jason christoper hartley

December 4, 2006

I ♥ Dead Iraqis

Filed under: News & Politics — Jason Christopher Hartley @ 6:15 am

When Saddam Hussein was sentenced on Nov. 5 to death by hanging—just days before our mid-term elections—for ordering the 1982 massacre of hundreds of citizens of a small Shiite town near Baghdad, US voters took little notice to what could have been seen as a success in the war effort in Iraq. Americans expressed their displeasure with their Republican congress with their vote, Iraqi courts expressed their displeasure with their despotic former-ruler with a death sentence, and opposition forces in Iraq continue to express their displeasure with Saddam’s conviction with violence.

On June 8, 1982, in Dujail, a Shiite town in the heart of the Sunni triangle and approximately 45 miles north of Baghdad, a few gunmen ambushed Saddam’s motorcade as it drove through town. These men were members of the Iranian-supported Dawa party. The assassination attempt failed, and hours later tanks sealed off the roads in and out of town, helicopters strafed farmers, and the Special Republican Guard came to round up anyone suspected of being in the Dawa party. This included anyone associated with anyone suspected of being in the Dawa party, anyone related to anyone suspected, anyone who had ever said anything against Saddam or the Baath party, and whoever else they felt like punishing to make an example of. What resulted was the murder of approximately 450 people, mostly men and boys, 148 of whom were documented well enough to be presented in Saddam’s trial.

I spent most of 2004 in Dujail as an infantryman with the US Army and the case against Saddam was built largely in part from the work my company did while we were there. By working with mayor Haji Mohammed Hassan and city council chief Jossem Mohammed Mahmood, many of the citizens of Dujail who were present for the horrors of 1982 were convinced to come forward and allow us to collect from them witness statements with regard to the events.

The resulting stories were harrowing. Men were killed in front of their families, living people were put into meat grinders. And the violence was not limited to the time period immediately following the botched assassination. In 1991, a sheik who had lost a son in 1982 during the killings was called to his sister’s house where he found the body of five women, ranging in age from teen to grandmother, all of whom had been raped and beheaded.

I’d like to believe that it was better for the psyche of the Iraqi people, and for the principle of rule of law in general, to see Saddam tried and convicted for his crimes against humanity, rather than for a couple hand grenade to have been tossed into the spider hole where he was found hiding. But the satisfaction of seeing this tyrant tried in an Iraqi court (as opposed to an international court—an important distinction), comes at a cost. For the citizens of Dujail, the nightmare of 1982 has continued.

Ahmed Hassan Mohammed al-Dujaili was witness no.1 in Saddam’s trial. In his testimony he recounted that he and his eleven brothers were detained in 1982. Eventually, Ahmed and three of brothers were released, but six of his brothers were later executed and one died during interrogation.

In July, two of Ahmed’s cousins disappeared. On August 6, Ahmed’s brother, Ali, another witness, was attacked in Dujail and Ahmed’s nephew Husam was killed while protecting Ali. Later that day when Ahmed’s younger brother Jaafer came to recover the body of Husam, Jaafer was shot in the legs repeatedly by a sniper who had been lying in wait. Jaafer lived, but he now walks with a severe limp.

This is only one story in what resulted from a witness’s testimony. Since the beginning of the trial, mayor Mohammed Hassan claims that 180 people from Dujail have been murdered. According to Basam Ridha, the advisor to the prime minister for the trial, the number is closer to 200. Additionally, 80 people have disappeared, mainly while traveling between Dujail and Baghdad, on a stretch of highway that current city council chief Mahmood Hussein describes as being like the "Bermuda Triangle". But the worst could come from the return of the witnesses from the Green Zone where they have been staying during the trial. Abu Hamid, the commander of a nationalist cell north of Dujail, stated that if any of the witnesses return to town, "We will destroy all of Dujail".

It pleases me to see Saddam brought to justice, even if it’s in a trial that Human Rights Watch described as having "serious procedural flaws". It’s just all the loss of civilian life that I’m not sure I have the stomach for. But Ahmed Hassan said, "I’ll give up my own life and the lives of my family if it means I have helped send Saddam to the gallows." I suppose if he’s okay with all the killing, maybe I should learn to warm up to it too.

May 3, 2006

This War Is Wrong, But Protest Marches Are Lame

Filed under: News & Politics — Jason Christopher Hartley @ 1:50 am

For quite a while now I’ve felt that invading Iraq was a colossal mistake and we should have never done it. When I deployed to Iraq, I felt the whole thing was dubious at best, but I’ve never been one to take a stand politically, one way or the other. The basic defense I had always taken for my political apathy was that I was above the quagmire of political arguments. The truth is, like most Americans, I just plain never cared.

I don’t feel bad about having never cared about politics. The reason our country was founded was for the pursuit of happiness once life and liberty were assured. For most my life, that’s exactly what I’ve done, to one extent or another, just like everyone else. I just wanted to be happy.

I’ve never had any interest in being a political wonk or news junkie. The simple explanation is because I’m a lazy dreamer. My head is in the clouds more than ninety percent of the time. To concern myself about anything outside the realm of my own fantasy, is just too, well, depressing. To maintain my insular contentedness, I had to do what Joseph Conrad taught us to do in The Heart of Darkness—look away.

It is virtually impossible to not know at least something about some of the current issues in the world, or at least some of the issues within our own country. Yet somehow it seems most Americans are aware of very little. We’re immersed in media coverage of war, genocide, and disaster. And thank god for that immersion, because it’s this very stream of ceaseless information that is its own anesthesia. How many times can you utter the phrase “Thousands Found Dead” before it sounds meaningless?

Having fought in Iraq, I am often asked for my thoughts on the subject. And having written a book about it, I found myself in a position on many occasions where I knew I needed to think of some intelligent-sounding answers if I didn’t want to make a fool of myself on television or radio. What this did was force me to reflect on my experiences, read the news to have timely anecdotal material, search my thoughts for an opinion, and find a way to articulate that opinion. In short, it became necessary to answer questions for myself that I had been indefinitely deferring.

The idealist in me says that from a moral and ethical standpoint, it was wrong to invade Iraq. The pragmatist in me believes that the end can justify the means. If in the end Iraq becomes a flourishing and legitimate democracy, sending ripples of democratic thought throughout the Middle East, eventually withering the deep roots of ancient hatreds and ending the abuse of human rights, then I could possibly overlook the means required to achieve it. I have to believe that our administration must have been thinking along these lines when then decided to invade. They were exuberantly optimistic about the outcome, a.k.a. drunk on their own arrogance, yet now somehow continue to doggy paddle through the blood of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians while muttering, “Stay the course.” I am proud that we have a country with leaders who aren’t afraid to dream big, but I am ashamed that none of them had the moral fiber to question why the dream started out with “Okay, so first we find an oil-rich sovereign nation to invade for reasons to be fabricated at a later date…”

Anyway, these are the things I think about since I’ve been back. I struggle to decide what the hell I’m supposed to do with these feelings. If asked for my thoughts, I have no problem sharing them, but I lack the conviction to proffer my opinions unless solicited. I could be doing so much more, even if only to publicize my book, but I don’t because I feel exceedingly uncomfortable about taking a stand, presenting a message, or establishing an agenda. I struggle to find a balance between being both a responsible citizen and a good soldier.

* * * * *

On Saturday, April 29, 2006, a march took place in New York City to mark the third year of the war in Iraq. I suppose you could say it was an anti-war march, but if you look at all the groups involved, it was pretty much an anti- and/or pro-[insert cause here] march riding on the coat tails of an anti-war march. Basically, a few hundred thousand bleeding hearts blocked traffic in Manhattan for a few hours while they walked from Union Square to Foley Park down Broadway. Having a newfound (or newly-admitted) liberal mindset, I thought I’d check it out and participate in my very first protest.

I had met Camilo Mejia and Jose Vasquez of Iraq Veterans Against the War at a panel discussion Camilo was part of in the city a few months earlier. Although I disagreed with some of their key beliefs, I was impressed how he and Jose both seemed to be thoughtful and intelligent about their dissent. Jose in particular gave me the hard sell, trying to convince me to join IVAW. I told him I agreed with him on many issues, but that I strongly disagreed with the idea that the troops should be withdrawn from Iraq immediately. Jose and Camilo have filed for conscientious objector status with the Army, both refusing to fight in Iraq. Camilo spent seven months in jail for desertion after refusing to return to Iraq after his two-week leave in the states. Although the IVAW doesn’t required it for membership, another thing I told Jose I could never be is a conscientious objector. Despite these two barriers, I felt that there were other valid issues we agreed on, namely the fact that we went to war with Iraq under false pretenses.

My roommate Matt, who served with me in Iraq, is also quite politically liberal, especially for an infantryman. We both spend a lot of time bitching about our despotic administration and we both laugh our asses off during the Colbert Report. We had entertained, on occasion, the idea of attending a protest or something similar and when I told him on Friday night that I was thinking about going to the march in the morning, we argued it back and forth for while, then decided that if for no other reason, we should do it for the experience.

* * * * *

The Metro North train left Poughkeepsie at 9:33am. I’d done a little research the night before and found that the 9:33 train had been dubbed the “Peace Train”. A guy by the name of John Hall was walking down the aisle of the train, campaigning for congress as a Democrat. Smart move actually, campaigning on the Peace Train. I spoke to him for a few minutes before we got off the train. I told him I had a blog and asked him if it would be alright if I took his photograph. He agreed and I snapped his photo. I noticed he had a lot of dirt in his ear. Q-tips are for the whole ear, not just the ear canal. I tried not to hold this against him. He made small talk:

“Nice camera ya got there.” I have a Pentax Optio S. I bought it before I left for Iraq. It fits perfectly into an Altoids tin.

“Yeah, it’s a good little camera. I carried it every day I was in Iraq.” I paused. I had just dropped the Iraq card pretty hard. He didn’t jump on it. I waited a second longer. “Yeah.” I looked at my shoes.

“So where were you?”, he finally asked. Haha! Forced him into that one! He definitely was wary of getting into a conversation on the topic. Why, I’m not sure, but it was interesting to watch him squirm. Another passenger who had been eavesdropping jumped into the conversation to throw in, “I’m sorry to butt in, but I just want to say that although I deplore this war, I respect the troops. Thank you.” I thanked him in return and we all nodded in agreement, as if we were talking about the weather.

The conversation with John Hall quickly returned to the protest and he told me how questioning things is such a big part of being American that the national anthem is nothing but a series of questions: “Oh say can you see?”, “Whose broad stripes and bright stars?”, “Does that star-spangled banner yet wave?” It was a very interesting point and I liked it. I decided I’d have to spend some time thinking about that. (Later that night while researching the Star Spangled Banner, I found that the first verse is the most interrogative, the second and third less so, and fourth is fully exclamatory. After learning this, all I could think was, The national anthem has four verses?)

Matt and I spent part of the trip discussing a new infantry scout platoon being formed, based out of Manhattan. Jeff, one of our platoon sergeants in Iraq, a wonderfully war-happy madman, would be running it, and Matt said he had it put into writing that he’d lead the platoon only if he could have a rigorous selection process before allowing anyone in. Matt reenlisted for a year after we got back from Iraq, but regretted almost every day of it. His year ends in less than two weeks, and he still is thinking about staying in. Maybe he’ll do another year in the Army, or sign on with the Air Guard for a stint to pogue-out and take advantage of the tuition assistance. Or maybe he’ll take that Triple Canopy job he’s been deferring for months. Or maybe he’ll just get out. Or maybe not. He can never seem to decide.

We got off at Grand Central and caught the 6 train to Union Square. Actually, we caught the 4 train, but it was making local stops and wouldn’t be passing into Brooklyn due to construction, so it was actually just like the 6. Details like this aren’t important, but I hate fudging the truth. Actually, I fudge details like this all the time because it’s totally distracting otherwise. Writing about subway changes really fucks up the flow of a story, ya know? We took the subway to Union Square. The 6 used to be my train. It stops on Spring Street where I used to live. So I like to say that we were on the 6. But if I say it was the 6 when it was actually the 4, then I might start changing other details like how the three hours I spent in jail felt like three months because I was such a pussy, so I might as well just say it was three months to properly express the emotion of it. Then the next thing you know I’m sitting on the couch across from Oprah, taking her shit, when I should just be defending my fabrications by quoting Russell Crowe from Gladiator, shouting, “Are you not entertained?”, then cutting Oprah’s head off with two swords, like scissors. Blood would spurt out of her neck like a garden hose, and her headless body would collapse into an awkward position on the couch, but not so awkward compared to the time Tom Cruise jumped on it.

As we walked to the assembly area above Union Square, I noticed one of those little NYPD traffic cop go-carts with an “FDNY/NYPD 9-11 Never Forget” sticker on the back of it, only the FDNY part of the sticker had been cut off. I love how tragedy brings people together until it doesn’t.

We found the area where the veterans groups were gathered, but they looked to be mostly Vietnam-era vets. This was fine, but we were hoping to maybe find guys more our age. We walked to the front of the assembly area where we found a bunch of guys wearing desert camouflage. It was the IVAW guys. The VIP group was nearby and a speech given by Al Sharpton or maybe Jesse Jackson could be heard over the loud speaker. The IVAW guys were arguing with a group of cops, but what about, I don’t know.

I scanned the group and found Jose Vasquez. I figured I should say hi to him, but then I thought maybe I shouldn’t. What if he asks me to march with these guys? What would I tell him? That I was afraid to? That I came all this way just to say hi, but I’m going to go march with the Vietnam guys, or maybe the Raging Grannies, or the Imperialism Is Bad For Children group? I finally just made my way through the throng and greeted him. We spoke briefly and he introduced me to some of his guys. The group was pretty diverse. Marines, soldiers, airmen, males, females, old guys, young guys, white guys, and Latin guys.

Matt and I deliberated. We came to the march to show by our presence that we were disgusted with our administration. So which group should we walk with? What happens if we run into someone we know? A huge portion of the guys we were with in Iraq are cops, and there were an abundance of cops from all the boroughs working overtime. How would we explain being in a protest? I figured, Fuck it, we might as well just walk with the IVAW guys. They were at the front of the march, just behind the VIPs, so what better way to experience it than being the tip of the spear, or at least the group most likely to get eggs thrown at them.

* * * * *

Before I deployed to Iraq when I was attending school at SUNY New Paltz, I had a lot of friends who were lesbians. These girls were heavily involved in women’s and gay right organizations on campus. I had agreed to perform the only male monologue for the school’s production of The Vagina Monologues and I needed to attend a meeting with the other performers. Since most the girls who were performing were also a part of the Gay-Lesbian Alliance on campus, they decided that the Monologues meeting would be a part of that week’s GLA meeting.

Understand that I am in full support of gay rights. In fact, I think it’s stupid that there even has to be the term “gay rights” since “human rights” (something we all pretty much agree on) implies gay rights. If two people want to have sex, get married, be in the military, or adopt kids, their sexual orientation should be a non-issue. The world could always use more love, so why should we try to limit how people choose to express it?

But I have to admit that being in that meeting made me uncomfortable as hell. Why? Because despite all my rhetoric and believing that I was open-minded, I just couldn’t get over my fear that someone might think I was gay if they saw me there. It didn’t even make any difference to me that there was only one guy at the meeting or that my bisexual girlfriend sat in my lap for half the meeting. The feeling I had in that meeting was very similar to how I felt standing with the IVAW guys.

Once the march was underway, there were times when onlookers clapped. I even saw a female cop clapping. This made me feel good. I was reminded of the days after September 11 when groups of people would clap when they saw soldiers. I realized I had now marched twice in the streets of Manhattan. But mostly, the march was just painful. One of the IVAW guys held a megaphone while another guy shouted chants into a hand mic. Most the material he used was recycled Vietnam War chants and boot camp cadences. The megaphone kept cutting out and he sometimes forgot the lines. There was lackluster enthusiasm from those chanting along and sometimes there would be two different chants going on at the same time. I don’t like calling cadence as it is, and there was no way in hell I was going to chant along in this circumstance. As we walked by the enormous digital clock on the building south of Union Square, one guy announced through the megaphone that that was the “debt clock” and that the Iraq War was to thank for the ever-increasing national debt. I wanted to tell him, “Look at your watch. Now look at the clock. Coincidence?”

There are two things that I’m fairly anal about: the flag and the wear of the uniform. If I see a flag hung improperly or ragged and dirty, I’ll tell someone who I think can make the correction. I don’t like to starch my uniform, but I always try to have it ironed and worn properly when I’m out in the public. This is largely due to military brainwashing, but I think it’s a simple way to show respect for the country and the Army. Because of how I feel about the wear of the uniform, it brought me great discomfort to see the members of IVAW wearing their desert camouflage uniforms protest-style: unbuttoned with t-shirts underneath and adorned with medals, badges, and pins. One guy was overweight and his uniform blouse barely fit. Another guy looked like he hadn’t served in the military since Vietnam, yet was wearing the new digital camouflaged uniform which I haven’t even been issued yet. I realize the idea is to not look like an actual soldier for both practical and legal reasons, but it still pained me to see a uniform I am very proud of worn by guys who looked like they were extras on the set of Forrest Gump.

The more I walked behind the fat airman and the guy in the ACUs with the missing teeth and all the other guys wearing ironic rockstar sunglasses like this was all just some joke, the more disgusted and ashamed I became. I wished that I was walking alongside General Batiste, my division commander in Iraq, and General Zinni, and all the other recently-retired generals who have called for Rumsfeld’s resignation. I wanted to march with people who felt the way I did, but who looked and acted professional and dignified. I was walking in a march led by Al Sharpton and Susan Sarandon, for chrissakes. It’s no wonder our administration and people at large don’t take protesters seriously—they look and act like clowns.

Matt looked like he wanted to say something, but before he could I said, “Yeah, I know. I’m asking myself the same thing. What the fuck are we doing here? Next chance we get, let’s duck out of here.” As we continued to walk, we slowly drifted toward the left of the street, then onto the sidewalk, then we skulked away to a Spring Lounge for a few afternoon beers.

* * * * *

Here are some photos from the day:

[John Hall for congress]
John Hall, running for Congress in the 19th district of New York

[Matt in Grand Central]
Matt in Grand Central

[NYPD: Forget the FDNY]
“Never Forget”, unless you’re an NYPD traffic cop, then “Forget the FDNY”

[18th and Broadway]
protesters gathered on Broadway waiting to march, here at 18th street and

[Veterans for Peace]
Veterans for Peace

[freaky protester]
many protesters are just plain freaky-lookin’

[Russian TV]
Russian TV, interviewing a protestor

[Iraq Veterans Against the War]
Iraq Veterans Against the War

Jose Vasquez (on the right) with another member of IVAW

the view from within the march, east side of Union Square

this airman’s uniform is looking a bit tight

[the VIPs]
Jesse Jackson, Cindy Sheehan, Al Sharpton, and Susan Sarandon

[The Shocker]
The Shocker

[Peace and Justice Festival, Foley Square]
Peace and Justice Festival, Foley Square

[bandana girl with a hoola-hoop]
bandana girl with hoola-hoop

[establishment, background; anti-establishment, foreground]
establishment, background; anti-establishment, foreground
My message to these guys: Hey, I noticed you ran out of white paint to finish outlining the black letters of your hobo 1980’s anti-nuke sign. Learn to plan ahead you lazy unoriginal idiots.

[protest signs in trash]

April 27, 2006

“Fucking Voltron, man!” – A night at the Progressive Reading Series

Filed under: News & Politics — Jason Christopher Hartley @ 12:17 am

I haven’t been to many readings. In fact, the one I went to last Monday was only my second. The line-up was pretty impressive and I was excited to meet a few of the authors. Anthony Swofford was the headline attraction, but he ultimately didn’t show. I’ll admit this was a big disappointment, but in retrospect I think I should have known better. The guy’s book was made into a motion picture directed by Sam Mendes and he probably had better things to do like count money and admire his beard in the mirror. I was also really excited to meet Stephen Elliot, the author of Happy Baby, among other works, and David Rees, the madman behind Get Your War On.

The reading was part of the Progressive Reading Series, “A monthly literary benefit to support progressive congressional candidates nationwide”. These readings are hosted by Elliot and LitPAC, a political action committee behind it all.

This reading had scheduled the following authors:
Anthony Swofford, author of Jarhead
Adrienne Miller, author of The Coast Of Akron
David Rees, author of Get Your War On (fuck yeah!)
Jonathan Ames, author of I Love You More Than You Know
Paul LaFarge, author of Hausmann, Or The Distinction
Janice Erlbaum, author of Girlbomb

The reading was held at the Galapogos Artspace, a bar and performance space in Williamsburg. For the uninitiated, Williamsburg is the epicenter of hip and one of my favorite places to make fun of. The first stop on the L train once you’re beyond the East River is Bedford Avenue, the main drag through hipsterville. In high schools during the time between classes when student bustle through the halls, there’s always an apparent homogeny of style—everyone looks and behaves in a way that is no more than two permutations from a discrete set of current norms. Then cross-pollination between sects of style is where the uniformity subtly appears—the jock wears the studded leather belt of the goth who wears the obscenely baggy cargo pants of the rave kid who wears the Knicks jersey of the Jock, and so forth. Once you step off the train at the Bedford stop, the platform is the hallway of hipster high school between classes. Everyone has a hand-sewn skirt, colored-band tube sock wrist-warmers, semi-cheap quasi-chic sunglasses, loud sneakers, and bed hair. Oh, and everyone’s twenty-four and white. This isn’t to say I don’t like Williamsburg, because I do. I like any place that has creative energy, but I really have to laugh out loud sometimes. There literally are thrift stores that sell old shit that is more expensive than new shit. The Gap doesn’t sell the Ironic Uniform, so you have to pay premium prices for that blazer that’s just old enough to be a new classic, or whatever. Seriously, I could make fun of Williamsburg all day. You see, I am above hipness. This is the benefit of being lame—too arrogant and lazy to join the club, but not above mocking it. However, every once in a while that girl with the unwashed hair and chapped lips with mismatched socks drooping down over her low-cut Chuck Taylors is actually sorta cute.

Since the reading series is called “Progressive”, I suppose it would be a transgressive to have it held anywhere other than Williamsberg. The Galapagos Artspace is like many of the bars in the area. You walk down a dark hall (in this case, a mezzanine of sorts) wondering if you went the right way.

After I paid my cover, I saw Stephen Elliott standing at a table near the entrance. The reading was about to start, so I figured I’d better introduce myself before he got mobbed at the end with offers for hip after-parties. Stephen is bit on the shorter side, but solidly built. His arms and shoulders are muscular and an arm band tattoo around his bicep was peeking out from beneath his shirt sleeve. Something I should admit is that I’m a bit of a Nazi when it comes to handshakes. Any guy who doesn’t give me a solid handshake and look me square in the eye is a piece of shit. That’s pretty much my take on it. I’ve been told that all authors hate each other, so my hypersensitivity sorta had me expecting Stephen to be dismissive or impatient. But I was wrong! His handshake was solid and he looked me right in the eye. In fact, I was a bit envious of his hands—they were really good. I’ve been cursed with a permanent boyishness that makes me admire those masculine things that are out of my reach. This is why I joined the Army—to compensate for my lack of manliness. I’ve learned, though, that being a combat infantryman doesn’t actually make you any manlier. All I’ve ever wanted is for people to see me and think, Oh, he’s in the infantry! He saw action! Treat him with the awe and respect he deserves! But more often, the reaction I get from people is, That guy’s kind of a dick. But his skin sure was soft!

Stephen graciously signed the hard bound copy of Happy Baby I brought with me. He wrote a short note inside and his handwriting was virtually illegible. The fact that I could even figure out what it read is proof that the written word need not contain much actual information, but that context and colloquialism are some of the most important parts of communication. His crazy chicken scratch writing made it that much cooler. I liked imagining that the protracted suffering of his youth was being articulated in his penmanship.

[Stephen's psycho chicken scratch]
Stephen’s psycho chicken scratch

The bar was well stocked and the bar staff were attentive. I ordered a Guinness. It came in a tall, skinny pint glass, or beer flute I suppose you’d have to could call it. Guinness is something that is easy to fuck up depending on how adept the establishment is at finding the correct balance of nitrogen and carbon dioxide and the condition of the line from the keg to the tap. Amazingly, this was probably the best Guinness I’d ever had. I don’t know if this is an indictment of how bad the Guinness is at the bars I frequent, or if Galapagos actually just serves really good Guinness. It tasted so good, in fact, three of them had slid down my gullet before I knew what happened.

[the host Stephen Elliot]

Since Mr. Swofford was a no-show and I had now met Stephen, I was really just waiting to see David Rees. Janice Erlbaum read an excellent story called “Bead Lady Gets A Chirp” about her work with adolescent girls at a shelter. Her depiction of the girls communicating with each other through the two-way feature of their cell phones was priceless. Since she makes bead necklaces with the girls, they call her “Bead Lady”. You can read the entire story at her blog, girlbomb.typepad.com. Here’s my favorite part:

“Bead Lady up there?”
“What you think?”
“Yo, give Bead Lady a shout for me.”
I duck my head so I can smile furiously behind my hair. I have been shouted at. I have been chirped. And you know us white people — we love it when you chirp us.

I believe Adrienne Miller read an excerpt from her book, “The Coast of Akron”, but to be completely honest, I didn’t pay attention to one goddamned word she said. Adrienne Miller is skinny as hell and I couldn’t stop staring at her. She’s clearly a very attractive woman, but her top was too tight for me to concentrate on anything else. She stood in a perfect and unmoving contrapposto the entire time she read. Her small breasts were as equally unmoving, firmly pressed against her ribcage beneath her red cellophane-tight, spaghetti-strapped top. My first thought was that she was entirely too thin. Then I thought about it a bit and decided it was probably pretty hot. Then I quickly went back to thinking that, No, she was in fact frightfully thin. I wondered what it was like to have sex with someone that thin. Would it be Ethiopian-weird, or don’t-fuck- me-too-hard-I’m-fragile-weird? I guessed maybe it could be cool because it would be easier to feel like the man in the situation. But is that really what guys think when they have sex with skinny girls? Why are we attracted to the skinny ones? If we’re attracted to features that are genetically superior, like athletic builds and healthy breasts, what’s with thinking beanstalk girls are hot? I was pretty sure I’d be able to completely fit each of her breasts in my hands. Despite her thin arms, her shoulders were broad, giving her upper body the overall appearance of a perfect square while she read. Her red top was also very squarish and then I realized that she looked to be composed entirely of rectangular shapes. Maybe it’s because I’m a geek and I’m fascinated by rudimentary shapes and spatial relations, but the geometry of her appearance was actually quite pleasing. If she were in a step-by-step drawing book, she’d be started out by sketching a few very satisfying rectangles and squares. She didn’t flinch while she read. It’s like she was a soldier. I started to feel guilty. She’s reading and all I’m thinking about is how tight her shirt is. But she knew what she was wearing when she put it on. So it wasn’t completely my fault I was fixated on it, right? William T. Vollmann said in an interview once that readings exist for two reasons only: for the gratification of the author’s ego and for the author to get laid. I wondered if this was true too for female authors and Adrienne just wanted to meet a nice guy. I didn’t see any harm in that. But I couldn’t get over the fact that I was certain she would put her writing before her appearance and would probably be pretty upset that all I remembered about her reading was how thin she looked and how tight her top was. (For the record, I immediately tried to buy her book a few days later, as a penance for being such a pig, and to at least have something to say about her writing, but alas, her book won’t be on bookstore shelves until May.)

[the skinny Adrienne Miller]

[Adrienne Miller's author photo I stole off Amazon]

A real surprise treat was Jonathan Ames. He read a story called “No Contact, Asshole!” about his experience being with a dominatrix and her transvestite boyfriend. The best line of the reading was this: “Then it ended the way these things usually end: Somebody gets a paper towel and you wish you were never born.” The story ends with him struggling with his feelings of guilt, but also the love he feels while playing with his young son and the other children in a municipal swimming pool while his son’s grandmother looks on. The story was funny as hell and Jonathan’s delivery was wonderfully deadpan, like Steven Wright, but bald and with blonde eyebrows. Jonathan is compared to David Sedaris a lot, but I found him to be more Bukowski-like, which is a good thing in my book. At the end of his reading, he made a very strange sound three times called the “hairy call“—something he said he and his friends would use to alert each other that they were being attacked by the normal kids. It sounded like a cross between a duck call and a Klaxon. Go to the previous link to hear the sound.

[the scatalogical Jonathan Ames]

Once David Rees took the stage, he was even better than I had imagined. He was a tall, white guy with dark, brown, parted hair that stood high, in the spirit Jim Jarmusch. He wore a brown suit, like the one I’m sure he wore to the interview he had for the cubicle-dwelling job I feel he might still have. For me, the hair is what really made it. He presented his comic strips on transparencies with an overhead projector. He read the captions exactly the way I imagined he would, and I have to tell you it was all very satisfying. It’s not like watching someone read is anything more than colossally boring, but there’s just something cool about seeing someone read their own work. I already know the Get Your War On comic strips pretty damn well, so it’s not like much of what he showed us was new to me, but all I was really doing was watching him—his body language, his tone, his inflection, his gesticulations. I already knew the message, I just wanted to see the actor. Maybe that’s why I paid so little attention to what Adrienne Miller was saying. I’ve never been a very good auditory learner.

[the wicked-funny David Rees]

Voltron comic 1, 18-FEB-02

Voltron comic 4, 18-FEB-02

Generals comic 1, 20-MAR-06

After the readings, I bought “Get Your War On II” and Jonathan Ames’s book, “I Love You More Than You Know”. While I got Jonathan to sign my copy of his book, I busted out a quick bit of shameless self-promotion and told him about my own book. He was nice and asked me what my experience was like publishing my first book. I told him I felt a little lost in the sauce, being with such a large publisher. He told no author ever thinks their publisher is doing enough for them. What’s funny is a few days later when I was reading his book, I realized that what he said to me, almost word for word, was in one of his essays. I wanted to call him up immediately to tell him how funny I thought he was for doing that, but I realized I don’t know him well enough to do that, and besides, I have no idea what his number is.

[Jonathan Ames's autograph]

I also was able to grab David Rees just as he was leaving. By this time I was slightly drunk and I felt no shame asking him to draw Voltron in my copy of his book. When you’re drunk, telling David Rees, “FUCKING VOLTRON, MAN!”, you think it’s quite hilarious, but later you realize you probably sounded like a dick. He had a hat on at this point, which I found very disappointing, because I wanted to have another look at his awesome hair. I also gave David my quick spiel about my book. Once he realized I was the guy who had a blog who got in trouble with the Army, his face kind of lit up and the recognition made me feel good. Again, I was too drunk or maybe just too dumb to realize he was probably thinking about Colby Buzzell or Leonard Clark. I wish more than anything I could have hung out with him, but he looked eager to leave.

[David Rees's autograph]

Once the readings were done, all the authors, even Stephen, left fairly quickly. I was hoping everyone would hang out for hours afterward, getting drunk and talking shit, but I guess this isn’t the case with readings. I stayed and had another Guinness. It was their loss, really. After the reading, the next act was a burlesque show hosted by a Freddie Mercury impersonator who juggled.

the burlesque dancers

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

The stuff I’m talkin’ about:

Happy Baby, by Stephen ElliottI Love Your More Than You Know, by Jonathan Ames
Girlbomb, by Janice ErlbaumThe Coast of Akron, by Adrienne Miller
Get Your War On II, by David Rees