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So, there’s Katie Roiphe’s Newsweek cover story, in which she posits that today’s women are turning to SM lite en masse as a counter to modern-day independence and that the feminists who fret over such fantasies can suck it. And there’s the clamorous rebuttal coming from every quarter and arriving at more or less a consensus: click-mongering misogynist Katie Rophie misrepresents feminism, BDSM, and psychology, and is totally on crack.

As promised, here is the follow-up to the Top Ten Ways to Go (which you can read here). The first list is useful; this list is essential. Be aware.

 

Top Ten Ways Not to Go

Number 10: Choking on vomit

I think choking to death on anything would suck: you can’t breathe, your eyes are bulging, you’re swinging your arms and half bent over. It’s an awful spectacle. But vomit, jeez. And yes, I mean your own vomit, I’m not being Spinal Tap cute here. I’m talking about that late night pass-out moment at the end of what had been a thoroughly righteous ten hours of moveable feast, right up to the point when your body makes the unfortunate choice of deciding it doesn’t want ribs and baked beans and bourbon and ibuprofen swirling around in its belly any more and gives not the least little fuck about the fact that you are flat on your back and breathing through your mouth. Um, hurl.

 

Number 9: Listening to the band Bread

. . . on repeat. Okay, who hasn’t had the experience of a new-ish friend scrolling through your iTunes library, pausing, looking you in the eye and asking, “Bread? Seriously?” Yeah, motherfucker, Bread. Seriously. I confess, I’m a risk-taker, a tempter of Fate. I wave my private parts at Death on a regular basis: I listen to Bread all the time. Sometimes I put on some Bread when I climb into bed, and I start my prayers, “If I should die before I wake,” and then I chuckle, roll over and fall asleep. Take that, Grim Reaper.

 

Number 8: Getting your ass stomped to death by a gang of midgets

Just picture the last thought that would go through your mind. That is all.

 

Number 7: Wearing skinny jeans

Guys, I don’t know who is going around telling you those pants look good on you, but whoever it is, punch that person in the face because she or he is a filthy liar. Nobody looks good in skinny jeans. Everybody who wears skinny jeans looks like an asshole, and you know what they say: if it walks like a duck . . . which you do, in your skinny jeans. It is a horrible way to go through even a brief period of your life, and a worse state to be in at the very end. Don’t take that chance.

 

Number 6: Making flan

Statistically, this is extremely rare. Don’t be the one who skews those numbers.

 

Number 5: Thrill-seeking

By comparison, this is statistically quite common: skydivers’ shoots don’t open, parasailors crash into waterfront high-rises, world-class skiers go off marked trails and crash into trees bearing signs that say “Don’t ski here” (which I realize is technically ironic, but come on). If you’re so remarkably stupid that you need a regular fix of this kind, go with God. And tell him I say hello.

 

Number 4: Suicide

Unless you write the most profound suicide note ever – and you won’t – don’t do it. I write pretty good, and I couldn’t pull it off, so do yourself a solid and don’t go there. Stick around, make fun of people, eat weird foods, find out if Ryan Gosling will finally be named People’s sexiest man alive.

 

Number 3: Being named People’s sexiest man alive

. . . and having the magazine come out two days after you’re dead. Gross. Ironic and gross.

 

Number 2: Fucked to death in all the wrong ways

I don’t just mean the obvious bad fucking, like unwanted prison sex. I’m thinking more about those relationships we’ve all had that have run their course and grown stale, but you keep going through the motions, even going so far as to have the expected amount of bland, uninspired sex, and while you’re doing it, the thought crosses your mind, “God, what if this is the last person I ever have sex with. Like, what if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, or . . .” and then you die. Bad fucked to death.

 

Number 1: Cast into the sea

Getting beaten up and thrown off the back of your yacht in the middle of the night by your drunken-ass jealous hack-actor husband because he thinks you’re banging Christopher Walken: that should never happen (again).

 

A few years ago, right around this time, in fact, a friend of mine drowned. It was as terrible a day for those who cared about him as you would imagine. I won’t get into the details of his death or the hours spent that afternoon, frantically at first, then solemnly, trying to find him, or recover his body: that too was as awful as you think. He was a funny, cheerful, fundamentally goofy guy, quick to laugh, especially at his own folly. That’s how I remember him, and so in that spirit, I want to talk about something else.

At work two days after it happened, a coworker overheard me telling my friend Chris about it, and she said, “I’ve heard drowning is the best way to go. Very peaceful.”

I had no immediate reaction to that statement: in a sense I was far away and barely heard her, for one thing, but for another, I don’t tend to jump on inane comments right away because my inner voice is too busy tossing it around: Did she really just say that? What the fuck does that mean? Why do people say shit like that? Heard from whom? Is she communing with the souls of the dead, polling them on their particular death experiences? Even if she does have access to the dead, what can they really tell her? None of them have any frame of reference for comparison. It’s not like the guy who was shot in the head has any basis for believing he had it worse than the guy who was burned alive. Seriously, what the fuck?

Seriously, this is what was going on in my head, and by the time that monologue came to a close, my coworker had walked away so I couldn’t ask her. Probably for the best, she would have misunderstood and gotten all butt-hurt. Is there a word for the way people who actually believe the nonsense they pull out of their asses get bent out of shape when you call them on it? I’m drawing a blank.

But I don’t want to be mean: I want to be better than that. And so I decided to take what she offered and make something of it, and here’s what I came up with: my Top Ten Ways to Go. And if you’re reading this and you happen to actually be dead, don’t bother telling me I got it all wrong: life is for the living, gang, and you had your chance.

TOP TEN WAYS TO GO

Number 10: Extreme old age
This is actually a Woody Allen joke, but I’m going to steal it because, in my forty-plus years on the planet, I have yet to encounter as many as five people who have seen that movie, and I’m only outing myself as a poacher as a courtesy to the memory of Woody when he was, you know, good. This way-to-go comes with a big caveat: it only applies when facing execution and being given the choice of how you want to die (does not apply to firing squads – see below), i.e., if you’re on death row in, say, Texas or Georgia – although, would you really want to grow old in either of those places? Personally, I would rather not.

Number 9: Any death that is so uncanny people are still talking about it years later
Houdini got punched in the stomach (bad timing, poor communication: the word “No” can sound a lot like “Now” when you have a bit of a Hungarian accent), Isadora Duncan was dragged out of a moving car when her signature scarf got tangled in the car’s wheels (allegedly her chauffeur thought she was doing an interpretive dance), Steve Irwin managed to prove his point about the precision with which a stingray can strike (Crikey, mate!), Elvis died on the can (crap). I’ll remember you all, always.

Number 8: Firing squad
Yeah, I said it. Look, if you find yourself standing in front of a firing squad, chances are you did something notoriously cool to get there. So pat yourself on the back, smoke one last Gauloises, and tell ’em to stick that blindfold up their fat fascist asses, cuz you’re the kind of dude who wants to see it coming. Fuck yeah.

Number 7: Bacon coma
Do I need to explain this? You eat bacon, and it makes you happy, so you keep eating bacon, and your body is so thoroughly overjoyed by this bounty of awesomeness that it just stops: because it knows there will never be a day that’s better than this. If you’re in a hurry, go with the bacon appetizer at Peter Luger’s Steakhouse: it’ll cost you a little more, but it will get the job done fast, and you’ll be dead anyway, so what are you holding onto your money for?

Number 6: On a high note
I used to have these fantasies when I was a kid, before my favorite team, the Red Sox, had won a championship in my lifetime. I pictured myself digging in against a quintessentially great post-season pitcher like Orel Hershiser or Jack Morris, it’s the seventh game of the World Series, bottom of the ninth, two outs, we’re down by a run and the slowest, fattest guy to ever step on a diamond is our runner at first (we’ve blown through our whole roster playing catch-up since the second inning, because we’re the Red Sox and we’ve made a legacy out of shitting in our own hats), but no worries, because I take an 0-2 pitch in on my hands and muscle it up and over the Green Monster and, for the first time since 1918, the SOX ARE WORLD CHAMPIONS! I round the bases as the stands collapse under the weight of drunken, blissful tears, and as my toe touches homeplate and my teammates mob me, zing, I’m dead. And, as any Red Sox fan will tell you, I go straight to heaven (God, it turns out, fucking hates the Yankees, as he should). These days of course the Red Sox win all the time, so if I want to go out on this particular high note, I’m going to have to move to someplace like Cleveland or Milwaukee. If that’s the case, I think I’d rather just die some regular crappy way.

Number 5: Wearing clean underwear
I say this in part to satisfy my mom’s gravest lifelong concern, but also because wouldn’t it be pretty fantastic to be the first person in the history of undergarments to actually show up at the morgue in pristine undies? That would be one for the books, people.

Number 4: Laughing
Last week I was at the bar with my friends Chili and Smurfette, and as our waitress was walking away (Smurfette and I both kind of have a thing for her, but not Chili, because he’s Smurfette’s boyfriend, and he only has a thing for Smurfette because he’s not an idiot) I said, “Gosh, she’s so great, always so nice to me and stuff. Still, she’d never go out with me,” to which Smurfette replied, “Actually, I bet she would, she has terrible taste in men.” Smurfette gets on a roll every once in a while, and for days at a time the things that come out of her mouth that she intends to sound like encouragement actually sound like insults – just exactly like insults, and the only way you know they’re not insults is that she immediately dies laughing. Each time it happens I believe for a few seconds that she actually is dead because her eyes get very big like she’s looking into a not too distant light and she loses the power of speech. It’s like she’s having a caustic wit-induced stroke. I don’t want Smurfette to ever die, but I wouldn’t mind going out that way.

Number 3: In clown makeup
This is mostly for the sake of the first responders who find you. Think about their lives, climbing six flights of stairs to dirty, cramped apartments where they bag and tag stiffs who’ve been left to air out for three or four days before somebody realizes that’s not bad Indian food they’re smelling. They open the door, and there you are in suspenders and giant clown shoes, your face all made up in a big sloppy grin, red ball on your nose, spray seltzer bottle still clutched in your lifeless hand. Remember the clown’s credo: Always leave ’em laughing.

Number 2: Fulfilling a promise
Say you’re dating someone you know has one foot out the door, and you say, “I don’t know what I’d do if you ever left me – I’d probably die.” And of course she leaves, and then you die. Imagine the possibilities. Your mother would spit in her face. All your friends would hate her. They’d run into her on the street and be like, “Hey, have you seen Steve? Oh, wait, that’s right, he’d dead. He died because you left him.” Revenge is a dish best served at my wake.

And the Number 1 Way to Go: Fucked to death
Obviously. Don’t get me wrong, though, I’m not saying you have a heart attack or the other person inadvertently chokes you out. No, you’re just fucking, and it’s the best fucking two people have ever – ever – engaged in, and you both do your thing, and the second it’s over, you die. It’s essential, though, that only one of you dies, because the other one has to walk the earth telling your story. Your legend must not die with you in that Motel 6.

Tune in next time when I’ll be offering up my Top Ten Ways Not To Go. Some of you are going to want to pay very close attention to that list.

“Awareness” and “empathy” have become this decade’s Catch-22 words, full of traps and mind games, yet serving a purpose if only a future moment when we say, “Remember our obsession with that.” Of course, we think we want to become more aware, but do we? Likewise, we think we wish to become more empathetic, but do we actually seek more empathy towards ourselves? How often do we extend awareness and empathy only to find that none will be returned?

Experiment: Take a look at the photos above. If you already know the identity of those depicted, skip ahead. If not, answer the following question sets, then proceed.

Question Set 1: What does Photo #1 suggest to you? What do you feel when looking at it? How would you describe the person portrayed? Would you extend empathy towards the person portrayed?

Question Set 2: What does Photo #2 suggest to you? What do you feel when looking at it? How would you describe the person portrayed? Would you extend empathy towards the person portrayed?

So who are they? Photo #1 depicts Adolf Hitler as a baby. Photo #2 depicts Pope Benedict XVI during his membership in the Hitler Youth. Adolf Hitler never made excuses for himself; Pope Benedict has made plenty. In any event, there you have it. For those unable to identify the subjects in the photos, do you feel more aware? Does that awareness make you more or less empathetic and in which case(s)?

The point here is not to attack awareness and empathy but to explore their limits. For instance, can empathy, especially when offered but not returned, become a subtle form of surrender? At what point does empathy become a form of accepting the unacceptable?

The psychologist Albert Ellis, founder of REBT, explained the extent to which he embraced his concept of “universal other-acceptance,” that being wholly rejecting the view that anyone is or ever has been 100 percent evil. How far did he take this view of acceptance? Ellis proposed that even Hitler was not 100 percent evil. Difficult to accept? Take another look at baby Hitler. For some unknown period of time, Hitler was innocent.  Since it must now always be added that Stalin proves to have been “no better,” consider that Stalin was an obvious paranoid. In the American judicial system, excepting Texas, Stalin might have received a reprieve from the death penalty based upon insanity.

On the other hand, empathy depends upon the person extending it. Any victim of Hitler or Stalin able to profess empathy towards one or the other might be considered (a) pathologically forgivers or (b) saints. During the war, those fighting “Hitler” might have found their determination weakened by allowing themselves to feel any empathy towards him. Ellis claims, “As a result of my philosophy, I wasn’t even upset about Hitler. I was willing to go to war to knock him off, but I didn’t hate him.” How did all this work out for Ellis in real life? There shall be no easy answers. Ellis did not fight in World War II. Ellis was a Jew.

And so we become more aware. Does increased awareness intensify empathy? Or does it decrease empathy? Of course, that depends upon the perspectives of those potentially offering empathy. Are we aiming for empathy by seeing through the eyes of the innocent Hitler or Stalin? Or do we aim for empathy through the eyes of the absolutely amoral Hitler or Stalin? Or do we somehow try to keep both perspectives in mind, creating a semi-mathematical mean of perspectives?

Whom do we forgive and why? Whom do we forgive last in almost all cases? Ourselves. Everyone has fascist moments; if not, fascism would never have become possible. In such moments, we perpetuate our worst acts and usually without much conscience involved. Obviously, we absorb our degree of conscience through parents or guardians but also later by the media, which perpetuates an ethical system lacking any ethics at all…for the media. We, however, are constantly reminded of our responsibilities while simultaneously being told the self comes first and above all else. What a strange society, with vertical and horizontal fields of ethics and power that cannot be mapped or otherwise depicted. We the Narcissistic Puritans endlessly chastise ourselves and everyone else, except, of course, when we’re not providing fodder to others chastising us. Empathy becomes a wicked thicket.

None of these points can be squared to easy solutions, but this much can be stated with uncertain certainty: Empathy is conditioned and conditional until awareness exposes the extent to which we’re willing to extend our empathy beyond its previous limits. What we do with this awareness, and how we spend our empathy, cannot be proven as beneficial in every case. Putting aside historical figures and considering only those we encounter in daily life, how much empathy can we afford to spend on those so self-convinced that they don’t even convince themselves and so never stop trying to do so? Only when forced to repetitively encounter such people (such as the workplace) do we benefit from extending empathy towards them. We can remain neutral in judgment; to go beyond that point is to deplete the natural resource of empathy.

Awareness may lead to increased empathy, but empathy, when it proves a fool’s errand, does so only after the fact and too late for retraction. We may aim for universal other-awareness, as Ellis proposes, but everyday life opposes the infinite, constantly pushing us back towards our finite lives that can never become wholly rational. We cannot escape this dilemma, but we can mitigate its tensions. Learn and learn again, all lessons to be repeated.


I drink too much.

The way I know this is because I often spend Sunday in my living room with the shades drawn, unable to do much more than watch movies and play around on the Internet. Also, my insides hurt.

The problem with stopping is I don’t feel like it. Well, on Sunday I tell myself I’ve had enough, and I abstain until Thursday or Friday, but then one of my buddies calls and says Let’s go, man and by then I’m feeling well enough to start the cycle over again.

I’ve never felt a craving for alcohol, or a thirst, not the way I’ve heard it described. I’m just bored. I didn’t even start drinking until my 30s. When I read literature on alcoholism, it explains how alcoholics have difficulty feeling pleasure because they’re addicted to the dopamine high they get from drinking. Regular activities that normally induce pleasure don’t cut it anymore, not compared to alcohol. But the thing is, I was already bored before I started drinking.

In college I tinkered with screenplays and finished a few, and several years ago I found an agent. He took my newest script and convinced a well-known producer to buy an option on it. I remember the joy I felt when my agent called with the news. Alcohol never made me feel like that. Ever. So I do know I’m at least capable of strong emotions. But it’s not like I get a call like that every week, you know?

One of the things I hate most in the world is fishing. Because of all the waiting you have to do. My screenwriting career is like a fishing trip where I got a bite on the first cast and then spent the next four years staring at a cork. A cork that doesn’t move. That doesn’t even wiggle.

And what do fisherman usually do while they’re waiting for a bite? Why, they drink, of course. Ask any angler and he’ll tell you…drinking is half the point of fishing.

This is my first post on this site and I feel funny writing about something so personal. I tinkered with other ideas but I kept coming back to this. I know it’s a very whiny essay about a problem for which the solution is obvious: stop drinking. But what I wonder is why I should stop. Why should anyone stop doing something they enjoy?

Recently I had been out drinking, and at the end of the night I was far too drunk to drive my car home. I called a cab, but after thirty minutes it still hadn’t showed up, and I fell asleep in my car. Sometime later I heard a knock on my window and saw a cop standing there. I had no idea there was a law where being drunk in your car and having possession of your keys carries the same penalty as actually driving your car under the influence. This seems pretty harsh to me, since the whole idea of DUI laws is to keep drunk drivers off the road. Anyway, my license was suspended, and I ended having to go to a class with a bunch of alcohol and drug offenders. The terrible experience of being in that class is the subject of another essay, but the reason I bring it up now is because one part of the course involved a series of questions the student should ask himself.

Is my work suffering because of my alcohol consumption? Has anyone besides me been adversely affected by my drinking? My family? My friends? What sort of penalties have I faced as a result of my arrest? Et cetera.

In my case, other than the sheer embarrassment of being taken to jail and having to sit in that class, the only penalties were monetary. My family doesn’t know anything about it. I was married once but I’m not anymore, and I don’t have any children, so the only person affected was me.

You could make the argument that my quality of life would be higher if I didn’t drink, or that I would live longer, but I guess what I’m asking is why those things are necessarily better. Almost everyone would agree they are better, but everyone used to believe the Sun orbited the Earth, too. Just because it’s the prevailing opinion doesn’t necessarily make it the right one.

I suppose living a good and honest life should get me to Heaven, but I got sick of listening to my priest and the Pope condemn homosexuality, so I stopped going to Mass. And besides, if you’re looking for examples of healthy living, the Bible isn’t really the place to turn.

Substance abuse of any sort carries consequences. I know this. The thing is, I see abuse around me everywhere. I see people taking painkillers recreationally. I see them addicted to prescription sleeping pills. And if it isn’t drugs, it’s food. If it isn’t food, it’s television. In fact I wonder if television isn’t the most destructive substance of all.

These problems are particularly bad in the United States. Here we are, the land of opportunity, wealthy like few populations on earth, and yet we act as though we’re miserable. More than 70 percent of us are overweight. In 2008 the World Health Organization surveyed legal and illegal drug use in 17 countries and found Americans led the world in marijuana, tobacco, and cocaine use. Interestingly, countries with far less stringent drug laws also experience far less use. Although it turns out our alcohol consumption is fairly mundane compared to plenty of nations in Western Europe.

Quoting statistics about substance abuse doesn’t excuse my own. But it does make me wonder what it is about the United States that makes her citizens so desperate to alter their own perceptions. Why isn’t the real world good enough? What exactly are we looking for?

The drugs are only going to get stronger. One day, reality television and video games are going to overlap, and I have a feeling what emerges will be the strongest drug of all.

Maybe then I won’t be so bored anymore.

Everyone knows that Tuesday is the day the new music comes out, and for my parents, June 4th, 1984 was the last great Tuesday of them all.

They had never been so ecstatic about a music purchase before, at least not since “The Big Chill” soundtrack was released, and that was a dogpile of re-packaged boomer nostalgia – this time, it was new music. After a giddy round-trip in the Dodge Omni to the Target in Cottage Grove, the plastic wrap was sheared from the LP sleeve, the album reverentially placed on the old Akai turntable, and the needle dropped on “Born In The U.S.A.,” the first track from the Bruce Springsteen album of the same name.

The Boss would command my family’s stereo for most of the summer, and his words and sounds dominate our mental inventories of that entire year, but it would be the last time, or at least the last time I could remember, that my parents bought a record the day it came out.

Years later, my dad was piqued by the Moody Blues’ resurgence, but was apparently just content to wait for “Your Wildest Dreams” and “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere” on the radio. My mom got into Ray Lynch (“Deep Breakfast” was being passed around a subset of literate Midwestern women like a carafe of white Zinfandel), and would still see Barry Manilow in concert, but she wasn’t into his new stuff. Not even Springsteen continued to hold court. For people as fanatical about “Born In The U.S.A.” as my parents were, there was no anticipated Tuesday afternoon scramble up to Target to procure “Tunnel of Love” in 1987; in fact, they never even bought it at all. At a certain point in their thirties, the music they already had was good enough.

While certain music snobs could make the argument that there’s a short distance between being into Barry Manilow and The Moody Blues and no longer being into any kind of music at all, my parents’ surrender is not that simple, unfortunately, and far more problematic. While they didn’t make the full transition into “music for people who hate music” (e.g. Jimmy Buffett) something even more disturbing happened: they simply abandoned the joy of buying a new album. As a couple, they were never again as happy and excited about new music as they were about “Born In The U.S.A.,” and they seemed okay with this.

There was no lone gunman here. Their friends were getting older and seemed to be going to concerts less, they had no consistent source of discovering new music other than mainstream FM radio, and, what’s more, new music was increasingly inscrutable (my parents didn’t care for new wave, disliked country, punk and grunge, hated rap, heavy metal, and techno, and to this day are blissfully unaware of skronk, trip-hop, dubstep, reggaeton, third-wave ska, musique concrete, and grime).

At the time they bought “Born In The U.S.A.,” my parents were both thirty-four; a year younger than I am now. They had a nine-year-old and a five-year-old, and owned a three-bed, one-bath rambler with an unfinished basement. They were in a bowling league. My mom was about to go back to college. They had wild drunken nights with other people in their thirties. They weren’t so different from many of my friends today.

Perhaps there was more music out there that they would’ve loved, but how much work would it have been, for two working parents, to find it? I certainly don’t recall any 34-year olds in my hometown who were buying R.E.M.’s “Reckoning” or Robyn Hitchcock’s “I Often Dream of Trains” in 1984 (two albums my parents later liked, when I got them into them) let alone stuff my parents would’ve hated like Big Black’s “Racer-X” or the Butthole Surfers’ “Psychic … Powerless … Another Man’s Sac.”

Everybody knows a person, or maybe several, who are in the know, and act as a bulwark against the intimidating flow of new music. Now, imagine not knowing any of them, and all you have FM radio stations, your memories from high school or college, and friends who have the same radio stations and pretty much the same memories.

It could be tough to sustain an abiding interest in new music year in and year out, particularly as it sounds less and less like the music you bought when you first started buying music. Maybe once, you stayed up all night reading the zines, playing the singles, and standing in line on Mondays waiting for the midnight in-store release parties, where the idea of winning a promotional flat as a raffle prize would have you smiling for hours. But that only matters if you still have the time to care.

This seems to be the factor among the people my age who have both kids and a waning awareness of new music. Despite a lifelong interest in music—and two brothers who are club DJs—one good friend of mine in California is just too damn busy with his job, his five-year-old, his home refurbishing projects, and other pursuits to keep pace with what’s new.

Though kids and jobs are prime culprits, they’re also a facile target; I know a married couple in West Virginia with two children and full-time jobs who have long been as up on new music as anybody. The main difference, of course, is that they prioritize it and truly enjoy the work. At a certain point (for most people, when they’re out of college) finding great new music does become work, and if you want to find your new favorite band before it costs over $15 to see them, it can really while away the hours.

Why should it be so hard to stay current? In this era of Grooveshark and live streaming college radio and untamed file sharing, it shouldn’t be such a struggle to love new music, neither the evolutions of the bands from our teenage years nor the newest hot 20-year-olds from Baltimore. To love something is to accept its changes, even revel in them, after all, and perhaps to fall out of love with new music means a failure on our part to change or accept change.

I suppose to enforce stasis is to enshrine the cultural past. And in ex-urb Minnesota, I grew up around a lot of this enforced stasis. I met a lot of no-nonsense Midwesterners who, by the time they were in their mid-thirties, decided that new music (among other things) just wasn’t for them. But where do we go from there? Are we doomed to mellow out and get over it? Flash forward fifteen years to a lawn chair, a beer gut, and the same goddamn favorite song?

Conversely, how much of the no-nonsense Midwesterners’ emotional reaction is actually an accurate reflection of the imperatives of the marketplace? Most new music, particularly by new bands, is aimed at teenagers, and Top 40 music has been blatant kid stuff since the dawn of time, which means that of course we’re supposed to grow out of most of it, and grow up with the rest of it, carrying our Madonna to battle against the next generation’s Lady Gaga. It sometimes takes a serious emotional experience or upheaval to dictate otherwise.

To note an extreme example of this, back in 2001, my mom was diagnosed with Stage IV omental cancer. Dealing with a fatal illness, she got back into new music in a huge way, listening to stuff by Gillian Welch, Sarah McLachlan, Lucinda Williams, Beck (she really liked “Mutations” and “Sea Change”), Kimmie Rhodes, and the new output from Bob Dylan. It was a point of connection that my brother, my cousins, and I could now share with her, and it was wildly meaningful and awesome.

I don’t mean to say that if you experience a cancer diagnosis, you’re going to be suddenly motivated to buy the latest from LCD Soundsystem, but there’s a relationship of some kind between times of great personal change and our emotional dilation to music.  Music, I suppose, even at its most retrained, is an expression of something that someone just couldn’t keep quiet, and in times of massive personal upheaval and joy, this form of expression has a sincere and subjective impact. To make a mix for a road trip or to have a song as a couple is to say, this means something; this is a conscious emotional tether to a dynamic time.

The question is, what’s the soundtrack for what comes next, when the dust and the young parents settle? Do we even want a soundtrack for days where nothing really happens? Are there fewer bands at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy? Or do they just play Radiohead’s “No Surprises” on repeat?

For every person who tells me that the 1960s were the apogee of popular music, or that everything in the 21st century sounds the same, or that the Telecom Act of 1996 presaged a nosedive in the quality of pop culture, I’ve started to wonder where they’re at in their life, and if maybe they don’t need to get their ass to a New Releases display in one of the last few record stores in the world before they die on their feet. Lester Bangs, in his 1980 essay “Otis Rush Mugged by an Iceberg,” ended a review of the one recent album that impressed him by writing, “It’s better than killing yourself.” Agreed, and finding that record, even if it’s just one, is worth the effort. Even if we’re just dancing in the dark.

Mumbai may be the chosen city of India World, where everyone of every stripe, caste and origin in the country comes to live, but the lingua franca is possibly not the one you’d expect it to be, 64 years after the British left the place. It certainly ain’t Hindi.

One of the first ‘greetings’ I received when I first moved into the area I am staying in in Chuim village in the Khar Danda area of the city was, “Welcome to India,” immediately followed up with, “Get back to England.”

With the folk memory of the dark, rascist days of Great Britain in the 1960s and 1970s hard-wired in from before I was born, my brain said, “How dare you!?”, immediately followed up with, “You little bastard”. But at the same time, my heart said, “Absolutely goddamn right.”

Typically, one or two people an hour will stop to say hello and find out what your good name is and where you do come from, and it may be too early to say, but so far, the reaction to my answer of, “England” seems to have been exclusively either a grimace and/or a swift exit.

(Of course it’s too early to say, it’s a blog – that’s the whole point, isn’t it?)

And let’s get this right, it is England. ’None of this Impero-peak, ‘Great Britain’, ‘Britain’ or the ‘United Queendom’ ; ’none of that bollocks. It’s England. You know? Fish, chips, cup’o’tea, bad food, worse weather, Mary F-ing Poppins – England.

And yes, it was us, and for what it’s worth, I’m sorry, I really am.

We belong in India about as much as America belonged in Vietnam; just as we don’t belong in Ireland; just as we didn’t belong in the West Indies. The paucity of imagination in presuming that the ‘West Indies’ was just another India, West of the ‘first’ one, is a perfect example of the kind of horrible homogenisation that runs all the way through the imperial enterprise—or, as it has now been rebranded, globalisation—whether it’s the Shemites, the Romans, the East India Company or the Americans with their names on the handle of the poker.

We didn’t belong in Indonesia, just as we didn’t belong anywhere in the Caribbean or the Pacific. We didn’t belong in America, so the French made us have it. We didn’t belong in Surinam or Tangier or Oman. We didn’t belong in Australia. We didn’t belong in Senegal, just as we don’t belong in Canada, Singapore, Ghana, Honduras, South Africa, Madeira, Gibraltar, Afghanistan, Iraq…

“Absolutely goddamn right. Never get out of the boat.”

I felt some of the sting that is presumably absent from the life of the average old colonial in fixing on a name for an individual I enlisted as a contributor to a documentary I was making about hip hop in South Wales in 2002. Having not heard his name spoken properly, and too scared to ask the rest of his crew what it was, I began calling this immense, menacing West African drug dealer, ‘Donny’. If I’d gone for ‘Die Hard’ or ‘Dastardly’ or ‘Dangerous’ it might have been alright but ‘Donny’!? Is there a stiffer, whiter, squarer name in the English language than ‘Donny’? I was relieved when Diamond decided not to crush my head between his hands.

I felt the same way moving in to this family’s home in Mumbai when I misheard the name of the man of the house and scrabbled around at a couple of ‘T’ names before settling on ‘Trevor’. This huge, alcoholic Goan who nicks 5 rupees from me every time we go and fill up my water bottle at his mate’s overpriced shack round the corner is as Indian as Ghandi, but thanks to a bunch of diseased, dick-swinging Portugese egotists his ‘real’ name is ‘Tyronne Mendes’.

As I have found in many situations in Asia, I cannot explain my own apparently bizarre behaviour in any adequate way. I thought in a majority Hindu country I would be bang on masquerding as a de facto vegetarian for a few months, but sure enough, here in this Goan Catholic village, in this Goan Catholic household, with the indefatigable Goan Catholic, Trevor Mendes, I’m as much of an outcast as a vegetarian in Europe (at least in Southern Europe and the more working class parts of Northern Europe):

“You know, teek-hain? Prawns have got a type of iron in them that you’ll never get from spinach”.

Yeah, cheers Trev, normally I’d be trying to put you off yours so I could get more prawns in, but I’d rather not have amoebic dysentery until next week if that’s allright with you, cock. 5 rupees?…

V.S. Naipaul calls the embarrasment of colonial name-giving, “place names in the mouth of a conqueror”. Cassius Clay described ‘Muhammad Ali’ as, “a free name”.

“Firdaus becomes Freddy, Jamshed, Jimmy, and Chandrashekhar, which is clearly impossible, becomes the almost universal Bunty or Bunny”

–V.S. Naipaul, An Area of Darkness, 1964

It was the same story in Hong Kong, and, to be fair it’s the same with lovely people from all over globalised Asia, from the thriving ‘Elvis Presli’ in Indonesia to the inumerable Chinese ‘Candy’s, ‘Pinky’s’, ‘Flower’s and ‘Josephine’s making moves and taking names all over the Pearl River Delta, to all the magnificent, firebrand Thai ‘Susan’s spinning Victorian notions of emancipation into candyfloss. The ubiquitous ‘English name’ is just a concession to Western ignorance, and god knows we need it.

What exactly are we producing at the moment other than over-specialised, lazy, drug-happy underachievers with an inflated sense of their own entitlement, like me?. We elbowed our way violently to that place in the sun, and now the sun has well-and-truly set.

The sun of the British Empire rose in the West and finally set in the East, in India. Not content with perverting the natural order of the world in geographical, political, economical, spiritual and psychological terms, we went for a little astrophysical perversion as well.

As far as India goes, we just simply didn’t belong there, just as we didn’t belong in the Phillipines or Nigeria or Uganda or Jordan or Zanzibar or Qatar or Malta or Lagos or Palestine or Fiji or Kenya or Kuwait. When we eventually realised that we only really belonged on a tiny, rainy island in the North Sea notable principally for its fishing, it was too late, so we had to invent globalisation to keep the dream alive, even when it was dead. And now we’re desperately trying to reanimate a corpse.

“…limited islanders, baptised with mist, narrowed by insularity, swollen with good
fortune and wealth.”

–R.B. Cunningham Graham, Bloody Niggers, in the Social Democrat, April, 1897

I should know, I am one, and yes, my little friend, I am going back to England. We had our chance and we Royally fucked it up, and you deserve all the opportunities available, and all the luck in the world.

It’s your world, mate. We just live in it.

My dishwasher and I have been at war for some time. This war is being waged on two fronts. On one side is my ongoing search for a bowl or plate or pot so dirty the dishwasher cannot clean it, but so far I’ve found nothing, including a recent plate coated with the super glue residue of leftover fried eggs. The other battle is a certain steak knife I’ve run through the wash at least five straight times. There is a bit of unrecognizable debris stuck to the tip of the blade that no amount of hot water and dish detergent will dislodge. I could easily scrape the debris off with a fingernail but that would be like conceding defeat. This is a ridiculous war because the dishwasher obviously possesses the horsepower to clean any dish it wants but refuses to acknowledge the steak knife. I think it’s mocking me.

* * *

I don’t watch a lot of television, and I don’t have cable, so the only way I get national news is to read it on the Internet. But I don’t even do that as often as I probably should. I’m too busy looking for that little red alert on Facebook that tells you when someone leaves a comment or sends you a message. Other sites I read with regularity are this one and DamnYouAutocorrect.com. But that’s not what this is about. This is about everyone sitting around watching cable news all day and then complaining how everything is wrong with America. The thing about America is there is so little wrong with it that we have the luxury of watching theater disguised as news and then complaining about how put upon we are. Of course what’s wrong depends on which network you watch. None of them can agree what’s wrong, only that something definitely is. The cable news networks also seem to agree they should compose theme songs for important news stories. Can you imagine being a musician who makes a living this way? Hey, Mutt! We need a quick ten second theme to introduce the war in Afghanistan. Can you whip up something by nine? But Mutt is expensive, and so are satellite trucks, so the way networks pay for their broadcasts is with prescription drug commercials. These advertisements are invariably more interesting than the news itself because they, a) suggest you diagnose yourself with an illness, and b) consume most of their precious air time warning you about side effects. Like this pill will stop you from peeing so often, but you also might shit out of your ears or die or see the future. Whose bright idea was it to put the lay public in charge of prescribing drugs to themselves? Am I the only person in the world who doesn’t understand this logic?

* * *

In downtown Memphis, moments after I emerge from the hotel, a man approaches me and begins to chat. It’s nine-thirty at night. I’m starving. The friendly fellows quickly ascertains I’m looking for a restaurant, away from the tourists, and helps me locate one. I know this game but pretend like I don’t. We talk all the way to the restaurant. He learns I’m a writer and promises to visit my web site and send me an email. I learn he has a “fifteen-mile walk home in the rain.” When I inquire about a potential bus fare, the amount he quotes is about the same as one of the vodka-laced Red Bulls I will consume with dinner. This sounds like a fair investment to me, so I give him the bus fare and go inside.

The restaurant isn’t perfect, but it’s close enough. There’s a bar, a few tables, and a stage where a live jazz band is preparing to play. The crowd is mainly young professionals, dressed a lot like me, having drinks and watching the local pro basketball team on flat screen televisions. I sit down and order a drink and a burger, and while I wait for my order to arrive I send flirty text messages on my iPhone. The band is decent and I snap a few pictures and text those, too. Eventually a girl walks up to the bar and stands next to me. I realize she’s the same blonde I noticed earlier at an adjacent table. She just stands there, drinking water, and I realize she expects me to say something to her. So I do, and when the girl turns to me I can see she is very pretty, like model pretty. She tells me about her job, about how she doesn’t like it, and asks where I’m from. I keep looking back at the table behind us because I’m pretty sure that guy over there in the pink shirt is her boyfriend. It could also be the guy in the suit, but my bet’s on Pink. I’ve got a nice buzz, and I should be feeling happy, but instead I’m confused. Why is this petite supermodel chick talking to me where Pink can clearly see her? And why am I pretending to care about her boring job? I’m texting someone who isn’t here and occasionally being chatted by someone who is, who apparently doesn’t want to talk to her boyfriend, and everything seems absurd to me. I’m listening to jazz music in a Memphis bar, and though it’s pretty good music I start to think how odd it is to be sitting in bar full of locals, listening to a band play jazz because they sort of have to, being in Memphis, like I’m watching all these actors play their parts. When the blonde and I run out of things to talk about, she wanders back over to her boyfriend and the rest of their group, and I turn my attention to the television. Occasionally my phone buzzes, and the conversation moves forward, albeit glacially, and I wonder if my text buddy were here in person, would we be on our phones talking to other people who were not here?

The guy who directed me to the restaurant never sends an email.

* * *

On the interstate, on the way home, I listen to stand up comedians to distract myself from the reality of a six-hour drive. I listen to music. I wonder what draws us to listen to music, to these same melodic rhythms again and again. Sometimes music evokes emotion in us, sometimes it inspires us, but very often we listen simply because we cannot bear the silence. On a normal day you might be working in a cubicle or in your living room, your hours might be filled with the concerns of other human beings, and time flies by with little knowledge of its passing. But when you’re on the road you’ve got nothing but six hours of asphalt and tractor trailers and drivers who won’t get out of the left lane, and suddenly the hours assert themselves. They become worlds, planet-sized, immensity so great you can barely detect their curvature. Which is why you distract yourself with pleasing melodies and rhythms, drumbeats that count off the many moments so you might forget about them.

And you wonder if maybe that’s what you’re really doing every day. Distracting yourself.

* * *

If our bodies are electrochemical machines, the core programming code instructs us to survive long enough to engineer successful offspring. But human minds, perhaps uniquely, possess the ability to override genetic commands. We use latex or hormones to defy industrious little swimmers. But to what end? For some, bearing children is the next, obvious step in their forward-marching journey. Others give no thought to the gravity of bringing life into the world. And maybe a few of us, consciously or not, look at parenthood as a concession of defeat, just one more reminder of the meaningless void. Maybe we see those smiling baby faces as the army that will eventually defeat us.

* * *

In the end, though music may often be a distraction, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes you hear a melody so beautiful you are compelled to stop the forward march and give yourself fully to the moment directly in front of you. Sometimes you make perfect contact with the golf ball and launch it four-and-one-half football fields into the distance. One day your first novel sells and the only response you can think of is to cry. Another day your eight-year old niece calls you on video chat and you read her a bedtime story over the Internet tubes.

If that smiling face is the beginning of military occupation, it’s certainly difficult to resist.

* * *

Today I ran the dishwasher. This time the blade of the steak knife emerged clean, pristine, like it was brand new all over again. I don’t know if it matters or not, but I won that battle.

The only real point to life is for it not to turn out the way you expect. Think about it. If, at an early age, you mapped out a life for yourself, and it played out exactly the way you wanted, you would be fantastically bored. In fact, if nothing or no one placed obstacles along the preordained path of your life, you would probably introduce those obstacles just to experience a little variety. I think you can make an argument that those of us prone to self sabotage are not necessarily fighting some deep interior hatred of ourselves but simply bored.

We humans also feel a deep-seated need for order in the world that stands in contrast with our desire for conflict. This is probably why we create gods who are all powerful and ostensibly running the show, but presume those gods afford us free will. There is a plan, but we are permitted to fuck it up. Or we look to distant and irrelevant celestial bodies to help us understand who we are, but the interpretation of these stars and planets are left to infallible humans.

This is why I believe most good stories follow a certain template. A character’s life is pushed out of balance and he spends the rest of the story attempting to restore order. Each time he succeeds, new and greater complications arise, creating a back and forth effect, an increasing push and pull effort until no greater threat can be imagined, at which point the character either overcomes his obstacles or is overcome by them. Or some ironic blend of the two.

Of course a novel or a film or any medium may incorporate one of these stories or scores of them, depending on its scope. The threats might be real or imagined. They might be contained within a family or cover the entire planet (or galaxy). But this template functions because it appeals to our inner struggle between order and conflict. Play all you want with a certain medium, introduce new variations on form and structure and language, but do not argue with me about the underlying way a basic story functions. That template is what joins the story with our biology.

Our lives are stories. We are rarely in balance, and even when we are, we seek ways to temporarily push ourselves out of balance. Perhaps the wise among us, as they grow older, realize this and try to reverse field. But I would wager that even our most comfortable and intelligent seniors still look for daily reasons to complain about something.

If life is a story, perhaps its most impressive climax is romantic love. In my opinion, there is nothing in the world more miraculous. Billions of parents around the world might disagree, but intellectually I find romantic love more interesting because of the relative rarity compared to its familial counterpart. Perhaps the love a mother feels for her child is more powerful, but the truth is there is a functional purpose for that version of love, a very real biological source.

You might argue how lust and temporary romantic partnerships are also driven by our genes, that all life is a machine, but my definition of romantic love stands outside that model. Finding a suitable biological partner might amount to nothing more than hip-to-waist ratios in females, or height and breadth combinations among men, and the general health and beauty of both. But coupling those physical attributes with our complex, brilliant, chemical brains is something I’m not sure evolution has grasped yet. Or something we humans can really understand. In the first blush of a crush, it’s hard to separate the physical urges from the intellectual. You can’t really know if the attraction you feel is a biological imperative or the far more complex joining of two individual minds. Most often, the attraction is weighted on one side more than the other, and this is why the most fulfilling relationships are so scarce.

Complicating matters even further is how often it happens that one person experiences the complete picture of romantic love and the other does not. Due to social norms and biological pressures, relationships like this might last a lifetime, but this happens far less often than it once did, at least in Western culture. Today there are too many options available to us, and countless love stories have taught us to accept nothing less than a magical union. Functional relationships burdened with these fanciful expectations often experience structural failure, and millions of people wander aimlessly wondering why they can’t find someone perfect with whom to share their lives.

It’s no secret why love stories are usually written about the chase but rarely about what comes after. The excitement of courting or being courted is the engine that drives the story. The obstacles one experiences while driving toward the climax of admitted and recognized love is the story. The sense of balance one experiences by beginning the relationship is not a story. Or perhaps more accurately, it’s the end of the story other people might find interesting. You don’t write that part in a book or film because the chemistry between those two people is so unique that it likely wouldn’t be entertaining to a wide audience. Who wants to listen to their friend prattle on about how awesome their partner is? Wouldn’t you rather hear her admit how she believed she was important to him, only to find out he’d been using her as a toy all this time?

Maybe it’s depressing to recognize these things about ourselves, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, understanding humanity is a way to make sense of our lives and set expectations. Extended happiness and true romantic love does exist in the world. There are many examples of it. But recognizing the scarcity of these things may prevent you from being disappointed when you don’t find them, or at the very least help you accept something less in your life. After all, the earth will continue to rotate no matter how you feel about it, and your acceptance that every day won’t bring roses will help you make the most of those many sunrises and sunsets.

In any case, since it’s true life rarely turns out the way you expect, it’s also possible the most amazing event of your life will happen tomorrow.

That you can’t ever know for sure is what makes life so beautiful in the first place.

Enough Grows

By Mary Hendrie

Opinion

This post is excerpted from my blog Not an Activist, which I started in response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this summer. Please visit the blog to learn more. Thanks!

I’m beginning to wonder if it’s really possible to “do enough.”

Yesterday, I realized that to some folks I may look like a real hippy-dippy, granola weirdo, which was a funny thought for me since lately I seem unable to shake the feeling that I’m simply not doing enough. I’m not living quite the eco-friendly lifestyle I thought I could. True, I’m working toward some major changes, but they all happen slowly. One doesn’t just become a yoga teacher and quit commuting over night. Rather, there is money to be saved, training to be endured, and a clientele to be built before teaching yoga is really a viable career option. And yes, that’s where I’m headed, but who knows when I’ll get there.

Meanwhile, I usually eat lunch near my office at one of the three places that are close enough to walk to during my break. But I get sick of the repetition, and yesterday I wanted Subway, which is a little further than I can reasonably walk in the amount of time I have. I joked somewhat lamely that I was really living on the edge by going to Subway for a change. The office administrator was kind enough to laugh unconvincingly, but truthfully, I felt pretty conflicted about going.

At Subway, I pulled up in my Prius, walked in and ordered a veggie patty on wheat bread, piled high with lettuce and spinach. I declined the use of a plastic bag to carry out my order and gently placed the paper-wrapped sandwich in my oversize purse instead. I did accept the combo deal … because I love Sun Chips. But I didn’t use a lid or a straw for my soda cup.

On the way out, I thought I felt the eyes of the other patrons on my back. It could’ve been because I was exceptionally well dressed, or they might have been thinking I was a real eco-douchebag (I promise you will love this article by J.B. MacKinnon, who is not a douchebag). But the funny thing to me was that while on the surface, perhaps to the uninitiated, I might have looked like a real do-gooder, I didn’t feel like one.

I still drove to get the food. I still used their waxy paper. I still used the paper cup. I still ate the chips from the weird composite bag.

Once you become aware of the materials you use on a regular basis, it’s hard to justify using them even once in a while. If they are non-recyclable, or if they are made from non-renewable resources every single use feels like a transgression. Yes, I was enjoying a vegetarian lunch, driving a hybrid and avoiding plastic waste, but the fact that I drove there at all felt like I was doing something wrong. It was a little like sneaking out of the house in high school, only without the devilish thrill.

So, as I was having what might have looked like a very green lunch break yesterday, I realized that there is a massive disparity between what most people probably consider “green living” and what I think is “doing enough.” And the truth is, I don’t think it’s possible for very many people to do enough. I think most of us are capable of making these surface changes like what I’ve made so far, but many people aren’t even doing that.

But how much of a difference could we make if all of us just did the very basics? Recycle, avoid plastics, drive less, eat less meat.

MacKinnon notes in his article that switching to power-saving light bulbs hasn’t had quite the impact on our electricity consumption that we hoped, which makes me wonder if what I’m doing is a waste of time or worse — hypocritical. Still, I can’t help feeling that not trying at all would be a far greater waste.

There are two questions for me now:

  1. How do I continue to make small changes that will add up to something meaningful?
  2. How do I (or can I) reach those folks who aren’t yet doing anything? After all, it will take much more than just myself to make a difference.

It never changes. Every time I even think of-let alone read or watch-the penultimate scene of Macbeth, I don’t just sit up, I stand up. I’ll stand right up in a theater-I have no problem with the violation of decorum in public places.

I know Macbeth is guilty of heinous crimes. I know, as he does, that he deserves his fate. I know he is the most despicable of men, a faithful general and friend-a true hero turned traitor, murderer…psychopath. I know he has sold his soul and become a greedy, power hungry madman. And yet…

I rise to my feet in respect, whether at home alone in my office, or in a theater in one of the world’s great cities. When Macduff reveals his prophetic magical protection of being “untimely ripped from his mother’s womb,” Macbeth at first acknowledges his cowardice. And then the old soldier in him, the noble though fallen inner man shines through, and he says for all time: I WILL NOT YIELD.

Macbeth

Though the line, “Lay on, Macduff” has become caricatured in many contexts, no one can ever minimize or demean the power of Macbeth’s assertion, “Yet I will try the last.”

With blood on his hands, doomed to die, he still draws his sword and calls upon the courage that made him the leader and warrior that has been his life. I get out of my seat and want to plunge into the page and the scene-because I want to help him. Despite his crimes, I want him to somehow triumph.

Hamlet, near the end, says, “We defy augury,” and goes on to fence to his appointed death. But my sympathy isn’t so much with him. I appreciate his predicament, but he seems a dithery sop to me-death is an easy way out. He’s a prince and fencing is something he learned indoors.

Macbeth wants to live. A Captain of Men, he’s seen the blood of combat and survived. He is in fact a professional murderer. Confronted by the same dark magic that had earlier protected him, he draws his sword one final time. I think I’m not alone in hoping against hope that somehow he will prevail.

The moment is a great triumph for Shakespeare. The fact that he could produce such remarkable comedy alongside this bewitched darkness is beyond saying. But to create a villain of Macbeth’s complexity-in this, his shortest tragedy-leaves me standing.

Richard III, Iago, Edmund-are all great villains that any actor of substance would kill for to play. (Richard Burton said, “Any actor given the chance to play Richard III who doesn’t take it, should be immediately executed.”)

But there is an undefeated humanity to Macbeth, and I long to join him…to bring Macduff’s head back on stage and not his.

I count this one of the finest, truest moments in fictionalized Western Civilization. There is Christ on the Cross, anguishing in vinegar and blood-but he had his Father’s many mansions to look forward to, and knew all along he was the sacrificial Lamb. Socrates? He knew the payment for the gadfly is hemlock. Odysseus? He would’ve run away. Macbeth draws his sword and says for all of us, YET I WILL TRY THE LAST.

The only moment to compare is early in Paradise Lost, when Satan sits brooding amongst his monsters and the exiled gods, and speaks with disturbing calm about “What reinforcement we may gain from hope…if not, what resolution from despair.”

Think about that…when the fallen angel of the morning star-a lieutenant to Eternity-speaks to monsters of “resolution from despair.” The vanquished ministers of vengeance and pursuit…under house arrest in Pandemonium, debating rebellion by either covert guile or open war against the tyranny of Heaven.

This is a moment in artistic civilization…not Mr. Darcy.

But oh, for Jane Austen, relative to her disciples today. Give me Jesus long before Paul. Holy shit.

I’m now very tired of warm fuzzy characters. I’m tired of the endless yeast infection of what is really chic lit, masquerading as serious fiction. I’m tired of the miserly boredom of figures as real and thin as toilet paper that get flapped in the published breeze just because someone is well connected and lives in Brooklyn.

The WitchesAnd I’m sick to nausea of fantasy hijacks of darkness, where witches and black magic are the stuff geeky boys and a politically correct girl have to deal with-like fodder from a bad Disney movie.

Macbeth, the warlord, met witches. Shakespeare always brought out all the tricks. But still, there is that final moment, when he draws his sword-and transcends gender, race and class in the doing. I WILL NOT YIELD. Though prophecy and fate be against me, he says…bring it on.

Makes me want to climb on stage.

Explosion

Watched my old quarry friends blow up a section of hillside today. With extreme reluctance I agreed not to film it, for corporate reasons. But, man, C-4 is breathtaking, a plastic explosive not quite as powerful as PE4 but half again up on TNT. A detonation velocity of 25,000 feet per second +. That’s pushing 18,000 mph.

I concede this kind of stuff is extremely dangerous and needs the tight controls it has. But it is a godful thing to behold in action. And contrary to what you might think, the satisfaction of watching it work lingers. It’s like a raw pink Argyle diamond placed in your hand. For one moment you hold what might be a million dollars a carat in Antwerp–and your hand knows. It remembers when that rough gem is taken away. It’s not the same hand ever again.

The same with a proper blast. Your mind holds it–even as pieces of bluestone are flying.

The care in setting a good explosion…

It’s an art. And it makes me think of my own arts differently.

If you’re not blowing something up, you’re not really making anything. That’s the new credo. I’m going to be sorry to miss these guys. One’s going off to Western Australia to blow up things for real money for the mining industry out there. The other is joining the world’s biggest building demolition team in America. They’ve studied for their credentials and expertise–good for them. Everyone has to explode forward or implode inward.

Gone are the days. But we went out with a boom.

To anyone in the arts, I say if it can’t also hurt you, it might not really be art. Think dynamite and pink diamonds.

After inviting a good friend of 15 years to accompany me to a summer music festival in Chicago, he said he would think about it and get back to me.

Several days had passed when I saw him again. I completely forgot to ask him about whether he had decided to go.

So I texted him simply: “I 4got 2 ax u lst nite, whts ur vrdct on the fstval?”.

Two full days pass; there is no reply.

I text again: “Hv u made decision on ths [the festival] yet?”

Several more days pass, and there’s still no reply.

I finally decide to use the good old-fashioned way of communicating and straight-up stone call his ass.

“Hey,” he picks up and says curtly, “Can I call you back?”

“Sure,” I say.

He does not call back.

The next day I text him: “I take it by ur not 1st, not 2nd, but 3rd non-reply tht u simply dnt wnt 2 talk abt it [the festival]. Thts cool. I am prbly going 4 th whle thng & wil assume u r not coming.”

Again, he does not reply.

All four attempts to communicate with this friend of mine has resulted in no reply at all.

It’s the first time I’ve encountered such an cold, one-sided interaction, as if my long-standing friend of 15 years simply did not exist when it came to the subject of festivals and his possible attendance with me to it.

With each successive message sent, a corresponding anger grew in the fragile part of my psyche, imagining scenarios as to why on the other side of my text messages, each one more perturbed and distorted than the one before.

We’ve since seen one another numerous times, and not once have we mentioned this. It’s as if I never asked him nor sent him these text messages. This part of our friendship has been completely erased from our collective memory.

Another example: I recently went on a date with a girl.

The date seemed to go well, and we kissed at the end of the night, vaguely making plans for sometime in the future when we both weren’t busy.

A whole week passed (I went to another music festival and moved houses), I emailed her, and after five or six days without a reply, I began to think the whole experience an aberration, a figment of my imagination in which no stock should be placed.

Surprisingly, the next day she replied, saying that she had had a really busy week but was happy to be back in town after a conference all last week out of town. She finally suggested that we get together soon.

I replied via text two days later during midweek, deferring the potential reunion time to her.

She did not reply.

Two days later, on Friday, I sent her another text asking her to describe her week in three adjectives.

No reply.

All of this forcefully brings about the realization that there is a standard, tacit protocol to messaging (both text and email), and when it is not met, a sender feels snubbed, slighted and generally pissed on.

(Or at least I do.)

Below are a few cursory observations regarding this standard protocol that I culled from these experiences.

Feel free to add.

If a person answers your text message immediately, they are either really bored, not busy or overly eager, none of these a particularly positive way to be viewed by the receiver of your message.

In the case of a romantic interest, immediately answering can be a positive or negative action, depending on which party you are and whether or not you want replied to quickly. So, if you like someone, you text them and they reply within five minutes — this can be a great sign, or, if the tables are turned, it can be undesirable, possibly disastrous because over-eagerness is unbecoming and many times viewed as tantamount to desperation.

If a person answers hours later, it means they were either busy or want to come off busy, but it also means your message was not placed on some sort of immediate priority, and therefore, neither are you. It’s best to back off, cool your jets, let the ball linger in their court for a while, see what the next possible moves that can be made are and act accordingly.

When a person does not reply at all, it means they do want to communicate with you anymore, period.

F off, A hole.

These two instances illuminate yet another aspect of the ultra-fragmented nature of contemporary life: an unfinished conversation, hacked off into oblivion; an expectant response never retrieved; an expectation lowered; a disrespectful-yet-ever-increasing way to treat fellow persons; an absent goodbye lost forever in the indifference of technology.

There was semi-recently an internet kerfuffle on the topic of babies in bars in Brooklyn, which I have been thinking about a lot but, because I have one of these babies, have not had time to properly respond to until now.  Yes, I realize that the world has been clamoring for the response of me, an eminent Park Slope literary mama (by which I mean, of course, the author of an under-read novel, the mother of a one-year-old and yet NOT a member of the Park Slope Parents website and thus obviously not much of a mother at all, and a lowly renter rubbing elbows with the owners of million-dollar brownstones).  
 
And so I will tell you, dear readers, that there was something about the story and ongoing response to it that really got me.  What on earth is wrong with people? I thought every time I read some vitriolic comment from a non-breeder who no doubt had time to compose the perfect snarky retort after sleeping until noon and then reading the entire newspaper.  Babies are wonderful. Babies are the best things on Earth.  I take my baby everywhere, because what, am I meant to hole up in my apartment all day, everyday?  Thus is the joy of having a baby in Brooklyn, after all -– there are tons of entertaining places to go.  We can walk to any number of growing-brain-stimulating places, the baby and me.  I can plop her in the carrier or stroller and take her to a coffee shop, or an art museum, or even, yes, a bar.  And I have, a very few times – always in the middle of day, mind you – taken her to bars, the kind of bars that serve food and, you know, have high chairs.  (Holla, Bar Toto!)

After all, we were all babies once!  And babies are people too!  Adorable, lovey, magical, sweet-smelling tiny people!  What’s more, I maintain that adults who hate babies have something seriously, sociopathically wrong with them.  I mean, sure, it’s true, sometimes babies cry.  But the sound of a baby’s cry is about a tenth as annoying as most of the conversations you overhear in places like bars.  I mean!  What is wrong with people?
 
Anyway.  As awesome as my baby is, I admit that sometimes I need a break.  After all, I am with her all day every day without any childcare, and my husband often works late nights and weekends, which means, you know, A LOT of uninterrupted time, just babe and me.  So the other night after a particularly grueling bedtime, I excused myself for some mommy-me-time.  I strolled down the block, and threw some baby clothes in a machine over the laundromat (I’m not that self-indulgent after all!) and then wandered into my quiet neighborhood bar.  There was candlelight.  There was inoffensive indie rock.  I ordered a beer – a beer! – and settled in with a novel – a novel!  For a few amazing moments, it was just me and my pals Stella and Mary.  I could feel my shoulders untensing.  I hadn’t had a moment like this in months, and this moment would only last about thirty minutes before I had to retrieve my laundry and go back home.
 
And then I heard it. 

A giggly coo. 

A baby, I thought.  In the bar.  You have  got to be fucking kidding me
 
This baby was mega cute, and having just learned to walk was toddling around on her chubby legs with the drunken strut of a 13-month-old with places to go.  She sidled up to me and commenced to play peekaboo behind my table. 

The problem is, I love babies, always have, and have always been the one to, yes, entertain someone’s baby in a random public setting.  I wanted to indulge the little girl.  And I wanted to provide her parents a moment of peace as they ate their fancy meals.  But also, I really, really didn’t.
 
I was tempted to explain myself to her father who came to retrieve her once it became clear I wasn’t going to play.  It’s just that this is the one half-hour in like a year that I don’t have to entertain a baby, I wanted to say.  And anyway, also, what the CRAP man, it is 9pm! Why is your baby even up and out and nowhere near going to bed? A side note: I hate when people judge each other’s parenting.  I judge people who judge other people’s parenting.  But also, I was feeling very, very judgmental. “She’s so cute,” I managed, weakly.  I offered a very small smile.   She grabbed at my book.  “Oh, ha ha.  She likes Nabokov?”  NabAHkov, I said it.
 
The hipstery-facial-haired be-courderoyed father had a smile that resembled a wince.  “Oh, yes, she just loves her NaBOOkov,” he said, inflecting my beloved author’s name with an exaggerated Russiany pronunciation.
 
And then you better believe it was on.  No help for you, buddy!  I tugged my book away from the pretentio-tot and willed my smile to vanish.  I pulled out the big guns.  “Okay, bye-bye!” I said.  I covered my face with the book, like a bad spy in a movie.  “Bye-bye,” said bar-baby. 
 
She toddled back a few more times and I worked hard to ignore her every time.  I even tried not to notice her loitering near the bathroom door and almost getting knocked out every time someone came out, though the mother in me was dying to hop up and usher her away, or at least warn her parents, who were busy ordering dessert.  But the heartless bar-fly in me (she’s small, but she’s in there) enjoyed ignoring the baby in peril.  Even when she finally bit it and began to howl.  I didn’t even offer a sympathetic look!  In fact, I GLARED!  I can sort of hear that baby’s crying above the jukebox and chatter, I meant my mean look to say.  And I am not pleased!  The now-harried-looking parents scooped up their little drunken sailor and scooted.  I looked around for someone to toast, but no one else seemed to have noticed the whole drama at all.

In conclusion: babies in bars are totally fine and obviously everyone should be nice to them and their parents.  But only if they happen to be my baby.  All other babies should be tucked in bed and kept out of my goddamned sight.

I have only one prerequisite for what I consider to be quality television. Be it commercial or full-length programming, it ought to render me speechless. Quality TV, in other words, should shut me up. It should leave my mouth agape and my eyes barely blinking. That is all I ask of television. It’s all my poor wife—who daily puts up with my snarky yapping—asks of television.

Case in point, the new commercial for Kaplan University, a mostly online college based in Davenport, Iowa. The Commercial Which Shut Me Up stars James Avery, who you may remember as Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I always thought Avery was a commanding talent in that role, and he is nothing short of terrific in the Kaplan University commercial.

In this particular TV spot, James Avery plays a professor at some anonymous university who stands before an ethnically diverse, tightly packed classroom and tells his class that he has failed them.

He furthermore states that the American college system is “steeped in tradition and old ideas.” It seems like a farewell speech of some kind, and judging by the quizzical looks on the students’ faces one wonders if Uncle Phil is going to pull out a gun and blow out his brains before everyone gets to sign his or her name on the attendance sheet.

But he doesn’t, thankfully, and the inspirational music swells and the lecture hall scene cuts to a montage of seemingly affluent Americans across the nation watching Uncle Phil’s speech on iPhones and laptops, at breakfast tables, on rooftops, and subway platforms. We are all witness (granted, only if you have internet access) to a hope renewed.

“It’s time for a different kind of university,” he says, pausing thoughtfully as professors do. “It’s your time.”

It’s stirring stuff, indeed. Kaplan University means business. Brothers and sisters, the revolution will be televised. And I think I know exactly what Uncle Phil is getting at.

I’ve experienced firsthand how ugly it can be teaching aliterate 18 year old kids sonorous essays by Ruth Benedict or whoever. Not to mention the frustrating distance that is a fact of life between the professor and the 100- or 200-level student. Teaching college is arguably easier than teaching primary or secondary school because you, as teacher, just don’t need to get that involved. They come, they listen, they take notes. If they don’t come or listen or take scrupulous notes that’s their problem.

But I don’t want to delve too deep into a discussion of pedagogical quagmires and thereby sink into the depths of my own horrible tangent. We’ve all got things we love and hate about Academia, to say nothing of the promiscuous foreplay and keggers and awesome tomfoolery.

Generally speaking, it hardly matters which university you attend, but rather how you spend the four or so years there. Because no matter where you go there is ample time between class and the gym and the party to self-educate. Unless, I suppose, you are a non-traditional student, the sort of busybody Kaplan University is looking to attract with its recent ad campaign.

But I cannot fathom a college experience focused on message boards and video tutorials and a dizzying crumbtrail of emails. And no parties? That can barely be called an experience.

What do you think?