Bear Parade (3): “Something Other Than School or Sleep” (Tao Lin)

Bear Parade round three.

From the short-story collection by Tao Lin titled:

“Richie” is the first story of the collection. It begins thus:

“Thursday night they kidnap me, my mom, and my dad. They put garbage bags over our heads and push us outside. Inside the garbage bag I think about my American History teacher. I think about what he said to me. He said, Richie, you better speak up, you better talk in class, be more confident. I think about what I do every day. How I slept the entire Summer vacation. I think about how much more I will sleep in my life. I think how I don’t like anything. How I don’t have anything. I think that something might be happening finally. Something other than school or sleep.”

The line “Something other than school or sleep” strikes me.

As a twenty-odd-years-old college student, my life pretty much = school and sleep. A little part-time employment, too. But mostly school and sleep. That is what my existence is. I wish for the feeling “Something might be happening finally.” But for a very long time not much has happened.

Like the eponymous character Richie, in school I’ve been told, “You better speak up, you better talk in class, be more confident.” ‘Participation grades’ are the bane of my GPA. Like Richie, “I don’t like anything.” For a long time I couldn’t pick a major because the way to pick a major is you first ask yourself “What do I like? What are my interests?’ and if you can’t answer those questions because you don’t like anything then you have nothing on which to base your decision.

I mean obviously I like some things. Hyperbole.

Tao Lin has been described as “the Kafka of the iPhone generation.” Maybe it’s a glib description.

But there is something very Kafkaesque about his prose.

I don’t know how to describe “Kafkaesque” exactly. It’s something like ‘the characters experience insurmountable existential conflicts, and it’s hysterically funny’ (w/ “hysterically” meant in the ‘hysteria’ sense, not just the ‘very funny’ sense).

E.g., Richie being kidnapped by a group of high schoolers is funny. Richie not liking anything and waiting for something to finally be happening is existential-y.

Tao Lin gets a lot of buzz online, both good and bad. He’s been accused of being gimmicky for doing things like ‘selling shares’ of his second novel online and ‘whoring himself’ on the internet by posting /commenting / etc. a lot online. Regardless of his gimmickery, I think it’s undeniable that at least sometimes his writing is well-crafted. “Richie” is well-crafted. It’s up to you whether “Richie” is good / bad / enjoyable / unenjoyable, but I think it’s almost like objectively true that “Richie” is well-crafted, or something, if “well-crafted” is defined “employing a tight, logical structure and consistent style.”

I just reread that sentence and thought ‘What?’

From the very first line, “Richie” builds action. The kidnappers are there on line one. Then things keep moving. The story doesn’t pussyfoot around. It builds on itself. I think that’s what I mean by ‘well-crafted’—the story builds on itself. Like if you put a bunch of bricks and cement on an empty lot and then the bricks magically became animate and started stacking themselves and spreading cement on themselves until they were a six-story office building—reading “Richie” is like that, is like watching bricks magically stack themselves.

By paragraph two Richie, his mom, and his dad are in “some kind of underground base.” The kidnappers realize they’ve made a mistake:

“The kidnappers walk in front of us. One of them says, There’s been a mistake. He says, We meant to kidnap only two of you but we kidnapped all three of you. He says, We need to release one of you. He says, After we release one of you, that one, whoever it is, will be sent a ransom note.”

Which is hilarious. And it adds conflict / movement to the story. The story is not pussyfooting around. It keeps building.

“My mom says, Richie, what’s happening, what’s wrong?”

A week passes. They’re moved to another location. A “cage” w/ a bathroom and kitchen. This setting is funny. Paying attention to setting, w/ little details like the kitchen, is good craft. A lot of writers would just say “cage”; they wouldn’t include the kitchen.

‘Tao Lin includes the kitchen’ is a good way to describe him.

The dad calculates how much money he is worth a day–“$7,000”–and decides he should be freed. He feels he’s worth more than Richie and the mom. His reasoning is absurd. Instead of deciding he should be free because of some humanistic reason, he decides he should be free because he’s worth money. That’s Kafkaesque: facing an insurmountable problem—like proving your ‘worth’—by appealing to some sort of hysterical mathematical overrationalization.

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The dad punches the high-schooler kidnappers and escapes. The story keeps moving.

The story keeps moving in a way you might be taught in a college creative writing class. Step by step. One thing leading into another leading into another leading into. Like one day your creative writing teacher would talk about ‘craft’ a lot, and you would glean that ‘craft’ has something to do with a tight structure and consistent style and ‘building things on themselves.’

(What I want to say / argue in general w/ this blog post, I just decided, is: Regardless of whether you like Tao Lin, he almost unarguably has ‘style’ and has the ability to produce a ‘well-crafted, builds-on-itself story.’ And that in itself is impressive. Because a lot of contemporary writers aren’t as detailed.

Why I’m trying to say this is: Tao Lin has A LOT of ‘haters,’ [e.g. see the first two comments of which say “tao lin is a jackass” and “his work is a barnacle on the whale of literature”] and I don’t think the haters understand why they hate Tao Lin. Their hate, I opine, has nothing to do with Tao Lin’s being a ‘bad writer.’ It has more to do with his style being decidedly different. Meaning their hate is simply a matter of taste. But what people don’t seem to realize is his ability to develop a style so strong that it induces such serious responses—even if that style is something most people dislike and their responses are mostly antipathetic—is impressive itself [“impressive” literally means, like, to just affect someone deeply, and it doesn’t have to have positive connotations necessarily maybe—think of, like, impressing upon a memory-foam mattress] and shows some sort of…talent (?)…or something.

I 100% realize that telling people the ‘real reason’ they dislike something is presumptuous as hell.

I stand by what I’m saying.

Because I feel like it has some sort of larger and more important implications. Like, attempting to understand why you really are for or against {some piece of art} without appealing to shitty circular ‘X is bad because it’s bad’ arguments seems important, in general. Like, my argument for Tao Lin is he’s good because he’s a stylist and exhibits craft, and that eo ipso impresses me, as it shows he sorta ‘knows what he’s doing’ when he writes.

I just reread all that and stared at my computer’s monitor for like 5 seconds and then thought ‘What?’ and ‘Seems like all I’m saying is taste in art is subjective. But with more words.’)

The dad is gone. Richie and his mom are still in the cage:

Two weeks pass. The kidnappers begin to let me and my mom out for up to five hours a day. My mom is not so angry anymore. But sometimes she is angry. She sits there and her face gets very tense. Her brows angle. When she is sleeping her face gets like she’s fighting a war. But sometimes she hugs me. She smiles. She asks how my life is. I say, Good. I say, Fine. But now she asks me again. She says, Richie, tell me about yourself. I look at her. I say, I don’t know. I say, I’m okay. She comes to me. She hugs me. She says, Richie, please, tell me how you really are, what your life is like. I stare at the ground.”

What’s wrong here exactly?

The inability to discern what’s wrong exactly is Kafkaesque.

Or maybe existential-y. Like, ‘being’ itself is what’s wrong. Or something. What?

Anyway, it’s something I’ve felt pretty much my entire school-and-sleep-filled life: That ‘never-quite-right’-ness of everything. That yearning for “something other than school or sleep / other than {thing(s) occupying the majority of your life}.” And I know I’m not the only one.

“I say, I don’t know what is wrong with me. I say, It gets worse every day. My neck shakes a little. I say, I don’t know. My face twitches. She unhugs me and looks at me. I look at the ground. She hugs me. She says, Richie. She cries. I think, I shouldn’t have said anything. I think, What can she do about this? Sorry, I think.”

The kidnappers decide to release Richie and his mom. They make a “contract” for them to sign. The contract stipulates that they won’t call the police. The story is almost over. When your reading it on, you can see that bottom of the webpage is approaching—your scrollbar is running low on space. The whole story has been building up to this moment. I’ve always been a fan of endings. I think they make or break stories. What are Richie and his mom going to do? Sign the contract? Will they call the police?


“[The kidnapper] says, Hey, do you want to leave or not? He says, Richie, hey, Richie’s mom, you two want to go back to the world or not?”

And it ends just like that.

And I think it’s perfect.

( seems relevant to the ending.

[I’m not suggesting you medicalize the ending. Fiction is metaphor.

Imagine feeling Stockholm Syndrome not towards kidnappers but towards a ‘never-quite-right’-y world.

If you can imagine that, you can understand Kafka(esque) and “Richie” and Tao Lin and maybe me.])


It’s That Time of the Year….

Everything is creeping up on us.  We thought there was so much more time left in the semester.  Suddenly, they’re telling us classes are over in two weeks and just about everything is due between now and then.  And then for some of us, graduation is coming up right after.  Job applications must be turned in, flights must be arranged, papers must be written, goodbyes must be said.  AH!  Too much stress.

So what do we do?  I know it’s bad.  It’s not a good habit to get into, and it only prolongs our work time, but we tend to play on Facebook, go out for “one quick drink,” or…we go to YouTube.  Or even worse, we go on Facebook and see that it has happened again.  “15 of your friends posted about “Call Me Maybe.””  A video has gone viral.

I don’t think it is any coincidence that the great Rebecca Black/”Friday” explosion of 2011 and the Carly Rae Jepsen/”Call Me Maybe” viral video of 2012 reached their peaks at almost exactly the same time.  Each of these videos that started as, more or less, jokes and grew into cultural phenomena debuted in early March and gained their multi-million following in mid-March.  There is something fascinating about the mocking-turned-anthem turn that each of these tunes took.  I don’t think “Call Me Maybe” suffered quite as much derision as “Friday” did, but there is still an awareness of the quality, or lack thereof, present in each fan’s sing-a-long that makes one wonder where the line between genuine appreciation and irony lies.

After the initial, “Oh my God, this song is so bad, but it’s so funny, so I guess we’ll listen to it at every party!” experience that “Friday” endured, there was a concession by many that the song was catchy.  For all of the auto-tune in the world and the strangest lyrics, the song’s redeeming quality was its beat.  The same response seems to be following “Call Me Maybe,” although people seem more apt to like Carly than Rebecca.  They appreciate the song as a whole, until they examine the lyrics closer and begin to question what it is about the song that really grabs their attention.  Then the conclusion is reached: it’s the beat.

But is it?  There is still the question of the unique timing coincidence.  I have a theory.  Each of these songs is sung by a teenage girl about her specifically teenage experiences.  Rebecca Black basically takes us through her journey on an average Friday.  She shows herself waking up at her parents’ home, going to school, going to a party with her friends.  Carly’s song, though not through the lyrical narrative, shows us in the video that it also takes place at her parent’s home.  Each of these girls interact with a boy in a way that is strictly adolescent– innocent flirting, waiting for him to make the move, barely touching.  They each have a group of friends they joke around with during the day and a band they rock out with later.

Assuming that the hike in view counts and instant popularity is due primarily to college students, as the prominence of the songs on campus would suggest, I think the appeal is obvious.  At this time in the semester, the stress is beginning to mount and we are searching for an escape.  Our teenage years were not so long ago.  So we fall back into this celebration of adolescent play, and jump up and down to the mundane lyrics and pubescent voices as a way to recall that carefree time in our lives, when our biggest concern was which seat to take or if the boy who cut our parents’ lawn was gay.

Granted, most music videos don’t feature pop stars paying bills or studying for exams, but there is something extra relaxed and responsibility-free about a teen sensation.  They don’t even have to make their own breakfasts.  They still have their parents to take care of them.  And though none of us will ever admit it and would never give up our independence for mom’s cooking, when the stress really piles up, there is something comforting in the idea of your childhood home and high school friends.  There was something wholly unique and idealized about that time in our lives.  Perhaps in four years we will look back on college in the same way, but for the time being, high school is our Neverland.

I wouldn’t call this a regression; it is merely a 3-minute break from the over-committed, research-ridden, paper-writing mess that March and April can be.  So yes, we might laugh at the constant refrain of “Friday, Friday, gotta get down on Friday,” or question the sentiment that, “Before you came into my life, I missed you so bad,” but we revel in the simplicity.  And if we must mask it in irony or perform a close-reading of the narrative at a party to justify our enjoyment, so be it.  But for the time, I say, do what you can to have “fun fun fun fun.”


This afternoon I had the very foolish pleasure of participating in an Ann Arbor tradition for the first time: the Festifools parade. Started a few years ago by an ingenious man named Mark Tucker, a few other staff members and students of the Lloyd Hall Scholars Program, Festifools is a hilarious and wild display of creativity. The students in Tucker’s LHSP class have spent the entire semester building larger-than-life, papier-mâché puppets that more often than not require at least three people to support. A group of Art and Design students have also spent the past few weeks constructing their own puppets, and of course anyone else is invited to join in the silliness. All of these artists and their volunteer supporters are then thrown onto about three blocks of Main Street, surrounded by hundreds of Ann Arbor residents and Michigan students. In the spirit of April Fool’s day, and foolishness in general, most of the puppets were peculiar adaptations of classic characters or animals, or else somewhat satirical declarations about our culture. For instance I enjoyed one group’s juxtaposition of ancient Greek power and intelligence with the current Greek life culture of partying.

I was beyond excited when my friend Carolyn asked me to help her support the giant, meth-addicted mermaid she spent the last few months creating. As we are both currently LHSP students, I felt a certain obligation to contribute to the parade. Also, I’ve heard how fun it is to participate. The stories did not disappoint. Although it was a bit tedious and strenuous to support a heavy, cumbersome mermaid, it was extremely enjoyable to allow the mindless routine of walking, waving and high-fiving consume my behavior. We all weaved and danced in a completely un-choreographed but nonetheless rhythmic array of messiness. After about five minutes the procession was much less in the form of a parade than it was a jumbled discord of costumes, drums and confetti. All this on a bleak, cloudy day. Nothing about it made sense, at all; but that of course, is the spirit of April Fool’s Day.

Fluxus or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Free Nickels or: I’m a Good Ol’ Rebel

There is a Fluxus exhibit up in the Art Museum! And to celebrate, the UMMA has been hosting a variety of Fluxus events in their wonderful space as a means of promoting and expanding the ideas of a very, very unique and wonderful artistic movement. I had the pleasure of attending the premier of Professor Steven Rush’s new opera, U.S. Grant: A Flux-kit Opera as well as a performance of UM-Grad Robert Ashley’s In Memoriam… Kit Carson. But before I get to explaining the greatness of all these operas, you might be wondering…what exactly is Fluxus? What are you talking about?!

I feel like the best answer to your question is just to show you…

Fluxus art is pretty well represented by a performance like this. It was all meant to make you question the boundaries of that which we call “art” and that which we call “life.” This youtube video is an example of a piece called an “event score.” These were “scores” (in the vein of a musical score) that indicated an action to be performed. It could be performed in front of an audience, alone, or not performed at all. It was all part of the art, all the point. Regardless of if you think this kind of thing is art or not (I’ll talk about that in a second…) you’ve gotta hand it to them for being innovative and very…different. And it really hasn’t died out at all-the movement started in the 60s and has continued to be doin’ it’s own experimental thing ever since.

So, these operas that I got to see. The first was the Robert Ashley, a “30 minute long decrescendo,” as Steve Rush described it. And gosh darn it, he was right. The piece itself was a group of 9+ participants sitting in a square around a central table. At prescribed times, they would act out certain actions (telling a story to another actor, putting on a record, clapping, etc…) but all at the same time. The result was a mass of sound-a blur of speech and other noises that started at a small roar and continued until its quiet end. It was fascinating to watch being performed. Downright hilarious at times, and at other points, really quite inviting and captivating. It really made me appreciate the subtleties of the human voice-and how easily speech gets dissolved into a cloud of nonsense. But as I was sitting there I couldn’t help but get incredibly excited by the prospect of this opera. If simply talking to another human being was art what did that mean about my life? What should I be doing differently? What should I be doing with more intent-artistic or otherwise? And that’s the thing I think that is so cool about this Fluxus thing-it asks serious personal questions and might just make you a better person.

But regardless, the Steve Rush opera is next on the queue. This thing was simply fantastic. Perhaps one of the most entertaining performances I’ve been to, ever. The opera itself was created through parameters set up by Rush-the parameters being a board game (“a cross between candyland and monopoly”) which generated all of the content for each of the scenes of the opera. From playing this board game, the performers in the opera (members of the School of Music’s Digital Music Ensemble) were given assignments of material to generate. For instance, a performer might be given a musical number to arrange-they would be given the music (one of 15 civil war songs) and the text (either a random passage from U.S. Grant’s memoirs OR a random passage from Gertrude Stein’s Four in America) and told to somehow combine the two in a unique arrangement. There were also readings of Grant’s personal letters, videos on Grant and his various attributes, and reenactments of important civil war battles/events. But oh, the reenactments. The performers urged the audience members on to join their ranks to create a battle on the stage. I fought for the confederacy and was shoved around by many  union solider. And alas, we lost the war. But such is, I suppose. Regardless it was FANTASTIC fun to join the performers in the opera. It seriously pushed the boundaries of art for me. How can audiences participate in artistic events? Can something be that much fun and still be considered art? Can I be dragged up in front of 50+ people and forced to awkwardly dance the polka and still consider myself an artist?

But all this gets at what I really took away from the evening-that the simple act of questioning is so enormously, vitally, INCREDIBLY important. And Fluxus, in my mind serves to do that. T force us to confront questions that we normally don’t think about. And if you end up on the side of the artist, your mind is expanded! And if you think that this isn’t art, I would urge you to think again, but at least you come out with a stronger resolve in what you believe in. I had a rollicking good time and send my warmest congratulations to Steve Rush, the Digital Music Ensemble, and the UMMA for daring to have such a program put on. To you, gentle reader, I urge you to go to the UMMA and check out this Fluxus exhibit. It’s incredible, inspiring, and beautiful. Go. Go and ask some questions.

Fire as Wax

When crayon is used as a medium, it usually means imparting a thin layer of pigmented wax on another surface. When artist Herb Williams uses crayon as a medium, it means the crayons— frequently whole— are fitted together into bold sculptures that somehow simultaneously emphasize and defy the crayons’ uniformity and linearity.

One of his most intriguing pieces of work is an outdoor installation of several freestanding sculptures, unearthly and bizarre. Unwanted Visitor: Portrait of Wildfire is the name of this installation, an ongoing project intended to “educate the public about the causes of wildfire.” Each individual sculpture is unique, a colorful organism that might have been dropped, dollop-like, on the dry Texan landscape. Their bases would have been rooted to the earth, their ends twisted vaguely upwards by errant gusts of wind. Each of the set requires some ­­­­60,000 to 70,000 crayons, the tallest reaching eight feet. It is an organically evolving sculpture, a long-term display that morphs over time as it sits in the sun, melting and morphing. The heat transforms the form of each piece as it cracks and slumps, gathering a expert predictions today molten mantle about its feet as it melts, colors mingling and mixing, then re-hardens as it cools overnight. In some places only the crayons’ empty paper wrappers remain, held in place, perhaps, by melted wax caught in between. Unwanted Visitor was first installed at the National Ranching Heritage Center in Lubbock in the autumn of last year and is as of this writing still there, still changing.

Williams’ installation is designed to react to unpredictable environmental conditions, sensitive to shifts in temperature, humidity, and wind. Small changes in such conditions can mean drastic changes in the nature and appearance of the sculptures. Aside from emphasizing the volatility of wildfire, the sculptures effectively serve as an active reminder of the fact that it is not the only thing that is so; just because something is large or powerful does not mean it is immovable, unchangeable, permanent. A greatly altered appearance, too, is no good indicator of its basic nature. Most things seen at any particular moment will be there one moment and gone the next, but it will be back again, though perhaps not in exactly the same way.

Art Accessibility

This is my third year at the University.  It is also my third year working for an incredible organization called FestiFools.  FestiFools is, put most simply, a giant puppet parade that takes place in downtown Ann Arbor each year on or near April 1st.  It is a celebration of April Fool’s Day and all of the foolishness that comes along with it.

Since I have been with FestiFools it has expanded into an entire foolish weekend.  We are entering our second year of the Friday night event called FoolMoon, which is a beautiful brilliant procession of illuminated lantern sculptures that culminates in a raucous street party in downtown Ann Arbor.

FestiFools is stringing together the two days with a benefit concert at the Blind Pig.  So we now have a whole weekend to ourselves to party and witness some truly beautiful and creative pieces of art.  My favorite part about FestiFools and FoolMoon is watching the faces in the crowd.  I spend months around these ten-foot tall puppets and luminaries, so I can sometimes forget just how awe-inspiring they are.  But when you see a puppet give a five-year-old in the crowd a high five and see the pure joy and surprise on the kid’s face, well, it sticks with you.

When I first began working for FestiFools I was a research student with UROP.  I worked on ways to make FestiFools more marketable and gain larger audiences for the big day.  I was pretty successful.  Between FestiFools’ growing name (it was the 4th annual parade my first year) and my increased publicity, we reached about 5,000 Ann Arborites and friends that year.  When I found FestiFools in the UROP catalog it was under the name START Project or Street Theater Art Project.  As a theatre major, I thought that sounded pretty cool.  Little did I know that I would be suddenly thrust into the world of public art and learn just how important free and accessible art can be to a community.

I’ve always been an arts advocate, but a lot of my enthusiasm came from wanting there to be a job for me when I graduated.  I still think that is an important thing, but my mission when promoting the arts has become much more altruistic.  Once I saw the effects of public art firsthand it became easier to drop my own selfish motives and rely on the important purpose public art serves as my soapbox.

In an article by Jack Becker entitled “Public Art: An Essential Component of Creating Communities” he identifies four main purposes for public art: 1.  To engage civic dialogue and community.  2.  Attract attention and economic benefit.  3.  Connect artists with communities.  4.  Enhance public appreciation of art.

Standing on the street at FestiFools or FoolMoon, I can see all four of these in play.  As a student, I don’t see Ann Arbor as its own town very often, or at least I didn’t before FestiFools.  I sort of thought of it as the land that holds U of M and not much else.  Seeing the community interact and attend these events with neighbors and friends is really inspiring.  It gets them talking about something other than Michigan football.  Sometimes the puppets are political or controversial and a dialogue starts about why someone may have made that and what they are trying to say.

Especially after FoolMoon, it is impossible to ignore the economic benefit to the community.  Everyone is downtown at nighttime and they will probably get hungry or wander into shops they may not otherwise be inclined to stop by.  The same can be said of a sculpture or mural.  The public is attracted to aesthetic beauty and that will make them more likely to stop and observe what else is nearby.

My first year with FestiFools part of my UROP assignment was to create a puppet.  I did this willingly, although not with the splendor I may have hoped.  I’m just not super talented in that type of art.  It was still a blast to make and I really did become more connected with both the University students who were also creating their own puppets and the community supporters at the event who wanted to know more about what we had created.  There is a bond in public art that is wholly unique: the viewer appreciates what you have done for them and thus wants to talk to you and hear more about it, and the artist gains appreciation for the community for whom she is creating because she sees that enthusiasm and often has sought the beauty in the community as inspiration.

Number four is pretty self-explanatory.  The more one is exposed to art, the more likely they are to appreciate it.  And maybe I have just been reading too many dystopian novels recently, but try to imagine life without art.  It is bleak.  Imagine life without beauty.  It is depressing.  Art in everyday life enhances that everyday life.

FestiFools has another mission of arts education.  Detroit has cut arts funding in its public schools.  FestiFools goes in and teaches these kids about art and tries to foster that appreciation that is gained from exposure to art.  I know that it will always be an uphill battle to get funding for the arts, but the arts are so necessary.  They have been proven time and again to improve students’ overall experiences at school along with intelligence and test scores.

And I cannot stress enough, it has to be worth it just for the look on those kids’ faces.  If you have time this weekend, stop by FoolMoon or FestiFools.  Look at a sculpture.  Take a long look at the mural on the side of Potbelly’s.  Stop for a second and listen to the guy playing the washboard and harmonica on the Diag.  Appreciate accessible art in everyday life.