Category Archives: culture

Pilgrimage: Cigarette Culture and the Seven Rings of Bureaucratic Hell

DSCN0015Today I woke at 7am—unheard of in my life as writer, student, and professional slacker. Usually I wake early only if someone promises free pancakes or perhaps a magic genie lamp (though, much to my chagrin, this has yet to occur). But today I have agreed to matriculate in the University of Tuebingen, despite not fully understanding what the phrase “matriculation” actually means. I think it must be a medieval word for torture, something that the Catholic Church did to heathens during the Inquisition. Imagine hanging by your pinky toes upside down when a staunch vaguely-European voice threatens to matriculate you. Truly scary stuff, I swear.

While I sit at a bus stop hacking my lungs out, waiting to return to my underground apartment after undergoing the absurdly difficult process of matriculation, I observe two boys (12, 13) smoking cigarettes. Both strike the same pose, the ubiquitous pose of youthful boredom as popular in Germany as Macklemore haircuts. The older boy rolls a cigarette on his lap with an open canister of tobacco (brand: unknown) and surreptitiously accepts a shared lit cigarette into his mouth from his friend. He inhales deeply and then allows his friend to pluck the cigarette from between his lips to take a few puffs himself.

Because they are young, perhaps they cannot afford each their own cigarettes. Perhaps they enjoy sharing because Germany seems to be a country on the verge of embracing socialism (public transport that actually works! taxes that provide for public schools! retirement benefits!). But naturally they must hide the cigarette in case someone reproaches them. Though underage smoking is illegal, no police will approach, no; police only come when called and barely make rounds except in large train stations and even there they drive hilariously cute automobiles with calming sirens. When a German police car passes blaring its siren and flashing its light, one might mistake this for an ice cream truck.

I ignore the boys for awhile and cough heartily into my scarf. I am sick after walking for hours, lost, in search of the city offices where I might apply for a residence permit. In a few weeks, when I begin my German classes, they promised to guide us through matriculation, and I regret now not waiting, for I need a guide. I need a Virgil to guide me (Dante in this metaphor) through the Seven Rings of German Bureaucratic Hell. I’m seeing a long-form poem already writing itself—rather than The Inferno, I will call this poem The Büro, the journey of one man through the impossible difficulties of German paperwork. If I wanted to be so harassed for coming to a place I would have worn an Obama HOPE t-shirt to a Texas rodeo.

But the sludge through offices is over and my fingers may rest from clutching pen after pen after endless pen, and I may now sit watching these young boys smoke a cigarette together. Once they finish the first, they immediately light up the second. Strange, I think, to be addicted so young, but in Germany this is the most popular vice (after perhaps wefeheisen beer and techno clubs). Almost everyone I have so far met smokes cigarettes. These are no casual smokers, no, not one-a-day smokers or evening smokers, but honest-to-Angela-Merkl cigarette addicts. Everyone on the bus is jouncy to leap off the bus at the nearest stop so they can light up the next cigarette. In bars and clubs, smoking is completely allowed. Smoke fills nearly every room. I learned last night I am allowed even to smoke in my apartment as long as I open the tiny window near the ceiling.

I find this all hilarious, but I do not try to judge. Let be, I think. Let them have their tobacco and smoke it too. Being an American, I try to act very laissez-faire about the entire affair. But I learn quickly that perhaps Americans are not so live-let-live as Germans, at least on the issue of smoking. In America , for example, long ago did lobbies manage to outlaw smoking in restaurants, in the vicinity of restaurants, on public transport, and nearly everywhere else, while in Germany, despite the government wielding a large amount of control over personal life (one must recycle, one must pay various taxes for healthcare, one must go through wildly complicated registration processes), any person can smoke almost anywhere. Despite this idea, on each pack of cigarettes reads the warning: Smoking can be deadly.

But in Germany, smoking can only be deadly cool. The absolute most popular death (save perhaps heart attack after consuming too many sausages).

The sooner a German smokes, the better. So here stand two boys (12, 13) smoking at the bus stop with fervent passion. The bus arrives a moment later, and one boy  smothers the cigarette with the bottom of his shoe before boarding the bus. I sit in the seat in front of them, coughing still into my scarf. And then a mighty sneeze builds in my chest, exploding up my throat until—aah, aah, achooo! I sneeze into my scarf. One boy leans forward and says quite genuinely, “Gesundheit,” which is the German version of “Bless you.”

I tell him, thanks. At least the youth of Germany care about their health.

Pilgrimage: The Nature of Non-Direction

I ride the bus in and out of town, stopping at any cafe or bar to briefly read White Teeth or work on the new novel, but still I have no yet begun. Not yet. Begun something, I don’t know, not in any tangible way. All of this feels like a dream, and it may be when every person is a stranger. No one exists except for me, everyone else an actor or actress in the background of a silent film. I have long prided myself on this tenuous characteristic of being “out-going,” but I discover this applies only in easy circles. My domain resides in the classroom, the poetry slam, the independent coffee house, not the random bustling avenue where everyone seems to possess direction save for I. Beyond that, each interaction is a cipher: going to the bank, ordering a doener, buying a bus ticket.

You know that feeling one receives in a new places that you do not belong, that the notion of belonging might merely be a mispronouncing of “be longing,” that rather we perpetually long to be something more, some place better, some new party with new faces. We sit on a bench and feel jealous we do not sit on some other bench. We are birds envious of fish, living bodies envious of ghosts. Perhaps that’s the condition of living, to be forever misplaced, we passing tourists of the living experienced. Here quite by accident.

I sit now in the center of the old city on a bright, cool day high upon a grand stone wall overlooking a narrow street where bikes and buses speed past storefronts. Perhaps my mind is still trapped back home, a billion anxieties floating to the surface: a book, friends, parties I cannot attend. While here I am in an odd limbo: two weeks ahead with no set plans, no classes. And so the question arises– to travel, to stay, to meet students, to write– who knows? I am a ship without sails, bouyed by the sea, hoping to land on some beautiful beach, not shipwrecked but harbored by some anchor without a name.DSCN0011

Pilgrimage: Touching Down in Munich

We cruise two thousand feet about an endless fabric of cloud, lumped below us like dried mashed potatoes a toddler has chucked to the floor in a fit of rage. In the distance, the volcanic plume of a nuclear power plant slithers into the sky, beyond that the Alps. The Alps with peaks nearly high as our plane, they tower in the distance. Monstrous craggy silhouettes with a back-light bathed the pink of sunrise.

As our plane descends toward the airport in Munich, we slip beneath the blanket of clouds. The horizon blinks and blinds us. Plane touches down and seventy middle school students on a field trip bust into cliche, which is to say, burst into applause.

“Kendrick Had a Dream”

fff

“Martin had a dream. Martin had  a dream. Kendrick had a dream.”- Backseat Freestyles/ good kid, m.A.A.d city

  1. Kendrick Lamar floats above cityscape,

his torso

alight with flaming angel wings.

Flying or falling, he cannot tell. He

wakes in a stupor, his eyes bright as forgotten Heavens.

  1. Kendrick Lamar unzips his pants, and

the Eifel Tower springs from between the zippers.

He proceeds to fuck the world for 72 hours.

  1. Kendrick Lamar stands naked in front of his class.

He is in high school chemistry class, and his Eifel

Tower is now just  a normal phallus. Someone

laughs. Someone shouts, “Bitch, don’t kill my vibe!”

  1. A giant eagle with the face of

School Boy Q chases Kendrick Lamar

through the desert, his legs thin as chopsticks.

As he pushes harder, the Eagle draws closer,

his claws familiar as Compton.

  1. Kendrick Lamar misses a flight to Berlin,

for he lies in a box,

a cedar box buried six feet under the ground, his body

contorting with rage and fear. His head banging

against the top of the box

as he wonders whether he might escape.

He will not escape, not until he wakes

in mid-afternoon, his bed wet

with hangover sweat,

his back still dripping as if he just climbed from a pool full of liquor,

as if only just yesterday

he woke for the first time.

“South is South”: Writing About South Carolina Without Demonizing or Romanticizing Its Culture, Past, and People

The South of the Mind smells like honeysuckles; sometimes Charleston smells like sewage and dead fish. The sun is SC Welcomea warm friend in the South of the Mind, where snow is mere fantasy; last weekend, snow blanketed my hometown of Aiken, and a week before the sun was a bully breathing down the backs of our necks. Either genteel Southern belles or toothless rednecks populate the South of the Mind; South Carolina is populated by a growing diversity of people who do not easily conform to categories. Just like any other geographic region, the Southeastern United States suffers from an image problem, presumptions propagated by stereotypes about the places, people, and culture that overshadow the true nuanced portrait of the region. Perceptions of the South formed through fiction often affect people’s opinions about the South itself. In writing The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, I grappled with representing the small-town South in a way that felt authentic. On one hand, I wished not to construct the South as an overwhelmingly horrible and backwards place and therefore gloss over its positive attributes. On the other hand, I couldn’t ignore its faults. While southern culture and politics does not escape unscathed in my stories, I intend to present a balanced representation—the beautiful, the ugly, and the damned.rural-SC-commerce-competition

Although all novelists writing in English must confront the hegemonic power of the language and the violence committed by its speakers both in the physical and intellectual realm, writers in the South wrestle with a particular trailer-parkcomplex past. Because our past brims with violence, exploitation, and continued inequality—trends that today perpetuate new forms of oppression—we cannot paint the South in its antebellum grace. Too often we portray the South as blood-less cotton fields and pristine plantations, southerners sipping sweet tea while seated in rocking chairs as the breeze tickles the backs of their necks. Conversely, we also tend to focus only the brutality of our past without taking into consideration the hardships of southerners. In order to truly have a conversation about how to write about the South, I think we should confront a few topics. Over the next few weeks, I will pen short essays on the intersection of fiction and other topics, how these topics pervade our culture and therefore our stories. Though I may choose to write more essays than I currently intend, the topics include race, development, politics, religion, and family.

While engaging these topics, I hope to challenge myself to think more critically about how I construct my own “South gty_Beaufort_south_carolina_thg_130510_wmainof the Mind” in my novels and short stories. The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County is only the first book I intend to write about the South, which tackles all of the above mentioned topics, but as I write about different cities in South Carolina and beyond (I am now writing about North Carolina, gasp!), I hope to show how nuanced each region truly can be. The “South” is merely an idea—a construct formed by unconscious popular consensus—in much the same way “Africa” is merely an idea for many Americans based not in any actual knowledge or experience (See Chinua Achebe’s “Image of Africa” for confirmation of this). If you have any comments throughout the series on what ways portrayals of the South are fair or unfair, please share them. Likewise, I must contend that I speak primarily for South Carolina being born and raised in the state. Let us write with our minds and hearts open. See you next time for a frank talk about the South and its history of racial oppression.

“Pursuit of Happiness”- Derek Berry

A new slam poem.

Derek Berry Discusses Hip Hop and the Phenomena of THE BEST RAPPER EVER

download (7)Now, I’m by no mean a “hip hop artist,” though my art form shares roots with hip hop, IS the root of hip hop. The reason I don’t say I make hip hop is firstly because I don’t make music or beats to poems, and I also don’t participate in hip hop culture. Understand, I mean positive things when I say “hip hop culture,” as in using art to create solidarity within black communities and spread messages of defiance and love.

But I’ve been open-mic-hopping for years, and what irks me is rappers who take hip hop out of context. They realize they can rhyme “life” and “knife” and suddenly assume they’re “THE BEST RAPPER EVER.” Like, you made a mix-tape with your older brother in the garage, and now you’re “ON TOP?” What does that even mean? On top of what? You’re not even the best performer at the open mic, so I don’t know why you’re accusing me of being a “hater” because I point out you’re an amateur. It’s okay. I’m an amateur, too. We’re all amateurs, and we don’t have to pretend to be anything else.

Offensives include dissing on famous rappers you don’t even know, rapping about how much money you don’t actually have, and objectifying women. These are not actual staples of hip hop, only the version of hip hop that has been force-fed to this generation. Albeit, there are some really great artists out there talking about some real shit, but too often, we are exposed to those who glorify violence, hedonism, and apathy. Apathy isn’t as cool as you think. You’re not going to earn anyone’s respect rapping about how many one-night stands you’ve had, because I frankly don’t care.

For example, though, if you’re trying to argue that Lil Wayne’s a better artist than Notorious B.I.G., get out my face.

Alright, check out this video in which I go ham on some fake hip-hop artists, bam…

As the Tab of Yet Another Click-Bait Article Concerning “What Every 20-Year-Old-And-Five-Months Should Achieve Before Turning 20-And-Six Months” Loads Slowly on The Browser

After meticulously reading

an online review of Taco Bell’s “secret menu,”

which includes potato-stuffed burritos named after superheroes,

without brand loyalty to either DC or Marvel,

I pushed back my chair and questioned

my predisposition to tell people that I am awfully busy

in order to avoid events and affairs unpleasant or boring,

considering how I had just whittled my lifeline

for the sake of taste bud analysis for the critically-acclaimed Queserito.

 

Perhaps journalism’s dead, but keeps excavating the crucial mysteries of our time,

such as the quality of Frankenstein dishes at a fast-food-belch-haven. Dead in the same way

Bruce Willis had been dead throughout the entire movie, but he kept

digging at the paranormal crux of his own demise. Maybe everybody’s a journalist these days,

even I worked in journalism for awhile, despite my linguistic

idiosyncrasies and dismissal of grammatical authority.

In other words, perhaps yoga pants do not accentuate each person’s

ass in a flattering light, as yoga pants market themselves to do,

though who decides who does or does not wear yoga pants?

“Yoga pants” might be a good term for successive breathing, quick and deep, quick and deep.

Not counting persons who actually practice yoga, (evidently the minority

of yoga-pants-wearers), no one dictates that sort of non-dress-code.

Just like how the Internet’s become a Wild West of bullshit-masquerading-as-truth

or Taco-Bell-reviews-feigning-to-be-news. Because for every blurb

intricately spoiling every single damn hit tv show on television

exists a well-argued essay in pristine prose

about the degradation of American culture

posted on some obscure blog that nobody’s gonna fuckin’ read.

Notes on a Long Island: The Spot

{Stories are 80% true, according to Long Island local Matthew Harberg, my roommate and King of the Sea. Having interviewed him on various subjects from the Long Island area, I have transcribed a series of stories exploring the culture and atmosphere of the island, though I have never visited there and know nothing about it. This particular story deals with a surf-shop owner from Long Island with a list of eccentricities.}

On the news, Snake watched the news anchor dead-pan as she explained how the police tackled a drunk millionaire earlier than day. “Local millionaire Ronald Artt is bringing charges against the Long Island Police Department for police brutality after they chased him into the street and brought him forcibly to the ground. Moments before, Mr. Artt had been standing in downtown Manhatten, wearing a suit and pink dress gloves, shooting a water gun wildly into the air.” She shuffled her papers and looked to her co-anchor, who took over with a stifled hesitation.

“Yes, well, reportedly Mr. Artt claims that the gun was obviously a toy one, that the officers were quick to jump on him because—”

Clicking the Tv off, Snake lowered his head and looked across the counter at Carston. “What do you want?” He was seventy-years old, but often visited clubs with middle-aged Guido’s. He tagged along with them, telling ridiculous stories and pumping his fist half-heartedly to techno-rap.

Carston looked to Danny, glowering from behind his orange-tinted shades. “Man, just the—you know, whatever you sell.”

Snake shrugged. “Surfing board wax? A wetsuit?” The two boys stood in a shack just off the beach, a piece of beach the man behind the counter claimed to own. Though condos and houses crowded against the strand, the beach belonged officially to Snake—dread-haired geriatric owner of The Spot. Though he ran the joint ostensibly as a local surf shop, The Spot made the majority of its revenue in the local drug trade. Surfer dudes shopped there for small items, buying ounces under the counter—rumor had lead the boys through the glass doors plastered with advertisements for local club events months-past (Day Glo, Pirate Theme Night, $2 Jell-o Shots), across the sand-strewn tile, and to the front desk.

He sat like a regal Buddha on the steep wooden stool, his pointy elbows propped on the un-sanded counter. “Boys, are you paying any attention?”

“Sure, but we heard you sold—um, more than just surfing supplies?”

“Oh, oh!” He waved his arms, sliding off his stool and wheezing, guffawing. “I’m being a bit loopy, huh? I know the days come and go like they do, don’t you know?”

“Sure, we know. So, how much?”

“For the emu? He ain’t for sale?”

“Emu?”

“It’s the last one I got, go look at him, if you want.” He hastily unlocked the door behind him, waving his arms for the boys to follow. As they trailed quietly after him, however, he did not lead them into a secret vault where he kept his stash of drugs; rather, he lead them into the backyard, fenced in with cheap vinyl fencing units—and in the center of the sand-and-grass lot was an emu tied to a wooden post.

“What the hell is that?”

“That’s the last one, wouldn’t you know?” Snaked shrugged, his dreads rolling off his shoulders, and he bore his red-cracked eyes into Carston’s. “So, what about it?”

“Uh, I didn’t come here to buy—an emu? What about the—you know, the stuff? The chronic?”

download              “I ain’t gonna sell this emu, anyhow,” said Snake, his face cracking like a broken public fountain. “He’s the last I got. The first one, he died. A sad occasion. We put together a funeral for him, a whole affair with all my closest friends—his two emu buddies too. Then not a week later, one of the others escapes. This one’s named Sunshine. Probably just mourning Birdie’s death. God, we all loved Birdie, but Sunshine, he couldn’t take it. He just broke out. I don’t know how.”

“I’m sorry, sit. I—um, I didn’t know?”

Beside the emu stood a large white van—Snake had always wanted a VW van from the seventies where he could take local ladies, but he settled for something infinitely creepier—a windowless van spray-painted with comical signage. Peace emblems, color-faded flowers, and the paint-stenciled image of Bob Marley.

“Used to love animals, take care of them? Had a whole menagerie—wouldn’t you know? Alligators, dogs, snakes as big as your arms, as long as a car, and even tamed squirrels. But they came and took them? Wouldn’t you know the police are always sticking their nose into business ain’t their business.” He snuffled, then wrapped his arms around the emu, which shuffled awkwardly and pecked his shoulder in violent defense. “But then this emu escapes and it—well, it falls right into the bay. Runs out in front of cars, across town, down to the pier, trots down its length, and jumps headlong into the sea. Damn emu’s dead. It swam around a while, until the fire department came and scooped it out the water.”

“It—it died?” Carston began to back up, grabbing Danny’s shoulder. “I think we came to the wrong place.”

“The damn emu died,” Snake said, wiping his tears. “I love Sunshine—he was like a brother to me. Loved him more than anything I ever loved.” His raspy voice died down. “All the fault of the fire department—if they had been more careful, that’s what killed him. They didn’t take their time getting him out of the bay—they killed him.”

Danny shrugged. “Guess that sucks. Well.”

“Of course the police couldn’t side with me, considering they didn’t realize I had any emus in the first place, but a man’s got to do something with his life’s work.”

“Sorry.” Carston looked at his feet, clearing his throat. “Guess we really just wanted surfing wax after all.”

Once Snake sold them an overpriced bottle of wax and given them half-off coupons for entrance to the Karaoke Party at Senor Frogs (which had occurred the weekend before), Snake returned to the back yard, rubbed his emu’s neck softly, and called his lawyer seventeen times. His lawyer never picked up the phone, not to hear Snake complain again about the emu incident—he had already been on the television. Returning inside, Snake turned the mounted Tv back on, hoping he had not missed his televised interview.

Vignette: Cigarettes in the City

images (22)Everyone in the city smoked cigarettes, the orange-bright ends illuminating every stoop, park bench, and window. If we shut out the lights, cut the electrical lines, we might still be able to read by the glare of a million burning cigarettes, their ashes spilling into the crease between the pages. Many treated their cigarettes with ritual superstition—practicing traditions passed down from the Great War, from the Native Americans, and from the study-abroad semesters in Bulgaria. Each secreted upside down sticks in their packs—the lucky cigarette—absconding white lighters and lighting up with the ends of each others’ cigarettes. When finished, they tapped out the cigarettes in overflowing ash trays, some plastic, others glass.

The smoke, meanwhile, floated above their heads in lazy spirals—smoke took on a life of its own, an animated beast rising and swaying like a drunk ballerina in flats not yet broken in. The bearded man with glasses, reading Kant with a mix of pretentiousness and a sincere desire to understand, the freckled girl with a glinting nose ring—hell, the Catholic Father with his black shirt unbuttoned in the simmering summer heat. Here they sat, sharing communion: rather than a reminder of life, they acknowledged death, welcomed it into their lungs with breaths deep as love.

The priest took a drag on his cigarette, and I wonder why he smokes, if there is reason at all or if it seemed something to do when there was nothing else to do. Some of the people in the city, they rolled their cigarettes. The heathens of the Holy City smoked everything they could stuff into rolling papers, fitting their filters sloppily to the end.

Perhaps he liked smoking for its symbolism, its thematic properties. Cigarettes reflected the American desire for death, the necessity of it with our lives, because without death, we would not be able to justify our wasteful lives. If we were to live forever, then we would be forced to do something, but death had become our ultimate cop-out, our greatest excuse for failure. We could try, try to do something good and impactful, but then too late—you died too soon, oh well.

The embers died out, crackling like a campfire in the jumble of ash trays, and the city grew dark as the smokers fell one by one to sleep.

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