Monday, December 21, 2009

Immaterialism

Technology suggests itself. Persistently. The mechanism of convenience is primary. Again and again technology intercedes. As Don DeLillo has it, technology is desire removed from the body. Apolitical, amoral: technology suggests the possibility for perfection, a mirror that allows us to touch other people's reflections.

Internet shopping. Like catalogue shopping in the nineteenth century, the internet presents a shopper with the idea of a product: dimensions, weight, color and cut. With the help of pictures, one assembles the product mentally, tries it on, flexes, slouches, matches it to the other things owned and physically present. A conjuring act, internet shopping, in theory, is a more precise conduit to goods than physical shopping. You have to know what you want. Anything that suggests itself on the internet is junk. Who follows the pop ups and the automatic ads that show up in the in-box? Desire is central, in a way that may exclude a good portion of the conomy. Does anyone have room in their heads for the million small goods that hung on hooks or sat by the register? Internet shopping is essentialism.

On the otherhand, one can see the converse of Marx's theory: the central anxiety of the capitalist system is the separation of worker from product, the separation of product from consumer then is producing a new anxiety. One can read the story of the second half of the twentieth century as the story of empirical dominion. Everything on hand, everything seen. The rational moderns are morphing into semi-metaphysicians. Demonstrable laws produce invisible systems. The object disappears and a faith in reason is called upon. The product is bought in good faith that it will be delivered and match the measurements. This is more than faith in the honesty of strangers, it explains the fascination with Nigerian scam artists, the blatant come-on one can trust is too good to be true. Who do we picture tending the line when we click submit? And what pirates do we imagine raiding that line?

That anxiety also explains in part the rise in handicrafts. The reemergence of craftsmen goods, local foods, the handmade all place us in closer contact with the roots of production, the origin. Aside from dispelling problems of waste it instills a sense of old fashioned trust. What's next a return to the handshake in lieu of contracts?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Shame without Shame

 Nine out of ten frontier psychiatrists agree, the internet is only 1/4 real.  The parts that swirl around money, crime, and politics are the only places that have a true and calculated effect on the tangible world.  The rest is all intangible newness, a pillar of smoke doing impressions of Ricky Ricardo through Charles Taylor on its way to becoming solid.

The intangible pieces of the internet seem hinged on fulfillment of desires.  A better source for design inspiration, an endless tunnel of porn, a place to shout, a place to snark, a better way to stay in touch with family and friends. A portion of this intangibleness is hinged on the way the media used to interact with us.  

Censorship created a nest of odd desires. The arbitrary shape of certain slices and standards works like an inverted Tourrettes and manufactured some odd desires. The holy grail of a nipple, the strange cloisters of sexual performance.  The choreography of violence. The absence of true feelings and in all the total dismissal of difference and the assumption of agreement and conformity.  These absences provide for what I'll call the Chandler effect.

Chandler from Friends always seemed to be pulled through some abject horror.  His tone was acerbic and sarcastic, but the content of that tone was always bland, petty observations and his life was more or less fine. Yet the horror in his tone rang true.  As a viewer of late- 90's-00's sitcoms, one had already wandered through an odd conceptual landscape, the already buggered notion that every idea has already been done (don't get me started on the splatterhouse of Jerry Seinfeld's voice).  I like to think that Chandler, instead of simply replying to Phoebe's latest confession of anodyne quirkiness,  was in fact reacting to what wasn't there, what would show up a half-hour later on the evening news, what everyone else in the world seemed to be watching.  

The viewer fills in logical gaps.  Without thinking about it.  The characters on TV lead torturously abrogated lives.  Our brains fill in everything unseen and the unspoken.  In such a way TV interacts with our sense of normalcy, decency and perversity at the same time.  Depending on how willing we were to make the leaps in judgment that would allow us to believe that people act the way Chandler acted whenever he walked into a room, TV was interactive.  The interactivity was just subliminal.

The interactivity of the internet historically fulfilled the need for army bases to talk to one another should a thermonuclear attack wipe out phone and telegraph lines. But the mass appeal for the internet's interactivity is the direct result of that mute, one-sided TV interaction. The subliminal unsprung, the viewer unbound.  In the unconscious catch-all of American TV, the desire for normalcy was the viewer's true object.  Every show designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator, watched by millions and always pregnant with the notion that this was what everyone was watching.  And with family oriented programming, those among us with working imaginations, libidos, etc managed to back fill each antiseptic set with the nesting oddities of our unconscious drives. See the early years of South Park for the overture to the unhinging. Conversely, if the networks had decided to program porn, non-stop everyday, perhaps we would back fill the stories with our own impressions innocence, bathos and sentiment and feel flayed all the same.  Either way TV's basis of interaction produced a demiconsciousness that relied on the viewer's subliminal mind.  

Racing to the ever more liminal, our lives have come to include the unconscious of the collective to an unprecedented degree.  The internet today presents itself as an ad hoc system where individuals have the same thrall and power as multi-national corporations and governments. I wish to speak of systematic tendencies and not of scary end game prophecies (though I'm aware the template for non-affiliated internet essays is the conspiracy theory and so proceed with that baggage in hand).  There is a gigantic negotiation underway in the growing communities, one might hear the murmurs of Babel, one might see the outset of a multi-lingual means of communication.  As a friend pointed out to me recently, the use of extreme videos online is a means of communicating without words.  It is a way of effecting dialogue in an equalizing manner for those who do not come from English speaking countries.  It is also a way of bringing about quorum, if we can agree upon the extremes we can then move closer in.  

The internet as a system has potentially all other media as a reference point.  It is a place of rhetorical extremes, establishing a vocabulary based on new adjacencies. For the haves perhaps this could be called the creation of a flat language.   It is a vocabulary of search and discovery, skewed by the high prevalence and availability of material once defined as shocking or uncommon but that is now brought more and more into the semi-public discourse of online life.

We entertain ourselves now by questioning social mores with more and more of an acerbic and sarcastic tone.  We are Chandlers racing towards our epiphanic moment.  When this phase of the internet stalls and takes a final shape, when that last grandma watches Two Girls One Cup, and the rest of us grow bored with everyone else's sexual and social strangeness (i.e. when the next great platform arises and we forget or are distracted from this vein of thought) we will be left with a de facto system of American ethics.  Shame without shame because nothing is ever quite real until it is.    
 


Saturday, July 11, 2009

Cold War Solutions to Post Cold War Lifestyles

Not so long ago, it was difficult to find certain things: movies, art and music one with a collector's mindset might describe as rare. It is no longer difficult to find most things.

Part of the enjoyment of these rarities was the search. To feel rarefied, separate, clued in, unique, superior, elite. Not to be too reductive about the whole thing, because quite frequently the search was worth it. The obscurity was in direct proportion to the non-commercial value of the work, which in the end normally means it was at the very least thought provoking, if not enriching on an entirely separate order of magnitude.

It was expected among friends that when the subject of movies or music came up, you would bring forth some deep hidden gem for the group to gather round and love or hate or meh in concert. The discussions were what made it worthwhile. In bringing some piece or other to your friend's attention you could relive it through them, or you could think about it from a different perspective, or you could think about it for the first time and astonish yourself with an off-the -cuff critique, no part of which had previously existed in your head. It was great stimulation.

Now the game seems more to find a means of editing. The world arrives with unswept edges, expanding and center-less every time you open your eyes.  The search is still around, abrogated to a single fill-in field. But those accidents incidental to the search are far less frequent. Things no longer suggest themselves from the near-by aisle. The search queries are finite and described entirely by one's own desires. A great cubbying is underway, where people can pinpoint their own desires and follow them thoroughly through to the end of the day.

Francis Bacon's famous maxim about people finding the evidence that proves their own prejudices (paraphrased) seems to have inspired the design of the search engine. Momus has been discussing this phenomenon for a while and a number of web 2.0 folks have followed suit. The conversation has changed to one of assumption. Theoretically anyone anywhere can see anything at any time, so what's stopping you from downloading the collected films of Alain Resnais then commenting through the night on a Resnais discussion board? Technology has intereceded in the pattern of consumption. Aside from replacing the myopic denizen of the rental counter, it has usurped the follow up, the place for friends.

The conversation has migrated to platform. The frame is now more important than the art. Form is substance (or so some dialectical artists may have us think). The technique or design of the delivery is our common tongue. Platforms are the new popstars. They took the place of trends. MySpace traded out for Facebook traded out for Twitter (in the linear model of things). The problem (if there must be a problem) is that while we are capable of commenting on our lives with greater and greater precision (whether anyone reads those comments is another question) there is the persistent feeling that everything is intermediate. Erasure is as imminent as scheduled platform upgrades.  Try not to grow attached.

A Jogger

Let's say his name was Chip, or if not Chip something in the Chip family. The International Fraternity of Chips really missed out if this guy's name wasn't Chip. So a man, this Chip and certainly a man, runs. He looks like this is maybe the first time he has run. He looks like this is maybe something someone else has put him up to, this running. His form is awkward. He runs like he is continually trying to side-step out of his own gait, a rhumba-ish hip. 

Made even more odd by his hair. Well his hair, and face and skin. He has smooth, tan skin and an untroubled face.  Long salt and pepper hair tucked back behind his ears has come free and hangs over part of his face.  He is doubtless forty to forty-five. At the same time he is a teenager, a baby-face, a young 'un. His expression is somewhat clueless, though easy in that Chip-ish way. I don't know why, but he appears free of social phobias: friended, familyed, healthy. This jogging is his most complicated act.

An untutored jogger, a jogger trying to side-step his own gait. Looking both middle-aged and childish. Jogging not down Central Park West, but along the ridge in his own appearance.

Serious as Ice Cream

My mistake was walking down the path past the north end of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, by the hill where people like to sun themselves in full view of the Temple of Dendur. My mistake because a girl, maybe 8 or 9 years old, in a floral print dress was running and I was in her way. Up the hill towards the ice cream cart, perennially present and sold out of Rocket Pops by 3 pm on hot days, and I was in her way. A look passed over her face, brief but intense. A quarter my size, but she wouldn't hesitate to knock me over, to take me out. A look reserved for obstructions, normally accompanied by a growl. A look that eased into another look that reminded me of that line from the Armour hotdogs theme song, "kids who climb on rocks," like maybe she would just clamber over my useless self and rocket off my shoulders, drop first in line at the ice cream cart and sing a happy song on her way back to her parents.
But she swerved around me, up the path, allowing me to disappear.

A French Child in Crisis

He took the seat offered by a gracious commuter with imperious insouciance, as a matter of course, and proceeded to color in his coloring book, tsking and dolorous at the herky-jerky movements of the bus.  He colored-in a building and broke through to the sky with a bright yellow highlighter that his mother had handed him and showed his annoyance as his mother--still standing--bent and cooed over his seat neighbor, his younger brother.  
Then, a pot hole, a jolt so large he lost the highlighter and screamed, "Mama!"  

His mother, unmoved, still focused on the younger brother, left the act of retrieval to a man who stooped and lost his balance, teetering over and into the legs of his fellow office bound morning commuters. Momentarily like a dead crab, he righted himself, found the highlighter and handed it back to the pouting boy, who snatched it back without a hint of thanks.  

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Airport Fauna & Flora






From time to time I find I have exorbitant amounts of time to kill. This is more and more the likelihood whenever I fly.  I have been known to take this time to read or to create mammoth mixes on my iPod (my record is the 13+ hour mix I made for my flight to Beijing-- all solid gold, by the  way).  

There are times however when no amount of printed or sonic matter can keep me from pacing up and down the moving walkways or from slowly unthreading the broadloom carpeting.  At these times I am usually grateful for a travel partner to pull into my time lapse and then I am even more grateful for having remembered to pack my camera because it is at these times that I remember that the airport is its own ecosystem and it is good to interact with the natural environment. 

The animals in the pictures above were otherwise absent from my trip to Patagonia.  Thankfully the airport in Buenos Aires was shrouded in smoke from a nearby wildfire and so we got to rediscover the wilds of Argentina from el aeropuerto Puerto Madryn. 

  

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Subway Withdrawals

I no longer have to take the subway to work.  I can walk.  I can take the bus.  I can ride my bike. Or I can take a bus to the subway.  I now have an embarrassment of options. 

The walk is normally gorgeous.  Populated in the mornings by canines and their caretakers, Central Park takes me in.  The change in the seasons refreshes, but I switch up my path in order to keep it fresh, to try to lose the familiarity (which is impossible without allowing years to pass). A creature trying to destroy all habits, like a squirrel saving cigarette butts, is unnatural so more often than not I default down the same wide walks, hearing every morning that one dog who sounds like an alarm (Arooo, arooo, arooo-- in perfectly timed intervals).   

In the rain, I take the bus to the subway.  The populous bus, the fed accordion bending around wide turns. Quite. Out the windows: the city.  A more or less polite experience.  People seem far less likely to ____ you on the bus.  Fleeting, accessible bus.  

Just a few months away from the subway and I already feel like a foreigner.  Do I stand here or there? Underground the pressures build. Outside the windows: tunnels, darkness.  Inside the car someone let leak the hostility that comes with being trapped among strangers.  The subway is a case study in claustrophobia, paranoia, fear of the dark and agoraphobia all at once.  A body is weighed on the subway, measured and ignored all at once.  Swipe the Metrocard and submit. Or act out. People seem much more likely to _____ you on the subway.

That conditioning lies dormant.  The jostle, hustle and anxiety of it all.  The publicity of strap-hanging and anger management. Here we go, leg to leg with the rain-wet masses.  The unpleasantness creates its own range of desires, it's own moral compass.  Revisiting the subway makes me realize I miss it, like a retired cop misses his spot on the bomb squad.  That little touch of morning adrenalin as the cars clatter and screech.  People can grow accustomed to all kinds of unsavory things.  I miss the subway. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Page 117

"His soul crawled back and forth between Jesus and Mrs. Jones until he heard the roosters screaming."

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

"Armadillos Carry Leprosy"

Journal Review 1: Noon 2009, the Terse Fecalists

Terse, tough mini-stories populate the 2009 edition of Noon.  Shot through with common shades of brown, a number of the stories survey the scatological and pornographic. The good ones, and almost all of them were good, are abjectly unsentimental little blasts.  I'd like to pick up some back issues.  It looks like they keep a pretty firm stable of regulars from year to year, but the overall voice is refreshing.  The shortness of some of these stories makes the longer ones seem sentimental.  Captive moods and moments.  The stand-outs include Brandon Hobson (the title of this entry comes from his "Gas Station"), Tao Lin, Deb Olin Unferth, Rebecca Curtis, Clancy Martin, Christine Schutt, and Gary Lutz.

Christine Schutt's "Hair of the Dog" presents an interesting contextual ambiguity.  The couple progress through the story committing what seem to be decadent acts that go by undefined.  The reader has only the character's reticence to interpret what may have happened.  A sort of tantalizing vagueness that does a lot to summarize the sliding line of what's acceptable in society.    

Gary Lutz and Rebecca Curtis both make some interesting syntactical leaps.  Curtis's "On Rape" turns on the same satiric dime as Swift in "A Modest Proposal". Curtis's piece comes off with both ambivalence and sardonic anger.  Lutz (dealt with in atomic precision here) works with a kind of syntactic enjambment, forcing words into places they don't normally belong.  The result is either a brutalization of the word or an expansion of language (depending on the delicacy of your linguistic sensibilities).   

Well laid out, somewhat adventurous, Noon 2009 is a tight collection of stories. 


Moratorium: Holden Caulfield

I would like to here-by call a moratorium on all and any back cover copy comparing all or any characters to Holden Caulfield. That donkey is dead and the flogging of it will only bring it back to life as a zombie donkey.  As we all know zombie donkeys still eat carrots, are twice as stubborn as regular donkeys and are voiced by Charlie Murphy in their animated forms.  Okay, moratorium canceled in the hope of a zombie donkey renaissance.    

I mean book reviewers have a tough enough job, right? How else do you coax a gaggle of parochial readers into buying a book about a hermaphrodite or about a stranded wannabe infrantryman (who is also compared to Forrest Gump by another back-cover blurb)?   Maybe its the kind of marketing juju sometimes celebrated by giving the name of something popular (225,000 copies of Catcher are still sold a year?) to something else less popular.  Crystal Pepsi for instance bore no relation to original Pepsi (in taste, color or consistency).  

Or maybe not.  Maybe the best we can hope for is that dust jacket comparisons to Holden Caulfield are actually back-handed compliments or better yet code for the books ghostwritten by  J.D. Salinger.  Though, the more I think about Philip Roth's The Ghostwriter, the more I think he is one of the few writers to actively engage against the aura of Caulfield, Zuckerman performing the coup de fait of dual iconoclasm making a Salingeresque writer the reluctant lover of Anne Frank, an alternative reality Anne Frank who survived the war.   

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Stingy, Like a Critic

Karl Marx once said something about equality that you probable read elsewhere and if you haven't: shame on you.  

That thing he said, which you should know, extends to literary journals. Writers of short stories, submitters of novel chapters scour the shelves for suitable pages on which to push their projects, to gain a little notoriety, flash and pomp. Or to be dinged down by contrast: the sweaty new fiction sharing a spine with lauded masters.  This isn't to say that the lauded masters are necessarily better, but they are generally received better.  This is due to the lauded masters other works which you should all be familiar with and shame on you if you are not.  

Even if you are not familiar with their works, you are likely familiar with their names, always feeling guilty when someone asks, "Have you read so and so," and knowing deep in your heart that you haven't and may never get around to it you offer an ambiguous, "mm-hmmm," and nod your head vigorously at each of the ensuing comments.

So some writers arrive with cachet, a long running history with the reader that they invoke simply by publishing.  You know their work and love it, or hate it, or are ambivalent about it, but pick up the journal hoping to be won over or to say that finally and forever this bastard is dead to me.  But the journal is itself a grab-bag.  There are currently several trillion literary journals operating in the borough of Brooklyn alone (and that's not counting blogs, zines or blogazines), each full with the brow sweat and courage of the tromping literati. Yes the journals are manifold and as someone who has never been published in one I should mind my p's and q's.  But in the purblind infinity of America's slackening publishing industry where does one go for the true goods, for the levitation that accompanies reading something just plain fantastic?

Well I'm starting a project.  Over the next few weeks (months if I really get into it) I will be buying journals in bulk and scouring through them to look for 1) amazing new writers 2) amazing old writers I've never heard of (Goodreads.com has actually turned me on to at least one of my new favorites) 3) amazing journals.  My criteria for numbers 1 and 2 are the levitation effect I spoke of before (levitation can also just be an infiltration of my daily thought process).  For number 3 I'm looking for journals that will allow writers' voices to show through, that don't overpopulate the page (I long ago gave up on McSweeney's for this reason), that give new writers a fair shake and who don't let known writers sit on their laurels (I actually really liked what was going on in Jonathan Lethem's last New Yorker piece, Eva's Apartment, but felt a little swindled afterwards from the holes in the logic and Lethem's on-going relationship with cool-- no doubt if I had a readership they would have long ago left me for my own sciatic groaning and malformed logic). At the end I would like to present a good, serviceable list of journals and writers that I discover in the process and who I will then track and watch for development.  

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A Prehistory of the High Line






















Images courtesy of Michael Polizzi, blog czar, posted for the official opening of the High Line elevated park.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Barber Trust

Has anyone ever been seduced in a Barbershop?  Not necessarily even by a barber? 

Do barbers seduce? My gut tells me they get laid. They lay out money for a good meal.  They look dapper, make small talk with the object of their affection, then keep things thoroughly separate.  They don't shit where they eat. Horse sense?  Barber trust.

I shut up around barbers.  I shut down.  I lose track of my expression, my head the odd pinnacle of the mountain made of my caped, seated torso.  My face is there, solitary-- seemingly for study, somehow my eyes find a dead zone to latch onto-- a place to avoid his eyes as well as my own.

The barber trims. Men flip over pages of Maxim and Playboy.

A man in a white smock with hair on his huge meaty hands slips a digit through the stainless steel ringlet, avoiding the pinky handle while gingerly snipping the sharp metal about the locus of my sensory organs with sharp.  A bulwark of duty and lost styles, breathing slowly through the sides of his mouth.  The hair drops away and lands on my nose and neck, ants crawling on my honey-drizzled head, my arms irrevocable buried in the deep desert sands of the Mojave. Horror he defeats with a big soft black whisk brush.  Whisked away the brief torture after deliberating for a moment.    

"Why is a woman... like a condom?" A barber asked me once. "'Snip, snip.'" letting it settle, "'Snip.'" then lowering down beside my head and engaging my eyes in the mirror, "Bitch spends more time in your wallet then she does on you cock. 'Snip, snip, snip'"

Another barber, another time after taking clippers to my head directed a stream of bologna particles at the back of neck, blowing away the razor-loosened hairs.  Stuck, immobile.  Fixed by the barber's cape-- who gets up, outside of that one guy in Flannery O'Connor's "The Barber"--I'd spill hair all over the place.  But the breath and now his B.O., also bologna tinged, pressing in.  I breathed through my mouth, nearly suffocating in that man's lingering lunch.

The Russians seem to be the best.  Former boxers and ex-patriot military barbers, cutting hair on the border of the Ukraine and now living out in Queens, commuting into the city.  They use straight razors, unafraid of AIDS or other blood born diseases. They use scissors if you ask for a trim, leaving the clippers for those who want them.  They snip away silently, or if prompted, can tell you stories that aid their razors.  The boxer in Brooklyn informed me of the depradations of life on the amateur circuit in Moscow.  Bits of metal in the gloves.  Razor blades.  Fractured skulls. A manly seduction.  The leading truths or half-truths or invented histories that don't send a stray arrow through the place-- the clean, sober rule of the masculine game. Violence and its wending path to America, the family back in Queens, the soul's right to breathe.
  

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Anxiety That Comes from Drinking Too Much Coffee

While I'm not exactly anti-neologisms, I am suspect of them.  Since most neologisms are Greco-Roman style tongue wrestlers meant to clarify the more abstruse portions of contemporary theory (that sophist's pool of intrametaphysics--score!) they generally go the way of most academic language-- pressed between covers and shelved or breathed with dynamic inflection by the bright students of So and So U-- with thin chance of ever making it into the language proper to be abused by circumstances to fit new terms and conditions (deconstruction-- is the one example I'm coming up with right now). 

But what about words that can actually be used when the circumstance is presented? In Pale Fire, Nabokov's parody of academia, Kinbote coins the term irricule to describe a hole in a group of clouds through which light passes.  Yeah that Kinbote is one questionable narrator-- but way to nail the landing. Of course, Kinbote was created by a gifted multi-linguist, so I imagine the word may actually have roots in other languages (Mother Russia?), but irricule! ... okay try using it without feeling self-conscious, though. 

Then there was Philip Roth's attempt to enter the colloquy, Portnoy's Complaint (the dust jacket provided a handy Webster's style definition).  He was one of the many authors blown away by Joseph Heller's success in Catch 22.  Yep- Catch 22, Heller's invention, an entirely serviceable little phrase that works and finds use in day-to-day America.  That seems a bit like a one-time only trick, though.  Roth's attempt, while brilliant, proved that old hipster truism, that conscious exertion towards effecting people's behavior through example generally fails (you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him speak). 

Okay so new words are tricky, unless they come from say famous rappers or rise up from the bubbling crude of the internet. But those words, like new elements, have (or should have) a very short life span. That language is made to describe a moment and is dead once its novelty wears off. Fo shizzle. That's not to discount the endless fountain of argot produced from the street, euphemistic or analogous mostly associated with shady and dubious dealings (Dubious-- a theory exists that literally any word can be used as slang for pot-- look around the room and try it out, just make sure you say, "Hey, bro, you got any..." beforehand.) Neck and neck with the horrid utility sprach of corporate America-- the actionized nouns that germinate in MBA programs and get fed through the filter of officals to the uneducated lackeys (read: me) who have to cobble together some semblance of idiom from the linguistic equivalent of a manilla folder (that tongue shall not be spoken here). 

So how do the good people at Merriam Webster's continue to fatten their publication with solid, usable language? I was trying to think up a good single word that would sum up the title of this piece; caffeinabled, anxienated?  But it seems like good words can't just be those German style train car combos or Lewis Carroll type portmanteaus.  I like that Nabokov went for the sense of the thing rather than building a word from other words-- irricule just nails it phonetically.  How about the multiple movement of leaves and tree limbs in a steady breeze?  Sway doesn't really cut it for me there, there's a sort of a rustling rhumba going on-- yeah that tree is having a personal jam session with the wind, but can it be resolved down into a single word?  

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Infinite Egress

I have to admit it: if David Foster Wallace hadn't killed himself I most likely would not have picked Infinite Jest back up.  I had read the first hundred or so pages and expired -- I think I had just tried reading a footnote to a footnote on the dim A train while standing in rush hour traffic-- I returned it to my bookshelf and snorted not in this life pal (I eventually had to set the rule that I would only read the book at home to keep myself from getting too angry at it).

I can give myself at least enough credit to say that I was not re-attracted to the tome because of some swirling romantic myth about suicidal geniuses.  I wrote my senior thesis on Yukio Mishima and had enough of psychosis laden fiction to carry me into my senescence.  No I can say as callous as this sounds that what drew me back to Infinite Jest was the idea that there would never ever be another overly self-conscious 1000+ footnoted novel based entirely in the brain of very clever person.  The idea that David Foster Wallace was alive and well and producing more high-grade monstrosities comprised of authorial ego made me balk.  Having read Infinite Jest I can now say that my fear was unfounded. 

Infinite Jest is a terminal novel, a book built to exhaust its own conception so completely that anyone who dared to pick up any of its radioactively in-lit tropes would most likely be burned.  

Written in crystalline prose of exceeding vividness, the book proposes itself as both cancer and cure.  Contrived as an entertainment that requires the physical activity of flipping between the front and back of the book (as well as hefting its generous weight) it is meant to counteract the passivity in-built into our entertainment addicted society.  The irony of the conceit is that so much of Wallace's content is focused on addiction/recovery and behavioral control while he himself is wielding an almost unprecedented amount of authorial control over the reader.  The previously mentioned crystalline prose is no accident.  The novel is written in the Tolstoyan model: complete the image, deliver the picture, leave no letter unturned for the reader to fill in on his or her own. It would be near dastardly if  Wallace wasn't so ridiculously (and near-pathologically) self-aware.

Wallace is exceedingly contemporary.  No other writer I have read, including Don DeLillo, seems to have imbibed the present-day (of then 1996) quite so deeply as him.  Alloys, brand names, chemical compounds, ingredients, fabrics, polyresins, etc.  Wallace's writing is exact. His true passion is for precision.  He seems to pick up where Gaddis's use of the specialized language of the professional class leaves off (see G's A Frolic of His Own). The relentless contemporariness, self reflection and content elect this books as perhaps the first and last book of the Ultra-PostModern movement. Wallace's project was to convert the novel into a contemporary object, in the materialist sense of the word object.  A utensil.  

The list of ironies associated with this book is long.  Its uselessness is perhaps one of its most significant ironies. All of this vividness is used simply to light the benighted lives of its many characters, each physiologically, habitually or psychological predestined for addictive behavior. Completist and yes Maximalist, everything seems to transpire within this book while very little actually happens in situ-- this is where Wallace avoids the dastardliness of his control, the reader is invited to extend the amply quadrupled logic presented page after page to complete the far ends of the story and fill in gaps based on their reading. 

Wallace was without a doubt an architect.  My ambivalence for the book never fully lifted. I read dutifully, flipping ahead to remind myself that the end was in sight. And then it came, the end (which is no end-- this should not be a spoiler for anyone paying attention to anything happening in the book) and the book falls off the shelf and floats freely in my brain tying out its own little ends and keeping some of its own little mysteries, going about the business of completing itself and then I felt free-- free in a way of a giant weight being lifted  (pun intended?).  How can you rate a book that makes you feel so good to be done with it?  It is entirely Wallace's object and now that I am on the other side of I do feel the tragedy of Wallace's death.  

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Weight Bearing Elements

The city stands on its trees. In early spring when the stick straight bareness begins to pubesce and bulb the buildings lose their winter prominence.  The bricks still stack all the way up to the sky, but their middles are missing, replaced by freshly minted leaves.  Brown grey branches end in elegant pink and white tips. Old bikes cannibalized down to their naughty bits lay chained to iron skirted guards, like the last reminders of winter's inhuman appetite.  The skeletons of conquistadors lay wrapped in strangling vines, speared by tall grass a mere mile shy of the fountain of youth. 

How many people can pass the same tree and have different thoughts? Shel Silverstein aside, what are the trees of New York?  The New Jersey wetlands do more to scrub the air in New York City than all of Bloomberg's million trees ever will.  The trees are under control.  Frederick Law Olmsted planted Central Park with the idea of a romantic garden in mind.  The trees were planted purposefully askance.  The grid gone spaghetti soft.
 
The trees break the sidewalk. The trees count your steps. Your stride fits between trees. The trees seldom show ill-use, outside of the occasional restaurant permanently celebrating Christmas with a wending choke of white lights plugged in year-round or sycamore trunk bearing a purple graffitied initial. 

The trees give your dog directions.  The trees hold scarves, hats and pilates balls. They get shaggy with blossoms, perfume bloated to over-ripeness.  They mark the seasons and track the sun.  They bend around corners and flick you the bird.  They hold onto rain showers and continue to drip for hours after.   

Treehuggers and treefuckers (and bear fuckers) beware: New York City's trees bear the weight of the whole hag-ridden Western world.  

Friday, April 17, 2009

Tying My Shoes

Occasionally my shoes come untied.  I don't generally find this to be a desperate problem.  I've never taken to heart the admonitions of parental types and shoelace-gazers that I will be more apt to trip and chip a tooth if my shoelaces are undone.  I am perfectly apt to trip and chip all my teeth at any moment of the day, not the least of which is when my shoelaces are undone.  

But now I'm walking down a fairly busy street and I have to wonder if someone else might trip over my shoelaces and if this is liability.  I for one do not have insurance against such things.  So rather than going into the poorhouse (I wonder how many families have ended up in the poorhouse because of their shoelaces?) I try to find an appropriate place to stop to tie my shoe. 

The problem being that as far as I can tell every surface in New York City is in play and really why do human flies need to climb up the sides of buildings? There is no more vulnerable position on a busy sidewalk than the crouch.  In the crouch even toddlers can run head-first full blast into you and knock you down, take your wallet and giggle.  But if I decide to post a foot up on a near-by implement, say a hydrant, then I am also in this indefensible flamingo pose.  But there's really no other choice.  The shoelace must be tied and guard must be let down for the brief time it takes the rabbit to go into the hole and around the bend, etc.  

The funny thing is I can never recall seeing anyone else over the age of six stopping on the sidewalk to tie their shoe.  Is this the sort of he thing the mind just ignores and moves on or am I just the only adult who never learned to tie a proper square knot?  

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Blocking the Box


The city's rules are all plotted out in paint and light.  The city wears its own rules like a series of fading tattoos.  Driving, biking and walking in the city one quickly finds that the rules are more or less guidelines for idealized transportation.  Driving down second avenue, the lanes disappear. Occasionally dots and thin rules appear solely for the sake of confusing the motorist.  Then suddenly a gorgeous Sunday drive appears to your right, a road leading to verdant sun drenched canyons.  In New York?  Why not? Never mind that it's raining.  Cross two lanes without signaling and make that sharp right into paradise. When the subsidized firefighters arrive in a truck bearing a full-length video ad for Shrek The Musical you wake up just long enough to see that those hills were just a painted scene on the side of a green grocer (but how did those joggers and that guy on the recumbent bicycle get in there?).

The playground on the other hand has repurposed all of those lines and made hopscotch, and four square. Kids play red light green light imagining the unbridled thrill of stop and go traffic. The whole poisonous world dangles like a carbon monoxide piñata just out of reach and the collective thrill of imagining that it is indeed full of that strange secret energy that allows adults to take themselves seriously.  That juice that powers listening. A dozen red dodgeballs whiz across a single line drawn across the basketball court.
 
  

Monday, March 30, 2009

Panting Lines

There is a dog on every corner of the city.  Go out the front door and look.  One dog at least.  Rottweilers, Pitbulls, and Dobermen, alternating with Golden Retrievers, Yellow and Black Labs, Russian Wolfhounds, Greyhounds, Weimerauners, Burmese Mountain Dogs, Alsatians, Whippets, Scotties, St. Bernards, and Great Danes.  Bulldogs in rugby sweaters wearing derbies surrounded by defective pugs, long-haired schnauzers humping Pomeranians humping miniature pinschers.  A thousand poodles, spaniels, maltese, and terriers vanishing into chihuahua.       

They are there by dint of populist aggregate, by misplaced urges (parental or partner), by snowballing conformist compulsions.  They are there by desire-- people have chosen to bring dogs to the city at double or triple the human population  (or to match a quarter the purported rat population).  There is a brief period in the morning where central park belongs to dogs.  They are allowed off-leash between 6 and 9 on weekdays and humanity is proven secondary to caninity.  But now by dint of populist aggregate you can walk to your corner and grapple with a stranger's dog.  You can walk up to your corner dog, wrestle it to the ground and rub its belly until the legs kick with instinct.  Slake that brief flash of affection that would otherwise be spent hugging the pin oaks that grow from every sidewalk. You will notice that once you are satisfied and walk away feeling somewhat refreshed the dog will walk back to its designated spot: a perfectly painted outline of the dog where he or she will stand, sit or lay for the length of its shift waiting for the next person to walk by.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Arena Rock Death Cults of the 1980's Reprised

The age of arena rock irrevocably passed with the closing of the Cold War. It's a strange phenomenon, the culling of massive crowds into packed, over-heated and acoustically poor environments for the benefit of hearing a four or five piece band normally accompanied by some kind of pyrotechnic display and array of inflatable set pieces.  Whether or not this was the Me generation squandering the inheritance of Woodstock is beside the point.  The music was what it was and the people came by the boatload to experience it-- lit, high, twisted, garbage-fucked and skinned;looking for a lay or to fend off another dipshit hour riding the douche donkey to nowhere.  

It wasn't until I watched Live Aid 1985 in all of its un-glorious time-capsule-dom that I really saw what these spectacles were about.  The 80's mega-shows were all about megatons. Nuclear payloads.  The camera pans back and shows George Thorogood of all people playing for a swarming crowd of millions.  The concert itself, pulled together to bring aid to Africa gave people a reason to pay the entrance fee, but the concept itself is a pure symptom of the Cold War germ.  Crowds should gather.  People of like taste should stand side by side and lose their identity in the overwhelming superabundance of human flesh.  A dot entertained by the dots up there on the stage, trusting the face on the Jumbo-tron corresponds to the face on the stage. 

It was the last time that the population felt truly and horribly that entire swaths of civilization could be wiped out at a moment's notice.  Aids was also beginning to show its fangs around that time too.  It's difficult not to see a metaphor in Freddy Mercury's performance at Live Aid. Queens performance was hands down the greatest of the day.  It looked as if Freddy Mercury was the only person not entirely cowed by the unbridled multitude at his feet, that he was actually tapping into all of that strange feeling and ripping through his set.  But the multitude, the faceless crowd.  Freddy Mercury with his white duds, trim moustache, slicked back hair and stage hand in short shorts is the only one even marginally aware of the other side of the evening.  Having read Sontag's essay on AIDS and its metaphors, I do tread here lightly (though she wrote her book in a different climate as a form of political proscription, it is a bar set at an height for good taste).   If not as a metaphor then as a moment of imminent tension, of heightened unawareness: a man with a plague singing before untold legions-- some infected, most not.

The difference being AIDS, unlike death by neutron bomb, is death from incredibly intimate conditions.  It is in fact the polar opposite of death by neutron bomb (y'know as long as we're still on the scale of death and not talking about life-- which is the true polar opposite).  It changes the scenario of the untold millions cheering at Freddy Mercury's feet.  Suddenly they are people. They are capable of knowing one another.  They are bigger than the performance.  The crowd is in fact the true spectacle and the performance is only the slimmest of justifications.  In every other performance on the whole 16-hour Live Aid dvd set it is utterly apparent.  A crowd was found to dilute the entertainer's power.  The claim of over 3 million albums sold suddenly seems just that ludicrous as Phil Collins takes the stage before a crowd 82,000 people. 

The population of the United States labored from the 50's-80's always carrying at least an iota of the notion of mutually assured destruction in the backs of their heads.  The massive concert was a singular way to allow people to be together, to be a little less anonymous and to blow off steam. That system lost its meaning in the 90's.  Take the example of Woodstock II: a corporate re-imagining of that first far-away festival with $3 water, mud, and industrial music. It's little wonder rioting broke out.  After the threat of nuclear annihilation has passed the idea of bringing together thousands of young people suddenly seems like less of a good idea.  The parenting practices of the generation raised under the bomb suddenly seem built on sand.  The idea of living everyday for yourself and yourself alone--once the romantic mantra of the lost generation-- is suddenly shown as corrupt.  The public yearning for YTK, the millenial cults and suicide pacts were all symptoms of the vanished germ.  Some people didn't want to get well. Some wanted to crawl back into the Cold War as the force that brings meaning. So we got the last administration...    

The Freedom Cocksmoke Ltd by Mike Lyon

Houses seen from a train window reveal their private nature.  An unfinished expansion stapled over with plastic.  A dismantled car, rusting, unidentifiable make, some long forgotten pet project.  Garish plastic playground furniture.  Birdbaths filled with mud.  Sequestered behind high fences, hidden from the neighbors; the train passenger is afforded a special glimpse into the quiet, pathetic moments in the existence of a house.

Graffiti changes from town to town.  Underpasses and corrugated metal retaining walls burst with beautiful color here, suffer beneath shitty monochromatic signatures there.  Some towns clearly house artists of a finer caliber: discreet shading, gorgeous goofy characters, clever koans in mock typeset.  All glimpsed in the fraction of a second.  Absorbed, forgotten.

The forests are never beautiful.  The train tracks act as a magnet for the limitless junk littering the edge of the wilderness.  Discarded folding chairs, suspect barrels of ...? plastic cups by the millions, a crushed laundry basket, a Connect Four game board.

There must be a whole race of weird itinerant trash haulers, bundled in limitless layers of mismatched clothing, wandering through the woods, weaving close to the tracks in a perpetual sine wave, arbitrarily depositing refuse that overburdens their gargantuan rucksacks.  They all wear goggles, invisible if they want to be, mostly nocturnal.  It's no wonder you've never seen them, but they exist--who else would abandon that big red beach ball in the middle of nowhere?  The Trash Nomads played with it.  They tossed it in the air, jogged comically to bump it up like a volleyball.  They laughed and clapped sarcastically when it got stuck in a tree.  It was a little too pretty for them.  It made them depressed about their lifestyle choices, so they left it on the edge of the woods by the train tracks, so you could look at it.  

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Why a Man of Ordinary Intelligence Would Want to Sit at Home and Spit His Strength Away Is a Wonder, but We Americans Do Some Foolish Things

Friends: a century ago our forefathers put together a set of city ordinances banning the practice of spitting in public.  Yes anti-expectoration ordinances had manifold purposes in the eyes of the city fathers, public health officials, women's clubs and urban leagues. From the dawn of city planning when civic beautification was tantamount to moral beautification, spitting has been considered anathema to the public weal.  

Chawl spit stains paths. The trains of goode ladies' dresses dragged through the tobacco muck spouted from the men of this fair towne.  The microbe rides the sky to the mouths and noses of young children from the same brown tobacco sludge. 117 US townes and cities enacted anti-expectoration ordinances after Asheville, NC started the whole thing off in 1898. New York and Chicago were included in this number.  

Once the ordinance passed the police found cause to make arrests and hand out tickets. Strict enforcement of the law gave cause for small local uprisings. Keeping the men indoors to do their spitting proved too much of a burden for housekeepers and resulted in several lawsuits. But overall the reasonable enforcement of the law resulted in a drop-off in public expectoration.   

In Singapore the act of spitting, jaywalking and littering are punishable offenses.   The spitting law has been on the books since the 1900's, like in the US.  Its enforcement was heightened in response to tuberculosis and SARS outbreaks. First time offenders can be fined up to $1000.  MSNBC  breaks out some of the standard arcana of Singapore's civil codes.  In South Africa kudu dung spitting is a sport (other fun facts here).    

In NYC today spitting seems to be reserved for joggers, men and women with smoker's coughs, people with over-active pituitary glands, or autistics with temporal lobe epilepsy and the practice of chewing tobacco is relegated to lawyers, business mean and professional baseball players (and all except the last resign their spit to 7-11 Big Gulp cups).   Anti-expectoration leagues of the past, victory is yours.  

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Nonexistent City

This morning on the subway I saw a messenger bag printed with an image of old trolley tracks on cobblestones surrounded by and disappearing under asphalt. I thought: beneath this city, there is another city. We live in one city, not entirely different from the one that came before, only partially plastered over it. However, many still live in that other, nonexistent city.

An old lady gets on the bus slowly and says, at the top of the steps, "Bus driver, live while you're young. It only gets harder." Once settled, she starts talking about elevated trains. "Driver, you're too young to remember them. We had them on second, third, and ninth avenues. I rode to work along the ninth avenue line, at least until ninety-sixth street."

In that city, with its trains rumbling overhead, she moved freely. Here, in the existing city, she stands up anxiously and the bus driver tells her, "We're not at forty-third yet." She says, "We're at forty-fifth." Him: "There's traffic. Sit down. Take a load off."

She obeys. As she leaves the bus, she moves so slowly. The bus hydraulics sigh, lowering the bus down. We all hold our breath, imaging the fall, the bones broken, the woman lying in a pile, never to heal again, if even to live. Then, with intense focus, she alights and our watching minds kiss the ground that steadies her. Against a seething crowd, she moves as if blown by a breeze, held up only by her orange knit hat. She moves in this new city that is exiling her into its nonexistent quarters.

Her body does not fail her because of its years. It fails her because the air has changed, and her lungs have not changed enough to fully breath it. The food has changed, and she cannot entirely gain sustenance from it. Locations have changed, and this disorients and confuses her, causing her accidents. She lives not as we might live in another country or city, but as we might on another planet. Yet that's a poor analogy, since existence and nonexistence are not different places, but are the difference inherent in the same place.

One day, she will decide to move out, to leave existence for the nonexistent city entirely, stop her constant shuttling in between. She will lose her timeshare in existence and we will stop noticing her on her brief visits. She will stop this tiresome existing and move into the covered-over city year round, riding its trains, walking its streets, perhaps occasionally peeking back from an illustration on someone's messenger bag.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

When Imagination Matters Most

Reality more or less is a deal struck upon between people.  Everyone perceives the world differently. The difference creates the need for discussion, which creates the need for compromise and agreement.  There are a few basic conditions that hold true for all people: hunger, thirst, the need for air, the desire for shelter-- all of those conditions that link to our mortality and to those elements in the world that seem non-negotiable.  

People arrive at solutions to these non-negotiable elements based on the strength of their ability to transform their perceptions into reality.  This is the way that imagination influences reality.  What was once in someone's head is now out there, a new thing for people to discuss: systems, laws, objects, words, Thigh Masters. 

The present financial crisis seems like a collective failure of imagination.  We've run to the end of a certain system of thought and so suddenly all of those necessities that were once tied to the productiveness of that solution are now jeopardized.   The purely imaginary aspect of money, let alone the hundreds of trillions of dollars purported to make up the world's worth, seems to be in full display at present.  We come across cliques of people who worked around the existing laws to create bogus wads of cash.  Who do they think they are?  Well it seems strange that this small group's use of rules just as arbitrary as this other group's would seem so desperate and flagrant, but in the end we don't know a better definition of the word anti-social.    

We were all born into the system that is currently coughing and gasping.  We inherited a number of rules and created a few more with the idea of the public good in mind. By and large the private citizen was not involved in the creation of these laws.  The private citizen held out a proxy to someone they thought would get the job done, someone good at imagining solutions based on existing parameters.  The private citizen carried about their business within the workings of that system while being entirely ignorant of its mechanics.  Whether or not this system was a parochial means of amplifying money then siphoning off the excess remains to be seen.  That system had its good points as well as bad.  

Now we're left with the dizzying prospect of re-assembling a financial system using only the dregs of the last one. Imagination called on to bail us out of a collective failure of imagination.  Well it would seem that the people in power for all of these years cleaved so wholly to an ethos that they may have destroyed their ability to imagine anything different.  Or maybe in the down moments of their office life while looking out over the South Cove they harbored their own quiet heterodoxy and kept it un-stifled for a time when better judgement might win out.

Whether or not you and I are implicated within this system, our inability to convert the population to a better way will simply be translated into hunger and our children will look at those Thigh Masters lying in landfills and wonder what possible purpose they could have ever possibly performed. At least we now know the possibility of change is open.  

What We Talk about When We Talk about Hipsters

I have yet to come across anyone who proudly self-applies the term hipster.  A hipster is always someone else and someone who is exhibiting one of the many characteristic failures of the post X generation.  Hipster then is a label, not an identity.  As a label it is capable of conjuring a dozen different shades all at once.  Its imprecision is part of genius. Like Indy Rock a little too much? Hipster.  Interesting haircut? Hipster.  Boll wevil? Hipster.

The hipster spectrum as far as I can tell includes: fashion kids; haircut kids; indy rockers; po-mos or theory kids;  anyone under the age of 40 who hasn't worked in Finance, Law, or Medicine; rich white kids living in poor black or hispanic neighborhoods; bloggers; liberals; and contrarians. The word hipster is revenge for every perceived shallow short-coming the speaker has felt since the age of 12.  The one point of agreement in the many uses of hipster I've heard used is the shallowness.  Hipsters are not deep.  They live on the surface.

As a potential hipster on at least 3 counts, I tend to use the term to refer to people who are holier than though in their aesthetic choices.  People who make you feel bad for the music you like, the clothes you wear, the books you read, the art you like, etc.  Normally this is an unconscious defense built into the hipster's years of trifling toil. It is their own severe unease with enjoyment that keeps them searching for the next new (or rediscovered) thing.  It is that inability to enjoy things that makes hipsters feel as if they are deep, because they do what they do out of a compulsion that seems natural, but is just a displacement of the same materialism they no doubt watched their parents slop in the '80's. The subversion of mainstream materialism aside, anhedonia breeds sadism.

There's no genuine pleasure in being a hipster.  It's like being Tantalus, except instead of bending to drink from a lake that eternally disappears they are bending over the dregs of post-60's western/global culture.  Just as soon as sustenance seems within their grasp, it disappears: buyers remorse or the approaching stampede of the masses toward their tastes.  

Part of the issue is that with the closing of the Cold War nihilism no longer has any real caché.  Sure nukes are still everywhere and we are more likely to suffocate on our own mass than by anyone else's hand, but the fear is less true and we all have a sense that we need to build something new.  The problem is that everything created in post WW II America is part of the condition of the wealth and power we won from the fascists.  U.S. power in and of itself is a useless, uninspiring lie for the landed gentry.  For the immigrant who has sat among a few thousand fellow immigrants without water for a week in the belly of a tanker pulling into San Francisco harbor the promise is more tangible.  The only genuine motivation available to the middle and upper classes is the prospect of  humiliation.  Rarely do we find the sort of noblesse oblige that would bring a person to commit themselves to making millions of dollars to create a new U.S. culture and when we do it is always distasteful-- should I mention Waco, TX, Jonestown or Jerry Falwell?  

As long as the U.S. exists as a comfortable and more or less accepting place, there will always be new cultures arriving on our shores-- even as we burn the forests and villages they used to live in.  Our culture is slight enough to shift with the advent of every new invention.  People coming from highly ordered places have no idea how to navigate the looseness of our system.  The U.S. is held together by bubble gum, spit and string and this can make for some odd decisions in your twenties.  
    

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Paint It Black

I wandered the Met for half a day a few weekends ago.  I went in thinking I would only check on El Greco, but wound up circling the Rembrandts, then the Whistlers.  I was struck by the contrast between their uses of black-- at least in the portraits on hand.  

In Rembrandt's Portrait of a Man, the sitter is wearing a fathomless black tunic, black without detail. The brush strokes are fanned and somewhat less tidy. I was quick to associate this blackness with the old European sensibility.  Death is everywhere, we are all poised on the brink of eternity. Naturally the black creates a perfect field for studying the sitter's face.  The face is brought out that much more because the blackness is secondary, something of which we're only marginally aware.  The whole trick of the face rests in a single pink wrinkle on the sitter's right eyelid.  The weathered character is brought out in perfect luminous detail and all the flesh suddenly has the gelid pallor of plated meat.

In Whistler black is just another bauble.  In contrast to Rembrandt, Whistler shows an astonishingly frank practicality.  He doesn't use black to invoke American puritanical austerity or severity.  If his sitters have mystery it is their own.  Take Madame X.  Every detail of her black gown is shown in true faith, yet her face is turned in profile and her eyes are nearly at the spot where the viewer would be lost to her peripheral vision.  What we have is a black dress fitting the figure of a pale woman with a striking profile, poise and elegance, but the flesh is reticent-- distant, apiece with the composition as a whole, flat.  

The difference might just rest in the technology of the day, the price of paint or patron expectations.  There may be a dozen Rembrandts where the black is dealt with in perfect detail-- or Whistlers where fathomless black fills the background.  The contrast got me thinking  about film noir, in particular Stanley Kubrick's The Killing.  The Killing is one of the most terrifying movies ever made-- partially for the casting, but mostly for the use of the dark.  Figures pop in and out of bottomless shadows when they're not brought into painful detail by bared light bulbs.  Lighting in film noir is at least a quarter of the story.  Here we have yet another use of black-- the invocation of the underside of reason and Modernity.  The unknown. Death is a portion of it, but it isn't the whole picture.   

For next time I'll try to think of a way to incorporate Malcolm X's cultural reading of the word black, Jean Luc Godard's Sympathy for the Devil and Richard Avedon's use of white.


Sunday, February 15, 2009

I Am The New Hobbes

I've often wondered in disgusted awe at the fact - it is a fact - that most mornings, the first words to breach my lips are curses I toss at strangers. Someone merges into my lane: "Fuckingcocksucher." Someone won't let me merge by driving at just the wrong speed: "pieceashitdouchebag." Then, I am slightly shocked at the possession that has passed, as if I had just thrown up green on myself and came to my senses with a religious icon sticking out of my sphincter.

It took a cartoon character to make me laugh myself out of shame - Calvin. I had made the gauntlet from the Cross Island over the Grand Central and onto the exit ramp into Astoria - stopped - behind a big red van with a Calvin sticker on its rear window. I'm angry in my usual morning way and there he is, transparent and perfect, giving me an exaggeratedly large middle finger while pissing on nothing. The finger was made larger so that it appeared to be projecting directly into my face: Calvin meant fuck ME, not the guy in the car next to me, not the world that forces him to ride the big red van until seasons strip him off...fuck me. And peeing - the splash made it seem like he was peeing on the van itself. So fuck his driver too? Piss on him?

The light was long and with the delay of drivers slow to get their asses moving at the green, I had just enough time to realize, yes, fuck me, piss on you, we are all the same asshole getting off the Grand Central. And there was a comfort, a peace even, in this new brotherhood of fuck everybody.

That and my coffee had finally kicked in. No, nothing so permanent as epiphany. I would rise again the next morrow to spit curses at my fellow commuters - spit that would splash back off the inside of my own windshield right into my face.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Patagonian Dog Orgy

We were in Puerto Madryn walking towards a Parilla joint that had caught our eye on an earlier walk.  Parilla is a special kind of Argentine grill with smoked, salted meats and this particular place was a little off the beaten path.  We were tired and hungry.  That day had been spent bicycling to Punta Loma, where the sea lions congregate.  This had been our third attempt to reach Punta Loma sans car.  

The first two attempts were ill-advised hikes born out of our total ignorance of what a kilometer actual was.  For some reason we pictured 13 kilometers as being a reasonable post-prandial stroll after our free western style breakfast.  Both times we returned to Puerto Madryn rankled and sore, spilling sand from our crevices and malice from our eyes.  We got wise on the third day, rented bicycles and headed out.  There and back again just like Mr. Bilbo said.  The distance still proved to be formidable, even with wheels at our disposal.  We rode on a dirt trail and worked for the progress we made.  We reached Punta Loma and the sea lions were sounding off like a sex party in the gut of a starving giant.  Groans and belches and bellows and squeals.  We rode back with an eye towards dinner.

We had gone to Puerto Madryn in the off-season.  I have been told that the port in Jan- March is normally filled with orcas nursing their calves. Our whole trip to Patagonia coincided with their Fall, which meant gorgeous foliage, but no orcas, no penguins.  Everywhere we went we did notice what we came to understand as the Patagonian dog rule.  Patagonian dogs seem to belong to the community.  In the instance of our trip from the top of the glacier in Ushuaia we were attended by a single yellow lab who carried a stick in his mouth, walked in the center of the road and guided us back to town.  Perro.  

In El Calafate this became a bit more of an issue, since the dogs were much more pack-like and loved tourists.  We would walk down the street on our way to the bird sanctuary and suddenly be surrounded by the most tenacious pack of wild looking mutts and mongrels-- one still flaunting the remains of a broken chain around his neck-- a dozen others sniffing, trotting, growling, yipping, etc.  When we passed the random pony tethered in someone's yard we tried to sneak away while the dogs surrounded and sniffed at her heels.  To no avail.  Three steps on the dogs were at our side.  We finally had to walk back in to town and duck into a supermarket in order to lose them, thinking the keepers at the bird sanctuary would be none too pleased if our pack of dogs dragged their flamingoes out one by one.  

We had yet to really encounter the same effect in Puerto Madryn, though we did see the occasional pooch bolt the boardwalk that stretched for the length of the port.  Since we were there in the off-season a number of restaurants were closed.  This is frustrating for the weary saddle sore bicyclist.  We had decided upon the Parilla place after returning our bicycles because it looked authentic.  When we arrived the smell was enough to carry us to our seats, but we noticed-- just happened to see-- beside the restaurant, just outside the kitchen door there was a little dog orgy.  I've never really had the opportunity to see a dog orgy before, and for the uninitiated who wonder how you can tell if it is a dog orgy, don't worry it's one of those things that you know the second you see.  

There were four larger male dogs sitting, wagging, sniffing, circling around waiting for a fifth to finish with a smallish yellowy female. Each dog took their turn, each being pretty tender with the little female, even licking her belly.  A sixth dog, a sheep dog, was trotting around the perimeter of the restaurant as if on guard duty.  We watched for a minute-- I mean it was free and we were a little y'know curious it being our first Patagonian dog orgy.  We were wondering if this was a comment on the food, but we decided to go in and try the place out all the same since most of the restaurants in quick walking distance were most likely closed and were were tired and starving.

Where we sat we could watch the sheep dog make his rounds on the perimeter every five minutes.  We really began to wonder about his role in the whole thing.  What social status had conferred upon him the security detail?  We decided he must be the only one that was neutered. He looked like the only pure breed in the group and probably belonged to the Argentine naval officers who kept watch on the near-by docks.

The meal was perfect.  We ate and walked home looking for the perros. We didn't see any for the rest of the trip and it was left to us to imagine the bizarre canine concoction that little yellowy dog would birth in a few months.       

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The First Car

The first car on the subway, or the car closest to the stairs, is populated by the lazy, the desperate, the infirmed, the work-worn and the broken.  Do not seek a seat in the first car if you are able-bodied, humane or energetic. Their clothes are all lined with lead and their doomed shuffle is contagious.  

Move down two or three cars past the clot of human cholesterol crowding the bottom of the stairs, but don't sit in the middle car. The middle car is reserved for paranoids and obsessives who need to be near the train conductor just in case. 

Similarly if you watch the train arrive and every car is jam-packed except for one, do not go on that empty car.  It is most likely home to a smell so full and noxious that it will take up permanent residence in your olfactory bulb, reset your index of smells with its extremity and leave you incapable of sensing fresh baked muffins.  If it is the dead of summer that will be the car with no AC-- acceptable for some.  

Even still-- once you make it onto a car, past the last little flecks of human cholesterol who cling to their spots by the door as if it were the gate to heaven, there is no guarantee that you will not be sitting next to a woman busily filing her nails into a fine dust for everyone in her proximity to inhale or some obnoxious cling-on singing a song about how he makes that pussy wet or a crackhead washing her pipe-burnt hands with gin or a genuine crotch-o-dile (thanks, KW, for the term) masturbating, flashing or otherwise rubbing sexually in public or be assailed by aggressive pan-handlers.  

Or you may get a treat: Mariachi band, pre-teen subway back flip pseudo-dance squad (the ones who do the Spiderman work out "Girls, if your boyfriend can't do this leave him!").  One great night the man who raps to his Casio keyboard  (formerly partnered with a women who would drum a bucket for him-- "It ain't no joke, for real I'm broke.") got a dollar from just about every person on the train.  Everyone independently reaching into their pocket to give this guy some cash-- he was ecstatic, Jimmy Stewart at the end of It's a Wonderful Life ecstatic, he couldn't believe more and more people kept giving.  He was ready to walk off the train and someone else would hold out a buck.  It was maybe the best moment I've ever had on the subway, the code of silence still in tact, people grinned sensing at least that locks could open every few years for people to show a common kindness.   

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Kindness Wasted

There are a few camps about the exchange of pleasantries with strangers, clerks, waitresses and other people one might encounter in daily life.  

The first camp lives by the rules of Miss Manners and always supplies their please and thank yous, sometimes floating sorries even when things are not their fault-- say a brusque gentleman forces his way past in a crowd, these people offer a reflexive sorry and almost immediately want to pull it back lest all of their sorries suddenly seem so meaningless.  

The second camp avoids pleasantries of any kind for their inherent falseness and pretense to a kind civilization, the evidence of which is long outstanding.  People of the scond camp blast through crowds and force sorries from people in the first camp and never offer anything in reply, but life is either meaningless or its meaning is measured in the number of excuse mes uttered and so those words must but guarded at all costs and given up only on the death bed or delivered with such hostility that words amount to a fuck you.  

The third camp rests somewhere in the middle and is normally made up of people raised in the first Miss Manners camp who are affecting some kind of life worn ambivalence.  They may say the occasional bless you when someone sneezes, but only as a base reflex they are trying to train their bodies away from. 

I have oscillated between the first and second camp more or less.  These days I feel a little bit closer to the first camp.  The result being that I will frequently polish all of my interactions with some basic mundane pleasantry, the object of which can either take or leave.  There are moments however where whatever small energy was placed in the kindness is taken, pulled inside out and blown back in my face with a terseness normally attributed to evil-hearted bureaucrats.  

I have found that, depending on the neighborhood I am in, these moments can be countered. Though I seldom will give the satisfaction of entering into a full verbal throw-down with the culprit I will walk away and direct one of two basic mantras at the douche: "You should really be more aggressive, otherwise you'll never get what you want." or "You should really try to be more snotty, otherwise everyone is going to think you're dumb." Psychic sarcasm is the most withering form of the stuff. 
 

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Despereaux's Nose

Every day on my way to work I get the visual equivalent of a wet handshake.  Despereaux, diminutive mouse of questionable French lineage and hero of his own film, looks at me from behind the moist pink bulb of his all-too realistic nose. It is hard to say exactly what is so off-putting about Despereaux's nose, but it is up there with Edward G. Robinson's lips for Hollywood's most disturbing creature effect.

Far more unnerving than the Saw posters in every subway and bus stop, Despereaux's nose is grotesque in its perfection.  Too perfect.  A textured, glistening fob of digital perfection.  The amount of man hours placed in getting the moisture to sit just right, to make the skin look like living tissue: it all strikes me at the same time and my body invisibly lurches.  I get the icks and shudder. 

What merit is there in making the eye believe that this hero mouse has an ultra-realistic nose?Ultra-realism is, of course, unrealistic.  Nobody sees the world with the level of ultra-fine detail apparent in most computer animation.  The visual sourcing for most computer animation seems to be early Renaissance masters, like Fra Angelico and Piero Della Francesca, where a certain stiffness reigns amongst the figures but the perspective and level detail feel infinite. There is no call to summarize, no need to make it into a cartoon.  The surface is full, because funding is in tact.  

But if Fra Angelico painted on his knees for the greater glory of god, what exactly is Desperaux serving?   If his nose is just a symptom of our own technological superabundance, a widget on the way to an artificial age, what instinct in man calls it forward? Our own love of artifice? We normally call this level of detail pornographic, as in nothing is left to the imagination. I hate to think of what the future of porn will be once the kids who grow up on Despereaux come of age and bring their libidos to bear.  If they are subversive they'll just keep the lights off.   

  

Monday, January 26, 2009

Crosswalk

If Donna Haraway's  assertion that the use of vitamins, running shoes and silicon enhancements has already transformed humanity into cyborgs, then we are ankle-deep in the margins of our machine/human binary every time we lace up to go for a jog. Though it may be true the cybernetic future has been with us for some time, it is only when we are sitting inside a machine that our organic content feels properly diluted by the surrounding mechanics to admit we may be part machine ourselves.  The cybernetic threshold for most pedestrians in the city appears to be mass transit, taxi cabs or that rarest of things the privately owned car.   

In Manhattan, a number of mythological beasts roll the streets.  There's the businessman/razor scooter hybrid.  The swift snarky slickster breezing towards the financial district on a child's toy-- if he were a centaur-type he would be half hamster half man. Another man-on wheels, this time with in-line skates, who regularly zips through pedestrian traffic with an attache case and a manic watchthefuckout look in his eyes. Seven feet tall with his skates, wheels come with a built in sense of superiority. The endless people dragging roller bags in their wakes...

I never feel more vulnerable then when I'm waiting at the crosswalk with a thick wall of people at my back, standing  in front of a running stream of cars. I'll take a lead off from the curb tentatively craning to watch for on-coming traffic around the double-parked delivery truck and can feel the other pedestrians moving up closer behind me.  Is this a leadership position?  Am I suddenly the one chosen to mark our naked progress across the street where men and women subsumed to the maniacal fluidity of their two ton vehicles refuse to stop. A guy in sweatpants and a baseball cap has already shot off halfway across the street, pausing for a moment of gentility to allow a Ford Taurus its passage before carrying onward.  Nothing will slow him.  He actually stops on the yellow dotted line and sucks in his gut to accommodate an accordion bus in one lane and a taxi in the other then moves on unimpeded, proving to the rest of us just how urgent his own business is.

I wait for the sign to turn to the glowing albino pedestrian and no sooner do I step out than a bumper swoops in, inches from my Kerrigan knees.  The driver having already calculated that if he floored it on the light he could avoid the on-coming traffic and just fit into the brief neat gap between pedestrians in the crosswalk.  I employ my standard judge of depth and send a sharp kick straight into his rear fender, catching his eyes and letting him know that if he turns within my kicking distance he will get kicked.  For a second he thinks he may have run over my foot, the panic registered before rolling over to hate, but I've finished crossing. He's lost me.  Jerkoff. Only slightly better than the cab that turns right into you and stops inches away, slowly creeping while you walk.  For that second, your life depended on perhaps the flimsiest system of empathy known to man: the New York City cab driver.  

The cab driver is the closest we might know to a fully integrated cybernetic centaur.  Half human/ half car, with a blue tooth in the ear and the radio tuner stuck between the Salsa and god talk stations. The cab driver creates his or her own musk-- unique and solitary scent that only lingers in old cabs: the true union of body and upholstery.  The new cabs, outfitted with TVs repeat the same news on a loop.  The cabbie sits behind glass. The TV takes away that last shred of humanity: the insane ability to editorialize on the slightest indication of interest, the crazy palpating conversation with which most cabbies grope their passengers. They drive now, further attended by the GPS, day and night, racking in cash or credit conversing only with the street or the loved ones left overseas. 

A Conversation with My Attorney from T-Billz

M,

I have an idea.

NYC in the 20th century became the financial capitol of the world.  Long live NY.

I just saw an article which said that we replaced Vegas as #1 in marriage licenses.

What we need to do is combine those spheres.

The bonds of matrimony offer short term benefits (gifts etc.) in the guise of long term security.  The reality though is that for far too many bondholders depreciation is substantial.  At the same time, the already insanely high make-whole price (50% joint-assets in most cases) often shows a significant increase in its real dollar value over the term of the bond.  So therefore under the current regime, a bond holder either pays an extortionate make-whole price, or waits out the indefinite maturity period at a possible much greater loss.

This perfect storm makes marital bonds a risky and depressing instrument to own at all, let alone hold to maturity.  More importantly, these inefficiencies tie up valuable productive energy which spills over and negatively impacts the "real" economy.

What is needed is a secondary market- where existing bonds can be rationally and efficiently priced and traded.

This would allow new capital to enter the market, and would facilitate the sale of distressed assets.  A liquid, transparent secondary market would also allow for swaps and similar instruments to be brought out of the black market (creating potentially huge revenue streams for underwriters).

The possibility also would arise that an institutional party could offer marital bond mutual funds, which would allow less sophisticated "main street" investors to eliminate the volatility risk that burdens individual contracts.  If tranched effectively and not over-regulated, it's possible that risk of default on marital bonds can be virtually eliminated in the future...

What do you think?  Am I billionaire yet?should I start lobbying Obama to get some bailout seed capital? Can't wait to sell this idea and start my next venture...

-T-Billz
--------------------------------

T,

Clever indeed, but how does the investor profit off of this, and more importantly, wouldn't the savvy individual opt out of the process altogether and into whatever the flesh trade version of a money-stuffed mattress is?  (stuffed honey on a mattress?) Is there ever going to be a positive ROI?

-M

--------------------------------

M,

With all due respect, no one buys new issues for their coupon.

The Medici financed wars, we've added sports stadiums.  Marital bonds are for whatever reason valued by society.  Civic-minded grown ups and idealistic youngsters buy them.  Let's hope they have other revenue streams.  The point is the new issues market exists.  The secondary market would basically be insurance that there will be a buyer when the owner is motivated to sell.  That 3% coupon looks a lot more attractive 20 cents on the dollar (there's your Bernie Madoff 15% return right there!). Kind of like how the girls all get prettier at closing time.

Totally agree that a savvy investor should diversify with prostitutes (equity) and porn (derivatives).  But bonds are key for growth, especially in emerging markets.

Don't you want to be the first to securitize a gaggle of Russian brides?

-T
--------------------------

T,

I'm taking my general approach to life which is avoidance of any real investment in favor of the low risk low return option of undiversified squandering.

-M

Monday, January 19, 2009

An Open Call to Barney Dunn

Having moved to the city after Giuliani sold Times Square to Disney, I have the feeling that I will never be able to call myself a true New Yorker.  I am one of those people who moved in with the racks of clothes stitched by Taiwanese children.  The brushed aluminum facade that morphed into computer fed high rise plans.  In certain pockets of the city, the streets have the bizarre utopian plainness of architectural drawings.  The trees grow straight, planted in their grid.  The dogs are walked by women wearing Juicy Couture.  And the men in their Hugo Boss suits stride blithely toward the next $million.

Whenever I watch movies shot in New York in the 70's and 80's I marvel at the grit.  Midnight Cowboy, Mean Streets, The Pope of Greenwich Village.  As far as I can tell the grit provided character.  Take the world's worst ventriloquist, Barney Dunn--- the poor schlemiel who Broadway Danny Rose gives up to gangsters in Woody Allen's movie from 1984.  Now Barney Dunn may have been a  paradox back in '84-- how does such a horrible ventriloquist pay the rent in Manhattan-- today he would be a total figment.  He would live in the Catskills like Rip Van Winkle and walk down arm in arm with the school teachers, artists and mimes.  

Barney Dunn has disappeared from day-to-day life in Manhattan.  Maybe he found some snug rent controlled den on the Lower East Side and became a shut-in, maybe he's moved to the outer rings of Queens or is playing pinochle in the lobby of a senior living facility in Yonkers, but no one has shown up to take his place.  New York has lost its bad ventriloquists (granted: if they ever existed beyond film) and its mimes (is that a loss?).