Sunday, January 31, 2010

funny or not funny?

I was realizing the other day that when I see something like the artwork above, I often just automatically ascribe some sort of self-awareness and ironic sophistication to the artist. That someone simply wanted to draw a penis on a wall hardly even occurs to me as a possibility. In general I tend to poo-poo the idea that authorial intent has any particular importance to our appreciation of a work, but when I imagine myself laughing along with an absurdist joke that is in fact not even the slightest absurdist—just plain absurd—it does make me a bit uncomfortable. Or how about this one:

My very first reaction is a kind of shock (I mean, in the context of whatever comic this was, it might make perfect narrative sense, but taken out of context it's pretty clearly supposed to be something you appreciate on its own) followed by amusement, and the amusement is the amusement of someone amused by, again, a certain kind of irony. I assume, right out of the gate, that whoever drew or at least "quoted" this image is not in fact in favor of violence against women; I assume that this is some kind of commentary—or at least a kind of reveling in inappropriateness. But is it? Is this image really just about getting a kick out some man punching some woman in the back of the head? Period?

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, so to speak.

I do have a tendency to come up with elaborate apologies for things without hardly even realizing I'm doing it (see "9/11/01 ha ha ha" and the Star Wars prequels)—I know that. And I have a friend who for years I thought had this sort of complicated, self-referential, super-ironic running joke about laughing at fat people before I realized that, although he certainly has a sophisticated mind and a well-developed sense of the absurd, at the bottom he really does think obesity itself is hilarious. But so then, turning back to authorial intent, the question sort of maybe becomes—does it matter what the joker thinks the joke is about?

In fiction, in a comedy, the people saying the hilarious things usually don't realize they're being hilarious. (The characters Woody Allen and Groucho Marx play in their movies are important exceptions.) The reason why I insisted back in high school that it was stupid to think Beavis & Butt-head was stupid is that the characters are supposed to be stupid; if Beavis & Butt-head made a cartoon show it wouldn't be like that: it would be a bunch of explosions, basically, and maybe boobs and butts. (Or crude drawings of penises—see above, bringing us sort of full circle.)

Maybe the "answer" to this "question" is that I'm trying to wrestle out an "objective" perspective that just doesn't exist (another thing I have a tendency to do). Maybe the answer is: the person who drew that penis meant God knows what by it, and I get whatever the hell I get out of it out of it. A big part of my wanting to nail it down is not wanting to do anything wrong—like, I don't want to put up a picture of a dick being like, "Ha, ha, everybody, right?" and have everyone else be like, "Uh...that's a picture of a dick." Even more so with the violence-against-women issue, or 9/11. But maybe in the end avoiding misunderstanding and disagreement is a fool's errand. I think this tube-top song jokingly references immaturity, you think it's just immature..."and so it goes, and so it goes, and so it goes, and so it goes."*

* "But [yes] where it's going no one knows."

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

more subway douchebaggery

Here's a new one: this kid didn't splay his legs wide open like he had some kind of crotch rash, but instead sat diagonally in the seat—a creative new way to occupy two seats when you're not even morbidly obese. I applaud his creative thinking! Note: He was sitting this way when we pulled into Grand Central Station and people poured in, and somebody had to ask him to move—he didn't just do it automatically when it was clear that people wanted to sit. That's the spirit, kid! Fuck your fellow man! [See also.]

H-A-P-P-I! [crashes through window] [UPDATED]


I've done such a good job since New Year's of staying on top of things—such a good streak—and now look at me. It might just be that I'm fighting off some kind of cold. But it's an interesting phenomenon, these psychological things, a weird combination of totally in and totally out of your conscious control. I mean, there's that Psych 101 factoid that if you smile, even when you're unhappy, it triggers endorphins or something that actually can make you happy, such that the smile precedes the joy, and there are also studies suggesting that sitting up straight makes you feel better about yourself and that sort of thing...which in some ways is very good news but in others is arguably a little depressing insofar as it reflects on our, what do you want to call it, emotional sovereignty?

When I was a kid, or a teenager or something, it occurred to me that in a funny way nihilism ought to be sort of a comforting idea (I may have already written about this here, some time ago) because if there's no absolute value then you don't really have to worry about being wrong or—put it another way—unhappiness ought never to result from your sense that things aren't the way they should be because there's no should. Anyway, I told my dad about that when I thought of it and he said I was wrong.

my dad, c.1968 (via)

Certainly I'm a fan of paying attention to reality—not an ignorance-is-bliss sort of a guy—and generally believe in changing things in your life that make you unhappy rather than learning to live with them or pearling over them with psychopharmaceuticals*—and my point is not in fact that "nothing really matters" (as someone recently did a terrible job of singing at karaoke when I was visiting Chicago last weekend†); what I'm getting at, though, is that so often our emotional or psychological state is so much a question of attitude, the stance we choose to take. Not always, mind you—I'm not even sure I'd say most of the time—but often.

That's why I think I was right that a world without absolute value is, in a counterintuitive way, a more comforting world: not having to be anxious about doing everything wrong means the freedom to decide to make decisions based on what feels right to you. I guess I'm with Fromm and Emerson on this: there can be no more reliable judge than yourself. You might feel like you don't know what the hell you want, and you might be right, but no one knows any better about that than you do, that much at least is for sure.‡

Speaking of not knowing what the hell, I don't know what the hell I'm talking about. It seems I really am sick, sad to tell. But the advice I got a few months back—not actually phrased as advice, actually, if I remember correctly—was maybe the best advice anyone could give me at the moment: I might as well be cheerful.

Oh! And I just remembered the brilliant observation that someone else shared with me just the other day: the idea that, today, being positive is practically a subversive, countercultural choice. More on that later. In the meantime, I'll be sitting up straight and occasionally smiling for no reason like a crazy person. God bless America!

[LATER THAT NIGHT... I know how and why I got confused about what I was talking about: I was rushing at the end and forgot my original focus, which was that "might as well be cheerful" advice. Once happiness ceases to be tethered to good fortune—to the haps—once you see it as a choice or an attitude you can adopt, then it becomes something you are capable of doing. And why not do it, then? This is not to be confused with the frozen-smile-mask philosophy that pretends things are good when they are not and is falsely cheerful about bad situations: what I'm talking about is not dependent upon the goodness or badness of things or of situations.§]

Relax! The galaxy'll be fine. (via)

* To be clear, I have no problem with psychopharmaceuticals per se: I just think that they should be used only when it's clear that the problem they're treating is primarily chemical and not instead a normal emotional response to a real, external problem; in other words, my vote is always for treating the cause, not the symptom.
† That song—"Bohemian Rhapsody"—is effectively because of Wayne's World. Right? I mean, for my generation. People know it and love it because of Wayne's World. I would guess that even your average Queen fan today between age, I don't know, 27 and 37 got into Queen because of "Bohemian Rhapsody" in Wayne's World. Am I wrong?
‡ More or less. –ed.
§ And this is sound because studies are always reporting that happiness does not rely on what you'd think it does: to great misfortune we adjust and then level out, and indeed the real source of misery seems to be uncertainty, worrying not about your terminal illness but rather about your illness that may or may not be terminal. The latter situation is analogous to the state of the person who is always worrying about what's right or wrong, which is why simple-minded religious absolutists are reportedly happier than those who actually, you know, think about stuff: "knowing" without a shadow of a doubt what's wrong or right makes things simpler, but happier still would be a person who neither worries about justifying and comparing nor relies upon helpful fantasies and delusions of infallibility.

My voice is my passport. Verify me.

Here's a little bit of nothing for you:

The other day at the gym—I have been going to the gym regularly again, thanks for asking—I became briefly concerned when I noticed that the padlock I use for my locker seemed too often, when locked, to be resting on or near one of the three numbers making up the combination. When I lock it, I spin the little number wheel, and the idea that it would tend to land on one of the numbers was disturbing: wouldn't that mean that those numbers were "sticky" somehow—or that an unfortunate mix of unconscious thought and usually untapped dexterity resulted in my inadvertantly spinning the thing in a way that broadcast my special secret—and that someone could exploit that to open the lock (and get into my sweaty underwear)?

Then I realized, though, that this seems to be an instance of the kind of bad math we as human reportedly tend to do, particularly when odds and statistics are at play. Here's what I figured out:

There are 40 numbers, three of which are part of my secret combination. This means that there is a 3-in-4o chance (which, depending on how precise you want to be, you might actually round up to 10%) that a random spin will land on one of those three numbers. Then you have to factor in that usually what I was looking at wasn't actually one of the three numbers but rather something within a radius of one—that is, if one of my numbers were 26 and I saw that the thing was sitting there at 25, it would make me nervous because it seemed too close to be coincidence. Well, that brings the odds up to something more like 9-in-40 (almost 25%). The question, then, was whether I was seeing these numbers more often than a quarter of the time, and the answer, folks, was no.

So what's more absurd: that I worried about that, that I spent time working it out, or that I then decided to post the results on the Internet?

Whatever: we're all gonna die eventually anyway.


muzak: an update

A while back I made the reckless public announcement that I was going to try to write and record a new song, like, every single day. As it happens, I haven't written and recorded a new song since. However, I have continued to update the relevant site, which has turned out to be sort of a dump for old music.

For instance, I recently recovered a tape I feared was long lost, and just yesterday I got it back from this midtown camera shop that converted it to CD for about $15; on this tape, and now miraculously on my computer—and from there onto the goddamned Internet!—is the music of Lost Cause. Why is this meaningful? Because for years I've felt that I spent most of high school in an embarrassing fog of musical pretentiousness: very much a teenager, I guess I found the subjectivity of taste to be highly distressing, and as a result I settled on a foolproof formula of what objectively was good, which basically amounted to: difficult to play. As such, I wound up listening to a lot of stuff that I can't even stomach for 30 seconds anymore. But before that I liked stuff that today I still like, and I was very eager to hear the music I made back then, before the nosedive into pretentiousness.

Lost Cause (1993)
a slightly more beefed-up incarnation
(photo via Headfoot)

In 1992, when I recorded "Cage" with Lost Cause, I was in the ninth grade, I'd been playing guitar for I think a little less than a year, and my favorite bands were Nirvana, Guns N' Roses, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (up to and including Blood Sugar Sex Magik). A year later I'd look back and think, "I didn't know what I was doing!" And that was true: as it happens, when I didn't know what I was doing, I made better music than I did when I did.

[Of course, "Cage" is not half as good as the sophisticated boom-punk of Sham-poo, who in 2004 when they were barely in their teens were spraying fiery joy all over their bemused eighth-grade talent show—but then, to be fair, those kids came of age in a neo-post-punk age (the Strokes were already huge by the time they were in the, like, fifth grade), and besides, Jonah's from the Lower East Side and I'm from the relatively cred-impoverished Upper West. So.]

Other songs that have gone online since Jan. 2 include but are not limited to:

  • "Wei Zhongxian," a somewhat They Might Be Giants-inspired deal (see "James K. Polk") that I wrote as a freshman in college using "lyrics" from Jonathan Spence's Chinese History textbook,
  • some song fragments (e.g.) from an even later incarnation of my high-school band (this one with a name I'm much less excited about—by then I'd taken that pretentious nosedive), focused on my own guitar playing because I'm a goddamned narcissist,
  • "Janie Ow," a kind of love song that I wrote in my sophomore year of out-of-college (as I used to half-jokingly say) and that contains trace elements of awesome, and
  • "Chinese Eyes," for which I have an inexplicable and unjustified fondness even though I wince every time I hear the lyric, "The readiness is all, I guess"—yeesh.

Wei Zhongxian:
the most powerful and notorious
eunuch in Chinese history (via)

But I'm most excited about "Cage." Lost Cause! Forever 1992! Respect!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Chabon, ugh

Neil Gaiman...ish.

Michael Chabon on Neil Gaiman in last week's New Yorker: "The stories just exfoliate off each other." Come on—seriously?

I'm not sure what it is that I find so infuriating about Chabon's writing.* I want to say maybe that it's just so...self conscious? A word like exfoliate is, from where I'm standing, just the wrong combination of cutesy, clever, and sort of wrong—I mean, things don't really exfoliate off of each other, do they? I think what he means is that one story will exfoliate off of... Ugh, I can't even go on: I can't use that word in that context, even to attack it. Exfoliate. Does this not make anyone else want to to push Chabon into a swimming pool like at the end of an '80s comedy?

Asking for it.

* Click "MC Bullshit" tag below to see more ranting and raving on the subject.

The craziest thing that has ever happened.

This ad has always bugged me (not that that's such a spectacular achievement, obvs):

(click to enlarge)

"Ever think you'd be able to charge a subway ride?" Um...why not? Even forgetting that you've been able to charge a subway ride for at least five years (and I took this picture today), I'm confused about why it would be so difficult to imagine using a credit card to pay for...well, anything, really. I guess an ad that said "Ever think you'd be able to use a debit card to pay a drug dealer in a public park?" might be effective,* but subway fare? Who's the target audience for this ad? The nonagenarian set? "Ever think a train would travel in a tunnel underneath the city? Ever think you'd be sitting right next to a Negro?"

* I was torn between "drug dealer" and "prostitute," but then I remembered Constance Money wearing a big MasterCard logo on her shirt in the jokey Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976), so even that wouldn't justify the "gee, whiz" reaction assumed by this MTA ad.

John, Paul, whatever

Tony Judt in the latest New York Review of Books:
It was not, as [a student being disciplined for streaking] pointed out to me, as though they had been 'doing it in the road'—a John Lennon reference that they could reasonably expect a Sixties-era fellow to recognize.
John Lennon in a Playboy interview (as quoted on Wikipedia):
["Why Don't We Do It in the Road" is] Paul. He even recorded it by himself in another room. That's how it was getting in those days. We came in and he'd made the whole record. Him drumming. Him playing the piano. Him singing. But he couldn't—he couldn't—maybe he couldn't make the break from the Beatles. I don't know what it was, you know. I enjoyed the track. Still, I can't speak for George, but I was always hurt when Paul would knock something off without involving us. But that's just the way it was then.
Now, I don't really fault Tony Judt for attributing to John a song written and performed exclusively by Paul—the guy's fuckin' laid up, give him a break—but I do fault the NYRB for (as is so common) not fucking bothering to fucking fact-check.

Again, maybe a little more clearly, here is my position: music and movies and other such cultural topics may be less "serious," but they are also quite literally real—they exist in the world and there are verifiable facts relating to them—and if you are in the business of reporting on reality, you have a responsibility to pay attention to whether what you are reporting is real...even if it is fun.


both photographs via Fuck Yeah John Lennon

Monday, January 25, 2010

This book may save your marriage.

I've talked before—I forget when, exactly—about how sometimes what might seem like unfair grammatical nitpicking is actually... Oh, right: here's where. Sometimes an egregious grammatical error can suggest a sort of cognitive deficit that would be anything but irrelevant to an assessment of the faults and merits of the writer's ideas. Pastor Davis or his editor has mistakenly put an apostrophe in the possessive pronoun its, making it, instead, a contraction, synonymous with it is. So what we wind up with is this:

It is cause and cure

"It is [both] cause and cure" calls to mind the aphorism that I have heard attributed to Homer Simpson: "Alcohol: the cause of—and solution to—all of life's problems."

The two reasons I like Pastor Davis's error so much are (1) it inadvertently means something that is close to (albeit not exactly) the opposite of what he surely means, and (2) it betrays the kind of fundamental shoddiness of the thought that I started out by discussing above. Maybe the simplest way to put it would be to say, "This person has no fucking clue what he's talking about—surprise, surprise." (Q.v. the right-wing "tea-baggers."*)

Porno-Puritanism comes into it, too. Just as no one is more obsessed with anal sex than a homophobe, no one is so maniacally focused on the idea of "perverted" or "distorted"† sex than a Puritan. You might get the idea that old Pastor Davis spends a lot of time thinking about the vile and disusting things people might choose to do with each other behind closed doors‡—and I bet you anything you'd be right.

Finally, I find it enjoyable to imagine what "It is both cause and cure" might mean. The book evidently is for married couples. I suppose the message, then, is fairly straightforward:

Do you find your marriage distressingly imperfect? Does life, or your wife, sometimes disappoint, or even cause you emotional pain? People, this is because you are doing nasty things together in the bedroom!—or even (God forgive you) outside of the bedroom! Admit it: you have done unspeakable things with your unspeakable parts. You have, haven't you! This and this alone is the cause of all your unhappiness. Fortunately, we have the solution: even more filthy, revolting sex! Go to it: fuck your past depravity straight back to hell!

P.S. Please send photographs.

[NOTE: "For ADULTS ONLY" gives me a moment's pause. Is it possible that this is one of those things I've heard about from a bygone era when smut was legal as long as you passed it off as educational? If this were a conscious and deliberate version of what is usually accidental, then I'd have to replace my disdain with amused appreciation.]

* Incidentally, John Waters invented both the term tea-bagging and the concept it describes (insofar as it is a discrete, deliberate, and defined sexual practice as opposed to something that might just happen now and againa)—it's something he has said he made up (as a joke) for the film Pecker. (It certainly registered to me as a funny, made-up thing when I saw that movie in the theaters.) Is it even funnier or slightly less funny that the religious right has named itself after a testicle-related sexual act invented by John Waters?
† Interesting word choice.
‡ In the edited version of a recent Monty Python documentary that I saw a little while back at the Ziegfeld, one of the Pythons—maybe Gilliam?—was talking about how the censors at the BBC had much, much dirtier minds than the Pythons themselves had, and, by way of example, he said that they had rejected one "pee-pee"-focused sketch because they thought that one particular glass of "pee-pee" contained menstrual blood—an invention that apparently blew the Pythons' minds.

It's occurred to me now and again that the "facial"—a staple in contemporary pornography and also (or maybe therefore) not entirely unheard of in actual contemporary private sexuality—is something that must have happened accidentally, or at least incidentally, long before anyone started to think of it as a thing that one might do on purpose as a specific and particular act.

This is what dads look like.

Low-end Internet advertising is often very, very crappy and bordering on the nonsensical. In this one, for example, I think it would be a mistake to think too hard about why this picture was chosen to go with this ad: my guess is that it wasn't chosen in any meaningful sense of the word—i.e., I'm disinclined to imagine that this hairy gentleman is meant to represent fathers in any particular way, ironic or otherwise (and indeed I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that the picture was actually chosen by a computer).

So do I find this kind of thing amusing or infuriating? Jury's out, but I think I'm going to go with infuriating—seems a safe bet, with me.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Snuggling or Snatching?

Here's another picture I took while I was visiting friends in Chicago:

(Click to enlarge, and forgive the crappiness of the photo.)

What the hell? I don't understand the, uh, the...what's the word? I want to say dichotomy but that's wrong. But how the hell does snuggling come into it? The most obvious explanation, given the photograph, would be that the ad is warning you that your main squeeze might at any point steal your wallet. I mean, that's clearly not actually what the ad is saying (is it?), but what's the snuggling–snatching connection? Are they advising you against close physical contact so that you'll be more sensitive to a pickpocket's touch? If so, why don't they include that in the list of advice? Is this ad targeted to men and women who tend to snuggle up to strangers on the subway, all casual-like? If so, where are these people? Are they good looking? Weren't there snuggle parties a few years ago? I feel like I read an article about it somewhere. I heard about a slapping party once: partygoers were encouraged to strike each other in the face, like a cutesy hipster version of a fight club.

Wait...what were we just talking about? Oh, right: snuggling or snatching. A mystery.

Chicago, you crazy.

This ad can live. The rest, against the wall.

The reason why I don't feel like saying "fuck this ad" here (as I did in response to others in the same campaign) is twofold.

  1. I can't help it: I'm tickled by the über- prefix, like a real nerd; and
  2. at least this ad is actually saying something about the product, asserting that the product is good.

I mean, the main thing that drives me up the wall about ads in general is the dissembling: lying, then covering up the lie by pretending it's a joke—that sort of thing. I'm not bothered by ads that make an actual claim about their products (assuming it's true), and I'm not particularly bothered by an ad that just flat out says, "Our product is great!"—because that at least is a value judgement, you know?

Don't get me wrong, I'm still suspicious, and it's all still relative: for example, the cuteness factor of this ad and the way it appeals to me with the umlaut are pretty insidious. That said, I can't get too upset about an ad that simply asserts (in a single joke word) that Pepsi is very good.

But they should have put the Pepsi symbols in the umlauts.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Additional Restroom
For "Gentlemen"
At Rear Of
Dining Room

A particularly nice instance of misused quotation marks. I wanted to call this post "You, sir, are no gentleman," but the improv comedian in me balked because Avoid This Job just did that the other day. There's a gay joke in there to be made on account of "rear," but whatever. I think Headfoot's made me lazier about photo commentary: I'm just that much likelier now to stick up a photo and be like, "...See?"

Fuck Headfoot. I'ma pull the rug out from under the feet of that fucking bullshit* by posting a Headfoot photo here before I even put it up there. Over there it'll actually be accompanied by a low-level comedic caption, but this will give you a chance to think of something funnier so that by the time that thing goes up you can be like, "Lame."

Ready? . . . GO!

* Does that count as mixing metaphors? I do believe it constitutes some kind of a messy figurative three-way!

We interrupt your Internet to bring you this important message.

New Hope my ass! (via)


The very famous and influential George Lucas science-fiction motion picture from 1977 was called Star Wars! The sequel was called The Empire Strikes Back! The third film in the trilogy was called Return of the Jedi!

If you want to call the first of the prequels Episode I or Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace or just The Phantom Menace, you go right ahead with a clear conscience: all of those titles were in normal American usage at the time. But, for the love of Jesus, please don't refer to the 1977 film as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (as I just learned Wikipedia does)!* It may be Lucas who's perpetrating the actual past-rape itself, but when you say "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope"—when you juggle that particular ugly mess in your mouth—you're a goddamned accomplice.

Don't be complicit! The past exists! Nineteen seventy-seven was a real year in which real people existed (and were in some cases conceived), and all of Lucas's CGI—even combined with Cameron's!—can never change that.

You may now return to your business.


* Not only did nobody call it that until Lucas started shitting out prequels, but it wasn't even in any sense part of the title until 1981 (see top of post)—Lucas has been going back and fixin' what ain't broke since the beginning.

Monday, January 18, 2010


Looks like Superman's gotten into Richard Pryor's tar kryptonite again.

Headfoot has a Spider-Man category but no Superman category; Alt85 has a Superman category but no Spider-Man category. Why is this? One of life's great mysteries...

Oh, wait. Alt85 does have a Spider-Man category. O.K., so Alt85 is better than Headfoot. See, now we've learned something.

Friday, January 15, 2010

You know you're a literary nerd if...

  • ...strenuous exercise, particularly running, invariably makes you think of A Separate Peace.
  • ...the word Lolita* makes you think of brilliant, bald, old Russian guys instead of sexually active 12-year-old girls.†
  • ...not only have you read Grace Paley, but you've read Grace Paley on Donald Barthelme's recommendation.
  • were way more excited about meeting Thomas Pynchon than you were about meeting George Clooney or Bill Murray, or talking on the phone with Björk.
  • know who Ben Marcus is.
  • have a favorite Donald Antrim novel.
  • ...when you think "Being There," you think "Jerzy Kosiński" before you think "Peter Sellers."
  • ...instead of thinking about baseball stats, your trick to delay ejaculation is silently reciting the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales in Middle English.‡

* Yeah, it's a word, not just a name or a title. It's in the dictionary and everything!
† And when people apply the word to, like, a 17-year-old, you sort of look at them funny.
‡ This one's not actually true of me, although I have been tickled by the idea for more than a decade, now. P.S. I'm old.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Bible study with Short Round

In his review of The Book of Eli, David Denby writes, "No one could attack the importance [the screenwriter] attaches to the book of books" (i.e., the Bible).

Allow me.

In a good mood—when the weather's just right and I'm well rested and have been eating well—I can see that there are lots of different kinds of religion and expressions of religion, that religion means different things to different people and that different people process the same information in different ways,* that not all religion is junk religion, and that in some cases (although I'm not clear on why it has to be religion, in particular), it seems to simulate or approximate something rather positive.

But the fucking Bible? At best, Bible-worship is a kind of fetishism or, to put it in religious terms, idolatry. The book is valuable historically and (I'm told) as literature, but the idea that it is a profound and holy document in itself borders on plain idiocy. Now, if you think it's literally the written-down word of a conscious and articulate God, I suppose that's another story (you might want to go see a psychiatrist or a Special Ed teacher or get in a time machine and send yourself back to the middle of the last millennium, but, you know, God bless your little heart).

Thing is, I wonder sometimes how many people who are so hot on the Bible have actually read it—like read it, as opposed to engaging in a kind of mystical "reading" experience that is, as I've said above, a kind of worship and, sorry, fetishism.

And those who insist that it's this important timeless moral document have a lot of explaining to do. We've all seen these lists of outrageous moral laws in the Bible. But here: like, how do you feel about the idea that if a woman gets married and it turns out she wasn't a virgin, she's supposed to be stoned to death by the whole town in front of her father's house (Deut. 22:20–21)? How about the thing where children born out of wedlock and all of their descendants for ten generations are damned to Hell (Deut. 23:2)? How about killing disobedient children (Mark 7:10) and selling your daughter into slavery (Exodus 21:7)? How about how God hates the handicapped and the deformed (Lev. 21:17–21)?

Insofar as the Bible is a moral document, it is a document of the morals of nasty, primitive, backwards people from thousands of years ago whom today you wouldn't want to let into your living room without an armed escort and probably, to begin with, a prison-style hose-down.

But I'm not writing this to bash the Bible (or your fondness for it, even): I see no reason why you can't get a huge amount out of the Bible—morally, spiritually, intellectually, etc.—just as you can get a huge amount out of any book, or object, or experience. I'm writing this to bash the idea that the Bible is untouchable, immune from criticism—that we're somehow obliged to show respect of some kind for it, and the attitude that religious delusion is something that sane and reasonable people must defer to and tiptoe around. "No one could attack the importance he attaches to the book of books," writes Denby. Denby, what the hell are you talking about?†

Re-watch The Frisco Kid, a comedy Western starring Gene Wilder as an Old World rabbi making his awkward way across America from Philadelphia ("the city where all the brothers love each other") to get to San Francisco for an arranged marriage. Moral of the story? The Torah's all well and good, but good friends like Harrison Ford trump a bunch of paper and ink any day of the week.


* From an unpublished novel:
Somebody figured out that since people learn and think differently, any given idea would need to be communicated in a number of very different ways to different people. Maybe you respond better to an idea if it's in the form of a command or a threat, I like it better if it's a fairy tale like the Bible, that guy over there wants it all intellectualized and presented as science... So why only talk to some people and alienate the rest? If some college girl doesn't like it when we talk about morals, maybe we can get our point across to her in terms of mental health; if some old man doesn't like thinking about his existential needs, maybe he'll respond better if we phrase it in terms of what God expects of him. Someone figured out that there should be a slew of seemingly unrelated systems of thought, for a much wider audience than any single system could ever dream of winning outside its most demented eschatological fantasies. Someone made a store just for me. Someone's got my kind of deity."
[Just learned how to do block quotes in Blogger! Oh, the time I've had to waste; oh, the HTML I've had to screw.] [Wait a minute—it's green?]

† Taking this out of context, as it is, one might wonder sympathetically [Brian, I'm looking at you] whether Denby meant that the book's pragmatic importance cannot be underestimated in the fictional world of this movie—in other words, that obviously the Bible has real-world importance, regardless of how "good" or "true" it might be (or not be), and maybe Denby is just saying that it would be silly to question the idea that the characters in the movie would care about it—but the one thing he does go on to point out is that the Bible didn't stop the human race from wiping itself out in the first place and that it's therefore unclear why it would change everything now. In other words, Denby's comfortable attacking the practical importance of the Bible, just not the imaginary, supernatural importance. Remember: people's irrational fantasy lives must never be challenged or questioned!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


This new ad campaign hits me in a funny way:

There's something very appealing about this idea. Unfortunately, the ad campaign is ultimately totally incoherent.

I can't not like an ad in which girls are sticking their asses out of the eyes of a smiley face:

And this sentiment makes a certain kind of sense:

But the rest are a bunch of baloney. This, for example, seems just plain wrongheaded:

I mean, isn't this sort of just a way of rephrasing the fucking scientific method, arguably the archetypal expression of all that what we currently think of as smart? "Mostly error" is funny (insofar as the word funny can apply to any attempted humor without regard to its degree of success), but stupidity isn't about trial because to comprehend levels of risk or to test any kind of theory is practically definitionally intelligent. Or how about this one:

Sounds good if you think about it for no more than like one half second. But are the stupid ones the creative ones? Really? I mean, do you really think that?

This one, finally, might be the worst of the lot:

Again, sounds good, and I guess it's true that stupid people don't necessarily perceive reality clearly, but is this because they're idealists in any meaningful sense, or because they're just blind? "Seeing what could be" does not seem like an accurate description of anything that makes any sense at all under the category of "stupid": I think of stupid people as incorrectly thinking they already know what is, not as deeming that which they perceive to be inadequate and rejecting it in favor of the unknown.

I think these ads annoy me more because of the way in which they almost appeal to me. Isn't that often the way it works? It's probably very simply a question of disappointment, a false promise. When something offers to give us something we want but ends up having no substance...*

Now, I suppose what's really going on in these ads is a redefinition of "stupid." Meanwhile, you can look really, well, stupid if you try to critique an ostensibly free-spirited, pro-stupidity philosophy on the basis of its coherence, but I submit that (as in the case of so many ads) that "philosophy" is bogus and rotten on the basis of insincerity—or rather I suppose we should say that because of its insincerity, its content is totally corrupt and meaningless.

In the end, though, honestly—just fuck you, Diesel.

* As it happens, this is another reason why I have a big problem with religion. There is an enormous appeal for me in anything that claims to explore a "larger" or "deeper" meaning in life; if not, I don't think I would care nearly so much about all of religion's idiocies. As I wrote in an unpublished novel, "if you set out trying to think about the way things are and you come up with anything that seems even slightly like it might have to do with God, then it's like God is a black hole that will suck that new idea in, like some cannibalistic idea that eats other ideas, and you can't get away. God is like a booby trap laid out to make sure nobody can think freely. He has a monopoly on...on metaphysical insight. A monopoly. And he's a shoddy product!" (And then, "Even I may accept that answer in the end...but I know that when I do, it will be because I've failed.")

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

one way in which I am crazy


I realized a little while back that one thing I have a very hard time getting past—a kind of bait I find it impossible not to take—is self-righteousness paired with error. I was tempted to say something like "right-of-way confusion paired with outrage," but while that's maybe clearer (and even metaphorically or snyecdochically accurate), it's too narrow.

Here are some examples:
  • when bicyclists get angry at pedestrians for being in their (the bicyclists') way when they (the pedestrians) have the right of way (q.v.);
  • when motorists honk and throw up their hands in exaggerated frustration because pedestrians who are crossing with the light don't leap out of their (the motorists') way;
  • when people walk side-by-side and take up the whole street or staircase* and get all huffy if someone behind them says (politely!), "Excuse me," and wants to pass;
  • when people want to murder Dutch cartoonists for drawing something "blasphemous."†
I think what links all of these—and drives me almost unavoidably toward "opinionating"—is that people are doing something wrong but think everyone else is wrong. As I think I articulated in the bike post (q.v. "q.v." above), merely breaking the law, for example, doesn't bother me so much, and yet I just can't seem to handle it if you're breaking the law and clearly think what you're doing is beyond legal reproach. That's why right of way comes into it, and I think my problem is just an exaggeration of something fairly natural: I mean, if I cut you off, and then I yell at you, that probably makes the whole thing worse—right? It's sort of similar to the reason why we laugh at that story in which "Ma" Ferguson, arguing against bilingual education, said, "If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas": we wouldn't make fun of her quite as much if someone asked her, "What language did Jesus speak?" and she said, "English"—because it's not just that she's wrong, it's that she's self-righteous about it!

Trouble is: doesn't matter. Who cares if someone doing something wrong thinks he's right? What is that your business?

These are things I need to let roll off my back. I realize this—but it is just so hard, for I suppose more or less the same reason that I have this preoccupation with getting the story straight. A misunderstanding is all well and good, but the idea that false information is out there passing for truth...! Well, something in me gets all riled up, and it seems I'm nearly helpless to stop it. Maybe, as I've half-jokingly suggested, it's a Jewish thing. I don't know. What I do know, though, is that I'm wrong (well, maybe not wrong—let's say crazy) to let it get to me. Rise above!

After all, the natural progression of this attitude would be to feel outrage at a dog for barking at you.

Anyway, that's just something I'm just going to have to work on. Confession complete. I think this picture sums it all up rather nicely:‡


* Or escalator.
† In fact, this is probably a big part of the trouble I have with religion in general: I don't care if you believe in something that isn't real, but the idea that I'm doing something wrong by not believing, well, that just drives me up the wall. It shouldn't! But it does.
‡ Not really. Or—I don't know, maybe.

Januaries 12

(or, The Ghost of Jan. 12 Past)

In case I forget, which is unlikely except that the semester's commencement already has cut up my writing time and promises to do so and more, here's the basic gist of the Death in Love or Gottlieb storyline. A professor dies, and Max leaps at the chance to accost Death, which was the latest advice. He hopes to demand his life back, thinking that he had challenged him in fisticuffs just as others had challenged him in chess. But this is not the same Death—turns out there are quite a few of them, like delivery men. Except that Death is a woman. Max immediately falls in love. Forgetting his original goal, Max dedicates himself now to courting Death...
[See "2000–1 vs. 2003: The grim reaper(s)" here.]

My forwardness paid off. I told [REDACTED] I wanted to see her again, and I didn't couch it in jokiness or ambiguity, and she said, "I think I should make it clear that I'm sort of dating someone."
"Then let's not you and me date," I said with not entirely artificial cheer—not entirely artificial because although I should [have] preferred her not to be "sort of dating someone," I was glad to toss off the tangled sheets of sideways interaction* and be straight with each other. Now I know her deal (and understand why she gave me the cheek† in spite of the sense—and the reports—I had had of her interest), and she knows mine. And I handled the conversation, including her revelation, in such a way that I don't believe it resulted in the kind of awkwardness one (i.e., I) might have expected from such a situation. "And we can continue our delightful e-mail antics," I said, somewhat further along, "in a friendly, non-dating fashion." She seemed to enjoy this. Maybe when she stops dating this someone she'll remember old [Shorty] and his wise [obs.].
So there's that. This being confident and owning what you want seems to be a fantastic way of doing business.

I got sad. Probably it was [same girl as above]'s getting back to [college town I didn't live in], somehow. Or maybe it's that the way not to be ruined by it all is to get it through my head finally that she's not mine, and that's sad in a stupid kind of way. Walking home from [friend]'s on West End Avenue, I made up a little song, the lyrics of which went, "[REDACTED: even more embarrassing than the ones I recorded for her]." Then I got home and she called me, and she loves me, but what does that change? She isn't; she's not my girl. Maybe later, sure, but... She could tell I was a little sad, and she said, "I love you. Do you know I love you?" And she said it in a sweet way, but (maybe so?) I started to cry. I hid it from her. Maybe she knew anyway...
Molly Molly Molly Molly Molly Molly. It's like Woody watching the Marx Brothers in Hannah and Her Sisters: how can the world be too sad when something like The Pod exists in it? Molly Molly Molly Molly Molly Molly Molly.
I guess maybe my heart did get a little broken at the end of 2002. Sprained, anyway. It's not unreasonable to want to have the girl you love all to yourself. Sometimes you just can't, is all.

I was thinking again about that dream I had a while back, the one in which I "realized" that things were going to get tricky when [still the same girl] graduated because it was no longer going to be possible for me to maintain both that relationship and my other ongoing relationship with—well, with [same person], although in the dream I was thinking of two separate girls without any recognition of their being the same person. What I was thinking was that one reading of this dream is that I don't just value [her] as the love of my life, the girl I want to be with forever, but that I also value her as the girl I get to be serious about while still preserving my freedom. I can complain about that freedom, view it only negatively, but in fact (this dream analysis suggests) I love it. When she graduates, I'm going to lose it, and that's what the dream was about.
I don't know whether I buy that. But it's interesting either way.

This afternoon I'm doing an experiment. I'm seeing whether I can get writing done on my iBook in the living room instead of at Spider House, which would be good because it would save time, gas, and a little bit of cash (as I tend to feel like buying something there even if I wouldn't otherwise have wanted anything just because I feel slightly guilty for using their space). But, hm, already the experiment is looking like trouble, as I see the Chairman stalking me in the hallway. He's I guess confused by the sound of typing; anyway, he's approaching very slowly. No crazy eyes, which is good. And he's here. Good news: looks like he just wants to sniff my fingers.
"Hi, Chairman," says [Shorty]. "Hello."
McSweeney's rejected "Star Wars," so I sent it to [REDACTED] for [REDACTED] and she accepted it just like that. So it may be my first "published" work, "Star Wars," handwritten in a little notebook in Parisian cafés—La Rotonde, in fact, if I remember correctly...
But so yes, if I can pull off the writing here—maybe possible because I'm not on my main computer, not in the office, and if the Chairman's just going to curl up next to me and be cute the way he's doing now, then that's an added plus. Futon's not so comfortable... See if the couch'll work or if the disturbed cat will decide to become a menace and force my hand...
I could even do it at Spider House and use the old iPod—"for special music."

Is it clear when I do this that I'm quoting from my goddamned journals? Not this, though:
Yesterday I finished—or really confirmed that I had finished—the second draft of my novel, then drove myself crazy trying to print it two-sided at home. Ultimately I printed it one-sided at my writing space, took it to Kinko's, and was blown backwards off my feet and through a plate glass window by the price. Boy do you get fleeced if you can't work a printer yourself. Anyway, tomorrow morning the shit will be ready, and I will give it to some people to read, and then I will revise it again, and then I will get it published and finally realize my dream: Lucre. Limitless lucre.
Naw, I'm just messing with you. My real dream isn't money. It is having a washer–dryer in my apartment.
I would sell my soul.

* Nice! [Sarcastic isn't precisely the word. –ed.] [NOTE: These footnotes are in the original.]
† This, I should like to point out, is a phrase I either invented yesterday or thought I invented yesterday, which is why I've used it continually since.

Monday, January 11, 2010

What is pornography? (NSFW, maybe)

[This is exactly the sort of thing I'd be much (but much, like MUCH) more comfortable writing with some slightly greater degree of anonymity—but go fuck, am I right?*]

I gather that not everyone feels this way, but it seems clear to me that the main reason why pornography holds any interest at all is that it's real.† In other words, if there were any doubt in the mind that the people in question were actually doing what they were doing, if there were reason to think it had been faked or simulated, then it would be almost completely devoid of value—like a compliment from a compulsive liar (is for some reason the analogy that comes to mind).

The funny flipside of this is that if you know something is happening and can't see it, there might still be some appeal. This is why, I imagine, there was so much interest in the rumor that Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider were actually having sex during the relevant scenes, or some of the relevant scenes, in Last Tango in Paris: one might ask why that would matter if you couldn't see it actually happening either way, what difference it could possibly make except as an interesting piece of dirty trivia, but I submit that knowing they were actually having sex would make those sex scenes many, many times more exciting—way more so than a hypothetical scene in which you seemed to be witnessing graphic sex but for some reason knew that it was simulated (perhaps with state-of-the-art special effects).

I would even go so far as to say that if you watched a non sex scene in a movie and somebody in the know told you that the actors in it had just had sex with each other moments before walking onto the set, or moments after walking back off of it, then that would be titillating, too. I'm less and less confident that most people would agree with me on that, but I do think there's something, if not necessarily sexually exciting, then at the very least sexually interesting—and sexually interesting in a way that is at least essentially in line with at least one strand of the essence of pornography, note‡—about seeing someone maybe not doing anything sexual but either about to do so or just having finished doing so. Look at this picture, for example:

It's a screenshot from the Internet (and you'll forgive me if I do not include a link to an actual pornographic web site, but the source is cited as the motion picture Circa '82). If we know that these two people (Sasha Grey and some dude) are getting dressed after just having had sex with each other in front of a camera, what is our reaction? Or this picture, from the same site and the same film:

If these people (Ashley Blue and some guy) are about to do something but haven't done it yet and are not pictured doing it (although we can guess), what does that make this picture? One more question before we get to the crux of the biscuit: what about cropping? I mean, here's Sasha Grey and that dude again—

—and they're doing just what we think they're doing, and yet you could print this image in a magazine...or put it up on your blog, eh? I mean, is it OK that I posted this? Is it pornographic? How about this one?

These two people are having sex. I know because it's another picture I found on the Internet, and I cropped it myself. See, the picture is not particularly problematic (or exciting, on the other hand) per se, which means "in itself," but what does our knowing what's outside its borders do to the picture?

Then you get into a whole other game. Here's something else I found on the Internet:

etc. (SFW? NSFW? unclear)

Now, these particular pictures have been altered as a joke: the question I was raising a moment ago—"Is it OK to show this? Is this pornography?"—suddenly becomes a generator of comedic tension.

So has the smut been made "safe" if you leave out the dirty scenes, or crop out the dirty parts?—or paint over them? Has the picture been cleaned up—the obscenity erased or neutralized—if the graphic sex is obscured by cartoonish vandalism?

I ask not only for the sake of raising an intellectual question. In fact it's a fairly immediate, practical question for me: I recently altered a few pornographic images and put them up on on the Internet...and I intend to put some more up soon.


Here's an example—not my favorite, but maybe the very most "SFW" of the series:

So now what the hell is that, do you reckon? (I don't mean what's covered up; I mean what do we wind up with after the covering up.)

A friend of mine—an excellent artist!—liked the stuff and wrote (in an e-mail), "[Shorty] you should be an artist. You're already in New York. All you'd have to do is walk over to Soho, punch some dealer in the face, and install your works right there." I don't know how serious he was being, but I am just going to go ahead and say 100%.

But so is this shit art? Is it a joke? What did Headfoot intend? Only Headfoot knows the answer to that one—or maybe he doesn't, even. Doesn't matter either way: I learned from Harold Bloom to trust the tale, not the teller,§ and whether these images are worth anything at all (you can see more—and more still, when I update it—by clicking "SafenSmut™" under the last picture) is really a matter of opinion.

Also a matter of opinion, but a matter of opinion I'd like to end on just as I began on it, is whether those images—and this post, for that matter—are obscene. Have I crossed a line by posting them? It raises questions about how and why we make judgements about these things, why for example actors actually do kiss sometimes in our movies (not OK in some countries!) but have to fake it when their characters are called upon to screw. Why is it OK to show a naked person if a few key organs have been blacked out? (See also the magic of letter removal, the power of the vowel and the asterisk.) Would it be so terrible if you did see some unconcealed body part or undisguised sexual act?

Certainly in themselves the pictures I've put up here are no more racy than the stuff you see in advertisements every day. I mean, it might be tough to say which of these two pictures is more obscene (or less "SFW")—

(click to enlarge)

—when we keep in mind that in only one of the two are the models actually in the process of having anal sex(!). Two things I know are that (1) these pictures are at least technically within certain limits of the "acceptable," and (2) my whole point, though, is that they are at least in one sense perfectly pornographic.

So: OK? Not OK?

I don't know! It's a stumper!**

* ? –ed.
† Maybe only Jews feel this way.
‡ Essences have strands.
§ I think he was quoting Lawrence.
** Sounds like a dirty pun, isn't.

Friday, January 8, 2010

the good, the bad, and the meh [UPDATED]

Regular readers know how I feel about the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest. This week's finalists struck me because one of them is actually pretty good! Teresa Palomar from Baltimore, Md., has submitted a caption that manages to be absurd and enjoyably silly without losing all connection to the original cartoon, and that is a rare feat.

Now, when I say that it's "actually pretty good," it would be fair to reply, "You mean it's actually to your liking." I submit, though, that this isn't strictly relative. I prefer all three of these entries to the too-frequent fare of lame topical humor or junk wryness: at least they're all sort of making "the other choice" in one way or another. But (keeping in mind that explaining a joke always makes the joke MUCH BETTER) let's take a look at what these captions are doing.

The genius of Palomar's caption is that she's responding to the absurd chaos (and weird specificity) of the image by side-stepping it—but not, note, as so many of these submissions do, by ignoring it. The humor in "Let Table Seven know that there will be a slight delay" is essentially a humor of understatement, with a little bit of commentary on the head waiter's dry unflappability thrown in. It's sort of why we laugh at "We're gonna need a bigger boat" in Jaws—and actually I think it's sort of the reason why I get such a big kick out of the skeleton-key "Christ, what an asshole" caption theory: sideways from what we expect (arguably the very Tootsie Roll center of comedy), but not random.

The second caption is essentially random—also a little too complicated without any real payoff: so the idea is that...the head waiter is explaining to...a new guy? that he gets all the entertainment he needs here at the restaurant because...random crazy shit is always happening? What's the joke, exactly? The focus on not needing TV is distracting and certainly not funny in itself; is it supposed to be a comment on what restaurants are like? In that case, I guess I just don't know kitchens well enough to be amused. It's like a joke about some super-rarefied field: tell that joke to people in that field, don't print it in a magazine for the general public.

The third caption is closer than the second to what I like about the first, but—"There's always room for cello"? Again, what's the joke, really? I see three possibilities: (1) it's totally random, too random, (2) it's some kind of comment about kitchens that I don't get, or (3) it has no regard for the actual content of the cartoon, blithely ignoring the toplessness, the dangerous chase, the fish on the floor... I appreciate the randomness and the silliness, but it could be a picture of just about anything. [UPDATE: I'm stupid for missing the joke; the caption is stupid for making the joke. See comments below.]

And, sure, you could try to argue that the same is true of the first one, but I submit that the caption actually sums up the image in a sideways way by reducing it to, "Kitchen delays."* Oh, right—and then the specificity of "the risotto" puts it over the edge.

Very nicely done, Teresa.

* And that's a joke about kitchens that anyone can get behind—because if we haven't worked in restaurants, we've at least eaten in restaurants.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

new Nabokov: mini-review

The cover calls The Original of Laura (which I finished a few days ago) a "novel in fragments." This is misleading. The Original of Laura is not a novel in fragments, and it is neither a draft of a novel nor even properly (I would say) an unfinished novel.* The Original of Laura is fragments of an unfinished draft of a novel: I might even just call it "notes toward a novel."

What this means is that if you want to read a novel by Nabokov, The Original of Laura will be frustrating and not much fun. If, however, like me, you are eager to see what Nabokov's writing looked like while he was doing it, or love him enough that you'd just get a kick out seeing whatever he was working on at whatever stage—down to and including what are little more than verbal doodles—then this is the book for you.

Did that come out sounding sarcastic? It is not. I much enjoyed The Original of Laura (which contains coherent-enough fragments that you do get tastes of trademark Nabokovian genius—even at least one near-shiver of appreciation), I was fascinated by the focus on death by a writer who was I suppose at this point literally on his deathbed, and I expect to reread it at least once. The Original of Laura is something between an artifact and a coffee-table book, and it is for fans, scholars, and writers. If that does not sound good, then I would say run, don't walk, away. To me, who wrote his senior essay on Pale Fire, it's almost better than reading a new actual Nabokov novel. Almost.

P.S. Nabokov never did get over his pathological obsession with Freud. At least he didn't mention jazz and abstract art in this one (at least as far as I can remember†).

* Which it appears the new David Foster Wallace is going to be.
† Actually, yes, I'm sure he did hit the art, and why I'm putting this in a footnote instead of revising my claim is the key that can unlock this whole damned puzzle! (Kidding. No I'm not. Yes I am. Or am I? Yes. Or not. But yes. Question mark.)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

bad punctuation, what a treat

Well, you've got yourself some inappropriate quotation marks, sure—I mean, that is unless "No Slices" is, like, their motto—but the real special find is the apostrophe after the S in the name of the restaurant, which is in fact called (as all other signs and markers indicate) John's.

Putting the apostrophe after the S of course suggests a plural, meaning that the restaurant belongs to (or is named after) not "John" but rather "Johns," and the beautiful part is that (particularly when followed up by "of Bleecker Street") "Johns of Bleecker Street" would suggest the common noun johns instead of the proper noun Johns (first names pretty rarely being made plural, after all)—and johns, in case there are any naifs in the audience, are prostitutes' clients.

Oh, misplaced apostrophes. You slay me.

[IMPORTANT POSTSCRIPT: Johns' of Bleecker Street makes and sells some of the best pizza available for consumption!!!]