Friday, June 15, 2012

Snappy in Stockholm

Saw this sign in Stockholm after I wrote this post. Spooky
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I'm off to Stockholm in a few hours, so I thought I'd do some preparation. I've checked the weather forecast. It's going to rain on Saturday, and on Sunday there'll be apocalyptic storms. I'm going to take my sunglasses along anyway. I'm an optimist. That's not true. Actually I'm an absurdist, which is literally neither here nor there, nor anywhere.

When you think of Sweden, what pops into your mind first? If you don't say Eurovision Song Contest, you're definitely not from this side of the pond. If you are from this side of the pond and the first thing that pops into your mind is not ABBA's snappy performance of "Waterloo" in the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, how on earth are you reading this blog post from under your rock? Does your rock have internet access? If so, that's very cool but actually defeats the purpose of living under a rock. Just sayin'.

Did you know that ABBA performed in the 1973 Eurovision Song Contest yet did not win? Wait, you say. What the hell is the Eurovision Song Contest? Well, I'll tell you. Since 1956, the countries of Europe have come together to compete every year to determine the best song by popular vote (with often upwards of 600 million viewers). It was started as a bit of superficial fluff to get Europe's mind off its differences, to bring the countries together for some light entertainment. But not only Europe! Israel won the contest in 1998 with the song "Diva" sung by the transsexual pop star Sharon Cohen, better known professionally as Dana International. As you can hear from this clip, people don't always vote for the best performance. Sharon/Dana was pitchy the whole song. I still voted for her, as I recall, because the song was snappy.

And Céline Dion's career was given a boost when she won in 1988 (before my Eurovision days). As you can see from this clip, Céline Dion has an incredible vocal gift and this song has its snappy moments. You can also see Céline before her millions and millions of hard-earned Canadian dollars transformed her. Say what you want about this sweet passionate woman with her quirky accent, but please be kind: She's an incredible singer--and the voters in the Eurovision Song Contest heard this even when she wasn't as polished as she is now. In 2010, a girl named Lena from Germany won the contest. Just a few months before the contest, Lena was a no-name, but Europe fell in love with her. I think she represents a new generation of 20-year-olds who don't care where you're from or who you're sleeping with. They just want to have fun with you--and isn't that wonderful? I mean that. I think it is wonderful. Lena's song was not choreographed. She wore a simple, little black dress. She's just Lena, and I think that's what people need these days: for people just to be themselves. So, why am I obsessing over the Eurovision Song Contest (or the Grand Prix for us people in the know)? This year, Sweden won the contest. I wanted Serbia to win. Here are these two performances. Why don't we have a little vote at I Must Be Off!

As you can see in this video, the audience actually begin to snap. I think I have found the secret to doing well in the ESC!  

OK, the song is a bundle of pop sweetness, and she kills it. The vocals have to be live. She's singing this, and she's not pitchy at all. The Grand Prix has come so far from the seventies, but it's always a celebration of, yes, light entertainment. Long live superficiality! If we all just wanted to have fun, maybe we wouldn't be so mean to each other.
If you only watch one of these videos, please watch the one below. It's Norway's Madcon performing "Glow" with the people of the European Union, all dancing together. We really should dance more together. Really.

I must be off,


Christopher Allen writes fiction, creative non-fiction and of course this here blog. His work has appeared in numerous places both online and in print. Read more about him HERE.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Jamison's Clarity

A Diesel Jeans Ad in London, 2001
(A first for I Must Be Off! I'm posting one of my stories here for the Flash Across Borders edition of the Aotearoa Affair Blog Carnival. If this post is cut off at the bottom, try reloading the page. This usually solves the problem.)

Jamison’s Clarity
by Christopher Allen

Jamison blinked into the milky eyes of the mutt lying on the pavement next to him and tried to remember what people used to call him or where he’d once lived. Beyond the dog, his silvery skyscraper headboard mirrored a filthy, bedded-down and bearded geezer. Someone had draped him in a blue blanket—the kind one gets in aeroplanes, he thought.
“Eureka, Topeka!” he shouted at his reflection, bleared brilliant by the a.m. sun. “I’ve been in an aeroplane!” A slick young suit dropped a fifty pence piece into the dog’s licked-shiny bowl.
“I’ve ridden in an aeroplane!” Jamison belted at every suit that passed until his throat was hoarse and he couldn’t remember why riding in an aeroplane had been such a bolt of clarity. Then as usual he bared his teeth at the suits, which he’d divided into slow suits and fast suits. “Hey, slowsuit!” he yelled. “What’s that say up there?” Jamison pointed to a picture of a straw-faced girl holding up a glass of pale, cloudy liquid—an advertisement of sorts covering the twenty-storey building across the street.
Slowsuit laughed. “It says ‘Save yourself. Drink urine.’” Clink.
That’s what Jamison thought it said. “How am I supposed to do that?” he asked. “I don’t have a glass.” But slowsuit had moved on, and Jamison couldn’t keep the sky from clouding. Jamison looked down at his trousers, soiled with dog slobber and smut. He was fairly sure people shouldn’t drink wee. Roily, he rasped at the next suit, “I’ve ridden in an aeroplane!”
After rush hour, Jamison pulled his blanket over his face and played peekaboo with the dog, a performance that always paid well with ahhs and pounds.
“Five quid. Not bad. You hungry, Armani? Cavalli?” But the dog didn’t stir at these names. “No.” Then Jamison tried the name on his belt. “Gucci?” He thought the dog might answer to one of the names on his clothes (they all sounded like dogs’ names), but his friend only lifted his head and dumb-eyed his master. “But I have to call you something,” Jamison said and scratched the dog’s neck. “Let’s see. Why don’t we call you Jamison? I like that name. You like that name? It sounds like a name for someone shaggy and noble like you.”
The mutt’s head sank back to the pavement and huffed a stinky sigh. The name Jamison was apparently as good as any other.
Clink. Clink.
“Cheers,” Jamison said and squinted skyward, grinning at a distant murmur. He imagined himself scaling the building across the street, up and up toward the straw-faced girl with Jamison in tow. Now he had two holds on the weirding world: he’d once ridden in an aeroplane and he had a dog named Jamison. For a moment clarity soughed overhead: an aeroplane. Now all he needed was that glass.


Christopher Allen is the author of the absurdist satire Conversations with S. Teri O'Type. Allen writes fiction, creative non-fiction and of course this here blog. His work has appeared in numerous places both online and in print. Read more about him HERE.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Get Your Berliner Schnauze on!

Gerhard Lahr, Berlyn
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The first time I visited Berlin 18 years ago, I was a mere babe. I was on my Grand Tour of Europe: a month of sleepless nights and my first time out of the US (my second if you count the fact that I was born in Germany and lived there when I was literally a baby).

I kept a journal during my Grand Tour in 1994, so I've taken it out now to see what I said about Berlin. The first thing that strikes me about this journal is that it's 9/10 empty. Obviously, I hadn't caught the blogging bug yet. In fact, in 1994 I didn't know what a blog was. There probably was no such thing as a blog. There was, however, the 'journal'--which I didn't care for much either apparently. Was I having such a grand time just living that I forgot to write about it? Here's the paltry lines I wrote about Berlin (word for word despite the embarrassment that this will cause me):

Berlin was/is angry, loud construction, dirty street people and very young kids, drugs. A woman physically pushed me aside--and I called her a bitch; she was/is. (People in Europe are buried standing up, I assume.) The couple from Australia--talked non-stop for almost 3 hours--good company. 

Lordy lordy. What the hell did I mean by "People in Europe are buried standing up," and where did this come from? I don't remember the Australian couple at all, but I remember the woman man-handling me as if it were yesterday. It was my fault. I stopped right at the top of the escalator--me and my oversized backpack blocking the way for the people behind me. Now, I would push me out of the way too, but then I just thought people in Berlin were hard, rude. How dare they not coddle naive tourists?

Berlin has become my second home in Germany. I have family there now, and they're the sweetest people in the world (I'm also not such the naive tourist that I was 18 years ago). Have you ever heard of the Berliner Schnauze? It's the name for the loudmouth, hard-ball humor so typical of people from Berlin. Imagine Berlin bears play-clawing at each other. I've become used to it over the years (even pretty good at it), but it caught me off guard at first.

I forced my partner--André the post-impressionist garden furniture repairman--to drive by the East Side Gallery so that I could take pictures of the not-so new renovation of Berlin's most popular outdoor Berlin Wall museum from our car, which was driving in the bike lane. I did not visit this section of the Wall in 1994; but if I had, I would have seen THIS, which is horrible. For the renovation project, many of the artists were located and asked to restore their work. The result is a success, but it is already succumbing to vandalism. I love street art, and can't understand why someone would deface it.

Dmitrij Vrubel (Dmitri Wladimirowitsch Wrube), Danke, Andrej Sacharow, Russian dissident and human rights activist, honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.
Dmitri Wladimirowitsch Wrube, Mein Gott, hilf mir diese tödliche Liebe zu überleben (My God, help me to survive this lethal love - my own translation). This is without a doubt the most provocative image of the Soviet/East German bond. The graffiti vandalism on Breschnew's cheek says "We shit on the German government!" which I assume is not commentary relevant to the brotherly "kiss" between Honecker and Breschnew.
This is part of the mural that says "Get Human . . . Save our Earth" but I can't find the name of the artist. If you know it, let me know.
Birgit Kinder Test the Best -- the now legendary East German Trabi (Trabant), metaphorically here breaking through the Berlin Wall. This car was also used literally to smuggle East Germans across the border.
Carmen Leidner, Niemandsland (No-man's Land). This is not the entire work. It shows only the West part of the painting. I believe Niemandsland refers to the stretch of land between East Berlin and West Berlin that was rigged with deathtraps and barbed wire that was supposed to keep evil capitalism out of East Germany.
Salvadore de Fazio, Dawn of Peace (detail)
Gabriel Heimler, Der Mauerspringer (The Wall Jumper). The coincidence of this woman walking by on the West side of the wall brings to mind the West's turning a blind eye to the plight of the East German Folk for so many years.
Brigida Böttcher, Flora geht (Flora's leaving). The title of this piece says it all. The East is portrayed as a Garden of Eden, and Flora is taking the risk of escaping into the unknown and complete darkness. This reminds me of an animal escaping from a zoo.

I must be off,


Christopher Allen is the author of the absurdist satire Conversations with S. Teri O'Type. Allen writes fiction, creative non-fiction and of course this here blog. His work has appeared in numerous places both online and in print. Read more about him HERE.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture by Julie Innis, a book review by Christopher Allen

(Important! If the bottom of this post is cut off, try reloading the page. This usually works. This book review is at Metazen right now, so please go there now if you want to read it there. I'm posting it here as well for those of you who might not get over to Metazen, the lit-zine I co-edit with a team of ten.)

First a confession: my vision hasn’t been so hot for the last few years, which means reading hasn’t been a pleasure for quite a long time. Last night, I read Julie Innis’s Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture from cover to cover in one sitting, never losing a second thought about my vision. Brava, Julie Innis! I’m healed.

Or I should say the voices Innis creates have healed me. And maybe I should credit the curative powers of dark humor. You know fiction can heal when you tell a friend, “I read this hilarious story about an aging play-cop loser forced to part with his surrogate son—a chimp rescued from a lab—because of his mother’s promiscuity,” and your friend says, “Wow, that’s kind of sad actually.” “No!” you say. “It’s like Fargo. You know: the scene with the shredder?” And you both fall about laughing. Here’s the last paragraph of “Monkey”:

I didn’t explain to her that Monkey wasn’t suited for the world, that he lacked street smarts and I worried that at night he’d be afraid, the sounds of tigers below, their ears pitched toward the little whistling noise his nose made when he breathed. I think of Monkey still and hope he’s making out okay. Sometimes late at night when I’m on rounds, I pull the scanner’s microphone all the way out to its end and then I just let it go.

I feel for this tragic figure, and I think you do as well. We have to laugh, though. That’s how we deal with our tragic world.

The great short story writer has the ability to create not just one tragicomic world but lots of them. Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture includes nineteen of Innis’s worlds, each with memorable, mostly tragic characters, none of which try very hard to make sense of life and some who stretch the boundaries of magical realism. If magical realism is an art of surprises, Innis makes it an art of satisfying ones. I especially like the arrival of Annie in “Gilly the Goat-Girl,” a surprise I’ve decided not to ruin for you. Instead, here’s the opening paragraph of this brilliant tale of maternal love and misguided fashion choices:

I’ve never had much success with men. I’m sure it all goes back to my parents’ divorce. At least, I assume that’s what a therapist would tell me. Temping provides me with very basic health insurance, so mental health services aren’t covered. Grease burns, broken limbs, venereal diseases—check, check, and check. Ennui, angst, and depression—better just keep a mattress out under your window because no one’s going to be there to talk you in from the ledge.

I think this paragraph sums up the collective consciousness of Innis’s characters. They populate worlds where all the safety nets have holes, where you can bet the firemen will move the net away if you jump, where relationships don’t work. To say the characters’ relationships are dysfunctional would be so 1985. Innis’s characters are done with dysfunctional; they’re post-dysfunctional. They yawn at dysfunction. These worlds are devoid of sentimentality and answers.

At university a “few” years ago, I read Sherwood Anderson’s Winesberg, Ohio: a Group of Tales of Ohio Small-town Life. Just as Anderson assembles the quirky inhabitants of a single and fictitious community in Ohio, Innis gathers her cast on a continuum from Ohio to Brooklyn. There are no recurrent central characters and each story stands alone, but there are central themes: weariness with a world that doesn’t quite work, preoccupation with health problems, social problems, job problems . . . problems. But we still laugh. Anderson dealt with similar themes but through the decidedly less humorous lens of 1919 realism. The glue that holds Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture together is Innis’s community of broken-yet-strong characters, but it’s also her daring wit, her timing, and her enviable—humorous—dialogue.

Humor is like a tight-rope made of razor blades. Some writers who try it, come away with more cuts than it’s worth. Innis dances on razors. And she does this by being generous to her characters, indulging their whims, allowing them to be bizarre in their humanity, human in their absurdity. And this is the key to believability, an element of good fiction that eludes so many writers.

I’m particularly fond of the dialogue between Heller and Goldfarb in “Heller,” in which Innis pits Heller’s jealously against Goldfarb’s adolescent confusion so well. The dialogue in “Do” is pleasingly ballsy and Palahniukesque, and I hope both Innis and Palahniuk are mutually complimented by ballsy. In "Blubber Boy" it’s astounding how much Innis can do with such dialogic brevity (perhaps to channel, as in "Do," the truncated communication among certain types of men?). In fact, Innis builds all nineteen of these stories on a solid foundation of character voice rather than authorial voice.

I can’t end this review without talking about Innis’s female characters, who are chopped in half, turned into cars, "corrected" and of course tortured. It’s not so much that they are abused, ignored and misunderstood by men; a lot of these stories are more about these women’s reaction to their worlds and men. I think this point of view is best summed up in “The Next Man”:

The next man will be better, she hoped. He’ll belch and fart and slouch in his seat. She’ll twine her fingers through his rough pelt, put braids in his thick hair. They will eat their meat rare; they’ll tear it lustily from the bone.

Disappointment with men is a theme that ties many of these stories together: from “My First Serial Killer” about an inept killer and his bored victim, to “Habitat for Humility” about a couple subjected to prejudice because of the husband’s conspicuous consumption, and ending with “Fly,” a love story between an unsatisfied wife and an amorous, charming fly.

Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture is a contemporary community of characters—some grotesques, some from the heights of magical realism, some realistic portraits of men and women doing their best to cope with contemporary issues, searching for the way of Do but finding only an oversexed Sensei Vinnie telling them that “For every ass-kicker, there’s an ass. Yin and Yang.” In essence: don’t be such a pussy.

Julie Innis’s fascinating must-read short story collection Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture (Foxhead Books) is available HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE--so if you can't find the book, well, your vision is worse than mine.

Robert Vaughan interviews Julie Innis at Heavy Feather Review. Hilarious

Originally from Cincinnati, Julie Innis now lives in New York.  Her stories have been published in Post Road, Gargoyle, Blip, Fwriction: Review, JMWW, Connotation Press, Prick of the Spindle, Thunderclap!, and The Long Story, among others.  She was the recipient of the 7th Glass Woman Prize for Fiction and was listed as a Top-25 finalist for Glimmer Train's Short Story Award for New Writers. She holds a Master's degree in English Literature from Ohio University and is currently on staff at One Story as a reader. Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture is her first book.

Christopher Allen is the author of the absurdist satire Conversations with S. Teri O'Type. Allen writes fiction, creative non-fiction and of course this here blog. His work has appeared in numerous places both online and in print. Read more about him HERE.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Post in which Christopher sort of Apologizes to the Nation of Italy for Thinking it Served Only Bad Food to Tourists

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Tale of La Mimosas

Yes, I can eat my own words. I'm going to tell you two tales, both happening in the same city. Rome.

Before I left Munich, I did a bit of homework, printed out a couple of pages of restaurant addresses where I could get a gluten-free meal. As it turned out on Saturday afternoon when I was looking at the addresses, none of the streets looked familiar. I threw the list on the bedside table, resolved to eating another Insalata Caprese for dinner.

"Go down to reception and ask," Josef, the Hungarian florist said.

"You know I don't like to talk to people."

"Go down to reception and ask anyway," he said. The anyway was a good argument, so I went down to reception and asked anyway.

In keeping with my experience with receptionists in Italian hotels, I expected the receptionist to shrug and tell me, "You have to eat pasta. You're in Italy. Your intestine will understand."

What actually happened: She found a restaurant that offered an entire gluten-free menu within walking distance from our hotel, and she did this in under three minutes. The restaurant--La Mimosas--was about a 10-minute walk away, and it was fairly full of non-tourists. I neglected to tell the man who greeted us at the door that we had a reservation, so he took us to the deserted, chilly tarped-in terrace at the back of the restaurant, which smelled like cat piss. Still, we sat down and started looking at the menu.

Parkerman & Christie (San Diego)
The gluten-free "focaccia" at La Mimosas
A few moments later, another man came and got us and ushered us to the front room, where a cozy table was waiting for us. As soon as I mentioned senza glutine (gluten-free) to them, they rushed off to make me a gluten-free focaccia. Now, I am going to eat my words in a way, but I can't say that the gluten-free focaccia was good. It wasn't focaccia. I know focaccia. This is focaccia on the right (although the focaccia I've had in Cinque Terre was square, not round).

Gluten-free pizza capricciosa

I then ordered a gluten-free pizza capricciosa. Eating a pizza has become an emotional experience for me since I haven't been able to eat conventional pizza for the last 8 years. Though mediocre, the pizza still brought tears to my eyes. The crust was exactly the same crust as the focaccia I'd nibbled on earlier--just bigger. The wine was good.

The best thing about the meal was the fact that the restaurant staff were friendly, they spoke Italian with me, and they seemed genuinely concerned about the gluten issue. By the end of the meal, I'd all but forgotten about the cat piss odor.

Tale of dei Frescobaldi

I was about an hour early for my flight back to Munich, which is not that early for me. I usually like to test all the skincare products in Duty Free, which takes some time. In terminal one, there is a wine bar, a chain, called dei Frescobaldi. When I sat down, I intended to drink only one glass of wine. The menu is pricey, so I thought I'd be able to stop at one.

Sipping on my 10-euro half glass of wine, I began to take in my surroundings. Carpaccio, prosciutto, caprese (my old friend), all sorts of antipasti. I wasn't hungry, but I was impressed by the ripe red tomatoes and the freshness of everything around me. I asked for the menu. There was no way I was going to pass this up, but the prices were laughably high. The prices on the internet menu are out of date.

I ordered La Nostra Caprese (15 euros): ripe roma tomatoes, salad and the best mozzarella I've had in a while. The balsamico they use has other ingredients, so I asked the grandmotherly server if the condiment was senza glutine. She was so sweet. When I was finished with my Insalata Caprese, she placed a plate with vanilla pudding and strawberries in front of me. "Anche senza glutine," she said and smiled. And she restored my faith in Italian hospitality. My bill was 50 euros--senza glutine.

I must be off,



Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire). He writes fiction, creative non-fiction and of course this here blog. His work has appeared in numerous places both online and in print. Read more about him HERE.