The Art of Asking


"You can fix almost anything by authentically communicating."
--Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking

I'm going to Chicago tomorrow--no, not to stalk the cast of Chicago Fire and make them play the drinking game with me, though I am quite proud of it, but rather to visit a friend and go see Amanda Palmer's book tour appearance at Thalia Hall. The Art of Asking came out on Tuesday, was in my hot little hands on Wednesday, and I finished it just now, afterward, note from the author, acknowledgments and all. I loved this book, as I knew I would. It's not a self-help book in the sense of teaching a person how to practice the art of asking, but rather a deeply personal account of how Amanda learned to do it. Which is so much better than a how-to book, since we all know you can't really learn how-to from something easy like reading instructions anyway. I'm not going to write a proper review, because I only know how to review fiction. But it's a wonderfully frank account of her start in the music industry, getting signed to a label, escaping from said label, her now-famous Kickstarter, writing the book itself, and all the people who touched her life along the way. If you're familiar with her work, you'll love the book automatically. If you're not, you should be, so reading it wlll be an Education.

What I really want to write about is how much Amanda Palmer means to me, but I'm not really sure how to do that, either. I should really just stick to writing drinking games. Okay, how about a story. The summer of last year, my friend and I went to see Amanda perform at the Milwaukee pride festival. We got there wildly early and spent a while drifting around and eating the only vegan food in the entire place (corn on the cob) and being generally impatient and not in the moment. At one point my friend left our front row seats for some reason (to get more corn? Make a phone call? I don't remember) and was gone for kind of a really long time, and I was just sitting there, watching God Des & She perform and feeling like a weird, awkward loner, by myself in a strange city, hungry and tired of corn, and generally being a pathetic sulk-monster and not even enjoying the performance in front of me, even though it was energetic and fun and everyone else seemed to be having a good time. I was feeling all kinds of conflicted--about being at a pride festival with my straight friend while my GF was two states away, about being introverted, about having resting bitch face, about hating my outfit. Insufferable. It was not my finest moment.

Flash forward a few hours, and the crowd had filled in, my friend had returned, and we were packed against the stage. When Amanda came out, one of the first things she did was tell a story about how she'd been dancing in the front row during God Des & She and she dropped her wallet. But I had been in the front row, too. Not dancing, though, rather, sitting and scowling and writing an email on my phone. I could have been dancing joyfully with Amanda Palmer to "Lick it"!! I could have rescued her wallet! But instead, I was being the insufferable sulk monster. Amanda's music often makes me feel emotional, and this night was no exception, especially since I was in A Mood. But then she played a new song, "Bigger on the Inside," and it was like a bomb going off in my head. I cried so hard during this song that I was actually afraid I might not ever be able to stop and it would turn into A Thing and I would just be the sobbing, snotting sulk monster of Milwaukee for all time. Fortunately, that didn't happen--I rallied, we were able to join Amanda and the crush of fans outside the Milwaukee Fairgrounds for a brief ninja gig before security ran us all off, and I didn't have anything for her to sign but we waited in the signing line and I asked for a hug and got one.

The next day, emotionally hung over at the airport, this happened on the Twitter:


(I apparently need to charge my phone.)

But I think my point is this: honesty is hard for me. Not honesty as in being truthful, but being open. Midwestern stoicism, residual guilt from Catholic school, call it what you will, but being free and open is my biggest challenge. I couldn't even admit to myself at that show that I was sad and lonely--maybe I had been for days at that point, who knows. I also couldn't let it all go, let loose, and just be in the moment. But Amanda Palmer's gorgeous, haunting, honest song unlocked something in my bitter, sulking heart and even now, I still can't quite explain it. But no other music has ever made me feel quite like that before. And I try to remember the experience sometimes when I feel the sulk monster coming on--Kristen. Look up from your damn phone. Your musical/spiritual hero might be dancing right in front of you.

It doesn't always work, obviously. But I think it helps, especially knowing that my musical/spiritual hero is a real person who responds to tweets and gets lonely in airports and who snots when she cries too.

In conclusion, The Art of Asking is available wherever books are sold, but here's a link to it on Amanda's site. Also, good news, now that the Amazon/Hachette staring contest is over, you can get it there too. Also also, in conclusion, an appropriate soundtrack for a blog post about feeling trapped in your head. 

"You cannot hold your own heart hostage. You do not have the strength to gag yourself in every closet."
--Amanda Palmer, "Olly Olly Oxen Free"


I'm rereading Rick Moody's Demonology this week, partly because the collection's brilliant eponymous story touches on Halloween, and partly because the first story in the book, "The Mansion on the Hill" is one of those pieces of fiction that wormed its way into my brain a long time ago and randomly pops up from time to time. (Other things in this category: Catherine Lewis's Dry Fire, Dubus's House of Sand and Fog, Beth Orton's "Stolen Car" and "California Dreamin'" by the Mamas & the Papas) "Haunting" is an overused term anymore, but in the purest sense of the word, that's how I feel about these things.

Have you read Rick Moody? He's wordy, repetitive, sometimes full of shit, but God, I love him. I've loved him for so long and since from such a young age that it's impossible for me to say if I still love "The Mansion on the Hill" because it's awesome, or if I love it because I love it.  It begins thusly:

The Chicken Mask was sorrowful, Sis. The Chicken Mask was supposed to hustle business. It was supposed to invite the customer to gorge him or herself within our establishment. It was supposed to be endearing and funny. It was supposed to be an accurate representation of the featured item on our menu. But, Sis, in a practical setting, in test markets--like right out in front of the restaurant--the Chicken Mask had a plaintive aspect, a blue quality (it was stifling, too, even in cold weather), so that I'd be walking down Main, by the waterfront, after you were gone, back and forth in front of Hot Bird (Bucket of Drumsticks, $2.99), wearing out my imitation basketball sneakers from Wal-Mart, pudgy in my black jogging suit, lurching along in the sandwich board, and the kids would hustle up to me, tugging on the wrists of their harried, underfinanced moms.

This is a perfect beginning, isn't it? So much detail, revealed so effortlessly. (Maybe it's just my love talking, or maybe it really is that good.) We learn in short order that our narrator, Andrew, is a grief-crazed underachiever, going slowly insane due to the "grim, existential emptiness" of the Chicken Mask as people he knows pass by with a laugh:

They didn't know it was me in there, of course, inside the Chicken Mask. They didn't know I was the chicken from the basement, the chicken of darkest nightmares, or, more truthfully, they didn't know I was a guy with some pretty conflicted attitudes about things.

The chicken of darkest nightmares. It's meant to come across as a bit weird, not dead-serious but not zany either--this isn't a horror story, a killer chickens from outer space type deal, but a sad story that is nonetheless blisteringly suspenseful, a la the film Cache (which also features a chicken, interestingly--maybe chickens are inherently suspenseful?) in that nothing particularly terrible happens, but the building tension is almost unbearable. 

This story always makes me think of autumn, maybe because the first time I read it was in October 2003, and I was taking a fiction workshop at OSU taught by Chris Coake. I think I read Demonology outside of that class, but the two are forever tied up in my mind because I spent several hours sitting at a table of the public library with this book and a Joyce Carol Oates collection in front of me, trying to decide what kind of story I was going to write for the workshop. In the absence of ideas that I like, I've always defaulted to experimental forms. For that workshop, I wrote one second-person account of a woman being abducted from the parking lot of a Kroger, and also a story about the aftermath of a car accident in a completely invented voice that Chris decided should be called "second-person passive-aggressive." I still have the first story, but not the second, which is too bad, because I liked it. Anyway, my recent consumption of Demonology is sort of obvious from the nature of these stories, as well as the feedback that I gave my fellow students. (I believe I compared almost everything, favorably or unfavorably, to Rick Moody.) I remember a few stories from the workshop, but one really stands out--a piece called "On Fingertongues," which featured a man who--yes--had his fingertips surgically replaced with tongues. There was a particularly intense passage describing taking out the trash with tongues for fingers. I don't remember if the story was well-written, but it was obviously good enough to make a slightly grossed-out impression on me, eleven years later.

What else do I remember from that fall? Elliott Smith died and it stunned me. I moved into a grimy apartment with sculpted orange carpet and a ripped-up window screen that I had to pay for when I moved out, even though I hadn't ripped it. I sold almost every book and CD I owned to be able to pay the rent on that shithole. The downstairs neighbors had bewildering arguments at all hours. I once found my clothes strewn over the building's laundry room floor along with a note that read, in an elderly scrawl:

The next time you leave your clothes in the washer, we are throwing them in the garbage. Cast Iron Nerve.

I was considering an affair with an ex but decided against it. We sat one night in the now-defunct Coffee Table drinking chai, and I can remember what I was wearing (burgundy corduroy jacket, which I still have, and a striped scarf of my own creation, which I don't). Afterwards we kissed, but it was inconclusive. Then I went to class in a daze. I got a B-minus in that fiction workshop, not because my stories were off-puttingly strange (although they were) but because I had a major attendance problem that I never got over. I had already dropped out of college once, and I worked as a receptionist for a house painting company, run by a dick called Tom who didn't know what a cornucopia was. (I wrote this about Tom and the wildly inappropriate Playboy poster he had hanging in his office; it was a terrible, terrible job.) I kept a blog, called Dirait-on, which is French for so they say, which I only knew because of a song we sang during a high school choir and not because I speak French. I primarily used the blog to catalogue the entire text of found objects, without explanation. I got food from the Pizza Hut/Taco Bell drive-through a lot because they barely looked at you.

But I was doing my best.

I think I could relate in an alarming way to the protagonist of "The Mansion on the Hill," the chicken of darkest nightmare. He was doing his best too. It just turned out neither of our best was worth a damn. And reading Demonology now is like sifting through a time capsule of my life. Some good, some bad, but mostly, just what made me the kind of strange that I am.

This one needs a soundtrack, kiddos: