Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Move Your Money

Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki, Arianna Huffington, and others have teamed up to make a website called "Move Your Money." The website urges people to withdraw their money from the "Too Big to Fail" banks--Chase, Bank of America, Citibank, and Wells Fargo; those which nearly brought down the entire world economic system through reckless lending practices, received an enormous, taxpayer-funded bailout, and now are refusing to lend to small businesses--and to deposit it into smaller, more socially responsible community banks. The website even has a tool that allows you to enter your zip code to find a bank in your neighborhood.

I actually moved my money--all twenty eight dollars of it--from Chase over to Albina Community Bank several months ago, and I couldn't be happier: the employees know my name; I've received handwritten cards in the mail; and at the end of the day, I know that the money I deposit there will be invested back into my community.

For those of us who like to pay lip service to liberal ideals, but who continue to invest our dollars with the likes of Bank of America and Chase, now would be the perfect time to put our money where our mouths are.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

List: Top Ten Films of the Decade

by Alex Gallo-Brown

1. There Will Be Blood (2007): A bona fide masterpiece from P.T. Anderson. Loosely based on a novel by Upton Sinclair, the film works both as a conventional narrative about a turn-of-the-century oil man (Daniel Day-Lewis) as well as an allegory for the American alliance between free-market capitalism and evangelical Christianity. In the end, capitalism beats Christianity to death with a bloody bowling pin.

2. The Wrestler (2008): Director Darren Aronofsky has always displayed a penchant for grotesque, arguably gratuitous imagery (think Jared Leto's amputated arm in Requiem for a Dream) and The Wrestler is no different. But Mickey Rourke gives the kind of performance that makes you forget you are watching a movie, and the film's denouement--defiant and true--should rouse even the most withered of hearts.

3. Old Joy (2006): The Pacific Northwest captured in 76 gorgeous minutes. Based on a short story by Portland-based author Jon Raymond and directed by Kelly Reichardt (the same team behind Wendy and Lucy), the film offers only the faintest trace of plot: two friends on diverging life paths depart on a camping trip together. The movie is distinguished by the fine, subtle performances of its lead actors, Daniel London and Will Oldham; by its pitch-perfect cinematography, which captures the Pacific Northwest in all of its verdant glory; and by its soundtrack, the wistful melodies of Yo La Tengo. A minor American masterpiece.

4. Goodbye Solo (2008): Ramin Bahrani's third feature (Man Push Cart and Chop Shop were the first two) is set in his hometown, the mythical Southern city of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. (It is the birthplace of Camel cigarettes, among other things.) The film follows Solo, a charismatic Senegalese cab driver who pines to become a flight attendant, and William, his fare, an aging southern man who wants nothing more than to leave this earth. The effect is one of great poignancy, sadness, and beauty.

5. Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001): The movie that launched the careers of director Alfonso Cuaron (City of Men, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkban) and actors Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, it is still the best thing any of the three have done to date. At once sensual and political, joyful and sober, contradictory and consistent.

6. Two Lovers (2008): All the films James Gray has made this decade (We Own the Night and The Yards are the other two) have contained the same sorrowful, almost elegiac tone but Two Lovers is the first, in my opinion, that succeeds as film. Part of that has to do with the acting: Joaquin Pheonix is plainly stunning in his portrayal of Leonard, a troubled, bipolar man who becomes involved with two women at the same time. The first, Sandra (Vanissa Shaw), works for Pfizer (the same company that makes Leonard's prescription medication). The second, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), is a party girl in love with a married man. Forced to choose between them, Leonard ultimately makes a decision that filmmaker Gray suggests isn't really a choice at all.

7. L'Enfant (2005): Capitalism shown at its most pure and therefore its most debauched. Set in modern day Brussels, Bruno is a young street hustler who survives by buying and selling stolen goods. When Bruno's girlfriend, Sonia, gives birth to a child, he decides to sell that too. But where most movies would climax in such a moment, the real drama for the Dardenne brothers (Rosetta, Lorna's Silence) occurs after, when Bruno has to come to terms with what he has done.

8. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (2008): Communism shown at its most corrupt and therefore its most stifling. Set in Romania in the Soviet Bloc eighties, the films follows two college roommates, Gabita and Otilia, over the course of one day as they attempt to accomplish an illegal abortion. Director Cristian Mungiu's style is relentlessly realistic, and the result is harrowing, horrific, and unforgettable.

9. The Royal Tenebaums (2001): The best and most complete of the Wes Anderson creations (and yes, they are less films than creations, with all the comprehensiveness that word implies). Angst-ridden, hilarious, and visually delicious.

10. Mullholland Dr. (2001): A series of moving images which have stuck with me these long nine years. To try to explain it would be nearly impossible--and would probably be beside the point.

Honorable Mentions: Adaptation, Brokeback Mountain, Eastern Promises, The Edge of Heaven, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Grizzly Man, Half Nelson, The Hurt Locker, I'm Not There, Match Point, The Messenger, Mysterious Skin, The Proposition, A Serious Man, Sin Nombre, The Squid and the Whale, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Sugar, Tyson, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Wendy and Lucy, You Can Count on Me

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Best Movies of the Decade

Over at Slate, they have compiled the Best of the Decade lists from several sources (The New Yorker, Time Out New York, The A.V. Club, and the London Times, to name a few).

The top three, so far?

Eternal Sunshine of Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry), There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson), and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Christian Mungiu).

All three, by the way, are excellent.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Health Care!

So it looks like healthcare is going to pass, and I for one think this is a good thing. No, there's no public option or early Medicare buy-in. But it will now be illegal for insurance companies to discriminate on the basis of preexisting conditions, or to cap how much they will spend on an individual over the course of his or her lifetime (55 percent of people with employer-based coverage currently suffer from these latter restrictions, writes Timothy Noah). Perhaps most intriguingly, it allocates $10 billion for community health centers, a victory for Bernie Sanders, the heroic Independent senator out of Vermont, who claims that these centers will provide primary care for an estimated 25 million Americans. There is also a complicated voucher program, the brainchild of Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, for people who live below the federal poverty line, and subsidies for moderate-income people.

In short, it ain't perfect, but it's long overdue. And it looks like it's going to pass.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

My Son Jack

Sorry to say, I am barely a sports fan anymore (although my enthusiasm has waned for very different [and hopefully more substantial and/or interesting] reasons than
this guy over at Slate). And yet the news that the Seattle Mariners, that beleaguered franchise still reeling from the reign of Bavasi (commonly known by residents of the Emerald City as The Years of Pestilence and Misery), have acquired Cliff Lee, arguably the best left-handed pitcher in all of baseball, to accompany Felix Hernandez, who might be the best pitcher in all of baseball, at the top of their rotation, set my heart involuntarily aflutter. 

This guy over at USS Mariner suggests you name your first-born son Jack, in honor of M's general manager, Jack Zduriencik. I'm not sure I disagree.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Review: The Tyranny of E-mail

The Brooklyn Rail has posted (and published, ostensibly, although I haven't yet seen a print copy) my review of John Freeman's book, The Tyranny of E-mail. You can find it here.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Barbaric Heart

If you only buy one book this holiday season, make it Curtis White's
The Barbaric Heart. Not an overly optimistic screed by any stretch of the imagination, it is, nonetheless, an edifying, inspiring, and ultimately hopeful analysis of the crumbling American empire.

White, an avowed conservationist, takes on the modern environmental movement in this book, claiming that it "uses [the] rhetoric and logic of the very entities [it] suspects of causing problems in the first place" in its crusade to "save the environment." Those entities, argues White, may indeed include corporate polluters, overzealous loggers, and money-snatching politicians. But the real problem is not these individual villains--and there are many; Dick Cheney, Joseph Coors, and James G. Watt come immediately to mind--but with the prevailing ethos of our society, a spirit White calls "the Barbaric Heart." Permeating nearly every aspect of American culture--sports, politics, entertainment, media--the Barbaric Heart pursues profit by any means necessary, using advertising and PR on the one hand and brutal violence on the other. This warrior spirit has pervaded even the environmental movement, using the cold logic of science to try and corral the Barbaric Heart, to convince it to "act better." This, White makes clear, is a fundamentally losing proposition. "Science can tell you that global warming puts the polar bear at risk," White explains. "But it can't tell you why you should care."

According to White, the alternative to an environmental revolution, of the kind argued for by barbarians-in-disguise like Al Gore and Thomas Friedman, is an
aesthetic revolution: a revolution against the values of science--which, after nearly two hundred years as the reigning intellectual system, has left us dominated by corporations and technocrats and bereft of communal or spiritual instincts--toward the values of art, philosophy, and spirituality.

"In some ways, the most fitting description of the liberal economist is the economist as lyricist," White writes. "The liberal economist answers the question 'what's the economy for?' not with 'profit' but with 'aesthetics.' The true liberal economist is less interested in spreading purchasing power (as with recent consumer-based economic stimulus programs) than in creating a vibrant public sphere through public works programs. In a world where high quality public education, attractive parks, affordable housing, clean and efficient public transit, free libraries, accessible wilderness areas, and rich cultural opportunities are all available through programs beginning with the state and paid for through progressive taxation, even the poor can live rich, dignified, and healthy lives...According to this point of view, the economy should function to make the human world beautiful, pleasurable, and harmonious with the natural world."

The environmental movement itself, according to White, is something of a mistake. If we are to make real progress, "environmentalism" should exist only as one component of a broader, more comprehensive revolution, addressing the ways human beings treat themselves in addition to the way they treat their world.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Collage: Self-Portrait

by Noah Gallo-Brown

The Profligacy of Food Stamps

When one in eight people need government assistance to simply put food on their tables, you know something is rotten at the core of this economic system.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Re: Race and Mixed Identity

A week ago, I witnessed something unusual and wonderful: a symposium on race hosted by Lewis and Clark College, with an emphasis on the discussion of "hybrid identities."

So one night I saw a mixed race gay professor from San Francisco State give a talk about Obama and the cultural ramfications of having elected a mixed race president. Besides making the obvious (but significant) point that Obama is nearly as much Irish American as he is African American, Jolivette discussed the importance of people reaching across their own individual identity groups (not being content to identify as just black, or just gay). He also urged whites to recover, and reinvigorate, their own often discarded ethnic heritages.

I also saw Kim Williams, a professor of public policy at Harvard, discuss her 2006 book, "Mark One or More," which chronicled the fight to allow people to check more than one box on the US census. (They won; in 2000, American citizens were allowed to mark one or more for the first time.) She talked about some of the political problems facing the "mixed race movement." For example, groups who traditionally advocate for one minority in particular (e.g. the NAACP) can feel threatened, fearing that a move towards multiracial identity will undermine their own political/cultural relevance. What was really fascinating about Williams' talk, though, was understanding how little of race is empirical--rooted in genealogy--and how much of it (all of it, really) is how you choose to identify yourself. She related how, on the 2000 census, for example, 97.6% of Americans marked only one race, 2.3% marked two, and .1% marked three to six. The reality is obviously much different than that. Nearly everybody in America is a profound mixture of ethnicity, culture, history, and heritage. Very few of us are just one thing, and most aren't just two.

Finally, I saw group of Lewis and Clark students perform a series of monologues describing their own individual experiences with race. The group was wonderfully diverse, both in terms of ethnic heritage and their perspective on their ethnic heritage. So there was an Eritrean immigrant who had grown up in a primarily African American community; a Mexican American from San Francisco who had only recently realized that some of his relatives were black; a Filipino immigrant who felt guiltily close to mainstream ("white") American culture; a girl from Jamaica with one dark-skinned parent and one light-skinned; and so on. There were probably ten or twelve speakers in all, and each provided a unique perspective on his or her feeling of in betweeness. The most powerful story, for me, was told by a mixed race girl--really mixed; more Tiger Woods than Barack Obama--who, walking with her parents one day through an Oregon mall, was stared down by an elderly white man. The man made her feel, she said, like "an obscenity."

Her story reminded me of the Louisiana judge who recently denied marriage to a black and white couple, citing concerns over "racial impurity." He'd marry a black couple, he said, and a white couple, but not a "mixed race" one. The irony is that almost every marriage in America is mixed in one way or the other.

As the years pass, America is going to look more and more like that stage at Lewis and Clark. Of this there is little doubt. What remains to be seen, however, is how, as individuals begin to identify in more complex (and more accurate) ways, their individual communities, as well as the society at large, will respond.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

McGinn is Mayor

I only read enough about Seattle's mayoral election to glean that Mallahan was a cell phone executive, heavily steeped in business and political insiders, and that McGinn was an environmentalist backed by absolutely nobody. Needless to say, I was happy with the results.

A few weeks before the election, I actually ran into him in the University District. He looked kind of dorky, clad in greenish suit, parked on his bike in front of a red light, helmet strapped firmly on. Crossing the street in front of him, I noticed a pin on his lapel that said he was running for mayor. I stopped, looked him in the eye, and shook his hand. He seemed, strangely, nervous. Since I tend to view displays of vulnerability positively, especially when it comes to politicians, I was encouraged.

There is a very funny tongue-and-cheek article in the Stranger this week about the election. Have a look.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Our Best Hope for Emotional Maturity

A nugget I came across recently by the social critic Christopher Lasch, via John Freeman's book, "The Tyranny of E-Mail":

"The best hope for emotional maturity, then, appears to lie in recognition of our need for and dependence on people who nevertheless remain separate from ourselves and refuse to submit to our whims. It lies in recognition of others not as projects of our own desires but as independent beings with desires of their own. More broadly, it lies in acceptance of our limits. The world does not exist merely to satisfy our desires; it is a world in which we can find pleasure and meaning, once we understand that others too have a right to these goods."

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Profligacy of Poetry

In the new Poets & Writers, Dean Young (who is one of my favorite contemporary poets) begins an essay called "Beyond Intention: Poetry and the Art of Recklessness," this way:

Let us suppose that everyone in the world wakes up tomorrow and tries to write a poem. It is impossible to know what will happen next, but certainly we may be assured that the world will not be made worse. I believe in the divinity of profligacy. The creation of art--okay, just the attempt at the creation of art, as well as the appreciation of it--is both an enlarging of the world and an expanding of consciousness. To write a poem is to explore the unknown capacities of the mind and the heart; it is an emotive, empathetic exercise and, like being struck by lightning, it will probably leave you stunned and singed, but also a bit brighter--and your odds of being struck again then become that much higher.

I agree with Young on all counts, and was honestly moved by his description of the poetic enterprise.

Which is why it is somewhat sad that the following video--both cringe-inducing and riotously funny--is about the closest pop culture comes to poetry these days.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Headlines: This Week in Seattle

by Miles Strucker

  • After receiving B.A., Garfield grad uses the word 'subjectivity' at party.
  • Ballard man retires to write dystopian novel set in present day Ballard.
  • Authorities rescue black man from Bellevue.
  • Local 22 year-old to wear something sexy for Halloween.
  • Seattle Prep, University Prep, to merge.
  • Studying abroad in South America the new coming of age for local bourgeoisie.
  • Asterisk a sign of steroid use, doctors say.
  • Seahawks fans embarrassed to be 12th man.
  • NCAA to implement salary cap on bribes.
  • Study finds yoga a hoax.
  • 75% of Americans think socialism attacked us on 9/11, poll reveals.
  • "Everything is connected, just not that much," admits realistic guru.
  • Local pariah pushes questionable sense of humor on acquaintances.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Poem: Too Big

by Alex Gallo-Brown

Late, after poker--third place, thirty bucks
won in a game of drunk Asians--I stand outside
the bar among the peopleless picnic tables,
slowly smoking over a can full of butts.
A few minutes later, a man--really a large boy--
walking by asks me for a smoke.

I give him the paper, the clutch of tobacco.
I lend him my lighter.
He's a musician, he tells me as he gets it lit,
a Mozart of the streets.
He is, he says, too smart for this world.
Later, he says he wants to be a father
but doesn't like women.
Wants to work hard but doesn't want
to be exploited.
I have no answer
but my attention.
I listen to him speak his questions.

The next morning, I see him again,
walking on a different street.
Both of us are laid speechless by this coincidence.
Finally, I ask him how he's doing.
Okay, he tells me--he's got his jogging shorts on.
These days, what he really needs is a car:
he's getting too big for his feet.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Marx and Moore

I saw "Capitalism: A Love Story" a few days ago, and found myself having mixed feelings about it. On one hand, it was, as my brother said, "dumb," at least in the sense of being intellectually unsophisticated. (David Denby, writing in The New Yorker, was more charitable, calling it "a sad movie--funny in spots, but wounded and bewildered.") But on the other hand, I thought the essence of Moore's message--that in today's society the banks have far too much political influence; that our government, as it functions now, routinely fails to express the will of its people; that last year's bailout was criminal; that we should be pissed off; that we shouldn't take it anymore; and so on--is right, and therefore should not be dismissed as simply shoddy, far left propaganda. Moore may not be a prophet, as he claims to be at one point in the film, but his hindsight is more or less twenty twenty.

Then, today, reading an article by Curtis White in the new issue of Tin House, called "A Good Without Light," it dawned on me that part of the reason why the movie resonated was that for the first time in recent memory, a piece of pop culture was confronting capitalism (and its manifold failings) by calling it what it was. We just assume, "liberals" and "conservatives" both, that ours is the best system. The assumption is so deeply embedded into our collective psyche we can barely bring ourselves to speak the word.

"What no one is allowed to consider," White writes, "is the distressing possibility that no amount of tinkering and changing and greening and teaching the kindergartners to plant trees and recycle Dad's beer cans will ever really matter if our assumptions about what it means to be prosperous, what it means to be 'developed,' what it means to live in 'progress,' and what it means to be 'free' remain what they have been for the last four hundred years under the ever-growing weight of capitalist markets and capitalist social relations. As Marx put it, under capitalism we carry our relation to others in our pockets. Marx would now have to add, sadly, that those 'others' must now include the animals of the field and the birds of the sky as well as the fields and sky themselves. But such a line of thought is not tolerated because the very word 'capitalism' (not to mention 'Marx') is a fighting word. (Or worse it is a sort of faux pas to speak of 'capitalism' at all; you'd be better off saying 'the economy,' just as if you were a slave asked to refer to your master as your employment counselor.) Unfortunately, in banishing this word we eliminate from the conversation the very thing we came together to discuss. We can talk about our plans to save the world, but we can't talk about the economic system that put it in jeopardy in the first place. That's off the table."

If Moore's film has value, then, it is that it has put the word back on the table. That's my hope anyway.

Monday, October 12, 2009

American Sucker

Buzzine has also put up a review I wrote of American Sucker, the 2004 memoir by David Denby. Enjoy.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Poem: Like Moths

by Nick Gallo

like moths
my thoughts skirt & distract

i wait impatiently
                                   for immolation 

or rest

a new poem
climbs beneath my eyelids
scraping away sleep

and dancing keys
my words know no escape
my breath forms an imprint on the cloth

i dream of
dead languages
and dogs gnawing on bones

          -- November, 1973

Friday, October 9, 2009

Go, Grayson, Go!

If only all the Democrats talked like this...

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Cold Souls

Buzzine, a Los Angeles-based webzine, has picked up a review I wrote of Cold Souls. It's here.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Poem: Reading Octavio Paz in Mexico Eighteen Months After Your Death

by Alex Gallo-Brown

Reading Paz in Mexico,
Paz writing on Mexicans and death,
eighteen months after, eighteen months
like a succession of dreams,
relentless, without respite from reality.
Some of those days spent
thinking about you,
turning the memories over in my mind,
letting them sift against my skin
and other days, just hurrying
through the fog.
"Nobody thinks about his own death," declares Paz,
"because nobody lives a personal life."
But I do, Paz, I do.
I wonder on the bus
if this is the last ride
I will ever take, this countryside
the last bit I will ever glimpse.
It wouldn't be so hard, would it?
An errant flick of the driver's wrist—
then formless, bodyless
among the stars.

Reading Paz in Mexico
eighteen months after,
Paz lecturing, hectoring on death,
implacable orator, ancient high priest.
You were always more
like a jester, singing lightness
from your corner of the court:
you brought people to you, you took them in.
"Tell me how you died," Paz demands,
"and I will tell you who you are."
All right, Paz, l will tell you
how my father died.
He died on assignment,
a magazine writer in a foreign land,
frightened, perhaps, but in love todavia--
devout in this faith until his end.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"A Thicket--No! A Forest--of Wood"

Recently I returned to James Wood's How Fiction Works, a book best consumed in small, mindful bites with lots of time left in between. In a chapter called "Sympathy and Complexity," Wood relates the story of a chief in police in a rough area of Mexico City called Neza, who assigned his officers a reading list, comprised entirely of fictional works, in order to help them to become "better citizens":

"[The reading list included] Don Quixote, Juan Rulfo's beautiful novella Pedro Paramo, Octavio Paz's essay on Mexican culture, The Labyrinth of Solitude, Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, and works by Carlos Fuentes, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Agatha Christie, and Edgar Allan Poe.

Neza's chief of police, Jorge Amador, believes that reading fiction will enrich his officers in at least three ways.

'First, by allowing them to acquire a wider vocabulary...Next, by granting officers the opportunity to acquire experience by proxy...Finally, Amador claims, there is an ethical benefit. "Risking your life to save other people's lives and property requires deep convictions. Literature can enhance those deep convictions by allowing readers to discover lives lived with similar commitment. We hope that contact with literature will make our police officers more committed to the values they have pledged to defend.'

How quaintly antique this sounds. Nowadays, the cult of authenticity asserts that nothing is more worldly--more in the world--than police work; thousands of movies and television shows bow to this dogma. The idea that the police might as much or more reality from their armchairs, with their noses in novels, no doubt strikes many as heretically paradoxical."

This passage affirms a concern of mine that people--especially people of my generation--are largely turning away from invented narrative in favor of so-called "real stories": personal memoir, reality television, or even what one might call liberal journalism (e.g. Michael Pollan or Tracy Kidder). There's nothing wrong with any of this, of course (except for, arguably, reality television); the problem occurs when we begin to believe, either consciously or unconsciously, that only "real stories" have anything to teach us about reality.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Poem: I'll Rule It

by Amy Berkowitz

“I wish I looked like my beautiful dog! He is so sleek with lean, taut muscles. He has inspired me to start doing weight workouts. I hope some day someone will tell me we look alike.” 

Weirdest Economic Indicator Ever

Train hopping punks complain of fewer freights running, longer waits

Amy likes her own link

Best Ideas for Music:

Complete pause then continue song
Song about band name

Everything wonderful abt T’s text message, inviting me to her sister’s Puerto Rican day bbq, and how her sister knows I would make something good and also wants to see me it’s been over a year. So happy that I broke off a leaf of a bush, a perfect leaf-shaped leaf – just to hold it, feel it, enjoy it in my hand, fold or tear it if I care to. I think: I have all this, and I can have this too! When they make Lawrence Street into a kingdom, I’ll rule it.

Blood beer siblings

And the time I accidentally discovered free jazz
When I stayed in my friend’s room in Medford
After I’d moved away, and my friend’s room
Used to be my room, the same
Except she painted it navy blue
And there was all this cool shit in it
They only thing she kept was my
broken red mushroom shaped lamp
Which I didn’t think anyone would keep
And there was all this other shit
I smoked her weed and put on whatever record
Was on the turntable
The cover was orange with some black on it
and I really liked it
My mind got blown
When Em got home I asked her what it was she said
I have no idea

But isn’t it awesome?

How strange the relationship
between food and the economy is

It falls off the bone
I fall off the bone!!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Speech I Wrote for Graduation

The following was excerpted from the commencement speech given by Miles Strucker in May at Madison Square Garden in honor of the New School graduating class of 2009.

I was put on the waiting list to get into Eugene Lang. I don’t mean this as a zinger; I mean this as a compliment. It’s refreshing to come across an admissions office that is willing to see past the SAT scores and the grades and the “realness” of a high school diploma, one that has the courage to step back, look at the moral character of an applicant, and say, “This is not the type of person we want in our school.”

We are known as "The New School, a University." My high school was known as "NOVA, we’ve got a mushroom garden." It was a public school, which meant adequate teachers, inadequate funds. Furthermore, it was an alternative public school, which meant adequate teachers with prior convictions.

I’m only mentioning high school to highlight a certain transition that many of us here experienced. My attitude towards education changed radically four years ago—and not just because it started costing as much as three-bedroom house used to. For the first time in your life, you’re in a private school and it’s not to steal from the lost and found or to rob someone; you’re having meaningful conversations with adults and not because you’re trying to sell them fake raffle tickets; but most importantly, you’re part of a progressive education that actually works. In honor of “Eugene Lang, The New School for Liberal Arts That Waitlisted Me,” the title of this speech is, “College Experience, A Speech I Wrote for Graduation.” But enough about me.

Part I: a personal history.

Before leaving Seattle, you ask someone what it’s like living in New York City. Their smile resigns, and they speak earnestly. “It’s the only major city that has a multimillion-dollar ad campaign whose soul purpose is to convince people they love where they live. Also, there’s an abundance of small dogs and prepared food. You do the math.”

Do the math? You can’t do math. You’ve been doing independent study for the last four years. Then, suddenly one summer, you get a notice saying that you’ve been assigned to Loeb Hall, have you had your meningitis vaccination yet, and what about rabies? You arrive with a keyboard and sandwich grill; deep down you wanted to go to the jazz school but will have to make do with modernism and panini. Your roommate, a fashion design student, buys you a glow stick and pinecones that smell good. Eventually, you’ll have to move across town because he doesn’t understand you. Now that you’ve got a single room, things seem better, but your desk is under the bed and your head hits the ceiling when you wake up. One of the graduate students you live with says, “That’s how Platonists must feel.” You like your new suite-mates even though there are twelve of them. They call you “the kid” and buy you nonalcoholic beer as a joke. Joke’s on them, you think to yourself, finishing the last of it. At least I’m not graduating during a time of great strife.

Soon you’ll be asked to write an essay about Joan Didion. “Hasn’t she already done that,” you’ll want to ask. There’s an overwhelming urge to jot notes on the books you buy, underlining the sentences you like, and also the ones you don’t understand. In the true spirit of the avant-garde, you’ll get these confused. Time is divided between the Internet and the Lower East-Side. You see someone you recognize from back home. You ask what they’re up to these days. They say, “I’m in Brooklyn.” You’re not sure if that’s where they live or an adjective qualifying their mood. Whatever it is, it smells like cigarettes.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Poem: Tiny Mexicans

by Alex Gallo-Brown

I fool myself
into happy patter:
tap at keyboard, swing frying pan
listlessly across stove,
slumber briefly among strange
images of stormy men,
then launch myself back to work
come morning.

But earlier I was in the park, playing
basketball beside scores of tiny Mexicans.

But earlier I was in the street, bathing
in brilliant light made by silver cars.

For forever I have put finished 
cigarettes into the hollow womb 
of an ocean shell.

The ocean I have not witnessed in many moons.
But more of the moon I have seen than you.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Baucus on Baucus

After his healthcare proposal was roundly rejected by senators on both sides of the aisle (Howard Dean called it the worst piece of healthcare legislation he's seen in thirty years), Senator Max Baucus has finally, mercifully come clean about his own shortcomings.

Pizza Delivery Poem

by Alex Gallo-Brown

I ordered a pizza last night,
tipped myself excessively,
then felt guilty and asked you
for your phone number.
I’ve never seen a pizza delivery poem before

but Martin Espada has two bouncer poems,

I wanted one of those so I applied

for security guard at a casino

but they never called me back,

I think they thought my scowl

wasn’t fierce enough,

that I was too slim and untrained.

The ex army (or was it navy?) seal

told me the work was cake

but I couldn’t eat it too

or there’d be a dock in wages,

in which case the landlord

might come around, asking for scotch,

then spitting it into my palm

because it was too strong,

which would kill the romance, certainly,

with the girl next door,

you know the one
with the
tranquil mirrors and pitying smile?


the door to my apartment

a balcony looks down on a pool
of cement, the only liquid
the purple puke my friend deposited there

so gently Friday night

while I dreamed of olive oil and cherry lips

and the way salad looks

in a sealed bag,

all cramped and stunned
and foolish.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Neo-Neo Realism

I realize I am coming to this a little late, but A.O. Scott, the long-time NY Times film critic, wrote a provocative essay some months ago with the title, "Neo Neo Realism" that I thought warranted a brief discussion. In it, Scott describes a new movement in American film in recent years that is taking haphazard, almost accidental shape. Exemplified by films like Wendy and Lucy and Goodbye Solo (two films which I believe rank among the most affecting and culturally relevant of the past few years), and also by Sugar, Ballast and Treeless Mountain (films I haven't seen but plan to, stat), this brand of American realism, which often takes on working class and/or marginalized character subjects, has roots, Scott believes, in the Italian neo-realism of the late nineteen forties.

"Methods [of Italian neo-realism]," Scott writes, "included the casting of nonprofessional actors, often portraying characters close to their real selves; the use of unadorned, specific locations, and an absorption in the ordinary details of work, school and domesticity."

All of which sounds familiar if you've seen any of the movies listed above, as well as Reichardt's Old Joy, or Bahrani's Chop Shop or Man Push Cart, or even Half Nelson. Scott also points out that there are similarities between Italian society post-World War II and American society post 9/11--namely, the enormous economic challenges and political tensions.

American film studios,
in the years since 9/11, have countered mass uncertainty by pumping out massive amounts of fantastical filth--swooping superheroes, et al. But, Scott argues, perhaps what American audiences really crave is an "escape from escapism."

"These local, intimate narratives," Scott writes, "remind you that, in spite of the abundance of American movies, there is an awful lot of American life that remains off screen."

This is precisely why these "neo neo realist" movies register as such a shock. They remind us that movies can capture and represent and speak to our realities--and they also remind us how infrequently studio movies manage to do so.

Finally, in what I read as a specific commentary on Slumdog Millionaire (a film for which I reserve a special loathing), Scott quotes Goodbye Solo director Rahman Bahrani: "[These certain kinds of studio movies] just don't make any sense. They create massive confusion."

Continues Scott: "To which [Bahrani's] own films (and films like “Ballast,” “Wendy and Lucy,” “Sugar” and “Treeless Mountain”) might serve, in their very different ways, as an antidote. Not because they offer grim counsels of despair or paint lurid tableaux of desperation but rather because they take what has always seemed seductively easy about moviemaking — the camera can show us the world — and make it look hard. Their characters undergo a painful process of disillusionment, and then keep going."

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Say The Right Thing

From an excerpt from First As Tragedy, Then As Farce by Slavoj Zizek, published in the new issue of Harper's Magazine:

"The pressure to 'do something' [referring to the $700 billion bank bailout] is like the superstitious compulsion to make some gesture when we are observing a process over which we have no real influence. Are not our acts often such gestures? The old saying "Don't just talk, do something!" is one of the stupidest things one can say, even measured by the low standards of common sense. Perhaps the problem lately has been that we have been doing too much, such as intervening in nature, destroying the environment, and so forth. Perhaps it is time to step back, think, and say the right thing. True, we often talk about something instead of doing it; but sometimes we also do things in order to avoid talking and thinking about them. Such as throwing $700 billion at a problem instead of reflecting on how it arose in the first place."

Besides being generally delighted by the Slovenian philosopher's sneering, imperious tone--how often is one told "one of the stupidest things one could say"?--I thought it notable that Zikek's piece coincides, almost to the day, with an article in the New York Times headlined, "A Year After a Cataclysm, Little Change on Wall St."

The thesis of Zizek's article, or book excerpt, seems to be that it is impossible to take an honest ideological stance one way or the other concerning the bailout. In the current model of capitalism (Zizek argues in every model), if the banks suffer, everybody suffers; therefore how could one in clear conscience oppose such a measure? But, Zizek writes, "the relationship is nontransitive: while what is good for Wall Street is not necessarily good for Main Street, Main Street cannot thrive if Wall Street is feeling sickly, and this asymmetry gives an a priori advantage to Wall Street."

Zizek ultimately describes the relationship between banks and government as "blackmail." If you think this is hyperbole, I suggest you read the more objective, less theoretical piece in the Times.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Office Meets Postmodern Lit?

Apparently John Krasinski--better known as Jim from "The Office"--has adapted one of David Foster Wallace's collections of short stories into a movie. Pretty strange.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Only in Our Silences

A good quote about the paradox of art from Lawrence Durrell's Justine:

"I spoke of the uselessness of art but added nothing truthful about its consolations. The solace of such work I do with the brain and heart lies in this--that only there, in the silences of the painter or the writer can reality be reordered, reworked and made to show its significant side. Our common actions in reality are simply the sackcloth covering which hides the cloth-of-gold--the meaning of the pattern."

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Short Story: Shared Border

by Harry Cheadle

I was in the middle of folding my shirts into boxes when my stepson walked into the bedroom, a rare occurrence. He stood there, big-eared and too tall for his body, like he had scheduled an appointment. I folded another shirt and laid it into the cardboard box to see if he would say anything. When he didn't, I said “Hi Stephen.” That sounded like the wrong thing to say.

I have to tell you something,” he began. “I figured I should, because I don't know when I'll get another chance to. I never really liked you. The past couple of years I tried put up with you because you seemed to make Mom happy, but I guess that wasn't even true. I wish I could say I'm sorry you're going, but I'm not really.”

He kept his hands dangling at his sides during this speech, which was the longest thing I can remember him saying to me. He stared at the bedside lamp. “I just wanted to make sure you knew,” he said.

I knew,” I said.

The boxes I was packing were going into my new apartment, where I live now. It's a two-room place overlooking an arterial lined with an uncommon amount of restaurant supply stores. A neon sign across from me advertises a store selling neon signs. My wife, or whatever you want to call her now, lent me the car so I could move my things. It was a nice gesture, and it got me out of her house faster.

It really was her house, a house she had bought with her first husband. It was her son, too. By the time I arrived, he was bent on acquiring a private, adult-free life, not adding more parents. He would spend the hours after school at coffee shops, movie theaters, friends' houses anything to keep him away from home—not that I was too concerned over his absences. They gave me time with his mother, my wife. We would make dinner together with the radio on in the background, talking, not talking, occasionally trading PG-13 kisses over the cutting board. This is so domestically blissful, I thought at the time. It's a shame Stephen's coming back.

One night, when we were lying in bed, she said, “I'm glad you're here. I think it will be good for Stephen, having another male around.”

Yes,” I said, although I wasn't sure what she expected me to do with him. Have a catch? The occasional heart-to-heart, man-to-man? Whup him when he did wrong? Tussle his hair playfully after Little League wins? Counsel him through his first shaving, car accident, love? My notions of fatherhood were a movie montage.

In any case, I didn't have a role model resume. I had no knowledge to pass on. My job was going door to door convincing people to give money to causes I felt lukewarm about. Before that I'd worked on a succession of boats, gutting fish for twelve hours, then sleeping and dreaming of gutting fish. I had slept with his mother once while she was married; after her divorce, I received a letter in her elegantly legible cursive: "I 'm not fun to be around any more, not like I was. I can't stop worrying. I have dreams where I have to take apart complex machines, but I don't know where to set the pieces down.” For that letter, I moved across three states and into the middle, suddenly, of a family unit.

One night I caught Stephen smoking a hand-rolled cigarette on the back porch. I could see the glowing orange tip, the outline of his body.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

Having a smoke.”

Tobacco or weed?” I asked, recognizing the smell from a previous life.

A little of both. It's a spliff,” he said, smirking in the dark, probably figuring I didn't know what a spliff was.

I'm going to have to tell your mother,” I said.

She knows already.”

I think what he wanted was for me to hit him, or yell at him, or drive his mother to tears, to transform into some terrible stepfatherish figure he could at least have a reason to hate. I think I physically touched him half a dozen times in all of the years we shared a home, and those mostly by accident during encounters in the cramped kitchen, the narrow hallways. He would suck in his gut as we passed, putting as many inches of air between us as he could.

By the time he was borrowing the car at nights to engage in whatever eighteen-year-olds engage in, we had established a relationship like that of European countries sharing a border, or of two men living in a boarding house.

I did end up at his high-school graduation―this was right before my wife delivered her ultimatums, before we had those serious talks that never seemed to end, only trail off. I applauded when he crossed the distant, over-lit stage and shook the principal's hand. We went out for dinner afterwards and joked about the gaudiness of the stage directions, the triteness of the class president's speech, the relief he felt at finally leaving the school and the town.

I don't think I'll see my stepson again. I'm not sure about my wife. She said she'll sell the house, move to a nearby island. She always talked abstractly about living in a cabin surrounded by empty land, selling flowers and calligraphy and antiques by the roadside, devoting herself to reading and gardening. I hope she does all of that. I hope it makes her happy, whatever the word means. Stephen will fly back from his college for the holidays and they'll have a two-person family reunion. Hugs, an exchange of gifts, long discussions on the back porch about her changed life, his changing life. I wonder if they'll talk about me.