Cafe Racers & King of the Fish People

Here are two story-starts I worked on this semester. I don’t see a bright future for either, but I might come back and tinker with the lengths. I’m a very slow writer, and publishing is a very slow business, but I’d like to have something on the blog. So, here are two short pieces I’ve had fun writing. Not all my work is this incomplete! Just the stuff I’m allowed to publish myself (because of The Industry).

Thank you for reading. Your encouragement keeps me writing bigger, longer, more exciting things.

 

Cafe Racers

I saw the café racers only once, a roaring pack cresting the dark empty street a half mile away. They are outcasts, scofflaw, champions of street justice on the empty city streets. The 3 a.m bar door closed behind me and I stood on the sidewalk, wobbly and starving for salty foods. Then I heard it. The sounds came from far away, carrying from almost a mile away up the street where no cars were out at this time of night. The pack came over the summit of the hill, each in a polished bright helmet that turned their heads into glossy beetles, striped creatures fresh from the undergrowth and out into the night. Their bodies were low and folded over the bikes, quick, angular things with stiff handlebars and paintjobs that matched every sexless rider’s outfit, as if rider and machine budded from the same exotic plant. There must have been forty riders altogether, speeding down Broadway as fast as they could in a huge coordinated swarm. I balanced on the sidewalk curb and held my hands out to feel the rush of air as the café racers zoomed past—BMWs, Moto Guzzis, Yamahas, one very rare Ducati—and it was over as soon as it began. In their wake, their collective smell traveled so fast I had to lunge into the road to catch the scent. There it was. Vinyl, gasoline, hot rubber, and a grab bag of other scents less powerful but more distinctive. Before I could identify them, they were gone.

I’m told it takes no effort to fall asleep. “Just lie on your back and close your eyes,” sleeping partners have instructed me over the years. But I have yet to sleep with, beside, or in the vicinity of someone cursed enough to face the same vertiginous experience of falling asleep. Nights of peak neurosis, I feel as if I am plunging toward my final sleep. Yet doctors have discovered no reason to believe I, at a healthy 30, will die unexpectedly and of natural causes. But this doesn’t help me at 1 a.m when my muscles are wound tight as steel cables and my brain is coked out on irrational fears. I grind my teeth all night, anticipating the next heartbeat in my ears will be my very last. When my jaw aches and my eyes sting from concentrating on the ceiling fan above my bed, the work to rebuild my life can begin.

My nightly routine includes a Wellness/Financial/Personality audit of my life to date. First on the agenda is Wellness, so I tap each tooth with my tongue to feel for stability and assess the status of my periodontal health. I pinch each of my fingers and toes to check for numbness in the tips and areas of potential instep pain. I grip my receding pelvic bones and vow to run the next morning, 5 a.m, no excuses this time. My hands hunt for lumps, scars, skin tags, and bruises, welcoming back the familiar textures and analyzing newcomers for threats. Everything usually checks out ok and I begin the stage two: Financial audit. This is the hour of multiplication and division, strategies to make more and spend less, analysis of the most recent items purchased. Did I really need a summer coat? What about food—that time I offered to pay for Lindsey’s drinks. That time I threw away half a tomato I swore I’d finish, what a waste. The financial audit is the most circular and ultimately pointless, so for me, it’s counting sheep. The only dramatic change I’ve ever made after a night of considering my monetary worth was returning the glass bottles with the $2 deposit that had sat in my kitchen for almost five years.

Neither of these audits compares to the Personality audit—the tedious and soul depleting task of digging up to examine with exhaustive scrutiny gunk and regret buried deep by time, maturation, and pure denial. Oh it’s in there, I know it. That girl I pushed into a hedge when she told me I had a rat tail, leaving my brother behind on the playground to be eaten by fire ants, lying to my family so often they took me to a priest. I experience an elliptical rotation from my morning attitude—I easily blame everyone else for my problems when the sun is in the sky. But this changes at night. What the hell is wrong with me, like, on a spiritual level? I think about dozens of relationships, broke apart or wasted, people irreparably damaged because I appear in their lives, exaggerated, mean, a fount of unfortunate behavior. There are two types of personality audit. Type A is the audit that lasts all night until I pass out twenty minutes before my alarm. Type B lingers through the following day, referencing all my bad decisions as I make new decisions in real time. I close my eyes in bed and try to wrap up the Personality audit. I picture everyone I’m too embarrassed to speak to ever again. All those eyes staring, waiting to approve a confession. By the time I’m finished, it’s almost 3 a.m and I’m free to think of other things.

I thought about Louise and her neighbors, Dorothy and Lloyd. According to Louise, Dorothy, from across the street, has “a Jehovah’s witness knock.” Three forceful raps and then she lets herself onto the screened in porch and raps again on the window. Louise told me she is either half clothed, working on her cobblers bench, or smoking pot, so she hides in the broom closet until Dorothy leaves her baked goods at the door. Wholesome things like apple cake and ginger cinnamon cookies. Louise says she suspects Dorothy watches for her to come home through her old lady curtains before she runs across the street to deliver more baked goods.

Her next door neighbor, Lloyd, is an old Confederate weirdo. For some reason, he has Louise’s number (some drama with the washer and dryer in their basement belonging to him, on a loan to the landlord, and some debt has not been paid in their tenure) and he will call Louise at times of the day when she is not prepared to take a call. “I seriously think this guy is on drugs. He calls me and talks my ear off about nothing.” Sometimes though, it’s about the neighbors. There’s only about six occupied houses on that off-path cul-de-sac. In one yard, a rebuilt 1985 Norton Commando sits tilted to the left on a kickstand. I imagine it will come to life with a “screech!” Lloyd says, in his mysterious way, “we all got each others’ backs out here, you know? You gotta look out for your neighbors around here like they kin.” Louise, who had just ingested a small amount of acid when Lloyd called, had no way to respond to this manifesto. Maybe if I imagine a conversation between Louise on acid and Lloyd on whatever Lloyd takes, I’ll tire myself out enough to fall asleep. The phone rings. Louise stomps over to the coffee table. Across the street, a curtain parts in the window. The phone rings again and she answers it just as she hears a loud rap against the door…

Jesus, stop.

I blink at the dark ceiling, awake. Where was I going with all this? I run my hands behind my neck and over my face, pressing palms against my eyes until the dark gives way to a bright red sky. I open my eyes and they adjust back to the black room. The neighborhood is quiet except for the inconsistent rustle of possums through dried leaves in the yard. The time is 3 o’clock. Some nights I try too hard to fall asleep and I never fall asleep. For years, I have been awake enough times at enough quiet hours to hear the café racers speeding down Broadway. It’s late February, but there had already been a series of warm days leading up to the weekend. I hear a motor scream, a high pitched roar that starts far away and continues for a long time after whatever passed was blocks away. But I never got out of bed to locate the source of the sound, or why it seemed to occur at the same time each evening when all the roads in Midtown should have been completely empty. I’m awake for so long, it’s just a matter of time before I hear the racers again.

If I’m still awake after I hear the café racers pass, I begin the auditing process all over again. Wellness: revisit the irregular lump behind my ear. Are you sure that isn’t a mole? What about the new dimple inside my thigh? I should start going to the gym. If I do fifty crunches a day for two weeks and run one mile a day at least three times a week, will I fit into the shorts I bought last year or will I overcompensate and get too tone for the tight cuffs around my thighs? Is that really an issue I’m worried about—getting too muscular for my clothes? Has this ever been a problem before in my life? God, what an ego. Might as well segue into the Personality audit from here. Why did I tell that stranger at the post office what kind of earrings I was wearing? Not everyone has been fortunate enough to own sapphires, even if those sapphires were a gift from my father before I even had my ears pierced. She looked at me like I was a god damn colonialist. Did my dad know I didn’t have my ears pierced? Was I about to get them pierced? What did he say to me when I opened the black velvet box on my 7th birthday? Something along the lines of: “Those belonged to your great grandmother, Penny King,” and smile at me, in one of his rare good moods the year before he and mom finally got a divorce, and his hair wasn’t fully gray that year and he still thought my brother might get the hang of the football team. And didn’t I, in this unexpected glimmer of compassion and family intimacy, say something like “Ok thanks for the old lady earrings, dad.”? I remember my father’s face falling to pieces two years later when I came home with a black eye and fat lip from a fight on the playground. “You’re too pretty to fight like that,” he said, even though he knew I had bucked every feminine convention thrown at me since my youth. Maybe that’s why he chose to give me earrings, these delicate blue sapphires set in soft white gold, dark and glittery in the right light, on late nights when I wear my hair to the side and lightly perfume the white tendon of my neck. How much could I get for those earrings if I sold them to the right buyer? Would I make enough for a car payment, a bag of food, or new glasses? How much do I have in the bank now? If I spent $22 on food last night and $18 on gas this afternoon, and the rent has gone through as of this morning, how much does that leave me until payday next week? I should cancel plans for the next five or ten days and sit at home, think about all the ways I’ve failed myself and the people I love in the daylight. That would be the polite thing to do.

The clock says 5 a.m and I am exhausted. Without warning, my thoughts shut down. Deep in the survival part of my brain, the switch turns off and I am able to sleep in jerking waves for about thirty minutes. I wake up at a time when the light feels lifted from a dream, and I hear an unexpected sound. Throttles. Revs. A sound like the road is peeling away from the ground. They return to the streets in another swarm and I leap from the bed. I fling open the window and lean out to bear witness their return. Once more, the café racers speed by, prodigal, mysterious, their long exhale a scream for atonement in the endless night.

 

 

King of the Fish People

Two carnival tents pop up on the wharf during the last weekend of summer, taking over the moldering boardwalk with creaky rides, grease traps, and gaunt ride operators whose exhausted yet skittish appearance made them seem neither dead nor alive. Low concrete dikes divide the water from the carnival grounds, supporting the considerable proliferation of goose barnacles and mussels adhered to the algae-slick surface. Here, the ocean surf carries carnival waste out into the open water, sweeping up sawdust and tickets and candy wrappers that are lost among the coastal isopods and predaceous worms. The temperature ascends to the mid-nineties and by the early afternoon, visitants of the carnival squeeze together inside one of the two tents, beneath the broad shade that covers pageantry as exciting as portrait painting elephants, acrobatic septuplets, and the Fish People.

The sawdust floor in front of the Fish People is mostly undisturbed, since their modest booth is placed unfavorably equidistant between the public restrooms and the pen of tattooed pigs. When the spectators come to the Fish People, they don’t know what they are, where they came from, or what they do, but they rarely stick around for the answers to these questions because the smell from the pig pen and the public restrooms is, understandably, unbearable. Fish People are patient and amiable, which comes in handy during long hot hours filled with pungent waiting. They need no supervision, no gregarious ringleader to whip aside a velvet curtain and broadcast the Fish People’s story to a crowd. They need no traveling hype man to communicate the difference between the Fish People and the rest of humanity. In fact, the Fish People can speak for themselves, although their language is muddled and flecked with unfamiliar vocabulary used to describe what we might consider negligible conditions of water and light. But they’re easy enough to understand if the listener is attentive.

The Fish People sit on uncomfortable folding chairs with their feet in an inflatable pool. There are three here today. At a distance, the Fish People resemble children, but as you approach, you begin to notice big differences between the Fish People and humans like you and I. Their bodies are squat, and their shoulders create a gentle slope connecting their necks to their torsos, cutting a shape like the soft peak of an egg. Their eyes, while on the front of their faces like a person, are slightly farther apart, giving the Fish People a countenance of perpetual surprise—even dimwittedness. But above their delicate, rubbery lips, their eyes can see just fine, and Fish People enjoy better peripheral vision than the average human. This is convenient underwater, because Fish People are able to move in a nonlinear swimming pattern the landlocked do not fully appreciate. The Fish People can live for periods of time on dry land, but after a while they are susceptible to sloth and depression, often gaining an obscene amount of weight in as little as a month. Most prefer to live in the water, but there are some who migrate onto land, searching for a better life under the rules of democracy and the free market.

Of the three Fish People at the carnival, one is a full-time land dweller. He left the ocean in his youth to start a business selling boat lacquer to seamen. He has become obese and a little depressed, but he has also become financially comfortable. People assume this Fish Person makes his sales by swimming under the boats that need new lacquer and performing his assessment up close, but he has not gone for a swim in the ocean since his younger days and, frankly, has no desire to return to the water. He is not married and never reproduced or cared for a domestic animal, but he has a compact car with internet radio that he upgrades once a year with his expendable income. The lacquer business has had a fine quarter. The Fish Person suspects changing sea temperatures are having a negative effect on the old boat lacquers covering most commercial vessels, and has toyed with the idea of launching his own line of lacquers designed to counter these effects—with a chemical obsolescence of around five years to keep demand high.

He has come to the carnival booth at the behest of his sister, the second Fish Person at the carnival. She remembers their youth together—her brother always stiff and rule abiding, but a great orator with an excellent memory for historical events. She is here at the urging of her son, who plucked a watery advertisement out of the surf and begged her to let him perform. She surrendered to his insistent pleas, but even after her brother agreed to provide the story for their show, she still cannot understand why he left the sea to become a lacquer salesman. She does not like to leave the water for too long. Sudden oppressive gravity is not a joy for everyone to experience, and she can already feel her mood falling as the day in the tent drags on. The third Fish Person, her son, is an inarticulate youth who performs the Fish People’s story in a costume woven of shells and sea grass, with a crown of dead starfish on his round head. Sea lice entwine in and out of the damp ensemble. Together the Fish People wait in their little booth for an audience, and when a timid family wanders over from the public bathrooms, the youngest Fish Person jumps out of the pool and sets the stage for action.

This is the story the Fish People tell in their muddled underwater language while the youngest performs a choreographed dance, donned in his salt-encrusted costume.

 

The King of the Fish People

Down below the turquoise waters there is a region that—from the point of view of a scuba diver or aquatic outsider—seems Utopian. Long shoots of eel grass outline the kingdom’s borders. Acres of dense coral colonies fade into cool blue drop offs and through underwater meadows of a rich green weed. Like the Fish People themselves, the kingdom is so idyllic and safe, it appears dull. When he came into power, the King of the Fish People ruled inside his tunicate guarded by sea urchins. Monarchy had been the way of the land, and the royal family’s influence seeped like oxygen into every part of daily life. But the altruistic king died at the fantastic old age of fifteen, leaving his draconian son in power. In his first afternoon on the anemone throne, the young king consumed the queen and all the amber eggs cemented to the royal nursery. He ordered the echinoderm army loose from behind bars—an ancient skeletal prison made from the carcass of an unlucky sea lion. The thirteen-armed starfish, now free to follow their only instinct, devoured the young and elderly Fish People with protruding stomach acids, capturing all they crawled across in their muscular arms. They leveled the kingdom in a few days, creeping silently along the ocean floors at night and raiding the once-protective corals with fleshy, destructive appendages. Here in the story, the young Fish Person flopped to his stomach and inched along the floor, nipping at the exposed ankles in the audience. Once the Fish King had destroyed the region and most of its population, he called patrol away from the borders and opened the kingdom to hunters. Raids and slaughters continued as rapacious predators got wind of the open season, and the Fish King capitalized on his immunity by offering up the newly raped land to violent carnivores who could make the region fearsome again.

Few Fish People survived the feeding frenzy that ensued, but the ones who escaped with their families to deeper waters were too ill-suited for the light and temperature changes to thrive. Refugees grew weak in the cold dark depths, or else washed up into tide pools and baked in the summer heat. A number of Fish People tried their luck on land in temporary relocation tents along the coastline. But these colonies suffered a failure of constitution, succumbing to the harsh gravity while grappling with the grief over their loss of a homeland. In the dusty dimmed light of the carnival tent, the young Fish Person slumped onto the ground and wept into the sawdust, then shot up and wheeled around to dance the disorienting imbalance grief exerts on a fragile spirit. He collapsed on the ground, shaking loose sea lice that skittered back into the pungent green folds of his costume.

The audience stood still, waiting to hear the end of the story. But the Fish People were quiet, and both audience and entertainers looked at one another with dumbfounded expressions, each awaiting a conclusion neither party knew to offer. Eventually, the timid family walked away, whispering on their journey to the tattooed pigs, who grunted in greeting as their first audience approached. The youngest Fish Person picked himself up off the ground and brushed the sawdust off his costume. At the end of the day, the lacquer salesman checked his watch and put on his coat, said a one word farewell to his sister and nephew, and made his way out to the car.

 

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About Annie Raab

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Procrastinating at your local natural history museum

ANNIE RAAB writes fiction and art criticism. Her work has been published in print and online, most frequently in Kansas City’s alternative weekly, The Pitch, where she was a regular contributor of arts journalism and reviews (2015-2018). She earned her BFA in Sculpture and Creative Writing at the Kansas City Art Institute, and is an MFA candidate in Fiction and Arts Leadership at Virginia Tech. Her art reviews, short fiction, criticism, and interviews have been published online and in print.

When she’s not writing fiction, Raab works with artists, galleries, and arts organizations by writing grants and securing funds to help support the continuation and success of a healthy visual art community.

Annie is primarily interested in cultural criticism, contemporary visual art, contemporary fiction, and working with students. She currently lives in Appalachia.

 

This work and more generously supported by:

Liaep

ArtsKCSupported

On Grad School: A Personal Statement

Many of you know (because many of you know me in real life) I’m on my way to graduate school in August. This is the second time I’ve applied to programs, and it’s been a wild ride up to my eventual acceptance into Virginia Tech. I was not expecting to accept an offer this year, and I had resigned myself to another year of deep reflection and artistic reevaluation. I was so fully prepared to apply again this winter, I already started my third grad school spreadsheet and decided to aim only for the highest, most funded programs. I was going to learn another language! I was going to get a famous writer to write a letter of recommendation! I was going to start applying in June! Thankfully, I don’t have to do any of those things, because Virginia Tech came through at the 13th hour (long story) and I could scrap my 3rd spreadsheet with a huge sigh of relief.

Before my eventual acceptance, I spent November to February applying to ten schools, narrowed down from about fifteen. By the time I was halfway through the applications, I was spending ten hours a day on my personal statements.

TEN HOURS A DAY.

My samples had been revised and tightened and polished so many times in the previous months in my writing group, all I had to do over my three-week winter break from work was talk about myself and my goals for an MFA program. I’ll tell you: the quickest way to realize you have no goddamn idea who you are and what you want out of a strange, risky, creative career is to write 500-2,000 words about it ten times, to ten groups of faceless strangers who hold the fate of your life and your $75 application fee in their hands. Hence the obsessive ten-hour days.

This post will hopefully help new MFA applicants write the dreaded personal statement without as much anxiety. I haven’t included the whole thing, because some of it is really specific and might be boring to non-committees, but I explain the pieces I cut out and left in the rest for a more thorough demonstration, particularly where I felt imaginative statements met a practical purpose.

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Meeper, the guardian of my insane pre-moving to-do list

 

The Opening: Origins & Ambitions

My opening paragraph came to me in an epiphany-like moment halfway through my application season, so I only got it into five or six applications. Previously, I had a hard time with the personal aspect of the personal statement. My intro was too straight, too dry, until one sparkling moment I had this new idea. I scribbled sentences in my notebook in a delusional flurry and refined the ideas in Word when I got back to my computer. This, I’m convinced, is what landed me a spot at VT, and was maybe as important as my writing sample. I had always heard one must “get to the point” as fast as possible to not waste anyone’s time on the committee, but this hook is not only a crucial part of my origin story, it’s also fun to read:

“If you were to rewind ten years, you would see me as a sculptor attempting conceptual art about communication, and as a writer attempting conceptual stories about communication. I did this by writing stories about teenagers whose only dialogue was “What?” back and forth for five pages, and by setting up big sheets of industrial felt in the middle of areas with heavy foot traffic. This messy but essential origin as a writer led me to explore language barriers and miscommunications in my fiction, inspired by the two creative disciplines bickering away in my heart.

Each time I write, I pull the thread of my thesis a little more, edging closer to some human truth that can only be represented by leaving it unsaid. I am driven to write because I am driven by questions that fuel narratives: Do these linguistic obstacles exist in children? In animals? Is it possible to understand that which has no word attached? Writing about language absence and lost translations comes from my personal journey to connect across the space between what I can say and what I can feel.”

BAM! Took me years of experience and lots of shitty first drafts, plodding introspection, and eventual satisfaction with a few short stories to come up with that opening paragraph. Your opening paragraph should give the readers a sense of where you came from and where you’re headed. Think beyond the typical “I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember” and punch it up several notches to paint a fuller picture of your rich creative life. For me, I felt it was essential to begin with a demonstration of my ambitions and early interdisciplinary origins. You also get a sense of my youthful ego in the opening line, but that segues into an honest reflection of why I do what I do and how I began to take it seriously. It’s also funny, because I know much of what I do under the pretense of living my best creative life is a little absurd. But it’s true, and it’s part of who I am and part of my creative process. Do some similar digging when building your opening.

 

The Journey/Research/Experience section

In the main body of the personal statement, I talk about my journey from visual artist to writer, and what led me to seek an MFA in creative writing. I talk about the writing courses I took at KCAI, who I studied with, and what I gained from the visual arts environment that influenced my writing. I talk about what happens when I study literature and how I keep track of my personal and academic growth in my own terms…basically demonstrating I haven’t wasted my time between degrees.

Today, I study writers who provide space for subtle details to bloom in a reader’s mind. I look for this because it is how I once approached sculpting—as a complete narrative containing moments where language could vanish, giving rise to an emotional texture I’m not sure has a name.”

This is a snapshot of my abstract thinking tendencies and ability to switch gears between visual and written work, something I have been practicing for many years. In this section, I also talk about the writers I currently study and what I admire most in their craft. I chose two contemporary American examples and one mid-century non-American example, because my work is mostly contemporary and set in America, but I have been heavily influenced by the styles and sensibilities of non-American writers. I chose writers who are recognizable to people of literature—not really mainstream examples, or anyone I discovered in high school or earlier. If you have the space to talk about writers you read or try to emulate, definitely consider what you appreciate about their style and how it informs your work. This is more than just “I like his use of language.” Instead, be concrete: “I study the character arcs of her aimless young adults to inform my coming-of-age novel-in-progress” or something equally evocative. This is a chance to show the committee you’re a worldly reader who appreciates subtle and dynamic literature, and as someone who kept reading after high school.

The next paragraph talks about my philosophy as a writer and how this developed over time. For me, it was in small press publishing, reading prose for a magazine, writing for The Pitch, belonging to a weekly writing workshop, and participating in contemporary visual art dialogue. My philosophy was developed over about ten years, so I’ve had time to think about my phrasing and presentation, summing the whole thing up in three varied sentences. If you have participated in any kind of critical/creative writing exchange, talk a little about what kind of peer you are. How do you approach writing written by other writers? What can you add to the workshop experience? How has that informed your decision to apply to this program? I applied to Virginia Tech because I have always been a cross-discipline writer, and I want to collaborate with writers in running a publication. Virginia Tech emphasizes both facets of the writing life, and I saw in the program a chance to build on my strengths.

 

The Self-Reflection section

You should also talk about your weaknesses, because ultimately, weaknesses are what get you into grad school. A brief detour: I love failing! Failure is the single best type of learning experience out there for creative people. There is no faster shortcut to creative self-reflection than crushing, debilitating, irreversible failure. I’m not saying this is fun to experience, but it’s so necessary in finding out how to direct our creative energies. For a personal statement, it’s good to recognize your shortcomings and tell the committee how you want to improve, what you’ve learned from rejection, and how you deal with criticism. If you address ways you want your cohort to help you improve, the committee can see A) that you are serious about improvement, B) that you won’t be a jerk to other writers, C) that you probably aren’t a genius (yet) and can admit to that, and D) you are capable of intense and productive self-reflection. All good things for a graduate committee to recognize in an applicant.

If your day job or professional work is of writerly importance, put it in the statement. MFA programs are not just for people who were “born to be writers” or “have been writing stories since childhood”. In fact, committees see that cliché all the time, and the truth is we live in a capitalist society that devalues or ignores creative work up until the point a creative person becomes famous. Most writers have jobs that pay the bills, and really good writers use that job to add something to their writing career—not always in the way Kafka used a job as fodder, but also as a way to grow and develop your skills in an area that will reflect in your creative discipline. For me, the routine responsibility of helping students with their writing and professional skills gave me academic experience in reading syllabi, constructing an academic plan around calendars, and articulating the creative bridge between visual art and literature. I gained research experience, worked on my chronic self-discipline problem, and recognized that I still consider myself a student of literature, even as I help students in their earlier stages of writing. I put all this in my statement.

I did not write that, as a bartender, I secretly made notes on the changing dialogue of my patrons. I did not write about my ruthless editor/mentor, who challenged me to write art journalism with greater clarity and precision. I did not write about how my time as an oyster shucker in Alaska, and a teacher in Cameroon, and a kid in the Michigan sand dunes developed my observational skills and help me imagine setting in new creative ways. But any of these personal things would have been fine to write about if I had unlimited space and attention. Choose the most effective personal experiences for the essay, and make your case for further study as persuasive as possible.

 

The Closing: Goals & Purpose

In the end, the committee wants to know exactly why you should be in their program. Talk about how you have prepared yourself for graduate level work, what self-direction you imposed on your routine, and where you see yourself headed as an artist and creative person. This is going to be different for everybody, and that’s what makes your perspective unique. If you want to get your MFA to teach, or get feedback on a book you’ve been working on for ten years, you’re not making a very convincing argument for your own capacity for growth and development. If you want to get your MFA in Virginia because you need 2-3 years to study the dialogue patterns of Appalachian natives because regional dialect is super important in your series of short stories, and this particular writer on the faculty has inspired you with their rendition of local speech etc. TELL THEM!! That example reason is much more colorful and unique to the program.

“I’ve discovered my drive to answer my creative and critical questions comes from the love of practice. I have prepared myself for graduate level work by applying this philosophy to self-directed writing, research projects, and professional activities. The more work I do, the more curious I become, the more I grow as an artist. Only Virginia Tech can pair me with resources, peers, and faculty who will embrace the interdisciplinary, collaborative essence of my trajectory. I am seeking a program with a history of educating writers who have taken artistic risks in their work—writers who have merged traditional and avant-garde ideas into a signature narrative style.”

For each statement, I found the most attractive aspects of the program I was applying to and I used that in my closing paragraph. For VT, it was their interdisciplinary curriculum and opportunity to work with two publications. For CalArts, it was the art school environment, which has proven beneficial to my practice. For Iowa, it was the understated writing tradition in the Midwest, a region I have lived in all my life. Every program I applied to (this time) had specific qualities that could improve my work and study of literature. One thing that sucks about applying: You might not know if your work fits the program or incoming cohort, but the committee knows, and sometimes even if your work is perfect for that school, it might not be the right time to attend. Rejections can say a lot about your readiness for rigorous work, but can also say a lot about the program itself.

“My goal is to emerge from an MFA program with a new body of work that continues connecting the communication ideas I started exploring in my undergrad. What I am looking for after a graduate program is a sustained relationship between art and language—a new way of writing that unveils the semantic bridge between visual and written work. After a graduate program, I want to continue to work with artists and authors to explore the collaborative grounds between creative disciplines. I will do this in a community role that compliments my fiction practice, either as editor of an experimental small-press, in publishing, or in a position an MFA from Virginia Tech will help me discover.”

I ended with this paragraph about my goals and ambitions in the coming years (to pursue the thread of my ongoing thesis) and the years that follow after an MFA (to bridge community work with writing work). Some goals will inevitably shift in August when I start the program, and they will shift again in January when I start teaching. My goals will continue to grow and shrink and change, but I’m totally open to this flexibility, because I’ll be in a supportive and engaging environment with other ambitious writers. Think about your goals as a writer and artist. What does your work look like in five years? How will you adapt to a changing job market? Will your creative work always be more important than your money-generating work? (It should be.)

In order to do all this, you need to REALLY look at what you’re writing and research the hell out of programs. I’ve applied to 18 programs in all and I’ve been rejected from 14 outright. Those 14 programs weren’t right for my learning and writing style, and that’s not always something new applicants are willing to accept. Although I’ll always be a little bummed I didn’t get into Brown or Iowa or University of Michigan, I also recognize my multi-discipline engagement might not have been a good fit for these straight-forward, traditional programs. It just took two years and many rejections to come to terms with that. The three schools that accepted me outright were The New School, CalArts, and California College of the Arts—three prestigious art colleges, not traditional writing universities. Virginia Tech is somewhere between an art program and traditional literary program, and this is totally where my work fits best. I ultimately decided on VT over the other three because it’s a three-year program with a broad focus (I can take non-fiction, digital media, and screen-writing courses), it’s fully funded and comes with a stipend for teaching, and I want to eventually relocate to the east coast. San Francisco is too expensive for my lifestyle, CalArts is great if I wanted to write for TV, and visiting The New School made me realize I don’t want to live in New York right now. Although I exchanged these hip metropolitan cities for a rural mountain community, Virginia Tech is only a few hours from DC, Richmond, the Outer Banks, Charleston, and Pittsburgh. I can scout these areas for cool internships and jobs in the summer when I’m not teaching.

Now you know how I managed to barely con my way into a program (just kidding! I don’t have impostor syndrome!! Not at all!!!) and secure the next three years for writing and studying literature. Whatever comes from this experience, I know it’s up to me to revisit my goals from the last ten years and set my sights on more challenging projects. This includes checking back on my statement of purpose and remembering the reasons I applied to school. If you’re going through this process now, or considering it this season, keep your arrow aimed straight at your target and allow yourself some flexibility when looking into programs. Make your spreadsheet, go visit schools, and write your head off!

Good luck!!

Dad-inspired budget 2-meal chicken

My dad used to be a competitive swimmer and marathon participant. He’s also the biggest penny-pincher I know. In his younger days, he was broke and really active, so he had to make his dollar stretch further and also provide enough sustenance to compete in competitive sports. Early on, I remember him describing to me how he used to buy a whole chicken and use it for several meals throughout the week. He didn’t so much as give me this recipe, but he passed on his philosophy of food and frugality through many years of excellent meals and boring lectures about fiscal responsibility. Like dads do.

dadrun

I did not inherit my dad’s athleticism

Here’s how to get several meals out of a single batch of cheap ingredients.

You will need:

One whole chicken, giblets & neck included (preferably)

Butter

Citrus—whatever you have lying around. Oranges, grapefruit, lemons, limes. All good.

Sage

The holy trinity: salt, pepper, and garlic powder

Corn starch (or flour, if you don’t have starch)

 

Then you will need:

Celery

Carrots

Parsley

Potato

Garlic

Bayleaf

White onion

Egg noodles

Chicken bouillon cubes

Whatever delicious crap you have lying around

 

Process:

Preheat oven to 350

Clean the chicken and remove the neck and giblets. Set those aside for now.

Cut and juice your citrus. Squeeze the juices into a bowl and cut the rinds into quarters—not too small though–just small enough to stuff the cavity.

Stuff the citrus rinds into the cavity of the chicken and add salt, pepper, sage, garlic powder, and a little melted butter to the citrus juice in the bowl.

I like to stuff the bird with whole garlic cloves too sometimes. These can be eaten with the meal.

Make 2 or 3 cuts in the chicken skin and separate the skin from the meat with your fingers. It’s quite satisfying. Place 2-4 pads of butter at various points under the skin so it sits between skin and flesh. Rub salt, pepper, sage, and garlic to season over the whole bird.

Brush the whole outside of the bird with the juices and other contents of the citrus bowl.

Cook the chicken, uncovered, for about an hour. Every 10-20 minutes, baste/brush the chicken all over with the citrus/butter/spices mixture. Readers of these recipes know I never time myself or measure accurately. I don’t know. Go by your instinct.

 

Meanwhile…

Get a shallow amount of water boiling on the stove and add the neck and giblets. Add spices, a chicken bouillon cube, and let simmer, stirring and letting the water reduce, but not enough to boil out.

When the fat and juices start to come out, remove the bits(or crush for chunky gravy) and turn off the heat. Whisk in corn starch a little at a time until the gravy is thickened and flavored to your liking. Throw in some BBQ sauce! Red wine! Vinegar! Butter! Do what feels good! But go easy because it’s a strong flavor to begin with.

Set the gravy aside.

 

Back to the chicken…

Increase the oven heat to 375 and cook a little more. The chicken is ready to come out when you can cut into the thigh and there’s just the faintest hint of pink. The heat will still cook it when you take it out, so sometimes I undercook just enough for it to finish up out of the oven.

NOTE: By basting it all this time with butter and citrus, you are achieving a very crispy and juicy skin. The citrus inside and pads of butter under the skin ensure the bird will be extra moist. It’s done when the skin is dark and crispy, but not burnt, and the meat is juicy and white. This will all be visible.

When the chicken is finished, remove the rinds from the cavity (saving the garlic for the meal) and cut the meat off the chicken.

Once you have all the meat off, set enough aside for chicken soup tomorrow. Save all the bones and the carcass of the chicken by wrapping it up and storing in the fridge. We’ll come back to that.

Serve the chicken with your choice of side dish and the gravy you made earlier. The chicken should be juicy and the skin should be crispy.

Pat yourself on the back!

 

The next day…

Fill your biggest pot with water, maybe 2/3rds of the way. Maybe a little bit more. Get out your chicken carcass and all the bones and toss them all in the pot. Boil the shit out of it.

Once you’ve boiled the shit out of it, pieces of chicken will start to come off and stay in the broth. Remove the carcass and make sure you got all the edible pieces off. Toss those in the soup.

Sometimes I leave a drumstick bone in the soup for a fun little game I call Who Gets Boned? The prize is a bone in your soup! My partner rolls his eyes a lot.

Chop up carrots, celery, onion, parsley, potato (small cubes, but sometimes I actually skip the potato), garlic, bayleaf, and sage. Throw all that shit in there and drop in more bouillon cubes, salt, and pepper, and other spices if you’re feeling frisky. I almost never chop up my garlic. My mom used to make this soup when we were kids, leaving big pieces of unchopped garlic, which I ate with gusto.

By now your soup should be kinda huge, which is what you want. Add chicken from last night and enough egg noodles to satisfy your proportion preferences. I like lots of noodles, but they will also soak up the broth overnight when you store the soup.

Cook it all! Season and add other ingredients to your liking. Green onions are good, tomatoes can work, rice, broccoli, and corn can be good. Whatever you have lying around is fair game because this is a fail-proof recipe.

Serve with crusty bread topped with butter and blue cheese. That’s my preference, at least.

 

More notes…

So you should have a ton of soup from this one batch. When I lived alone, I would make these two meals and have food for the whole week–at least two meals a day. Like I said, the noodles soak up some of the broth overnight, so I would add a little water each time I reheated. Egg noodles don’t get soggy like other noodles, which is an added bonus when eating for the whole week.

Bonus meal! Sometimes I take out a cup of the chicken broth before adding anything else and use this to mix with miso, fish sauce, and sesame oil for a flavorful ramen base. That gets whisked together in a low heat cast iron with some corn starch to thicken. Makes a great paste to add to ramen broth. I usually poach an egg in that one. Although I actually prefer ramen as a spin off to my shortrib recipe.

The philosophy behind this recipe should be applied to anything with a bone-in component: Where there’s a marrow, there’s a meal. Homemade stock can make or break a recipe. Veggies too! Save your carrot heels and broccoli stalks, onion helmets and tomato stems and apply the same principle–which is boil a lot and add spices to draw out the flavor.

Oh yeah, this should go without saying, but this is an excellent holiday meal if you use a turkey. Everything in the recipe is the same, although cook times will vary. I’ve cooked many Christmas meals with this recipe.

We’ll get to shortribs next, but the basic rule there is to add a little vinegar to the water, which will help soften the marrow and draw it out a little easier. Vinegar or some red wine you have lying around. Same difference.

 

Space and Sea: Some Thoughts on Not Writing

I still have the art school brain. The philosophy goes like this: every free moment must be spent in studio if you’re ever going to get better. I am forever caught between anxious labor and trying to affect the calm appearance of someone more collected than I actually am. For so long, working was a way of having fun. Real fun, like watching TV or going out, rots your brain so much that art becomes difficult or impossible. It has taken me many years to work on this art school mentality–to remind myself that writing is about observing and collecting from the world as much as it is about getting those thoughts down on paper and in stories. But if you go out into the world, you are not writing. It’s a tricky balance, and one that has everything to do with tricking yourself into some kind of healthy lifestyle. I’m terrible at this.

I believe I can stop writing anytime I want as long as I never quit. When I did stop, knowing that I had to collect and observe the world before I could produce any fiction or art reviews, it made relaxing impossible. I had to walk across a minefield of guilt just to get out of my house every day. I got so far behind on my deadlines, working on anything practical meant not working on ten creative projects, which made working on everything very stressful. Stress led to inactivity, which led to watching TV, which led to guilt, which led to work, which led to impostor syndrome, which led to inactivity, which of course repeated the whole cycle over again. This made me think one can never be truly happy if they live their lives in competition with themselves. So I came up with a temporary solution that would help me get back to a balance: I stopped doing most things expected of me, regardless of the consequences. On this list was writing, so I stopped writing too.

When I stopped writing I watched TV and read books about outer space. I couldn’t get enough of future societies forming haphazardly after a great war or societal reorganizing. I was into the civilizations that emerged. I felt, because I had lost control of something I loved to do and was a little trapped in, that the time I was living in was insufficient. There wasn’t a real requirement to the escapist programs and literature I sought in my bout of not writing, only that they take place–at least partially–in outer space. I justified my break by thinking I could stop writing if humanity dissolved into chaos, took to the skies in clunker rockets or sophisticated vessels of fiberglass and chrome. I could allow myself to stop writing only if I suddenly had to pack up and shoot off my demolished planet on a rickety DIY spaceship (the kind I would prefer, since it’s the end of the world anyway). This was the only scenario I imagined acceptable to excuse my lack of writing. I imagined the night sky sparkled eternally around me. When I looked out of a little circular window on my imagined space craft to watch a minor comet, or glowing bit of space debris shoot across the distant night, I imagined there was something so profound and extraordinary about the universe that I didn’t–couldn’t–understand, that it was OK if I never wrote again, because the truths were all suddenly different. I was no longer a writer because I was no longer on my home planet. I was in a little ship without earthly concerns. I was very OK with this.

I used to like riding in airplanes, but not anymore. Preparing for an airplane ride is an uncomfortable hassle, followed by a series of ever-tightening restrictions on the body’s natural shapes and excretions. Traveling by airplane requires too much forethought. The correct amount of fluid ounces, the easiest shoes, the emptying of all the carry-on pockets to remove stray lighters or pepper spray. It’s a too-restricted form of traveling for anyone who hopes to soak and savor messages exchanged in spaces in between spaces. One must plan for the discomfort of an airport in advance. Somewhere between boarding the plane and arriving at the next airport, brain function bottlenecks. We become essential again, primitive. Language is obstructed by growing discomfort. Etiquette lies somewhere, flattened in some rural area after being ejected from the aircraft. No matter how many times I clean my hands, my fingernails are always black after flying. But a spaceship allows for the freedom to choose what you carry, and the spaceship is designed for long distances and relies on sharp mental faculties. I had a checklist for my perfect spaceship-driven story arc. I dreamed of strong female pilots, conflicts and tensions on different planets. There should be at least one elaborate heist to get the blood pumping. Romance was a take-it-or-leave-it. Honestly, I could do without.

Before I was into outer space, I was into oceans. There weren’t enough programs on the ocean to keep me satisfied. I watched everything I could find, and then I watched them all again. This is also a bad habit of mine: I like things I’ve seen before. It was a wonderful distraction from writing! I would do it again if I could grant myself the permission. I watched all the ocean documentaries and then I watched the documentaries on life on earth. I read about giant squids and took myself to my favorite museum exhibits alone, where a winding ramp took me down through a blue display of deep ocean life and backwards into history, when ocean plants were as strange as those on distant planets. I thought, if all this doesn’t bring me inspiration, it at least will bring me pleasure, one of the rare feelings during a period of sustained creative inactivity. I was obsessed with finding either the ancestor of all life on the planet, down in the deep sea where we all emerged and became erect and walked as giants on dry land, or with imagining the future hybrids that would emerge from a fragmented society. My progression into a period of not writing was a movement from the first sparks of sentient life on earth, to contemplating an advanced, utopian society. The story of my procrastination was the story of life itself.

In time, I began to live in darkness.

The late, exhausting hours spent ignoring my deadlines and responsibilities branched out like neurons, until I was aware of every minute blinking in and out, and of the circular behavior of thought patterns. This pushed me into a premature period of writing again, and I wasn’t ready for it. At night in the oceans, coral polyps bonk around with each other (sex) while the host bodies do the dirty work waging turf disputes (conflict). They encroach on their neighbors, throbbing and clawing with their intestinal webs, devouring the hard shell of the adjacent body. I shouldn’t have forced my writing to happen during my not writing period, because during those nights, my mind turned into coral. It chewed up old ideas and turned them to dust, spitting out fragments of weak flesh and new buddings. I watched on in horror. Everything I made during the daylight hours was turned into food for the more aggressive and terrifying part of the creative brain, that insatiable, horrific critic that is most active in the evenings. This signified something important that I have taken many years to learn: when you’re not working, own it. Be the observer, the normal person, the sponge. Don’t be a writer or an artist when you are supposed to be taking a break to learn.

This was a wonderful piece of wisdom to discover, even if I have to relearn it each time. And in spite of, or maybe because of this, I turned into a night writer. Which I hate. I prefer daylight activity. I photosynthesize like a houseplant with ideas in periods of writing. But when I was finally plugged back into writing again, the days were taken over by the crushing to-do lists I had accumulated while I shirked and procrastinated my responsibilities. Nighttime was when I felt some sense of freedom from what I expected of myself, and as long as I wasn’t lying down and thinking at the same time, I discovered I could write again, just a little bit. Many nights, at a time when I would happily be headed off to bed, an idea struck my head like a book falling from a shelf, and I knew I couldn’t just lay there like an idiot. (The biggest lie I still tell myself is “I’ll remember that tomorrow”.)

What I discovered about this process seems, in retrospect, like an inevitable evolution. In the nighttime, I was closer to the color of space and the color of the deep ocean. Being surrounded by the dark, even in the light polluted city, renewed my sense of freedom from the world. At night, in my little apartment, in a submarine or a spacecraft gliding through a weightless environment, I could imagine I was free from the self-generated pressure to write and write well. Responsibility, commitments, deadlines, criticism, and self-doubt all disappeared behind me as I cruised further away from the scattering dust of earth into as much blank space as I could dream. It’s unfortunate that I am this kind of writer, who can’t snatch up and utilize free moments like acorns falling to the yard, because I need much more space and patience than any creative person should be allowed. So this is what I’m getting at: I’m writing now, and I’m going to post more finished work up on the website. I promise it won’t all be publishable work, or even work that is polished (to my obsessive Virgo standards) but it will be something.

In the meantime, if you have any recommendations for your favorite space and sea books, TV shows, or movies, I will save them in a list for the next time I stop writing.

 

 

Nightmares

AllmanRicky02.jpg

Image courtesy of Studios Inc

I’m going to tell you about my first nightmare. I walked up the stairs to my room, the first room I was ever conscious of belonging to me, of being my space in a house. There was a creature over my bed. It was a skeleton, and it was flashing colors, jerking wildly on unconnected bones, and it was making my bed. This is the first nightmare—maybe even the first dream—I remember. Of course I had this long before my natural anxiety latched on to everything plausible a naturally anxious person could be afraid of. What makes me tell you this is the eerie resemblance between Ricky Allman’s Domestic Dusk to my first encounter with oneiric fear.

For those of you who are still with me in the second paragraph: Allman’s exploration into the nightmare realm involves genetic modification, emotionally reactive technology, and colorful skeletons in impossible human poses. The paintings strike a comparison between the infrastructure of our bodies, and a city experiencing a sudden surge of technological resources. Closing in on the rich details of the paintings adds to the mounting stack of questions. Are we floating in space? What are the laws of physics in this dimension? Is that a body or a machine? Little is revealed in the minutia that cannot be grasped by taking the whole thing in at once. That doesn’t mean the details aren’t worth considering. Allman has spent enough time on them to reward the viewers approach. Every inch of the canvas is a traffic jam of information, potential opportunities to dive deeper into the microscope of Allman’s mind, to see exactly how this painting, these ideas, work at their atomic level.

Thrumming synth filled the gallery on opening night. Allman’s distorted speech joined a looping musical component, played live on keyboards and computers hooked up to pedals on the floor. A projection hit the two white walls behind the set up, dragging the audience through prairies and mountains and cloud spattered skies. The accompanying music was droney, panicked, and built complex relationships that looped and self-complicated. The more the notes repeated, the less predictable the track became. Such is the method Allman employs in his brushstroke too. Patterns are shattered by bursts of rhythmic color and sound.

On my second visit, the gallery was much quieter. The speaker between the angled walls emitted something in Italian, and then a loop of spaceship beeps that were quiet enough to tune out. Allman’s paintings and music capture a specific anxiety about the evolution of humanity and technology. (Experiencing the music and paintings combined, I couldn’t help but remember the film Koyaanisqatsi, that this is what it would would look like if Francis Ford Copalla took a bunch of acid and shot the film in 2090.)

Seven Simultaneous Sunsets must refer to the number of pieces in the show (five paintings, an installation, and the musical projections) and to Allman’s fixation on unacceptable earth phenomenon. In every piece, Allman imagines seven ways humanity could sink below the horizon of the imaginable, into the dark nightmare of the distant future, where genetic editing, technology sentience, and omniscient experience are the next stage of evolution. If we can build a better city, we can build a better body.

 

Ricky Allman

Seven Simultaneous Sunsets

At Studios Inc

Until October 14th

Wide Angle

For his first solo exhibition in the United States, French photographer Nicolas Dhervillers introduces Kansas City to monumental landscapes on the bridge between modern day and history. Big, dramatic photographs contain cinematic magic imbued in the dark light of the landscapes. These require slow—preferably solo—viewing, and are best experienced at their full intended scale. Inspired by hard-hitting landscape painters, Dhervillers channels the emptiness of Gustave Courbet, the depth of Claude Lorrain, and the gray menace of Andrew Wyeth. The eye is naturally fixated on the human subjects, but the real subject looms dark and heavy in the rest of the environment. Albert Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, “Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”

The human inability to contain the world seeps out of the images and into the viewer. It is an intuition that translates from the art into every rational being, into everyone who has ever sought to understand the elusive, chaotic heart of the natural world. In the photo series “Detachment”, Dhervillers explores the figure as he faces vast and unyielding entropy, even when it coexists with modern developments. There is fog, dense greenery in the recesses of a wooded area, empty stretches on a gray road, and a single figure caught in an uncertain moment. It often appears to be the edge of winter.

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Many of the images clearly embrace contemporary visual hooks of a fictionalized cinematic style—a cabin goes up in flames as a 70s era Citroën coupe cruises away down the winding valley road. These hooks sometimes feel too clever, but can be forgiven if only because it does not diminish the pleasure of taking it in. Period specific clothes and modern technology make some of the photographs feel exempt from time—part today and part yesterday. The two men on the side of a shattered mountain certainly don’t belong in the same frame as a yellow backhoe, but it works, because this is theater. There are narrative threads to follow in every image, and sometimes the technical digital magic can feel heavy handed, causing the suspension of disbelief to crack, just a little. In this medium, and with such an emphasis on perfectly executed stage setting, any infinitesimal flaw in the digital process won’t go unnoticed by a searching eye.

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Nature, the world and all its familiarity, can leave us to our terrible solitude without warning. There is another passage from The Myth of Sisyphus that feels an appropriate philosophical descriptor for the work in the Dhervillers exhibition. It is this: “The world evades us because it becomes itself again. That stage scenery masked by habit becomes again what it is. It withdraws at a distance from us. Just as there are days when under the familiar face of a woman, we see as a stranger her we had loved months or years ago, perhaps we shall come even to desire what suddenly leaves us so alone. But the time has not yet come. Just one thing: that denseness and that strangeness of the world is the absurd.”

Indeed it is. For Nicolas Dhervillers to take on the conceptual weight of these philosophies while achieving perfection in his craft is definitely one of the quintessential struggles of humanity.

Nicolas Dhervillers

At Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art and Cerbera Gallery

Until October 21st

Counter Culture: Justin Beachler’s Babalon Working

In many ways, the late 2010’s are starting to resemble the 1960s. There is a new attitude of political distrust and a bitter sense that the country is trying to revert back to values that espouse racism, sexism, and recently, neo-fascism. While artists are busy finding ways to fight the swell of hate overtaking our country, Justin Beachler is bringing back hippie era coping mechanisms of occult magic, stoner dens, and tye-dye. His solo show, Babalon Working at Bunker Center for the Arts plays with the light and dark sides of 60s counterculture in an incense scented installation.

We met at his home studio to discuss the upcoming show at Bunker and take a look at the work in progress. “I was very interested in the 60s and psychedelic culture when I was younger. I’ve been making work about it since I was in Charlotte Street in 2013, creating Head Shop with Tim Brown from OK Mountain.”—an artist run collective in Austin. I didn’t see Head Shop, but I did see Beachler’s Old & In The Way last year at Haw Contemporary. The display of homemade water pipes made from flavored beverage bottles was congruent with Beachler’s interest in clashing colors and inelegant display. Haphazard as it looks, his aesthetic has specific origins. “When I was a kid I spent a lot of time in head shops and music stores. It was a weird capitalistic form of subculture. Everything in all the stores looked the same, with the same posters, the same weird dragon wizard holding a glass orb. And after I made the funny work, I went back to the darker side of psychedelic culture that I remember from my childhood.” Beachler sites one particular experience that awakened him to the culture of drug use. “My dad’s a biker, and I remember being in these biker houses with him, in spaces with Easy Rider centerfolds everywhere. Once, I found a medical clamp with macramé woven to the bottom, with a roach clamped on the end. ‘What’s that?’ I asked. My dad stopped bringing me after that.” Pulling from this formative memory, Beachler reconstructed what he saw that day for Babalon Working, tying his own macramé helixes and found feathers onto medical clips, now with sticks of incense pinched between the teeth instead of the last puff of a joint.

In his own words, Beachler describes his work as “frivolous and irresponsible.” Exploring the conceptual potential in consumer objects in a time of great global distress is a way of watering down the conversations we need to be having. “The concept’s I’m working with aid in nothing but distraction from the serious cultural problems currently at hand,” he says of his work. The Internet has certainly provided us fantastic tools for distractions, and Beachler uses his Instagram feed to layer hyper-colorful and erotic stimuli into images of blended meaning. These posts are flavored like a bad acid trip, shrill and lurid enough to wipe all thoughts of political outrage from your mind for a moment during the scroll. Beachler’s posts are hard to untangle on a little screen and feel more like sketches of the finer art that enters the gallery. His posts contrast the phenomenon of using Instagram to sell a twee bohemian lifestyle, as many successful accounts portray the sun flared wanderlust dreams of the flower children. Beachler’s psychedelic/occult/erotica aesthetic leans into the digital age with a well-curated false reality.

The show’s title Babalon Working refers to a “sex magick ritual” performed by L. Ron Hubbard and Jack Parsons in 1947 based on Aleister Crowley’s Scarlet Woman. The ritual was designed to manifest the liberated woman archetype, a stand-in for the Whore of Babylon. (Parsons felt he achieved this when he met Marjorie Cameron, but the second part of the ritual—impregnation—was unsuccessful.) Beachler relies heavily on myth and assumption to inform the audiences experience of his installation, which evokes a ritual recently completed in a dark area of the gallery. “Everyone has a different part of the story before they arrive at the gallery. I gave my friends one piece of information, the press another, and the gallery another. Nobody walks in with the full story.” He cites a party with the Terry Radio crew before he installed the bongs at Haw. One party-goer walked in and smiled, turned to a friend and said “We smoked out of those.”

Though the work lacks real authenticity (Beachler was born in 1981) it is palpable to an age group that grew up with the same occult culture curiosity and access to the Internet in the early aughts. “The psychedelic thing is making a comeback, and the Internet is full of it,” says Beachler, who grew up reading the classic drug experience review site Erowid.org. It’s a joke to equate a few tye-dyed tapestries and beaded curtains with any anti-capitalist and anti-consumer sentiment today, but Beachler sees this as a source of irony for today’s generation. “We’re using irony to fight a crippling sense of or hopelessness for the future. Irony is one of the only conceptual forms that feels right at this moment.”

 

First Days at Art Farm

June 2nd, 2017

I arrived at Art Farm yesterday late afternoon. I claimed my studio—a square hut at the edge of the property—and cleaned all the raccoon poop and old junk from the previous resident. My hut has no electricity or internet or water or a bathroom, but it’s a good hut. I’ve been trying to write and I realized I didn’t have any coffee this morning. I’m considering walking all the way back to drink some, but then I’ll have to walk out here again. The walking isn’t really what I’m worried about, it’s needing to use a bathroom and being so far away. Getting old is like that. I’m happy to get down to writing business again. How long has it been since I produced a complete story? A year? Six months? Too long, but the graduate school application and rejection ordeal had me thrown way off course. I thought by now I would have chosen a school and started to prepare to leave for a new city to focus all my energy on writing. But nothing is happening the way I pictured it.

I sat down to write in my hut and I listened to the birds and rabbits chirping in the grass. Women’s voices muttered outside the walls and I turned to the new residents coming to check out the hut. Nobody was there. I looked out the windows, the grass stretching for acres before meeting another landmark for civilization. I turned back to the computer and a half-baked sentence I was working with when I heard the muttering again. I stood and walked to the doorway to prepare for visitors, but again nobody was coming my way. I walked around the hut to see if there was something I had missed. Only empty birds nests, a white sheet hanging from a tree, and a machete stuck in the wood. Could it have been the wind rippling the thin metal blade? The empty gown in the tree? Was is coming from the walls of the hut?

I left to make coffee to prevent a withdrawal headache and burned my hand on hot water as I cleaned the machine. Mold grew from the filter left in over the winter, white and blooming like the cotton tufts that decorate the driveway. I ran clean water through and washed the entire thing again. There were no filters, so I tore off a piece of paper towel and tucked it in the funnel. I carried my coffee carefully back through the tall grass, the sun now burning the dew off the farm in the late morning, and sat back down at the laptop. The open door rattled against the brick I set out to prop it open and birds chattered in the tree outside my window. It is windy on the prairie. No women sang.

When the sun appears on the other side of the hut, I pack my things and head back to the farmhouse. I’m too slow to see the animals that dart off the path into the blanket of grass, but they are small and timid and, obviously, very fast. I think they might be rabbits. It gets dark in a way I’m not used to. The sky is everywhere, unbroken by buildings or tall trees or highways. When the sun goes down it takes a long time for the light to go with it. When it is finally dark, it is prairie dark, rich and infinite, the door to space flung wide. I forgot what real dark is like. It’s coming back to me. This last year I thought about Anne Boyer’s Not Writing poem a lot. What is not writing when you’re a writer? Does it make you something else, even when you spend all your time thinking about writing, and studying it, and feeling your way through it? I also thought about productivity and guilt. I have discussions with art school friends about this. When you are not in studio you are not moving forward, and when you are not moving forward you will be left behind. This was our mantra in college. Every moment of spare time, no matter what your personal environment is like or what life changes are happening, must be spent in studio making things. I am always writing, but I am not always producing great and interesting work. This is a hard ongoing reality for artists, because we compare our worst work to other artists’ best work, then admonish ourselves for not being brilliant on the first try. Does this ever change? So if I spent a year not being brilliant or attentive in the work I was making, it’s still a fairly small amount of time in the big picture. You can be not writing or not creating for as long as you need to get your thoughts in order, but it doesn’t make one not a writer or not an artist.

 

June 3rd, 2017

This morning I got up at 7:30 and had cereal. Nobody else was moving around the house until I was almost finished, then another resident came down and we listened to the news together. I walked to my hut and spent 30 minutes watching birds through the binoculars. There is a brilliant fire breasted Baltimore oriole that sits in the nearby tree. I watched a male brown-head Cowbird try and woo a female. How lucky! Then I watched three Cowbird’s try their luck at the same time, standing in a row on a T-post behind the female. They groomed themselves, puffed out, and tiptoed with backs straight and their heads tucked into their chests, and made high popping calls for attention, which I have been practicing with my cheeks to confuse the flock. When the female turned to look at them, they all pointed their beaks up and stretched up tall, flattening their wings against their iridescent bodies. She wasn’t impressed, or perhaps the mood was all wrong. When they fly, they produce an alarm clock rattle that is hard to ignore.

Starting to write again is strange–both new and familiar. I have good energy and willingness to sit down two or three times a day and work, taking short breaks for lunch and to recharge my laptop. Whatever is coming out of this is mixed, but at least I’m working those brain muscles again. Honestly, the months leading up to this have been difficult, and my energy was all caught up in not writing affairs. It’s good to have time, space, and a routine. Everyday I get up, eat breakfast, got to the hut and write, come back to the house and eat a sandwich, charge, go back to the hut and write, come back for dinner, and sometimes go back to the hut and write until the sun pierces the windows and bakes my brain.

Send good thoughts if you have some to spare. I’ll take what I write in the next two weeks to my writing group and have complete fiction up here again in no time.

Blood for Babies

The nurse marks a yellow smear of iodine on my vein and tapes the needle down. In a moment, the blood starts to flow into a clear bag. The bag rests near enough to my hand I can touch it and it surprises me by being warm. Of course it would be warm. It is the temperature of my body, of my flushed cheeks when the handsome nurse across the room runs his hand through his exhausted hair. My nurse gives me a rubber ball to squeeze and moves the blood bag away from my hand, pretending not to notice I have it pinched between my fingers. The warmth is gone. I give the rubber ball a series of pumps and feel the rush of heat trail down my arm.

“I try to do this every year,” I say to my nurse, a girl with blue eye shadow and red scrubs. She leans against the machine and crosses her arms. “My dad is a blood donor. He used to tell us about the cookies he got afterward. It made me want to donate when I was young.”

My nurse gazes up at the face of the clock. “Uh-huh. We have Oreo’s.”

There is a pretty round nurse chatting with a blonde square-headed man reclining in the chair next to mine. The man on the donation chair has a red blanket across his lap, which adds a certain sweetness to the bond between him and the nurse. Before I got to the donation center, someone—I like to think it was the nurse—tucked him in. He’s hooked up to a clunky machine that makes pops and hisses as it extracts and separates an oily yellow fluid from his blood. He and the nurse are watching a music video on her phone, I guess, to try and keep the man awake.

“My blood type is O negative,” I say.

“We’ll do a test later to determine your type.”

“I know my type. It’s O negative.” I squeeze the rubber ball again, feel the prick of the needle in my stretching vein.

“If that’s the case, your blood will go to our baby bag.”

“Your what?”

She glances down and kneads the bag, massaging into place the blood that falls evenly down, down.

“The baby bag. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Your blood will go to babies.”

“Oh.”

No more handsome nurse. I can see him in his regular clothes outside the window that faces the parking lot. He wears a messenger bag across his chest and is maybe younger than I guessed before. Twenty-eight?

“How long until I can donate again?” I ask casually. But I’m not smooth about it. She already saw me checking out the handsome nurse and gives me a dirty look.

“Sixty days,” she says. I squeeze my ball and check the blood bag. It starts looking full.

Two bags slowly fill up with the clear yellow platelets in the chair next to mine. If I saw this blonde man anywhere else, I would guess he was uncomfortably close to passing out.

“You’re almost done,” says his nurse. The man smiles, his grin a little dopey from all the extraction.

“Do a lot of babies need blood?” I ask. The donation has me lightheaded too.

My nurse shrugs. “More than you might expect.”

I don’t know what I expect. I expect babies to be healthy, to not need blood from strangers my age, who only walked in one afternoon because it occurred to them giving blood was something that must be done once in a while. Do I expect babies to need blood from other babies? It forces me to consider the age and plasticity of my blood, which has recycled itself for twenty-seven years, which I have dumped senseless amounts of toxins into an embarrassing number of times. If I have any relationship with my blood, it can be summed up in one word: careless.

“What about that stuff, the platelets?” I nod to the machine making quieter sounds now as it slows down the process.

“Spoken for at St. Luke’s General. A patient there needs this particular batch.” She seems bored with my conversation so I hold back my next series of questions. Together we watch the blood stream out of my arm and into the bag that will be transported to some babies, somewhere near us or far away.

In another ten minutes my bag is full and the nurse pulls the needle from my arm. She covers the entry wound with gauze and lifts my arm above my head. I am instructed to stay like that until the bleeding stops. When the bleeding stops, I am escorted to the snack area and given a bag of pretzels and a bottle of apple juice. The platelet man is at the table, eating a Nutter Butter, watching a cooking show. We sit there like kids, woozy, peckish, under the watchful eyes of the daytime nurses disinfecting the chairs we left behind. The small room smells like a hospital.

“How you feeling?” he asks. Without the blanket covering him, I see he’s in blue scrubs. He slurs, just a little.

“Fine,” I say. “I’ve done this lots of times.” He smiles another foolish grin and I wonder how long it takes the body to replenish the oily matter that binds our blood together. We eat and I watch the cooking show. It’s something I know how to do. Eventually, the man in blue scrubs who donated platelets gets up and wobbles off down a hall that leads to the back of the building. I sit alone a while longer and eat a second bag of snacks while the women on TV spread icing on a chocolate cake and engage in inane banter. Nobody comes or goes.