Friday, December 30, 2011

On Denis Johnson's Seek


"No one, I think, captures better certain kinds of ecstasy, a spastic transcendence, better than Johnson, and no one better describes the worlds we'd rather not be living in."

Matthew Specktor writing on Denis Johnson, who continues to be one of my favorite writers. It's an insightful essay on a pretty strange book, which is essentially a collection of travel articles. Except that the subjects of his stories are places like war-torn Liberia and rural Idaho -- "worlds we'd rather not be living in" -- rather than commercial paradises.


I agree with Specktor, by the way, that
Angels is Johnson's best book, with Jesus' Son coming in close behind. Resuscitation for a Hanged Man, Nobody Move, and the more recent Train Dreams are all worth your time, as well.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Magazine


by Alex Gallo-Brown

Trains have always soothed me.
Or movement has.
I think of the car rides
my father used to take me on
when I was young and fussy,
driving towards nothing,
no destination but my better mood.
So it is with fathers, or good ones.
I was lucky.
He took me on real trips, too,
to Vancouver, Montana, and Mexico.
“La cuenta, por favor,” I learned to say early,
feeling the pride flush his fatherly face.
He looked full of flavor and love
and probably astonishment too
that the movement of a pen
could bring us here,
to this beachy, sun-washed place,
where his son could order, in another language,
a bill that he would never have to pay.

The magazine I understood, even then,
to be a figure of caprice.
It meant trips to San Francisco
to fire miniature powdery grenades at the ground
and seclude slender plastic ninja
swords from their sheathes.
It meant fortune cookies and fancy meals
and afternoon walks on the beach.
But it also meant mornings soaked in stress,
breakfasts with women whose smiles
made you feel grubby and unwanted.
It meant arguments with himself out loud,
stopping the soliloquy only to instruct me
next time to eat my bacon with a knife and fork.
It meant egotist editors chopping his best lines,
puffy promo pieces he preferred
eschew his name.

But mostly the magazine meant movement,
release from the dogged domesticity of home
into a bright and bursting unknown.
It was his car ride to nowhere but
a place you don’t yet know,
somewhere new and weightless
and entirely without fear.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Labor Movement


A great piece in n + 1 about the heretofore awkward relationship between Big Labor and Occupy Wall Street. Occupy has been thus far loathe to associate itself with labor unions, for some of the traditional reasons that people on the Left often find themselves skeptical of unions: because they're corrupt, or bureaucratic, or socially conservative, or simply too big. But labor is universal, writes Saval, binding us together; it's the stuff solidarity, that heady concept, is made of. "Labor is the thing one does to sustain life, and the thing one hates for that very reason; it creates wealth, and takes wealth away from the wealthiest. Everything we make for our wants and want to make is labor." 

"The 'Occupy Movement, which, when it lets its guard down, admits that it wants equality, might do worse than submitting to a name that represents the struggle for it in the past, and call itself 'a labor movement.'"


Monday, December 5, 2011

On the Success of Occupy


"The most important facts about our society, widely known but seldom mentioned, are now the first order of conversation. Dylan Byers, of Politico, recently reported that the use of the phrase 'income inequality' in the media has more than quintupled since the beginning of the occupation. In this sense, Occupy Wall Street has already done its work."


George Packer writing on Occupy Wall Street. The piece features several profiles of people who were drawn to Occupy Wall Street from out of town, including one Seattle man who took a Greyhound across the country, only to find himself homeless on the streets of New York after the park was cleared out by police. It's well worth a read.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Weekend


I saw the British film, Weekend, over the weekend and was genuinely impressed. A little bit "mumblecore" and a little bit (or a lot bit) "queer," it ends up transcending both of those categories to become a really sweet and accessible (if unconventional) love story. The performances are fantastic, the music is good, the visual choices are spot on. Here's the trailer:



Friday, November 18, 2011

Bradley and White


Footage from the Charles Bradley concert in Manchester a few days ago:



We were just to the left of the camera man, so close you can hear my voice.

For some reason, I want to put Bradley together with Curtis White, author of The Barbaric Heart, even thought the two (the first, a black soul musician from Brooklyn, the second, a white English professor in Illinois -- couldn't be further apart in most ways.


Yet here's Bradley:


"I tried so hard to make it in America / a land of milk and honey / a land supposed to be built with love / it takes love and understanding / to live and let live."


And White: "The mark that we leave upon the world will not be the mark of brute force clothed in the false virtues of the barbarian but the mark of the ultimate realist, making our own world, demanding the impossible, and calling it Beautiful."


White helps us to understand; Bradley shows us how to love -- and to live.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Rediscovering Mr. White


I am rereading The Barbaric Heart, which I first blogged about back in 2009, and am finding it as consistently brilliant, lapidary, and insightful as I did back then. (You can read an excerpt here.) The man speaks truth. Now we have to listen.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

We are the One Percent


"There were more pictures of heroin addicts on the tour than I expected."


My friend and noted sourpuss Harry Cheadle tours the Tribeca lofts to hilarous effect.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Importance of Idleness


Check out my essay about not working so much at The Rumpus. It's here.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Stories That Make Us Pause


"Stories that make us a pause a little, that's what I guess I'm advocating for today. But not in a cheesy, joyful, easy embrace of life way. Life isn't beautiful, but it can be a warped miracle, if we pay attention."

A great essay by Peter Orner about the short story via The Rumpus.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Try A Little Tenderness


A couple of poetry fragments:

"You wanted to hear the part where the poet speaks

of love & passion...Any nakedness, the first time I saw it then,
was still wonder. Even now, as you read it to yourself, it tells 
         you tenderness
is possible, is in the world, though earlier you said otherwise."

"So I am proud only of the days we passed in undivided tenderness

when you sit drawing, or making books, stapled, 
        with messages to the world...
or coloring a man with fire coming out of his beard.
Or we sit at a table, with small tea carefully poured;
so we pass our time together, calm and delighted."

The first is from a poem called "
Tenderness," by the remarkable Terrance Hayes. The second from, "For My Son, Noah, Ten Years Old," by Robert Bly.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Storyteller


"Less and less frequently do we encounter people with the ability to tell a tale properly. More and more often there is embarassment all around when the wish to hear a story is expressed. It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: our ability to exchange experiences."

"...[T]here emerges a form of communication which, no matter how far back its origins lie, never before influenced the epic form in a decisive way. But now it does exert such an influence. And it turns out that it confronts storytelling as no less a stranger than did the novel, but in a more menacing way, and that it also brings about a crisis in the novel. This new form of communication is information."

"The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only in that moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself to it without losing any time. A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time."

"It has seldom been realized that the listener's naive relationship to the storyteller is controlled by his interest in retaining what he is told. The cardinal point for the unaffected listener is to assure himself of the possibility of reproducing the story...Memory creates the chain of tradition which passes a happening on from generation to generation."

"For storytelling is always the art of repeating stories, and this art is lost when the stories are no longer retained...The more self-forgetful the listener is, the more deeply is what he listens to impressed on the memory."

Assorted quotes from Walter Benjamin's remarkable 1936 essay, "The Storyteller," which I have just been made aware of.

Friday, October 21, 2011

This Means Taking Care of Each Other


"Part of the point of this sort of occupation is to reclaim public space, to encourage the kind of noncommercial relationships between human beings discouraged by corporate culture, to build in miniature the society you are trying to create. This means taking care of one another. It means all the unlikely things that protestors in New York and L.A. and elsewhere are already doing: Setting up free kitchens and libraries and childcare and open air schools and why not a bike repair shop too, along with what rudiments of healthcare people can provide for one another on a small patch of grass."

From an excellent article by Ben Ehrenreich about the Occupy Wall Street Protests in the LA Review of Books.


Meanwhile, here are some charts detailing what the protestors are so angry about. And a website of writers who have signed on in support, complete with original work (including this rather strange poem from D.A. Powell).


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

I Crossed an Ocean...


Found out that a friend of my friend is playing backup for Charles Bradley in Manchester next month, which means I'll be seeing the great man live for the second time in my life and possibly even hanging out backstage. Needless to say, I'm excited.


Here's him doing a rendition of Neil Young's Heart of Gold. I swear, the man is ecstasy -- soul -- personified.


Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Really Ace Place


Christopher Hitchens on the darker side of England: "This is the world of wretched, tasteless food and watery drinks, dreary and crowded lodgings, outrageous plumbing, surly cynicism, long queues, shocking hygiene, and dismal, rain-lashed holidays, continually punctuated by rudeness and philistinism...A neglected aspect of the general misery, but very central once you come to notice it, is this: we are in a mean and chilly and cheerless place, where it is extraordinarily difficult to have sex, let alone to feel yourself in love."

Cheers!


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Idealism as Belief System


"Activists weren't some fringe element back then. They had defeated the naked bigotry of the Jim Crow south. They had waged war on poverty. Now they wanted to end a senseless war. People believed that taking to the streets could change the moral condition of the country. There weren't nearly as many screens in our lives; we hadn't begun pouring so much of ourselves into them. Idealism wasn't an object of ridicule. It was a legitimate, even laudable, belief system."

Steve Almond gives the Occupy Wall Street protests some proper historical context.


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

To My Dead Father


by Frank O'Hara


Don't call to me father

wherever you are I'm
still your little son
running through the dark

I couldn't do what you

say even if I could hear
your roses no longer grow
my heart's black as their

bed their dainty thorns

have become my face's
troublesome stubble you
must not think of flowers

And do not frighten my

blue eyes with hazel flecks
or thicken my lips when
I face my mirror don't ask

that I be other than your

strange son understanding
minor miracles not death
father I am alive! father

forgive the roses and me


         RIP Dad

Friday, October 7, 2011

Doing It For Love


The Knowmads, the Seattle-based hip-hop group, is financing their new album entirely through the website Kickstarter. So far, they have been able to raise almost $8,000, with nearly three days to go. For my money, the Knowmads -- which, full disclosure, feature my friend Tom Pepe as one of the primary emcees -- are making some of the best hip-hop music to come out of the Pacific Northwest. They do it for the love -- and it shines through in their music.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Which Looks More Appetizing?


My very first British fish and chips...



or my very first British organic harvest?



Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Burn, Baby, Burn


I'm proud to see that my old employer SEIU is among the panoply of unions that have stepped up in support of the Occupy Wall Street protests this week. Along with the New York State Teacher's Union, the Transport Workers Union, and several others, SEIU local 1199 is providing food, clothing, transportation, and strategy to the protestors.

On a separate note, I am also encouraged that the nascent movement has implemented a makeshift library. As librarian-cum-protestor Mandy Henk explains, "Information is liberation. Offering people the opportunity to explore the world themselves through the written word is why I became a librarian. Connecting readers to writers is what I do. Doing that in the heart of what is rapidly growing into the strongest mass social movement since the 1960’s is an experience I will always treasure."

Whether or not Mandy is right -- whether the movement conflagrates or ultimately flames out -- remains to be seen. But I, for one, am hoping it burns, baby, burns.

Monday, October 3, 2011

"He Writes Like A Pompous Ass"


When, some months ago, I heard David Mamet had converted to conservatism, I was intrigued, as I almost always am by serious conservatives, especially of the literary variety (see Saul Bellow). Artistic success does not automatically confer political insight, of course. But Mamet is an intelligent guy. I was curious what he had to say.


Now I haven't actually spent time with Mamet's pompously-titled The Secret Knowledge: On The Dismantling of American Culture, his screed against liberal dogma, but after reading the devastating takedown in The American Conservative, of all places, I'm not sure I want to.


"Turgid when it's not imperious, utterly lacking in fresh insight, full of breathtakingly stupid generalization, The Secret Knowledge is, for a writer of Mamet's caliber, nothing short of embarrassing," writes author and musician Scott Galupo. "The literary critic James Wood once described a certain kind of freshly adopted religious commitment this way: 'It is like entering prison: you must turn out your spiritual pockets and hand over all your inner belongings, even your shoelaces.' Well, Mamet has handed over his shoelaces, voluntarily stripped, and appears eager for a cavity search."


Ouch. And this from a fellow conservative.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Owning Your Racial Lens


I'm a little late to the party, but there was a pretty nuanced article in The Stranger a few weeks back about race and racism in Seattle that is definitely worth your time. As Graves points out, race is a particularly prickly subject in a city that prides itself on progressivism yet remains deeply segregated between white and brown. 

The conversation is long overdue, as far as I am concerned. For white liberals to feel guilty, however, is counterproductive -- and besides the point. Graves quotes writer and activist Tali Hairston: "As a white person, you have to own the development of your own racial lens. Because whether you're aware of it or not, you have one."


Saturday, September 24, 2011

Thirsting for the Superfluous


One of the best defenses of art I've ever read is in the September/October issue of Orion Magazine. In "The Exile of the Arts," Jay Griffiths argues that, "one of the reasons for the hostility against the arts today is precisely that they are implacable witnesses against this terrible lie of our times: that money is the measure of all. Art refutes this lie, disentangles 'money' from 'values,' and argues with its deepest authority that there is another sky, intimate and boundless, open to all, where the poet can tow a star across the liquid river of night, like a child with a toy boat on a string."


This is all eloquent enough, but the genius of the article lies in Griffiths positing of art as a kind of moral alternative to consumerism. "Consumerism and the arts are both answers to the same yearning," Griffiths writes. "The human spirit thirsts for the superfluous, for overflow and abundance. Literalism wants that abundance made material, though, whereas metaphorical abundance resists any need for literal overconsumption. Metaphors of extravagant liveliness reduce a hunger for extravagant lifestyles. Stuck in literal abundance, however, a society is credulous to the monostory of money. While metaphor and the arts offer pluralities and different voices, literalism, from Plato onward, speaks in a political monotone, the one state ruling, top-down."


This is the thing that the liberal technocrats and politicos don't seem to understand: it isn't possible to convince people not to thirst. It is possible, with the right kind of education, parenting and community, perhaps, to persuade them to crave stories and photographs and poems instead of palaces.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Just Love


I am rarely compelled to write about music (last post excepting), but I do believe I have fallen in love. Charles Bradley, the "screamin' eagle of soul," is the object of my affections. 


I've known about Charles for almost a year (I organized up and down the Pacific Coast of Oregon listening to him in the car stereo), but I had the incomparable treat of watching him play live a few days ago at the Bumbershoot Music Festival. The atmosphere was electric. There was almost a religious feeling in the air. Such expansiveness in his voice, such pain and depth of feeling. We rode it into catharsis, let it wash over us like a palliating thing.


Charles Bradley makes you want to forget about history, about politics and terror, about your own pain and heartbreak. He makes you want to love. Love, love, love.


Here's a brief bio of Charles (turns out that he and I have lived in not one but two of the same places: Bushwick, Brooklyn, and Wassaic, New York). Here's a video of him doing his best song. Here's his second best. And here's him performing a fantastic rendition of Neil Young's Heart of Gold.


And, here's a picture of me, my buddy Piotrek and Charles at Bumbershoot two days ago. When I spoke to him, he seemed overwhelmed by the intensity of the crowd's response. He seemed humbled.




Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Drumming For a Good Cause


I had the great pleasure of seeing the Julian Lage Group play live at a Buddhist Global Relief event in Brooklyn last week. Improv jazz is not normally my thing, but these guys were great, especially drummer Tupac Mantilla. Check out the video below.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Taking Down the Help


A really interesting critical takedown of The Help (novel and film) courtesy of Roxanne Gay. I haven't experienced either, but Gay's perspective is powerful, her sense of moral outrage palpable. The essay is worth a read.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Power Over Distraction

         
"If the remission of pain is happiness, then the emergence from distraction is aesthetic bliss. I use these terms loosely, for I am not making an argument but attempting to describe the pleasure from recognition or rediscovery of certain essences permanently associated with human life. These essences are restored to our consciousness by persons who are described by artists...When you open a novel--and I mean of course the real thing--you enter into a state of intimacy with its writer. You hear a voice or, more significantly, an individual tone under the words. This tone you, the reader, will identify not so much by a name, the name of the author, as by a distinct and unique human quality. It seems to issue from the bosom, from a place beneath the breastbone. It is more musical than verbal, and it is the characteristic signature of a person, of a soul. Such a writer has power over distraction and fragmentation, and out of distressing unrest, even from the edge of chaos, he can bring unity and carry us into a state of intransitive attention."

Saul Bellow on "the distracted public" in his collection of non-fiction, It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future.
       

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Poem to a Black Dog


by Alex Gallo-Brown


Pink tongue,
black bearded body,
how you‘ve kept me sane these months
with your unerring smile,
even as your hips sag 

beneath my touch,
wilt like sun-baked flowers.
Poor creature, blessed
with short memory and superior smell,
your days must be only negligibly distinct,
a sputtering fountain of unorganized time.

Or perhaps this is what we believe
in order to make sense 
of your seemingly eventless existence.
Perhaps you are actually more attuned to each day,
their unpredictable waves, their subtle surprises--
a food critic endowed with a nuanced tongue
or a jeweler examining thousands of diamonds,
not one of them the same.

So that you might taste that closely,
see that clear.
               

               RIP Chinook
                 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Fellow Prisoners

                             
"I'm searching for words to describe the period of history we're living through," writes John Berger, the noted art critic and cultural theorist in a recent essay for the e-magazine Guernica. "I'm not searching for a complex definition...I'm looking for nothing more than a figurative image to serve as a landmark. Landmarks don't fully explain themselves, but they offer a reference point that can be shared. In this they are like the tacit assumptions contained in popular proverbs. Without landmarks there is a great human risk of turning in circles.

The landmark I've found is that of a prison."


Berger goes on to describe the prisons that circumscribe us, "prison" defined literally as well as metaphorically--worksites, refugee camps, shopping malls, ghettos, suburbs, and elevators are other examples he gives. The relentless market forces to which every government pays homage are the real jailer, says Berger. And the Internet is their collective club.


"The prison system operates thanks to cyberspace. Cyberspace offers the market a speed of exchange which is almost instantaneous and used across the world day and night for trading. From this speed, the market tyranny gains its extra-territorial license...


There is no place for pain in that velocity; announcements of pain, perhaps, but not the suffering of it. Consequently, the human condition is banished, excluded from those operating the system...


Earlier, tyrants were pitiless and inaccessible, but they were neighbors who were subject to pain. This is no longer the case, and therein lies the system's probable weakness."


The vulnerability of the global financial system, argues Berger, is its very lack of vulnerability, its disconnection from the human condition. Incidentally, I think that's right. What its ultimate failure will mean for the rest of us, however--those of us who have tried and who continue to try to resist its dehumanizing game--is another question altogether. Still, Berger remains hopeful.


"Prisoners have always found ways of communicating with one another. In today's global prison, cyberspace can be used against the interests of those who first installed it. Like this, prisoners inform themselves about what the world does each day, and they follow suppressed stories from the past and so stand shoulder to shoulder with the dead.


In doing so, they rediscover little gifts, examples of courage, a single rose in a kitchen where there's not enough to eat, indelible pains, the indefatigability of mothers, laughter, mutual aid, silence, ever-widening resistance, willing sacrifice, more laughter..


Liberty is slowly being found not outside but in the depths of the prison."


                 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Art of Cruelty


“’In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty,” wrote Emerson, providing a memorable phrase for the grand, surprising pleasure we feel when a work of art returns to restates our own thoughts and feelings to us, however obliquely. At other times, however, the news arrives more alien than majestic, generating the perpetual undergraduate grievance, “I just can’t relate.” It behooves us, I think, to develop an openness to the latter feeling as well as the former. If we’re lucky, this openness may eventually grow into a hunger.”

“’Brutal honesty’ is honesty that either aims to hurt someone or doesn’t care if it does…While the two words often arrive sutured together, I think it worthwhile to breathe some space between them, so that one might see “brutal honesty” not as a more forceful version of honesty itself, but as one possible use of honesty. One that doesn’t necessarily lay truth barer by dint of force, but that actually overlays something on top of it—something that can get its way. That something is cruelty.”

Two paragraphs from “The Brutality of Fact,” an excerpt from Maggie Nelson’s new book, “The Art of Cruelty,” published in the latest issue of Tin House, which confirms her as one of my favorite writers.
                                           

Thursday, July 14, 2011

City of the Escaped


"There are those who believe that living in a better city will make you into a better person. Portland is the kind of city people give up their dreams for. A place so desired by some that just making it there, merely existing, surviving in the city is good enough. People that leave their towns with bad weather and little natural beauty, places like Cleveland and Indianapolis and Detroit, come to Portland to solve their problems, to seek new beginnings."


From a
 pretty good essay about Portland I stumbled upon recently on the website Thought Catalog.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

More Tomatoland

               
An excerpt from Barry Eastabrook's book Tomatoland, which I wrote about a few days ago. Chilling stuff and definitely worth a read.
         

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

In Praise of Left Conservatism


The last time I heard the phrase "left conservative," it was
being used by Norman Mailer, who was was describing, a little fuzzily, his political views. (These seemed to include being in favor of the existence of God and against the corporation, but he wasn't entirely specific.) In a recent essay in the The Point, Jonny Thakkar revives the idea. "If they want to be consistent," Thakkar writes, "conservatives really ought to be anti-capitalist." 

Thakkar's rationale is  straightforward. Capitalism is predicated on an expectation of endless growth. Capitalists are forever trying to out-innovate and out-produce the other in the hopes of making money. In the process, they develop new forms of technology, which necessarily change the social relations within the society. "In every single generation," Thakkar writes, "certain institutions will become obsolete, and with them their attendant practices and values." 


For classical conservatives, who believe, as Edmund Burke did, that progress should be slow, modest, and above all incremental, this should present a problem. A society which reinvents itself with each passing generation is by nature a progressive one. The existence of capitalism assures such reinvention. Why then, in modern times, have conservatives aligned themselves with capitalists?


Thakkar believes it has something to do with the Cold War, when communism presented an existential threat to the United States and patriotism, typically a conservative virtue, was made inseparable from capitalism. Thakkar, however, is no communist. "No one believes in a planned economy anymore," he writes. "Most anti-capitalists now believe in the sort of regulated capitalism one finds in Scandinavia, where government intervenes only in the modest goal of making a country's economy serve its citizens and not the other way around."


You should really read
the whole thing.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Shout Out

               
A little shout out at the Atlantic -- from the great Ta-Nehisi Coates, no less -- about my recent Rumpus piece. Worse things have happened.
           

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Cost of a Tomato

                       
A nice counterpoint to the Village Voice "price gouge alert" of our perfectly organic -- and perfectly expensive -- beefsteak tomatoes is this Salon interview with Barry Eastabrook, author of the new book, Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. Eastabrook informs us that roughly one third of our tomatoes are grown in Florida, "the worst place in the world," he says, to grow them. It's a bad environment for a number of reasons, including year-round insects which make the use of chemical pesticides especially necessary, rampant fungi growth, and sand-like soil which makes the use of chemical fertilizers especially necessary. The tomatoes are clipped off green, shipped hundreds, or thousands, of miles, and bathed in hormones until they turn approximately the right color.

And people wonder why tomatoes don't taste like tomatoes anymore.

 

So yes, $6.99 is a hefty price to pay for a pound of tomates. But that's also about what it costs to grow (in a greenhouse), harvest, box, bring them to market, and still turn a profit. 

There's an alternative, of course: 
Grow them yourself.
             

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Where I Write

         
The Rumpus has posted my contribution to their recurring "Where I Write" series. It includes a photograph of my old writing closet in Portland!
            

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Tastes Like A Tomato


The Village Voice has called out a "gouge alert" on the tomatoes Jenne and I have been selling for McEnroe the last few Mondays in Union Square. The pictures -- and "story" -- are here.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Beautiful Failure

                 
I saw Tree of Life this afternoon without having any idea, really, of what I was getting myself into. About the only thing I knew about it was that Terrence Malick was its writer and director, which was, for me, an instant recommendation. (I love both Badlands and Days of Heaven, which amount to almost half of his forty year oeuvre.)


And what a strange film it was. I'm still trying to make sense of it. Ostensibly the story of a family in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s and 60s (Pitt plays the proud, abusive patriarch), it also tells the story of the natural universe. So we see underwater shots of the sea, perspectives of outer space, magnified human chromosomes, and even one short, dramatic encounter between dinosaurs. It quite a departure, needless to say, from conventional narrative, and after a certain amount of internal grumbling--my expectations disappointed--I sat back and tried to enjoy the ride.


As much as I could, anyway. I have to admit, although I found the images, and even the intention, admirable, I never really felt myself dissolve into Malick's film, be carried away into the experience of its characters. Although visually rich and philosophically ambitious, its comparative narrative poverty disappointed me. I could only admire from a distance. I was never invited to enter.


Later, quite by chance, I was reading an essay on the Rumpus about a totally different subject (Sherwood Anderson's short story collection, Winesburg, Ohio) when I read a sentence that summarized, fairly accurately, my complaints about Tree of Life: "Without sound narrative structure that permits and coheres with characterization, a piece of fiction becomes merely a rumination or catalog of observations, no matter how beautifully wrought."


Malick's film is a beautiful rumination, no doubt--on why, in critic Andrew O'Hehrir's words, "we are here, living and dying on this little blue rock in the middle of space, mesmerized by the mysterious relationships between parents and children that define our lives, connected at every point...to something larger we can't really understand--but not, ultimately, a story.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Monday, May 2, 2011

New Dimensions

                 
"We go through life and we're sort of two dimensional so often, then when you can do a painting or some writing it brings out another dimension in you."

From a wonderful interview with author Edward P. Jones on The Rumpus.
               

Friday, April 29, 2011

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Resurrection

                        
The greatest basketball comeback I have ever seen, made all the more poignant by the resurgence -- the resurrection! -- of Brandon Roy:


Saturday, April 23, 2011

Drawing Dead

                      
I met a guy in Portland last month who was making a short documentary about poker. The idea was to show the two opposite ends of the poker spectrum -- a major success story and a hopeless loser. He interviewed me on camera about my experience as a poker player, as well. I also recorded several of my poker poems for him.

While he didn't end up using any of that footage, I do make a tiny cameo in the film (it's around the 7:21 mark) and he thanks me in the credits. The documentary premiered last night in a local film festival. Enjoy.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Salary Cap

          
One of my favorite essayists, Mark Greif, has a piece up at n+1 where he calls for the implementation of two (equally implausible) legislative acts.

First, he proposes a strict cap on personal income per year of $100,000. Second, he calls for a sum of $10,000 per year to be paid to every adult living in the United States. The result, according to Greif, would be an "active redistribution [of wealth] to help dissolve the two portions of society whose existence is antithetical to democracy and civilization, and which harm members of each of these classes: the obscenely poor and the absurdly rich."

One of the points that Greif makes repeatedly in this essay (a point that runs counter to many implicit capitalistic assumptions) is that large concentrations of money harm not only the society at large but the concentrators of wealth themselves. There are several reasons for this. One is that the very rich, naturally, feel guilty (or defensive or contemptuous or falsely superior, all secondary or tertiary expressions of moral guilt) when brought into contact with people with more appropriate relationships to money -- the vast majority of them. Second is that people who feel pressure to pursue career paths simply in order to earn a large paycheck fundamentally betray themselves -- that is, they earn at the expense of their humanity. Third is that radical income inequality actually inhibits individualism, undermines meritocracy. As Greif points out, "The essence of individualism is morally relevant inequality. The misuse of inequality occurs when it comes to be based on wealth rather than ability; on birth rather than talent; on alienable money (which could belong to anyone) rather than action and works (which can only be done by you)."

The very rich, no less than the very poor, are held hostage by their class. The radical redistribution of wealth would be "the greatest single triumph of human emancipation in a century. A small portion of the rich and unhappy would be freed at last from the slavery of jobs that aren't their life's work--and all of us would be freed from an insane system."

As for those people who would quit their high-salaried jobs rather than take a pay cut to $100,000?

"If there is anyone working a job who would stop doing that job should his income—and all his richest compatriots’ incomes—drop to $100,000 a year, he should not be doing that job. He should never have been doing that job—for his own life’s sake. It’s just not a life, to do work you don’t want to do when you have other choices, and can think of something better (and have a $10,000 cushion to supplement a different choice of life). If no one would choose to do this job for a mere $100,000 a year, if all would pursue something else more humanly valuable; if, say, there would no longer be anyone willing to be a trader, a captain of industry, an actor, or an athlete for that kind of money—then the job should not exist."
                 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Reagan, Wounded

                  
I am just discovering the great Bill Hicks:
 

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Thursday, April 7, 2011

On Kelly Reichardt


A great essay on one of my favorite directors, Kelly Reichardt, out this week with a new film called Meek's Cutoff.

           

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

It Doesn't Take a Global Corporate Monopoly...

                          
...to make a cup of coffee.




Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Poem for the Workers

          
Matthew Zapruder writes a poem for the Wisconsin workers.
           

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Against Identity Politics


"By the time I went up to Cambridge I had actually experienced--and led--an ideological movement of the kind most of my contemporaries only ever encountered in theory. I know what it meant to be a 'believer'--but I also knew what sort of price one pays for such intensity of identification and unquestioning allegiance. Before even turning twenty I had become, been, and ceased to be a Zionist, a Marxist, and a communitarian settler: no mean achievement for a south London teenager.


Unlike most of my Cambridge contemporaries, I was thus immune to the enthusiasms and seductions of the New Left, much less its radical spin-offs: Maoism, gauchisme, tiers-mondisme, etc. For the same reasons I was decidedly uninspired by student-centered dogmas of anticapitalist transformation, much less the siren calls of femino-Marxism or sexual politics in general. I was--and remain--suspicious of identity politics in all forms, Jewish above all. Labour Zionism made me, perhaps a trifle prematurely, a universalist social democrat..."


Tony Judt, writing in The Memory Chalet

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

As For How I'm Doing

                    
I'm not sure.
I miss you, I miss my dad.
I miss my work, 
writing seems impossible here.
I am tired of thinking and talking
about politics and society,
yet it seems to be the only thing
I can think and talk about
these days.
I yearn for stories, images,
quiet moments.
I feel like I'm talking too much
and yet I can't stop.
I miss sex; sometimes it seems 
like the only thing
I can think about.
I miss your body.
I want to leave the Northwest
for a farm far away.
I walked through Whole Foods today
and felt like smashing things.
Instead, I bought an avocado,
black beans, whole wheat tortillas.
There was a woman 
who showed me 
where to find the things 
that I wanted.
After that, I didn't want to smash 
anything anymore.
Later, my family ate turkey tacos
around the kitchen table.
I think once or twice
we even laughed.
     
                      -- Alex Gallo-Brown

A Dangerous Business


"Democracy is a dangerous business; it allies itself with change, which engenders movement, which induces friction, which implies unhappiness, which assumes conflict not only as the normal but as the necessary condition of its existence. The idea collapses unless countervailing stresses oppose one another with competing weight -- unless enough people stand willing to sustain the argument between the governing and the governed, between city and town, capital and labor, men and women, matter and mind."


Lewis Lapham 
writing about Mark Twain in the latest issue of Harper's magazine.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Mother and Child


by Noah Gallo-Brown





3' by 5' Oil on Canvas
          

Let People Poems

              
I just found this great site called Let People Poems that allows anyone to post a poem after joining their contributors list (which you do by e-mailing the site). I just posted a poem about a dream I had about my eighth grade history teacher. Your turn?
                  

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Straight Time

                        
I forgot how good -- and fundamentally sad -- this movie is:


Monday, March 7, 2011

I Shit You Not

                          
Poetry by Charlie Sheen.

                                        

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Against My Better Nature

            
"I don't know, winning, anyone? Rhymes with winning? Anyone? Yeah, that would be us."

Charlie Sheen via a really silly site called "Live the Sheen Dream" that randomly generates thoughts directly from Sheen's brain.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Two Smart Things I Read in the Current Issue of Dissent


Michael Kazin on what the decline of unions has meant for the white working class:

"Of all the groups needed to forge a winning progressive coalition, white working-class people are the only ones who lack sturdy institutions that promote egalitarian ends. African Americans have the churches, the NAACP, and other groups, both formal and informal. Latinos have organizations, both secular and religious, that defend immigrant rights and push for greater power in the larger society and culture. Middle- and upper-class liberals have universities and friendly media, from the Times and NPR to such Web sites as the Huffington Post and Daily Kos. Lesbians and gay men have the Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and a variety of local and regional networks...[In the absence of unions] white working-class men and women need new kinds of institutions that can speak to their discontents and offer compelling alternatives to the politics of anger and nostalgia...Don't mourn, organize."

And Joanne Barkan on the narrow vision (and specious claims) of education reformers:

"To justify their campaign, ed reformers [like Bill Gates] repeat, mantra-like, that U.S. students are trailing far behind their peers in other nations, that U.S. public schools are failing. The claims are specious. Two of the three major international tests...break down student scores according to the poverty rate in each school...Students in U.S. schools where the poverty rate was less than 10 percent ranked first in reading, first in science, and third in math...But as the poverty rate rose higher, students ranked lower...Twenty percent of all U.S. schools have poverty rates over 75 percent. The average ranking of American schools reflect this. The problem is not public schools; it is poverty. And as dozens of studies have shown, the gap in cognitive, physical, and social development between children in poverty and middle-class children is set by age three."
           

Friday, February 11, 2011

Behaving Badly

              
"When [people] are confronted with difficulties, I think they deal with them amazingly well. I was struck by that in the war. People get cross, but then very quickly they would devise something -- they are extremely inventive. I'm sure people are at their best when times are hard. And then if you give people everything, they start behaving very badly. 

Quite a pity."


The English philosopher Mary Midgley, 
in conversation with Sheila Heti.
               

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Trailer for Marry or Burn

                
A lovely trailer for my friend Valerie's collection of short stories, Marry or Burn:



    
                    

Monday, February 7, 2011

White on Shields

          
Curtis White provides intelligent perspective on David Shields' Reality Hunger.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Utopianist

             
A few days ago, a post I wrote about labor unions went up on the new politics site, The Utopianist. Editor Brian Merchant started it the site as an alternative to the more partisan websites currently out there. Here's how he describes The Utopianist's mission:


"Where are the new ideas? The big ones? The ones that could move us towards a more livable, just society? They’re out there, believe it or not. The Utopianist gathers them, explains them, discusses them. We look beyond horse-race politics, beyond ideology — towards finding real solutions for the increasingly dire domestic and global crises of our time. Issues like climate change, poverty, disease, growing income inequality, and widening social divisions demand thinking on a larger scale. We’ll try to diagnose the vast array of problems we face — both local and global — and look at the big picture solutions.                                       

And no, we’re not actually trying to engineer a perfect society here. We’re not communists, fascists, socialists, radical revolutionaries, or violent guerilla terrorists, either, for that matter. We just want things to get better."


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Me and My Chick

          
A version of the article I wrote about farming in the South has just been published by our local paper here in Portland, The Oregonian. The picture alone is worth a look.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Heart Healthy


The Rumpus has posted a piece I wrote last year about being unemployed in Portland (among other things). It's not exactly an accurate portrayal of my life in Portland now -- I wrote it almost a year ago -- but I'm gratified to be included in the ongoing cultural conversation that is The Rumpus.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Friday, January 7, 2011

Inequality is Corrosive


From Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt:


"In the US, taxes are typically regarded as uncompensated income loss. The idea that they might (also) be a contribution to the provision of collective goods that individuals could never afford in isolation (roads, firemen, policemen, schools, lamp posts, post offices, not to mention soldiers, warships, and weapons) is rarely considered. 

In continental Europe as in much of the developed world, the idea that any one person could be completely 'self-made' evaporated with illusions of 19th century individualism. We are all the beneficiaries of those who went before us, as well as those who will care for us in old age or ill health. We all depend upon services whose costs we share with our fellow citizens, however selfishly we conduct our economic lives."


I have been meaning to write about this book for awhile, but in case you missed it, it is a great retrospective of post-World War II America and Europe and it makes a strong argument for European-style social democracy. "[Income] inequality," Judt writes, "is corrosive. It rots societies from within...Of all the competing and only partially reconcilable ends that we might seek, the reduction of inequality must come first."



Thursday, January 6, 2011

See Me Improving


The Rumpus, o
ne of my favorite writer websites, has posted a review of Travis Nichols' new collection of poems, See Me Improving (a great title). I met Travis back when I interned at Wave; he was partner to the managing editor at the time. I'm happy to see his work is making its way into the world. The review's interesting, too.


Monday, January 3, 2011

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Probably Incomplete List of the Literary Books I Read in 2010


And sadly, only one of them was poetry! By this count, I read 22 books of fiction, 15 books of literary non-fiction (essays and memoir), and one book of poems. I reviewed seven of the 38 for outside publications, and liked (more than I didn't like) 29 of them. (Many others I started and did not finish.) I loved seven without reservation, but only one (Happy Baby) which I was charged with reviewing.

My New Year's resolution, then, is to read more poems and fewer essays: to ask more from honey and twilight, as Neruda said.

Without further adieu...

My Life in Heavy Metal, Steve Almond
The Invention of Solitude, Paul Auster
Repeat Until Rich, Josh Axelrad
Giovanni's Room, James Baldwin
Burning Down the House, Charles Baxter
Arkansas, John Brandon
Standing by Words, Wendell Berry
Bringing It To The Table: Essays on Farming and Food, Wendell Berry
Misconception, Ryan Boudinot
Ablutions, Patrick DeWitt
All-American Poem, Matthew Dickman
Happy Baby, Stephen Elliott
My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up, Stephen Elliott
The Adderall Diaries, Stephen Elliott
The Ticking is the Bomb, Nick Flynn
Hunger, Knut Hamsun
Airships, Barry Hannah
Ray, Barry Hannah
Ill Fares the Land, Tony Judt
Misadventure, Millard Kaufman
The Farewell Party, Milan Kundera
Home Land, Sam Lipsyte
Bluets, Maggie Nelson
Netherland, Joseph O'Neill
Kentucky Straight, Chris Offutt
Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell
Refresh, Refresh, Benjamin Percy
The Wilding, Benjamin Percy
In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan
Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth
Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer
A Common Pornography, Kevin Sampsell
The thing about life is that one day you'll be dead, David Shields
The Death of Conservatism, Sam Tanenhaus
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Wells Tower
Marry or Burn, Valerie Trueblood
Old School, Tobias Wolff
In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, Tobias Wolff