This Problem of Taste
- By Mike Magnuson
Delivered at the January, 2012 residency of the Pacific University Brief-Residency MFA in Seaside, Oregon
I hate starting my remarks this way because you’re going to think I’m an asshole. Or maybe that’s not the ideal way to phrase it. You probably already think I’m an asshole.
Maybe I’m projecting my way of thinking on to you, which is to say if you were to commence your remarks the way I’m going to commence my remarks, I would most 100%-for-sure think you were an asshole. That might be too strong a word. I have been trying for some years now to select a word not that strong. I have been trying to be more peaceful and understanding of others. My success rate has been low, but this does not stop me from trying. Anyway, look at me. Look at how smart and sensitive I am. And good-looking, too! That’s what writing’s all about, no? We write so somebody says, “Hey, wow, my gosh, you’re so amazingly incredibly smart!”
Please allow me to congratulate myself on my long-past accomplishments. Fifteen years ago, when I was thirty-three years old, my first novel appeared in bookstores, and even though the book wasn’t very good, in the pantheon of books, and even though it was selling at the painfully slow rate of my ex-wife’s post-nasal drip, I considered myself upon the publication of my novel to have taken a seat at the table in the grand hall of world-class authors. I was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Authors author. I was on a huge book tour giving readings hither and yon and talking on the radio and people were asking me groovy questions and reprinting my crass answers in newspapers and in advertising circulars, and as a whipped-cream topping to my rise from nowhere to the position of Self-appointed Supreme Leader of the Not-Very-Good-Autobiographical-Fiction Society, I was awarded a fellowship to the famous Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in Vermont. My editor at HarperCollins had a string he could pull there, I guess. That’s what he said.
So I drove my Ford Escort wagon up there from Gainesville, Florida, where I lived at the time, with a bicycle, three cases of Budweiser in 12-ounce cans, a large Coleman Cooler, several pairs of camo pants and some sleeveless T-shirts (costume for my persona) and a dozen pair of Jockey underwear (never leave home without a dozen), and I also brought with me an ounce of the dankest Florida weed my decorated literary regiment could muster. I figured the weed would help me make friends. Surprise, surprise: It did.
Bread Loaf was a party beyond any party this lifelong party dork could dream of attending. Everybody there was a writer. Everybody was stoked about writing and wanted to talk about writing and, alas, party their petunias off while talking about writing. There were readings and craft talks and workshops and happy hours and bonfires and combinations of writers wandering into the treeline at the edge of the Bread Loaf grounds to discuss ways, as the legendary avant-garde composer Harry Partch used to say, “to improve the darkness with a little loving.” Or maybe it wasn’t love. But who cared? Bread Loaf was awesome.
Concerning my personal deportment there? I was angelic and studious and eager to experience the ideas all these wonderful writers tendered about the world. I was, in a word, the Fat Cheesehead Living in Florida version of Literature’s Mother Theresa. Yes, I was so very belle lettres. I attended every reading because a sign hung at the entrance to the grounds: “Penalty for missing a reading is death.” I attended every workshop meeting of my workshop group because the non-contract/contract element of being a Bread Loaf fellow dictated that I was to team teach the workshop with a more established writer. My established writer was a guy named Madison Smartt Bell, who dabbled in karate, and at one happy hour, after I poured a beer down his pants, he demonstrated the lightning accuracy of his round-house kick by striking me on the side of my head with his foot. Nah, that didn’t really happen. Or at least I didn’t pour a beer down his pants, okay? The craft talks, on the other hand, well, I’m sorry to say I was a higgledy-piggledy attendee. I was there at the conference as a prose writer, obviously, but had not read one book by any of the fiction and nonfiction faculty writers and out of the fiction and nonfiction fellows I had only read two books (one by Brady Udall, whose book of short stories I had only read because his college roommate was a friend of mine in the University of Florida MFA program; and another book by Tony Earley, who I had judged to be the premier Rick Bass imitator in the United States, and I was really into Rick Bass at the time). The poets on the faculty, however, I had read all of their work with varying degrees of intensity and was therefore keen to hear what the poets had to say in a formal setting. I’m not sure why I had read so much poetry: maybe this was because it takes a lot less time to read a boring book of poems about prairie life than it does to read a boring novel about prairie life. In any case, the poetry craft talks were great: on lining, on image, on metaphor, on birds, on whose ass to kiss at the Associate Writing Programs Convention, and so on.
One of my favorite poets happened to be there. Her work was hard to pin down exactly: it was lyric and either narrative or non-narrative, it was rhetorical and conscious of itself yet breezy and improvisational, it was hip, it was square. She was a poet, in short, whose work reflected a huge range of intelligence and an ability to adapt to a huge range of human experience, and writers like that – now and forever, amen – cause my inner aesthete to draw a hot bath and light the candles and put Anita Baker on the stereo and pour a glass of wine and have myself a long, restorative soak. Her craft talk, predictably enough, was on how to be open to all influences. She discussed Robert Frost and Lao-Tzu and John Milton and Sylvia Plath – or maybe some other disparate poets mixed up in a jumble like that: I don’t really remember exactly – and how through an open-minded way of reading these disparate poets, we could see how a common humanity emerges from them. For me, this idea was the highlight of Bread Loaf, even better than all the wild parties with all wild people.
Halfway through her talk, a male poet, a poet on the faculty, interrupted her. He had a loud voice and had it dialed up to the outrage level and much of his aristocratic blood had rushed to his face. He said, “I’m sorry, but your poetry is in no way open to all influences.” He named a few of her poems and suggested that they were narrow in scope and if she wrote poems that narrow, she didn’t have the authority to suggest a broader palette of ideas.
I don’t know what motivated that male faculty poet to act like a jackass. Perhaps he had had hurtful dealings with her in the past or maybe he was jealous because she was twice as smart as him: his poems were about stuff like what a great lover he was and how deeply he understood women or, worse, his poems were about two poets who were lovers – naturally – who were writing poems to each other, which is to say a poet who writes shit like that does give appeal to reading that long, boring novel about prairie life, doesn’t it?
In any case, the poet on stage, the non-male, non-jackass poet, the smart poet, the magnificent poet, was not rattled. She leveled an emotionless stare at him, even though she probably wanted him to be carried out of the room and dragged into the nearby and stripped to his underwear and tied to a maple tree and forced to recite “Samson Agonistes,” in its entirety, from memory.
Instead, she said, “I am open to all influences, but I am still me. There’s not much I can do to change that.”
My ex-wife is my ex-wife for a number of reasons, a large percentage of which have to do with me because, during the marriage, I was a lousy husband and a lousy human being. I say was a lousy human being in a way that implies it’s all over, that I’m a good person now, that I am no longer lousy. I’m trying not to be an asshole, in any case, and maybe the sad and consequently good truth of things is that I’m getting too old to be the asshole I once was. I’m trying to understand love in my life, too, and am wanting to love other people, no matter who they are, in the hope that through love I can achieve peace in my life.
These days, I look back and try to see what went wrong or try to find a root cause for me being such a subpar husband. It would be easy to say that communication was the problem. At the divorce hearing itself, the judge asked my ex-wife what was the main problem in the marriage, and my ex told him: lack of communication.
The judge never asked me what the problem had been, and if he had, I would have said, “My mother never loved me.” This was and has been and will be, till my mother dies, the truth. She used variations on that theme the entire time I was growing up and throughout my whole life till finally I have done the right thing and have cut my losses, such as they are, and have cut off all communication with dear old mom. When I was a kid, she would say, “I wish you had never been born.” Or “You make my life miserable.” Or “You are never going to be anything but fat and lazy your whole life.” I could understand, even from a young age, why she didn’t love me. Her father died suddenly when she was twelve years old, and then all her uncles died in the next few years, then, when she was sixteen, she met my father, who was in his twenties and was about to graduate from college, and when she was nineteen she gave birth to my oldest sister Debbie and ended up living in far northern North Dakota where my father had gotten a job as the sole teacher and principal at a K-through-12 school. Two years later, in the unfortunately named town of Maiden Rock, Wisconsin, she lost a baby, and two years after that, when she was twenty-three, she gave birth to my sister Sandy, who is eight years older than me. Sandy, in my mother’s view, was the end of child-bearing and the start of a clock ticking toward eventual freedom from motherhood, so when I was born eight years and one day after Sandy had been born, my mother saw this as the end of any possible future joy. For the first five months of my life, in fact, she didn’t even pick me up.
I could have been any kid with any disposition and she would have resented me and also resented my father, to whom she would frequently say, when I was in trouble, which I always was, “You sired him.” She was a smart woman who in our time might have had great opportunities for an education and a fulfilling career, but I was born, and in those days in Wisconsin, if a woman had a kid, her only option was to be a full-time mom. So when over the years my mom hated on me and treated me like shit, I never had to ask why. I knew.
Our essential human duty – without question – is to see into other people’s hearts and minds, no matter how heinous their thoughts and actions may be, and we must understand and empathize with why they think and act the way they do.
My ex-wife, however, was incapable of seeing into the hearts of others. I would say to her something like, “I love a medium-rare steak with a big honking glass of Washington State Cabernet to go with it!” She would look at me with those empty blue eyes of hers and say, “Why?” No one needs to explain why a steak is good. Same is true of sunsets. “I like a magnificent sunset.” Why? “I like hiking in the mountains.” Why? “I like the Chicago skyline.” Why? “I want a divorce.” Why?
Okay, other writers. Them. The forty dogs fighting for the one pork chop of university-press publication and its attendant invitations to speak to small crowds at various universities throughout the land. I try to take the moral high ground about other writers during my advancing years. I try, as in all things, to be mellow, to accept others, and to form a reasonable, charitable opinion of them based on their comportment in the world. This should be easy. This should require fewer brains than the Scarecrow had in The Wizard of Oz.
But on the last day of civilization, God gave us Facebook.
One noted writer on Facebook – a guy with a university job (imagine that) – posts each day as his Facebook status a quote by an author, sometimes a famous author from the canon and more often, an author who is a professor at another university and who is friends with this guy. The quote is, without exception, something inspirational about how writing is wonderful and how ultimately we can negotiate the horrors of the page through a combination of personal genius and lots of time in the writing chair and sixteen suitcases full of courage, not to mention a darned good attitude. According to this guy, the writing life is even more satisfying than winning 300 million dollars in the lottery and blowing all of it in a 20-year-long party on the French Riviera. So this cheery professor whose emotional demeanor is similar to what we might see on a stuffed animal we would give to a one-year-old girl before a cross-country road trip, he posts these happy, encouraging quotes every goddam day of the week, and needless to say, his 5000+ friends click the living shit out of like on everything he posts. Not me. I know: you are shocked. When I see this guy’s status updates, I post smartass comments, sometimes about the foolishness of the quote or how it’s taken out of context or how it’s poorly punctuated, or I mention the obvious: how the author he has quoted to begin with is really just his friend who teaches at another university, and if he posts his friend’s quotes on writing regularly enough, maybe, just maybe, his friends will invite him to come to their campus and give a reading next winter. Fuckin-A! Here’s another shock for you: he sometimes deletes my comments, even if they’re funny, which sometimes they are. To give him his due, he means well, which I don’t always. He probably should delete more of my comments than he does.
So many writers on Facebook present themselves as people whose lives are a constant act of self-congratulation and self-promotion. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s what Facebook is for: to build an audience, to schmooze, to find a way, through networking and nurturing, to get ahead. This type of writer will use as their profile picture either the cover of their book or a formal author picture or a picture of themselves with a lecternette’s microphone pointing toward their head in the manner of literature’s 12 gauge Remington 870 Wingmaster pointed in the direction of a low-flying duck. This type of writer will post this as their Facebook status: “I have been assigned by a MAJOR magazine to do a piece on a very amazing town, and I’m going there next week. Any of you have any suggestions about cool things to do while I’m there?” Like can you not figure this out using Google or sending somebody an email? I know, I know. The point is you want to announce to everybody that you’ve gotten a assignment with a major magazine. This type of writer will also, especially if it happens to be a male fiction writer just out of graduate school, post stuff like, “I wrote 2000 new words in my novel this morning. At this rate, I should have the Nobel Prize for Literature in the bag by Halloween.”
In a way, this makes sense. If Facebook accomplishes anything, it allows people to construct an identity to present to other people. About half of my Facebook friends are cyclists, most of them racers, and those folks ALWAYS present themselves on Facebook as people who only wear spandex and a bike helmet and have a race number pinned on their jersey and who only think about cycling and training for cycling and about gear associated with cycling. These cyclists are of course many other things: doctors, school teachers, accountants, et cetera. But on Facebook, they are cyclists. The key for us – for writers, for makers of literature, for people whose trade is itemizing humanity in an artful way – is to know the difference between that person we present on Facebook and the person we are inside. My dad must have told me three million times that the worst type of bullshitter is someone who believes their own bullshit. We writers have to know who we are. We have to be real. What we do is so important that we cannot allow it to be dependent upon schmooze.
I teach indoor cycling at the downtown Y in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, 5:30 a.m. Mondays and Wednesdays, 5:30 p.m. Thursday nights, sometimes noon on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, Saturday mornings sometimes, sometimes Sundays. I like teaching indoor a great deal on account of 1) I get a free membership to the Y for my efforts, 2) the workout’s a lot harder if you’re teaching a class than if you’re just taking the class, and 3) I get to delude myself into thinking that if I prepare meticulously for each class, which involves selecting music at various tempos and organizing this music into sequences that warms the body up and stresses the body out in progressions and gradually cools the body down, if during the class I put in the maximum effort mentally and physically, I can help people. I am a lonely person, it’s worth pointing out, and trying to help people is a very good thing for lonely people to do. Helping people involves contact with others. Helping people is also not an act that manifests itself the same way from one person to the next, either for the person doing the helping or for the person on the business end of being helped. There is no quantified, universally accepted method for the instruction of indoor cycling, or at least there isn’t one at the downtown Oshkosh Y, where none of the instructors are certified.
We indoor cycling instructors each have our own way of getting the job done, we all feel our spin class is the best, and when another instructor regularly has higher attendance numbers than the rest of us, we feel resentment toward that popular instructor. My belief, of course, is that I should be the most popular indoor cycling instructor because I work harder than everybody else and have the only indoor cycling class at the Y that even remotely resembles the type of indoor cycling class people take in the big cities. I search the internet for cycling routines and tempo progressions, and each time I walk into that cycling room, I am loaded for the proverbial bear and ready to rock that class’s world! Obviously, my ego is large, and I may possibly be overcompensating for a litany of personal inadequacies by trying harder than I should. This is something about which I am not proud. This is also something over which I have no control. I am a fanatic in all things. I am a person who obsesses. I am a person who, when I have passion for something, throws myself headlong, without reflection, into constant thought and deed. In Lord of the Rings, all of Sauron’s thoughts were bent on the finding that ring. In my life, all my thoughts are bent on what I have set myself to do. People don’t like this about me sometimes, and I have tried, without success, to change. I am almost fifty years old now. This is who I am. I am so, so sorry.
We have eighteen bikes in the indoor cycling room, and when my class feels really packed, twelve people show up, and usually, six students show up, and in this six will be my sister, my niece, and my girlfriend, who are there to support me more than they’re really into the anal-retentive class I’m offering. By comparison, John – who is in his sixties and works fulltime at Kitz and Pfiel’s True Value Hardware on Main Street and who plays only Jimmy Buffett music in class and never prepares in advance and spends ninety percent of every class sitting upright on his bike and telling stories about the best times he’s gotten drunk on vacation two weeks a year in Key West – he fills all eighteen bikes every time. Monte – who is in his late fifties, maybe early sixties, and who still hangs out with his frat buddies from the university of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, and whose class bears no relation whatsoever to the non-funk, non-groove, white-bread Wilco and Tom Petty music he selects for his class and who paints small wooden fish and wooden guitars and wooden bicycles blue and sells them at the Oshkosh farmer’s market, along with an artist statement on a 3 X 5 card that demonstrates his literary flair with language: “I paint fish because I like fish. I paint guitars because I like music. I paint bikes because I like bikes.” – Monte’s class is full every time. Everybody loves Monte. My class, like my cup, is half empty. Maybe my class is too hard or I am too intense or maybe people don’t want to pedal along with precise tempos because they can’t count, they can’t find one, and if you can’t find one, you can’t find two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Maybe I’m wasting my time. Maybe I should just ease off the throttle and pat life on the head and paint wooden fish blue.
Here in the Lewis and Clark room at the Best Western Oceanside Resort in the lovely getaway town of Seaside, Oregon – where with a heigh, ho, the wind and the rain, and the rain it raineth every day or whatever Shakespeare wrote about Seaside in January? – we focus our attention on literature and what we must require of ourselves to create it. We are disparate in this room. We are not each other, despite how much we have come together into a supportive and vibrant community. We come from different places, have different incomes and intellectual backgrounds and have different foods we like and different music we like and books we like and people we love and ways in which we love them. We aspire to live in words, in the physical sensations they suggest, in the intellectual tumblers they set moving like all the fat, gold watches Sylvia Plath knew could add music to our lives and joy to our lives and sadness and despair, too. We read, we study, we learn, and we do this not for a reward that we can exchange for a steak dinner and a bottle of wine but so that we may become better human beings in a world that seems so, so far from ever becoming better. Learning itself is an act of understanding, and understanding is an act of acceptance. But knowledge is not dogma. We cannot allow knowledge to become dogma. We must not use what we have learned to conclude that our personal knowledge, our way of articulating the world into words, is the only way it can be done. We have to turn the viewfinder of our perception outward. We must commit ourselves to opening our hearts. We are artists. We are people who create records of humanity. We people who strive for wisdom.
Let us come together, then. Let us love one another, and through this, let us go forth in the world and share our words and our message of peace.
Mike Magnuson’s new book, Bike Tribes: A Field Guide to North American Cyclists (Rodale Press), appears in May 2012. He is the author of the novels The Right Man for the Job and The Fire Gospels and of the memoirs Lummox: The Evolution of a Man and Heft on Wheels: A Field Guide to Doing a 180, and he is a longtime contributing writer with Bicycling magazine. He lives in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.