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118_sull_originalWhen Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea enter the flophouse, they look around, dismayed. Sleeping vagrants litter the floor in a knot of rags, and when Lake and McCrea find a free spot, they curl into a protective cocoon, batting away strange, errant limbs. On the wall is a curious sign:  Have You Written Your Mother?  Those thick block letters have an oddly chiding tone, a schoolmarm’s fat finger waving at those unfortunates who have just endured a fiery sermon to sleep here.

No, I have not written to my mother. I call, though not as frequently as she would like. My father answers and pretends I’m a stranger: Who’s this? he asks, as if caller ID weren’t a built-in feature of their life.  My mother replaces Hello with Why haven’t you called? As she runs through her litany of concern (Have you gone to the dentist? Found a permanent job yet? Get your flu shot?), I feel like I’m eight, and I wait, irritably, until I finally become an adult, and she tells me what’s been going on at temple, with her friends, in the family.

She sends out emails too, though her use of diacritical marks depends on which computer she’s using. Behind the desk in the computer room (my old bedroom), my father has taped a sampler of the Vietnamese fonts he’s downloaded. With these, the accents are accessible via keystrokes. I imagine her sitting there, tapping out appropriate vowel tones. But if she’s in her own room, sitting up in her waterbed, tablet on her lap, I imagine that she most likely can’t be bothered.  It doesn’t matter, really, if the marks are there or not, since I’m barely literate in Vietnamese. I scan the email for words I immediately recognize— root canal, endodonist, dental insurance, osteoporosis—and infer the rest. The diacritical marks dot the screen like dust.

But my mother also writes letters, short communiqués on the free notepads charities send out when they try to guilt you into sending donations: Red Cross, World Wildlife Foundation, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. Her handwriting is crisp and spiky, insisting that it be absolutely understood. Just a few words on each note: I’m sending you this check, it says, because of ____, and I’m forced to sound out each word, to remember which tone goes with which mark. The hỏi asks a question, and the ngã breaks. Sắc is like the French accent aigu, while huyền is the French grave, and nặng is the heavy thud, a cannonball of a vowel. The diacritics sometimes double up on the same vowel. Depending on its marking, the word ‘ma’ can mean: mother, or ghost, or however, or horse, or grave, or rice seedling.

My mother asks if I can read her notes, and I always answer yes, even if I can’t. I put her notes, folded in half, in the back of my desk, where they remind me: communicate.

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Suicide 1: N___ was two classes above me in seventh grade, while his brother, E___ was one class behind, in fourth.  N___’s curly hair was cut in a proto-mullet, with wavy lines shaved into the sides, and he maintained a light wisp of a mustache, so blonde and light that it looked like a trick of the sun. He wore neon-colored clamdiggers and short-sleeved shirts as though he were a California native trapped in land-locked Colorado. Whenever I visited his brother, who lived two blocks away, he regarded us with an indifferent air, the way a queen ant ignores the workers scurrying around her.

There was conflicting news of his death: some people said that it was an accident, that he had shot himself while playing with a gun; others said that it was deliberate. E___ missed two weeks of school, and when he came back, I treated him gingerly, with no mention of N___, even though N___’s presence hung over E___ like a bubble.

I was afraid of grief—not E___’s grief, which made him walk as though the floors of Parklane Elementary were pools of wet clay. That grief was evident, palpable. No, I was more afraid of N___’s grief, a huge, unknowable thing that could swallow a person up in an instant, in an irreversible contraction of the index finger.

Suicide 2: My cousin H___ was a police officer in the Los Angeles, and my family drove to California for her funeral: my parents, sister, aunt and uncle all crammed into a van. There was no stopping in Las Vegas for a run at the casinos, no pauses except at gas stations, where I was allowed to look at the candy but not buy any. H___, too, had shot herself. I remember her round face, her feathered, neck-length hair, and how, once, on a previous visit, I had slept in the same bed with her, and she advised me: if you fart in the middle of the night, the least you can do is lift up the comforter to let it out.

By then, though, I had been thoroughly brain-washed by suicide-prevention filmstrips; suicide I now considered the highest act of selfishness. The closest I ever came to suicide was holding a kitchen knife to my wrist and thinking, I could do it, I could, in teenaged high Romantic mode. But the practical truth of it, I knew, was more unbearable: a closed-casket ceremony, her fellow police officers sitting stiff-backed in folding chairs, her boyfriend gripping the brass sides of the casket so hard that it shifted on its base.

The question I wanted to ask E___, the question I wasn’t able to ask H___ was Why? But I suspect that even if they could have answered, it still wouldn’t have made sense. There is no why. There’s only the act. The doomed lovers in Double Suicide proceed to their fates with mechanical certainty, and the black-shrouded Bunraku puppeteers look on, anguished, as H___’s mother clutches a framed photograph of her, repeating, No one’s as beautiful as my H___. No one.

The camera doesn’t record memories as much as it creates them.  These moments can now not be forgotten:  the naked and drug-addled being escorted to the medical tent; a man wearing a sparkly Star-Spangled outfit, puffing from a furry bong the size of a hockey stick; the woman on-stage who says, petulantly, “But I wanna see Mick Jagger, goddammit.”  Throughout Gimme Shelter, the Rolling Stones watch the footage, as if it holds clues to their own memories of their 1969 North American tour, which ended at the infamous Altamont Speedway concert:  what did they see?  What could they have done?  They listen to a radio call-in show recapping the Altamont concert, with Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger, one of the Hell’s Angels, giving his side of the story, and afterwards, Charlie Watts says, sardonically, “Well done, Sonny.”   When the film reaches the moment when Meredith Hunter gets stabbed in the back.  Jagger asks to see it again.  The Moviola freezes on a knife blade flashing in the air.  Then Maysles winds it backwards, and Hunter pulls a gun, its shape visible against a girl’s crotchet dress.

*

Memorializing one’s life has become ubiquitous.  Video clips, photographs—with these artifacts, we can rifle through our memories, parsing their significance.  What did this moment mean?  Nowadays, you can’t go to a concert without someone hold up his phone for the entirety of the performance.   What will he remember of it?  How does he re-live the experience?  Does he sing along?  Are his eyes dazzled by the strobe lights, the smoke machines, the trembling of his own hand?

*

I saw Skinny Puppy on their Too Dark Park tour.  The stage featured rubberized trees that, in the light, looked wet with slime.  Faces were twisted into the bark.  Behind the band, a back projection showed a loop of atrocities:  war crimes, Lucio Fulci clips, animal experiments, Microsoft Windows 3.0 graphics.  At one point, the lead singer, Ogre, was tied into a chair with medical tubing and and ‘injected’ with neon fluids.  His bandmates strapped metal stilts to his arms and legs, and for the duration of the concert, he loped around the stage, a Goth giraffe.

*

I still have the t-shirt from the concert, a stippled close-up from the album’s cover art:  a demonic, tentacled face.  It’s the only physical reminder I have of the concert, and I’ve stopped wearing it.  The image has started to crack and flake away, and the black of the shirt itself has faded to a dingy gray.  And to be honest:  I can hardly remember much of the concert itself.  Much of what I ‘remember’ was provided by other sources.  But I’m sure it happened that way, anyway.

*

In 1991, Skinny Puppy released their Tormentor single, which featured the track “Harsh Stone White,” recorded live in Denver.  I imagine I can hear myself cheering, clapping, begging for “Worlock,” and I can see myself, the only skinny Asian 16-year old at the concert, skirting the mosh pit, inching my way up to the stage, and my 37-year old self, now sporting a mohawk for the summer, crosses his arms and says, Well done, sonny.

 

Part of me will always be an adolescent boy.  The part that stands in stores, reading comic books until the proprietor yells, “Hey, this isn’t a library!”  The part that giggles at dick and fart jokes.  The part that sees the future as a vast, undisturbed plain at the end of Wheeling St. in suburban Aurora, long before the encroachment of warehouses and office parks.  The part that holds desire like a switchblade — awkwardly, blindly, secretly.

This is the part, too, that enjoys Kevin Smith movies.  At the comics convention that opens Chasing Amy, one grizzled vendor wears a ‘Fuck Marvel Comics’ t-shirt.

Marvel Comics once had a contest where readers could send in samples of their own work.  One could compete in the penciling, inking, coloring, lettering or writing categories, and the winners of each would collaborate on an issue of Spider-Man.

I wasn’t familiar enough with the Spider-Man storylines to attempt writing, but lettering I thought I could do.  It requires a steady hand, a ruler, a knack for identifying empty spaces in the frames where language and thought can take shape.  Having only one of the three, I didn’t enter.

Besides, I had already tried making comics.  In middle school, my friend Josh C. and I created a three-panel comic strip called “Froggy.”  But since I was inept at drawing, Froggy was nothing more than a three-toed, ambulatory lingam.  We did a traditional three-panel strip, commonly known as ‘the funnies’:  set-up, build, punchline.  And, being middle-schoolers, we moved quickly from existential crises regarding the inability to catch flies to dick and fart jokes.

Holden and Banky, the comic-creating duo of Chasing Amy, eventually separate, in part, because of Banky’s submerged feelings for Holden.  “Some doors should never be opened,” Banky says.

Josh and I were separated by the military’s propensity to ship away families to new bases.  He used to regaled me with stories of coming across his mother’s boyfriend, post flagrante delicto, walking around with his boner, howling “A-roo-ha-hoo!”

Really?

Yep, he said.

We had swim class together, and there weren’t enough stalls in the locker room to accommodate all the bashfulness.  Once, as we showered, Tim S. zipped in and mooned us, but more often, a line of damp boys formed a queue in front of the only stall in the bathroom.

Josh wielded his unabashed sexuality like a matador’s cape.  As I waited on the bench for the stall to open, trunks clinging and reeking of chlorine, he whipped off his shorts and slipped into his underwear.  Maybe he noticed me looking.  He asked, “Aren’t you changing?  Ashamed of your manhood?”

Well, yes and no.  Our bodies were still sprouting in unforeseen ways (some more than others).  We were no longer boys, but we couldn’t claim the mantle of men — not so long as we kept subsuming and covering our desires with bluster and indifference.

Josh knocked on the stall:  “Ready yet?”  But I wasn’t yet ready to open that door.

Towards the end of The Testament of Orpheus, two children feed autographs of two “intellectuals in love” into the mouths of a three-headed statue.  Cégeste, the resurrected poet from Orpheus, explains that the statue is an “instant-celebrity machine” that guarantees “fame for anyone in a minute or two.”

“Beyond that,” he continues, “of course, it becomes more difficult.”

After devouring the autographs, the machine spews forth long strips of paper:  “novels, poems, songs and so forth,” Cégeste says.  “It stops until it’s fed by new autograph hunters.”

In the room that Matthew and I refer to as the ‘library,’ I have more than 100 signed books stashed in a corner unit that we bought off the street.  Back home, in Colorado, I have about 300 more.  I’ve been to readings where the bookstore staff handed out tickets for signings that went into the high four-hundreds.  I’ve been to readings where I felt the need to act extra-enthusiastic to make up for the vacant seats around me.

I’ve recruited friends to wait with me when the line proctor for Salman Rushdie announced, Only five books per person.  I’ve chased Orhan Pamuk down the National Mall after ending up on the wrong end of his cut-short signing line.  I’ve stood behind the rare-books dealers wheeling book-laden luggage with them, pulling out ARCs and foreign editions, first-editions with dust jackets lovingly Mylared — Signature only, they say.

Book dealers have a financial incentive to have their books signed.  My modest collection, on the other hand, would yield only a meager retirement account.  When asked if I want my books personalized, I waffle mentally before answering, Sure — not that I intend ever to sell my books.

Paul Bloom, in How Pleasure Works, suggests that, on a basic, cognitive level, people “assume that things in the world — including other people — have invisible essences that make them what they are.”  Works of art, in particular, have an essence that is “rooted in an appreciation of the human history underlying its creation.”  A painter signs his work to validate it; the signature embodies this essence of the work.

When I gave Matthew an inscribed copy of Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution, he was speechless.  He, of course, had already read it many times, but the fact that, at some point, Arendt had touched this book, held it, rendered him speechless.  Her essence now mingled with his.

There’s an old canard about how certain African tribes ban cameras because they believe that photographs can capture their souls.  Is this any different than the baseball memorabilia collector who believes that part of Joe DiMaggio resides in his glove?  Does he smell DiMaggio’s sweat in the creases of the leather?  If the collector slips his hand into the glove, does he taint DiMaggio’s essence or does DiMaggio’s essence infuse his hand?

I am a lepidopterist, pinning an author’s name into his own work.

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