Pamela Lu is the author of the books Ambient Parking Lot (Kenning Editions, 2011) and Pamela: A Novel (Atelos, 1999), as well as the chapbook The Private Listener (Corollary Press, 2006). Her writing also appears in the anthologies Bay Poetics and Biting the Error, and has been published in periodicals such as 1913, Antennae, Call, Chain, Chicago Review, Fascicle, Harper's, Mirage, Poetics Journal, and Tinfish. She grew up in Southern California, and now lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area.
"What I love about Lu's work is her sharp wit, subtle delivery and deadpan hilarity, which you have to slow down and listen for in order to fully appreciate. Thus, parked, I listened."
-Jai Arun Ravine, Lantern Reviews
from Ambient Parking Lot
One day as we played to a mixed crowd at a neighborhood street fair, we were interrupted by the noisy rattling of a chain-link fence. A gang of young toughs from the university jumped over at once and challenged us to defend our manifesto. When we tried to ignore them, they grew rowdy and aggressive, shouting aphorisms by well-known theorists until we were forced to lower our instruments and rebut them on the spot. After fifteen minutes of heated insults and throw-downs, we exchanged solemn handshakes and agreed to settle our differences through a civilized debate in the graduate studies hall.
Over the next week and a half, we crammed incessantly for the academic showdown, absorbing Cliff's Notes on critical theory and combing through select papers. With nervously churning stomachs, we copied out flash cards of key terms and concepts, quizzing one another intensely under conditions of mock interrogation. To camouflage our ignorance, we cultivated agile speech patterns and compiled an arsenal of quick-witted comebacks. We studied video footage of the great Oxford debates, taking note of the clever ploys and rhetorical sleights of hand that could be used to impress and intimidate. When the fateful day arrived, we strode into the hall ten minutes early, armed with crisp cheat sheets and dressed to the nines.
The auditorium was packed with an assembly of our supporters and detractors. At the back of the room were the undergraduates, all of them young and green, a few wearing concert T-shirts from our tour, who clapped and cheered when we entered. The middle rows were filled with a loose conglomerate of stone-faced doctoral candidates and their hipster counterparts, while the gentle men and women of the press occupied the ringside seats with notepads in hand, ready to memorialize every pea-brained remark and scandalous slip of the tongue. Looming in the wings were scads of curiosity seekers and at least one Nobel laureate. Our student challengers were already onstage, sitting behind an oblong table equipped with detachable mikes, scowling and spoiling for a fight. Sauntering up the aisle, we took our seats behind the adjacent table and whisked off our dark glasses.
The rules of engagement were simple: five open-ended questions posed to each team in turn by the moderator, with time allotted for rebuttals and a free sally of retorts. The winner would be determined by the audience through popular vote. In addition to notepads, pens, and half-pints of water, each team was supplied with a faculty advisor-a tenured professor with a keen interest in the issues at stake-who would offer guidance and intervene if matters got out of hand.
The sponsor for the opposing team was a living academic legend, a cheerful, strapping fellow in horn-rims who had emerged in the late 1980s as something of a teenage prodigy and penned the first draft of his dissertation in just twenty-five days. Since then, he had published numerous influential screeds on mass media and popular culture, along with a series of pocket-sized pamphlets that disseminated his theories to professionals and laymen alike. He divided his time between Los Angeles, New York, and Tel Aviv, where he assumed a variety of guest teaching positions and had, it was said, a satisfied lover in every port.
By comparison, we balked when presented with our own advisor, a severe, beaky-nosed individual who was all tics and twitches, dressed in an ill-fitted tweed suit that left his gangly wrists exposed. The gawkiness of his demeanor, however, belied his shrewd mental powers. We were pleasantly surprised by the breadth and relevance of his credentials: he had authored a well-respected monograph on "Information Architecture and the Cultural Capital of Attention"; he had received a Pew grant as well as a MacArthur fellowship for his enlarged photographs of shoppers strolling the aisles of American supermarkets; and one of his poetic shopping lists had been nominated for a Pushcart prize. When he spoke, his awkward features coalesced into an appealing whole and his ideas flowed forth with astonishing eloquence.
With the rapping of a gavel, the debate began. We fielded the first question deftly, thwarting our opponents' attack with solid arguments and spirited rhetoric. The mixed response-some heckling and some applause-signaled to us that the skirmish had resulted in a draw. In response to the second question, we picked up our instruments and played a downtempo acoustic version of "Ambient Parking #25." The entire assembly fell silent and looked on raptly. Our loyal contingent swayed in time to the languid beat, and when we lifted our heads at the end of the performance, we saw a soft cloud of dreamy smiles materialize in the audience, obscuring the frowns of our detractors.
After a moment's delay, our challengers sprang back to life, flinging down their pens and accusing us of "drugging the masses with sound-derived opiates." They lambasted our technique and denounced our aesthetic. Finally, they leapt to the front of the stage and unfurled a gigantic swath of white butcher paper. The scroll was entitled the "Arc of Cultural Production" and presented a timeline of cultural milestones in black with a thick stroke of red ink above it. This heroic bloodline soared through the centuries, periodically dipping and then surging up again during the Crusades, the Renaissance, and Romanticism. It peaked around Modernism, which also marked the first of many schisms. After this, the red line fared poorly, fragmenting through Postmodernism and the Death of the Subject until it smashed head-on with Identity Politics and Revisionist Critique. Here the graph broke off abruptly and the carnage resulting from this late cultural collision was pushed discreetly out of sight, somewhere past the boundaries of the scroll.
At the far end of the graph near one of its steepest ravines, the student dogmatists now drew an offshoot line, around which they sketched a cluster of contemporary movements, enclosed in misshapen bubbles reminiscent of tumorous growths. With surgical precision, they located and identified the Transparently Self-Serving, Delusionary Radical, Unforgivably Inane, and Prematurely Triumphalist. At the center of this diseased area, they placed a sickly green dot. This speck, they claimed, represented the full range of influence that we could realistically hope to exert on the greater culture with our music.