The 5-year-old and I made a zine of our trip to Cleveland with grandpa’s newspapers (and other assorted print items).
Back at home, we made copies for the grandparents:
The 5-year-old and I made a zine of our trip to Cleveland with grandpa’s newspapers (and other assorted print items).
Back at home, we made copies for the grandparents:
I love maps. I love looking at maps and I love thinking about maps and I love collecting maps.
When I was studying at Cambridge, I was writing essays for my tutor about Dickens and Dostoevsky, and they were just awful. I think my tutor thought I was a moron. (Or just an American student. Same thing.) Then one day I came in with a rough hand-drawn map of the London in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. He said my scribbled map was the best work I’d done.
I knew then, I think, that my talent was going to be for using pictures and words together, and maps would serve as useful inspiration. A decade ago, I published a blog post collecting a bunch of fictional maps, and I’m thinking of them again, thanks to a beautiful new book, The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands.
A few bedtimes ago, both the 5-year-old and I were just lying in his bed looking at maps and talking about him. A rare moment of bliss. (His book was entitled, simply, Maps.)
A while back I read an article about how to you have to get children to fall in love with the world before you ask them to save it. (Gary Snyder: “The first step, I think… is to make us love the world rather than to make us fear for the end of the world. Make us love the world… and then begin to take better care of it.”)
Part of the author’s research was looking at maps children of different ages make of their worlds. He describes the cartography of the different age groups:
From ages four to seven, children’s homes fill the center of their maps, and much of their play is within sight or earshot of the home. Children often describe the worms, chipmunks, and pigeons that live in their yards or on their blocks, and they feel protective of these creatures.
From eight to eleven, children’s geographical ranges expand rapidly. Their maps push off the edge of the page, and they often need to attach extra pieces of paper to map the new terrain they are investigating. Children’s homes become small, inconsequential, and often move to the periphery of the map. The central focus in their maps is the “explorable landscape.”
From 12 to 15, the maps continue to expand in scope and become more abstract, but the favored places often move out of the woods and into town. Social gathering places such as the mall, the downtown luncheonette, and the town park take on new significance.
As Michael Chabon once put it, “Childhood is a branch of cartography.”
Maps are ubiquitous in one sense, and completely missing in another. A lot of younger people don’t own maps and atlases and don’t have the knowledge a map gives you. We call things like MapQuest and Google Maps on your phone interactive… but are they? Are they interactive? It’s a system that largely gives you instructions to obey. Certainly, obedience is a form of interaction. (Maybe not my favorite one.) But a paper map you take control of — use it as you will, mark it up — and while you figure out the way from here to there yourself, instead of having a corporation tell you, you might pick up peripheral knowledge: the system of street names, the parallel streets and alternate routes. Pretty soon, you’ve learned the map, or rather, you have — via map — learned your way around a city. The map is now within you. You are yourself a map.
Many of my favorite artists use maps in their work. Saul Steinberg is famous for his view of New Yorker provincialism, but he drew tons of other maps, including the one above, which was never actually published in his lifetime. Beautiful.
Years ago, I found this online migration map that shows you how people move in and out of different counties.
Three maps that tell three stories.
The top map is Cleveland, where I used to live. Everybody’s leaving. It looks like an explosion.
The middle map is Austin, where I live now. Everybody’s moving here. It looks like a black hole.
The bottom map is Pickaway County, Ohio, where I grew up. Hardly anyone leaves. Hardly anyone moves in. It looks like a puddle.
I’m interested in how maps can move beyond geography towards mapping other things in the world. Here’s one of my favorite maps of all-time, from a 2005 Harper’s:
I love looking at those diagrams and thinking about the stories behind them. (For example, where is the single dots, depicting the virgins?)
Around the same time I got interested in maps, I discovered “mind mapping,” and started making my own mind maps of the books I was reading:
When pictures and words are laid out in the same space — broken out of the linearity of normal type — you can see new relationships between them and come up with new ideas. I find this kind of drawing with pictures and words to often be way more powerful than simply writing longhand.
Years ago, I read Peter Turchi’s Maps of the Imagination, and it had a big impact on me. (I later got to interview him about his work.) Turchi suggests that writers are cartographers, in a sense: they help people figure out where they are in the world.
I continue to be taken with this idea. I think of my books as way-finding devices: they show you how to get from where you are to where you want to be.
I don’t know if I’ve made this clear in other posts, but Meg and I are absolutely, positively, without-a-doubt moving to Austin, Texas around the beginning of August. Meg will be attending the University of Texas to get her Master of Science in Sustainable Design, and I will be working full-time (yikes!) somewhere to support us.
What we are excited about:
What we are NOT excited about:
As our move approaches, I’ve been thinking more an more about quality of life — how easy we have it here in Cleveland, and how we might make it even better in Texas. For us, anxiety is usually only the product of Unknown Factors, and our Unknown Factors are big ones: Where To Live and Where to Work.
There was a New Yorker article on commuting a week or so ago (it coincidentally had a cool illustration of Glenn Ganges in traffic by Kevin Huizenga) that had a very practical way of looking at the Where To Live, Where To Work question:
Putnam likes to imagine that there is a triangle, its points comprising where you sleep, where you work, and where you shop. In a canonical English village, or in a university town, the sides of that triangle are very short: a five-minute walk from one point to the next. In many American cities, you can spend an hour or two travelling each side. “You live in Pasadena, work in North Hollywood, shop in the Valley,” Putnam said. “Where is your community?” The smaller the triangle, the happier the human, as long as there is social interaction to be had. In that kind of life, you have a small refrigerator, because you can get to the store quickly and often. By this logic, the bigger the refrigerator, the lonelier the soul.
Our triangle here in Cleveland is pretty small: we can’t walk to work, but we can and do walk to the grocery store, to the Chipotle, to the book store. I’m hoping we can find a similar situation in Austin.
As for the job search, I have this Bruce Eric Kaplan cartoon posted to the fridge:
If you are an employer — or if you know of an employer — in Austin who is looking for a writer/designer with plenty o’ computer, web design, and customer service experience…please contact me!
“As I got older…I kept thinking, ‘What is this Ghoulardi thing? What is it? What? What?’ We went back to Cleveland once when I was 14 and we were mobbed at the airport by people chanting ‘Ghoulardi! Ghoulardi!’ And when I do interviews anywhere in the country, constantly, constantly, people who are enamored of my father or who grew up with him bring him up or even thank me for Ghoulardi!”
– PT Anderson, interview with the Toledo Blade, 2000
WMFU’s Beware of The Blog! beat me to the punch:
Cleveland’s most legendary horror host was unmistakably Ghoulardi. He was only on the air for about three years (63-66), but he left an indelible impression. His real name was Ernie Anderson, and after retiring Ghoulardi, he moved to Hollywood and become a legendary voice-over artist (he was the voice of The Love Boat, the Carol Burnett Show, and pretty much every top 40 radio station). He is also the father of none other than director Paul Thomas Anderson, who pretty much based the Philip Baker Hall character in Magnolia on him.
But most importantly, Ghoulardi used that booming, commanding voice to unleash an anarchistic spirit. Rather than just play bad movies and make jokes, he began setting up blue screens and dropping in random images over the top of the film, or making strange noises over the soundtrack. And things weren’t any better outside of the movie, where his set could be pure chaos. He was topical, he was funny as hell, he was just plain weird, he WAS the counterculture invading the average middle-American’s television. Nobody that saw a Ghoulardi show ever forgot it, and in a way he shaped the weird climate of Cleveland in the late 60s and early 70s. David Thomas of Pere Ubu was one of his disciples and describes watching his show as such:
“Everyone who saw Ghoulardi will tell a favorite story – like the night he set off a egregiously large home-made explosive device sent it by a fan – he was always setting off fireworks and blowing up things in the studio – and quite clearly off-camera crew were telling Ghoulardi not to light it up and you could see people running across the studio, the camera abandoned to skew off balance, pointing at the floor, and then the entire room was stunned senseless for some minutes… live… smoke, curtains on fire, people stumbling around…”
And of course I have to note that my future father-in-law (two months!) wrote the book on Ghoulardi (literally), and that you should buy it:
(click to make it bigger…)
A poem of mine, “I saw a man on my way to work,” was selected for the second year of the Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s MOVING MINDS: VERSE AND VISION PROJECT. The piece will be displayed on over 700 trains and buses all around Cleveland for the next year.
The card’s design was by Kayne Toukonen, a student from the Glyphix Design Studio at Kent State’s School of Visual Communication Design.
Here’s the Official RTA Press Release, and announcement from the Poets and Writers League of Greater Cleveland site (which, has scans of all the bus cards, including my favorite.)
Back in May, Meghan and I were invited to the RTA headquarters to celebrate the unveiling of the cards with a reception and poetry reading. They had a special bus parked out front, displaying all the cards. Here’s my ugly mug in front of the piece:
And hamming it up for the photographer:
And a great pic of Meg with the bus driver, who was cool enough to chat with us about the bus’s soundsystem, and let Meghan pull the horn:
All in all, it was a fun project. 200,000 people ride the RTA every day, and I love the idea that random people from all over the city will see the work. It’s like legitimized graffiti.
They altered the poem slightly for the card, so here’s the original (and an embarrassing video of me reading it):
I saw a man on my way to work
standing in the middle of his yard
hands in his pockets
watching clouds and traffic
He caught me looking at him,
and gave me the eye
as if to say,
“Son, what do you do that’s so important?”
Yesterday, for the first time since spring hit, Meg and I went for a walk in Lakeview Cemetery. It’s my favorite place to walk in Cleveland Heights, close to the apartment, way better than any park, and massive enough that you can get lost. When it was warm and I had the day off, I’ve gone there to draw and read. (I also like to look at the names and the dates and make up stories about the families.) Next pretty weekend, we’re going to take some salami sandwiches and books over there and camp out for the day.
I didn’t have my camera or my sketchbook with me yesterday, so I drew the picture above from memory. Instead of a traditional marker in the center of the family plot, these folks had planted a magnolia tree. The flowers from the tree blossoms were falling, so the petals made a perfect, beautiful blanket of pink and white over the graves. It was the prettiest thing I’ve seen all year.
“World domination through bake sales,” Ellen Klages said. “That’s our goal: world domination. And if there are any homeland security folks here tonight, I can spell that for you.”
At the end of the most beautiful day of the year, Klages and Maureen Mchugh read at Mac’s Backs last night in celebration and promotion of the James Tiptree Award Anthology 2: Sex, The Future, and Chocolate Chip Cookies. Klages is on the Tiptree board, and McHugh’s first novel, China Mountain Zhang, received the award in 1992. For those of us ignorant of James Tiptree Jr., Klages began with the fascinating story, which included secret identities, gender reversals, jealousy, betrayal, and other steamy stuff you can read about here.
“If you know someone who says, ‘Oh, I don’t read science fiction’, send them to the Tiptree website and tell them to get started,” Klages said. “They won’t be disappointed.”
“Last time I was here, I found out Dan Chaon and I watch the same trash TV,” McHugh said. “Tonight I’m going to steal one of his ideas, and read a story that isn’t finished. Maybe you can give me suggestions for the ending.”
The story was inspired by a phase one drug trial in England that went terribly wrong. There were eight healthy participants in the room: six were given the drug, and two were given placebos. “The first man said, ‘Oh God, I’m so hot,‘ tore off his shirt, and dropped to the ground. Two minutes went by, and another man said, ‘I’m going to vomit,’ and dropped. So one man is standing there thinking, ‘Well, maybe I got the placebo.’ The drama of the situation! And I’m thinking, what kind of person would choose to do this to themselves?“
Maureen read the first 2,000 words, beginning with the sentence, “I was an aggravated bride.” The Bride is from Lancaster, Ohio, and has moved to Cleveland to work at the Clinic. Her life is full of McDonalds and craft shows. The story begins when her new husband’s Ford F-150 breaks down, and he tells her he has gambled their honeymoon money away in Windsor. Eventually, she decides to make some easy money…and that’s where the 2,000 words ended.
I asked Maureen afterwards when was the last time she was in Lancaster.
“I used to go to school in Athens,” she said. “That’s how I know it’s pronounced ‘Lang-caster’ instead of Lan-caster.”
I told her that Lancaster was our getaway in high school. In a twangy voice, “We use’ta get in the truck, put on the tape, and drive to Lancaster!”
And that’s what I love about her stories and hope for in mine–she takes ordinary folks from Ohio and puts them in extraordinary situations.
Ellen’s reading made me a little sad because I only met her a month ago, and in two weeks she’s moving to San Francisco. “I feel like Captain Von Trapp,” she joked. “Tonight will be my last performance in Austria.”
Her great story, “Ringing Up Baby,” is coming out soon in NATURE magazine. It’s about a girl in the future who gets to choose her new sibling: gender, hair color, and all.
And for all the talk about women and gender in the fiction, something fantastic was happening during the reading. I can’t remember feeling warmer at a literary event. There were cookies to eat (McHugh makes a fantastic cookie with rosemary), books for sale, temporary tattoos, and a tip-Tree jar. No ego in sight, just two wonderfully talented and inviting women sharing their storytelling talents.
AUSTIN: It was cold in that basement.
MEGHAN: But I love how Charlie was like, “This isn’t cold. You want cold, come to Minnesota!”
I was freezing, even though i had a coat on, but when he started reading I just dropped into his stories. They were mesmerizing.
AUSTIN: Usually when I sketch at readings, and even when I just sit and listen at readings, the author loses me, and I start thinking about what we’re going to eat, or what we just ate, or what things I might have to do the next morning at work. With this reading, even though I was trying to get his face and his fluttering eyelids right, and I didn’t bring a pen, so I was using pencil, I really fell into the dream–the way his voice was so wonderfully paced put me inside the minds of those characters.
I remember you said, “It’s like bedtime reading.” And I thought that was perfect, because we read THE FEAST OF LOVE before bed.
MEG: His books are like fairytales for adults–they’re worlds that are just slightly more fantastical and magical than our own, but that we intuitively understand. He has such a gift for describing small moments and people so that you can just see his stories unfolding in front of you–I think he must be a visual person. His stories don’t need illustrations, they are illustrations.
Fairytales were always deliciously horrifying to me as a little kid–the witch in Sleeping Beauty–and Baxter has ordinary villains that are absolutely terrifying.
AUSTIN: In BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE, he’s very outspoken about villains, and how we need to have them. I think a perfect example of the villain you’re talking about is “The Bat,” Oscar’s dad, in FEAST. Terrifying and yet ordinary.
But getting back to fairy tales, Ben Marcus writes about childhood bedtime reading: “Faking sleep after a story ended was the only way to have private time, an afterlude of silence so the story could bloom inside you, and not get ruined by explanations and claims and arguments.” So there we were, letting the story bloom in the post-reading silence, and then the Q & A begins, and some grad student has to bring up reoccuring metaphors and Freud and then starts into a feminist critique of the male idolization of the female body image!
I didn’t even care who saw my eyes roll…
MEG: I thought that was rude, actually. It’s like you’ve been to a delicious meal at someone’s home, and at the end someone forces you to eat something really disgusting and it just ruins the mood. Everyone was so entranced with the reading, and then this woman starts ranting on about feminism– which I found offensive, since Baxter writes the female voice in such a sensitive way. His female voices are some of the truest I’ve read of any author – male or female.
Then, to add to the nonsense, a man in the audience said that the character in the story was “very unusual” in wanting to be her husband’s everything.
Every woman wants to be her lover’s muse.
AUSTIN: I think he showed his teaching stripes handling that one. He listened patiently until she was finished, commented as best he could, and then he tried to steer the discussion into some kind of constructive and informative direction. But she just wouldn’t let up.
All this makes me wonder if readings aren’t in the wrong order. Maybe it’d be better if an author came out, fielded all the silly questions for 20 minutes, read for 30-40 minutes, and then left the audience to stumble out to their cars in awe, with the stories fresh in their mind for the ride home. I mean, you never see a rock band give a blistering encore then stick around onstage to field lame questions. Why fiction writers?
MEGHAN: A good fiction reading is all about the audience losing itself in the story. When someone reads out loud to you, there’s not the distraction of the type or the paragraphs or the page – it’s just sheer story. It’s pure storytelling. To ask those dry, prickly academic type questions afterwards seems to deny that the reading spoke to you at all.
AUSTIN: I think it denies that you’ve just experienced some magic, and that magic is best left unexplained.
When I go to a reading, I’m looking to connect with the writer as a person. I have his work at home, I’ve read it, I’ve let it live in my mind, but now I want to meet its creator. I want to know what he looks like, I want to know what he’s reading and what he’s thinking, and I want to hear him read his work from his own lips.
Now, going into any performance with set expectations is dangerous, because your expectations will either be met and/or exceeded, or they won’t. And I also believe that fiction is just ink on paper. Transforming it into a spoken performance is an art all of its own. Some authors can do it, some can’t. Disappointed or not, what you have to do is remember that the work still belongs to you, it’s still lived in your mind and taken a place in your life, even if its creator turns out to be not so hot a reader or a complete jerk.
MEGHAN: It’s like when we went to that concert and hated the performance and the singers, but we decided afterwards that we loved the recorded music and therefore it belonged to us, and so we’d decide to forget the concert.
But Charlie Baxter was exactly as I thought he would be. Quiet, serious, contemplative, very kind, and softly funny.
I loved when he confessed to writing an entire story just to make the last scene plausible. It was so honest, and it reminded me of you.
AUSTIN: Right! I felt so relieved when he said that. He said he was even a little ashamed to admit it: that sometimes the story is really written as a pretext for that one scene that you really believe in. But writers always do that: they write a story just so they can include that one part that they love. The trick is making it all seamless.
I was thrilled when he began talking about stories in spatial terms. “Stories begin when some boundary is crossed and the characters are crowded into the wrong place and the situation becomes unstable.” One of the stories in Peter Orner’s book, Esther Stories (Baxter’s blurb is on the front cover) is simply a boss and his secretary in an elevator, and what they do. A perfect example of the “crowding” method at work. When anything can happen—that’s when you want to hit it.
MEG: Which reminds me, did you order that book?
AUSTIN: The William Maxwell one?
AUSTIN: I did. So Long, See You Tomorrow. It looks awesome.
MEG: I was so glad you asked him what he was reading. Because that was a question that wasn’t just for you, and it wasn’t to show off. You were honestly curious.
AUSTIN: I always like to ask that question, what are you reading? When you go to a reading that’s by writer who also teaches, it’s like an opportunity for free office hours. “Give me a reading list!”
MEG: I’m just amazed at how many people study literature who don’t really seem to like reading it that much.
AUSTIN: Yeah, and they treat Q & A sessions as bragging time or as a forum to explore their half-baked theories, or as a place to simply make a statement in the form of a question. Or worse, they ask a question that’s supposed to be a trap.
All those books he suggested sounded awesome. Eric Puchner’s Music Through the Floor and Joan Silber’s Ideas of Heaven. But he really lit up when I mentioned Peter Orner. I looked up the title for his new book on his time in Africa: The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo.
No wonder he couldn’t remember the name.
A cool reading in the hot basement at Mac’s Backs last night, with fiction writers Kelly Link, Dan Chaon, and Maureen McHugh. Link is the editor of the literary magazine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, put out by Small Beer Press, which, along with Link’s book of short stories, MAGIC FOR BEGINNERS, published Maureen McHugh’s new book of short stories, MOTHERS AND OTHER MONSTERS. Dan Chaon teaches at Oberlin and lives right here in Cleveland Heights–his most recent book is the novel, YOU REMIND ME OF ME. I heard one of the audience members say, “Oh, God, it’s like the royalty of Cleveland writing here tonight…”
After the reading, I was browsing the stacks, and Chaon pointed at me.
CHAON: You’re the Zagara’s guy.
ME: Uh, yeah, hi!
CHAON: It’s Austin, right? You’re a cartoonist?
And I’m thinking, how the hell does Dan Chaon know my name and that I draw cartoons? Turns out, someone pointed out this here blog, and one of the posts to him. (So, hi Dan, if you’re reading.) We talked about Zagaras being the true center of Cleveland literary activity, and I sheepishly tried to convince him that I was REALLY a short story writer, and he introduced me to one of his students who was doing a graphic novel in his workshop, which I thought was great: I wish I’d have done some comics in undergrad workshop.
McHugh is currently writing for the gaming industry. “Art is a product of technology,” she said. “The novel only became an art form after the printing press made it cheap to make a book…we’re still figuring out the computer.” She read four stories she’s written for the website lastcallpoker.com, aimed at the site’s target demographic of males 18-34. The first story was about a lesbian ninja named spider. “That’s A Funny Place For A Canoe,” was about a serial killer who shoots a hispanic drug dealer in the head on a street corner. For the third story, McHugh “had to become Elmore Leonard.” “Grind Up Your Bones For Bread” was about a computer hacker named Matt whose plot resembled the life story of William Bonny (aka Billy the Kidd). McHugh had cool postcards with her story “Wicked” printed on the front–I’ve always wondered why more authors don’t do promotional postcards/samples, like visual artists. She ended by holding up her new book and saying, “And if you think the stories in here are going to be anything like what I just read, you’re in for a big surprise!”
And so, there you have it: best reading since McSweeney’s hit Joseph-Beth a couple months ago. Next week: Charles Baxter at Lakewood Public Library.
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