Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award


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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

I wonder why I freeze up whenever I’m asked the question, “What books are your favorite?” It happened again the other day when a Lithuanian reporter wanted to know about my literary influences. My mind went blank for a few minutes. Oddly, I’ll often feel a sense of mild panic.

Perhaps it’s that the truth sounds cliché. “I love Dostoevsky.” I love the big books about universal ideas. I often wish I had something more creative or exotic to say than this. Perhaps it’s that, when I read the lists produced by other writers, I find so many titles that are new to me. I feel I don’t have new titles to share, only the ones that people already know.

Of course, that’s not true. It just seems true because my favorite books stay with me, permanent parts of my consciousness, invisible to me, in a way, as they shade the lens of my perception. Still, shouldn’t I be able to just rattle them off immediately, and with pride? And why is it that I remember books I love often hours, sometimes days after I’m asked, “What books do you love?”

The book I love about as much as any other but usually forget, like the child I know can do well enough on their own, is Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I first learned about this book in 1999 while teaching reading in Ann Arbor. I was struck by the title: a sentence, one I believed I understood immediately.

This book is perhaps the one that had the strongest influence on me in the years before I started writing The Fugue. For many years, I used it in college English classes, long before I had gathered that “fiction shouldn’t be used” (It should…read about that here!). In fact, The Fugue borrows (or…depending on your take…steals) McCullers’ episodic structure of vignettes that add up to a novel . Anyone who knows the book and reads The Fugue will sense further influence, no small homage to this unbelievable book.

The characters are so deep and interesting, so colorful yet also ordinary, obviously from the same town, one that’s thoroughly Southern but could exist in most parts of America. A deaf mute who works in a jewelry store. A young girl who aspires—her aspiration tragic from the get go—to be a classical musician. A roughneck who wants to organize labor but seems unable to work. An abusive Greek epicure. The owner of a diner, a finite observer with enormous emotional baggage. A black communist. His prophet-like daughter. Another woman obsessed with making her daughter into a Hollywood doll (a daughter eventually maimed by a boy with a gun). An overbearing wife harboring a tumor the size of an infant.

The themes? Poverty. Race. Suicide. Sexuality. Homosexuality (kinda) and asexuality (maybe) and hypersexuality (oddly). Femininity. Opulence. Self-aggrandizement. Masculinity. Codependence. Alcoholism. Western Civilization. Philosophy. Domestic violence. Identity (spiritual, cultural, national…pick a number). Communication. Silence. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter only appears to be a portrait of a community but is, in fact, a deep and ever-searching philosophical novel.

I’m writing this post to remember placing The Heart is a Lonely Hunter at the top of my list of favorite and influential books next time I speak to someone about it. Also, if you’ve never read it, here’s one to put on your list for 2016.

 

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The story of my vasectomy

WARNING! This link will take you to a video of an actual vasectomy. While I highly encourage people to watch it—all surgery is fascinating, and this is the kind of “no scalpel” procedure I had done—I should state that it presents a tug of war between stainless steel instruments and very thin and sensitive body parts.

I was never this nervous going into a medical procedure. I’ve had four wisdom teeth beaten out of my skull. I’ve had my wrist screwed together. I had to get plantars warts burned off of my sole with a laser. Nothing quite compares to lying on your back mostly naked with your shaved scrotum (I did it myself) the focal point of the afternoon.

Weeks before the surgery, my doctor had explained the procedure in pretty vivid detail. Of course, my writer’s imagination had gone wild, and it did not help to see, so soon as I had entered the room, a stainless steel tray holding almost a dozen surgical instruments, and also gauze smeared with iodine, the color of brown scabs. I knew it was iodine. But iodine recalls the color of coagulated blood.

There I lay, nards under a tissue-thin square of sky blue paper, and the doctor came in with a host of people: four (at least) medical students, all of them preparing for lucrative careers of nard hacking. In the small room, I soon developed a sense of claustrophobia, this while my testicles swelled to the size of peaches. Supine, I stiffened to a board, sweat beating my brow, the room a trash compactor, my nards now ripened Michigan fruits, their skin red and downy. And I had a multicultural audience wearing scrubs.

I was wearing my dashiki. The doctor said, “Hey, this shirt looks Caribbean. Let’s put on some Caribbean music.” Songs by Mark Anthony and the loathsome Ricky Martin streamed from a corner. The procedure had begun before Ricky could sing Go go go! Ole ole ole!

“You’re just going to feel a pinch.”

Indeed, a pinch, if that’s what you want to call a needle stabbing your sack. I tried to be mindful, as my Roshi had trained me, but my mind went rather haywire, and I started hearing all sorts of idiotic associations, including the jingle, “You save big money when you shop Menards.” It did not go well with Ricky Martin, not when Raymond Jack Szmanda (the Menards guy) danced before me, his nuts bleeding.

The doctor was training his students, explaining all sorts of things about skin and vessels and placement and tools, and using words like cauterize, and a nurse kept handing him some branding rod attached to five million watts of electric death. I could smell my testes burning.

It hurt to be yanked around. Not the way it hurts when you stab yourself with a screwdriver. But the vas is short and rather thick, thicker than you imagine; the sound and vibration of cutting it was similar to what I felt when I cut my kids’ umbilical cords. There’s also very little room to maneuver, and with so much attention on me, I felt I was in a toaster.

I was pouring sweat. The doctor opened the door to let in air. This made a nurse feel she could now come in to ask random questions. “Just one quick question, doctor.” Are those Michigan peaches? Could someone cauterize Raymond Jack before he bleeds all over the floor?

The stitching required more yanking, more explanations, “These are going to dissolve.” Dissolve? How? Where? Into what? “We won’t need to remove any sutures.” You’re damn right about that. “Oh, good. Rihanna is on.”

Now that I was all stitched up, nauseated, a dripping human sponge of sweat, the doctor asked me, his hand on my shoulder, “What kind of music do you like?”

“Me?” I gasped. I found the breath to say, “Tom Waits.”

The doctor and the audience exchanged clueless glances.

“Should we know him?” he asked.

I nodded. “If you die today, what deity you believe in will meet you at the gates of paradise. And you’ll be asked, ‘Do you like Tom Waits?’ Answer ‘No’ and you’ll go to hell where five strangers will cut your genitals.”

They all guffawed. “We’ll look him up. We’ll look him up.” The doctor patted my shoulder. “You did great. You’re all done.”

Just pay at the counter. And spread no seed.

Pecan nuts on tree

Pecan nuts on tree

Photo from Wikipedia.


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Crazy stuff from a 4th grade teacher

I stumbled into a conversation with a 4th grade teacher (I’m still not convinced she actually was one…I hope she was lying) who told me that boys and men need to be left alone at school and college so that they’d learn independence. She said girls were easier to teach and therefore should receive more teaching.

I respond to this idea in this week’s True Community. Please read and share.

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Photo by Kevin Dooley


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Cold weather and masculinity

When I was in primary school, all the kids generally enjoyed long exposure to cold weather. If there was a difference between the way the boys and girls enjoyed it, the girls seemed to have the option of saying it sucked while boys expected other boys to enjoy it. Our parents or guardians did not keep us from the cold but simply told us to dress properly, to wear layers, hats and gloves.

In Chicago in the 70’s and 80’s, most kids walked to school. My mother guided me to kindergarten on my first day, September of 1978, but on my second I was on my own. Rain or shine, sleet or snow, the streets surrounding our school saw processions of kids. Some loitered around the yard of the sheet metal plant or in front of the corner store waiting for friends. But the boys proved their worth by waiting outside.

On especially cold days, boys who got rides from parents—an event of profane exception—faced certain ridicule. You could get away with it if you had a sister, especially a younger sister, and the whole family got the ride for her benefit. But if a parent drove a pair of brothers three blocks down the street to keep them from negative temperatures, they’d face a whitewash. That meant they’d get dumped in a bank, snow rubbed in their face, possibly an icicle shoved down their backs. This is how you dealt with the bourgeois.

Of course, getting whitewashed was actually rather fun, a source of pride, at least up to a point. There were kids in the neighborhood, the toughest ones, who’d even dare us to whitewash them. Whenever we got enough snow for the plows to pile into massive banks along a particularly wide sidewalk, we’d play King of the Mountain, essentially a wrestling free-for-all in the snow. We did it happily, whitewashing each other, and we’d come home sopping wet from sweat and dirty slush.

Following a snowstorm, a Chicago boy went out with a friend or a brother to shovel, and to earn some money in the process, hitting up all the old widows first, working all evening as the temperature dropped. You proved your value and validity in two ways: by the length of time you stayed outside and the amount of money you earned. It did not matter if you couldn’t feel your hands or feet, and you never admitted it. In fact, if your hands were numb, you knew you were doing it right. You stretched whatever curfew your mother had established, and you worked frantically, knowing that the Molina brothers or the Stanislaw cousins were out there along with older kids, the Lamberts and the Bertollis, bastards with wider shovels.

You were hardcore if you worked until the evening news came on and had over a hundred bucks to show for it. And you were also hardcore if you could take and give a quality whitewash. But the most badass kids were the few—and as the neighborhood fat ass, I was not one of them—who went garage hopping on frozen, icy rooftops.

* * *

You need to imagine a Chicago alley to understand the concept: the garages are arranged in neat, parallel little rows, and they are all the same height, the sidewalks between them the same distance, about eight feet. You’d climb onto one garage at the end of an alley, run up to its peak, slide down the other side, then jump to the next garage, repeating until you got to the end of the alley (or fell, usually onto a fence or rose bush). It was daredevil in the summer but suicidal in the winter. The risk, however, is what made winter garage hopping, performed by a skilled hopper, an act of urban eloquence: a boy rising gracefully over gangways between snow-covered garages, his dexterity feline and fear completely invisible.

Did anyone ever fall? You know the answer. When Frankie Sanchez ruined a rosebush that had been growing for decades, planted by someone’s dear late aunt, Old Lady Paciorek came out in slippers to yell at him as he lay bleeding, entangled in thorns.

* * *

These memories came up today when I stepped outside to an unseasonably cold November morning, the temperature around 20 degrees (-7 C). My first reaction was, “Fuck, it’s cold,” and I felt the temperature attack my knees and hips; I grew oddly aware of the insides of joints, now tingling as if rubbed with mint balm. I inhaled the frigid air and felt it burrow up my nostrils, deep into my sinuses, the scent of frozen moisture that, for me, always announces the true onset of winter. I used to welcome this onset with excitement.

Today, for the first time in my life, I felt a sense of lethargy. I imagined all the snow I’d need to shovel in coming months, and I thought about the gutters—I had not been up there since the spring, and they were probably clogged with a pulp of autumn leaves and maple seeds, now frozen solid. I’d have to take care of that, or I’d have to call my guy and pay him to do it.

None of it proved anything at all. It just seemed like crap you dealt with if you were stupid enough to live in a place where the temperature fell to 20 degrees.

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Photo by Rene McGurk.


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Weekly bloggers wanted

As the Marriage Editor at The Good Men Project, I’m looking for someone to blog for me weekly on the subject of Masculinity and Marriage. There’s no pay, but you’d reach a huge audience, and if you’re witty enough you’d become an internet sensation. If you feel like this is something you’re interested in, I’d love to hear from you.

I’m looking for two people.

1.) Ideally, I’d like the first writer to be a man currently in a healthy marriage. You’d have an interesting, witty or ironic (even absurd) way of looking at the day-to-day affairs of a married man. When do you get horny (and what is the result)? When do you get exhausted? How do you deal with the demands life throws at you? Why do you stay in love with the same woman? What happens when you and your male friends, married or not, spend time without women? What happens when you spend time with your wife’s friends? When do you find time for yourself? Etcetera.

Plenty of men are in healthy marriages, and loads of men make great husbands. That narrative, however, gets crushed because it’s “not interesting”. Of course, it’s a fascinating narrative, and it needs to be shared.

2.) Ideally, I’d like for the second writer to be a marriage counselor. I’m interested in what men come to complain about to a counselor and how their concerns can be resolved, if at all. From what I’m able to tell, men, even those in healthy marriages, feel isolated and quieted. How can a counselor deal with this? This would not be an advice column, not necessarily. I envision these posts more as meditations on difficulties, needs, conflicts and resolutions.

3.) I’m also very interested in a divorce attorney who might blog on the conflicts men face when getting divorced, how the law affects men and how anything might be changing. Stories from a legal point of view about both amicable and shitstorm divorces would be most welcome.

What am I not looking for?

Anyone with an absolute position. Anyone with an axe to grind. Anyone with a victim mentality. (Or similar types of complexes.)

Interested parties should contact me: gint dot aras dot kgz at gmail . Please include a writing sample.


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Intention as fashion

I wrote this piece about coming of age in terms of fashion.

Some of my regular readers might be shocked to hear that I’m writing about fashion and clothing. I hope you won’t be. I should probably resurrect that old blog post from the first version of Liquid Ink that explained why I have the same level of interest in hockey and art museums. I like watching talented people express their talent, and fashion is one such way to do it.

Of course, there’s a contradiction here, because I don’t like things. Literally, material things bother me—when I’m surrounded by too much stuff, I end up anxious, and I learned only a few years ago that finding myself in a mess can trigger my PTSD. I don’t own very much clothing at all, and if I have a personal style, it’s to be simple and minimalistic. I still leave the house without ironing my shirt, and I teach classes in a sweater and jeans. In the summer, I’ve taught a class barefoot. I’m that guy.

But this isn’t to say that I don’t think about clothing. I do, very carefully sometimes, and I wish I knew more about how trends are set in fashion. Ironically, I actually think more about fashion when I’m writing than I do for myself. I carefully dress characters in certain scenes and wonder what particular accessories will suggest about them. I have asked my wife what characters should be wearing, and I’ve actually gotten into arguments with her about descriptions. The moment in Finding the Moon in Sugar when Andy accidentally stumbles onto Dana while walking his dog is one such scene. This is when Andy sees that Dana is mindful about her makeup, and she’s just that amazingly pretty to him.

I honestly think that if a man keeps himself healthy mentally and physically, cuts his hair regularly and buys good shoes, he can wear virtually anything and look good. We radiate ourselves. And if we’re assholes, no amount of clothing can help us.