Thursday, November 24, 2016


Erich Heckel, Männerbildnis (1919)

APPLICANT: Thank you so much for meeting with me today, Mr. Johannsen.

EMPLOYER: My pleasure, Cecil. I'm so glad you could make it. Did you have any trouble finding us?

APPLICANT: Not at all. Janet's directions were impeccable.

EMPLOYER: Well then, have a seat, and let's get started. Tell me a little bit about yourself and why you're interested in a position here at Mattress Kingdom.

APPLICANT: Yes sir. Well, I consider myself a career-oriented person; I'm passionate about customer relations, and for the last four years I've focused on excelling in my current position at Toner Planet -- "where savings are out of this world." I wear a big foam costume and wave at traffic out by the road. I've treasured my time as part of the Toner Planet family, and the experience has been invaluable, but I would very much like an opportunity to explore the possibilities for myself in the field of bedding technology. I was so excited to discover there was an opening here at Mattress Kingdom. As a matter of fact, my mother got her mattress here. She loves it. It is an excellent mattress, sir. Excellent mattress.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

on staying woke

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare (1781)

It's been two weeks since the United States held its breath, pulled the lever, and committed plebicide. I know I'm not the only one for whom hopping on Twitter has been like poking my head into a hive of agitated and extremely pessimistic wasps. It can be overwhelming, all this news of all these unhatched catastrophes pecking at their shells. The Muslim registry, which might still be on. The promotion of cronies and/or bigots to cabinet positions. The newfound bullishness of white nationalists. The tweets from President-Elect Trump himself, which suggest there's very little chance of him actually rising to the occasion and taking his new job seriously.

The people promulgating this information understand the cumulative effect of it (they wouldn't be tweeting so frenetically if it wasn't making them crazy) and occasionally take a break from retweeting another media personality's admonition not to normalize authoritarianism/fascism/racism to urge their friends and followers to practice self-care: if it's getting to be too much, step away. Unplug. Take a break from the news, eat something sweet, hop on Netflix for a while, try to think about something else.

By the look of things, people are taking the advice. Little by little, my Twitter feed is returning to normal. Amid all the scary shit about Trump's claim that if the POTUS does it, it can't be illegal it can't be a conflict of interest, and the reopening of the investigation into the humanity of Jews, people are tweeting about Steven Universe, Hyperdimension Neptunia, and Overwatch again. After a lull, there's been a resurgence of corgi pics. "1 like = 1 character I like" is the prevailing participatory meme of the day. And did you hear about Kanye throwing shade on Beyoncé? How DARE he. Etc.

Actually, they probably didn't need any encouragement. It would have happened anyway. People don't need to be coaxed into choosing Entertainment over scary shit.

Devil's advocate: maybe self-care isn't what should be advised.

Friday, November 11, 2016

post-armageddon post

I guess we're doing this.

I generally abstain from writing about politics here. The internet is in no danger of a partisan discourse shortage, and my contributions in that area would be superfluous at best. But today. Today it can't be avoided.

I was in high school during 9/11 and a college student when George W. Bush won reelection. It was the first presidential contest I voted in, and I cast my ballot for John Kerry. Academe being what it is, most of the students (at least in the English department, and among the stoners and goths I hung out with) and faculty were opposed to the Iraq War, appalled by the Patriot Act, and not entirely unconvinced that Dick Cheney wasn't some sort of real-world translation of Emperor Palpatine. The mood on campus the day after the election was grim. People moped. Groused. Grumbled. Swore. I was able to get an extension on a paper because I told my professor I was too pissed off to write it.

It wasn't at all like the day after Trump's victory. The mood in Philadelphia, and among most of my friends and family, was less like it was on 11/3/2004 and more like what I remember from 9/11/2001. I don't believe I need to explain why. The forty-fifth President of the United States of America will be Donald Trump.

Christ, I can barely type that. I can hardly imagine four years of hearing people pronounce the words "President Trump."

But we're all going to have to get used to it.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

In Memoriam: Cul de Sac

Every now and then I like to take a break from composing turgid, burned-on-the-outside-but-frozen-on-the-inside screeds about the human situation and write about cartoons and comic books and other fun things. I think that hour has come again.

So, old news: the newspaper comics page is on its deathbed. Its passing looks to be a peaceful one: no doubt the autopsy will show the cause of its death was the shriveling of the daily newspaper. But there are secondary factors that can't be excluded from consideration, namely the general hoariness of the syndicated comic strip. They've largely come to exist as a symbol of sanity and stasis in a rapidly changing world: everything might be going crazy, but at least the boomers and seniors can open the comics page and expect Beetle Bailey to make a joke about golf, an exclamation mark to appear over Blondie's head when she sees the enormous size of Dagwood's sandwich, and Mary Worth to still good god they're still doing mary worth it's 2016 for god's

Although some decent new strips have appeared in the last couple of decades—Get Fuzzy ain't bad, Lio can elicit a chuckle from time to time, and Pearls Before Swine is pretty good—the conventional wisdom says that virtuosity quit the comics page along with Calvin and Hobbes in 1996.

But the conventional wisdom overlooks Cul de Sac, a comic about a boring little suburb and the weird little kids who call it home.

Cul de Sac is the brainchild of veteran illustrator Richard Thompson, who made a living drawing cartoons and caricatures for The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and Atlantic Monthly, among other esteemed publications. In 2004, he took a stab at narrative and created Cul de Sac as a weekly strip for Washington Post Magazine. Three years later, Cul de Sac was picked up by Universal Press Syndicate and began appearing seven days a week in newspapers across the United States.

Cul de Sac never had a shot at becoming a sensation on the scale of Garfield or Dilbert: no matter how good it was, newspaper readership in 2007 wasn't nearly what it had been in the 1980s and 1990s. But it won a loyal following, and earned Thompson the admiration of his contemporaries. The first Cul de Sac collection begins with a foreword from Bill Watterson—and his personal endorsement isn't something the reclusive genius bestows liberally.

Watterson also blessed Cul de Sac with a portrait of Petey Otterloop, one of its main characters. It was the first piece of art Watterson had shown to the public since retiring from Calvin and Hobbes. Would that the occasion were a happy one: Watterson's purpose was to paint something to be auctioned off to raise money for research into Parkinson's Disease, with which Richard Thompson was diagnosed in 2009—just two years after Cul de Sac was syndicated. In 2012, Thompson reluctantly retired in order to focus on his health. On July 27—a little more than three months ago—complications from his illness sent Mr. Thompson to his rest. He was 58 years old.

I more or less shrugged off the obituaries of Alan Rickman and David Bowie, but I'm still bummed about Richard Thompson. He was a genius, and from the looks of it he was a lovely person. Receiving The Complete Cul de Sac as a birthday gift in September made me even sadder about his death. His comics say he wasn't nearly ready to quit.

Today we're going to look at some of my favorite strips from Cul de Sac's unfairly short run, and maybe try to figure out what makes it so inimitably charming. If this is your first glance at the comic and you wish to see more, you can find its entire syndicated run on GoComics (starting here). But I heartily recommend getting a copy of The Complete Cul de Sac: it's got a selection of strips from its Washington Post Magazine run, author commentary, and the original uncolored versions of the Mon–Sat strips (the syndicate has colored in most of the dailies for web publication, and it often detracts from or distorts Thompson's line work).

The images are displayed in a low resolution so they'll fit inside the margins. Do please click them to make them bigger and better. (Some right-clicking might be required to see the larger ones in their natural sizes.)

Thursday, October 27, 2016

thoughts on/in "open spaces"

I just returned from Jersey, where the sister robot was celebrating her birthday with the folks. I've mentioned before that I appreciate the Tri-State hinterlands I'm visiting Jersey because the sister robot is celebrating her birthday with the folks. Having lived in Philadelphia for a thirteen months now, I find I sometimes forget how the crisp autumn air brightens the stars, or that late October has a scent to it, and it never finds my nose in South Philly. I wonder if I'm not destined to conclude that urban life just isn't for me.

During a visit to the ol' woods (I believe I've mentioned them before) I came across a plaque. I've passed it a hundred times if I've passed it once, but until then I'd never inspected it. It reads:


I dwelt on the language of the inscription for a while. (About until I stepped in some feces left by a coyote or fox, and then I dwelt on that instead.)

"Open space." What a funny way of putting it.

Monday, October 17, 2016

"The advent of modernity lies in this above all."

Ever since transcribing and posting William Carlos Williams' "The Descent of Winter" a couple of years ago, I've been fondly interested in Cubist and modernist art—particularly the work of Picasso, Klee, Delaunay, Braque, Metzinger, and Léger.

I had a really uncanny moment last year when I turned a corner unawares in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and kerplunk, there it was, Léger's epochal masterpiece The City! HOLY SHIT, I said, making myself the object of several security guards' and Chinese tourists' attention.

Fernand Léger, La Ville (1919)
(The canvas is nearly eight feet tall!)

I'm fascinated by the visual artists of the modernist era for the same reason I'm enamored of their contemporaries in the poetic sphere: their work is a reaction to a sea change in society. In the aftermath of the industrial revolution and World War I, and in the midst of accelerating globalization and consumerism, the complexion of human life was qualitatively changing. The old stylistic perspectives of arts and letters, predicated on bourgeois sensibilities crystallized during the century of Napoleon, Queen Victoria, the steam engine, and The White Man's Burden, had become outmoded; the mirror they held to humanity no longer reflected a recognizable face. The flourish of modernist art was a series of experiments not only toward devising ways of depicting the new human reality, but to understand its inner workings and foresee the costs/benefits of social and technological progress.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

on the planetarization of consciousness, fandom (part 1)

My perverse insistence on burning only Satya Sai Baba nag champa incense periodically brings me through the door of New Age tchotchke shops, where I'll sometimes, just for kicks, browse the bookshelves in the back, trying to muffle my condescending and pompous giggling at the selection of titles like Reincarnate Yourself Thin, Crystal Healing Something Something Quantum Physics, and Deepak Chopra's Buzzwords Put Together Randomly in Sentences. But during my most recent visit to the local metaphysical swag shop, it was probably my ongoing preoccupation with Marshall McLuhan and his concept of the electronic global village/tribe that prompted me to reach for Dane Rudhyar's The Planetarization of Consciousness (1970), and the praise from Henry Miller printed on the back cover certainly had a hand in nudging me towards the front counter with the book in tow.

I'm not sure what I was expecting from Rudhyar, and that was part of his allure—sometimes it does the dour materialist good to hear out the exultant spiritualist, if only to argue with him in the margins of his book. And overall I found Planetarization an edifying and even inspiring read, though I take issue with many of Rudhyar's propositions on general principles. But for all his New Age babble about "soul fields," "Pleorma-consciousness," "cyclosmic existence," and the occasional suggestion that aliens have shown or will show humanity the way, Rudhyar frequently puts forth statements I can't but underline in enthusiastic agreement:
In the Western World, particularly in the United States, we feel very proud of living in a democracy in which every man is theoretically free and responsible ... But no one seems to tell us what these freedoms are FOR. What should one work for? What should one perform any social activity for? ....

Marketplace democracy sees the free individual as a competitive entity, indeed as an aggressive ego whose purpose in living is to dominate others——and often to trick them——in order to accumulate wealth, power, possessions. The purpose of society is to produce more and more goods, even if if means forcing people by all means, fair or foul, to consume often far more than they need or even want, thus becoming ever more enslaved to their appetites and their craving for physical comfort——and more dependent on psychoanalysis or psychiatry. ....

Democracy, parliamentarianism, majority rule and free enterprise——these really mean nothing definite and nothing concrete unless one specifies (1) the character of the human units in such a quantitative system of social organization, (2) the quality of the relationship between these units, and (3) the human, spiritual and metaphysical purpose, and the expected results, of the social system.