Do Not Trust This Man!

danwickett.jpg

“I think we should publicly shame him,” said one of our party.

“Okay,” I said. “Why not?”

There were five of us waiting to meet up with Dan Wickett at the Sheraton Hotel Hudson Bar. But Mr. Wickett was not there! We hung around for around 40 minutes. But no Dan Wickett! Et tu, Dan?

Despite the fact that there was a need to beat a deadline, your correspondent evaded his responsibilities and will be chained to his laptop for the next thirty hours to get the assignment finished. But shortly after the fruitless quest for Dan Wickett, there was then an evening involving many additional places with many magnificent people with many crazed text messages and many phone calls and people coming and going and perhaps too many drinks. And because of these peregrinations, which were somewhat unanticipated, there is no entry on Filthy Habits this morning.

But oh those margaritas! And oh those hugs and kisses and talk of randy activity!

Class Distinctions

Back in the days when I played at the gilded trap known as the nine-to-five rap, there were often times in which my failure to distinguish social hierarchies was at odds with policies practiced off the clock. There was a night when I went out to dinner with my fellow co-workers. One of those terrible fusion places. The kind of place not so keen on food and atmosphere and social camaraderie, but where the individual goes to be seen. I have never cared too much about being seen, but I do like to have a good time, even if my own social tendencies sometimes get me in trouble.

waiter1.jpgThe place pounded bad house music at deafening levels. There was very little light, save for a strip of green neon snaking around the perimeter of the bar. The waitstaff were clad in black, murky figures who sneaked up on tables like highwaymen descending upon a stagecoach. I kept feeling around for my wallet just to be sure.

It was clear from the stray sentences that managed to penetrate through the deplorable four four beat that my co-workers had class aspirations. Their fun was tied into the consumption of material goods. Whether spending every spare dollar on needless decor, drinks tabs that extended into a three digit sum in mere hours, or the blow that one secretary snorted in the restroom with a file clerk two decades her junior. (“I still have my tits,” she once said to me, little realizing that my interest in breasts had to be justified with some minimum but by no means unreasonable level of smarts.)

waiter2.jpgI lost interest in the talk of a reality television show I had never watched and began observing a server who reminded me very much of one of the attorneys at the firm I was then toiling at. She had spent a good deal of time perfecting her posture, had carefully kept up her skin, and was in her early thirties. Roughly around the same age. The resemblance was so similar to me that I could imagine her replacing a tray with an attache.

I pointed out these physical and behavioral similarities to the group. They looked, conceding that there was some resemblance. But the secretary, slamming down her fifth straight shot of Jamison’s, waved her finger imprecisely in my direction and insisted, “But [attorney name's excised] is beautiful!”

The waitress and the attorney were indeed both beautiful. But I didn’t really see why one would be more beautiful than the other. The only real difference was the vocation and the amount of take home pay.

But I suppose that if you look through a haze of drug and drink and drudgery, your sense of the world grows distorted. The ugly takes on a sudden allure. The tendrils of stasis start to resemble upward mobility. And beauty, which takes on many forms great and small and shouldn’t have a price tag, is hopelessly cross-stitched into commodity.

The U.S. Copyright Office

  • Paramount Pictures Corporation holds co-copyright on David Foster Wallace’s “Host.”
  • Nicholson Baker’s first two records, registered in 1981, were for two stories: “Snorkeling” and “K.590.” Both stories have not been collected. But the former appeared in The Little, v. 13, no. 1 and 2, p. 74-81. The latter appeared in the December 7, 1981 issue of The New Yorker.
  • George Romero has been busier than you think. Romero is understandably meticulous about copyright — perhaps because Night of the Living Dead was, quite famously, issued without a copyright and entered into the public domain. I’m extremely curious about what 1994′s Jacaranda Joe might have been. There is no reference in the IMDB. This was a 23 page script — presumably for a half hour anthology series. Actor Andy Ussach even has a picture of him and Romero “during the Jacaranda Joe filming.” So if something was shot, was it simply not completed?
  • Did Good Man Park author a book on psychological self-defense? This might explain his exclamation marks!
  • Will Stanley Kubrick’s Lunatic at Large be turned into something? The entry reads: “Statements re transfer space, address & corres.” More info on this lost treatment here.
  • Is it the same Tao Lin who wrote Overconfidence and Asset Prices?
  • A screenplay written by Pablo Guirado Garcia called I Pass Like the Night: Serial Fucker based on the Jonathan Ames book?
  • I’m curious about Neal Pollack’s play, Chicago on the Rocks. Was it performed?
  • I have typed in about twenty-two women into this search engine, but I have unearthed nothing lost or unknown. I find the gender disparity troublesome.
  • I could be here all night. Really, I could. There are mysterious works here that were never published or saw the light of day. Some of the copyright documents have mysterious exhibits attached, and I imagine that this is not necessarily the diligence of a cutthroat attorney hoping to protect his client’s interests, but that some of these writers offering eccentric riders to their manuscripts for those who take the trouble to go down to Washington to examine these documents in person. A bonus for anyone wishing to go the extra mile — a consolation prize for the truly obsessed.
  • There must be other copyright obsessives out there right now. Perhaps their partners are now in bed and they find the same solace I do typing in search terms into the WebVoyage interface. They may have the same admiration for the neat organization, the helpful annotations throughout the database (“Notes: play”), the specific dates, the letter code which precedes each copyright number (TX for text, V for recorded document, PAu for dramatic work and music; or choreography), and, like me, they may be pondering why the recorded documents have two sets of numerals (VxxxxDxxx).
  • Then again, if you work at the Copyright Office, the taxonomic structure with which I am now finding some strange appeal would likely become insufferable. The same way that a file clerk mindlessly puts away files and, in the worst of cases, doesn’t even have the benefit of music. I suddenly have great sympathy for the folks who work at the Copyright Office, particularly those who must ensure that the records are put away accurately. And yet it is the top-tier executives who we pay more money.
  • Did the clerks have any say in the way this system was set up? Or were they at the mercy of middle managers who insisted that V had to represent “recorded document?”
  • Furthermore, how much time was devoted to typing in all of this data into a computer? Is it really worth the $45 registration fee for all that pain? Or are the top men at the Copyright Office getting a good chunk of that cheddar? Perhaps the clerk spent three minutes typing all of the necessary data into the Copyright Office computer. That means that the clerk should rightly be earning $900/hour. But such an hourly rate is inconceivable. So where does this extra money go?
  • I think I will copyright a few things this year myself.

The Decline of Book Reviewing: A Case Study

It is said that the Eunectes murinus — referred to by laymen as the anaconda or the water boa — spends most of its time shooting its slimy body beneath the water, waiting for a hapless gazelle to stop and take a drink, only to grab the lithe animal with its jaws, coil its scaly muscular husk around its quivering body, squeezing and constricting until the animal is helpless (the animal is never crushed), where it then feasts upon the meat. It does this, because, while the boa does surface on land from time to time, the boa is more taken with the scummy agua. It does not know any better.

And while most mainstream newspaper book sections are devoted to thought over carnivorous instinct, there remain some critics, terrified of inhabiting any topography foreign to their hermetic environments and who remain needlessly hostile to any author crossing multiple ecosystems.

vollmann.jpgThe author in question is William T. Vollmann. And the book is Riding Toward Everywhere, a surprisingly thin volume (by Vollmann standards, at least) that concerns itself with trainhopping and vagrants. (Full disclosure: While the book isn’t Vollmann’s greatest, I did enjoy the book. And while I may be a devotee to Vollmann’s work, I have never let my admiration for the man hinder fair and critical judgment. Above all, I recognize that Vollmann, like any original and idiosyncratic author, must be read on his own terms. This would seem self-evident to even the most elementary reader, because of Vollmann’s style and his distinct subject matter. But other individuals, as I shall soon demonstrate, don’t share this commitment to due consideration.)

A number of recent reviews reveal an astonishing paucity of insight and, in some cases, remarkable deficiencies in reading comprehension. And this all has me greatly concerned about the state of contemporary criticism. While there were dismissals from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette‘s Bob Hoover and the Los Angeles Times‘s Marc Weingarten that had the good sense to avoid dwelling so heavily on Vollmann’s peccadilloes, the majority of these negative reviews not only failed to comprehend Vollmann’s book, but appeared predetermined to despise it from the onset. They wished to judge Vollmann the man instead of Vollmann the author. Which is a bit like judging Dostoevsky not on his literary genius, but on his abject personal foibles. Or dismissing Woody Allen’s great films because he married his adopted daughter. This is the stance of blackguards who peddle in gossip, not criticism.

And yet speculation into Vollmann’s character was unfurled in messy dollops under the guise of “criticism” or “book reviewing.”

From Rene Denfeld’s review in The Oregonian:

There is a saying among some bloggers: “I think I just vomited a little in my mouth.”

That’s how I felt reading “Riding Toward Everywhere.”

William T. Vollmann is a mystifyingly respected writer, a man who has made his reputation by exploiting sex workers, the poor and other helpless targets as he plumbs their depths with his supposedly insightful pen, not to mention other appendages.

Well, this blogger has never typed that hackneyed sentence, in large part because resorting to cliches are about as enticing as four hours with a dentist (or, for that matter, dwelling on an essay written by a lazy writer). But then Ms. Denfeld has no problem letting false and near libelous conjecture get in the way of understanding what’s in the text. She fails to cite any specific examples on how Vollmann has “exploited” his subjects. And she has deliberately misread Riding Toward Everywhere to suit her false and incorrigible conclusions. To be clear on this, it was not — as Ms. Denfeld suggests — Vollmann who referred to “citizens” contemptuously, but the vagrants who Vollmann interviewed. Since Ms. Denfeld doesn’t appear to know how to read and infer from a book, here is the specific manner in which Vollmann establishes a “citizen.” Vollmann starts talking to vagrants in search of the notorious gang, the Freight Train Riders of America. Early on in the book, Vollmann approaches a man with a bandana and bluntly asks him, “Are you FTRA?”

You goddamned dufus! shouted the man. That’s the stupidest fucking thing I ever heard. You wanna commit suicide or what? I’m not even FTRA and you’re already starting to piss me off. Don’t you get it? We hate you.

Why’s that?

Because you’re just a goddamned citizen.

Sorry about that, I said. (33)

Denfeld further claims that Vollmann “fancies himself the Jack Kerouac of our times,” but it’s quite evident that Vollmann, in addition to pointing out the differences between hitting the roads and riding the rails, views himself as a somewhat clumsy traveler and does not permit his literary antecedents to define him:

Neither the ecstatic openness of Kerouac’s road voyagers, nor the dogged cat-and-mouse triumphs of London’s freight-jumpers, and certainly not the canny navigations of Twain’s riverboat youth define me. I go my own bumbling way, either alone or in company, beset by lapses in my bravery, energy, and charity, knowing not precisely where to go until I am there. (73)

Denfeld also writes, “His concession to the law is to borrow friends’ cars when he picks up hookers so if he gets caught, it won’t be his license that is lost.”

Again, Denfeld deliberately twists Vollmann’s words around. Here is what Vollmann actually wrote:

My city passes an ordinance to confiscate the cars of men who pick up prostitutes. This compels me to walk….It may well be that I am a sullen and truculent citizen; possibly I should play the game a trifle. But I do, I do: When I pick up prostitutes I use somebody else’s car. (4-5)

denfeld.jpgIt is clear here that Vollmann is being as straightforward as he can about his life, trying to set down personal fallacies he may have in common with his subjects. It would be one thing if Ms. Denfeld stated the precise problems she had with the book, but she remains so fixated in her happy little universe — which involves living with her partner with three adopted children and OMG! “teaching writing in low-income schools and volunteering in adoption education and outreach”; could it be that Vollmann is not the only “rich” person who “brags” about philanthropy? — that she can’t seem to consider that other people relate to the world a bit differently. And it’s clear that she can’t be bothered to engage with the issues that the book presents. Masticating upon this book, good or bad, seems beneath Ms. Denfeld’s abilities. Beyond Ms. Denfeld’s consistent failure at basic reading comprehension, I likewise remain gobsmacked that these flagrant errors, easily confirmed by checking Ms. Denfeld’s statements against the text (which runs a svelte 186 pages), were allowed to run in a major newspaper.

Ms. Denfeld isn’t the only venerable nitwit assigned to review a book outside her ken. Here’s the opening paragraph from “respected” author Carolyn See’s takedown at the Washington Post:

William T. Vollmann is revered and venerated by a lot of men whose brains and souls I deeply respect. They love his ideas, the sheer length of his work (one book of his, “Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means,” runs over 3,000 pages); they love his freedom and eccentricities — he’s been to and written about Afghanistan, the Far East and the magnetic north pole, and has spent vast amounts of time with prostitutes while also managing to keep a wife and kid. He seems to be a man of prodigious abilities. At the same time, I can say I’ve never had a conversation with a woman about his work. He just doesn’t seem to come up on our radar. Is it that we don’t have the time to read 3,000 pages? That we don’t care as much as we should about the magnetic north pole? I don’t know.

Rather then dredge up my own empirical evidence of women I know who do read and enjoy Vollmann in response to this egregious sexism, which is particularly ignoble coming from a Ph.D., I’ll simply presume that See’s sheltered life at UCLA, much less basic library skills, precludes her from consulting such books as Linda Gregerson’s Magnetic North (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), Kathan Brown’s The North Pole (Crown, 2004), or Helen Thayer’s Polar Dream: The First Solo Expedition by a Woman and Her Dog to the Magnetic North Pole (NewSage, 2002). Further, Laura Miller’s womanhood didn’t hinder her from devoting 2,000 words to Poor People, pointing out (although critical) that Vollmann was “a writer of extraordinary talent.” Dava Sobel called him “ferociously original.” Numerous other examples can be readily unearthed in newspapers and academic journals. Vollmann is no more an author just for men than Jennifer Weiner is an author just for women. And only a fool or a John Birch Society member would declare otherwise.

See’s prefatory paragraph, of course, has nothing to do with the book in question. And if See had been a responsible reviewer, she would have recused herself from reviewing an author who “doesn’t come up on [her] radar.” An ethical and responsible reviewer knows her own intellectual or perceptive limits.

And then there is J.R. Moehringer’s offering in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review. Like Denfield, Moehringer has reading comprehension problems, although thankfully not as severe. Moehringer completely misses Vollmann’s point that Cold Mountain is, much like Shangri-La, an unobtainable destination, although he does seem to understand that it’s “a nonexistent mountain.” But for Moehringer, “the words lose all meaning.” It doesn’t occur to Moehringer that Vollmann’s repetition of “Cold Mountain” might be a way of expressing the ineffable or the unfindable. Or as Vollmann puts it:

I stood here wondering if I had reached Cold Mountain. Where is Cold Mountain, anyway? Isn’t it for the best if I can never be sure I’ve found it?

But Moehringer’s biggest sin is to ask Vollmann the hypothetical question, “Pal, what the hell’s wrong with you?” He finds Vollmann crazy for “get[ting] his kicks breaking into rail yards and hopping freight trains,” and wonders why nobody has caught him. But he fails to consider that Vollmann’s romantic description of the open air or the modest code of honor that prevents a fellow hopper from stealing another hopper’s sleeping bag might hold some appeal to a man of Vollmann’s eccentricities. Clearly, there are reasons why Vollmann hops trains. And Vollmann dutifully explains why. But since Moehringer lacks the intellectual flexibility to understand this, he breaks John Updike’s first rule of reviewing (“try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt”) at the onset.

He declares Vollmann “miserable” and “filled with irredeemable gloom about the state of the world,” wondering how anyone could feel this way more so than others, but fails to recognize that one of the major thrusts of Vollmann’s work has been to chronicle the misunderstood. Kindness and empathy, and writing about people that other novelists and journalists are all too happy to ignore, are at the core of Vollmann’s output. Further, there is more to Vollmann’s mantra than Cold Mountain. As Vollmann explains:

I am sure that the fact that my wife had expressed her wish for a divorce two days before had nothing to do with the fact that I kept saying to myself: I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve got to get out of here.

Moehringer also writes, “Early on, Vollmann mentions ‘a Cambodian whore’ he nearly married. Why? No reason.” But what Moehringer conveniently elides is how Vollmann mentions this in connection with taking a bus trip out to Oakland. When the bus stopped at Cheyenne, Vollmannn felt that he had reached “true West.” He did not get out of the bus, but he felt that “Cheyenne changed me at that moment.” And if Moehringer is so indolent a reviewer that he cannot grasp the basic concept — indeed, the specific “reason” Vollmann is bringing up this anecdote — of how one decision often changes a life at a crossroads, let us consider the specific passage:

Once upon a time I almost married a Cambodian whore, or at least I convinced myself that I was on the verge of wedding her; once I considered moving in with an Eskimo girl; in either case, I would have learned, suffered and joyed ever so intensely in ways that I will never know now. And what if I had gotten off the bus in Cheyenne in the year of my youthful hope 1981? California is only half-western, being California. Cheyenne is one hundred percent Western….And had I stepped off the bus in Cheyenne, I might have become a cowboy; I could have even been a man.

If Moehringer — a Pulitzer Prize winner, for fuck’s sake — is incapable of seeing the reason why Vollmann mentioned the incident, then I shudder to consider his dull worldview and nearly nonexistent sense of adventure. Why climb Everest? No reason. “Because it’s there.”

All three reviewers demonstrate a remarkable devotion to remaining incurious and to condemning an author personally rather than trying to consider an author’s perspective. Small wonder, given this reactionary clime, that book reviewing sections face extinction.

Night at the Boxcar

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This was roughly the view you received if you had the privilege of attending the Boxcar Lounge on Wednesday night. The venue was indeed shaped like a boxcar and it was SRO for those souls, like Levi and me, who had arrived from McNally Robinson. (Of that counterprogramming, while John Freeman made a valiant attempt to ask questions of Lee Siegel that would cause him to think instead of fulminate more on his puerile anti-Internet views, the two of us left after twenty minutes. Siegel, as a speaker, has the voice of a semi-squeaky plush toy that still has a bit of air left, but hasn’t yet figured out that the tots have moved on to newer baubles. I had seen this kind of arrogant and opinionated blather before when the speaker had referred to itself as Andrew Keen. So there was no need to subject myself to it again. To offer a small sample: According to Siegel, the Internet is apparently composed of 80% porn. And while it’s absolutely diabolical for people to leave anonymous and hateful comments (as they did for Siegel’s posts at the New Republic), apparently it’s perfectly peachy keen for Siegel to impersonate “sprezzatura” because there is nothing forbidding such a cheap impersonation under journalistic rules. Never mind that Siegel’s shenanigans were hardly transparent and had to be ferreted out by top brass at the New Republic. I took notes, but I felt like I was transcribing a kindergarter’s efforts to discuss Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason based on a one-sentence summary. As such, my notes are not worth reproducing or summarizing.)

You couldn’t get a seat at the Boxcar Lounge. Unless you were one of the smart ones, like Maud and her friend, who arrived early to get a seat. There were many bloggers in the crowd, including Jason, Levi, Marydell, Lauren, and Sarah. It was also a pleasure to talk with Michael Orbach, Jami Attenberg, and a number of other people who I will no doubt remember after I hit the “Publish” button. I’m sorry.

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Besides, who needed Siegel when there was another installment of Jami Attenberg’s Class of 2008 Reading Series going down? This one featured Michael Dahlie reading from A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living, Lynn Lurie reading from Corner of the Dead, and (pictured above) Ceridwen Dovey reading from Blood Kin. Dovey was one of the evening’s standouts. Her reading was quietly intense and suitably genteel, and I am now most curious about her novel.

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And then there was Mr. Sarvas himself, who read from a chapter of his forthcoming novel, Harry, Revised: the infamous incident in the bookstore. The chapter contains a disparaging reference to David Foster Wallace and I felt compelled to cry out a “Yea!” in DFW’s defense. Mark likewise felt compelled to point to me during this moment.

Is Harry, Revised any good? I was a bit hesitant to approach it, as my candor compels me to tell even my closest friends when their work is not up to snuff. But I have read the whole of Harry, Revised and I can recommend it. Mark has ventured down a somewhat unexpected path here, unafraid to have his protagonist enter into uncomfortable territory. The book’s style displays Mark’s clear love for Fitzgerald and there is something of a French farcical feel that permits material that should not work to be executed with a crazed grace.

I am sorry to report, however, that there remains one passage that will almost certainly be nominated for The Bad Sex Award. But you’ll have to wait for a forthcoming installment of The Bat Segundo Show to find out precisely what it is.

Interview with Charles Burns

Four new podcasts were released today at The Bat Segundo Show. And since we’re on the subject of Segundo, what follows is a short excerpt from my conversation with Philadelphia-based artist Charles Burns, who I chatted with during a recent visit through New York.

blackhole2.jpgYou might know Burns’s work from his advertisements or his illustrations for The Believer. But he’s best known as the writer and illustrator of the graphic novel, Black Hole, a compilation of his twelve-volume comic book. Burns worked on this over the course of ten years. And one of its remarkable qualities is the way that it remains remarkably consistent in its tone, despite the fact that Burns saw his two daughters grow up as he patiently put his work together. Black Hole depicts the story of a sexually transmitted disease that afflicts various teenagers in the Pacific Northwest. The work is very much a Rorschach test for the reader. One might infer a parable about AIDS or, if you wanted to get really reductive, innocence lost. Or it can be simply enjoyed as a dark tale of American adolescence gone awry.

Since Burns has conducted many interviews for his magnum opus, the challenge was to come up with a few conversational angles that he hadn’t encountered. But the interview frequently drifted into abstract personal memories when I asked him about a specific facet of Black Hole, demonstrating perhaps that artistic ambiguities aren’t always so easily pinpointed.

Correspondent: You’ve probably seen Vanessa Raney’s really lengthy critical essay of Black Hole, where she analyzes your panels quite in-depth. And I actually wanted to ask you about a comparison she made. She pointed out that Keith, Chris, and Eliza actually represent the same relationship structure in Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. And I wanted to ask you about this. Was Sartre ever on the mind in concocting this narrative? How did the relationship structure begin?

Burns: Boy, that’s a good question. I don’t know that I’ve read the essay that you’re referring to. But there have been some questions asked along those lines before. It really wasn’t an influence or that wasn’t in my mind when I was creating the story. I guess I was trying to create these characters. Two very different types of women. The main character is just coming to terms with the differences between them and his attraction to them. His initial attraction to Chris, a girl that he admires from his biology class, is this very kind of clean-cut — what he thinks is kind of clean-cut. The kind of woman that he’s putting on a pedestal. She’s perfect. But he doesn’t really know anything about her at all in reality, other than just that she seems amazing.

And then he meets a very different kind of woman, who’s very much earthy. Much more sexual. And he finds himself attracted to her, much to his dismay. So the story’s really his coming to terms with his reaction, I guess, to these different women.

Correspondent: But no Jean-Paul Sartre.

Burns: No.

Correspondent: Any literary…

Burns: I would love to be able to say that there’s a good comparison there. But, no, that wasn’t the case.

blackhole1.jpgCorrespondent: Okay. I also wanted to ask you about some of the anatomical close-ups throughout Black Hole. They remind me very much — in addition to the pustules and the various biological impediments that many of the characters have — it reminds me very much of the sort of World War II venereal disease films.

Burns: (laughs)

Correspondent: I was wondering. What kind of visual references did you use for these particular decisions? Or was it just more of an intuitive choice?

Burns: It was probably more of an intuitive choice. I mean, there’s those things that I grew up that are out there. I think there’s references in the movie to sitting in the biology health class and looking at — learning about sexuality that way. There’s was always this kind of very strange antiseptic situation. I remember one time in biology class, there was — I guess, what do you call it? — a TA. A student teacher. And there was some film on — I don’t know, reproduction. And she showed the first half of it. And then she abruptly turned the film off. And, of course, everybody in the class said, “Oh, keep running it! We want to see it again! We want to see the rest of it.” And she would say, “No, no, no, no.” And finally she turned it back on. And there was this very graphic portion of the movie, where we were seeing an IUD inserted into a vaginal — (laughs)

Correspondent: Yeah.

Burns: And everybody just immediately got very, very quiet and very, very uncomfortable. Because here’s this — suddenly after seeing these very typical movies about “Your Growing Body,” suddenly we were seeing these very graphic representations. It was an odd moment.

Correspondent: Is it something about that period between, say, 1945 and 1975? Was that very much on the mind — in terms of getting this particular look? Or this particular emphasis on close-ups and warts and the like?

Burns: I don’t know. I guess that’s more of a personal thing. I guess that’s just how my brain works or thinks. Those were the kinds of images that were coming up. Again, it has to do with all the things that you’re subjected to and that you come across from that time period. But nothing as thought out as that, no.

Correspondent: So really it’s more of a personal intuitive experience that you’re drawing upon here? I know…

Burns: That would be a better description.

Correspondent: Yeah, because this leads me into another question. I know that the yearbook photos, or rather the photos on the inside cover, were taken from your own yearbooks.

Burns: Yeah.

Correspondent: And this leads me to ask you about how much of what is in Black Hole is taken from your personal experience, and where do you imagine certain details. I mean, certainly, the disease which plagues all these various people is imagined in some sense. But I’m wondering, in terms of the more personal observations, were these taken more from anecdotes? Were these imagined? On what level did you feel the need to draw upon real life and your own instinct for reimagining behavioral scenarios?

Burns: I mean, my situation growing up was a much more benign situation than what I’m depicting. I mean, there were internal struggles that I was going through, that I think everybody goes through during adolescence, that seemed extremely dramatic and extremely heartrending, difficult times. And I guess I was trying to depict that. What those feelings were. The kind of internal struggle that I was going through.

There are certainly situations in the story that are drawn directly from my life. I never met a half-naked girl with a tail.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Burns: I would have loved to.

blackhole3.JPGCorrespondent: Wouldn’t we all really?

Burns: That never happened. My existence was much more sedate and pedestrian, I suppose. But again, these sorts of things were brewing in my mind. My sense of not fitting in. My sense of this kind of internal horror that I was feeling in a lot of situations. Whether they were anywhere near…

Correspondent: Well, in terms of personal experience vs. what you observed, I mean, it seems to me that personal experience is more the motivating impetus for what you put into Black Hole more than anything else. If what I’m understanding you to say is correct. Were you more of an observer or were you one of those types of people?

Burns: I was one of those types of people in varying degrees. Someone was asking me the other day, “Were you a punk?” I was there in all those concerts participating, but I never shaved my head or carved a swastika on my forehead. But yeah, I was there. I guess that’s what I wanted to do too — in the book, talk or just have a realistic look at the times I was growing in. There’s moments in there, even though they’re very sedate, that are very horrific to me. To be sitting in a room for four hours listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon get played over and over, and sitting around with a bunch of guys for hours and hours, is horrific to me.

[The full interview will appear in a future installment of The Bat Segundo Show.]

The Video Game as Art

In 2005, film critic Roger Ebert ruffled a few feathers when he suggested that because video games require player choices, games are therefore an inferior medium:

To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.

bioshock.jpgI can certainly agree with Ebert that video games are, for the most part, showcases for the latest gaming engines, primarily designed so that the individual will drop hundreds of dollars for a next-generation console system or a needlessly expensive video card that will be outdated in a few years (only to be replaced by yet another). We are now in the nickelodeon days, although, as the Wii demonstrates, the game controllers are getting more interesting. But this multi-billion dollar industry is less concerned with the human experience than it should be. It has come close with the Civilization games and the Sims offerings, and may come even closer with Will Wright’s much delayed Spore, an ambitious god game that permits the player to develop a cell and then control the natural development of this cell into a species, and then further manage the species as it plunges into space exploration. I’ve lost many hours feeling an ignoble cathartic thrill when fragging a junior-high schooler who, like me, should probably be reading a book. But I can justify my shameful vicarious pleasure by knowing that this is a medium that has yet to produce a Battleship Potemkin or a Birth of a Nation.

To suggest, however, that the video game will never find the same gravitas as cinema is to fall prey to same prejudicial thinking with which intellectuals once castigated cinema in the early 20th century. Let’s not forget that it took the motion picture around thirty years of technological developments before it was considered more than a gaudy amusement. And we have only just passed the 30th anniversary of the Atari 2600.

This New York Times article from September 7, 1913 suggests that the then primitive motion picture was, like the contemporary video game, very much about delivering spectacle to a mass audience. George Kleine, one of the key people who established the film industry in the United states and who had just made a cinematic adaptation of Quo Vadis? with a cast of 3,000 people (then an unprecedented number), is quoted in an eerily comparable manner about the future of the medium”

“I have plans for the future which make everything I have done so far seem to be mere child’s play. The educational end has not begun. Motion pictures will not supplant books in the public schools, according to my opinion, but they will revolutionize our educational system. Instead of being bored, the child will enjoy learning by object lessons conveyed by the use of moving pictures.”

ffever.jpgReplace “motion pictures” with “video games” and you essentially have what’s reflected in this 2002 BBC News article, in which a study reveals that games are not a substitute for books, but a way to help children learn. And if, like me, you grew up playing Fraction Fever (the ROM is here, if you’re an emulator geek) or any of the other Spinnaker titles, perhaps there is some credence to these theories.

There is also this commentary from the 1913 article:

There are many pictures being thrown upon the screen every day which, although not really harmful, possess no merit. Some are positively ridiculous, and portray scenes both unnatural and unreal. It is not to be expected, however, that with the demand for films exceeding the supply every production should be perfect.

It seems to me that Ebert’s Grumpy Old Man routine was published in newspapers a century before. The medium is the only thing that’s different.

passage.jpg

Jason Rohrer’s surprisingly touching game, Passage, freely available for download and released a few months ago, quite easily destroys Ebert’s thesis that the video game is incapable of poetry. Rohrer achieves a unique poetry both in limiting the player’s perspective to a 100×16 window and through the deceptively simple manner that he has designed this game for the player. Play the game once and you will follow a strapping young man from left to right. He finds a woman along the way. A pixelated heart soon follows. As the man advances further along this horizontal tableau, he (and his sweetheart) begins to age. He goes bald. As he continues to age, his position on the axis shifts further to the right. Near the end of his life, he is hobbling. Then a tombstone crops up. The End.

Or is it?

The game isn’t limited to left-to-right movement. Play the game again, press the down arrow. and you will find yourself exploring a maze below the top, collecting many stars and stumbling for a way out. But with this simple design, Rohrer has done something very interesting. If you choose to fall in love with your sweetheart, the two of you can only explore certain areas. Because with your partner in tow, you collectively take up a wider space and can only fit into specific territory. If you choose to go through this life solo, then you’ll be able to collect many of the stars denied you and your sweetheart, but you may get lost in the maze and be unable to find your way back to where your sweetheart waits.

If Passage is not quite the video game’s answer to The Waste Land, Rohrer’s poetic game demonstrates that independent developers can in fact use the form in favor of human experience. Rohrer’s lo-fi approach is a welcome response to high-end graphical tentpole operations. I found myself thinking of all the choices I had made over the course of my life and wondered how I would have turned up if I had made slightly different decisions. Contra Ebert, I did indeed find the experience to make me more curious and empathetic about the human condition. (And this would appear to have been Mr. Rohrer’s objective.) This was something that no amount of fragging had inspired.

If all this sounds fishy, well, the game simply has to be played. Like any work of art, it is something better experienced than talked about. And it requires that superannuated naysayers keep open minds.

Beware of the Owl

owl.jpgThe reports promised snow but prevaricated. My mind marinated. You get that feeling when you are conned into picking away at a slice of red velvet cake because it’s there and you have only poor penmanship instead of an able fork. Never mind culinary sullies. The owl’s snooty hoots belied a ballistic solipsism suggesting the sword was mightier than any midnight rambler. And we were rendered into spittle and drivel hoping that flurry would scurry and leave us with some natural marching power.

Do not attempt this at home. This is an experiment to be carried out in the field.

The mind’s confines are best addressed with cardboard forms of demarcation. One expects lobes to spill but finds an ungracious appreciation for cerebral aerobics. To expand with substance, or to impute that other substances were snorted, is to fall prey to the owl’s howling mantras.

And yet the owl’s maxims mean much to many. An internal stare avoided for fear of the external. The febrile zeal to fit in when best adjudicated by entropy. The enameled mammals flensed their telegenic teeth because this mattered more than a whore. First person prima donnas not comprehending their spending and, worse yet, failing to feel the beats of their hidden hearts in a playground for the rich and a salvo for the stitch. Small wonder that my soul resembled an over-tossed baseball.

Thus, I retreated into gibberish, what they felt was folderol. My sentences became longer and the owl still did not understand them. The owl merely responded to big billboards and bright lights. The owl offered me a script.

“HOO HOO! Say these HOO HOO! words and HOO HOO! you will HOO HOO! be a HOO HOO! success.”

“He was on first,” I replied.

“HOO HOO! Stop that HOO HOO! they’re beginning HOO HOO! to turn away.”

Idle talk amidst the unfulfilled flakes. Damp matches struck sulfur and the owl’s paper package transmuted into a capable conflagration. No one was more surprised than me. There was, after all, the slush.

The owl offered another script. I took it, but the words were the same.

Quadruple Bypass

stojkoreal.jpgThe first time I saw a quadruple jump performed live, I was barely a mile from the house I grew up in. It was December 1995. The Nepean Sportsplex, constructed in 1972, featured rickety rafters, off-kilter air-conditioning and smaller-than-regulation size skating rinks. This was a place designed more for vicious hockey hits than quadruple jumps, but two-time defending world champion Elvis Stojko was in town to compete in the Eastern Nationals, a three-day long competition for skaters determined to qualify for the National Championship. He didn’t have to be there; his decorated status meant he could go straight to Nationals and skip the Sportsplex altogether. But he’d withdrawn from the previous nationals because of an ankle injury suffered during competition practice, fought through the pain to defend his world title, and wanted to show Canada he was fully recovered, sustaining what was an otherwise injury-free career. He was still capable of landing the quad.

The quad looks difficult on a television screen because it reflects the miniscule probability of perfect execution. Figure skaters are taught before they enter primary school to use the sliver-thin length of the skate edge for gliding, spinning and lifting themselves off the ice and landing on one foot. Later comes the most important part of a successful jump: pulling the body into a small center of gravity and rotating one, two, three times at a rate akin to the idling engine speed of a car before landing. The quadruple jump requires a perfect storm of horizontal and vertical displacement, takeoff and landing velocity and angular momentum (the force required to spin so quickly in the air) so that all four revolutions are finished before the skater lands. Stojko had mastered the jump as a teenager, and landed it when it mattered at the 1994 Olympics for a silver medal. He landed it even more convincingly two months later in Chiba, Japan to help him win his first world title.

stojko2.jpgAny doubts about Stojko’s fitness and quad mastery dissipated in practice. Where before I required a working television to count the setup’s 1-2-3, with the edge change and toe pick deep into the ice just before Stojko pulled his body together for four tightly wound revolutions, leaving me a half second to wonder if he would, in fact, land the jump cleanly on one foot, now I could do so in person. He whipped out quad after quad, sometimes in combination, during the practice sessions. The fans, far fewer than the numbers attending Nationals and later the World Championships in Edmonton, responded with the fervor and noise of a crowd twice its size. Stojko was relaxed, jocular, keeping up a perpetual professional equally adept with wide-eyed kids, sycophantic adults, and me — a teenager trying hard to be too cool for school and failing.

I don’t remember if Stojko landed a quad during either of his programs, but I suspect he did. He would also land many, many more over the years that followed until he finally retired from competitive skating in 2006. But the regional meet in my local backyard signaled a turning point, a time when the quadruple jump moved beyond a risky novelty move into an expectation, even a requirement, for a male figure skater. Women now try quads, though only one, Japan’s Miki Ando, succeeded in 2002. The toe loop and salchow are in the books; the lutz just missed. But with the quadruple jump turning twenty this March, I lament the absence of risk. Or something more. The absence of wonder I felt during the quad’s first decade and a half. Adding more revolutions won’t bring it back.

* * *

stojko3.jpgThe quad’s anniversary is arbitrary. Robert Waggenhoffer is but a footnote in American skating history: a young man rumored to have landed quads in practice as early as 1979. “Jumpin’ Joe” Sabovcik, the 1984 Olympic bronze medalist, might have been the first quad hopper had he not brushed his foot on at the European Championships two years later. The year before the Calgary Olympics the papers wondered if “the Battle of the Brians” would not only play out for the gold medal but for the chance to be the first quad king (Orser never bothered in competition; Boitano tried it twice in 1988 and failed.) So Kurt Browning’s attempt at the 1988 World Championships catapulted him into the record books, but years later I’m struck by the tiny margin of error all the way from takeoff to landing. Browning’s timing at the beginning seems a beat or two off; the position is slightly tilted in the air; and the three-turn on the landing is good enough for the books but just imperfect to ensure his seventh place standing. The World Championships and star-making performances would only come later.

The early 1990s brought a few more stragglers to the quad table. Petr Barna. Alexei Urmanov. And then along came Elvis, whose muscular, stocky build allowed him to power through the 1-2-3 of preparation to land them consistently. He’d land them in combination, first with a double toe loop, then with a triple. My favorite was the one at the 1997 Worlds in Lausanne, when Stojko needed to land every possible jump in his arsenal to hold off Todd Eldredge, Ilia Kulik and Alexei Yagudin. His competitors’ miscues helped, but so did the quad-triple, a combination so brilliantly executed there could be no question he would land each portion perfectly.

Kulik would have a similar flawless program, quad and all, the following year to claim Olympic gold in his first try. Yagudin’s 2002 Olympic gold long program also had a glorious quadruple toe. Where Elvis’s quads were muscular, Kulik’s, and later Yagudin’s, seemed to float, aim higher instead of further along the ice rink. I can watch routines by each of these men so many years after the fact and still feel their jumps, and especially their quads, shot through with a mixture of fear and hubris. Fear because the audience was never quite sure if they would be landed; hubris because deep down, we knew they would – and even if we were wrong once, we wouldn’t be wrong the next time.

It’s no accident I stopped following figure skating around the time the quad became commonplace. Michael Weiss’s endless blathering about landing the quadruple lutz only seemed to highlight how weak his overall ability was. Timothy Goebel may have landed three quads in one program, but that came after many, many misses, cheats and ugly looking rotations and landings. But perhaps the fault lies with 2006 Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko. He landed so many (well over 100), sometimes in combination, sometimes not, making the jump look so easy that it had the net effect of a triple. But none of those quads had a sense of joy; they pulled inward instead of reaching out.

Plushenko’s quad mastery also signaled an end to the era of technical upward mobility. For years, the mantra in skating has been more: more revolutions, more height, more distance, more difficulty. But human bodies are only capable of rotating so many times like dizzy spinning counter tops, of bending the laws of physics enough to land one-footed on a tiny gliding blade. Twenty years of quadruple jumps points to an uncertain future that mirrors that of figure skating as a whole. Fewer people are watching the slim pickings of skater personalities, and the prospects for the 2010 Olympics seem paltry. Instead of making me look forward to the current and next generations of jumpers, wondering if they will turn flips, lutzes and axels into quadruples and beyond, today’s quads inspire a backwards approach. Now I scour YouTube for clips, searching for shards of a time when the jump was special.

When there was still some joy in quadville.

Hillary’s Tears, Our Tears

hillary.jpgLorrie Moore’s naive essay on Hillary Clinton not only demonstrates the unspoken precept that skilled fiction writers are sometimes remarkably simplistic when they write about politics, but deploys the same scripted liberalism that every progressive is now expected to chant to peers in coffeehouses. The formula, it seems, boils down to this: Hillary Bad, Obama Good.

Now I’m not exactly a Hillary lover. Clinton waffled from a 1993 universal health care plan which mandated all employers to provide health care for employees to her latest “universal” plan, which shifts the mandatory financial burden to individual citizens. But a proper universal health care program is single-payer, regulated by the government, and doesn’t abdicate the spoils to HMOs. Clinton is also the senator who received the most money from HMOs in the 2008 election cycle. (Obama was second.)

Like every good left-leaning American, I have been seduced by the seemingly limitless reserves of Obama’s charisma: his smooth handling of Bill O’Reilly’s arrogant attack dog antics, his adroit response to anti-abortion protesters, insert your magical Obama moment here.

The man is slick. Slicker than Bill Clinton. I firmly believe that he can be the next President. He looks good. Too good.

In comparing Obama with Clinton, Moore writes that “unlike her, he is original and of the moment. He embodies, at the deepest levels, the bringing together of separate worlds. The sexes have always lived together, but the races have not.”

wecandoitreal.jpgI wonder if Moore remains aware that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, women earn 77 cents for every dollar their male counterparts make. (The disparity, incidentally, is better in Washington, DC, where women make 91 cents to the male dollar. This may explain why Capitol Hill remains somewhat out-of-touch on this issue. An Equal Rights Amendment may provide succor to these problems.) Or maybe Moore remains unaware that young women are earning degrees at a higher rate than men do.

This certainly doesn’t reflect a case where the sexes “have always lived together.” Unless, of course, we’re talking garden-variety cohabitation. And while Obama may talk the talk, I fail to see how Obama’s legislation record brings together separate worlds in any way that is substantially different from Hillary Clinton. The oft bandied boast is that Obama was not Senator in 2002 and therefore unable to vote for the congressional resolution authorizing Bush to use force in Iraq. But what’s not to suggest that within this climate of fear, Obama wouldn’t have done so? (The record demonstrates that John Edwards also voted for it. Kucinich and Paul did not.)

The distinction then is predicated on retroactive speculation. Which is a bit like seriously considering the ridiculous question Bernard Shaw asked of Michael Dukakis during the 1984 Democratic presidential debates: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Kitty Dukakis was not raped and murdered. Obama was not Senator during 2002. Nonetheless, it is an American political tradition to rate presidential candidates according to what they may have done under certain circumstances, as opposed to a more reasonable survey of what they are likely to do based on their past records.

So ultimately the difference between Obama and Clinton comes down to charisma. To watch Obama in action is to experience the most pleasant and capable of political machines. He’ll jazz up a crowd in minutes and give them the fleeting sense that they can change the world. But who is the wizard behind the curtain? Progressives — including myself — were so eager to fixate upon Karl Rove, but why do we fail to apply the same standards to those who run Obama’s campaign?

Last week, Hillary Clinton welled up on camera and was roundly ridiculed. The question arose over whether this was sincere. Cruel YouTube parodies surfaced soon after. For some, the tears confirmed the inevitable. Here are some of the YouTube comments:

I really feel that Hillary Clinton is a worhless [sic] piece of shit.

i hate this woman

This bitch won because she got on national television with her fake crocodile tears in front of million of viewers.

Yea what a fucking cow. She should be making pizza.

This is a very EVIL fricken human being…She should be ashamed of herself! If she had any heart at all she would finally tell the truth!

Go and fuck Bill.. instead of cheating people

Hillary Clinton is a worthless piece of shit.

And so on.

This was not, however, a Muskie moment, even if an op-ed columnist like Newsweek‘s Karen Breslau was keen to dredge up the droplet that careened down Muskie’s cheek and sealed his political fate. Until the primary results dictate otherwise, Clinton is still very much in the game.

What was not factored in Breslau’s article was the double standard with regard to gender. I find myself being one of the few who remains suspicious about never seeing a gaffe from Obama. Real humans screw up. But presidential politics demands perfection or, as Bush’s two victories confirm, a guy you can drink a beer with.

The cult of personality remains so seductive that even adept writers like Moore offer this foolishness: “it is a little late in the day to become sentimental about a woman running for president. The political moment for feminine role models, arguably, has passed us by.”

On the contrary, the present political moment is very much about whether a president has the right to appear sentimental before the cameras, which in turn is very much predicated upon whether the candidate is a man or a woman. It does not matter what Hillary Clinton’s positions are. What matters most of all is whether or not the “bitch” or “the worthless piece of shit” fabricated her tears.

The question we should be asking is just why these gratuitous issues of telegenic interpretation are deflecting more pressing concerns, such as platforms and positions, and why even the best of us are happily swallowing the bait.

Sprezzatura the Maligned

It’s been more than a year since the manboy cultural critic Lee Siegel was temporarily suspended from The New Republic for allegedly posting anonymous comments on its blog, under the name “sprezzatura.” And while Boris Kachka has interviewed Lee Siegel, Filthy Habits recently received an email from an individual claiming to be “sprezzatura.” He wished to set the matter straight. Sprezzatura’s email, which contained three mysterious JPEG attachments (among them, a picture of an alpaca in a compromising yet family-friendly position), claimed that he had been misrepresented, that Siegel was not “brave, brilliant, and wittier than [Jon] Stewart,” and demanded immediate reinstatement to the New Republic message boards. It remains a mystery to me why sprezzatura thought I had the keys to the New Republic castle. But this was a desperate email written in a desperate time.

“It is there where my shallow invective flowed best,” wrote sprezzatura of the New Republic website. He offered to send me $100 if I would interview him. I declined on moral principle. Then sprezzatura demanded an interview with me gratis by email because “Kachka had proved to be a wuss with his softball questions.” And I agreed, only because I had no wish to receive an email from sprezzatura ever again. I have been unable to confirm whether this “sprezzatura” is the same “sprezzatura” unleashed on Siegel’s blog. Indeed, I do not how many “sprezzaturas” there are. But I suppose it’s pedantic mysteries like this that have many of us wasting long hours on the Internet.

sprezz.jpgWhy don’t you just get a blog?

Because that would be too easy! And if I had devoted a blog just to clarifying my identity, I would have been thought a kook!

Actually, most bloggers are cranks. I speak with some expertise on the subject. But I don’t see how you’re making a case here, Lee.

Do not address me with that name! Those days are far behind me! We must forget that regrettable episode!

So you are Lee Siegel.

If you’ll pardon a metaphorical leap, Lee Siegel is a tuna melt poorly prepared with half-melted cheese. John Battelle never responded to any of my thoughtful queries. Therefore, he is an imbecile who cannot recognize my genius. David Brooks rested his argument on the flimsiest of premises. I do not need to inform you what these premises are. Just trust me. They’re flimsy. And when Cox wanted to draw attention to herself, she used the word “cunt” to make a point. Plus, she made more money than I did. And she’s a woman two decades younger than I am. It’s not fair!

Lots of invective there, sprezza baby. But can you cite any specific examples? Some might argue that you are using “cunt” to make….well, not exactly a point, but to stand out with an irrational Dale Peck-style explanation.

It doesn’t matter! Malcolm Gladwell’s hair was adopted for television as American Idol. I have tried to stop them from supplying him with shampoo, but they keep arresting me!

Lee, step away from the Internet and get some fresh air. We’ve had some unseasonably warm weather in January. Go for a walk.

I love the Internet, I’m on it all the time. I couldn’t have written my book so quickly without it. Thanks to the Internet, I didn’t have to think. I could just cut and paste some boilerplate, bang out a book and make a quick book and show those New Republic bastards exactly who mattered. I don’t think it’s making more people connected than they were before, not at all.

It didn’t have to be this way, Lee.

I react very badly when mediocrity is associated with my name.

Well then, write well!

That is hard when you are “sprezzatura” and you have been banned from your own magazine’s message board. Will you give me a hug?

Only if you stop using the moniker “sprezzatura.”

Forgotten Statue, Forgotten Spirit

schurz.jpgLike many statues nestled along the rectangular trestles of Manhattan’s parks, Karl Bitter’s bronze depiction of Carl Schurz — situated at the corner of Morningside Drive and 116th Street — is regularly overlooked by many New Yorkers. They walk their dogs. They chat on their cell phones. They rush to important appointments or set out to beat a jogging record. But they rarely stop to observe this rather tall and intriguing figure who remains memorialized.

That’s saying something, considering that Schurz is quite vertical in design (he stands nine feet tall), his left foot juts a mite forward, and his portly girth, disguised by a thick and definitive bronze coat and cape, demands attention. To look over the promontory where Schurz is propped, you must walk up three stone steps to get an unoccluded view. But no matter what building your eyes settle upon, Schurz will remain in dogged peripheral vision. Maybe pedestrians are vexed by Schurz’s hatless and Germanic form — for what it’s worth, he does politely hold his hat in his right hand — invading Harlem’s horizontal vista, which, like every Manhattan neighborhood, is now undergoing terminal gentrification. Perhaps to live in New York, the New Yorker cannot look upon the past, but must continue contending with the swift-paced momentum of the present. And if that means accepting glass monstrosities in lieu of charming brick buildings without remonstrance, so be it. But this willful acceptance also extends to figures like Schurz, who reminds us that there was indeed a New York before the present one.

The Schurz statue is unsullied by the verdigris now eating away at another of Bitter’s sculptures — that of Franz Sigel residing on West 106th Street and Riverside, currently earmarked for renovation. Schurz and Sigel both have parks named after them. (Karl Bitter, alas, does not. New York reserves its laurels for its heros, not the artists who render the legacy.)

We know that Schurz was a military man, a political reformer, and a journalist. He spent the majority of his life outside of New York, served as Secretary of the Interior for President Rutherford Hayes, moving to the city in 1881, ostensibly to retire. But a man of his insurmountable energies could not settle down. He had twenty-five years left in his life to make a name. And he did. Starting with his immediate rise to editor-in-chief of the New York Evening Post in 1883 and followed by becoming one of the Mugwumps supporting Grover Cleveland the following year. He spoke out against Tammany Hall, drawing enthusiasm for his remarks even as a fife and drum corps passed by.

The first fact that, in our efforts for good government, stares us in the face is the existence of an organization — Tammany Hall — whose very purpose it is to give the city the worst government it dares, to the end of making money out of it. And this organization has been for years, and is now, in full possession of the municipal power.

schurzreal.gifSchurz spoke these words as two friends of his were the top mayoral candidates. He would not let friendships get in the way of principle. Likewise, he did not think much of William Jennings Bryan and also campaigned against him.

As the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation is proud to announce, he was an adopted New Yorker and was often unpredictable with his political choices. Schurz was gleefully antagonistic, and on September 22, 1900, he resigned his Presidencies of the National Civil Service Reform League and the Civil Service Reform Association of New York, observing, “I frankly confess that on account of my position of antagonism to other policies of the Administration, the performance of my part of that duty is especially unwelcome to me.” But he could not quite give this ghost up and was elected the following year as President of the Civil Service Reform Association.

When Schurz was buried in Sleepy Hollow in May 1906, he had an audience both rich and poor. Andrew Carnegie and Joseph H. Choate stood beneath one umbrella. The Times described Schurz as “a publicist and patriot.” The funeral was attended only by relatives and close friends, but policemen had to stop many who hoped to get a view of Schurz’s coffin. It was Choate who ensured that the statue now standing in Morningside Park was completed.

Schurz had a reformist ebullience scarcely seen in the present political age. We now seem to settle for charisma and monoglot messages about hope. Those who do stand out are censored or declared too lunatic for the political arena. This stands in sharp contrast to the words Choate unfurled during the statue’s unveiling, “As a leader he did what is so seldom seen and yet so necessary in the upholding of the best in public life. He put expediency above personal and party advantage. He never allowed party to lead him in the wrong direction, and for years he stood alone, an independent figure in party and public life.”

At the pedestal before Schurz’s form are the words: CARL SCHURZ Defender of Liberty and Friend of Human Right.

schurz2.jpg

Today, who knows Schurz’s name outside of hard-core history buffs, fans of The Who, and curiosity seekers? Not long ago, when I visited Schurz’s statue, I observed a broken bottle of Gilbey’s upon the faded ornamental brick. The bottle had apparently been thrown at Schurz, and the glass shards glistened more resolutely than the brick. While the bottle, in all likelihood, had been hurled by a cavalier youth, I couldn’t help but contemplate whether there was a rejection of Schurz’s spirit in the air. History was apparently the work of others. But it seemed to me that it was the other way around.

Weekend Sightings: “People in Order”

The question of whether life represents a parabolic arc is taken up by Lenka Clayton and James Price‘s short film “People in Order” — in which 100 people are edited together and proceed to beat on the same drum over the course of three minutes. It’s an inventive spin on the Michael Apted formula. The people here have been arranged by age, starting from the age of 1 and ending at 100. What’s particularly striking is the varying levels of enthusiasm, both in the people expressing their age and in their need to bang the drum. Some of the figures are happy at any age. Some are sad. Some seem to wonder what all the fuss is about.

Rosebud 2.0

undress.jpgI lean into my computer screen chin on fist, eyes leveled. Before me, a woman lies face down on an unremarkable bed. A man moves the woman’s hands behind her back. The woman waits patiently as he ties her hands together securely but comfortably with a simple rope. His wedding ring gleams as he pushes up her cotton frock and takes his time easing her panties down over her thighs. For the next several minutes, he fondles her. His caresses move from the swells of her buttocks to the folds of her genitals. She undulates and rears up against his hands. His fingers disappear inside her. She exhales pure desire in this otherwise quiet scene. At one point the man clutches the woman’s hand in a silent, tender communication. Then he reaches for something off screen. Shuffling noises ensue. A twisted tube of lubricant and vibrator appear. The play becomes more aggressive, as do the woman’s reactions. She strains to open her legs against the binding panties around her knees and another rope around her ankles.

I swallow hard.

Three quarters of the way through Amateur Bondage Video, I abort my research efforts. A few minutes after that, my jeans are a jumble on the floor and I am smoky-eyed on my own bed, basking in the aftermath.

The perfect pornographic experience? Not entirely. Sure, the end result was enthusiastic enough, but I had to swim through a dangerous ocean of flesh to get here, proving that nothing is easy.

egyptfellatio.jpgPeople often assume that women dislike pornography or that they don’t like it as much as men. That’s an oversimplification. I want to like porn. But professional videos are less concerned with what feels good for a woman and more hard pressed on what is visually arousing for men — fellatio for instance. I’m not knocking it. It’s a wonderful erotic act that men love to watch, but that only gets me so far. On the flip side, pro porn constantly depicts cunnilingus as if it were a lollipop-licking contest with a misplaced emphasis on the visual. I always roll my eyes at that and think: Too bad. If he were doing it right most of the pink stuff wouldn’t be viewable.

And the subtleties: barely audible breathing escalating to a wide-eyed moan, finger strokes that tighten into a desperate clutch, the widening eyes of climax. Ideal porn would show all of this without the ridiculous staging, faux boobs and silly plots involving pool boys and “nurses.” But the professional efforts are all about those things, which is why I gave up on them years ago. One could argue that the actors love the work and the camera, but I doubt Jenna Jameson ever works for free. Pro porn stems from the exchange of money. Successful sex is about the exchange of desire.

So when XTube.com went live nearly two years ago with the option of user-generated adult content, it was a revelation–a naked YouTube, without the snarky comments. The idea seemed flawless: finally, a free-of-charge amateur alternative to the Internet’s bogus claims of 100 percent free XXX! The parade of copycat sites followed — PornoTube, YouPorn, Megarotic. The list gets longer every day. There’s a healthy dose of desire splattered on these sites. The Web 2.0 actors and directors are doing this because they want to and they want me to watch. I’m not paying to attend this soiree. I’ve been invited.

leek.jpgThe initial orgy was a blast. The woman sashaying nude down a busy street with a cigarette in one hand and a swinging purse in the other was so funny that I posted the clip on my blog and titled the entry “Confidence.” I assigned pithy quips to my discoveries and emailed the links. I asked, “Got vichyssoise?” of a huge leek being used as a dildo. “Her lips are sealed” was my commentary on the woman matter-of-factly tying her labia into a knot. These weren’t about arousal, but fun. If the people posting them were doing it to bolster their self-esteems, judging by the hit counts, they had to puff up like peacocks. I might have watched on with bewilderment, but why shouldn’t Super KnotGirl be proud of herself?

Things got cagier when I searched for something to arouse me. I passed over the male-concentric thumbnails that dominate these sites and clicked on images or titles that might have something for 42-year-old housewife and mother in Cleveland, Ohio. My five foot one stature earned Petite Amateur Keeps Fucking a click. It featured the reverse cowgirl position, which showcased the woman’s body beautifully, but her clitoris was a mile away from the action. Even 38 seconds of that was too long — I was out in 10. The thumbnail for Mature Wife And Her Special Friend looked promising with a lush sex toy and lacy stockings, but it went south when a loud radio jock’s voice suddenly plugged an event “sponsored by new Heineken Premium Light, the first light beer worth the name Heineken!”

Ugh.

I hated it when that deer-in-the-headlights thing overcame me during mediocre or bad footage. I’d push the fast forward bar along and think: will he ever take that thing out of her mouth? If he did, but only in order to ejaculate all over her face, it was an emotional pinch for me. Amateur porn is real sex, not someone’s job. I don’t want to be treated that way. How did the woman on the screen feel? I’m not judging her sexual experience, but when it comes to watching sex, I’m selfish. I can’t help but project what I see on the screen onto my own paradigm. Someone else might be doing it, but it’s still all about me. Hence, I quickly found that no matter how graphic and banal the footage, it was almost always complex.

A click here, another over there. My eyes frenetically scanned screen after screen of thumbnails. The search, with all its primal stimuli, became tiresome, even annoying. There was very little that was sexy to me. The endless surfing was the zenith of frustration particularly when I was unsuccessful. Who wants to waste an hour looking at porn that doesn’t turn them on?

I admit there are gems and high-riding waves among the online porn like Amateur Bondage Video. And I love it that 47-year-old Doris from accounting, brought up on the mantra Good Girls Don’t Do Certain Things, can slip into the den and furiously rub off while watching Lonely Housewife Fucking Her Vacuum after a lifetime of guilty curiosity. One big surprise was the relief I felt at finally seeing what other women’s genitals look like and how women touch themselves. Men have been comparison checking ever since the locker room. Board members often have nowhere to hide. Vaginas are different. Unless you’re a gynecologist or a gay woman, you don’t see them. The pink panther stays under wraps until we open it up. Even to view my own, I have to fold up like a pretzel on the bathroom floor with all the lights on and get tricky with a mirror. Playboy is no help. Hefner’s minions either Photoshop out any indication of an orifice or leave a tiny hairless line that peeps, “I’m a very well-behaved little muff.”

Double ugh.

But the online amateurs are fleshy beauties, lush with folds and colors from pink to brown to dusky rose. These are the childbearing workhorses of human sexuality, unapologetic and closed five days a month, thank you very much. They roar, “I am pussy!” and get my unconditional support.

Then there was this: the image of a man buried between a woman’s thighs moved me to click through to Female POV 3. The man was handsome and muscled. The woman was filming the action. “It’s taking too long,” he said as he looked up and revealed his flaccid penis. Next was a failed attempt at intercourse. Then the woman bent over and fingered herself to provide a visual. The man stared into her, his face vulnerable and desperate, his right hand furiously stroking. “The camera and stuff just makes me a little bit nervous,” he said. She urged him to ignore it. Nothing worked. The man collected his clothes from the floor and left. “Hey,” said the woman, whose face remained hidden, “Close the door, please.”

I blinked back tears. I was furious over the woman’s indifference. But at the same time, I waxed protective — even feeling maternal — for the man. Women complain about sexual objectivity all the time. This was the same sort of sexual abuse made worse by the unavoidable evidence, all of which was recorded by that obnoxious little broad’s camera. I wanted to reach into the screen and grab her by the neck, plop her down and say, “Think you’re such hot shit? Don’t forget that all your shaved sweetness did nothing for that man. Everything here failed, including you.”

And that is how XTube, self-billed as “the greatest thing since the orgasm,” managed a total eclipse of my arousal for the rest of the day.

I later realized that the clip was not a failure, but the most evocative footage I’d seen, hands down. It had every right to be online and then some. So it goes when you sail the sea of free online sex. Every adjective applies. It’s funny and sad and sexy and messy and arousing and painful and infuriating and, well, a lot like real sex.

But we’ve been recording real sex forever. What’s different about Porn 2.0? This new porn frontier is thriving because the logistics that heretofore governed adult content are stripped away. To procure the new sex, all I have to do is step into my home office and fire up the Mac, which is miles away from the seedy “Adult” stores on the other side of town. Once online, I’ll find all the amateur footage I want compliments of high-speed Internet and inexpensive digital cameras. The broadcasts come from across the globe.

It can be overwhelming.

The sheer volume and range of content makes me feel as though I am standing with my nose one inch away from a fifty-foot billboard that is glaring and blaring a million different sexual messages. Thus far, Web 2.0′s John Q. Public editor might be dealing aces over at Wikipedia, but not here. In fact, the more he gets his paws into online sex, the more raucous it becomes. After all, honest sex doesn’t come with six-pack abs and good lighting. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the public editors of Wiki have spent the past two years making that world look like a real reference site and making XTube look like real sex.

But do I really want Editor 2.0 to clean this sex up?

I don’t think so. Despite my quibbles, I’m rooting for all this diverse new unbridled sex with all of its imperfect beauty. And even though I don’t drop in that often, I’ll be checking in once in a while to see how things are (ahem) coming along.

Visit the 1/11/08 entry of O’Brien’s blog for pertinent links.

Interview with Jami Attenberg

(Note: The full interview excerpted here can now be listened to as the 172nd installment of The Bat Segundo Show)

For my first 2008 interview, I met up with writer Jami Attenberg at her Williamsburg apartment. During our conversation, Attenberg’s very friendly and intelligent cat, Cracker, proceeded to climb upon my leg and claw at the wires. He then deposited his slinky corporeal mass upon my lap and, later, climbed atop the table and deliberately occluded my notes. I was then forced to wing a portion of the interview. But the cat’s daring locative intervention proved pertinent to the conversation at hand.

Attenberg’s second novel, The Kept Man, is as much about a woman’s relationship with topographical territory as it is about a passive thirtysomething drifting on the dregs of her husband’s legacy. To my mind, the two themes were linked. And during the course of the interview, I asked Attenberg about the connections between her protagonist, Jarvis Miller, and the neighborhood she inhabited. (The full interview will appear in a future installment of The Bat Segundo Show.)

attenberg.jpgCorrespondent: I’m wondering also about the Terri Schiavo narrative, because it does play in more later in the book than in the beginning of the book. Did you know immediately that there was this almost quasi-allegorical feel to that? Or did it start with the fact that you had Martin Miller in this coma?

Attenberg: It started with Martin being in a coma. I knew that. Actually, the first chapter that I wrote in the book was about the donut girls at one point.

Correspondent: Oh, interesting.

Attenberg: That was the first thing. Because I wanted to write a little bit about the art world. I knew that. And then I knew that there was this man who was in a coma. I wanted to do that. But I didn’t know how it was going to end. I’ve said this before, but when you have a guy in a coma, you set the stakes really high like that. There’s only three ways that it can possibly end, which is that he dies, or he wakes up, or somebody kills him. Or he just keeps floating along, I suppose. But that wouldn’t be a very good ending to a book now, would it? So I didn’t know about the more political stuff until I got to the end of the book. I don’t want to give away the ending though.

Correspondent: No, no, no. We’re not.

Attenberg: But I really have no idea when I start writing a book how it’s going to end at all.

Correspondent: So you actually had sort of a mish-mash here. You jumped from Point A to Point 6 to Point Z, etcetera, throughout the course of writing these novels? And that’s how you sort of stumble upon the narrative?

Attenberg: I mean, the first two books I wrote — this is the second book — I wrote in about a year. So everything, like I said, it’s very organic. I just sort of making up things around me and putting them into a book. Eventually, when you get to the end, you filter out what worked and what didn’t work.

donuts.jpgCorrespondent: Okay, well, if Davis and the donut girls was one of the key starting points, was this an imagined experience? Or was this drawn from anything specific that you observed? Because I am certainly not familiar with this phenomenon. (laughs)

Attenberg: With donut girls?

Correspondent: Yeah, yeah.

Attenberg: Well, you have to live in this neighborhood. It’s more north side. We’re on the south side right now. And we’re doing this interview in my apartment. And on the south side, it’s very Hassidic and Puerto Rican and Dominican, and then when you head towards more of the north side, it’s Greenpoint. And then it’s really Polish over there. So you notice the Polish girls that are out there. And some people are really fascinated and obsessed with beautiful young woman.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Attenberg: And they’re recent immigrants. And they’re definitely a force in the population.

Correspondent: Well, I’m wondering though. Donut shops in particular. It seemed…

Attenberg: There is a donut shop! In Greenpoint. On Manhattan Avenue. And it just stuck in my brain. I think I went there after seeing a rock show. So it’s sort of like that donut shop. And it just sort of stuck in my head. And I wanted to write about it.

Correspondent: Did you observe any specific pickup artists there?

Attenberg: No. I don’t even know if people really do pick them up. It was just in my imagination that they did.

Correspondent: Interesting. Or even someone constantly buying clothes and this whole modeling thing.

Attenberg: Right.

Correspondent: The whole thing escalating into something else. This was the imagined part.

Attenberg: But that’s no different from Jarvis wanting to be taken care of. Or these men wanting to be taken care of. That there are these people in the world who look to other people to sponsor them or meet their needs. But they provide something in return. I think I missed the point that I wanted to make, which was that, after I had all these ideas about these characters and plot points, I came across the idea of being kept or held back. Once I realized that that was going to be the title of the book and that was a major theme, then it was really to go back to move forward and make sure that every character has something that’s holding them back or keeping them into their life. That’s where it comes from.

nabokov.jpgCorrespondent: Going back to this issue of topography as a launching point, it’s reminiscent to me of Nabokov’s rule, where he basically said that he could not write a novel until he actually had a particular location. Likewise, in addition to this inspirational momentum, I wanted to first of all find out if this was a factor for you in terms of writing this. And it also leads into another question about Jarvis’s perspective, where she’s generally taking a small item and putting it into a larger neighborhood. For example, there’s a pack of cigarettes she observes. And she’s very clear in the way that she describes it as coming from a particular deli and how it was actually purchased and the like. So I wanted to ask you about this phenomenon. Was this a way for you to generate momentum in your book? You needed to get the lay of the land before the lay of the characters?

Attenberg: I’ve lived here for five years. And I’ve lived in New York for ten years. So, for me, it’s not conscious in any sort of way. I wanted to write about the neighborhood that I lived in. And I take a lot of pictures. I go out a lot to document. And I have a blog. So I have been writing about the neighborhood a lot. So, for me, it’s just a natural — I don’t know. It’s not like — it’s not a conscious thing. I would love to take credit for it being some sort of conscious, deliberate act on my part. I just write about the world around me. But I did feel like, at that moment I was writing the book, that there was so much going on in Williamsburg. I mean, this is a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Thematically, it did feel perfect for Jarvis. Because Jarvis needs to break out of something in Williamsburg. And Williamsburg was very quietly becoming something. Then all of a sudden, it burst out and there was all this development. And people were really concerned with its development. And I think people in this book suddenly become very concerned with Martin Miller’s life as well.

Correspondent: Well, concerning this gentrification, you have Jarvis fleeing — almost like the Trail of Tears — across the river. And yet, she is very taken with, for example, bagel shops. The laundromat as a kind of social nexus. As well as finding comforts in the very locations that she often despises. So I’m wondering when did you know that this was coming up. Did this come about from knowing the neighborhood or as an extension of Jarvis’s consciousness?

Attenberg: I think that, if you’re going to write a true New York story, you have to write about all of these little shops and stores. We don’t know our neighbors a lot of the time. Our friends tend to live really far away from us. Or it’s not like you can walk down the street and knock on someone’s door and see them. So it becomes really crucial where you have these relationships with a person at your bodega, with a laundromat. It’s just an interesting community. And in Williamsburg, where there’s so many different kinds of people here, and there’s this big influx of young people who really like to engage, it just seems really natural. I don’t know. That’s just my version.

Correspondent: So it sounds like it very much is a topographical concentration.

Attenberg: But she’s not me. But it’s just how someone like her would. You know, I certainly identify with her. I don’t think that I’ve ever done anything that she’s done before. And I’ve certainly never had anyone support me.

* * *

For related conversations, see Jami Attenberg in conversation with Kate Christensen and Ryan Walsh interviewing Attenberg at Largehearted Boy.

Rep. Randy Forbes: Revisionist Historian

House Resolution 888 (presumably 666 was unavailable) aims to celebrate and glorify a little bit of that ol’ time religion in a very big way. The resolution, introduced by Rep. Randy Forbes of Virginia and signed on and unquestioned by 31 co-sponsors, wishes to “rejec[t], in the strongest possible terms, any effort to remove, obscure or purposely omit such history from our Nation’s public buildings and educational resources.” It also wishes to set up an “American Religious History Week” each year “for the appreciation of and education on America’s history of religious faith,” although the resolution’s litanies are curiously Judeo-Christian in priority. (Where other civilized nations remain capable of walking and chewing bubble gum on this topic, it appears that, when it comes to religion, the United States can only concentrate on one religion at a time. There was no greater example of this deficiency in national character than last Sunday’s “Islam Issue” of the New York Times Book Review.)

bushreligion.jpgI’m fine with the appreciation and education of American history. I’m not so fine on politicians seeing deities and religious influence in every corner and demanding that the country be “educated” about it. In examining Forbes’s endless “Whereases,” I’ve found more than a few historical humdingers and at least one egregious prevarication.

Whereas the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed this self-evident fact in a unanimous ruling declaring `This is a religious people … From the discovery of this continent to the present hour, there is a single voice making this affirmation’;

The specific case being quoted here is the 1892 case, Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States (143 U.S. 457). But it was Justice David Josiah Brewer who stated this in the opinion, which was not based upon upholding religion, but concerned whether an Act “to prohibit the importation and migration of foreigners and aliens under contract or agreement to perform labor in the United States” applied between an alien and a religious society. And while Brewer’s words do regrettably speak for the Supreme Court, it is highly disingenuous to suggest that the ruling, which dwelt upon an entirely separate decision, had to do explicitly with religion.

Whereas political scientists have documented that the most frequently-cited source in the political period known as The Founding Era was the Bible;

Since the bill fails to cite any specific political scientists, I must conclude that they are referring to the claims made by two University of Houston researchers, where it was demonstrated that of the purported 94% of all Founding Father Biblical citations (or conclusions based on the Bible), 60% of these citations were from the latter and the sources were unclear. Much, it would seem, as Forbes prefers to conjure up the ghosts of “political scientists” as he goes along.

Whereas the first act of America’s first Congress in 1774 was to ask a minister to open with prayer and to lead Congress in the reading of 4 chapters of the Bible;

If we are presumably talking about the First Continental Congress who met at Carpenter’s Hall starting on September 5, 1774, is this truly “America’s first Congress?” The First Continental Congress met up two years before the Declaration of Independence was agreed upon, thus technically making it more of a British colonial congress (or a response to oppressive conditions) rather than a United States congress proper.

Whereas Congress regularly attended church and Divine service together en masse;

How do outside religious activities pertain to what Congress does within its halls? If Congress attends a stag party en masse, we don’t ask for a “Scotch and Hookers History Week?” (Or since we’re talking about Rep. Forbes, why not an “Abramoff Corruption History Week?”)

Whereas upon approving the Declaration of Independence, John Adams declared that the Fourth of July `ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty’;

johnadams.JPGWell now, let’s take a look at that letter Adams wrote to his wife Abigail on July 2, 1776. First off, Adams was tickled pink that the Continental Congress had that very day unanimously approved the Declaration of Independence. Which is no different from yelling “Holy shit!” when some particularly great news has poured into one’s ears. The fecal matter in question is not necessarily holy, but the speaker is certainly excited. Nevertheless, here’s the full paragraph that Adams wrote:

But the day is past. The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this country to the other, from this time forward, forevermore.

Clearly, deities weren’t the only thing on Adams’s mind. This was an excitable moment in which Adams was rattling off many of the ideas to his wife in Braintree. Adams was lonely in Philly, a bit busy contemplating nothing less a major revolution (inarguably a political achievement far more profound than anything Forbes has planned in his life). So I think, under the circumstances, he should probably be cut some slack. Besides, what of these other ideas that Adams had in mind? What of “guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations?” It’s a pity that the only people who seem to get together to educate themselves on these topics are libertarians.

Whereas 4 days after approving the Declaration, the Liberty Bell was rung;

Whereas the Liberty Bell was named for the Biblical inscription from Leviticus 25:10 emblazoned around it: `Proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof’;

To take these two items at once, while it is true that the Liberty Bell’s inscription was taken from Leviticus 25:10, the Bell was commissioned not to celebrate religion, but to commemorate the 50th anniversary of William Penn’s 1701 Charter of Privileges. Penn was a big God-loving man himself, but he, nevertheless, had this forward-thinking idea:

That no Person or Persons, inhabiting in this Province or Territories, who shall confess and acknowledge One almighty God, the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the World; and profess him or themselves obliged to live quietly under the Civil Government, shall be in any Case molested or prejudiced, in his or their Person or Estate, because of his or their conscientious Persuasion or Practice, nor be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious Worship, Place or Ministry, contrary to his or their Mind, or to do or super any other Act or Thing, contrary to their religious Persuasion.

Well, gee, that sounds like a guy who was pretty hands-off when it came to enforced church going. Funny. When you start examining the specific reasons why certain symbols were established, the origins appear decidedly more tolerant than Bible-thumping pettifoggers like Forbes concocting 21st century malarkey.

Whereas in 1777, Congress, facing a National shortage of `Bibles for our schools, and families, and for the public worship of God in our churches,’ announced that they `desired to have a Bible printed under their care & by their encouragement’ and therefore ordered 20,000 copies of the Bible to be imported `into the different ports of the States of the Union’;

The Daily Kos would prefer to declare this a lie without bothering to look this up. And that’s a very bad precedent for any thinking individual. The specific claim was promulgated in William Joseph Federer’s America’s God and Country Encyclopedia of Quotations (p. 146, if you can access it through Google Books). Federer claimed that, on September 11, 1777, the Chaplain of Congress, Patrick Allison, brought this matter to Congress’s attention and that the Committee of Commerce was ordered to import 20,000 copies of the Bible from Holland. Except that, according to the Library of Congress, this did indeed happen.

randyforbes.jpgThe bullshit actually comes from Forbes, who puts phrases into Rev. Allison’s mouth that, as we can see and unless I can be proven wrong, simply don’t exist on the official record available to the public. Allison got Congress to move the Bibles not because Congress “desired to have a Bible printed under their care & by their encouragement,” but because, as the record states:

The committee appointed to consider the memorial of the Rev. Dr. Allison and others, report, “That they have conferred fully with the printers, &c. in this city,and are of opinion, that the proper types for printing the Bible are not to be had in this country, and that the paper cannot be procured, but with such difficulties and subject to such casualties, as render any dependence on it altogether improper: that to import types for the purpose of setting up an entire edition of the bible, and to strike off 30,000 copies, with paper, binding, &c. will cost £10,272 10, which must be advanced by Congress, to be reimbursed by the sale of the books: (Emphasis added)

It was a general paper shortage that caused the Rev. Dr. Allison and others to figure out how books in general could be printed under the circumstances.

* * *

I’ve Googled around after typing all this, and discovered that Chris Rodda has also done some debunking.

Rep. Forbes’s bill is clearly that of a man quite willing to twist history to serve his religious purposes. It seems that Randy Forbes either does not know his history or he wishes to malign it by not citing events and context properly. On this basis alone, the bill should be rejected by any thinking representative. And if it is not, if a few Democratic cowards actually vote for this flummery because they fear that their constituency will view them as not “religious” enough, then it is time for them to be shamed. Just as that corporate buffoon Hillary Clinton got her ass handed to her in Iowa. The American people are not nearly so foolish.

Mothlight and the WGA Strike

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America’s troubled soul snaked around two building corners on a late Monday afternoon. It read books. It offered quizzical pikers when WGA strikers handed out pink papers containing the phone numbers and emails of eight Viacom head honchos. It took pictures of the fourteen placard-holders as if on holiday. But there were no visible signs that it was registering the hypocrisy of standing in line for a show that was allegedly progressive (and pro-union) in tone as strikers quietly expressed their rights with signs. Maybe the strikers were performance artists or buskers who had escaped the subway. I kept vigorous watch, hoping that a few audience members would feel disgusted and walk away, only to be readily replaced by those in the standby line. But they held onto their tickets like hard-won candy.

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The eager audiences waiting to see Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert lob a few unscripted bons mot about the state of politics remained uninvolved. They were there to be entertained. A bald man in his early forties disseminated circulars. He told me that the strike had been a success.

“Is it?” I asked. “These people are still standing in line.”

He didn’t give me his name and he declined to be interviewed at length. But we did talk for a few minutes.

I was interested in this man, because I had seen him trying to quietly persuade people in the Daily Show standby line, who appeared to take these flyers more readily than those who had tickets. One young man told him, “If we’re close in any way to the front, we’ll do what we can.” “Do what we can.” It essentially amounts to nothing.

To be fair, The Daily Show admitted its audiences at the pre-determined time, permitting its audience to see the WGA strike. The Colbert Report, by contrast, shuttled in their audiences well before the 5:00 PM start time so that the strikers would not be seen or, at least, endured as infrequently as possible. “What a mess!” proclaimed a plump woman standing protectively near the Colbert Report doors. She complained that there had been no progress in two months. The strikers were gnats to be swatted away on a wintry day.

wga2.jpg

With the exception of a funny interviewer from Associated Press TV who quipped to one Colbert Report audience member, “Enjoy the show,” shortly after challenging his need to be entertained, the media was, for the most part, out to lunch. A New York Post reporter spent most of her time talking on the phone. “Sorry, I’m so spacey!” she said as she talked with WGAe President Michael Winship. The outlets who came included CNN, NY1, and me — if I am indeed an outlet.

“It’s only ten after four?” bitched one reporter. “I thought I’d been here for a day. Jesus.”

He had arrived only fifteen minutes before.

I was extremely saddened to see that nobody waiting in line really cared. There was no reaction from these audience members. No acts of dissent. The pink flyers were folded inside newspapers, deposited on the sidewalk like stray trash. Just as American audiences had chosen Leno over Letterman, despite Letterman busting his hump to cut a separate agreement with the Guild, the audience here opted for entertainment over integrity.

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The strikers silently holding up placards circled up and down the queue, appearing to be mostly comprised of WGA members from other productions. (One writer I talked to was from All My Children. There’s a podcast interview below.) If there was a Daily Show writer in the bunch, the writer did not announce himself. I asked a few strikers if there was anyone here from The Daily Show and they told me they did not know. One gentleman declined to answer. Perhaps answering involved a confession of failure.

Since the bald flyer man refused an interview with me, I approached the WGAe publicist Sherry Goldman, asking if I could interview her. She wouldn’t talk to me on tape, snapped at me, and turned briskly away to answer her cell. I had seen her talking in front of a camera. I approached her again and said, “Excuse me. You’ll talk to CNN, but you won’t talk with me?” She then very kindly led me to WGAe President Michael Winship. I also talked with All My Children writer Kate Hall. You can listen to the podcasts below.

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Winship: And let me say that all of these guys have been very supportive of the strike thus far and that we are not protesting them as people. They’ve been great. They’ve been supportive of the strike. They’ve been supportive of their writing staffs. But their companies — the big companies, the media conglomerates, the penny-pinching producers if you will — will not allow them back on the air because they won’t bargain a fair and respectful contract.

Correspondent: Now do you consider Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to be hyphenates. Are they actually, by going back to work, kind of going against the nature of the strike here?

Winship: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are both members of the Writers Guild of America. They have both been given copies of the strike rules. They know the kinds of work that they’re not allowed to do. And they know that there are penalties that can take place if they, in fact, perform what we consider struck work.

Correspondent: But if The Daily Show were to show a clip in advance, if they were to design it in advance and have Jon Stewart comment on it, would that constitute an act of writing in your eyes or…?

Winship: If Jon is spontaneously ad-libbing and responding to a clip that’s on the air, we don’t consider that struck work.

Correspondent: What would you consider out of the boundaries of what he can do today?

Winship: Well, in terms of things that he can and cannot do, one of the things that he could not do is to write a monologue in advance or go on the air with material that appear on cue cards or a teleprompter.

Correspondent: Yeah. Gotcha. But anything else pretty much? Ad-libbing, he’s fine then.

Winship: Well, the rules are pretty specific about things that he can and cannot do. He cannot write questions in advance for interviews, for example. He cannot write the monologues, as I said. He cannot write any kind of sketch material for the show.

Correspondent: But let’s say that there’s a guest who appears, who has like a book or something like that. He’s going to have to read it in advance. Does that constitute writing or preparation?

Winship: I don’t think reading constitutes writing. If he was writing down his questions in advance and so forth, that would struck work. But if he has a guest on the air whose book he has read and he asks questions off the top of his head, that is not struck work.

I was fascinated by Winship’s criteria about what “writing” entails. One cannot prepare a show entirely in one’s head. There must be the need to write words down. And nearly all of Jon Stewart’s clips feature those trusty blue pieces of paper. Or are these sheets mere props?

As it turned out, the January 7, 2008 episode of The Daily Show did indeed have a guest: conflict resolution specialist Ronald Seeber, presumably a friendly nod to the WGA strike. But did Stewart take notes before this interview? Did Stewart prepare his questions in advance? And if he did, is there any real way for the WGA to enforce this?

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It’s also important to observe the distinction put forth by WGA. In the WGA’s eyes, Jon Stewart is not the enemy. Viacom is.

From my interview with Kate Hall:

Hall: We’re not striking The Daily Show or Jon Stewart. I think everybody here for the most part — I can’t speak for them, but I would imagine that they’re all big fans of his and the show. So we support him. We just won’t support Viacom’s decision to put him back on the air without the writers.

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But if the WGA wasn’t striking The Daily Show, what were they doing in front of The Daily Show building? Is not Viacom providing the resources to run The Daily Show? And is not Jon Stewart, in going back to work, complicit in allowing Viacom to continue running The Daily Show? It seems to me that he gets off on a technicality.

But let’s take a look at the strike rules, as Mr. Winship suggested.

Since Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are hyphenates, Rule 12 applies to them:

The Guild strongly believes that no member should cross a WGA picket line or enter the premises of a struck company for any purpose. Under applicable law, however, the Guild may not discipline a hyphenate for performing non-writing services. This legal restriction only extends to services that are clearly not writing services. (Emphasis in original.)

If Stewart or Colbert write so much as one word on a sheet of paper, either before the show, during the show, or after the show, then they are in violation of the agreement.

It is impossible to imagine either The Daily Show or The Colbert Report succeeding in any way without writers or a scrap of paper.

However things ended up, the moths were there, attracted to the light. Unconcerned with who provided the electricity.

(Many thanks to Sarah Weinman for assisting in this report.)

Pommes Frites

It was an unwonted warm afternoon in January when my corpus decided that it required protein. My culinary id had screamed for the wrong kind of protein, the messy kind that requires many napkins. We settled ourselves inside a rectilinear restaurant in Fort Greene. I procured a burger, along with a large gantry-like basket of fries that towered over my small glass of RC Cola. I was hungry and had eaten without wisdom that day, but there were more potato slivers here than even the most ravenous soul could devour. The basket was an apparent bargain for three bucks, but ultimately a remarkable waste. Having been instructed as a young boy to “clean my plate” and having maintained this half-hearted economic virtue over the years, I considered all the fries that this restaurant, like many others, had willfully wasted on a daily basis.

pf.jpgDays before at a French bistro, there had been an elliptical receptacle of fries (or, to be specific, pommes frites, lightly seasoned with salt and fresh parsley). A bonus. An unanticipated side dish, really. We masticated on ten out of the perhaps ninety thin rectangular wedges jutting upward like baked and irregular flowers. But the waiter had not waited to take them away. Indeed, he had not given us the choice of picking away at more fries or a moment of silence in which we could grant them the eulogies they clearly deserved. Perhaps he wanted this table cleared so that another set of customers could use it.

More fried casualties. If someone possessed the foresight to construct a potato cemetery for all these fallen soldiers, there would surely be ten Vietnam Memorials for one day in Manhattan restaurants alone. And yet over three decades of existence, I had never thought to name any of the fries. I had never eaten a French fry and said to it, “Hey, Joe, you’re about to be eaten!” or “Phyllis, nice curves! How did you get away with that daring French fry figure? I hope you don’t have body image problems. Here, let me straighten you out with my bicuspids!”

I speculated to my dining partner that it hadn’t always been like this. There must have been a time in culinary history in which one ordered a burger and there were about five steak fries on the side. A reasonable portion that was neither wasteful nor encouraged sloth on the part of the diner. But at some point during the twentieth century, there may very well have been a collusion between the fries suppliers and the restaurant managers. Perhaps it was not economically sound to throw five mere steak fries into a fryer. From an economic standpoint, it was better to use as much of the fryer’s cooking juice at one time instead of spoiling the oil with small orders. Plus, there was likely a large bag of fries that had to be used, along with many other large bags that had been included in the bulk box purchase. And all the fries had to be used before the expiration date.

Additionally, if the supplier was going to deliver frozen food, expending gas and labor to ship many boxes to many restaurants, then it really needed to be worth his while. The restaurant manager was forced to order too many fries and then had to find a way to move fries. And a dainty portion that came with a meal would result in a surfeit of fries. If, however, the restaurant manager could sucker the customer into paying two or three bucks to order too many fries as a side dish, the restaurant manager could not only move the fries rapidly, but he could also make a large return and ensure that all of his fries would be cooked.

But this does not discount the fact that too many fries are wasted. Now I’m not a religious man, and, as such, I don’t believe in life after death. So I must presume that these glorious fries wither their flaxen luster away, going nowhere in particular and remaining unremembered by anyone save Mama and Papa Spud, both of whom would enact a Charles Bronson-style death wish against ape-descended bipedal life forms if they had minds, mouths, and, most importantly, an ability to use a Luger pistol.

And how does one reuse these abandoned fries? Because of their terrible nutrition value, they cannot be recirculated among the less fortunate with any ethical grounding. They grow cold too quickly. They lose their oily taste if they are microwaved. They cannot be mashed up into a delightful potato concoction because the majority of the fry is a crisp affair and mushiness has been compromised.

Thus, for the moment, suppliers and restaurant managers turn a profit on a product that is readily wasted. And the French have the temerity to call these pommes frites! (The British had gone further with the benign-sounding “fish and chips,” which resulted in a tasty but rather unhealthy fried concoction and more waste.)

I now feel tremendously guilty for having eaten so many fries over the years, because I have never been able to entirely finish a serving. From a dollars-to-food perspective, I am likely losing more money with fries than I am with other dishes.

The only ethical solution here is to stop eating fries or to insist to the person who serves me that I really don’t need that many of them. But even if I were to carry out the latter, more fries would be wasted and led to that black plastic coffin within the garbage can.

There are clearly no winners here in the fries scenario except those who are making the money. And I harbor a not-so-small revolutionary fantasy in which diners rise up, boycott restaurants, and demand smaller portions of fries. It seems only fair to the maligned fries, who are being thrown away every day by the thousands, and this would probably help in a small way to combat the national health problem.

Filthy Habits: An Introduction

“Habits in writing as in life are only useful if they are broken as soon as they cease to be advantageous.” — W. Somerset Maugham

Welcome to Filthy Habits (working title, possibly subject to change), which isn’t really a blog and isn’t really a online magazine, and may not even be about literature all the time. But it does reflect the inevitable continuation of this site.

logo.gifWhat you will find here are long-form entries on a wide range of topics: some involving strange journalism, some involving cultural commentary, some involving personal experience, and some involving bizarre satirical exercises. Eventually, the plan here is to offer one new story each day, five days a week. I’ll still be appearing here on a regular basis, writing at least two to three posts a week (and considerably more during the opening weeks). But the difference this time is that this website will also be a place for other writers to offer unusual and idiosyncratic perspectives. This is a place that will retain its whimsical iconoclasm, but the new emphasis involves a more thoughtful approach. We also have editors on board, all kind enough to volunteer their time, who will be helping to shape the pieces that will appear here. Levi Asher, Eric Rosenfield, and Sarah Weinman represent this Grand Army of Associates. (And if you’re interested in writing something here, feel free to drop me a line.)

As things move forward, we’re hoping to offer more than just a site. We’ve been kicking around the idea of a monthly reading series, which would involve this site’s contributors bellowing their work in front of a crowd and maybe carrying forth a discussion on a particular piece in front of an audience. And if you have any ideas, by all means, don’t hesitate to let me know.

The Bat Segundo Show will continue. But in addition to authors, I’m hoping to expand the podcast’s emphasis to other cultural figures who may not be explicitly literary. The radio drama project is still alive, as is the novel I’m working on. (In fact, I have also started writing a bizarre noir tale that is either a novella or a novel.) Written depositories for these ancillary projects will eventually find their way to these pages.

What you won’t find here anymore are link roundups, YouTube links (unless pertinent to a piece), and one sentence throwaway posts. I’m not really sorry about abdicating these elements. There are plenty of other places where you can find that sort of thing.

I’ve made these changes for several reasons:

(1) For a long time, one of my goals for this site was to offer a place where those who are denied or overlooked by the mainstream media could receive the kind of encouragement and editing that they deserve.

(2) The litblog, if this website can still be categorized as one, is here to stay. Thus, the time has come for litbloggers to do more than provide just links and commentary, and to devote their attentions to more original content. As newspaper book review sections are cut and there are less conduits for literature, we have a responsibility to do better and, where necessary, take up the slack.

(3) As my freelancing responsibilities have expanded, I wanted to ensure that I could carry on writing for this website without burning out. This is not to suggest that you’ll be getting day-old leftovers here. I plan to tackle my daily duties with the same gusto as before. But I also required any work committed here to be a tad more ambitious.

I have, for the moment, folded all of the Reluctant pages into this site, which you can revisit through the archives.

This remains very much an intuitive and instinctive experiment: one that I intend to give at least six months. But I do hope you’ll join us for the ride. And thanks, as always, for reading.

Transitional Post

Bear with me as the new incarnation is being tinkered with.

Here are some links to recent activity.

Recent Reviews, Essays, and Articles:

“The Perils of Literary Biography” (Chronicle of Higher Education, December 21, 2007)
Gonzo and The Gonzo Way (The Philly Inquirer, December 30, 2007)
In defense of the single-sentence paragraph (The Guardian, January 2, 2008)
Review of Stephen King’s Duma Key (Penthouse, April 2008)

Bat Segundo Podcasts:

#160 — Will Self
#161 — Stewart O’Nan
#162 — Ken Kalfus
#163 — Jess Walter
#164 — Peter Fernandez and Corinne Orr (Speed Racer)
#165 — Howard Jacobson
#166 — Dave White
#167 — David Rakoff, Part One
#168 — David Rakoff, Part Two