It’s November. It has to be November, because I am going to Disneyland with my family (if we go to Disneyland, we go in November). We are stopping to visit my parents’ friends on the way. I am nine or ten years old. Their son is older than me. He has Downs Syndrome. I run up with him to his room, and we sing into a karaoke machine his parents bought him. It’s not much of a karaoke machine. It’s just a tape player with a cheap plastic microphone and a shitty speaker. He has way too many toys, the sort of stuff you find in the pediatrician’s office. We hop around the room like kangaroos. We slither on the carpet like snakes. I jump up on his bed and start hooting like an ape.

He grabs me and pins me down.

I try to wrestle my way out of it, but he’s incredibly strong. He pins me down again and plants some blunt, weird kisses on my forehead, then he starts squirming all over me, really worked up. His face scrunches. He wiggles for a while, then gets extremely tired. He lays there panting on me. It looks like he’s going to pass out. I writhe out from under him and walk downstairs, angry because of—I can’t tell? What just happened?

I tell on him, and his parents freak out. They’re going ballistic. My parents freak out. I don’t understand why everyone is freaking out.


Sex was presented to me as a system of predator and prey. There was danger lurking around every corner. Girls had to guard themselves because, given the chance, teenage boys would fuck anything that moved. If you were a man, you were a walking, talking erection. You were supposed to be thinking about sex twenty times a minute. Women were supposed to tolerate sex for the emotional benefits, but if they actually liked sex, they were disease-ridden sluts. Gay men were even hornier than the straight ones, and gay women were ugly combative man-haters.

I learned all this before I’d ever had an orgasm, when I still thought women got pregnant by men pissing inside them.


I am in sixth grade, and Kaiser Permanente is putting on a play called Nightmare on Puberty Street. We sit cross-legged on the floor of the gym. The set is blank except for a spraypainted backdrop of silver geometric shapes and neon squiggles. A fog machine fills the stage with blue haze. Then a dozen or so teen actors emerge from behind the backdrop, pushing each other around in a typical playground name-calling scene. They clear out for some reason, but a single kid remains center stage. The spotlight hits him, and he bursts into song: “Noooor-mal!! Am I noooor-mal? What is noooor-mal?” The rest of the play doesn’t matter much. A conversation about moms buying kids jock straps. Something about a suicide scare. “There’s not actually a bone in there,” someone explains, “it’s just called a boner.” The actors stick around after the performance to counsel students. My friends and I joke about boners.


When we were young, health class told us sexual feelings were normal, nothing to be ashamed of. We watched grainy videos from the ’70s of dudes in bell-bottoms watching girls play soccer and feeling something funny going on, of guys prepping their younger brothers for a first date, of girls talking their younger sisters through their first period. Cartoons shimmying beneath bedsheets, then, nine months later, a baby.

But as we got older, health class became sinister. The teachers read lists of STD symptoms: shaking, spots on the legs, parasites, warts. Dementia, heart failure, impotence. We saw photographs of everything. If you had HIV, you wouldn’t know until it was too late. It invaded your bloodstream, turning your white blood cells into virus-ridden bio-bombs, and as soon as the symptoms surfaced, it would be over for you. You’d get a cold, which would turn into a bronchial infection, then pneumonia, and without any white blood cells to fight the infection, you’d be dead. That’s how it was described to me. Another acting troupe dramatized the quick spread of HIV through a group of strangers. I think the play ended with a funeral, but I may be wrong. Don’t have sex, kids.


I kept a laminated business-card-sized abstinence pledge in my wallet. Something like “I commit to save myself for marriage.” I received the card from my church, after a youth group sex talk. “You see,” the youth pastor explained, “all forms of intimacy lead to sex. There is a lot of gray area, like, you know, uh, heavy petting, and, uh, other forms of intimacy, but these are all designed to get you ready for sex. So you need to draw the line at a safe spot and stick to it.”

I went to the youth group with my girlfriend. We never really talked about sex, but we were having plenty of it. We didn’t think it counted, because back then everyone said penetration was the only thing that really mattered, and the rest was all part of an ever-shifting baseball system. Was oral sex was “third base?” I’m not really sure.


I worried that I didn’t think about sex as often as men were supposed to. Was there something wrong with me?

I did have a scar on my penis from a clumsy circumcision. Was that it? Deeply submerged psychosexual terror from a traumatic infant experience?


Sometimes I wondered if I was gay. Maybe that explained why I wasn’t thinking about sex all the time. In health class, they said it was okay to be gay. It didn’t seem like the adults believed it. Most of the adults I knew were Christians. I’d hear fragments of their conversations when the AIDS crisis was blooming: “. . . bathhouses . . . what did they think . . . judgment . . .”


My J.V. high school football coach sees a bunch of guys bent over, hands on knees, after running laps. “Keep standing like that," he says, "now look behind you and spell ‘run.’ R-U-N, get it? are-you-in?”

“Ha ha ha,” we laugh.

“Now stand up straight, bitches. Robertson over here gets it. He used to be a tight end, but now he’s a wide receiver, right? Tight end, wide receiver. Don’t let that faggot get on top of you. He’ll fuck you like the pussies you are!”

“Ha ha ha!”

We walk single file  to the field, our spikes clicking the pavement. The other team is lined up in front of the chain-linked fence at the entrance to the football field. They point out the players with the biggest bulges and laugh.

After the pre-game stretching, we huddle up in the end zone, underneath the goalpost. Our breath becomes a cloud in the crisp autumn air. “Okay,” says Brad, the linebacker, “these are the same pussies we destroyed in the preseason. We kicked their asses then, and we’ll fucking do it again!” Yeah! The scattered, emphatic assent is like an amen. “These cocksuckers are coming here, into our fucking house, under our fucking lights, all the way from Danville, just to get their asses handed to them!” Yeah! “Now get in close, here.” Our hot breath gathers over our heads, a misty halo beneath the bright lights. “We’re the best fucking team in the league, and we’re not going to let a bunch of faggots from Danville score a single point against us! (Yeah!) We’re gonna fucking murder them! (Yeah!) Now get your helmets together, in here.” Our silver helmets knock against each other, knock knock thud. Brad starts to chant, quietly. “We’re gonna rape, kill, pillage-and-burn; we’re gonna rape-kill-pillage-and-burn. Eat babies!” We join in, chuckling at first. The chant crescendoes, and we’re all getting into it now, we’re all fucking vikings! “We’re gonna rape, kill, pillage-and-burn! We’re gonna rape-kill-pillage-and-burn! EAT BABIES!”

My imagination goes nuts. Trains crash into each other. I tear some guy’s arm off. I punch a guy so hard that his head swivels. He crumples to the ground. I imagine my fists are smoky blue, glowing with an evil fire, like the final boss in Street Fighter II.

The loudspeakers play “We Will Rock You.” The crowd stomps along with the kick drum. Thump thump CLAP! Thump thump CLAP! Somehow, Freddy Mercury totally fits with our teen aggression ceremony.

So what?

Fucking Danville!

Those fucking faggots!


A kid contracted HIV from a blood transfusion, my mom tells me. He was so brave, she says. His name was Ryan White, and they kicked him out of school, but he fought it, bless him. He lived five years longer than the doctors said he would. He passed away, from complications brought on by bronchial pneumonia, but his hope was in the Lord. He said so, as he lay dying in the hospital bed, to whomever came to visit him. And lots of people were visiting him. Famous people. Michael Jackson bought him a red Mustang convertible. He even wrote a song for Ryan, too. Elton John bought his family a house. The kid met with President Reagan, went on TV, talked about his illness. Raised awareness. He was a hero. He didn’t deserve to get that disease, my mom says, but he was so brave. She shakes her head. The Lord surely used him. He didn’t deserve to get that gay disease.


“You have this wild, intense energy about you—one of the most incredible auras I’ve seen.”

“Thank you,” I reply. I’m at a girl’s birthday party in Laguna Beach. I’m hoping to hook up with her tonight. I’m eighteen or nineteen. I’m upstairs chatting with a twenty-something psychic, who assures me he’s not hitting on me. He can tell by my aura that I am not into him, he says. I like hearing him talk about my aura.

Another guy, the psychic’s ex-boyfriend, picks up a small toy monkey and dangles it in front of my face. He swings it back and forth, as if he was a hypnotist: “Be gay! Be gaaaaa-ay!”

The guy is trashed and is trying to grope me. The psychic tells him to knock it off, and the guy goes outside to smoke. As I watch him leave, I see the birthday girl lead someone else by the hand into her room.

“Whoa,” the psychic says, “your energy just spiked. Everything okay?”

“Yeah,” I say, “yeah, no, I don’t know, fuck it.”

I am almost crying. I don’t know why. It’s all so embarrassing.

I drive to the cliff to watch the ocean. I masturbate in the car and fall asleep. I wake up in the middle of the night, confused, full of fear. I hear the loud sound of waves crashing against the rocks. It takes a long time to remember where I am.



Terrified By way of The Sapphire VXIII (Part Two)

As we discovered in Terrified By Way of the Sapphire (Part One), yours truly was introduced to (and spooked by) popular music via sounds emanating from the 3” speaker of the trusty Sapphire XVIII am radio in my mom’s 1975 VW Super Beetle. An active imagination and exposure to Scooby Doo Where Are You? had made me an easy scare. Part one covered the eerie references to a sinister, indulgent world in The Eagles 1975 “Hotel California,” which had me quaking in the midday sun as the pastoral landscapes of Minneapolis’ western reaches spooled before my eyes. A year later, a singer with a smooth, calming tenor voice raised the ante. 

One does not think of Cliff Richard as someone who sends chills down your spine (at least not in the classic sense). Being a veteran entertainer for a good twenty years at that point, he might’ve once been been thought by some as a punk threat to the British aristocracy with his involvement in early British Rock N Roll. But, that’s about it. Back then, he and his backing band, The Shadows, had a fantastic (if not relatively tame) rockabilly sound that pre-dated as well as greatly influenced the Mersey Sound/British Invasion some five years later.

But, as for so many other bands, success for Richard was fleeting. Richard was unable to drum up a real presence on the American charts until his mid-70’s comeback. That comeback was birthed from a simple three-and-a-half-minute ghost story set to a catchy little disco beat.

Though Terry Bitten would become one of the more successful songwriters of the 70’s and 80’s by penning a few monster hits for Tina Turner, he scored his first hit by co-writing Richard a song called “Devil Woman.” The song was placed smack in the middle of Richard’s I’m Nearly Famous LP (gotta love that self-deprecating title!) and chosen as the second single to be pulled from that record in April of 1976. The bigwigs at his label, EMI, obviously wanted to switch gears when the first single from that record, the yawn-inducing “Miss You Nights,” meandered into UK’s top twenty. “Devil Woman” crept into the top ten here in the U.S. and became his third highest-selling singleNot sure what it says about this country when a song about an evil, manipulative female becomes a guy’s first hit after nearly twenty years of making records. Was it the disco groove? Maybe Americans like a little danger with their party?

The charts were a mess of styles that month: obligatory disco (Johnnie Taylor’s “Disco Lady,” Sylvers’s “Boogie Fever”); rock-solid rock (Aerosmith’s first single, “Dream On”), schmaltzy love songs (Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around And Fell In Love,” Carpenter’s cover of “Kind Of A Hush”); and even danceable historical revisionism (the Four Seasons’s “December 1963 (Oh What A Night)”). To hear Richard’s perfect tenor sail over those other styles was a shot to the ear, regardless of lyrical content. And, because America has been knee-deep in a Zombie fetish for the last ten years (TV shows, movies, kids shows, games, t-shirts, coffee mugs, stuffed animals, names of cocktails), it’s hard to appreciate that the spooky content of “Devil Woman” was quite the anomaly for a top-40 pop hit.

The song’s protagonist believes he’s been hexed since a mysterious black cat appeared at his door. He finds himself at the table of a fortune teller only to realize she might be that same cat “with evil in her eyes.” The song’s co-writer, Christine Holmes, recorded and released her own version that same year (under the name Kristine Sparkle), changing the perspective to a cautionary tale. The arrangement of Holmes’ version, however, is too busy and lacks the fantastically patient creepy-crawling feeling of Richard’s.

All the ridiculous nods to man/woman relationships were of course lost on my five year old mind, but the ominous notes, minimal instrumentation, and the tense, opening 4/4 drum pulse was a nail biter while my mom and I put-put-putted around. As a child, this spooky little jam blindsided me and put me on edge. The lyrical imagery was as powerful as it was clichéd. The word “evil” was thrown around a few times and, though I didn’t know the depth of its meaning, I was aware of its connotations and knew it stood for bad things. As the song slithered out of that three-inch speaker, my mind raced with images of black cats with evil eyes, crystal balls, mean-looking strangers, dark neighborhoods on moonlit nights. It was full-on Halloween time within these three and a half minutes. Plus, Richard upped the ante during a quiet moment following the second chorus by ad-libbing  a whispered “stay away” followed by “look out” (which perhaps further stressed me out). But – abracadabra! — such was the power of Top 40 Radio!  

Was I the only one affected by this song? Probably not. In fact, there’s a good chance “Devil Woman” was a seed planted in many would-be musician’s minds back then that bloomed into glorious dark flowers in the years to come. Of course, the song could’ve had another effect, as well. Beyond the haunted house imagery, some may have walked away from this one forever strapped with a lifelong distrust of women.

But, wait a minute. What if this wasn’t just a hackneyed relationship song with a demonic allegory wrapped in a minimal disco beat? What if Terry Bitten really did know a devil woman? Ever wonder about that? What if we’ve all been far too dismissive about this whole damn thing? Maybe this is a cry for help! Jeepers, has anyone even heard from Bitten lately?

Think about it.


Cuz a New Town Party Don't Stop

Pierre Huyghe. "Streamside Day," film still, 2003. Film and video transfers; 26 minutes, color, sound. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris/New York. © Pierre Huyghe.

Pierre Huyghe. "Streamside Day," film still, 2003. Film and video transfers; 26 minutes, color, sound. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris/New York. © Pierre Huyghe.

In winter 2014-2015, the Lacma sponsored a retrospective of artist, Pierre Huyghe (b. 1962, Paris). I walked into the exhibition and a man in a suit announced my full name into the dark studio. I found a hermit crab in an aquarium wearing a football-sized Sleeping Muse shell. Outside, a bee hive was the head of a lounging, nude sculpture.

Despite these distractions, I spent most of my time in an alcove watching Streamside Day: a video of a celebration Pierre Huyghe invented for Streamside, a recently-birthed planned town in rural New York.

Onscreen, a parade of teenagers in rabbit and bear and horse costumes wander down a dirt street lined with naked wood homes. The smooth, bare earth is carved in the middle of a forest. The fresh-cut barrenness reminds me of a copper mine.

In a dirt quad, families sit on lawn chairs, look at their new neighbors, eat a curated pile of rainbow donuts. The mayor of the town gives a speech into a cheap microphone from a plywood platform.

The scene evokes the feeling of the first day of ninth grade. I look at the faces of the moms and dads who just spent a chunk of change on a down payment for this very new and out-of-the-way place. I get a sneaking suspicion that Huyghe is poking fun of the families. Parading their children around in pagan animal heads. Dotting the scene with silver Mylar balloons, bare plywood, rainbow-colored food. Failing to provide chairs so families bring their own mis-matching fold-ables.

Despite this, in an interview with Art 21, Huyghe said the town, “was under construction when [he] found it, and … created—or invented—a tradition for it … a celebration, once a year.” He continues: “This is a town that has no organicity. It's an image—an instant, pure image. Months ago, there was no town. Now, it's a brand new town with roads.” A new town, which, to Huyghe, warranted a celebration.

Watching the Streamside Day video, I was reminded of the time I once drove 4+ hours from Orange County through the Mojave Desert to the hot scrawled ruins of California City. Brainchild of Nat Mendelsohn, California City is and was an 80,000 acre planned community that was birthed during the New Town Movement of the 1950s. Mendelsohn imagined California City might one day rival Los Angeles.  

Though California City did end up becoming home to a few hundred residents – most of whom work for the nearby Airforce base – it is mostly a grid of ghost cul de sacs and crumbling asphalt. Street signs stare over the hard desert ground. California City is the state of California’s third largest city, by geographical area. It can be seen from space. I visited it because I have a thing about New Towns: towns with “no organicity.”

Born and raised in Orange County, CA, most of which is a New Town-type stucco suburban sprawl on the coast of Southern California, I know some of what it feels like to grow up in a New Town. Irvine, CA, is a particularly good example: a grid of glass office buildings and apartment towns built on what feels like an arbitrary spot in a grassy expanse.

I now work in another New Town: Broomfield, CO, which sits halfway between Denver and Boulder. Youtube hosts a video from the 50’s detailing its inception and birth.

The narrator begins by detailing the achievement of a man named Morris Greeley, who paved the path for Broomfield by birthing nearby New Town Greeley, Colorado. “Morris Greeley was a man of vision,” says the narrator. “In the wide horizons of his mind, he saw the stirring future of the American West. After viewing the rich, rolling land that sweeps majestically up to the great wall of the Rocky Mountains, he advised, “go west, young man, and grow up with the country.”

The narrator’s booming voice resonates with the enthusiasm of post-war America -- an America full of middle classers seeking to flee from the dirty urban sprawl toward the healthful environs of the grassy suburbs. The narrator asks: “Why not meet the challenge of a growing area by building a whole new city from scratch … a modern dream city for 30K people where everything is carefully planned from the beginning … ?”

Why not?

“Soon, the detailed planning for Broomfield heights was underway in earnest,” says the narrator. “A firm of experienced city planners was obtained to make a dream city as perfect as man can conceive. Streets were laid out in arcs and curves to conform to the natural landscape … street arteries were planned to carry traffic easily and quickly to and from a smart, modern shopping center.”

I know lots of people who live in Broomfield (no Heights). It’s affordable, is home to dozens of tech conglomerate high-rise office buildings, and, indeed, has some nice views of the mountains. I’m guessing the smart, modern shopping center is the strip mall with the Starbucks and Buffalo Wild Wings.

It’s easy to criticize New Towns such as Broomfield, CO, or Irvine, CA. They’re populated by mostly white, middle class folks. Chain businesses dominate. Homes and apartments matchy-match like they came from a box set. Driving culture dominates. They’re usually dozens of miles from what could be considered a true city, a natural people center.

In fact, the out-of-the-way nature of New Towns is part of their DNA. Distance from the messiness of the people center is what makes New Towns feel safe. I’m not sure if Streamside is or will become a typical New Town, but it has most of the earmarks of one. And, my instinct is to criticize it, to start humming lines from the Father John Misty song:

"they gave me a useless education

... a subprime loan

on a craftsman home" 

But, maybe that isn't the right response.  At least it didn't seem to be Huyghe's. “When I first saw this town, I just went to see all the people,” said Huyghe. “And then I said, ‘I'm going to invent a celebration because it's a brand new place … I organized the whole celebration—from the parade to the concert, to the food, to the mayor giving a speech, to the kids playing—everything.'”

I hum: "Oh ... just a little ... bored in the USA..."  The narrator continues: “on an historic day, the 21st of August, 1955, a town was born … 100 new families had pioneered and found the realization for their dreams.”


mfa vs nyc, you forgot the internet

Author: Bernd Untiedt, Germany

Chad Harbach of N+1 curated a book of essays called MFA vs NYC that lays out the scene as-it-stands for NYC publishing editors, agents, writers, and satellite bookish NYC others. Kudos for all of the essays in MFA vs. NYC.

Particularly job well done on Harbach’s introductory essay. His comments on the status quo of NYC houses and MFA university programs not only ring true, but sting. It sucks that NYC editors have become like Hollywood executives searching for blockbusters and the university MFA program environments have become like writer’s camp: safe havens for writers of all shades of talent.

My problem with MFA vs NYC, is that, well, these essays forgot something rather, um, large as it relates to the culture of American fiction.

The Internet, people. You forgot the Internet.

Okay, okay, I’ll admit: Darryl Lorenzo Wellington did write an essay about his participation in the reality-TV-esque Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest. But, that essay was basically an authorial confession for having played a part in the contest, not a true study on how Amazon’s publishing model affects American fiction. Also, Harbach of course mentioned that: “technology sends the New York publishing world into spasms of perpetual anxiety.” But, that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the fact that NYC and MFA programs are dual cultures for fiction, yes, but they are dual cultures running right alongside and outside of and on top of and mixed in with a third culture – the Internet – which in its wild-west-shoot-em-up-new-frontier way is fostering and promoting and creating and commenting-on and editing and disseminating and publishing fiction in new and weird and fantastic ways that have never been done before. Good fiction! Terrible fiction! Weird fiction! Mediocre fiction!

The Internet is not only a culture of fiction, but a force for fiction. A force that is running us all down like a freight train. It’s scary and loud and attracts vagrants and weirdos and might run off the rails, but, hey! It’s taking us to the new frontier!

In light of this, I disagree with many, many statements in the essay “MFA vs NYC,” and the sensibility of the collection of essays in MFA vs NYC as a whole.

In particular: I disagree with the sentiment stated throughout that MFA university programs are the only other realistic avenues to which would-be NYC writers, editors, and agents could flock. This is just not the case anymore. The Internet has become a thing of wide-open-possibilities -- giving writers, editors, and agents oodles of opportunities to make money from writing and publishing fiction. 

And even if the Internet doesn’t bestow a pile of money onto an enterprising writer, editor, agent, etc., these talented fiction-ites (if they love it enough) will do this work for free. They will come home from their full-time jobs and, despite their exhaustion, will still find the time to write. Because if they really love and need to write it will chase them like Faulkner’s demon, propel them into the gray light of the morning to their notebook or their iMac to hammer out a few more words. Because they need it more than they need sleep, wine, food, company, money. The fact that these writers who do this obsessive work have the gift of the Internet as publisher. 

Despite the fact that these prominent American writers wrote thoughtful and practical state-of-the-union essays about a specific set of NYC or MFA writers, the collection feels a little head-in-the-sand-ish considering the fact that the Internet and its fiercely chomping jaws has basically already destroyed the old guarde. Has freed them to maybe move to Cleveland (oh gawd no!) and say what they need to say. Forge their own path. Think outside the box. Create something new that speaks in the voice of their generation.