Sunday, August 31, 2008

nothing is permitted

Took this picture in an East Village apartment building.  Love it.

(click to enlarge)

Q. Am I allowed to walk up the stairs to get to my friend's apartment?
A. No.  Walking is not permitted.
Q. So does that mean I should just turn back around and leave the building?
A. Absolutely not.  Leaving is not permitted.
Q. Then do I have to, like, freeze here like a living statue?
A. What part of "nothing is permitted" do you not understand?  Living statues: not permitted.
Q. Um.
A. And stop examining this sign!  Reading is not permitted!
A. Silence is not permitted!
Q. So what am I supposed to do?
A. Not our problem!  Besides which, supposing is not permitted!

Bicycles certainly are not permitted—but then, neither is the absence of bicycles.  The same goes for memories!  The progress of time and the existence of matter and energy: not permitted.  And yes, signs are out of the question, but so are blank walls, logic, paradox, and all things conceptual, concrete, real, imaginary...  Are you beginning to get the point?  We hope not: the getting of points is strictly forbidden.


Saturday, August 30, 2008

summer: one of those words that look ridiculous if you concentrate on them for five seconds

Alt85 got all summery this week.  Lots of pictures.

So OK: Decision 2008!  Your favorite post of the week!  Vote or die!

  1. Our quick look at the hidden connections between things (e.g., girlfriends)!
  2. Our harrowing run-in with some kind of sex pervert, and the consequences thereof!
  3. Our quick and decisive attack on that three-headed monster: faulty parallelism, high fives, and the current decade!
  4. Our reminder of the insoluble bonds joining breakfast and pornography!
  5. Our delight in two (one and two) local dermatologists' subway ads (brought to you by!
  6. Our thoughtful comparison of the (mythical?) "Nobama" voter and your garden-variety extraterrestrial predator!
  7. Our recognition of Aldo Shoes for putting the "Freud" back in "fuck-me boots"*!
  8. And a big heavy one for old times' sake, about, I don't know, the true meaning of Xmas or something.

* Actually, I don't know—are those fuck-me boots?

Friday, August 29, 2008

and a big heavy one for old times' sake

"One might suspect that these family and personal conflicts are put in the foreground in order to cover up the much more fundamental, severe, and painful conflicts between conscience, integrity, authenticity, and self-interest.  Usually these latter conflicts are not even seen as such but are quickly shoved away as irrational, romantic, 'infantile' impulses that need not and should not be pursued any further.  Yet they are the crucial conflicts of everyone's life, much more crucial than divorce or not divorce—which, most of the time, is only the replacement of an older by a new model."
-Fromm, The Art of Being, 59

Earlier in the same book, Fromm quotes the Buddha as saying that a monk should not engage in trivial, "vulgar" talk—and among the subjects identified as trivial and vulgar are "kings...famine and war...eating, drinking, clothing and lodgings...relatives...villages, towns, cities and countries...women and wine...ancestors...the origins of the world and the sea, talk about things being so or otherwise, and similar matters" (21).  Reading this, I was taken aback: war is trivial?  You're not supposed to talk about politics, about the world, about your family, about your personal life—you're not even supposed to talk metaphysics, it looks like!  Most of us would be left with very little to say.

There was this kid I knew in college who didn't seem to be making any sense half the time but was reportedly kind of a genius, and I remember once either he or an acquaintance told me he viewed the world as literature1—or maybe it was that he analyzed the world the way you'd analyze literature...?  Now, I'm known (I'm told) to reinterpret people's casual comments and to endow them with weighty meaning that was never intended (Bloom might call that a strong misreading...but probably he wouldn't2), but maybe what this crazy kid was getting at—not too entirely different from my shit about the 1:1—was that the "big" things in life, the hugest, most important things, are in a way "really" just a kind of metaphor or symbol for something much deeper and more profound.  I'm thinking Nabokov's otherworld [потусторонность],3 here...

"[Dreams] contain, in a very vague, diluted state, more genuine reality than our vaunted waking life which, in its turn, is semi-sleep, an evil drowsiness into which penetrate in grotesque disguise the sounds and sights of the real world, flowing beyond the periphery of the mind—as when you hear during sleep a dreadful insidious tale because a branch is scraping on a pane, or see yourself sinking into snow because your blanket is sliding off."
(Invitation to a Bedwetting, 92)

...except that there's no need to get mystical in our case (even in a hyper-intellectual Nabokovian sense): maybe the reason we care so much about the "big" things, the reason they matter, is that they affect our humanity, and in more than one important sense our humanity is the main thing that matters...?

(This photo has nothing to do with anything.4)

Put it another way: we've all heard the saying (in Kurt Cobain's words) "Just because you're paranoid don't mean they're not after you"; well, it's just as true that just because they're after you don't mean you're not paranoid.  It has occurred to me more than once that the deadly reality of HIV–AIDS (e.g.) only makes that epidemic more intense as a kind of living metaphor or anxiety: I want to use the word theophany, but it's obviously not right...maybe phobophany?  Similarly, it seems to me that our fascination with war, even in peacetime, goes past any kind of practical concern and has a lot to do with what war tells us about ourselves, about our mortality, about our proximity to all that we cannot possibly understand [see Gravity's Rainbow].

And so maybe—probably—American politics and this particular presidential election mean so much to me in part because of their significance in my own personal cosmos.  To put it all another way, maybe there's something to be gained from analyzing the events of the real world as if they were dreams...

1 Another time he told me that "the world will end in thievery—perhaps some greedy bug" (?).
2 And in fact I'm not at all sure that my idea of "strong misreadings" has very much to do with what Bloom meant by it in the first place—e.g.
3 I don't speak Russian.  I've got a friend.
4 Or does it??

Thursday, August 28, 2008

parallelism, parallelism, as far as the eye can see

Another great ad on the subway, in the same grammatical vein as the Zizmor:

(click to enlarge)

This is a list of what, exactly?  All together, as if in a shared category:
  • Scar Removal
  • Laser Hair Removal
  • Skin Surgery
  • Psoriasis
  • Chemical Peels
  • Blood Vessels
  • Botox Injections
  • Acne
  • Warts [my favorite]
  • Collagen Injections
  • Fungal
Fungal isn't even a noun!

I love it.  I love it I love it I love it.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ads and Their Relation to the Unconscious
(or, Mad Men)

Here's a picture I took two weeks ago of a billboard on Lafayette Street:

(click to enlarge)

Does someone want to try to explain to me why Aldo would choose to have their model reading Peter Gay's biography of Sigmund Freud?  How exactly does that operate, advertising-wise?  I really want to know.

(My best guess is: "Look, she's reading a book—and it's not one you've seen advertised on the subway!  Aldo's shoes are for smart, sophisticated people."  But still...Peter Gay's biography of Sigmund Freud?)

Sen. Clinton's lunatic fringe

Remember in Aliens when Ripley tells Paul Reiser he's worse than the aliens because you don't see them "fucking each other over" the way it turns out he's been fucking over his human companions?

That's pretty much how I feel about the "Nobama" Clinton supporters* who reportedly intend—entirely out of spite—to vote for Sen. McCain or not at all: these people are worse than Republicans.

Say what you want about the Bush–McCain crowd; at least they're voting for the candidate they believe (incorrectly) to be better for America.

So here's the moral hierarchy, then, to review:
"Nobama" < McCain < monsters from outer space

[Yes, you will be responsible for this on the exam.]

* Assuming they actually exist and aren't a conservative or news-media invention/exaggeration, which seems actually not at all unlikely...

more faulty parallelism

I took this shitty photograph on the subway because it's such a good example of a mistake I always enjoy.

So a locally famous dermatologist offers the following services:


Hold the phone...!  As they said on Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the other.

"Yes, I'd like to come in to get a total complexion treatment, one of those 'famous peels,' and...yeah, you know, while I'm there, lemme just get a couple of blemishes on my face and back, too."

Dr. Zizmor.  You'll come for the custom skin regimens; you'll stay for the dark spots and scars.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Sara Lee XXX

A couple of years ago I searched for Sara Lee on MaxDelivery to see whether they had those delicious corn muffins I used to love (mmmmm), and they did not, but at the bottom of the list of Sara Lee products they did have, there was a link that said, "Additional Results in Adult DVDs. Click here to view."

So of course I clicked there to view, and confirmed that I was 21 or something, and this is what came up:

(click to enlarge)

"Brandon's big boner frozen in time 1996–1999." What's great is that I hadn't searched "Sara Lee frozen" or anything, which might have made a little more sense. MaxDelivery just felt that if I was interested in Sara Lee's corn muffins, then Brandon Lee's big boner would probably be up my alley as well.

Gay porn: it's part of your complete breakfast!

a few things

  1. Here's why I'm excited for the year 2010: for the first time since the 1900s, we'll be able to say like "twenty ten," "twenty sixteen," "twenty twenty-four"1—instead of this "two thousand eight" baloney.  Prince didn't say, "Tonight we're gonna party like it's one thousand nine hundred ninety-nine."2  BONUS: We'll also have a name for our decade again (haven't actually heard anyone with the chutzpah to call this one "the Aughts"), although in that department what we really ought3 to be looking forward to is the '20s...
  2. I'm going to come out right now as not digging the high five.  Sorry, I just don't care for it.  Doesn't grab me.  But part of the problem is—didn't the high five used to be4 a special variation?  The high five.  "Gimme five" was a low five, wasn't it?  Or at least a neutral five.  We live in a society in which every ovation is a standing ovation.  Why does every five have to be high?  Fuck that!  And while we're on the subject, bring back the boo!  Call it a crazy pendulum swing if you like, but I think I'm just about ready for the standing execration.
  3. The hilarious consequences of faulty parallelism, Episode XXVI:

"We are a service company that happens to"

And that's all you get.

1 The year Michelle Obama runs for president wins the presidency!
2 Although, to be fair, that would have been a pretty amazing song.
3 No pun intended.  No, really.
4 Apparently "didn't used to" is correct, although it always makes me cringe.  (I'm very sensitive.)

Monday, August 25, 2008

reader feedback

On Saturday night I ran into an Alt85 reader, apparently some kind of a drifter who presumably had been reading the blog in a branch of the New York Public Library, and you know what he said to me?  He said, "You write a dense blog post."  The alcohol on his breath nearly knocked me out, and when I said something very tactful about it, he said, "Well, I may be drunk tonight, but tomorrow...I..." and he drifted off into a coma.

Well, I can take criticism gracefully, even from somebody with strawberry ice cream on his suit.  Henceforth, I will write lighter, airier blog posts!  They will involve lists, and pictures!  And they will be much, much shorter.


Take a look at this picture I took of an advertisement on a taxicab* (you ought to be able to click to enlarge if you need to examine it more closely), and then answer a little question for me.

Does that guy, or does he not, have his fingers in that little girl's crotch?


© 2008 Short Round Enterprises

* Note: after rereading The Catcher in the Rye, I concluded that we should go back to calling them taxicabs instead of just taxis or cabs.  Also, I concluded that we should write out street names, like "Barney Greengrass is on Columbus Avenue just north of West Eighty-sixth Street."  No one agreed.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Can you triangulate your position, Howard?

Sometimes the connections between things are hidden, and we can only see them indirectly.*  I think Freud wrote about something like this in On Dreams, but I'm not sure, and I guess it's also related to what I was saying about 1:1 correspondence and poetry.  Anyway, these sideways connections or, rather, the fact of them has serious relevance to our human experience and the search for meaning—but instead of focusing on that, I'm just going to share a couple of personal examples with you.  (For whatever reason, every last one has to do with women I dated; if there's any significance in that, I suspect you'll find it "sideways" as well.)

(1) I was watching Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous with my girlfriend in whatever year that was (2000—thank you, IMDb**) and she kept leaning over and whispering, "She looks just like Goldie Hawn!"  And I had no idea why she was saying that, and I didn't even really particularly see it.  But then, afterwards, when she told me that Kate Hudson was Goldie Hawn's daughter, which I hadn't known, I was like, "Whoa," because Hudson had reminded me of a friend of mine whose mother had always reminded me of Goldie Hawn! 

(2) Sometimes you hear that people keep dating the same person over and over again (not literally).  But so I had two exgirlfriends, and they seemed so totally different to me (although in hindsight at least one connection is pretty obvious) that I figured I must be immune to that kind of patterning.  Not so: it hit me all of a sudden one day that Diane Keaton in Annie Hall reminded me of one of these two girlfriends and Diane Keaton in Manhattan reminded me of the other.  And of course in both movies, Keaton is playing a role created and written by Woody Allen, who had a real-life relationship with her and reportedly based these characters at least in part upon that relationship!!

(3) Sometimes, too, you hear that men are inclined to date their mothers and that women are inclined to date their fathers (again, not literally).  But so this one girlfriend of mine seemed to be nothing at all like my mother, until I realized that my girlfriend's mother was rather a lot like my mother's mother, in certain key respects!!!

(4) This one time, I was totally doing it with Milla Jovovich, and she was like, "[Short Round], I'm yours," and I was like, "Milla, I know, but you've got to go back to your fiancé Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil, Alien vs. Predator); think of your child," and she argued at first but then finally she was like, "You're right...but I'll never forget you."  And she left me her underwear.  That's not strictly relevant, but it was totally awesome!!!!!!!

* Sort of the way that cloaking device (SBE, I think it was called) worked in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: as I recall, you could only see this one spaceship if you weren't really paying attention to it.
** Fuck you, too, because just as cell phones have created a world in which we no longer know all our friends' phone numbers, the IMDb has helped create a world in which my friends and I were able to spend practically 30 minutes last night trying and failing to remember the name of the actor who was in The Ice Storm and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and who played Frodo in The Lord of the Rings ("I wrote it down sho I wouldn't have to remember!") until finally we had to crawl back to the IMDb like addicts in withdrawal...although, actually, on second thought, that was some pretty good fun, so...  But still, fuck the internet.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

life goes on

The days clump into weeks and the weeks into months...and we're headed toward what?  Will human civilization exist in the 22nd century? the 23rd?  Will people still eat pizza?  Will anyone listen to the Beatles?

Answers below!

  • Here's why infidelity is a problem!
  • Here's how I feel about Israel (and about the naming of sequels)!
  • Here's the deal with Las Vegas!
  • Here's how you make a couple of nouns possessive!
  • Here are some questions about Infinite Jest!

Friday, August 22, 2008

On Jealousy

[The following is an excerpt from a story I wrote about 2½ years ago.  It represents a satirical exaggeration of my own beliefs—I think it's reductive but partially true.  And here it is.]

On Jealousy

     I don't much go for the power-struggle view of human relationships, nor do I feel comfortable with the possessiveness that can creep into these affairs, but there is definitely something about seeing your girlfriend with another man (or, more commonly, visualizing it, which is the same thing), something deeply, powerfully discomfiting, to say the least.

     Now, some don't care to acknowledge it, but the fact of the matter is that you can locate the root, the cause—sometimes even the basic form or template of almost all complex human experience way the hell down deep in the biological, evolutionary, instinctual muck and filth of our animal selves and personalities.  Jealousy is the perfect example.  Why do people get jealous?  What's the reason?

     Men and women get jealous for different reasons and in different ways.

     Why does a man care whether another man sleeps with his woman?  Why does it bother him so much?  Why does the sight or mental image of such a thing cause him such distress?

     Answer: his most basic need and purpose in life is to ensure that his genes get passed along, that his children are born and that they live long enough to pass those genes along even further.  And any time the man is sticking around investing time and effort in the protection of one or more of these offspring—particularly if it's one of those monogamous deals in which he isn't free to go spreading it around, impregnating other women—then just about the worst thing that can happen is his getting stuck protecting some other man's child.  That's the big danger when your woman sleeps around: that she'll get pregnant and you won't know whose.  There, in turn, you find the whole meaning behind the cuckold stigma: evolutionary–existential meaninglessness—bafflement, at best.

     Seeing another man have sex with your woman is preferable (in the wild) only to two things: seeing a predator make off with your baby and seeing a predator make off with your penis.

     That's why men are most afraid of the sex aspect of cheating and women are most afraid of the emotional aspect.  Women, too, want to pass on their genes, but they don't have to worry about their men's getting laid up for nine months with some rival individual's genetic information, reproductively unavailable; nor do they have to worry about getting stuck raising somebody else's baby.  In a state of nature, you can be sure that any baby that comes out of your vagina has at least one parent who is you.

     So why do women care if their men fuck around?

     As far as women are concerned (on this primal level we're talking about), men have only one use once they've spurted, or squirted, as Chloë says in the Whit Stillman film Last Days of Disco—and it's not love and comfort.  Those things are evolutionary tools for making sure the important stuff gets done.  And the important stuff is: sticking around for a bare minimum of nine months to make sure baby gets born and, once she's born, doesn't die.  (This is important to men, too, that their offspring don't die—but men could spend that whole nine months impregnating as many women as possible; women are too busy being pregnant to hedge their genetic bets with other men.)  So the real thing women are afraid of is abandonment.

     In other words, a woman should hate to see her man sleeping with another woman only because it might suggest emotional intimacy, whereas a man should hate to see evidence of emotional intimacy between his woman and another man only because it might suggest that they're sleeping together.

     It is my understanding that you cannot copyright a theory, so let it be recognized that the theory laid out here is my theory and that I came up with it—just in case it takes hold in the public consciousness and becomes one of those things that everybody "just knows," the way Freud has been "discredited" and yet half of what everybody goes around saying and thinking is Freud.

[Interesting side note: this little mini-essay struck me, this time around (2008), as serving almost as a kind of roundabout argument for gay love's being the purest love...which is probably true anyway.]

Thursday, August 21, 2008

What I Believe: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

(1)  Sequels should not be numbered.  They should have new names. Examples:
  • Star Wars 2 = The Empire Strikes Back
  • Raiders 2 = Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  • Johnny Mnemonic 2 = The Matrix.
(2)  On second thought, no, they should be numbered.

(3)  I wrote before* about the ways in which our opinions can become more extreme as a response to real or perceived opposition.  This is why, in my opinion (and speaking of Jews [we will be]), most of the Jews I knew growing up in New York City could barely even have been said to be religious (I remember once when growing up hearing a peer state unequivocally that he believed in God, and I was practically floored), whereas whenever I meet Jews from Texas (e.g.), they spell God with a dash instead of an O and can't believe I don't know what a "minyan" is: it's because in New York you've got more Jews than you've got in Israel (is that the statistic?), so it's hard to feel marginalized and therefore unlikely that a feeling of marginalization or oppression will drive you to freak out about being Jewish.

     More specifically, I wrote about how I've been trying to fight that and to let myself have opinions rather than arguments.  So, as I said earlier, I realized when my grandfather died that, well, I don't believe in any kind of afterworld.  This is something I used to get all up in arms about because of the fact that some crazy huge percentage of  the population not only does believe in an afterworld but is inclined to think you're going to its overheated basement if you don't...but when I try to think about what I believe rather than what other people believe, it's really quite clear: I am quite confident that my grandfather is neither sitting on a cloud nor roasting in a lake of fire, just as much as I'm sure that he isn't haunting the ballroom of the Essex House (or Sex House, as he once claimed the broken sign had read), where he and my grandmother went on their honeymoon.

     One of my very least popular beliefs, and one that, as a direct consequence of its unpopularity, has often taken rather extreme, exaggerated, and provocative forms, has to do with Israel.  I get nervous even typing out the word.  American Jews are very very sensitive about Israel, very sensitive indeed.  As late as the year 2000, I recall that if I ever mentioned anything to a Jewish friend about not being so fond of Israel, the response was not horror or outrage but actual incomprehension, as if I had said, "I like hot dogs don't like hot dogs," or something similarly nonsensical.  Until the Second Intifada, which began that fall, my Jewish friends seemed literally not to believe me when I voiced any criticism of Israel**—it didn't even get to the point of a disagreement.  After the Second Intifada, when the national debate become much louder and more public (if not particularly balanced), they started to believe me.  And man, did they not like it.

     Point being simply that here, more than arguably anywhere else in my intellectual life, was a topic that really did bring down a shitstorm of controversy.  Not only that, but a certain kind of American Jew is extremely quick to call "anti-Semitism" in response to any criticism of Israel (so quick that it's not a logical progression, just an equivalence: anti-Zionism = anti-Semitism, full stop)—even, it turns out, when the criticism comes from a Jew.  So my feelings about Israel guaranteed not just disagreement but anger, and name-calling.  It is only the smallest exaggeration to say that I might as well have been denying the Holocaust.

     So, because I do not believe that Israel is Judaism, and because I felt (and sometimes was) under attack for my beliefs and believed (sometimes correctly) that the response to my beliefs was ignorant and bigoted and hateful and, in the case of theoretical liberals with theoretically humanistic values and a theoretical belief in human rights, even hypocritical—because of these things, my belief grew steely plated armor and became an aggressive, violent, militaristic version of itself.***  And so I found myself taking positions that went just a little too far—sometimes a lot too far—and getting into fights, and getting angrier and angrier and more and more defensive, until I was drawing equivalencies between Israel and Nazi Germany and saying that I didn't wish any physical harm to the people living there but thought that Israel ought to be wiped right off of the map.

     Hmm.  Yes.

     So.  What do I believe?  (Let me say straight off, for the record, that I do not believe that Israel should be wiped right off of the map.  And, yeah, I'm going to be really magnanimous here and say also that Israel's a lot better than Hitler's Deutschland.  Just to be clear.)


     I understand that Judaism and indeed monotheism itself have always had two main versions—or strands, or articulations—right from the start:
  1. You know how we all worship different gods?  Well, there's actually only one, and he's the king of the whole universe, the god not just of us Jews but also of all the people in the world—including you!  So we might have thought we were worshiping different, competing gods, but actually we're all worshiping different versions of the one big god of all mankind.
  2. Our god is the only real god.  Your god is bullshit.
My understanding of Judaism was always based on the first of those two attitudes, Judaism as an essentially humanistic tradition.  The Judaism I grew up with was one that was opposed to all forms of tyranny and oppression, and the Jews I grew up believing in were people who, having been scattered across the planet and pretty badly oppressed in a lot of places by a lot of people, knew better than anyone that oppression is evil.  At my family's seder (my one quasireligious event of the year), Passover is about the Biblical story of a successful slave revolt, which is a metaphor for freedom and liberty from all kinds of authoritarian evil.

     To be fair, I must acknowledge that my idea of Judaism and monotheism is no more valid than the other.  I believe it's ethically far superior, but I don't believe that it's any older or in that sense realer than the other: my guess is that both have existed from the beginning.  (In fact, knowing human beings,**** I might even guess that the fuck-you version came first.)  But I think it's as valid as the other.

     The same situation is true of America: right from the beginning, America was about freedom from tyranny, and it was also about the absolute moral superiority of Americans to all other peoples in the world; both of these attitudes were there right from the start, and they aren't compatible, but they sure are American.  And in both cases, I know where I stand.  I think American nationalism is a terrible thing.  In fact, I think all forms of nationalism are terrible.

     That goes for Jewish nationalism as well.

     So what do I believe about Israel?  The anger and extremism are symptoms of the argument, not the belief.  The belief is that Israel has no more claim to the essence of Judaism than any Jewish sect or shtetl (or schlemiel)—certainly no more than New York City, the capital of the Diaspora.  I find Israel embarrassing because it represents a kind of Judaism that is often in direct opposition to what, to me, is the essence of Judaism.  Some Jews are thrilled to see Jews in tanks and Jews holding machine guns and Jews winning wars.  This Jew is not thrilled.  This Jew sees Jews lining up to emulate their historical oppressors.  But I'm getting argumentative again.  What I believe about Israel is that it is not equal to or synonymous with Judaism.  And if I try to imagine a cultural vacuum in which nobody else had any opinions about it, and it wasn't treated as Judaism incarnate, well, then I suppose in the end my feelings reduce down to something just south of indifference.

     God says to Moses, "Moses, I don't want you cooking a calf in its mother's milk."  Moses says, "So we should keep meat and dairy separate?"  And God says, "No, I just don't want you cooking calves in their mothers' milk—it's cruel and nasty and I don't want you doing it."  And Moses says, "We should have separate plates and silverware?"  And God says, "What?  No, Moses, listen to me: calf, mother's milk, it's messed up, don't do it, that's all."  And Moses says, "If we get them mixed up, should we, like, burn the plates and silverware?  Bury 'em?"  And God says, "Moses, do whatever the fuck you want."

* Here and here.
** They may have thought I was making some kind of a strangely tasteless joke...which to be fair is not entirely beneath me (see above, arguably).
*** Huh...reminds me of a people and a nation...I can't think which ones...I'm sure it'll come to me.
**** Knowing all chordates, really.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Vegas as art

There's the idea that God is the universe—or that the universe is his word, that everything you see everywhere is God's message to mankind, to you—an idea I find appealing in much the same way that I'm tickled by the recognition that the natural–manmade distinction is false (in that, for example, Homo sapiens and all that it does on earth are part of nature, such that skyscrapers are every bit as much a part of capital-N Nature as anthills) or the notion that if E = mc2 and, more to the point, energy and matter can be turned into each other (just as—or, I don't know, I'm not a scientist, maybe not just as—water and ice and steam can be turned into each other), then in a way not only every piece of matter in the universe but essentially everything that every piece of matter in the universe does and has done to it is all basically just this one kind of meta-substance with variations in its shape or warp or...

Sometimes the stuff I find the very most interesting is the stuff that isn't quite what it's meant to be.  People go different ways on the question of whether an artist's personal life is relevant to your judgement of his art—e.g., is our experience of Manhattan affected by the tabloid spectacle of Woody Allen's life c.1993; can we still enjoy Hunger even though Knut Hamsun called Hitler "a warrior for mankind."  I tend to think that Hamlet would still be a good play even if it came out that Shakespeare used to molest children, and that Michael Chabon is a bad writer no matter how nice a guy he might be.  I suppose I wouldn't go so far as to say that context is irrelevant...more that its relevance will be indirect, circuitous—that there will be no 1:1 correspondence between the facts and their importance.  Think of sound traveling through water, or (in the same vein) the experience a fœtus must have of a dinner party its mother attends.

And but so Vegas, as in the city of Las Vegas, Nev., is a curious case because I basically love it while at the same time hating all that it stands for.  The place is capitalism on performance-enhancing drugs, everything designed specifically to leach out your money while making you think you're getting something for it.  And are you getting something for it?  The reason I say it's a kind of super-capitalism is that capitalism is all about profit, right?—the idea that if you act in your own self-interest, ultimately all society benefits: I'm going to turn out the best product possible, or the best entertainment, specifically so that you'll buy mine and not someone else's, and the net result is that products and entertainment just get better and better because of the magic of competition.  Is the idea.  Capitalism: not so well suited for art.  But in this hypercapitalism, all is exaggerated.  Gambling, in particular, inspires you to spend money by offering you little more than the spending of money itself—and as Donald Barthelme's brothers suggest in their book Double Down, the big thrill that never gets mentioned by anybody is that even losing is exciting.  It's like in those horrible Matrix sequels when Neo gets to, like, the very heart or nerve center of the machines, and instead of a big fight, he basically—what, gets absorbed into it or something?  Unclear.  Fuck those movies.

What I'm getting at is that Vegas is amazing, and it's amazing not simply because the hideous ugliness of what's actually going on there requires an incredibly flashy and overwhelming and even kind of beautiful disguise to make it bearable (which is 100% true), but because of the tension between the mask and the hideous ugliness, or even the fact of those things: what you wind up with in Vegas (if you are of a certain sensibility) is this wild narrative or—I even want to say self-satire, but not in the disparaging way that's usually meant—kind of like a poem...

I think I mentioned a while back the idea that what makes poetry poetry, or literature literature, is a tension between the explicit, surface-level sense of things and some kind of meaning beneath or beyond it, the idea being that anything you can "reduce" like a mathematical equation to a simple statement (x = 3; war is bad) is bad poetry if it's poetry at all.  "Real" literature must include some degree of tension, even if it's beautiful and highly bearable tension.*  Hence the one very positive thing I can say about Finnegans Wake (which I decided I wasn't actually going to try reading, or "reading"): Joyce seems to achieve that kind of poetic tension in some cases in a single word, as with the sort of incredible phoenish.  This effect is also what makes Pale Fire more than just a clever literary magic trick (it does not come down merely to a question of whether Kinbote's crazy**), and I would argue what makes Hamlet (and Hamlet) great.

As for Vegas, when you look at these incredible, crazy structures—which (again) are basically there to direct your eye away from the gruesomely awful shit that's really going on and (a little less paranoiacally) to put you in a spending mood, but which also are in some cases practically candidates for the n Wonders of the World—you're looking not just at incredible feats of human ingenuity and creativity, but at the motivation behind them, and the relationship between all these things, and it's sort of less like looking at a piece of art than it is like being inside a novel, somehow, a novel in the bold and totally insane classical tradition (revived in the 1960s) of like Satyricon and The Golden Ass...

Anyway, these are some pictures I took of the inside of this fucking pyramid that they built (it's a hotel and casino, of course).  It's one of the most amazing things I've ever seen.  (At the risk of undermining my own point, I'm going to go ahead and stick it to The Man a little by not giving the name of the hotel.  The least I can do.)

* Maybe tension is the wrong word.
** Nor does it come down to whether ghosts were running all over the place, was my big problem with Brian Boyd's book.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

grammarsluts: unsolved mysteries

A.  Yes well that's simple but raises an infuriating interesting question.  Here's the basic rule about making compound nouns* possessive: if you're talking about two or more people's shared possessions, you use just one -'s for the both-or-more of 'em; however, if you're talking about multiple possessions that are not shared among the group, you've got to distribute the -'s's** like back in Algebra where 2(x+y) ends up equalling 2x + 2y.
     So the adventure or bogus journey shared by Bill & Ted is indeed Bill & Ted's, whereas when we recall that both Bill's father and Ted's father were at one point or another married to Missy ("Remember when she was a senior and we were freshmen?" "Shut up, Ted!"), we might be moved to say that Bill's & Ted's fathers married Missy or that Missy has been Bill's & Ted's stepmother.
     The problem comes in if we want to replace anything in there with a pronoun—and of course, you know, sometimes we do.  Obviously he or him would replace Bill or Tedthey or them would replace Bill & Ted; his would replace Bill's or Ted's; and their would replace Bill & Ted'stheir excellent adventure, their bogus journey.***
     But now what if you're Ted?  Would you in fact have to call it Bill & my excellent adventure?  Some ambiguity automatically arises, as we might think you're talking about (1) Bill and (2) your excellent adventure; however, it's consistent with Bill & Ted's, which is right, and maybe the ambiguity is unavoidable.     
     The real fucker of a problem comes in if you're talking about Bill (or if you are Bill and don't follow the convention of putting yourself last in a series, which, let's be honest, Bill probably would not).  If you were just going to sub in a pronoun for Bill in Bill & Ted, you would say he & Ted or him & Ted, depending on whether these were subjects or objects.  And there's the rub: assuming you're talking about a shared possession, such that Bill & Ted's would be appropriate, would you say he & Ted's or him & Ted's?
     The problem, of course, is that Bill & Ted's, which is effectively adjectival, is not obviously either subject or object.  "Bill & Ted's bogus journey was bogus just by virtue of their having died and gone to Hell, but the very most bogus part of all may well have been the fact that Evil Robot Bill & Ted took over Bill & Ted's lives and mistreated their girlfriends": there the one Bill & Ted's is modifying a subject and the other is modifying an object, but that's all she wrote.  Maybe Bill & Ted's x = the x of Bill & Ted, in which case Bill & Ted are objects and it would have to be him & Ted's?  But a possessive feels more like a subject: maybe this is because of the way they taught us possessives when we were little kids, in which case never mind, but doesn't it sort of feel like a kind of mini-clause, like "Bill & Ted own this"?  I didn't say any of that.
     The answer may well be that the question is "wrong," like that story about the "missing $1," and that in fact when we say Bill & Ted's, the Ted's is not an entity unto itself in any way: maybe (looking back again to Algebra) what we've got is basically a pair of invisible parentheses, and Bill & Ted's = (Bill & Ted)'s—certainly that's what's happening grammatically—such that you simply cannot properly sub in a pronoun for either young man's name.  In other words, maybe once you've made the pair possessive, it's their or nothing.
     Yeah, you know?  I think that's it.
     And that's one to grow on.

* My grammatical Achilles heel is terminology.  E.g., I'm not 100% sure that "compound nouns" is the right term here, but you know what?  As many of us are brave enough to say about the things we happen not to be so good at, fuck it!
** Bonus Q'n'f'n'A: the -'s should never ever ever be used to make something plural (writing the Eighties as the 80's is particularly silly because you actually do need that apostrophe elsewhere—before the number—because it's an abbreviation: as Speak & Spell would say, the correct spelling of...the ' T-H-E, apostrophe, 8-0-S) except when it's the only way, as in the case of A's, which without the apostrophe would look like a conjunction, or in the case of -'s's, which is very ugly indeed and maybe I would have been better off saying apostrophe-S's (Ss looking not at all like esses and rather a lot more like the sound some tropical tarantula makes before jumping on your face).
*** "All right, my sexual problem, my sexual problem!"

Monday, August 18, 2008

Q, Q (Q[Q]), Q, Q (Q), Q, Q, Q.

So I finished rereading Infinite Jest* and am left with some questions.  What follows, necessarily, is "spoiler"-heavy, so read no further if you want to read this novel and don't want a damned thing exposed in advance.  [Funny that we get so mad if a review gives away a major plot point—more a movie review than a book review, note—but we don't "bat an eye" when a scholarly essay discusses the end of a book in great detail.  Or, no, wait, that's not funny or surprising at all.]

Here are the questions—all are invited to weigh in, particularly those who have actually read the book:

  1. So did John Wayne "dose" Hal with the DMZ?
  2. And John Wayne is one of the Canadian agents at E.T.A., right?
  3. In which case did he fake the whole incident that got Pemulis basically expelled?  At least it wasn't actually an innocent allergy-related mixup, right?
  4. Because of course in the first chapter or whatever you want to call it, he's "standing watch in a mask," are I think the words, while Gately and Hal dig up Himself's head.
  5. Speaking of which, his head?  His head supposedly blew the fuck up in the microwave.  It's already sort of half-suggested that there was some kind of foul play involved, if only because of the complexity of the suicide and the bottle so conveniently on the scene, but twice, at least twice in the book, we hear about Gately and Hal going and digging up Himself's head, which his head ought not really to be dig-uppable, diggable-up, so then what's the deal with that?
  6. And—hello—ghosts?  It's like a Nabokov novel: you can read the whole thing through and almost be in denial about it, but we've got some actual ghostly interference, here, yeah?
  7. In which case what did Himself (and Lyle!) want with Gately, after all?
  8. Oh, and is this just some crazy idea I got in my head, or was somebody (maybe even Rod the God himself, who's supposed to be under the sexual thrall of that Luria woman and therefore reportedly practically a Canadian agent) going to replace the "Just Say No"–style kid's commercial about Infinite Jest with actually Infinite Jest and broadcast the shit across the entire nation?
  9. It was Orin who mailed the cartridge to the medical attaché in the beginning, I'm pretty sure of that (given that he worries briefly that a knock on the door might have something to do with a medical attaché, and we learn later after Hal's lost it that what seems to be that same dude had an affair with the Moms).  So then well does he know all about it?  And are the Incandenzas immune?
  10. By the way, if Himself did kill lowercase-h himself, was it because of the movie?  And but does that mean he was immune?  Because he must have watched it to edit it, and no one we see elsewhere in the novel who's seen it could watch it and then get up to do anything at all, much less set up an ingenious self-microwaving scenario.

That's all I can think of for now.  More may come.

* Rereading not because I liked it so much (although I did like it, and I am a rereader of books I like) but rather because I was 18 when I liked it so much, and I guess over the years I'd given more and more of that doubt-benefit to the backlashers—who insisted (often, I think, without having read the damned thing) that the damned thing was basically nothing but a big pretentious scam designed to make people feel smart for reading a big book with big words in it, and that only a show-off would ever claim even to have read the thing, much less to have enjoyed it—and less and less to the taste of an 18-year-old dazzled by a subgenre of literary fiction that he'd never even imagined was around (not to mention the exciting coincidence at Shakespeare & Co.); but, as it turns out (as I've come halfway back around to feeling it did in the case of the early Mothers LPs), the taste of an 18-year-old, or at least this late-20th-century 18-year-old, does not deserve such disrespect; and, although I'm inclined now to think (as, again, in the case of the early Mothers LPs) that my criteria were maybe a little off and that I got a little more excited about the pyrotechnics, so to speak, and less about what I'd now call probably the real content—well, 18-year-old Short Round, I believe I owe you some kind of thing resembling an apology.
     To the time machine!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

flashback to the flashbacks

Flash it back!  'Sh'i' back-back!

Yes, this was an all-flashback week...

  • The abstract and the representational, he said–she said! [1999]
  • Godzilla brought down by eight-year-olds! [1985–6]
  • Why does everyone name his kid Adolf these days? [1997]
  • Easy-to-follow directions from the train station to my apartment! [2002]
  • A tragic story trivialized in heroic couplets! [1998]
  • Literary critic Harold Bloom: not a blackbird! [1999 again]
  • After 3½ years of college, the vagina game! [2000]
Now back to living in the now.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

the vagina game

So then, in the last year of the 20th century (not to be confused with the 1900s1), a young woman extended an invitation to play "the vagina game" (not to be confused with vaginal intercourse2):

     "so, [short round], there really *is* a vagina game, but apparently this is how you play: take the title of a movie and replace one of the words with 'vagina.'
     "The Thin Red Line --> The Thin Red Vagina
     "The Hunt for Red October --> The Hunt for Red Vagina
     "101 Dalmations --> 101 Vaginas
     "Star Wars --> Vagina Wars."

These instructions, combined with a strong desire not to work on our senior theses, resulted in an incredible creative outpouring from my friend and me.  What follows is just some of what I came up with.  (I've left out my roommate's excellent contributions,3 but only at great cost to the stunning exhaustive and encyclopædic effect of our original e-mail response to the instigator quoted above—who I believe was extremely impressed, or deeply concerned.)  This may be best read aloud.

Vagina and the Tramp
The Shawshank Vagina
Raiders of the Lost Vagina
The Silence of the Vagina
Vagina Club
Ferris Bueller's Vagina Off4
The Little Vagina
The Vaginafather
Godzilla vs. Mechavagina
Full Metal Vagina
A Clockwork Vagina
Vagina 2: Judgement Day
Sixteen Vaginas
Little Shop of Vaginas
The Sound of Vagina
It's a Wonderful Vagina
A Christmas Vagina
What's Eating Vagina
Good Morning Vagina
Vagina Now
Vagina Dogs
Vaginas in the Mist
Jurassic Vagina
Vaginas Not Included
Star Trek VI: The Final Vagina
The Wild Wild Vagina
The City of Lost Vagina
Vagina Durham
Throw Mamma off the Vagina
The Vagina Strikes Back
The Last Vaginafighter
Romancing the Vagina
The Vagina of the Nile
Vagina on a Wire
Reservoir Vagina
Big Trouble in Little Vagina
The Golden Vagina
Wayne's Vagina
Bill & Ted's Excellent Vagina
The Vaginas of Madison County
Ruthless Vaginas
Vagina Interrupted
The Vagina Squad
Vagina Tap
Three Men and a Vagina
Lock Stock and Two Smoking Vaginas
The Good, the Bad, and the Vagina
The Vagina Who Knew Too Much
Bedtime for Vagina
Mrs. Vaginafire
Vaginas Like Us
Dr. Zhivagina
Dances with Vaginas
Rebel Without a Vagina
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Vagina
Pee-Wee's Big Vagina
The 13th Vagina
The Seventh Vagina
The Hunchback of Notre Vagina
An American Vagina in Paris
Vagina by Vaginawest
Rear Vagina
Vagina Dundee
Invasion of the Vagina Snatchers
Night of the Living Vagina
Kindergarten Vagina
The Vagina and I
My Fair Vagina
2001: A Space Vagina
The Vagina Thief
A Vagina Treasure Island
Grumpy Old Vaginas
Vagina and Hooch
See No Vagina, Hear No Vagina
Rosemary's Vagina
Boyz N the Vagina
The Vaginasucker Proxy
Charlie and the Vagina Factory
The Englishman Who Went up a Hill and Came Down a Vagina
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Vagina
The Vagina Before Time
Vagina Slickers
Vagina Slickers 2: The Search for Curly's Gold
Take the Vagina and Run
Vagina Claus: The Movie
The Race for the Vagina Helix
The Vagina Storm
The Vagina Book
Major Vagina
Mystic Vagina
Apt Vagina
All the President's Vaginas
My Dinner with Vagina
Clear and Present Vagina

etc. etc.

1 With which there was admittedly a 99-year overlap.
2 Which is not a game and indeed is serious like World War II.
3 As he is now a respectable doctora and a gentleman.
     a But not, strangely enough, a vagina doctor.
Better if you could hyphenate the last two words, but that probably breaks the rules.

Friday, August 15, 2008

x Ways of Looking at Harold Bloom

[Here's another one from 1999, another assignment for another English class.]

In LC 317 a half-hour early,
There were chairs and dust,
And Harold Bloom sitting.

An undergraduate and his exgirlfriend
Are one.
An undergraduate and his exgirlfriend and Harold Bloom
Are one.

My mind was troubled but unreadable,
Like a photo
Of Harold Bloom grimacing.

What is more crucial,
A love for her
Or a love for myself,
Harold Bloom smiling
Or frowning?

Sunlight lit the cold bricks
From within.
Harold Bloom paused
As leaves rustled.
My mood
Stretched from tree
To Riverside effortlessly.

I know nothing
And the nothing it betrays;
But I also know
That Harold Bloom ate lunch
With every poet ever.

When Harold Bloom got in the elevator,
He left a void
That was identical to all other voids everywhere.

Confronted with Harold Bloom
Holding his own shoulder blade,
Even the perpetually prolegomenous
Must cut to the chase.

He flew first class
In a Boeing 747.
Once, terror gripped him,
Because he mistook
The engine of the plane
For Harold Bloom.

My love for her is growing.
Harold Bloom must be thinking.

It was darkness at day,
Raining without cease,
And I'd lost my umbrella.
I had not lost
Harold Bloom.

Harold Bloom drifted toward the men's room.
It was just one sentence in an imitation/parody exercise.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Twinkiad

[If I remember correctly, what follows represents the one "A" I received in the legendary George Fayen's English seminar, my sophomore year.*  We had been reading Pope.]



It will be plain to even the most casual Eye—your Discerning one, I should think, especially—that the Piece following is from a Perspective flaw'd, bias'd, and uninform'd, its Author gazing back across Oceans fo Time, Space, and Opinion lost, the Ideals for which you struggl'd in his Advanc'd Year debas'd, misunderstood, and your final End known by few and mourned, perhaps, by fewer still.
     If somehow this Twinkiad meet your afterworldly (and Discerning) Eye, understand that said Author work'd to repair the vericidal Fault of his own Bias and struggl'd to fill the gaping Void of Ignorance, and Time gone by.  The White of the poem represents not You, dear Sir, nor the Memory of You, nor the Idea nor the Significance of your all-too-unfairly-judg'd Actions—instead this White is merely a denizen of barbaric Fiction, a fleeting shadow of shadows' shadows, an allegory of allegories, a memory of having once remember'd memories, that fictive White itself Guided as it itself could not, by Deities, Angels, Daemons, and High Fructose Corn Syrup, to Deeds for which neither it itself nor still less you yours are in any way Responsible, save the emergence of its or thy own intentional claim (rightly made, if so you feel) for such possible Honors.  In short, dear Sir, Names, Characters, Places, and Incidents either are the product of the Author's Imagination or are used Fictitiously, and any Resemblance to actual Persons, living or dead, Events, or Locales are entirely Coincidental.

Your Most Obedient
Humble Servant.



Of the Assassination in the year nineteen thousand one hundred seventy-eight of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk by recently-resigned Supervisor Dan White, which great Crime begat the infamous "Twinkie Defense".  Explanation for the absence of the Muse, who is washing her Hair.  Expression of shock and horror at the unexpect'd Side-Effects of Twinkie and Kool-Aid ingestion on the Assassin.  The Spirits who rule Junk Food and their Purpose.  The hateful Speech of the San Francisco Police Officers Association and the Board of Realtors to White, upon the latter's resignation from the Board of Supervisors.  White's unsuccessful attempt to quench his own Bigotry by eating Twinkies and drinking Kool-Aid.  The resulting rage of the above-mentioned Spirits at their Gifts misus'd.  The substitute Muse Edna's ill-tim'd departure, the poem's subsequent collapse, the arrival of the well-washed Muse, and the Author's unexpect'd and perhaps inappropriate proposal.

What bitter taste, what foulness rose from sweet,
What tragedy came oozing from a Treat,
I'd hop'd the Muse through me to you would send,
But since she's busy, we'll just use her Friend.
When birth'd from Shower springs our now-clean Muse,
Perhaps she won't condemn, should she peruse,
These muddled words, by Edna through me sung,
Of White, forc'd down Fate's ladder, rung by rung.
     O, how, dear Edna, could the Creamy Filling
Of Golden Sponge Cake drive a man to Killing?
And sugar-sweetened soft drink mix provide
The evil Push toward Supervisorcide?
Was it the two per cent or less of salt
Which led dear White to bring Milk to a halt?
     Ne'er fighting Flames, nor Crime, did Dan White find
Such fatal forces as (when he resign'd
From San Francisco Supervisorhood)
The Food he ate, which damn'd him where he stood;
Nor e'er in any San Francisco riot
Did White face Chaos like his broken Diet.
His meal was rul'd by Hostess®, who resides
In Fat, and Mono and Digylcerides,
Corn Syrup Solid, Eggs, Dextrose, and Corn.
From which a Crown was forg'd, to him adorn.
His unseen Troops with flaming spears patrol
With ever-open eyes man's Food and Soul,
Alive and eating, Adam's son looks for
His God and drink, while They above him soar.
Great Hostess®, and the mighty Kool-Aid® Tsar,
Observe your Diet close, where'er you are,
And should they view your Morals sinking South,
They'll steal it and your Food from out your Mouth,
While should you treat your Food with little care,
They'll turn it to a Crime and eat your prayer,
Which, aim'd toward Heav'n, ne'er will make it there.
     When White departs from Mayor Moscone's court,
The Board of Realtors and Police retort,
You vow'd to make San Fran, San Fran again,
To bar our men from kissing other men,
Have you forgotten what we all agreed?
Foul Onan's bad enough with just his seed,
So he who spills another's should be strikèd!
(For what if we observe and learn we like it?)
You, White, the Hand of God will supplement
And give all San Fran's Gays shoes of cement
Whether our Mayor wants you to or not.
(God surely meant to do it, but forgot.)
     White says, with narrow'd eyes, to Harvey Milk,
You, openly of Homosex'al ilk,
Are clearly one of San Fran's Deviates,
Incorrigibles, Radicals! he frets.
These words utter'd in silence, he his Hate
Decides to drown in soft Calcium Phosphate.
     O tragedy! good White ingests with eats.
Though pure in motive, Murder here he meets.
With Twinkies he'd extinguish his cruel Fire,
Instead he rouses vengeful Hostess®' ire.
The Tsar of Kool-Aid® bellows, great Fist shaking:
The Calcium Phosphate's there to prevent caking!
He drinks to mend the fact that he is Heartless,
But I meant citric acid to give tartness,
Not some Redemption happy White can savor!
I offer only artificial flavor!
     Says Hostess®, For his carelessness unswerving,
Ignoring that just one cake is one serving,
The forty grams and two to Man I gave
So clearly insufficient for this Knave,
For (as you said) ignoring Twinkies' cause
And using them to aid the Moral Laws,
To raise his Mind and not his Ch'lest'rol rate**
Is simply not a thing we tolerate.
     Thus White, free, casts his will aside,
And swallows Twinkies and his moral pride.
Virtue and belch slip out from b'tween his lips,
His Fate, possessèd White has sealed—um—
     Edna, no longer pleased (it seems) she has us,
Has ditch'd your Author, mid- sylleptic Chiasmus,
And now Mingus is crawling in one ear,
Forcing out the other any hope of maintaining Pope-ish couplets,
For lo! Muse! wet, in towel wrapp'd, appears,
Making it very difficult to write in meter that'll appease your ears—
If you could only see her—
     Dear Muse, my verse abandon'd, and my rhyme,
With it th' entire Subject of White's Crime,
Maybe you and I could go out to a movie or something, some time?

* My grades then went into a bit of a nosedive when we started into Wordsworth.  To put it another way, then, this magnificent feast you see before you represents the last of the petty cash.
** Cholesterol rate.  I love it.  Written like a true 20-year-old.