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.





Updates!

21 05 2008

So, I lied. Finally came around and got a Mac a few days ago, but Preakness meant posting (and coherent thought) was impossible. I’ll be out of commission for the next few days, but you can follow along as I cover the NCAA Men’s D1, D2 and D3 Lacrosse Tournaments up in Foxborough, Mass.

It’ll be like this, just with less swearing and fewer references to sex…and sponsored by the NCAA.

Check it out all weekend here: http://slog.cstv.com/ncaa/kevinscheitrum/

And I promise this time that I’ll be up and running shortly after coming home.





Another Casualty In The War On Drugs

22 04 2008

The federal government is apparently making it illegal to even use a play on words about weed. It’s forcing this brewery, based in a town called Weed, to stop telling consumers to ‘try legal Weed,’ in a move that should be cause for national embarrassment.

*Note: Sorry for the lack of posting lately. Laptop died, but I should have a new one by next week, depending on how quickly Apple can dispense of any nostalgia I have for Microsoft.





Monday Question

21 04 2008

I work next to two restaurants whose fame derives not necessarily from their cuisine, but the men from whose minds the dishes sprout. The plates go for around $30-$50 at Morimoto and Del Posto, two bastions of Chelsea fine and hip dining, and the Moet-Hennessy execs who work below me are glad to open their wallets, scaling the price gradient in accordance with their recent sales records.

Around the city, celebrity chef-backed restaurants are blooming. Some scream, like many of Wolfgang Puck’s or Bobby Flay’s. Others are a little more discrete. All seem to draw massive, prohibitive lines.

But the question is: Are celebrity chefs a good thing? For all they’ve done to bring excitement, or at least attention, to food, do they get away with the same thing that, say, Springsteen does in Rolling Stone when he releases a bad album? The personality of the man overpowers the food, and are people just deluding themselves in not letting the food speak for itself?





…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.





Sexual Harrassment Is Wrong, Even If It Makes You Feel Good

11 04 2008

Sorry for the lapse in posting over the last week — got re-busy, and the sun decided to join us again.

As an apology, enjoy Hayden Panettierre, courtesy of Mr. Judd Apatow. She’s got some words for you on what’s acceptable behavior.

Blog returns Monday with an essay on memoirs. Hooray!





The Longest Yard Where Dogs Fought Each Other To Grisly Deaths

8 04 2008

The New York Daily News, the tertiary paper of record in Gotham, reports that Michael Vick is back in the saddle. Evidently — although perhaps ‘evidently’ isn’t the right word as much as ‘as reported by the New York Daily News, the tertiary paper of record in Gotham’ is — Vick’s quarterbacking not one, but both prison football teams at Leavenworth.

Tell you what, if you’re gonna get incarcerated at Leavenworth and you just so happen to have been arrested for living out your old high school life of athletics-backed violence and oppression, it’s a pretty decent time.