Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude by Neal Pollack

Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude
by Neal Pollack

Yoga, despite my best intentions, is an activity that I've never done with any regularity. A cranky body mixed with limited flexibility made it easy for me to get discouraged and give up any sort of schedule I'd made for myself. And yet, simple stretching is one of the few exercises that someone with chronic fatigue syndrome can regularly do, so I am trying to get back into some meditative basics. With that in mind, I finally started reading Neal Pollack's Stretch, which had languished in my to-read pile for the better part of a year. Pollack details his yogic journey from skepticism to borderline evangelism with a great sense of humor, and like the best "sport" memoirs do, he makes it interesting to a person who has no idea what asanas are.

Pollack first made a name for himself as one of the writers in the first issue of McSweeney's, as well as the author of the satirical The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature: The Collected Writings of Neal Pollack. He spent much of his time making fun of other, more successful writers, and generally tried to be Mr. Rock n Roll, up until the point the New York Times made fun of him for doing so, calling him an "ordinary humor dork, yet another doughy, 35-ish white man with a goatee and thinning hair."

That was the worst possible thing anyone could have said about me. Oh, boo-hoo, you might think. Poor wittle baby got a bad review in the Times. I know. I know. In context, though, it hurt a lot. I may not have been The Greatest Living American Writer, but I certainly thought I was better than ordinary. Somehow the world had missed the Pollack point. Whether or not I was a doughy 35ish white man, I could still make my mark. Something unordinary had to lie ahead for me. I couldn't bear the idea of living otherwise.


All the grief and anxiety of the past four years poured out of me in a great neurotic wave.

When it was over, I picked my face up out of a viscous puddle of salt water and boogers. I looked up at Regina, sniffling, my eyes lost and pleading.

"What now?" I asked.

"You should do yoga with me," she said.

Though his wife would later lose her dedication to yoga, she remains generally supportive of Pollack's new obsession, with only a few jokes about his new "yoga brain" and about becoming a "yoga widow." Pollack starts only leaving the house to attend Dodger games and attend yoga classes, which make quite the change from his usual haunts of bars and clubs. He finds himself searching for the right kind of practice and right kind of teacher that best suit his personality.

For one thing, Pollack's still a stoner and a bit of pessimist, so anything too touchy-feely, straight edge, or activist has him rolling up his mat and searching elsewhere. Still, he takes the time to talk about the different practices offered by so many different teachers explaining some of the history and terminology of that particular yoga flavor. He tries out everything from the super-hot Bikram to political Jivamukti to his preferred lower-key methods, hatha and ashtanga.

Not every bit of Sanskrit wording is explained, but I liked seeing some of the attempts at English translation, as I have bits of Sanskrit tattooed on my body (including the phrase hatha yoga, which translates to "willful union," and is accompanied by my date of marriage). Mainly, it's because I like the font, but being married to a Buddhist adds significance. Sanskrit has always struck me as an economical, but also lovely and thoughtful language. Pollack is not Buddhist either, but like me, he appreciates and incorporates many of its practices into daily life.

In general, English, a fine language for profanity, political speeches, and broadcasting baseball games, is a poor translation choice for profound lyrical sentiments from ancient texts. To wit: the subtle humiliations of shul, which I attend in the reform tradition because the services are pretty short. When I chant Hebrew prayers, I feel like I'm tapping into an ancient culture of devotion, bonded through ritual to multiple generations of long-forgotten ancestors. When I try the prayers in English, it sounds like I'm reading promotional material from Yahweh, Inc. The same applies to Sanskrit, which says beautifully, in three or four words, that which requires seemingly endless blather in my native tongue.

Perhaps Pollack's biggest success as writer is being able to take one of his obsessions and turn it into something for which he is paid. Before long, publications like Yoga Journal are sending him to cover different events and to interview major players in the yoga world. Not only is he paid, but he gets to travel and reap the benefits of free classes. Pollack fully admits his cheapskate ways, and as a writer with a few obsessions of her own, I think, "That's right, Neal, make no apologies for free swag!"

Principles are easier to stand by when you're no longer wondering how to pay all your bills and still eat.

Stretch is a fun, informative journey to contentment, complete with a side of holistic questions. Yoga, Neal discovers, is not about desiring more "things" in your life — stature, wealth, and the like — but rather finding contentment in the now. It is not about dismissing goals, just reframing them. While death may be inevitable, one must be aware of their life's path, and trust the goodness when it comes. As someone who operates with a near constant sense of impending doom, I have a lot to learn. One cannot control a bad review from a major press, but after the smoke and sobbing have cleared, the next step is nothing but possibility.


Full disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Witness in Exile: Poems by Brian Spears

A Witness in Exile: Poems
by Brian Spears

In my continuing quest to read more poetry, and also to offer continued support for The Rumpus, I purchased Brian Spears' collection A Witness in Exile. Spears is the poetry section editor for the site, and I have always enjoyed the way in which he includes so many different voices and styles there. I'd read a couple of his poems featured on other sites, and they seemed in line with the poetry I enjoy most often. His work is warm, introspective, and clear. I knew I would enjoy the book when I read "According to Studies" on page 2.

(I hope he doesn't mind if I share it with you in whole right now. If you like the poem, I encourage you to purchase the entire book.)

According to Studies

I will die.

I may lose my mind first

I may have a genetic marker for obesity which can make
it difficult to maintain a healthy weight which can lead to
sleep apnea or diabetes or high blood pressure all of which
can cause deprivation of oxygen to the brain which can
lead to early onset of senility in many cases

I will continue to diet and exercise

I may be susceptible to Alzheimer's disease since it
apparently runs on my father's side of the family

I will continue to do crossword puzzles daily since keeping
the mind sharp is one way of reducing the effects of
plaques and tangles

I may become less effective as a thinker because of the
effects of information overload and too many distractions
multitasking which no one really does anyway though
we think we do and we become frustrated and lose our
ability to concentrate and remember what we were doing
just moments before and did I take my Vitamin B today
11 new tweets who's online is the mail here the damn ice
cream truck is back I'm going to check the mail

I will take a walk in the park this afternoon and enjoy the
breeze and the hawks and the ballers and the conversation
and burning the calories from the biscuits and gravy I had
for breakfast and the lemon cream cake I had for lunch

I will look closely at any scientific breakthrough which
involves downloading my brain into a cyborg body at some
future point

I will die some day but I am interested in whatever can put
that day off for as long as possible

I do not want to go mad first but if I do, I would like it to
happen while my consciousness is housed inside a cyborg

I do not know if the crossword puzzles are helping much

I've mentioned elsewhere — though not here, I don't think — that I have chronic fatigue syndrome. In addition to being excessively and unrelentingly tired all the time, the condition also involves muscle aches and a state which is termed "brain fog." Some days, it's like having a horrible flu. Other days, it's like a mid-range hangover, minus the puking. And other times, I exist as though being suddenly awoken and asked a question like, "Quick! After kingdom and phylum, how do you group together living organisms?" …. Wait, what? Who are you? Why are you in my house?

Reading this poem made me laugh in a sad, knowing way. "Did I take my Vitamin B today?" is a thought I have daily. There are a lot of pills involved to get me moving in the morning, in addition to three cups of coffee. So far, I've resisted the urge to go all old lady about it and get one of those days of the week pill dispensers.

Spears considers his mortality and the mortality of entire locales throughout many of the poems. Written around the time of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, he talks about the long-term effects of the disaster on coastal states, particularly his home state of Louisiana and his residence (up until recently) in Florida.

Florida and the American South has turned into an unintentional theme in my reading as of late, and having visited the state many times, I can "see" the words quite well. I keep mentioning "humidity" as a component to writing about Florida, and Spears captures that heavy, semi-tropical air so well.

No diving rods needed here,
this land where water fills in
a child's shallow footprint,
where mold grows thick
as Augustine's grass, water
which will drown us all
one day.

--from "Florida"

With discussion of cities that will one day fall away into the water, the abandonment of buildings, and witnessing changes through travel, Spears writes a lot about impermanence. He wavers between sadness for and acceptance of the changes, a process which mimics his struggles with faith.

Raised as a Jehovah's Witness and having "spent his life entrenched at prayer," Spears eventually found no comfort in his given religion, and his stepping away from the church involved stepping away from his family as well.

The elder's son's expected to
be like his father, tall and able.
The elder's son is tired of hearing
he has potential.

The elder's son woke up one day,
found he was married, had a job,
two kids, a wife, some bills, but no
belief in God.

The elder's son has left the church,
doesn't preach from door to door.
The elder doesn't talk to his
son anymore.

— from "The Elder's Son"

That disconnect, the "exile" in the collection's title, permeates every poem, and there is an incredible loneliness, even when he is traveling with his second now-wife across the country and enjoying what he finds in poems like "US Route 50" and "Canyon."

Spears poetry is more accessible for me, and I do not mean that as a backhanded compliment. More "serious" poetry readers might call it laziness, but I don't enjoy struggling in order to understand a poem. When I read, well, anything, really, I want to feel something — empathy, happiness, enlightenment, heart-stabbing truth — that is not confusion. I don't want to have to keep trying different angles of entry until I slide into understanding. For that reason, I enjoyed A Witness in Exile moreso than I did Otherwise Elsewhere by David Rivard, the last collection of poetry I read. It's not that I didn't enjoy Rivard's book, but it was a certainly more of a challenge to read. Some readers want that challenge, yes, but I am not always in the mood for it.

A Witness in Exile flows beautifully from poem to poem, and the result is cohesive instead of haphazardly assembled. For anyone looking to expand their poetry reading, Brian Spears is an excellent poet with whom to start.


This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Internal News:

My short story, "The Place I Come From" is published at the very lovely literary site Used Furniture Review.

A previous version of this story also appeared in the RiverSpeak zine NEST in February 2010, but as that was published as an edition of 50 (limited edition, maaaan), most of you reading did not see it.

For a handy roundup of other things I've written and where they've appeared, take a gander at my previous shameless self-promo roundup.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Gospel of Anarchy by Justin Taylor

The Gospel of Anarchy
by Justin Taylor

I'd never met M apart from a few conversations through instant messenger over the summer. He was a friend of a friend, and happened to live a few blocks up the road from my college dorm. Shared with two friends from his hometown, the house was a delightfully rundown rental with an enclosed porch and a constant parade of people. "Come on over," he said two days after I'd arrived in town. "We're starting some Shadowrunner."

What that meant, I had no idea, but I needed the escape. That is to say, I wanted to ignore the lingering feeling that my long distance boyfriend and I should have already ended, and I wanted fun that had very little to do with anyone that I knew from home. Though I had friends there at school with me, some dating as far back as kindergarten, I was still consumed by unrelenting loneliness and the feeling that all those friends had each other. I felt like an afterthought in their social planning, and loved them though I did, I withdrew. I wanted new people. People who had only faint knowledge of who I was. Did I know? As much as an eighteen-year-old with undiagnosed depression can, I suppose. And so I arrived at M's house, intent on connecting with someone. Anyone.

Shadowrunner, it turned out, was a futuristic role-playing game. I'd heard of Dungeons and Dragons, and the requisite jokes about its nerdiness, but I'd never known anyone who played. Witnessing a game where one names and creates a character, then imagines their actions through a set of given rules, did not seem so very strange, as a writer. The crowd was a mix of goth/punk-lite and also unremarkable t-shirts and jeans. M acted as the semi-official patriarch of the group, not only in leading the game, but in his overall demeanor. He directed conversation, made grand declarations, and presented himself as the Man with the Plan. No one had a problem with letting him dictate the house environment; rather, they seemed to enjoy it.

There were three other girls there besides myself, all participating. R was beautiful in a way which made my tongue stumble over itself. With women, I felt twelve-years-old again, all nerves and embarrassment. I wanted her to sit next to me, for her to wrap her arms around my exploding ribcage, and to tell me to stay. The guys respected her — she was dating one of them — and I had no idea what to do about liking her, so I drank cheap liquor instead.

I started talking to S, another eighteen-year-old and the most awkward guy there. I sensed that he had very little romantic experience, and in my conversational vetting, I discovered he had a comparable music collection. This was enough; I had him marked for easy prey. By the end of the night, we'd started a very ill-advised and very brief relationship, thus often placing me in that house with his friends. I admit, I did it because I could. In my misguided search for community, I wanted in on the one these people created together. I wanted to feel good again. We went to movies as a group, dinner, the gym. The grocery store for late night snacks. And it did feel good, for a while.

What I failed to see was how they were another group-since-childhood, flailing their way through new adulthood, also grasping at anything that made them feel connected and whole. S and I turned out not to like each other very much, and within two months, my presence at the house became unnecessary. I had hurt him, they said, and I didn't argue. They were not my tribe. I saw M and R here and there after that, but it was never the same.

Though I started dating my now-husband later that year, and a decade has since passed, I have yet to solve my fundamental loneliness. Yet I've discovered that, while my experiences are my own, I am not alone in my feelings. At the heart of so much art is the creator's unrelenting need to articulate that sadness and desire for community. We all want to know that someone has our back, even if we have to behave in unhealthy ways to confirm that loyalty.

I circled around reviewing The Gospel of Anarchy for a long time. I didn't want to talk about M's house or spending so many nights with S because I find my behavior embarrassing and needy. How could I, someone who has prided herself on her individuality, become so desperate for inclusion? And still, that portion of my life is all I could think about while reading Justin Taylor's tale of punk-meets-religion. His characters struggle so much with finding value in their lives, and their acute sense of standing apart creates an environment that is both insular and crying out for affirmation.

The Gospel of Anarchy occurs at a similar time to my own story — 1999 — but in the humid, landlocked city of Gainesville, Florida instead of Missoula, Montana. David is 21 and listless. He's just quit his job as a phone operator for a survey company, and he has no idea what to do next.

I had let January's official end of an already-dead-in-the-water relationship become an excuse for letting my grades go to hell, which resulted in my dropping the entire spring semester. Now it was the dead of summer. I had to re-enroll, sign up for classes, do the whole back-on-track bit. Problem was, the mere thought of stepping back onto campus, much less into the office of some admissions counselor, with her cat poster and candy dish, induced apoplexy. There would be forms to fill out. I would have to choose classes — be more interested in one thing than some other. I'd have to be interested, period. I couldn't visualize that. All I could generate, in fact, was TV static, accompanied by the rough white noise of the sea, as if a pair of conch shells were strapped to my head.

All of that is so true, it hurts. The thought of talking to an advisor, to sit there and insist I could remake myself in their image, made me want to puke everywhere. Being on campus made me twitchy, prone to self-destructive behavior, and all I wanted to do was hide, hide, hide.

Ah, but then David runs into an old friend, Thomas, retrieving expired-but-edible food from a restaurant's dumpster. With him is a lovely but timid girl named Liz. The two friends live in a ramshackle house called Fishgut that remains steadfast against the sea of encroaching corporate-run apartment buildings, and it has become a cultural hub for those who believe in anarchy, freedom, and love. Returning to the house with Thomas and Liz, David is instantly smitten. He ends up in the shared bed of Liz and Katy, and a week passes without trying.

Since he met them, life has been one unrelenting miracle. He'd like to blot out everything before last Sunday and believe himself newborn, reborn, in a world itself newly established, exactly one week old.

Apart from some old hippies who live in a van out in the yard, Thomas, Katy and Liz are the only permanent residents of the house. Their former leader, Parker, has been missing for quite some time, and they are anxious for his return. Parker sees anti-capitalism and anti-consumerism as a spiritual calling, and in his quest to be closer to God, he seems to have slowly lost his mind. In his absence, Katy has become his most loyal disciple, and Liz is Katy's.

Taylor switches points of view from first to third person, while also moving from one character to another. Only David is given use of the first person, but the entirety reads like a stream-of-consciousness collective. Given the subject matter, this makes sense, but it was a bit jarring when jumping from first to third. I had to flip back and confirm that I was still reading about David. For a moment, I had him confused with Thomas.

And in a way, David comes to inhabit a role within the house with which Thomas never felt comfortable. Though Thomas loved Parker's ideas regarding personal freedom, he does not share Parker's religious views. He wonders why he is still living in the house while Katy is going crazy with weekly "services" and new age-y evangelism. She remains unshakeable in her faith that Parker will one day return, and together they will bring their movement to the masses. David falls into her philosophy completely and abandons his old life, while Thomas begins to look elsewhere.

Thomas has a somewhat different interpretation of Parker's flight. He thinks that a basically good punk finally let his bullshit get the best of him and lost his fucking head. He likes to think that Parker will come to his senses, develop some genuine revolutionary consciousness in place of all this hoodoo. Or that maybe he did, and that that was what sent him running — escape from the tyranny of Katy's eager discipleship. He could be out there doing stuff with Earth First! Or something else awesome. He could be with the Ruckus Society, getting ready for Seattle in November. But that's probably just Thomas' romantic streak talking because it's where he wants to be […]

This "I is we and you are me" way of living borrows much from the CrimethInc. Collective, whom Taylor acknowledges in his author's note. "Since all CrimethInc. Works are anticopyright and published anonymously, I felt free and even encouraged to plagiarize and pirate as I saw fit," he says.

To expect Taylor to devise an entire philosophy out of nothing along with the novel itself would be naïve. As I've made the argument many times before, expecting fiction to arrive completely out of the imagination misunderstands the act of writing. Even the most speculative or avant garde fiction hopes to connect with its readers, and readers connect when they can identify. The best fiction contains so much truth and honesty, but affords itself the benefit of creating its own facts. Taylor took an existing philosophy and manufactured a world to surround it. He lived in Gainesville between 2000 and 2004, and the description of the university town drips with humidity and rising mercury. The pressure builds in each character in a way that mimics the Florida summer. Borrowing from an existing group of people is no less valid than borrowing from an existing city.

Also spending time at Fishgut is a college student and writer named Anchor. She worships Thomas in a quiet way, but does not wholly participate in the house's fervor. She is an observer searching for community.

Thomas, David, Anchor — their parents don't punch time clocks. They came to Gainesville through the VIP door, i.e., the college, and it's a very hard thing to be fresh from that, or still partway in it, like Anchor is, and have to figure out how to look these truly fucked people in the eye and call yourself kin with them — brother, sister, ally — and not secretly believe you're just a lifestyle tourist, an interloper, a piece of duplicitous shit like the girl in that rad Tilt song "Molly Coddled," or that Pulp song "Common People," the latter of course being too techno-ish to ever cop to having listened to, much less enjoyed, but still. Anyway, what's the solution?

Ten years ago, I'd tried to join a new tribe and it didn't work out. It's not that the people were bad — with the exception of S, who can still sod right off — it's that I so mishandled my desires. However, I don't necessarily regret that time. It did hasten the end of that dying relationship. A mutual friend reported my deception, and that was that. Through that house, I met another man, a neighbor, who treated me well, though we were never serious. He was a calm, brief rest on my way to the life I have now. Like those who arrived and ultimately left Fishgut, my experience in that house still served a purpose. If nothing else, I gained fodder for future fiction. For that, I cannot complain.


Full disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.