Thursday, December 4, 2014
12/4: Craig Reinbold on Goldbarth, Benigni, Symborska, Chipotle
For years, I’ve been spreading a rumor that Alert Goldbarth’s genius is at least partially the product of a less-than-elaborate system of collection involving thousands and thousands of many-colored notecards. Imagine his closet, full of shoeboxes, every shoebox filled with notecard upon notecard upon notecard, and recorded on each notecard an observation, a word, a quote, a thought, a name, whatever random thing caught his curiosity long enough for him to find a pencil. And whenever he’s stuck on the page, on say, a clammy Wednesday afternoon, confronted by the typewriter, his writing passing lamely from Thing A to Idea B to Experience C to Epiphany D, when everything he writes is too predictable to live, in those moments, he need only go to an old shoebox—maybe the box that brought home is first pair of Onitsuka Tigers back in 1978—and randomly pull out a handful of notecards upon which he finds the recorded curiosities:
A bosom made buttocky / amberthatched snickerdoodle
View of Delft
And from there it’s merely a matter of stitching together, of figuring out how to get from this weird hallo, “Hoofdman!” to some talk of the plague, with a bosom made buttocky in-between. It’s about making connections between the seemingly random—and suddenly Goldbarth’s writing displays that trademark chaotic intelligence we love. He pulls shit out of the box and somehow puzzles it together. E.g., this is how we get from the city of Delft circa 1700, to Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the “father of Microbiology”, to fleas to flea genitalia and flerotica, to 20-year-old Goldbarth’s afternoon romps in his girlfriend’s topiary-esque “central garden patch”, to Vermeer and Vermeer’s View of Delft, to Daniel Defoe, to the plague, to the compassionate humanistic morality that I find so comforting—some astounding associative leaps. And yet as he shows us, these leaps are actually quite small. The connections are there for any essayist to see, except that not just any essayist can see them. He’s got a unique brain, that Goldbarth. A brain like fly-paper. A brain like an atom-smasher.
Eventually I like to assign students “The Goldbarth Challenge”:
1) Five whatevers are written on the board. Say, for example:
Padded-ass bicycle shorts
2) Pick at least two
3) Make some meaningful connections (this may involve research)
4) This is not an exercise in making an essay out of nothing so much as an exercise in learning to make an essay out of anything
5) In that, it’s just like life.
Today’s Goldbarth Challenge
Simmons Bedding Company
Adolf Hitler’s interior designer once said of her erstwhile employer, “He preferred smooth, but not shiny, textures to rough ones”; “He was not fond of brown.” In response to the question, “Did you fear Hitler?” she replied, “No. I had no reason to fear him.” Several of the other Nazi nationals interviewed echoed: “No,” “No, never,” “Never,” “Never! There was no reason to fear him.” The German sculptor Arno Breker responded, “Respect, yes—but never fear.” Only the Reich architect Albert Speer, the infamous “Nazi who said sorry” at the Nuremburg trials and who served twenty years at Spandau Prison, broke the mold, saying, “No, but I knew he could be dangerous.”
Inspired by Chuck Klosterman, who once watched VH1 for 24 hours and got paid to write about it for SPIN, I used to have my CNF students do a Stunt Essay—an assignment that led a number of less-imaginative undergrads to binge on their own TV of choice, led a few others to get stoned at work, and prompted one very large male student to skinny dip in his apartment complex pool one oven-baked Tucson afternoon. Others were more adventurous: a student wrote about going for a Philippe Petit in the mountains, slack-lining between two high rock formations. Another, a young woman, walked from one end of south Tucson to the other in the middle of the night, chronicling the taunts and catcalls. Another told her parents she no longer believed in Jesus. For one essay—the one I’m really thinking about—a student set out to join the Century Club, drinking 100 shots of beer in 100 minutes.
This student was taking my class during a summer session, his last three credits before graduation. He was finishing school with an accounting degree—accounting, boring but practical—because his deadbeat dad had disappeared twenty years earlier and he was looking to support his mom. His essay’s frisson came from the fact that he set out on this party-game quest alone in his apartment, from the fact of alcoholism in his family, and from the awkward canoodling of youthful whimsy and oncoming adult responsibility. He made it to 80 shots, then lost his frozen-pizza dinner in the sink.
I really remember this essay, and him, because later in that class another guy was questioning whether people actually cry during movies and I responded that just the other day my wife and I had watched Life is Beautiful for the first time, and right near the end, just as Roberto Benigni puts on a brave, smiling face and goosesteps (a jokester to the last) past his hiding son, and is led behind a nearby wall and casually killed by a random Nazi stooge just a minute before the end of the war, I myself started crying—nothing like a bawl but enough to qualify. Without missing a beat, this student, the accountant, told us that Life is Beautiful happened to be his favorite film, and he always cries at the end too.
For me, it was the pointlessness that did it. It’s not just that this nameless Nazi asshole killed Benigni’s character so ignobly, no. It’s that he didn’t have to kill him at all. He could have just as easily let him live. But he didn’t. I know it’s just a movie. But c’mon, it’s not just a movie. How arbitrary killing and death can be! Life is beautiful? Fuck. Life is terrible.
The accountant knew this too.
A martial artist friend once told me it only takes 15 pounds per square inch to crack a human skull, and I’m not sure I believe this, or at least there must be a lot of variables in such an equation, but his point was: it is remarkably easy, at least on a how to level, to kill someone. With that in mind, I think too of how easy it would have been not to kill Benigni’s character in Life is Beautiful. At least the action itself I mean—to shoot or not to shoot—seems so simple. His death was called for, why? Out of spite? This wasn’t combat. The war was winding down. Easy enough to spare the man. Why not let him live, the SS-commander—or whoever was in charge—none the wiser?
The task falls to you. Why not just say no?
A young Marine I once interviewed admitted that in preparation for the 2003 invasion of Baghdad they were instructed, explicitly, to kill everyone they saw—the elderly, women, children—and that he and everyone he knows did just that. This was off the record though. He’d asked that I switch off my recorder. So take that admission for what you will. Personally, I have little doubt the order was given. And most, I imagine, did what they were told.
There’s something about being ordered, maybe. There’s the training, yes, and maybe a lack of empathy, or a general lack of thought. Thinking gets you killed, after all, is a soldier’s mantra. There’s the easy absolution the public doles out in wartime. We—most of us, most of the time—would probably do the same, would succumb to the social pressure, would do what we are told to do. Wouldn’t we? There are so many justifications. Unless the noose is around our neck it’s easy enough to turn a blind eye, to pretend it’s not as bad as all that. We miss so much, let so much go, we’re so distracted by the ins’n’outs of everyday living, by life’s inevitable minutiae.
So I hesitate to condemn this young Marine—or anyone—now. I hesitate, and to be honest, my toddler son just threw his yogurt on the floor, and the dog’s whining to go out, and dinner’s not going to stir-fry itself. There’s so much more pressing shit to think about.
Minutiae as blinders.
Here I think of that interior designer—Hitler’s interior designer, who forty years after the fact relayed the banal: “He preferred smooth, but not shiny, textures to rough ones,” and “He was not fond of brown.” That always kills me—you know, in the funny way. Not fond of brown. How dainty, how refined this designer must have thought herself. Imagine the way she wisped to and fro in his palatial home, ordering around armchairs and end tables and giant mahogany desks and velour-upholstered couches. Imagine her wielding a palette book the size of a window shade, splashing color after color on the wall of Adolf’s office, Adolf nodding politely, but ultimately uninterested, until, finally, he pounds a fist and shaking his head violently side to side bellows, “Not that one! I will not have these walls painted the color of shit!”
Her dignity un-besmirched—in fact reinforced—by the interspersing years, she relays to her interviewer, “No, he was not fond of brown.”
“And did you fear Hitler?”
“No,” she replies, affecting a sip of her post-lunch digestif, peach schnapps served in delicate crystal—glassware smuggled from the Reich palace to her own snug landhaus at the end of the war maybe. Spoils of war spoiling her now. “No, I had no reason to fear him.”
And she probably didn’t.
Her job was to prettify, to color within the prescribed lines, though not in brown, never in brown—and why should she have thought beyond her afternoon adornings of the Führer’s palace? Who can see beyond the pretty colors and the way the sun comes out after lunch, and the five o’clock whistle and five-thirty tipple? We can’t be blamed, can we, as distracted as we are by the ins’n’outs of everyday living? We can’t be blamed for missing the big picture, can we?
But what else was happening in that palace—in that city, that country, on that continent—while she was obsessing about where to put a sofa?
Minutiae as negligence.
Five years into our marriage my wife and I finally admitted there was a canyon growing between us. We’d bought our bed—frame, box spring, queen-size mattress—off Craigslist for $200, and though it had served us well, we couldn’t lay down any more without immediately rolling to center, which may have been fine when we were newlyweds, but these days we need sleep. Sleep requires comfort. And comfort, after the first year or two of marriage, seems to require space.
So one Saturday last July found us in a Mattress Firm showroom, lazing on our backs on a spanking new Simmons Beautyrest Black Alexia Extra Firm number that was like laying on St. Peter’s pillow, an elegant construction of Energy FoamTM and Dynamic Memory FoamTM, with a support system featuring 800 advanced pocket coils individually wrapped to adjust to a person’s unique body contour. With no price listed, Erik, the kindly youth who assured us he was not working on commission, had to look up what the damage would be: $2,689—though he could float a deal, say 20% off, so, a very reasonable $2,150.
We were prepared for this and proceeded on to last year’s model on the less well-lit side of the showroom. This castoff was $599. And it was just then, as I realized we were actually going to spend more than a week’s wages on a mattress, that the previous day’s New York Times cover photo flashed to mind—a picture of a beach all sand and shimmer, and a Palestinian boy in the foreground, mangled by a stray mortar. It was a stunning photo, brutal, but also distant, removed, as if the camera was a mile away barely seeing what it was seeing—a fine metaphor for the actual war in Gaza last summer, as I was updated every morning, listening to the news via headphones while I ran the daily Excel reports at work, and when the death toll was given and the political commentary over I switched to a Stephen King novel I was listening to on CD, Under the Dome, which was kind of great, and though similarly maudlin, had the benefit of being fiction.
How could we be mattress shopping while people were dying in Gaza? This was the obvious question, but I kept that crazy guiltiness to myself, and we bought the mattress and our sleep has never been better. And in any case, aren’t we morally obligated, in a way, to take advantage of our particular privilege? What happiness would be added to the world, what suffering alleviated, if we had deferred to the obscure needs of the distant many and out of some strained sense of solidarity not invested in this simple, if expensive, creature comfort? Sleeping now, so peacefully, have we not added to the sum total of the world’s well-being just a little? Is that not kind of noble, in a way? Doing what small things one can?
We bounced out of the store around noon and since Chipotle was next door decided to grab a burrito for lunch. Normally reserved for special occasions—like dinners-in-the-car as we drive up north on a Friday after work—this was a treat, but what the hell. You can’t spend 600 bucks on a mattress, of all things, and then begrudge yourself a $6 burrito. What the fuck is $6? Nothing. Or at least, you know, it’s all relative. Anyway, the burrito was delicious. Life is always lighter with a full belly.
Minutiae as refuge.
The Sunday after September 11, 2001, just moments before all that patriotic warmongering was set in motion, in an uncharacteristic display of insight and calm, my local paper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, published on the front page of the Arts section a poem that began:
that we also mention this:
Life goes on.
and ended with an image that has stuck with me since:
On tragic mountain passes
the wind rips hats from unwitting heads
and we can’t help
laughing at that.
with a bunch of other stuff in-between. I was really moved by this poem, and I saved that newspaper. For years it was rolled up behind a row of books on the bookshelf in my childhood bedroom. I wanted to save it, but I suppose I didn’t want it too close to me. Not when I had so much else to think about.
Awhile later I discovered Wisława Szymborska. It was spring break and I was shacked up at a friend’s grandma’s house in a retirement-town in Florida. Sunned-out, I went thrifting for books. Being an English/Philosophy major, I was into buying random books of poetry back then, and was immediately attracted to View with a Grain of Sand’s plenty sexy cover. And what a sexy name, Szymborska! I had no idea who she was but I bought those collected 100 poems, for 25 cents, a steal really. Eventually I found my way to “Reality Demands”, page 184, originally published in The End and the Beginning (1993). The closing image
On tragic mountain passes
the wind rips hats from unwitting heads
and we can’t help
laughing at that.
reminded me of something, from somewhere, but what? Later, in the shower, all wet and lathered and going to town with a loofah: epiphany. The next time I was at my parents’ I dug out that old 9/11-themed newspaper and there she was, my crush, Szymborska, a Nobel Prize winner apparently.
Her poetry—actually all the 20th-century Polish poetry I know—offers this: life is very, very serious, and very, very funny. This a principle so real, so true, it can be elegantly illustrated with the most banal, everyday image of a gust of wind, air moving from high pressure to low, as it does every second of every day, all the world round, knocking a hat off a head, once more showing us who’s boss. Funny, but totally serious. Trifling, but somehow profound.
that we also mention this:
Life goes on.
Think of those t-shirts that everyone and everyone in my 6th-grade class wore under their uniform polos, when we were just dying for the bell to signal it safe to strip off that Catholic school conformity and reveal the true nature of our unique selves to the world: Basketball is Life. Soccer is Life. Volleyball is Life. Hockey is Life. Fresh Prince re-runs are Life. Theatre is Life. Music is Life. Reading is life. Nike is Life. Chess is Life. Mountain Dew is Life. Giving blood is Life. Super Mario Bros. is Life. Mint Chocolate Chip is Life. is Life. is Life. is Life.
Minutiae is Life.
How right we were that everything and everything could be summed up so easily.
*A version of this essay first appeared at www.BendingGenre.com.
Craig Reinbold is one of the curators of the Essay Daily. His writing has appeared in a number of more or less literary places, most recently in the Gettysburg Review, Mud Season Review, Terrain.org, The Rumpus, and Brevity.