“Ball so hard, this shit crazy”
It was a money-draining party and I had a blast.
Heart Of Douche-ness or “The Imperialism Of Young Assholes”
Take up the White Mans Burden, Hipsters. Conquer the middle class with your bougie contempt and self-loathing fashion. But don’t complain when you’re branded the enemy.
EULA, Life Size Maps & More at Shea Stadium
Five great bands at a Friday show in Shea Stadium.
Silent Barn Public Meeting Tomorrow
Panelists gather to discuss All Ages venues, with some necessary rocking out.
alt-J at Glasslands
Lead singer Joe Newman asked us to sweat with him and we did.
Memories of Mongolia & More: The Mira Ptacin Interview
Though I’ve never met Mira Ptacin, I feel like she’s an old friend. That is the nature of internet research, reading about people’s pasts and empathizing with them before you ever have beers in person. That is also the nature of Ptacin’s extraordinary creative work, a prolific personal writer herself and founder of the Freerange Non-Fiction Reading Series at Piano’s in the LES. She helps others mine their memories, crafting and sharing stories from their lives that are often as much about release and therapeutic healing than publishing fame. From the Midwest to the wild plains of Mongolia, from a funeral home in Maine to Women’s Correctional Facility, Mira muses on the tapestry of her life and discusses how writing can make sense of it all.
HOLY DIVER: You worked on a dig in Mongolia. How did excavating the past instill a fascination with the present?
Mira Ptacin: Here’s the story: the first time I went to Mongolia, I was a 22-year-old-Junior-Woodchuck-wannabe anthropologist with a strange of mix hormones, freedom, curiosity and grief fueling my drive. A few years prior, my brother had been killed by a drunk driver. The way I remember it, his funeral was right around the time I was supposed to be deciding where to go to college. But I didn’t care. I didn’t put much thought into my academic future, so I ended up going to this enormous public university nearby that treated its students like cattle. Nothing seemed appealing enough to make me declare a major or a career or a life goal. I was young and shaken and just felt lost. Then, I discovered anthropology. That the academic world acknowledged the study of humankind to be as legitimate as macroeconomics felt like Christmas to me. I became a neophyte. I practically moved in to the Anthropology department, and got Margret Mead’s name tattooed across my forehead . . . Not long after that, I ended up on a program called “Semester at Sea”, this four-month-long academic stint on a ship that circled the globe. When we were in Vietnam, one of my professors invited me to be part of an archaeological research team . . . so that’s how I ended up working in Mongolia.
I returned to Mongolia the next year to continue the project, but my concentration and focus began shifting. I was supposed to (literally) be digging up history. Instead, I took offense to that act. There were a few nights when we were sitting around base camp drinking that I let my feelings be known. True, we had a permit to excavate, but a.) we were Americans with vodka, cigarettes and chocolate, which could easily convince authorities to give us a permit, and b.) a permit is just a piece of paper. I didn’t feel comfortable digging up and dissecting previously untouched burial sites. They weren’t ours. I didn’t like treating the Mongolians as “others”. And focusing on the dead made me feel dry, bored and sleepy. I realized that I was completely and utterly uninterested in archaeology. It was just the delivery vehicle to get Mira to Mongolia. I realized that when I was excavating sites or surveying land, I really wanted to learn about what was alive and happening. We were living among a few scattered, off-the-radar nomadic families, who found us bizarre and fascinating, and we were drinking homemade vodka and sucking down mare’s milk with them like it was Diet Pepsi, and it was happening and that was amazing to me. So there were many moments when I was supposed to be counting bone fragments, and I would sneak off and learn how to efficiently kill, skin, and drain a goat, or shoot a marmot, or predict the future by reading a burnt scapula.
I was young and fresh and learned that most of the people I knew had lost their connection with nature, with the earth. I wanted to embrace what was happening in front of me—I was in freaking Mongolia. That was an experience that catapulted me into the decision to pursue creative nonfiction writing as a career. I guess it’s ironic that soon after I returned to the United States, I went to go write about funeral homes.
HD: What is your first memory?
MP: I don’t know what a memory is, unless it’s remembering a name or a number or directions or a quote from a movie. What’s more moving to me are senses, like the smell of autumn, which can elicit a familiar and distant feeling.
People tell me I have a crummy memory. Sometimes I embrace the justification that my brain’s natural inclination is to be “Zen” and present. On the other hand, maybe I’m just a likely candidate for Alzheimer’s. People think I don’t pay attention to things they tell me, but really, I just am really terrible at remembering things. I mean, I remember my first phone number. Or the Fraggle Rock theme song. I remember my first dog’s name: Cleo. But I don’t remember my first significant feeling or experience, because it’s become a part of me that hasn’t left. . . it’s very difficult for me to remember what one of those earliest experiences might have been because I’ve been moving forward and away from it this whole time. I’m totally confusing myself. What was the question again? What is memory?
HD: L.P. Hartley said “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” Can we learn from those half forgotten customs?
MP: It’s easy to linger and hide in the past . But it can never be fully lived in, never fully realized, because it’s a place that only provides bits and pieces. You can only identify parts of it, and even then, it becomes an interpretation, something that suits what we’re presently longing for. We allow ourselves to be governed by the past, especially in difficult moments. We use it as an excuse, as a way to orient ourselves, as a way to escape the void of being present. Dwelling in the past only encourages the production of more conventions, of labels and identity. We rely on history to explain why we are the way we are in an attempt to make tidy our messy, gross, beautiful, confusing, constantly changing personalities. People like to orient all themselves toward the easy side of things.
HD: Why do we so often regret our pasts?
MP: Because we have trouble accepting what is. We seek explanations. We like stories. We’re impatient. We want answers for the things unresolved in our hearts, so we either wait for the future to come, or we look back and imagine what could’ve happened. Meanwhile, this day is going by perfectly well. I’ve been reading Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” a lot recently, and this excerpt makes a lot of sense to me: Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. . .do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.
HD: Why Non-Fiction? Where does the need to honestly and rawly record and reveal come from?
MP: All art, or all good art, is an attempt at telling the truth. Or, our version of the truth. Or our version of our truth. The rigidity of genres isn’t something I agree with. I mean, we need order. Order is important, of course. Like in publishing, it’s probably much easier to keep track of sales by employing the category of genres. And it’s a good way to divide books up in a bookstore . . . but to me, genre identification is less a important than whether or not the artist’s expression was successful. The book’s message should be delivered in a manner that suits the message itself. Like, some people propose by putting a ring on a pillow and putting a pillow on a puppy and ringing their significant other’s doorbell. Yeah, so that might work for some people. But when you say that a ring on a puppy and a puppy on a pillow is objectively romantic, people will go out and buy a ring and a pillow and a puppy, and voila! they may have proposed in a “romantic” way, even though both he and his beloved hate dogs but maybe hold a special place in their hearts for Mystery Science Theater 2000. That’s their thing, MST2K, that’s their truth of what “romantic” is, so why give in to convention or labels, if it’s not your version of the truth? I feel the same way about genres. Ring on pillow on puppy. Not for everyone. That was quite possibly the worst analogy I have ever made.
My point is: I think it’s more important is that we focus on being truthful, however it comes out, and not so much whether we’re conforming to the boundaries of a genre.
HD: When writing about family run funeral homes and working in a women’s penitentiary, what were some moments that shocked you or soothed your soul?
MP: I was (and am) stunned that prisons still exist, and that the system hasn’t evolved into anything productive or helpful or healing for anyone. The people behind the bars are . . . people. They weren’t monsters. They’d been forgotten about. They needed help. They needed love. They weren’t evil–if you were to trace back each individual inmate’s timeline, you could easily see how each person had a unique series of unfortunate events, and it would make complete sense that they’d ended up in the penitentiary. They all had similar themes: poverty, lack of resources, and lack of support.
I was part of a group that led creative writing workshops at the Westchester Women’s Correctional Facility. When they started writing, it was as if the ladies had to pee and but had been holding it for nine hours—the minute their pens hit the paper, they unloaded. You could almost see their emotions liberate their bodies. It looked like ghosts floating out of their chests.
Some memories of my experience as an “undercover funeral home assistant” in Maine:
I remember my first body pickup. It was my first night on the job. I got the call from David, the funeral home director I was apprenticing. I remember sitting shotgun in the hearse, that there was a song playing called “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.” It was late October and we were headed to a hospital where an elderly woman had just died. There were paper banners with ghosts and goblins decorating the front desk. When we reached the room of the recently-deceased, the body was wrapped in white plastic and the director instructed me to slide my hands under the corpse and lift. I thought I could do it, but the sensation of my hands touching plastic touching bony bare thighs made me dizzy. It felt like a cool, uncooked chicken thigh. That was a shocking moment, I suppose.
I also recall being moved by how genuine and compassionate the funeral home director was to the families of the deceased. It wasn’t an act. He was selfless and full of empathy. He said sometimes he cried, especially if he was embalming a child. Sometimes, he or his colleagues wouldn’t charge, or would chip in and purchase the vault or coffin, say a family was poor and couldn’t afford to. That funeral home was working was one of the last family-operated and -owned in town; the rest had “sold out” to a conglomerate and had adapted their business models to churn higher profits. You’d be surprised by all the accessories available to you once you’re dead.
HD: How often is writing a way of healing?
MP: It’s always an act of growth, in one direction or another. Writing can mend just as easily as it can poison. I suppose it all depends on the author’s motivations.
I agree with the sentiment, a conscious mind cannot create art. When we’re guided by conventions and general explanations of why things happened or how they’ve come to be, we become disillusioned. We write the same things that have been written, because we latch on to the only explanations we are familiar with. When I’m looking for an answer, or I’m not satisfied with the answer I’ve been given, I write. A work of art is a good work of art if it has grown out of necessity.
But we have to let go in order to find our answers. When we stop listening to the incessant chatter inside our brains, when we let go, writing can be as therapeutic as standing buck naked in front of a mirror. It’s full on exposure, completely unfolded. If it looks ugly, keep looking. You’ll realize that there is nothing wrong about what exists because it’s natural. Everything is just a result of everything that went before it. What is natural is perfect, and once you realize this, you’ll probably just feel okay about whatever the hell happened in the past that you can’t make sense. I’m actually naked as I write this, so I’m doubly insightful right now. Zing!
HD: Do we have to wait for our futures to happen to us to write about them? In a Non-Fiction way, of course.
MP: It seems to me a bad idea to wait for something to happen—not just in terms of writing, but in terms of living. We allow ourselves to become paralyzed (writer’s block?) because we have trouble recognizing whatever isn’t loud or extreme. Good writing doesn’t come only from extreme moments or events. Tepid moments are just as significant. Those are often our moments. Solitude, which is quite difficult to find in New York, is very important to me. The more I embrace solitude, the more aware I become of what is real to me. The quieter I am, the more deeply I am aware of my understanding of my future, which is the same thing as opportunity and potential. Once I understand the idea of “my future”, I try to make it my own, and eventually, it becomes my fate. Those quiet, uneventful, seemingly static moments are the ones that reveal the most.