Tuesday, September 27, 2011

20,000 Different Kinds of Sentimentality

So much of what I write at this time of year is about the NFL, and much of what I write about the NFL can be filed under either "exasperated/political" or "frankly hallucinatory." I have examples of both up today, although the most recent edition of my goof-therapy football-yakking with Jeff Johnson has not yet gone up at GQ as I write this. But this week's Vice column came out pretty well, I think, both in general and as an example of what I do actually think is kind of great about the NFL. As overbranded and generally, half-fascistic-ly dumb as the league is, and as multiply objectionable as it is in so many ways, it's also a great place to project some feelings and get some escapism up in yourself. And when formerly (and possibly still) crummy teams from crumbling cities random pull off upsets and generally don't look terrible... well, you'd have to be a much more serious and well-balanced human than me not to write a column about how awesome that is.

That both teams are sharing first place at this point in the season makes even non-partisan fans feel good, especially since the Bills got there by knocking off the unctuously sadistic New England Patriots on Sunday in a comeback you’d scoff at for being unrealistic if you saw it in a movie. Whether that success has any greater football significance remains to be seen, although it wouldn't be surprising if it didn’t—Detroit hasn't beaten a good team yet, and Buffalo has trailed by three scores in both of their last two games. And of course, appealing though it is to think otherwise, nothing that either team does will do much to make the cities of Detroit or Buffalo less like their bleak selves.

But there's still something worth celebrating here, even if it's illusory and despite the fact that—broadly speaking—it’s all pretty resoundingly insignificant. The NFL's militaristic pomp and goony storylines are not, after all, the only way to understand or enjoy a football game. American culture is currently screaming profanities at itself from the bottom of a canyon-sized rut; everyplace, increasingly, feels like a cross between Detroit and Buffalo. So a stunning comeback win or two from the NFL's ultimate rust-belt no-hopers offers a very in-context type of escapism, and inspires a different and sweeter sort of sentimentality.

Because of the inherent TL;DR issues at Vice, that's like half the column, but there are jokes en route to the end. This should in no way suggest that I am giving up on seeing the NFL as a giant ass-carnival of bad ideas and bad faith. It still is. But I'm certainly not boycotting a Bills team powered by friend-of-the-program Ryan Fitzpatrick, or a Lions team that wins and plays joyously. The opposite. I am, for all the usual qualifications, LOVING that shit.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Getting Serious About That Roberto Clemente Graphic Bio

For whatever reason, the choice between comic books and baseball cards was indeed and very much a choice in my hometown. There were, presumably, kids who were as obsessive about hoarding and shoplifting and maintaining their comic book collections as I was about my stacks of Phil Plantier rookie cards -- "Call that the college fund/HA HA" -- Young Jeezy on my mindset at that moment. I didn't know them, and I am actually also not sure they really were there in my hometown. And so it never remotely happened for me with comics.

I tried to read "Watchmen" after college, because everyone said I should, but it didn't take -- I thought it was creepy and overdetermined and half-fascist and not that good, but mostly that means that it was not for me. So it was that Wilfred Santiago's "21", which I got sent (twice, as it turns out) to review for the Los Angeles Review of Books, became the only comic in my house, and remains the only one that I've finished, ever, in my life. But while I probably wasn't the obvious choice to review the book, given my nonexistent comics background, my love for writing longish things and books and baseball and my admiration for the new and very cool LARB -- and, more to the point, the help of my Can't Stop the Bleeding associate Ben Schwartz -- helped make it happen anyway. I'm happy with the way the review turned out, and proud to be LARB'ed. You should read it, if you want to read it. And now here is a bit of it that will either make you want to read it or not:

Two generations after his last game as a baseball player and his disappearance into the Caribbean, Clemente endures in the alternately flattering and flattening forbidden zone of baseball mythos: as a name on Major League Baseball’s annual citizenship award, as the subject of a statue outside Pittsburgh’s PNC Bank Park, as a Spanish-speaking stand-in for Jackie Robinson, baseball’s first truly great Latin American star, and finally as something of a cipher. The only player for whom the Baseball Hall of Fame waived its traditional five-year waiting period — Clemente was voted into the Hall in a landslide in 1973, mere months after his death — the Pirates’ star found himself entombed in baseball’s pantheon when he still had plenty of life due to him. He has been locked in there ever since, his goodnesses and greatnesses sanitized and held in air-conditioned suspension in Cooperstown.

And so Clemente still exists: his name is on the 304-acre sports campus he built near his hometown of Carolina, in Puerto Rico, and his name is on the pedestrian bridge that fans cross to reach PNC Bank Park on game-days. But, more broadly, the sentimental way in which he has been remembered has made him, if not forgettable, certainly a bit less human: one of the game’s household saints.

Only you know if that worked or not. But if it did, you should click here.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

From The Prose Orphanage: The 9/12 Project

Given that what's below checks in at a mighty healthy word count, I'll keep the introduction brief. Your eyes are too important, and any sort of backstory I give for the piece -- which I started as a blog post on a train ride, repurposed into an essay for The Awl, and then was compelled by bad timing, mostly, and by a lack of other outlets for stuff like this to turn back into a blog post -- isn't important enough. It's about September 11 and September 12, and it is actually rather bloggy in terms of the HERE IS HOW I FELT AND FEEL aspects. But I like it, and I hope you like it, too, and there is no way I am going to let this many adjectives just sit around stinking up my hard drive. And so I give you:

The 9/12 Project

It is going to be a very full train and everyone on board knows what that means, although I suppose that isn't necessarily a reason not to remind people of what it means. And I suppose, too, that the conductor who gets on the PA to remind everyone what it means, first at Boston's South Station and then three minutes later at Back Bay Station and then five or so minutes after that at Route 128, can't really do anything about the sound of his voice, which arrives to the (very full) train car through his organ-pipe sinuses and the tinny Amtrak speakers. But the words themselves make me recoil, because they are a savage and unwitting parody of the muscled-up, flubby-formal copspeak that has emerged as something like our new national language of authority.

You know what this sounds like by now, this opaque and faintly menacing combination of dim authority and flabby extraneousness. The conductor's pronouncements and re-pronouncements – not-really-alerting anyone that the café car is FOR DINING ONLY… AND DRINKING, DINING AND DRINKING ONLY and not for doing your homework or setting up your computer; that it's one seat per ticketed passenger (except at Back Bay, where it's "one ticketed passenger per seat") – are guided home by weirdly formal "in this matter"-s and "for this purpose"-s tacked onto the sentences' end. We are told, for reasons known only to the conductor, that there are a lot of families on board, although context suggests that this may in some way intensify the need to use the café car for its intended purposes (ONLY).

The conductor delivers the same bad news over and over – if you are looking to make a connection, you should expect delays (on that matter) because of heightened security concerns (at this time) on New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Railroad. He walks through the train car, which is by now teetering towards Providence, then returns with another conductor. That one has a pair of sunglasses hung backwards, Guy Fieri-style, from his ears. As the second conductor follows his authoritative co-worker out of the car, the sunglasses give his shaved dome a jarring, eyes-in-the-back-of-his-head aspect. Although, really, it was only jarring because all of this happened on September 11, which means I was maybe looking for it and also already kind of jarred. The conductor gets back on the horn to thank everyone for their "voluntary cooperation" on the no-lying-down-on-the-seats issue. Another of his breathy beats. "Please do make it voluntary," he adds.

At that time a day earlier I was firing an AR-15 at a gun range an hour outside Boston during a friend's bachelor party. This is the same gun American soldiers carry, our firearms instructor noted. "It's like 'American,'" he said with hand over the AR-15, before dramatically sweeping his hands over to the AK-47 lying next to it, "and 'Taliban.'" Back on the train, I see that the blunderingly authoritative Amtrak conductor's ID swings from a Marine Corps lanyard, which would make him the second Marine to tell me what to do in two days, if also the opposite of the voluble and capable and wildly funny Eddie, who is undoubtedly the guy you should go see if you want to shoot assault rifles in North Attleboro, Mass. So: where is all this going?

It is going back to New York, eventually. But first one more thing, please. First let me tell you how I met my wife. It was ten years ago on September 11, on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn. I spent a lot of time there that day. I rode a bus down Fifth Avenue with a roommate that morning, with all that smoke and ash glowering like a grotesque new planet over the river and above the low rooftops. We watched things on television with some other people in downtown Brooklyn, and then I walked back down Fifth Avenue to my apartment, where I got to work on getting drunk. I was nearly there when I walked down Fifth Avenue again – it might help to read this bit in the voice of Grandpa Simpson, but it was 20-odd blocks from my apartment on the fringes of Sunset Park to a decent bar back then. And it was then and there that I met my wife, who was on her way to my place with a friend of hers to watch some more harrowing television with another of my roommates. They were still there after another Fifth Avenue walk, and we watched the commissioner of the New York Fire Department dissolve into tears together. I remember the look on his face as he slid towards that collapse, how he recognized that what he told us would end with him in tears and how he moved on and into it anyway. What I can tell you about Kate, on that night, was that her beauty cut through the doom a bit, that she re-filled the Brita after drinking from it, that she cried at times and laughed at others and was in general as close to a symbol of possibility and hope as anything I would see again until I saw her next, nearly a month later. When I showed my not-then-wife and her friend out at the night's end, we saw that our garbage cans were sugared in pale ash. Scorched bits of paper had settled here and there – singed memos from Merrill Lynch, a page from what appeared to be a computer science textbook. My roommates and I gathered them up and brought them inside.

And now maybe we can go back to New York, and towards today. There was, in the days before this most recent September 11, a deep impatience palpable in the city. Which is admittedly not the most noteworthy or novel mood for New Yorkers, but which also seemed a reaction to something more than a desultory bag-check at the subway or the body-armored sentinels with their (oh hey) AR-15's who have faded back up from the background, and whose sunglass-blanked glares have thanked us for our voluntary assistance in this matter for a decade now. There were those most recent maddeningly vague press-conference ominousnesses – regarding what may have sort of been known about terrible things that were or weren't planned for the city on the anniversary – which didn't help. There was also the suffocating pomp and ponderousness of all those looming National Looks Back, and the private memories to face down, in private. But this wasn't that, I don't think. There is a greater, darker persistence, something too big and too present and too awful to Never Forget about.

If you were close enough to it, wherever you were, what happened on September 11 is on you still. We wear it as a livid scar or a phantom limb, wrestle it as a nightmare that haunts in daylight or an older ghost that breathes chaos into our dreams at night, but we wear it, we wrestle with it. But for all the shadowy constancy of what September 11, 2001 subtracted and extracted, September 11 is also gone, and all those facile Never Forget rituals only push it more and more profoundly away from us.

There are those flags the size of football fields and fighter jet flyovers, the memory-sanctifying resolutions that sail cheaply through the House of Representatives in shouted unanimity. There's Michelle Tafoya on NBC, asking New York Jets coach Rex Ryan after the team's Sunday night win how the significance of 9/11 "impacted the game," and Newt Gingrich using the word "celebrate" to describe the tenth anniversary of the 11th during a Republican debate a day later. So we haven't forgotten anything so much as we've misplaced nearly everything. And the culture – not you or me or your neighbors or mine, but the bigger thing that is our politics and our economy and the author of the line items of our myriad and massive debts – is now moved not so much by the terrible thing itself or the terrible things that came after, but moved by how moved we are. It's September 12 as I write this, and it has been September 12 for ten terrified, terrifying, mostly terrible years.

Among the Perpetual Seether segment of the populace, 9/12 has a resonance that has strangely little and strangely much to do with the day that preceded it. During his weepy, marker-smudged ascent, Glenn Beck asked his viewers and listeners to "remember who you were on September 12" and told them that those 9/12 selves were who and how they really were; he held 9/12 rallies and 9/12 groups sprouted on their own and, as usual, he made bank. And Tea Party Astroturf-farming concern FreedomWorks scheduled its watershed Taxpayer March on Washington, with ardent but opaque purpose, for September 12, 2009.

Whatever dry-drunk fantasia of righteous purpose Beck associates with September 12, the perverse echo of 1963's March on Washington offered by FreedomWorks in 2009 feels more apt today. In '63, a diverse group of Americans braved the risk-unto-certainty of public- and private-sector violence to voice their belief that America could not be what it should be without the liberation of less-than-free Americans. The group that hit town during both the chronological and constant September 12 a couple years ago did so in fatuous resistance to notional state violence – imaginary tax hikes, a dozen different fantastical and false socialisms – and more generally to argue against the very idea of a common good or shared purpose or responsibility; for all the teary Beck-ian unity talk, this was more the against-them fellowship of the sleeper cell than the gracious and great-hearted and hopeful fellowship of '63. The liberation this new Army of September 12 demanded in 2009 – and which they have already, in many ways, won – was from each other, everyone else, anyone else; they were demanding a safety that they could not have unless or until they were left very thoroughly alone, barricaded and border-fenced and home-protected against everything and everyone else out there.

The whole avalanche of bilious bad faith that has followed is, finally, a bleak affirmation of Beck's piteous/cynical soft-sci-fi worldview. That army of the terrified converged on the nation's capital, demanding a permanent September 12, and they have it. We have taken up residence in that long shadow, lived in and with the frantic inertia, the intermittent intimations of something terrible, the inward-turning fear at all those vague but implacable loomings. A new political class of howling, shit-scared know-nothing bullies that believes the only tough-minded response to anything is an unyielding "no;" a popular culture curled babyish around an atomizing and anomic materialism it detests and knows well it cannot afford; a thousand inexpressible and unexpressed fears and mistrusts – how we live now is a disheartening extension who we were then.

And for all the frazzled purpose of the first September 12 – the various enrollment and enlistment booms, the desperate searches for a place that would take our blood or somehow let us help – the dominant feeling in the bright, still-burning city in which I awakened that day was finally one of terrible aloneness. Some of the trains were running, and some of the offices were open. I took one to my job around Union Square, and I sent emails to everyone I could, or who I thought might care – to my friends in Washington D.C. asking if they were all right, to my friends elsewhere telling them that I was. And then I let myself out and walked downtown, past one checkpoint at 14th Street and into an emptied-out Greenwich Village. I walked down the middle of the street. I remember being aware of the absent pulse of the subway under Broadway. I remember the streets being harrowingly and absolutely ghostly, and being thankful for the periodic appearance of random people just doing whatever they were out there doing – walking to or from, dazedly riding a skateboard along the double lines in the middle of Eighth Street, signing a piece of paper spread on the sidewalk outside an Army/Navy store. ("Dear Anthony," someone wrote, ten years ago today. "Good luck in the war. I love you, always and 4ever") I remember quiet, and sirens, and the terrible sadness and anger at the lives lost. I remember, too, thinking that it would be nice to see the woman from the night before again, that she seemed kind. I remember how precious that kindness seemed.

But mostly I remember, in this most life-full of cities, a profound bottomlessness and emptiness that left me feeling terribly alone on those so-silent streets. You may have been on the streets of your city late at night or early in the morning or after some blanking blizzard, and enjoyed the solitary feeling; I have. This was different than that; this was an aloneness that had a sense about it of the irretrievable and irrevocable. The strange and unfathomable smell and heavy air that pushed uptown and the police officers that finally stopped my ramble southward reminded me of what all this really was, and why it felt so sad. It was the feeling of a drained city, its citizens either fled or locked in or otherwise elsewhere. It was quiet, but it was not peaceful, and it was not home.

If we must Never Forget anything from that not-quite-passed present, let it be the actual truth of September 12 and the days after – the way we receded from one another and ourselves, all those great and frightened distances we made, how unrecognizable everything was without everyone else there, and how awful all of that was. The terrified, traumatized non-choices we made then and have made since are not necessarily ones we'd commemorate or honor or (Newt, Newt) celebrate, of course. But memory has a higher purpose than commemoration, doesn't it? Doesn't it have to?

Update: Don't worry, everything's cool now. Or... wait, that's not the update at all. What I meant was that the good folks at GoodMenProject.com republished this at their site, here. Click the link, enjoy their other tasty prose morsels.

Exercises in Belatedness

If this is the one place you come for your David Roth news -- and I'd ordinarily recommend making it such, because most of the fansites have a lot of inaccuracies -- I have been letting you down. Of course, there is no one anywhere who pursues "David Roth news," here or anywhere, so I'll assume you've been fine. Things have been happening -- a new series of ridiculousness-powered NFL chats with Jeff Johnson at GQ.com (those so-inclined can catch up here and here), as well as another piece for New York Magazine, a few Vice columns I'm proud of (I like this one and this one, and the most recent one is at least on the new Vice.com site).

I also gave a powerpoint presentation in front of a couple dozen people in a Brooklyn bar during a rainstorm. I helped my wife move back to Connecticut and got sad. The Kickstarter fundraising for The Classical, which was the last thing I did a post about -- ahem -- continued and continues and is doing well. All good. I had some good experiences cooking with kale. All, except for the kale, maybe worth reporting as more than a series of serial hyperlinks, given that this blog exists to catalog the things I do (and, to a lesser degree, how I feel about pizza). I'll do better. Also I'm going to post a 2200-word thing later today which is going to more than get me to my quarterly prose-quota. What a relief, right?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

And Furthermore

This is still happening, and now features ill wallpaper art from Jacob Weinstein of Free Darko fame. More art, more writing, more other things will follow from this. The Classical will not change the world, most likely, but we may annoy Gregg Doyel, at the very least. If you will it, it is no dream, dude.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Talking About Things

Here's a very long discussion/dialogue/co-essay I wrote with personal heroine Maria Bustillos at Nieman Lab about whether or not David Foster Wallace is the reason why the internet sounds the way it does. I am very proud of it, and not just because it's a way for me to prove to everyone that I know Maria Bustillos. This is something that's much on my mind, and Maud Newton's fine/flawed essay on the topic was something I've thought a lot about. It was bracing and great fun and a bunch of other good things to get to talk about it with someone I love so well, at a venue I respect so much. Here is some of what it looks like:

Bustillos: (snort.) What this kind of writing comes from, really, is a deep frustration with the establishment. You have this person who can’t be contained in establishment methods or institutions, a status quo that is not speaking to him. Hang the blessed DJ. Nothing more complicated than that.

Wallace tailored his language very exactly to his meaning. The language may have been sprawling, but for a reason; it was an exact representation of both his thought and his desire for delivering that thought to you, the reader. This is a deliberate strategy. What I think Newton missed is that grabbing all these words and voices and ways of expressing what you want to say from legalese, from advertising, from television, there is a laser-keen purpose to that, which is to make yourself understood outside of the conventional parameters. Not liked, but understood.

Roth: Right: it’s a fireworks show, but it’s also mimetic insofar as he’s turning all these something-from-everything thoughts he’s trying to express into sentences that are more or less as complicated, and comprised of the same weird parts. The thing with the Newton essay that falls short for me — and there’s a kind of funny internal self-critique in this — is the argument itself. Or the idea that there’s an argument like in the sense of a thing-to-dispute. I’m not an editor at the Times, of course, but just identifying the source of The Way The Internet Writes — and I am, and you are, and plenty of other people are borrowing from that voice — is cool to me. I’d want to read about that and I really dug the parts where she wrote about that.

But the idea that somehow everyone is so awash in their own qualifiers and voice-iness that they can’t make an argument anymore…I don’t know that that’s somehow more true for someone in that voice than anyone writing any other way. And I don’t get the sense even that she was feeling that particular angle as hard. I guess that’s the editorial influence, maybe, the find-a-problem-and-then-solve-it bit. But it’s not inherently a problem that people are trying to get their thoughts out in something more or less approximating those thoughts’ own syntax, and I don’t know that appending all those qualifiers is in some way a weakness. Unless it’s done weakly, but obviously on that.

It's long enough, for sure, but it covers a lot of ground and I really hope you'll read it. Also there are some pictures, don't worry.

"Your blog needs to be more visual." -- You. It's cool, you're totally right. Be patient. God.