Frontier Psychiatrist

Posts Tagged ‘Writing

[The second in a series of travel essays from China, New York, and Israel]

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While it was raining when my plane landed in Beijing, it was in the 70s and sunny most of the next two weeks. I was staying on the 24th floor of an apartment building and could see the surrounding mountains nearly every day. The haze that the city has become known for wasn’t completely absent, but was generally never an issue. But with good weather combined with the National Day and Golden Week that followed, areas of the city grew to even more phenomenally crowded than what is normal.  I had initially contemplated trying to travel outside of Beijing, but after hearing horror stories from travelers about overbooked trains, no hostel availability, and sleeping in a karaoke room for the night — I decided to stay put.

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[The first in a series of travel essays from China, New York, and Israel]

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The Airport Express elevated train flies past the stagnant Tuesday evening traffic and I’m welcomed to the city by the corporate offices of Mercedes, Caterpillar, and Microsoft. Through the haze and rain shine the bright yellow lights of an Ikea. Did I take the wrong plane? Nope. I’m in Beijing, back in China for the first time since I studied for a semester in Shanghai over three years ago.

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My fear of romantic commitment has been well hashed-over by my friends, family, and ex-boyfriends. But the commitment that’s been hardest for me to make is one to New York, despite the fact that I’ve lived in Brooklyn for a dozen years, written tender articles about New York’s subway system and abandoned buildings, and published a book about its cab drivers. Yet my feelings for the city are anything but soft and fluttery. Case in point: One of my favorite T-shirts, a gift from a friend, says: I Kind of  Heart New York

When I moved to New York in 2000, I had hoped to be a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters, but couldn’t swallow the required two-year commitment. By now I could have raised the child. When friends and family in the Midwest asked over the years how long I’d stay in the city, I always say “one more year.” After 12 years here, I still think of the congressman from my parents’ Ohio neighborhood as my own. And when I meet a guy who extols his love for New York, I inwardly grimace and turn away

I have always had a manic-depressive relationship with New York. I felt ecstatic dancing to skilled DJs at rooftop warehouse parties and seeing my first outdoor movie in Bryant Park, skyscraper lights shining above the screen like stars. The live music in beer-sticky bars captivated me, as did the talented, creative new friends who helped me uncover my own potential. Yet the city’s darker side haunts me in the form of cement. Forget grass and trees, “parks” are slabs of concrete with benches – Union Square or McCarren Park anyone? Everyone’s in a hurry, rushing somewhere “important,” people on top of each other, crawling over each other. And when some of these people stand in front of the subways doors, refusing to move aside as others board the train, I want to punch them.

Still, I haven’t stayed in New York by accident or by default. So this summer I decided to commit – at least to Brooklyn, where I live, and Manhattan, where I work (The other three boroughs seem like a bit of a stretch.) Like a woman in marriage counseling, I decided to have regular date nights with New York. My plan: First, soak up as many concerts as possible and re-forge my original connection with the city and its music. Second, say yes to people and possibilities. Third, be deliberate, recognize positive and negative feelings, focus on the positive, and take pictures for prosperity.

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Last week, we published Khaliah Williams’ What the Bay Broke, a somber short story about summer spouse swapping in Cape Cod. After its publication, we chatted with Williams via email about the inspiration for the story, her literary life, adultery, Vampire Weekend, and what her graduate work at Iowa Writers Workshop taught her about writing and whiskey.  

Where did you get the idea for “What the Bay Broke” and where did the title come from?

I pulled that story from a lot of different places, including my own struggles with learning to love someone besides myself, unrequited love, and standing up for myself. I also like the idea of someone who is slightly terrified of the beach owning a beach house. But the real inspiration for this story came from a trip to Cape Cod in September of 2009. I was there with a group of friends for a wedding and sometime around midnight (fueled by wine) we decided to go down to the beach.  I lost one of my sandals in the water and one of my friends found it two days later. That’s always stuck with me, that sometimes the water will take something away and it just might come back to you. This will sound silly, but I have no idea where the title came from. I’m terrible with titles, and I often run with suggestions from other people. T. Geronimo Johnson (whose book Hold it ‘Til it Hurts comes out in September) re-titled what eventually became my graduate thesis in workshop one day. The title story was “The Heart Stops Beating When You Least Expect It” and he suggested a more manageable “Until the Heart Stops Beating.” He probably doesn’t remember that. But the new title had so much elegance to it that I kept it and than began writing a lot of stories around that idea. Besides, I like titles that start with the word ‘what’.

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The following is an excerpt from Jared Thomas’s upcoming book, Up in the Sky, Down in the Shadows: What Batman & Superman Can Tell Us About the American Spirit.  Read more from Mr. Thomas here.  

Prologue: Down in the Gutters, Up to the Stars

Myth begins in the gutter.  It comes to life as folktales.  It’s what the Germans call Volkgeist; the Spirit of the People. The Priests and Poets come later.  It always starts with the stories.  They can be refined, re-worked, written down, re-vamped, re-told, re-booted but never actually altered because Myths are always true.  They are forged in the crucible of the People’s predicament.  They are told because they are necessary.  They exist because they must.

Homer was a blind man who wrote down the stories of shepherds and cutthroats.  Geoffrey of Monmouth took the strange Welsh songs of a peerless hero who fought giants and cat-monsters and turned it into the defining myth of the United Kingdom.  Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were academics who recorded the morbid morality tales of Central Europe.

Achilles.  The Trojan Horse.  Helen of Troy.  Arthur.  Lancelot.  Gwyneviere.  Sleeping Beauty.  Cinderella.  Little Red Riding Hood.  They come as freely to the modern mind as they did centuries ago and they will continue to until we no longer have need of them.  Like it or not, these are our defining stories, and they didn’t come from the Literati or the Tastemakers.  They sprung from the Volkgeist and help to illuminate the Spirit of the Age.

Now, add two more names to that list:

Superman. Batman.

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In 2009, Marvel Comics was aquired by Disney.  DC Comics has been owned by Time-Warner since 1967.  In other words, Superman is a corporate trademark.  As is Batman, Wonder Woman, Spiderman, Wolverine and practically any other superhero the average person can bring to mind.  It is fitting, perhaps.  Comic Books are a uniquely American invention, along with jazz, rock n roll and, you guessed it, the corporation.  Of course our Gods would be owned by them.

And make no mistake, the superheroes are American Gods.  No matter what Rick Perry and the red states say, we have been a secular, urban nation for over a century now and it shows no signs of changing.  The old Gods didn’t make their way from Europe so immigrant kids from New York had to make up new ones.  What are Batman and Superman if not 2 different sides of The Messiah?  Is Iron Man not America’s dream of itself?  Who are the X-Men if not the marginlized made strong through talent?  If myths are the stories we tell ourselves so we might understand what it means to be human, in our particular time and place, then superheroes are most assuredly modern American myths.

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Promethea, by Alan Moore & J.H. Williams III

Alan Moore is widely considered to be the greatest writer in the history of comic books.  For people like me, graphic evangelists, it is Moore we most often turn to when attempting to sway the unconvinced of the medium’s potential.  He is a serious writer whose skill, innovation and effect on popular culture are on par with any author, in any medium, currently living.  From his early Orwellian fable, V for Vendetta to his nearly single handed creation of the Veritgo imprint through his groundbreaking Swamp Thing to the industry changing Watchmen to his stunning and disturbing exploration of the Jack the Ripper mythos in From Hell to his Victorian era meta-myth League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Moore is by turns brilliant, inscrutable and utterly singular.  He, is at times, maddeningly dense and, at others, refreshingly simple.  At his best, he is both.

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Sons of Dionysus

A Transmedia Novel of Myth, Mirth, and the Magical Excess of Youth.