Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Boats Against the Current

I have mentioned before that there are only eight things one can ever write about.  As stupid as you may find this idea, it is true.  I’ve touched on many of these different themes on this blog, but I have only hinted at one of the larger ones, which is Youth.  Tolstoy wrote three entire novels called Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth in an attempt to fully render the subject and perhaps wasn’t able to do the theme justice. Youth is certainly a separate entity from Childhood and Boyhood.  Childhood and Boyhood suggest the factors of your early years: the years before age 10 or 12.  These two words or phases bring to mind the toddler Stephen Dedalus learning about a “nicens moocow” or listening to his “Dante” speak about Parnell at the table on Christmas.  Childhood and Boyhood suggest those early impressions of objects and relatives, family holidays, the way your grandparents speak, smell, and give you presents. “Youth” is something completely different.  Youth is figuring out what loyalty is; how easily you can be deceived by what you think love can be; understanding the extreme differences of the feel of the opposite sex’s body from your own: like that softness only girls’ thighs seem to have.  Youth is finding the extremes of your athletic ability; beginning to realize what music can waken within the depths of your soul. And, of course, Youth is all of those hours passed with friends in the heat of summer or huddled in the freezing cold of a car during winter trying to stay warm and just stay out as long as possible – even if there isn’t any beer or smoke left for anyone.  These are the things that we write about when we write about Youth.  These moments and images are so powerful that we constantly try to write and rewrite “coming of age stories” or “bildungsromans.” Perhaps one day when I have the faculties to correctly create me own tome to Youth I will do it just as Tolstoy did.  But, for now, I only have images and occurrences that I can thread together.

The night before Thanksgiving is one of the more wondrous nights of the year.  However, there is no enchantment to it like Christmas Eve or even a feeling of simple exuberance like the humid nights of our Fourth of Julys.  It even lacks the sheer uncertainty, the bleary-eyed bliss and shoulder shrugging that New Year’s Eve brings with it year after ominous year.  Thanksgiving Eve is something different.  It is not enchanted, but merely real - mundanely poignant.  It is colored in sepia from the moment the sun sets and all the oranges, browns, dark yellows and grays of the world drain and are replaced by the deep blacks, navies and periwinkles.  And in those colors of November nights there are endless postures: college freshman returning home with gelled haircuts and fresh eyeliner, the prodigal son stepping through the garage with a beat-up green canvas backpack, old fishing buddies sneaking out from their wives to have one quick drink at the Corner while the bartender lets Knicks highlights flash on the TV and countless twentysomethings in sweatshirts or fleeces, wool sweaters and pea coats with gin and tonics or clean, very cold brown bottles of Budweiser look around either for someone to love or skyward for some kind of distraction.  In either case, someone is looking for an answer.

This past Thanksgiving Eve, I watched people I knew and still know spill out of an old colonial home that also serves as a bar.  The jukebox was playing, but I always imagined that at one point it could have been a piano.  I saw and exchanged countless customized handshakes; draped my arm around Carhart jackets, fuzzy wool pea coats and thin-shouldered black sweaters.  I drank long cold beers and huddled on benches with beautiful girls I was once very close with and we felt the bushes on our back and looked closely to try and articulate “What if?.” It was at this scene that I stood on green, frosted grass and looked at the white, wood shingles of the bar.  I stood next to one of the most stand-up old friends I’ve ever known.  We drank our beers.

“I read your blog,” he said.


“Mr. Puddles of Yourself.”

We both laughed.

“Anything you like in there?” I asked. “What do you want to see?”

“This,” he said, stretching his hand out toward the smoking cigarette cherries and the bodies spilling along the wooden plank walkway into the front door of the bar.

I drank my beer and surveyed the scene.  I thought about the old girl I had just sat with and how she was still quite beautiful.

“I might just do that.”

In The Great Gatsby, Nick Caraway (Fitzgerald) describes Long Island as a great many things.  He describes the Sound as a “great, wet barnyard” at one time and that is a phrase I have certainly absconded into my own little catalogue.  He also manages to do justice to the exhilarating feelings of darting back and forth from Long Island to Manhattan, which is unlike any other commute.  New Jersey is too clunky and filled with impossible bluffs and the historical wickedness of the Hudson River breaks it apart from the island nature of Manhattan and Long Island; Westchester is lush and promising, but it shares some of its sentiment and identity with New England and Buffalo, which are entirely separate entities.  Long Island is like a funnel, which one travels along, the seagulls and piping plovers skirting along overhead, while you leave a trail of sand in your wake along the parkways that inevitably lead into the heart of New York.  Always there is the smell of salt water and promise in either direction.  Caraway/Fitzgerald does this justice.  I also admire the small parts in the novel where Nick steps out of his house and onto his lawn; you feel the heaviness of Long Island leaves and the constant knowledge of water out in the dark just beyond the reach of your arm.  The water makes the stars shine brighter as the pools perfectly mirror the darkness of the sky.  In the summer there is always the mist and the allure of some light glowing in a bramble or thresh of forest.  In the winter everything is barren and your breath streams out, the wind is persistent, but at times everything falls dead and quiet and you see how bright the moonlight is on the frosted grass and the near frozen saltwater.  In the distance is the call of a gull or an ill-informed duck and a car drives on some stretch of road across the harbor under tall streetlights and you realize what is so close in hand.  Perhaps, what I like most about Great Gatsby or Fitzgerald is this quote from the very end of the book:

"Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes-a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."

This quote seems to set the scene of Long Island, with its great history, its natural beauty and slow decay, in the most accurate and concise nature – with a bit of romantic prose to curve the edges.

It was in this sort of place that I had my Youth.  What people sometimes fail to realize is that there is an honor to growing up.  Much of it is pain and boredom, but there is an honor to being young and that should never be forgotten or overlooked.  The part that should never be overlooked is the part that has to do with the impossibility of friendship and how we are forever trying to make friends or understand what that vague word means.  I mentioned earlier that Youth is made up of all the time spent sitting around with friends in the summer or in a dark car or in the hallways between classes at school, which is a fundamental truth that almost any person growing up in America can relate to.  Yet, what many people in America fail to understand is how there is an actual virtue laying in all of that sitting around.  Sure, we’ve had people like Bruce Springsteen, the Ramones, the Replacements, Nirvana or Wilco try to explain it to us in song, but it always comes off as the commodity of rock n’ roll, of what your youth is supposed to be like if you want to end up this way – if you want to be as messed up and depraved as the rest of us.  Those are obviously terrific sentiments, but what Youth is to me, is something more than that.  Youth teaches us to enjoy sitting on a curb in the darkness of the night and watching a sprinkler shoot out into the street while your friends circle aimlessly on bikes; to appreciate for all its worth those hottest days of the year climbing the brambles of the dunes in order to look out across the harbor at the sailboats that stood so prominent and white with their masts ringing back and forth against the water that was at times green and navy blue.  Or even those evenings walking along Main Street and just listening to the hum of the back of the deli or the wine store and looking at the shadows of the automotive shop.  And further still those stinging fall afternoons playing football in the park while cars whizzed past and your friends’ older brothers hurled curses at you and then tried to take you down to the stiff brown grass.  And that one time when your friend jumped on your back and tried to strangle you while everybody piled on top.  What I am saying is that there is a distinct honor in all of these activities and it is the honor of growing up and you will recognize it immediately in anyone that you meet as you move forward in life, and will notice those who lack this honor even sooner.

Youth is an honor and a virtue to be gained.  And as I said, the main aspect of it is the search for friendship.  Great Gatsby is in many ways about that search for friendship. It is certainly a story about one man trying to gain a handle on another’s man’s personality, trying to size him up and figure out what draws him to his personality.  And, to be frank, that is what much of adult male friendship is made up of.  Take this quote from Nick:

“He smiled understandingly-much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced--or seemed to face--the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself.”

If you read that sentence ten times, eight of those ten times you will agree that, deep down, that is what friendship is completely about.  Friendship for the most part is about loyalty and most of our notions of loyalty are formed in this period of Youth – when we fight for each other, back up the jokes in the back of the class, perpetuate the lies to keep everyone out of trouble and stay out as late as possible so that we are all in trouble if the ship really is going to sink. Nick’s outlook on Gatsby is always left unclear.  He is glad that he compliments him at one point towards the end of the novel; at one point he says that Gatsby was alright, but at another says that he disapproved of him from the beginning to the end.  Yet, he was drawn to him, drawn to him because of that ability Gatsby had to fully concentrate on one person with a smile full of understanding.  And perhaps it is like Nick says, that he had some “deficiency” that made him ill suited to the East.  For his Youth was made up of the West, of the long train rides home in the snow from prep school, passing Chicago and going further to Minnesota and watching the flakes fall at the stations in the winter dark.

Another novel that shares some of the themes of the Great Gatsby and what I am trying to say here is The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon.  It is ultimately a novel about summer, about friendship and its difference and confusion with love.  It is about a narrator who seemingly has no friends and who gets mixed up in a world of friends who look like celebrities and who have sex and drink and some of who are homosexual.  It is in many ways a weak and frivolous book, but it always calls me back – it has its hooks in.  It is because the book does justice to the complexity of friendship with quotes such as this:

“If any of the attempts I made that day to telephone Arthur had succeeded, I would have asked him nothing.  I would only have listened to the way in which he spoke to me, listened for accents of friendship: the banality, relaxation, and lack of style that characterize a conversation between two friends.”

Or, when the narrator, Art, is feeling overwhelmed at the long-standing friendship that his new friend Arthur and his other new friend Cleveland share, ruminates:

I envied their history, the plain and frantic days, the simple length of years behind them.

“No matter how long I know you guys, I’ll never be able to catch up.”

The cigarette hung from Arthur’s peeling lower lip, and I saw that he’d had his own reasons for suddenly growing quiet.

“Catch up on what?” His Kool jiggled as he spoke.

“The time. All the days and evening like this one.”

Chabon does his work very simply and elegantly in his first novel.  He is able to capture countless scenes of silence between two characters that are friends as they smoke cigarettes and sit somewhere high up above Pittsburgh and look at the streets and the faraway small forms of cars and mothers with children standing on the streets in summer.  However, these two quotes epitomize what exactly that period of Youth is about and what it instills in us if we achieve its honor.  First, is that distinct ability to talk with a friend, moments of urgency punctuated by prolonged silences, fiddling with bottle labels or worn in boots.  There is no pointed questioning, only idle questions. And at the end of it all, if you are on the outside, there is always that envy for those who have that camaraderie – those who share the years that you so desperately lack.  It is more than just knowing someone for a long period of time: it is a shared experience, it is a virtue that was borne through passing time, through fighting, through forging loyalty on the doorstep of growing older.

Why this past weekend made me think of all these things I can’t say.  I have had Great Gatsby and Mysteries of Pittsburgh on my mind for quite awhile.  And perhaps it is because I am always thinking about friendship and the Youth that sometimes might keep me separate from the youths of others. I think mostly of friendship, because as Chabon says in his novel, “In any case, it is not love, but friendship, that truly eludes you.”  What that actually means can only apply to each individual person and how hard they want to be on themselves.  However, my friend’s prompt certainly pushed the issue.  That and perhaps two other scenes.  The first was at the same bar I described at the beginning of this post.  I was leaving the bar with one of my best friends who I had not seen in about a year and we passed a kid that we had known in our Youth.  This guy had once choked me during an afternoon football game that got out of hand, but it had stood out as some kind of instance against other instances of the years so that always bonded us in some way.  Regardless of that, we had all known each other.  So, we passed this guy and his girlfriend standing on the dark, quiet neighborhood street, lined with cars.

“Domino! Morgenstern! Where are you going?”

“Sawicki! We’re going home!”

“Going home?”

“My sister is in Busko’s car. I gotta go.”

“Look at you two. You look the same.”

“So do you.”

“We’ll always all look the same.”

My friend turned to me then.

“You go on. I’m gonna stay.”

“You got it, Danny.”

And then I turned to my friend’s car where my sister was waiting to ride home too.  The stars were beginning to become patchy as it was getting nearer to four o’clock. And I knew we all didn’t look the same, but in his eyes we did and for some reason on that night, at that moment, that seemed profound.  Perhaps it was because of the tone of happiness in Sawicki’s voice.  I felt more so, that it was because we shared a time together, and it was really all the people that crossed my path in my Youth – they all became some kind of character in my mind, passing from place to place, all sharing some secret more than the fact that we grew up in the same place, but some distinct honor that would seem opaque and impalpable to those who didn’t see or value it. In any case, I went home that night.

Second, the night after Thanksgiving all of my best friends piled into the Corner bar.  My best friend, his girlfriend and his brother piled into a booth drinking pitchers of beer.  Acquaintances came by and told us about the army.  My friend’s pastor came by and introduced himself and I told him I was a Catholic. Then, all of my friends were pushed into the booth and we were drinking beers and the laughs were coming as easily as anything I’d ever done.  It was warm and light and there was terrible music and a worn wood floor and before we knew it we had to get outside and have a bonfire at my friend’s farm – so we did.  We drank freezing beers and got smoke in our eyes and threw a liquor bottle in the fire trough and molded it into a sculpture for a friend who was far away and who was coming back home.  It was a freezing night if you were away from the fire, but my breath was strong even though I had a cold and the beer tasted good and I could fit my arm around my friends’ shoulders. And I realized that even if you get annoyed at a friend you haven’t talked to in a long time and are wary of the next time you see them – its never bad, because your Youth precedes you and will always win.  We are creatures of the past borne by habit, and all of the virtues that ride along on the trail of our missteps will forever dictate our future triumphs.

After each of these instances, I was infinitely hopeful of some great future. I was hopeful because next fall my other best friend is getting married on a farm and its what he’s wanted to do for his entire life.  And amidst all the pain and loneliness and confusion of the world, the criticism of the arts, of what is maudlin and what is genuine emotion, there are moments of clarity and happiness, moments that we can look forward to when we are all together in some kind of pristine moment that is indestructible.

In the end, you may be saying that this was a complete waste of time.  It is completely obvious that everyone has a Youth.  Everyone has some dinky and limiting suburb that they grew up in, that can also double as the universe and eternity and the soul of man if you look at it hard enough.  That opinion is absolutely valid.  For I know there are cities on the West Coast and in the South and even further up North along the Northern Atlantic seaboard that can brag all of the same things I have expounded upon and provide their own nuances. However, my Youth came from Long Island, a deeply terrible place that is capable of the most breathtaking moments and places nature can provide; a place where you can only bow your head at all of its history. And only I have that conflict with it, only I have that knowledge of the honor of Youth and the virtue I have achieved through it.  I only hope that you too can dangle the same intangible object, in your own way, over the world’s quivering head.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving Break

Can anyone guess what year this football game was from?

Well, my Puddlers, tomorrow is the Thanksgiving holiday that we all love so much.  So, in honor of the holiday, please spend your morning nursing a hangover from Thanksgiving Eve and reading Puddles of Myself.  Then, in the afternoon you can eat all your favorite Thanksgiving foods, watch football, sip on scotch and coffee, eat pie and then fall asleep.

In order to ease you into your long weekend, here are some fun videos from one Stephanie Terao's birthday party, which took place on November 18, 2010 right after the Puddles of Myself Fiction Reading.  These videos capture an epic game of "Big Joe" that was played.  "Big Joe" is just a stupid alter ego for life-sized Jenga. To all those were there, enjoy.  To those who weren't, you have to jump on the Puddles of Myself bandwagon.

1. Erik Gundel assesses the situation:

2.  Erik Gundel makes his move, setting the stage for a bum (Brian Indig):

3. The bum (Brian Indig) makes his move:

4. The bum (Brian Indig) sets his piece on top, much to the shock of a member of the crowd:

5.  A young woman (Meredith Mowder) is heckled by the crowd:

6.  A dog (Perry Lubin II) is raised in joy:

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Free Forest City Redemption Project Video Bonanza!

Like I told you all, we are emptying the Puddles of Myself video vaults this week for your viewing enjoyment before the holidays.  Tomorrow, I will be posting what could be considered Puddles of Myself "Home Videos" so stay tuned for that. Also, please be sure to follow me on Twitter in order to get the most late breaking news as well as be able to vote on possible future columns and posts for the blog.

Today, the video output is connected with the Puddles of Myself - Free Forest City Redemption Project. I know that we have been slightly quiet on this front for the past few weeks, but the final tracks for the release are receiving a final mix and we will begin releasing the tracks up on the blog in the weeks leading up to Christmas, because nothing says Christmas like a country band that called it quits before their time and should have been heard and appreciated by many more (although, those of us that listened appreciated them to the full extent - I think at least).

The below videos are from the final Forest City show, which took place on October 29, 2010 at the Brooklyn Rod and Gun Club. Please enjoy them at your leisure.

1.  Nick Mencia playing "Cold, Cold Heart" to warm up the crowd:

2. Forest City playing "I'm The Man Who Plays the Music For You":

3. Forest City covering Tony Wain and the Payne's "Country Music Star":

Monday, November 22, 2010

Puddles of Myself Fiction Reading Recap

Since this is the holiday week of Thanksgiving and we at Puddles of Myself all have travel plans, and all kinds of trepidations about returning home for our own holidays, there will be no original posts up during the week.  That means you can look forward to all kinds of soulful, bizarre and insightful writing to appear next week once the holiday is over.

However, to tide you over this week, I will be unleashing some video footage from the Puddles of Myself vault.  In this way, you can actually see the three dimensional forms of some of the people described about on this blog in two dimensional videos.

Today, you get a recap of the Puddles of Myself First Ever Fiction Reading, which took place on Thursday, November 18, 2010 at Book Thug Nation in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  The reading consisted of myself, Matt Domino, giving a crude introduction and reading, followed by Chandrahas Choudhury's eloquent reading that gripped the crowd in attendance.  Free, cheap wine was enjoyed by all and a few records were listened to courtesy of the inventory on hand at the store.  Many thanks go out to Corey Eastwood who hosted and facilitated the whole event.  There will be more events to come at the store, so keep following the blog and you will find out immediately.  Now, some video evidence of the event.

1.  Matt Domino reads from the manuscript of "Last Mound of Dirt":

2. Chandrahas Choudhury introduces himself:

3. Chandrahas Choudhury reads from Arzee the Dwarf:

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Puddles of My Podcast - Episode 27

As you all know by now, tomorrow night I will be hosting the Puddles of Myself First Ever Fiction Reading.  In preparation for this event, I am presenting you with the podcast I recorded with Chandrahas Choudhury in order to introduce you to the author, his voice and his own account of his work and time as a writer.  In this Episode 27 of Puddles of My Podcast, Chandrahas and I discuss Walt Whitman, his novel Arzee the Dwarf, the enjoyment of autumn in Iowa,  the power of cities, the beauty of New York City, cricket,  Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, the process of writing, choosing stories for a fiction anthology, top five American novels and top five Indian writers and a variety of other subjects where I only sometimes make an ass of myself.  This is a very stimulating podcast and I recommend that you listen to it immediately.  I enjoyed this one very much.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

In The Heart of The Heart of My Bookshelf, Volume V

Well, my Puddlers, the big week is upon us. I hope you enjoyed the Updike and Springsteen post that was put up yesterday. Tomorrow I will be posting my podcast with Chandrahas Choudhury in preparation for the Puddles of Myself First Ever Fiction Reading this Thursday evening at 8:00 PM.  Lots of stuff going on, so please try to keep up.

However, today is Tuesday, and that means we take another journey with Alex Ramsdell.  Mr. Ramsdell's column will not be up next week (for all you devotees) due to the holiday.  In fact, next week will be a slow week overall except for the posting of the recording of Thursday's reading.  So, you can use that as your catch up time.

Now, however, I leave you with Mr. Ramsdell:

The Malick Touch: Death in The Thin Red Line

Alex Ramsdell

Terrence Malick is known for making beautiful films that pay attention to the human aspects of experiencing the world (point-of-view, horizon, fascination with nature).  Before becoming a filmmaker, he wrote a graduate thesis on Martin Heidegger’s existential work, Being and Time, and began a course of study in philosophy of world, and soon after became a filmmaker.  Badlands came out in 1973, Days of Heaven in 1978, and after a 20 year hiatus, during which he wrote journalism and occasionally filled in for pre-eminent Heidegger scholar Hubert Dreyfus at UC Davis, he released The Thin Red Line.  This last film is striking in comparison with the other two, because of its mature elaboration on previous themes, but it is striking even more so as a response to classic war cinema. Malick encloses the violent confusion of war in a landscape of sublime beauty not for the sake of juxtaposition but for exploring the nature of man when he encounters the blunt reality of his own death.  In Malick's war, the mood is not one of dread, menace, or perversity, but a kind of collective emotional literacy as a way of interpreting mortality.  Each moment is an effort to conserve the lives of one’s brothers.  The inter-subjective apprehension that colors the Battle of Guadalcanal becomes most apparent when the C-Company (Charlie Company) nears Guadalcanal in a fleet of cargo ships and prepares to storm the Japanese.  Below the deck, the ship is teeming with men of various ranks, all visibly agitated, milling about in extreme anticipation, but expressing it in distinctly personal ways.  Some shave their faces clean, others sit stone-faced, others express it all too openly, and yet others react with disgust at the openness of their comrades. 

When the men storm onto the beach they find it deserted.  Half-relieved and yet still visibly nervous, they ascend through a series of enormously grassy hills until they are ambushed in one of the most frightening and human cataclysms that I’ve ever seen in a film.  The Japanese have secured a position atop these hills from which they can see every tactically confused move the US soldiers make and proceed to mow down half of the regiment, but we witness this from the position of the various clusters of soldiers who crouch in mortal fear in the grass, unable to see, interrupted by screaming and explosions, deliberating whether to charge through to secure a better position or to wait, knowing that death is imminent.  The focus of attention in scenes like these is what separates Malick’s portrayal of the logic of war from something like Full Metal Jacket.  Rather than inter-company conflict preceding extra-company conflict, there is an unceasing attention being paid to the necessity of brotherhood in the face of human limits. Mortality becomes something that is seen in the expression of another, a gestural indication of the worst consequence.

Death pervades the film, but Malick’s engagement with it extends from a distinctly Heideggerian conception of death as the inaccessible absence that founds the state of living.  To understand death existentially is to acknowledge, as Derrida does in engaging with Hediegger’s conception of death, that: "It is on this side…that the oppositions between here [life] and there [death]…can be distinguished" (Derrida, Aporias, p. 52).  That is to say, all that one can know of death originates in life, a state that is phenomenally rooted in experience and is decidedly not death. A soldier, played by Woody Harrelson, accidentally explodes his legs by pulling the pin from his grenade.  His life leaves him in a three part procession: he first realizes that he would no longer be the same man for his wife, then that "he can't fuck", and finally he starts to shiver uncontrollably and in his last moments he remarks only that he is extremely cold.  Then we see Witt, his comrade, and our main character, witnessing this man's death.  The camera cuts from a dying (and so still living) face to the living face of the man in whom the death is inscribed.  And so the film imbues death with actual and historical importance as an impression upon the living, from which all testimony, speech, narrative of death comes. 

Monday, November 15, 2010

Running From Updike and the Boss

There is nothing like having a strong negative opinion about an artist, object or idea. It is a stance that gives you a bizarre, almost perverse sense of power. The kind of opinion I am referring to isn’t born out of ignorance, because when you express this opinion, you know full well what you are doing.  You engage in an argument with your friend or acquaintance who likes a certain band.  They explain why you should enjoy said band and in doing so explain why they personally believe in said band.  As they are doing this, the idea of the band crystallizes in your mind – all of their annoying tendencies, the clichés and tropes they rely on, the repetitive nature of their songs.  All of these traits become completely palpable as an object.  Then, you build up steam.  You feel it rising behind you and before you know it, you have your response to your friend or acquaintance: “Pink Floyd fucking sucks!”  You of course follow that up by mocking their trademark sound and try to win by submission.  However, if you are polite, you finally concede that said band just isn’t your kind of thing.

This sort of chain of events would perfectly describe my relationship to Bruce Springsteen and John Updike over the past ten years of my life. Precisely from when I was sixteen years old and I first read “A & P” and then saw it in a million different anthologies; when I realized that people put way too much faith into Bruce Springsteen right after 9/11.  However, in some bizarre coincidence, over the past few months I have found myself coming around to the work of both of these artists.  My change of heart hasn’t come begrudgingly either.  I have in many ways embraced both Updike and Springsteen forthrightly and, in doing so, I have found my own way to trace similarities between their work.  In specific, I want to focus on Updike’s Rabbit, Run and a trilogy of Springsteen songs off Born in the USA: “I’m Going Down,” “Glory Days,” and “Dancing in the Dark.”  The tie-in of these different snapshots for two prodigious (well, maybe Updike is truly more prodigious) and beloved artists has been able, at least in feel, to articulate a strange impalpable feeling that I have always struggled to define or express: that feeling is entrapment.  When I say “entrapment,” there is no element or air of espionage – it is the “entrapment” of the soul, of those strange and powerful moments when we see the light fade and the possibility for maneuvering, for finding that other way out of the room, strictly and firmly disappear.  What does that momentary loss mean?  How do we overcome it? And most importantly, what does it teach us about humanity?  What does it teach us about the soul?

John Updike was always a writer I chose to stay away from and it was mainly due to his reputation. I, as I foolishly do from time to time, grouped him in with a bunch of writers of the mid-20th century such as Philip Roth or Thomas Pynchon (someone he is nothing like) and Don Delillo.  I frowned on his reputation for writing gratuitous sex scenes and disapproved of his affiliation with the New Yorker, classifying it as some kind of mid-century snobbery that was fit for those post-modernists and other hacks who made their careers because “they were lucky and sucked.”  I was in a word “unfair” to Mr. Updike.  Unfortunately, it was upon his death and the subsequent press that that event garnered when I decided to pay him due attention.  I read about his prodigious ability and hard work ethic.  I admired his outward desire to write for “a dusty bookshelf in a town somewhere east of Kansas.”  I slapped him (and myself) on the back for his appreciation and gratitude towards James Joyce.  Updike, it turned out, was a true man of letters; a man who understood and saw the American tradition, but greatly appreciated the European sensibility and aesthetic.  He was a prodigious and dedicated talent – the kind of which I always imagined and sought myself to be.  Once this vision of the artist had firmly been secured in my mind, it was time to begin actually appreciating his work.  To do this, I decided to turn to one of his first novels.  The one whose tight, direct, present tense style helped to establish is reputation – Rabbit, Run.

Rabbit Angstrom is a former basketball prodigy (like me, well, OK, I’ll let you decide if that’s true or not).  However, there is no place for basketball in his life anymore.  There is no room for basketball in the literal sense or basketball in the figurative sense, basketball as something that one is good at, something that gives one joy and in turn gives the world joy in witnessing that “thing.”  With basketball no longer in his life, Rabbit finds himself restless.  I’m not going to describe or explain the plot.  I’m merely going to discuss this revelation of “basketball” and its approximation in our own lives. For Rabbit, basketball was his youth, it was a way for him to stake his hands into the world and be a part of it. Rabbit was not only a part of the world, but he was an integral element of life in the area of Pennsylvania where he grew up.  He was raised to a level of hero – a natural at the sport of basketball who made the game look beautiful.  What makes Rabbit a compelling character is the fact that he is not a bullish or boorish jock.  He glorifies his playing days, sure, but he also expresses a deep love of the game of basketball; the great rush one gets from the bounce of the ball, the feel of the spring in your thighs and calves, the roundness of the edge of the ball as you grasp it to rise for a layup.  He doesn’t fall into the easy clichés of a faded athlete. Rabbit doesn’t drink.  He appreciates the merits of working, the responsibilities of fatherhood (whether he exemplifies those responsibilities is another thing) and the fact that his glory days are indeed behind him.  Rabbit is a very self-aware character on many levels.

Rabbit is also compelling because he is a failure and he does not take full responsibility for his actions or the situations he finds himself in, though his path to those places may be innocent and misguided enough that any of us can relate to it.  The reason why we relate is precisely because of that element of “basketball” in our lives.  It may be a generalization to say that at one time in any person’s life, they had something they were good at.  There was something that they did that brought a smile to someone else’s face just because he or she was doing what they do best. For athletes, this can extend for a great period of time, like say the joy of watching Michael Jordan, or for a brief period of time, someone like Rabbit, Len Bias or Marcus Dupree. For others perhaps it is a period of tremendous sexual prowess, the artistic ability one exhibited in junior high school, being the fastest kid on the playground, being the student government president at college or the head of a fraternity. For perhaps all of us it is just being a child and the fact that  our parents, upon seeing us sprawling around on the carpet or hearing us chirp up with some indecipherable phrase, could do nothing but smile because we were in our element, we were a new addition to life, to their lives, to the idea of a family, and just being a child made them endlessly happy.  There is a role we fit at one time in our life that stands above all others.  It is our collective “basketball” and very often that period cannot last but a handful of years.

Rabbit is now a man of the everyday.  He has a wife he doesn’t love very much, a job he is apathetic about, a child that he cares and empathizes for but doesn’t necessarily love and yet he still has a heart that drives him and spurns him on, the same heart that pushed him on the basketball court.  It’s this heart that leads him to leave his home for no apparent reason other than he doesn’t feel at home there anymore.  There isn’t the same thrill.  He isn’t pleasing anyone the same way he pleased the spectators on the basketball court.  So, in order try and find a place, he takes up with a “part-time prostitute,” who is really just a woman that has slept with multiple men and maybe taken money afterwards once or twice.  Rabbit can almost make her happy, but in the end he has to return to his wife who is giving birth to his second child.  Rabbit has to succumb to the fact that even though the world is beautiful and there is that constant tugging on our hearts no matter how old we grow, there is still that one time when we shone brighter than the other times of our life.  And that isn’t a sad or bad thing.  It is merely true, because we wouldn’t want anything to burn incredibly brightly for a completely prolonged period of time.  Rabbit comes to vaguely comprehend this idea, but only after he suffers more than a few losses.

Updike relays his story with subtlety and poise. The narration closely focuses on the characters from the present tense and leaves you with an almost modernist feel to the narrative.  Details, colors, objects are relayed with that kaleidoscopic focus/unfocus that the best of the modernists could write with. There is a terrific element of control among the chaos that keeps the pace of the story, but never overwhelms the reader with presence.  Things just happen, which is precisely the point.  Rabbit has entered a point in life where things just happen.  His life no longer has that outside meaning that it once had when he was a basketball star, so now the awareness of action for the character and the repercussions are not as strong as they should be.  Perhaps they never were even at those heights of hardwood stardom.  Rabbit’s world is a world of the mundane and Updike presents that world with the utmost clarity.  We get the sense of a bombed out or soon to be bombed out Pennsylvania town.  There are beat up cars and small streets with cracked sidewalks, small town churches whose congregations are strong on Sundays.  Everything feels immediate and vibrant in its utter hopelessness.  There is a truth to the broken down environment of the world that Updike renders and that Rabbit lives in that calls out to you.  This is a part of Updike’s ability as a writer – it is part of his Joycean skill.  The beat up and normal, the “daily bread” as Joyce once said, becomes the stuff or art, of poetry, of something ephemeral and universal.

Bruce Springsteen is often credited with the same ability of making the mundane streets and cars of suburbia seem like the stuff of poetry, although he has come to that accolade through methods and phrasing that are much more crude.  When it comes to poetry and to heralding the mundane, Springsteen is wildly overrated.  He has made it through the decades on brute force and sweat, while simultaneously overwriting about characters with the same attributes.  And he is successful because he frames these tried and clichéd situations and characters with vibrant, heartfelt rock n’ roll, which is the testament to the format of guitar, drums, earnest vocals and horns to bring the message home.  I’ll never give my heart entirely up to the music of Bruce Springsteen, but I have come to a place where I can admit that sometimes he is just right about certain things.

Born in the USA is a fine album.  The title track is better as the first song on the album than it is when you hear it on the radio or in a stadium somewhere – it is actually quite harrowing. “Darlington County” is one of the most carefree songs in perhaps the history of rock n’ roll. “I’m On Fire” is meditative and concise and “No Surrender” is inspiring and predates the great sound of those Travelling Wilburys records.  However, where the album really picks up steam, where it really gets everything right is on three of the last four songs of the album: “I’m Going Down,” “Glory Days,” and “Dancing in the Dark.” When you take these three tracks into account as a whole, you get a sad, concrete picture of small town life, of feeling as though there is no way out – feeling that sense of entrapment.

“I’m Going Down,” to me, sounds the way that Rabbit, Run feels.  The track rumbles along on a classic rock n’ roll/rockabilly beat that is completely infectious. It’s a story about a couple that could be married or just long time lovers who are slowly falling apart. The song is all grey skies of  a November morning or the cold, windy bitter evening of February or January in some small town. The song finishes with a simple and devastating verse: I pull you close but when we kiss I can feel a doubt/I remember back when we started/My kisses used to turn you inside out/I used to drive you to work in the morning/Friday night I'd drive you all around/You used to love to drive me wild/But lately girl you get your kicks from just driving me down.” There is nothing overtly dramatic in those lines, but there is some element of truth, a presentation of a terrible relationship that seems undoubtedly real.  And as much as Springsteen uses the “driving” motif to death in all of his songs, here it feels appropriate. It’s a different detail.  There is an intimacy of driving a lover to work in the morning, either to her job or to the train to go to work.  It suggests a mutual agreement, working together that makes this anonymous couple seem that much more present in the middle of the music.  When that detail is matched with the fact that the girl used to drive the guy wild and now all she wants to do is drive him down, you get the full scope of their misery.  These people are both trapped in a terrible relationship in what feels like a small, working class town where the skies are always impossible grey in the fall and the warmth of the car heater and the living room of some home are never enough in the winter.  All of those elements remind me of the relationship between Rabbit and his wife Janice in Rabbit, Run.

A song of a failed relationship leads into a song literally about failure in “Glory Days.” The parallels between “Glory Days” and Rabbit, Run are obvious, but the poignancy comes with how the song can extend beyond a person who was just a successful athlete or once a beautiful girl in a high school.  Many people are averse to “Glory Days” because it has nearly been played to death and because its bright organ and overproduced drums just seem as obvious as the theme itself.  I’m a sucker for an organ (love that J. Geils Band “Centerfold”), but I can completely understand that criticism. The song is brash; Springsteen sings with a somewhat corny affect; and the fade-out/rock-out is out rightly cheesy. Yet, on repeated listens, what gets you about this song is Springsteen’s ability to make you focus on little details. They are scenes or poses you have seen in movies or heard about characters doing in other songs, but for some reason, Springsteen is able to make them stand out.  In “Glory Days” just like “I’m Goin’ Down,” it is the last verse that truly accomplishes this feat: “Now I think I'm going down to the well tonight and I'm going to drink till I get my fill/And I hope when I get old I don't sit around thinking about it/but I probably will/Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture/a little of the glory of, well time slips away/and leaves you with nothing mister but/boring stories of glory days.” We all have glory days in our lives, whether you were a great jock or some kind of prom queen.  The details that hammer it home for me every time are the mention of glory days passing you by in the “wink of a young girl’s eye” and “I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it, but I probably will.”  The first detail gets me because, yes, when I am older, what will most remind me about being young is catching eyes with a young girl my age and all of the promise that a quick encounter can promise, because for the both of you the rest of your lives and the world are ahead of you – glory days are always just around the corner again even if they did already happen when you were in high school.  The second detail gets me because, well, even though I wasn’t an outstanding athlete who lived and died by his accomplishments on the court or on the field, sometimes I just can’t help thinking about those old sports glories and those old tricks I used to play in high school; all the times I used to sneak out and party and go on adventures with my friends – those were all glory days as well and if you think about them or talk about them too much, you’ll end up looking stupid just like a washed up pitcher or shooting guard.  Once again, Bruce is able to make the obvious, the cliché and the boring, seem universal and groundbreaking – that is to say, he hits the truth of the matter.

Finally, there is everyone’s favorite single, “Dancing in the Dark.” Out of the three songs, “Dancing in the Dark” is the best song, not only stylistically, but also formally. It has the best hook, Bruce’s singing threads the fine line between tasteful evocation of the character and becoming overwrought and the production doesn’t get in the way of enjoying the song – this is why it is one of the most liked Springsteen songs even to non-Springsteen fans. It’s hard to explain what exactly is so moving about the song.  It stems mostly from the driving synth melody and also the drums, which are unrelenting. As I’ve documented before, this song also has my favorite Springsteen line, “Man, I’m just tired and bored with myself.”  That line is just one of the many that pop out of the mix of the song.  And at the heart of any good song, that’s what makes it stick.  At so many turns, Springsteen yelps lyrics of desperation like “I wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face/Man I ain’t getting nowhere/I’m just living in a dump like this/There’s something happening somewhere/Baby I just know where that is” or “You can’t start a fire worrying about your little world falling apart.”  It’s a feeling of restlessness and it isn’t that well-covered restlessness of youth that Born to Run epitomized.  The restlessness on “Dancing in the Dark” is the same restlessness that Rabbit Angstrom felt.  There is no way out even if you know that the world exists out in the dark and that “there is something happening somewhere.”  Even if you know how to get to that place, you can’t leave because you don’t know the way out.  The funny thing about the song is that the each verse and chorus ooze with a desperation; the narrator is desperately seeking help and he knows what he needs, he suggest that he’s open for any kind of connection any kind of warmth or human interaction, but he just can’t figure it out.  “You can’t start a fire worrying about your little world falling apart.”  It’s advice that should hit us all in the gut.  You can’t hope to make strides forward if you are worried about the little worlds that we create for ourselves falling apart.  They are meant to in a certain way.  Perhaps figuring out what that way is is the key to it all.  By running away, Rabbit Angstrom allowed his world to fall apart.  He was penned in, he was pacing the room just like the singer and the feel of “Dancing in the Dark” suggest.  But when you act, when you decide to start a fire, whatever that fire might be, you have to be prepared to let things burn.  And maybe that was what Rabbit Angstrom was missing.

There is no easy way to connect Updike’s Rabbit, Run and these three songs off Springsteen’s Born in the USA.  However, there is a certain feel that both the book and the album contain.  Really, like most things, the feel is simply about understanding how time changes things and how you need to understand how certain times of your life fit into the overall story of your life.  You can’t become preoccupied with chasing down something you were once good at, the “basketball” of your life.  We are all given certain gifts and we are all given the ability to make someone else happy, to make them smile, even if it is for just a short period of time in our lives – for many of us it is that unconscious period of childhood where our mere existence makes our parents happy. For others of us, hopefully we can achieve that time again when we fall in love with the person we are meant to be with – that doesn’t happen for all of us, though we try our hardest.  And for still others, like Rabbit Angstrom or one of the characters in “Glory Days,” there is a period of youth where some of us excel at a sport or at being beautiful and graceful and young and those postures alone – that feel of running down the basketball court after a steal, catching a touchdown in the back of the end-zone, chasing someone down the line and taking the ball in a soccer game – can make others happy, fill them with joy and inspiration.  However, those moments will inevitably fade for us, even though, out in the strange night of whatever town we live in, they seem to burn on in all the windows that straddle the hillside or the curve along the shore.  We want that inexpressible joy in our lives, that ability to seem vital and important, we want to run and not care about our shortcomings or ourselves.  And there are moments when we can achieve that, but we have to let them pass.  If you spend your life chasing, you have to be prepared for the consequences and to understand what exactly happens when you bring that burn on the inside out into the world itself – that world of cracked pavements and grey upholstered car seats, those impossible misty November mornings and windy, orange February nights.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Jump The Mark

Friday, my Puddlers. A beautiful autumn day comes to a close and now a breezy autumn evening rises up to bring winter into your face and nostrils. Try to stay warm this weekend and get outside to enjoy some of the briskness before it gets really cold and your scarves are touched with snot. We have a big week coming up next week on the blog. On Monday I unleash another one of my long columns. Tuesday we have another installment of In the Heart of the Heart of My Bookshelf from Alex Ramsdell. Wednesday my podcast with Chandrahas Choudhury goes up. Thursday is the first ever Puddles of Myself Fiction Reading at Book Thug Nation and then comes again and those palpable sensations of beer will be right there.

However, before we get ahead of ourselves, here is the most articulate man under thirty years old to set your head spinning for the weekend. Here is the one, the only, Mr. Mark Jack.

The Times They Are A Boring

Mark Jack

Look, man, I don’t want to write this story. My foolishness was the last stand of my self-respect, and I am disposed, now, to bland un-thought, having for so long spent days and nights inundated with the strange turns of self and analytically aware self-analysis; each move countered by the awareness of my self-awareness, like some poor Heisenbergian assertion, which is really just pure and simple doubt. I have great faith in my self-doubt, though even now I cannot stop my narcissism, writing “self” everywhere. I stand for hours in front of mirrors, listening to the news.

My attention to the news is one of the more persistent symptoms of my boredom. I haven’t had that good old bored feeling of youth since adolescence, and one day, while reading the New York Times in what was probably a totally smug way with my legs crossed just so and the reason for my refusal to wear contacts suddenly and painfully clear, I took notice of this lack of bored feeling and thought/vocalized a dumb, un-thought. An utterance of “huh(?)” came forward as I sat. Not with any kind of ennui, which connotates some kind of edge or marked posture, but simply with a dull, round sound. The sound could only be described as bored. I looked up and canted my head to the right—the angle of privileged thought—and I thought nothing, really.

My utterance only lasted a moment. When it had passed, I returned to the article that was just fraught with tension. The Times, once again, doesn’t know how to feel about Wikileaks. I listen to the news on the radio in the morning and on the weekends I buy the New York Times. I read some of the paper online during the week and think about an established daily’s continued relevance. Honestly, as a sort of aside, something like the Huffington Post doesn’t come near to what the New York Times online can do, and if I want some longer form articles, I have a subscription to Harpers. But wait! My ability to surrounded myself with these well researched and thought news articles doesn’t mean jack shit to me.

All this strange, paying attention to the world around me, the larger world, or the world at large, as in, fugitive, on the lam, is just a prime example of the theatrics of adult boredom. Those simple little “mature” activities are insidious and, honestly, I have no clue what’s going on the world, and what’s worse is that I am clueless too often as to the world I am in, the world not fugitive. The strange theatrics of adult boredom mask, by almost-activity, the true, real, meaningful lack of meaningful activity, and thereby keep that horrible, bored adolescent and youthfully bored feeling down and out. Unfortunately, and this is the insidious part, this movement also subdues the youthful exuberance for the finally, at long last, found meaningful activity. So all this news, for me, is simply an pose of acting bored (but not ennui). I do not wish to suggest we should burn the last remnants of the old press and turn our smart phones away from the political blogs, but we must be aware, or at least more aware, of how our calm, mature, desire to stay informed is forming a cloud around us, a fog of information that only obscures us.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

In The Heart of The Heart of My Bookshelf, Volume IV

Another day, another post, my Puddlers. It is getting cold outside and when you start feeling lonely, when the bitter winds of winter make you not want to get out of your bed or turn off the TV, then you might as well forget about having any kind of social life, keep the TV on and prop your laptop in front of your face with this blog right in your face.  Then, you can scroll through all of this terrific "cold-weather" content while getting crumbs of your favorite snack all over your dirty sweatshirt and learning valuable lessons about life - while staying far-removed from it.  I'm there for you.

I will have the tweaked Puddles of My Podcast Episode 26 up for you later this evening.  However, now a man with some actual real intelligence and valid opinion is here to weigh in. It's Tuesday, so here is Alex Ramsdell with another entry into "In The Heart of The Heart of My Bookshelf."

30 Rock is Unfair: A Case for Malcolm in the Middle

Alex Ramsdell

It seems like Network TV sit-com has reached a level of sophistication that is in many ways reflecting its audience more carefully and successfully.  The laugh track is gone, the mechanics are lean, the humor is quick and current and the stage can go anywhere.  The result is that the scope of the show--the degree to which it escapes from the humdrum of its location and still hooks you--is becoming more and more involved in its audience's demand to be entertained in a sophisticated manner.  In 30 Rock, there are at least three sub-plots and a slew of recurring character-based motifs going on in each episode.  There is a “massiveness” to a show like this and it somehow lives within the boundaries of the mundane.   It may be appropriate to call it hyper-mundane, for the sophistication lies in its laborious and formally supercharged way of expressing the working week of a few network television employees.  I must admit, I took to 30 Rock immediately, but have come to enjoy it less so, or I should say that I like it the same, but feel the urge to watch it less.  The quality of the writing has always been stellar.  It's the formal aspect: the rapid cuts, the quick, reference-laden dialogue, the general degree to which the show is prevented from pause.  There is no rest, and in this way it does reflect its audience.  I would venture to say that you won't catch someone actually breathing at all on 30 Rock, unless it is part of an explicit joke poking fun at Liz Lemon's weird way of breathing.  This seems significant to me. 

The fact is, I don't watch 30 Rock nearly as much any more because it reminds me that I'm watching a television show, meaning that I'm consuming my time with these teeny little scenes all jammed together, which don't really seem to add up to much or sustain themselves in my mind after the episode is over.  The show reminds me of novelty.  Isn't the virtue of diversion-by-network-TV its capacity for entertaining you with consequence-less and implausible comedic situations?  The fact that 30 Rock is first rate for its time doesn't diminish the fact that the machinery of its delivery is so rapid that you don't have time to think before the next scene arrives. Over time, this rapidity brings about not a sustained sense of reality to its situation, the NBC network, but a kind of extra-situational annoyance: hypermodernity.  The kind of truncated, pause-less beating of the heart of everyday life from which there is no rest: at work, in the street, on the phone, on the internet.

Let us hearken back to the year Y2K, when Malcolm in the Middle announced to the world a particularly goofy inflection of life's major lesson, chiefly that "life is unfair."  It ran with this maxim for six seasons, involving us to the full extent in the hermetic politics of a middle class suburban family.  Though the story is told through the perspective of Malcolm, an overly-intelligent but still bone-headed middle child, it finds a way to encompass a family's strange way of coping with one another through various modes of conflict, such as kid vs. parent, men vs. mom, brother vs. brother, and father vs. son.

One of my favorite episodes is "Red Dress," a classic “sons vs. mom” episode, in which Lois (Malcolm's mother) buys a dress for her and Hal's (Malcolm’s father) anniversary and later finds the dress in the toilet, seemingly having been burned and hidden in a moronic fashion.  What proceeds is a pastiche on political interrogation in which Lois puts the three boys, Malcolm, Reese, and Dewey, through military style divide-and-conquer examination in an effort to elicit the truth about the dress.  We find her at first coaxing them with "name brand" orange soda, a substitute for conventional cigarette at the interrogation table. When they don't give in, she forces them to make themselves dizzy by spinning around in circles with a baseball bat - a benign substitute for various kinds of forced confession techniques. Eventually, she threatens to take a meat club to the television, which is ultimately a substitute for using the well being of a loved one as incentive to reveal information.  The boys are only saved by a neighbor who hears their horrific screams - a testament to their love for the television - and comes to the door.  In the time that it takes Lois to turn him away, Malcolm, Reese and Dewey have already hidden the television.

Throughout the episode, the boys rely on their older brother Frances to combat their Mother's rigorous procedure.  Frances has been sent to military school for having pierced his nose multiple times in spite of his mother's warning that she would send him away if he did so.  Being the oldest son, and thus the most in conflict with Lois, Frances has a wealth of experience to draw upon in advising Malcolm.  Yet, Lois emerges the most cunning, as she catches Malcolm and Frances on the phone planning how to get out ahead of Lois.

The show takes commonly experienced methods of American suburban inter-family justice to the level of pastiche, using extended genre tropes sometimes, and other times indulging in the elliptical logic of kids.  Sometimes you cringe, and other times you marvel at its genius.  There is a moment, at the point where the brothers are completely at a loss with how to top Lois, when Reese pinches Malcolm in an attempt to get him to use his brain and make a plan.  We find the results of Malcolm's plan leaving them with pillows and flashlights duct-taped to their bodies with buckets on their heads:  nonsensical, astute and maybe successful. 

I ultimately enjoy Malcolm in the Middle because of its sustained thematic development of Malcolm and his family.  The story ventures outside of the family, but not as a habit, and with the end of illuminating its characters more completely.  It's not a work of cinematic genius, though it involves almost any camera trick ever used-- but it does hit at the heart of my childhood: the weird rules my brother and sister and I instituted, the overall deflection of responsibility at all costs.  I suspect that one of the reasons Malcolm in the Middle didn't garner the same kind of sleeper popularity as a show like Freaks and Geeks did is that most of us would rather forget--or indeed have forgotten--the years the show takes up as central: the ones right before junior high, when the world was still seen through the prism of family.  They were ugly years because we were at the pinnacle of submission to our parents' “cheesy” and restrictive norms.  We might have rebelled against them, but it wasn't on principle, it was more ad hoc rebellion: they just didn't let us watch Return of Chucky.  But when we weren't fighting, we genuinely spent time together and liked it - not that we would admit it.    

Monday, November 8, 2010

Puddles of My Podcast - Episode 26

It's a bit of a hectic week this week, my Puddlers, but that doesn't mean I can't bring you some high quality podcasts as well as columns (hopefully).

Today I bring you another installment of Puddles of My Podcast.  In this, Episode 26 of Puddles of My Podcast, I welcome Miles Debas of Snakes Say Hiss and Paul Sicilian of the Tony Castles.  In this installment, Paul, Miles and I discuss the 2010-2011 Boston Celtics, Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals, and debate over the best storylines of the upcoming season. We also play a game of "thumbs up, thumbs down"; decide what movie you would take Kevin Durant too; and Paul and Miles each give us their all-time starting NBA starting lineup with some surprising results.  This podcast is not for those weak of heart, or not interested in the NBA.  Needless to say, I enjoyed this podcast very much and I recommend that you listen to it.

Stay with me Puddlers, I got more coming.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Take a Walk in the Mark

Another week has passed, my Puddlers.  What an eventful week its been.  There is still a lot of stuff coming.  On Monday, you will get the NBA podcast I just recorded with Miles Debas and Paul Sicilian and then later in that week you will get another fantastic, long-winded column and music and literature from myself.

In the meantime, you get the man who could only bring you the material that he brings you.  A man you will save you from the banality of your thoughts and expose you to the complexities of the mundane.  There can be only one, Mr. Mark Jack.

On Methods of Disengagement

Mark Jack

There are far too many angles of conversation to be stuck into the rut of just using one or two. It is my belief that we don’t end up speaking a thing when we find ourselves so stuck to one means of conversing.   The same thing seems to hold true for moving in this world. We never end up actually travelling somewhere or reflecting our desire to move, if we continue to make the same turns and circuitous routes. The importance of the unexpected turn of phrase, or foot in this regard, is invaluable. Now, in my head so often—maybe too often—with all my thoughts structured like a conversation that can only go my way, but strangely never does, I’m making a right turn (as I walk) with little thought but to the mechanics of such a move.

And, slipping endlessly amongst these people of the world, I forget that the taxis, with their dorsal fin advertisements, are not strange dinosaurs; I forget that my tongue has been working constantly, all my life, shouting obscenities and philosophies at passersby. None of my endless language has brought me any closer to these people who swirl around, posing a confused current, leaving me with no safe, lee side. Perhaps, as we approach a greater globalization, our languages will consolidate, drenched in technology, perhaps we now experience the birth pangs of a new community. It's too early to tell. It's always too early to tell. We are in a constant state of telling ourselves that it is too early to tell. Language, maybe, is just a tool with which to create histories, thereby allowing us the relief of knowing that someday it will not be too early to tell, and excusing us from making a decision about now, now. Because of this, I am forced to wonder at all these people, squirming around, on foot, or inside those strange mechanical dinosaurs.

Yet, now here I am, suddenly, having been walking this whole thought through, on Gerry Street, walking north towards Broadway. There is not a soul around me but cat souls and rat souls I imagine. There is an overgrown, fenced-in lot half way down the block, which for all the surrounding attempts at destitution and all the assertions of halted construction, is beautifully insect and bird song filled, like some strange misplaced slice of nature loudly asserting its development of unfocused identity. The street is somewhat unnerving in its ugliness, though. On one trip down the short block or two that is the entire street, I was forced into the middle of the pockmarked road by an inexplicably huge, sidewalk-sitting pile of garbage, astir with the strange forces of putrefaction. The next day it was gone. This may not seem surprising, but this is not a street that speaks of diligence, but rather negligence, as in, where was the trash-responsible party on such a destitute un-lived on street? This kind of occurrence - a set of antagonizing forces harmonizing unexpectedly - is exactly why I have enjoyed this street. The fault in my antagonizing the forms that feed me, what my misplaced vehemence is missing is simple: it is this mysterious element of harmony.  Simple disengagement is not enough, ever. One must constantly re-engage with the words that seem so dead and over-used and re-assert their potentiality, lifting them into sentences that are like foreign land - using those words to reach some insight where previously there could be none.

I invariably think of Beckett, and his trio of novels, Molly, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, especially, in this regard. They are brilliant, but people more talented than I have said enough, and I am also reminded of a contemporary author and his bewildering use of language, Gary Lutz. I saw the man recently at a reading and discussion thing at the Center for Fiction, an obvious and overly busted old building up in the Diamond District.

It was one of the more awkward panels I’ve seen, and brilliant, particularly on the parts of Gary Lutz and John Haskell, the latter an author I was not aware of but with whom I intend to become familiar. Christine Schutt, also fantastic, was also there but mostly hid behind a nervously brooding Ben Marcus.

Gary Lutz is a sentence writer, and his stories are often vastly un-storied, but minutely communicative. By this I do not mean that he communicates only small things or in a small way, but, I mean to say, he is precise, and yet, somehow not. He has an almost prohibitive—to a reader’s understanding—understanding of English grammar and employs his understanding in the most unlooked for ways to approach a subject and/or object. His descriptions do not rely on average cues, visual or otherwise, instead opting for the unexpected modifier, writing things like, “My sisters turned out to be women who wore their hair speculatively, lavishing it forward into swells… ” I don’t think anyone is lost as to the hairstyle discussed here, and what I find exciting about Lutz’s use of “speculatively,” for instance, is that he is able to describe his sisters via a hairstyle but without necessarily only invoking what the reader will generally understand by such a styled character. That is, the narrator’s sisters are not simply characterized by having hair, lavished “forward into swells,” which speaks a great deal to the kind of people they are, but they are also people who style themselves not simply in a manner, but in a mood also. “Speculatively” modifies the way in which they wear their hair but seems to seep into a description of the hairstyle itself as well. Lutz is almost disorienting, and after reading him I find myself paying attention to language so closely, almost as if it were not my own anymore.  I pay attention to the language and it becomes something new; an object once familiar not taken for granted. Almost as though I were suddenly looking at my own hand with all the wonder that such a complex device completely at my disposal should almost always incite. Maybe a Lutz fiction and an unplanned walk a day is perfect medicine for that old conformity concern.

Gary Lutz has written a few collections of stories and I recommend them all, but the one I have in my lap as I write this is a small, “zine-like” one called Partial List of People to Bleach and as I wrote this post and thought of Lutz, I opened this little chapbook and found, “I kept waiting for someone to say something in a language that wasn’t shot.”


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Puddles of My Fiction Reading (Really?)

I told you that I would have a few blog related events to announce to you in the coming weeks (how many times have I promised you that?) and of course I deliver.

On November 18, 2010 at 8:00 PM, courtesy of Book Thug Nation and one of its partners, Corey Eastwood, I will be "hosting" a reading at the Book Thug Nation storefront.  I will be reading some of my own material from From Here to the Last Mound of Dirt, but the reading itself will be a showcase for the Indian novelist, Chandrahas Choudhury. Chandrahas is the author of the novel Arzee The Dwarf as well as the editor of the fiction anthology, India: A Traveler's Literary Companion.  I will also be conducting a podcast with Chandrahas prior to the reading so you will be able to hear him speak at length before you listen to him read his fiction at Book Thug Nation, which is located at 100 North 3rd Street, Brooklyn, New York:

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I am very happy that Chandrahas will be participating in this event and this is a turning point for this blog as a whole as there will be more events to come in the future.

As I always say, just stick with me - I'll get you to where you should be.