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I once spent a night in hell.

Before I go any further, let me assure you that I don't mean I went on a date with Mr. Scratch to the Ninth Circle DIScotheque on Ice so we could enjoy the tuneful song stylings of Fillippo Argenti and the All-Mud Damnation Alley Chorus.  Neither do I mean that I had an out of body experience during my recent medical unpleasantness; no, the only white lights that I saw in the operating room were the huge ultraviolet units overhead so my surgeon could get an up-close and personal look at the lumps of solidified cholesterol and bile that damn near killed me.  I don't even mean that I've had a vision of the fate of all of us non-evangelicals when we join John Cleese's Norwegian Blue Parrot in pining for the fjords.

No, I mean something completely different.  It involved procrastination, too much caffeine, and the tuneful song stylings of an artist who came surprisingly close to being drafted to perform at a local university thanks to a waggish cartoonist for the campus newspaper.

It was sometime in the spring of 1981, just before midterms and what promised to be an enjoyable Spring Break at my friend Shoshanna's house in East Strip Mine, Pennsylvania. I had one more paper due, for an English seminar, and since I was an English major who had long since mastered the rituals of the great deity Procrastinata and her lithesome kouroi Omnus Noctes  and Kokakolous, I had little doubt that a few hours' solid work would sufficient to churn out an acceptable sacrifice for my learned instructor.  

In this I was correct.  I had done all the necessary research for my paper, which was possibly on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or some other easily mined medieval text.  I'd already outlined the paper and chosen the necessary quotes, and if I'd spent perhaps more time than I should have reading the latest selections from the Science Fiction Book Club than I should have, I had no doubt that my mad writing skillz would be up to the task.

And so I sat down the night before my paper was due, outline in hand, a small bottle of the sacred wine of Kokakolous ready to hand, and started to type.  It was only supposed to be a 5-8 page paper, on a poem that I'd read several times and thoroughly enjoyed.  I had everything I needed.  I'd already written the paper in my head.  It should have been easy.

Every writer can (and, God and the angels help us, will, at excruciating length and in lavish detail) natter on length about that most dreaded of conditions, writer's block.  This crippling disease, which strikes even the most skilled among us, is about as enjoyable as being strapped into an electric chair and be compelled to watch as one's entire Netflix queue is replaced by reruns of Apple's Way, blooper reels from Tammy Faye Bakker and JM J. Bullock's talk show, and the five hour director's cut of Heaven's Gate translated into Navajo with Wendish subtitles.  

When I say that a root canal would be preferable, I'm not exaggerating all right, all right, I am exaggerating but you get the idea..  Writer's block is awful, and thanks to a combination of overprepared, short on time, and hopped up on way, way too much caffeinated liquid of the cold and sugary persuasion, I had a whopping case that cool spring night.  

Page after page was begun, torn from the typewriter, and sent sailing toward the waste basket…curse after curse erupted from my lips…bruise after bruise broke out on my forehead as I banged my head against the keys…

Nothing.  For the first time in my life, I had nothing.  And if I was going to turn in my paper on time, that simply would not do.

Today I'd solve that problem by doing a load or two of laundry, going to the local diner for a piece of pie, or spending an hour or so on the Internet looking at pictures of adorable kittens, winsome puppies, cavorting baby oar fish, or Photoshopped pictures of garter snakes wearing cute little top hats.  None of those options were available in 1981; the Internet did not exist, I had no quarters for laundry, and I no intention of schlepping all the way into Florence in quest of an all-night diner.  I probably skipped ahead and wrote everything but the introduction, then went back and filled in the gaps, but I was so wired, and so frightened of blowing my deadline, that the exact means I used to gut out a paper that wasn't nearly as good as it should have are mercifully lost in the folds of my cerebral cortex.

Sacrifice of a goat or two may have been involved as well, but there are some things I won't share with anyone.  That includes my faithful readers, who will have to use their fervid imaginations to reconstruct that dreadful night so many years ago.  

Regardless of what I did to finish that paper, finish it I did.  I dragged myself downstairs around 2:00 am, exhausted but triumphant, to relax a bit with my fellow acolytes at the altars of higher education, several of whom were gathered 'round the hearth as they studied for their exams.  They greeted me kindly, we all groused about the unreasonable demands of our professors, and after about half an hour I was in a nice, mellow mood that involved plenty of yawns and a burgeoning inability to formulate a coherent sentence.

In short, I was tired.  Really, really tired.  And so I bid my friends adieu, dragged myself upstairs to brush my teeth, and then fell into the narrow metal-framed cots that Smith College laughingly called "beds."  My alarm was set for an hour before my paper was due, the paper itself was neatly typed and ready to go, and my room was dark and quiet.

And of course I couldn’t sleep.

Oh, I tried.  Dear God, how I tried.  Pulling the covers over my head for perfect quiet and perfect darkness…running through a particularly boring passage in a short story I was writing…I may have even tried counting sheep.  I changed position, shucked my nightgown, put it back on, fluffed my pillow, prayed, cursed, whined….

Two hours after I'd first laid me down to sleep, I was alert, awake, and so thoroughly frustrated I was ready to throw the !@#$@$!@#$ paper and myself out the window.   It was my first true encounter with Insomnous, the dark twin of Kokakolous, and as much as I loved to quaff the fruits of the latter, I was ready to belt the former with the nearest heavy blunt instrument until he'd buggered off so I would get some well deserved rest.  

I glanced over at the clock and uttered a despairing little wail when I saw the time. It was now close enough to dawn that I would get, at most, an hour or so of sleep before breakfast was served, the dormitory came to life, and I'd have to drag myself to my professor's office to drop off the paper, and then I had to pack for our trip down to East Stripmine.  The odds were excellent that I'd either fall asleep over my suitcase or go completely mad and strangle all my friends during the drive, neither of which was either necessary or desirable.

All I wanted to do was sleep, even for an hour.  That is why, in desperation, I turned on the radio in hopes of finding some nice, soothing classical or easy listening music that would calm me enough to go unconscious for a few minutes.

The classical station was alas playing a lively Baroque tune, so no help there.  The same applied to the rock stations (too loud), the disco station (too dancy), and the talk radio from New York (too political and/or too weird).  I gave the dial one more turn, to what I'd always thought of as an Old Fogies Station in Connecticut....

And from forth my clock radio issued the dulcet tones of a country legend who had come to dominate late night commercials, old timey radio, and even been seriously touted as a substitute act for the UMass spring concert....

The Incomparable Master of Song, Ottis Dewey "Slim" Whitman.

For those of you who don't remember this fine gentleman, Slim Whitman was an old-timey country singer of the "cowboy yodeler" persuasion.  His career, which had been in decline for years, was briefly revived by late night television commercials that featured snippets from favorites like "Un Paloma Blanca," "Indian Love Call," and "Rosemarie."  The commercials, which appeared to have been filmed in an empty classroom at a local community college on a budget of approximately fifty cents, cameraman included, led to Whitman enjoying a brief but real vogue; Eugene Levy parodied him on SCTV, his album sales skyrocketed, and a couple of his singles hit the charts in America and the UK.  

That may be why local cartoonist Danny Guidera, whose work in the UMass Daily Collegian was pretty much the only reason to read this otherwise worthless publication, decided to tee off on Whitman.  He spent the better part of my junior year lampooning Whitman in his comic strip "Nuke the Whale."   One memorable strip involved a local fraternity's "Slim Whitman Lookalike Party," where one ersatz Whitman ended up winning a prize for cracking a plastic cup during a yodeling run on "Rosemarie," and that was scarcely the only reference to the Incomparable Master of Song on campus.  Suddenly Slim Whitman was fashionable, and cool, even though he used Brylcreem on his hair (and possibly his mustache) and dressed like Conway Twitty.

The Slim Whitman craze culminated when Guidera launched a fake campaign to draft Slim Whitman to play at the UMass Spring Concert.  This was never really going to happen - the group had already been picked, signed, and paid long before Guidera decided that Slim Whitman was worthy of parody - but you have no idea how much I wish I'd bought one of the "Slim Whitman for Spring Concert!" t-shirts when I had the chance.

So it really should not have been a surprise when a rich country tenor that had only the slightest annoying hint of a quaver filled the room.  What was a surprise was that the DJ, one of Satan's own imps, that had chosen the following song to entertain his listeners:

If I could only dream
If I could only dream
Then only love could melt your heart
Yes if I could only dream....
And that was when I knew I was in hell.

This harrowing incident may be why the following book is one of my all-time favorites.  The author, who lives a few hours north of me in Vermont, is best known for her widely acclaimed graphic novels, but she learned her craft drawing a comic strip that is still one of the funniest, best characterized, most purely enjoyable things I've ever read:

http://www.goodreads.com/..., by Alison Bechdel - I first encountered the works of Alison Bechdel in the local alternative weekly, The Valley Advocate.  This otherwise forgettable publication, which was a curious mix of hard-hitting investigative reporting that was wrong as often as it was right, entertaining if not serious arts reporting, and hilariously awful personal ads of the the "Heavy ladies wanted for coffee date in Indian Orchard" ilk, ran two comic strips in its classified pages.  One was Matt Groening's "Life in Hell," which I also enjoyed (especially Akbar and Jeff), but the real jewel was "Dykes to Watch Out For."

DTWOF was a story strip about a group of lesbians and their friends, gay and straight, who lived near an unnamed university.  The central character, Mo, was a neurotic bookstore clerk who always wore a striped shirt, perpetually railed against corporate and political America, and stumbled her way through a series of romantic, sexual, economic, and cultural incidents.  She dined at places like vegetarian restaurants like La Lentil D'Or, scared the hell out of her friends when a chiropractic adjustment left her happy, energetic, and determined to read the French feminists while working out in the gym to get all buff, and once went on an espresso fast, complete with shaky word balloons (and a to-go pot of Sleepy Time when a co-worker found her slurping down the Kenyan premium beans instead of working).  

Mo was a true lesbian/progressive/feminist Everywoman, and I used to turn straight to the end of the Advocate every week to read the latest strip.  And it wasn't just Mo; her friends, like crusading lawyer Clarice and her partner Toni the CPA, Clarice's housemate Sparrow, Toni and Clarice's son Raffi (and Raffi's male role model, the oh-so-glam Carlos, who reacted to Y2K by stocking up on Versace Exfoliating Body Wash), and drag king/sex positive/recovering Lesbian Avenger Lois, were equally memorable.  

When I tell you that I'm straight, and I was married for much of the strip's twenty year run, but that I knew every single one of these characters in real life, I speak nothing but the God's honest truth.  Great writing, great characterization, terrific art - DTWOF was about as good as strip cartooning gets, and I was not the only person who was tempted to put on sackcloth, ashes, and a black armband when Bechdel put the strip on indefinite hiatus about five years ago so she could work on a graphic novel.

There were many, many memorable strips in DTWOF - one that stands out was a Halloween party where Carlos dressed as Sen. Larry Craig, complete with bathroom stall, while his boyfriend Daniel came as Albus Dumbledore - but my all-time favorite was also about insomnia, and what happens when you don't take proper care of your work.

The strip was actually not a strip.  It was a graphic novella included in Hot, Throbbing Dykes to Watch Out For, and it expertly interwove three plots:  

- Mo's burgeoning relationship with overeducated but alluring women's studies professor Sydney;

- Perpetual graduate student Ginger's efforts to finish her long-delayed dissertation; and

- A fundraiser at Madwimmen Books, the embattled local bookstore that had recently started selling adult novelties and erotica in an effort to ward off competition from big box bookstore Buns & Noodles.

The novella takes place over a few days, and between Lois and her girlfriend Babette (a feminist stripper who would be dancing at the fundraiser and donating her tips) field testing the said adult novelties, Sydney attempting to seduce Mo with dairy-free vegan tiramisu, a fundraiser attendee showing up in a startlingly realistic vagina costume, and Ginger's increasingly frantic efforts to complete her dissertation so she didn't end up as a twelve year ABD and perpetual adjunct, the result is pretty much the definition of "all hell breaks loose."  

The entire mishegaas reaches a climax the night before the fundraiser.  Ginger, who hasn't slept in several days, is frantically typing away on her dissertation, stopping only to exclaim things like "I'm an adult onset genius!"  Meanwhile, in the next room Lois and Babette are quality testing and comparing several new electronic devices designed to stimulate female pleasure of the sexual persuasion, while a few miles away Sydney is offering a delicious dessert to Mo...

And just as Babette is about to find out which of the two devices is better...

And Ginger is dreaming of blurbs from Alice Walker when her masterpiece is published...

And Mo and Sydney are about to kiss...

The power at Ginger and Lois's house goes out.

The next two panels, which are almost completely black, pretty much speak for themselves:

Babette:

Damn.  I was close.

Ginger:  

AAAAAUUUGGGGHHH!!!!!!!

Normal views return on the next page, when the phone rings in Sydney's apartment.  She makes a face at the interruption of her seduction-via-dessert but answers, only to hear the following shriek from Ginger:

"THE LAST TIME I HIT 'SAVE' WAS WEDNESDAY!"

I think any of us who's ever stayed up far longer than we should, or had a computer crash at the wrong time, or suffered from delusions of winning the National Book Award, can empathize with that last statement.

As for Alison Bechdel, she's become an even bigger cultural force than the Incomparable Master of Song.  Not only did DTWOF run for nearly twenty years,
Bechdel herself became something of an Internet celebrity; her "Bechdel Test," which suggests that good movies should include at least one scene where two female characters talk about something other than the men in their lives, has become a pop culture standby, and her blog is both popular and funny.

Best of all, Bechdel is finally getting the critical and financial recognition she deserves.  Her 2008 graphic memoir Fun Home, a book length saga about her childhood and her increasingly complicated relationship with her father, not only was one of Time's ten best books of the year, it was nominated for multiple awards (including the National Book Critics Circle Award for memoir/biography), won the Eisner Award for best reality-based work, and recently was adapted for a musical that's set to open at the Public Theater in New York in the next week or so.  

The follow up, Are You My Mother?, concerned Bechdel's relationship with her mother, and it's also received its share of critical recognition.  Bechdel herself now sits on the usage board of the American Heritage Dictionary, spent a year as a residential fellow at the University of Chicago, and just last year received the Bill Whitehead Award for lifetime achievement.

And if that weren't enough...just today it was reported that she might, just might be bringing back DTWOF.

Wouldn't that be a dream come true?

%%%%%

So...did you ever have an insomnia attack that had you dreaming of reviews by literary giants?  Overdose on Coke and stay up for a week?  Read DTWOF?  Patronize a feminist bookstore?  Dress as one of The Vagina Monologues?  It's Saturday night, so don't be shy....

%%%%%

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Oct 19, 2013 at 06:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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