the book. I won’t bore you with all the details, but what you need to know about it is that Ong discusses the ability to write and read as a technology—which it is, though we’re so accustomed to it that we don’t see it that way—and it’s the technology that made Western Civilization what it is. Ong says that in cultures that have never been exposed to reading or writing, thought patterns are completely different. Cultural mores, laws, traditions, etc., are all memorized in the form of an epic poem. Because there’s no dictionary, people’s vocabularies are only a few thousand words. People living in oral culture are no less intelligent than people living in a literate one, but they do think differently. Writing and reading changed the way people think. For one thing, when we are able to write, we can literally take thoughts out of our heads and store them somewhere else. In other words, I don’t have to allocate any mental space to, say, avocados when I’m hungry for guacamole. Instead, I can just write a shopping list and put avocados, jalapeno peppers, garlic salt, tomatoes, tortilla chips, and beer on it. That way, I can forget about those items until I get to the store and read my list. In the meantime, my mind will be free to wonder about things like the Descendents song “Hateful Notebook.”

It’s on perhaps the most underrated Descendents album, Everything Sucks. In short, it’s a song about a girl who writes all of secrets into her notebook and the narrator of the song wants to know what’s in it. More than that, though, the narrator wants to read what’s in it. Because there’s a difference between knowing what’s in a notebook and reading what’s in a notebook. When you know what’s in a notebook, your mind assimilates the information into your thought processes, changing exactly what is written into your vague conception of what is written. When you read it, though, you know exactly what is written, exactly the thoughts that she had in the way that she wanted to express them with all the complexity, innuendo, and nuance she used. He can go back and read and read that notebook and what he knows will grow. More meaning will come out of those words. He’ll think about it as “reading between the lines,” but he’s not reading between them at all. He’s just gradually coming to a better understanding of what they say. And that’s one of the really amazing things about reading and writing: meaning grows as you continue to reread. Even the simplest diary will become more complex, more elucidating the more you read it. Words and sentences carry a lot more information than we usually give them credit for.

In a way, that works in oral cultures, too. I’m sure when those poor Athenian bastards had to memorize The Iliad, the meaning grew with every recitation. In their minds, it probably started out as a war story, morphed into a gay love story, and eventually became the law of the land. It’s not all that different from me listening to that Descendents album a hundred times and singing along to all the words until the meanings grew and grew and eventually led me to thinking way to hard about it while I rode the Hoodlebug and creating a whole scenario about this sad little goth girl and her black and white composition notebook, using a nubby pencil to write all about how 45 Grave really gets her, and the too-skinny dude with his horn-rimmed glasses and DIY buzz cut and huge internal desert of insatiable longing.

But I have time to think about these all of these ridiculous things. Why? Because I come from a literate culture that allows me to take most of my thoughts and store them on paper somewhere, or allows me to borrow or access thoughts that other people put on paper so that I could use them when I want to.

And since I had this time, I used it to wonder what the fuck DNT TXT N DRV really means? I mean beyond “don’t text and drive.” What does it really mean?

One of the things that Ong talks about is the turning point of literacy. Originally, people used writing just as a way of counting money or storing stuff. Want to know what’s in that basket over there, look at the picture of the olive on the side of it. Want to know how much money you got for those olives, count the number of vertical lines you drew on that piece of bark. From there, the circles and lines got more advanced. They started to mean more. But what really changed everything was the vowel. Before the vowel, the circles and lines couldn’t be read the same way by everyone. Where one person sees an olive, another sees and orange. Where one person sees DNT and reads it as don’t, another person reads it as donut. What separates the don’ts from the donuts? The vowel. Put a vowel in a word and anyone can learn to read fairly accurately. And once anyone can read, everyone is able to take thoughts out of their heads and store those thoughts in a way that’s accessible to a broader population. Laws, mores, and traditions don’t have to be memorized. Just write them down and look them up if you need to. Free up your mind to invent new stuff to maybe make life easier.

When you consider this, you realize that everything we have in this culture of ours—from bicycles to baseball games to train tracks to blacktop paved over train tracks to nuclear power plants to iPods to aging punk rock bands—can be traced back to one single technology: the vowel. And now we send text messages that treat the vowel like it doesn’t even matter.

But that’s not my point. This isn’t just a long rant to say that text messaging sucks. I have no idea whether or not it sucks. I don’t have a cell phone. I’ve never sent a text message. Hell, it usually takes me anywhere between a week and forever just to answer an email. There’s no way I’m going to walk around with some little machine that lets people send little vowelless messages about the minutia of their day. I’d rather ride my bike and listen to the Descendents.

At least that’s where I am right now. I’m very happy that I don’t have a cell phone, just like there was a time when I was very happy that I didn’t have an email account. And it’s not because I’m a Luddite. I love a lot of new technology. I was listening to an iPod while I Hoodlebugged. Sure, the music doesn’t sound as good as it does when I play it on vinyl, but it’s a hell of a lot more convenient than riding a bike with a record player on the handlebars. The bike I was riding was pretty state-of-the-art, too. I don’t know what kind of metal it was made of, but it’s a lot stronger and lighter than the steel that they used to smelt in those huge old furnaces that still dot the western Pennsylvania landscape. Even when I type this, I’m using a laptop and Microsoft Word. I may not be a fan of Microsoft and Word may have its own problems, (what with all the changes it makes to words while you’re typing them; you can hardly even type “teh” anymore without the program changing it to “the.” You can hardly type Hoodlebug without a red squiggly line underneath, even though I know it’s a real word and I’m spelling it correctly). Word freaks me out sometimes, but it’s still a hell of a lot better than the old Smith Corona word processor that I wrote my first novel on. It definitely beats the shit out of the electronic typewriter I used to write essays in high school.

But because I’m of that generation that grew up from typewriter to word processor to Word, I’m even more aware of how this technology changes our way of thinking. When I used to write on a typewriter or use a pencil (like my imaginary Hateful Notebook girl), I really thought about what I wanted to say before writing it down. I mean, I really thought about it. I didn’t want to have to type out a whole new page just to fix a sentence. I didn’t want a page full of crossed out or erased words. The word processor changed that a bit, but it wasn’t until computers got cheap enough for me to be able to afford one and I started to use Word that my method of writing really changed. Now, I write as a think. I type sixty words a minute. I keep about forty of them. I use the backspace key more than I use the letter “e.” And there’s a fuckload of “e’s” in this column.

Getting back to the Hoodlebug and the DNT TXT N DRV billboard (a phrase which, not so incidentally, does not get a squiggly line under it when you type it in Word), it was at that moment that I realized just how significant all these little insignificant things like cell phones and iPods and laptops are. When the railroad tracks are paved over to make a bike path or when the clear-cut forests grow back everywhere but where the nuclear power plant is, those are just changes to the way we get around or the way we get energy. When groundhogs gaze across fallow fields, it’s just a different thing for me, a guy who lives in California, to look at. Their part of the change that is all around us and perpetual and part of the normal human experience. The actual things, like my bike and the power plant, may be unique to our time period, but they’re just part of the chain of creation and destruction that have surrounded western civilization for a few thousand years. But that little computer chip that was sitting on my hip, mainlining punk rock tunes into my ears, or the computer chip that connects careless drivers passing out essentially meaningless and vowelless messages to one another, and that chip in the laptop that helps me to write this all represent something much larger than a change in our environment. They represent a change in the way our minds are working. It’s a change in the way that we think, a change bigger than anything humans have undergone since they first came up with the vowel. And, goddamn, none of us knows where this is going to take us.


Author’s note: This is the twelfth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #41.  For more information about the collection, read this post.

Portable Doom

Illustration from Razorcake #54 by Brad Beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #54 by Brad Beshaw

Rain poured down, filling ditches and flooding the concrete quad with about an inch of water. I sat in the portable that was designated as faculty offices. It was Friday morning, one of my favorite times to teach a college class. Colleges and universities are about half empty on Friday mornings. It feels like the edge of Spring Break every week. I half-listened to the rain and half-read through my class notes and tried to remind myself that I would be a college professor for the next three hours and I should act like one. That’s when I heard the crash.

I couldn’t place it. It sounded like a wrecking ball smacking into the side of a building, but where would a wrecking ball come from on this rainy Friday morning? I raced outside the faculty offices and had a look around. My portable was one of eight that surrounded this flooded concrete quad. The rain padded against the inch-deep pond, jetted out of rain gutters, formed little streams in the ditches. No one was around to race out of any of the other portables and look at me so I could look back at them and shrug my shoulders and at least acknowledge that I too had heard a crash and we hadn’t been imagining things. Alone there on the west end of campus, I did what I could. I grabbed my umbrella, walked over to the portable where I’d be teaching, unlocked it, and had a look around. Everything seemed in order. I left, leaving the door unlocked so that my students wouldn’t have to wait out in the rain.

I went back to sitting on my broken office chair, half-listening to the rain, half-reading my class notes.


At break time, I went back to my desk in the faculty portable and ate an orange. Another professor was there by this time. He said, “Did you hear about the air conditioner?”

I couldn’t make sense of this. Air conditioner? It was February in Los Angeles. Who talked about air conditioners? I shook my head.

He said, “An air conditioner fell through the roof of #6 this morning.”


“Yeah,” he said. “I guess the gutter got clogged, the roof filled up with rain, and everything came crashing down. Crazy, huh?”

“Crazy,” I said, knowing that I’d have to spend the next hour and a half in portable #5, right next door. I left the faculty offices and stood in the quad in front of #5, trying to see where the rain gutters were and if they were clogged, trying to find the air conditioner on the flat roof, seeing nothing but the rain and the same dusky brown portable I’d been teaching in for a semester and a half. The umbrella kept my head dry. My Doc Martens kept my feet more or less dry. The rain smacked the back of my legs, though, sticking my jeans to the skin on my calves.

For about a minute, I thought about canceling the second half of class and waiting until the next Friday to see if the roof would hold on this forty-year-old portable. But I didn’t. I decided, all of this may come crashing down someday, and I’ll be under it or I won’t. In the meantime, all I could do was all I could do, which, on this morning, was teach composition to the youth of East L.A. who were trying to claw their way into the middle class.

I taught the second half of the class on the move, walking back and forth in front of the classroom, breaking the students off into small groups and wandering around them, trying to make myself a moving target for the air conditioner and the flooded roof. Since I didn’t know where on the roof the air conditioner was, any spot in the room could’ve been as safe or dangerous as any other. I knew this. Still, I kept moving.

The roof in #5 held for the rest of class and the rest of the semester. At the beginning of that summer, the roof repairs and my job were added to the long list of things that the college didn’t have the money to pay for. I found another job.

Seven years have passed since I’ve been to that campus. For all I know, #5 is still there, still defying gravity through another February’s rains.


I don’t talk about teaching much here in the pages of Razorcake, but I’ve been teaching since the first days. When I decided to move from Florida to California to help found this magazine, I quit my job teaching at a community college there. Quitting to start a punk rock magazine wasn’t as big of a deal as it may sound like. Teaching in Florida pays so poorly, it can hardly be classified as a job. It’s more like volunteer work with a monthly stipend.

With the exception of 2001, when I lived off of savings and worked full-time on Razorcake, I’ve been teaching from the time when I first started doing Flipside reviews until later today, when I’ll go to campus an hour early so that I can let my mind switch over from punk rock columnist to university professor. And, though I don’t mix the university and punk rock much, I teach there for reasons that are very similar to the ones that keep me tethered to Razorcake. It mostly has to do with my belief in democracy.

I know it sounds like a strange thing to say. But I’ll explain. At the core of this is the belief that most of us, individually, tend to make intelligent decisions most of the time. Of course we slip up now and then and do stupid things. Grown men decide to get naked on an escalator in a crowded Hollywood shopping center when they’re supposed to be headlining a show. Fresh-faced punk rockers read Maximum Rocknroll. None of us are perfect. Regardless, if we examine our lives in the big picture, it’s probably safe to say that, when we were left to our own devices, we did what we needed to do to get by, helping the people around us when we could and avoiding hurting anyone too badly. So, it follows logically that most of us can govern ourselves. And, if we can govern ourselves, we should. This is what I mean by democracy.

So where does Razorcake fit into all of this? Well, democracy is predicated on a free exchange of ideas. In order for individuals to make intelligent decisions, they need to receive and consider a wide variety of information. None of that information has to be objective. It just has to come from a bunch of different perspectives. One of the biggest threats to democracy in America is the narrow perspective of information that we receive. A handful of large corporations control almost all of the media, meaning they control most of our perceptions of the world that exists beyond what we experience firsthand. Fresh perspectives need to come from somewhere. Razorcake provides one of these. The ten thousand or so readers of this magazine are able to experience one of the few subcultures in America that still grows organically. It’s an American culture that exists beyond Wal-Mart and McDonalds, beyond Fox and Disney. It’s a culture that we’ve created rather than one that’s been sold to us. It’s liberating.

Universities work in a similar fashion. They’re the largest and most powerful places in society where a free exchange of ideas still exists. University professors have a tremendous amount of freedom with regards to what they study and what they teach. And, unlike most people who are given a pulpit in our society, professors actually have to research their topics extensively and demonstrate an advanced knowledge in their field before they can express their views. They can’t pretend to be an authority on a different topic every night like Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart and most bloggers do. They have to actually know what they’re talking about.

Most discussion about universities these days focuses around money and jobs. I’m not as interested in that, mostly because people ignore the facts in that discussion. The fact is, universities are a good investment. A typical California State University graduate, regardless what his major is, will make about a million dollars more in his lifetime than if he hadn’t gone to college. This means he’ll pay about $300,000 more in state and federal taxes. 90,000 students graduated from the CSU last year. Do the math. The CSU made the federal government and the State of California about $27 billion last year. The state invested about $3 billion. That’s a pretty good profit.

But, again, I’m not as interested in that. I’m more interested in the democracy element of it. Because we all eventually get jobs and make some money. And those are important things. But they’re far from the most important things in our lives. What almost everyone wants are things like autonomy, free time that’s genuinely free of work and stress, deep friendships and loving relationships. Money and jobs don’t go very far in granting us those things. What we need instead is a to find a way to create these meaningful things in our own lives without relying on money or jobs or consumables. We need to think critically and be imaginative. And some of the last places that exist where we have the time and freedom and freshness of perspective to do these things are Razorcake and higher education.

Recently, higher education in California has taken a huge hit. Mostly, that hit has come from a few members of the state legislature and from the action hero we elected governor. The CSU—the university I work for—had a half billion dollars cut from our three billion-dollar budget this year. All the economic forecasts show that, regardless of how bad the economy is, taking money from higher education makes things worse. Taking it from the CSU further ensures that people from poor or working class families get booted from higher education while most rich kids do fine. It also means that, as a society, our freedoms become fewer, our chances for meaningful lives become slimmer, and our democracy suffers.

I’m not sure what to do to change this right now. I’m working on it. I know a Razorcake column isn’t going to solve this problem. It’s not intended to. I’m just bummed out. Lately, every time I go to work, I feel like I’m back in that rain-soaked portable, waiting for the roof to cave in on me and my students.

I hope the crash isn’t inevitable.


Author’s note: This is the tenth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #54.  For more information about the collection, read this post.

Come Steal with Me

literarytheft 4I’m teaching a writing workshop to help support the PEN Center.  It’s all about how to take a classic story, steal your favorite parts of it, and rewrite it as your own.  Kinda like I’ve done with, well, everything I’ve written so far.  I even stole this idea as a workshop.

The workshop will be Saturday, October 12 from 10 AM to 1 PM down in Beverly Hills.  You can sign up or get more information here.

Bleeding Edge

Bleeding_EdgeToday is the official release date for Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Bleeding Edge.  You’d think I’d be excited about that.  After all, I wrote a book about Pynchon.  I’ve taught a couple of classes that focused solely on his works.  I’ve published articles on him in academic journals.  I play ukulele with him whenever I’m in New York.  So of course I must be excited, right?

Actually, I was more excited about it two weeks ago, when I drove down to LA to meet up with David Kipen in Hancock Park, between the Page Museum and the Tar Pits.  David passed an advance copy along to me as if the book were contraband.  So, of course, I’ve already read it.  I’ve already written about it, too.  If you’re interested in checking out my review of Bleeding Edge, you can read it on The Nervous Breakdown.

One of the Greats

During my first semester at Florida State University–and impossible 24 years ago–I took a creative writing class from a professor named Jerome Stern.  I had no idea at the time that he had a nationally-syndicated NPR show, that publications like Harper’s and Playboy sought out his work, or that he was, in general, a big-time guy.  I had no concept of what it took to get where he was.  I had the vague sense that professors got their jobs like K-12 teachers get their jobs: they get a degree and apply at the local school.  I didn’t know that things like terminal degrees and publications and contributions to the overall body of knowledge were just the minimum requirements.Jerome Stern

I did recognize immediately, though, that he was an incredible teacher.  I’ve had other classes, other teachers who were as influential, as meaningful, but I’ve never had class or teachers who were more so.

Jerome was the first professor I had who showed me how to take this jumbled mass of raw words and start to put shape to them.  For that reason, he is one of the three FSU professors to whom I dedicated Madhouse Fog.

I bring him up now because, at the beginning of every fall semester, I reread his story “University.”  I’ve been doing this for five or six years now.  Every year, it becomes more meaningful.  Every year, it breaks my heart all over again.

Now, I’m sharing the story with you.   Click the link at the end of this sentence to read it: Stern_University

Though I was still blond and kinda heavy when I hit my early thirties, though I did spend ten post-college years wandering around the country and doing wild things, I’m not the returning student in the story.  Jerome died before I made it into my early thirties and was able to visit him again.  If I’m not mistaken, he’d been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer at the time when he wrote this story.  He was heading into his final school year, one that he wouldn’t live through.   Part of the power of the story lies in knowing that he made this kind of sense out of his life while facing an imminent death.  Part of the power comes from me personally missing they guy.

I’m thankful that he left at least this legacy.


London BridgeI’m in England right now for International Pynchon Week.  Because, strange as it sounds (to me, at least), I’m a scholar of the author Thomas Pynchon.  I’m presenting a paper today on Thomas Pynchon and his ukulele.  Don’t laugh at me.  The ukulele has revolutionary possibilities in Pynchon’s novels.

On second thought, it’s okay to laugh at me.

Anyway, this is my first time in England.  I’m way up here in the north, but I’m hoping to go down to London to see the London Bridge.  I hope it’s as pretty in real life as it is in the picture above.  I hope it hasn’t fallen down.  Seems like it’s been falling down since I was kid singing about that.

Now I Don’t Have to Write It

clownWhen people learn that I’m a professor in an English department, they frequently say things like, “I better watch my grammar around you.”  Or they ask me how to spell things.  It demonstrates to me how little people tend to understand about what I do for a living.  I’m not a linguist.  Everything I know about grammar I know because I shared an office with a linguist for nine years.  Everything I know about spelling is nothing.  I would’ve misspelled “grammar” in that first sentence if not for the wiggly red line below my first attempt.

Assuming, though, that I focus on grammar and spelling is like meeting a stand-up comedian and assuming that he wears face paint, a red nose, and big floppy shoes.  Sure, the stand-up comedian you met when you were in the third grade dressed like a clown.  Things are a little different when we’re adults.

Anyway, I’ve often thought about writing an article that explains not so much what I do, but why I do it.  Luckily, a professor from Notre Dame wrote that article for me.  I read it in the New York Times this morning.

If you’ve ever wondered why you had to take a class in the humanities, or why I do what I do professionally, I recommend it.  Here’s the link: “Why Do I Teach?” by Gary Guttting.