Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Modern Library Nonfiction #89)

(This is the twelfth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Golden Bough.)

“Either this world, my mother, is a monster, or I myself am a freak.” — Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I was a sliver-thin, stupefyingly shy, and very excitable boy who disguised his bruises under the long sleeves of his shirt not long before the age of five. I was also a freak.

bedroomI had two maps pinned to the wall of my drafty bedroom, which had been hastily constructed into the east edge of the garage in a house painted pink (now turquoise, according to Google Maps). The first map was of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, in which I followed the quests of Bilbo and Frodo by finger as I wrapped my precocious, word-happy head around sentences that I’d secretly study from the trilogy I had purloined from the living room, a well-thumbed set that I was careful to put back to the shelves before my volatile and often sour father returned home from the chemical plant. In some of his rare calm moments, my father read aloud from The Lord of the Rings if he wasn’t too drunk, irascible, or violent. His voice led me to imagine Shelob’s thick spidery thistles, Smeagol’s slithering corpus, and kink open my eyes the next morning for any other surprises I might divine in my daily journeys to school. The second map was of Santa Clara County, a very real region that everyone now knows as Silicon Valley but that used to be a sweeping swath of working and lower middle-class domiciles. This was one of several dozen free maps of Northern California that I had procured from AAA with my mother’s help. One of the nice perks of being an AAA member was the ample sample of rectangular geographical foldouts. I swiftly memorized all of the streets, held spellbound by the floral and butterfly patterns of freeway intersections seen from a majestic bird’s eye view in an errant illustrated sky. My mother became easily lost while driving and I knew the avenues and the freeways in more than a dozen counties so well that I could always provide an easy cure for her confusion. It is a wonder that I never ended up working as a cab driver, although my spatial acumen has remained so keen over the years that, to this day, I can still pinpoint the precise angle in which you need to slide a thick unruly couch into the tricky recesses of a small Euclidean-angled apartment even when I am completely exhausted.

mlnf89These two maps seemed to be the apotheosis of cartographic art at the time, filling me with joy and wonder and possibility. It helped me cope with the many problems I lived with at home. I understood that there were other regions beyond my bedroom where I could wander in peace, where I could meet kinder people or take in the beatific comforts of a soothing lake (Vasona Lake, just west of Highway 17 in Los Gatos, had a little railroad spiraling around its southern tip and was my real-life counterpart to Lake Evendim), where the draw of Rivendell’s elvish population or the thrill of smoky Smaug stewing inside the Lonely Mountain collided against visions of imagined mountain dwellers I might meet somewhere within the greens and browns of Santa Teresa Hills and the majestic observatories staring brazenly into the cosmos at the end of uphill winding roads. I would soon start exploring the world I had espied from my improvised bedroom study on my bike, pedaling unfathomable miles into vicinities I had only dreamed about, always seeking parallels to what the Oxford professor had whipped up. I once ventured as far south as Gilroy down the Monterey Highway, which Google Maps now informs me is a thirty-six mile round trip, because my neglectful parents never kept tabs on how long I was out of the house or where I was going. They didn’t seem to care. As shameful as this was, I’m glad they didn’t. I needed an uncanny dominion, a territory to flesh out, in order to stay happy, humble, and alive.

The maps opened up my always hungry eyes to books, which contained equally bountiful spaces devoted to the real and the imaginary, unspooling further marks and points for me to find in the palpable world and, most importantly, within my heart. I always held onto this strange reverence for place to beat back the sadness after serving as my father’s punching bag. To this day, I remain an outlier, a nomad, a lifelong exile, a wanderer even as I sit still, a renegade hated for what people think I am, a black sheep who will never belong no matter how kind I am. I won’t make the mistake of painting myself as some virtuous paragon, but I’ve become so accustomed to being condemned on illusory cause, to having all-too-common cruelties inflicted upon me (such as the starry-eyed bourgie Burning Man sybarite I recently opened my heart to, who proceeded to deride the city that I love, along with the perceived deficiencies of my hard-won apartment, this after I had told her tales, not easily summoned, about what it was like to be rootless and without family and how home and togetherness remain sensitive subjects for me) that the limitless marvels of the universe parked in my back pocket or swiftly summoned from my shelves or my constant peregrinations remain reliable, life-affirming balms that help heal the scars and render the wounds invisible. Heartbreak and its accompanying gang of thugs often feel like a mob bashing in your ventricles in a devastatingly distinct way, even though the great cosmic joke is that everyone experiences it and we have to love anyway.

So when Annie Dillard’s poetic masterpiece Pilgrim at Tinker Creek entered my reading life, its ebullient commitment to finding grace and gratitude in a monstrous world reminded me that seeing and perceiving and delving and gaping awestruck at Mother Earth’s endless glories seemed to me one one of the best survival skills you can cultivate and that I may have accidentally stumbled upon. As I said, I’m a freak. But Dillard is one too. And there’s a good chance you may walk away from this book, which I highly urge you to read, feeling a comparable kinship, as I did to Dillard. Even if you already have a formidable arsenal of boundless curiosity ready to be summoned at a moment’s notice, this shining 1974 volume remains vital and indispensable and will stir your soul for the better, whether you’re happy or sad. Near the end of a disastrous year, we need these inspirational moments now more than ever.

* * *

“Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery.” – Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Annie Dillard was only 28 when she wrote this stunning 20th century answer to Thoreau (the subject of her master’s thesis), which is both a perspicacious journal of journeying through the immediately accessible wild near her bucolic Southwestern Virginia perch and a daringly honest entreaty for consciousness and connection. Dillard’s worldview is so winningly inclusive that she can find wonder in such savage tableaux as a headless praying mantis clutching onto its mate or the larval creatures contained within a rock barnacle. The Washington Post claimed not long after Pilgrim‘s publication that the book was “selling so well on the West Coast and hipsters figure Annie Dillard’s some kind of female Castaneda, sitting up on Dead Man’s Mountain smoking mandrake roots and looking for Holes in the Horizon her guru said were there.” But Pilgrim, inspired in part from Colette’s Break of Day, is far from New Age nonsense. The book’s wise and erudite celebration of nature and spirituality was open and inspiring enough to charm even this urban-based secular humanist, who desperately needed a pick-me-up and a mandate to rejoin the world after a rapid-fire series of personal and political and romantic and artistic setbacks that occurred during the last two weeks.

For all of the book’s concerns with divinity, or what Dillard identifies as “a divine power that exists in a particular place, or that travels about over the face of the earth as a man might wander,” explicit gods don’t enter this meditation until a little under halfway through the book, where she points out jokingly how gods are often found on mountaintops and points out that God is an igniter as well as a destroyer, one that seeks invisibility for cover. And as someone who does not believe in a god and who would rather deposit his faith in imaginative storytelling and myth rather than the superstitions of religious ritual, I could nevertheless feel and accept the spiritual idea of being emotionally vulnerable while traversing into some majestic terrain. Or as Pascal wrote in Pensées 584 (quoted in part by Dillard), “God being thus hidden, every religion which does not affirm that God is hidden, is not true, and every religion which does not give the reason of it, is not instructive.”

Much of this awe comes through the humility of perceiving, of devoting yourself to sussing out every conceivable kernel that might present itself and uplift you on any given day and using this as the basis to push beyond the blinkered cage of your own self-consciousness. Dillard uses a metaphor of loose change throughout Pilgrim that neatly encapsulates this sentiment:

It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.

This is not too far removed from Thoreau’s faith in seeds: “Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” The smug and insufferable Kathryn Schulzes of our world gleefully misread this great tradition of discovering possibilities in the small as arrogance, little realizing how their own blind and unimaginative hubris glows with crass Conde Nast entitlement as they fail to observe that Thoreau and Dillard were also acknowledging the ineluctable force of a bigger and fiercer world that will carry on with formidable complexity long after our dead bodies push against daisies. Faced with the choice of sustaining a sour Schulz-like apostasy or receiving every living day as a gift, I’d rather risk the arrogance of dreaming from the collected riches of what I have and what I can give rather than the gutless timidity of a prescriptive rigidity that fails to consider that we are all steeped in foolish and inconsistent behavior which, in the grand scheme of things, is ultimately insignificant.

Dillard is guided just as much by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as she is by religious and philosophical texts. The famous 1927 scientific law, which articulates how you can never know a particle’s speed and velocity at the same time, is very much comparable to chasing down some hidden deity or contending with some experiential palpitations when you understand that there simply is no answer, for one can feel but never fully comprehend the totality in a skirmish with Nature. It accounts for Dillard frequently noting that the towhee chirping on a treetop or the muskrat she observes chewing grass on a bank for forty minutes never see her. In seeing these amazing creatures carry on with their lives, who are completely oblivious to her own human vagaries, Dillard reminds us that this is very much the state of Nature, whether human or animal. If it is indeed arrogance to find awe and humility in this state of affairs, as Dillard and Thoreau clearly both did, then one’s every breath may as well be a Napoleonic puff of the chest.

Dillard is also smart and expansive enough to show us that, no matter where we reside, we are fated to brush up against the feral. She points to how arboreal enthusiasts in the Lower Bronx discovered a fifteen feet ailanthus tree growing from a lower Bronx garage and how New York must spend countless dollars each year to rid its underground water pipes of roots. Such realities are often contended with out of sight and out of mind, even as the New York apartment dweller battles cockroaches, but the reminder is another useful point for why we must always find the pennies and dare to dream and wander and take in, no matter what part of the nation we dwell in.

Another refreshing aspect of Pilgrim is the way in which Dillard confronts her own horrors with fecundity. Yes, even this graceful ruminator has the decency to confess her hangups about the unsettling rapidity with which moths lay their eggs in vast droves. She stops short at truly confronting “the pressure of birth and growth” that appalls her, shifting to plants as a way of evading animals and then retreating back to the blood-pumping phylum to take in blood flukes and aphid reproduction more as panorama rather than something to be felt. This volte-face isn’t entirely satisfying. On the other hand, Dillard is also bold enough to scoop up a cup of duck-pond water and peer at monostyla under a microscope. What this tells us is that there are clear limits to how far any of us are willing to delve, yet I cannot find it within me to chide Dillard too harshly for a journey she was not quite willing to take, for this is an honest and heartfelt chronicle.

While I’ve probably been “arrogant” in retreating at length to my past in an effort to articulate how Dillard’s book so moved me, I would say that Pilgrim at Tinker Creek represents a third map for my adult years. It is a true work of art that I am happy to pin to the walls of my mind, which seems more reliable than any childhood bedroom. This book has caused me to wonder why I have ignored so much and has demanded that that I open myself up to any penny I could potentially cherish and to ponder what undiscoverable terrain I might deign to take in as I continue to walk this earth. I do not believe in a god, but I do feel with all my heart that one compelling reason to live is to fearlessly approach all that remains hidden. There is no way that you’ll ever know or find everything, but Dillard’s magnificent volume certainly gives you many good reasons to try.

Next Up: Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces!

A Conversation with Ottessa Moshfegh

I stepped off the plane at LAX. As I waited for my suitcase to roll up from the airport’s deepest bowels, observing a faintly funereal mist smelling vaguely sulphuric and subsuming all emerging valises, a cadaverous man with thin eyes, a sinister frown, and frightening olive livery — one who later identified himself as “Ottessa Moshfegh’s senior aide-de-camp” but never divulged his first name — grabbed me by the throat and tackled me onto the floor. I wondered if he believed me to be a benevolent and objective reporter covering a Trump rally.

“Are you the interviewer?” he rasped.

He had a peppermint breath that was somewhere between Altoids and ForeverMints and I could hear the crack of his jaw biting upon a pesky capsule that had stubbornly refused to dissolve in his mouth. The aide-de-camp drooled fine rivulets of spittle onto the 2005 Coachella T-shirt that I was wearing, one that I hadn’t remembered purchasing because someone had suggested at the time that I ingest mildly illicit narcotics.

“Uh, yes?”

The aide-de-camp then demanded that I produce my credit history, my blood type, my social security card, and my genetic lineage dating back six generations. Then he rolled me over and shoved a retina scanner into my eye.

“I’m sure you understand,” said the aide-de-camp. “Miss Moshfegh only talks with high-class people.”

“But I’ve done more than 550 interviews,” I replied.

High-class only.”

It was apparently easier for me to get a job with law enforcement than to go through with an interview that had been scheduled three months before.

I told the jostling gentleman that I had attended a state school because I didn’t have any money in my younger years. He snickered at me and then gave me a beef stick. Even though I hadn’t eaten anything on the plane and was feeling a bit peckish, I knew that this was a test and resisted biting into the tantalizing Slim Jim that might have fueled me for another fifteen minutes.

I had heard rumblings about Moshfegh’s eccentric vetting process for interviews, which she’d initiated ever since being shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In the previous week, Moshfegh had humiliated a Guardian reporter named Paul Laity, demanding that he conduct his conversation shirtless while being flogged by a a bell hooks volume. As part of the deal, Laity had been asked by Moshfegh’s entourage to name his next child “Ottessa” in deference to the World’s Greatest Living Author. I have been unable to corroborate this detail, though a shellshocked Laity did croak “Run while you still can” near the close of our tense ten minute telephone conversation.

There had been no such bargains tendered towards me, perhaps because the prospect of me reproducing seemed less likely than Laity passing out cigars sometime in the next few years outside a hospital room, but the publicist informed me that under no circumstances should I ever paint Moshfegh’s novel, Eileen, in a negative light.

“Well, no novel is perfect,” I said.

“No,” said the publicist. “This one is.”

“Come on. Even the ‘Oxen of the Sun’ chapter has a few dull spots. And I love Ulysses.”

“I don’t think you understand how lucky you are to be here.”

Lucky? I had only accepted the gig because some editor had at long last taken pity on me. I was nevertheless grateful for the opportunity.

“This way,” said the aide-de-camp.

He proceeded to blindfold me and affixed my head with leather foam earphones that played the most terrifying glitch-pop I have ever heard. I felt my body being buffeted into the inside of a car. I felt someone taking my hand and fingerprinting me. Nearly an hour passed. All the Skrillex that had decimated my brain had nearly wiped me out. Then the earphones were removed.

“Good news,” said the aide-de-camp. “Miss Moshfegh has agreed to speak with you for fifteen minutes. She doesn’t mind being inconvenienced by the Booker or any press that will ensure her God-given talent is finally approved by the Literary Forces of the Universe. But only after you have written a note of loyalty to her undisputed genius in your own blood.”

Since I had a little spare blood kicking around in my veins, I figured no sweat. In hindsight, it may have been a tad foolish of me to agree to this after refusing the Slim Jim, which stared mockingly back in the stretch limo’s armrest, which was composed of rich Corinthian leather.

Finally, I was asked to recite passages from Eileen to prove my fidelity to Moshfegh.

“Cite the third sentence in the second paragraph on Page 26,” ordered the aide-de-camp.

“Uh…They were forbidden to do most things children ought to do – dance, sing, gesture, talk loud, listen to music, lie down unless they were given permission to?”

“Good. You’re remembering the right sentences. Does that resonate with you?”

“Can I plead the Fifth?”

“Mr. Champion, this is not a court of law.”

“Okay. Maybe we should call my therapist then?”

“No, Mr. Champion, that won’t be necessary. You have passed the test, despite your shaky pedigree, your deplorable education, your three-days stubble, and the undisputable fact that you are a very terrible person indeed.”

“Didn’t you read the character reference letters I submitted?”

But this question went unanswered as the spotless Tesla Model S arrived at the Moshfegh compound.

“Get out of the car, you journalistic cur!”

“Alright, already. Can I get my microphones at least?”

“No. If you can commit Miss Moshfegh’s prose to memory, you will remember every quote accurately and be sued if even a stray comma is discovered to be out of place.”

I was led into a sprawling two-floor home with a four bay garage just off the edge of Little Arabia, overwhelmed by the smell of overly groomed grape vines and a meticulously landscaped front garden with a large sign reading YOU WILL BE SHOT ON SIGHT IF YOU STEAL A BERRY. SEE CASTLE DOCTRINE.

Ms. Moshfegh, 35, was seated at a large refectory table in a spacious living room, cutting bits of sentences from old Dorothy Sayers paperbacks for her next project.

“I’ll tame you, you shoddy pulpy sentence! I deserve riches beyond the dreams of avarice! Instant success! No less!”

This was a typical creative act for Moshfegh, although it was a curious form of self-affirmation. But I have to hand it to her. Moshfegh had indeed pulled a fast one on a number of Booker Prize judges who were not, in fact, in the habit of familiarizing themselves with genre.

The aide-de-camp gently explained to me that the Moshfegh philosophy involved pretending that mysteries confronting troubling ideas about women had never been written, even as she ripped off entire sentences from novels that had, in fact, done just that decades before. And I am only reporting this tidbit here because it was one of the few details that had somehow not been earmarked by Moshfegh’s otherwise fastidious quote approval team.

“Miss Moshfegh?”

“Is my process making you uncomfortable?”

“No, but I wouldn’t mind an apple if you had one.”

“I’ve had eating issues since adolescence,” replied Miss Moshfegh. “There’s nothing in my work that I haven’t researched privately.”

“Even homicidal desire?”

“Man up and deal.”

I was feeling a bit faint, but it was hard to argue with someone who had been shortlisted for the Booker.

Moshfegh described herself to me as a person who has a long history as an unreported thief. If she isn’t absconding passages from Sayers novels, then she’s probably sneaking a package of pork loin roast underneath her overcoat.

“My family’s values seemed very different from the values of the world I was living in,” said Moshfegh. “They never acquiesced to my genius, but I’m heartened to see a bald loser like you see the light.”

At this point, Moshfegh asked me to kneel on the floor and pray to her. I told her I was an atheist. She said she was a novelist-god. I asked for a mat. When the interview was over, I had terrible scrapes on my knees.

Moshfegh described the humiliation of once having to wait longer than fifteen minutes for a cab when she lived in New York.

“It was a living hell. Didn’t they see my raised arm? There was a brief period in my thirties when every cab stopped for me in less than ten minutes. My hell is my life. My hell is my work. Now you see why I have a stretch limo always on call.”

She tracks the beginning of her writing career to checking out random books from the library while a student at Brown University, scanning the frontispiece, and then replacing this with a Photoshopped copy of the page listing her as author.

“The books were all so mediocre. I was better than all these authors even before I had written my first short story. If I could do this for every book, I would.”

Moshfegh says that she sustains a deep connection to her character, who she claims lives in a basement located just underneath her refectory table. When I asked if I could meet Eileen, she demurred.

“When I first discovered that the character I had created lived in my basement, I sent an email to my agent reading ‘Holy shit.'”

“Isn’t that a bit ineloquent for a writer of your apparent literary talent?”

“How dare you speak that way to a hip young writer’s writer!”

“Terry Southern called Henry Green a writer’s writer’s writer. Beat that!”

The aide-de-camp then tied a rope around me and threw me into the stretch limo. I passed out due to hunger and my shortage of blood. I woke up in some shady alley somewhere in East Hollywood. But the aide-de-camp had been nice enough to leave me the Slim Jim at my side, which I wolfed down with the force of a deprived animal. It gave me the fifteen minutes of energy to run to the nearest convenient store and sob to a clerk who didn’t understand what had just happened to me. But I did make it back to New York. Yes, I had lost blood, been manhandled, and had my privacy invaded. But I had also been in the presence of the World’s Greatest Living Author. I smiled on the plane ride home, knowing that the aide-de-camp was at least dimly aware of the Geneva Conventions.

Why Nick Denton’s Carelessness with Hulk Hogan Threatens the Future of Journalism

On Friday, six ordinary people in Florida, none terribly acquainted with the tabloid sausage factory when they were selected to serve as jurors for an invasion of privacy trial, deliberated for six hours on a case involving a former wrestler. They decided that Gawker, in posting a two minute excerpt of a Hulk Hogan sex tape, had crossed the line. The stunning $115 million verdict leveled against Gawker, with punitive damages set to be determined next week, is likely to deracinate what remains of the Gawker Empire. As of Saturday morning, Gawker had not published any new posts.

This verdict’s implications are significant for anyone interested in the First Amendment. It could mean that journalists will begin to pull their punches on stories that are far more important than a famous figure’s pelvic thrusting. And in an age in which unconventional reporting has emerged with squirming innovation from the rocky shadow of traditional media’s crumbling calcite hold, this may very well hinder the often necessary work needed to expose divisive yet pivotal duplicities. In a post-Hogan media landscape, would Mitt Romney’s infamous 2012 video about the “47 percent” constitute “invasion of privacy”? Will Donald Trump’s literal war on the press, barring and attacking and intimidating reporters he “disagrees” with, be reinforced by a wave of perceived invasion buttressed by court decisions in the near future?

More lawsuits are sure to follow in Hulk Hogan’s wake. (Indeed, Gawker is set to battle another $10 million lawsuit from Ashley Terrill, who alleges that Gawker published “a false and highly defamatory hit-piece” that harmed her reputation. This additional suit was filed by Hulk Hogan’s attorney.) But if more juries conclude that journalists who indiscriminately post private information about public figures are committing serious breaches of their public duties, breaches that cannot be justified as “journalism,” then this will seriously impair the Fourth Estate’s vital role in our culture, which is to serve as a legitimate watchdog against corruption, hypocrisy, and wrongdoing through a commitment to fairness and airtight facts.

If press freedom erodes in the next few years, Gawker founder Nick Denton must be blamed for this. He operated with a level of irresponsibility and carelessness, willfully hiring a spate of reckless editors who ran his website as if they were grand tyrants of limitless hubris — whether it be former editor John Cook defiantly refusing to remove the Hulk Hogan post, former Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio stating vulgarly and foolishly in a deposition that a sex tape would not be newsworthy if it included a child under the age of four, or the Jordan Belfort-like shenanigans of former Gawker editors Tommy Craggs and Max Read running up a $546 bill at a fancy restaurant before resigning in protest over a story that went out of its way to ruin a man’s life over sexual allegations that were never substantiated.

Denton, in perpetuating an office culture that was willfully adolescent and that opted for tawdriness in lieu of truth and decency, has not only set back his admirable ambitions to make Internet publishing something fresh and original, as smartly observed by USA Today‘s Michael Wolff, but he has destroyed the integrity of journalism: the impression promulgated not so long ago by the rightly celebrated film Spotlight that engrossing detail and rigorous pursuit of a scandal leads to essential conversations. Six regular people, representing a not insignificant perspective that many New York media mavens ignore at their peril, could not be persuaded that what Denton and Gawker was doing was right. And it is now up to journalists to win back the trust of America, to undo Denton’s considerable damage to an essential American freedom by refusing to skate on thin ice without grace, even as they perform jumps and spirals that we’ve never seen before.

In Defense of Chrissie Hynde: Why NPR Needs to Change and Why David Greene is a Sexist Fool

Twitter isn’t always the best yardstick when it comes to pinpointing the vox populi’s whims and anxieties, but given the way that the digital horde reacted to Chrissie Hynde’s interview on NPR’s Morning Edition, you’d think that it had just survived the Battle of Stalingrad or an unscheduled viewing of The Human Centipede 3:

“Not for the faint of heart,” “still recovering,” “gamely soldiering.” These are not the phrases one typically associates with a junket interview. But the Pretenders founder adroitly decided that she didn’t enjoy being subjected to David Greene’s insipid questions. Greene, a man apparently terrified of a woman with an independent mind and a fuddy fuss who muttered “bleeping’ instead of “fucking” when quoting a passage from Hynde’s new memoir, Reckless: My Life as a Pretender, made several mistakes. Instead of asking Hynde for the story behind her 1979 rock anthem “Brass in Pocket,” Greene wrongly assumed that Hynde would subscribe to his reductionist thesis that this was “a song that empowers women”:

Hynde: You know, it’s just a three minute rock song. It’s…I don’t think it’s as loaded as that.

As someone who has interviewed close to a thousand authors, filmmakers, and other celebrated minds and who fully cops to an exuberance involving overly analytical takes on an artist’s work, I’ve seen plenty of moments like this unfold before me. What you do in a situation like this is backtrack from your prerigged thesis and let the subject talk. The whole purpose of a conversation is to listen very carefully to what someone else is saying and ask questions that specifically follow up on the other person’s remarks. There was an opportunity here to get Hynde talking about how her music had been appropriated by ideological groups or whether a three minute rock song could ever have any real cultural stakes. But Greene, with an almost total lack of social awareness, could not read Hynde’s clear cues and sustained his foppish interlocutory thrust to the bitter end:

Greene: People certainly thought in its day [sic] as being very different and really emboldening women.
Hynde: Okay, well I’m not here to embolden anyone.

From here, the NPR producer cuts away in aloof and hilarious fashion to a lengthy clip of “Brass in Pocket” to pad out time, leaving the listener wondering what embarrassing (and possibly more interesting) bits were left on the cutting room floor. Perhaps there were many minutes in which David Greene, a man who seems incapable of improvisation, was left with his tongue capsized in a Gordian knot. Greene tells us that “Chrissie Hynde is a really tough interview,” even though Hynde sounded perfectly relaxed with Marc Maron last December and, most recently, with Tig Notaro.

Nice try, David. The fault here is clearly with the stiff interviewer and NPR’s despicably antiseptic culture, which is all about soothing the listener with pat platitudes easily forgotten in a morning commute haze. It’s telling that Greene speaks of Hynde “sharing her story,” as if the rock and roller’s rough life was akin to a child showing off a hastily composed watercolor painting at nursery school. Greene condescends to Hynde by calling this 64-year-old music veteran “a Midwestern girl” and trying to use her Ohio roots to presumably appeal to NPR’s easily shocked demographic. If Greene had truly been interested in Hynde, he might have described her in less innocuous and truer terms. Moreover, Greene can’t even deign to praise the Pretenders. Instead, he gushes over the Rolling Stones rather than the band that Hynde has been a member of:

Greene: And the Rolling Stones. They came — I mean, I, I loved reading about how you sort of took some of the staging off to take it with you, almost as a souvenir.
Hynde: Yeah. Do you want me to repeat the story?
Greene: I’d love you to.
Hynde: Is that the question?
Greene: No. I’d love you to.
Hynde: Can I just not repeat the stories that I’ve already said in the book? Can we talk about things outside of that? Is that possible? I don’t want to do a book reading, as it were.

Let’s unpack why this is terribly insulting to Hynde and why Hynde, much as any woman should, might react as hostilely as she did. Here is someone who has been creating music for many decades. She’s not a neophyte. She’s an accomplished rock performer. Instead of talking to her about The Pretenders, Greene has opted to paint Hynde as some Rolling Stones groupie plucking staging as souvenirs. Hynde has given Greene a big clue, pointing out that she’s not some automatic doll who performs book readings.

Compare this with Greene’s fawning treatment of Stones guitarist Keith Richards back in September. Not only was Richards permitted the courtesy to smoke inside the studio, but Greene gushed about Richards’s considerable accomplishments (children’s book author, raconteur, solo artist) in a manner so obsequious that you’d think he was the Pope. It would never occur to a sycophantic sexist like Greene to ask Richards what he thought of the Pretenders, much less paint him as some febrile fanboy.

Instead of recognizing his clear mistake, Greene digs in the dirk further, demanding that Hynde, presumably because she is a woman, express her “emotions” about an experience that is nowhere nearly as germane as her rugged life:

Greene: No, I would just like to hear some of the emotions of why you love the Rolling Stones so much. I mean, you were — you were taking some of the notes that people had written for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and taking them home with you. I mean, what was driving you?
Hynde: Well, well, I just loved the bands. That’s what drove me all my life is that I just loved the bands. Back in those days, nobody thought I wanted to grow up and be a rock star. Nobody thought about fame. Nobody thought about making a lot of money. I just liked music and I really liked rock guitar. I didn’t think I was going to be a rock guitar player because I was a girl. I would have been too shy to play with, you know, guys.

It’s bad enough that we have to suffer though NPR’s crass abridgements of complex emotion into superficial seven minute segments, but it’s hard for any progressive-minded listener to hear a talented and interesting woman, one who emerged from an uncertain blue-collar existence to a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, reduced to something akin to a toy.

If Hynde were a man, this interview wouldn’t be a controversy. One would think that the Twitter crowd, so eager to denounce such demoralizing portraits of women, would have glommed onto an autonomous voice being diminished by an incurious and inattentive fool. But instead the shock is with an interview departing from mealy-mouthed form. The time has come for more women to stop letting “nice guys” like Greene diminish their accomplishments and for all radio producers to be committed to organic conversations. If NPR insists on being a forum for gutless toadies and the celebrities who tolerate them, then perhaps the cure involves opening up the floodgates to every voice on the spectrum with thought and compassion. Of course, podcasting has been doing all this quite wonderfully for years. So if Greene cannot adjust his timid mien to the 21st century, then perhaps his stature should perish.

In Defense of Banned Books Week: A Call to Expand the Debate

Ruth Graham, the oafish opiner who unsuccessfully tried to nuke the YA genre from orbit last year with splashes of sophism and dollops of dilletantism, has returned to Slate‘s realm of callow clickbait with an equally preposterous proposition that “there is no such thing as a ‘banned book’ in the United States in 2015” and that, as such, Banned Books Week is a well-intended wash. Aside from ignoring the obvious fallout of the “likable character” debate from 2013 or the way in which Scarlett Thomas’s ambitious and risk-taking novel The Seed Collectors has been summarily repressed by nervous publishers that lack the stones to put it out on this side of the Atlantic, Graham’s remarkable failure to consider the recent Charlie Hedbo/PEN controversy, much less the way in which seemingly liberal minds continue to “ban” viewpoints that they despise belies her woeful ignorance of current reactionary developments in United States culture.

Graham cites a recent uproar over Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in Knoxville, Tennessee, whereby a mother objected to “pornographic” descriptions of infidelity and a lump on Lacks’s cervix being taught in a public school. Graham is right to observe that it was more or less a slam dunk to find the right side on this particular debate, but where she goes astray, undoubtedly aided and abetted by the usual gang of reductionist editorial idiots, is her insane suggestion that Banned Books Week somehow used the occasion to reveal itself as a sinister venue specializing in fearmongering. But Graham doesn’t cite a single word that the Banned Books Week group actually wrote. Blogger Maggie Jacoby compared the mother’s recriminations to “a modern day kind of book burning,” but how is this fearmongering? What Jacoby was rightfully suggesting is that the old forms of suppressing books — fearsome censorship laws, burning books, removing them from school reading lists — have been replaced by an equally diabolical practice whereby one imperious individual or group now decides, irrespective of scholarly or literary merit, that a book or a viewpoint should be expunged from the community.

Censorship battles aren’t limited to blinkered crusaders in Tennessee. “Prudish moms” can be found in such sanctimonious types as Francine Prose and Peter Carey, who cannot seem to comprehend a universe in which offensive and disagreeable ideas are meant to be argued against rather than silenced. The literary world has increasingly failed to understand that an awful idea — and Charlie Hedbo’s juvenile and despicably racist caricatures were indeed meretricious, to say the least — needs to be articulated rather than silenced and that accolades such as the James G. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award are vital reminders of our duty to ensure that anyone has the right to say something offensive or provocative, especially if it runs counter to our perspective, without fear of death or censorship.

Books may not have not faced as many overt censorship challenges in recent years, but the need to squelch undesirable or offensive viewpoints is now being practiced in covert and personal ways that are just as unconscionable. The courageous author Alissa Nutting not only faced a relentless wave of indignant emails and threats after her novel, Tampa, was published, but was also subjected to a histrionic op-ed piece in which a mother believed Nutting’s book was so dangerous that she kept it locked away from her daughter. If the morally scolding can’t get reading material banned from classrooms, then they have proven quite effective in removing “offensive” material from the stores, such as the three men’s magazines ejected by Walmart in 2003 because of efforts made by querulous Christians or, most recently, Rhonda Rousey’s memoir pulled because it was “too violent.”

The public square, whether we like it or not, has been replaced by the venal clamor of a marketplace selling comforting reads and the rising din of outrage culture publicly shaming an author like Erica Jong for ignorant remarks. And while some critics have smartly observed that one can critique an author without excluding her from the conversation, perhaps working to change her mind through a dialogue, others valiantly celebrate an author’s shortcomings as “far more important than any one author’s resistance to a changing zeitgeist.”

In her insistence that “books win” in this new age of condemnation, it’s telling that Graham practices the naive first year law school student’s overused argument of clinging to taut definitions of “banned or challenged” even as she overlooks some very obvious developments which demand that these terms be expanded outside of their presently rigid definitions. A fear of “bad language, violence; and, over and over, sexual content” very much applies in the cases I’ve cited above, just as it does when college students increasingly dole out the manipulative dog-ate-my-homework “trigger warning” charge for classic literature because they don’t want to contend with human realities. These plaints are no different in scope from the mother who tried to pull Skloot’s book from a public school and demand that we expand what a “banned book” really means in 2015.

Nobody wins when some easily offended reader expends a great deal of time and energy to guarantee that a book is withdrawn from a vital forum rather than assembling a provocative and possibly unpopular argument against it, especially when the same ninny fails to provide any evidence of having read the book in question. But American culture is increasingly drifting towards an impulsive immaturity where we cannot fathom that a person is more than the sum of a few foolhardy tweets or inopportune soundbytes and we lack the fortitude to speak with our enemies, let alone maintain cordial relationships with friends we disagree with. It is, however, instinctive enough to find other primordial methods to ban books, whether through trigger warnings or thoughtless censorship campaigns, rather than fostering opportunities for spirited and informed debate. Salman Rushdie should not have to suffer “lasting damage” to his friendships because of a disagreement, but American culture is too wrapped up in blocking or banning anything it finds remotely offensive to have adult conversations. And we are cursed with Pollyanna types like Ruth Graham, serving as myopic propagandists, who are just as implicitly prescriptive as the “prudish moms” who avoid uncomfortable truths that require a drastic change in the ways we relate to the written word and other readers.

Josh Ostrovsky, Plagiarist: His Lies to Katie Couric and His Serial Instagram Thefts

“You gotta understand. The Internet is like a giant, weird orgy where like everything gets shared. A lot of people are using stuff that I make. And every time that I make a photo and I put it out there, it gets reblogged on a million sites, and I would never put my name on it. ‘Cause we’re like all in this giant — it’s kind of like we’re all on ecstasy at a giant rave.” — Josh Ostrovsky, after being asked by Katie Couric about his plagiarism

Josh Ostrovsky is an unremarkable man who has built up a remarkable fan base of 5.7 million Instagram users by stealing photos from other sources without attribution under the handle The Fat Jew, claiming the witticisms as his own, and turning these casual and often quite indolent thefts into a lucrative comedy career. His serial plagiarism, which makes Carlos Mencia look like an easily ignored bumbling purse snatcher, has understandably attracted the ire of many comedians, including Patton Oswalt, Kumail Nanjiani, and Michael Ian Black. The ample-gutted Ostrovsky transformed his gutless thieving into a deal with Comedy Central (since cancelled by the comedy network), CAA representation, and even a book deal. Ostrovsky is an unimaginative and talentless man who believed he could get away with this. And why not? The unquestioning press fawned over the Fat Jew at every opportunity, propping this false god up based on his numbers rather than his content. While the tide has turned against Ostrovsky in recent days, the real question that any self-respecting comedy fan needs to ask is whether they can stomach supporting a big fat thief who won’t cut down on his rapacious stealing anytime soon.

Ostrovosky’s lifting has already received several helpful examinations, including this collection from Kevin Kelly on Storify and an assemblage from Death and Taxes‘s Maura Quint. But in understanding how a figure like Ostrovsky infiltrates the entertainment world, it’s important to understand that, much like serial plagiarists Jonah Lehrer and Q.R. Markham, Ostrovsky could not refrain from his pathological need for attention.

After a two day investigation, Reluctant Habits has learned that every single Instagram post that Ostrovosky has ever put up appears to have been stolen from other people. His work, his lies, and his claims were not checked out by ostensible journalists, much less corporations like Burger King hiring this man to participate in commercials and product placement that he was compensated for by as much as $2,500 a pop.

In an interview with Katie Couric earlier this year, Ostrovsky offered some outright whoppers. Ostrovsky, who claimed to be “such a giver,” presented himself as a benign funnyman who said that “it’s just my gift” to find photos and apply captions to them. Tellingly, Ostrovsky declared, “It’s the only thing I can do in this world.”

“A lot of stuff I actually make myself,” said Ostrovsky. “Like sometimes if you see a tweet from like DMX, you know, or some kind of hardcore rapper being like, ‘About to go antiquing upstate,’ like ‘I’m refinishing Dutch furniture,’ like he probably didn’t write that. I Photoshopped that.”

Actually, the sentiment that Ostrovsky ascribed to DMX (assuming he didn’t pluck the image from another source) on April 14, 2015 (“YEAH SEX IS COOL BUT HAVE YOU EVER HAD GARLIC BREAD”) had actually been circulating on the Internet years before this. It started making the rounds on Twitter in November 2013 and appears to have been plucked from a now deleted Tumblr called whoredidthepartygo. This tagline theft is indicative of Ostrovsky’s style: take a sentence that many others have widely tweeted, reapply it in a new context, and hope that nobody notices.

The Couric interview also contained this astonishing prevarication:

Couric: I like Hillbilly too. You took half-Hillary, half-Bill Clinton.

Ostrovsky: Yup. A friend of mine actually made that and like just really exploded my brain into like a thousand pieces.

If this is really true, then why did Ostrovsky wait four years to share his “friend”‘s labor? Especially since it had “exploded his brain into like a thousand pieces.” After all, doesn’t a giver like Ostrovsky want to act swiftly upon his “generosity”? The Hillbilly pic was posted to Ostrovsky’s Instagram account on January 7, 2015.

hillbilly_ostrovsky

But this image was cropped from another image that was circulating around 2011 — nearly four years before. If Ostrovsky’s “friend” gave the Hillbilly photo to him, then why was it cropped, with the telltale link to demotivatingposters.com (a now defunct link) elided?

hillbilly_source

* * *

Reluctant Habits has examined Ostrovsky’s ten most recent Instagram posts. Not only are all of his images stolen from other people, but Ostrovsky often did not bother to change the original image he grabbed. In some cases, it appears that Ostrovsky simply took a screenshot from Twitter, often cropping out the identifying details.

For the purposes of this search, I have confined my analysis to any photo that Ostrovsky uploaded with a tagline. As the evidence will soon demonstrate, not only is Ostrovsky incapable of writing an original tag, but he appears to have never written a single original sentence in any of his Instagram captions.

I have included links to Ostrovsky’s Instagrams and the original tweets. But I have also taken screenshots in the event that either Ostrovsky or his originators remove their tweets.

OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 1: August 16, 2015.

instagram_1

SOURCES OF PLAGIARISM:

As if to exonerate himself from the theft, Ostrovsky’s Instagram post included a callback to Instagram user @pistolschurman, who posted it onto Instagram that same day. One begins to see Ostovsky’s pattern of behavior: bottom-feed from a bottom-feeder.

But the image had already been widely distributed on Twitter with the tagline, “The international symbol for ‘what the hell is this guy doing?’,” “The international symbol for ‘what the hell is this douchebag doing?,” and “The international symbol for what the fuck is this nigga doing?'” But have traced its first use on Twitter to Betto Biscaia on August 10, 2014:

source_1

OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 2: August 16, 2015.

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SOURCE OF PLAGIARISM:

On August 16, 2015, the user @tank.sinatra posted this to Instagram, failing to acknowledge the original source. Ostrovsky linked to @tank.sinatra.

This was first tweeted by user @GetTheFuzzOut on August 14, 2015.

source_2

OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 3: August 14, 2015

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SOURCES OF PLAGIARISM: While it appears that Ostrovsky or one of his minions may have typed the sentiment upon a new image, a Google Image Search shows that this sentence has been widely attached to photo memes. The first use of the joke on Twitter appears to originate from @TinyCodeEye on March 11, 2015.

source_3

OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 4: August 14, 2015

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SOURCES OF PLAGIARISM: This has been a long-running tagline/photo combo, but Ostrovsky didn’t even bother to swap the font for this photo. The tagline appears to have been added to the photo for the first time by user @ViralStation on July 17, 2015:

source_4

In other words, Ostrovsky was so slothful in his theft that he couldn’t even be bothered to generate a new image.

As for the tagline context itself, I have traced its first use on Twitter to hip-hop artist EM3 on July 14, 2015:

source_4a

I have reached out to EM3 on Twitter, asking if he was the first person to take this photo. He responded that he did not take the photo, but that he plucked it from eBay. (The latter response may have been facetious.) What EM3 may not know is that his quip was stolen by Ostrovsky and monetized for Ostrovsky’s gain.

OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 5: August 14, 2015

instagram_5

SOURCES OF PLAGIARISM: The joke was first tweeted by Andrew Grant on July 24, 2015.

source_5

But Grant, in turn, stole the joke from a Reddit thread initiated by user youstinkbitch on July 10, 2015.

OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 6: August 14, 2015

instagram_6

SOURCES OF PLAGIARISM: The photo/tag combo appears to originate with user @FUCKJERRY, who tweeted this on July 2, 2015.

source_6

OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 7: August 14, 2015

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SOURCES OF PLAGIARISM: This was among the oldest tags I discovered and quite indicative of the desperate thieving that Ostrovsky practices. It appears to originate from Alex Moran, who tweeted it on July 17, 2014.

source_7

I have reached out to Mr. Moran to ask him if he was the person who snapped the photo. He has not responded.

OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 8: August 13, 2015

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SOURCE OF PLAGIARISM: This was first tweeted by user @natrosity on November 5, 2014.

source_8

OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 9: August 13, 2015

instagram_9

SOURCE OF PLAGIARISM: This joke has become so widely circulated that only the world’s worst hack would use it. Ostrovsky thinks so little of his audience that he’s circulating a joke that’s been around since at least August 2012, when it first started appearing Tumblr. The first Twitter link to this is from August 2, 2012:

source_9

OSTROVSKY INSTAGRAM 10: August 13, 2015

instagram_10

SOURCE OF PLAGIARISM: The source of this appears to come from a now-defunct Tumblr called Luxury-andFashion. The earliest mention on Twitter appears to be on November 12, 2014 — a link to its Tumblr distribution.

RIP David Carr

It is sad and apt that David Carr, arguably the snappiest turtle inside the New York Times newsroom, died on the job at the age of 58. Only hours before, he’d been moderating a panel with Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, and Glenn Greenwald. He had ascended to the nation’s foremost newspaper after a rocky battle with crack cocaine and alcohol that he chronicled in his journalistic memoir, The Night of the Gun.

Perhaps it was this personal odyssey, revealing the way that Carr weaved empathy and accuracy into a bright and highly readable bow, that helped mint David Carr as the journalist you could trust. He was a vivacious reporter who could be counted on to follow through with an opinion and cross-examine it, whether it meant contacting Jayson Blair to remark upon Mike Daisey’s theatrical deceit or gently implicating Julian Assange’s dramatists long after the Wikileaks founder had become a punchline.

Carr never had to exaggerate or embellish a detail, whether it was about himself or a subject. He was committed to finding the idiosyncratic absurdities in the real world and he had the stamina and the fortitude to hunt his stories down honestly, no matter how long it took. Where other critics opted for the nuclear takedown or the overly fawning profile, Carr carried out his columns with a fine finesse that rarely tilted to either extreme. He had a nail-hard knack for pounding rivets into people he liked and advocated, such as in this 1999 assessment of Washington Post writer Henry Allen:

Florid? His ledes have more bouquets than a Mafia don’s funeral. Overwritten? Twelve monkeys couldn’t kick up this much racket. But it’s astonishing stuff, the kind of writing that makes you leave the morning coffee untouched. Allen’s probably not going to get a Pulitzer, but he deserves some kind of goddamn medal for arguing all of those wacked-out tales past his editors.

And he turned this highly scrutinizing eye to himself in his remarkable book, The Night of the Gun, posting documents and video interviews on a website to hold himself accountable.

Carr’s sudden and surprising death not only serves as a vital reminder for journalists to do their best work today, but reveals how much the Times relied on Carr’s maverick energy. What other rocket can travel so fluidly between the Times‘s dowdy atmosphere and the crackling human universe? What reporter can possibly replace him?

The answer, of course, is nobody.

Alissa Quart (The Bat Segundo Show #514)

Alissa Quart is most recently the author of Republic of Outsiders. This show is the second of two related programs devoted to the American epidemic of gravitating to mainstream culture in an age of limitless choice. (You can listen to the first part: Show #513 with Kiese Laymon.)

Play

Author: Alissa Quart

Subjects Discussed: George Lucas as “independent filmmaker,” how the presumed amateur mediums of YouTube and Kickstarter have become dominated by established figures, Amanda Palmer’s exploitation of musicians, Marina Abramović’s exploitation of dancers, Tilda Swinton marketing herself as an outsider, problems with the term “maverick,” the problems with Dave Eggers’s “selling out” rant, why resisting “selling out” has declined in the last ten years, Branded, OK Soda, how alternative cartoonists defied corporations, the decline in ad parodies, Yahoo cracking down on Tumblrs with sexual content, the flat self, how the lack of privacy destroys existential possibilities, the online exhibitionist impulse, Marie Calloway and easily deciphered pseudonyms, the relationship between the professional and the amateur, the rise of Etsy, T.J. Jackson Lear’s notion of antimodern dissent, people who strive to be featured sellers, false feminist fantasies, stealth capitalistic wish fulfillment, how physical space of hobbyists is appropriated by digital companies, handmade status, parallels between Etsy and freemium video games, addiction to Candy Crush Saga, Team Fortress 2, Netflix as an elaborate scheme to mine entertainment data, the narcotic state of false entertainment empowerment, vegans and fake meat, sanctimonious parallels between an animal rights activist telling you to watching a stream of slaughterhouse videos and a supermarket chain which claims that it slaughters animals humanely, crying over a field mouse dying, animal rights futurists, how prescriptive dichotomies develop into mainstream tropes, morally ostentatious ideological positions, The Icarus Project, the fine line between being eccentric and in need of help, bipolar writers, Mad Pride, a thought experiment concerning healthcare, whether or not it is the outsider’s to constantly resist, nontraditional settings for psychiatric care, Wikipedia’s transphobia against Chelsea Manning, transfeminists pointing to the assumption that the decision to have children is an assumption for all women, #solidarityisforwhitewomen, blind spots of mainstream feminists, gender distinctions at Barnard, young people and privacy*, Snapchat, how outsider ideas become mainstream, a Comics Alliance review of Heroes of Cosplay, cosplay as the professionalization of fans, the Tron Guy, how body image is becoming more Hollywood with professional cosplay, Vimeo auteurs, viral videos about broken subway steps, corporations that use images of people against their will, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Star Wars Uncut, contemporary collective filmmaking of today vs. truly independent filmmaking of the past (John Cassevetes, et al.), how tastemakers saved Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, the entitled fan critic vs. the designated gatekeeper, the decline of auteurism, mumblecore, documentary collectives in the 1960s, designated advocates vs. fan advocates, Kickstarter and behavioral economics, what a true outsider is, Sublime Frequencies’s Alan Bishop, the discipline of only being influenced by the sensibilities you cultivate, Pitchfork, taste as the last recourse in a world with too much information, how the word “curator” has been inverted, Maria Popova, the obligation to be outsider in some way, NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour, Lev Manovich’s idea of data streams, and the limited cultural scope of hyperniche groups on Twitter.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: When George Lucas made Star Wars Episodes I through III, he declared himself an “independent filmmaker.” Even though he was self-financing these movies for many millions of dollars. I also remember in 2011 when Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gorden Levitt were singing “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” and they released this to YouTube. They faced a great deal of criticism. YouTube is the amateur medium. Well, now we’re in a totally different ball game these days. Now we have crowdfunding. We have Spike Lee, Zach Braff, Veronica Mars on Kicktarter. And these people say, “Hey, it’s okay.” And what’s even more astonishing is that people are more accepting of this. And maybe, just to start off on what we’re dealing with here in terms of insiders and outsiders, why do you think that independent filmmaking has changed so that we now accept these people moving into the turf previously occupied by outsiders and people who were scrabbling together various resources to make different, eclectic art?

Quart: Well, I think right now we’re seeing coalitions of insiders and outsiders in a single person. So you have someone like Spike Lee, who is doing a Kickstarter campaign. He may have raised it by now. He was trying to raise $1.4 million. And then you have Amanda Palmer raising something similar on Kickstarter. Even more. And then you have actual true outsiders, or people who would have defined themselves as outsiders for many years, also using these same media. And it becomes, as I write in my book, a “republic of outsiders” — some which are arguably relying on their fans too much.

Correspondent: To the point of exploiting them, as Amanda Palmer is. “Hey, we’re going to have professional musicians play for free.” Which she’s received a lot of understandable flack for.

Quart: And I just saw recently Marina Abramović — the performance artist who had a big show at MOMA, quite famous. A dancer was complaining about being exploited for her labor in a crowdsourcing. Now there’s highbrow artists who are getting in on this kind of fan/star collapse and also monetizing the labor of people who are non-stars.

Correspondent: It’s interesting. Because I saw recently that Tilda Swinton went to Russia and is presenting herself as a total outsider. Of course, there’s her famous exhibit where she’s basically sleeping there. We’re now seeing a situation where mainstream people, or people who have dabbled between mainstream and outsider type of art, now feel this overwhelming need to define themselves as a rebel in some way. And yet they’re still reliant in many ways upon corporate cash or mainstream sources.

Quart: Or ordinary people’s cash.

Correspondent: Yes!

Quart: Or a friend’s cash.

Correspondent: And with crowdfunding. Yes.

Quart: Or a friend’s labor. And in a sense, the traditional selling out, where you’re relying on a corporation, can start to seem somewhat more innocent.

Correspondent: Well, why do you think that identifying yourself as an outsider is now a fundamental part of being? We can all sort of see through it. Especially when one tracks the general tenor or some artist’s voice. So why is this such a big thing these days?

Quart: Originally I was going to call this book either The Maverick Principle or Mavericks. And then there was the 2008 election. Sarah Palin and John McCain calling themselves “mavericks.”

Correspondent: “A real maverick.” Yes.

Quart: And then at some point Obama was even called “renegade.” So I think it’s really interesting. There’s a lot of use of language of the rebel/renegade. But part of what I did in this book was that I tried to include as many people who I considered — and I use this word advisedly — authentic outsiders, as well as people who are in this inside/outside thing like Amanda Palmer.

Correspondent: Sure. Well, one piece of writing you don’t actually include in the book, that I feel is actually germane to this argument, is Dave Eggers’s famous “selling out” speech, which he gave to The Harvard Advocate. And I still see it crop up all the time on Tumblr, where people constantly post it. And he basically says, okay, so the Flaming Lips appeared on 90210 and they performed their popular songs. But who cares? And he says, “Hey, I take money. Considerable thousands of dollars from Fortune Magazine. But I’m giving that away.” But what’s interesting about this, and what no one actually seems to think about in considering the Eggers rant, is that he’s not willing to hold himself accountable for how being indoctrinated in that kind of mainstream situation is going to affect his outsider nature or is actually going to compromise it in some way. And I’m wondering why this is such a compelling piece of text even almost fifteen years later, after it was originally disseminated. Why do you think people are still clinging to this notion of being an outsider or wanting to justify the fact that we’re all ensnared in this trap of having to…

Quart: As I said, the term “selling out,” which I considered an honorific when I was growing up. Or the opposite. Not selling out was honorific. Selling out was a terrible thing to do. I think the paradoxes of the term “selling out” have collapsed. And so you see people not even recognizing what that means. Now I’m going to start sounding like an old fuddy-duddy. But it’s not really a term that people really use or judge themselves by. It’s seen as a compliment. “Oh, I got Doritos to use my content that I created. Even though I’m just a fanboy.” Or “I got the latest hip-hop artist to use my remix in an advertisement. I’m so great.” So I think one of the reasons this document may hold appeal is that it’s a smart, well-heeled person kind of explaining what a lot of people are experiencing and addressing, if there is any, their lingering doubt. Is this a problem that I don’t even have this lodestone of selling out/not selling out anymore?

Correspondent: Why do you think that the notion of “selling out” became — when do you think the stigma was deflated? I mean, is this probably the last ten years, would you say?

Quart: I could feel it. I wrote a book. It came out in 2003.

Correspondent: You did.

Quart: Branded. And that to me was like — I didn’t even know it then, but I was seeing all these adolescents — I called it self-branding — who were defining themselves by the products they were consuming. Like “I am Coke. I am Pepsi. I am Abercrombie.” And I thought to myself, “Wow, this is just a teen thing.” But then the more I looked into it, these kids were growing up. And they were going to similarly retain that kind of identification. So I think a lot of it happened in the ’90s. It happened during the consolidation of corporations. It happened with the faltering economy. So people didn’t feel that they had the courage necessarily, even if they wanted to. To not define themselves by status markers. So I think there’s a multitude of factors that went into it.

Correspondent: You think people wanted to belong? And not really finding an absolute group, they turned to what corporations had to offer?

Quart: Yeah. I think it was just a surround sound culture. I mean, it is right now. We live in a screen culture where there’s endless pop-up ads, where our data is being mined. Where if I check out a jacket on a site, I’ll be seeing that jacket reappearing endlessly on my browser with every site I visit. In the early 2000s, when I wrote Branded, the line between advertorial and editorial in teen publications was collapsing. And that itself was a cause for dismay in media critic circles. And I wrote about it. “Oh no. They’re getting these advertising giveaways that are masquerading as magazines for teenagers.” Now everything they read carries promotional content. Magazines themselves are promotional entities. Again, the paradoxes of what selling out means have collapsed. And given the difficulties of the magazine and newspaper businesses right now, people don’t even focus on this that much. What content carries a commercial valence and which doesn’t.

Correspondent: But there was a time — like I think, for example, of OK Soda, where Coca-Cola hired Dan Clowes and Charles Burns to make this hip kind of design. I love this story. And they basically took the money and ran. I mean, there used to be a more honorable way of taking corporate money and pissing in their face.

Quart: Well, I think what you’re talking about is subversion, or subvertising. Remember all those terms that people used to use, and I loved? They don’t seem to be around so much anymore. Remember there was that moment. Well, it starts with MAD Magazine. Ad parodies? I mean, I don’t even see ad parodies anymore. It’s kind of weird.

Correspondent: Yeah! There used to be a rich culture in the ’90s and even in the early noughts. They were still, I think, flourishing even after September 11th. But I think something happened. And I guess I’m trying to ask you, Alissa…

Quart: What happened?

Correspondent: What was it? It probably, as you say, was post-2008 economic problems.

Quart: Some of them. 9/11 is a pertinent moment. Because you saw our President telling us to go shopping. It wasn’t “Have courage! Batten down the hatches!” It was “Go to the mall!” This is the way to be American. That was just one of many data points on that journey towards becoming an American shopper, not an American citizen.

Correspondent: One thing you didn’t really write about in this book that I think is possibly germane to this conversation is Tumblr. I mean, here is a situation where people think they’re being alternative on Tumblr. And very often, I see that they’re actually tailoring their posts so they can be liked or favorited and reposted elsewhere. And then on top of that, we had Yahoo recently purchase Tumblr. And they’ve started to quash down on certain blogs that actually have sexual content. And — I call them the Tumblrettes — the people who work at Tumblr, they scurry away when anybody has a more outsider or traditionally pugnacious reply in response to a cultural ill. Do you think that sometimes mediums such as Tumblr enable our worst impulses?

Quart: I mean, if we’re talking about companies buying other companies, we see that all the time. We see Goodreads being bought by Amazon. I guess in the ’90s, they would have called it mini-majors. Remember when independent studios were being bought? Miramax or Sony would purchase an independent company. Well, you see that happening a lot with companies that would be offering alternative platforms, that would be bought by companies that don’t offer those platforms. What happens, I guess, is that eventually there’s a neutralization of content. That’s another way in which outsiderdom is controlled.

Correspondent: But I think people have a choice to limit themselves or put themselves into some position where some moderating force is going to discourage them from truly expressing what’s on their mind. Clearly, there is something to be said about people’s choice of expression. I mean, they’re consenting to this. It’s not just evil corporate forces. And I’m wondering why that is.

Quart: I think, in the past, you used to see science fiction movies where people’s souls would be sucked out of their bodies by alien beings. And now we give away our information for the price of a five dollar badge online. For a sale item. There’s just such a level in a certain way. I call it the flat self. I mean, this isn’t in my book. But it’s something that I see a lot. And I guess it’s one of the incentives for writing a book like this, for people who are less flat. But for people who are willing to give away their information, their data — even the reaction to the fact that our information is being obtained against our will by all these companies and by our government. People are like, “Eh? Sure! I’ll give that away for 10% off!”

Correspondent: Well, what would be the typical flat self? Or I suppose a pernicious flat self? Since we’re on this particular metaphor. It seems to me it’s kind of an evolution of the dyed hair craze of people. As I grew up in San Francisco and Berkeley, you’d see people with dyed hair and punk T-shirts and they’d all look alike. Possibly more alike than a sea of corporate navy blue suits.

Quart: Well, there’s lots of ways to be a flat self. I guess what we’re talking about here is people who have, in some ways, are afraid and have succumbed to just a commercialized self that doesn’t have an interior life. So if you don’t think you have much of an interior life, the only thing you’re afraid of is if you’ve done anything wrong that people will see. You don’t really care about protecting the nature of your subjectivity. That’s not something that you’re concerned about.

Correspondent: A lack of an interior life is possibly part of this problem?

Quart: Perhaps. Or a lack of an interior life that you care about preserving.

* — Our Correspondent misstated the exact statistic. We regret the error and hope that the above link will set the matter straight.

(Loops for this program provided by Kristijann, 40A, ferryterry, and Boogieman0307.)

The Bat Segundo Show #514: Alissa Quart (Download MP3)

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A Walk from Manhattan to Sleepy Hollow

[EDITOR’S NOTE: On March 22, 2013, I set out on an eighteen mile “trial walk” from the top tip of Manhattan to Sleepy Hollow, New York, to serve as a preview for what I plan to generate on a regular basis with Ed Walks, a 3,000 mile cross-country journey from Brooklyn to San Francisco scheduled to start on May 15, 2013. It will involve an elaborate oral history and real-time reporting carried out across twelve states over six months. But the Ed Walks project requires financial resources. And it won’t happen if we can’t raise all the funds. But we now have an Indiegogo campaign in place to make this happen. If you would like to see more adventures in states beyond New York, please donate to the project. And if you can’t donate, please spread the word to others who can. Thank you!]

Other Trial Walks:
2. A Walk from Brooklyn to Garden City (Part One and Part Two)
3. A Walk from Staten Island to Edison Park (Part One and Part Two)

The Broadway Bridge rumbled hard with tardy cars hoping to beat that dreaded moment when the lift raised for a big boat hauling cargo across the Harlem River, tying up traffic into a time-consuming knot that no sailor could unravel at gunpoint. On the whole, this was a reasonable bridge, agreeable and unassuming, not unlike a workmanlike band following an act that bombed spectacularly on stage. You couldn’t help but like the Broadway Bridge after all the barbed wire coils and the industrial grit that came before. But I think I may have loved the bridge simply because I crossed it on foot.

I was walking across to meet Lisa Peet, a good soul with a wily mane and a knowing glint who had kindly agreed to be my first interview subject. We met in the Gold Mine Cafe, a former donut shop recently renovated to serve breakfast at all hours of the day. This establishment inveigled the locals with its new kitschy interior, which included a Greco ideal, his knee raised, ensnared in a vessel with a periwinkle lid. This marvelously extravagant illustration, seen only if you look to your left when you leave the joint, rightly reflected the neighborhood inconsistencies that Lisa told me about. There was also a painting of an elderly woman tempting fate with a reddish orange mass, which hung just behind the table where Lisa and I chatted:

goldminecafeart

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“No restaurants,” said Lisa of her neighborhood. “No coffee shops. No galleries. No bookstores. No nothing. There’s the Bronx Ale House, which opened up a few years ago. That’s a nice place. No takeout really. There’s Riverdale. You can get delivery from there. You have to leave if you want to do anything fun.”

I pointed to the Gold Mine Cafe’s charms, which suggested new fun in the making.

“There’s fun, but you really have to make it.”

* * *

geese

I saw the geese after I saw the coyote statue atop a rock and the slowly thawing ice rink that needed to be deliquesced out of its misery. I saw the geese after shuffling around a memorial lawn with its grave markers parked low to the grass and American flags shooting out of the soil. I saw the geese wandering near the Van Cortlandt Park baseball diamond, not far from the big track that still attracted stubborn joggers in the morning chill, and I attempted an interview.

I spent more minutes than I care to admit slowly advancing on the icy lawn, hoping that the geese might view me as more peaceful and more inquisitive than the average human. But the geese had seen humans pull this parlor trick many times before. They squawked and they sprinted in that gangly manner that only geese can and they fluttered into the air when I pursued them beyond the specified maximum distance established by the Human-Geese Accord of 1872.

The geese did not wish to answer my inquiries concerning income inequality or human-animal relations or Katy Perry’s sartorial style. Still, I was having a good deal of fun coaxing the geese to talk with me. I opted to leave them alone and file an interview request with their publicists. I did not know that there was a bigger interview ahead in Yonkers.

* * *

The idea came when I walked into Yonkers and saw Mayor Mike Spano’s name on the city limits sign. I had never been in Yonkers before. Perhaps Mayor Spano would talk with me. I had not known that Mayor Spano had just delivered the State of the City address. In fact, I knew nothing about Yonkers politics at all.

I decided to hit City Hall.

yonkerscityhall

I didn’t anticipate that Yonkers City Hall would be a fairly imposing Italianate edifice built in 1908 and situated on a rather high hill.

This did not stop me.

I walked to the side entrance and told the amicable guard that I was going to the Mayor’s Office. He seemed to believe that I knew what I was doing and directed me to the second floor. I went to the Mayor’s Office and talked with a friendly woman named Francesca. The Mayor was in Albany. I asked if there was anybody else who would talk with me, but apparently all communications people were locked in an implacable meeting. It was so quiet behind Francesca that I began to wonder if city officials were playing a long game of Spin the Bottle, perhaps over coffee and cake. I asked Francesca if she would talk with me and she said that she wasn’t authorized to do so. But she was very nice about it.

It then occurred to me that Yonkers City Hall had other floors and, quite possibly, more movers and shakers who might talk with me. Since I had gone to the trouble of walking up the rather high hill, it seemed eminently reasonable to bag the Munro.

There were a few fun-filled conversations inside the Public Works Department and the Department of Engineering, although I quickly learned that Yonkers City Hall acoustics share certain qualities with an invisibility cloak. The doors throughout the building are sturdy and loud when opened. Every lawmaker and aide knows the precise moment someone enters an office. I entered one room in search of a Yonkers booster and was alarmed to hear a man reply from his office just after I chatted with several good-natured people craning their heads out of cubicles. He had heard the whole exchange. I wondered if the man was preparing for some inevitable moment when he would overhear some vital gossip that would pull him from his chamber and into some position where he would spend the rest of his days laughing as hard as Emil Jannings.

Nearly everyone in Yonkers City Hall was kind and courteous. Maybe I was stunned because, living in New York City, I’m accustomed to city employees who give you the look of someone who wants to rip out your heart with gelid hands and watch you die. It’s also possible that city employees don’t often receive visitors or interview requests quite like this.

yonkersabe

Whatever the reason, all this bonhomie led me to believe that I could talk with someone on the City Council. My journey started at one wing of the fourth floor, where administrative types were answering telephones and sealing envelopes and trying to hold the majority leader — a man named Wilson A. Terrero — to his hectic schedule. Nerissa Peña, Chief of Staff of the Yonkers City Council, was very helpful in seeking five minutes with Terrero, who was at the tail end of a vivacious meeting with two businessmen. I thanked Nerissa and told her that I would return, once I had investigated the opposite wing.

I walked to the other side of City Hall. Several people told me that there was a man named Chuck who liked to talk. Chuck was the Council President. All spoke fondly of his gregariousness. The three women working in his office. The communications guy, who name-checked Joshua Ferris’s The Unnamed when I told him about the walk. And I’m fairly certain that if I had loitered around City Hall after business hours, some wraith kicking around for decades would tell me that Chuck Lesnick is the man you need to spread the Yonkers gospel.

But Chuck wasn’t there.

It was suggested that I schedule an appointment, even though the four lovely people I talked with in Chuck’s office understood that these interviews were spontaneous.

I returned to the other wing to see if I could catch Mr. Terrero just before he was splitting for Albany. As I chatted more with Nerissa about this drop-in prospect, a calm man in a near navy sweater and a fluted gray scarf draped around his neck in a tidy coil passed along some papers for her and, eyeing the recording unit dangling across my chest with its concomitant microphone, said hello. This was Terrero himself! We came up with a plan to wait for Terrero to finish up with the two businessmen. Then I’d talk with him for five minutes before he made the two hour drive upstate.

I settled into a chair and watched the world of Yonkers politics whirl around me. The walls were white and mostly unadorned: the vagaries of city politics ensured that nobody stuck around long enough to hang a Matisse print. But Terrero had tacked his diplomas and his certificates on the wall so that any curious soul sifting through the door knew who she was dealing with. There was a Dominican flag perched behind a manilla folder and neatly arranged photos of the majority leader on a dark brown credenza: the thickest gold frame featuring Terrero in uniform, but all photos showing Terrero sharp and smooth and poised and prepared. I began to understand why he was the majority leader.

I asked Nerissa if Terrero relied almost entirely on her to keep the schedule running on time. “Yesssssssssss!!!!!” she said, the stage whisper of someone who appreciated a sharp observation.

The clock above the door pushed closer to noon.

This was now getting tight for me, especially since I still had fourteen miles to hike that day to Sleepy Hollow. So I asked Nerissa if she could chat with a few minutes.

nerissa

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Nerissa came to City Hall four years ago on the day Terrero was elected. She told me that there’s never a dull moment in City Hall. I asked Nerissa if she had any political aspirations. “Not at the moment,” she replied, which I noted was a very political answer.

Nerissa was a big fan of Tinker Bell. There was a small statuette of the famed fairy on her desk. Two interns had made a sign just before their stint was up, calling Nerissa “the best supervisor an intern could ever come across” in rainbow lettering, with Tinker Bell waving her wand in the top right corner. These days, Nerissa was sprinkling vital pixie dust for the Yonkers constituents. She said the job could get very busy, but she enjoyed the opportunity to help other people.

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Shortly before the stroke of twelve, Terrero emerged from his office and, upon saying goodbye to the two businessmen, turned to me without missing a beat. As we sauntered slowly down the stairs, Terrero told me that while his job was technically part-time, he worked full-time to serve the community.

“There is a community out there that is in need of representation. And when I say ‘needs,’ it’s basically the Latino community, which has been underrepresented for so long.”

Despite the fact that 35% of the Yonkers population is Latino, the city had been slow in electing Latinos to the City Council. This was one of the reasons why Terrero had decided to run.

“The Party was looking for someone who had been involved in the community, who was likable and electable also. And they found me. And I said, ‘Okay.’ I went to my family. I went to the community to ask them for questions. Whether you see me as a politician now. Do you think I can do a good job?”

Last year, Terrero became the first Latino City Council Majority Leader in Yonkers. It was an unanimous vote and it’s easy to see why. Despite all the meetings (four that day) and the community events that take up Terrero’s busy calendar, he has a calm and easygoing manner. And when we hit the ground floor, many city workers clapped his shoulder with affection on their way out to lunch.

Terrero has developed this quiet patience that allows him to speak with all types of people, regardless of education and background. When I asked Terrero about the greatest nightmare he’s ever faced in his political career, he told me that he loves the job so much that the excitement of a tough vote overshadows the difficulty. He’s more interested in making things happen.

“Yesterday, we called this special meeting to vote for a project I believe is very important for the city. It’s going to create jobs. Temporary jobs, permanent jobs. And the people of the city are the ones who are going to benefit. The Teamsters are going to build that housing complex. And only five of us voted for the project. And there was a discussion about it. And at the end, some people just crossed lines and said, ‘Yes, I’m going to vote for it.’ And they did.”

His day begins at eight in the morning, when Terrero exercises and showers and prepares himself for the long day. He is a former baseball player. So he’s had some practice at this. City Council meetings can stretch into the dead of Tuesday night and often across the rest of the week. And when your time is devoured by talks and votes, you need every bit of energy you can to keep the flame alive.

* * *

dogrun

I had spent more time in Yonkers than planned and there was still the matter of lunch. I walked north on Warburton Avenue, which ran along the river and the rails. I passed schools and churches and houses increasingly labeled “private.” I passed riverside dog runs and attracted barks from playful canines.

hastingsonhudson

The plan was to stop at Hastings-on-Hudson and grab something to eat there. But I became so caught up in my walking rhythm, taking in the beautiful quietude of creeks burbling into the Hudson and the wind lapping at the surviving vegetation, that I overshot Hastings entirely and ended up in a village called Dobbs Ferry.

I settled into a booth at Doubleday’s, the kind of place where a man in late middle age sits at a bar and orders a lemonade and vodka at 2:00 in the afternoon. There were many TVs blaring sports, with a slight echolalia among sets televising the same feed. None of this stopped the talk from flowing like a loose tap.

“We did fall in love with each other, but we didn’t have much of a choice. Forty years later…”

This expansive establishment was arranged like a triptych: a restaurant to the south, the bar forming the central hub, and an open room to the north for overflow on busy nights. There was talk of football pools and objects flying up from the road and scratching the insides of eyes. This was a place where you could melt away hours of your life and not even know it. I would have stayed if I did not have an appointment with Washington Irving.

* * *

villalewaro

I had only a few hours left of daylight and six miles left before Sleepy Hollow. One of the big surprises was running into Villa Lewaro, the home of Madam C.J. Walker, the first self-made African American millionaire. Madam Walker had made her mark with a sulfur-enhanced shampoo and donated considerable money to the YMCA and the NAACP. She even saved Anacostia, the home of Frederick Douglass. She lived in the house in 1917 and taught many other women to run their own businesses.

I knew Andrew Carnegie was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, which was where I was heading. Given my Indiegogo campaign, it was odd how my trial walk had me running into very charitable people. Maybe Carnegie could use a dramatic audio reading about steel. I considered hitting these two up for donations. But then I remembered that Walker and Carnegie were dead, which probably prohibited them from helping me.

washingtonirvingmemorial

Not long after Villa Lewaro, I hit the Washington Irving Memorial on the edge of Tarrytown. There were increasing indicators that I was close to Sleepy Hollow. Washington Irving School. A housing project named after Washington Irving. Washington Irving appeared to have more places named after him in Tarrytown than Walt Whitman did in Brooklyn. I wondered if culture would be this kind to its literary figures fifty years from now. Would we see Joyce Carol Oates School or William Gass School? Or would tomorrow’s educational institutions be named after the likes of Brett Ratner or Sergey Brin?

headlesshorsemanbridge

“Over a deep black part of the stream, not far from the church, was formerly thrown a wooden bridge; the road that led to it, and the bridge itself, were thickly shaded by overhanging trees, which cast a gloom about it, even in the daytime; but occasioned a fearful darkness at night. This was one of the favorite haunts of the headless horseman; and the place where he was most frequently encountered.” — Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

After eighteen miles of walking, I arrived in Sleepy Hollow at around 5:00 PM, where I was overjoyed to discover the Headless Horseman Bridge or, rather, the place where it had once stood. But given how Irving had described it in the original story as “formerly thrown,” I wondered if had ever truly existed. I didn’t have a horse, but I dropped my head beneath my shirt and walked across the bridge headless. A car horn beeped back with approval. Then I turned my attention to the cemetery, the final destination of my journey, only to find this:

sleepyhollowgates

The gates were locked. Sleepy Hollow Cemetery had closed only a half hour before I arrived.

This was surely the most crushing setback I have ever experienced as a walker. I had walked so long and hard to get here. I had two choices: I could turn around and frown my sorrows into a beer or I could find a way in.

You can probably guess the option I chose. I rationalized my decision by pointing out that I was no common trespasser. These were extenuating circumstances! Nobody in American history has ever walked eighteen miles to check out a great cemetery. I found an open area and walked in.

cemeterytombs

I was surrounded by numerous tombstones: glorious gray slabs with carefully carved names that had been eaten away by the elements over the centuries. There were families now long forgotten and many of the plots were quite strange.

shc-strange

Then there was the Irving family:

irvingfamily

With the sun falling fast, I flailed around the graveyard, seeking Andrew Carnegie’s marker, but I couldn’t find it. I should note that I became so exuberant about this magnificent cemetery that I was live tweeting my finds, openly using the terms “Sleepy Hollow” and “Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.” I am almost certain that these announcements of modest interloping led to what happened next.

In an effort to track down Carnegie’s grave, I tried searching online for a cemetery map with my phone. I was unsuccessful, but I did learn that physical maps existed close to the gates. I grabbed a map from the entrance, long after I had informed The Man on Twitter of my activities. Then I saw a white minivan roll up to the cemetery gates, with the driver making a move to unlock them. I decided to hightail it back to the way in. With the gate open, I saw the minivan roll slowly my way. On my way back, I heard two loud siren blurts near the Headless Horseman Bridge.

I knew that if I continued that way, I’d probably be grabbed by the cops. So I found a fence and I hopped over, landing into an unmaintained sidewalk. I heard another blurt from the police just south of me. So I walked across North Broadway and made my escape.

My eighteen mile walk had ended in a modest chase. I had gone from the noble heights of Yonkers City Hall to the unanticipated lows of being on the lam.

It was time to grab a beer.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: If you would like to see more adventures and investigation into our nation like this and regularly offered over the course of six months, please donate to the Indiegogo campaign.]

The Bat Segundo Show: Maggie Anderson

Maggie Anderson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #445. She is most recently the author of Our Black Year: Our Family’s Quest to Buy Black in America’s Racially Divided Economy.

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[PROGRAM NOTE: The universe did nearly everything in its power to prevent Ms. Anderson from appearing on The Bat Segundo Show. On the day that I was scheduled to meet Ms. Anderson in New York, I suffered from an acute and especially debilitating case of gastrointestinal poisoning. I was forced, much to my great dismay, to cancel our meeting at the last minute. Nevertheless, I felt that the book’s subject matter was important. So I made a rare exception to my “in person only” rule and talked with Ms. Anderson over Skype. But then this appointment was delayed — in large part because the universe conspired with similar health interventions against Ms. Anderson’s family. I am pleased to report that we did end up talking and that all parties are hale and hearty. And while the subsequent conversation was a fun and fruitful one, I should also note that Skype sent out an inconsistent signal for much of the conversation. My apologies to Ms. Anderson and the listeners for any lapse in quality.]

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Becoming more conscious about his volatile spending habits.

Author: Maggie Anderson

Su0bjects Discussed: The Empowerment Experiment, the decline in African-American owned grocery stores over the past few decades, how far the dollar goes by ethnicity, median wealth and income disparity by race, the decline of black labor in Milwaukee, African-Americans targeted by advertising in the 1970s, WEB Du Bois’s The Talented Tenth, the increasing popularity of Polo Ralph Lauren among blacks, Quiznos’s exploitation of franchise owners, the burden of attempting to persuade blacks to support black business, the Venn diagram between supporting black businesses and independent stores, buying local, Oak Park affluence, trying to rehabilitate the Chicago West Side, attempts to keep Karriem Beyha in business, the fading of black entrepreneurs, class divisions within the black community, the Washington Post‘s Eugene Robinson, class and race, the disintegration of black solidarity over the last few decades, hypocritical pride, factors that help create a racially divided economy, Magic Johnson’s business savvy, the problems in spending $48,943.89 to buy black over the course of the year (as Anderson did in her experiment) which cuts out working-class blacks, the privilege of shopping where you want, subscribing to The Chicago Defender, gentrification, Hyde Park and Bronzeville gentrified, attempts to find unity between working-class blacks and middle-class lifestyles as prices go up during gentrification, efforts to start a progressive chamber of commerce in Bronzeville with Mell Monroe, trying to balance progressive idealism with realism, securing affordable services in the black community, the original name of the Empowerment Experiment (Ebony Experiment) and legal threats from Ebony Magazine, interactions with Linda Johnson Rice, Bill Cosby, and hateration.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You are responsible for a rather amazing idea called the Empowerment Experiment, which you document in this book, in which you spent the entire year buying from nothing but black-owned businesses, frequenting them and so forth. Just to get the ball rolling here, I want to discuss why this is necessary. You point out in the book that there were 6,339 African-American owned and/or operated grocery stores in the United States in the early decades of the 20th century. And then, by the time we get to the new millennium, only 19 African American owned grocery stores existed in the U.S. So a number of questions come to mind. First off, what specific figures are you relying on? Is this from the 2002 Economic Census? What ultimately accounts for this dramatic decline?

Anderson: Well, the numbers are so important to us. And we’ve got to let your listeners know that we fashioned this as an experiment. It was, of course, a stand. But we really wanted these important numbers to be injected into the national dialogue. Those numbers. How we used to have so many businesses in the country in our community. We had hotel chains, department stores, hardware stores, drugstores. We don’t have any of that now. Grocery stores. And that when we have those businesses, our community didn’t suffer. We didn’t have the high unemployment. Our kids weren’t choosing gangs over college. We didn’t have all this drug abuse and violence and recidivism. So we really wanted to bear out that correlation. That when we had strong black-owned businesses, our community didn’t suffer. So if we can find a way to do little things to bring some of those businesses back, maybe we can counter the social crises that disproportionately impact our community. We wanted to show the numbers. The big number that we wanted to talk about was our $1 trillion in buying power and that less than 6% of that makes it way back to the black community.

Correspondent: Yes.

Anderson: If we can just get a little bit more of our own buying power to be recycled in our own communities, maybe we can bring those jobs numbers up. The other number is that black businesses are, by far, the greatest private employer of black people. Black unemployment, we know, is three times the national average of our white counterparts. Highest among any ethnic group. And in some places like Birmingham and Cleveland, we’re at black unemployment like 15, 16%. So maybe if we start supporting more black businesses that employ black people, we can stop black unemployment. So it was really just about making sure the conversation about the black situation in America is thorough and comprehensive. We can’t just keep talking about black unemployment and then not talk about black buying power and the fact that black businesses employ people and that none of our buying power is going to black businesses. So the numbers that we depended on — to get back to your question — you know, it’s just kind of known in our community how we don’t support each other. How if you walk up and down the street in a black neighborhood, none of the businesses there are black-owned except for funeral parlors, barber shops, and the braid salons. It’s just kind of known that most of the products on the shelves, none of the retailers in our community, none of the franchises are black. So we just kind of know that and joke about it. It hurts, but we just accept it. But it’s so hard to find data to bear that out. My roommate jokes about it. But we did find an interesting study — I think it was an economist, John Wray. Who did a study based out of DC that proved this horrible statistic about how long the dollar lives in different ethnic communities.* This statistic is used a lot in this conversation when people talk about “leakage,” economic leakage, recycling wealth in minority communities, that kind of stuff. This is a well-known statistic. That in the Asian community, the dollar lives close to 28 days. In the Jewish community, I think it was 19 to 21 days. Hispanic communities: 7 days. But for black people? The dollar in the black community lasts six hours.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Anderson: And it’s like, no wonder we live at the bottom! So we’re just so frustrated. And no one talks about that six hours. Because if you want to talk about the six hours, then you’re basically saying that all of these horrible things happen in the black community as a reflection of our propensity and our potential. Not a byproduct of how there’s a lack of support from black consumers — it’s our fault! — or black businesses. Sorry about the long-winded answer.

Correspondent: Oh no.

Anderson: I can’t leave that out. It’s such an open-ended…

Correspondent: I know. No, this is all very good. And there’s a load of threads to start from here. Actually, I’m sure you’re familiar — there was a study in 2010. A rather alarming study from the Oakland-based Insight Center for Community Economic Development, which revealed that the median wealth of a single white woman in the prime of her working years — roughly 35 to 49 — was $42,600. And the median wealth for a single black woman was only $5!

Anderson: Yes! Yes!

Correspondent: Yeah. I’m sure you’re familiar.

Anderson: I’m onto that one. I’ve heard about that. That’s just — man! The one that really blows me away. There’s the other one where I think we’re at 3% transferable wealth or whatever the definition of wealth. 3% compared to the white purse. [NOTE: I believe Ms. Anderson is referring to Arthur Kennickell’s “A Rolling Tide.” (PDF) The economist revealed that African-Americans had less mean wealth than white non-Hispanics.] But that thing about the single black woman, that’s ridiculous. I mean, we’ve been here 400 years. We have a black president now. We have folks like me.

Correspondent: Yes.

Anderson: We have living manifestations of the American dream at work. You know that my family’s an immigrant family.

Correspondent: Yes.

Anderson: You know, we have all of this and we still have that. And it’s going to be hard to make that kind of number a fair number. It’s going to be really hard. But at least, if everyday consumers like me were to try and find the businesses that were going to employ that woman or give her a fair wage or give her community a chance and invest in her community instead of just making money from that community and taking it away, maybe we can do something about that number.

Correspondent: And the statistics actually get slightly better when you account for marriage or cohabitation. The white woman has a median wealth of $167,500 and the black woman has $31,500. So better than $5. But still really troubling. I guess the question I have, since we’re talking about the idea of a black dollar not going so far, what do you think ultimately accounts for this failure to have the wealth reinvested in the community? In black neighborhoods? How can they be expected to invest their wealth in any concentrated matter? I mean, what are the underlying issues here? I’m curious.

Anderson: Right. And it’s so funny. Because when people just hear about the essence of our experiment — black families say they’re only going to support black businesses — there’s accusations of racism. And people will assume that the book is this thing of taking it to the Man. And getting back at Charlie. And all that stuff.

Correspondent: Getting back at Charlie. (laughs)

Anderson: The white man Charlie. But anyway, the book is really — if I’m yelling at anyone, it’s at black consumers. Because there’s a lot of history here that contributes to the bad situation we’re in. I’ll be really quick. A lot of it has to do with integration. Of course, we love what integration did in this country. Of course, we fought for it. But it had some really negative impact. Some deleterious impact into the black economy, if you will. Because we’re forced to, because we’re segregated, we built up our own businesses. We had a strong sense of entrepreneurship in our community. And we recycled our wealth. So that was just the fact. That was the way it was. And the University of Wisconsin just did a study** that showed in 2009, when there was over 50% black unemployment in Milwaukee, in the same area, where there used to be black businesses flourishing in the 1950s before integration, there was less than 7% unemployment. So it really bears out that when we have the businesses where black people work, black people are employed. So after integration, we were so anxious to be enfranchised. We were so happy to have that opportunity to shop at Woolworth, to go to Walgreen’s, that we did it in droves. And it was just kind of our way of saying, “Yeah! We’re going to show you that our money is just as good as white people’s money and we’re going to show you how important we are and how equal we are by spending as much money with you as we can!” And in so doing, we kind of abandoned our would-be Woolworth’s, which were already providing quality goods and services in the community. All of our consumers just left those local black businesses that helped our community shine to go out to these big corporations where we were denied the right to shop before. So that was the first punch. And then the second punch came in. Because these corporations started seeing the value of the black consumer dollar. So they started to market to us very positively. Another term that I’ll bring up, which is kind of funny. We used to say “colored on” at one point. Colored on. We were so excited if GM were to show a black family coming out of a house, driving their Cadillac to the family vacation. Or McDonald’s, where you’d have a black family enjoying a black family meal. We were so happy when we saw that and that was the best way for them to market to us. And we returned that honor with our dollar, with our loyalty. So that was the second punch. They started marketing to us more aggressively. And we started spending more money with them, with their businesses. And then the third punch was they started to recruit us. So when I was coming up — I’m 40 — so in the ’70s, when I was coming up, the big deal for black mothers, for black parents, for black grandparents, was for me that kind of shining star, that smart kid that hoped to get out of the ghetto, was for me to find a great job at a big white company. That was the goal. It wasn’t like with our Asian counterparts, even our Hispanic counterparts, to continuing the family business, to start a business, to stay in the community. No. It wasn’t that. It was get out and do so by getting that great job. So the would-be entrepreneurs or the Talented Tenth, if you remember that.

Correspondent: Yes.

Anderson: We didn’t do our Talented Tenth duty. We left the community and we gave all our talent to big corporations. All of these things contributed to the lack of support for black business and our lack of entrepreneurship in the community. The big deal is to get a good job, not be an entrepreneur. So the entrepreneurs we do have don’t have the capital or the training to compete. So we can only survive in the industries where no one else can do it better. And that’s by braiding hair, cutting black hair, and providing funeral services in our community. So that’s where we can still have a stronghod. Even in black hair, in beauty supplies. Even in all that kind of stuff, we’ve lost those industries. That was kind of the fourth punch when immigrant groups basically started to leverage this wonderful phenomenon of a whole class of people that loves to spend money outside our community. They set up shop in our communities. Not racist. Not trying to steal our wealth. But they set up shop there and did well there. And now we’re upset because we can’t find quality black businesses in our own neighborhoods when basically we invited the intrusion by not supporting the black businesses we did have. So all of this has led to the demise that we have now. So some of it, yes. Some of it, our racist history. A lot of it has to do with our consumers, our people, kind of seeing our own businesses in a negative way. It’s a real difficult thing to talk about outside the black community. It’s just kind of cultural. But the definition is another term. White man’s ice is colder.

Correspondent: Sure.

Anderson: Why go to a black business when you can go to a white business? The way we show that we’re equal is by buying Polo and Hennessy. By living in the white suburbs. That’s how we demonstrate our equality. Not by buying black products and supporting local black businesses. I know it’s kind of a disgusting thing to say, but that’s the truth.

Correspondent: Well, as an effort to unpack much of what you just said — for example, in this book, among the businesses that you include in the Empowerment Experiment are, for example, a black-owned Quiznos. But my understanding is that a white guy named Rich Schaden is the principal shareholder and that he and his company have this history of ripping off numerous franchise owners. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Quiznos franchise holder, Bhupinder Baber. He killed himself over this. So, yes, I agree that a black-owned Quiznos, it may indeed hire more black employees. But if the parent company is exploiting its franchise owners, I’m wondering if this cycle of exploitation has a negative impact on a black neighborhood or a black community. Shouldn’t one also consider the independent nature of a business as well? How does a black-owned Quiznos help a community more than, say, an independent family restaurant?

Anderson: Right. And this is a huge point that I have to contend with when I push this supply diversity franchise rediversity message into the community. And here’s how it goes when I’m talking to black folk who I’m trying to get to support black businesses. It should not be that tough of a fight, but it is. When I say this to them, they come at me, generally with stuff like “Well, we tried to Karriem [Beyah]’s grocery store. He didn’t have the thing that we wanted.” Or it wasn’t like going to our Jewel, the big grocery store chain around here. Or you can go to this black franchise. But I didn’t see a bunch of black employees there. Or how do I know Quiznos is a good franchise to be supporting? So I get a bit of a challenge. Then I say, “Well, you know what? How is that? I mean, what are you doing now?” Basically, we’re just out there supporting anybody. Not thinking about what the businesses are doing for us. Polo. I mean, Polo blew the lid off of black consumers. We have black Polo parties that we have for our kids. I mean, it’s just ridiculous how addicted we are to the Polo brand. I have nothing against Polo Ralph Lauren. But I did have a friend who works writing for the CFO of Polo, and I asked her to do some research for me. She’s a conscious consumer like me. HBS grad. Very well connected in the company. And she thinks they talked with the marketing folks, the procuring folks, everybody about buyer diversity. Do you do business? How do you invest in the black community? We have so much money coming in from the black community. And their answer to me was, “Well, our label comes out of Indonesia.” And it’s unbelievable. That’s the best we can do to reciprocate the loyalty that the black community’s giving you? So it’s like, “Yeah. Maybe.” And you’re totally right about the Quiznos thing. But the first answer to them is, “But you’re supporting Polo. And it’s not like you’re stopping in support of Polo.” And I’m not saying don’t support Polo. But if you’re so discriminating with how you spend your money, there’s a lot of things that we shouldn’t be doing that we ought to be doing.

* — This study can also be found in Brooke Stephens’s Taking Dollars and Making Sense: A Wealth Building Guide for African-Americans. There seems to be no online version of this.

** — After reviewing the study (PDF), I believe Maggie’s slightly off — that is, if she’s referring to the Marc Levine findings from January. But black unemployment is absolutely a problem a Milwaukee. There was a huge hit in the last several decades. 1970: 84.8% employment rate for metro Milwaukee black men in their prime working years. By 2010, that figure had fallen to 52.7%. Here’s the important paragraph from Levine’s report:

The city of Milwaukee, where almost 90% of the region’s black males live, has lost over three-quarters of its industrial jobs since the 1960s. As Table 5 suggests, this manufacturing decline has disproportionately affected the employment prospects of African American males. In 1970 54.3 percent of Milwaukee black males were employed in 1970 as factory operatives, more than double the white percentage. By 2009, only 14.7 percent of black males were working in Milwaukee factories, about the same percentage as white males. By 2009, in fact, even though working-age black males outnumbered Hispanic males by 55 percent in Milwaukee, there were more Hispanic male production workers (7,200) than black male production workers (4,842) in the region, a sign of the degree to which manufacturing is no longer the bulwark it has been historically for the Milwaukee black male working class.

The Bat Segundo Show #445: Maggie Anderson (Download MP3)

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Edward Docx: A Slug Defending His Gated Community

On December 12, 2010, The Guardian published a pretentious essay by an amental snob named Edward Docx. Docx foolishly suggested that “genre writers cannot claim to have anything.” He accused Lee Child of “ersatz machismo bullshit” even as Docx himself could not see the fecal specks sprouting throughout his own ineptly argued assault on genre. He wasted his first two paragraphs blabbing on about the plebs on the train and, like a petulant infant longing to grow into a long-winded David Cameron, bitched about not having space to provide “a series of extracts…to illustrate the happy, rich and textured difference.”

Yes, it’s class warfare, my friends. But here’s the thing. Docx isn’t on the working man’s side. His essay reads like some corpulent slug defending his gated community with a Magpul PDR and then slithering away because he doesn’t know how to release the safety. It’s the kind of unfit approach that invites ridicule rather than confidence, alienation rather than mobilization. For if you’re going to claim yourself a champion of the people (or, to use Docx’s inept populist metaphor, a half-hearted burger eater), shouldn’t you be paying attention to what they’re reading? If you wish to demonstrate why Stieg Larsson is such a shitty writer, shouldn’t you have the guts to quote him at length? After all, your argument is airtight, isn’t it? The writer is dead and he can’t respond, right? Win win!

Alas, Docx can’t be bothered. He identifies “the most tedious acronym-packed exchange” that he has ever read, but he fails to comprehend that what Docx considers “tedious” might be the kind of wonky info banter that is going to get a journalist like Blomkvist rock hard. He quotes from a very early part of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (page 24 in my copy) and gives us no full indication that he has read the whole book. This makes Docx not only an illiterate, but an inept bully foolish enough to support his claim through deductive induction — a logical fallacy that hasn’t worked ever since newspapers had the good sense of opening up their articles to public comment. Because Docx says that genre is lesser, and Docx fancies himself an authority, then it must be true! No need to provide airtight examples of Swedish silliness. Docx also tries to quote a few passages from Dan Brown to make his case. But wait a minute, that’s a logical fallacy! What about Larsson? That guy you just shit talked in your previous paragraphs? Shouldn’t you be taking him down? Oh dear, secundum quid! If only Docx had the space, he’d demolish your genre! He’d *gasp* have an argument!

Well, not really. It becomes abundantly clear that Docx doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about when he attempts to quote others. In a feeble attempt at wit, Docx deliberately misquotes Isaac D’Israeli’s Curiosities of Literature (the full quote: “Whatever is felicitously expressed risks being worse expressed: it is a wretched taste to be gratified with mediocrity when the excellent lies before us”). But D’Israeli was writing rather sensibly about how well-read writers are those comprehending the wit of other men. Does Docx comprehend D’Israeli? To employ a populist reference that Docx might frown upon, you make the call. For Docx misses the vital sentence that came before the business about being “gratified with mediocrity”:

It seems, however, agreed, that no one would quote if he could think; and it is not imagined that the well-read may quote from the delicacy of their taste, and the fulness of their knowledge.

And here’s what came after:

We quote, to save proving what has been demonstrated, referring to where the proofs may be found. We quote to screen ourselves from the odium of doubtful opinion, which the world would not willingly accept from ourselves; and we may quote from the curiosity which only a quotation itself can give, when in our own words it would be divested of that tint of ancient phrase, that detail of narrative, and that naivete which we have for ever lost, and which we like to recollect once had an existence.

So if Docx wishes to uphold worthy literature, why is he unable to provide a corresponding set of virtues other than a measly list of literary names? According to my word count feature on OpenOffice, this doddering dunce had 1,770 words to stake his claim. All that space and he couldn’t be bothered to provide a single passage? Talk about long-winded. It’s safe to say that Docx is no D’israeli. I think it’s also safe to say that Docx has utterly mangled D’isreali’s great sentiment.

So why bring the argument up in the first place? Why make such a spectacle of yourself? Why do this when you tacitly admit that “there is also much theatricality to the debate?” Sarah Weinman has a few answers. Certainly I can understand the Guardian‘s need for attention in this vanquished media economy. But I’d like to think that some editor over there was having a good laugh at Docx’s expense.

You see, Docx is the kind of humorless elitist who observes people reading books on a train and actually sees this as a bad thing. Rather alarming that ordinary Joes don’t seem to share Docx’s refined instinct for spending their increasingly valuable leisure time reading a 900 page Russian epic. How dare the rabble sully literature by having a good time! In this essay, Docx vomits so many half-digested meals out of his mouth that one detects an uptight gourmand who showed up to an orgy wearing a chastity belt. The man is incapable of understanding that when people flock to Stieg Larsson, they may very well move on to other authors beyond the missionary position. The very “literary” authors Docx desires them to read. And he’s incapable of finding anything positive in this apparent predicament. Which makes him more of a pinpricked sourpuss than a viper for the people.

Here is a man who berates a blue-collar worker for having to put down a Larsson volume. He writes: “And when, finally, I arrived at the buffet car, I was greeted with a sigh and a how-dare-you raise of the eyebrows. Why? Because in order to effectively conjure my cup of lactescent silt into existence, the barrista in question would have to put down his… Stieg Larsson.” Now if it had been me, I would have viewed this exchange as a rather comic moment. Maybe an opportunity to ask the barista why he liked Larsson and recommend a few names in response that might help him find a way to wider reading pastures. That is, if he didn’t want to go back to his volume. In which case, I would have offered a generous tip for blabbing on for five minutes. But for Docx, the barista represents a foolish opportunity to cling to class assumptions that haven’t been in place since the 1880s. You insolent reader! Fix me my latte now, you unthinking peon! And this makes Docx not unlike Charles Pooter, the hapless protagonist of Diary of a Nobody, who demands some respect from a blue-collar “monkey of seventeen.” The laborer replies: “All right, go on demanding!”

Of course, Docx can go on demanding all he wants. It isn’t even noon Eastern Standard Time, and I can see that the man has already been thoroughly ridiculed on Twitter. But if Docx gets his money quote, I get mine. And if we assume that dictating taste represents a fleeting freedom, I think Nietszsche best sums up why Edward Docx is such a small and pathetic man:

People demand freedom only when they have no power. Once power is obtained, a preponderance thereof is the next thing to be coveted; if this is not achieved (owing to the fact that one is still too weak for it), then “justice,” i.e., “equality of power” become the objects of desire.

[UPDATE: This post has been corrected. An earlier version of this article incorrectly observed that Docx had not cited Larsson. This was not true. Docx did quote a passage, but his argument remains so pisspoor that Docx’s “takedown” still doesn’t hold water. Nevertheless, I apologize for my error and express my gratitude to Nico for pointing this out to me.]

The Emails They Downloaded

First the unemployed Jimmy Cross downloaded emails from a girl named Martha, a dropout at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not tweets, but Jimmy Cross was hoping that he and Martha would be Facebook friends and follow each other on Twitter, so he kept Martha’s emails in his inbox and made sure they were copied to his iPhone. She did not return his emails. In the late afternoon, after a day’s laze, he would send text messages to Martha, wash his hands in the sink with unclean dishes, look at his iPhone again, tilt his iPhone so that the window would shift from portrait to landscape, and spend the last hour of light wondering if he should bother to turn on the kitchen light. He would imagine romantic trips to the cafe only three blocks away. He would sometimes hit refresh, hoping that Martha would send him an email or update her Facebook status. More than anything, he wanted Martha to friend him as he had friended her. The emails had been mostly chatty, elusive on the matter of friendship. She was “single,” he was almost sure. Facebook was communicating every personal detail on her wall. Last night, she had attended a party and uploaded drunken photos of herself. The caption was “LOL.” She was into Farmville, and she wrote clumsily about her friends and roommates and acquaintances and even her 72-year-old neighbor, who was not on Faceboook but who she had set up an account for. She often quoted other tweets by retweeting them; she never mentioned whether she ordered a tall or a grande, except to say to her friends, “Meet me at Starbucks.” The grande weighed 16 ounces. They had a crude corporate logo that displeased Jimmy Cross, but Jimmy Cross understood that BRB was only a way of signing and did not mean what he sometimes pretended it to mean. At dusk, he would wait for Martha to Be Right Back. Then he would return to his bed and watch the night and wonder again if Martha would return his emails.

NYFF: The Social Network Press Conference

[This is the sixth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

“It’s fundamentally the same application for myself. It became clear to me after my first reading of the script that, uh, there was going to be, uh, the version of this person, my character in the film, that he wasn’t sort of the hero, so to speak. And, but, no one sits behind a – you know, I obviously, I’m not, you never play anything sitting behind a laptop, you know, twirling your moustache. I think that, like Jesse said, it doesn’t matter – that’s the beauty of this film to me. Uh, just that you really get to pick, uh, sort of who you side with. And I had a friend who recently screened the film and said to me, I thought it was really telling things, as soon as he walked out, he said, ‘You know, I don’t agree with anyone in this movie. But I don’t disagree with this movie.’ Speaking about all the characters, I think that’s what, what kind of makes the dynamic of these three characters tick. But, uh, I feel like you defend your character. No one believes what they’re doing is wrong in life and, and, and so I feel like….”

The above incoherence, which demands a sentence diagramming army led by a Patton-like grammarian, did not come from Sarah Palin. These words were uttered by Justin Timberlake on Friday morning, who appeared at the Social Network press conference in dorky eyeglasses (prescription or ironic aesthetic?) and didn’t seem to understand that, for once, the event didn’t center around him.

“I feel like you’re looking at me,” said Timberlake after Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield had offered thoughtful remarks on how they felt empathy for the real-life figures they were playing, “and you want me to add what they said as well. I also have empathy for other human beings, thank you.”

It is safe to say that a man who is set to turn thirty in a few months — indeed, one who has been at the receiving end of several hundred interviews — should have a better ability to speak. But as both the film and the press conference demonstrated, Timberlake is at his best when he is given lines to recite or rudimentary causes to champion.

“I don’t have a personal Facebook page,” said Timberlake later, when a reporter asked all on stage (save moderator Todd McCarthy) about their Facebook presence. “But it is nice to know that, through the world of philanthropy, for instance, that you can send out a message and, for instance, raise money for free health care for kids. I mean, it’s a fantastic thing.”

“I’ve heard of Facebook the way I’ve heard of the carburetor,” answered screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, “but I can’t pop the hood of my car, point to it, and tell you what it does.”

Indeed, the presence of Sorkin at one end of the stage and Timberlake at the other suggested a deliberately arranged spectrum of intellect. Perhaps an inside joke from the fine folks at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. But that speculation wouldn’t be fair to the three men sitting in the middle (much less Todd McCarthy, sitting to Sorkin’s right): respectively, Fincher, Eisenberg, and Garfield.

On playing Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, Garfield noted that Saverin seemed “warm, yet kind of reserved.” There was very little documentation to go on, which granted Garfield some wiggle room to invent.

“I had minimal to go from,” said Garfield, “which was actually quite liberating. Even though I did try to find him in a very obtuse and uncommitted way. But it would have been really interesting. Because, of course, if you’re playing someone who really exists, and who is living and breathing somewhere, you kind of feel a massive sense of responsibility to not ruin them on screen. Because we’re all human.”

Eisenberg confessed that he had developed a greater affection for Facebook honcho Mark Zuckerberg while doing press for The Social Network.

“You have no choice,” he explained. “It’s impossible to disagree with a character that you’re portraying. We shot the movie for about five and a half months. And they were very long days. And you’re spending a lot of time working to defend your character’s behavior. So even if the character is acting in a way that hurts other characters, you still have to understand and ultimately sympathize with that character. It’s impossible to play it any other way.”

Sorkin stated that he didn’t think his script was about Facebook, pointing out that he “thought it was a movie that has themes as old as storytelling itself.” He then compared his work to Chayefsky, Shakespeare, and Aeschylus, pointing out that he hoped the deal with friendship, loyalty, and class – the same themes that these masters did. “Luckily for me, none of these people were available. So I got to write about it.”

Fincher viewed The Social Network as an opportunity to dial his pyrotechnic style down.

“There’s no problem in sublimating your desire to show off if what you’re presenting is something that you think is going to take,” said Fincher. “I mean, originally, the script began. It was in black. And you hear the voices over the black. And I kind of wondered, well, why don’t we just see the Columbia logo and start hearing them then? And hear the jukebox and hear all the people talking and let people know, ‘Pin your ears back, man. You got to pay attention.’ Because if we can start over the trailers of other movies, that’s what I want. And at one point, we talked about the notion of putting the credits over that opening scene. So it was like jukebox, cacophony, people, burger plates, two people talking over each other, and unit production manager. Information overload.”

Technology, for Fincher, represented the double-edged sword of “more options” for today’s filmmakers. He noted that a regatta sequence that appears midway through the film, containing approximately 100 CGI environmental shots, was shot on July 4th. This was less than two months before Fincher needed to have the movie locked for prints.

“The way we make movies has changed radically in the last ten years,” said Fincher. “I mean, I’m able to be in two or three different places at once. I have video tests of rehearsals that are happening in Uupsala right now that are being downloaded so that I can look at them when I go back to the hotel room. So that I can say, ‘This is how I want my parade float to appear on Sunday morning.’ I mean, obviously, that’s a great thing.”

Sorkin stated that he and producer Scott Rudin aggressively courted Facebook in an attempt to secure Zuckerberg’s cooperation on the film.

“Mark ended up doing exactly what I would have done,” said Sorkin, “which was decline. We also told him at the time that, whether they participated or not, we would show them the script when the script was done. And we would welcome any notes that they had. So we did give them the script. And their notes largely had to do with hacking. That there was a little bit of hacking terminology that I’d gotten wrong unsurprisingly. I know that there was a rumor a day or two ago that Mark had been spotted at a screening. I doubt it.”

Fincher was later asked about whether anything was sensationalized or sexed up for the movie. He gave the floor to Sorkin, who replied, “None.”

“I’m not going to sell any tickets by making this statement,” said Sorkin, “but I have to tell you that there is less sex in this movie than there is any two minutes of Gossip Girl. Nothing in the movie was invented for the sake of Hollywoodizing it or sensationalizing it. There are, as I explained, because of the three different versions of the story that were given not just in the deposition rooms, but there was a lot of first-person research that I did with people who are characters in the movie and people who were close to the event – most of whom were speaking to me on a condition of anonymity. And there were a lot of conflicting takes. So there are going to be a lot of people saying, ‘That’s not true. That didn’t happen.’ Just as they’ve been saying that since 2003. The work that I did was exactly the same as the work that any screenwriter does on any nonfiction film. When Peter Morgan writes The Queen, he’s going from fact to fact to fact. But Peter Morgan wasn’t in Queen Elizabeth’s bedroom when they were talking about their daughter-in-law. Moreover, and more important, people don’t speak in dialogue. Life doesn’t play out in scenes. There’s work that the dramatist does. But nothing was invented. Certainly nothing was sexualized in order to amp up the temperature on the movie.

The conference concluded with a chunky, pipsqueaked hack journalist — in desperate need of a haircut and elocution lessons — asking a question about whether The Social Network represented a “departure” for Fincher.

“Because it doesn’t involve somebody aging backwards or because it doesn’t involve serial killers?” replied Fincher, who offered a look as if he had just learned of a last minute dental appointment set for the next morning.

The hack journalist foolishly continued with his inane inquiry.

Fincher sighed. Then he said, “You know, I’d like to give it a lot of really deep thought, but I probably won’t.” He politely presented the hack journalist with the boilerplate answer he so desperately coveted. Then the conference came to a close.

Review: Never Let Me Go (2010)

In 2005, Kazuo Ishiguro wrote a nifty science fiction novel named Never Let Me Go. Despite the fact that Ishiguro’s narrative was steeped in speculative fiction cliches (organ harvesting, parallel universes, extended human lifespan creating an underclass, the belabored philosophical inquiry over whether an artificial creation has as much of a soul as its creator, et al.), the novel was inexplicably categorized in the fiction section, leading to many uncounted stoned conversations among frustrated geeks over the question of whether twenty dollar bills had been slipped into the hands of bookstore managers. But it was more likely that Ishiguro eluded the genre ghetto, garnering that vital all-access pass awarded to certain literary titans, by way of putting together imagery and story considered graceful and/or beautiful by the cultural elite. (To cite one example, Tommy reacting to a piece of news as if the messenger was “a rare butterfly he’d come across on a fence-post.”)

The literary critics at the time, mostly unfamiliar (as always) with speculative fiction, praised the novel as if nobody had told similar stories before, or as if the “genre” was confined to certain moonlighters. The New Yorker‘s Louis Menand smugly declared that “the book belongs to the same genre as Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, counterfactual historical fiction,” as if Harry Turtledove (or Fritz Leiber’s wonderful novel, The Big Time, for that matter) could not exist in the same bookstore. The fiery and often superficial Michiko Kakutani was even more dismissive, writing, “So subtle is Mr. Ishiguro’s depiction of this alternate world that it never feels like a cheesy set from The Twilight Zone, but rather a warped but recognizable version of our own.” (Never mind that the majority of The Twilight Zone was truly brilliant and paradigm-changing because of its commitment to writing and acting. Only a superficially bourgeois critic would condemn art purely on its aesthetic.)

And for those of us who read literary and pulp novels because we genuinely appreciated both, it was a bit embarrassing to witness all this ignorance. And let’s be honest here. Take away Ishiguro’s beauty and Never Let Me Go is little more than a rewrite of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “The Measure of a Man.” At least the British Science Fiction Association had the decency to shortlist Never Let Me Go for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, where Ishiguro lost to Geoff Ryman. (A few years later, the critical elite would deliver similar plaudits towards Cormac McCarthy’s YA dystopian novel, The Road. The great irony is that Oprah Winfrey would be the one to push the book hardest. Through the populist medium of television, Winfrey’s endorsement dwarfed all the fulsome praise eked out by a handful of pedantic mice.)

Now Ishiguro’s book has made its way to the big screen, where the mass medium of cinema hopes to reframe it yet again. Never Let Me Go is hardly the first time Ishiguro has tangoed with celluloid. In 1993, there was a film version of The Remains of the Day put together by the Merchant-Ivory team, a cold and highly overrated team of collaborators who are more committed to putting audiences to sleep than producing art that pops. I have tried to watch the movie three times over the past seventeen years and was only able to make it to film’s end once without falling asleep – and this was only because I wished to respect my sexy videowatching companion, who counted herself as a Merchant-Ivory fan. Yet despite the film’s bland and soporific qualities, it was afford all sorts of award nominations. A more successful Ishiguro collaboration was Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World (2003), but one suspects its giddy qualities emerged only because Maddin and his co-writer George Toles had the decency to rewrite a hypothetical dud. I avoided 2005’s The White Countess, largely because James Ivory had directed the film and I had no desire to relive the trauma of The Remains of the Day in any form.

So when I learned that director Mark Romanek (the man behind the underrated One Hour Photo and several music videos) and hit-or-miss screenwriter Alex Garland (once a brilliant novelist) were involved with Never Let Me Go, I figured that this adaptation would be more Maddin than Ivory, that the Ishiguro cinematic stigma would be salvaged. I regret to report that this was not the case. Never Let Me Go bored me to fucking tears.

The film’s sloooooooooooooooooooooow pace, presumably intended to invite comparisons to needlessly protracted slideshows or weekend corporate retreats, is perhaps best epitomized by the following exchange (character names replaced by variables to avoid spoilers):

A: We’re going to do it.

(Unfathomably long pause before cutting to B.)

B: You’re going to apply.

(Another needlessly fucking long pause before the next line; never mind that all this would have been tightened by the line, “We’re going to apply.”)

A: Yes.

(A pregnant pause. Good Christ, Garland, you should know better than this.)

B: Good.

And that’s it. That’s Romanek and Garland’s idea of exposition. And we’re supposed to accept this weak narrative because the characters here, as the film telegraphs without subtlety, are sequestered from society and committed to providing organs through “donations.” (That’s not really giving anything away. If you don’t figure this out in the first twenty minutes, then you’re not paying attention.) But the atmosphere never feels particularly disturbing (as Romanek’s last feature film did, perhaps more because he had the smarts to tap into Robin Williams’s undeniably discomfiting qualities), which is odd given that Romanek has a great visual knack at conveying isolation (such as the mostly barren blue wall of an apartment or the Gordon Willis-like amber glow of a dark hospital corridor illuminated solely by the sun). Romanek gets the feel of the class structure here by framing many of his shots with the backs of heads to the camera. He gets a great performance from Carey Mulligan, who is especially good at disguising her unshakable sadness, pretending to be human with tragically feeble smiles and fine cheekbones. But scenes from the novel that should feel creepy, such as the scripted laughter at a television sitcom, feel more like obligatory than vital.

The fault here must be leveled at Alex Garland, who has clearly traded in his fiction talent for the lucre of video games and passable screenplays. It’s almost inconceivable to be reminded that Garland once had his finger firmly on the pulse of his generation. Clearly, those days are gone. Garland doesn’t seem to understand that Faulkner and Fitzgerald aren’t remembered for their Hollywood work, but the attentions they committed to the page. And Garland’s failure to evoke Ishiguro’s subtle style on screen isn’t just the indication of a screenwriter out of his depth. It’s the sad story of a burned out talent, once capable of reaching a mass audience and defying myopic critics, who doesn’t even have new novels to atone for the hackwork.

Notice to Readers: Offline for Uncertain Period

I’m typing this in my neighborhood cafe. I just moved and I thought that the broadband transfer would be flawless. It has been anything but. An evil company* by the name of Ace Innovative lied and misrepresented what the true nature of service was in my new neighborhood was. (I will have more on this later. Also, please pardon the lack of contractions. I am typing this on a keyboard where I cannot do apostophres. This probably explains why I sound like Data from Star Trek.) I have also lost my landline number. So I cannot be contacted for a while. What this means is that I am essentially out of commission for the foreseeable future. Bat Segundo is now on hiatus. I cannot respond to email. Content has slowed to a halt. I hope to be back up and running sometime in the next few weeks. And hopefully I will be able to offer reviews of films that I have seen (which have apparently been released) and audio interviews that I have conducted. My apologies to the publicists who were counting upon timed release of said content and the readers and listeners who regularly come here. If you need to get in touch with me, try friends or email (very slow response time).

* — As is often the wont for expanding companies, Ace was wonderful until they decided to grow. It was a company run by Russian geeks. Now it is a company run by closet sociopaths.

9-1-10 UPDATE: I appear to have found alternative broadband service. A small independent company who has been nothing less than polite, professional, and transparent about getting this done. Should be back in about two weeks.

February 15th! Reader of a Lonely Heart!

Read your work. You always read your work. Never thinking of the future. Prove yourself. You are the book you make. Take your chances win or loser.

This silly lyrical reference is a roundabout way of saying that the exuberant Russ Marshalek has organized yet another fantastic installment of his infamous reading series, “Just Working on My Novel.” It’s set to go down on February 15, 2010, whereby new and established writers read unpublished and/or new novels. The latest episode will center around love letters, breakup stories, sad sack notes, and other harrowing emotional indictments befitting the day after Valentine’s Day.

The sexier-than-you Jami Attenberg be hosting this event, and I can think of few people better suited to the exigencies. In addition, due to the unexpected reception of Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project, it appears that I’ve been enlisted to read one of the proffered pieces in a wildly theatrical manner that may involve the breaking of glass. And as an added incentive for curiosity seekers, I’ll also be performing an excerpt from my sprawling novel-in-progress, Humanity Unlimited, which will involve a pregnant attorney, an eccentric restaurant, and a dissolving relationship and contains the striking sentence, “Perhaps maternal canvassing was a form of social suicide.” This section has not been read before and it may perplex some audience members unfamiliar with recent developments in upscale cuisine.

But more importantly, there are the readers! Sign-up spots before the event are limited. But you can email Russ directly to secure your spot.

It all goes down on Monday, February 15, 2010, starting at 7:00 PM, at The Tank, located at 354 West 45th Street (near 9th Avenue).

The Bat Segundo Show: Sue Grafton

Sue Grafton recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #320. Grafton is most recently the author of U is for Undertow.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Looking for a man named Snake to help him escape from Santa Teresa.

Author: Sue Grafton

Subjects Discussed: Kinsey Millhone’s early announcement to the readers regarding the bad guys, foreshadowing murder, not writing the same book twice, the ethics of investigation, the emotions associated with kidnapped children, Jaycee Dugard, Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan, gray areas of moral conduct, the difficulties reconciling real crime and fictional crime, the horror of people killing each other over a pair of tennis shoes, Grafton’s comfort level, working from an arsenal of journals, juggling voices and large character canvases, the writer’s fantasy of having the luxury of time, the solace of observing creative struggle in past books, being influenced by the complaints of a single reader, the motivation behind creating a mystery writer character, Howard Unruh and Grafton’s “Unruh,” why Grafton wishes to take the alphabet series to Z, Grafton’s reluctance to embrace Hollywood and Grafton’s early career as a screenwriter, Nabokov’s The Original of Laura, and Grafton’s relationship with readers and the mystery community.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Grafton: I don’t like to repel readers. I mean, we’re always dealing with homicide and violence of this sort, which is difficult enough. I don’t want to rub that in my reader’s face.

Correspondent: So it’s like, on the one hand, with this crime, you wanted to keep it off stage so that the gory details didn’t come front and center.

Grafton: Right.

Correspondent: But in other instances, like what we just talked about, you like to foreshadow and give the reader a taste of what’s going on. Do you feel these are contradictory impulses?

Grafton: I don’t know. If they are contradictory, I hope it’s an interesting contradiction. In some ways, in the reports you get about the crime itself from another child who is involved, by hook or by crook, nothing evil happens. And I hope I’ve gained a little sense. This is a story about people who make mistakes, people who use poor judgment. It is not the act of wicked evil men. These are kids who do something stupid and it backfires.

Correspondent: But in a way, at least when I was reading you, it almost struck me as being more horrible — not to get into Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil, but that’s essentially what you set up here. These people are sucked into the situation by virtue of their own stupidity. Their drug use, who they hang out with. And it almost feels — have you read A Simple Plan by Scott Smith?

Grafton: No.

Correspondent: It was made into a movie with Billy Bob Thornton and the like. But it’s a similar thing, where you start off with one guy and he does one act, and then another action. And you suddenly realize you’re drawn into a world as he’s doing really horrible things. And there’s a justification for everything. And I really did find that you did establish that there’s a weird little justification for how things developed. And even though these are horrible crimes, there’s some underlying motivation. This goes back to structure and the like. What did you know about you prior to setting it all down? And I do want to get into the writing process a bit. But what did you know first off?

Grafton: Well, part of what I feel I’m doing here is — and some of this I discover after the fact. I think of this as the anatomy of a crime. This is that strange subterranean accumulation of events that results in a crime. And I thought it was interesting to look at it from that perspective. One thing I’m fascinated by, at this pace in my career, is gray areas. Black and white and evil, while repellent, are not as representative of the public at large. Many people, I think, cross the line. That’s always a question to me. What makes people cross the line? Most people are law-abiding, good-natured, and yet circumstances. You know, I think many criminals are not evil people. They’re not pathologically twisted. Many ordinary folk somehow wander from the straight and narrow. And those kinds of deviations, and those kinds of crimes, are interesting to me. Because they’re a little closer to the norm. They are still outside what I consider acceptable behavior. But it’s not as cut and dried as many types of crime might be.

The Bat Segundo Show #320 (Download MP3)

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Too Much Kirsch in the Fondue

At some unspecified point in the future, words will be transmitted along these pages at the older frequency. But my services, such as they are, have been increasingly required elsewhere. For now, this space serves as a depository for podcasts, odd video clips (many of my own making), quick quips, short announcements, and the odd review or essay every now and then.

The Last Blog Post of 2009

This is the last blog post of 2009. If this post were written by another blogger, I would probably be telling you about how 2009 was the worst year in recent memory or I would probably be arguing in very persuasive language about how the noughts were the worst decade since the beginning of the Judeo-Christian calendar — a charge that I cannot guarantee for sure, since I was not alive when we started keeping tabs on the years. But I cannot do this. Because 2009 raped me. And as a rape victim, I am too ashamed to chronicle the specific details of 2009’s violent actions. This would be a classic he said/she said situation, were 2009 able to respond to my allegations. But because 2009 is not a person, and merely a year, it cannot defend itself from my rape charge.

The major ethical question here is whether I am (a) lying about 2009 raping me, (b) a bit too influenced by other excitable, finger-waving, end-of-the-year posts, essays, and articles, or (c) attempting, through some foolish and over-the-top catharsis, to find a disingenuous manner with which to accuse 2009 of rape. It may very well be a combination of two or three of these elements. Were I interested in attaching some end-of-the-year list to justify my rape allegation against the year (and the decade), you might more ably believe in my convictions.

But I prefer to operate in the present and learn from past mistakes. If 2009 did rape me, I will certainly do my best to ensure that future years will not violate me. But were any of us really violated? And why do we all insist on putting the blame on any one year? Wikipedia informs me that “projection is always seen as a defense mechanism that occurs when a person’s own unacceptable or threatening feelings are repressed and then attributed to someone else.” Is it fair to project our more difficult emotions onto a single year?

There are a few absolute projections that I can make right now. But I can say that the next post I write will be in 2010. I am not sure if 2010 will rape me. It’s just too early to tell. Now that I have begun to ruminate upon 2009, I am not sure if the year actually raped me. Yes, there was a struggle. But it’s not as if 2009 was some strange year who picked me up in a bar. We knew 2009. And it is said that most rape victims suffer not from the despicable actions of strangers, but from people they know. But 2009 is not a person. It is a year. And we have something that 2009 does not, which is the ability to exist longer than 365 days. So is all this negative self-reflection (or, this post’s reflection of other self-reflections from other blogs) the result of not being able to confront the glorious prospects of the present?

Perhaps. But irrespective of these difficult questions and inside one earnest sentence devoid of satirical intentions, I do wish everyone a very happy new year!

No

No. Not. Nipple. Noodle. No. Twat. Not. No N. No. Keep it no. One word. Did you hear me? No. No. No. No. Yes. Not exactly. No. Nugatory. Negative. Nipple. Stop. Not. No. No. No. Why no? No. No answer. No reply. No. No. No. No. No. No. Stop. Next sentence. No. No answer. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. Know? No. It’s no. No. No. Recite. No. No. No. Yes. No. No. No. More nos. No. Nose. No. Nostril. No. No. No. No for no’s sake. Your orgasm’s fake. No. No. No. Bank balance? No. Tax returns? No. Republicans? No. No. No. It’s better. No. No. Beat? No. Nipple. Noodle. No. No. No. No. Pessimist? No. Nihilist? No. Any -ist? No. No. No. Noist. Gnomist. Gnome. No. Troll. No. No. No. What purpose? No. No. No. Pho. No. No. No. Should read this. Should Vado this. No. No. No. Stet. No. No. No. Tweet. Twit. Tit. No. Fuck. No. Fuck no. Fuck not. Fuck you. Fuck me. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. Nip. No. No. No. No. Pull. No. No. No. No. No. Mad? No. Sad? No. Beast? No. Ugly? No. Beauty? … … … … … … … … Ellipse. Ellipse. Ellipse. Ellipse. Ellipse. Ellipse. No. No. No. Style? No. Words? No. Sentence? No. Answer? No. No. No. No. Economy? No. Sociology? No. Psychology? No. No. No. No. No sake. No. No state. No. Non. Null. Nyet. No. No. No. Same in Spanish. No. Conceptual exercise? No. Purpose? No. Corso? No. Coarse? No. Polysyllabic? No. Silly? … … … … … … … … Morse? No. Nipple. Noodle. No. Doodle. No. Poodle. No. No. No. Ellipse. Ellipse. Ellipse. No. Ellipse. No. Eclipse. No. No. No. No. No. Printable? No. Sendable? No. Flexible? No. Fungible? No. No. No. No. Repetition. No. No. Repetition. No. Ellipse. No. No. No. Not at all. No. Not at all. No. Appropriate? Yes. No. No. No. No. Pattern? Ha. No. No. No. Ha. No. No. No. Ha. Ho. Do the math. No. No. No. No. You can’t print this in a newspaper. You can’t print this in a magazine. You can’t print this in a blog. No. No. No. No. No. Does no have any meaning? No. It should. No. No. No. No. No. Context. No. No. No. Crucifix. No. No. No. No. Na. No. No. Nip. No. Tip. No. No. Sip. No. Stultify. No. Send. No. Shazam. No. Prism. No. Secret. No. CIA. FBI. DHS. No. No. No. No. Acronyms eat at the table. No. No. Experimental? Genius? No. No. Conceit? No. Purpose? No. Just imagine. No. Can’t imagine. No. Ideal no. The first no was uttered thousands of years ago. No. No. The second no was uttered shortly thereafter. No. No. No. Means nothing. No. Use it or lose it. No. No. No. Lingua franca. No. No. No. A cross-culture no. An ironic no. A surly no. A burly no. No. No. That’s what he said. No. No. State of mind. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.

Untapped Currency

Headspace hijacked by entirely unanticipated events. A slight reconfiguration of the brain, a sudden impulse to stop here and start there. Whittling down distractions. The very thing keeping so many others mired in pathetic fixations and unhealthy obsessions and desperate gropes at credibility as the whole operation burns into oblivion, with the remaining gaunt wolves sniping about at the remaining scraps. One need not be a depressive to survive, although miserable people sure do love their company. They are already starting to turn on each other, and it’s sad to watch. Particularly when one isn’t involved and one is powerless to intercede. One need not surrender to fear and complacency. It is reality which one must face. Not dwelling on a job you hate. Or the constant mining of personal experience and invading other people’s existences in lieu of therapy. Or the childish failure to be yourself. Or the reliance upon a fabricated identity you can’t believe in. Or the inability to be true.

No, I’m not writing about me. I’m writing to you. Not you, that guy who has his shit together. Yeah, keep it up and give me a high five. Let me buy you a beer when I have some money and you’re next in New York. And not you, the guy who gets what’s going on here. And not you, the dude who doesn’t quite grok, but isn’t afraid to flaunt it. Process of elimination. Yeah, that pack. See them? Yeah. They’re fucking terrified. I know. Man, I wish I had a job or some happiness to give them, but you know the old proverb about horses and water.

Well, where does that leave us, kiddo? I mean, we’re all busy fighting our own wars to stay alive. But can we spare a few minutes? We may not have dimes, brother, but when they take away your job, the new commodity is time. And that’s a unit you can budget. So how bout paying some of it forward? Nothing public, mind you. Off the radar. Collective savings. An invisible Federal Reserve trading in an untapped currency.

Nitrous Oxide

Reality is a toxic oxidant that we inhale at least eight hours a day. We take in the redolent whiff of the shit-stained social contract that we never got a chance to revise or look over. Learn the language and you get lost in clauses, becoming one of the lawdogs barking a sweet song in court just after spooning oodles of corn-based sugar in a rushed breakfast of dry cereal. It is hard to dwell on this nightmare without sounding like a strident agitator. They’ve taken our passions and transmuted them into cliches. Those great quotidian moments are corrupted by the sharp clacks of harsh teeth clasping upon a small shred of meat that has to be chewed up to go around six times. The portions are wrong. The plates are big. The eyes are bigger. The stomachs grow. And any decent gesture is declared a collective and contrarian sully upon all the agents pumping savagely into the air.

Reality. Confess it and you’ll be deemed pathetic. Sing true only in code. Don’t mention the pennies you’re collecting from the insides of the couch. Don’t mention the finite nature of this sad copper supply. Bring up the Socratic method and you’ll see your queries misconstrued as endorsement. Your options are the limp pose of reason and the unsettling truth of passion, but never anything in between. The eccentric’s teeth is a bit crooked. Never mind all the good ideas she’s had. Throw her out on her ass. She’ll be homeless in six weeks. Then maybe she’ll change.

Can’t handle that? There’s plenty of fantasies and parallel universes to choose from. Take your pick. If you don’t have cash to nurse a beer in a bar or you can’t trust anybody, there’s always the men confessing their private griefs to strangers over the microphones during a first-person shooter. Be careful with what you disseminate though. It could be picked up later. They haven’t quite put a microphone on every street light. But that camera wasn’t there last year. That’s not paranoia. It’s reality. Or is that fantasy? Open your eyes long enough and you’ll believe they’ve stayed closed.

Simulacra are dangerous. But several realities run atop and intertwine with each other. There are cities within cities. People within people. Nobility within nobility. Boxes within boxes. It’s just a question of how far you want to dig, and most people are getting a bit tired with the shovel.

Effects of nitrous oxide: dizziness, depersonalization, analgesia. We could all use a little analgesia right now, right? But who will narc on the narcotics? When the rubber bullets send you to a rubber room, the linguistic symmetry becomes a discordant shock to the system. We talked of the Bush Doctrine, but nobody knows the Obama Doctrine. They raise their voices with hysteria and the truth gets confused with lunacy. Hold the line. Love isn’t always on time. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, but that was forty years ago. When nouns were customizable shoes rather than rigid marketing terms. Hope. Just do it. Dance your ass off. Who wants to be a millionaire? Who really can be a millionaire?

Housing Works Report

The bloggers won tonight. But that’s only because our teammate Catherine Lacey knew her stuff. If I learned anything from the last time bloggers went up against an opposing team, it’s that men really don’t know anything, even when they think they do, and that they should hold their tongues. Sure enough, I held my tongue many times — in large part because Time Out New York mentioned something about cunnilingus after the event and for a more practical reason — the buzzer I was using had a two second delay and I was unable to answer questions I knew in my sleep pertaining to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Philip K. Dick.

Kenneth C. Davis was an extraordinary moderator, expressing considerable patience with the more obnoxious part of our team (i.e., me) while showing no diffidence whatsoever in repeating some of the more indecent answers (“Longfellow’s ‘Fuck'” and “Frankly I Don’t Give a Damn O’Hara” — again, me). Open Letters Monthly’s Sam “The Man” Sacks gets major props for going to the other side twice when we had a full table. And aside from the aforementioned Catherine Lacey, I must commend teammates Buzz Poole and Jason Boog for likewise demonstrating great skill and bravado.

I must also thank the dutiful audience for enjoying these hijinks and for stepping up to the opposing table. (Some audience members, including the one and only Miracle Jones, went up twice.) And, last but not least, gratitude should also be directed to Rachel Fershleiser, who organized the whole shebang.

I also saw some dude with a flipcam taking video. So presumably some embarrassing video will eventually show up on the Internets.

For those who attended, thank you very much for showing up. For those who had the stones to challenge the book bloggers, you likewise have my unwavering kudos.

An Interview with Edward Champion

interviewjfspoof

atstartt the end of the end of May, edrants.com announced the appointment of its American editor Edward Champion to the role of acting editor. Up until this point in time, it had never occurred to us to have American editors, acting editors, or indeed editors of any type. There was just one guy at the helm named Ed. Perhaps his first name is actually “Editor.” But since certain literary magazines have seen so many people leaving, resigning, and otherwise exiting the doors with a banker’s box of literary belongings, it seemed necessary for us to apply a needless degree of self-importance to this website. Champion came to edrants.com after working in various office jobs and has been with the website since December 2004. During that time he has interviewed over 300 authors and written for numerous newspapers. He hopes to continue to boast about himself because he’s under the false impression that community comes naturally through relentless self-absorption. Ergo, this interview, which doesn’t carry a byline but appears on the very website that Champion claims is editorially independent! edrants.com recently caught up with Champion to talk abut his background, his inspirations and future issues posts of edrants.com.

Can you tell me a little about yourself? What’s your background?

I was born in California, and was beaten regularly by my parents. I tried to get a job delivering newspapers, but was told that John Freeman was delivering all the papers in the neighborhood. And since Freeman wouldn’t give up a few blocks, I was forced to work in a greasy diner, where the doors were locked until midnight and I was forced to hitch rides to and from work by an unpleasant busboy named Linus, who demanded the occasional hand job. The consequences of these hand jobs can be seen in the present cutbacks in newspaper book review sections. John Freeman tried to save them, but even he couldn’t. And yet he gets a silly promotion and an Observer article, and I’m trying to string together checks to pay the rent. I’m developing an ego. This worries me.

What excites you most about edrants.com?

The celebration of myself. The opportunity to take smug photos of myself with books and to pretend that my foldout chair is something more than it really is because there are books stacked on top of it.

The chance to do this now is also a great privilege. Because I’m white and I’m male. I don’t believe there’s a lack of good writing in our world, but I do believe that we should only publish boring suburban fiction. The kind of soporific stuff you see in the New Yorker, but that permits people to curd the spasms of their dismay into a balled up Kleenex. As a cultural website that is read internationally, edrants.com is in a unique position to be found by desperate men at 3:23 AM. The men will get pissed off that they didn’t find pornography and they will begin sending me death threats by email. It’s what our readers expect of us. I hope you don’t mind me using the first person plural.

Not at all.

Good. I was beginning to get worried. I really needed some time to develop some kind of narcissistic personality disorder.

How do you think edrants.com can be improved?

It’s absolutely perfect the way it is, you ungrateful bastard! We don’t live in an Anglo-American world anymore, except we do. Because I’m the Acting Editor of edrants.com and John Freeman is the Acting Editor of Granta. You need to have white bread elitists in power who pretend that they really care. We need to do a better job of pretending that we’re actually reading writers who aren’t white. And that means name-dropping a continent or two, rather than a country.

In what direction will you take edrants.com as Acting Editor?

We need to write more long profiles of Edward Champion. We need more videos of Champion in bathtubs with naked women. If YouTube won’t post these videos, then surely YouPorn will. We’re not a website really, but a cultural space and — excuse me, just sifting through the document the marketing people gave me — and, yes! A cultural space where anything can happen.

Will edrants.com continue to be themed?

Well, it was never really themed to begin with. I don’t know where you’re getting these questions from. We are averse to themes because they remind us of too many themed office parties in which a lot of miserable people sat around drinking cheap merlot in red paper cups under a pinata for a Cinco de Mayo-themed party. Nevertheless, the world needs more themes. We need themes so that people can be reminded of what they already know instead of actually challenging their perceptions.

Every now and then, though, we’ll have no theme. Until that crazy Swedish bitch calls me to London and asks me what the hell I’m doing with her money. Then I’ll sheepishly give you an edrants.com with themes attached.

Great Fiction Not Written by White People

As Darby Dixon III has suggested, with the exception of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Dick Meyer’s list of great books written after 1900 has all the literary sensibilities of a grand wizard. To counter Meyer’s vanilla extract sensibilities, here’s a very hastily assembled list of great American fiction written after 1900 not written by white people. This is by no means an authoritative list. It pretty much came together in one mad mnemonic rush. I have also limited the list to one book per author. But all of these books have moved me or wowed me or otherwise floated my boat in some manner and are certainly worth your time. Please feel free to add more to the list in the comments.

Chimamanda Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room
Octavia Butler, Kindred
Ana Castillo, The Mixquiahuala Letters
J. California Cooper, A Piece of Mine
Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren
Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine
Percival Everett, Glyph
Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying
Aleksandar Hemon, The Question of Bruno
Chester Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Ha Jin, Waiting
Edward P. Jones, The Known World
Nam Le, The Boat
Chang-Rae Lee, Aloft
Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress
John Okada, No-No Boy
Z.Z. Packer, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
Susan Power, The Grass Dancer
Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo
Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony
Zadie Smith, On Beauty
Colson Whitehead, John Henry Days
Richard Wright, Native Son

In Which I Am Interviewed by Colin Marshall

Colin Marshall, who runs the excellent KCSB program, The Marketplace of Ideas, was very kind to interview me recently. And he’s apparently accused me of being a pioneer. I wish to assure everyone that the “pioneer” label has less to do with anything I’ve ever done and more to do with a few trips for chicken through a notable fast-food restaurant chain. Nevertheless, I’m learned that the program aired today and that it will be made available through the show’s website. I was fired up on a lot of coffee when I talked with Colin. So I hope that I said a few things that were intelligent over the course of the hour. I’ll add the link to the specific show when it becomes available.

[UPDATE: Here’s the link to the show.]

Tools of Change: The Rise of Ebooks

Panelists: Mark Coker (moderator), Joe Wikert, April Hamilton, David Rothman, Russell Wilcox

If I had to compare Tuesday’s panel with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, I would say this. Claire Danes was superior to April Hamilton. Russ Wilcox, a rather cocky gentleman who spoke like some snobby Yale know-it-all with his head held high and dashed off a number of wild and extravagant and unprovable claims, would be comparable to Nick Stahl. The difference is that Wilcox isn’t living off the grid. Indeed, despite the technological benefits of his E Ink invention, he’s all too happy to smudge his fingers and sell the human race to Skynet. David Rothman was Ah-nuld, and he did okay. Regrettably, there wasn’t a nude T-X character who liked to seduce and kill, but I suppose Mark Coker, who started off stiff but began to prove his sardonic worth upon poking holes in Wilcox’s extravagant vale, will fit the bill. But Joe Wikert was the smartest guy on the panel: open to present technological realities and a man who, unlike all the other panelists, was not entirely willing to buy into all the hype.

While I will confess that the Brad Fiedel theme played in my head at numerous points, I can say this. With Coker and company relying on Amazon’s dodgy 10% figure, along with Sony’s extravagant claim that 300,000 Readers had been sold, I was skeptical. Ebooks, after all, represent only one half of 1% of the total market. And to my knowledge, there hasn’t yet been a figure from an independent third party to determine if ebooks are indeed the great white hope that will decimate print and get all of us fighting robots in an apocalyptic future.

Rothman said that Amazon’s DRM was what was really killing this natural evolution. In order for the ebook market to expand, it’s going to be necessary to consider open source. Wikert likewise agreed that DRM had to go away, but added that any e-reader should consider adding value to the print products. If future e-readers didn’t do this, then they would eventually hit an artificial ceiling. “When you’ve got a hammer in your hand,” said Wikert, “everything looks like a nail.” He hoped to see more exemplars of rich content. Video and dynamic possibilities. Fancy little bells. But nobody on the panel chose to consider the issue of whether it would be the author or the publisher that would provide this additional content. Still, Coker did joke that the iPhone might be programmed to vibrate at a certain tone upon a new e-volume of erotica cascading against the technological shoals.

Wikert elaborated further. One product, he said, could be calibrated based on what that person wanted to do with it. He urged the audience (and those who work in this industry) to not only study the latest technologies, but to be actively involved in using these technologies.

This sense of play and flexibility did not apply to Russ Wilcox, who should have worn a T-shirt reading I’M HERE TO PIMP MY GOODS in large lettering readable from half a mile away. Wilcox suggested that Moore’s Law now applied to e-readers. The speed of E InkTM innovations now doubles every eighteen months, all contingent upon brightness, contrast, and speed. He foresees this future: In 2010, the flexible displays expand, with a larger size permitting an advertising-driven model in which the profit machine becomes self-aware. By the end of 2010, a full color e-paper device hits the market — initially limited to pastels. Over the next eight to ten years, various color e-readers duke it out with each other and geeks presumably choose sides in the forthcoming jihad. He also cavalierly predicted — with no hard sales or trend data; because we all know that he’s sworn to corporate secrecy on the subject — that in eighteen months, 2-3% of American households would have e-readers in their homes. Coker quibbled with this, pointing out that he would need an enormous growth rate for this massive jump to happen. There was no mention of the limping economy, much less the incentive for Joe Sixpack to buy the latest Kindle at a gargantuan cost, only to see another version released less than a year later.

I am not really certain why April Hamilton was on this panel. But she brought up a notion even more preposterous than the failure to consider the time and money it would take for authors and publishers to generate dynamic content. She believed that smartphone applications would be the future. Never mind that the book is a rather specific medium and that, indeed, some books may not necessarily work this way. As Rothman observed, because of an iPhone’s limited storage space, apps have the tendency to be deleted. This prompted a rather defensive answer from Hamilton, delivered in the timbre of a beauty pageant contestant, “I would say there’s no single answer.” Well, can you perhaps agree that you might be wrong? Can anyone at this damn conference confess that they really don’t know where things are heading?

Actually, yes. Wikert was wise enough to point out that the early version of the iPhone in 2001 looked rather silly and that the current version of the Kindle will look silly in five years. It helped to talk shop with rapid technological evolution in mind. Wikert expanded on the panel’s general anti-DRM sentiment by suggesting that a Kindle App Store might open up Amazon’s possibilities.

Wilcox suggested that Stanza wouldn’t exist without Kindle. This gave him a ripe opportunity to trot out a catchphrase pertaining to the unit: “the container affects the experience.” And just as he was about to get beyond the topic of E InkTM, he then suggested that E InkTM wouldn’t really make its way onto cell phones. The outside of cell phones maybe. But I wondered whether Wilcox might somehow find a way if Nokia came to him with millions of dollars. Then he might appear on another panel, hold his haughty head up high, and remain absolutely convinced that he was right. (Note to Wilcox: If you’re going to talk like a snob, it helps to speak like William Buckley.)

I don’t want to delve into Ms. Hamilton’s Indie Author Movement (almost TM, but since it represents “the people” in a rather naive manner, I will leave subscript silliness outside of my report). Mainstream publishing just doesn’t have what the Indie Author needs. And how dare these other authors tsk-tsk their fingers against self-publishing? It’s not vanity at all to pay your hard-earned money for a slapdash operation without editorial oversight. The books industry, Hamillton proudly declared, is now as ignoble as the movie industry. Nothing more than highly commercial fare! I mean, they haven’t thought about the niche markets at all! An author publishing her work was never vanity.

“Uh, great. Thanks,” responded Coker.

By the time Wilcox brought up “tipping points,” I wondered if the bright young thing had ever considered the common reader. Fortunately, the next panel brought this very important subject to the center.

Tools of Change: Initial Report

During a morning in which news of layoffs at HarperCollins and the future of BookExpo America was severely reduced in time and topography, here at the Marriott Marquis, Tools of Change rolled on. I appear to be the only guy here wearing a T-shirt, but not the only one nursing a hangover.

I’ll have some reports of the panels later in the afternoon. But I can report that the crowds here are largely male, that the recent publishing news has left those attending this conference with their hopes somewhat crestfallen, and that Tim O’Reilly and Cory Doctorow offered a few contrarian questions to Jon Orwant — that too cocksure man from Google, who answered in response to a critical query, “It’s not me; it’s the algorithm.” Orwant’s answer is quite fitting, because nobody here I’ve talked to really does have the answers, nor do they want to take responsibility. A CEO insisted to me that his POD machine will change the world, but when I asked him about whether or not an independent bookstore could afford to lease it, he refused to divulge the details. A new e-reader displays a crossword puzzle, promising “annotations and marks,” but one cannot so much as fill in the letters for 4 Across. Peter Brantley lectures to his audience like a New Age dope hoping that we’ll accept his mantras about “social community” without question, but there are considerable holes to his sunny utopian vision.

Nobody knows anything. But people wish to carry on as if they somehow do know everything. And that means being on the cutting edge for any half-assed technological development that gets people’s eyes bulging out of their sockets.

That’s not the change we were promised. And these aren’t necessarily the tools you’re looking for. But we all carry on. Let us hope we aren’t fiddling while Rome burns.

Cry of the Hornet

The loud flashes pierced into his eyes as they ushered him before the cameras. The shrapnel of sharp questions sliced into inextricable loss that the men behind the massacre could never tally up or scratch away, and for which they still hadn’t apologized.

He still flinched from the stench left in the wake of the carcass that had once been his home, the hillock of his humble life, the now obliterated pile for which he had moved hard mountains. He had wanted to die with them, but he was halfway through a twelve-hour shift when he got the call. At the moment his cell phone chirped, he was selling a pack of Marlboros to a gloomy guy sliding dimes across the counter, grumbling about the economy. But he knew he had to go on.

He couldn’t believe the news and he couldn’t close the store. There was nobody else. And if he didn’t move a hundred dollars by day’s end, they’d be short for the month. There were no savings.

The pilot had lived, ejecting just before the Hornet rammed into their humble stucco home. He wanted answers, but his neighbors only offered spooky silent stares. Shadowy details loosened once they saw his dark inquisitive face. The deaths had been sudden. The wreckage would be remunerated. The tall thin plumes could be seen as far away as Poway.

Now he was here. Lost in a crackling haze of slapdash queries he’d somehow felt obliged to answer. The journalists asked him what he thought of the pilot, but they’d never know the fluke of this sacrifice. They asked him what he was going to do next. Forgive so that he could go somewhere and grieve, but not forget.

God, he had loved them. It wasn’t so much not seeing his daughters grow up or his wife grow old or even his grandmother’s kind smile, but the comforts of their happy routine. The knowing twinkle that came when she read his mind. His kids discovering some pedantic joy he’d somehow overlooked. All now dry and irreplaceable rivers frozen into the hazy pool of memory.

He couldn’t remember the words that the cameras and the microphones had recorded. But he must have said something. The phone never stopped ringing. The letters kept coming. They’d even tracked down his email address. They called him a hero, but he had only done the right thing. And he wanted to go back to work because it was the only regular routine he had left. Even if it meant crying and remembering in the lonely terrain of the dark while they sung the stark ballads now attached to his name.

State of Affairs

All energies are currently reserved for this deadline. I have made the assignment a bit more difficult than it needed to be. But that’s what happens when you hire me. I am not the type to tackle an assignment in any formulaic way. It must be fun. It must involve honest labor. If it does not crackle in some sense, then it’s not worth doing. But a fillip spills over to this blog, just as it always does, creating another entry that is not so much about blogging, as it is about why I am not blogging. (It is because people are paying me not to blog, or rather to devote my energies elsewhere. But this seems to be the end of these enjoyable professional endeavors for now. But I hustle, hoping to find more.)

Others might posit a simple explanation, confining the reason to a single sentence. Normal people certainly would. I was recently identified as an “acclaimed writer” in a press release, although I have yet to win an award aside from the Cracker Jack prize that is, thankfully, available to any dutiful bodega customer, and I certainly have no time right now to work on my fiction, which saddens me a bit. (A writer with a bountiful financial cushion recently complained to me that he had to spend a whole week coming up with an idea. I wonder if he truly loves his art. I certainly do, and have more ideas than time available.) But, on the whole, I remain sanguine and pro-active. The general state of affairs involves something that happens when you spend most of your time hustling. I assure you that I am merely a man trying to get by on intellectual labor. It is certainly not easy right now. And I’m far from alone. Every good and talented soul I know is hurting — including those who are better than me.

Much of this has caused me to reconsider just what I’m doing. Very few people cared about the New York Film Festival, and certainly none of the outlets I pitched were hep to the idea of detailed coverage. So I felt compelled to atone for this inadequacy, doing what I do. And this is increasingly becoming the justification for why I devote much of my energies to this site: because nobody else is doing it. Because nobody wants to do it. Nobody is willing to throw money at the arts anymore. I’m happy to carry on doing it. The landlord, however, requires rent. This is why I have spent a good deal of time scrambling for a way to make this place — Segundo and the lot — self-sustaining. I’ve even managed to get a number of potential sponsors to talk with me. 2009, they say, that’s when we’ll go with your plan.

But there are two and a half months left in 2008. Thus, the dilemma.

So, for the moment, I have frozen production on The Bat Segundo Show for 2008. For how long, I do not know. Could be weeks, could be months, could give it up completely. There are still many interviews in the can, and a few interviews I’ve yet to conduct. So it doesn’t mean that the show itself won’t continue to pump out installments. All told, we’ll probably get to Show #250 by the end of the year. (And for the record, I could easily do a hundred more of these shows and still have fun with this.)

I won’t ask for money. I don’t want to abuse this idea too much. We tried the pledge drive, fell short of the goal, and I tried to keep the thing going on my own dime as long as I could. Thanks to all those who kindly contributed. It helped more than you know. If Segundo is to carry on, I’m going to have to lock sponsorship into place. There have been talks. There has been some interest, but fish don’t wish to bite until next year. Presumably knowing the precise guy will sit in the White House next year is the bait they’re waiting for.

So that’s where we’re at. Don’t worry. I haven’t given up, but I’m trying to survive right now. So if things are sporadic or piecemeal here, well, you now know why.