Archive | March, 2016

Teacher’s Pet

15 Mar


In every classroom I have ever been in, there have been two types of “teacher’s pet.”

Type 1 was the kid who always had to hand in everything first. Whether it was a homework assignment, or a test — this student made sure she was the first to complete her work, believing this signaled to the teacher (and to the rest of the class) that she was the most prepared for the task at hand; that she could breeze through the material like it was second nature; that she was so confident in her studying habits and her natural intelligence that she didn’t even need to check her work.

Type 2 was the kid who always checked his work. This student was often among the last to hand in his test — but not because he was unprepared, or rushing to finish the last few questions. Often, this student was actually the first to finish the test; he just didn’t see the point in running up to the front of the class to slap his bluebook on the teacher’s desk, just to be first across the finish line. To this student, it seemed evident that a certain amount of time had been allocated for the task, and that no bonus points were to be given for using the least amount of that time. At the end of the day, the only metric for academic success was how many questions you answered correctly.

Both types of student were — unfailingly — straight “A” students, academic rock stars. Successful at the game of grades. They just had different ways of going about their success.

*  *  *

I was never a very good student. Neither the first to hand in his paper, nor the one who was furiously scribbling as the clock wound down — I was somewhere in the upper-bottom half of the academic bell curve. Mediocre. Above-average intelligence, yet always falling just short of the level of which I was capable.

This confused and frustrated me, but it absolutely drove my parents nuts. They couldn’t understand why I wasn’t keeping up with the other “smart” kids in my class. Was I lazy? Spiteful? Easily distracted? Was I myself a disruption to the class? They would rake over my report card for “clues” to my poor performance, and demand to know what the problem was.

I had no answers. It wasn’t like I was some dumb kid. I didn’t have dyslexia, or A.D.D. I was a precocious reader, who devoured Mark Twain and Conan Doyle; by the time I was 12, I’d read pretty much every Sherlock Holmes and Tom Sawyer story. I was the kid who was reading The New Yorker under some tree while the other kids were playing street hockey. By the end of summer vacation, I actually craved the structure of school, and looked forward to going back. I loved reading, and drawing, and learning—

And school supplies! Every year, it was the same giddy routine: I’d go with my mom to the five-and-dime and fill up a shopping basket with spiral notebooks, looseleaf paper, legal pads; packs of markers and mechanical pencils; “wild-card” items like rulers and protractors; and of course, Trapper Keepers. (The trick was obtaining a Trapper Keeper with a suitably colorful and weirdly psychedelic design, preferably one that broadcast your unique personality to the rest of the class.)

With these gleaming new supplies came the promise of Academic Accomplishment — of being a good student, a good son. Yes, I was going to get it right this year; I was going to get organized; I was going to be the kid who handed his work in early; I was going to hit the books, pound the pavement, keep my eyes on the prize, and bring home First Honors.

But then the school year started, and … well, things happened. The plan fell through; the wheels spun off of the machine. I never could get organized. The binders I’d lovingly labeled, the spaces I’d allocated for each subject, went increasingly unused; my homework assignments and handouts never quite found their way into the proper folders and partitions. I was the kind of student who was always scrambling to find my papers, crumpled and torn, and sometimes soggy, in the bottom of my bookbag. If I could find them at all.

As the year progressed, and I fell further and further behind, it became a matter of academic survival, of wheezing to the finish line. By the end of the year, my parents were relieved if I simply passed all my classes. They rarely even looked at my final report card — just wanted to know if I was being left back. Another summer; another plan to get better. I never did figure it out.

*  *  *

I mention all of this because it’s once again story submitting season, and I’m reminded of all the little ways I underachieved in school. My failure to take encouragement, and criticism, in equal stride; my lifelong inability to get organized. You see, I want to have a system in which I wake up early, make a pot of coffee, sit down at my desk, and use some sort of spreadsheet software to track my submissions, and keep a log of editors’ responses, capitalizing on occasional words of encouragement. But my brain just isn’t wired that way, and no dosage of caffeine or nicotine or ginseng or Aderrall will reprogram me into either of the two types of “teacher’s pet.”

Believe me, I’ve tried.

*  *  *

This rejection slip from Yemassee offers several “clues” for successfully placing your work in the journal. You can be persistent — submit and submit and submit. You can read the damn magazine (this is what I would suggest) or order a sample copy, if you’re a cheapskate. At the very least, you can look at the writing they feature on their website, and maybe even address your cover letter to the appropriate editor. You can keep your ear to the ground and enter a contest, when one pops up. These are things a successful writer would (and should) do.

But that sort of success seems academic to me. It’s padding for your transcript; a showy, falsely-earned thing; a feather in your fedora. I would actually advise against submitting work to any magazine you don’t read at least semi-regularly. It’s bad form — and possibly bad karma. Worse: it never works.

My point is that it makes no sense to want to place your work in a magazine you’ve never read; to strive for membership in a group you know nothing about. It’s like the kid who scrutinizes the test’s instructions for five whole minutes, looking for some performative edge; who writes a long essay where a short answer will do, leaving no stone unturned, and gets the “A” through sheer force of diligence and drive. Or the girl who turns her work in as early as possible, to earn brownie points from a teacher who is hungover and couldn’t care less. In the end, no one cares about past publications, the editors you’ve worked with, your pedigree — they just want to be knocked out by your writing. (Even George Saunders, I’m pretty sure, has his trunk stories rejected from the big markets, from time to time.)

I also no longer submit stories simply on the virtue of my having completed them — or because they crossed the finish line under a certain word count. There are stories I “finished” ten years ago that still aren’t finished. There are stories I’m really proud of, but are nevertheless imperfect, or structurally fucked — and which I have no interest in un-fucking. Stories I want to salvage but simply can’t. There are stories I’m quite pleased with, but that don’t belong in either academic journals or commercial magazines — that occupy that awkward space between genre and literary — the kind of stuff Saunders and Kelly Link and Dan Chaon write. Stuff that might never find the “right” audience. And that’s okay. Who cares? Maybe I’ll self-publish those stories, or post them to Medium. Maybe I’ll print them out and give them to friends, when the mood strikes me, or leave them in coffee shops for punks and hobos to find. Or maybe they’ll just live on my hard drive until a tree falls on my car while I’m driving to work and my laptop is donated to some underfunded school district and a kid with peanut butter in his teeth pulls one up at random and thinks: “I can do better than this.” Maybe I’ll win a posthumous O. Henry Award. You never can plan these things, can you?


The Donald Trump Fairytale

10 Mar


I’m basically unemployed now, and so I spend a lot of time reading on the couch with my cat.

One day my girlfriend came home from work with some old, dusty books in a bag. She had stopped at the Salvation Army to browse for the usual fare — busted furniture, costume jewelry, knickknacks for our puppet shows — and had found a complete set of Journeys Through Bookland, a collection of children’s stories from 1909.

I have always loved rare books — particularly antique children’s books. Fairy tales, L. Frank Baum stories, illustrated copies of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Pinocchio Under the Sea — these things excite me. (I am, after all, a strange man, who no longer drinks.)

So when my girlfriend told me she’d only had enough money to get the first three books in the set, and needed forty more dollars to go grab the rest, I gave her the money immediately.

The first book was beat to hell, but the rest of them were in pretty good condition; in fact, it seemed as if whatever spoiled runt who had once owned these books had gotten incrementally bored with the collection, or else had simply outgrown them. The last four volumes — ten in all — were in nearly mint condition.

I made a pot of coffee, started leafing through the collection — and soon made a fascinating discovery.

Midway through Volume II of Journeys Through Bookland was a version of “The Golden Touch,” written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The similarities between this classic tale and the rise of Donald Trump as a politician were almost cosmically striking.


The story begins:

Once upon a time there lived a very rich man, and a king besides, whose name was Midas …

This King Midas was fonder of gold than of anything else in the world. He valued his royal crown chiefly because it was composed of that precious metal. If he loved anything better or half so well, it was the one little maiden who played so merrily around her father’s footstool. But the more Midas loved his daughter, the more did he desire and seek for wealth.

Right off the bat, we get a STRONG whiff of Trump. The love of riches and gold; the obsession with his own daughter; his trademark “royal crown” — could that be his glorious, blow-dried red mane?

Also: In Hawthorne’s version of the fable, King Midas’s daughter’s name is “Marygold.” An unusual, made-up name — just like “Ivanka.”

When little Marygold ran to meet him with a bunch of buttercups and dandelions, he used to say, “Pooh, pooh, child! If these flowers were as golden as they look, they would be worth the plucking!”

What a total asshole. His little girl brings him flowers, and all Midas can do is denigrate her for wasting her time, for failing to bring him gold — literally calling the gift shit.

At length (as people always grow more and more foolish unless they take care to grow wiser and wiser) Midas had got to be so exceedingly unreasonable that he could scarcely bear to see or touch any object that was not gold.

This sentence has “Donald Trump” written all over it. Not the insane desire for riches — no, that is to be expected. I’m speaking of the part about necessarily growing more foolish, in the absence of actively acquiring wisdom and knowledge.

Trump, like Midas, has become almost aggressively stupid as the direct result of his lack of curiosity about the world around him — a problem exacerbated by his complete faith in his own remarkably poor judgement. Vaccinated against the disease of doubt, you might say.

Midas called himself a happy man, but felt that he was not yet quite so happy as he might be. The very tip-top of enjoyment would never be reached unless the whole world were to become his treasure-room and be filled with yellow metal which should be all his own.

Here we get to the meat and potatoes of Trump’s decision to run for President: to make the whole world his “treasure-room.” Psychologically, the kind of person who enters politics to “give something back” is also the kind of person who is humbled by the opportunity to get obscenely rich; indebted to the nation that made his wealth possible. But we get none of this from Trump (or, for that matter, from Midas). In fact, we get quite the opposite.

In those days, when the earth was comparatively a new affair, it was supposed to be often the resort of beings endowed with supernatural powers, who used to interest themselves in the joys and sorrows of men, women, and children half playfully and half seriously.

What Hawthorne is setting up here, in his own clumsy, flowery way, is that Midas is about to get a visit from a heavenly creature — in some versions, a ghost; in others, an angel. Hawthorne opts, in his telling of the story, for a more secular angle, calling the being a “stranger.”

The stranger gazed about the room, and when his lustrous smile had glistened upon all the golden objects that were there, he turned again to Midas.

“You are a wealthy man, friend Midas,” he observed. “I doubt whether any other four walls on earth contain so much gold as you have contrived to pile up in this room.”

“I have done pretty well — pretty well,” answered Midas in a discontented tone.

My God, he even talks like Donald Trump.

At last a bright idea occurred to King Midas. It seemed really as bright as the glistening metal which he loved so much.

How perfect. He’s about to make the worst decision of his life, and in his mind, it actually glows gold.

“The Golden Touch!” exclaimed [the stranger]. “You certainly deserve credit, friend Midas, for striking out so brilliant a conception. But are you quite sure that this will satisfy you?”

“How could it fail?” said Midas.

“And will you never regret the possession of it?”

“What could induce me?” asked Midas.

More arrogance from Midas. His terrible idea cannot fail — simply because it is his idea.

Note the stranger’s impish appeal to Midas’s vanity, the way he baits him with flattery. He is really fucking with the guy.

Whether Midas slept as usual that night the story does not say. Asleep or awake, however, his mind was probably in the state of a child’s to whom a beautiful new plaything has been promised in the morning.

The stranger has literally conferred upon Midas magical goddamn powers, and yet, to Midas, they are no more than a “plaything.” Hmmm…

Looking more closely, what was his astonishment and delight when he found that this linen fabric had been transmuted to what seemed a woven texture of the purest and brightest gold! The Golden Touch had come to him with the first sunbeam!

Oh, so he turned his bedsheets to gold, merely by sleeping between them. Huh.

What follows is a sequence of gold-oriented mishaps straight out of a Billy Wilder screwball comedy. Among the things Midas inadvertently turns to gold, simply by walking from his bedroom to the breakfast table: the bedposts, the window-curtains, a book, his robe, a handkerchief his daughter had given him, the balustrade to his staircase, a door latch — and all the flowers in his daughter’s garden.

At last Midas puts on his glasses, to gaze upon the golden aftermath of his clown act; but, of course, the glasses turn to solid gold. Whoopsies!

It struck Midas as rather inconvenient that, with all his wealth, he could never again be rich enough to own a pair of serviceable spectacles.

“It is no great matter, nevertheless,” said he to himself, very philosophically. “We cannot expect any great good without its being accompanied with some small inconvenience. The Golden Touch is worth the sacrifice of a pair of spectacles at least, if not of one’s very eyesight.”

Just listen to what this crazy bastard is saying. Midas is actually suggesting he would rather go about as a blind man than lose the agency to have his wealth balloon exponentially. (Just as Trump would probably rather gouge out his own eyeballs than only be kinda-sorta rich. Regular rich — like the Bushes.)

This next passage is not really relevant to the Midas-as-Trump theme; I include it only because it is a rare example of Hawthorne trying to be funny:

What was usually a king’s breakfast in the days of Midas I really do not know and cannot stop to investigate. To the best of my belief, however, on this particular morning the breakfast consisted of hot cakes, some nice little brook trout, roasted potatoes, fresh boiled eggs, and coffee for King Midas himself, and a bowl of bread and milk for his daughter Marygold.

That is some dry-ass humor.

Anyway, you can guess where this scene is heading. More screwball comedy: Midas puts a hunk of bread in his mouth, and it turns into a solid gold nugget. He can’t chew it. One can’t eat gold! He sips his coffee — and it turns to molten gold, burning his tongue. Ouch!

This is what passed for wild humor in 1909. I suppose it is better than Disney fart jokes.

To do Midas justice, he really loved his daughter, and loved her so much the more this morning on account of the good fortune which had befallen him.

You know who else really loves his daughter? This guy:


Now that you’ve irrigated your eyes with bleach … back to the story:

It was not a great while before he heard her coming along the passageway crying bitterly. This circumstance surprised him, because Marygold was one of the cheerfulest little people whom you would see in a summer’s day, and hardly shed a thimbleful of tears in a twelvemonth.

She’s pissed about the flowers, you imbecile! A whole garden of flowers you senselessly transformed into little metal statues. The same flowers you chided her for plucking, because they weren’t made of fucking gold. (As a former English major, I can tell you that this is called: foreshadowing.)

(Also, Hawthorne could really use an editor. “Cheerfulest,” “thimbleful,” “twelvemonth” … these are not real words, man.)

When Midas heard her sobs he determined to put little Marygold into better spirits by an agreeable surprise; so, leaning across the table, he touched his daughter’s bowl (which was a china one with pretty figures all around it) and transmuted it to gleaming gold.

What a fucking moron.

“Ah, dear father!” answered the child, as well as her sobs would let her, “it is not beautiful, but the ugliest flower that ever grew. As soon as I was dressed I ran into the garden to gather some roses for you, because I know you like them, and like them the better when gathered by your little daughter. But — oh dear! dear me! — what do you think has happened? Such a misfortune! All the beautiful roses, that smelled so sweetly and had so many lovely blushes, are blighted and spoiled! They are grown quite yellow, as you see this one, and have no longer any fragrance. What can be the matter with them?”

“Pooh, my dear little girl! pray don’t cry about it!” said Midas, who was ashamed to confess that he himself had wrought the change which so greatly afflicted her. “Sit down and eat your bread and milk. You will find it easy enough to exchange a golden rose like that, which will last hundreds of years, for an ordinary one, which would wither in a day.”

This is the first (and only) intelligent thing Midas says in the entire story.

“I don’t care for such roses as this!” cried Marygold, tossing it contemptuously away. “It has no smell, and the hard petals prick my nose.

Starting to think this girl is retarded. (Not a judgment on Ivanka.)

Perhaps this was all the better, for Marygold was accustomed to take pleasure in looking at the queer figures and strange trees and houses that were painted on the circumference of the bowl, and these ornaments were now entirely lost in the yellow hue of the metal.

Yep — definitely retarded.

“I don’t quite see,” thought [Midas] to himself, “how I am to get any breakfast.”

A family of geniuses, this one.

And truly, my dear little folks, did you ever hear of such a pitiable case in all your lives?

Certainly not.

Here was literally the richest breakfast that could be set before a king, and its very richness made it absolutely good for nothing.

That is quite an astute (albeit much belabored) point, Hawthorne.

The poorest laborer sitting down to his crust of bread and cup of water was far better off than King Midas, whose delicate food was really worth its weight in gold.

During one of Trump’s many bankruptcies, he is rumored to have been walking with Ivanka down Fifth Avenue, when he saw a homeless man rattling a cup. He turned to his daughter and said: “Right now, that guy is worth eight billion dollars more than me.” True story! (Note: this story is almost certainly not true.)

Then, with a sweet and sorrowful impulse to comfort him, [Marygold] started from her chair, and, running to Midas, threw her arms affectionately about his knees.

Oh, Jesus.

He bent down and kissed her.


The victim of his insatiable desire for wealth, little Marygold was a human child no longer, but a golden statue!

Didn’t see that one coming.

Yes, there she was, with the questioning look of love, grief, and pity hardened into her face. It was the prettiest and most woeful sight that ever mortal saw.

The blank, beautiful stare of an ex-model — definitely getting an Ivanka vibe here.

It had been a favorite phrase of Midas, whenever he felt particularly fond of the child, to say that she was worth her weight in gold. And now the phrase had become literally true.

Had I produced this kind of writing in my junior-year Creative Writing class, my professor would have brained me with a chair leg.

It would be too sad a story if I were to tell you how Midas, in the fullness of all his gratified desires, began to wring his hands and bemoan himself, and how he could neither bear to look at Marygold, nor yet to look away from her.

No, no, by all means go with that ending. I like that ending. Fuck these people.

While he was in this tumult of despair he suddenly beheld a stranger standing near the door.

Oh great, this guy again.

“Ah! so you have made a discovery since yesterday?” observed the stranger. “Let us see, then. Which of these two things do you think is really worth the most — the gift of the Golden Touch, or one cup of clear, cold water?”

“Oh, blessed water!” exclaimed Midas.“It will never moisten my parched throat again.”

“The Golden Touch,” continued the stranger,“or a crust of bread?”

“A piece of bread,” answered Midas,“is worth all the gold on earth.”

“The Golden Touch,” asked the stranger,“or your own little Marygold, warm, soft, and loving, as she was an hour ago?”

“Oh, my child, my dear child!” cried poor Midas, wringing his hands.

You’re not gonna believe this, but the stranger offers to reverse the curse of the Golden Touch if Midas can prove that his heart is pure and true. He does this by openly weeping at the demon’s cloven feet. Impressed, the demon says:

“But you appear to be still capable of understanding that the commonest things, such as lie within everybody’s grasp, are more valuable than the riches which so many mortals sigh and struggle after.”

Talk about a golden parachute! (I’ll see myself out.)

What follows is some nonsense about Midas going out to a stream with a clay pot, and bathing in the water, thus purifying himself. He is told to fill the pot with water from the stream, and to sprinkle the water over all of his gold, turning his gold to rocks. As he does this, all of the objects he’d turned to gold that morning — including his daughter — are returned to their previous state.

The story ends with Midas bouncing his grandkids on his lap, many years later, noting the golden color of their hair and saying:

“And to tell you the truth, my precious little folks … ever since that morning I have hated the very sight of all other gold save this.”


That’s a nice moral. I am not even being facetious.

But I doubt things will work out nearly as well for Trump (or for us) as they did for old King Midas. The man seems utterly disdainful of the “commonest things,” incapable of producing a single thought unshaded by the ruthless acquisition of power and wealth. Save the intervention of some heavenly apparition, it looks as if Trump will almost certainly win the Republican nomination for President, and keep failing upwards, keep spinning bullshit into gold. It may well be that he restores our reputation as a global economic beacon, and builds his dreaded, steel-plated, barbed-wire-laced Wall … but you may be surprised to find — as Hawthorne once knew — that what glistens under the Sun does not always signify wealth, and that the flowers of our democracy have transformed as those in Marygold’s garden — shining but ugly, with thorns that prick your nose.