Modern Art Should Not Be Painful

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The following appeared in The Pitt News,

February, 2000. A month later, I was hired as an art critic

for InPittsburgh Weekly,

where I reported Pittsburgh’s fine arts scene for a full year.

The man frowned, thumb and index finger clutching chin, then he shook his head. His eyes glazed over with feelings of betrayal, alienation. He stepped back from the wall, sighed, stepped forward again. Still nothing. He looked around, searching for help, then consulted his brochure. His gaze returned to the painting, that cruel, indecipherable painting.

It depicted a snow-capped mountain peak. A series of names was printed in black on the left: “Artesia,” “Alondra,” “Compton,” receding intot he distance. “Rosecrans,” “El Segundo,” each name smaller, less familiar, until they disappeared, Star Wars-like, into the horizon. According to the nearby label, the painting was called “Artesia.” Pop art painter Edward Ruscha had created it in 1998.

“I don’t get it,” the man harrumphed, walking off.

In another room, a young woman stared at a giant color photograph by Jeff Wall, entitled “Morning Cleaning.” In the photo, a custodian washes the floor-to-ceiling windows of a vacant lobby. The young woman laughed and tossed her hands in the air. What was this picture suggesting? Couldn’t a child with a Panasonic accomplish as much?

A pair of bored-looking young boys brightened at the sight of a pingpong table, cut into a cross pattern and filled at its center with a lily-colored square pond. They picked up the supplementary paddles and smacked balls at each other, hoping to put out an eye.

“Put those down!” their mother yelled, storming after them. “That’s an exhibit, not a toy!”

My question is this: Why can’t an exhibit be a toy?

We’ve all experienced the quiet loneliness of museums, the ivory-white walls, the stuffed-shirt old fogies with their laser pens and their strange, untranslatable language. We let them fool us into thinking that art is not only a serious business, but strictly intellectual, the harbinger of headaches, confusion and neurological breakdown. We search for hidden meanings, metaphors, and, of course, the dreaded “statement.” We imagine emaciated, quivering artists lying around their lofts and sucking on cheap cigarettes, striving for some unattainable truth. We think that in order to understand, we have to wear bell-bottoms and dye our hair pink.

Suppose I look at “Nude with Raised Arms,” by John Currin. It’s a young woman with wavy red hair looking straight at me. She is, as the title suggests, totally naked, and her arms are raised. I know I”m not supposed to find this erotic. I know I’m supposed to stare at it objectively, thinking clean thoughts, like how very epistemological this painting is. But to me, it’s still an erotic painting. Who’s to say the artist doesn’t agree?

Then I examine “Leben, leben,” by Hanne Darboven: 2,782 pieces of standard computer paper plaster the walls of two rooms. Each leaf of paper bears thousands of numbers and letters. In the center of the room stand two doll houses. I hate numbers passionately, so feeling surrounded by them is an uncomfortable experience. At the same time, the doll houses are well constructed, like the model trains I used to build when I was a kid. Can I relate to these doll houses, so innocent, besieged by a sea of numerical figures? Is this what the artist wants me to see?

According to my printed museum guide, I’m not even in the ballpark. It states that “Leben, leben” “represents Darboven’s systematic approach to counting the years 1900 to 1999.” there’s no way I could have figured this out on my own. But I shrug my shoulders, deciding that I haven’t lost this game of figure-out-the-message. I’ve just made up new rules.

I’m not fond of the splatter-paint canvases, what with their dribbling blues and reds. Again, the key is not to assume that I’m dense. If we were meant to suffer over art, who would buy it? Who would even glance at it?

I take off my shoes. Ernesto Neto’s sculpture, a huge box of nylon stretched across half the room, beckons viewers to step inside. An usher helps me in, and my socks tough down on soft membrane. All around me is the silky, milk-white fabric, like a science fiction writer’s vision of some benevolent alien spaceship. People disappear into holes, poke their heads around warped curves. I think nothing. I’m enveloped in art. Maybe I get it.

Your Horoscope

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The following appeared in The Pitt News,

March, 2000.

Some of the stars are aligned in your favor. Others, regretfully, are not. Venus has been especially bright lately, a sure sign that love is near. This love may not directly affect you; you may pass an amorous couple embracing near the bus depot’s Kiss & Ride sign, or you may enter your roommate’s bedroom at a compromising moment. You may not have a roommate; it’s just hypothetical.

Venus is also a very hot planet, so be wary that the thermostat doesn’t break. If it does break, get it fixed before summer starts, or you’ll be in trouble.

Your friend may offer you a pet. If you don’t have any friends, a pet may offer you one. I’m not saying you’re not the type to have friends. You may be an extremely amicable guy/girl/woman. And if you’re not, I”m sure you’re just shy. Anyway, even if you’re the most popular bachelor in town, you can always benefit from another friend. The stars insist.

Money should be a big concern right now. Save a lot of it, and then spend it wisely, this week in particular. If you see a fantastic bargain on a Mazda, go ahead and buy it, but make sure it’s not a lemon. If you look under the hood and there’s no engine, thank the salesperson and decline. And remember to buy low, sell high. I never figured out what that meant, but my stockbroker is never wrong.

There’s a distinct possibility that you will get sick this week. Don’t worry; it won’t be serious or long-lasting—unless you contract Ebola, and then you’ll almost assuredly die. While this is unlikely, make sure to write your last will and testament as soon as possible. Feel free to mention me in there somewhere.

You will learn a fascinating geographic fact in the near future.

If a sibling admits something to you, listen to him or her. If it has to do with cross-dressing, be patient and understanding. Not that your sibling would cross-dress, but it’s good to be prepared.

The city of Kahramanmaras is located in southern Turkey.

You must prepare for a long journey, such as a road trip to Maine, or a metaphor, such as a lecture on plastics manufacturing. Ebola might culminate in a long journey, but that’s a messy topic, so please consult your priest/rabbi/mullah.

You will experience a great loss. But only if you eat right and continue jogging.

Beware of Scorpios. They may look like good people, but they’re jealous of you. They wish they could be as awesome as you are. They sit up at night contemplating your doom, wondering what misfortune has rendered them so uncool. Notice how many Scorpios were taking notes during The Talented Mr. Ripley. Scorpios are bad news. Unless they’re just misunderstood. That’s quite possible.

Someone will ask you for spare change this week, no matter how hard you try to look as if you’re in a hurry.

If you are a man, you will see a car billowing smoke on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Being the good samaritan that you are, you will rip open the door and find a beautiful woman lying in the driver’s seat, unconscious. Using your natural knowhow, you’ll manage to wriggle her out of the burning vehicle and carry her to safety just moments before the automobile explodes. She will awaken and thank you for your exploits. She will be a swimsuit model for Victoria’s Secret. You will get married and raise five children in the Hamptons.

If you are a woman, a gay man or a lesbian, modify the above scenario to fit your preferences. It will happen. Trust me.

I wouldn’t recommend flying this week. If you book a flight, your plane will crash in northern Minnesota, where you will be forced to eat your fellow passengers until help arrives. Don’t go swimming until later this year, or, I have a sneaking suspicion, you’ll get cold. If someone offers to sell you a bridge, run. If someone makes you an offer you can’t refuse, just take it. (Your horse will appreciate it). And don’t talk to strangers—especially strangers wanted in several states. They might be misunderstood, but they might also be Scorpios.

And don’t worry. There’s always tomorrow.

Shopping at 30,000 Feet

 

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The following appeared in The Pitt News,

January, 2000. While I poked fun of in-flight publications

and their bizarre demographic of corporate readers,

Attaché eventually became US Airways Magazine,

to which I contributed several articles

in later years.

So I’m flying on a US Airways jetliner with a hundred other passengers, and my thumbs ache from twiddling. Stuffed into a little pocket in the seat ahead of me are two crumpled periodicals—a catalogue and Attaché magazine. So I unfold the mag and take a look at an article on soiree cooking secrets. Turn the page. Now there’s a colorful sidebar on how to outsmart my competitors. Turn the page. A smiling young woman in a plush gray suit is demonstrating the use of her new IBM WorkPad z50 PC companion, a machine that does exactly what my current computer does, except the keyboard is too small to type on. It nicely supplements the Kodak digital camera advertised a page later, which, like my current camera, takes pictures.

There’s a feature on Brad Faxon, a professional golfer from New England. I once played a complete game of golf, if a bit unsuccessfully. My grandfather beat me by sixty strokes. But ever since that pesky country club increased admission prices for the Middlebury golf course, I’ve relegated my income to such hobbies as eating three meals a day.

Another article talks about Lake Mattamuskeet, a “tribute to both the resiliency of nature and the ability of humans to learn from folly,” for it houses over 45,000 waterfowl. The article goes on to say that a hunter, carrying the necessary license and firearms, can spend a calm autumn weekend raking the Mattamuskeet landscape with shot pellets. If I wish to be the said hunter, it offers a Web address and directions.

There are also various advertisements for corporate attorneys, in case my company ever gets in trouble. So if I ever start a company, I’ll know where to turn.

It doesn’t take long for me to realize that I’m not the target audience. I hand my copy of Attaché to the guy next to me, a middle-aged guy who dons a dapple blazer and smells of cologne.

The catalogue is the December edition of USAirways’ Selections. On the cover is a bundle of well-split firewood wrapped in a red bow. The insinuation, I guess, is that executives give each other kindling for Christmas.

Once again, I feel left out. As I flip through the glossy pages, I wonder who buys the Only Remote Controlled Stealth Bomber. Granted, it can “perform loops, barrel rolls, and high-speed nose-dives,” but really, where would I fly it? Off of Towel C? And the portable DVD player is nice and all (especially the “Simulated Picture,” whatever that means), but how would I ever fasten it to my bike? One spill and—whoops!—there goes a thousand dollars. A thousand, that is, without the three-hour battery pack.

When I reach the page of “Successories”—framed photographs with bits of wisdom written underneath in italics—I wonder if upper-middle-class people suffer from extraordinary depression. None of the people I know, once they pay off their electric bills, has ever splurged on an inspirational poster, no matter how good the advice. But some CEO out there must be able to afford Above and Beyond, a portrait of five jets zooming synchronously through the blue sky. Beneath it reads: “When a team of dedicated individuals makes a commitment to act as one… the sky’s the limit.” The poster doesn’t cite the pundit who came up with this, but the wisdom comes at a price of $159.99.

There are two whole pages dedicated to purchasable money. If I only had $329.95 (which is almost twice my monthly income), I could buy an uncut sheet of 16 $5 bills, fresh from the Federal Reserve. Wealthy passengers seek my envy by owning these $80 of unusable money, and at a price of only four times its own worth. A solid gold millennium $100 coin is also available for only $2,000. And the books of Buffalo nickels and Indian Head pennies are a fine homage to an epoch of human and animal genocide.

The catalogue goes back in its pocket. My thumbs go back to twiddling.

But the bonfire of vanities resumes as I arrive at the airport. All around me loom the storefronts with their thick fur coats and shining Eastern Mountain Sports camping equipment. If your signed, $500 oil painting of the Rocky Mountains can’t fit in your suitcase, buy another one! Maybe in suede this time. To the flier with a lucrative job, whims have no limits. For the student flier with few assets, limits yield no whims.

Available: SWM, a Real Charmer

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The following appeared in The Pitt News, 2000.

Because I wrote this as satire about personals ads,

I never dreamed that Internet dating would take off,

nor that I would one day have my own Match.com profile.

I actually find it heartening that so many people

have swallowed their fear and met complete strangers

in well-trafficked public places.

(Myself among them).

Single, white male looking for female companion. I’m fun-loving, cultured and athletic. I love theater and long walks on the beach. I do not live near a beach, but my house overlooks a river, which has romantic potential if a waxing moon hits it just the right way on a clear night. And by “long walks” I mean moderately long, or else the arthritis in my knees acts up.

When I say “cultured,” I’m referring to long hours in front of the television watching The Learning Channel. Sometimes I’ll spend whole weeks on my couch, chomping beer nuts and adding up the days since I last took a bath (until I lose count). And “athletic” means I’ve seen every college-league football game aired in the past 15 years. One of my favorite hobbies is taping Bud Bowl commercials.

I have a great sense of humor. If you call me, I’ll happily tell you the one about the lawyer and the dead mongoose. It’s a riot. I didn’t make it up, but I read it in Playboy, and I’ve got a great delivery. (Well, I think it was Playboy. I always confuse their “articles” with Hustler’s).

I speak two languages, English and hieroglyphics. I learned the latter by watching the movie Stargate 5,324 times. This is the equivalent of 10,648 bags of beer nuts.

I can perform an orchestral arrangement of the national anthem by cracking my knuckles.

I have a terrific body. I do at least three pushups a day, because, in my opinion, moderation is the best policy. I hike to the mailbox once a week, and I’ve been known to take bimonthly road trips to Wal-Mart, where I like to appraise the collection of firearms. Then I play with their Nintendo demo until the staff calls security.

My sexual prowess is unmatched. My last conquest (as I like to call her) praised me as “a unique experience.” She was so intimidated by my virility that she left through an open window while I was fishing for Swisher Sweets. I’ve been reading the Kama Sutra religiously in the three years since, picking up “pointers,” shall we say.

I always aim to please. For example, when my first girlfriend told me to stop peering into her window while she slept, I stopped right away, give or take a restraining order.

You have beautiful fingernails, by the way.

An amendment: That “conquest” I mentioned wasn’t an actual woman, but a blow-up doll that my friend gave me for my birthday. For many years I would create dialogue for her and record it on tape so we could have long conversations in the night. Then she deflated and I threw her out the window. But I thought the other story sounded better. Did I tell you how great my imagination is? Well, it’s great.

What I’m looking for is a smart, savvy, outgoing, well-traveled woman who likes to experiment with life. I don’t like to discriminate, of course; outgoing, for example, means she doesn’t mind getting my mail for me on a weekly basis, since my knees don’t always cooperate. Not to mention the leprosy (no longer contagious).

Experimenting with life could include, but is not limited to, primitive and wild sexual exploits. For example, my dream woman wouldn’t shy away from the leather teddies, rubber duckies and the intricate pulley system that await her in my basement. A fetish for vipers, old socks and Sailor Moon screen savers is a definite plus.

Well-traveled is good, but please do not call if you live in Idaho. If you have visited an Idaho post office, you may have spotted a wanted poster featuring a police sketch of a man who (coincidentally) has the same face as I. While I know nothing of the bloody knife found in that motel bathtub on Oct. 8, I imagine the killer, whoever he may be, had a very good reason for stabbing the town postman.

I would like to go on a traditional date to a fine restaurant. As an avid feminist, I think we should transcend gender barriers and have you pay the bill. I would recommend owning a car, because otherwise we’ll have to walk, and sunlight is bad for my skin blemishes. Fast-food is preferred.

Oh, and don’t call if you’re looking for a commitment. I like to play these things by ear.

Probing the Occult

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The following appeared in The Pitt News, 2000.

This was my first-ever news story for a daily paper,

which began a long and illustrious career of reporting

unusual subcultures. In the next two years,

I would attend a Candomblé séance, a Cao Ðài ritual,

and an ill-advised Thelemite blood sacrifice.

Power is ethically neutral—it’s how a person uses it that makes it good or evil.

Using this theme, Dr. Richard Brooks lectured before a small group yesterday in Posvar Hall about the evolving message of the occult. The presentation continued a lecture series hosted by the Theosophical Society in Pittsburgh.

“The word ‘occult’ simply means ‘hidden,'” he said. “It is generally associated with gaining certain powers to attain superiority.”

Brooks discussed the basic principles of occultism, distinguishing between the traditional, or “Faustian,” and modern, “theosophical” occultist views.

The Faustian view, named after the German folk character Dr. Faustus, asserts that there is a separation between mind and matter. It also assumes that life is meaningless, that the occult is satanic in nature, and that humanity’s only aims are material, he said.

The theosophical occult suggests that mind and matter are interconnected, or “poles of the same being.” The universe is maintained by laws and a cyclical time frame.

“Life has a fundamental and underlying purpose,” Brooks argued. “We are in a cosmos, not a chaos.”

Brooks joined the Theosophical Society in 1953 after an “existential crisis.”

After losing his university scholarship, he enlisted in the Navy and served on board a U.S. submarine.

“That was interesting for about two days,” he said, chuckling.

Unable to choose a major, he was inspired by the book Elementary Theosophy, by then-society President L.W. Rogers.

Now Brooks is an emeritus professor of philosophy at Oakland University, near Detroit. He is a member of the Parapsychological Association, the Co-Masonic Order and the Liberal Catholic Church. He has lectured across the United States, as well as in Canada and India.

“My goal is to give people a deeper philosophy of life,” he said. “When you probe the occult view of ourselves, you find something enabling and exciting.”

The Theosophical Society in America is a national organization devoted to “form[ing] a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood & Sisterhood of Humanity regardless of race, sex, caste, creed or color.”

It also encourages the study of comparative religion, philosophy and science, and investigates unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in humanity. Acceptance of these maxims is the only requisite for admission in the society.

The Pittsburgh chapter is more than 90 years old and was founded by Anne Bessant, who was active in politics and the women’s suffrage movement. Andrew Nesky, president of the Theosophical Society in Pittsburgh, coordinates the group’s weekly lectures.

“My goal is to perpetuate the forum,” he said. “My job is to be as unbiased as possible. If a speaker is biased towards a particular view, that’s all right; that’s his business. What’s important is that I bring in a person with a conflicting idea next week.”

Nesky is also a local actor, a high-school public-speaking coach, and a lecturer on metaphysics and human development.

Lectures are held on Sundays at 1:30 p.m. in Room 1K56 Posvar Hall. Future lectures will discuss the history of the Theosophical Society, featuring speaker Ivan Marcus, and the nature of human caring and indifference, with missionary John W. Tsai. These lectures are free and open to the public.

Introducing the “Rahnd Table”

Writing

The first Rahnd Table reading takes place

this Thursday, March 7, 8 p.m.

Most Wanted Fine Art, 5015 Penn Ave., Garfield.

Free and open to the public. Refreshments provided.

 

The day was July 31, 2012. The place was Lou’s Corner Bar, a dark little pub in Bloomfield. We didn’t expect much—just a casual meeting between two old friends. But as evening fell over Lou’s back porch, and the hot air eased into sultry warmth, the date of July 31st, 2012 became legendary in our lives: It was the day we founded the Rahnd Table.

Like heat-lightning, it came from nowhere.

Until that day, the Rahnd Table didn’t exist. After that day, it was our obsession.

First I sat down with Dan Parme. We ordered beer. We sat and talked. Dan had endured some tough years, and we’d lost touch. Lou’s was the perfect place to meet: We sat in dismembered bar-stool seats, which were perched on a picnic table. The porch overlooks a side street, which is perfect for people watching. Dan told me about family tragedies. I listened, we traded quips and anecdotes, and we refilled our glasses.

Then Dan told me about his book.

Dan is a writer with one published novel, Hungry, about cannibals in Pittsburgh. It’s dark and suspenseful and hilarious, and he put thousands of hours into its writing. But his new manuscript was something different—he found it hard to describe. An ensemble piece. Adult dramas unfolding. Some autobiographical elements, in the loosest sense. Real characters. Rich dialogue and description. Schlock, this was not.

“I haven’t worked on it for a while,” Dan confessed. He has worked as a waiter and bartender, for various restaurants, for over a decade. The routine, and lots of bad luck, had sucked him into a whirlpool of tedium. He loved his job, he loved the people, but his writing had suffered.

We ordered another round.

Nathan Kukulski arrived. Nathan is a renaissance man who manages Six Gallery Press. He is the only publisher I know who plays violin, rides a bike full-time, and works in a parking lot. Nathan and Dan had never met before. They shook hands.

“Nathan published my book last year,” I said.

“Oh, so you’re the publisher,” Dan said.

“That’s me,” said Nathan.

“We were talking about fiction we want to write,” I said.

“Right on!” Nathan said.

Then Nathan told us about a science fiction novel he was dying to compose. Something about people morphing into animals, large and small, and the difficulties they encounter. He hadn’t written a word, but he loved the idea, anyway.

Finally, Brendan Sullivan appeared. Tall and mustached, topped with a camouflaged trucker’s cap, Brendan lit up when he saw us. Brendan used to be editor-in-chief of The Original magazine, a glossy published by students at the University of Pittsburgh. Brendan had once commissioned a profile about me. We had a lot of mutual respect. Brendan had recently graduated.

“Where are you working now?” I asked, hoping the answer was The Atlantic.

“Kards, Unlimited,” Brendan replied.

A novelty store. A fantastic novelty store in Shadyside, but a novelty store nonetheless.

“We’re talking about fiction we want to write,” I said.

“Oh!” Brendan said. “Did I tell you about my novel?”

So Brendan summarized his (also unwritten) manuscript about a futuristic police state, where a writer is drawn into a coven of domestic terrorists.

“So, wait,” I said. “We all have novels we’re working on? Orwant to work on?”

We did. We raised glasses. We laughed and elaborated. Someone said, We should start a writing group. We got excited. We decided to meet again in two weeks. Same place, same day, same time. We would send each other manuscripts—no matter how much or little we wrote. We would critique, compliment, advise, dole out tough love. Our writing group would be fun. We would be friends, not just strangers in a writing program. We would trust each other, not sling criticism to impress the teacher. And slowly, we would write fiction, something only Dan had done in recent memory. We would walk away, many months later, with completed books. That was the idea, anyway.

For years, I’d gushed to Dan about the Algonquin Round Table, that mythic gathering of Jazz Age wits and bohemians.

“I want to start the Round Table of Pittsburgh,” I’d say, starry-eyed. “I want all of the coolest, funniest, most talented people I know in one room. I want them to cavort, and I want us all to become famous together. I want to be on Fresh Air in twenty years, and have Terry Gross say, ‘Wait a minute, youknow Dan Parme, the famous author?’ And I want to say, ‘Ofcourse I know Dan Parme. He’s an old friend. I also know Fred Betzner, the famous comedian—we were roommates! And Bill Holman, the explorer and filmmaker—we just got back from Copper Canyon. And Karen Baum, the indie cinema star—we did a 24-hour play festival together…’” And on and on.

In my mind, I could see our table crowded with Pittsburghese Kaufmans and Parkers, Harpos and Hemingways, writers, actors, playwrights, filmmakers—a roomful of banter and revelry, effortlessly sharp, celebrating the artistic life together.

“We should call it the Rahnd Table,” Dan offered.

Because in the Pittsburgh dialect, “town” becomes “tahn,” and “down” becomes “dahn,” and “round”—naturally—becomes “rahnd.” A joke that only a Western Pennsylvanian would get, right away.

We have met, like clockwork, every two weeks in Bloomfield—for seven months. We have written hundreds of pages of original prose. Each story has delivered us from the grim fog of Pittsburgh winter—to small-town New England, to South Oakland tenements, to the Arctic Circle, to the islands of Southeast Asia, to haunted houses, gas stations, secret libraries, dark public parks, dance clubs, police stations, and caverns. Our characters are cops, criminals, slackers, nurses, thugs, revolutionaries, retired football heroes, deadbeat musicians, and (yes) writers. Like oarsmen in a great galley, we row in tandem, and our ship pulls forward—slowly, but at least it moves. We have each passed a halfway point. We’re making noticeable progress. Soon, maybe sooner than we think, we’ll have completed first drafts.

Meanwhile, we have our rituals. We send new chapters by email. We read them in private. Dan always prints out hard copies. Everybody offered criticism, and everybody receives it. We finish with a shot of Jack Daniels.

At our new location, a restaurant buried deep in Bloomfield, the bartender always smiles when we appear. He asks how the workshop is going. He asks about Nate, whom he calls “Nate the Great.” He’s never said so, but you can tell he looks forward to our arrival. Our mysterious club in the back corner, gushing stories like it’s our job.

A few months ago, I ran into Jessica Simms. We were in the Chatham MFA program together, although we never shared classes. She is good-humored and sweet and packs a lot of chutzpah. I invited her into the group, and she came the next week. She’s writing a novel about a clandestine league of immortals.

“Perfect,” we exclaimed, when Jess explained the plot. “You’re in.”

In December, we hosted our first “writer’s retreat.” We booked two motel rooms in Crafton, just outside of Pittsburgh, near the airport. The environs are bleak and empty. Our windows overlooked a parking lot, then a fence, then more parking lots. But the rooms were adjoining, so we opened the doorway between them and moved freely between the two spaces. For 50 hours, this became our clubhouse. We needed to escape daily distractions. We typed for two full days and much of the nights. We went to a roadhouse down the highway and played pool and talked about favorite books and movies. We stayed up late and played dice games. Laptops snapped open and snapped closed. The air was frenetic with clicking keyboards.

Every now and again, one of us would turn serious and say, “Do you think I should introduce a new character?”

Or: “What’s another word for ‘melancholy’?”

Or: “Should the bomb go off in the car, or in the building?”

When we parted, I felt as if weeks had passed. Our two adjoining rooms had had the effect of a submarine; without sunlight or hourly rituals, time had been meaningless. In only a couple of days, I had written 17,000 words.

My favorite artists are the social ones: Kerouac and his buddies weren’t just contemporaries, but friends who hung out. Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin were lovers and drinking buddies. Michelangelo and da Vinci were deeply personal rivals in a literally walled city. T.S. Eliot was friends with J.R.R. Tolkien; Van Gogh had a madness-inducing friendship with Gauguin; Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino were friends, fellow philosophers, and political activists; Truman Capote paled around with Harper Lee; Samuel Beckett used to drive Andre the Giant to school each morning; Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace were close friends and bitter rivals; Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Depp became friends during the filming of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and it was Thompson himself who shaved Depp’s head—and so on.

Writers can work alone. Whatever puts out great words, let them do it. But off the page, the gregarious ones captivate me most.

We have no idea what will happen to our little group. We have thought about “going public,” inviting new members (our latest is Joe Castellano, a former student of mine). But how much can we read in a single week? What is the tipping point? Even the Algonquin Round Table got crowded after awhile. Could we sacrifice ease and comfort in order to make ourselves official—to plant seeds for Rahnd Tables all over the city? Isn’t that what McSweeney’s did? Didn’t the Beatniks have offshoots and imitators? Couldn’t we start a movement?

For now, we’re just a bunch of friends with a common interest, a talent for writing, and a genuinely crass sense of humor. For some of us, the daily grind has nothing to do with our principal passions, and the Rahnd Table is a kind of group therapy—Scribes Anonymous, if you will. We may not make headlines with our latest witticisms; we may not contribute weekly postings to The New Yorker. Our novels may take months more to complete, after a minefield of crises and panic attacks. But the group persists, against all expectations. And whatever is said or done, the Rahnd Table has become writing at its most pleasurable. In daily life, we are obscure. But we’re famous in Bloomfield.