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.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Poem: Worker's Compensation

by Alex Gallo-Brown


First, a mistake:
your garden variety carelessness
combined with the inane
desire to please

and then a split
in the nail
so instant
it was like
it happened apart
from time altogether--
a bright red rod
scoring the bed in two.

The immediate reaction to contain,
to push the flesh back together,
to do the thing over.

Not so much pain
as embarrassment,
a fierce return
to the physical.


The faces in the emergency room
frozen in their grief.
Or else they are not really grieving,
have come here for
some minor, mundane procedure.
Faces immobilized for some other reason.

Deeper in the ER, the doctor tells me
about her recent separation from her husband,
how this is a good thing because
she listens to more music now.
About her nephew in Minneapolis
who helped her to order a stereo online
which came in the mail in many boxes.
How proud she was of herself
for figuring it all out.

How sad she seemed in herself
for figuring it all out.

I listen to the sad doctor,
shooting my finger
full of pain killer.

Wait a few minutes, she says,
and you won't feel a thing.

I watch her
cut away
the top of my nail
with a very small pair of scissors
and sew the skin back together.