April 2003 Archives

our greatest living writer

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Neal Pollack is our greatest living writer. You can even ask him. He is an acclaimed author from Austin, Texas, part of the McSweeney's family of writers. He also has an excellent weblog where he discusses Iraq, John Ashcroft, and his manservant, Roger. Last Thursday, he came to Pegasus Books in Berkeley for a reading.

I attended with my pal Monica Fitzpadrick, who has a slightly less excellent, infrequently-updated weblog of her own. Monica also brought her boyfriend Jeff, for whom I have no hyperlink. Monica is a great big enormous fan of Neal Pollack. She likes his sharp prose, she likes his caustic wit, and she likes that he's "a little bit meaty." When we first saw Pollack at Pegasus, Monica was visibly nervous, trying to simultaneously watch him and hide, be near him but be far away. Part of that was the sheer force of Mr. Pollack's personality, but another part of it was the airport-sized bottles of wine she had been swigging since sundown. As the metal chairs, amplifiers, and electric guitars were being set up, the tension got to be too great and we had to retire to Beckett's for some pre-partying in the form of whiskey shots. Neal Pollack would love us, we knew, but he'd love us even better drunk.

We had a few plans to get Neal Pollack's attention and win his heart. We first thought we would try to have him sign the book of an author he hates, like Jonathan Safran Foer. Then we thought about heckling him. Finally, we decided to make t-shirts that said, "Neal Pollack Is A Son Of A Bitch." We wore them under jackets, waiting for the correct moment to reveal them. Note: We considered having one of the shirts say "Neal Pollack Is Our Greatest Living Writer" and the other say "...Son Of A Bitch" but we thought the "Greatest writer" person would look like a pathetic fawning fan unless they were next to the other.

The show was fun. There was an opening act who played songs about Neal Pollack. Neal Pollack read "e-mails" from an Iraqi teenager named Raul. Neal Pollack also read a satirical piece about 9/11 (a phone call on that morning advises, "You'd better get on your roof. And bring your notebook.") and answered questions. I was struck by the amount of people who asked about his fictional characters as if they were real people, and at the same time realized Neal Pollack had gotten used to it. In every town, someone thinks they're clever by asking about his manservant. I asked Neal Pollack a question about the Phoenix Suns, and whether or not he thought they could knock off the Spurs. Neal Pollack concurred with me that the Suns' strong guard play and dominating small forward Shawn Marion matched up well with San Antonio, and acknowledged that Rex Chapman hitting an impossible shot versus the Sonics in '97 was a highlight of his life. Neal Pollack also read an essay (on Monica's request) called "I Am Friends With a Working-Class Black Woman."

After the show, we approached Neal Pollack together. Monica complimented him on his prompt reply to an e-mail she'd sent years ago. It wasn't so much the content that had made an impression on her, she said, as much as it was the promptness of his reply. Neal Pollack seemed excited to meet such devoted fans, especially when we revealed our matching homemade t-shirts. OK, Neal Pollack was mostly afraid of the shirts, but he thought Monica was hot. He even made up this story about wanting to do a show in a punk rock club in Norfolk, Virginia to get her to send him an e-mail. Neal Pollack even signed my copy of The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature.

After the reading was over, I thought about Neal Pollack. He had liked us, I was sure. Maybe the t-shirts had freaked him out, and maybe he didn't like the hardcover edition of his book, but he couldn't help but be impressed by our fresh-faced innocence, our literary enthusiasm, Monica's breasts, and our certain general joie-de-vivre-je-ne-sais-quois called moxie. I was speculative then, but I am sure of it now. For when I checked my e-mail today, there was a message from Neal Pollack himself, in response to the Syria-related pun I'd sent him:

"Very good, Sean. Sorry it took so long to get back. I was travelling and shit. Thanks.


One can read my Syria pun at Neal Pollack's letters page, or by clicking the "MORE..." link below. I was glad that Neal Pollack had liked my pun, glad that he'd given me approval, although he didn't know that the brilliant punsmith and the "Son Of A Bitch" t-shirt guy were one and the same. Mostly, I was glad that he had replied so promptly.

a heartwarming tale of easter


Easter is always a wonderful celebration of chocolate and eggs, and chocolate eggs at the Keane house, and this year was no exception. Older sister Megan opted out of the egg hunting this year, but that still left three Keane siblings to run, shove, cross check each other in our quest for eggs of all varieties.

The hunt itself begins later and later every year to accommodate sleepy and/or hung over children. When I was 6, we hunted eggs at the crack of dawn, or whenever Dennis could be dragged out of bed. We could hardly sleep with all our thoughts of chocolate-covered marshmallow eggs. Upon waking up, each kid stumbled down the hall, eyes closed to prevent cheating, and huddled together in one bedroom. We waited there, trembling with excitement, trying to judge the earliest possible moment we could go in and wake up Mom and Dad that wouldn't result in disowning or dismemberment. This year, we got going at approximately 2:15 pm.

Mom and Dad, as always, take the role of Easter Bunny. The Keane children were never shocked by learning about the Easter Bunny's unreality, mainly because Mom and Dad didn't try that hard to disguise it. One year, Mom looked in her basket and commented that the "Easter Bunny" should have noticed that "Santa Claus" had given her the same paperback a few months earlier. Dad always offered hot/cold clues if we were stumped as to where the "Bunny" had hidden our baskets.

My dad tends to take responsibility for basket hiding. It's a tough job, mainly because there's only so many places that six odd-sized wicker baskets can be hidden. In practical terms, that means that every year, there's a basket hidden in the dryer. Dad also has trouble finding objects, especially if said objects are behind other objects, especially in the fridge. Many baskets are hidden with that principle in mind; that simply being behind something else provides camouflage galore. Fortunately for him, I also don't know how to find anything, and so I can be continually challenged by the usual hiding places of hall closet, laundry basket, other hall closet, linen closet, and dryer.

Mom took care of the eggs, both colored and chocolate. As we've gotten older, egg-dyeing has become less about pretty colors and more about writing slogans or messages on the eggs in crayon. This year there were timely political-themed eggs (a Bin Laden egg labeled "Harder to find than me!", and "Operation Eggy Freedom"), many references to Mom and Dad's Anglophilia, and the requisite "Sean and Kelly rule!" egg. The competition for the eggs is fierce, but there's an interesting dichotomy. Finding chocolate eggs is a plus, because you get to keep them, but finding the hard-boiled eggs earns you respect. Luckily, cross checking Molly into the wall as she's reaching for chocolate eggs helps both quests.

As previously detailed here in Zembla, my mom has a bad knee, and as a result, there were many eggs hidden on the ground, under blankets, and on bottom shelves - places that a gimpy 4'11" woman can reach with a minimum of effort. At one point I climbed on a stool to look for eggs, and my sister said, "Forget it - the Easter Bunny's got a bum wheel."

After a great deal of searching, we still hadn't found four of the original 36 eggs. So Kelly and I decided to interrogate our dog, Cassidy. We cornered her in the living room, and began firing questions.

"You saw the bunny hide the eggs, Cassidy."
"We need you to tell us where they are."
"Come on, Cassidy, play ball!"
"Maybe some time in the garage would refresh your memory..."
"Goddammit, Cassidy, quit holding out on us!"

It didn't work. The dog would not talk. It was too damn tough. Kelly eventually found the rest of the eggs without help, while Cassidy spent the rest of her day sleeping, eating grass, and throwing up in the backyard, just like Jesus intended.

Ashley is a big man. Seeing Ashley in pictures, or standing still, doesn't do justice to how big he is, because Ashley's bigness is this whirling, bearded, knife-twirling kind of bigness that explodes at you, bellowing and waving a cigarette. Ashley started shaving in fifth grade, started smoking in sixth grade, began wrestling bears the summer after seventh grade. Recently, he also began tossing out drunks from restaurants, reported admirably by Katherine Voluntine.

Ashley's bigness, strength, and general destructiveness are always more than anyone anticipates, least alone Ashley himself. Bodies hit the ground, bed frames shatter, and when the dust clears Ashley is the most surprised of anyone to see what he hath wrought. He just doesn't know his own strength.

After school one day, Ashley and I stood in the Pleasant Hill Rec Center parking lot (before there was a skate park there). Ashley was at rest, arms above his head, leaning on a large tree branch. It was an imposing branch, strong and thick, a branch that some might call a "limb" or even "trunk junior." I don't remember what Ashley and I were talking about, but whatever it was cause Ashley to laugh with such force that he ripped the branch right off the tree. He literally tore the tree limb from limb.

Bear in mind, this wasn't an old, dead tree. The branch still had green leaves on it, maybe even a bird's nest. And it was big. The limb was so big Ashley could barely grip it, as he held it in his arms, severed from the trunk, in shocked disbelief. Ashley stared at the branch, like Lenny from Of Mice and Men contemplating a mangled mouse. For a moment, he lifted the limb back up to where he'd torn it off, as if he could somehow put it back and make things right. Then he put it down, whispering an awed "Ohmygod!"

Younger kids at the bus stop across the street began yelling. "What'd you do to the tree?" "Hey, that guy broke the tree!" We were both scared, and we walked away very quickly, neither of us wanting to acknowledge his destruction of the tree nor his superhuman strength. Then Ashley went and bought a pack of Camel Reds from 7-11 using his military ID.

pecking and kicking with dimitri


Many years ago, I regularly taught swim lessons to a little boy named "Dimitri". Dimitri was very tall for his age, which, when he was four, made people think he was a retarded eight-year-old. He wasn't, he was just funny and enthusiastic. Example: Dimitri was sitting on my lap during a Penguin swim meet, when he began bumping his face into my arm, nose-first. When I asked what he was doing, he exclaimed, "I'm pecking you!"

Dimitri also had a severe speech impediment. Like young Sean Keane, Dimitri said "w" for "r," but he also did the comparatively rarer "t" for "k" substitution. Once I got used to it and accepted that my name was now Sean Teane, it was easy to deal with.

One day, Dimitri and I were working on Fweestyle. He had a powerful kick, but it was totally out of control, with bent knees and erratic feet. Basically, he was more motivated by creating a lot of splash than actually propelling himself forward. He wanted to switch to Battstrote, but I insisted he work on keeping his legs together. By the end of our lesson, Dimitri figured it out, and was incredibly proud. Still clutching his kickboard, he began yelling to his mom to come and see his progress.

"Mom, look at my tits! Look at my tits!"

the hatch just blew, dammit


Here are some things I've read lately that have made me upset, but in a good way. The first one is a weblog entry by Ms. Kristina Almquist which was quite good and thought-provoking. She talks about how Saddam Hussein has joined the "Dead or Alive" Club, along with Bin Laden. After all this hype about how evil Saddam is, what a threat he is to world stability, the imperative to bring him to justice for his war crimes, suddenly it's no big deal that no one knows where he is. Or where anyone in his cabinet is. Maybe Saddam has been killed in a blast, maybe he's fled to Syria, maybe one of his doubles has been there all along. No one knows, because no one seems to care about what has happened to all the dangerous thugs in power, or gathering any evidence of war crimes and government torture that Iraq has been liberated from. No big deal.

Robert Fisk has an article about the war in Iraq which made me upset, but in a good way. I don't always like Mr. Fisk's work, particularly his article about being beaten by a mob in Afghanistan. Here, he raises the question of what exactly is happening in Iraq. It seems like it shouldn't be this rare to see someone asking questions about the war, actually following up on a story.

Here's what Mr. Fisk has to say, in the Independent, about lawlessness in Baghdad, a recent Hot Topic in Zembla. "Yesterday I found myself at the Ministry of Oil, assiduously guarded by US troops, some of whom were holding clothes over their mouths because of the clouds of smoke swirling down on them from the neighbouring Ministry of Agricultural Irrigation. Hard to believe, isn't it, that they were unaware that someone was setting fire to the next building?"

"Something is terribly wrong when US soldiers are ordered simply to watch vast ministries being burnt by mobs and do nothing about it."

Kristina makes a reference to Tupac Shakur also being dead/alive in her piece. Coincidentally, I had written the first sentence of a newsflash about how Saddam's mother was going to put out an album of Saddam's unreleased raps. I got about halfway through it, but I started to feel too serious and mad about it to makes jokes about "Ambitions as a Dictatah" or "Keep Yo Head Up (Underneath Yo Veil)". It is a sad day in Zembla when our principal export, sarcasm, feels useless.

Is it too much to ask that the government has some kind of accountability for its statements, its plans, its actions? Now, certainly, I do not buy the official line that neither the midterm elections or the availability of huge oil reserves were the reason for the invasion of Iraq. But, let's say one were to swallow the official line and justification for the invasion of Iraq - disarming Iraq, removing Saddam from power. Have any weapons of mass destruction been found? None. Saddam is out of power, but no one has any idea what happened to him, or anyone in the regime, really.

Here's an article on weapons inspections. The US military hasn't found anything, and they don't even appear to be looking very hard. Could they at least pretend to look? There's something a little respectable about a tenacious lie ("The hatch just blew"), but when liars don't even attempt to make their falsehoods believable, or consistent, it's insulting.

Remember how the invasion of Afghanistan was supposed to capture Bin Laden? No one caught him. Mullah Omar? No one caught him. Remember the guy sending all that anthrax through the mail? No one caught him.

From the above article:
"If no weapons of mass destruction are found, the war in Iraq will mark the second failed military mission since the Sept. 11 tragedy. The first was the invasion of Afghanistan, ostensibly to destroy the Al Qaeda network and capture Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. Al Qaeda is resurgent in southern Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar remain at large."

If you call in sick at work so you can go snowboarding, don't come back to work the next morning with a sunburn. If you're cutting school with a fake illness, don't get on TV catching a foul ball barehanded. If you're pretending to volunteer at a radio station to cover up your extramarital affair, bring home some audio tapes occasionally. And if you're shooting missiles, dropping megaton bombs, and killing entire civilian families in the course of your illegal war, you better find some goddamn weapons of mass destruction.

news from the front


Not to slow down the celebration as the Iraqi freedom train chugs into democracy station, but could the government maybe not champion the cause of looting quite so much? According to Donald "Stuff happens" Rumsfeld, freedom is untidy and, apparently, one of the important freedoms Iraqis have received now that Saddam's regime is gone is the freedom "to commit crimes." (Fun for the whole family: Read Rumsfeld's quotes from the article aloud, in a surly Rumsfeld growl!) At a time like this, I'm skeptical of the reported overwhelming pro-US reaction in Baghdad - the people shouting, "USA! USA!" might as well be shouting, "Free TVs! Free TVs!"

The Iraqi people may well be jubilant to see Saddam out of power, but it's tough to say if they're also thrilled about the city of Baghdad itself being out of power... and emergency supplies. Some Kurdish refugees interviewed on a local news program expressed negative sentiments about Saddam, which is kind of like hearing Seminole Indians on the news talking shit about Andrew Jackson.

Luckily, hotel guests won't be stomping on a tile mosaic of President Bush, anymore. USA! Free TVs!

(Read Part 1 2 3)

A salesman knocked on the door of Little Johnny Kissinger's house in December of 1975. Little Johnny answered the door.

"Johnny, is your father, Henry Kissinger, there?" he asked.

"He ain't home. He be out with President Suharto, approving Indonesia's invasion of East Timor, even though the military action be illegal and Indonesia be using US-supplied military equipment." Johnny replied.

"'He be out'? 'Indonesia be using'? Johnny, where's your grammar?"

"She ain't home either."

princess big-nose


This is a story I wrote when I was 16, presented with minor alterations in spelling and grammar, etc.

Princess Big-Nose

Once upon a time there lived a young girl who everyone agreed was nearly a perfect princess. She had long flaxen hair and deep sapphire eyes. She could ride horses, swim, cook, sew, and even hunt with the best of her father's court. She could speak and write in three different languages. Men and women all over the kingdom spoke of her poise and grace, but each compliment invariably ended with, "in spite of her nose."

It was impossible to ignore her nose. It protruded from the center of her face like some weather-beaten crag off the side of a cliff. Far from being cute and petite, her nose had more bumps and divots than the thirteenth hole at the royal links. The nose's crowning centerpiece was a large discolored wart.

Her father, King Henry, tried in vain to shelter her, his only daughter, from shame and embarrassment about her inglorious proboscis. To point at, stare at, or comment about the nose was expressly forbidden. Of course, the laws only served to make the princess more self-conscious than ever. Everywhere she went, she thought she heard whispering about her nose. She took to wearing veils in public, eventually becoming so self-conscious that she stayed in her quarters all the time, leaving only for meals and solitary horseback rides.

Since she was his only heir, the old king was anxious to see the princess married before he died. As his health declined, the king's efforts to find her a suitor increased. On the eve of her twenty-first birthday, despite the princess' protests, King Henry assembled a large group of bachelor princes in the Great Hall. From these, he hoped to find a suitable husband.

(Read Part 1 2 3)

Knock knock.

Who's there?

The illegal secret bombing of Cambodia.

The illegal secret bombing of Cambodia who?

Knock knock.

Who's there?

The illegal secret bombing of Cambodia.

The illegal secret bombing of Cambodia who?

Knock knock.

Who's there?


Orange who?

Orange you glad Henry Kissinger never had to face charges for the illegal secret bombing of Cambodia?!?

(Read Part 1 2 3)

Two traveling salesmen and Henry Kissinger are walking down the road. It's getting dark, so they stop at a farmhouse. They go up to the door and ask the farmer of they can stay the night. He says yes, but they have to sleep in the barn, and they aren't allowed to touch his daughters, or undermine socialist governments in South America.

So they go to sleep, and during the night, the farmer's three daughters sneak into the barn, and the travelers can't resist, even Kissinger, though he also sneaks into the house and makes a long-distance call to a Chilean general in the middle of things. The farmer bursts in with a shotgun and catches them with the girls, and immediately marches them out to his field.

When they get out there, the farmer orders them to go out and pick ten of their favorite fruit. The two salesmen come back, carrying grapes and plums. The farmer tells them, "Now shove them up your ass." The guys try, but they keep looking out at the field and cracking up, and the fruit falls out. They get as many as nine, but are overcome with laughter.

The farmer looks at them and says, "Look, you're free to go once you get all ten up there. You were so close. What is so god-damn funny?"

The first salesman says, "Kissinger's picking watermelons!"

And the second says, "And ordering the assassination of Salvador Allende!"

This story was reconstructed from witness testimony, as I was too young to remember anything. My sister Megan and I were visiting Santa with our mom. This may have been the first time I had ever visited Santa Claus. I was two or three years old. Megan was three or four.

In line, I was full of chatter about meeting the big guy, what I would ask for, comments about reindeer, everything. "Well, I'm gonna thay, 'Hi Thanta, how aww you?' and then I'm gonna athk Thanta fo a twuck and..." I talked to Mom incessantly. Meanwhile, Megan reviewed the one important item on her Christmas list that year: a doctor kit. We were excited about meeting Santa, but we were basically pretty under control. Then we got to the man himself.

Mom brought me up to Santa and I froze immediately. I had been talking at the top of my lungs about my upcoming conversation with Santa for the past twenty minutes, but now, in the big guy's presence, I was silent. Not a single word. The twuck, forgotten. I just stared at Santa in silent terror.

Megan went to the opposite extreme. When asked what she wanted for Christmas, Megan hopped off of Santa's lap and began walking around in small circles, stiff-legged, chanting "Dockta kit, dockta kit, dockta kit" over and over again.

My mom stood there in shock. We had given no indication beforehand that we were going to react in this manner, but now she had to manage a semi-catatonic boy and his spastic sister. We were led out of the mall in disgrace.

Megan did receive the doctor kit on Christmas morning. And it was a really good toy.

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