Saturday, February 03, 2007

An Email About Dickens

(In lieu of an actual post to break my 17-year silence, you get an email to my friend Steve, who had asked me to recommend some Dickens to him. This interruption in my post-less-ness should not be considered the dawning of a Brand New Year of Posting. I mean, yeah, I'd like it to be. However, I'd hate to promise more posting, more of the time, and then, you know, not.

I'm alive, well, and reading. How are you?

I've been giving some thought to your Dickens request. (Calling it a "Dickens Request" may give it a sense of primacy that you never intended.) On one hand it would be nice if I recommended some Dickens, and you read them, and you liked them, and then I'd have someone to talk about Dickens with because, as it turns out, except for one drunk guy at the bar in Foong Lin (the Chinese restaurant in Bethesda near Zach's old apartment that we've eaten at a couple of times together), no one is reading Dickens -- and, actually, even that drunk guy at the bar probably doesn't read Dickens; he simply saw me with a copy of Nicholas Nickleby and made some comment about how no one reads Dickens any more and when I asked him what his favorite Dickens was he said, blearily, A Tale of Two Cities, which is fine enough for Dickens, sure, but it's also similar to hearing The Mona Lisa as the answer to the question, "What kind of art do you like?"

On the other hand, though, both you and Jamie are what's called a Tough Crowd. What has saved our relationship thus far is how much commonality we've brought to the relationship. I've had less luck introducing either of you to new things. (The sting of the mild rebuke of The Woman in White haunts me.) So, I recommend some Dickens, you read a bit of each, or a bit of one, because, really, if you don't like one why bother with the others, right? You read a bit, decide it's crap, and then there's this wide sea of Dickens we have between us.

Maybe some caveats that you already know. Dickens isn't Tolstoy or Eliot. Dickens has moments where he might rival either of those two; however, George and Lev both outshine Dickens probably more often than the vice or the versa. Dickens, read in context, will give you a better idea of what life was like at that time -- grudgery, day-to-day life -- and there are some funny moments and some frightening moments and some stirring moments. I won't lie to you: there are some, "Jesus fuck aren't we done with this yet?!?" moments, too. So my second caveat would be: it's not necessary to sit down and read the novels in a few sittings like a novel. They were serialized. There's a rhythm Dickens planned for in the installments that can give the impression of swells at sea. Sometimes swells at sea are exciting and captivating (I'm guessing; I'm terrified of the ocean). Other times they can be mildly nauseating. When I recommend the four novels I am going to recommend at the end of this email, and you pick one to read, and you make your way to the library, and you check it out -- assume you'll renew. Give yourself two months or so to read the novel. The nice thing about Dickens is that, because they're in installments, you aren't in danger of missing a key plot point. He's going to remind you of what you need to remember.

So. Here are four Dickens novels I'd recommend, in my own personal favorite order. You'll notice that A Tale of Two Cities isn't on this list.
    Bleak House -- It's Dickens at the height of cranky. He's skewering the Victorian legal system and women's charity societies that spend too much time solving problems in Africa and not enough time solving problems at home ("home" being either their own houses or London), as well as the plight of the poor in general, which is Dickens particular favorite soap-box to climb on. Esther Summerson is going to annoy the fuck out of you. She's thisclose to Little Nell qualities: too perfect, too loving, too kind. This won't spoil the novel for you, but you should know, because she starts annoying almost from the beginning, that she gets the smallpox. And it feels good to the reader -- or, at least, this reader -- when she does get the smallpox. Anyway, Bleak House is the best representative Dickens I can think of: densely plotted, marvelously charactered (except for Esther), bitingly funny.

    Our Mutual Friend -- This is Dickens's last completed novel. His last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, remains unfinished. It's better than Bleak House only in the sense that Esther Summerson isn't in it. It's a mystery novel and a love story -- but mostly, it's probably Dickens's best collection of characters. My personal favorite is the gentleman who hires another man to read to him from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The gentleman, a "new" gentleman, risen in rank because of an inheritance, is treated kindly by Dickens, and allows Dickens, less wearily than Hardy, to talk about the true fluidity of class as it slams against the upper-classes' misguided adherence to the status quo. (Galsworthy's The Forsythe Saga, though, remains the best look at this new class of upper class.)

    Dombey & Son -- DO NOT READ THE INTRODUCTION -- either whatever publisher's introduction is in your copy, or Dickens's own. It will spoil the novel for you. In some ways, it's closest in temperament to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, and AK's examination of family and selfishness and cruelty. It doesn't get the same love as other Dickens novels (Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, et. al. -- the publicity machines for these novels are amazing, mostly because they just aren't very good novels), but it's one of my favorites.

    Barnaby Rudge -- I'm listing it, and listing it fourth, even though I haven't finished it yet. I'm about 60 pages in, and it's very exciting and engaging and modern feeling. I've been trying to read my way, in order, through Dickens. Towards that, I've read The Pickwick Papers (good, but very episodic -- which is what Dickens was going for, so he wins. It's also pretty hysterical in places, and for long stretches, up until Mr. Pickwick ends up in prison, and then the novel takes this pretty awful bleak turn. Dickens hadn't worked out, yet, how to balance the narrative. TPP is interesting less for the story and more for the seeds of what will come when you finally get to Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, and Our Mutual Friend), Oliver Twist (better than I thought it would be, given that fucking travesty of a musical with the awful song about hot jelly and mustard or some such nonsense, but it's because the secondary and evil characters are all so brutal and interesting), and Nicholas Nickleby (interesting, because you start to see that Dickens is working out how to be Dickens here. Nicholas is not a good hero, because he's too good and also too D'Artagnan-like in his eagerness to solve all wrongs against him with forced shows of bravado and pugilistic unnecessaries. However, some of the funniest scenes in all of Dickens can be found when Nicholas ends up with the Crummles's theatre troupe, including "The Infant Phenomenon" -- who is supposed to be 9 or 10, but who is actually 15 or 16). I bottomed out, though, when I tried to read The Old Curiosity Shop. It's unreadable. Skipping that, Barnaby Rudge was up next, and I have been all the better for it.
It's only fitting that a simple email suggesting Dickens titles should approach this almost Dickensian length. Again: Dickens is easy to dislike, I think, and to overindulge in -- so care should be taken. And if, after all this, you continue in your "meh"-ing of Dickens, it isn't my fault.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Reading: Positively Fifth Street

Positively Fifth Street is positively awful. That's easy, and I feel like I'm writing for US Weekly now, or People -- but seriously, guys: it sucks.

Some caveats, before I get too far into this:
  1. I am not much of a poker fan, or, really, gambling of any kind. Unless it's gambling with my health -- especially in the face of delicious, delicious amounts of cheese.
  2. I am not a heterosexual male who needs to prove his manliness.
  3. I am not a heterosexual female married to a heterosexual male whom I let squander away buckets of money on my gambling addiction.
  4. I have never killed a man by feeding him a lethal dose of MDMA and tar heroin, and then asphyxiating him with a washed-up hooker.

My friend Navin recommended that our book group read James McManus's novel about poker for our October discussion. I've been burned by books like this in the past, most recently the execrable Devil in the White City. In fact, the books could pass as fraternal twins -- both in cover design and crappy writing. But it was Navin's turn to pick, and I figured it couldn't be any worse than The Bone People, and then I realized that I've got to stop setting myself up for challenges like that.

I bought the book yesterday, and wrote Navin an email last night:

    The thing is, I could die. Crossing the street, a car might hit me; or, maybe, all the gravy I've ever eaten in my life could finally catch up with me in a heartbreaking heart attack of staggering proportions. The thing is, I could die and you wouldn't know how much I hate Hate HATE Positively Fifth Street.

    I bought it today, and read it while Zach went to look at art he had to pay for. I was mildly put out/grossed out by the opening scene [Ed. note: The book opens with a description of the murder of Ted Binion by his ex-stripper ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend -- a scene that involves uncomfortable sounding sex and a corpse with the runs], but tacked it up to "true crime" reporting and figured I was being squeamish. When I found out that not only was it not really "true crime" reporting, but that it was instead the author's conjecture based on stuff he'd read -- that's when I got an inkling that I wasn't going to be a fan of this book.

    I started keeping track of the positives and the negatives of the book by placing a plus sign or a minus sign next to the appropriate places.

      - : Blurb on the cover from Billy Collins, U.S. poet laureate. There are no good poets any more. All poets are idiots. Billy Collins is a poet. You've got the math degree; I won't insult your intelligence.

      - : Blurb from Michiko Kakutani, reviewer for the New York Times. She hasn't been relevant, well, ever.

      + : Blurb from Ira Glass, host of This American Life. Ira Glass introduced me to David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell. I like him. (I will try not to let his praise of this book influence my like in the future; however, he is totally on notice.)

      - : Blurb from Jimmy Kimmel, who is only cool because he's schtupping Sarah Silverman -- the funniest woman in America.

      +/- : Washington Post Book World blurb. I was telling Zach, "I think of the Post as my home paper, even though Washington has only been my home since 2000." When I buy a book, I always check to see what the Post had to say about it, and if it doesn't get a mention from the Post I take that as some kind of omen. This, of course, is retarded on my part: I've never had a satisfying time reading the Washington Post's Book World. Jonathan Yardley is literally 300 years old and fellated Atonement -- one of the most overrated books of the last 5 years; and Michael Dirda liked that goddamned Shadow of the Wind book, so you know my feelings about him.

      + : McManus wrote Out of the Blue [Ed. note: Good luck finding it.], a book I highly recommend to writers because of how fantastically real the dialogue is. There's a scene with some kindergartners doing something arts-n-craftsy, the way they do, and a boy asks for an "unraser." A little girl hands him one, and says, "E. It's E-raser. My name isn't Unlizabeth, you know."

      - : Referring to the drug Ecstasy not as "X" or "MDMA," but instead as XTC -- the name of an entirely overrated English pop-band from the '70s and '80s.

      - : Misuses the phrase "begs the question" when he really means "asks the question" or "raises the question."

    I stopped that exercise on page 8.

    The next thing I did was to strike out all the irrelevant passages. What makes a passage irrelevant? Anything that wasn't directly related to the poker competition or the murder.

    I struck pages 1 - 11 because it has nothing to do with the actual murder, but is instead McManus's wet-dream of what the murder might have been. I next struck out his mini-dissertation on Jim Morrison's song "The End" both because I hate The Doors, but also because it, too, doesn't further the story at all. No one is impressed that you've seen Apocalypse Now.

    I next struck most everything from page 21 - 31. There's a bit in there about poker that is relevant but most of it is about McManus -- and I don't care about McManus. In fact, at the top of page 25 I have written: "At this point, I hate McManus and his family." I'm not reading this book because I want to read about how a man justifies his gambling addiction to his weak-willed wife, or how McManus has adult children that he is still financially supporting, or the size of McManus's penis. (Seriously: I feel I've heard more of McManus's penis than I have my own at this point.) I'm reading the book primarily because you chose it; but after that, I am reading it because I am intrigued by the murder, and how it relates to poker. But McManus is not interesting enough to keep my attention. And I really, really, REALLY hate him.

    He's too "macho." There's that awful passage about how his two girls were born because he had testosterone to spare due to some sporting event. [Ed. note: "Beatrice and Grace, as it happens, were both conceived during the Bulls' second threepeat." (26)] He wore a baseball cap to his wedding. He's a deeply uninteresting person, and the only reason that the crime stuff, too, isn't uninteresting is because it's difficult -- though, granted, not impossible -- to make a murder uninteresting.

    I'm on page 78. On page 66 I scribbled "GIBBERISH" in all-caps because he described something to do with poker that made absolutely no sense because he hasn't spent enough time giving me the background I need.

    I want to hurt this book. But I feel I could never hurt it in the same way that it has hurt me.

Navin wrote me back, kinder in his reply than I was in my opening salvo. "I'm actually surprised you got as far as p 78," he said. "Like I said, I was taking a risk here, picking a poker book for this group."

Not wanting to leave well enough alone, I decided that Navin still didn't get it. So, I embarked on another length salvo:
    I've been thinking about Truman Capote -- there's a new movie about his life coming out that I'll probably end up seeing mostly because it's going to look at the social life of Capote, the Black & White Ball and all the socialites he'll eventually end up pissing off when he writes that graphically awful book that I can't think of -- wait, it's Answered Prayers.

    Anyway, I'm thinking of Capote because I'm impressed that someone as narcissistic as he was would go to such lengths to keep himself out of In Cold Blood. There's a veiled reference to Capote at the end, when "a reporter" is mentioned. Otherwise, though, In Cold Blood is about the people directly involved.

    It gets more interesting, of course, when you find out later that Capote was involved; and if there's a weakness in the book it might be that there were places where it might have been appropriate for Capote to reveal his involvement in the case but he doesn't. (E.g., that whole "Perry fucks Truman" business.)

    Positively Fifth Street is thick with McManus. I know his wife's ring finger size (6). I know he obsesses about his penis. I know the kind of parent he is. And, from the looks of later passages, I'm going to learn even more about his family life. The thing is, though, McManus is simply not interesting enough as a human being -- let alone a competent writer or reporter [Ed. note: He's neither] -- to carry my interest.

    Maybe it's the blog culture we live in, and the reality television epidemic, and the idea that everyone deserves to be known. Memoirs are written all the time be folks younger than I am, and there's this sense of "me me me me me" pervading the culture. Yet in a well-written book, I wouldn't know about McManus. I'd know about the murder trial; I'd know about the poker competition. The fact that he spends 3 pages telling me about spending money that he doesn't really have on a ring his wife doesn't really need is a waste of my time as a reader.

    And my gripe in all this is not that it's a poker book. That's not what is making this difficult. I want to be clear about that. I watched the documentary When We Were Kings and loved it -- and I have no more interest in boxing than I have in heterosexual sex. The characters in that film are interesting and compelling, and the film does a fine job of explaining enough of what is going on to help keep my attention from wandering to "What the hell?"-sville.

    The next time you have the book in hand, turn to page 66 and look at the second full paragraph. It starts, "But now comes the flop..."* Nothing in that section makes any sense at all. Not a bit. And it's not that I don't enjoy, get, or understand poker; instead, McManus has wasted valuable pages up to this point giving me information I don't need and not giving me a background into what "It's a seven, a jack, and a nine, and the seven and nine are both diamonds. This gives Hasan twelve outs twice" means.

    We'll have to disagree about McManus's manliness. [Ed. note: Navin had said in a previous email, "I definitely think he's making fun of himself with the macho stuff. He comes across as actually bluffing, insecure about his own masculinity (especially when he starts playing against real poker players, later in the book). And I enjoy his discussion of himself, but I think we've had this sort of discussion before. I'm much more tolerant of that kind of first person thing than you."] I don't think he's making fun of his masculinity. I think he's dead serious. When he equates his wife Jennifer's passive-aggressive hiding of gambling addiction paraphernalia to his hiding pamphlets on aphids and breast cancer in places that are physically painful for her to discover (and how, exactly, are pests and breast cancer at all equal to his willingly spending money that they don't really have on poker?) -- he wants us to think he's in the right. [Ed. note: "At home I respond to her pop-up reminders by taping snippets from articles about the dangers of aphids, say, in the finger of her gardening gloves, or a piece about mammography in the lace of a bra cup, making sure the spiniest creases face in. (Glossy magazine stock makes for the wickedest corners, I've found.)" (37)]

    I'm finishing this goddamned book. And then I'm sending it to the author with my scribbles and a demand for my $15.00 back.

For those who fell asleep/stopped reading/slipped into coma part way through, I'll just recap:

This was the worst book ever written in the history of words.


* "But now comes the flop. I can't look -- yet it turns out I can, even though I wish that I hadn't. It's a seven, a jack, and a nine, and the seven and nine are both diamonds. This gives Hasan twelve outs twice, since he has all twelve on both fourth street and fifth street: te nine other diamonds in the deck, the two other kings (the fourth having been counted among the diamonds), and the queen of hearts for a straight. John thumps the table with his fist, burns a card, turns over ... a jack. A red jack. But of hearts! Another thump, another burn -- Jesus Christ, get it over already [Ed. note: Seriously, McManus.]! When the last card turned up is the harmless six of spades, John calls out, 'Winner on Table 64!'" (66)

I can't tell you which of that was literal and which was metaphorical.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

In which I did NOT pee myself

    Forty years go by with someone laying in your bed.
    Forty years of things you say you wish you'd never said.
    How hard would it have been to say some kinder words instead?
    I wonder as I stare up at the sky turning red.

    -- Patty Griffin, "The Long Ride Home"
The thing to keep in mind is that I did not pee myself.

I, like millions of Americans, spend Sunday mornings in my underpants reading the paper and marveling again at how I'm supposed to be this so-called book-lover and yet I can rarely ever find anything worth reading in the Washington Post's "Book World." "Oh, what's that? Another book on the War on Terror? A memoir by or about an over-medicated mother and/or daughter? Struggling with abuse? And weight? Perfect. But first, is that another chick-litty book about how hard it is to find [shoes/a man/a man who likes your shoes/self-worth/self-worth in shoes that no man actually cares about]? Thank goodness that particular well shows no sign of drying up any time soon."

Time spent with the "Book World"? Seven minutes: "...aaaaand done."

In this story, I'm in my underpants, I'm up, and Zach finally stumbles bleary-eyed into the living room. Also like millions of Americans on a Sunday morning, we get into an argument.

I had taken my cereal bowl and my coffee cup into the kitchen, rinsed them out, and put them in the dishwasher. I came back to the living room to continue being irritated with Marilyn vos Savant, the smartest woman in the world who writes for Parade magazine. (The thing that I love about that last sentence is how freeing the lack of punctuation is. Do I mean she's the smartest woman in the world and she writes for Parade magazine? Or is she the smartest woman in the world to write for Parade magazine? The choice is yours, dear reader.)

I was about to sit down when Zach asked, "Could you put something else on?"

"Are these unsightly? Or are they too alluring?" I wiggled my eyebrows enticingly.

"Dude, you peed in them."


But like I said, I hadn't peed in them. In taking my cereal bowl to the kitchen, and in the process of rinsing out the bowl and putting it in the dishwasher, I may have accidentally splashed some suspiciously pee-damp looking drops on the exact crotch of my underpants. But I did not – I repeat, NOT – pee in them.

I went to my bedroom, horrified, to find a pair of flannel pajama shorts to wear, to cover the offending dude-it's-totally-not-a pee stain.

I couldn't let this challenge to my adult continence pass. "This is just like with that woman in Trader Joes."

"I'm sorry?"

"This. This, you accusing me of wetting myself."

"Is like the woman...?"

"In Trader Joes. The one who gave me the stinkeye?"

The day before, Zach and I had made a last-minute stop at the Trader Joe's next door to pick up a jade plant to take to P. Lunnie's housewarming party. There were more people inside the Trader Joes than outside – in, like, the entire city of Rockville. Everyone was there, everyone was buying mini-quiches, and everyone was already in mile-long lines.

I, with my jade plant, had 4 minutes to make the purchase and get to the bus stop to catch the Ride-On that would take us to some unexplored part of Silver Spring to feel uncomfortable for an hour and a half around people neither Zach nor I knew very well.

A register was about to open up.

Seeing my chance to accept this gift from the universe, I started to make my to the check-out. That was right about the time when the tiny Filipino woman shoved her even tinier Filipino mom in front of me, blocking my way and holding the place in line for the tiny Filipino woman and her two packed-to-the-brim shopping carts.

I now had 3 minutes.

"Do you mind," I asked – I asked politely, by the way; not in the usual way the words "do you mind" generally leave my lips – and held up my sole purchase of a jade plant. "Do you mind if I go ahead of you? I just have this—" I shook the jade plant both for illustration and for emphasis "—to buy and I have cash."

She gave me the stinkeye.

She gave me the stinkeye like I was trying to get away with something. Like I was offering her a share in a Nigerian bank scheme and she knew better – angrily better. Like I was asking for something outrageous, and she had just reached the too-old-for-this-shit stage. She gave me the stinkeye like I was the unreasonable one.

I stepped in front of her mom, her two shopping carts, and her stinkeye. I made my purchase. I left the store.

"Did you see that?" I asked Zach as we hurried toward the bus stop.


"The stinkeye. She gave me the stinkeye?"


"In there. In the store. The Filipino woman and her mom of check-out-line aggression."

"What happened?"

So I told him the story that I just told you, about the woman and her unreasonableness and how I thought it was pretty ridiculous, her being all stinkeyed about it, since all I wanted to do was buy my goddamned jade plant and get to the goddamned bus stop so we could go to this goddamned housewarming part so that we could give the goddamned jade plant to the hostess so we could get the hell home.

"Well, maybe she had to get home, too," Zach offered.


"The Filipino woman. Maybe she had had a long day, and maybe she was wanting to get out of that madhouse just as much as you were, and maybe she was irritated that she had been standing in line longer than you had, but you were wanting to get out before she did."

"But that line wasn't even open yet, so she couldn’t have been standing in that line longer."

"I mean in general. She was there before we got there, waiting."

"Okay, but— just whose side are you on, here?"

That's the thing about Zach. That’s the irritating thing about Zach that I both adore and despise. He’s on the side of "truth" – he’s calm and rational, where I am fraught and emotional. I want him to take my side, regardless. He wants me to understand that sometimes my side is unsupportable. In all honesty, I need Zach and his point-of-view at such moments because if left to my own devices, I can be a selfish monster.

However, that moment wasn't the moment.

Which is why the fight about whether I did, or did not (and remember: I DID NOT), pee myself took on such an emotional tint.

"I wish you would take my side more often," I explained, after the initial heat of embarrassment and anger had abated. "I wish you would trust me enough to know when I've been wronged by a Filipino woman in a Trader Joe's, and when I have or have not – and P.S.: I have not -- peed myself."

"I didn't mean for it to be shaming," Zach offered back, lamely (I thought; because hi: how else am I supposed to take a charge of peeing myself, especially when myself is about to turn 34?). "I just didn't want you getting pee on the couch."


It's a joke now, the argument. Two weeks of continence and hindsight allow both of us to say, periodically, "You'll find me in the bathroom, peeing outside of my underpants."

The need for trust is still there, though. My need for him to believe that I am a responsible adult, and that my life that appears messy at times is under the control of someone rational and reasonable. That, too, is why the argument happened, I think. There's the "real" Mike that I think exists – and then there's the real Mike that actually actually exists. My Mike is always right when he's always wronged. The Actual Mike, however can be petty and vindictive over imagined grievances. I'm ashamed of the Actual Mike; however, what I forget is, Zach is dating the Actual Mike. That other Mike only exists in my head.

Still, if nothing else: I don't pee myself. And that Filipino woman was totally in the wrong.

The Return

All right then. Where were we?

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Trenchant News Analysis II

Coworker: dude, your boyfriend is already starting shit.

Mike Bevel: He's going through a phase.

Mike Bevel: We tried couples' counseling, and the therapist said this might happen.

Mike Bevel: It's called "boundary setting."

Mike Bevel: He needs to feel valued in the relationship.

Mike Bevel: My career is really taking off, now, what with the move from "coordinator" to "associate editor." And what's he got going for him?

Mike Bevel: I mean, I tell him I fell in love with the man, not the title.

Coworker: well, can the boundary at least be "Don't fire a nuclear missle at Israel?"

Mike Bevel: I can't say. He's on his own path.

Trenchant News Analysis I

IM Conversation #1
Mike Bevel: I hope they don't want me to stop thinking that the Ramsey's did it just because they found they guy who, you know, actually did it.

Coworker: it's a weird story

Coworker: the whole thing

Coworker: some stuff doesn't add all the way up

Coworker: like, why would he go to such trouble to hide only to roll over so willingly, to the press no less, when caught?

Coworker: also, did you read about his alibi during the initial investigation?

Mike Bevel: I missed that since I was cowering from that dude's cold, dead eyes.

Mike Bevel: Was it the "I tried to kidnap her, and killed her instead" explanation?

Coworker: an ex-wife of his claimed that he was in Alabama with her at the time of the murder

Coworker: and apparently, that checked out enough that the cops bought it the first time around

Mike Bevel: Was the ex-wife a 6-year-old beauty queen? Because that fish don't swim otherwise.

IM Conversation #2
Mike Bevel: I know the Jon Benet thing was a tragedy. But that killer guy? Have you seen his skin?

Mike Bevel: Flawless!

Saturday, July 22, 2006

How to Make a Surprising Cake

You'll need to get Maya Angelou to shut the fuck up, because bitch wants to narrate everything, and remind her that it's a cake, not a quilt, and I haven't thought about that movie in years but man I mean really? The world spent $23 million to watch that and not to end hunger or homelessness or AIDS?

Anyway. You'll also need to tone down your potty mouth and your sanctimoniousness because you're making this Surprising Cake in honor of Zach's 34th birthday. The cake needs to be delicious, not bitter with the bile of the wrongs committed against the just.

Except you'll spend the first part of the day of the Surprising Cake biking to the library to pick up a copy of American Brutus because you and your friend Barb are planning a trip in August that traces John Wilkes Booth's escape route from Ford's Theatre in D.C. to Richard Garrett's farm near Bowling Green, Virginia.

The trip will be one of the cooler things you've ever done in August, not least because you'll be able to wax on and on about (a) the assassination; (b) its aftermath; and (c) how hot John Wilkes Booth is, without simultaneously alienating and boring your other friends Navin and Sarah, who listened to you and Barb derail the book group's discussion to sigh and squee. "...and John Wilkes Booth has to do with E.L. Doctorow's World's Fair how?"

The Surprising Cake you're making has a long history. The first Surprising Cake you made was back in 1998, for your ex-boyfriend Jeffrey's dad's 50th birthday. His name was Terry and he had a huge penis which he would accentuate by wearing tight jeans and never sitting cross-legged.

You will have spent all day on this first Surprising Cake, partly because during the crucial batter-mixing portion, a kitten that had heretofore gone unnoticed in the kitchen leaped from the floor to the counter to inside the bowl of batter. You will have wept when this happened. You will have then pulled yourself together, smoked two Marlboro Reds in quick succession, and then baked the fuck out of that cake, frosting it to pink perfection.

You will later find yourself open-mouthed in disbelief twice at this birthday. Once, when the Surprising Cake you spent a lot of time and effort creating, is demolished in an incredible food fight. No one present at the party will have had a chance to eat the cake. The other time your mouth will fall open in disbelief is when your boyfriend presents his dad with a cockring. Actually, you're lying -- you'll find yourself open-mouthed three times at this birthday. The third time is when Terry drops trou, puts the cock ring on, and zips everything back up.

The phrase "shelf of cock" would not be an inappropriate way to describe the effect.

The Surprising Cake won't make another appearance until July of 2002, when you attempt to bake a cake in Zach's studio apartment on a stove the size of the keyboard you're currently typing on. It's a triple layer monstrosity that you don't wait long enough to cool before you begin icing it. Which means that each layer has independent movement from any other layer and the cake is less a cake and more a kinetic sculpture of cake and frosting and frustration and despair. When Zach comes home and finds you covered in cake and batter and icing and tears -- you realize that you are in love with this man for the rest of your life because of how much he is in love with your cake.

Plus, he eats it. Plus, he doesn't buy his dad a cock ring, give you crabs on Halloween and then expect you to go to a Halloween party with the originator of the crabs, whom he's been sleeping with behind your back, because he thinks you need "more friends as a couple," or ask you not to come to his birthday party since you can't be an adult about unexpected polyamory. "We're still friends. It's just, you know how you can get."

When you make this Surprising Cake, for Zach's 34th birthday, you only spend 5 minutes thinking of all of this.

This Surprising Cake is a triple layer chocolate cake with Oreo-cream frosting and topped with yellow cake cupcakes frosted with vanilla buttercream and then topped with Dots and Hot Tamales and in the middle of making this Surprising Cake you realize that in some ways you're dating a 9-year-old and not a 34-year-old. And actually, you realize this earlier in the week when you're buying the ingredients and the woman behind you comments that she likes to serve more fruit at her own kid's birthday.

You'll bake the cakes in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes. And this time, you'll cool them thoroughly for 2 hours.

However, what you won't realize is that in crushing up the Oreos for the frosting and adding them to the mixing bowl, you alter the creamy consistency of said frosting and it's not as spreadable as it was, say, 5 minutes ago. You think that maybe things'll soften up if you leave the bowl sitting on the counter and you take a nap because all of this baking? Is very tiring.

This doesn't work.

You'll then find that what started in your head as this voluptuously decadent chocolate cake with Oreo-cream frosting topped with cupcakes, artfully iced and perfectly presented, ends up looking like all other cakes you've ever made in your life, because you really only bake once a year, and that look is: a mess. Chunks are missing out of the side of the cake where the paste-like quality of the frosting has gouged out crevices. The cupcakes which are supposed to delightfully ring the top of the cake keep falling off because they're too top-heavy from the frosting and candy. There's no room to write the "Happy Birthday" message that you were planning. Feeling silly for buying tubes of frosting to write with, you use them to make a purple and pink ring around the cake because while you love your boyfriend, you also realize that your boyfriend sometimes has the aesthetic of a pre-pubescent girl.

And when said boyfriend comes home, he will, like he has for the past three birthday cakes, love it. And love you. And you'll feel like it's your very own birthday because of all the joy and warm feelings that wrap you up like a hug, and you can't stop clapping at Zach and his cake and that's the moment you want to live in forever.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Boy, the Book

I was going to write about the $231.00 electric bill, and how Zach and I were going to have to now raise bees for the wax to make candles because Jesus Fucking Christ are you kidding me? $231.00?

But I rode the bus yesterday and realized I had to write this letter instead.
    Dear Boy with the Book:

    I recognize you. "I know you what you are." You are me, at 13, limp hair unwashed curtaining your forehead and eyes, head privately bent, the book on your knees, and it's an accident your being in the bus at all because really you're there. There being Narnia or Earthsea or Middle Earth, Mount Olympus or the Hundred Acre Wood or under the Willows in the wind. You're there, not here, and yet I can see you, on the bus, head privately bent, and you're me at 13, and I know what safety there is in pages and book spines, in serifs and ink.

    The bus is loud, and the bus is slow, and yet you at 13 aren't aware of the noise, and the heat, and the pulse of everyone around you because now you're striding purposefully down Baker Street; now you've glimpsed Mercedes after a long thousand years in the Château d'If; now you've bid goodbye to the Last Homely House. Your head privately bent, your hands on your cheek, elbows holding the book open, and for five minutes or five miles or five years -- until you're not 13 at all, but you're 18, or ten years and you're 23 -- you're Athos, you're Jim Hawkins, you're young King Arthur when he's just Arthur and the stone is just a stone with a sword that's just a sword out of reach.

    I want to tell you, boy with the book, to stay there, where you are, there; there being not here because here things are rough for boys with books. Or they were when I was 13, and 18, and 23, and even now, even 33. A boy with a book is dark magic to some.

    You looked up once, with that look of loose dreaming, and a furrow of regret creased the bridge of your nose, and I knew you. The bus had moved inches, not miles, and I knew you. The sound of traffic and music, the rattle of the bus engine and the noises of complaint, and I knew you, boy on the bus, who is me at 13. So I went back to my own book and left you to your wanderings and hoped that I might meet you as Huck Finn in another time and place.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Book Club

I'm starting one. At the Bethesda library (knock on wood). The rub? It won't start until January 2007.

I know.

See, here's the thing. I had this idea that it would be cool to run a "classics" book group that would take four 19th century authors -- for instance, Jane Austen, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy -- and read their first (or, in the case of Collins, "firstish") book, a middle work, and then their last book (or, again, in the case of Collins, "lastish").

I picked those four authors partly because they're among my favorites, but also because they're a pretty good cross section of the literary influences on that century.

I've also created a blog to go with this new endeavor. You can find it here. There won't be a lot of posting or updating going on until the group starts meeting. Then, the site will carry synopses of the books we're reading as well as meeting reminders and recaps of the discussions themselves.

If it's a success, this idea, I'd like to try this same set-up with American authors -- some Edith Wharton, Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and ... I don't know. I don't know my own country's lit as well as some others.

I also want to try a year of Tolstoy, where we'd take 6 months to read War & Peace, 3 months to read Anna Karenina, and then finish out with Resurrection, The Kreutzer Sonata, and Hadji Murad. And heck, a year of Dickens would be kinda cool, too. I mean, cool in a completely geeked out way.

But really: what did you expect from a guy who calls himself a British Adventuress?

Monday, June 26, 2006

A Postscript

While Clyde Roper is, and shall always be, dead to me -- Steve O'Shea is not. I enjoyed a lovely email exchange with Mr. O'Shea.

In the future, just know that Steve O'Shea is reponsible for all goodness and light in the world. He's the reason your skin's a little softer, your hair's a little shinier, and you always smell, just faintly, of baked goods.

He's that good.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Internet is Weird

So, once upon a time Clyde Roper was Dead to Me and I wrote about it here. In doing so, I also wrote the following about fellow cephalopod researcher Steve O'Shea:
    Also, at the time, there was this cocky young upstart on the Giant Squid scene named Steve O'Shea who was trying to push Clyde out of the way with his fancy new science and his New Zealand accent and I wanted to show Clyde that when the revolution came, I had his back.

Some background that'll be helpful in a minute. I've never met Steve O'Shea, who sounds lovely and Irish even though he lives in New Zealand -- which doesn't mean he can't still be Irish but if you're like me and you hear, say, an O'Something, you've got a brogue running through your head and if you hear Steve O'Shea speak you won't necessarily hear one because again: New Zealand. Furthermore, he will not show you where he keeps his Lucky Charms.

I learned about Steve O'Shea sort of accidentally back in 2002 when I first wrote my fan letter to Clyde Roper, who is Dead to Me. While I'm not obsessed enough about giant squid to jump in a submersible and make fish noises to lure one close, I am fascinated by the idea that, for a long time, there were these giant creatures that we knew existed but had never seen alive. It tickled that Monster in the Closet part of me. So, while looking for Clyde Roper's email address, and looking for more information on Architeuthis (that's scientific for "giant squid"), I learned about this "cocky young upstart" -- and actually, there seemed to be more Google hits on Steve O'Shea than on Clyde Roper, who is now Dead to Me.

"They're trying to freeze Clyde out," I said; "They" being the nefarious and mysterious Giant Squid Cartel; and calling him Clyde without the surname because even though we hadn't yet met, and at the time he wasn't Dead to Me, I just knew he and I would be fast friends. 'Course, I had only seen Clyde Roper on one Discovery Channel special -- but I was immediately charmed by the man with the mutton chops who sounded like a mix of the guy who shilled for Pepperidge Farm brand cookies ("Pep'ridge fahm remembahs!") and Jen's grandmother on Dawson's Creek ("Oh, Jennifah").

But I digress.

In retrospect, of course, it's odd how fiercely protective I became of a man who would eventually be Dead to Me. If I knew then what I knew now-- but who has time for that kind of past-living, right? Anyway, I wrote the entry that I already linked to that details my encounter with Clyde Roper and in doing so I wrote a bit about Steve O'Shea, and because the Internet is huge and because the Internet is weird, Steve O'Shea commented on my LiveJournal post. Here.

    "Also, at the time, there was this cocky young upstart on the Giant Squid scene named Steve O'Shea who was trying to push Clyde out of the way with his fancy new science and his New Zealand accent and I wanted to show Clyde that when the revolution came, I had his back"

    Hmmmm. Steve here - no joke! I'm not that cocky you know, and I'm certainly not an upstart.

    What a strange post you made; I must admit that I had a good laugh at some of the things said therein.

    Sometimes you do get 20-30 messages a day, especially when a documentary airs; following the release of a new documentary you can receive several hundred messages daily. In Clyde's defence it is not always possible to respond to each and every one, especially if you are away for a week (or longer, as is often the case given we work in the field).

    I'm easy to track down online; perhaps you should drop a line and see if I respond. I'd hate to be referred to as "Steve O'Shea, who is dead to me"

I freaked out last night for about 20 minutes.

First off, I'm surprised when anyone I don't know finds my writing online. The Internet is so huge and I'm just some guy in Rockville with a shoddy modem (thanks, Comcast!) and a chair from which to write. But then sometimes weird things happen on the Internet, and sometimes you send Gregory Maguire an email which he treats as hate mail (all I said was, "Are you kidding me? A musical? Out of Wicked? I know you're gay; I'm gay; we're both gay -- but do you have to be that gay?" And he got all snotty with the reply: "I'm sure you can find any number of other things to do when Wicked is playing in a town near you.") and sometimes Steve O'Shea reads your LiveJournal and finds out that you've used both the words "cocky" and "upstart."

I'll send Steve an email. I'll apologize for the "cocky" and the "upstart" and the "new science" -- and explain that it was mostly in service of the joke. But I wanted to write about it here because (a) it was pretty awesome once I calmed down and realized that not only did Steve O'Shea read my journal, but he also said it was pretty funny. (My most attractive traits? Low self-esteem and a need for constant praise). 'Course, he did start that section off by saying, "What a strange post you made." Still: I'll take self-worth from anyone who wants to hint at it. And (b) maybe now Lior Ashkenazi might, you know, stop by. For a visit. Some time when Zach's not home.

I'm just saying.


I don't know where this is going, or I kinda know where this is going. I guess what I don't know is what I'm trying to accomplish with it. It's not done. But here's the beginning of a dialogue I started writing yesterday.

Before we get to it, though, here's the thing: Almost everything I write starts out as a dialogue. I'm not especially skilled with the expository stuff, and I even feel bogged down by adding in the he said and the then she replied stuff. But I don't think of the things I write as plays, even though when you sit down and look at it -- like, when you finally get a chance to look at today's offering -- you'll say to yourself, "You know, Mike, this looks an awful lot like a play."

Maybe stories that are told completely in dialogue will instead be my thing. At least for now. Like, how Picasso went through his blue period, or John Ford and his westerns. Folks will one day see a piece of mine and be able to recognize it simply because it takes the following shape.

Or, it's early on a Sunday and I'm feeling a little too big for my britches.

Anyway, the piece:

    Her: "Oh."

    Him: "Hi."


    "Yes. I know. 'In the flesh'."



    "A little. Actually, a lot."

    "I get that all the time."





    "It's just."


    "I thought you'd be...”


    "Um, yeah? I mean, is that terrible? I feel terrible."

    "It’s not my favorite thing to hear."

    "In the, you know—- in the paintings and in church. You look. Uh. Trim? –mer?"

    "Well, I was a lot younger then. Metabolism. You can't keep eating the way you ate at 33, you know, with all the bread, and—-"

    "Of course."

    "So, yeah. I'm biking though. Now. Places. I bike places, and cutting down on the carbs is making a huge difference. Or it will."

    "That's what I hear."

    "I mean, I'm not religious about it or anything. I'm not going to skip out on pasta just to make some kind of dietary point, you know? What do you do?"

    "Do? You mean, like, for fitness?"

    "Well, you've got a –- I mean, I don't want this to get weird -– but you've got a great little body there. Really tight."


    "I mean it. You're what? 30? 31?"


    "You'd never know it. I missed most of my 30s. By most, I mean 'the rest of' my 30s."


    "And when I see someone with a pretty nice body, fit, I like to ask, you know? You run? Cross-train? I hear cross-training's great."

    "I guess I walk, mostly. There's a gym here, in my building, but I rarely go."

    "It sounds so convenient."

    "I know. But there’re a lot of old people, and they turn the TV up really loudly."

    "I hate that."

    "Right? I mean, God bless 'em for getting out there and moving—-"

    "'But you're 95 years old, and there's no getting around that.'"

    "And 'Good Morning America' really isn't news, you know? It's the General Foods International Coffee of news. It's that nasty Irish Cream creamer that doesn't need to be refrigerated."

    "The hazelnut's not so bad."

    "Are you kidding me?"

    "I mean, not all the time of course. That stuff's gotta be bad for you. But if I want a hint of flavor, something to get rid of that coffee taste, the hazelnut's not so bad. Or the French vanilla. You drink it black?"

    "Maybe a splash of milk, maybe. But yeah, for the most part, I just take it plain from the pot. And by the time I’ve had my morning coffee, I’d really just like to get down to the gym and get it done, only I can't because Dorothy, Rose, and Blanche have to watch Diane Sawyer talk about the dangers of hip replacement. At 200 decibels."

    "And finally, you're just all 'Die already!'"




    "That was awkward, right? You can tell me."

    "It's not what I’d necessarily expect from you."

    "I was just in the moment, you know. We seemed to have a rhythm going there, with the repartee, and—- yeah. That was mostly just--"


    "But a little funny. Right?"

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Dear Modern Library Classics,

I've never read [redacted]. In fact, there's a lot of Dickens that I never bothered to read. While browsing for a copy of Oliver Twist, I instead picked up your edition of [redacted]. I liked the cover. I liked the heft. I liked it for all the wrong reasons, really. Still, I bought it and I started it yesterday and it's fantastic and why did you guys think it would be okay to spoil the whole book in the second footnote?

Sorry. I meant to build up to indignation.

But yeah. I'm reading along, loving the book, and thought, "Hm. There doesn't appear to be any end notes." I'm not a Dickens scholar. I like a good endnote. I checked the back and saw that there were endnotes, just no notation of them in the text. "I guess I just wait until I feel confused," I thought, "and then I flip to the back and hope >crosses fingers< that my question will be answered."

I skimmed over the notes that I missed, and that's how I found out the [redacted] of [redacted] dies. In a footnote. The second footnote.

Why you gotta be that way, Modern Library Classics?

I was already a little annoyed that Jonathan Lethem was writing the introduction. It's not your fault he sucks; but you did choose him, and y'all'd done such a great job when you picked Mona Simpson to write the introduction to Anna Karenina (seriously: it's my favorite introductory essay ever, because Simpson seems to have actually read the book, and actually loved the book, and it's like a beautiful love letter from one reader to another). And then, I was a little annoyed that there weren't any notations for end notes. And then (and now I sound insufferable, don't I?), I'm told that [redacted] dies.

You could argue, of course, that Dickens tells us that [redacted] dies when he writes, "in which my little friend and I parted company," in the introduction. But if you're a first-time reader of [redacted], like I am, then it may not necessarily be clear who the "little friend" could mean. It could mean [redacted], sure, but the book's eleventy million pages long and who knows who Dickens may have befriended while writing?

I already treat all the Introductions of classic novels as Afterwards, since invariably they'll write something like-- (I was going to give an example of a spoiled novel, like reveal the plot of The Woman in White or East Lynne, but I've decided to be the better person in this correspondence just in case maybe you haven't read The Woman in White or East Lynne)-- they'll write something that spoils the whole book by revealing the ending or a key plot twist because people who write Introductions, apparently, are sort of bastards who want to show how well-read they are.

But that's not my point. My point is, I should not know in the second footnote that someone -- like, someone in the title of the novel -- dies. I don't know if you can make that a policy or something. But it sure would make reading a more comfortable experience.


Michael Bevel
Book Lover
British Adventuress

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


There was a point last night, at the end of the first paragraph of "The Beginning of Everything," where I realized I had nine more pages to read aloud in front of a group of people clearly not interested in the short story form.

That moment lasted 19 years.

In trying to find other open mic venues at which to perform, I stumbled upon one that was happening yesterday at the Golden Flame Restaurant & Lounge in Silver Spring.

A mini-scene:

    MIKE: Um, yeah. Hi. I'm here for the-- is this where the Open Mic night is?

    WAITER: Mike?

    MIKE: Yes.

    WAITER: [speaks Spanish to another waiter using words like donde and maybe the word for idiot; other waiter answers; turns to me] There's no Mike here.

    MIKE: Are you? No: not Mike, like, "My name is Mike." I mean Open Mic?

    WAITER: No. No Mike here. Maybe tomorrow.

    MIKE: Right. It's just-- what I. I have this paper, and it says that there's an open mic night here, tonight.

    WAITER: May I see this paper?

    MIKE: Sure. See, right there: "Open Mic."

    WAITER: Would you like to see a menu?

As far as why I bombed like Nixon with the flop-sweats -- there are a lot of reasons. For one, I haven't really practiced reading this one aloud. In fact, I think Zach's the only one who has heard any of it. For another, it runs right around 12 minutes. Time being relative, turns out 12 minutes is actually two lifetimes when you're in the corner of a lounge reading a piece you haven't really practiced to a group of people who aren't responding at all.

I mean, at all.

It's not exactly a laugh-out-loud piece, "The Beginning of Everything." But there are some funny moments. The only part that got a chuckle? Cat poop. The stuff about the cats and the suppositories, that made them laugh. Well, chuckle. Actually, someone may have sneezed and I'm choosing to count that as a laugh because I am desperate for people to like me.

I wish there was a way to give you the entire experience. How I never looked up once from the paper. How the microphone made my voice sound completely other -- like David Sedaris with a headcold. And normally I get compliments on my speaking voice. But my throat felt tight the entire time, and I wasn't breathing, or rather, I did breathe, but never at the right time, and I couldn't stop feeling dizzy and my right knee literally began knocking in and out of joint and wow I mean Wow you know WOW.


Oh, and the most awesome part of all? This exchange with a cute/geeky attorney while waiting to be called to go up to read:

    MIKE: Did you bring anything to read?

    CUTE/GEEKY ATTORNEY: What? No. No. I don't read.

    MIKE: You're illiterate? And still passed the bar? That explains so much about our legal system.

    CUTE/GEEKY ATTORNEY: Nice. No: I mean, I don't read stuff in front of people. My stuff isn't really "read aloud" stuff.

    MIKE: Gotcha.

    CUTE/GEEKY ATTORNEY: And it's so painful, sometimes, to hear someone reading who clearly shouldn't be.

    MIKE: I know. Just because you're a good writer, or you've written a good piece, doesn't mean you can actually read what you've written.

    CUTE/GEEKY ATTORNEY: What are you reading?

    MIKE: This short story I wrote.

    CUTE/GEEKY ATTORNEY: I'm really looking forward to it.

Ah, unintentional irony: I've found thy sting.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Watch Me Read

In the Washington D.C. area? Wanna hear a live reading of "The Beginning of Everything"? I'll be reading at the Bethesda Writer's Center on Sunday, June 25. Or maybe you've got something you want to read out loud to an audience of mostly mentally ill poets? Sign-up's at 1:30PM, the reading itself starts at 2:00PM, and the Crazy Cat Lady will no doubt be there for the whole thing. Her Serial Killer Man Servant? Who can tell.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

For those that pay attention to such things, I'm a Libran -- which is supposed to herald the fact that I like balance and order in my life. (If you're like me, and hold no truck with this astrology shit, it really just means I was born in late September, and I got to spend my birthdays surrounded by classmates who couldn't care less that I was the birthday boy that day.) My mom tells stories of watching me cry in the mornings after she had laid a whole outfit's-worth of clothes and I wouldn't know where to start. Or how I would cry when presented with a dinner with more than two things on my plate; again, because I wouldn't know where to start. Or how coloring books and crayons made me anxious; it was too exhausting trying to make sure all colors were used evenly and fairly. This might have been easier had I only had one of those slim, 8-color boxes. Mom, however, felt she had to overcompensate both for the divorce and the fact that I couldn't have a pony by buying the 64-color box with colors like "burnt sage" or "melba."

One year she got me the 96-color box, after she told me my dog Sunshine had to go live on a farm, and that was the worst year ever.

But crayons aren't the point here. Or not specifically the point. It's been something like 17 years since my last post -- which wasn't a post at all, really, it was a cut and paste of part of a story that I'd been working on. Nothing of substance. And, even though I don't believe in astrology, if it gives me a way out, I'll take it.

I'm not good at time management. If you're a former or current employer reading this then yes, I lied. I lied out my ass. I even lied out your ass: that's how much lying was going on. I don't multi-task. I don't time manage. And I also don't always work well as part of a team, appreciate a challenge, or honestly see myself going far in any profession. I'll stay at any given job as long as there are snacks and not too much is expected of me. Also: showing up on a regular basis? Might be considered "too much expected of me."

So, I'm not good at time management, and I've had some things going on. One of them being that story that I shared in dribs and drabs. For those of you who've read the two excerpts (a) thanks, as well as thanks for the notes and comments and plugs; (b) I've finally finished it, but I can't post the whole thing here, apparently, if I want it to get published elsewhere, so end-say e-may an email-ay (email-ay?) and I'll end-say ou-yay the ory-stay; (c) I've made a few changes, so the whole is different from its parts.

Writing the one story encouraged me to write some other stories, and I've been devoting a lot of time and thought to that. But apparently I can't write in a journal and write stories at the same time so well. And then, if you were to hand me a stick of gum in the middle of all that?

I also went through a 21st-century lit phase. The last 4.01 books I've read have all been written within the last 6 years -- which is something from a guy who pretty much only reads books with bustles and cads. I started off with Never Let Me Go, moved on to Oryx & Crake, barely finished White Teeth, actually finished When We Were Orphans, and finished by continuing my "I hate all Umberto Eco novels save The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum" by hating and not getting past page 30 of The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana -- a novel I knew was going to be trouble when I could never remember the title. I either called it The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane or The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

And finally, the biggest reason for not writing was I couldn't think of much to write. I was going to comment on a comment I received, where a man named Jim said of me: "Michael, you've gotta be the biggest idiot I've ever run into surfing the internet. Pompous, bitter, opinionated and downright moronic." I decided against it because I'm afraid someone will find someone even more of an idiot than I am on the internet -- and then yet another title will be stripped from me too soon.

We'll see what tomorrow brings, though.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Sneak Preview II

Here's the next section of the story I've been working on. I've titled it "The Beginning of Everything." Feedback would be cool, if you've got some.

    There was this woman, Sheila, and she was diagnosed with cancer. She worked in research, so I never saw her very often because her door was always closed. We’d see each other sometimes in the ladies’, but you can’t really talk in the ladies’. Or, rather, people shouldn’t talk in the ladies’. It’s frustrating, because I’m a talker, I like to talk, I like talking to people, and I don’t like talking in the ladies’, but then so many of the gals at work seem to want to have these tantalizingly short conversations in there, and I can’t really participate because. I just don’t want to talk to people while I’m, you know.

    People always checked on Sheila after her diagnosis. You’d hear them in the restroom: “How are you?” And that emphasized “you” meant so many other things than just how Sheila was right at that moment. They wanted to know all about Sheila, and they seemed greedy; they wanted to be the person showing Sheila the most empathy and the most concern. Sheila didn’t seem to care, though, that they were leeching off of her diagnosis. Sheila would smile and say, “Fine, thanks.” But not in a curt way. She really meant it. If I’m ever diagnosed with cancer, I’ll say “fine, thanks” the same way that Sheila did.

    Sheila died. That would be one reason why I wouldn’t necessarily want to be diagnosed with cancer the way that she was. And it was really frustrating, because to be honest, I got a little tired of all the attention everyone paid to Sheila. For instance, Craig brought in some candles his partner Mike made, aromatherapy candles he called them, to help calm Sheila down, he said, and it’s not like Sheila was suffering from nerves; she had cancer. And with Sheila out so much, what with going to the doctors and the chemo, I had to pick up some of her slack even though I’m in marketing and she’s in research, and with all that extra work I’m really the one who needed some soothing candles to help with stress. I had even hinted around many times when Craig had brought in those candles, how they were awfully pretty and they smelled fantastic and that it would be nice to have a couple on my desk because it can get a little stale smelling in there late in the afternoon; our windows don’t open. And then, when Craig got my name for the Secret Santa, I thought for sure he’d give me some of those candles. He got me Dilbert stationery instead, and I don’t even like Dilbert. Is it supposed to be funny? Because I don’t get it.

    Sheila died, and it was like she never died, because no one seemed to be moving on because even though she wasn’t there, everyone still asked, “How are you?” “How are you?” Which would make sense if the people asking were asking other people with cancer, but they weren’t. Scott didn’t have cancer, even with all those moles he has, yet because he sat in the office next to Sheila’s, everyone really seemed to care about how Scott was doing. And Scott was fine; we were all fine. I was fine, but nobody asked me “How are you?” so I couldn’t tell anyone. But they’d ask each other because they couldn’t ask Sheila, I mean they could ask Sheila but that would be pretty weird. After my mom had her stroke she’d stand in the kitchen and talk to my stepdad who’d died a couple years earlier.

    I didn’t realize so many people knew Sheila because like I said, she worked in research and her door was always closed, but I saw a lot of people really weepy around the office. We even closed for her memorial service. I went, but I left early, because it was a Friday and I didn’t want to get caught in traffic. Besides, it seemed like everyone only cared about how people who knew Sheila were doing, and I didn’t know her all that well because her door was always closed and I didn’t want to chat her up in the ladies’ room, but if someone had asked me how I was, I’d have told them. It would have been nice. “I’m hanging in there,” I would have said. “Each day is a little easier than the one before.”

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Reading: Oryx & Crake

Sometime in 2002, someone must have bought Margaret Atwood a DVD player and a DVD. "This, this is surely the future," Ms. Atwood most likely muttered. She then wrote the pretty aggressively mediocre Oryx & Crake, where DVDs and CD-ROMs make several appearances.

Atwood wants to be a futurist in the way Tom Wolfe wanted to be an anthropologist of early-adult sexuality in I Am Charlotte Simmons. Both fail, because both are 200 years old and stopped being especially relevant when they saw the new century on the horizon. Wolfe tried to warn us, breathlessly, that freshmen in college were having sex -- in case you didn't know or weren't paying attention or were currently fellating a 19-year-old frat boy and couldn't be bother to stay au courant. Atwood wants us to know that she's got her fingers on the pulse of the new technology: DVDs, CD-ROMs, websites, and online pornography.

This would be fine for both of them, were they writing their respective novels in, say, 1985. However, it's 2006. DVDs slipped into the mainstream in 1999. And as far as poor Tom Wolfe: if you haven't had sex with a 19-year-old, it's because you haven't tried.

Oryx & Crake is another dystopian novel from Maggie Atwood, one that, according to the front cover blurb from The New Yorker, "does Orwell one better." It's insights like that that could push The New Yorker into the ranks of Atwood and Wolfe if it isn't careful (especially if it doesn't tell Anthony Lane that snarky comments are witty and fun when you're drunk, gay, and Truman Capote filling in for Oscar Wilde; however, maybe you could just review the fucking film and save the bon mots for the Dick Cavett show). The only way Atwood's novel does Orwell one better is in page length. Orwell ends his morality play at 336 pages. Atwood keeps chugging along for about 40 pages more.

It's the future, and it sucks. Lots of genetic modifications have created new animals like pigoons and rakunks and whatever, Mags. Also, it's a time of cynaicism because too many companies are too interested in too much profit, and they do a lot of questionable things. There's a guy we meet at the beginning who calls himself "Snowman" who is really this guy named Jimmy. Jimmy, as a teen, befriends some kid named Glenn, who later calls himself Crake. And then, eventually, they all tuck into a tidy love triangle with a former underaged Asian whore named Oryx.

There are moments that are interesting, especially when Atwood describes the rationale behind some of the genetic modifications, and how these efforts bite everyone in the ass when there's no true infrastructure to keep track of who's done what to whatever. But mostly it's a plodding novel that shows how out of touch Atwood is with the current state of technology.

For instance, back to the DVD/CD-ROM thing. Ostensibly, when the novel deals with Snowman as a boy named Jimmy, it isn't 2003 (when the novel is published) -- it's much later. In this far-flung future, though, DVDs are still the cutting edge rave, even though DVDs as we know them are in serious trouble from DVR technology. Likewise, Jimmy thinks of CD-ROMs as old-school ways of getting information; however, again: no. At the rate technology is expanding, it would be like a kid from today preferring to get his info from papyrus scrolls or the occasional stone tablet. And it's those moments of technological disconnect that pulls the reader (and by "the reader" I mean "me") out of the novel.

And y'all? I'm a technological retard. For serious. When I feel smarter than a sci-fi novel? And I don't really understand how to program my cell phone? Then yeah: you've got some problems, Maggie Atwood.

In comparing Oryx & Crake to Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go -- it's no contest. Ishiguro, who has said in different interviews that he had no real interest in getting the science "right" in his novel, is a better futurist than Atwood could ever be. And he does this primarily by not over-explaining the future at all. By leaving the vagaries of the technology to the reader, he can instead focus on the interpersonal dramas -- which, as Tolstoy said, are both all alike and completely different for each family.

To remember back when Atwood was relevant and good, I recommend the following:

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Reading: Never Let Me Go

I was going to love living in the villa.

I was going to wear a lot of casual linen separates in warm earth tones that never wrinkled, or wrinkled artfully, but mostly never wrinkled. I was going to teach knitting on the veranda, and have a torrid affair with a young Italian who spoke no English and never wore shirts. I was going to take up painting, appreciate opera, finish my novel, and pretend my days in America were all an uncomfortable dream.

I was truly going to love living in the villa. But for a while it looked like I wasn't going to get to. Because I wasn't liking Never Let Me Go.

Then, I read the last 10 pages.

I don't know that it's a great novel. It's not better than his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, or my personal favorite, The Unconsoled. And seriously, up until those last several pages -- I wasn't loving this book the way I was expecting to.

But man, those last pages.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Reading: I Am Legend

Actually, I'm reading something like four books at the moment -- something I rarely do. I get too easily confused, and can't for the life of me figure out what the Podsnaps from Our Mutual Friend are doing in the Oblonsky's household.

In high school, I wrote a paper once about how the treacherous Arabella was a far more sympathetic character than Jude Fawley or Sue Bridehead. This would have been fine if we weren't supposed to be reading The Mayor of Casterbridge at the time. Too many books confuse me.

And yet, here I am, ankle deep in too many books. I'm at the exact middle of Our Mutual Friend, and have taken my own advice. Dickens and I are on a little bit of a break. It's not that the novel isn't good; it's that the novel is a little too much Dickens all at once. I've started not caring about the characters all that much, and that's a bad place to be with Dickens, since he's short on shortness, and I'll be with these folks for a while longer. In the hopes of absence making the heart grow fonder, I've jotted some notes down on my bookmark about where I am and what I've read and have set it aside for a book or two.

Next up is White Teeth by Zadie Smith. This is our June book for my book group, and it's great. However, my memory's like a sieve, and since we're not meeting until June 14 (PS: in the area? Want to talk books with a bunch of wicked smart people in the comfort of the Bethesda Barnes & Noble? You should totally come) I figured that I'd put it aside for a moment, next to Chuck, and save it for closer to the book group so that it's still fresh in my mind when I have to argue with Karen "Au contraire!" L.

Then Doppelganger over at 50 Books wrote about Kazuo Ishiguro's newest book, Never Let Me Go, and mentioned that "our chances of all retiring peaceably together in a villa in Florence are resting on" my liking the book. And since I love Doppelganger, villas, Florence, and the idea of retirement -- I figured I'd better give it a go. It's no The Unconsoled; but I keep reminding myself that The Unconsoled was no The Unconsoled when I first started reading it. It baffled me and bored me in frustrating ways until I realized what was happening, and then I spent the rest of the novel feeling uneasy and a little disoriented. It's now one of my favorite books.

And finally, because I'm in a weird spot right now with the Ishiguro, I found myself breaking -- yet again -- my "Mike Buys No New Books in 2006" rule by buying a new book in 2006: I Am Legend. If you're going to buy it -- and I think you should -- do so now, before the movie tie-in covers start showing up. They've cast Will Smith.

I love vampire novels. Really. I mean, yeah, I love the Victorians more, and my desktop at home is an image of this guy and my desktop at work is an image of this guy -- my secret love, though, is a good novel of the blood-subsisting undead.

Let's be clear up front, though: I don't like Anne Rice. I may have enjoyed Interview with a Vampire -- but that was back when I was in 7th or 8th grade. I find her too rococo and baroque; she's the unbearable lovechild of Charles Dickens and William Faulkner. There's also a woman out there writing vampire slayer novels with an urban kick and I've read the first chapter of one of her novels and again: no. That's not what I want. I want vampires. And I want it to be good.

Here's a list of the vampire novels I've read thus far. Or, at least the ones I remember reading because I've read a lot of them. They're in no order:

  • Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (I'm not linking to it because it's awful)
  • The Journal of Abraham Van Helsing (again: not linking)

And now that I've listed them, I guess there haven't been too many. I've read three of the Anne Rice books -- but there is bitter enmity between Anne Rice and me, so I'm not listing her either. Still, I do love them -- and I'd like to read good ones.

Can anyone help a British Adventuress out? What are some good vampire novels you've read, or know about? I like I Am Legend for the most part. I think he ended it too soon, and I didn't really understand what happened at the end until I'd re-read it a couple times over. (There's a lot of confusion over a virus and who, exactly, is infected and who's undead.) So, I'd like something in the same vein (ha ha) as Legend. I don't want the vampires to be sexually ambiguous, or metaphors for queer identity. The vampires can be the heroes or they can be the antagonists, or they can be all the characters and there's infighting. I'm just looking for a good, solid, vampire novel. That shouldn't be too much to ask for.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Not Kissing

I didn't kiss Zach this evening, on the corner by the Original Pancake House. I was walking to Barnes & Noble and he was going to the gym and we had just watched The Celluloid Closet and it was too public somehow and I didn't kiss him when we parted ways.

Zach and I have been together five years; well, five years this July. Through sickness and through health, through mini-meltdowns and through petty triumphs, he's my guy and I'm his and all it takes is something like a corner on a busy street to make us part like buddies. "Catch you later, friend." "You, too, pal." "We'll catch that game sometime." "Splendid."


What makes it keenly ironic is how much I was marveling over how far the gays have come. We're on the television, now, fixing up straight guys and hosting American Idol. We're in movies and we have our own magazines -- magazines that don't even come in plain brown envelopes; real magazines these are with those awful and ubiquitous subscription cards that come fluttering out like desperate confetti: "TIME'S RUNNING OUT!!!" "JUST THREE MORE ISSUES!!!" "Don't you like us any more?" We've come so far, and my mom made me a rainbow flag blanket, and sure we can't marry but even the Red Staters like their hair done well -- so it's not like they'll get rid of the gays all together.

And yet, I still sometimes don't feel safe kissing my boyfriend on a street corner before we head off to do our different things.

And it's not like I was even going for one of those inappropriate kisses. There was going to be no tongue. No open fondle and manic grind. A peck on the lips is all; something that says, "Hey, I'll miss you, but in a totally healthy way." A little more than a kiss-your-mother, but not so much where we'd need a fluffer standing by.

I feel guilty sometimes, complaining like this. Time was, no man could kiss any man who wasn't his dead father any time any place. Time was, it was you and Randy Quaid up on Brokeback Mountain, keeping secrets that become more impossible and more important to keep (because let's face it: cowboys never look like Jake Gyllenhaal or Heath Whatever -- cowboys do look like Randy Quaid, and it's him spittin' in his palm before stemming your rose in the real world of Wyoming and sheep and tents that sleep two). Time was, we lived lives of quiet desperation or furtive loathing -- unloved and untouched.

I'm just frustrated that I can't kiss my boyfriend on a street corner. And this frustration is, to use a phrase Susie Bright used in the documentary, like having fleas poured over me: the irritation is too much. We've progressed, but to where? We've made important strides, but where are those strides taking us? We live in a different world, they tell me, but so much of it still looks pretty familiar. We've come so far -- but we haven't mapped the country we're trying to get to.

And in that country, I'm sure, there's a street corner by an Original Pancake House and I'm on my way to Barnes & Noble and Zach is on his way to the gym and it's public and people can see us and some of them look and most of them don't and none of them care or if they do, they only care that on that street corner I stop, hold Zach's face, and give him a kiss.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Like most patriotic Americans of non-Latino extraction, I spent Cinco de Mayo drinking nine margaritas, doing shots, and then taking pictures of necking Koreans on my way home on the Metro.

¡Viva la Revolucion! Seriously.

In the process, and after the photo shoot, I lost my phone. Only, not so much "lost" as much as "drunkenly left it on the seat beside me, laughing at my subterfuge" because I totally thought I was teh sneakness in snapping pictures of the unwitting kissing couple. Oh, and PS: they were the weirdest kissers ever. Play along:

Take your right hand, make it into a fist, and that's the guy. Now, tilt your head back and close your eyes. That's the girl. Now, place your fist-head against your lips (remember: head tilted back and eyes closed) and remain absolutely still. Then, remain absolutely still for, like, 8 minutes.

Anyway, I get home, realize that I don't have my phone when I try to show my Ansel Adams mad-skillz off to Zach, and call T-Mobile customer service. They turn the phone off. They tell me I have a month in which to find my phone or get a replacement, or terrible things will happen because I'm in breach of my contract or something. I'm drunk. I say, "Whatever." (It comes out, "Goddammit, do you even get how much I love you right now?") Zach makes me drink many glasses of water and I go to bed.

The next week, I go to the Metro site, I fill out a lost-and-found form, and am utterly unsurprised when I get an immediate message back saying that nothing has been reported that matched the description I gave. And I was embarrassed in leaving the description, because the screen that shows up when you flip open my phone? Zach, giving me the finger. And this might be funny and cool when you're, what, 19? But I'm 33 years old. I should never have to type the phrase "my boyfriend flipping me the bird." We're not even supposed to know what the bird is anymore.

I gave the report a week, though, in case someone turned it in later. I suppose I could have actually gone to the Metro Lost and Found -- but I have no idea where that is, and Metro isn't too free with sharing that information. Besides, lost-and-founds just depress me. "I bet you someone really loved that Confederate flag belt buckle." I entertained a slivered hope that maybe I'd be on the train that I was on when I lost the phone, and there it would be -- dim from the lost charge, but mine. And of course, that didn't happen.

So today, I call T-Mobile. The guy confirms that yes, my phone has been reported stolen. He then asks me to -- and I am not kidding -- take a look at the phone and tell him the make and model. "I'm sorry?" I said. "It's to identify the phone, and make sure you have the right phone for the account."

"Yeah, I get it. Do you think, though, that if I had the phone in my hand so's I could look at the make and model number, you and I would be having this conversation?"

"Well, sir, it's just-- ooh."

"You with me?"



Then, before he'll transfer me to the Lost Phone department, he wants to talk about how my plan is working. "It's a great plan you've got," he said.

"I bet you say that to all the boys."

"No, our 700 minute Family Plan is very popular. With families."

"We've never even come close to using our 700 minutes."


"Yeah. It's not a great deal for us at all."

"Have you thought about calling more people on your phone?"

"I'm sorry?"

"You know, it just seems like you're not using your phone to its full advantage."

"Are you suggesting that it's not my phone plan that's failing me, but that I'm failing my phone plan?"


"Just transfer me to Lost Phones."

So I'm transfered to Lost Phones. I have to wade through a morass of button pushing to get to the right department. Finally, I get to press 1 for lost or stolen phones. Then, I'm asked to have my police report handy. "That must be for the folks who have had their phones stolen," I think. Then I'm prompted to press 2 if I don't have a police report. And since it was my own drunken stupidity, and not, say, the nefariousness of the criminal underworld that caused my phone to go bye-bye -- I pressed 2.

I was given instructions on how to file a police report. I was offered those instructions in Español. I hit # repeatedly until I got a live person on the phone. He asked my name, and he was helpful right up until he asked for my police report number.

"I don't have one."

"Oh, well, Mike Bevel, I can give you some information on how to go about--"

"But my phone wasn't stolen."

"Oh, I know, Mike Bevel."

"So, why would I have to file a police report?"

"Because it's missing."

"But I don't know that we have to get the police involved."

"It's not a problem, Mike Bevel. You'll just need to call the non-emergency number for your local police, and then file a report. They'll give you a badge number or they'll give you the report number. Then you just ca--"

"Are you serious?"

"We take this very seriously, Mike Bevel."

"Please stop saying my name."

"I'm sorry Mi-- sir."

"So, rather than just sending me a new phone and honoring the insurance agreement I have where I pay you guys $5 a month, you want me to call the police, file a report because I lost something, get a badge or report number, and then call you back?"
"You can probably take care of all of this today."

I hung up. I called the police non-emergency number, and she told me to call the Metro police, and the Metro police were not available then, but if I wanted to go to one of the Metro stations, they'd call a Metro police officer to come and take my statement.

"You can't just--"

"No, sir."

"Because all I need is--"

"No, sir."

"Okay, then."

And that's where things are left.

Man, Knitting

Guys, patriarchy sucks. No, seriously.

I forget, sometimes, about patriarchy because I'm kind of part of it. The gay thing keeps me from being an MVP in the club -- but because of a decided lack of fabulousness in my life, I'm not often pegged for queer right off the bat. I'm an unwitting beneficiary of a pretty crappy system.

That is, until I pull out my knitting.

I'm never been more aware of my gender than when I've been somewhere public and started working on my stockinette stitch. All of a sudden, I feel like I'm breaking every rule, only not in a cool way with Europe blaring The Final Countdown (which, PS, has the longest intro ever and just when you think the over-permed lead singer is about to belt out the opening lyrics he totally fakes out, purses his lips, and makes you wait a little longer. He'll definitely be part of my thesis) in the background. I feel exposed and a little unsafe -- which is another side-effect of patriarchy because hi: I'm just a guy with some yard and I feel unsafe? Try being a woman walking to her car at night, Mike, and then come talk to us all about this "unsafe" of which you speak.

But there it is. I feel my masculinity challenged when I'm sitting in public, knitting one and purling two. And it's not like I'm all that aware of my masculinity to begin with, especially after sitting in the living room last night with Stephen Sondheim's Finishing the Hat on auto-repeat. I have to do that kind of music listening alone and in secret, lest Zach hear it and fly into a Sondheim-induced rage. And maybe that's the trick: public vs. private in regards to "masculinity" and "femininity." For the most part, I'm very careful, even without really thinking about it, with my perceived masculinity. Zach and I aren't terribly demonstrative in public; I wouldn't ever blast Sunday in the Park with George loudly from a boom box at a bus stop. I was breaking my own self-regulated rule, thus breaking the much larger patriarchy-induced rule. And it made me anxious.

This means I have to knit more in public.

Gloria Steinam said she believed that an army of quiet, gray-haired women would quietly take over the world. I expect those quiet, gray-haired women are going to need things like hats and scarves. We'd best get started.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Reading: Our Mutual Friend

I have been reading Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens for the last 27 years. You'll say I'm exaggerating, but seriously: every time I try to think back to a reading memory, it's me and 800+ pages of people who skim the Thames for dead bodies from which to pilfer.

Some misconceptions, first, to clear up about Little Chuckie Dickens:

  • He didn't get paid by the word. It's fun to gripe about in 11th grade English when you're wading your way through Great Expectations and you want to sound like you know something about literature -- but it's just not true. He wasn't paid by the word; he was paid by the installment. And fine: you say tomato, I say tomahto.

  • Dickens wasn't meant to be read in one sitting. He wrote serially. The best way to read Dickens is probably in the installments they were published as. One of the reasons Zach and I won't watch 24 is because we tried to catch up on season 1 via DVD and found it all too thrilling. First, there were no commercials; then, there was nothing stopping us from watching five episodes in a row. "I can't do this anymore," said Zach, shakily wiping the film of sweat that had appeared on his forehead. "He's gonna have to save the world without us." It's similar, though with less Kiefer, with Dickens. Each installment is an episode, so when you try to read the whole thing is a few sittings, you'll start to notice some of the weaknesses of serial writing. The writing and storytelling can seem baggy and unstructured -- and in some cases they are. Reading and enjoying Dickens means developing a sense of patience.

  • Dickens is both as great and as frustrating as everyone has told you. I'm not saying that settling down with Bleak House or Dombey and Son won't take you eleventy one years to finish, or that you won't find yourself reading anything other than Dickens in the middle just to give yourself a mini-reprieve (ask me anything about Honey Nut Cheerios -- anything). But give him a chance and he'll charm you, make you laugh out loud, make you fall in and out of love, frighten you, overwhelm you, and make you remember why you love reading. He's not fortified with 9 vitamins and iron, though. But that's not his fault.

This is the last conversation Zach and I had about Our Mutual Friend:

MIKE: I don't know. I think the little dwarf girl, Fanny Cleaver, who calls herself Jenny Wren, is up to no good.
ZACH: If I leave you, please know that it's your books that drove me away.
MIKE: She makes clothes and funeral shrouds for dolls.
ZACH: Tell the kids...tell them I love them. I'm off for a pack of cigarettes.
MIKE: Oh, she's also a hunchback.