Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Marital Bliss Comix!

It's been a few minutes since I've indulged in aimless wackiness. Let's give it a try!

(The comic preceding this one can be found here!)

Tune in next week for more half-cooked metaphysics!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sons of bitches

And I had a lot of hope for this one, too.

Hello from Soft Skull Press.

This is a form letter to let you know that as of the end of October, 2010, the Soft Skull editorial office in New York will be closed. This email address, editorial@softskull.com, is no longer in use. Soft Skull's parent company, Counterpoint, will continue to publish under both the Counterpoint and Soft Skull imprints from Counterpoint’s main office in Berkeley, California.

Going forward, Soft Skull's submissions policy will conform with Counterpoint's policy:

- We cannot consider unsolicited fiction submissions unless they are represented by a literary agent.

- For nonfiction submissions, please send to Soft Skull c/o Counterpoint a one-page description together with a sample chapter and any other supporting materials. You can learn more about Counterpoint at www.counterpointpress.com. Please take a moment to familiarize yourself with what Soft Skull has published in the past, as that is the best indication of what Soft Skull may find of interest going forward.

- We are unfortunately unable to consider poetry, children's books, or genre fiction.

Thank you for thinking of Soft Skull Press for your work, and please accept our apologies both for the form letter and for the delay in our response to your submission.

All the best,
Soft Skull Press

So, in short: "sorry, but the manuscript you sent us last month is being transferred from the 'incoming' pile to the incinerator." Righto. Thanks a ton, guys.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Cities and Stars

(One of the problems with forcing yourself to keep a weekly blog is that a week will pass and you will realize you are a day late with the latest update and have absolutely no topic in mind. Today we will be winging it.)

I grew up and still live in the New York City satellite suburbs of North Jersey. At night you can see some stars, but Manhattan and the local shopping centers cast a sort of transparent opacity across the sky that makes it difficult to see anything but the most prominent constituents of the most famous constellations. In September you might spot Vega, but cannot glimpse the rest of Lyra without squinting. After midnight in October you can locate Orion, but will probably miss the dim little star beneath his leftmost belt loop and have very little chance of glimpsing the M42 nebula within his rhombus-shaped warrior's kilt. A month or two ago I spent twenty fruitless minutes searching for the M31 galaxy astride Andromeda's tresses. Last night I looked up and saw the Pleiades, but could only account for five of the seven sisters.

The situation is hardly ideal for someone with an interest in stargazing, but it could be much worse. But this is one of the reasons I have no interest in relocating to an urban setting. About half of my friends are currently living in New York or Philadelphia, and about all of them think I am insane for not wanting to join them.

A couple of my New York friends were born and raised in the boroughs, while the rest hit eighteen, got accepted to SVA and NYU, got the hell out of the suburbs, and stayed the hell out. Most of them are true New Yorkers after the John Updike fashion: believing that anyone who would live anywhere else can only be kidding themselves, and would pack their things and scour Upper West Side real estate listings if they would only come to their senses.

It is hard not to fall in love with a city. For all the glamor and gritty mystique we attribute to our urban centers, a person's attraction to the city is most firmly rooted in biologics. We are wired so as to be very interested in ourselves, and the city is a portion of the planet redesigned in the image our our interests. The city is safe, orderly, and moves at an artificial pace better-suited to human business; easy access, straight lines, solid surfaces. Homo sapiens has evolved as a diurnal organism, so the city bathes itself in its own light from sunset to sunrise. Homo sapiens is a gregarious species; the city is a place in which loneliness is practically impossible, provided one is not fastidious in choosing his companions. Homo sapiens prefers a temperate climate; the city's hotel and restaurant awnings radiate heat onto the February sidewalk, and its boutiques blast air conditioning into the August streets. Man's proclivity is to admire his own cleverness and ingenuity; the city streets are lined with all sorts of places where he can study and obtain objects that are built by man for the purpose of stimulating man. And even in the city, man retains his affinity for the natural world; thus there are parks, tiny, tamed swathes of nature where he can enjoy the green without hazard or uncertainty (barring the occasional mugger or rapist).

Of course, establishing such a hermetic human-friendly environment comes at a cost: it must conscientiously expel any elements that man feels is detrimental or irrelevant to his immediate comforts and concerns. Nowhere is this more evident than the sky over Manhattan. Not long ago I was out on the streets late at night with a resident friend and pointed out the Summer Triangle to him: that is, Vega, Deneb, and Altair. They were not difficult to find, as they were practically the only visible stars. He nodded and said "neat." And that was that. Stellar objects are not things towards which New Yorkers dedicate much thought. (No place else but the city; no thing else but man.)

This past weekend I got in my car and drove to Fenwick Island, Delaware to visit my grandparents and spend thirty-six hours deflating. After September, the place is practically a ghost town. If you ever think to visit a beach in the interest of relaxation, Autumn is the time to do it -- but I digress.

On Friday, I got a late start and crossed the Memorial Bridge between 12:30 and 1:00 a.m. At around two o' clock, nearly precisely between Dover and Rehoboth Beach, I had to veer off Route 1, park the car on a grassy shoulder beside a soybean field, step outside, and take in the sky. The sight was incredible. For all our singsong odes twinkling stars, I would bet that fewer and fewer of us regularly see a night sky that perceptibly flickers. On Friday night, I saw the sky blaze. Aldebaran and Betelgeuse flaring like orange torches from some 382,110,649,256,934 and 3,762,320,238,837,508 miles' distance (respectively). All seven sisters accounted for in all their modest splendor. Cassiopeia skirting the banks of the visible (although dim) Milky Way. I could keep waxing romantic, but I am doubtlessly losing your interest. I will only say that those twenty minutes I spent standing at the edge of a soybean field in Delaware staring up at the sky are worth more to me than entire weekends I have spent gallivanting around Manhattan and Philadelphia.

It is crucial to remember that the universe does not begin nor end with us, and to give the realities beyond our artificially lit, climate-controlled little bubble their proper consideration. Any mammal is capable of eating, playing, copulating, sniffing his neighbor's rear, and barking at its own reflection. Man is unique in his capacity to acknowledge the infinite and attempt to answer the ineffable questions it poses. The faculties that fire up in us when we take in the unobstructed sight of eternity -- though what we see is really only a fraction of a moment of it -- are precisely what make us such unique animals, and we should engage them more often, lest we forget what and where we are by way of a near-idolatrous self-interest.

I guess my point is that the things around us that are slow, quiet, and not immediately noticed are often the most important. We probably owe it to ourselves to treat them as such -- but I suppose that could be as potentially disastrous as continuing to ignore them. Our frivolity-based economy would collapse, taking with it society's central support beams. Civilization as we know it would break down. A full quarter of the population would be slain during the widespread riots, and a full half of the survivors would perish from starvation. Those that remained would abandon the cities in droves, striking out for the hill and plains to lead the austere and bitter lives of sustenance farmers. But think of what they would see when they happened to cast an upward glance at the evening sky above their frigid, torch-lit mud fields.

(Next week you can look forward to a silly little comic strip instead of half-cooked metaphysics. I hope.)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Irrelevant: words written in an old notebook

if at any point we attach a terrestrial or anthropomorphic quality to our concept of ultimate reality -- "god said," "god wants," "god loves," "god knows" -- we are perpetrating a fallacy. if any aspect of the inconceivable (and surely ultimate reality must be inconceivable; to think otherwise is giving ourselves too much credit and nature too little) is reduced or translated to the conceivable, it ceases altogether to be inconceivable, and what we are describing cannot possibly be god, ultimate reality, or anything worth time exalting. if god or ultimate reality is beyond our comprehension (and it is), then it must be from every angle and in every aspect something we cannot sufficiently fathom or describe. if we say "god said," what we are talking about certainly cannot be god. neither the name we give a thing nor the metaphor we use to understand it must be mistaken for the thing itself. to allow our conception of the ineffable fact to precede the undiluted reality of the ineffable fact is foolish at best and fatally reckless at worst.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Writer's Reality

I recently received an email from an eighteen-year-old college student who is currently studying law, but whose passions lie in writing. He feels that he is at a crossroads and asked me for advice on how he should proceed. I meant to only give him the gist of what he might expect, but the floodgates unexpectedly seized the opportunity to burst. I'm copy/pasting them here in case anyone else finds themselves faced with a similar dilemma and is searching for arguments from either side.

* * * *


I certainly hope you were not expecting me to patronize you with the follow your bliss balderdash my teachers, classmates, and therapists crammed into my head nearly a decade ago when I was in your position. But you presumably would not have gone to the trouble of writing such a long and honest letter if you were not soliciting a long and honest reply. Good. Where do I begin?

Ah. Right.

Being a writer fucking sucks.

But I am getting ahead of myself. You say you are studying law, which is a very sensible choice. There are plenty of careers towards which a degree in law might carry you, and I would imagine most of them pay a good salary, offer decent benefits, and afford opportunities for advancement, travel, prestige, etc. These will be jobs, no doubt about it, and somebody geared towards creative work will frequently find himself wishing he had more time to indulge in what he feels is his "true" calling. Fortunately, he will probably have enough vacation time to bang out a short story every now and then, and ample opportunity to write his novel after he retires (which, with a career in law, will probably be at a reasonable age).

Now. Let us consider what an English major might lead to. Contrary to popular belief, the English degree is not a worthless waste of time. Plenty of employers are looking for people who are accustomed to approaching subjects analytically, can communicate clearly, and possess a well-honed bullshit detector. But I get the feeling your inclination might be to start searching for a gig in the publishing industry as soon you pick up your Bachelor's of English certificate from the framer's. I cannot say for certain how this will play out, but I can venture two guesses:

Best case scenario: you work at a publishing house for several years, climb a rung or two up the ladder, and put yourself on a first-name basis with the suits who determine which manuscripts get published and which get the paper shredder, earning your book (whenever you get around to writing it) a somewhat better chance of landing in somebody's inbox instead of the slush heap.

Worst case scenario: you discover that the publishing industry does not give two shits about literature, authors, or books, which siphons all joy from writing and dashes your hopes of every seeing your magnum opus (whenever you get around to writing it) in print.

Let us envision a third scenario: one in which you graduate college with a degree in English, get a low-paying, low-maintenance job that barely covers your expenses but affords you the time needed to get any serious writing work done, and dedicate the greater portion of your time to your craft. Here is some of what you can look forward to:

1.) Not getting published -- unless you are a personal acquaintance of a literary agent, an editor, or a famous author.

2.) Having to put off things like buying a new car, moving out, traveling, buying nice things, etc. because you will not be able to afford them.

3.) Feeling like everyone else in the world is having more fun than you are. After punching out from work, your friends go out, get drunk, go to parties, and have sex with people they just met. You, on the other hand, go home, sit by yourself, and stare at a word processor for nine hours.

4.) Not getting published. I cannot emphasize this enough. If the idea of receiving two-hundred rejection letters and not a single "we like it!" note frightens you, spare yourself the irreparable damage to your self-worth and stick to law. (I should also mention that you will not actually be sending anyone the manuscript. Agents and editors are not interesting in touching a manuscript unless they are first intrigued by your one-page sales pitch, two-page plot summary, and sample chapter. They will read the sales pitch, notice that you are not already a famous author or celebrity, and mail you a form rejection.)

5.) Dealing with literary agents. If you ever want to try making it in publishing, never forget that the keys to the gate are in the hands of people like this. (Scroll down to the comments section and gawk at how many unpublished writers kiss her ass and call it "networking.")

6.) As the years go by, you will watch the people in your graduating class scoring promotions, getting married, and buying houses. Your prime achievement will have been getting a couple of short stories published in some quarterly periodicals printed by some Midwestern state universities whose entire audience consists of creative writing professors and other struggling writers.

7.) "When are you getting a real job?" You will get sick of hearing this real fast, and they only ask it more often as time passes.

8.) Seriously considering saying fuck it and crapping out a teenage vampire novel on Labor Day weekend. It will likely have a better chance of seeing publication than whatever project you are pouring your heart into.

9.) Realizing, after five years or more have passed, that you have made an idiotic choice and need to find a more sustainable career. By then it will be too late. Your half-decade career at Walgreen's is résumé poison. Nobody in any field in which you are interested will want anything to do with you, as you are not an unpaid undergraduate intern and have spent the last several years earning experience in an irrelevant and/or useless field. Can you afford graduate school? No? Get thee to a temp agency. Have fun working up the desire to write after eight daily hours of data entry. If you have not yet taken up smoking, now might be a good time.

10.) Not getting published.

Being a writer -- the kind of writer who is uninterested in writing hack vampire romances or vapid crime serials -- requires having a near-religious devotion to your craft, or otherwise being totally out of your fucking mind. Nobody but the faithful or insane would conscientiously opt for such a lifestyle. Writing is something you do because you are irresistibly compelled, in spite of all reason and good judgment, and something at which you persevere because you are ultimately too stupid to quit. The good news is that you will be living for the sake a passion, while most everyone around you is living for the sake of a paycheck. The bad news is that this in itself is the only reward you can expect to get out of it.

I am afraid I do not have a short answer for you. I do not know which choice is best, but studying law is definitely the smarter one. Do what makes the most sense to you. If you decide to follow your bliss, please know in advance that it will be unbelievably difficult, and nobody will want to spare you any sympathy.

Best of luck.

- P

* * * *


I showed my reply to a close friend and was castigated for sending you what she called a bratty rant. Okay. Maybe she has a point. Let me put it a different way, then.

Imagine you had asked me for relationship advice instead. Say you are powerfully drawn to a very intense (borderline insane) and beautiful girl whom you alternately adore and despise. Any long-term relationship with her is sure to be tumultuous; there is little certainty of it lasting or ending well, but you cannot imagine living a life without her at the center. Do I tell you to follow your heart and go for it? Or do I advise you to break it off with her and start courting some Irene Scheerer instead?

Again, the smart choice is obvious. But you must decide for yourself if the smart choice is really what you want.

- P

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Scapegoats and Double Standards in the Rutgers Scandal

The suicide of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi is the Internet hot topic du jour, and why shouldn't it be? This is human interest red meat at its rawest and bloodiest. We love a good victim almost as much as we enjoy a good scapegoat to rail against, and this story has both.

Having been in a somewhat similar position as Dharun Ravi -- cast as the undoubtedly guilty and depraved villain of a college campus incident -- I find myself compelled to empathize with the antagonist in this story. That is not to say I sympathize with him or feel any personal affinity towards him. He was an unbelievable douchebag. But he is in all likelihood not a sociopath or a monster. There is no doubt in my mind that he did not want his roommate's blood on his hands. (That BBC article quotes a friend of his saying that Ravi liked Clementi.) Ravi is a dick who played an awful prank that had horrible unforeseen consequences.

Think back to how you behaved between the ages of thirteen and nineteen. How many of us can honestly admit to never once playing a cruel trick on somebody? Can you look me in the face and say you have never once in your life started or helped to spread a nasty rumor about somebody? Tell me there has never been an instance where you said something nasty about somebody behind their back or deliberately embarrassed somebody in public. Tell me you have never once in your entire life called somebody a name or callously shunned somebody you did not particularly care for.

You are either a saint or a liar.

All of us have acted in the same spirit as Dharun Ravi at least once as teenagers and adolescents. We have all mistreated people who did not necessarily deserve it. The only difference is that the recipients of our bullshit did not take it personally enough to kill themselves.

Dharun Ravi is being charged on two counts of invasion of privacy. Good; he deserves it. He will probably be expelled from Rutgers. Great. Throw him out. What a dick.

We really should just leave it at that.

Imagine that the last person towards whom you did something deliberately nasty -- and it is very likely that you have done something deliberately nasty at least once -- killed themselves afterwards. Imaging not only having to live the rest of your life knowing that you indirectly killed a human being, but getting to log onto Facebook to kill time while you await your trial and see ten thousand people screaming for your blood.

The thousands of retweeters and Likes this folks' lack of self-awareness is stunning. I wonder how many of the "Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei are Sick Fucks" subscribers routinely browse YouTube, watch videos of people unwittingly embarrassing themselves, and post them on Facebook and Twitter for their friends to enjoy? A third? Half? More than half?
Citizens of the wired world love watching people humiliating themselves. We have an insatiable appetite for gossip, scandals, and scenes (as this whole unfortunate episode illustrates). Am I off the mark in thinking it hypocritical that thousands of the same people who sat around the PC with their friends and shared a laugh at the Star Wars Kid's expense are now pointing a sanctimonious finger at Ravi for trying to give the public what it wants?