Thursday, January 27, 2011

Important Versus More Important

Where to start? I guess I'll start with the less significant stuff. Which is that what is going on in Egypt is terrifying and inspiring in equal measure. I'm under no illusions about what type of government might replace that of Hosni Mubarak there, but if it's a government chosen by the people who actually live there -- as opposed to one installed and maintained by a brutal and unaccountable military and crass, cynical international elites (like us!) -- it won't be worse than this. The Egyptians deserve better, like everyone deserves better, and I hope they get it. Given what we've seen, and given the craft and bravery and simple and amazing courage of what's going on there, it's hard to see how even the sourest bigot couldn't pull for them. Whatever their religion and whatever they want as a future -- it's safe to assume that the future will be a bit less forward-thinking on one notable non-Arab neighbor -- the Egyptians are working hard for theirs, and whatever they get they will certainly have earned.

Also, it's glib and maybe unfair, but I'll say it -- I would be really interested in seeing how our own brave exurban tricorn aficionados would behave when faced with a tyranny that deserves the name, and which has nastier things in mind than a modest tax hike on people a few brackets above them. Priorities, courage, so on -- it puts itself into perspective, I guess.

More importantly, though, much more importantly -- I wrote a David Foster Wallace parody/riff/homage/whatever for The Awl today, and I really like it and think you should read it. It is called "Brief Interviews With Hideous Football Players," and it includes but is not limited to Mike Singletary discussing his new job coaching a team in Animal Planet's Puppy Bowl and Jeremy Shockey discussing the signature appetizers he created with David Roth The Writer (and American) favorite Guy Fieri at Houlihan's. Again, sort of puts everything into perspective. Let us hope that the Egyptians can do as well as I did?

No, sorry. Can't make that joke, honestly. Pray for them. Click my BS if you've got time. Bless everyone and everything, and goodnight.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Yakkin' About Comic Sociology With Brendan Flynn

Like most everyone who gets The New Yorker but also has things to do besides reading The New Yorker (kind of), I'm in a happy but more or less constant race to keep up. It keeps coming every week, and with the exception of articles about fashion designers or anything by Adam Gopnik or Talk of the Town pieces about droll things happening at rich peoples' charity auctions -- or Talk of the Town pieces about going for soup with Robert Klein or going sneaker shopping with Cornel West or whatever the last three Talks of the Towns are always about -- I'm generally inclined to read just about everything in each issue. It's tough to keep up, which means that I was delighted to see a book excerpt by David Brooks. One less thing to read, being my thought process.

I mean, I started it. That's what I do. And what I found was something that needed skipping, badly. Something with a sub-Gladwellian concept, a near-unreadable subhed and which began with several grafs of the most deplorably poor stand-up drollery I've ever read, not just in the excellence-machine of the Remnick New Yorker circa now, but in just about anything, anywhere, ever. Even Gopnik had to be like, "dude, there are a lot of bad jokes in this. A reporter's daughter, in fact, read it and said, 'I like dinosaurs.' Can you believe my, I mean, a reporter's daughter? Uncanny!"

Anyway, so I skipped it. But it turns out that doing that was a mistake. Thanks to a prompt from Brendan Flynn, a dear friend with what is apparently an advanced masochistic impulse who read the piece earlier just for mirthless yuks, I read the piece. And man. Oh man this piece. It's hard to know where to start with it, although here's a good place to start: with the glib fatuity of dumping all these words -- an excerpt from a book, naturally -- on the imaginary sociology of an imaginary new elite, which Brooks regards with a mixture of nauesous awe and (self-)disgust and which he never compellingly evokes as anything other than the geeky projections of a cossetted Upper West Side millionaire who cannot and will not give a shit about a single thing that matters. That's a decent place to start.

Anyway, because there will be no Yakkin About Football this week, here is an excerpt of the conversation Brendan and I had about it.

brendan: its so bad it almost must be consumed. read it. the article's sexuality provokes an awkwardness I haven't felt since my 9th grade english teacher essentially recited A&P from memory.
me: Oh no. There's sexuality in it? Any hint of that from Brooks needs to be DEALT WITH. Harshly and swiftly.
brendan: um sort of...he describes the ideal relationship for his fake cultural elites.
me: God, stop making up elites, David Brooks.
brendan: that are maybe taking over society? and maybe are supposed to live in park slope? but he describes their first date at starbucks or something.
me: He can be wrong about anything. Average Americans, obviously, obviously. But apparently also about his own cohort somehow.
brendan: and he uses the term social capital--i think trying to make the point that social capital is what matters for happiness--but isn't using it the way sociologists or political scientists do.
brendan: and there's this: "They got good grades in school, established solid social connections, joined fine companies, medical practices, and law firms. Wealth settled down upon them gradually, like a gentle snow."
me: First: barf. Secondly, no it didn't. Didn’t he deal with these people already, by the way? These are BoBo’s, right? Also, does anyone think people like that are not discussed or analyzed enough? Okay, I’m reading it.
brendan: it is really terrible
me: Having kind of a hard time getting past the subhed, honestly. (“How the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of a life.” – ed.) Also, the first few bars of this High on Fire song that just came on my iTunes made me laugh out loud in the library.
me: It sounds like that Toyota "The Van Beckons" commercial. Just got heavier. Perfect fit with Brooksie, too.
me: Okay, the first two grafs of this piece are absolutely, absolutely appalling. Like worst thing to run in the New Yorker in I don't know how long. Total "white people drive like this" jokes for UWS types.
brendan: it totally is. i couldn't believe it.

me: But also, who does he think he's talking about? These are physicians who go to China and hang out at the Clinton Global Change Initiative? And they live on Garfield and Seventh Avenue in Park Slope. They are The Composure Class, and they go to yoga and they go to Davos and they go to Starbucks. Okay, got it.
me: Wait, they have their own planes?
brendan: that's the composure class, david.
brendan: you know them, right? from all your Aspen institute retreats.
me: Right. But lots of people go to the Aspen Institute retreats. Lots of people who are really representative of important things going on in our culture.
me: Dozens, at least. (Another hilarious High on Fire overlap just happened. If you'd like to replicate it, you can. Do you have the Snakes For The Divine record?)
brendan: i have it
me: Okay, go to the title track. 4:30 seconds in. Then start reading the paragraph that begins, "Occasionally, you meet a young, rising member of this class at the gelato store..." Makes it so much better.
brendan: it totally does.
me: There is… I mean, I’ll finish this, but I have no idea how I’ll finish this.
brendan: Brooks is clearly trying to become a farty version of Friedman... take all these anecdotes and observations and jam them together to create a false reality you pass off as truth to make it ok to be rich and not give a fuck.
me: Like a version of Friedman that's never more than a 20-minute cab ride from home. Noble goal. Good goal, great job making it real.
me: What's amazing, too, is this weird passive-aggressive balancing between comic-caricaturist mode and a real slavering admiration. He's invented a largely imaginary class to which he wants to belong, or be seen to belong. And then he's somehow deploying them as the fucking Rosetta Stone for modern life?
brendan: weird that it's a "new class" based on 1940's gender stereotypes.
brendan: but with sexier lesbians I guess.
me: It’s actually grosser if you accept it as a projection of his own biases and anxieties and whatever than if you accept it as a piece of flawed and trivial pseudo-science. It’s like the most embarrassing fantasy ever, but in The New Yorker and full of awful observational humor.
brendan: from the attached Q&A:
QUESTION FROM ROLAND: To what extent was the piece meant as a joke?
DAVID BROOKS: Probably not as much as you might have taken it. I used to call my style comic sociology, which meant taking serious research and coating it with humor and social observation to make it more fun to read.
In this article and in the book I take this another step by creating characters. I did that to show how the research applies in concrete situations. I also did it to show agency.

brendan: might as well read DAVID BROOKS: Roland I completely made shit up to serve my purpose which as you can tell I'm unsure of.
me: To show agency? You did it to make jokes about gelato, homey. And popular consumer brands and famous think tanks. It’s unreal, it doesn’t let up with the brand-drops. It's like Patrick Bateman ghostwrote it.
me: Wow, this is. Just woof. I mean the impression that comes off is that he's just the most effete UWS creep you've ever met. And one whose understanding of what the world's inhabitants are like comes entirely from reading the Times wedding announcements. And, like, going to Davos.
me: Like an unctuous alien that somehow also went to Dartmouth. Hard to explain.
brendan: well Dartmouth probably has heavy representation at Davos and the times wedding section.
brendan: b/w this and the attention lavished on that tiger mother shit our culture is really bottoming out.
me: Rich people gazing at platinum-plated navels while bridges collapse, etc. Finally, a Book of Revelations, but with riffs on gelato and sedans and "achievement" instead of pale horses and suchlike.
me: I guess I just don't see what's so depressing about it.
me: Wait. I think I'm starting to see it.

Hello, I'm Sitting On A Beanstalk

So quiet! I can't take the quiet! I have been a bit on the neglect-y side of things, here, mostly because... um, because I've been writing a lot of bullshitty stuff about condos and thinking a lot about writing/trying to write other things. As things become clearer -- what I'm going to pitch, what I'm going to write, what I probably shouldn't have just written on spec for yuks -- they have become, um, clearer. But I at least know what I'm about, now, and can hopefully get things back on track a bit. So hello. Hello. Hello. Hello. I'm sitting on a beanstalk. I'm carrying an umbrella. That video should probably be longer, no?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Celebrity Sightings!

I ordinarily don't brag about stuff like this. See Chris Noth getting empanadas in the East Village? Life in the big city, whatever, shit don't faze me. Catch Terence Stamp sitting in a corner table at Elio's, looking even more like Terence Stamp than you'd expect? Good for Terence Stamp, I hope he enjoyed his linguine as much as I enjoyed him in Alien Nation. I'm not going to bug the guy. But when I ran into football hero Ben Roethlisberger -- and one of my personal favorite dudes to write about -- at JFK's international terminal just after Christmas, you knew I had to get a picture. He's at left. Looking good, man!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Tastes Terrible, Less Filling

Video art hasn't been this good since Knox Harrington got out of the game. What's amazing about this is that the lip-smacking sound is no more nauseating when Palin does it than it is when anyone else does. Also amazing is the fact that all her small-minded self-passion, vehement point-missing and dazzling nightmarishness comes through in the video despite the absence of... anyway, watch it. I promise it's the most speaking you'll ever hear from Sarah Palin in this space.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Is It Getting Heavy?

The hardworking gargoyle at left is helping to hold up Wat Arun, in Bangkok. Not in the photo, but surrounding the 250-year-old Buddhist temple, are dozens of identical figures, each with the same burden and the same carved expression -- a cross, viewed straight on, between a grimace and a grin. Climb a dozen steep steps, and there are more of him, and then again, and onward and upward for 262 feet and change, although at the upper reaches the temple tapers towards an unborne spire. Most of the height is there. The views get more and more dizzying, the steps less and less appealing in their steep suddenness, and the pathways wrapping the temple are anxiously narrow. The effect, as always for me at places this old and sacred, is a reminder both of how important it is to get nearer to God, and at how small people once were. Or at least how little extra room they used to cut for themselves in their structures.

Thailand is beautiful and difficult and welcoming and very far away. We did finally make it there, after this year's Storm of the Century -- bigger, admittedly, than last year's -- wiped out the day in which we were supposed to travel, and after a happy fluke put us on a flight on December 28. If we'd been unlucky, or if I'd not doofishly hung around the Cathay Pacific ticket counter for an hour and a half on the early afternoon of the 28th waiting patiently for the frazzled ground crew to load a flight with people who were supposed to have left on the early morning of the 27th, we might not have left until the 29th. As it worked out, we were in Thailand for not all that long a period of time, and certainly barely long enough to get our bearings. (How long it might have actually taken to get our bearings in a place so profoundly foreign is a different question altogether) At any rate, while our bodies never quite figured out what time it was -- and still haven't, although my body clock was pretty insanely in-the-red before we left anyway -- we enjoyed ourselves immensely. We ate well and drank well and slept as well as we could when we could, and generally enjoyed the comforts (in Bangkok) of a comfortable and exciting city that seems to work quite well, as well as the company of a great amount of beauty, and my very wonderful sister and brother-in-law and a few million other generally friendly people, none of whom felt quite as desperately close as did the residents of India, in the last big non-honeymoon international trip I took with my wife. It felt like a vacation, overall. And then we came home, the way you do when your vacation is over.

That is, we came home to the United States, which is where I grew up and live, and also a place where, on the morning of my return, a rageful loner and apparently untreated paranoid schizophrenic who bought an automatic handgun with an extended, assault-style clip at a Tucson-area sporting goods store, fired those very same bullets into the head of a third-term congresswoman and the bodies of 18 other people. At which point the aforementioned loner was wrestled to the ground -- the gun jammed, or he was trying to reload, or something; reports are unclear, but there's no answer that isn't horrific or trivial -- and finally arrested. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is still in a medically induced coma, but appears, somehow, likely to pull through. She's the first congressperson to be shot in what I guess one would have to call the line of duty since Rep. Leo Ryan was killed at Jonestown back in the 1970s.

And it's horrible, of course. It's a horrible thing in any and every way, and harrowing in its impenetrable and essential meaninglessness -- the shooter, Jared Loughner, appears to have been an adherent of a paranoiac theorist who goes by the unconventionally and VERY intentionally punctuated name :David-Wynn: Miller (more on him here), and was obsessed with issues of grammar and ontology so nuttily far-out as to be effectively non-partisan. As James Fallows points out at The Atlantic, that's ordinarily the way it goes with assassinations and assassination attempts -- any asshole can rock a shoulder holster and a tricorn hat, but history shows that it takes a crazy person to draw down on a public figure. The buttheads protesting imaginary tax increases from behind the guy with the fife and drum might roll out the revolutionary rhetoric, but they're too privileged -- and too sane -- to actually try to deliver on their own self-flattering revolutionary rhetoric. The words, the whole Water The Tree Of Liberty pomp, is there to make them feel more important. Which I guess is fine, as that's a common-enough use for words, but which is also not without consequence, because words mean things.

And so while Loughner is pretty clearly a non-denominational crazy person, what he did is political, insofar as the victims included Giffords and federal judge John Roll (who was killed), and insofar as it highlights political issues ranging from the way we treat the mentally ill to how easy it is for those people to get incredibly deadly weapons to how dazzlingly casual has been the proliferation of the language of violence in our political culture. And the response to it has been political, too -- lesser intellectual lights on both sides trying to tie Loughner to their political opponents, and everyone generally doing what they usually do in the way in which they usually do it. Already idiots on both sides are parsing Loughner's cache'd MySpace (of course) page, weighing his avowed taste for The Communist Manifesto alongside his taste for Ayn Rand, and doing all of it with the fissured poker faces of assholes trying harder than usual not to seem like assholes. Keith Olbermann went on TV and, with his usual meaty solemnity, demanded that a grip of conservatives immediately repudiate their gunsight-adorned websites and "second amendment remedy" rhetoric and whatever else, at the risk of being no longer deemed credible by Keith Freaking Olbermann, who very probably was already at least considering unsubscribing from their email newsletters. Taken together, it's gross. It's grosser than usual, and my people that is fucking gross. But.

But yes, it's enough to make me want to head back overseas, to go someplace else. And you can see the pictures throughout this post -- once you see Wat Arun, you want to see it again, you want be there in it and breathe the cleaner air higher up and look out over that sprawling city and feel that strange and unearned and very human feeling of pride that comes with surveying humanity's accumulated work. But even in Thailand, spending time in a place like Wat Arun is functionally hiding -- the Thais are nice people, it seemed to me, but their country is not always a nice place, and it is governed cruelly and poorly by a not very good prime minister and a military shadow government and a revered and vain and embalmed-looking king, who would be kind of ridiculous anyway because he's a freaking king, and it's 2011. Thailand is subject to censorship of things big and small -- people still go to jail for things like lese majeste (which you can occasionally but not always read about on Wikipedia and can almost never post about on blogging platforms like this), and it has not been long since there was violence in those streets, and it may not be long until it happens again. There are real reasons for unrest and actual problems there, just as there are everywhere.

And so I guess coming back to all this, and touching down in a nation that's not appreciably less thwarted and ulcerous and terrified and indignant and lost than the one I left just a few days ago, is just a reminder of both why vacations are necessary and why they must end. There's a detail in the Wall Street Journal story on Loughner I link to above that comes to mind, here. While in the thrall of his Wynn:Miller-inspired linguistic solipsism, which sounds like a rejected footnote from Infinite Jest and revolves around "the government controlling our punctuation," Loughner called out a question to Giffords at a public event much like the one at which he later shot her. "How do you know words mean anything?," he reportedly asked. Giffords paused, and (strangely) gave him an answer in Spanish. The piece doesn't translate it, and Loughner apparently perseverated on it with all the fever in his ruined mind, right up until the moment he shot her -- and a judge, and a nine-year-old kid, and 17 others.

And it's tempting to say something like "This is how we know," but I think that's not it at all. While there's clearly a sense that the brutal ambient fervor of the political discourse set the stage for Loughner's savagery -- and while certain political undeniabilities did create the circumstances for it -- it seems increasingly clear that Loughner was coming from a place beyond reason and (ironically) language; the bitter irony of his fixation on seeming reasonable (he posted a serious of incoherent YouTube videos filled with Escher-ian syllogism and batshit logic games) and using language precisely isn't lost, but it also isn't worth much. Words are worth something only insofar as we can and do use them.

Thailand is all sound, but to a tourist without the language, it's finally so much polite noise. Here, at home, I speak the language, and am back in my element. What greeted me here at home, and the world into which I'll soon make a grudging return, is not easy to love, but words matter here, and you and I have that much, at least -- for all of Palin's glib and infantile apocalypticism and the gallons of Glenn Beck's porky millionaire stage tears, we can at least talk freely. Can and must and, I hope, will -- talk about this as people who hate that it happened when we can, and talk about those who can't or won't see it that way when necessary. I'm not expecting any of what surrounded and anticipated and half-occasioned this awfulness to sort itself out, and I'm certainly not expecting to sort any of it out myself. But as nice as the holy silence up Wat Arun was, I knew that sooner or later it would be time to come down, and to come back, and to maybe get to work. I'm not looking forward to getting back to my actual work -- although I am kind of eager to get back to cracking jokes about football coaches -- but I am, perversely but honestly, somewhat glad to be home, and certainly eager to get started on whatever is next, and to get on to doing whatever I can do to be a part of whatever will come after this.