A Waste of Breath

Harry Holland, “Falling from Grace

 

eyes opened wide by wind

James Dickey, “Falling”

To experience something, you don’t necessarily

have to see it or to do it.

 

For example, that immediate pang of regret after stepping off

the ledge.

 

The failed parachute of your skirt

fluttering above your waist.

 

The screams you cannot hear below

as heads turn away

 

to avoid witnessing the horrible mess

you’ve made of your life.

The Joy of Twitter

joy of twitter

You hear this all the time: social media is harmful because it deprives us of authentic flesh-and-blood contact with fellow human beings. For example, yesterday I caught a piece on NPR’s “Morning Edition” about an on-line project to bring Trump and Hillary voters together for face-to-face meetings in hopes of humanizing and creating empathy.

Well, I happen to know several Trump voters and don’t need to be in their physical presence to recognize our shared humanity. Of course, they’re not Russian-Bots; of course, they’re generally decent people; of course, we agree to disagree amicably. The secret is to avoid politics in conversation, which, I concede, is more difficult nowadays given the hour-by-hour reality-television-like drama generated by the current administration. But hey, it’s baseball season, celebrities are dying daily, weekly new movies are being released, the ospreys have returned to build their nest atop the cell phone tower on Hudson Avenue. There are plenty of things other than Crooked Hillary and Deceitful Donald to bandy about.

That said, sometimes I prefer the company of the avatars I follow on Twitter to that of flesh-and-blood human beings, whether they voted for Hillary or for Trump or Stein or Johnson or Prohibition Party candidate James “Jim” Hedges. On Twitter, [name drop warning] I have traded witticisms with James Wolcott, received thanks from Frank Rich, been winkingly chided by Emily Nussbaum, and had Josh Marshall privately expand a public point for clarification’s sake.

It’s not that these fewer-than-140-character exchanges I mention are all that meaningful, but I have had one-on-one communications with Pulitzer winners, i.e., brilliant journalists with ever-so-arid senses of humor. If you follow someone on Twitter, you get to know that persona (the way you don’t on Facebook). You choose to follow personae because they are informative, interesting, witty, and compatible.

Take Matthew Yglesias, the Vox correspondent, for example. If I’m sitting at the bar at Chico Feo or the Jack of Cups Saloon taking a break from grading essays,[1] chances are I’d much rather be checking out what Matty has to say in cyberspace than shoot the shit with the man-bun sporting fellow sitting to my right, who might very well bludgeon me with tales of last night’s barhopping or descriptions of the numerous micro-breweries he’s visited in the last two years.[2]

Matty, on the other hand, will be wittily commenting on a subtweet about Potemkin villages, providing a link to one of his clearly written explanations of macroeconomics, or dropping a line from Alanis Morrisette’s “Ironic” – “like rain on your wedding day” – to troll some obtuse tweeter’s mistaking coincidence with irony. I’ve never laid eyes on Yglesias, but I feel as if I know him better than I do some of the Facebook folk I’ve conversed with in the flesh.

If cultivating shallow ego-boosting connections with minor celebrities “ain’t [your] cup of meat” (to quote the Mighty Quinn), Twitter offers a less egocentric service: it provides up-to-date information on breaking news stories. I follow almost exclusively journalists, so when important news breaks, I can get lightning fast updates instead of watching the same looping video on CNN or MSNBC. In fact, I followed the election on Twitter instead of cable and was in bed by ten knowing that I would awaken the next morning in Oceania.

So Donald Trump and I do share one characteristic. We like to hang out on Twitter. Maybe we should meet in person to try to better understand each other’s viewpoints.


[1] I grade my essays in bars. I can grade six in an hour-and-a-half in the time it takes me to nurse two delicious craft IPAs.

[2] To be fair, I could also bore him comatose if I started in on how English’s being a hybrid language means it has an enormous vocabulary that provides its speakers with the ability to express innumerable shades of meaning. Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Adventures in Kafkaland

How to define kafkaesque?  Certainly, the phrase “of, pertaining to, characteristic of, or resembling the literary work of Franz Kafka” doesn’t begin to do justice to the connotation of fuckedupness[1] the word possesses.  Dictionary.com’s number 2 definition is just a bit better: “marked by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity.”  Perhaps a picture is worth, at least in this case, 20 words:

Back in my glorious undergraduate days, on a Saturday just around midnight one winter, I young woman named Margaret and I were picked up hitchhiking on Main Street in Columbia, South Carolina, after the city buses had quit running. I lived in North Columbia, a seven-mile trek through the nowhere that is everywhere, that souless six-lane Shoneys-studded commercial zone that leads into every municipality in this great nation of ours.  I mention the circumstances in an attempt to mitigate somewhat the sheer anti-Darwinian stupidity of  hitchhiking at night in a capital city with an attractive coed, especially after my brush with kinghell serial killer Pee Wee Gaskins some five years earlier, but that’s another, too-oft-told story.

 

Donald Henry “Pee-Wee Gaskins

 

As we were standing on the curb, thumbs thrust out, a jacked-up Oldsmobile Toronado pulled over, and, of course, we hopped on in.  The driver, whose neck was as red as the background of a Confederate flag, was accompanied by a short black man with an eraser-like afro – an odd couple indeed, as if Early Gracye of Kalifornia and Sammy Davis, Jr. had teamed up to be best friends.  After we piled into the back seat, they said they’d take us to my place, but they needed to pick up some weed first.

Oh great.

What transpired afterwards might be classified as sort of kafkaesque: an outdoor drug transaction in which our chauffeurs purchased a tiny bag of skankass cannabis for twenty 1975-dollars. No, they weren’t ready to take us home.  We had to see the black man’s paintings, so we drove to his concrete block shack where we smoked stems and seeds of the alleged marijuana and the black fellow showed us “his art”  – crude framed caricatures that you might find painted on the outside walls of a body shop.  Essentially, we were their prisoners.   Eventually, Margaret fell asleep on the couch, and the redneck pulled out a handgun and pointed in my face.  Not knowing what to do, I sat stupidly and impassively. The black fellow told him to put the gun away, and the redneck eventually passed out. The black painter finally took us about a block from my house (I wasn’t about to let him know where I lived).

As creepy as that abbreviated narrative might be, it nevertheless lacks the absurdity of true kafkafication, though the black fellow’s paintings skirted awfully close.

 

 

an approximation (the walls were covered with abominations like this)

 

When he was a resident of Hungary, younger son Ned experienced something like the real thing – true Kafkaquesness – as one overnight train ride from Munich to Budapest  demonstrates.

Before I let Ned tell the story, I’ll preface it by sharing that it had been a particularly good week at work.  The first grader he teaches who had threatened to kill everyone in the school wrote him a sweet little note:  Hi, Ned.  I’m sorry I was so evil in your class.

On that bright note, Ned took off to Nuremberg for a fun-filled four-day weekend.  Take it away, Ned.

First off I’ll start by saying the Hungarian word for emergency is vészhelyzet, and the German word is Not. I think the Germans need a one-syllable word for emergency because they get upset and panicked if things don’t go exactly to regimen. I used to make fun of them for their attitude towards efficiency, but after these few months in Hungary, I appreciate it now.

The whole weekend was kind of weird. I don’t know how much I should tell you about it, but I’ll err on the side of too much for the sake of art.

The couple who had visited me in Budapest and I were there, and the girl kept hitting on me, and her boyfriend informed me she had a crush on me. We were leaving through the masses of the crowd, and she started groping me (not unlike the guy that had robbed me in Budapest) and walked away. That was the last I saw/heard from them, which was especially bad because I was supposed to stay with them the next night.

On the bus back to Rasim’s (my Turkish friend), I sat next to a guy who had dug up a five-foot tree from some sidewalk somewhere. There was a trail of dirt from the entrance of the bus to where he was sitting.

The next night I bumped into some people I sort of knew. There was this other guy with them…very drunk and aggressive and sociopathic seeming.  He went off with me to buy a drink and said “don’t worry I’m not gay,” and my alarms were raised. 5 minutes later, he asked me to blow him, and I gave him a forceful no and eventually lost him in the crowd. These situations are occurring at a higher frequency this year. Like father, like son I guess [. . . ]

When the Romanian girl came onto the train she asked if I spoke English, which I always like when foreigners ask me. We made small talk for a minute and then crashed in one of those closed compartments on the train.

Sometime later the girl started screaming.  Two thugs had come into the compartment and stolen her bag, i.e., all of her money and her passport.  We chased after them, calling for the authorities.  We caught up with one of the thieves, but when we demanded the bag back, he merely smirked, and the conductor of the train merely shrugged her shoulders as the Romanian girl screamed in English, “He stole all my stuff.  He stole all my stuff.”

At the next stop, he got off the train, but as it ended up, the girl found her bag in the restroom with nothing missing.  A few minutes later, the conductor came with paperwork and became furious when she discovered that the girl had found her purse. The conductor had wasted three minutes of her valuable time filling out paperwork in vain!

After that happened, the Romanian’s mood started improving gradually, as she had escaped the Not. She told me she had just been to Amsterdam and said she still thought she was high. She showed me the Space cakes she was bringing back and was wearing a candy bracelet and would occasionally pull out circus peanuts and other sweets. I guess maybe she was still stoned.   She was 24 but she looked and acted like she was 20. Romanians are often very petit though…

We said goodbye and off I went to work right off the train, wading in the sea of frowns just like every morning. The frowns are etched in the older people’s faces like water carves out a canyon.  I fit right in that morning. I’ve read somewhere that 6% of Hungarians say they are happy, and I always joke that number seems inflated.

I also saw a guy wearing a t-shirt with a Star of David going into a trashcan, a play on this image.

 

I boarded a bus with a tastefully/minimalistically drawn penis and balls on the side.

Just another routine day in Kafkaland.

A nice place to visit but . . .

[1] As they say in writing school, choose not an approximate word, but the perfect word.

 

Yet Another Short Treatise on Satire: In Defense of Bad Taste

[Trigger warning: scatology, smugness, over-the-top sacrilege, typos, insensitivity to disabilities, reckless employment of ALL CAPS and gratuitous exclamation points]!!!!

Look, I desitively dig The Onion, I mean BIGLY. They’re BIG LEAUGE for sure, true heirs of the great early 70’s National Lampoon, which itself was the great-great-great-great grandchild of the GREAT Jonathan Swift, who in his poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room” employs an epic simile to describe turds plopping into a chamber pot:

As mutton cutlets, prime of meat,

Which though with art you salt and beat

As laws of cookery require,

And toast them at the clearest fire;

If from adown the hopeful chops

The fat upon a cinder drops,

To stinking smoke it turns the flame

Pois’ning the flesh from whence it came,

And up exhales a greasy stench,

For which you curse the careless wench;

So things, which must not be expressed,

When plumped into the reeking chest,

Send up an excremental smell

To taint the parts from whence they fell.

The petticoats and gown perfume,

Which waft a stink round every room.

Thus finishing his grand survey,

Disgusted Strephon stole away

Repeating in his amorous fits,

Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits![1]

 

[Enter Horatio, Hamlet’s BFF]: There needs no ghost, [Stephron], come from the grave/ To tell us this.

Yeah, Stephron, what’s the big deal? Defecation is a necessary by product of ingestion, and in the great cyclic beauty of being, animal waste products can be used to fertilize plants.

Hey, Jonathan Smith, what’s up with this coprophobic obsession with feces?

I suspect Swift would answer that his point is not that Celia shits but that she’s a vain, frivolous woman who considers herself better than, say, the hired wench who polishes her silver, yet Celia’s upper class feces stinks just as much as her maid’s lower class shit.

Satire is a great leveler, a way for powerless wretches like I-and-I to vent our spleens upon the powerful, the foolish, i.e., politicians. Think of Mitch McConnell when you read the following:

 

Io venni in luogo d’ogni luce muto;

The stench of wet coal, politicians

. . . . . . . . . . e and. . . . . n, their wrists bound to

their ankles,

Standing bare bum,

Faces smeared on their rumps,

wide eye on flat buttock,

Bush hanging for beard,

Addressing crowds through their arse-holes,

Addressing the multitudes in the ooze,

newts, water-slugs, water-maggots [. . .][2]

Some satirists have defended their employment of the grotesque, cruelty, etc. on the need to shock people inured the horrors of the nightly news [punctuated every eight minutes by laxative commercials (and, later, by smiling segues into human interest stories)] into the realization of the true nature of the horror. In other words, to slap some sense into them.

Here’s a paragraph from Tony Hendra’s 1972 editorial from the infamous National Lampoon issue “Is Nothing Sacred?”

To a generation that, when it sees starving babies on the screen, knows it’s almost time for dinner, not much is sacred. All around us, the idols, ikons, and cows of 6,000 of Indo-Aryan culture lie shattered, and daily another paragon goes down to ignominy (Kissenger, Richard Speck) [and] another cherished tradition is lost (see Esquire’s stinging attack on cordovans). And now with Jim Morrison gone, there isn’t really anyone left to look up to [. . .]  it is possible that a society to whom nothing is sacred might just be a better one.

Take, Michael J O’Donoghue’s “Vietnamese Baby Book” from that issue, an affront to good taste that makes Swift’s poem seem like a Barney the Dinosaur picture book.

The Vietnamese baby in question, Ngoc, has her first couple of years, including a list of “firsts,” catalogued in her baby book:

First whimper: Two weeks

First cringe: Two-and-a-half months.

It gets worse. Baby’s first wound, baby’s first word (medic), baby’s first funeral, etc.

Hey, that’s sick, cried the bourgeoisie when the issue came out, the bourgeoisie who reelected Nixon in a landslide and whose tax dollars went to making sure our military had enough napalm to incinerate the requisite number of Cambodian villages (or to update the example, has enough drone missiles to obliterate Syrian encampments).

In this sense, as self-righteous as it sounds, O’Donoghue considered himself a sort of moralist.

The Onion has at times crossed the over from the realm of gentle, good-natured mockery into the shadows of bitter sacrilege. For example, here’s an image with something to offend virtually every one.

 

WASHINGTON—Following the publication of the image above, in which the most cherished figures from multiple religious faiths were depicted engaging in a lascivious sex act of considerable depravity, no one was murdered, beaten, or had their lives threatened, sources reported Thursday. The image of the Hebrew prophet Moses high-fiving Jesus Christ as both are having their erect penises vigorously masturbated by Ganesha, all while the Hindu deity anally penetrates Buddha with his fist, reportedly went online at 6:45 p.m. EDT, after which not a single bomb threat was made against the organization responsible, nor did the person who created the cartoon go home fearing for his life in any way. Though some members of the Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths were reportedly offended by the image, sources confirmed that upon seeing it, they simply shook their heads, rolled their eyes, and continued on with their day.

I admit I included that image hesitantly, knowing some of my readers would find it highly objectionable, but The Onion’s point is well taken. You don’t go off and murder satirists no matter how tasteless, offensive, mean-spirited and/or stupid their product is.  Their target here is not the great religions of the world but religious fanatics who do real, palpable harm.

What worries me more is that in the latest Onion output the satire doesn’t seem all that hyperbolic:

WASHINGTON—Amid concerns that a U.S. attack on a Syrian government air base would only escalate the ongoing conflict in the region, President Trump assured Americans Friday that his decision to order a missile strike came only after carefully considering every one of his passing whims. “I want to make it perfectly clear that the decision to launch a military intervention in Syria was the result of meticulously reviewing each fleeting impulse that I felt over the last 48 hours,” said Trump, adding that after learning of chemical weapons used by Bashar al-Assad’s forces to kill innocent Syrian civilians, he gathered his top military aides to pore over dozens of his sudden knee-jerk reactions to the situation. “I examined many different options that whirled through my mind in the moment, including authorizing drone strikes, deploying U.S. troops to Syria, sending in SEAL Team Six to take out Assad, getting up and grabbing a snack from the kitchen, doing nothing, and dropping all our nuclear bombs on Damascus at once. Ultimately, I concluded that an airstrike was the best option at that particular second.” Trump went on to say that if the Assad regime’s behavior continues, he will not hesitate to order further military action if he hasn’t already completely forgotten about Syria by then.

Except, the quotes from Trump appear in sentences far too well-crafted to have emerged from his mouth, and I doubt seriously “meticulously” isn’t in his working vocabulary.

At any rate, I say rage on Juvenal, rage on Swift, rage, rage against the stupidity of all ages, though, I suspect it does very little good when it is all said and done.


[1] Stephron had been rummaging around his girlfriend’s dressing room when she was out and stumbled upon a cleverly disguised, which he mistook of a cabinet.

[2] Ezra Pound, “Canto XIV”

A Bitter Old Bald Codger Chasing Kids Off the Lawn of Their Own Aesthetics

Hitler Youth Sporting Pre-Hispster Undercuts

Let me get this out of the way upfront. I’m bald. Chrome-domed. When I wear my standard black hipster turtlenecks on Fridays, I look like a roll of deodorant.

In other words, I couldn’t sport the current hairstyle craze, the Nazi-Youth/Kim-Jong-Un do even if I wanted to.[1] With nothing but a few lonely wisps to contrast my buzzed or naked sidewalls, I’d look more like Howie Mandell than the Dear Leader.

Come to think of it, though, I could cop a toupee and maybe pull it off. The trouble with toupees in general is that it’s hard to match the fake hair in color and texture with the wearer’s authentic hair. Indeed, the Nazi-Youth/Kim coif might make a toupee look more realistic, so never mind. If I really wanted to, I could affect the look.

Kim-Jong-Howie

But the thing is I don’t want to.

Why?

 

Because IMHO it looks like shit.

According to the dilettante scholar’s best friend, Wikipedia, the undercut originally signaled poverty, the not-so-handiwork of makeshift barbering. Indeed, when I see some guy or gal sporting the undercut, I imagine a barber with clippers abuzz succumbing to a massive heart attack or being stricken with a grand mal seizure as he falls forward desecrating the side of his customer’s head.

The anthropological question arises: Why do prosperous people want to affect the look of poverty, spending their hard earned (or in many cases inherited) money of hack-job haircuts and ripped jeans?

The short answer is “I dunno.” However, Jackson Lears in No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920[2] writes about a “disaffected cultural elite” who try to appear not so boringly bourgeois by mimicking hipper cultural milieus like Seattle’s ‘90’s grunge scene. These elites coopt the workingman flannel and ripped jeans look of Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder, but the overlords of capitalism eventually cash in, mass producing and selling prepackaged rags to moms and dads who want to provide their children with the latest, most popular commodities. These are the same parents who write $30,000 tuition checks to top tier independent schools so their sons and daughters can get into elite liberal arts colleges. The idea of Bennington (the boy) and Madison (the girl) one day wearing their jeans out via manual labor is a horror the equivalent of shopping at Food Lion.  Meanwhile, since we live in a youth culture, these moms and dads are dressing like their teenaged children. This popularization of the style, of course, renders it uber-unhip so the hipsters are forced to take things a step further and cover every square centimeter of their epidermis with tattoos or to take a weedeater to their locks, and guess what, the next thing you know your CPA looks like he got his hair caught in a Veg-O-Matic.

This pattern, unfortunately, doesn’t spill over into the automobile industry. These people don’t tend to buy used Saturn sedans or vintage Yugo GVs to look hip.

To quote the great Kurt Cobain, “Whatever.”

.

One Last question. At what thigh-circumference do “skinny jeans” become “tight britches?”


[1] Otherwise known as “the undercut.”

[2] A fascinating study I highly recommend.

 

1984 Revisited — Doubleplusscary

orwell-1984-propaganda

Last year, I taught 1984 for the first time in decades, and when I finished, I slapped together a blog post to provide inexperienced teachers with an overarching plan to teach the novel.  I figured that this post would receive scant attention, given its small target audience: however, it has received 1,378 “views” since May.  Many more than far more brilliant posts like “Kafkaesque Security Questions,” (93) “Why I Ain’t Inviting Jesus to My Fantasy Dinner,” (101) and “What Kind of STD Are You?” (58)

How come?

Because, believe it or not, Orwell’s 68-year-old novel is now a very hot commodity.  It hit number #1 on the bestsellers’ list on January 25th, and today, April 4th, several art movie houses around the country are re-screening the 1985 film adaptation starring John Hurt and Richard Burton.[1]

Fake News Outlet CNN attributes the sudden spike in sales to Kellyanne Conway’s coinage of the phrase “alternative facts” when aiding and abetting Sean Spicer’s contention that the Trump Inauguration crowd was larger than Obama’s.  Indeed, both “alternative facts” and “fake news” embody the Orwellian concept of doublethink.

Doublethink is essentially paradox, a mental action in which inherent contradictions in a concept cast equal doubt on the antithetical alternatives that make up the concept. Here’s a description of the protagonist, Winston Smith, thinking about how to begin his diary.

His mind hovered for a moment round the doubtful date on the page, and then fetched up with a bump against the Newspeak word doublethink. For the first time the magnitude of what he had undertaken came home to him.  How could you communicate with the future?  It was of its nature impossible.  Either the future would resemble the present, in which case it would not listen to him, or it would be different from it, and his predicament would be meaningless.

Essentially doublethink results in confusion, if not paralysis.  Doubt is cast upon who and/or what to believe.

For example, the propagandist Trump organ Fox News, whose Orwellian tagline is “fair and balanced,” provides the President with “alternative facts” so that he declares any story with which he disagrees to be be “Fake News.”  Truth = lies, and lies = truth.

In other words, “Ignorance Is Strength.”

Meanwhile, Russian bots assume avatars on social media claiming to be Christian patriots who in turn disseminate “information” on Twitter and Facebook that Hillary Clinton is abducting, then cannibalizing, unvaccinated babies.

Vaccinations Are Doubly Deadly.

President Trump awards his Appalachian voters by allowing coal mining companies to dump slag in their streams.

Pollution Is Healthy.

An Intelligence Committee chair investigating the White House sneaks into the White House and receives classified information and returns to the White House the next day to share that information with the White House.

What Goes Around Comes Around/Treason Is Patriotic.

It’s doubleplusscary!


[1] Both, alas, now exiled to “that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”  By the way, 4 April 1984 is the day Wilson Smith begins his diary.

Desolation Be-Bop

illustration by WLM3 from sampled images: Wallhaven, Roy Eldridge Got His Finest Chord by Loal Lonli, and Street Dance by Pedro Alvarez

 

Swing, swang, cut the rug, sweetie pie,

swirl, smirking as you spin,

your skirt defying gravity,

spinning like a top tilting

after three too many

Singapore slings.

 

Step up the syncopation.

Manhandle that trumpet, Roy.

Shriek a long drawn-out high C.

Shatter glasses, dislodge the earwax of

the bald-domed ogling codger

sitting in the corner sipping.

 

Stop clock, your tick-tocking.

Let the night remain forever young.

Allow no morning Sabbath sunbeam to stab

dyspeptic these jitter-bugging beboppers.

In the name of Bacchus, don’t ever stop,

but keep keeping the beat, let the sweat drops drip.