When McSweeney’s Publishing released Nick Hornby’s Songbook, a collection of essays written to, from, or about songs, it did something brilliant. On its website McSweeneys.net, it invited its readership to submit personal essays on songs that had a lasting effect on them. It was brilliant because it allowed individuals to actively participate in the release and promotion of the book by asking them to write something personal and genuine. They published probably fifty of these essays, so they must have received at least a thousand entries. Songbook is beautiful in appearance, resembling one of those multi-track tapes from a recording studio (I have no idea what it’s called.), but there’s really nothing special about the essays. Nick Hornby’s brilliance wasn’t in how he wrote the essays (although he is a remarkable writer) but that he thought of this idea and the creativity it inspired. It’s no coincidence that this book is almost impossible to find in its original, hardcover form.
Not every McSweeney’s website venture actually works. Here are some that do:
The ones that don’t? How about every single one with the word “Dispatches” in it. I couldn’t stomach these at all, because they all thought they had to be so jokie, and all they ended up being was a bunch of self-promoting (by the writer) slobber and very little that was interesting about the places these people wrote from. Also:
Could someone give me half a break with this guy?
One of the Dispatches is written by my friend and writing mentor, Robin Hemley, who just released a book called Do-Over! In which a forty-eight-year-old father of three returns to kindergarten, summer camp, the prom, and other embarrassments. I love the book so far, mostly because it’s about way more than the reactions of those who bore witness to Robin’s do-overs, but what Robin was thinking and the conclusions he came to while he went through this all over again.
I also love it because, like Songbook, it is making me reflect on the things I would do-over if I could. Robin has a really nice website: http://robinhemley.com/, and he gave away copies of his book to some of those who submitted their own do-over stories. The promotion is over, but he needs to do it over again, so the book is continuously in people’s thoughts. He needs to McSweeney’s this thing.
So you know what’s coming next. Here are six of the things I would Do-Over! if I could:
The Buff Puff Disaster
My father was always very sensitive about my acne problem during my teenage years, so at a particularly pimply time during my senior year of high school, he went to the store and bought me Buff Puff, a soap and scouring pad combination that was to cure my acne problem. What actually happened was that when I used Buff Puff, it broke open every pimple on my face and spread the disease all over my face to such an extent, that I actually had zits on top of zits. Honestly: I would lean over the bathroom sink to pop my zits in the mirror, and I felt a popping within one of the giant pimples on my chin. Yeah. It was so bad that the guy with the whitest teeth and worst acne in my English class that year, Joey-something, was like, “Jesus Christ, dude. What happened to your face?” I did not attend my senior prom.
Paul, Theresa, and Pearl Jam
When Pearl Jam came to New York City for the first time, they played a concert at the Limelight with The Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Smashing Pumpkins. I had a ten-dollar ticket to this show, but gave it up so I could hang out with Theresa, my girlfriend at the time, in her bedroom. It was totally my choice, as Theresa kept telling me to go – probably wanted me to go – but all I wanted to do in life was to be with her. I called my friend Paul, who had my ticket, and told him to sell it for me. He was incredulous, but sold it – probably very easily, too.
There was this traumatic snowball-throwing incident, where my little brother Jeff ended up pegging a van that passed by our house when we were kids. The van contained every slime ball, dirtbag, drug-user (it seemed) in our neighborhood, and they got out of the van and held us hostage in our own house until my mother came home from work. It was terrifying. Later, the drug-dealing henchmen sent a kid named Chuck Markey after me in the halls of Connetquot High School. He confronted me and landed two punches to my face, knocking my glasses off. He walked away without my having retaliated, and Vinny Colandrea, who was at the locker right next to the face-punching, said to me, “How could you just stand there and let him hit you?” I walked into Shydo’s empty classroom, closed the door behind me, and cried like a baby in the dark. I used to be friends with Chuck Markey, and I remember the day his little sister was born. We were in Mrs. Haude’s (pronounced HOWDY) homeroom in seventh grade, and Chuck came in with chocolate cigars for all of us. Today if I saw Chuck Markey lying in the middle of the road, I would make road kill out of him. I still might go and find him someday.
I used to work at an independent home improvement center called Long Island Paneling in Centereach, New York. I loved it and hated it there, but mostly loved bolting a homemade basketball hoop and backboard to a pallet, then lifting the pallet with the forklift, and playing in one of the aisles while the customers looked for one of us to help them. We played every day until we were sopping wet with sweat and we couldn’t find any more oxygen. During one of these games, my brother Billy started ripping apart the reputation of yet another one of my girlfriends. He always had this strange jealousy whenever I had a girlfriend. He used to knock the books out of Lisa Ciavatta’s hands in the hallways almost weekly. He hated Maureen Horn and he hated Theresa. I had had enough of the shit about Theresa, so I attacked him. My best friend, Dave, who also worked there and for whom my second son is named, stepped in and tried to pry me off of Billy. Before he was able to pull me away, I kicked Billy in the face, opening up a gash on his forehead that rained blood everywhere. It is the most significant regret I have and will ever have in my life, and I will not forget it until the day I die.
I have been the Best Man at two weddings in my life. One of them was Brian’s, and I drank so much that night that I rested my face in my plate of food at the dais. I was a complete and utter embarrassment, and I lost Danielle Gallagher because of it.
Batters Hitting Left-Handed Off Me
My father used to think, falsely, that I was the best baseball player on any of the teams I was on. He coached my teams for most of my life, and he always made me pitch, because he wanted me to be the best. One of the leagues he coached me in was a fall league that featured really great players I had only heard of in playground legends. My father put me on the mound against the Lassen’s team, and they batted me around so thoroughly, that they began to hit left-handed (their off hand) the next time through the order. I pretended that I thought it was funny, because I was insecure and always beating myself up back then, but it has always bothered me that I let them do that to me. If I could face those douchebags one more time, there would be broken ribs.