Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Long-form salvation

Shortly before I began my first temp gig a year ago, my boyfriend hepped me to a website called Longform that posts "long-form" (uh, longer) journalism pieces, curated by the site's editors and plucked from an impressively wide array of publications and eras. Recent articles are posted alongside famous and newly dug-up works by Mark Twain and Joan Didion, as well as articles from obscure sources (e.g. a 1950s article about the "glamorous" trailer lifestyle -- back when "trailer park" evoked images of family road trips and Yellowstone Park, or of bohemian adventure, not so much rednecks and Twinkies; see #3 in my list below). 

I showed up for that first temp job, a two-week assignment that ballooned into a two-month one, all dressed up in a blazer the way I would have for the first day of a "normal" job. I was installed at the front desk, given a 30-second tutorial on how the phone-transferring system worked, told that the kitchen was around the corner and whom to notify when I wanted to take lunch -- and then my temporary supervisor said, "Did you bring a book? Here, let me open up a browser for you -- you can check e-mail, surf the web." Uh... I can surf the web? Read whatever I want and get paid for it? Well, OK then.

So for those strangely blissful two months, between infrequent phone calls and scrawling my unintelligible cursive signature on official lines to indicate the office had received a FedEx or UPS package, I surfed the web. Specifically, I read Longform articles all day long. For you see, merely "surfing the web," in the dilettantish and guilty-pleasure sort of manner that phrase implies, even when encouraged by a supervisor, felt illicit to me, or at best like the intellectual equivalent of staring "Clockwork Orange"-style at TV commercials for eight hours of the day.

I felt a snobby disdain at the notion of clicking around, looking at celebrity news or playing computer Solitaire or e-shopping, or (as one admin assistant at a later temp gig told me she did all day) browsing around through images of dream homes and cupcakes on Pinterest. I felt that I should be doing something productive with my time, sharpening my writing skills even if only as an extra-curricular endeavor that no one was telling me to do, or paying me to do. And so, other than the occasional Pavlovian Facebook check-in, I did almost nothing else online for those two months except read Longform articles. 

I did it at other, similar temp jobs, too. It made me feel better about myself as I sat there at the front desk, in what is -- let's face it -- ordinarily more of entry-level position or at least one that typically does not require the highest degree of education, answering the phone and asking visitors if they would like some bottled water, sometimes engaged in tasks that were nigh janitorial (emptying and loading the dishwasher each day, removing the company trophies from their fancy lighted display cabinet so it could be dusted by the housekeeping staff, with whom I felt even greater empathy and solidarity than I had pre-temping). Because my thrilling secret was that during lulls between administrative drudgery, I was sitting at my computer reading stuff like this

Onward from Enheduanna, poets seem almost required to manifest some degree of psychic disturbance, whether as a true affliction, a poetic persona, or a pose. “Despondency and madness” were the expectation before Wordsworth, and reached pandemic proportions in the twentieth century. Readers are disappointed by poets who aren’t at least a little mad, which is to say visionary, melancholic, tormented, debauched, or somehow awry. The prodromal period in English-language poetry seems to have been the eighteenth century, otherwise known for its high appraisal of order and reason. But some minds we might imagine as tidy—Johnson’s, for instance—are thought to have been privately a little off. Things really got rolling with William Collins, Christopher Smart, and William Cowper, and then it was one small step to Thomas Chatterton, whose decision to drink arsenic at seventeen helped make suicide cool. (Henry Wallis’s Tiger Beat portrait shows the garret window ajar so that Chatterton’s soul can escape.) Smart was the eldest of this wave to put florid psychosis into his writing, but Blake made poetic capital from it, positioning himself not as a lunatic but a seer. On the continent, Hölderlin was smitten by both Apollo and madness. Now the gate stood open, and out flew Byron, Keats, and Shelley, and John Clare, and Thomas Lovell Beddoes, who followed Chatterton, along with all Miss Flite’s other birds, including Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach. 

That's from an essay by poet Joshua Mehigan, which appeared in Poetry magazine and was re-run on Longform; my boyfriend sent me the link, saying he thought I might like both the article and the website that had posted it. I read that first article -- and that was it. I was hooked, sold, a nerdy evangelist. I liked that reading longer, denser, more expansive and richly textured pieces felt a little like re-training my brain to slow down, savor, absorb and reflect -- kind of like when that one cool hippie English teacher you have in high school takes the class outside just to look at the clouds and trees all day. I liked that most of the articles were an undiluted mass of text, so that my eye was not even tempted to jump quickly over to the next tweet or pop-up ad. I'm exclusively a writer of short stories and what I call "micro fiction" (really really short stories), never even attempted novels; soaking up all of that longform journalism felt like a good balance to all that.

Also, the Longform editors seemed to always select pieces that imparted delightfully random trivia -- from a WikiLeaks diplomatic cable about a North Caucasian oil baron's wedding for his son, a three-day feast that involved boiled sheep and flying banknotes: "Dagestani weddings are serious business, a forum for showing respect, fealty, and alliance among families; the bride and groom are little more than showpieces." I read interviews with porn stars and profiles of exiled 25-year-old former Sierra Leonean dictators. I even wrote at least three short stories inspired by Longform articles: "Valentine in exile" (inspired by the aforementioned profile of deposed Sierra Leonean dictator Valentine Strasser); "A Picnic" (inspired by a scene in a posted excerpt from the book "Ballad of the Whiskey Robber;" see #4 below); and "Gambling" (inspired by a 1952 piece in Holiday about the trailer life).

It's no exaggeration to say that Longform transformed the temping experience for me, made it bearable. It saved me from feeling too deeply my low place on the totem pole; on the contrary, I wasn't even on their stupid totem pole at all, but floating in a separate ethereal realm of literary thought. 

Here are links to 15 of my favorite Longform articles from those quietly fraught early days of temping, plus pasted snippets that I just now grabbed from archived enthusiastic e-mails sent to friends at the time (mostly spring of last year) when I first read these pieces. I am writing this blog post while at a temp job, quite possibly my last day at an admin-type temp gig; tomorrow is my interview and potential first day of training for a role as a web-content writer for an association in DC. If I get the two-months-maybe-longer writer job, great. And if not, Longform will be there.  

* * * 

1.  "I Thought You Were A Poet: A Notebook" by Joshua Mehigan, Poetry magazine; see pasted-in passage above (it's the long bit in the Times font; I thought I'd use a contrasting font for all of these snippets to set them apart more from my own words here).  

2. "The Mixtape of the Revolution" by Sujatha Fernandes, New York Times Op-Ed

In Egypt, the rapper Mohamed el Deeb told me in a recent interview, “shallow pop music and love songs got heavy airplay on the radio, but when the revolution broke out, people woke up and refused to accept shallow music with no substance.” 

3. "Living in a Trailer" by James Jones, Holiday, July 1952 

After supper, you can unhitch your car and go downtown to see a show, at home in a strange town you maybe never saw before. And the next time you pass that way, it won’t be a strange town any more.

You can usually meet the labor group and their wives by going to the bar nearest the park and ordering beer. They are a stiff, proud, independent bunch, used to traveling, and inclined to be captious if you’re wearing a white collar; otherwise, they’re friendly. If you’re dressed in a T-shirt and Levis, they like you—even if they know you’re a writer. And if you admire crafts and skills you can’t help but like them. Bricklayers, steelworkers, machinists, they follow defense work
or construction jobs back and forth across the country. Many of them have settled into permanent jobs in town and just gone on living in trailers anyway; I suspect it gives them a feeling they can always quit and move on, even though they know they may never do it. 

4. "Ballad of the Whiskey Robber" (excerpt) by Julian Rubinstein

(This is an excerpt from the 2004 book "The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber," about Hungarian folk hero Attila Ambrus who swilled two shots of whiskey before each time he robbed a
state-run bank or post office. He was also apparently the worst ice-hockey goalie ever, letting 23 goals go by him in a single game. The passage below takes place when he first escapes from Transylvania into Budapast and is hanging out in the underground shopping mall beneath the train station, in 1988.)

When night fell, the proprietors padlocked their wooden booths and went home. The gypsy women tied up their sunflower sacks and curled into the station’s dank corners. The cool, cement hall was almost quiet when a lone busker on a violin appeared at the subway entrance playing the theme to Attila’s favorite TV show, those communist party-approved darlings of contemporary Eastern Europe, the Flintstones. There were no police around and those he had seen earlier appeared neither armed nor dangerous. Relieved, Attila sat down against the wall, singing himself a lullaby, Let’s have a doo time, a dabba doo time. Let’s have a gay old time!

5. "The sicario: A Juárez hit man speaks" by Charles Bowden, Harper's 

He is in high school when the [Juarez] state police recruit him and his friends. They get $50 to drive cars across the bridge to El Paso, where they park them and walk away. They never know what is in the cars, nor do they ever ask. After the delivery, they are taken to a motel where cocaine and women are always available.
He drops out of the university because he has no money. And then the police dip into his set of friends who have been moving drugs for them to El Paso. And send them to the police academy. In his own case, because he is only seventeen, the mayor of Juárez has to intervene to get him into the academy.
“We were paid about a hundred and fifty pesos a month as cadets,” he says, “but we got a bonus of $1,000 a month that came from El Paso. Every day, liquor and drugs came to the academy for parties. Each weekend, we bribed the guards and went to El Paso. I was sent to the FBI school in the United States and taught how to detect drugs, guns, and stolen vehicles. The training was very good.”
After graduation, no one in the various departments [in Juarez] really wanted him because he was too young, but U.S. law enforcement insisted he be given a command position [in Juarez]. And so he was.
“I commanded eight people,” he continues. “Two were honest and good. The other six were into drugs and kidnapping.”

Sicarios are not born, they are made.

6. "Slavery's Last Stronghold" by John D. Sutter, CNN 

In a book on the subject of human rights, pulled from the library’s shelves almost at random, Abdel found the idea that would alter his life forever:
Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.
Abdel read the line again and again.

“I started to ask myself if lies were coming out of this book,” he told us, “or if they were rather coming out of my very own culture.”
Once this seed — a question that would undo his entire world — had been planted in his mind, he couldn’t stop it from growing. By 16, he returned to his family’s nomadic settlement in the desert to tell his slaves that they were free. He was shocked by their response.
They did not want to be free, he recalled. Or they didn’t know what freedom was.
His mother told him to stop being silly — that the slaves needed the family to take care of them and that this was the natural order of the world, the way it always would be.

7. "Snap goes the Crocodile" by Marina Akhmedova, openDemocracy (A piece about Russian drug dens; after its initial publication, the article was pulled and banned in Russia. Now it's readable on a site called openDemocracy.)
Witch pours me some tea and I drink it, my lips barely touching the smooth rim of the mug. I feel as if, gulp by gulp, I am drinking in their HIV and tuberculosis.
‘We only have two options: prison or the next world,’ Misha mutters grimly. ‘Nothing else. We’re at a dead end.’
‘There are three,’ Witch wheezes. ‘Cold turkey.’
‘What’s the point?’ Misha asks. ‘You can’t run away from yourself.’
‘He’s right. He’s right,’ Annie and Sveta chime in.

8. "The Stoner Arms Dealers: How Two American Kids Became Big-Time Weapons Traders" by Guy Lawson, Rolling Stone 

At 25, Packouz he wasn't exactly used to the pressures of being an international arms dealer. Only months earlier, he had been making his living as a massage therapist; his studies at the Educating Hands School of Massage had not included classes in military contracting or geopolitical brinkmanship. But Packouz hadn't been able to resist the temptation when Diveroli, his 21-year-old friend from high school, had offered to cut him in on his burgeoning arms business. Working with nothing but an Internet connection, a couple of cellphones and a steady supply of weed, the two friends — one with a few college credits, the other a high school dropout — had beaten out Fortune 500 giants like General Dynamics to score the huge arms contract. With a single deal, two stoners from Miami Beach had turned themselves into the least likely merchants of death in history.

9. "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education" by William Deresiewicz, The American Scholar

Being an intellectual begins with thinking your way outside of your assumptions and the system that enforces them. But students who get into elite schools are precisely the ones who have best learned to work within the system, so it’s almost impossible for them to see outside it, to see that it’s even there. Long before they got to college, they turned themselves into world-class hoop-jumpers and teacher-pleasers, getting A’s in every class no matter how boring they found the teacher or how pointless the subject, racking up eight or 10 extracurricular activities no matter what else they wanted to do with their time.  

10. "Everyone Is An Immigrant" by Eliza Griswold, Poetry magazine

Also, I write better poems on the move and in odd landscapes. Being in unusual places allows me to feel that I have both an authority to speak and something to say. I can imagine myself as having a frank, fierce encounter with what’s real, even if this has nothing to do with the external world. It is easier to believe the poems are necessary.
Others before me have done the same double work, including James Fenton and Ryszard Kapuscinski, to name the two best. In both, a rage crops up in the poems that is fed by the reportage.
We talk about survivor’s guilt, but not about observer’s guilt. For journalists this is particularly acute, as we are paid to watch suffering and paid more during war. For poets, it’s even worse.

On the train, it strikes me that I’ve done a very stupid thing. I’ve left the castle and fifteenth-century farmhouse belonging to Civitella Ranieri, a tiny artists’ colony near the town of Gubbio, where my only job was to read the poet Propertius, or whoever I chose, and maybe to write some poems.

“Tunisians are like extreme Sicilians,” Francesco Luciforo says. “Put them on the surface of the moon, they will survive.”
“Luciforo, what have you seen that you can’t forget?” I ask.
“One night, I watched mothers throw their babies into the sea. They popped up like corks,” he says. 

11. "Revenge of the Nerd" by Daniel J. Flynn, The American Conservative 

Ray Bradbury would have made a great “Revenge of the Nerds” character alongside Gilbert, Lewis, Poindexter, Wormser, and Lamar Latrell, had he not been such a caricature. A four-eyed, zit-faced, bully bull’s-eye gliding through Los Angeles on steel-wheeled rollerskates, Bradbury was a fanboy who forcefully demanded autographs and pictures from Hollywood’s most glamorous stars. Nobody told the uncouth teenaged transplant from the Midwest that he was staring at his opposites when he cornered Marlene Dietrich, Clark Gable, and Judy Garland. The stargazer dared to become the star. His life is the ultimate revenge of the nerd. 

12. "Paper Tigers: What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?" by Wesley Yang, New York magazine

Rather than strive to make himself acceptable to the world, [chef and successful NYC restaurateur Eddie] Huang has chosen to buy his way back in, on his own terms. “What I’ve learned is that America is about money, and if you can make your culture commodifiable, then you’re relevant,” he says. “I don’t believe anybody agrees with what I say or supports what I do because they truly want to love Asian people. They like my fucking pork buns, and I don’t get it twisted.”

Having glimpsed just how unacceptable the world judges my demeanor, could I too strive to make up for my shortcomings? Practice a shit-eating grin until it becomes natural? Love the world twice as hard?
I see the appeal of getting with the program. But this is not my choice. Striving to meet others’ expectations may be a necessary cost of assimilation, but I am not going to do it.
Often I think my defiance is just delusional, self-glorifying bullshit that artists have always told themselves to compensate for their poverty and powerlessness. But sometimes I think it’s the only thing that has preserved me intact, and that what has been preserved is not just haughty caprice but in fact the meaning of my life. So this is what I told [aspiring writer Jefferson] Mao: In lieu of loving the world twice as hard, I care, in the end, about expressing my obdurate singularity at any cost. I love this hard and unyielding part of myself more than any other reward the world has to offer a newly brightened and ingratiating demeanor, and I will bear any costs associated with it.
The first step toward self-reform is to admit your deficiencies. Though my early adulthood has been a protracted education in them, I do not admit mine. I’m fine. It’s the rest of you who have a problem. Fuck all y’all.

13. "Inside 'Scientology High' " by Benjamin Carlson, The Daily

Welcome to “Scientology High,” where students imagine they’re in a Harry Potter book, make lots of clay models, look up “the” in the dictionary and learn the ethical principles of L. Ron Hubbard — all while paying more than $42,000 a year in tuition and fees.

The administration of the secretive and secluded Delphian boarding school recruits students with the suggestion that it is a real-world Hogwarts — an enchanted place for teens, deep in the bucolic mountains of western Oregon.

14. "Operation Midnight Climax: How the CIA Dosed San Francisco Citizens with LSD" by Troy Hooper, SF Weekly

Inside [the safe house], prostitutes paid by the government to lure clients to the apartment served up acid-laced cocktails to unsuspecting johns, while martini-swilling secret agents observed their every move from behind a two-way mirror. Recording devices were installed, some disguised as electrical outlets.
To get the guys in the mood, the walls were adorned with photographs of tortured women in bondage and provocative posters from French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The agents grew fascinated with the kinky sex games that played out between the johns and the hookers. The two-way mirror in the bedroom gave the agents a close-up view of all the action.

15. "The Male Mystique of Henry Miller" by Jeanette Winterson, New York Times Book Review

Turner repositions Miller alongside Whitman and Twain as an innovator who is anti-literature, not because he is a phil­istine but because the new world that is America needs a new literature. This must be vivid, not refined, made on the docksides and in the sweatshops, not in the study or the university.

Yet the central question it poses was stupidly buried under censorship in the 1930s, and gleefully swept aside in the permissiveness of the 1960s. Kate Millet asked the question in the 1970s, but the effort to ignore it is prodigious. A new round of mythmaking is ignoring it once more. The question is not art versus pornography or sexuality versus censorship or any question about achievement. The question is: Why do men revel in the degradation of women?

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