Thursday, May 25, 2017

In praise of the cigarette break

Marcel Duchamp

I was out of a job for two and a half months at the beginning of the year. During that time, I nearly stopped smoking cigarettes. I'd only buy a pack of American Spirits during my weekly or fortnightly visits to Ray's Happy Birthday Bar, and afterwards I'd give away most of the cigs that hadn't disappeared in pursuit of Johnnie Walker. This isn't to say I went completely cold turkey: I did invest in a vaporizer, but it's hardly a replacement. For one thing, I only use it at home. There's really no way to suck on one of those things in public without looking like a goober, so I deposit mine in my desk drawer whenever I go out.

In March I rejoined the workforce and resumed blackening my lungs. You might guess, prima facie, that this means I'm dissatisfied with my new gig. You'd be wrong: I can't complain too much about what I'm doing for money (and where I'm doing it) these days. But it's rarely the case that a member of the working class truly savors his time on someone else's clock, and even if he finds his wage-earning activities more or less agreeable, he'll probably need a few moments of respite from time to time. Sitting in a break room and absorbing photons from a personal device seems to be the most popular method of on-the-job decompression these days. That's not for me, thanks: I'll take a good old-fashioned cigarette break.

Look. I know it's the twenty-first century. I know the mystique and glamor of the smoker has all but dissipated. I know smoking is awful for one's health, I know that nicotine is tremendously addictive, and I know that someone who's just smoked a cigarette smells awful to anyone who isn't currently smoking one. But the cigarette break is an edifying, even ennobling thing, and I'd like to say a few words on its behalf.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Mar Saba & Melville's memory

For the last month or so I've been taking my time wending through Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876), Herman Melville's last major work and the single longest poem in American literature. (Longer than the Iliad, longer than Paradise Lost.) I'm still thirty-one cantos from reaching the end, and maybe I'll have more to say about the book as a whole at a later date. For now I'd just like to share something that surprised and touched me.

Likening Clarel to Canterbury Tales would be a mostly facile comparison, but there are areas of overlap in the bare outlines of the cast: the cavalcade we follow on a tour through the environs of Jerusalem to the Dead Sea to Bethlehem is composed of archetypal figures with differing perceptions of the nineteenth century's accelerating social transformations and the state of Christianity under the siege of science. We have the benignant but ineffective liberal clergyman, the biblical literalist millennarian, the disillusioned European revolutionary, the atheistic man of science, and so on.

The titular Clarel plays the part of the sheltered, privileged theological student who takes the trip to bolster his flagging faith and ease his doubts. But it is not Clarel into whom Melville breathes the most of himself: that would be Rolfe, a middle-aged dilettante who speaks with volubility and exuberant frankness, and who paradoxically combines a penchant for austere theology with a distrust of religious and moral absolutism. And, like Melville, Rolfe was a mariner in his youth.

During a visit to the ancient Greek Orthodox monastery Mar Saba, we have a sequence in which five of the pilgrims, positioned at different heights upon the cliffs and terraces, regard a lone palm tree on a ledge, reputed to have been planted by Saint Sabbas himself over 1300 years before. The soliloquy Rolfe delivers here is by far the most interesting, and it's eye-popping for a Melville fan.

Before we go any further with Rolfe and the palm, we'll need to revisit Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), Melville's first (and most contemporaneously successful) novel.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Animation April: [scene missing]

Well, this is embarrassing.

I'd planned to conclude the month with a large writeup on Young Justice, Greg Weisman's animated celebration of everything fun, bizarre, and dramatically convoluted in the DC comic book universe. It...didn't work out. The piece I'd almost finished wasn't much fun to write or interesting to read, and a second version I started from scratch earlier this week was practically erased when a Windows update caused my computer to restart while I was asleep. (Thanks again, Microsoft.) I tried rewriting version 2.0, but it wouldn't have been finished before May. I spent a few hours these last few nights retooling the old draft, but it still wasn't anything I could be happy with.

So I'm throwing in the towel. Please accept my apologies along with three truly excellent Betty Boop shorts from the early 1930s.

Monday, April 24, 2017

NPM: The rape joke

I make a point of buying the newest volume of the Best American Poetry series whenever I see it on a bookstore shelf. There's never been a bad one, but the overall quality does vary with the tastes of its annually rotating guest editor. At least once in the best volumes, and several times in the iffier ones, I'll read a poem for the second or third time and wonder how the hell it got published in Ploughshares or Tin House or one of the more esteemed Quarterlies to begin with, to say nothing of how it ended up between the front and back covers of a book claiming to represent the acme of American not-prose.

Patricia Lockwood's "Rape Joke," which I first read in The Best American Poetry 2014, is not one of those poems.

Rape Joke
Patricia Lockwood (1982 – )

The rape joke is that you were 19 years old.

The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend.

The rape joke it wore a goatee. A goatee.

Imagine the rape joke looking in the mirror, perfectly reflecting back itself, and grooming itself to look more like a rape joke. "Ahhhh," it thinks. "Yes. A goatee."

No offense.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Animation April: Rock & Rule (1983)


This...this is a weird one.

It's much weirder than Project A-ko, even though A-ko is a movie about dueling schoolgirls and men with vaginas directed by a pantyshot-obsessed twentysomething missing at least two of his incisors. A-ko can't even touch Rock & Rule.

At least A-ko belongs to a distinct and recognizable clade in the evolutionary annals of animation. It's an anime from the 1980s, iconic during its time, and it had a perceptible impact on the cartoons produced in Japan. For all its screwiness, we can place it. Rock & Rule is an aberration.

It would probably be best grouped with the Bakshi-and-allies aggregate. (Incidentally, bootleg copies of Rock & Rule passed around at conventions erroneously attributed the film to him.) Ralph Bakshi is/was a ballsy chap: he had the then-outlandish idea that feature-length cartoons could be something other than family-friendly adaptations of children's storybooks, and made a handful of films during the 1970s and early 1980s that were not, not, not for kids (and he also cast Tolkien onto the silver screen decades before Peter Jackson). Other Western animation studios took notice, and followed Bakshi's example in pushing the envelope in which Disney had sealed the industry for almost half a century. Watership Down (1978) and The Last Unicorn (1982) were a couple of films about rabbits and a magical horsey marketed to general audiences—but everyone I know who watched them as youngsters walked away seriously rattled. (Alex McLevy of The A.V. Club wrote a very nice piece about The Last Unicorn and how it once scared the hell out of him.) Oppositely there was Heavy Metal (1981), brimming with graphic violence, exposed breasts, and lurid juvenility, and inappropriate for anyone but seventeen-year-old males.

And there was also Rock & Rule, but nobody noticed.

Friday, April 14, 2017

NPM: Wordsworth's daffodils

Had you pulled me aside when I was seventeen and asked me about English class, about what we'd been reading and which author I least enjoyed, I might have answered William Wordsworth. Long, dense, meditative pieces like Tintern Abbey and Intimations of Immortality had absolutely no chance at pulling my attention away from Final Fantasy IX, and lines like "trailing clouds of glory do we come/from God, who is our home" were anathema to to a kid whose entire wardrobe consisted of Marilyn Manson and Johnny the Homicidal Maniac T-shirts. But I did have enough patience to read and digest his lyric verse, and I found I liked him even less when he wrote stuff I could understand. He was too quaint, too twee in his sentiments, and even a little fruity. Daffodils, William? Who gets all goopy about flippin' daffodils? Take it back to Hallmark, you damn Care Bear.

Over the last six years—or so—I've changed my mind about Wordsworth.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Animation April: Project A-ko (1986)


I'm sometimes amazed at the depths of the inroads anime has made into United States pop culture in just twenty years. Americans are a bunch that doesn't much care for other countries' pop music or watches many foreign films, and yet we love Japanese 'toons. Bros gush about Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, and One-Punch Man. The internet brims with thinkpieces, written in English, examining and lauding Sailor Moon as a feminist keystone for Generation Y. The manga section at a given Barnes & Noble easily sees more traffic than any other aisle in the store. Cosplay! There are cosplay magazines on the rack at Walgreens, for god's sake!

Two decades ago, things were much different.


Thursday, April 6, 2017

NPM: Field Guide

(Actually a damselfly. You can tell by the wings.)

Tony Hoagland might be my favorite living poet.

Field Guide
Tony Hoagland (1953 – )

Once, in the cool blue middle of a lake,
up to my neck in that most precious element of all,

I found a pale-gray, curled-upwards pigeon feather
floating on the tension of the water

at the very instant when a dragonfly,
like a blue-green iridescent bobby pin,

hovered over it, then lit, and rested.
That's all.

I mention this in the same way
that I fold the corner of a page

in certain library books,
so that the next reader will know

where to look for the good parts.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Animation April: Rooty Toot Toot (1951)

If you've been slavishly checking this URL for updates for the last six years (and I hope you have!) you might have noticed that our annual National Poetry Month festivities have dwindled in scope. This isn't because I've lost interest in poetry—that's not the case at all. But a fan isn't necessarily qualified to be an anthologizer. I've virtually exhausted my repertoire of favorite poems and poets. Coming up with, say, fifteen meaty, worthwhile NPM posts this April (one every other day) would require me to find fifteen authors, poetic themes, forms, or traditions that we haven't already covered, and I'm just not up to it.

But I do miss dedicating an April's worth of updates to celebrations and expositions of an art form. Also, my wristwatch tells me it's been far too long since I've taken a break from whatever it is I usually write about to dissect some fun pop culture artifact or other.

So! Instead of National Poetry Month, this year we'll be observing ANIMATION APRIL, starting today. First up, we've got Rooty Toot Toot, United Productions of America's Oscar-nominated 1951 short.


Saturday, April 1, 2017

NPM: The new cathedral

Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, NJ
(image: Newark Public Library)

I hadn't intended to post anything for National Poetry Month this year—I've got something else planned instead. But old habits die hard. It's April, it's spring, and my various tissues and glands can no more capably resist the vernal compulsion than the robins can stop singing, the peepers can cease peeping, or the forsythia can abstain from getting all up in everyone's face. NPM must be observed!

In the months since I finished reading Paterson I've been flipping through my beat-up copy of The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: 1909–1939. Here's one that recently jumped out at me, one that I'm not sure I noticed/appreciated before now.

The New Cathedral Overlooking the Park
William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963)

The new cathedral overlooking the park
looked down from its tower
with great eyes today and saw
by the decorative lake a group of people
staring curiously at the corpse
of a suicide——Peaceful dead young man
the money they have put into the stones
has been spent to teach men of
life's austerity. You died
and teach us the same lesson.
You seem a cathedral, celebrant of
the naked spring that shivers for me
among the long black trees

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The invisible sky

Paul Klee, Reconstruction (1926)

After sitting on my bookcase for over two years, my secondhand copy of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities (1972; trans. William Weaver) has finally found a place in my lap.
When you have arrived at Phyllis, you rejoice in observing all the bridges over the canals, each different from the others: cambered, covered, on pillars, on barges, suspended, with tracery balustrades. And what a variety of windows looks down on the streets: mullioned, Moorish, lancet, pointed, surmounted by lunettes or stained-glass roses; how many kinds of pavement cover the ground: cobbles, slabs, gravel, blue and white tiles. At every point the city offers surprises to your view: a caper bush jutting from the fortress' walls, the statues of three queens on corbels, an onion dome with three smaller onions threaded on the spire. "Happy the man who has Phyllis before his eyes each day and who never ceases seeing the things it contains," you cry, with regret at having to eave the city when you can barely graze it with your glance.

But it so happens that, instead, you must stay in Phyllis and spend the rest of your days there. Soon the city fades before your eyes, the rose windows are expunged, the statues on the corbels, the domes. Like all of Phyllis's inhabitants, you follow zigzag lines from one street to another, you distinguish the patches of sunlight from the patches of shade, a door here, a stairway there, a bench where you can put down your basket, a hole where your foot stumbles if you are not careful. All the rest of the city is invisible. Phyllis is a space in which routes are drawn between points suspended in the void: the shortest way to reach that certain merchant's tent, avoiding that certain creditor's window. ...

Millions of eyes look up at the windows, bridges, capers, and they might be scanning a blank page. Many are the cities like Phyllis, which elude the gaze of all, except the man who catches them by surprise.
It's said that familiarity breeds contempt, and there's truth in that. I think it's more often the case that familiarity breeds indifference, disregard—especially when the familiar person, place, thing, or event exists in the vicinity of ourselves and our habitual pathways, and when we are not required to engage with it. My friends from New York profess to be proud of living in the same city as so many world-class museums, theatres, and other cultural sites, but rarely if never visit any of them. And people who live in Denver or Boulder don't habitually stop what they're doing to gaze at the mountains for a while (unless they're taking a smoke break, I suppose), while a visitor from the East Coast such as myself will sometimes halt in the middle of the parking lot, neck craned, mouth slightly open, gawking up into the distance, oblivious to the traffic he's blocking.

Marco Polo tells the Great Khan about a city called Phyllis, whose splendor is lost on its residents. Incidentally, Polo has already admitted that his accounts of Phyllis, and of all the other cities in his reports, are all descriptions of one city, the same city, permutated, rotated, cropped, zoomed in and out. Insofar as the strangeness and beauty of our environs are generally lost on us all, yes, Phyllis is every city, and we are all of us residents. The entire anthroposphere is Phyllis.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Some themes, elaborated: cities and straight lines

It happened, eight years ago, that a friend of mine was visiting her parents in Jersey and needed to get back to Washington, DC on the quick. I was happy to give her a ride, and then to spend the night with her. It wasn't for the first time.

She's been living in Minnesota for a few years now, and got engaged last winter. Less than a decade ago we were smoking cigarettes together outside Paul's Diner on Route 46 after closing shifts at the bookstore, but to recollect those nights with her now, to remember myself then, is like imagining the life of a stranger. The day-to-day state of things seems so obvious, so unneedful of an explanation until one thinks back to a past he's lived, history he's experienced, old acquaintances he's made and lost, and then the present becomes a mystery beyond all reasoning or utterance. How did we get to where we are?

I believe that if most of us are honest with ourselves, we perceive the arcs of our lives being determined not principally by will or fate, but by a conspiracy of accidents, chance meetings, impulsive swerves into the exit lane, mistaken boardings of the wrong train, last-minute changes of plans.

So: I took my friend to DC. While she was at the office the next day—a Monday—I sauntered for hours through the National Mall and Capitol Hill in the languid dogday heat. The National Air and Space Museum was my first priority. I believe I hit up the Hirshhorn next, and peered inside the National Museum of the American Indian afterwards. I know that before meeting up with my friend in the afternoon, my last stop was the United States Botanic Garden, and I know I visited it on somebody else's advice—someone who knew I'd be taking this trip. I don't remember who it was.

The medial chamber of the Botanic Garden's conservatory is called "The Tropics," and is designed to simulate an area of rainforest that has subsumed the remains of an abandoned plantation. Entering the room for the third or fourth time, I came upon a guide giving a tour to a small group of visitors, and listened from a distance. She invited her flock to take a look around, and asked them to pretend for a moment that they were looking at an actual landscape in an actual rainforest. Just on a glance, she asked, how would we know which of these plants were cultivated by humans?

Monday, March 6, 2017

Stuck in my craw: woketweets

As somebody who still thinks of George W. Bush as a war criminal, who cut his subscription to Digitally Imported because its CEO bashed the Occupy movement, who has no compunctions about saying that black lives matter, and who recently wrote his congressman and senators to urge them to grow six balls among them and push back against Trump's "Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States" executive order (and will be doing so again now that the sequel has dropped), it makes me sad to say that I'm feeling increasingly alienated by the progressive left. But here we are.

When I first gravitated towards progressivism during my early twenties, it wasn't entirely because I was drawn in by the raw appeal of leftist ideas. My disgust at what I saw conservatism espousing was a powerful impetus.

My political awakening came during the Bush presidency. I understand the right not only as warmongers and wiretappers, but representative of an uncompromising moral absolutism and a streak of fundamentalist Christianity that preached damnation with far more vigor than it espoused and took to heart the Beatitudes. They stood for intolerance and orthodoxy, and I was glad to throw in my lot with the crowd that professed inclusion, egalitarianism, and the primacy of reason over doctrine.

But over the last few years, I've noticed the left making noises that sound an awful lot to me like the smug self-righteousness and brimstone that set me against the right.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Nature and the English Language

The legendary Pizza Rat

Not too long ago I cobbled together a comic strip based on a couple of conversations I had at different times with different people. It's true that during one of these chats I uttered the word "bitches" rather glibly—but I think in the actual conversation I wasn't maligning any actual persons as "bitches," but rather referring to the "first you write the novel, then you get the bitches" lie that set me on the lonely, misty path I walk. And then we did volley some ideas back and forth about what "bitches" signifies, how its meaning and semiotic timbre change depending on who's saying it (and to whom), and how the singular "bitch" differs from the plural "bitches," etc.

Old news: language is labile. The definition of a word determines the circumstances of its use; over time, the idiosyncrasies of its use alter its definition. And "definition" is, well, difficult to define. Without getting into the "which came first, the word or the abstraction?" conundrum, let's just say that by "definition" we mean the physical object, quality, action, or relation, abstracted, that a word represents. ("Stone" isn't any particular object; it's the bundle of qualities common to the things we point to and say "stones.") A word's relative location in the involute webs of the lexicon can potentially have as much bearing on its meaning as Merriam-Webster's indexed blurbs. Just as we can better understand a person by the company they keep, we can clarify the meaning of a word by examining the words related to it.

The relatedness of words has as much to do with synonymity and etymology as with unconscious exercises of association on the part of speakers, and these linkages don't necessarily have anything to do with linguistics, per se. This most often seems to be the case when a word's referent is something that's neither tangible or visible, and also assumed to be ubiquitous, or fundamental in some way.

"Capitalism" is a good example. If you play a word association game with a liberal and pitch her "capitalism," her answer will probably be "greed," even though that isn't what capitalism is. Play the same game with a conservative, and his answer will be more likely be along the lines of "free enterprise"—which is hardly any closer to what the word "capitalism" actually means. Unless our partisans both dabble in political science or economics, any personal definitions of "capitalism" they submit will be reiterations of their first answers, elaborated into "greed system" and "enterprise system."

"Freedom" is a word whose meaning in most contexts is colored entirely by its associations and piled depositions of emotional content. It is employed so frequently and exclusively as a blunt rhetorical object that it's been pounded out of whatever shape it once possessed. Its closest synonyms are "we're number one" and "WHOO." As far as I'm concerned, the word is a lost cause. Approach somebody who habitually uses it in conversation or on Facebook. Ask them: "Freedom to do what and at whose expense?" Or propose: "if you grant that our actions are directly influenced by our genes and environment by any margin greater than 0%, it has to follow that nothing we do or think is not in some way determined by circumstances beyond our control, and so freedom is more likely a subjective feeling and not an ontological property."

The ensuing discussions will not be productive. But "freedom" is as locked into our discourse as MIDI is into our music, and so our ideologues and political leaders continue to harp on "freedom" as though it were something real, something quantifiable, when in actuality its has transcended all practical meaning and become an amorphous, religiously charged cultural totem.

We sure could use a man like David Rees again.

The word "nature" is afflicted much in the same way.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Sometimes I still draw things.

I forgot to mention this earlier, but I threw together a comic for the first time in several moons. It felt pretty good drawing again, but I wish these things didn't take so long to make.


Huh. This is comic #81 on Comics Over Easy. Nineteen more and I'll have some sort of meaningless milestone to celebrate. (Tigt's guest comic is #68, but whatever. I'm perfectly comfortable secretly counting that awful Ponycomic as two strips so I don't have to wait until #101 to halfheartedly pat myself on the back.)

Monday, January 30, 2017

Monster a Go-Go (politics)

From the film Monster a Go-Go (1965). Unrelated to the post, except
maybe as a metaphor for the savage ugliness of the last week (and
an appellation for Trump presidency thus far).

I'm a little emotionally wrung out, actually. Earlier today I forced myself to stop checking Twitter and the Washington Post for a while and numb myself with a couple episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

It was a good choice.
I don't have the stomach for even a superficial autopsy of President Trump's first ghastly week in office. My emotional state has been vacillating between disgust at his reptile-brained worldview and gasping horror at the ever-accruing evidence that we have a crazy person as our Commander in Chief. Sometimes I experience both states simultaneously. When that happens I have to close the browser and take a very long walk. At the rate I'm sucking in nicotine lately, I'll die of a heart attack before the midterm elections.

For the moment, let's focus on Trump's ideology—insofar as a bilious heap of grudges and gut feelings qualifies as a body of ideas about how the world works. You're familiar with it by now: "America First." Foreigners, particularly the non-white, non-Christian species, are job-stealers at best and terrorists at worst.  Diplomacy is a zero sum game. Things used to be better, back when only red-blooded, white-skinned men were trusted to run things, when America was booming and the rest of the world was convalescing from war, colonialism, and/or Stalinism, and when climate change wasn't a problem because nobody was talking about climate change because nobody was aware of climate change, so climate change wasn't a problem. (Returning to the latter state of affairs is precisely what the Trump administration hopes to achieve by muzzling the EPA, NASA, et al.)

So here we are. What happens now?

I'm finding plenty of cause to be afraid and a few reasons to be hopeful. For now I'd like to admire the silver lining before considering the thunderhead.

Monday, January 23, 2017


Remember back when I said I was working on a new novel-length project? Well, I've been a bit stalled out this week. Call it a crisis of confidence: the more trouble I have writing a chapter or section, the more faith I lose in myself, and the more faith I lose in myself, the more trouble I have writing that chapter or section or any other chapter or section. I've got myself in what the Romans called a circulus vitiosus (lit. "shit sandwich").

While wasting some time and avoiding writing earlier tonight, I revisited those old Moby Dick Magic: the Gathering cards I produced with Magic Set Editor a few years ago under similar circumstances. Man, most of them were really poorly designed. I'm zero for a billion tonight.

So I rethought some of them so as to keep wasting time and deferring What Is To Be Done. I hope they will waste some of your time, too.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

From the freezer: no recess

Hey. Been busy finalizing a batch of short stories en masse, which means I haven't had much time to update this sucker.

When we were reviewing a few items from my catalog of abortive writing projects last month, I mentioned the possibility that I might post the first dozen or so pages of a stillborn comedic novel/novelette if things ever became stalled here. Well, I believe that time has come.

What follows is the beginning of what was going to be a much longer project. I'm one of millions who has recurring nightmares about going back to high school for some inexplicable reason, so I thought it might be fun to write a story about a scenario where it actually happens. For a while, it was kind of fun.

And then it wasn't. But I still like how it gets out the gate.