Essay forth, then a hitch

Cheap wooden owl lamp

I’m being watched. I know this. The Burmese Owl knows this.

I am being judged for posting to my blog in only a half-serious manner. But I say to you who judge: isn’t half-serious better than half-joking? Tomato, tomahto: tone is in how you spin it. What am I saying? Ah yes: audience. Judgment.

Haven’t written lately on here because I’ve been working on grad school apps and buffing my writing sample to a Ferrari shine. The life of an ascetic is remarkably busy. Not taking chances this year: I’m applying to eighteen schools. If I don’t get in this year, with my writing as it is, then I think I shall initiate my backup plan, which is to become a rock star.

At the moment I’ve submitted twelve of my eighteen applications. The owl knows, the owl knows. I’m spinning my wheels over an essay I have to submit for several of the applications. Called a “critical essay” by some and an “expository writing sample” by others, I presume this hurdle is required only to judge my aptitude for teaching introductory composition courses as a condition of whatever financial aid package I might theoretically receive. Don’t get me wrong: I am absolutely giddy at the prospect of teaching writing and literature to undergrads. Even to the the ones who aren’t English majors. Especially to the ones who aren’t English majors. But it’s been eleven years since I’ve submitted an essay for a class, and I’m feeling a bit tentative about the whole process.

For one thing, there’s this word, expository. My wife came in and saw my cramming a rolled up wad of papers up my ass and she said I was doing it wrong. Apparently essaying is a less painful process than I had thought, but not by much.

I inquired of the various program coordinators: need this essay footnotes? Bibliography? Primary research sources? Do I have to bind it in plastic,  justify the margins, square the hypotenuse, balance the equation for any stray valence electrons or dangling participles? The short answer: no.

So imagine my slow exhalation as I tell my neural filing clerks to drop what they’re doing, that we don’t need to recall “citations, scholarly — process and format” or any of that other bogus dogshit I learned (or rather, ingested) as an undergrad. My business is literature, thankyouverymuch.This critical essay need only show that I have a reasonably functioning intellect, and that my various rakes, hoes, trowels, and shears of reason are in decent working order, not too rusty. A piece of creative nonfiction (damn: another elusive phrase!) or book review will suffice.

Which isn’t to say I don’t feel a pang of remorse at having forgotten the lost art of essay-writing. I miss it the way some might miss a phantom limb. I had it once, and it itches occasionally. But I’ve become very adept at using my toes to scratch my crotch and straighten my picture frames, thankyouverymuch.

Last week when I learned that Christopher Hitchens had died, I posted some brief thoughts on Facebook. I had met him before: first while I was the sole employee at Collected Thoughts Bookshop on Euclid Avenue in Berkeley, a store that couldn’t have been more than two hundred square feet, about the size of the shared room in my co-op. Hitchens was a visiting fellow at Berkeley’s School of Journalism. He had recently published his book on the Elgin Marbles, and was doing a signing with little old us. He was already a well-known journalist, though he had not yet achieved the level of notoriety that God Is Not Great would give him. But between his wit (often described as acerbic), his wide-ranging, arcane knowledge and lightning-fast recall (which some call pedantry), and his Dionysian penchant for libation, he was well on his way even then. But this is partly dishonest, for he was charming, in his way. Maybe dazzling is more like it: as a student at Cal, I timidly told him I had read a couple of his books. And for a brief, shining moment he took an interest in me. He asked what I was studying, and when I told him English, he asked who I was studying. I’d mention a few professors’ names, and he’d say something like, “Oh, yes, him and his love of Donne. Such a waste to be spoiling impressionable minds so early with lowly puns.I much prefer the Herricks. ‘Whenas in silks my Julia goes…'” I just nodded and gave him a stack of books to sign.

Later, working at a little Greek cafe (also on Euclid Ave), I would have several occasions to serve Mr. Hitchens as he sashayed forth toward some speaking engagement or another, often with an entourage of elite thinkers, full professors who were brilliant geniuses in their own right, but following Hitchens heel-toe-heel-toe and drinking in his every declamation. I’ve seen him toss witticisms at their feet the way some dog owners toss treats. He was always so generous with them. Together they would occupy two rattling little sidewalk bistro tables, four bottles of wine among three individuals, pounding their fists and laughing like Santa every time someone compared the president of Portugal to a character in Dickens. (Okay, I made that one up, but you get the idea.) They’d get piss-drunk on Nemean wine and scare off half the clientele, then saunter off, perhaps dimly recalling there was a function to go to. Hitchens, an ardent lover of America and her ideals, tipped like a European.

This past weekend my wife and I drove up to Leavenworth, the creme-filled Bavarian town on the eastern slope of the Cascades, to attend their big Christmas tree-lighting ceremony and frolic in the snow. There wasn’t much snow—KUOW reported that this has been the driest December in Washington since 1978—but we frolicked nonetheless, even got a little bit of crunchy snowshoeing in. While we were in town, roaming up and down the main street poking our heads in all of the tchotchke shops, I made my requisite visit to the local bookshop, A Book For All Seasons. The place was crowded—the whole main street was packed for the lighting ceremony—though not by any rule of proportion nor because of the Christmas shoppers’ love of literature. Most of the people packing the bookstore were waiting in line for the bathroom in the adjoining inn. So with half an hour before I had to check back in with my wife, I merrily perused their well-picked selection. And there I found it: a brand-new copy of Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens, a meaty doorstop of a tome (“My, that was fast; we just got this in today!”) with a photo of Hitch in his trademark cream-colored suit, the insouciant flop of his thinning bangs belying his dead-serious stare. He looks like an angry rabbit. I had to buy the book.

So of course here I am, back at home, at my desk, facing my computer, trying to come up with a new essay for these graduate schools, and turning to ol’ Hitch for advice. It’s at once inspiring and confounding. His logic is great, if you can follow him for the length of a sentence. His sentences recall those Celtic knots: light and airy yet intricate and carefully mapped. I’ll open to a page completely at random, and deliver you the first sentence my eyes light upon:

“In a not dissimilar way Buchan found himself admiring the spirit of the defeated Boers, who with their stern Calvinism and equestrian tactics may have reminded him of clan fighters on the Scottish borders.”

Just thinking about Hitchens, engaging with him, is to jump into a series of yoga poses without having so much as done a toe-touch in years. The mind aches at the splintering fibers, but a steady routine of this will make me fit and, as is yoga’s wont, more godly (take that, Hitch). I worry that trying too hard to learn from or emulate him is bad for the beginner—I have a book of essays by Michael Chabon that, while still pyrotechnic, are not quite as hard on the muscles. (But Zak! This is boot camp, son! You are applying to graduate school, at some of the nation’s top programs, and to be called a Master no less! Buck up, soldier!) (And there goes my lifetime allotment of exclamation marks. And probably parentheses.)

The problem, as I see it, is that not only am I not as widely read as Hitchens, but I don’t have quite the memory that he has. I know he’s revised his essays and had fact-checkers at Vanity Fair looking up tidbits for him, but you can’t pull the kind of analogies he pulls without at least knowing what he was aiming for, and recalling it instantly. How he did that and polish off a bottle of booze before lunch I will never understand. But it’s heartening to see how wide-ranging his essays are. An essay on Ben Franklin might touch on Horatio Alger, Mark Twain, and “moral jujitsu” before coming full circle to discuss whatever text he is meant to be reviewing. He strikes me rather like a Muir, in that sense: giddy and rhapsodic in his own vast environment, drawing connections that are his alone to draw. Muir’s stomping ground is Nature, for Hitchens it’s Letters.

So I have several topics I’m exploring, in several concurrent essays: (1) reviving an old essay I wrote on hoaxes as a literary/folkloric form; (2) a paper on Tacoma, and the philosophical question of whether or not there are objectively Bad cities; and (3) rhubarb.

“Balloon Boy” (my paper on hoaxes) is the odds-on favorite, as it already has mass, shape, and battle scars. The Tacoma piece (tentatively titled “Thrice All American,” after the Neko Case song) is the plucky upstart, gaining momentum, though it may have a tragic flaw (I may be too embittered about the subject to write objectively, thus necessitating a change of form or tone). The rhubarb piece is the dark horse: I’m revamping a puff piece I wrote when I was still working for the tourism bureau, incorporating the first-hand reporting I did about the City of Sumner—the Rhubarb Pie Capital—into a meditation on themed towns and branded cities (Leavenworth is still very much on my mind). I’ve got exactly two weeks before this is due, so it might be a photo finish. It will be a fine expository essay, I’m sure of it. Let’s just hope I don’t end up pulling it out of my ass.