April 8th, 2013
I haven’t blogged since 2011. I’ve started and then abandoned numerous entries in the time since my last post, but I always kept saying to myself (like, really and actually saying it out loud), “Hey, stupid. You’re a professional writer and editor. Do something that will pay the rent or maybe significantly advance your life both creatively and financially instead of putting up this blog post about your grandmother.” Then I’d slap myself in the face. (The grandma post was a real thing, by the way, about a trip I took to Disney World with her just before her death on December 31st, 2011. I’ll do something with it someday.)
Anyway, blogs. Blogs, blogs, blogs. Blogs vs. food / rent / paying bills? I’ve been busy, is my point. Mainly, I’ve been busy launching my own magazine. And thinking now about how this is the first time I’m even mentioning it on my personal website, I’ve just earned another self-slap. Anyway, it’s called Apology and I am really proud of it. Here’s the website: www.apologymagazine.com. The first issue is basically sold out. The second issue is released in July.
I’ve also been editing photo books, writing journalism, studying Greek, and making up classical guitar arrangements of Pavement songs. When I feel like blogging is necessary again, it’ll happen here. Until then, Apology will be the source of most of my warm, milky jouissance (gross). Thanks!
September 12th, 2011
(If you just want to see pictures of some belt buckles, scroll down.)
My father died just before Labor Day two years ago, so I suppose that now I’ll always equate the end of summer with the end of his life. That sounds dramatic, but it doesn’t feel that way. His death, as an event and a fact, was not a source of emotional turmoil for me. After the chaotic unevenness of his life, his dying was sort of a dry transaction. He was addicted to the whole cornucopia of opiates from when he was 16 until his terminal age, which was 56, and he committed many crimes and spent much time in jail. His final weeks were spent reeling, and then not reeling but rendered very still, from a brutal one-two punch of advanced cirrhosis and advanced hepatitis C.
So, yes, I wasn’t torn up by his death. The phone call telling me that he was going to go, which was followed soon after by the call telling me that he had gone, was something I’d been expecting to receive at any moment since I was a kid and first became cognizant of who he was. I was prepped. The only truly hard part, and I mean hard in the traditional sense of animal pain as it relates to losing a blood relative, was when a nurse held the phone up to his ear at the hospice in Arkansas and I had to say goodbye. Choosing those words and getting them out was hard.
I’m working on a long piece of writing about his life. I don’t know what will come of it. For years, I was resistant to even trying to write about him. But certain trusted friends—and my own subconscious—kept telling me to do so.
And that’s why I’ve been thinking lately about what was left behind for me when he died and then, ambling further back down the family line, thinking about what was left behind for me when my grandfather died. I didn’t receive any money from either of them. We aren’t a family that has money. Nor did I receive any tangibility of any sort that either man, before their deaths, laid aside or designated for me. After my grandfather died of cancer in 1996, my grandmother boxed up a few of his random possessions and shipped them to me. The standouts were:
• His union watch, which he received upon retiring. It’s gold-plated and has the seal of the International Union of Operating Engineers on the face. The back is engraved with his shop number (Local 542), his years of service (35), and his name (Carol A. Cook).
• A couple of old yo-yos (he liked them) and an envelope of spare yo-yo string. He hand-labeled the envelope, spelling “string” phonetically the way that he would have pronounced it in his thick Alabama accent: “Yo-Yo Straing.”
• Two small wooden boxes that he made in his workshop. After his retirement, he spent most of his time making boxes of various sizes and finishes. His woodwork is simple and strong.
• A few belt buckles, which extol the virtues of country music, the South, and industry.
After my father died, I drove to Arkansas to excavate his bedroom. He’d been living with my grandmother. For years, he’d been promising me that he was leaving me:
• A veritable arsenal (handguns, shotguns, hunting rifles).
• A few acres of land in the Ozarks.
Those are things that I would have wanted, but they did not materialize. The land? Christ knows if it ever existed. The guns? Maybe he was gradually selling them off. When I got there, two were left: a rifle and a revolver. My uncle took the rifle, which is fine since I live in Manhattan and the gun laws here make owning such a thing very difficult. Since there was no will, I just spent a few days digging around. People don’t label things with handwritten notes that say, “This is a powerful totem for me,” but it was easy to tell which objects might have been meaningful. Out of his meager possessions, I put together my own inheritance. Here’s the lion’s share of it:
• The revolver. (Taurus brand. Brazilian make, nice 80s model, was in bad repair but my uncle assisted in getting it tuned up.)
• A guitar. (Fender acoustic, nothing special, the action is currently too high.)
• Various turtles, ceramic and bronze (he had a thing for turtles, the symbolism of which I’ll not touch for now).
• His Bible.
• A small statue of a Hindu god. Worn, hard to identify which one it is.
• A camping spade from his Boy Scouts days.
• A stash of his writing, including a thriller he was composing on lined yellow paper and assorted notes about addiction, recovery, and God.
• A set of drumsticks. He played the drums. I took the pair that was still set out on top of his snare, which it can be reasonably assumed are the last ones he used.
I left behind the mountain of OxyContin and methadone that was piled up on the kitchen table. For a recovered opiate addict, that was akin to lifting 500 pounds over my head with one pinkie, standing on one leg, while moving swiftly downhill on ball bearings. I also left behind all of his t-shirts because I couldn’t find one that wasn’t marked with multiple cigarette burns—the reverse-Braille that happens when a person on dope nods out while smoking.
Now this is two times longer than I intended it to be. What I have been getting to all along here is simple: Belt buckles. I also took his belt buckles and I added them to the pile of buckles that I already had gotten from my grandfather’s collection after his death. Here are some of the highlights.
This one belonged to my grandfather. He was a native of Birmingham, Alabama.
Also a grandfather buckle. He knew how to work every tool and piece of machinery made by mankind in the years up to and including most of the 20th century.
I’m not sure if this one was my father’s or my grandfather’s. Both of them would have liked it.
Grandfather’s. He and my grandmother had a velvet painting of 70s-era Dolly Parton hanging in their living room when I was a kid. Wish I had that today.
Somewhere along the line, my father learned how to be an electrician. He rarely used those skills in the service of a paying job.
This was my grandfather’s union buckle. It’s the same face as the watch I ended up with.
My father liked to claim that our ancestry included General George S. Custer (untrue) two lesser American presidents (untrue), two brothers who fought for the Confederacy as members of the Alabama Infantry (true, verified by war records) and a full-blooded Cherokee (true, she was my great-great grandmother).
This belonged to my grandfather.
Also my grandfather’s. Opryland was an amusement park in Nashville that operated from 1972 until 1997. My grandparents made many trips there and also to Dollywood (Dolly Parton’s theme park, still operating) and Dogpatch USA, a small theme park in Arkansas that was based on the Lil’ Abner comics. They retired close to the latter, which was closed in 1993. Its ruins are still there, and are ripe for exploration.
My father liked to shoot snakes in his backyard.
This is not from one that he shot.
Carol Aiken Cook
April 14, 1928 – December 28, 1996
Craig Eugene Cook
July 3, 1953 – September 1, 2009
July 14th, 2011
(Scroll down a bit before you start reading if you want the quick photo payoff.)
July 1988: My stepfather George takes my cousin Gus and I on a trip to Vermont. We drive, three across on the front seat of George’s mini pick-up truck, all the way from southern New Jersey. The bed of the truck is capped, and for parts of the way George lets Gus and I ride back there. Midway through the drive up, we hear the song “Nobody’s Gonna Break My Stride” at a gas station. Back in our private chamber, Gus and I adapt the lyrics so that it becomes an ode to shitting. That’s pretty much where our heads are.
We camp in Smugglers’ Notch in northern Vermont. Upon arrival at our site, George hands each of us kids a towel. “These are your only towels while we’re here, so keep them clean,” he says. Gus spreads his towel out across a mud puddle and sits on it. (Today, Gus questions the accuracy of this detail, which is primarily how George remembers it. I take no side in the matter. But George also claims that he was afraid of Gus burning our tent down and this I think I’ll agree with since I do recall Gus avidly seeking out and using, for various dangerous experiments, matches and lighters back then.)
We camp for three, maybe four days. We hike to the summit of Camel’s Hump, a 4,083-foot member of the Green Mountain range. It’s mainly a leisurely hike: Gradually inclined, lazy switchbacks under a cool, verdant canopy. There are a couple of rock scrambles near the top, after which we find ourselves on a broad, flat peak of alpine tundra. It’s uncannily medieval. I pretend to myself that we are three knights on an Arthurian quest. Yonder lie the misty shores of Avalon, which we may yet reach ere we expire. On the way back down, we pass large pieces of a wrecked airplane. An intact wing, grown over with bright green ferns, aims down-mountain. It’s spooky and strange, slightly sublime. There’s no explanation for this on the informational signs at the trailhead and only later do we find out that it’s the wing section of a bomber that crashed into the mountain on a training mission in the ‘40s.
One day, we drive into the city of Burlington. There’s a street festival happening. The main event is going to be a lard fight held in a park. Entrance is open to anyone, and it’s not much more than a chaotic mass of hippies and yuppies flinging chunks of grassy lard around. There doesn’t seem to be a goal, a winner, or a discernible end. It just sort of fizzles out as the lard gets thin and cooks into the lawn.
The masters-of-ceremonies are the three actors who play Larry, Darryl, and Darryl on the sitcom Newhart, which is set in Vermont. For a small fee, you can have a Polaroid taken with them. Gus and I do this. The actors who play the Darryls—characters who are mute on the series, of which I am a faithful viewer—talk to us with their unremarkable voices. I undergo a moment of panicked bewilderment. These men are not meant to speak. It’s almost obscene, like I’m seeing a Muppet’s penis. William Sanderson, the actor who plays lead brother Larry, is long familiar to me from repeated viewings of Blade Runner, in which he plays the toymaker. He seems tired. The men gather Gus and I together, we form into a scrum. They lightly touch us. The photo is snapped, and they usher us offstage to make room for the next group.
In the picture I look sort of saucy and sly, which is unlike me. Gus looks numb and deadpan. I’m wearing a tie-dye that has a reverse-skunk streak running diagonally across the front and Gus is wearing a vintage Indian motorcycles t-shirt. William Sanderson is wearing a “Lard Fight” t-shirt. After the photo has been taken, we sit on a curb and eat crawdads. George wants to go and see a local blues band, but they’re playing in a bar that won’t let kids in. We drive back to the campsite.
The next day, the truck breaks down. We find ourselves spending the remainder of our time in Vermont at a sloppy bed-and-breakfast in the town of Cambridge. It’s owned and staffed by a group of actors who have dropped out of the game. It takes a couple of days for the truck to get fixed. Gus and I wander the small town and become just as bored there as we would have been back at home. George grows increasingly fed up with us.
And then the truck is finally ready. (It will quickly break again in various ways once we’re back in New Jersey, eventually leading us to drive with a bungee cord stretched taut across our laps, hooked to the inside of each door to keep them from falling off.) George wants no more time wasted in Vermont and decides to drive home overnight with Gus and I, hopefully peaceful and silent, in our sleeping bags in the back. The tactic works. We snooze the whole way home, except for one point when we’re pulled over by a highway patrolman in some state or another. He questions George for a bit. He looks at his papers. He shines his flashlight into the back of the truck, over the dozy pre-teen boys inside. “Are these yours,” he asks.
June 21st, 2011
I almost forgot that I have a blog now and should mention this news here. And so: The latest issue of Playboy (July 2011) contains a lengthy piece by me. It’s entitled “No Jobs Here” and it’s about my family’s often gruesome history on the factory floors of the steel industry, the death of said industry and of much of American manufacturing, and the hypocrisy of American corporations using the concept of the working class as a marketing abstraction. Particular focus on that last point is paid to Levi’s. Please consider buying the magazine and reading it.
June 17th, 2011
Sometimes, when I search the internet for what might seem at first to be an impossibly esoteric piece of masturbation fuel and I inevitably find it within five clicks, I wonder in which ways my libido and sexual proclivities would be different had I grown up in the age of the web. What does immediate access to the entire gamut of great and terrible filth do to a soul when its id is not yet permanently imprinted with whatever sick shit will be its catalogue of preferences? Does the internet, with its infinite choices, lead to jadedness and cynicism when it comes to, um, matters of the flesh? That seems like too easy an answer. It’s also the answer that a senior-editor-at-a-major-American-newspaper (read: sophisticated Luddite) would be likely to give. But I think that the web-porn cornucopia could just as easily have the opposite effect on kids—could be an energizing force. Maybe that virtual morass of parts, acts, and fluids could be engendering a new breed of fearless, highly evolved sexborgs. When I was young, seeing the most basic images of naked women made me want to get started on the whole puberty deal right quick. What sort of effect would seeing (just an example here) videos of ‘interracial, BBW, real hometown amateurs’ pissing and spitting on each other while strapped to a basement wall above a workbench laden with two-foot dildos and diesel-powered vibrators have had on me?
Since porn at a level of such complication and specificity as the above is more like vaudeville than anything else and thus becomes essentially slapstick, the reality of its effect on the young is probably innocuous: Internet-era kids will start having sex maybe a year earlier, on the average, than my generation did. They also might be a little quicker to jump into the rarefied air of anal, threeways, bisexuality, bondage, and what have you. Because guess what. My peers and I—arguably the final group of teens to grow up sans web—got into plenty of Sodom-and-Gomorrah activity, plenty young. Maybe the only difference is that we came to it a little less prepared, less visually acclimated, than kids today. They can hop online, dismantle their parents’ attempts at web security, and see anything, anytime.
I’m 35. I come from an era in which pre-teens had to go on cultural-archeological digs not just for porn, but also for punk music, so-called art house movies, strange literature, and underground comics. We shoplifted, sent away for zines and catalogs, and traded with each other to get our hands on contraband materials. But something we probably have in common with the youth of today, and all kids ever, is that when we were even younger, images seem to have sought us out—not the other way around. That brings me, finally, to the subject of this post, which is a few of the images that, at some point early in my life, lodged themselves into the nascent “this is what turns you on” portion of my brain. These things are running around in there even now, perhaps a little more spectral with each year, but working their influence nonetheless.
(Before I start, I’d just like to mention that the first recorded instance of me being sexually curious was when I was 4 years old and, while obsessed with Grease, saying to my mother, “I can’t stop thinking about Olivia Newton-John naked.”)
Here are two Weimar girls who look a lot like the chorus girls that taught me about breasts.
CHORUS GIRLS OF WEIMAR GERMANY
My grandfather had the complete set of Time-Life books on World War II. I went leafing through the first volume looking for photos of Nazis to be scared of, but instead I came across these Frauleins. There was a chapter on the decadence of pre-war Berlin and it opened with a double-page photograph of topless German chorus girls onstage in a nude, we’re-soon-to-be-Eva-Braun version of Paris’s Folies Bergère. This was the first time that I realized there exists in the world a seemingly endless series of variations upon the basic theme of breasts-and-nipples. What was small and perky on one Weimar girl might be pendulous and puffy on the girl next to her, and so on, ad infinitum. I recruited my cousins, a brother-and-sister team, to corroborate my discovery. This quickly, inexplicably, led to us grabbing a tape recorder and a blank cassette and recording ourselves chirping, “Titties! Boobies! Nips!” into it. I would like to hear that tape today, but I imagine that at some point my grandmother found it and, hopefully, threw it out without listening to it.
One final (Freudian) note on this one: Later that same year I used a pocketknife to carve up the cover of the book. I don’t recall my motivations, but make of it what you will. My best guess is vestigial Catholic shame and a typically violent vestigial Catholic response to it. I was 6, maybe 7, years old.
Behind this cover, Gnome tits await.
PARTIALLY NUDE FEMALE GNOME
People who are near me in age might remember the brief fad in the late ‘70s for a Swedish book called Gnomes. It was a faux-field guide that explained the lives, customs, history, and physiology of the mythical Scandinavian gnome. It was an oversized book, copiously illustrated with beautiful drawings, one of which was a representation of a blushing, topless gnome girl. This picture enacted a weird fascination over me. I’d drag the book off the shelf, open to the appropriate page, and gaze at the hefty, rosy tits of… a gnome. But looking back now, I wonder if this is really so odd. Let’s not forget R. Crumb’s admitted childhood sexual attraction to Bugs Bunny. At least the gnome girl was humanoid, even though she was a drawing of a made-up species of underground-dwelling, ankle-high endomorphs.
I still have the book today, and she still looks pretty good.
Looking at this makes me feel weird.
RINGO STARR’S NUDE GIRLFRIEND
My mother and stepfather had a copy of the January 1981 issue of Playboy, I think because it contained an interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. They kept it by the side of their bed. Once I became cognizant of its presence, I waited until they were both out, crept into their room, and took a look. The cover model was Ringo Starr’s then-girlfriend, an actress named Barbara Bach. In the photo, she stands in a witchy, gauzy, Stevie Nicks-y dress against a backdrop painted to look like a night sky full of stars. I remember opening the magazine, and I remember being distinctly unimpressed by what I found inside. Maybe, to break through the miasma of such a young kid’s sexual bewilderment, I needed something far, far less subtle. A real hammer to the head. And that was coming soon.
But first, a tangent. A few years later, I got a look at a copy of the Madonna issue of Playboy. I remember this being distinctly more thrilling. Not only was I then, somewhere inside, already a bubbling cauldron of testosterone, but there was also the added thrill of seeing someone nude who we weren’t “supposed” to see that way. Even so, the adrenaline wore off quickly. She had hairy armpits. I was from New Jersey in the 1980s, not Clichy in the 1930s. (I grew out of that, of course, and don’t care about pit hair one way or another as an adult. Just FYI, since you were so curious.)
The actual magazine was way, way more hardcore than Easyriders, which was totally vanilla. This photo is a work of art in comparison to what I saw that day.
PREGNANT BIKER MAMA
One of my uncles was a biker—like an affiliated-with-a-gang, stable-of-motorcycles-owning, ‘outlaw’ biker—and, therefore, he possessed biker porn. One day my cousin (his son) and I dove into the stash, which my uncle kept in plain sight in his workshop. I don’t remember much in terms of details—it’s more a blur of pasty, hairy bodies contorted into various unpleasant shapes. But the afterimage of one specific page has never been far from my mind since that day in 1985. In it, a skinny-yet-potbellied gentleman with a full, bushy beard is orally ministering to a heavily pregnant young biker lady with long, straggly hair and a confused expression on her face. The pull-quote, which was almost as big as the photo, read as follows, verbatim: “Knocked-up cooze is the best!”
Just thinking about it right now makes me involuntarily shudder.
At the time of this incident, I was still capable of finding these guys (or at least just Mick Mars) a little scary.
SAD PHOTO HASTILY STOLEN FROM MÖTLEY CRÜE FORT
The house where I spent the bulk of my childhood backed up on a vast expanse of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. Miles upon miles of pitch pine, blueberry bushes, cedar lakes, swamps, ferns and sassafras, right behind our duplex condo. It was possible to become irrevocably lost out there. One could wander for hours without seeing another person. It was on one such walk that I came upon a hidden fort. It was a tiny plywood box with a roof and everything. There was a ragged hole punched in one wall to let the sun in. The floor was covered with dank carpet remnants. It smelled, and I’m sure if I could go back there knowing what I came to learn a few years later, I’d identify that stench as the ripe evidence of a spilled bong. There was a poster of Mötley Crüe in Shout At The Devil-era regalia tacked up. I realized that the teen creeps who did their dirty business in there might show up at any time, and so I quickly started to exit. As I did, I saw a pile of porn mags on the floor. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to sneak an entire magazine back into my house unnoticed, but I figured a smaller trophy wouldn’t be a problem. I grabbed from the top of the stack, flipped to the back pages and, quickly, without looking, tore out a hunk of paper. Then I was out and gone. I never tried to find the Crüe fort again. It would have been like returning to the lair from which you’d successfully stolen a gold trinket from a family of trolls.
When I got back to my bedroom, I pulled my little porn-scrap from my pocket. The only image intact on it was a black-and-white photo of a woman with massive—I mean large to the point of deformation—breasts, photographed from the waist up. These were the kind of breasts that permanently damage a person’s back if they aren’t surgically reduced. She had the same hairstyle as Loni Anderson on WKRP. There was a partially readable phone number printed below her. The final few digits had been left behind. I kept that piece of paper under my mattress and made a habit of pulling it out when I got a minute to myself. I was still too young to utilize it, but I had some sort of instinct that, when I stared at the grainy photo of a woman with painfully enlarged tits, I was seeking the solution to a riddle. Does that sound like conveniently poetic retrospection? It’s not. I clearly remember knowing there was a question to be answered there and I not only didn’t know the answer—I hadn’t even been asked yet.
One day, I went to retrieve the porn-scrap and it was gone.
The reason I like hippie girls.
NAKED HIPPIES IN WHOLE EARTH CATALOG
If bikers represented the coke-addled, kill-you-for-your-muffler side of hippiedom, then The Whole Earth Catalog represented the polar opposite—the earthy, “Going Up The Country,” back-to-the-land folks. The WEC was like a Bible and an almanac, chock full of info and resources related to gardening, roofing, midwifing, canning, and livestock-raising. It was basically Survivalism 101, but with a sunny, optimistic bent. It was kind of a great publication. We had one of them floating around our house, and there were two photos in there that probably had something to do with me developing an enduring Grateful Dead fixation around the age of 9. One picture was in the context of, if I recall correctly, a section on “female sexuality.” It was a basic photo of a pretty, nude hippie girl looking sort of pre- or post-masturbatory—though I didn’t know that then. She just looked really, really relaxed. Then there was a photo of two hippie women outside, gardening, wearing nothing but granny panties. Reflecting upon that image now, at least the way I remember it, I see one of the women leaning down to hoe the ground, causing her stomach to fold up a little. That little stomach ripple (get it, “Ripple”?) still does something to me when I see it on women today. Thanks, Whole Earth Catalog.
I’m going to spare you the remainder of this litany, which includes things like the hardcore bondage magazine with the cover image depicting a bound woman having her breast fake-cut by a fake-sadist, stage blood running down her torso, and the first porno movie I saw, a piece of 70s weirdness called Education of the Baroness, which unsettled me with a scene in which a blind man unwittingly gets a blowjob from his sister.
Early in junior high, things started to rush by more quickly. Puberty struck. It got weird. To put it simply, I became more proactive. I discovered that our cable service let me hear but not see the pay-per-view porn they offered. Our stereo was rigged up to our TV, so I recorded onto audio cassettes the sounds of such gems as Oriental Spice (the theme song went: “Oriental Spice… feels so nice”). I also started staking out the mailbox, waiting for each new Victoria’s Secret catalog, which I’d intercept and stash away.
There’s more, lots more. But let’s not get into all that now.