Wednesday, September 17, 2008

David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)

As I have previously noted (and I am not so arrogant to think that anyone reads this with any regularity or in any depth or even is reading this as I type), but I am woefully given to fanboyism. I get girlish in my admiration of artists, especially literary and musical. When I fall in love with an artist's work I go hog-wild. To the point of ruination. I consume, voraciously, the entire oeuvres of artists whom I admire, especially writers. I ate all I could from Vonnegut and Salinger and Tom Robbins and, embarrassingly perhaps, Douglas Adams in high school. In college my diet was pretty strictly dictated through college, but since I have consumed Franzen and George Saunders and David Foster Wallace and dabbled in Barth and Pynchon and Bartheleme, though more cautiously.

And once I have annihilated an author's life's work to date--given that I enjoyed it, which if I have read more than two books, I have--I am left with an eager sadness that there isn't more and an ardent hunger for there to be more. On September 12th, 2008, I ran out of Wallace. Beyond filling me with a very selfish remorse that I will, probably, never get the chance to read a new piece by Wallace again for the first time, I was saddened by a brilliant mine struck down by what Vonnegut would call its "own bad chemicals."

There is always, of course, a notable, palpable sadness when talent, relative youth, and death befall an individual all at once. There is the predictable "what-might-have-been" response that is valid and expected. When such a young and talented person takes his own life, as it is readily apparent that David Foster Wallace did, there is an equally natural reaction of tragedy and a fear that someone so appreciated might well have been saved had he known how appreciated and important he was to his fans or readers or followers. This is again totally natural but not at all what I find intellectually poignant about Wallace's death. (Emotionally, and yes, I have had an emotional response that I find almost surprising, these thoughts are appealing. My fairly common emotional responses, however, are quite surprisingly uninteresting to read and, even, sort of uninteresting for me to think.)

What I have been thinking, instead, about Wallace's recent death (or at least what I have been thinking and that which I think is worthy of sharing, even if in a forum so unformal and undeniably unimportant as this) stems from two cribbed thoughts from elsewhere.

McSweeneys.net has been running comments, thoughts, and ruminations and celebrations of David Foster Wallace. (McSweeney's has been charmingly, if a bit cloyingly, focussed on Wallace as a man as much, if not more, than as a writer.) I was struck by a comment by a Michael R. Hufford, a former (and possibly current, though Mr. Hufford never makes it clear) Abnormal Psychology professor at the University of Montana. Mr. Hufford posits, "It's difficult to imagine how painful it must have been--a unique mind like that, turned on itself."

Having read Wallace extensively as evidence, and given the large numbers of testimonies and obituaries and tributes I have read about the man in recent days, his intellect was a healthy and hungry one tempered by an obsession for clarity of communication so rich that it often ran toward tangent and abstraction and complication, all in service of the ideal of getting the whole idea out, in its entirety with a dedication to diagramming all the idea's moving parts and features. This, of course, was what critics hailed as his pretension and indulgence. Regardless, I think it's clear, or at least interesting and tragic to speculate, that Wallace truly believed what he wrote (in persona of Neal, a "yuppie incapable of love") in "Good Ol' Neon," a story that many people are understandably pointing to in wake of his death, as it is a first-person narrative from the posthumous perspective of a man who killed himself:

You already know the difference between the size and speed of everything that flashes through you and the tiny inadequate bit of it all that you can ever let anyone know.

When Wallace writes about "ever let[ing] anyone know," he is not referring to shame about all that flashes within him, as maybe I thought when first reading this years ago. Needless to say, Neal is ashamed of himself and what he perceives as his unending fraudulent tendencies. And even more obvious is that Neal or Wallace or me or you or anybody thinks all sorts of things worthy of shame. But this sentence turns on "can." If Wallace were implying shame, you'd know he'd have been specific in his word choice and would have opted for "dare," or it's nearest nine syllable equivalent.

What actually haunts Neal, and what I am daringly projecting on to a man who I never even met much less walked inside, is that the issue is one of sheer possibility. If we could be seen for all our thoughts and feelings at once, whole, instantaneously, perhaps that would be salvation. Or at least relief. This "unique mind" that "turned on itself," coupled with Wallace's noted insecurity about being misunderstood or misrepresented is what interests me in the wake of his suicide by hanging. That he could never get it all out and that getting it all out might have been the relief of some tension is what interests me.

Of course this is just play. I didn't know the man. But it's made me think.

The other cribbed thought I have been tossing around is something I heard on a remembrance on NPR's All Things Considered by writer David Lipsky:

When someone very gifted kills themselves, it's like the best student dropping out of high school. There's the tragedy, but it's set in a particular and personal fear: What are they seeing that we don't?

While I am tempted to criticize Lipsky's number agreement problems (no doubt in an effort to avoid any appearance of sexism in his pronouns) as a homage to Wallace, I don't wish to be glib about the point being made here. Also, were a SNOOT like Wallace himself to read my blatherings, I am certain that I am guilty of far more transgressive usage and grammatical felonies.

What interests me is the idea that Wallace's suicide demonstrates his seeing something that you or I do not. I don't mean this is the sophomoric and dark sense that were we all brighter we'd hang ourselves. What interests me, instead, is that there has always seemed to be a correlation between depression and creative genius. Not exclusively, both occur independent of one another, but that they seem to occur together often enough so as to be statistically significant when compared to population averages.

This is a thought I have had for years and I think the correlation of substance abuse and talent is much the same. There is something seen by some sorts of genius that leads to malaise and ennui that leads to depression and suicide. I guess it is not surprising, for were one's creative genius to allow him a view of the whole of humanity in a raw and unadulterated form, there is an awful lot of ugliness to behold. There is an awful lot of despair to be felt and an awful lot of reason to not feel much hope for us as a lot. I think, however, that it's more than that. Vonnegut's opinions of humanity were pretty dark, but they always bespoke an optimism in that he was only hurt by humanity because he expected it, us, to be better than our behavior so often indicated. (Vonnegut, too, attempted suicide, however.)

Suicide is, to my way of thinking, generally a very personal affair with very personal causes. (Sorry Durkheim, your model is compelling only insofar as it provides the backbone of a sociological way of looking at human behavior. Anomie may be troubling, but not like a childhood history of sexual abuse or faulty neural receptors or any number of a million personal causes and combinations thereof.) I am wont to believe that Wallace's suicide was caused by internal and deeply personal factors ranging from the ethereal issues of the mind and personality to more quantifiable causes such as dopamine. But I also think depressive and suicidal tendencies may also be a by-product of creativity, just as I think drug abuse may be as well. There are a great many of artists with substance abuse problems, but the substance was never the cause of the creativity. I have often thought that substance abuse is as much a symptom of self-medicating tendencies and depression as it is a stand-alone disease.

Maybe depression is a by-product of certain creativities in certain people? I cannot help but think that it ever helped Wallace, but was rather something he bore until he could bear no longer, but it is unfortunate that the instability had to coincide with the genius. We have to come to romanticize the early deaths of admirable men and women since Christ himself, but it never fails to shock and it never ceases to hurt that we forever have to wonder what might have been.

All this thoughtplay about Wallace's suicide, of course, bespeak one of the great virtues and, perhaps, one of the great lies about literature specifically: that we know the writer because we have read his work. It is personal, it is a communication of course. But to think we know the man or woman who produced it because we know the text is a deliciously enticing fallacy. I did not know this man. I do know that I am sad he has taken his life, however.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Steadfast Travel Rule

I am a 26 year old man of moderate means, so when I travel it means I'm usually staying with friends or family. I have come across an absolute steadfast rule regarding couch-surfing.

1) If the people with whom you are staying are under 30, you are an asshole for not bringing your own towel.

2) Conversely, if your hosts are over 30, THEY are the assholes if they are not able to provide you with a clean towel.

Addenda to this rule are as follows:

1) If your host are under 30, but married, they should have a clean towel for you as weddings net linens in absurd volumes. (My sister-in-law would argue that said volumes only appear absurd to me as I am a dirty bachelor.)

2) If your hosts have an actual guest bedroom to provide you, as opposed to merely a couch, they can pony up for extra clean towels.

ALSO:

It is polite to bring your own soap and shampoo, but no one really notices if you use theres as long as you stay away from personal loofas and the like in the shower. Using another person's loofa is just fucking tacky and gross.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Surprisingly Orthodox Comment from One Who is Something of a Heathen

I have found myself watching the two political conventions with an embarrassing intensity. Last week was more easily swallowed than this week, but as much as I would enjoy ranting about the failed policies of the Bush administration, or the nauseating similarity of Senator McCain's foreign policy platform to said failed policies, or the myopic energy policy proposed by Senator McCain, or the shameless pandering of the selection of Sarah Palin as a VP nominee, or any number of the offensive and foolish "selfishness-described-as-the-view-of-the-common-man" Republican party bullshit, I am, at this moment, on whatever whim, in the mood to level a very mild semantic complaint against both parties.

Elected officials of America, when pandering to the religious right or merely when towing the inoffensive party line and attempting to appeal to the millions of religious people in this nation, please insert a "may" before uttering "God bless America."

I know, it's minor. Pitifully minor. But as a thoroughly secular, woefully irreligious heathen, I cringe at the phrase, "God bless all of you, and God bless America!" The omission of "may" makes it seem as though earthly politicians are commanding God's blessing. I am far from a biblical scholar, but I have read enough Old Testament to know that God is not the sort of guy you go pushing around and demanding blessings of. I kinda think God curses and blesses people and nations and baseball teams as He sees fit and if He sees fit. If He's even there. Or a He. Or could possibly be expressed or understood in any sort of man's terms. (I'm a devout agnostic, I have no idea and am fervent in the belief that I have no fucking idea. I a snake-handling agnostic. I have been knocked down unconscious by the force of the presence of the Holy "What-if.")

But this little gesture, this token nod to the "common man," seems a bit haughty--and moreover, disingenuous--to not ask for God's blessing, but to command it or to single handedly bestow it, as a mere mortal, upon a nation. I may have not done much churchin' in my days, but I think the Catholics have got it right: if you're going to ask a guy who's as insecure and petty a son of a bitch as the Old Testament God (even if he has mellowed with age, according to the apostles) for anything, you get on your knees.

Were I a religious person, I'd find the phrase "May God bless America" to be more comforting rhetoric. Lord knows, if you go around demanding His blessing or proclaiming to know it to others, you'd have to consider being turned into a pillar of salt the LEAST of the things He might do to you in recompense.

But that's just one lost soul's humble opinion.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Robert Pollard: A Fan-Boy's (Salty?) Salute

First, let it be said, that I am given to what I have always called "fan-boyism." I'm prone to cross the line from appreciator of artist to devotee of artist all the way to borderline obsessive stalker of artist. I've grown up a little bit; I try, desperately, to not talk to those I admire at events such as readings or fora such as stage doors. Having met and talked to a handful of "heroes" in high school, I got tired of the sniveling, groveling, obsessive twit I became in the presence of those whom I admired. I received the exact sort of saccharine, synthetic "Get-me-the-hell-out-of-here" smiles and nods from said celebrities (or in my case, pseudo-celebrity as my tastes ran to the nerdy fringe in high school) that I imagine politicians flash when asked to kiss a particularly drooly baby whose diaper is quite obviously full of shit. ("Yes, I know there are cameras present, but do I REALLY have to TOUCH this thing?!")

Case in point: I was a tremendous They Might Be Giants fan in high school. For those unaware, They Might Be Giants might have been the ultimate house band for Jewish summer camp cabins and the basement bedrooms of telescope owning teenage virgins of the 1990s. (That being said I will still defend their wit and their edgy "dork-as-punk" fuck you, East Village experimental attitude, even if they are now spending most of their declining talent on Dunkin Donuts ads these days. To wit: "Lincoln" and "John Henry" are probably the two best nerd-rock albums since Talking Heads' "More Songs About Buildings and Food.") Though dorky and awkward and chubby in high school, I was relatively cool by the standards of their concert goers. In their presence, however, I turned to an amorphous blob of fan-boy goo. I once screamed with girlish delight at touching TMBG guitarist John Flansburgh's super cool lefty, square guitar (seen in use here: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/a/aa/John_Flansburgh_2008.jpg/220px-John_Flansburgh_2008.jpg ) during an intermission. Worse yet, and I have never publicly admitted this, I insisted on a family trip to Boston that my parents drive past Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Lincoln, MA where They Might Be Giants' founding Johns, Linnell and Flansburgh, met. I still have pictures.

I have, however, in recent years striven to mellow out and ditch my super unhip fan-boy ways. The first step in this has been to avoiding contact with those whose art I have found myself in awe. Simple, right? Just don't talk to them and you can't make an ass of yourself. Also, should I find myself unable to resist the urge to talk to someone who I admire (or whose art I admire), I would only do so if I had something more scintillating to say then, "Dude! I love your music! I love YOU!!!"

Just such a situation presented itself some two years ago. At the time I worked in Downtown Chicago and it just so happened that one of my heroes, Robert Pollard (founder, front man, primary [and exhaustive] songwriter for Guided By Voices, a band which stands as an inspiration to all Midwestern dreamers, a fact which will be duly expounded upon below) was speaking and signing books with former GbV bassist and GbV biographer, Jim Greer at the Barnes and Noble adjacent to the law school where I worked. It even coincided with my 7PM lunch break. How could I not go?!

So I went and sat and stood in line and hemmed and hawed at what to say. Mercifully for me, Pollard--for a rock god--is unbelievably approachable to a Midwestern boy like me. Much of this is his appeal to me.

The reasons for my love of this man's music are numerous, but allow me to expound upon a few of the main points:

1) The man has no inner censor. This is both a boon to productivity and occasionally, charmingly, a hindrance to quality. Pollard has released an obscene number of songs through GbV and his varying solo projects. The man writes and writes and writes and occasionally it will render a last second addition to an album that is an absolute GEM, a la "Exit Flagger" on Propeller. It could just as likely turn out to be a throw-away songlet like "I Am Produced" on Mag Earwhig!. But Pollard's sheer productivity is a testament to the virtue of creation without shame. He is living proof of how the scales are tipped in the balance of perspiration to inspiration regarding creativity.

2) He is one of the best lyricists of his time, but quite possibly by accident. Pollard manages to simultaneously be both meaningless and evocative. His songs rarely seem to be ABOUT anything, but his choice of words rarely seems frivolous. Who, pray tell, might "Jane of the Waking Universe" be, and what the hell is a "waking universe" anyway? But coupled with the melody it is an undeniably perfect lyric and title. Even whimsical titles like "Postal Blowfish" still evoke an image. The "Official Iron Man Rally Song" manages to be anthemic without falling into the cockrock trappings a song of said title might fall prey to. And Pollard penned one of my all time meaningless song lyrics: "I walked into the house of miraculous recover and stood before King Everything!"

At times Pollard falls into an almost cheesy earnestness, but when coupled with a knowledge of his story and his background (see below) and the obvious emotional and personal investment in his music, it is adorably forgivable, the same way one give Neil Young the benefit of the doubt regarding cheesiness. From the failed "Window of my World" on Half Smiles of the Decomposed to the hackneyed, keep-fighting-tiger message underpinning "Don't Stop Now" on Under the Bushes Under the Stars, Pollard's cheesy-ness is not a failure of creativity, but a triumph of sincerity. (Minus "Hold on Hope" from Do the Collapse. That song's a piece of shit and an whorish attempt at a radio hit and I blame Ric Ocasek almost exclusively for its cloying, weepy, mid-90s pussy-pop tone.)

3) Robert Pollard and Guided by Voices have one of the best stories in the history of rock. Their story is not a sexy story of drug abuse and trashed hotel rooms and bad record deals. Their story is one of day-jobs and wives and children and being working class guys from Dayton who were just too starry-eyed to give up on the dream. Pollard was a 4th grade teacher for a decade before GbV made it big enough to even consider music a career. He lives, still, in Northridge, a working class section of the decidedly un-sexy, un-Sid-and-Nancy city of Dayton, Ohio. Dayton, in fact, hated GbV early in their career, so they went to the studio and didn't play live for YEARS while they honed their song-writing and home-recording craft. These were guys who didn't know what they were doing and didn't know any better and occasionally struck gold because of these things. Implicit, always, was passion. To crib an analogy from a Times' movie review I read years ago for the movie Barbershop, Guided by Voices is NOT a fine French meal: it is a meatloaf that mom overcooked, but that she made with love specifically for you.

4) Guided by Voices is music that will always remind me of the beer-soaked, smoky Midwestern basements and garages of my late teens and early twenties. This is just a personal reason, but I had a lot of friends and acquaintances in bands a few years back...and for whatever reason...Guided by Voices just always reminds me of hanging out listening to friends' bands and drinking shitty beer and talking and just generally have a good ol' Midwestern summer evening.

There are too many reasons of why I love this band.

However, the first time I met Robert Pollard, we talked a little shop. I am not a musician, but as noted above, I have several friends who are basement Midwestern rockers. It turns out we know a few of the same people, at least tangentially. I was totally not a fan-boy. I felt like a hero.

Of course, the next time I saw him in person was at an art opening of his collages here in New York City. I knocked on the bathroom door while he was pissing and got a curt, "Hold on a minute!" through the door. When he exited and I realized just whose micturation I had interrupted, all I could manage was a gulp and a "Whoa! I...I...I...I'm sorry I knocked. I really like your collages, man!"

We are all still fourteen years old some times.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Mark of Distinction.

I'll be damned if I can remember the context, probably televisual, but I remember being a small child and feeling sheepishly humbled the first time I heard the saying, "I put my pants on one leg at a time.'

I thought this man was noting his sophistication, because at this time in my life, I thought the appropriate approach to putting on pants was to put a foot in each hole and jump and wriggle until he found himself clothed. This took some doing, as it was the 1980s and I mostly wore skin tight corduroys.

To this day, however, I cannot hear that phrase without feeling a small degree of shame about my rube-like naivete about properly dressing one's self. I'm still not sure I put my pants on correctly.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

God Only Knows

You know why I love the Beach Boys? Ok, I don't really, I only really like Pet Sounds and even then not all the songs on it (like the title track, which can blow me in a pretty serious way), but there's a great self-deprecating honesty to that album. Like, in "God Only Knows," Brian Wilson opens up with "I may not always love you..." Thank Christ for that. Finally a respite from the sappy pap proclaiming permanence. I'm not trying to be dark and say that no love lasts or anything, but thank Christ for Brian Wilson having the balls to show a little doubt and self-consciousness as opposed to the cocky, assuredness that makes pop music A) irritating but, more importantly B) comforting because the fictitious personae who sing such songs have the cocksure swagger that we (or I for one) lack. Thank you, Brian Wilson, for an odd hint of honesty. It's uncomfortably comforting...like every relationship I've ever had.

As for the prudishness of sentiment in "Wouldn't it Be Nice," well, we'll forgive you as a victim of your times. Plus, that shit's catchy.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

An Alliterative Truth

Today, while walking down Broadway after work I saw a living alliteration:

A man with a pink polka-dot prosthetic leg was waking three pomeranians.

Seriously.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Congrats to California

A happy and topical college memory:

May 16, 2008, 10:30 PM, Waltham, Massachusetts

Several of my friends and I were hanging around our kitchen, indulging in our usual pursuits: drinking beer, playing cribbage, breaking for cigarettes on the back porch, chatting. It was only seven days until we officially graduated from college, and the eve of the first legalized same-sex marriages in the United States. We were discussing the importance of this event, and I don't recall who was responsible for the idea, but all of a sudden five of us piled into my roommate Aaron's car.

Our alma mater Brandeis University, like most universities, goes out of its way to pretty up campus for commencements, and this year was no exception. Bright flowers were blooming or recently planted all over campus. We parked near the admissions building and set to task of tugging, pulling or pruning as many lilacs, lillies, roses, and tulips as we could get our hands on. After a couple brief run-ins with impotent, milquetoast security officers, we had an entire trunk full of flowers. We hopped back in the car and zipped back over the Charles River to our uniquely shitty apartment.

Once we arrived home, the phone tree began. We called all of our friends while arranging rudimentary bouquets of flower out of the scraps we'd been able to steal and planned to set out the next morning at 8:00 AM, for Provincetown, MA.

Provincetown was once a humble fishing village at the very tip of Cape Cod, but for whatever reasons such places become such destinations, it has long been known as one of the gay and lesbian capitals of the United States. After a three hour caravan of three or four cars filled with my exuberant peers--gay, straight, bi, whatever--we found ourselves in front of the crowds and news cameras in front of Provincetown's humble, clapboard city hall. As couples streamed out of city hall--cheeks streaked with tears, smiles like cartoon characters--the crowd would erupt with cheers, and we would present Massachussetts' newest married couples, and some of the nation's very first same-sex married couples, with flowers.

I was reminded of that today while reading accounts of California's adoption of same-sex marriage. It's one of my happiest memories, and not just because of some sort of warm fuzzy feeling of liberal do-goodery. The joy in the faces of the freshly married couples on that day were enough to make me believe that the United States was, slowly but surely, getting better.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

I *DO* believe in Zimmerman, but I'm not sure why...

I was asked, recently, by a friend who does not like Bob Dylan to describe the appeal of his music. In situations like this, I am always tempted to whip out the old dusty adage, "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture," but that's only because I think it's cute. Mostly I think that statement is an adorable dollop of bullshit: language's purview is all that can be described, and music can be described, expounded upon, extolled, and excoriated successfully and length by language. Everything can, with varying degrees of fallibility. Language has it's limits, but I am ardent in my faith that it's the best all-encompassing tool of expression at hand to humans. Synchronized swimming is a close second, and hand-thrown pottery takes the bronze at a distance of at least two lengths.

That being said, I found myself at a loss of words to describe the assertion that Dylan's a genius. I am reminded of what a snarky friend once said while drunk at a party: "Bob Dylan's useless: Paul Simon was a better guitarist, Art Garfunkel had a better voice, Phil Ochs had better politics, and Leonard Cohen had better lyrics!" This was said to elicit response, and perhaps rage, amongst the other drunk music snobs at the party, but it was illustrative of the problem I had describing why I thought Bob Dylan was great.

First, some disclosure. I'm not the world's largest Dylan fan. A late bloomer to Dylan, I didn't start listening with anything more than a passing interest in hearing a Dylan song on classic rock radio until college. Even then, it was only exposure I had, not passion. I don't own more than maybe five albums and I even lack a couple some would deem "essential." Hell, the first Dylan album I ever owned was "Nashville Skyline," because a road trip I was taking with friends into the deep South. I am aware that this album, while good, is not exactly indicative of the Dylan-style that has garnered such praise.

Moreover, I was forced to admit to this friend that anything I ever had resembling an epiphany about Dylan's music came in a West Side laundromat a little over a year ago while I folded my boxer shorts and listened to "Blood on the Tracks" on my iPod. Even then, all I could say was that for some reason and from that moment on, I really dug that album and began to get more into other Dylan albums.

In this conversation, I was moved to note that Dylan is truly a phenomenal lyricist. Simultaneously obtuse and meaningful without ever being didactic or patronizing or moralistic. Well, except for the capital F folk songs that were designed to be moralistic: "Masters of War, " "Blowing in the Wind," et al. (NOTE: I don't like "Blowing in the Wind" much, but I think that's mostly Joan Baez's fault. NOTE II: For some reason I will accept incredibly specific, moralistic lyrics from folksters like Phil Ochs and Pete Seeger or from punk bands like Gang of Four (or Billy Bragg, the strange mating of the two) but not from virtually any other genre of popular music.)

The lyrics argument did not win me a convert. My friend noted that that was sort of a non-starter with him, as lyrics were usually a secondary thing to him...something that came later in the appreciation of an artist. As yet, he had not been hooked well enough to delve into lyrics.

So I trotted out the old, "no one else sounds like him" argument. Again, no ground gained. Wisely, my friend observed that there's a lot of very unique, distinct, inimitable crap. (For example, I don't get the appeal of Glen Branca, but I can comfortably say he's unique.)

So I was at a loss. Dancing about architecture, as it were. All I know is Dylan has, in the last few year, secured a deep foothold in my imagination.

My advice is this, Gary: Burn a copy of "Blood on the Tracks" from somebody while you do laundry. Maybe it'll work for you, too.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Death to Television (Not in General, Just Mine)

It was another blisteringly hot day in Brooklyn and I did, as I did yesterday, very little. Sadly, I was thwarted in my relaxation regimen by the untimely demise of my television.

This shouldn't be that disheartening, as I lived for a year and a half in Manhattan without a television. Moreover, I only had broadcast so it's not like I'm paying for cable I cannot use. And by not having television, I no longer have the most convenient escapist tool around for when I'm feeling lazy. I'll at least have to pick up a book.

I do, however, feel as though I'm losing a small connection to the rest of the universe. While television is a purely one-way communication (though I yell in vain at my tv all the time), it is an important link to American culture, for better or (more often) for worse. As the presidential election is now finally picking up definitive steam, I will miss television as politics is now scripted and performed for the televisual audience. While I will still read the Times and varying other news sources online along with my daily consumption of National Public Radio, it will be had to ingest the full nature of the presidential campaign, as television is the currency of contemporary American culture.

Television fascinates me because it has such limitless potential. Needless to say, potential is damning, as it's very had for an individual or a medium or anything to "live up to its potential." The consequence in people is that we don't try our hardest as we are so likely doomed to failure. The problem with television is that its made by people, most of whom aren't living up to their potentials, and it's made for people, most of whom aren't living up to their potential. The consequence, of course, is shit like Two and a Half Men or NASCAR. It's also funded by advertisers, so it's not in the best interest of television networks to push the envelope too far. No money in art.

Even PBS often falls short. While they brag, constantly, about not being beholden to advertisers, they put up some subpar programming. Bear in mind, I love Charlie Rose's show on PBS because of his guests, he so often falls short as an interviewer. Can't we get someone who's smart and will invite interesting interviewees on, but who isn't so self-absorbed and doesn't throw a steady diet of soft ball questions?

All of this is disjointed rambling on television and it all add up to not much more than I'm tired, sweaty, and cranky. I wish I had tv to pacify me.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Kimbo Slicery, or Damn We Like Violence in this Country

For the first time last week, mixed-martial arts fighting made prime time television. I was unaware of this until I saw a piece about the fight in question (featuring a man named "Kimbo Slice" who used to be a homeless "bum fighter") aired on CBS. I am a gigantic fan of sport. (especially baseball and football, though I'm re-warming to basketball. Soccer's dull unless it's the World Cup and hockey is just plain dull unless you're watching it live.) That being said, I've tended to steer away from the violent sports. Wrestling is pure bullshit and it's brand of athleto-tainment has always been lost on me, even when I was nine, which is the prime age for watching wrestling. Boxing has always seemed both a bit brutal and a bit dull to me. I've appreciated footage of Muhammad Ali's prime, and I understand why he was a legend. He reinvented the sport: he brought ballet to brutality. But truth be told, I'd still rather watch a Division III college football game than a replay of an Ali fight.

I am naturally not a terribly violent man. I get angry, occasionally, and talk a big game, but I've only thrown a punch once in my adult life and the memory of it still makes me sick to my stomach. Violent movies have never appealed to me, but not because they make me squeamish. The opposite, actually. To me they fail to capture the really sickening nature of ACTUAL violence. Some sort of primal horror is lost in the re-creation. It becomes cartoons.

But I was watching the CW11 news at ten pm the other night (the most ironic newscast in the New York area...I swear to God...watch it...handsome anchorman knows he's on a lesser station at the lesser time slot and has a great sense of humor about the news...and Mr. G, the weatherman, is my favorite Italian stereotype on television today...who else tells you what the rainfall was in New Dorp? Who else knew there was a place called New Dorp, Staten Island?), and the sports guy had an entire segment on this landmark mixed-martial-arts fight on CBS.

For those not in the know, as I myself was not until recently, mixed martial arts (popularized by the Ultimate Fighting Championship) is a brutal combat sport that is essentially, a gloves-off, no-holds-barred slugfest of a boxing match. Contestants literally wear no boxing gloves, no shoes, and they beat the ever loving shit out of each other. From what I've watched, it seems the ref has the right to stop the fight any time he thinks it's dangerous, but virtually nothing this side of biting is illegal.

The premier fight on CBS the other night was won when Kimbo Slice (our hobo hero) came within mere inches of beating another man's ear free from his head. Mind you, we've seen this in boxing, but no teeth (Tyson's or otherwise) were involved in the attempted ear extraction. No, this man nearly punched a man's ear off. On prime time television. On broadcast television. On CBS, who's previous high in vileness was Everybody Loves Raymond. I hate that fucking show.

I hate to be prudish. That which consenting adults agree to is their own business. Shit, I don't care who watches it. I don't mean to say, "WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN?!?!" but what about the children? I know, I know...if I don't want to watch this, I should change the channel. Rest assured, I do. But something about airing this on prime time broadcast tv bugs me...

I guess, what it is, is how it exemplifies the "raising of the stakes" culturally. Television has consistently pushed the envelope and has received great ratings for it in the past decade. From Dennis Franz's ass on NYPD Blue, to Roseanne Barr's lesbian kiss with Mariel Hemmingway, to every testicle joke in the history of South Park...the envelope is pushed. And each time it is, the border of what is considered unseemly is a little further down the road.

Language, sex, and even fat asses don't offend me much. Well, Franz's ass a little. And the justification is that it's not that the networks or the media outlets of any stripe are providing unsettling material out of their own depravity, but rather that the public is demanding it. And the subsequent ratings are provided to bear this out.

However, and bear me out, WHAT IF there isn't a natural demand for THIS particular content, but rather a demand for NEW. And what's newer than that which is shocking? What's NOT shocking about a man punching another man's grotesquely cauliflowered ear within an inch of its falling off? We seek NEW, not shock. As we increasingly become desensitized to that which is shocking, we begin to become curious about that which might be more shocking. Throw in the hype machine of advertising, and of course we'll turn into that which we might even ourselves deem somewhat offensive in its content. (Shit, look at WifeSwap. What the fuck is that all about? We all get to learn that there are fucked up families and stupid people the nation-round, and we get to learn that when we swap the wives of these families, these people are still fucking fucked up and fucking stupid. Bra-fucking-vo.)

What I'm getting at, what if there isn't actually a demand for ultra-violent content, so much as that it is provided and it's all that's available that's new in a heavily saturated media world? What if the availability creates the demand? (Don't get me started on how this applies to pornography on the internet...)

Now, I'm not saying mixed martial arts shouldn't exist. It should exist as it always has: in Vegas and Atlantic City and other dens of adult entertainment. But violence in American culture is such a weird thing: sure we like violence and buy it up, but the fact that it's there only fuels the appetite.

I'm not saying Kimbo Slice's ear-hackery creates a thirst for actual violence in the every day life of every day Americans. That's a stupid fucking argument. (Though, to be fair...12 year old boys are idiots. I can't tell you how many jackasses I knew in high school who wanted to start their own fight clubs in response to the movie.) Still, can't we just agree it's sort of unpleasant and should be left to an audience that specifically seeks it out as opposed to presented as that which is the common fodder for everyone?

Shit, I know. This is elitist and it's prudish and it sort of bugs me that it bugs me. I don't believe in censorship. I don't. But I have no beef with decorum. You wouldn't wear your tuxedo to the beach, and you wouldn't wear cut-offs to a wedding. Set and setting is all I'm saying.

Accents

Often, when someone is an immigrant to the United States, but speaks English with a standard American accent, he or she is said to "speak English without an accent," and he or she is complimented for this.

The UK has a lot of immigrants. Do they say the same thing of an immigrant to England who sounds native? Or do they compliment him on his perfect accent?

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Your Body is You Too, or "Damn, I'm sore!"

So a good friend (hereafter, Matt) of mine seems hellbent on including me in gratuitous acts of physical exertion. He wants me to join him for basketball in Tompkins Square, softball in Central Park...I'm waiting for the son of a bitch to try to talk me in to a marathon.

Those who know me know I love sports theoretically. My natural position is in the bleachers; I drink beer right-handed. I love watching the beautiful movement of athletic bodies. I love the struggle. I love it from my couch. With a beer. And a pack of Camels. Maybe some sort of sandwich.

However, Matt had successfully talked me into joining him for softball in Central Park. I decided to go. I figure if Royko could play softball until the day he died, well hell. I'm 26. I haven't smoked or drank as long as Mike Royko. I could play.

A mutual acquaintance of ours from college (with whom Matt attended law school) is the social chair for his Upper West Side synagogue and hosts a softball team. I had played maybe a game or two with them last year. Feebly. A catch or two, a hit or two...and a handful of mishaps so embarrassing they hardly bear mention. So I went out.

Upon arriving I am informed by said mutual acquaintance that they had too many people looking to join last year, so it's now JUST THE TEMPLE in their softball games. Needless to say, I was nervous. Matt is at least Jewish. I, however, was raised by a lapsed WASP and a recovering Catholic. All through warm-ups, I feared an impending prayer. In Hebrew. I have been to a bar mitzvah or two, have some converts in the family, but as for faking a prayer...I was fucked. Thank God (or G-d), they played secular softball and I was freed from having to mimic Hebrew as best I could to stay in the game.

So we played. I did a few things well, playing both left-center field at times and second base at times. A few good plays in the field. Looked like holy hell at the plate having not swung a bat in a year and prior to that in many, many, many, MANY years...but luckily I didn't do anything humiliating. Well...not THAT humiliating, anyway. I fouled out to the catcher once...which is hard to do in slow-pitch, non-competitive, "Nice effort!" softball.

The end result was that I had a blast. What a thoroughly supportive, non-judgmental group. Everyone was friendly, no one asked me to lead the group in prayer, and I luckily avoided mentioning my love for Jimmy Carter (because, apparently, he is now an Anti-Semite). I had a blast. I signed up for the email list. I will pay them for this continued privilege. I had a blast.

But now I am sore. Surprisingly sore. Embarrassingly sore. Good lord, am I out of shape! But it's a good sore. A pleasant, satisfactory misery. It reminds me of what it once meant to be worn out.

White collar types like me forget the beauty of physical exhaustion. As a chubby, bookish type who spends most of his time in a library I tend to forget that his body is a wonderful thing. I love having sex with it, filling it with beer, smoking cigarettes...but I so often forget how good it is to wear it out running, throwing, diving, and hitting humiliating pop-ups to the shortstop. I am reminded of the Douglas Coupland novel Microserfs in which one of the computer programmer characters discovers exercise through a work-out obsessed co-worker. His co-worker reminds him, "Your body is you too."

I forget, sometimes. I think of my body all too often as a vessel which carries some ethereal me around. I forget that there are positive feelings associated with really working my body in contexts non-bedroom. Running feels great. Sort of. Feeling tired from running, somehow, also feels great. It's high time I took into account my body in my feelings of self. Sure, I bemoan my gut...but I forget how good it is to run and throw and generally feel a self-satisfied PHYSICAL tired. I am much more used to the psychological and emotional tired.

I should get more exercise, is what I'm saying, I guess. Maybe I should stop filling the fucking thing with nicotine and alcohol. Someday, anyway.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Grocery Shopping Depresses: A Gentrifier's Lament

I have never been much for clothes shopping and while I love shopping for records and books, but thanks to mp3s and the fact that I work for a university that lends me access to extensive library of books, I have no need to do those things so much anymore. Also, I'm generally broke.

I have, however, made a point of becoming a better cook and I have become a thoroughly indulgent grocery shopper. Hell, even before I could cook, I enjoyed grocery shopping. I enjoy going to your normal supermarket, but I'm incredibly fond of ethnic or specialty stores where I can stare at fish I would never eat and rummage through vegetables I do not understand. I would like to chalk it up to my Polish background, but in my household growing up food was love. Meals were provided as gestures of love and nurturing. And given my waistline upon moving out of my parents' home, I was well-loved.

A grocery store exemplifies abundance: over flowing vegetables and fruits, bright pink fresh meats all in a row, miles of bright colored canned goods. I'm a sucker for a good or unique grocery store.

So, suffice it to say, I was excited about the shopping possibilities when I moved to the Prospect Lefferts Gardens section of the Flatbush in Brooklyn. My immediate neighborhood is predominantly Afro-Caribbean, so the shopping is downright interesting. On Flatbush and Church Avenues the produce is positively inspiring in its lush abundance. Heaving swollen grapes, green plantains, kiwi, mangoes, all variety of citrus. It's fun.

Given the economic trends, the meats tend to be somewhat lacking in my middle-class estimation. Lots of cheap cuts of flank steak, cubed goat for stewing, gristly and fatty lamb shoulder chops, and lots of chicken extremities (wings, drumsticks, and even feet), but few whole birds I would consider roast-worthy. I make do, of course, and I bring certain ingredients back with me from Manhattan when I return from work.

The closest and most convenient grocery store to me, however, is the Pioneer Market on Parkside Avenue. It's immediately adjacent to the subway exit and only a block from my apartment, so needless to say, it's where I do the lion's share of my grocery shopping. Its florescent lighting is a lifeless gray, and most of the interior surfaces look as if they've been scrubbed of what grime can be removed, but are permanently dingy. Still, it's a serviceable market, and quite a relief from the exorbitant prices of food in Manhattan. It must be quite expensive to truck all that stuff into so small an island.

Shopping there, I still feel guilty for being perturbed that Pioneer Market lacks arugula or cotswold cheese or any fresh olives. I am aware I am a yuppie. I am aware that I am in a working class neighborhood with people from another culture. I hate myself for my colonialism. So I smuggle these things back from Manhattan on the Q train.

My own yuppieness and how that makes me feel about myself, however, is no comparison for the crippling sense of shame and sadness I feel when I am standing in line. I load my things onto the conveyor belt: a half-pound of smoked turkey for the lunches I pack for work (because I am "poor"), fresh kale, a pound of fresh chicken breasts, onions, garlic, a six pack of imported Czech beer, hummus, pita, basmati rice, extra virgin olive oil, five gala apples, a bundle of fresh rosemary, and on and on and on. Staples, to my way of thinking.

And yet there's a disturbance. The belt isn't moving and I am annoyed. I look up to realize, of course, that the man in front of me has only six crumpled singles and his bill is $7.38. He is trying to decide whether he can spare the quart of milk or the loaf of off-brand white bread. He settles on doing without milk, and the belt moves again. I look behind me and there is a woman who isn't a day under seventy-five buying only a pound of enriched pasta and a tin of canned salmon. The checker rings up my up my $43.27 sent order and I pay on plastic and lug my bags back to the apartment feeling a shameful brand of rich.

I know, I know this sort of guilt is unfounded. I am not to blame for urban poverty and I am not trying to drive food prices up by moving here, nor rent. I know this has a cheesy, Erma Bombeck "see-how-the-other-half-lives." But I can't help it. Food is love and their ain't enough love, it seems, for the urban poor.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

So Obama Wins

Well, I could have told you that two months ago. Thank you, major media, for coming around to the obvious conclusion.

(Editor's note: I may be smoking still; I may be weak on that account, but I will hammer out some sort of blog entry so I do not fall off my blog-a-day pledge three days into June. That being said, I am cheating: I am writing about current events and politics. That's easy.)

While I am a die-hard Obama-supporter, I am sort of interested in the argument of Hillary Clinton's rise to prominence as a candidate as a feminist triumph. Allow me to preface, ANY woman rising to the point of being a viable major-party candidate for president is some sort of triumph for equality and feminism.

That being said, there is something fishy about triumphing Hillary as a portrait of feminine power. Any way you slice it, her rise to power was in direct consequence of her husband's political success. Now, I know, there is a perfectly strong argument to be made that were she not a capable and intelligent woman, it wouldn't matter whose wife she was, she never would have been elected. I agree with that, wholeheartedly. HOWEVER, there are thousands upon thousands of women who are capable and intelligent and thick-skinned enough to survive a candidate for Senate or President, but who never get the chance due to the lack of political capital.

While I will never begrudge anyone using their ties to showcase their own abilities, it still clangs a bit with me to say that she whole heartedly earned this. Barack Obama rose for nobody status some five years ago to be the leader in the presidential race. Of course, the obstacles for women are different than the obstacles for men, but this is a man of African ancestry we're talking about. And he's a self-made man in the classic American Dream sense. I don't mean to downplay the hills Mrs. Clinton has had to climb, but I also am not willing to ignore the help by name and exposure she has had.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Regina Slawski (1918-2008), In Memoriam

My great aunt, Regina Slawski, died last week after complications from a fall. Truth be told, we were not all that close. I have not seen her in easily twelve years. For my entire life she lived in Detroit while I lived in Illinois, Massachusetts, and now New York. But for a period of my life, I would see her every summer at small family reunions every year at her daughter Kathy's house just outside of Kalamazoo, Michigan. It was a relatively easy drive from Downers Grove, IL (and then DeKalb, when we moved there) and my mother was always fond of bonding with the cousins with whom she spent many summers as a child.

Regina was my grandpa's older sister, and they had a real guts-and-grime American story. They were all born and raised in Dickson City, PA. As family legend has it, none of the children in the family (of which there were 9? 10? 8 of whom lived to adulthood that I can name) learned English until formal schooling, being the children of Polish immigrants and living in a predominantly Polish coal mining community in Northeastern Pennsylvania. (So close to Scranton that if you pay attention, they occasionally name-check Dickson City on "The Office" for verisimilitude's sake.)

Regina was identical twin sisters with Alice (Alicia in Polish), and they were my grandpa's older sisters. My grandpa was the baby of the family, and it is my memory that he was forever treated by them as the baby in the family. It never hurt that he was the most charming man I've ever met.

Regina and Alice were the sort of identical twins that PBS documentarians would eat up with a spoon. During World War II, they both moved to the Detroit area to work in the war effort while the boys (their husbands, Hank (Regina) and Fred (Alice)) were off at war. They settled in the working class suburb of Wyandotte, Michigan. They both had three daughters. They both worked at the phone company. But perhaps the most strange thing, the strangeness of which was lost on me until just a few years ago, was that they lived in IDENTICAL HOUSES three doors apart. IDENTICAL. While, ostensibly, the interior decor differed, they were both prime examples of depression-era-second-generation-Polish-American-turned-middle-class chic. READ: easy chairs, dark formica dining room tables, portraits of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus. I don't intend to mock; all of that stuff is very comforting and homey to me.

Regina and her sister Alice lived a dual life together for 89years until last Wednesday. Needless to say, I cannot imagine the loss Aunt Alice feels. As she noted to my grandma, "I'm the last one left," given that all of her siblings have died. That being said, few losses can be compared to the loss of a twin sibling, I would imagine. My heart goes out to her and all of Aunt Regina's family.

While all of this is sad, Aunt Regina's passing reminded me of one of my favorite childhood memories:

We gathered in the Detroit area many several times for 50th wedding anniversaries, landmark birthdays and the like. When I was about six or seven years old, we trucked out to Detroit in our Isuzu Trooper for Aunt Regina and Uncle Hank's 50th wedding anniversary. (NOTE: The Isuzu was something of a faux pas, as we were visiting our working class family from Detroit. My hippie mother, however, was always something of a rebel, so it was no surprise to anybody that she'd roll into town in a Japanese car with a hippie husband with long hair and two very strange children.) My grandparents, Frank and Martha, were also, obviously, in attendance.

It stands to reason that Regina and Alice looked very similar, as they were identical twins. What was strange is, with a mere squint, my grandmother could have passed for a triplet with the two, in spite of the fact that she had married in to the family. My grandma was very good friends with Regina and Alice, and I was not the only one who could mistake them for sisters...or one another.

Sometime in the course of the weekend I found myself in either Aunt Regina or Aunt Alice's house (who could tell?...though I believe it was Aunt Regina's) and I was unable to find a familiar face of immediate family. At last, in the kitchen, was a woman in navy blue pants and a white blouse with a white perm of hair, her back turned toward me. "Aha!" my seven-year-old self thought. "Grandma!"

I ran over and hugged her leg and exclaimed, "Grandma!" Aunt Regina turned around and noticed Joanne's weird little spectacled wisp of a boy. "Oh!" she exclaimed. "I'm sorry sweetie! I'm not your grandma. But I'm somebody's grandma, so it's okay!" And with that she swept me up into a hug and planted a kiss on my cheek. Following that, she demonstrated the ultimate gesture of Polish love: she gave me something to eat.

That's my hallmark card, heart-warming Aunt Regina memory. She was a wonderful lady and I feel horrible for all my second-cousins who lost their grandma. Grandmas are one of the last really great thing in this world.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Sex and the City is Stupid and Harmful, or The Impotent Declarations of a Grumpy Chicken Little in Brooklyn

After investing $35 on a, what seems to me, high-tech television antenna, I finally have television reception (sort of) in my apartment. Of course, were I a real high-tech American, I'd fork over the dough to have cable like an informed citizen. But I'm cheap and broke and in debt and don't want to flush my life away to the siren song of television more than I already do.

The truth of the matter is this: I watch as much television now as I would with cable, I just watch more PBS (good) and more syndicated bullshit (bad) than I would if I had Jon Stewart at my fingertips. And so I found myself, some nights back, with a rapidly flattening bottle of Ballantine Ale, clicker-in-hand, watching a syndicated (and, no doubt, highly edited) episode of Sex and the City.

I have always harbored a vague sense of hatred about this show, having watched 2/3 of an episode in a motel room with HBO some years back. I hated it. But, it was late at night and I was somewhere south of sobriety and harboring a pouty seven year old's suspicion that going to bed before midnight was somehow admitting defeat. Defeat to whom, I do not know. When I was seven I was resisting the authoritative power wielded by my parents, but at twenty-six I think I'm just giving a big fuck you to common sense. I'm tired a lot at work.

So, I was wasting away on the sofa, as per usual and Sex and the City came on with its infectious faux-Latin ditty of a theme song, and I was rendered powerless to look away. Here, in brief synopsis is what actually happened on the show:

Carrie, (Sarah Jessica Parker's character, a relationship columnist for some fictional equivalent of the Post or Daily News) was invited to a baby shower for one of her friends who had actually grown the fuck up. Upon arriving to the baby shower, Carrie is informed that in her friend's house, shoes are removed upon entry. This is an affront to Carrie's sense of taste and decency (good thing she didn't go to virtually every suburban birthday party I attended as a child...mom always made sure I wore good, hole-free socks b/c going shoeless was de rigueur in the Midwestern suburban homes of my youth...of course Midwestern and suburban are anathema to Carrie's whole being, so..). Carrie grudgingly sheds her shoes, which are Manolos and therefor sacred, as they tie her whole ensemble together.

In the process of the shower, her holy shoes go missing (egad!) and is lent a pair of shoes to walk home with the hope that they turn up later. Alas, some days later, no shoes left. Her friend hesitantly agrees to pay for them offering $200, but is informed that they were, in fact, $500 shoes. (And I don't know from women's shoes, but they looked kinda tacky to me.) Her friend scoffs and says something regarding having a "real" life now and can't afford such frivolous expenditures anymore. Carrie bristles at the idea that her pampered, Upper East Side lifestyle is anything less than "real." Carrie does not accept her friend's offer of $200 and leaves huffily.

Crafty woman that she is, Carrie hatches a plan: she declares herself as married TO herself and sets up a wedding registry at the high end store where the $500 shoes in question originated. She registers for the same shoes and informs her friend of her wedding to self. What a courageously independent woman! God bless those who struggle through being single, beautiful, and wealthy! What courage!

The shoes arrive and are greeted with a smug smile of self-satisfaction, along with a contrite note from her friend about minimizing her lifestyle. And, at last, we are greeted with the moral of the story, in voice over, (paraphrased): "They say you need to walk a mile in someone else's shoes to truly understand them. It's hard walking around in a single girl's shoes, and that's why it's important to have pretty shoes so that walking alone isn't so lonely!"

This actually happened in this episode. Really. This is the uplifting message we are to take away from this episode.

Please excuse me while I wipe the vomit I inadvertently dribbled on to my shirt. How is this show so popular again?

I am glad I am not raising a fifteen year old daughter who could be exposed to this schlock and have it sold as neo-feminism.

Why is this offensive? Allow me to expound. Watch out, vitriol to follow:

I am completely astounded that these sorts of crass displays of wealth and Upper East Side snobbery played well in Peoria. This was a massively successful show (so successful that all of New York City is currently under the plague of the recent movie made...) and it stands to reason that it had good ratings nationwide, in spite of the fact that it appears to me to exemplify the exact sort of perceptions of asshole rich New Yorkers that most of the nation hates. Why? Why do we praise and romanticize garish displays of wealth that are well out of the reach of the "rest of us?" How is it that the entitlement implicit in "deserving" $500 shoes is marketable to a nation who's average household income was $48,000 in 2006? $500 is almost rent! I've driven cars not worth $500! Who but handful of rich Manhattan ladies-about-town can relate to this dreck?

Sure the money thing offends me. Garish displays of wealth offend me. I suppose, however, that it's just an example of wealth porn. We, Americans, have been conditioned to flock toward displays of money that are well beyond are means because we are constantly marketed to. I suppose it's some sort of comforting escapism to indulge in the thought of fabulous riches, as that has been set in our minds that that's what a successful individual has. It's like a professor I once had said about the rural poor's tendencies toward voting Republican: "They're practicing being greedy assholes just in case they themselves get rich someday." Combine this with the plucky, go-get-'em-tiger fallacy of the American Dream and upward mobility, and maybe I begin to understand why this is appealing, whereas the gritty realism of lower middle class life exemplified in Roseanne lacked a bit of cachet. Fine, I'll swallow the bitter pill of this conceit.

My perspective on the class angles of Sex and the City are in no doubt informed by my experiences as a damn-near-Socialist sociology major some years back. It's also, probably, partially sour-grapes. I live in New York, albeit now in a humble and otherwise unfashionable neighborhood in Brooklyn, but I work at an Ivy League university in Manhattan, so outward displays of wealth are not lost on me. I also am in no position to make any great sums of money myself anytime in the near future. I accept that I might just be bitter.

What I cannot understand, is how this show has appealed to many strong, intelligent young women that I have known, many of whom are self-described feminists. (ASIDE: The term "feminist" is an interesting conundrum with many of my generation. Many young women who, say, like voting and want to succeed in academics and the workplace are hesitant to self-describe as "feminist" because we've been fed a line that feminists have to be reactionary misandrists like the late Andrea Dworkin. So, many independent young women are hesitant. Some have embraced terms like "neo-feminist" and "post-feminist," but I do not see how we need a new term for the basic assumption that men and women are both capable, intelligent, and ought to be treated equally. But that's a different rant.)

Many women I know love this show. Plenty enjoy it with varying levels of guilt. I've been told that it's even an empowering show for women, because it is a show that celebrates feminine sexuality and women being in charge of their own sexuality. While I would argue that there is often a strong undercurrent of co-dependency and neediness with regard to men and relationships in this show, I will let that slide because this particular episode infuriated me for other reasons. Even if Carrie is fully empowered in this show, even if she has full control of her own sexuality in this episode, she is still depressingly yielding her self-value and self-worth to consumerism in this episode. Her shoe are what makes it easier to get through the day as a single "girl?" BWAHH!??

Firstly, if the moral is it's hard to be single...I can understand the desire for partnership. But if your mission is to promote independent womanhood, then this seems a bit counterintuitive. Even worse, that one's inflatedly priced (and downright ugly) shoes are what lend your life worth, you've got some pretty fucked up priorities, Ms. Bradshaw. If this is what passes for empowerment (being beholden to crass symbols of one's viability as a consumer), then we've got a long way yet to go, baby.

It is not to say that personal empowerment and ritzy shoes are mutually exclusive. They're not. I don't begrudge someone for wanting nice things. I'm not actually a Socialist. I own a very expensive Bose stereo that makes me very happy. However, to say that such consumer goods can be an even remotely reasonable way to determine one's self worth is sickening. It's not just anti-feminist; it's a pretty preposterous and disgusting commentary on contemporary American humanity.

And I haven't even gotten into this show's blatantly disrespectful and stereotypical depiction of homosexuals! But I've rambled enough. I hope I don't injure myself getting off this soap box.

I am, however, a glutton for punishment...so I wouldn't surprise myself a bit if I found myself awake at midnight, beer in hand, watching Sex and the City again tonight.

Monday, April 14, 2008

God Bless Recidivism!

Today is the first day of quitting smoking. Okay, to be frank, today is the first day of what might easily be the tenth time in my life that I've tried to quit smoking. Thanks to transdermal nicotine, I'm not drawing Fibonacci spirals on the soft flesh of my face with my finger nails, but I'm a bit jittery. Partially it's that I'm still getting nicotine (in an efficient metered dose: I have become an optimized nicotine junkie), but partially because by about Time Ten, one really gets to the point where he knows what to expect upon quitting.

First and foremost, for those who haven't quit smoking or were clever enough to avoid that steamrollercoaster in their impressionable years of 15-20 (when most of us take up the filthy habit in a childish stab at appearing debonair), the ugly part isn't a sustained sensation of want, but rather a series of small, heartbreaking defeats throughout the day. I am, when I smoke, a heavy smoker. I would sacrifice a kidney, quite possibly, to be one of those smug sorts who can have one or two cigarettes at a party on Friday and not so much as think about it again until the following Friday. Alas, left to my own devices, I am NOT a social smoker, I am an anti-social smoker. Hunched underneath an awning in the rain, hiding from civilization, trying to suck the fucker down in one drag; leaning out my window at two AM in my boxer shorts; inventing fake incoming phone calls on my cell phone that require me to step out and away from my non-smoking buddies in a bar. So when I quit smoking, I get the pangs of desire 20, 30, 40 times a day and everytime I think, "Oh good...I'll go have a ciga...oh, shit....I don't get to do that anymore...SIGH..." What follows is the sort of sadness one feels at age 8 when one's mother informs them that one's dog, Cap'n Barks-a-lot has gone to "retire" at a big farm in the country where he can run free and pee on other dogs for eternity. Don't be deceived, it is a sadness...a childish it's-not-fair-I'll-take-my-ball-and-go-home-nobody-loves-me-guess-I'll-go-eat-worms sort of sadness. For me, it's 20, 30, 40 times a day I go through this minor torture.

So to combat this, I am in my pajamas at 9:30, writing for the first time in months. I am writing, because I don't wish to wallow and I wish for distraction, yet I find myself writing about quitting smoking, so I'm still indulging the monkey a bit. For companionship, I am sucking on an old pipe I had lying around from a particularly high-fallutin' era of pretension my sophomore year in college when I fancied myself something of a pipe-smoking dandy. All the experts tell you in their flakey literature that one is wise to divorce himself from all reminders of smoking, and so sucking on a pipe that has a slight stale tobacco taste to it lingering lo these seven years later would be indulgent and not therapeutic. To that, I say fuck 'em. Who are the experts? I'm an expert. I've quit smoking ten times...who would know better than me what is and is not good for me?

I don't mean to say that there aren't pleasures to quitting smoking; there most certainly are benefits. I could prattle on about how in two days things will taste better and how in ten years I'll be less likely to get cancer and how in twenty years I'll have lungs the strength of ten men, or whatever the statistics are. Those are all very good reasons, along with saving enough to own beachfront property, but I'm talking about the actual pleasures of quitting qua quitting, not the benefits of not smoking anymore.

Quitting smoking, even from its very earliest stages, fills one with an arrogant sort of 'got-the-world-by-the-short-hairs-now-is-the-time-to-live-my-dreams' sort of delusion of virtuousness. Hence, I am writing. I figure, I talk about writing a great deal...but never put money where my mouth is. Needless to say, I am aware that blogging is a form of communication scarcely more official than toilet graffiti, but we start small and then we build, ok?

All joking aside, even from the first day of quitting, there is an underlying feeling of maybe-I-should-try-to-be-the-man/woman-I-always hoped to be. Today alone, I have eaten healthier than I have in months. I walked for an hour and half through Manhattan while listening to Erik Satie. Egad! Who is this virtuous, seemingly healthy adult who strolls through Central Park listening to classical music? Why, it's a clean and healthy and virtuous man who might go home that evening and actually write something, that's WHO! (I even did my dishes after dinner tonight, as opposed to letting them fester until tomorrow.)

And how did I get this in touch with my priorities? How'd I get this downy-white take-charge let's-live-life-while it lasts attitude? By quitting smoking! And why do I get to quit smoking, again, for the tenth (honestly, it's probably more like the twelfth) time? Because I am indulgent sinner at my core, who relishes recidivism and indulges in any nearby excuse to delve back into his darker, more prurient side. This time it was visitors from out-of-town who smoke. I'd have been a terrible host had I not let them smoke in my living room, no? I'd, too, have been pretty darn un-celebratory to abstain from joining them in a postprandial smoke over a digestiv glass of wine? How could I not follow that one indulgence with anything but huffing a half a pack of Camels down while drinking every drop of booze in the house? I'd have made a pretty shoddy host, no?

Luckily for me, I get to atone and be the cleanest boyscout in the room come Monday. God Bless Recidivism!