Vulvania

It was the Eighties. I was a junior in high school. It was a weeknight, but that didn’t stop my best friend Paul and I from once again delving into the source of most of our teenage chicanery: the ever-fruitful Stroh’s 30-pack. We were well into it, lounging on the couches in his parent’s basement, when the topic drifted to a different shore: the assignment due the next day for our World History class.

“So what do we do?”

“We have to create an imaginary country,” Paul reminded me. “And a make believe international crisis.”

“Okay,” I said, “creating a country. What’ll we call it?”

Paul slumped into the couch, holding his beer can. “Let’s name it,” he threw out, followed by a quick burp, “something sexual.”

“Interesting approach,” I said, my beer-sodden brain struggling. “Pudendumtown?

“That’s a city,” Paul reminded me, “not a country.”

The room was silent for a minute as we lounged in our seats. Finally, Paul raised his face up from the couch. “How about,” he said, “Vulvania?”

Despite the booze that had sludged up my synapses, I felt a jolt of excitement. “I like that,” I said.

“Me too,” said Paul, grinning back at me.

 

Ten hours later, the two of us were standing outside Mr. Hughe’s classroom. The long beige concourse of the hallway was empty, save for a few last students hurrying to class. Paul held a 24” x 36” poster board that displayed a large triangular drawing. A drawing that was a lavishly detailed depiction of the female genital region. I had a sheet of paper with the international crisis that we’d invented scribbled down on it. We were both still a bit inebriated from the night before.

Mr. Hughes strolled up. He was a smallish man with a nest of curly brown hair, a drawn face, and thin, pale lips. “Good morning, Mr. Frank, Mr. Logothetis,” he said, eyeing us both. “The bell will ring in only a few moments. Now, won’t you step inside so we can view your presentation?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Wait a second,” Mr. Hughes said, gazing down at the poster board Paul held. “What have you got there? Is that a map of . . . why, that looks like. . . oh my!”

“Behold,” Paul cried, holding up the map, “Vulvania.”

Mr. Hughes stared at the map for a second, his mouth agape. Paul and I stood proudly before him, watching his face turn from white to pink, then to red, and then back to white again. “What, what do you think you’re doing?” he gasped.

“Creating an imaginary country,” Paul said.

“And a make believe international crisis,” I added.

He shot us an alarmed look. “If you boys present this,” he said, his voice dropping a register, “I will have no choice but to flunk you both for the entire semester. This material is totally inappropriate.”

The bell rang with a clatter. As a few students shuffled past, Mr. Hughes rushed into the room, leaving us standing in the hall.

I looked at Paul. Usually, Hughes went along with our mischief. But perhaps we’d gone too far this time. “What do we do?” I said.

Paul fingered his chin. “I don’t know about you,” he said, “but I think it’s pretty funny.”

“Me too.”

“And besides, he said, “we’re flunking the semester any way.”

“Good point.”

Ninety seconds later, we stood before the classroom. Mr. Hughes sat rocking slightly in his chair, glaring at the two of us. I noticed that he had two pink slips on his desk. From previous experience, I knew that these slips were already filled out with our names, and that should we disrupt the class, Mr. Hughes will hand them over to us, and we will be sent to Mr. Lippett’s office, the assistant principal. But it was too late to stop now.

I stared at the class, clearing my throat. “Our country is the most attractive in the world,” I began, reading off the sheet of notebook paper. “Famed for its moist climate, men have come into this land for centuries.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Paul announced, whipping the poster board around, “may we present . . . Vulvania!”

On the board was a pink, triangular-shaped image surrounded by a confusion of black squiggles that approximated pubic hair. Other shapes adjacent to Vulvania resembled a pair of long, shapely legs, a pair of fulsome breasts, and the whole Magic Marker map of the region we’d drawn was a thinly-disguised schematic of a voluptuous female body.

The class remained silent. There were a few shocked snickers, but most of our peers did not understand the anatomical references. The few that were still awake were responding to the drawing, which was unmistakably sexual.

I continued. “Now the capital of Vulvania,” I said,” pointing to a bright red dot on the map, “is Clitsburgh.” The class was silent. A girl in a cheerleader uniform shifted in her seat. I looked around the room, eyeing my peers. “Clitsburgh is located in the middle of bush country, near the twin folds of the Labia mountains.”

A few people guffawed loudly. Mr. Hughes looked like he was about to have an aneurysm. Paul propped the map onto the chalkboard shelf, and we stood beside it. He motioned to the long, slender area adjoining Vulvania. “Now the country that borders Vulvania,” he said, “is known as Thighland.”

This got the best laugh yet. A few feet away, Mr. Hughes cleared his throat, fingered the pink slips, and grabbed a pen.

“And above Thighland,” I said, pointing at the dangling protrusion aiming its tip squarely at Vulvania, “right off of the coastline . . . is the staunch island nation of of Nova Scrotum.”

“That’s enough!” Mr. Hughes bellowed. The class was roaring; everyone was hooting and hollering. A few people nearly fell out of their desks, doubled over with laughter. Mr. Hughes lunged up from his seat with the two pink slips and stuck them into our hands. “You two are out of here!” he yelled.

“But Mr. Hughes,” I said, in my clueless voice, “don’t you want to hear our international crisis?”

Mr. Hughes scowled at us with disgust. “Get out of my classroom,” he spit out. “Now!”

 

Thirty years later, it’s hard to believe that we actually did that. It’s also hard for me to believe that Mr. Hughes didn’t laugh, gently admonish us, or appreciate the originality it took for a few obviously bored seventeen year-olds to create Vulvania and its lascivious neighbors. Sadly, we never got the chance to explain the international crisis, which, of course, was a thinly-veiled, ridiculously obvious copulation metaphor, wherein Nova Scrotum invaded Vulvania and “gave birth” to a womb of problems, none of which I can exactly recall.

I still have the first beer-stained sketches of the presentation. I don’t have the big map we drew, nor do I see Stroh’s on the shelf too often anymore, or my best friend Paul, but there’s one thing that will always remain in my mind.

The mysterious, ever-enticing land known as Vulvania.

The Liker

 

facebook_like

The fire was a distant stimulus. A more urgent one was before her, on her laptop—her Facebook page. While she enjoyed perusing the updates from her 3,004 friends to discern salient facts about them, scrolling endlessly through their comments and photos for more clues about their likes, habits and tendencies, she inevitably returned to linger over her own page. She was far more interesting and had far more likable habits than anyone else that she knew. But today something was amiss. She looked beneath her update, staring at the tiny blue and white thumbs up icon that signified that someone liked her post. And there was nothing there.

At first she thought there was a glitch in the system, that the whole network had gone on the fritz, been hacked or something, but when she opened her newsfeed and checked the updates posted by her friends, she saw an avalanche of likes appearing in a constant stream. Likes centered around tart political zingers, links to cultural events, inspirational memes, acronymic airport codes indicating flight itineraries, trenchant observations about loofah gloves, blinding allegiances to various sports teams, adorably cute pet photos, lunch time oysters and other food porn pics, faux happy marriage and family photos, obese commuters eating cheese popcorn photos, the when-I-had-hair photos from middle-aged men, the when-I-was-skinny photos from middle-aged women, and of course the inevitable tribute to a friend who had succumbed to suicide and was now, forever more, interred in the digital necropolis. Each and every update from her network of friends had several, if not dozens of likes. She looked back at her post, then glanced at the clock. Five minutes had passed, and there was still not one single like.

Her post was certainly likeable. All of her posts were likeable. She loved posting and she loved being liked. She was not sure that she was that well liked in life; she certainly wanted to be liked, and usually felt liked, but she was never 100% certain. On Facebook, though, she was always sure that she was liked. The thumbs up icon and the number of people who had clicked it were definitive, hard boiled, quantifiable proof of it. That was why she was here. To like and to be liked. That was the only reason to be here.

And now this. No likes at all. She looked at her post, wondering what she’d done wrong. For the fourth or fifth time, she read her words:

Even at age five, I had an
uncanny sense of style.

It wasn’t so much the wisdom or cleverness of her words that she thought people would like, it was the overall effect, the careful crafting of her image, the wry contrast between her words and the historical picture accompanying it, which was of a small, tow-headed schoolgirl wearing ill-fitting, high-waisted pants, a too-tight blouse, and a smirking, self-assured, vainglorious expression that conveyed overflowing confidence and, even at the age of seven, an obliviousness to all things but herself. It was another “Throwback Thursday” picture, a proven like-generator of hers for years now. These nostalgic posts usually involved juxtaposing her current virtues or desired virtues against retro imagery of her, to make a not so subtle communiqué about how she wanted to be perceived in the present. The gentle use of irony, she thought, saved her from sounding egotistical.

Or did it? Again, she remembered how many times the formula had worked. How many times she’d used self-deprecation to trumpet her superiority, in yet another “humble brag.” Of course, she knew that for every like she courted and received from others, she would have to return the favor, and that each like of hers was strategically placed for maximum effect, to align herself with everyone and sympathize with every one of their daily sagas—their dreams, their fears, their innermost feelings and most unusual idiosyncrasies. She knew that by accepting this reciprocal agreement of liking and being liked back, that she was dooming herself to liking everything unconditionally, automatically, but as long as she received just as many likes back, or, hopefully, a whole lot more, it was worth it.

Whether it was a child graduating from middle school or a horribly burned frittata or an oh-so-mischievous kitty lurking in the laundry basket, she kept liking and liking and liking without ever tiring of liking, as she cheered on the antics, causes and beliefs of her extremely likeable, equally like-obsessed friends. Because the more she liked them, the more they would like her.

This was her surface game, anyway. The feigned concern, interest and admiration of others. However, even these likes were only a prelude to another tactic of hers, a point of intersection where she would insert herself into someone else’s conversational thread and lamprey the attention away from the subject at hand to reflect it back at herself. It took a careful sleight of hand to affect this dynamic, and she often wondered if her more prescient friends noticed how she always coopted the topic and steered it back her way, but, thankfully, no one ever made the observation. She also knew that even if anyone did make the realization, it was far too inane and subtle to mention publically, let alone on-line. So it was a moot point.

To her, Facebook was her daily talk show, starring her favorite person, her. And boy, did this favorite person have a lot to say. From the minute she awoke, in the car, on the train, over lunch, at her desk, in meetings, in elevators, in the kitchen, in line, on walks, on the toilet, her every brain wave, silly observation, innate fear, or wayward thought, no matter how shameful, indulgent or inane, was voiced. Spoken aloud, they would have doomed her to being shunned. But presented on line, the effect was mitigated, for it was her persona rather than her person that was to blame, because the on-line her and the real her were very different. In fact, it hardly seemed like there was a real her anymore. The only her was the on-line her now. Within its world there was safety, security; in its sea of likes it was easy, because there were only two options, liking and being liked, and when you enjoyed both, well, it was a very likable situation, this Facebook.

Except right now. There was no like right now. Because after fifteen minutes of staring at her laptop, not a single person had liked her post. She felt a flush of white-hot anger soar up to her temples and before she knew it she was slamming the laptop shut without even logging off properly.

 

Outside the train window, the river gleamed in the morning sun. But it didn’t exist at all. Not for her. She sat there, riveted to her phone, opening up Facebook, ready to see the reaction to the post she had made right before bed. It wasn’t anything too risqué, but it was a bit more provocative than usual. After the zero likes of yesterday, she couldn’t take any chances.

As the page loaded and she looked at the small globe notification icon that registered how much activity and interaction she was getting from her 3,004 friends, she was surprised to see that there wasn’t a single number beside it. In a mild daze, she clicked on her image, and went to her profile. Everything was in order; the pic of her when she was thirty pounds lighter was still smiling out at the world, as was the timeline imagery of the Louvre and its stunning, glass pyramid entranceway, which was her favorite part of the entire museum. She quickly scrolled down to her latest update, and once again, could not believe what she saw.

Despite the fact that she posted it at 10 p.m. last night, and it was now almost 8:30 a.m. the next morning, there had not been a single like.

She quickly reviewed the unglamorous shot of her and her stubbly husband swaddled in their rumpled sheets and reread her post:

After hopping into bed and thinking about sex,
the old married couple quickly fell asleep.

Not a hilarious post, but an attention-getting one, she thought. The bedrock of her marriage provided an endless vein of material that she often mined for engaging content. And their sex life, or lack thereof, was her number one topic. As was the bumbling, well-meaning, sitcom-like image of her husband and the tough, savvy, still havin’ sex or tryin’ to image of herself that she projected. Each day, several times a day, the two of them became a digital Ozzie and Harriett, beaming forth snippets of their uniquely fascinating romance out to their thousands of friends: the office friends, childhood friends, neighborhood friends, best friends, casual friends, the friends of friends, every one of the legions of acquaintances, ex-coworkers and semi-strangers that they’d managed to ensnare in their vast, ever-expanding web of likes got to see the two of them front and center, entertaining them all.

Many of these posts drove home the thought that she was still sexy and desirable. It was easy to be sexy and desirable on Facebook. On Facebook, she could select the images of herself she wanted everyone to see and control everything. The only problem was when someone would “tag” her, which never failed to result in an unflattering image of her being offered to the masses. To combat those random, hopelessly quotidian images that others put forth, she posted updates defining her as fetching and coquettish, even referring to herself as a “cougar” once, although she knew she could never live up to the salaciousness of the term, or the sleek, feline insouciance it implied.

Her occasional, but well-placed references to sex, as well as her noble efforts to still practice it with her languid, always-tired husband of eight years were a constant wellspring. They also served to hide the painful reality that she was well past the petite years, graying, wrinkling, sporting lunch lady arms and wearing a saddle of cellulite around her wine-swollen haunches. This was why she confined her lascivious posts to close-ups of candy apple red Christian Louboutin pumps, or detail shots of her Maybelline-stained eyelids and floridly painted lips. Two-piece swimsuits were unthinkable, but tastefully composed macro shots with the right cropping could at least hint at how MILF-ish and desirable she still was, couldn’t they?

These frequent posts about their sex life always garnered lots of responses, as navigating the shoals of marriage and couplehood were easy triggers to react to. Only this time, every single one of them had chosen NOT to react. Why? Was she suddenly repulsive? Did everyone, overnight, decide to dislike her? Had she done something to mass-annoy three thousand people? What was making everyone, all of her 3,004 friends, ignore her?

She ground her teeth as the train bounced over the tracks. It was time to get serious. It was time for a monumental outpouring, a tidal wave of likes now.

 

In a wash of red carpet, flowing velvet curtains, and the glow of candlelight, Le Bistro presented its Yelp-approved splendors to her. But it might as well have been Port Authority bus terminal, for her iPhone was a far more captivating stimulus. She stared into it, and the pale glow of Steve Jobs’ gift to mankind bathed her in a soft, bluish tint, rendering her face a curious, moon-like orb in the shadows. She looked at her post and felt a shudder. She took a double sip of her Bordeaux, swallowed too quickly and examined the tiny screen and the image that took up most of it.

And what an image it was—the kitten was impossible to ignore. And, more importantly, the kitten did not have a single hair. Her reasoning was simple: anything with cats was a guaranteed like; after all wasn’t half the internet cat videos and cat pics? It was a smart move. But to that little bit extra, to go hairless, well, she still couldn’t believe she’d done it. After deciding on a cat, she found herself asking the pockmarked salesman at Pet Central to let her hold the strange, unnervingly smooth, scalded-looking beast that had been cowering in the cage beside the calicos. With its soft, gerbil eyes and obtrusive ears, the hairless little whelp, which trembled at her touch, looked so forlorn and hideous that she immediately knew it would garner sympathy from all. So she purchased it on the spot, took it home, got her phone out and snapped a few dozen shots of it looking cute—or as cute as the homely little mutant could ever look—and then she put the shots on Facebook. Once she’d posted all four pics and penned her update, all thoughts of the hairless creature left her head, as she had already banished it to the furnace room and was planning on returning it to Pet Central the next day. And now, here it was, the next day, and after eight hours of frantically checking Facebook every twenty minutes, her conclusion, once again, was the same.

Not one thumb.

Should she have written something else? Maybe saying “Meet Yoda, the newest member of the family,” wasn’t interesting or provocative enough. Maybe the lameness of that post deflated the power of the beast’s ungodly appearance. But she didn’t think she needed to be that clever, the cat looked preposterous, that should’ve been enough to attract people and get them liking. That and the “Star Wars” reference. Didn’t everyone like Star Wars? And Yoda? But she had been wrong about that. Dead wrong.

She took a too-big swig of wine. After setting the empty glass back on the table so gingerly that it didn’t make a sound, she sat there silently for a moment, until her mouth opened slightly in a rictus of shock, and her sad and vanquished eyes drifted away from her phone to gaze off into space.

 

Over the next few weeks, there were many things that she could have noticed or appreciated. The sound of the wind caressing the chimes in the screen house. The swaying of the crimson leaves before they broke free from their autumnal stems and spindled down to carpet the earth. The vermillion sunsets over the reservoir. But none of them held any appeal. Reality was nothing more than a bland tableau. She had no use for it. Not with her screens.

From iPhone to iPad to iMac, she monitored them constantly, checking her Facebook page over and over, every few minutes, until she finally decided to stay logged in 24 hours a day. Her phone never left her clutches; she brought it to meetings, meals, work sessions; she cradled it in bed, fondled it in cabs, gazed longingly at it on the sidewalk, peered at on trains, everywhere she went, its 4.7 inch LED-backlit widescreen led the way, until it became a de facto appendage. Eventually, her neck became stiff from constantly craning down to look at it every few seconds, and it wasn’t long before she was walking, or creeping along rather, with a stooped, almost anteater-like posture. But she ignored the pain, for the mental anguish was far greater.

It was the most insane thing ever. She could barely fathom it. The very terrain of her existence, its contours and shapes, had been scraped away. Because once again, there were no likes. Zero. Not a single one.

She’d upped her game. She really had. Each successive post had been more and more likeable, on the Like-O-Meter, she was red lining, peaked, running at full tilt. Some of her posts were so wise and heartfelt and passionate and caring that they would’ve made Deepak Chopra, Tony Robbins or any other inspirational speaker vomit, while other posts were so scathingly funny, so piercingly insightful, and so painfully true that they might have humbled George Carlin. She dug deep, exploring every possible emotion, making posts that were sad, posts that were happy, posts that were goofy, posts that were smart, posts that were sobering, posts that were zany, posts that reflected the harrowing news stories of her sad and murderous times, posts supporting causes she’d never cared about; she made posts of every flavor, every nuance, and still, amazingly, infuriatingly, heartbreakingly, there had been not one single response.

She crouched at the kitchen table, whose orderly place settings were now obscured with crusty wine glasses, empty bottles, overflowing ashtrays—sadly, she’d recently started puffing away again after eight years of being nicotine free—and the innumerable crumbs, festering dollops and other food remnants that lay beneath and atop it all. It was the third day in a row she had called in sick, and for the third day in a row, she had spent it before her computer, but no matter how many desperate thoughts she arrived at, the fact remained same: her entire network of so called “friends,” all 3,004 of them, had spurned her.

She scrolled through her series of posts, eyeing each image, each link, video and article, rereading each line she wrote, pondering each topic she’d chosen, wracking her brain as to why none of her updates, not a single one, had resulted in a like:

Lunch break! Time to samba!

Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

Thoughts and prayers for the victims in the Fort Wayne Bed, Bath and Beyond steak knife massacre.

Every sunrise brings hope. Every sunset brings peace. 

This is Tad, our neighbor. Tad has Down Syndrome, but he never lets it get him down. Especially with this miniature trampoline I purchased for him yesterday! #smilesgalore, #bouncyboy #DownWDownSyndrome.

 I miss my Mom.

Heaven just got a whole lot sluttier. R.I.P. Madonna.

 Thousands of Malawian children suffer from malnutrition. That’s why I’ve just booked a ticket to Lilongwe. I will be leaving to join the Doctors Without Borders Outreach Program and help bring sanitation, running water, and the internet to kids like Induku here.

 Really, guys? Not one like? Okay, deep breath. What if I said that for every like I get on this post, I’ll donate ten dollars to the Red Cross? Would that make you like me again? LOL. Not sure if this is a group prank or whatever, but you made your point. Now let me make mine and that is that I will contribute ten dollars to the Red Cross for every like I receive here! Time limit expires in 24 hours. It’s your move, my 3,004 “friends.”

To be loved is the greatest gift of all. But to be liked is even greater. 🙂

 

She’d tried every move she could think of, tugged every heartstring, every hashtag, but the result was the same. She sat there, staring into the aquarium-like depths of her screen. Outside, the rain was drumming against the windows and the night curtained down. As the exterior world grew darker, her laptop screen grew brighter and brighter, until its soft, blue glow was the sole light source in the room.

As she stared at the litany of increasingly desperate posts, an eerie calm began to settle over her. No one liked her any more. Even her husband, who had watched the whole nightmare unfold with a bemused expression—at least until the big fight they had after Madonna died, when she went storming around the house screaming about getting no likes for the thousandth time and he tried to calm her down but only wound up breaking her thumb, which created so much animosity between them that it made him take to living in the Standard Hotel—had turned his back on her.

Well, she’d turn her back on him now. And everyone else, including all 3,004 of her friends.

She fished the bottle of Valium out of her purse with her one good hand, and unscrewed the top. Luckily, her thumb cast and its wrap around bandage made a nice little bowl, and the pills poured right into her palm. After staring at them for a few seconds, she finally put cast to mouth and sent them on their way.

She didn’t have much wine left, so they grated on the way down.

It was only after one great, determined heave, that she felt the bolus of pills finally nestle into the walls of her stomach and begin their slow absorption into her bloodstream.

The light on her screen grew fainter. She stared at it until there was nothing left to stare at anymore, until the darkness slowly encroached on all sides, leaving only the Facebook logo there for a long, reverential moment, before that, too, faded to nothing.

 

A few days later, after the medical examiner had confirmed that acute ethanol and Diazepam intoxication had been the cause of death, after her husband somehow found the strength and emotional resolve to pen a glowingly heartfelt tribute to her, after he found the most flattering picture of her that he could find, and after he posted the image of her and his final goodbye to her on Facebook for all to see, there was only one thing that her 3,004 friends could do.

The liking happened in a frenzy, with the number growing higher and higher by the minute. It was almost as if her network of friends were making up for lost time. A few friends even thought that the post might get attention from Facebook itself, and qualify as record-setting, perhaps even registering on Facebook’s Leaderboard, under the categories of “New Likes Per Day,” “Total Likes Over Time (24 hr category),” or “Most Liked Comments On A Single Status Update,” but after the qualifying period expired, her husband admitted that they had fallen short and would not be winning anything now, or ever, as even the seemingly phenomenal onslaught of likes that she’d earned—which were over ten times more than the highest number of likes that she had EVER earned—made barely a blip on Facebooks’ table metrics and approval matrix.

To soften the blow for everyone, he put up a memorial page. A page with a gallery of thirty shots showing her doing the things she loved: shots of her on her iMac, on her iPhone, on her iPad, talking into her headset, playing with her Apple Watch, shots of her Googling, Tweeting, InstaGramming, SnapChatting, shots of her on FourSquare, Tumblr, Pinterest, Flickr, all of the devices, and all of the on-line destinations that she loved so much, that had played such a central and defining role in her life, all of them were featured there, for all of her friends to see, forever.

She would have liked that.

-First published in The Satirist.

The Giant Women From The Victoria’s Secret Catalogue

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The hundred-foot tall women struck their aloof poses, blotting out the sun. They were dressed in frilly lingerie and their shadows fell over the city.

The brunette stood with her arms crossed. The blonde caressed her hair. The redhead stuck her hands on her hips and rolled her eyes. They all looked immensely bored.

No one knew where they had came from, or why they had appeared. The people of the city were baffled, but one by one, they grew to love the gigantic women.

But soon the government intervened. They did not like the people to be so pleased, so appreciative, so in awe of something.

The army and navy bombarded the giant women for two weeks, but they remained impassive, mocking the attacks with their emotionless stances. Soon, the government stopped the bombings.

Now we sit all day in their shade, gazing up at them, singing songs in honor of their great beauty, and their even greater indifference.

Perhaps

You send me wilted flowers

To cool my miserable heart

But they are only consolation.

With tears I water them

I kiss them with love

So they will revive again.

This I do to ask them a secret

Which I keep hidden in the heart.

Perhaps they know to tell me

Perhaps they happen to see.

–Drosis Logothetis, 1922

(Excerpted from the The Journals of Drosis Logothetis)

NOTE: My grandfather Drosis immigrated to the U.S. in 1911 from the island of Lefkada, off the west coast of Greece. Over the course of the next twenty years, he made daily entries in a series of journals, telling of personal hardship, dreams and hopes, strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, loneliness and longing, curiosity and intellect, responsibility and guilt. All of which my father, George Drosis Logothetis Sr, has copied in their entirety, and passed along to his own children. Many of these journals featured a number of poems (30 or 40 in total) that I am now editing, along with the best quotations and observations from the journals themselves. “Perhaps” is one of the poems that I have translated, rather clunkily, from the original Greek.

Keep Shoveling (excerpt)

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INGOTS

     My high school was a lot of things—apathy absorption center, teenage pregnancy retreat, day care for potheads—but it was definitely not academic. No, East Gary High was a glorified vocational school, the kind of place where learning about crescent wrenches was far more important than learning about the Fertile Crescent. Such a reality was not surprising, given the fact that our mascot was an ingot, a huge, ten ton, fifteen foot high, five-foot thick block of molded steel that towered before the front of the school. The ingot looked like a gigantic tombstone, thick and bulky, solid and immovable. Above all, it was utterly featureless, with no distinctive markings whatsoever. It looked like one of the monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey, only shorter, fatter, and somehow stupider. It was nothing more than a big block of steel.

A bland, ill-conceived monument to heavy industry, the ingot served as a grim reminder of what the future would be for the zoned out, half aware, Pink Floyd-programmed bodies that roamed the halls of my school. The ingot said in no uncertain terms that we were all faceless blocks, nothing more than automatons stamped out from the same dismal, blue collar mold. An ingot was something processed, one of many in a series of objects that were all shaped exactly the same; an ingot was conformity incarnate. To see it every morning as the bus pulled up was disheartening at best, and even when they painted it a bright crimson red one year, the ingot always looked aloof and out of place, like it had been distanced from its tribe, singled out and put on display unfairly.

Occasionally, the ingot, and the small sign below that read “Home of the Ingots,” looked inviting, like a big friendly slab you could climb up on top of, or whose shadow you could enjoy a sandwich under. But most of the time it looked bulky and at odds with its surroundings. Like it fell off a truck and didn’t belong there, all dolled up, surrounded by flowerbeds and made out to be this special and unique thing, serving as some sort of identity-less identity source for an entire community.

The ingot was supposed to represent strength. To underscore the value of hard work. Ingots were forged with discipline. Ingots were solid and reliable, with unalloyed pride. That’s what the town fathers and school administration probably thought when they conceived our team name back in the Fifties. But as years of attending the school passed by, it became clear to me that the ingot was an emblem of many other qualities that were far more widespread: laziness, ignorance and only the slightest of ambitions. The ingot set the bar nice and low, perfectly positioned for underachievement.

And the fact that, years later, it was eventually replaced by the continuous slab caster, a structure I helped build, which poured molten pig iron from the ladles and transformed it into a long, glowing slabs of newly birthed steel, made the ingot a perfectly ironic metaphor for the decline of steel mill jobs in the entire area.

Keep Shoveling is a memoir depicting my experience as a laborer in U.S. Steel. Bracing, bawdy, and full of seedy, unforgettable characters, it’s a rollicking, whiskey-fueled, warts-and-all coming of age story that confirms that not all of life’s lessons are learned in the classroom.

The Reverend Jim Jones Dormitory

jim-jones

I transferred to Indiana University after my freshman year at Valparaiso University, where my mother was a Phd. professor of Nursing. I wanted to study television production, and Valpo, being a small, liberal arts school, did not offer such a curriculum. So off I went to Bloomington and its highly esteemed journalism and communications department.

However, the only dorm the university had room to accommodate me was in a foreign student’s facility, known as Ashton Quad. It was a singles dorm, where each room housed a sole occupant. So blessedly, I had no roommate. But I knew no one, and the few people I did manage to interact with were from far away countries, distant cultures and barely spoke English. It was a strange first few weeks.

As if being incarcerated in Ashton Quad with exchange students wasn’t bizarre enough, I soon learned that my new residence had another unwelcome distinction—it had been home to none other than the Reverend Jim Jones, while he had attended Indiana University. I didn’t believe it at first, but a quick check in the microfiche room the library confirmed it. “People’s Temple Leader Was I.U. Undergrad,” the article said, as I scrolled through editions of the Indianapolis Herald-Tribune from the early Eighties. Funny, I didn’t remember that being in the I.U. brochure, or Jim’s 8 x 10 color glossy head shot on the wall at the Office of Admissions, alongside the pantheon of other famed Indiana grads, such as Hoagy Carmichael, Ernie Pyle, Dick Enberg, Jane Pauley, Kevin Kline, Isaiah Thomas, Marc “The Beastmaster” Singer, and Lee Majors.

Knowing that one of the world’s all-time greatest psychopaths had also called Ashton Quad his home did not surprise me. There was a creepy atmosphere hanging over the place, a sinister aloofness. Scarred forever with this infamous distinction, the housing department had obviously turned Ashton into a receptacle for undesirables, oddballs, and of course, lowly transfer students like me.

I’d imagined a new, carefree beginning here, a fresh start where I’d embark on a more enlightened path; instead my mind was haunted with images of bloated bodies festering with jungle rot and giant metal vats of cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. I soon began to imagine what the Reverend Jim Jones had been like when he’d lived in Ashton Quad. Perhaps Jim had been normal and well-adjusted, an eager, enthusiastic youth who had innocent goals and sincere hopes, dreams of success that were squashed by whatever dark satanic spirit pervaded the gray walls of this accursed structure. I imagined the young Jim Jones strolling along, humming a carefree melody, traipsing through the same hallways that I now walked. I pictured him brushing his teeth in the same bathroom I brushed my teeth in, flossing with regularity to stay the advance of gingivitis-causing plaque, showering in the same stalls I showered in, maybe even sleeping in the same bed I slept in.

I imagined the Reverend Jim Jones sharing pizza with his dorm mates, perhaps even devouring the crusts his pals did not care to finish, playing Frisbee or Hacky Sack out on the lawn, or sliding his tray along in the cafeteria, opting for the Salisbury steak and an ice cold glass of chocolate milk, then politely uttering “Is this seat taken?” before finding a place at a table beside his peers. I imagined the Reverend Jim Jones, for a brief idyllic period, enjoying his time at Indiana University, behaving like any other wide-eyed undergrad, following the nationally-ranked basketball team, attending autumnal bonfires, threading carnations into homecoming floats . . . until one night, when the cold, dark Mephistophelean hand of Ashton Quad reached out from the bowels of Hell and shook him awake, filling his head with impure thoughts and murderous directives. Perhaps the Reverend Jim Jones hatched his whole demented plan for Jonestown right here in my dorm.

Perhaps even here, in room 1402 . . .

That Jolly Green Giant

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Every inch of this jovial behemoth is stained a rich, hearty green—hair, skin, even fingernails. He is brawnier than most, with an uncommonly thick torso and strapping, tree trunk limbs. Pointy, Robin Hood slippers adorn his mammoth feet. His only attire is a skimpy green sash similar to the togas and ceremonial shrouds worn by the ancients, perhaps evidence of membership in a primitive or pantheistic nature cult. Although this tempting outfit rises well above the knee, skirting the groin, there is no telltale bulge or other evidence of his manhood, leading one to believe that he may be a eunuch. With leafy, windswept hair and a rakish slant of the brow, the Giant stands magnificent, both hands planted firmly and confidently on his hips, a mighty, ho ho hoing Colossus of Rhodes.

Lizard King Memories

jim_morrison_1968

One day during lunch in the school cafeteria, my friend Paul slid a dog-eared paperback entitled “No One Here Gets Out Alive” across the table to me. I glanced at the cover, and was intrigued. It was hard not to be, since the character featured there—a hollow-chested, anorexic hippie with wild, feathery hair and skinny, outstretched arms—was so striking.

“Wow, cool,” I said, thumbing through it further and reading a few pages. “So why did he call himself “The Lizard King?”

“It was his nickname,” Paul said. He stuck a fork into his mac and cheese and lifted it out of his tray in a perfect, square-shaped block.

“Do lizards even have kings?” I said, admiring the shirtless, raven-haired form.

“Apparently, they are not a democratic species,” Paul said, placing the block of mac and cheese back into its compartment and leaving the fork sticking out of it. “Anyway, you gotta read it.”

Later that night, I did. I read how this man, “Mr. Mojo Risin’” he called himself, was really the reincarnation of an Indian shaman because when he was a kid, he saw a car wreck where there were a bunch of dead Indians all over the road, and one of their spirits entered his body. I read how Jim hated his father, who was a Navy admiral, and how this made Jim hate all authority figures. I read how Jim dropped acid on Venice Beach and formed The Doors. I read how Jim wore stinky leather pants and was a total alcoholic, but despite being such a drunk, became rich and famous and got laid all the time. I read how Jim hated being a sex symbol and was really a sensitive poet deep down, and how he may have even faked his own death so he could escape being a rock star and write his poetry in peace.

At sixteen, this sincere desire to reject everything, even super stardom, appealed to me greatly. But what appealed to me even more greatly was Jim’s hair. It was a sweeping, flowing mane, a shock of tawny, wind-kissed, gloriously unkempt brambles framing a lean, panther handsome face. A face that was smoldering and intense, a face that had the courage to live in fleabag hotels on La Cienaga Boulevard, quote Nietzsche and Celine, and flash his wang in front of twenty thousand teenyboppers in Miami. The more I read about this king of lizards, the more I liked. The posters of Paulina Porizkova and Christie Brinkley remained tacked to my bedroom wall, but soon they had a neighbor, and one who was far more enticing. My eyes could not help but meet his, and many a night I would stare for long, spellbound moments at the image of James Douglas Morrison, at that bold, daring face and visionary eyes that beamed forth with the unconquerable glare of an eagle or some other magnificent bird of prey.

It wasn’t long before I cashed in my paper route money, bought a cheap stereo, a few tapes, and barricaded myself in my room every night, surrendering my fragile young eggshell mind to Jim’s lurid poetry and Ray Manzarek’s wandering organ solos, which felt like Ray was pressing specific areas of my brain with each searing, conscious-expanding note.

I also surrendered my wardrobe. Like the dead Indian had taken over Jim’s being, the dead rocker took over mine. Shoulder-length, Lucan The Wolf Boy hair, check. Puke-colored, paisley shirt with baggy pirate sleeves, check. Pointy-toed cowboy boots, check. Belt with twin circular metal buckles, check. Spray on, scrotum-strangling pants, check. Cheesy, dime store necklace of multi-colored beads, check. Mirrored, teardrop, gay commando sunglasses, check. Perpetually disinterested, quasi-tortured sneer, check. Willingness to say, “I wanna get my kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames” at least five times a day, check.

Mercifully, these affectations only lasted about half a year, although various parts of the Lizard King’s ensemble would haunt my wardrobe for years. Mainly the hair, which I grew long and shaggy and flailed around at various times to help it maintain just the right amount of lift, bounce and playfulness, not to mention nurturing it, well into my thirties, with an endless array of gels, spritzers, and various styling mousses.

But it was Jim’s love of alcohol that was the biggest revelation, for as shortly after I closed that book, I opened my first beer: a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon pinched from my dad’s fridge out in the garage, which was enjoyed slowly in the moodily lit recesses of my bedroom, where the dark province of my burgeoning adolescent mind grew darker and darker, with every sip.

Hey, Pavarotti

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Luciano Pavarotti. The most noteworthy tenor since Caruso, a legend whose glorious voice and commanding performances thrilled millions. Before kings, chancellors, prime ministers, presidents, popes, heads of state and other luminaries he appeared, gracing them with his titanic, larger than life presence. So imagine his surprise when instead of a person of extraordinary influence and notoriety, he encountered me.

I know precious little about opera. I’m a Hoosier. To me, opera is nothing more than the vocal meanderings of a sweaty, obese, tiramisu-swollen Italian guy in a too-tight tuxedo bellowing out mysterious syllables in loud, wavering, pinched-sphincter cries. Glorified wailing. I know this reveals me as being hopelessly uncouth, but opera just doesn’t do it for me. I appreciate it, yes. But I appreciate even more when it’s over.

So when my girlfriend Elaine mentioned that she had two tickets to see Pavarotti in Central Park, plus backstage passes allowing us to meet him after the show, I reacted with only slight enthusiasm. Elaine was a fashion babe who was the pinnacle of glamour and style. She was the promotions manager for a French jeans company and adored couture, and culture, in all of its many forms. And these free opera tickets were another chance to immerse me in her glitzy Manhattan world. We’d met through a mutual friend, and for some reason, Elaine found my easygoing Midwestern personality attractive. This did not stop her from taking steps to obliterate it altogether, through various “upgrades” like innumerable hairstyle reformations, culinary epiphanies, and endless wardrobe makeovers. She seemed on a mission to remove my every last normal habit or behavior, in favor of replacing it with a well-mannered sophistication, a tactic I never failed to chafe against.

Several weeks later, the big night was upon us. Since the concert was in Central Park, on the Great Lawn, and not in an ornate hall, there was no need for formal attire, much to my relief. Still, we were attending an opera, not a tractor pull, so I donned my customary trying-to-look-moderately-presentable ensemble of dark blue, non-pleated Ralph Lauren chinos, a slate-grey Agnis B cotton poplin button down shirt, and Tootsi Plohound half-boot lace ups. (All purchases recommended — no, commanded, might be a better way of putting it — by Elaine, who, as usual, looked as if she’d stepped right out of the pages of Vanity Fair, wearing a fuscia Alberta Ferretti drop sleeve miniskirt and a pair of matching Jimmy Choos that made her wobble on the grass like a fawn taking its first unsteady steps and were probably worth more than three months of mortgage payments back in Indiana.)

Over the palisade of buildings lining Central Park West, the sun gradually descended, and soon twilight fell upon the park. The Great lawn swarmed with people: families spread out on blankets, couples with coolers, and various semi-cultured-looking types milling about and getting settled as we arrived. As we strolled through the crowd en route to the V.I.P. area, I caught a whiff of brie and heard the crunch of Carr’s cracker, with corks popping and wine gurgling into long-stemmed glasses, every one of which was held forth in dainty digits by privileged bon vivants who were not only offering toasts to the legendary singer they were about to see, but to their own presence at this exclusive event as well. A moment later, we were led to the V.I.P. area, which was inhabited by an even sleeker version of personage, plus a complimentary bar serving white wine, champagne and other cocktails.

Immediately, Elaine and I nabbed a few lightly chilled Chardonnays and found our seats. Thrilled at how close we were to the stage, we sipped our drinks, feeling smug, pampered and oh-so privileged. After several episodes of frequent toasting and eyeballing the other exalted beings in this coveted inner sanctum, the sun faded further and the crowed hushed to near-silence, as everyone sensed the greatness that was about to appear.

A few minutes later, the curtains parted, and a shaft of light beamed down from above, illuminating a bearded, porcine figure clad in black formal wear and a ruffled white shirt blossoming from his lapels. All at once, there was a huge roar, and as the deafening applause rolled through the crowd, I settled my eyes on a large, orb-like man whose plump fingers seized the microphone and pressed it to his lips. The crowd was silent, totally enthralled. And then, with a casual determination, the creature known as Pavarotti erupted into song.

It began softly, like an incantation. At Pavarotti’s first utterance, the crowd gasped, awed by the raw emotion of his voice. The sounds that Pavarotti made were unlike anything I had ever heard, ranging from short staccato bursts that peppered my eardrums in repetitive quatrains to glorious, unrepentant yowls that rose up and up and up, until reaching one final, stupendously assaulting note that hung in the air for an eternity as Pavarotti squeezed every last shred of emotion out of it.

During these bowel-wringing notes, I feared for Pavarotti’s safety. Even standing fifty feet away, I could see the energy he was pouring into his performance, the sheer physicality of his lungs and diaphragm heaving like magnificent bellows, working quintuple time to create the booming stream of beautiful, totally meaningless syllables. As the note extended, sweat poured off of his meaty brow and rolled into his beard, while his face reddened into a swollen, pinkish ham. A network of veins bulged in wormy squiggles across his brow. On a sheer cardiovascular level, it seemed like the ultimate stress test, and I could only imagine how hard the best tenor of all time’s heart was trying to deal with the metabolic impact of it all.

Finally, the endless note ended, and Pavarotti paused, taking a momentary breather as he recovered from his outburst. The crowd remained fixated, awed, hushed, silenced into a few barely audible gasps. I raised my Chardonnay to my lips and took a sip, savoring it, while Elaine and I stood side by side, utterly enraptured.

For another hour and a half, Pavarotti held center stage. There was an ebb and flow to his cries, a rising and falling of his words, and while I appreciated his efforts — the supreme talent, effort, and remarkable poise it took to produce such an incredible volume of sound, and the obvious laryngeal afterburners that kicked in to produce those triumphant, blood-pressure increasing high notes, not to mention the simpering, weepy, piteous, almost whimpering cries of need, shame and vulnerability that slid out of his whiskered mouth that served as counterpoint to them — I gradually began to lose interest. I was appreciative, yes, but by that point I had gotten my fill of the whole situation and was starting to look at my watch, as the time, and my patience, slowly ebbed away.

Several Chardonnay’s later, Pavarotti’s moment of dominance and control over us ended. With a towering barrage of sound, his voice rose and rose, ever higher, skyrocketing, ballooning, increasing in volume and power, but also wavering somehow, bouncing back and forth between the scales, his well-trained glottis delicately adjusting each syllable, shifting them up and down the aural register. Then, with one final outpouring of emotion, the great man, sweaty, drained, and exhausted, concluded his performance. The applause was deafening and flowers and long-stemmed roses rained onto the stage.

The crowd milled about for several minutes, buzzing, as everyone marveled at the virtuoso performance, before queuing up near the exits and patiently awaiting their turn to join the throng of people all streaming off of the Great Lawn. Meanwhile, Elaine and I threaded our way through the crowd, towards an area adjacent to the bar, near a large hospitality tent, where members of the media were assembled. I caught glimpses of microphones, video cameras, and a few reporters, as well as officials from the Parks Department. A few moments later, Elaine found a small coterie of dashing young women — coworkers of hers, members of that same species of Cosmo-swilling “Sex In The City”-crazed women that now plagued the island. After a few kissy faced greetings and impromptu hugs, we ducked a velvet rope and joined another line, which streamed off between the hospitality tent, towards a large white trailer near the stage — the lair housing the legendary tenor, who, much to everyone’s delight, we would meet in a matter of minutes.

As we wound our way forth, a posse of armed policemen and security stood watching nearby. A few pressed walkie talkies to their lips and muttered commands, eyeing the line of agog, well-dressed people approaching Pavarotti’s trailer.

Each step took us nearer, until we finally ascended the steps. An air of reverential silence fell over us as we entered and began slowly filing forward, the pace of the line being expertly controlled by a burly security guard whose only words were the soft, but stern warning to “keep moving, keep moving.” Finally, we stood only a few feet away, with only one group of V.I.P.s blocking us from the legendary singer.

As we slid forward, Elaine and her friends were barely able to contain their exuberance. They quickly raced ahead, and I stepped aside, letting Elaine and the entire group of them pass in front of me. As we entered the room, I detected a slight tang of body odor, and no sooner had the smell tickled my nostrils, than the great singer appeared before me.

It was an inglorious sight. I had expected Pavarotti to be dressed in formal attire, like he had been on-stage, perhaps festooned with roses, or tended to by a staff of cuticle-polishing minions, or at least looking regal in some form, but much to my surprise, it was the complete opposite. Barefoot, and wearing nothing more than a long, flowing, cream-colored robe, the legendary singer was splayed back, Ferouk-like, sunken into an overstuffed leather couch, the creamy robe opened at mid-waist to display a towering expanse of belly marked by copious amounts of black body hair. Ridiculously, bringing every possible stereotypical image to life, Pavarotti clutched a bottle of Chianti in one hand, and a staff of plump, purple grapes in the other. As we gazed in wonder at him, he hoisted the bottle of vino up, taking a long, hearty swig and smacking his lips, before holding the bounty of grapes up to his face and nibbling off several of the lowest dangling fruits. The great man had satisfied a crowd of thousands, and we could only watch on, transfixed, as he now satisfied himself.

As he chewed, his jowls heaving and flexing, Pavarotti’s black, piggish eyes settled upon Elaine and the other women. He took another swig of wine, wiped his face with the back of his hand, and smiled, scanning the assortment of scantily clad young female flesh before him.

“Such a nest of beauties,” he uttered, his eyes flitting back and forth, surveying the group. His eyes lingered on them for a moment, then he turned to look at me. “And . . . you,” he said, his tone deflating into obvious disappointment.

For an otherworldly second, our eyes met. My mind whirled, as I wondered what to say. A second later, the whole room heard my reply.

“Hey, Pavarotti,” I said, offering a halfhearted wave. Elaine glared at me, while everyone in the room laughed nervously. Pavarotti did not respond to my greeting, opting for another swig of wine and nibble of grape, as more admirers pressed inside. We held our position for another thirty seconds, watching the great tenor guzzle down even more vino, before a security person motioned for us to keep moving.

As we left the room, I looked back at the world’s most famous opera singer, a performer whose vocal talents had enthralled people for so many decades. I longed to say something eloquent, something remarkable, something that would mark the moment for all time, something worthy of this man’s eminent position, but nothing came. Nothing except another set of words that were equally as underwhelming.

“Later, Pavarotti,” I said, strolling towards the door.

A half hour later, after we’d escaped Central Park and flagged down a taxi on Fifth Avenue and were heading back downtown, Elaine spun in her seat to confront me.

“That’s all you could say to him?”

“What?” I said.

“You know,” she said, shaking her head in dismay, “Hey, Pavarotti.”

“What was wrong with that?”

“It was disrespectful.”

“What was disrespectful about it?”

“It just sounded like you weren’t impressed.”

“I didn’t mean it to sound that way. I thought he was really impressive.”

“It didn’t sound like it,”Elaine continued, “Plus, you called him ‘Pavarotti.’”

“Isn’t that his name?”

“Yes, but . . .” she said.

“But what?” I said, “ What else should I have called him? ‘Dude? Bro? Homie?”

As the cab bumped and prodded its way into the Manhattan night, she looked away for a brief moment, staring at the non-stop blur of buildings and sidewalks whipping by.

“Oh, never mind,” she said.