Squirrels In Trees

20 11 2008

There we were, drunk and giddy in the fast-fading remnants of the night, and a few guitars came out, spawning some sputtering discussion and head-nodding, the most our minds and terribly Caucasian notions of rhythm could muster at that hour. It was about 3 a.m. the night Daylight Savings Time ended, and we were upstairs at a house party and a kid intervenes in the conversation.

The discussion had veered toward the topic of classical music (somehow), and he interjects with a rant about how Pachelbel’s Canon (linked here – forward to 1:50, you’ll recognize it) has no musical validity and all and how it’s just ‘garbage pop.’ He argued that it was just a product of the music around it, that it didn’t influence anything at all – it was merely a pleasant and unusually resilient cultural blip, a polished version of music that had once been pioneering and was now entrenched. It was like saying that Pachelbel’s Canon sucked because it didn’t invent the F chord.

And I got to thinking about this nasty condition we have.

Of all the things that pin our generation to indecision and inertia, the rush to criticize, to provide an unsolicited and incomplete critique, should embarrass us most. We have become a nation of amateur critics, of hacks who seek not to enable and encourage, but to maim. Worst of all, that harsh critique we turn on the world turns into crushing self-awareness, of a form so bad that it keeps us from creating, from leaving any proof of our lives except for the airy nothingness of judgment passed.

First, a defense of criticism: We do need it. All of us. Just in doses. Criticism is the scalpel, the sandpaper, the extra touch of paint or the hallowed and underused delete key. Criticism, ingested correctly, only refines our work, whether that work be words or, hell, breakfast quiche. Everything can tolerate a little tinkering, some things more than others. In the proper amounts, and with an altruistic, compassionate mind at the center, criticism makes life better.

On a personality-formation and personality-maintenance level, mental critique is essential and natural. We form the notion of Who We Are as much from what we enjoy and align ourselves with as we do with what we find objectionable, what we rally against. We imitate the good, work against the bad. In high school, the notions of nerds and jocks exist, theoretically, as much because they’re smart/athletic as because they’re not the other. (Yes, yes, they can blend, but you get the idea)

That said, back to the need for a compassionate core. Here’s where we must alter our kindergarten idiom that, unless we have something nice to say, we shouldn’t say anything at all to something along the lines of unless we have something constructive to say, we shouldn’t say anything. Criticism, ideally communicated, should always seek to improve, not to demean.

We need to apply it with an eye toward bettering this race, toward polishing our worlds of art, thought, justice – toward making everything better, instead of just tearing everything down compulsively. We’re in this together, all of us. And if this vision sounds hopelessly corny (it does) it’s better than the reality of what we have right now.

What we have on our hands is a generation of wannabe iconoclasts, unyielding throngs of snarky snipers who throw barbs from afar. It’s the height of cowardice. It’s no longer that those who cannot do, teach. It’s that those who cannot do, criticize.

And why? Has it always been this way? Almost definitely: Keats was rumored to have died because of the stress and despair of his bad reviews. But has criticism always been this loud and this omnipresent? Certainly not.

On a basic level, people react in two ways to their peers standing out. They cheer or they boo, loudly or to themselves. That has, as far I know, been pretty much the case ever since the Romans were going crazy for Russell Crowe (and even earlier, some say!).

People want to be heard. They want to feel strong, even superior. And when others assert themselves, the act of chipping away at the edifice of courage and inspiration needed to create, to lead, to stand out is an easier task – especially when millions of others are willing to lend a hand – than building up the requisite courage and inspiration to push one’s self higher. To tear down means to not have to require more from one’s own life because, without the foil character of the ambitious, confident counterpart, there’s nothing to pale in comparison to.

All around us now, we have a new breed of entitled, enabled critics, bred from parental insistence of uniqueness, by the American party line that Everyone Is Special, not the former line of You’re Only Special If You Prove It method that drove some of our greatest figures to, well, prove it. Andrew Carnegie’s dad didn’t bring him to self-esteem camp.

This kind of new teaching gives rise to a generation bent on admiring its own brilliance and set on revealing the flaws in others. Confidence in one’s abilities can certainly be a good thing, but only if the brilliance is cultured. The problem is, so strong is the message that You’re So Special that cultivation doesn’t happen; leave that to the pedestrians. Nothing is produced, only consumed.

And now, armchair critics have a forum that allows them to spray as much vitriol as they can muster up. Which is, as we’ve seen, a hell of a lot. The Internet has given us capability to condemn without accountability, repercussion or thought.

You can write a post calling a book that took seven years for the author write an unreadable piece of shit, veiled by anonymity, and then head over to check the lines for that night’s NBA action. Thoughtful critique cannot breathe in this environment, choked off by a cloud of simple, Twitteresque comments that do nothing but feed the famished egos of the critics.

The greatest tragedy in all of this is the harshness with which we judge our own work, a condition that stems from this culture of criticism. Instead of diving headlong into a project, we over-analyze. Then frustration sets in, and so does mental paralysis. The work is, sadly, dead at birth.

The last story in Dave Eggers’ short story collection How We Are Hungry is called ‘After I Fell In The River And Before I Drowned.’ In it, he writes about this dog, this bullet of a creature that loves running, loves the way that the trees blur and the muscles twitch and the wind rips at his cheeks as he and his friends race through the woods every day, a race that culminates in a leap over a ravine, one that ultimately results in his death but until his death is the center of his world, the height of life. But while these dogs are racing, squirrels chirp from the trees, scattering insults, quick ones like ‘That was not very good’ or ‘that is very ugly.’ The dogs sometimes catch a squirrel and kill it, squeezing it between their jaws as the squirrel still chirps with its dying breath. But the squirrels’ numbers never dwindle. More and more squirrels show up, saying the same things. Just louder. And louder.

That leap is the leap that every person who wants to create must make. The willingness to make that leap after racing through the woods, instead of sitting in trees and jeering, is a form of victory in itself. But not making it, not even coming down from the trees, is nothing but a lifetime of deaths, the thousands of deaths that await cowards before their ultimate demise, to paraphrase Shakespeare.

When my late professor, Jack Falla, was in the finishing stages of his novel, he and I sat down for a catch-up lunch at a Chinese place on Beacon Street. He seemed nervous. After thousands of stories, a few nonfiction/memoir books, thousands more hours of interviewing, teaching and generally making everyone love him, he was afraid of how the novel would be received once it was out of his hands.

“Scheity,” he said, looking straight down at his plate. “I just don’t know if I’m gonna be able to take the reviews.”

He decided, as the great ones do, to just point to the scoreboard.

But how many, because of criticism both external and internal, never get up the courage to try to put one up on the board?

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Barack Obama. Yes.

5 11 2008

‘And although it seems heaven sent
We ain’t ready, to see a black President’

Tupac Shakur, Changes (1995)

Is this the dream fulfilled?

Is this the day, the day when our country’s little children – and their little children and their little children – have been judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their characters? When suddenly what wasn’t even considered a possibility becomes a reality? When we turn our backs on what’s come before and look to the future and understand, reminding ourselves of the failures behind us, that we can all make a difference, that we can form, after all, a more perfect union?

He spoke and we listened and in turn, we spoke louder, together and fully. A generation that never had a voice has suddenly bellowed.

How could we have possibly seen this, even four short years ago?  Could we have imagined a black man, even in these times, not only winning this election, but defeating a war hero opponent by a landslide?

On this night, we see ourselves atop one of our history’s highest peaks. Of all of the mythologies that galvanize this great continent, few have enjoyed more staying power than the intertwined ideas of the Melting Pot and infinite opportunity, that this country was founded on diversity and possibility, and all it took to ascend indefinitely was a sharp and shrewd mind and a tireless effort.

But before tonight, those allegories have been nothing but words and simple fantasies, tethered to the sad fragments of our past, dark and damning ghosts like Jim Crow, the notion of three-fifths, the bullet inside Martin Luther King, Jr. Over time, the increase of blacks in the workforce and the influx of blacks with college degrees chipped away at racism, while the integration of sports and the importance of blacks in music, from blues to hip-hop sanded more of it away.

But then the Fortune 500 would come out, and as of 2006, blacks occupied only four of the CEO spots. At the end of the same year, median household income for whites stood at $50,673; for blacks, it was $31,969. The stats go on and on, and yes, stats only tell part of the story, but the most glaring message behind these statistics is that, outside of the thin avenues of entertainment and athletics, blacks rose to prominence in so few ways. Terribly few ways.

That mythology of equality, of all men being created equal, had such little resonance under the harsh glare of these facts. Tonight, that idea has roots. Tonight, it is no longer mere floating, hollow words, the preserve of rhetoricians.

We’d be fools to assume that this will change everything. But we’d be missing out on the moment if we don’t think that we just witnessed a moment that will irrevocably change the course of American life.





A Town Chained To Itself

27 10 2008

The fine and educated people employed at the Philadelphia Art Museum tolerate the runners, the daily thousands who, for some reason or another, are in Philadelphia and because they’re in Philadelphia, succumb to the compulsion to sprint up the Museum’s steps and turn around, staring down into the core of Philly, jump in the air, hands shot skyward, and yell ‘Adrian.’

It’s either a pity or a triumph – much like the city itself – that the most famous sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is outside of it. At the base of those famous steps, hidden often in shadow, it stands eight feet, six inches tall, and is more than two millenia younger than its bronze brethren inside. It’s the statue of Rocky, Stallone’s character, the character that’s come to represent, for good and for bad, the Philadelphia identity, the Philadelphia spirit.

And in a time when the nation’s turning its eyes to Philly for reasons other than its position as the ugliest city in America, we see just how pitch-perfect and, thus tragic, Stallone’s distillation of the Philadelphia soul was, and we wonder, if the Phillies do manage to break the curse tonight, will Rocky still ring as true? Without a curse to symbolize the role of underdogs, must Philadelphians start to re-define themselves?

Rocky meant, and means, so much to Philadelphia because of its essential compression of the pain of being Philadelphian. Inside the Stallion’s steel jaw and widowmaking blows were packed the accumulated suffering and disenfranchisement and down-and-out futility of living in a city that’s done nothing but crumbled over the past half-century, a city of perpetual underdogs. Philadelphia’s poet would never be a writer; it would have to be a fighter, the tragic figure of American sports, a colossal rat in a maze whose successes are momentarily cheered and then forgotten as he gives his brain, his humanity, his life to the crowd.

Rocky gave Philadelphians a way out of this decay, a ticket from South Philly to center stage at Caesar’s. It was the Springsteen story, the one where getting out is all that matters and as long as you can keep pushing back the sunrise, you’ll be ok. More, it was the Alger rags-to-riches, up-by-your-bootstraps, American Dream story, which has become the most dangerous allegory in our time, as it postulates a virtual impossibility yet implies falling short of The Dream is unforgivable, a mark of weakness and inferiority.

Most dangerously, Rocky told its audiences that all you had to do was work hard, work harder, and one day you’ll be there – an idea that, painfully, no longer has resonance. Nowadays, having guts just isn’t enough.

But what Rocky captured above all and, in turn, perpetuated, is the all-consuming acceptance in Philadelphia of the underdog mentality, the stoic acceptance of a difficult, disappointing fate that manifests in crude hatred. Of other regions. Of other people. Of themselves. Those axes-to-grind sublimate into booing and cursing and fighting fans – sports, of course, offer an easy black-and-white crystallization of a greater phenomenon: Boston vs. Philly, per se, is a gimme, with Ivory Tower vs. Row Home – the same fans who dump nacho cheese and beer on kids without hesitation.

But a city of underdogs also manifests itself in a lack of civic progress, a crime rate that hastens every year and a sad, sad sense among people in the city that they are not, and won’t ever, be destined for greatness.

“Nothing ever gets done here – nothing ever gets better,” said our cab driver, bringing us to West Philly after going out in Center City after Game 4 of the World Series. “It’s that god-damned underdog mentality.”

Playing the role of underdog is at once empowering and devastating. At first, it unites against a common enemy, the single greatest agent of cohesion in a group. It’s easy to hate yourself less if you can project that anger somewhere else, say, Mets fans or Apollo Creed. Underdog status

But at the core of an underdog is the quiet, unspoken acceptance that you’re not quite worthy of where you are – which, of course, makes doing things like playing in the World Series seem like you’re stealing a car. As an underdog, you understand that you don’t belong at the cool kids’ table. So you act out.

There’s a scene in Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground in which unnamed the main character attends a party in honor of an old classmate, a soul generally beloved by all but, of course, despised by The Underground Man. At the table, the other guests, who had begrudgingly invited him, attempt to lavish praise on the guest of honor, Zverkov. The Underground Man, his hatred rising up in him like hot tar, lashes out at everyone, holding them all accountable for society’s failures and positioning them as symbols, acting brutally on the occasion of celebration.

Dostoyevsky uses this character for a multitude of reasons, of course, but the two reasons most applicable here are to reveal the unspoken madness inherent in a society (polite conversation being one of them) and to illustrate – and possibly warn against – the danger of inertia, ennui¸ on the part of those kept underground.

This last point is the one our cabbie referred to. Her example was how she couldn’t make a living because, in Philly cabs, it takes 5-6 days to receive the money owed a cabbie from a credit card transaction in the cab, and how, despite her efforts to galvanize support, she found nothing but resignation and a brick wall. She was livid at how few people would wrap their heads around this cause – New York cabs, for example, don’t have this truly absurd problem – and just how impenetrable the fortress of bureaucracy, within which the Powers That Be squash ideas daily, is.

It’s so sad to see these people, these good, hard-working people that are referred to by politicians as The Backbone of America or The Salt of the Earth or America’s Soul or any other trite, condescending term, feel trapped. You see them ending up, like Springsteen said, like a dog that’s been beat too much. And after a while, they just give up. New Yorkers, Bostonians, Chicagans demand progress. Philadelphians demand paychecks, because they don’t have much of a choice. No one fights for them – they’ve stopped fighting for themselves – so they just push on, basking in the reflected light of the underdog.

That’s the saddest part: underdogs are complicit in chaining themselves to mediocrity and dereliction. Considering one’s self as an underdog means feeling uncomfortable when one is not an underdog. Imagine a runner taking a 10-meter lead in the 400-meter dash. Now see him lose sight of the finish line and start looking over his shoulder, veering around the track. See him slowly lag, as everyone overtakes him – and see him cross the finish line with a smile.

It’s a great feeling, yes, in sports, to knock off a juggernaut – ask the Giants from last year. But when that feeling, so powerful in context, seeps into culture, it rips apart a town.

It spawns problems like abandoned youth sports programs, underfunded and nearly useless after-school programs, never-filled pot holes, gun collection programs that rise and fall in the time it takes to empty a clip, politicians who are more concerned with just keeping their jobs than the well-being of those they represent and the certainty among those they represent that these goddamned politicians aren’t gonna do anything anyway so I better scrape together anything I can to get by because we’ll be up a creek soon no doubt, and low voter turnout, ensuring those eunuch politicians get a free ride into office for the next term, until you see a town that’s famous for its murals and its crime and nothing else, because what else is there?

When there’s no vision, there’s no progress. That’s the curse of the underdog. You never see beyond the next game, the next obstacle. You, from the first day of your life, have been sold short, and you will, for the rest of your life, continue to do so, reveling in infrequent, modest success.

Rocky told its audience they’d be liberated by perseverance, and in the years after the War, that was true. It’s a pretty idea, the supremacy of hard work, and one that levels the playing field – you don’t need to be big or brilliant to work hard. And people believed it, just like they have since their parents told them that that was the only way to get anywhere, believing always in the criminal fable of the Big Break, as powerful as religion.

But as the century wore on, hard work lost its capacity for elevation. Those jobs on the assembly lines, the ones that created a thick, hearty middle class, have gone abroad. Those that haven’t sure as hell aren’t in Philadelphia, just as they’re not in Newark or Peabody, Mass. Hard work requires getting a big break. But no promoter for no heavyweight champion boxer is going to be paging through the Philly phone book any time soon. And without that break – or an education, or a vision for something greater – all that hard work does is dig a deeper hole.

And even though Philadelphians did realize that no promoter would be dialing ‘215,’ Rocky became more than a fictional story. It became an allegory.

He symbolized everything Philadelphia wanted to be, and he stood, unfalling in the face of everything afflicting the city. Each blow delivered to Philly during America’s transition from a country of industry to a country of lawyers and waiters found its articulation in the fists of Apollo Creed.

Boom. Take away our jobs. Left jab. Boom, right body shot as the kids start dropping out of school at record numbers because the schools can’t afford to teach them or hold them and then take refuge in drugs. Bam, left hook – a haymaker this time – as the welfare state fails and they re-zone neighborhoods and kick people out onto the streets.

Rocky could withstand those punches, and his fighting style was no arbitrary point. He would stand, teetering like a tree in a storm, absorbing everything until he finally fought back and won. Philadelphia was to be the same – it was to swallow those reverberating blows and then, finally, fight back and deliver the winning shot.

But now, we see a town content with absorbing those blows. We see a town of sparring partners, of good, strong and capable people who could have been contenders.

And we see a town, just like every town that’s had its heart ripped out, full of people who believe in the same myth that’s kept other good, strong and capable Americans down: that if you just put in an extra hour on the line, if you just get by, your break will come.

And tonight, in Game 5 of the World Series, if the Phillies do indeed win, this town needs to re-define itself. Nothing so pulls Philadelphians together as their baseball team, not even their football team. And if their baseball team can patch together something beautiful, something better than anyone else did this year – something that hasn’t happened in Philadelphia since 1983, a combined 100 seasons between the four major sports – maybe they can get the courage to do the same.





The Fall Classic

20 10 2008

What one of my favorite baseball bloggers, a Mr. Tim Malcolm of philliesnation.com, remembers most from the 1993 World Series isn’t the crowd fizzing in Veterans Stadium, or the way the runs were scored or the atmospheric rip of a bat connecting with a ball on a late October night.

What he remembers most, as he writes in the blog, is the bunting (not the offensive strategy) – the flags draped from the rafters all around the stadium, dressing the game with the aura of regality.

We lost that year – we lose every year – but the sense still lingered in Malcolm and the scores of the kids who gave their lives to baseball that year (myself included) that they’d been part of something bigger, a chapter in the ever-changing novel of American existence.

I can’t ever imagine feeling the way with the Super Bowl, the grand and almost invariably disappointing culmination of the American machismo, compared to the World Series’ culmination of the American soul. If the Series has an air of royalty, the Super Bowl has an air of carnival, with everything ballooned up to epic, almost cartoonlike proportions, providing you with the sense that you’re part of something prefabricated. For all of the innocence that baseball has given up, it still remains the main attraction at its own event; it stands for itself. For all the ground it’s lost to football in terms of popularity, baseball can still boast the certainty that it’s a bigger deal to win the World Series than it is to win the Super Bowl.

First, there’s the link to history. World Series champs are tied to all who came before. And in terms of history, there’s no comparison here. Winning the World Series puts a team in the company of the 1927 Yankees or the 1906 Cubs, whereas winning the Super Bowl puts a team in the company of, at best, Lombardi’s Packers or the 1972 Dolphins. But you know who Lou Gehrig is, you know who Babe Ruth is and you might even know who Tony Lazzeri is. Who, exactly, (without checking Wikipedia) did Bart Starr throw his passes to?

Baseball is woven into the American existence in a way that football may never be. The best football players are celebrities. The best baseball players, even now, are heroes.

Second, there’s the basic requirement of consistency. To win the World Series, you have to win often. To win the Super Bowl, you have to win once. And while, yes, those stakes mean that the Super Bowl has greater ramifications than any individual WS game, save Game 7, they also ensure that more often than not, we’re left with a wretch of a game purported to be the sport’s pinnacle. With the Series, you have to string together performance after performance; no series comes down to a fluke, not even Buckner in ’86.  A city seethes one night and rejoices the next, undulations of emotion that are, at the most generous, compressed for the Bowl.

Psychologically, the Series represents, above all, the end of summer. With it go our long, warm nights and our barbecues, our summer flings and our conversations that run on until morning, our softness of being and our tanned skin. Baseball keeps us young – when it ends, we roll back into adulthood. When the Super Bowl ends, we wait for baseball.

The Super Bowl represents, above all, unabashed commercialism.

The event has been so stuffed with hyperbole that it’s actually reduced the game itself. The sideshows – the commercials, the halftime show (and the nipples involved), Media Day, gambling, the Puppy Bowl – have overshadowed the main act, like bringing in the Stones to open up for MGMT. Save last year and a few other anomalies, the games themselves have done little to warrant anything more than their relegation to secondary status. They play merely the role of host.

It’s along the lines of an entourage, where a cluster of clingers-on get their one chance to shine because of the prominence of one central figure. The same thing goes on whenever a Wal-Mart drops on a town, as a Cold Stone, a Quizno’s and a dry cleaner’s aren’t far behind. Thousands of events crop up in the week before; supermarkets start stocking more queso dip and advertising products for the Perfect Super Bowl Party, and so on.

With the World Series, the games happen so often – most importantly, plurally – that they remain the story. A series produces myriad subplots, like acts in a play. Here, we see Curt Schilling’s bloody sock and a comeback from down 3-0 in a series, or Josh Beckett and the rest of his overmatched pitching staff in Marlins teal out-dueling a Yankees lineup that pelted balls off the Yankee Stadium façade all year. A one-game event doesn’t have that luxury. So, the media and other profiteers are forced to create them. See: Namath, Joe and his prediction; or Peyton finally getting over the hump and winning a championship (the hard and fast media barometer for athletic success, providing Trent Dilfer the ability to flip off Dan Marino at NFL alumni cocktail parties).

So what it all comes down to, for the Super Bowl that is, is foreplay and then no follow-through. And it’s not that hype doesn’t exist in baseball. It’s that whereas the Super Bowl has 5,000 people instructed to dance around the stage during the halftime show and mouth the words to the song, baseball has bunting.

The games take care of the rest.





Homecoming

16 10 2008

I’ve been gone a long time. And thanks to popular demand (well, the demand of three people) and the longing to write again (due largely to the Phils’ win tonight), this is back. And I apologize for the absence, loyal readers – it’s flattering to know anybody ever read this. Summer has stolen me away, largely because I’m in New York and if you’re spending too much time writing and not enough time living you’re wasting the summer and your youth (and your rent money) and, as far as I can tell (because old men always say it), you’ll end up regretting it.

So in this first post back after this long, too long, hiatus, I want to tell you all about so many wonderful things. I want to tell you about so many wonderful people who’ve made this summer-into-fall an electric, fizzing one, and so many late nights and achy mornings, so many trips to dirt infields and dive bars or pristine ballparks and beach houses or race tracks, and the many train rides to and from Philadelphia for Phils games all summer, the ones that stole me out of New York in the afternoon and deposited me back, confused and blurry and still qualifiably drunk at 2 in the morning, happy and headed to work in seven hours.

But I’ll get to all that.

I’ll get to it later, hopefully, but I want to tell you about the way that the sunset is always red and then orange and then a rush of gold over the city (perks of pollution); or the way when you look out of our windows in our new apartment you can see flashes on the Empire State Building that look like flickering stars but are actually tourists’ cameras; or the way that no street ever looks the same over two weeks; or the pure, unadulterated joy of a train arriving at the subway station the instant you come down the steps and the daily sensation on rush hour trains that you’re part of a muscle, one fully contracted at first as the train’s stuffed with people, then relaxing as the fibers loosen back onto the subway platform; or the way that a beer looks when it’s set against a backdrop of thousands of young people all buzzing because they’re together, and all buzzing because they can tell each other the same stories over and over again while creating new ones all the same; or the way that conversations are always waiting to be had (and you’re a fool to miss out on any of them, if you can manage), whether they’re with a man leaning on a cane perusing the same bodega for some Czech beer, who happens to be a scholar of early American presidents’ drinking habits, or a man who was once a psychiatrist but has since started a now-successful country band on a whim, or a group of girls who are all math teachers about what their favorite equations are (y = mx + b won by a landslide); or how, despite what everybody tells you outside the city, New Yorkers are more friendly than almost anyone I’ve ever met, as long as you (1) don’t inexplicably stop on the sidewalk; (2) don’t bumble an order at a café; (3) smile; or how, we’re all tiny fish in the big pond, but it’s a big fucking pond and we’re all happy to pool together in schools, just as long as everybody’s cool with buying a round;  or how when you find a restaurant or a bar that you want to show your friends and family you do everything in your power to get the staff to remember your name (and try not to drink so much that you forget theirs) so you’ll have a chance in hell at getting a seat when you want to go between the hours of 5:30 p.m. and 1 a.m.; or how the movement of pedestrians is so angular, so Pythagorean, due to the grid system that it must look like a bunch of swirling squares if you looked down from space; and that it actually does look like that if you look down from the Empire State Building.

I want to tell you about German beer halls where people actually wear lederhosen and dirndls and the beer clangs together in liter mugs and we almost got kicked out for starting a big, hall-wide who-can-yell-the-loudest match; or the pizza place we’re banned from because we all got called Crackers and then Jon threw his soda in the air; or the way that having a friend with a back deck on which you can drink is the same as striking a pocket of gold; or how proud and emasculated at the same time it makes you when your girlfriend carries your side in bar foosball; or how there aren’t any parallels in this world that I’ve found yet to rival the way that girl looks at you when you cook dinner and it doesn’t taste like your furniture; or how every girl in New York must be issued a few sundresses when they move in to their apartments; or how they all want to talk – have I mentioned how everybody wants to talk?? Like they’re just amazed that they can live here – and will gladly talk your ear off about everything and anything as long as you buy a beer, and even if you don’t; or how about bar crawls that start with grand intentions and become two-bar bar-hops because somebody gives you a good deal on Sam Adams Utopias; or of places that can be pumped full of people on Friday nights and then empty as a freezer on Saturday night, due quite possibly to the change in wind speed; or bars where you can get 10-cent wings or dollar beers or free PBR (as long as you ask for it) or the chance to flip a coin to get every drink for free or maybe high-end cocktail lounges extending like a shelf from a Chinese restaurant andsports bars that are most likely scouted-out by prostitutes; or how you can stay out until 2 or 3 on a work night and wake up the next morning feeling the same as if you’d gone to sleep at 10, because you know – and you’re damn proud – that you didn’t miss out.

I want to tell you about baseball and the Phillies and my men’s league team (the Mudhens), now in the playoffs, and how it feels to hit with a real wood bat for the first time, how the bat feels like an extension of your body and how it, like a good woman, refuses to let you get away with any shortcuts; or how handball is almost as fun as racquetball, but it hurts a hell of a lot more, and how your average 13-year-old in Brooklyn is a hell of a lot better than your average 23-year-old Macungie, Penn. kid; or how walking across the Brooklyn Bridge isn’t really as cool as it’s made out to be, but how walking around the Village still is; or how, if you’re playing ball in Central Park, you forget you’re in a city at all; and if you’re playing ball in the Bronx, there’s a good chance your umpires won’t speak a word of English all year and the coach for the other team might get cold-cocked by his first baseman onto cement steps right next to the backstop; or how you could walk for hours because you’re always a block away from unearthing treasures like the Hell’s Angels NY headquarters, or Dave’s Quality Meats (owned by the guy who started Zoo York), or ice cream shops run by neighborhood kids, or stores where you can buy things like a book by Ray Bradbury about writing, on whose back cover he’s wearing a massive turtleneck with plumes of white hair erupting from the side of his head; or how Rachael Ray is pudgier in real life than she looks on TV (but is still pretty damn cute) and Mary-Kate Olsen isn’t, how Woody Allen is looking pretty old and Darryl Strawberry is, too, and how I usually miss celebrities because I’m looking at their dogs.

But I’ll just say…it’s good to be back.





…But There Is An ‘I’ In Stories

14 04 2008

“Please look. Can you see us?”
Dave Eggers
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius 

Of all the literary genres to have ascended into popularity on this planet, few have roped in our resident Zeitgeist as capably as the memoir. Its mission — to relate a personal narrative in an illuminating, often embellished manner — coincides with the modern need to bring artistic, or at least sexy, vision to our lives.

The memoir has risen to such heights that it’s drawn parody: The Arsonist’s Guide To New England Writers’ Homes employed the same technique in dealing with the genre that the protagonist, Sam Pulsifer, uses with, well, New England writers’ homes. Memoirs, to Sam, are “like the Soviet Union of literature, having mostly gobbled up the smaller, obsolete states of fiction and poetry.” He goes on to wonder “Who knew that there were so many people with so many necessary things to say about themselves?”

A genre perfectly suited for a generation full of individuals perfectly obsessed with their image, the memoir certainly is. If the 70’s brought us the Me Generation, in the words of Thom Wolfe, we’re the Stage Generation. Wolfe’s contemporaries busied themselves with self-exploration, a more inward-moving sort of journey that mined the landscape of newly available intellectual thought and soul-searching practices (Western, Eastern, historical). Ours, however, is a style more suited for an audience — that mediated existence, the sense of being watched by a judging eye. We don’t stop at finding meaning for ourselves — if that is even a goal at all. We need to craft an image, a brand for ourselves. Thus, we perform. Thus, the memoir.

But that’s the thing: all stories are performances, in that they’re supposed to engage the audience. Any piece of artistic work, whether performed or written or smeared across a canvas, involves a great degree of decision. That’s a crucial point, though it seems obvious. We need to remember that pieces of art don’t just arise out of nowhere — bars of music and strings of words don’t weigh an ounce. So, when they emanate from our minds, they’re necessarily chosen over other words and other notes, which means that they’re the result of human striving and work, not passed down by some great, objective word-depot. Think of it this way: how many ways could you describe the Red Sox’ riots in 2004, and how different would the implications be for each description?

Every word is an actor in a production. And we judge a production not on how closely it follows the script, but on the final, holistic result. And that’s why all these memoirs — James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, Margaret B. Jones’ Love And Consequences — that have been debunked recently really aren’t that bad, and that the mass of people who are enraged by them don’t have the right to be.

In A Million Little Pieces, Frey writes about the horrors of recovering from alcohol and drug addictions. The book, released in 2003, opens up with him waking from a stupor on a plane home, where his parents meet him and check him into rehab. The controversy, which bubbled up in 2006, stemmed from what seems now to be light, almost passing investigation that turned up information proving moments in Frey’s book to be impossible.

In Jones’ tale, she writes of a life uncommonly sordid. A few problems. Her name isn’t Margaret B. Jones. It’s Margaret Seltzer. That’s commonplace enough — authors everywhere use pseudonyms for a variety of reasons both professional and personal. But the disconnect between Margaret B. Jones and Margaret Seltzer is not so common. Jones, a half-Native American foster child, grew up in squalor, the other side of the American coin, where she was a drug runner who was given a shiny new pistol for her 13th birthday and faced where she faced the common teenage dilemmas of choosing between the Bloods and Crips. Seltzer, on the other hand, grew up in a privileged household with her biological parents, attending private school in North Hollywood.

We need to make two core concessions: (1) Lying between people who truly rely on each other (inasmuch as we can pin down a real truth) cannot be the norm for human relationship-building to go on. In other words, friends can’t lie to friends. Without trust, we’re always leery, and have no foundation upon which to build.  Of the three things I consider most important in life — love, trust and creating/telling awesome stories — the first two take precedence. (2) Journalism, in its ideal form, is also important, in that it employs the help of as many sources (perspectives) as possible to formulate truth. Memoirs are not journalism.

So, now that we’re past the table-setting, time to dig in.

I brought up this subject of memoir-debunking over plates of pretentious Thai afternoon food the other day, and a buddy brought up the example of sports: Do I care that pro wrestling is fake? Of course not, I said.

Fine, he said. Then would you care if sports were faked?

Of course I would.

A-ha, he said. See?

No no no.

What?

If sports are to be faked, they would have to be faked on the immediate, initial level. They would have be false as they’re actually occuring (fixed games like the Black Sox, etc). But that wouldn’t mean that the actions themselves weren’t occuring. These memoirs recounted things that simply did not happen — thus, they couldn’t have ‘faked’ what happened, because nothing ever happened. The reality of a story is no more than the story’s components. The story refers back to events that preceded it, attempting to retell it, but the only thing we know about the story is that it exists: the only thing real about a story is that it’s a series of words that our consciousness binds together into a coherent thought. Just like the reality of a baseball game is the ball, the bats, the 4-6-3 double play, the reality of a story is the pen or the voice and the turns of phrase.

And I really do believe that. Words are funny things, in that they have no intrinsic value. They’re good only insofar as they have the same connotations for the teller as they do for the listener/reader. If someone says ‘chair,’ it’s important that an image of a contraption upon which someone sits arises. Ultimately, the aim of point is to illustrate that words shape our reality based on subjectivity.

Stories have the capacity for so many things, from the illuminating to the enlightening to the engaging to the downright maddening. But on a very basic level, they’re supposed to entertain. And these faux-memoirs, these grand hoaxes, certainly did that.

And in this era of everyday, self-referential postmodernism in almost all of our art forms (from Ocean’s Thirteen using Julia Roberts to play a character in the movie that looks like Julia Roberts, Arrested Development making references to HBO and Showtime when Fox canceled it, Chuck Norris used in advertising), these grand hoaxes added another layer of entertainment to the stories.

Most stories (most of the classics notwithstanding, but some included) only possess the acute, one-time charge of excitement that comes when you first read it. Not that reading books again is a bad idea, but, for example, Catch-22 loses something every time you re-read it, because you already know what’s gonna happen to Orr and what Snowden’s secret is. But these memoirs have become meta-memoirs. Suddenly, there’s a story behind them, a greater depth that was entirely unexpected. It’s probably the coolest behind-the-scenes look you can have, an examination of the psyche of somebody who’s talented enough to write a compelling tale and pass it off as what actually happened. To me, that seems pretty damn interesting.

A lot of the complaints stem from anger at the misrepresentation of people in the situations that the books depict: people in ghettos and drug users. Well, nobody seems to think that Seltzer’s story was too unbelievable. Yes, this white girl didn’t do the first-person research, but she did write a story that kept the attention on the plight of America’s domestic warzones, which really do need the attention.  Dickens’ work, even though it was called fiction, served much the same purpose.

Make no mistake: these memoirs weren’t journalism, even if Frey’s story was supposed to illustrate the pains of drug withdrawal (which he did experience, if not to the extent that he wrote). They weren’t packaged as journalism (although journalists should be the ones called upon to talk about the mountainous odds stacked against our urban poor). Journalism, as postulated earlier, requires utilizing a number of sources to zero in on truth. In journalism, a one-source story isn’t a story: it’s a podium. One source for a story allows for every bit of bias and self-aggrandizement to come through unchecked. If you’re going to have a story with one source, you might as well just file it under fiction: remember, one perspective only gives one angle on a story, one that tends to serve the interests of the teller.

Memoirs, in that they’re just stories told from a single perspective, are then almost always told with that dramatic flair. A memoir (well, really, any story), is the difference between a series of moments and a personality. A star athlete is only a star athlete because a number of occurrences have made him successful; in other words, he is not objectively a star athlete, but only a star insofar as he continues to have success. If suddenly he fails, he is no longer a story. Quantitative changes become qualitative changes. See a story as a line of best fit — grouping together points with our own need to categorize things and make them jive with our need for a logical narrative.

Let’s say the following five things happen over the span of a few years, starting in, say, high school: 1 – You develop crush on a girl, but are too shy to say anything. 2 – The girl breaks up with her boyfriend. 3 – You hit a home run. 4 – You ask a girl on a date. 5 – You eventually marry the girl.

The resultant story could be that you gained so much confidence from the home run that you asked her out and that was that — all harkens back to the homer. But what else happened between the five points? Maybe she’s got other issues. Maybe she was getting revenge on the ex. Hell, maybe one of her friends paid her to go out with you. Hemingway said that a story isn’t everything that happened, it’s everything important that happened. It’s what we choose to include and omit that makes a story a story.

So, when does a memoir cease to be a memoir? Does a single lie in the story, whether significant or relatively inconsequential, render it fiction? How about embellishment or even an omission? Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work is still filed under memoirs, even though a chunk of it is imagined. Is it a matter of just percentage of truth versus fiction, or something more?

The most salient point I want to make is this final one: when we feel abused at these writers’ faking it, we rupture the reader-writer relationship. We’ve already conceded that lying to each other all the time would render relationship-building almost impossible. To get close, we need at least the basic assumption that the person to whom we are growing closer is frank with us. But these writers aren’t our friends. They’re not babysitting kids. They’re not borrowing our cars or subletting our apartments. They’re hundreds or thousands of miles or even several continents away, hidden behind layers of paper and font and a long, long editorial process. We’ve clearly never met them. So why the connection?

People bought these books hoping to be told an engaging story that will allow them to depart their daily lives for a time (that’s not a knock — it’s really one of the essential parts of reading). To me, this dynamic resembles something like Gandalf coming to the shires and telling tales of his faraway adventures. It doesn’t matter if they’re not true — what matters is that they’re entertaining, that they bring joy and they allow people (or hobbits) to open up their minds. But Gandalf never had to deal with the American media.

Using that Gandalf image, there is something of a captain-of-the-boat phenomenon that exists for a good storyteller. As the tale goes on, everyone’s attached to the charisma, the poise and the glow surrounding the character. Attention is a hot commodity, especially in American culture, and if you can hold it, you’re given almost limitless power, like it or not.

In Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella (Costner) knocks on Terence Mann’s (James Earl Jones’) door, and pitches him on coming to the Sox-A’s game at Fenway (pre-Monster seats) that night. The voice had told Kinsella to be there, but the relationship started years before.

By the time I started playing, baseball got to be like eating vegetables or taking out the garbage, Kinsella says. So when I was 15 I started to refuse. Can you believe that? American boy refusing to have a catch with his father?

Why? Mann says.

That’s when I read The Boat Rocker, by Terence Mann.

God! —

–I never played catch with him again.

That’s the kind of crap people always try to lay on me. It’s not my fault you wouldn’t play catch with him.

There’s the problem with a good story. It gets inside of you, bonds with your bones and, in every honest version of the term, changes your life.

As such, these faux-memoirs call into question the relationship between the reader and the writer. We’ve already established that a story is, at the most generous, one broad-based perspective on something that happened but is no more. The storyteller does just that: tells the story. Without someone to listen — and, more important, believe — the relationship fails. Just like it’s the student’s prerogative to learn (which, when declined, renders teachers helpless), it’s the reader’s prerogative to believe. And thus, when things go wrong, the reader has to share the responsbility. Kind of like picking up a hitchiker.

However, that does not mean that we shouldn’t believe anything. We should just choose to believe things that are more worthy — we need to develop our skills of open-minded skepticism. Life would suck if we were just pure cynics. Don’t accept everything blindly, but on the same token, don’t just assume it’s all false, either. Hone the skills of filtration, but be prepared to be fooled on occasion. The nice thing is, the better we get at sifting out the crap, the more impressive the hoax will have to be to fool us. And, at that point, we can just tip our caps to a damn good show.

We need to call into question these faceless tomes. There’s a reason why the rhetoric, the strident chicanery of the Bush administration has not been roundly rejected. People want to believe, and they want to believe stories. But, as readers and as citizens, we need always to maintain vigilance against over-faith. Believe at your own risk.





HipsterBrau

12 02 2008

Accessorization, in hipster fashion, holds paramount importance. Clothes don’t make the man. Trinkets, affixed bric-a-brac, do. Books hanging out of pockets. Ironic stickers. Buttons. Dogs with The Smiths t-shirts on.

Now, in terms of accoutrements, with the rising tide of craft brewing, few things speak to a person’s personality as emphatically as do microbrews. And thus,

Microbrews To Adorn the Modern Hipster:

I Liked These Guys Before Anybody Else Did English Bitter

Boys Don’t CrIPA

Oh-Fuck-My-Rent-Check-Didn’t-Come-in-the-Mailbock

Fixed-Gear Bicycleweisse

Essentially Empty Yet Always Present Messenger Baggleywine

Almost Stout of the Closet

All of My Friends are White Ale

So What! If I Messed Up Your Starbucks Order Porter

Rummage Sale Pale Ale

I Don’t Really Like This But I’m Drinking It To Get Back at My Parents And/Or Friends With an Overt and Vulgar Display of Being Cultured Lambic

I Am Entirely Fucking Done With Society Because it is Run By Corrupt and Criminally Exploitative Man-Machines Who Don’t Give One Shit for Anyone or Anything Except for Money and Power Light Lager

Sleeping Pillsner