Confessions of a Reluctant Startalian

It’s good to feel inspired, when you’re trying to write a book-type thing, or even a witty article or blog post, to achieve lofty goals. You want to think big. Like, what if you invented your own language? And made everyone speak it, and be goddamn grateful for the privilege? From truck drivers to hedge fund managers to teachers, road workers. and aspiring thespians? Too lofty, you say? Not so. It’s been accomplished by Starbucks. If you want Starbucks product, you need to speak its pidgin form of Italian. None of the planet’s 24,000 Starbucks are in Italy -- though I guess one’s finally in the offing for next year -- but that doesn’t signify. You can say you want a Grande, a Venti®, or because America’s a supersizer, now a Trenta®. Also a Frappuccino® -- about as Italian as a Big Mac, but the –uccino thing is clearly Italian flair. Or even a Fizzio™. (That one, name-wise, may be a bit of a misfire. It fizzles.) Lo these many years ago, when I first crossed a Starbucks threshold -- I’m in my mid-40s, so I can boast about a quarter-century of sporadic Starbucks patronage -- I had the innocence, the arrogance to resist. Not the drinks themselves (because I’ve always found the Americanos pretty tasty, I won’t lie) but the pidgin Italian. No, I said churlishly to my private self, standing in line, waiting to order. No. I will not do this thing. I’d been to Europe, and I liked it, but my thinking went: this isn’t Europe. This is an American caffeinated beverage chain. So when I got to the register I’d say something like: “I’d like a medium coffee, please.” I’d get a raised eyebrow and a rephrase for clarity, and I would nod stiffly. You may speak your franchise Startalian, I thought grumpily, but you will not visit it on me. Later, in the tempered wisdom of maturity, I’d come to recognize Startalian as a simple variation of McDonalds- or Burger King-speak, an upwardly mobile version of basic food-chain branding. I mean, would I stand at the register in Mickey D’s and order “one of those burgers with two patties?” No, I’d say a Big Mac. In refusing to say “Grande” I was suffering from petty reverse snobbery. But the truth is that when you’re ordering a Grande, and the lights are low, and the décor’s making a gesture at good taste, with furniture in dark veneer and sometimes sage-green or rust-red upholstery with discreet swirly patterns on it, and the chairs are comfortable, you do feel a certain elevation. You may have just pulled a long-haul all-nighter from Sheboygan, but here you are, speaking Startalian and, through your casual mastery of the lingo, acquiring a fine-tasting drug, in a vaguely opium-den setting, that’s also perfectly legal. There may have been a few naysayers back in the '90s, a few who dismissed the Starbucks juggernaut by lumping together liberals, lattes, and Volvos, but those days are past. Nowadays, citizens of any stripe will belly up to the barista and feel a little classy. Still, there’s a big difference between a Venti® and a Whopper®. And I don’t mean the ingredients. In taking fast-food language and décor in the direction of, say, high-fashion clothing emporia along Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive, Starbucks makes an overt appeal to our vision of ourselves as refined consumers with a taste for the finer things. And the finer things are European. Or pseudo-European. You may not feel you have the bank balance to shop for couture by some Italian designer with a shingle in Beverly Hills, but damn if you can’t treat yourself to a Grande -- every day, even, for 16 years. It’s a wallet death by a thousand cuts. And it feels pretty good. When you step into Starbucks, you step into the boudoir of the upper middle class -- or if you’re not there yet, your upper-middle-class future. Doesn’t matter that the beans and dairy arrive in mammoth trucks along the asphalt arteries of the nation: you have a brief illusion of sipping your poison in a surrounding of luxe, or as close as a global-chain coffee purveyor can come. Which makes Starbucks an ideal place to sit with your laptop, if you’re the aspirational type. Starbucks is littered with laptop-typists. Sure, locally owned cafes with non-branded beverages are hipper, but when they’re not available -- er, possibly driven out of business -- Starbucks can serve. Because there’s no inspiration sitting in a Mickey D’s. You’re not going to linger at a table there, beneath the flatness of bright light, surrounded by polymers in primary colors, listening to families squabble at the register over the kids’ sodas or whether they’re allowed to get large fries, and feel you may possibly be typing out a work of ascendant genius. Ditto for Burger King, Carl’s Jr., Wendy’s, etc. Starbucks has some food, that’s true, but the smell of fryer oil is not pervasive, and if there are kids around they’re likely teenagers, snapping pics of their misspelled names on whipped-cream drinks to post on Instagram. They’re too cool to argue and they don’t make much noise. Plus, coffee is thought fuel; burgers and fries are couch-potato fuel. All of this means that Starbucks adds up to more than location + coffee; Starbucks is a success model, far more so than the Golden Arches or its meat-marketing mates. Despite its food offerings, the place with the weird mermaid logo remains first and foremost a seller not of nourishment but of predictable, controllable rush. A rush that produces, a restaurant chain that produces -- not only coffee, but you. The green-and-white mermaid is a mythic figure, a styling of pure fantasy: and that’s the genius of Starbucks and its Startalian. Here you can become one with the furnishings and the product; here you also can embody a successful fantasy, a sheaf of straw turned into gold. You too can be -- if only while you linger -- a boutique idea, translated to a mass market. Image Credit: Flickr/poolie.

A Year in Reading: Lydia Millet

The funniest book I read all year was a book of poems. I didn’t expect to laugh, which is often the best way to embark on said activity, and then I couldn’t help it: Michael Earl Craig’s Talkativeness, which came out in 2014 from Wave Books, is both lovely and hilarious. I haven’t been so bowled over by a poet’s sense of humor since...well, possibly ever. Too often the poems that cross my desk seem like a word salad tossed almost entirely for a hipster luncheon at the We’re All Poets Club (a phenomenon Craig touches on, possibly, in a poem called “Perhaps You See Where I Am Heading”). Such poetry uses words like “diacritical” that are too lofty for the likes of me and tend to make the enterprise of poetry seem more like an intellectual pose than an access to the ineffable. But Craig’s book is clearly 4 All Mankind, as it says, just a tad ironically, on the label of those two-hundred-dollar jeans -- which isn’t to say it’s not subtle and idiosyncratic, because it is. I’m not talking Ogden Nash; Talkativeness is never cute. It’s full of wisdom and elegance and beauty, all those good things lined with a comic edge so sharp it made me laugh aloud (as I sat on an airplane this is a completely full flight beside a woman who held on her lap a very large deep-dish pizza). More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

Gather Your Acolytes About You: Advice for Aspiring Writers

Sometimes, like most storytellers with a book or two under their belt, I’m asked if I have any advice for younger or less experienced writers. I hope the following five tips can be of some assistance. 1. Exhaust other paths to earthly renown. Before you sit down to write, carefully ensure that a ticket to widespread adulation, or at the very least cultural relevance, is not more readily available from a more auspicious venue. Ignominiously fallen from its privileged position of yesteryear -- i.e., the days when electronic media did not exist -- the writing of belles lettres should no longer be considered an effective strategy for achievement of fame or fortune. Each potential alternative to this challenging and circuitous route should therefore be pursued exhaustively; a checklist can be a useful tool in the process. A few examples of superior options: Singer. Newly rich individual. Reality TV person. Naked blogger. Politician sexting victim. Politician. Tech mogul. Koch-brother style of oligarch. It is imperative, before you sit down to write, that none of these alternatives are available to you in either the short or medium term. 2. Rid writing space/home of counterproductive elements. Children and pets, ideally, should be removed, the former in particular. Pets may remain if silent/unmoving. Some plants may also remain, if watered by others/servants. Children must be extirpated. In special contexts this may be achieved on a temporary basis, but permanent elimination is always the safer course. As a writer, you will require absolute peace and tranquility to enable a singular focus on yourself, your train of thought, indeed your every notion or desire as such. Do not live on a loud street, nor should you abide among active and loud persons. Distressed or ill persons, like children, should not be allowed to persist in your vicinity. Side note: Also, avoid passing your weeks, months, or years in a state or region ravaged by crime, war, toxins of water or air, or highly infectious disease. Nations governed by autocratic rule are permissible, but seldom preferred. 3. Provisions must be abundant. Persistent hunger is anathema to the serious writer, much like civil strife. We recommend a fully stocked larder. We recommend, also, a well-furnished bar and wisely chosen selection of fine vintages. Poverty, whether inherited or self-made, is rarely a judicious choice for writers determined to express themselves and delicately hone their craft. Few among our thoughtful legion work well in a state of extreme destitution; there are only a handful of exceptions in recent memory, each one of whom is now, sadly, deceased. Cleave to the immortal rationalization of vaunted French scribbler Gustave Flaubert: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Indeed we would go further still: better, far better to be a bourgeois than to live like one. 4. Be no man’s wife/no woman’s husband. You may gather your acolytes about you, as a writer, and indeed you should do so expeditiously, for even a fledgling writer requires admiring readers as surely as a fragile ego needs to shore up strength. If you elect to follow the popular middlebrow path of academic writing, becoming for instance a poet/professor or fiction writer/professor, students can function well in this supportive acolyte role. Spouses, however -- unless secured in a permanent position of eager servility -- are not devoutly to be wished. Exceptions may willingly be made for an “art wife,” i.e. a domestic and professional helpmeet and facilitator of male creative output, but female writers should be advised that few, if any, “art husbands” have yet to be discovered in the annals of literary history. Thus we must counsel against the conjugal state in the majority of cases, and indeed against amorous entanglements of most kinds, which can be not only distracting but drain the serious writer of vital fluids/attention. Short-term encounters are best, in the event that human contact beyond the immediate circle of acolytes is wished. 5. Banish the critic from your mind. In our line of endeavor, self-confidence is de rigueur. Because of its often-solitary nature, book-writing, unlike the writing of comments on websites, the posting of witticisms on social media, etc., must be pursued, at least in part, absent the constant and daily input of our fellow humans. This, in any case, has been the traditional model. In this regard, two items are worth noting: first, a writer must banish the inner critic, that critical force that lurks within your own intelligence. An overzealous, naysaying mental habit is death to the production of both prose and verse. Second, banish the outer critic handily. Yes, there will be those who argue against the value of your work; ‘twas ever thus. There will be those who gainsay your genius, at various points; those, in publishing and reviewing equally, who turn their faces from the gifts you give. These unenlightened souls cannot be allowed to enter your mental world. Remember always that, as writers, we give because we must. We give, at times, despite the knowledge that our gifts may not be needed, wanted, or enjoyed. For us -- we must remind ourselves -- the joy is in that selfless offering. Image Credit: Wikipedia

A Year in Reading: Lydia Millet

Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, which I first read in college — doesn’t everyone? — and reread this year piecemeal, in five-minute snatches between bouts of chasing my children, did more concrete good for my way of reading than many other books. I realized, reading it again, how it had changed me; I saw at age 43 what it had done to me at age 19. Its form and its content were both revelations, back then — its form because it was beautiful and abstract and I hadn’t read much in that vein before that didn’t bore me; its content because I’d never before understood that love is more about its subject than its object. That may seem elementary to smart people over the age of 18, but it wasn’t elementary to me at the time: I lived in a longing, teenage-girl world of German and English romantic poets, with a little surrealism thrown in. With Barthes I could retain my romanticism, because of the beauty of his language, but also I could contain Freud, I could contain, for the first time, a knowledge of how my egocentric self made up its narrative arc of love, how desperate I was to love myself by telling a story about loving others. What Barthes also did for me, because I wasn’t versed in theory, was persuade me that I could read well without reading perfectly, that part of reading should always be failing to understand. I know now that whenever I read a book I believe I’ve understood perfectly, a terminal failure has occurred — a failure either of my imagination or the author’s. For reading to be successful it should know its own failure as it goes along, live with perpetual, familiar failure and see that failure shine. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Lydia Millet

Lydia Millet's sixth novel, How the Dead Dream, is coming out in January from Counterpoint; a previous book, My Happy Life, won the PEN-USA Award for Fiction in 2003. She lives in the desert outside Tucson, Arizona.I fell in love with a woman this year. It was a first for me and a novel called Jesus Saves is what did it - I fell in love with the author, Darcey Steinke. Jesus Saves was published in 1999 but I found it just this summer, at the back of a tiny library in Silver City, New Mexico, a town of roughly 10,000 souls where I spend my summers, and read it in a couple of dreamy, lying-in-bed days. There's a child being tortured in the book, which is painful, especially for someone like me, pregnant and with a three-year-old little girl. There's torture in there, and there's religion; there's sex and drugs. There's a lot of garbage, a lot of litter in the woods where teenagers sneak off to be sordid. There are also unicorns and rainbows, though they don't make you feel good. Finally it's deeply beautiful, beautiful in the way of some of Denis Johnson, maybe, or various poets. Also the author's photo, which you're never supposed to notice if you're reading books for the right reasons, was alarmingly beautiful, almost criminally, wrongly beautiful. All in all I fell in love. Since then I've read two of her other books. Still loving.More from A Year in Reading 2007