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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

There is only one narcotic

The NY Times reports that some teenagers are canceling their Facebook accounts or voluntarily restricting their usage because it is taking over their lives and keeping them from school, family, and real-world contact with friends. The first psychologist they quote, Kimberly Young, says “It’s like any other addiction. It’s hard to wean yourself.”

I mean to take this sort of addiction seriously, although the Times has a history of sensationalizing youth trends that they don't really understand or have much evidence for. Note that Kimberly Young is introduced as the director of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery in Bradford, Pa.; I'm going to go out on limb and guess that this academic-sounding institution is not exactly doing brisk business, and that its director is welcoming of publicity. When the Times states that she "said she had spoken with dozens of teenagers trying to break the Facebook habit", note how many steps far removed this is from actually treating even a single teenager who sought her out.

With that said, I think this problem, and the broader problem of addiction to the mesmerizing World Wide Web, is real. And I think it points to a problem with our education about addiction, which paints drugs as a supremely harmful force unlike any other. Drugs do contain a unique ability to screw up the body and mind, and disorient their users to the point of crashing their cars and unleashing violence. But their greater danger is addiction, and the damage of addiction is hard to explain well -- which is why we fall back on cautionary tales about doing PCP once and jumping through a second story window.

Here's my try: the damage of addiction, irrespective of the narcotic, is that it replaces real life. Potheads, including some friends of mine, generally believe that marijuana is not an addictive drug. But if you check out from the real world every day, you are missing out on real life.

Of course, there is no consensus on what real life consists of. If watching four hours of TV makes you a couch potato, doesn't reading a novel do the same thing? Most people consider reading novels a worthwhile use of time, but of course it depends on the novel; I'd advise putting down the Danielle Steele and smoking a joint instead.

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Irene Adler museum

Sherlockians insist that the sleuth was real and Arthur Conan Doyle was merely his chronicler, making for some great "lost papers"/ Sherlock Holmes pastiches. I was delighted by Ruth Rendell's invention, in The Keys to the Street, of an Irene Adler museum in which "the woman" for Holmes is treated as a real Edwardian figure:
"When she was in here or in the corset room, Mary often thought Irene Adler's incursions into male attire--as when she whispers 'good evening' to Holmes in Baker Street--entirely understandable. The crab in whalebone could have known comfort only in bed at night, never by day in the S-shaped whalebone stays, the buckled and webbed bodices, the crustaceous layers, and those furbelowed cartwheel hats. Other pictures on the walls showed Edwardian women attempting to mount stairs, board trams, and manage their hats on windy days.
"They sold more copies of the Sherlock Holmes story 'A Scandal in Bohemia' (Irene as crab in whalebone on the front cover and in jacket and breeches on the back) than all the catalogs and brochures put together. A favorite place was the facsimile of Irene's drawing room, as it must have been at Briony Lodge, with the secret panel by the fireplace where the compromising photograph was kept hidden, open for all to see the secret spring. Gustav Klimt had not painted her, for he was real and she was fiction, but the mock-Klimt portrait of Irene in sequins and pearls posed against a gold-leaf screen, framed in narrow gilded wood, went back to hang on the walls of many a Midwest condo. Business was too brisk at lunchtime for Mary to leave the museum. It even looked at one point during the afternoon as if admission would have to be restricted for half an hour. But the crowd dwindled as five approached, by which time the shop had run out of calendars and Knossos scarves and Stacey was on the phone to the sales rep."

The Klimt pastiche, especially the part about "for he was real and she was fiction" in the midst of that straight-faced detail, kills me!

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

"Good music to listen to whilst locked in the boot"

It made perfect sense that Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon officiated Lily van der Woodsen's wedding on Gossip Girl this spring: of course they knew each other from the early '90s grunge scene, had stayed connected through Marc Jacobs, had daughters the same age...

Earlier this year, I read Noise, an anthology of short stories inspired by Sonic Youth songs, and I wondered at first why they weren't all written by Mary Gaitskill. Her short stories could come with Sonic Youth soundtracks in my wildest dreams, and if Janet Malcolm was the best chronicler of Gossip Girl I could have imagined last year, then Mary Gaitskill may be the solution to the show's current malaise--or at least to the boredom of Blair and Chuck. Gaitskill's 2005 novel Veronica could be some alternate (fictional) universe for Lily van der Woodsen had she lived on the Lower East Side with Kim Gordon in the 1980s. Let's see how this triangle of Gordon, Gaitskill, and Gossip Girl could work out, using William Deresiewicz's assessment of Gaitskill's early career and review of her new collection, Don't Cry, from the Nation:
A second collection, Because They Wanted To, appeared in 1997. Taken together, Gaitskill's first three books established a tightly coherent vision expressed through a narrow but powerful array of themes and techniques. For Gaitskill, [Ayn] Rand and [Ronald] Reagan are only extreme expressions of a universal condition, and the social world itself is a Hobbesian jungle of the hideous, the merciless and the weak. Its paradigm and training ground is childhood, which Gaitskill returns to throughout these three books as if it were a wound she can't stop licking:

The assigned classroom was filled with murderously aggressive boys and rigid girls with animal eyes who threw spitballs, punched each other, snarled, whispered, and stared one another down. And shadowing all these gestures and movements were declarations of dominance, of territory, the swift, blind play of power and weakness.

Given such conditions, the only viable strategy is to bury your feelings as deeply as possible. In Two Girls, the most despised of the classroom outcasts is nicknamed "'Emotional,' the worst insult imaginable": "Every answer seemed to come out of some horrible complex individuality reeking with humanity, the clarity and trust in her soft voice made them squirm with discomfort."

The result is at once self-enclosure and self-alienation. Gaitskill's characters are young women and men set adrift between adolescence and adulthood, members-in-training of the so-called creative class, like so many of us are or once were. They hole up in cruddy apartments, work demeaning jobs and nurse vague creative aspirations while making the desultory round of bars, clubs and parties in the demimonde of urban hipsterdom. But Gaitskill gives her characters a larger than ordinary allotment of psychic distress. It doesn't matter if childhood trauma figures explicitly in their stories; with their stunted or fragile or provisional selves, their baffled craving for comfort, they are all still damaged children. Their predicament creates a suffocating compound of psychological pressure and emotional desiccation, along with a lurking sense of threat that originates not in the outside world but in the hidden places of the psyche, in the violence that unacknowledged desires are capable of calling down. Gaitskill's characters have a blind spot where their personalities are supposed to be, and it's staring at the back of their heads. They can't feel what they feel or want what they want. They aren't struggling, like their peers, to decide what to be; they're trying to figure out who they are.

Take out "cruddy apartments" and you have a very interesting direction for the show! XO, XO.

Really, this post was supposed to be about Noise and the stories inspired by Sonic Youth, but I'm still puzzling over the new Gaitskill collection, and it's telling that her contribution to the anthology, "Wish Fulfillment," is an allegory that doesn't sound much like the piercing specificity of her previous work. The descriptions in those stories were often painful to read, and Deresiewicz, in noting that changed descriptive tone in Veronica (quoted above), is setting up his concerns about the way that description doesn't work as well in the allegories of Don't Cry. But "Wish Fulfillment" comes from a deeply personal place, Gaitskill explains in the introductory paragraph to the story in Noise, as she basically describes being saved by a Sonic Youth song.

Question #1: Do Sonic Youth songs inspire listeners to commit allegory?
How does noise rock relate to allegory--why do they go together, or do they? My first thought on reading the anthology was that I would have written a story inspired by "Disconnection Notice" from Murray Street--an allegory if there ever was one:
Did you get your disconnection notice?
Mine came in the mail today
They seem to think I'm disconnected
Don't think I know what to read or write or say
Glossaries injected daily
Words and numbers spell out the price to pay
It simply states "you're disconnected baby"
See how easily it all slips away

This is no direction
Prepare for the city
Angels turn on heaven's light

But I don't think I would have stayed in allegorical mode for my short story. I listened to that song a lot one winter, and it's one of those New York songs I think about a lot when I've been pacing around for several miles in the cold. So, no details yet for this as-yet-unwritten short story.

Question #2: Or is it the weird details of the band's songs, matched or exacerbated by the noise, that inspires some good writing?
I was most struck by the jarring details of the stories, as when Catherine O'Flynn writes in the introduction to her short story, "I think it's good music to listen to whilst locked in the boot of a car." Emily Carter Roiphe has a good story called "Little Trouble Girl," about living on the Lower East Side while the band was practicing and performing in Tompkins Square Park--agree or disagree with her assessment of the band, her details are well-noted:
No time to consider that art-noise-rock-screech soundcheck might be the one bit of indifference that would send a depressed, chemically dependent college drop-out over the edge, especially when she looked at Kim Gordon, all ice-cool and swan-like aloofness, while the college drop-out scraped the dirty sweat off her forehead with a matchbook.

Question #3: Does being inspired by a weird band make an author's writing style more like itself, or does it swerve it around to negations?

Shelley Jackson writes about Goo, and it seems very much in keeping with the rest of her work from The Melancholy of Anatomy, about bodily fluids and secretions. Katherine Dunn's story has some of the same freakishness as Geek Love. But Jess Walter seems to respond to the band's noisy negations when he writes, "this is not that kind of story" in the form of a note to a professor about a creative writing assignment. Jackson and Walter are two varieties of responses to the Noise project: either use it to reflect your style through the band, or use the band's avant-garde sensibility to try something new, or, more specifically, to have your story's characters try something new, as in the famous story from this volume that takes "Bull in Heather" to new directions that the author said he hadn't tried before.

There are two other books in the series: stories inspired by the Fall and by the Smiths. I think those would be two very different types of inspiration, and I'd be really interested to see what kind of variation there is among the Smiths stories.

Question #4: Or is the avant-garde weirdly cyclical in its inspirations?
My very favorite piece in the book is Tom McCarthy's introductory paragraph to his story about "Kool Thing"--I have no idea whether it's reliable, I'm even more interested if it's not:
I remember, in 1992, listening to Kim Gordon's voice monologuing over 'Kool Thing.' She was talking about a white girl lying on a bed with a dagger in her hand, staring at a black panther in a tree; and she said it had something to do with Patty Hearst. I didn't know who Patty Hearst was then. Years later, when I visited the Joyce Museum in the guntower where he spent the night that Ulysses emerged from, there was a life-sized black panther in the bedroom: Joyce's roommate, like his hero Stephen's, had a nightmare with one in it and, picking a gun up in his half-sleep from the night-table beside his bed, fired it over Joyce's head. Beneath the bedroom was a storeroom for gunpowder; in past centuries the guardians of the tower had to be careful not to generate any sparks. Maybe all avant-gardes begin with gunpowder and a dream of a black panther.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Subversive activity

A nice post about the NYPL Candide show from More Intelligent Life.
"'Candide, or Optimism' is a work of fiction, but it is not a novel," begins "Candide at 250: Scandal and Success", an exhibition at the main New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. In the Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III Gallery, the show examines the ways Voltaire's text has been warped, reimagined, staged, filmed, redrawn and otherwise revised over the course of 250 years. "Candide", we learn, is nothing if not a supple source.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Don't mess with the Marvelettes (no, no, no, no)

How do you tell a story about the Marvelettes? They were the first Motown group with a #1 hit ("Please Mr. Postman"), who were then pushed aside in favor of the more professionally minded Supremes. Like many girl groups in the period, including the Supremes, their lineup changed to fit the professional needs of their managers, but this feature became distorted as the group later became a Larry Marshak product of multiple "Marvelettes" revivals (or impostors) to be performed in nightclubs as a brand rather than a group. They were the first Motown girl group but are not members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They are releasing a three-CD box set, complete with a booklet of an oral history of the treated-as-though-they-were-interchangeable members, at a time when box sets aren't what they used to be (if they ever were).

This is a geeky coincidence, but two of their biggest hits are about modes of communication that have changed significantly since the 1960s. "Please Mr. Postman" and "Beechwood 4-5789" are transcendent pop songs, though, despite e-mail and cell phones.

I'm struck by how all of those features of anonymity, obsolescence, and indeterminacy make it hard to write a story about them. Evidence: Christopher Petkanas's T magazine essay about the Marvelettes' box set, Forever. The essay, called "Lost in the Mail," has a coy, fakeout intro--"you may be interested in this subject, even though maybe no one else is," he seems to say--and that leads to a series of sentences which tell the story of the Marvelettes through predominantly negative constructions:
Depending on your sympathy for the bugle-beaded tragedies of what have become broadly known as Dreamgirls, the Marvelettes are either a big sigh or a windfall. It’s hard to believe, but many people have had all they can take hearing about talented young black women having their lives shredded by greedy record labels in the 1960s. The same people find spending an evening with the Beatles video game more sustaining than putting the Marvelettes’ new three-CD set “Forever” on the changer and snuggling down with Marc Taylor’s tell-all “The Original Marvelettes: Motown’s Mystery Girl Group.” I guess there’s no accounting for how people spend their Tuesday nights.

It's a series of weird moves: negations are built into so many of the sentences that he seems to be undermining the very act of writing about the group. Or, and I'm only half-kidding here, it's as though the backup vocals of "Don't Mess with Bill"--"no, no, no, no"--were the structural formation of the essay. Consider how many negative moves there are:

You know the Marvelettes’ songs even if you don’t know their names (and you probably don’t)

The Supreme One doesn’t like it known that she once looked up to scruffy little Gladys Horton, the Marvelettes’ early lead singer, who worked in recent years at her son’s hair salon in California, but you can’t rewrite history just to please Miss Ross. It’s weird to imagine a world in which the Supremes got transistor radios from Motown for Christmas and the Marvelettes got diamond rings.

It’s easy to say that when the competition heated up with all those sharp-elbowed Vandellas and Velvelettes jockeying for position, it was their cruder wigs and gowns that held the Marvelettes back. But this was not the case.

As chronicled by Taylor, the Marvelettes’ real story is so much richer and crazier than anything you could make up. (The same goes for the Supremes, but don’t get me started.) The saga has it all: Drugs! (Wanda Rogers), Mental Collapse!! (Wyanetta Cowart), Murder!!! (the estranged husband of Rogers’s sister Adoria mistook another sister for Adoria, shooting and killing the sister at their mother’s house).

If I didn’t know I was reading about the Marvelettes, I’d swear it was Martha Reeves explaining why she didn’t become Stevie Wonder.

Refreshingly, not every Marvelette supports the overlooked narrative. ...So whom do you believe? It doesn’t matter. Both Anderson-Schaffner’s and Horton’s versions are at the bull’s-eye of the Marvelettes matrix.

Larry Marshak, a concert promoter, holds the Marvelettes trademark. Widely reviled in the business, Marshak specializes in multiple editions of the same faux oldies act, so “the Marvelettes” can be appearing in Boston and Washington, D.C. — on the same night.

In 1964 Holland-Dozier-Holland wrote “Where Did Our Love Go.” That the Marvelettes were allowed to reject it tells you how much Motown prized the group in that period.

I initially found all these fakeouts, negations, and twisted sentences difficult to read, but that line about the "Marvelettes matrix" made me reconsider this excess of ambivalence about the group. I started to think that the ambivalence is an artifact of how one writes an oral history of a group with interchangeable members, where the biographical oddities transcend what oral histories of musical groups usually include, where the story's partial trajectory is already overly familiar from Dreamgirls (which played on Beyonce's interchangeable members of Destiny's Child, as well as Jennifer Hudson's transcending the American Idol brand), where the later history of the group involves having to go to court to have access to their identity, where the canonization of the group's songs (about letters and rotary dial phones) is being preserved on an older form of musical technology. This is some kind of limit case of the oral history genre, and the stacked-up negations start to look like an interesting comment on how the "Marvelettes matrix" is more like a vortex of indeterminacy?

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Blogger Unknown on Tue Jan 05, 10:31:00 AM:
The style of setting up a false (or at least exaggerated) negative opinion annoys me as well. It occurs in a fair number of fashion history articles and conference papers, perhaps because this niche field works scholars into a permanent state of bristling defense of their profession at large. A well written article shouldn't assume the ignorance or disinterest of the reader; it usually detracts from any legitimate points that might be made. But you probably don't care what I have to say. (See how I did that?!)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Youk's uncle

Cincinnati-style chili, courtesy of Kevin Youkilis's uncle Edward: (thanks to Katy for the heads-up)
Cincinnati-style chili has little in common with the Texas variety except for the ardor of its fans. The core concoction consists of ground beef in a thin, tomato-based sauce that is tangy rather than spicy. (Chocolate is rumored to be a secret ingredient.) In the basic presentation, the chili is poured over slightly overcooked spaghetti and topped with shredded Cheddar cheese; this is known as a “three-way.” ... The authentic shredded cheese, which is a fluorescent yellow, travels poorly, so Edward’s must grate its own.

Ah, but the Texas variety is close to my heart for many reasons, not least of which is its suitability for Frito Pie, best poured straight out of can into the bag of chips itself, with cheddar melted on top.

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Blogger Katy on Thu Dec 10, 02:44:00 PM:
I love that you posted this within about three hours of my frantic text message that opened with "OMG!"
Blogger Meg on Fri Dec 11, 09:34:00 PM:
Cincinatti Chili has totally won me over. I made a batch of it a while back and it's amazing. It's also good on hot dogs and I also top mine with raw onion. So yummy.
Blogger Ben on Sat Dec 12, 11:02:00 AM:
I thought Cincinnati chili always included chocolate... this according to a family friend from Cincinnati, who also introduced me to the fact that Cincinnati is in the South.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

La Chamade / That Mad Ache

I was reading spines on a bookstore shelf the other day and saw this title: Sagan / That Mad Ache. The single syllables, the use of the less likely "that" as an article: I had spent so much time with Douglas Hofstadter's iterative translations of Clément Marot's "A une Damoyselle malade" in Le Ton Beau de Marot that I wondered if there were a connection. I looked closer at the name running up the opposite side of the spine: Douglas Hofstadter. He has translated Françoise Sagan's novel La Chamade under the title That Mad Ache, and appended notes on his translation work as an essay called "Translator, Trader" on the flip side of the book.

It's a delightfully designed book, in Baskerville font as usual, including Hoftstadter's now-customary discussion of why he loves that typeface so much and how he uses it almost as a constraint-based writing technique to plan out line breaks and page breaks. (Ben and I were at a party a few weeks ago when Hofstadter came up in conversation very late in the evening, and after some geeky bonding someone decided that someone else needed to know about Baskerville font and the best way to do that would be to type out on a computer, "this is Baskerville, you jerk..." or something like that, probably more adjectives or expletives. Later, our Hofstadter mark remarked that he had never been at a party and discussed Douglas Hofstadter before--obviously he'd never been at a party with Ben or me before.)

Hofstadter's essays and books about translation are fascinating because his obsession with syntax and how sentences work comes from his work in cognitive science--a source that makes for some odd, delightful digressions and thought experiments. I love to read his explanations of how lateral thinking produces unlikely and wonderful connections in his many fields of expertise and interest. Here he's discussing the 1966 English translation of La Chamade by Robert Westhoff, which left the title in French, probably to appeal to readers of Sagan's previous success, Bonjour tristesse:
I'm not saying it was a bad decision to leave the title of La Chamade in French, but it isn't what I myself would have chosen. In fact, as you know, I took another pathway. One day, I was just looking at the word chamade and, as often happens when my mind is idling, I started juggling the letters around a little bit, and what popped out but 'mad ache'. This felt a bit eerie. After all, the whole story is about the mad ache in the hearts of several different people, all of whom are desperately searching for love or think they have found it. Something about this felt right to me, and at the moment it occurred to me that this would be a delicious way to translate Sagan's title 'La Chamade.' It took a bit more thought about whether to say 'A Mad Ache' or 'The Mad Ache' or 'That Mad Ache' or even just plain 'Mad Ache,' but in the end I settled on 'That Made Ache.'

An amusing footnote to this is that my friend Daniel Kiechle ..., on hearing about my proposed title, started searching for English anagrams involving all nine letters in 'La Chamade', and he came up with 'A Calm Head', which though a nice phrase, is pretty nearly the diametric opposite of the meaning of the original title. What a curious coincidence! Needless to say, I didn't go for Daniel's anagram, ingenious though it was.

What should one think about such a brazenly redone title as 'That Mad Ache'? Is it reasonable? In particular, what does the playful game of anagrams have to do with this novel or with Françoise Sagan's style? Admittedly, nothing at all. But even so, I think there is something charming about tipping one's hat to one's author by making the translated title through nothing more than a rearrangement of the very same 'raw materials' that constituted the original title. But then I'm biased.

Elsewhere in "Translator, Trader," (which plays on the traduttore/traditore, translator/traitor pun) Hofstadter calls attention to a translation choice he made in describing a bat's flight. Sagan describes how "des chauves-souris rôdaient autour des lampes sur la terrasse." Hofstadter looks to his dictionary and finds for rôder: roam, wander, loiter, lurk, prowl. I would very much like to see a bat perform any of these actions, but I like his final choice: "some bats were swooping around the lights on the terrace." And, really, it's not so much the particular choice that's interesting to me here but rather Hofstadter's way of explaining how he made the choice and what it shows about dictionaries, translators' prerogatives, translators' constraints.

When I've taught Hofstadter in the past, I've used his work as a model for students to consider how they can:

*write about considering and playing with an intellectual puzzle in an engaging way

*write about specialized expertise, knowledge, and procedures in an engaging way

*assess knowledge as something that's produced, reconsidered, and revised rather than just judged

*use their expertise in one field to learn something new about another field by making moves that translate skills and reveal new possibilities (e.g. the anagram above)

*play with constraints to generate new or different approaches to a problem

*play with form to generate new or different approaches to a problem

The chapter in Le Ton Beau de Marot in which he translates John Searle's Chinese box thought experiment into a Perec-style Oulipo lipogram is one of these totally rewarding moments: I learned something about new about constraint-based writing and AI (without the E).

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Blogger Meg on Wed Dec 09, 04:35:00 PM:
mmm, that really makes me want to translate... at least I'll speak Spanish more soon. I'm going to start volunteering at a community health center helping with prenatal classes for Latinas. Fun, huh?

Monday, December 07, 2009

Master-narrative dirigibles

I hadn't loved Lorrie Moore's new novel A Gate at the Stairs the same way that I loved her Anagrams, but I was blown away by David Wallace-Wells' review of the book in The Nation. His review made me rethink the function of some of the things I didn't like as much about the novel--namely, I thought the jokes about academia, punk rock, and foodies were about 15 years out of date and the plot twists came out of nowhere--and it also made me think about the contemporary social novel in a way I hadn't considered before. This paragraph doesn't really contain spoilers, but the review itself talks about major plot twists and explains their function brilliantly:
One of these sensational twists might be forgivable in a novel as engaging as this one; two of them would be inexcusable for a writer like Moore, who has always demonstrated such dexterity and narrative control; three of them, however, must be willful, and as the histrionics accumulate in the second half of the novel, A Gate at the Stairs begins to appear more and more a 9/11 farce, mocking the very enterprise of fashioning a coherent and conventional novel from those terrible events and the chaotic years that followed. Moore seems to be mocking, too, the novelistic impulses of our hyperbolic public life, in which private histories are reconfigured into broad narratives dictated by distant events. She offers instead a Gothic melodrama for our particular age of anxiety, a new model novel wrapped in its own cautionary tale. In presenting her readers with both a poignant domestic story and a series of contrived and grandiose narrative flourishes, intrusions that seem more to obscure than to illuminate the lives of her characters, Moore appears to be suggesting that social novels need not be master-narrative dirigibles like those favored by Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen, among others. They can be assembled instead, like much social history, from the ground up, piecemeal, from minor and private testimony. They can be as local and ragged as a patchwork quilt. The history might even be better that way.

(As a sidenote, I did like one of the epigrams at the beginning of the novel, from the Hayden Planetarium: "All seats provide equal viewing of the universe." It reminds me of when I was in fifth grade Drug Abuse Resistance Education class, and the police officer was admonishing one of my classmates for forgetting his DARE binder. "I left it at The Center of the Universe," the boy said. This excuse totally infuriated the police officer, but the boy kept repeating it as though it made perfect sense. Finally, the teacher explained that The Center of the Universe is an [unintentionally grim] concrete sculpture on the University of New Mexico campus, popular less for providing cosmological epiphanies and more for skateboarding and being the victim of crimes, as it's just four concrete passageways that intersect and make for lots of dark corners for lurking. This feels like a Lorrie Moore anecdote to me...)

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