Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Fears of a post-truth planet (part two)

Paul Klee, Die Zwitscher-Maschine (1922)

Continued from where we left off.


Trump isn't the first reality TV star to be elected president. That (dubious?) honor goes to Jack Kennedy. Every presidential election since 1960 has been, to a progressively wider degree, a TV pageant where the last contestant standing after the final elimination round gets to live in the White House. All of our presidents, and certainly most of our high-profile legislators, are characters on television.

It is question for the child development specialists: at what point does the young boy or girl learn and understand that the events shown on Clarissa Explains It All and Salute Your Shorts (come on, I'm not going to pretend to know what the kids are watching these days) aren't really happening? How does he or she learn and come to apply knowledge of the difference between "real" and "just pretend" content in the mass media?

It may be a matter of aesthetic: perhaps the child extrapolates from the stylistic variations the difference between the fabricated drama of Veep or West Wing reruns and the real drama of a presidential press conference or State of the Union address. The better the teleplay and direction, the more likely it is to be pretend. Reality means low production values, discounting the dramatic cable news CG transitions. Maybe those transitions are themselves the telltale indicators.

In all likelihood the distinction must be explained to them by someone who already knows better. In The Gutenberg Galaxy, Marshall McLuhan cites one John Wilson of the African Institute of London University who describes the responses of non-literate villagers to an educational film, and determines that viewing and making sense of a Western motion picture actually requires some training. (Regrettably, McLuhan doesn't see fit to specify where on the African continent Mr. Wilson was, and the original paper is unavailable.) The artificiality of a live-action TV drama won't be obvious to someone who doesn't know any better and has nobody to teach them otherwise, and it's not unlikely that they would continue believing its veracity until presented with compelling evidence to the contrary.

Perhaps the partition we draw between "real" media and "pretend" media is prone to porousness. After all, there are hundreds, thousands of people, grown adults, proving every day on social media, message boards, and break room conversations that the contrived personalities and enacted narratives of mass media fictions are as urgent and real to them as anything in the news. (Case in point: how many American adults are talking about Rogue One? And how many are talking about Aleppo?)

Saturday, December 24, 2016

solstice update (writing)

Jasper Johns, Winter (1987)

Happy belated solstice, everyone. The cosmic waltz continues, and so do we.

Three months from now, it will have been two years since I put out novel #2. It was self-published, begrudgingly, as you know—but shit happens, as you also know.

Since then? I've been blogging, as you can see. I've drawn the occasional comic strip. I've been writing a lot of short stories, which will see the light of day as soon as the unimpeachable congress of lit magazine editors says they are fit to see the light of day. We might be waiting a while.

At times I've mentioned that I've been working on a third novel, which is true—although there have been a few false starts.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

paterson, a painter of the moulin rouge, & haujobb

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge: The Dance (1890)

Lately I've been reading William Carlos Williams' Paterson (1946–1958). Yes, Willy was a Jersey boy.

I'm not certain Williams is my favorite poet, but I've probably perused more of his oeuvre than I have any other poet's (give or take a Shakespeare or Whitman), and he's appeared on this blog more times (uno, dos, tres, quatro, cinco, sechs, sieben, eight) than any other specimen of his breed. And in spite of this, I still don't have a declarative understanding of how he thinks.

That's the Modernists for you: in trying to Make It New, to devise ways of expressing, via English set down on paper, things that no one had yet thought express during the thousand years since English words started being written down, they turned out material that tended to be nonlinear, nebulous, or outright impenetrable without a scholar's annotations. This is why, when I got it in my head to transcribe and post The Descent of Winter a few years back, I appended Williams' entries with images of cubist and expressionist paintings (mostly), and mostly from the early twentieth century. Williams' cohort and the cubists were two flowers budding from the same stem. In painting, the impulse to "break through the skull of tradition" (W.C.W.'s words) vitalized work that aggressively flouted devotion to verisimilitude, conveying feelings instead of depicting things, or trying to express the essence of a subject by distorting it—in other words, going about things much in the same mode as their counterparts in the belles-lettres.

In my exploration of Williams' body of work (which is not at all exhaustive), I don't believe I've seen him mention any painters until Book III of Paterson, where the name "Toulouse Lautrec" comes up. I thought it sounded familiar, and a google search confirmed it: I've seen one of Lautrec's pieces in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (top). Evidently Henri Toulouse-Lautrec had a predilection for absinthe and prostitutes, and Williams admired him enough to dedicate Book V of Paterson to his memory.

Those lines referring to Toulouse-Lautrec in Book III are:

Try another book.
Break through the dry air of the place.

An insane god
nights in a brothel  .
        And if I had  .
What then?
—made brothels my home?
      (Toulouse Lautrec
      again  .  )

Say I am the locus
       where two women meet

One from the backwoods
      a touch of the savage
      and of T.B.
      (a scar on the thigh)

The other  ——  wanting,
       from an old culture  .
——and offer the same dish
       different ways

Let the colors run  .

Toulouse Lautrec witnessed
it: limbs relaxed
all religions
       have excluded it——
at ease, the tendons
untensed  .

And so he recorded them

——a stone
thrust flint blue
up through the sandstone
of which, broken,
        but unbreakable
we build our roads  .

——we stammer and elect  .

Hmm. The last two stanzas are disorienting in their abrupt change of topic, but the indentations in the text mark them as belonging to the same section as the previous lines. In the broader context of Paterson, these evocations of bedrock and infrastructure are not incongruous with lines about men, women, and the things men do to/with women. Some notes written by Williams for the dust jacket of Book III's first edition shed some light on what's happening here:
Paterson is a man (since I am a man) who dives from cliffs and the edges of waterfalls to his death——finally. But for all that he is a woman (since I am not a woman) who is the cliff and the waterfall. She spreads protecting fingers about him as he plummets to his conclusions to keep the winds from blowing him out of his path. But he escapes, in the end, as I have said.

As he dies the rocks fission gradually into wild flowers the better to voice their sorrow, a language that would have liberated them both from their distresses had they but known it in time to prevent catastrophe.
Even though Williams has something of a reputation for being more accessible than his contemporaries Eliot and Pound, he's cut from the same cloth and, even though he uses words most of us can understand without reaching for a dictionary, his poems no less often require some effort to decrypt. Paterson is no exception. But again, that's what this push in literature was all about: getting at ideas people haven't gotten at before, expressing emotions that don't have names. The results aren't going to be sonnets or lyric verse, and they're not going to have the same taste or texture on the mind's palate. Williams' poetry often reminds me of the band Haujobb, whom I admire precisely because it is so strange and cool to listen to music that doesn't hit any of the usual facile feely buttons—that avoids "good safe stereotype," to borrow more of Williams' phrasing.

Anyway yeah Paterson is p good

Monday, December 12, 2016

Fears of a post-truth planet (part one)

Annette Lemieux, Truth (1989)


I'll own up to it. During the 2012 presidential campaign, I was all confidence that the only fitting response to Mitt Romney's pronouncing Russia the United States' "number one geopolitical foe" was laughter, served with as much derision as possible.

"Please. Cold War's over, Mitt," I said (probably to the radio). "Russia hasn't had its shit remotely together in decades. Get real."

So: mea culpa. Mitt Romney was right—or at least prescient. It's doubtful he could have guessed exactly how and with what Russia would attempt to undermine America four years later, but to his credit, he saw something was brewing.

The return of an antagonistic, gives-no-fucks Russia might be nostalgic for some people. For almost five decades the USSR was the perfect foil to the US of A. After its collapse, the hawkish paranoiacs still had Iraq, Al-Qaeda, and Barack Obama to fear and despise, but it just wasn't the same. None of them exuded the same cunning, implacable menace as the Ruskies. I imagine our nationalistic seniors feel about the Cold War the same way I do about the first season of The Flash. It's hard to replace a good villain.

Well, now Russia's back—only I suspect that the most perfervid anticommunists from back in the day probably voted for Trump, and we all know how he feels about Vladmir Putin, and how Putin feels about him. So maybe the Ruskies aren't so bad after all, right? Not like those murdering, raping Mexicans, anyway.

God, the world really has gone topsy fucking turvy. 

I started typing this post before the Washington Post disclosed the CIA's assessment of Russian interference in the election—back when it was still assumed that Russia's aim was disinformation for its own sake, and not necessarily the conversion of Putin's personal preference into electoral leverage—but the point I wished to make still holds true: I'm far less disturbed by Russia's (purported) goals than by the weapons they've employed to achieve them, and by the toxic fallout they're releasing into our discursive ecosystem.

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.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Cages, binaries, toxic masculinity

Last month I found a cardboard box full of old books down by the loading dock at work, bound for the dumpster. Most were eroded hardcover pictorials about furniture and fashion circa 1970; one was a novel. That novel was one Cages (1971) by one Paul Covert. I'd never heard of the book nor its author.

Judging from the front cover, which does its damnedest to convey a youth culture/Beat vibe, and the back cover, whose copy does describes the teenage protagonist's "world of psuedo-Hemingway fantasies and ingenuous adolescent sex," and speciously characterizes the young Covert as a kind of postwar Thoreau/Papa successor, Cages sure looks like a mediocre freshman novel whose publishers tried way too hard to pimp. The novel's sink into obscurity would appear to verify the impression: Cages has only one review on Goodreads and none on Amazon, Paul Covert appears to have vanished from literary history, and a search for "liveright new writers" on Google Books mostly yields publishing catalogues from 1970–1974.

In spite of this, I decided to snag Cages and give it a read anyway. For obvious reasons, I can't help sympathizing with a forgotten novelist who once stepped up to the plate and swung the bat, even if it never landed him in the big leagues. Selfishly, and probably self-delusionally, I entertain the conceit that by reading a forty-five-year-old novel I haphazardly found in the dustbin, I create a statistical precedent for someone doing the same with a corroded copy of The Zeroes they find in a recycling bin circa 2050.

I was pleased and surprised when Cages turned out to be much more interesting than its packaging would have me believe. Despite Liveright's attempts to sell it through a fabricated tie to Hemingway, Cages is much more like Catcher in the Rye than The Sun Also Rises, and bears thematic and stylistic similarities to middle school reading list mainstays A Separate Peace and The Pigman. Actually, I'd be very tempted to label Cages a young adult book, were it not for all the misogyny, profanity, homoeroticism, homophobia, teenage sex and alleged rape, liberal use of the word "fag," and the unresolved and unanswerable questions the reader is left with after reaching the end.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

(swamps &)soma, pt. 2

Last week I was in Jersey on the pretense of running an errand, but hell—I really just wanted an excuse to visit the Garden State. It's a fine place to sojourn, especially when it's BALLS HOT in Philadelphia and your bedroom isn't air conditioned.

I stopped by Boonton (pronounced boo'n; the "nto" is treated as a glottal stop) to visit the tract of marshland in Tourne Park (which I believe we've looked at before).

via the crappy camera on my crappy phone
This must have been the first time I've made the trek in August; I've never seen the vegetation so dense before, the annual weeds and herbaceous perennials having had all spring and summer to grow and bloom in the exceedingly nutrient-rich of the marsh soil. I was only able to make inroads of about twenty feet from the edge of the forest before calling it quits, and it took several minutes and much more effort than I expected. It also required closed-toe shoes, which I wasn't wearing, and so all afternoon I was pulling fine spines out of my feet and ankles, left by some mean gang of thorny weeds I'm unable to identify. (Whatever they are, I'm still happier running afoul of them than of their West Indian friends.) And many of the non-biting weeds were five or six feet tall, and putting out flowers up and down their stems. You know who likes flowers? Honeybees. Whole humming congregations of them, orbiting every stalk. I'm that guy who will bust your balls for blanching and quailing just because a solitary bee happened to land on your pantleg (quelle horreur!), but there was such a profusion of stingers to make me a bit nervous—enough that while making my way back I warily circumvented a buzzing tangle of purple loosestrife with a route through the water and mud, nearly losing both my shoes and ensuring that for the rest of the afternoon my extremities would smell as those of my mucksavage forebears did in days long past.

On the plus side, my beloved odonata made an admirable showing, and I spotted a species of damselfly I'd never seen before: the fragile forktail. It was well worth the mosquito bites.

After returning to Philadelphia that evening, I met up with my friend/coworker Jess at Ray's Happy Birthday Bar.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Soma, pt. 1

Sticker on a fence by the Acme supermarket in South Philly. Made a point of snapping it because it is so god damned perfect.

Whenever the topic comes up, I'm reminded of something I read in a middlebrow thinkpiece about the internet and entertainment circa 2008. (I don't recall the source.) Its author copypasted an excerpt from Neil Postman's 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death (which I guess I should actually read eventually) about the difference between the prognostic nightmares of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.
Let's back up. Postman is referring to the LeBron James and Stephen Curry of English-language dystopian novels: George Orwell's 1984 (published in 1949) and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932). Postman notes elsewhere that, between the two novels, it was Orwell's magnum opus that most quickened the imagination of the late twentieth century. This is obvious: even if you've never read 1984, you know about Big Brother and you're aware he's watching. Even today it is virtually impossible to hold a conversation about NSA surveillance programs, the militarization of United States police departments, and certain consequences of Apple's and Amazon's copyright protection enforcement bots without invoking Orwell—and with very good reason.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

about words: the sympathizer

A few months ago I was prompted to pick up Viet Thanh Nguyen's debut novel The Sympathizer after listening to a fascinating interview with Nguyen on Fresh Air. I finished reading the book a while back, and I've been remiss in not sharing a few excepts sooner.

First: context. Let's begin with the opening sentences:
I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.
If you're from the United States and this doesn't remind you of the opening lines of another novel, then Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man still isn't required reading, which would be an unforgivable failure of the education system.

At any rate, that book begins:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids——and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
The Sympathizer is steeped in an Ellisonian influence, which not not surprising: Nguyen is an Invisible Man superfan, having apparently gone so far as to name his son after its author.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Ten songs (top perhaps?)

Lately I've been working on editing a pile of short stories and prepping them to be thrown at (and probably rejected by) literary magazines, and assembling something that I hope will become novel #3. The upshot of this is that I don't have much available RAM to update this thing with anything very substantial or thoughtful.

So, let's have some filler: something not very substantial and not requiring too much thought on my part. Everyone likes top ten lists. Everyone likes music. Okay, let's call this my ten favorite songs. Or ten songs that are among my favorites. Or just ten songs. Let's cap it off by throwing in some spontaneously selected images that may (or may not) evoke the texture or flavor of these songs, and then let's call it a day. I've got stuff to do.


Saturday, July 9, 2016

infosift: cohesion & conflict

On my way to cash my paycheck last week I happened to catch a Here & Now segment in which journalist Ryan Lenz is interviewed about high-profile white supremacist Matthew Heinbach, whom Lenz calls "the youthful face of hate in America." One remark in particular piqued my attention:
It's interesting to note about Heinbach's whole worldview: he disguises or conceals or covers up his racism through what he calls Christian love. He says I don't hate anybody, I just love white people. It's a very interesting moral twist.
Most surprising about this is Lenz's incredulity. This sort of thing isn't "interesting," at least not in any sense synonymous with "unusual" or "unexpected." The obverse of embrace is rejection, after all. One entity cannot be held in preference without depreciation to everything that is not that entity. Booing the Yankees is corollary to cheering the Red Sox. The insider calls it "community spirit;" the outsider calls it "insularity."

And so on.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

RIP: Toad

Update from where we left off: I woke up this morning to an email from Jason.
The light also had its disadvantages; specifically, it negated Mr. Satan's camouflage to more developed eyes. On returning home tonight, I noticed sticky, red smears on the porch combined with strange, lumpy shapes.  On closer inspection, I determined it to be blood.  Following this trail of blood and viscera, I found the bulk of Mr. Satan's dessicated corpse surrounded by raccoon tracks.  Nothing was eaten; the raccoon killed the toad purely for sport.  On a positive note, I'll have a new hat soon, and I'll bury Mr. Satan where the red fern grows.
I'm sure Mr. Satan spent its final hours doing what it loved: devouring living things. And hey, at least the raccoon had a good time.

Mr. Satan: gone but not forgotten.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Critters: Featuring Frog & Toad

I sojourned briefly in Jersey on the way from Philadelphia to rural Massachusetts. The reason for the trip: I hadn't seen Jason since January and hadn't visited Earthdance since 2014, and when he finds himself with two consecutive days off at the border of spring and summertime, the wise wage slave takes advantage.

I was only in town for a few hours, but made a point of checking up on the situation out in the woods. Three weeks made all the difference: the ebony jewelwings are out and about, and I know precisely where to find them. With the water level of the pond decreasing over the last few years, my favorite odonata have taken their domain from its edge (pictured hereabouts) to the brook the overflowing pond used to spill into.

I wish I possessed the time and imagination to convey the quiet joy and wonder of the damselflies' grotto. Verdure and water-flattened stones; the only immediately perceptible movements above the creek's surface are committed by antediluvian insects that look for the world like living automata, equal parts tensile muscle and silent gearwork, chitin and lapis lazuli, engineered by an anonymous forgotten Daedalus for Babylon's royal conservatory or the temple gardens at Rhodes.

You see? I cannot explain it without resorting to silly metaphors. But there really is something splendid and otherworldly in the scene—a statement which might express less about the event itself than imply the estrangement of its author from the world that shaped him and the insects both. (Postscript thought: it is the pale cast of anthropocentrism—events that have no clear analogue within an anthropized setting are called "otherworldly," as though the city and the wild green exist independently on separate planets. It is a dangerous way of thinking.)

*          *          *

On the dry bed of the defunct anastomotic channel between the pond and the brook, I met a frog.


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Straight White Men

I'm pretty sure this is a first: I've reviewed video games, cartoons, bad direct-to-video superhero films, and books, but never a play. Today we'll be looking at Young Jean Lee's Straight White Men, staged in Philadelphia by the InterAct Theatre Company, which I had the pleasure and (ahem) privilege of seeing last week. This is also one of those rare occasions where I'll be issuing a spoiler warning: if you're fortunate to live in or near a city that is or will be hosting a production of Straight White Men, you'd be much better served buying a ticket and seeing it without any expectations or preconceptions.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

stray thoughts: ducklings & dragons

Was in Jersey yesterday on an errand and took another opportunity to visit the woods. It's only been a week, and I might be mistaken, but it appears to have filled out considerably in just the last seven days. Maybe I can attribute the difference to weather conditions: during my last visit it was partially overcast, and yesterday the sun shone brilliantly and unobstructed.

I know I once wrote a bloody novel about how crappy it can be to live in the suburbs of North Jersey, but damn if they're not beautiful during the spring and summer. So unbelievably luxuriantly green.

I'm indebted the the forests I habited as an adolescent for pretty much anything I can claim to know about wild flora and fauna. The only reason I ever read up on birds, plants, or bugs is because I find them outside and want to better understand what sort of life my own is intersecting with. I don't understand much of anything about "nature" at all. There's just some woods here and there in North Jersey I'm acquainted with.

At the onset of my visit yesterday I met several odonata and got my hopes up that another week was all the ebony jewelwings needed to mature and populate their grotto by the pond. No such luck—but it was one of those uncommon (but not unusual) days when the pond was hosting a wood duck. They always startle me: even before the surface of the pond comes into view over the tangle of wild roses at its circumference, the wood duck (a very shy, skittish, and exceedingly vocal bird) hears you coming and tears shrieking into the arboreal shadows almost too fast for your eyes to find before it disappears.

Most of the time I've only seen solitary males at this pond. Yesterday it was a female, a mama bird. True to her species' form, she screamed and bolted into the woods before I even knew she was there, leaving seven ducklings behind. I moved in for a closer look, puzzled as to why she'd apparently abandon them to me (a predator, as far as she knew), and wondering if maybe they weren't actually her brood. I came around to where the ducklings were gathered in hiding under the leaves of a fallen (but still living) tree drooping out over the surface of the water. The female was still nearby: she made herself conspicuous, crying plaintively, staying low to the ground, flapping and hopping towards the forest's interior, but not going far.

It was the first time I'd seen volucrine decoy tactics in action up close! Mama bird was trying to lure me towards herself, away from her brood. After I'd backed off and waited in the brush for a while, she returned to the pond with a swoosh and a splash, and her ducklings hurried to her, peeping excitedly.

Via Sergey Tishin.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Thursday, May 26, 2016

A ramble through/about the green.

acknowledgement: my phone takes lousy pictures.

I read Remembering Babylon
last week, during a four-day visit to my extended family in Lousville, Colorado (which, incidentally, was a blast). It was one of those books (I think and I hope we've all read them) that seemed to find its way into my hands by divine fiat—a book I opened up when I really needed to read it.

Louisville is just a bounce down the road from Boulder, a city that has held an almost mystical significance to me since my monthlong stay there in 2008. Of course a pilgrimage was called for. But I was less interested in revisiting Pearl Street, browsing dispensaries, and reminiscing at the Naropa campus than exploring the hills at the edge of town.

I've lived in Philadelphia since September; by any analysis I'm happier here than I was in Maryland or St Thomas. I am, I really am—but the exiguity of open green spaces has been eating at me like a rust creep in my spiritual undercarriage. So as I read Remembering Babylon and came across passages like these:
It was as if he had seen the world till now, not through his own eyes, out of some singular self, but through the eyes of a fellow who was always in company, even when he was alone; a sociable self, wrapped always in a communal warmth that protected it from dark matters and all the blinding light of things, but also from the knowledge that there was a place out there where the self might stand alone. Wading through waist-high grass, he was surprised to see all the tips beaded with green, as if some new growth had come into the world that till now he had never seen or heard of. When he looked closer it was hundreds of wee bright insects, each the size of his little fingernail, metallic, iridescent, and the discovery of them, the new light they brought to the scene, was a lightness in him——that was what surprised him——like a form of knowledge he had broken through to. It was unnameable, which disturbed him, but was also exhilarating; for a moment he was entirely happy. But he wondered at himself. A grown man of forty with work to do, standing dreamily stilled, extending his hand, palm downwards, over the backs of insects, all suspended in their tiny lives in a jewel-like glittering. Another time, by the creek, he looked up, casually he thought, and saw a bird. It was balanced on a rounded stone dipping its beak into the lightly running water, its grey squat body as undistinguished and dusty looking as a sparrow's (but there were no sparrows here), its head grey, with a few untidy feathers. He was sitting, himself, on a larger stone, also rounded, eating the last of a sandwich, his boots in mud. But what his stilled blood saw was the bird's beak drawing long silver threads out of the heart of the water, which was all a tangle of threads, bunched or running; and his boots had no weight, neither did his hand with the half-bitten lump of bread in it, nor his heart, and he was filled with the most intense and easy pleasure: in the way the air stirred the leaves overhead and each leaf had attached itself to a twig, and whirled yet kept hold; and in the layered feathers that made up the grey of the bird's head; and at how long the threads of water must be to run so easily from where they had come from to wherever it was, imaginably out of sight, that they were going——tangling, untangling, running free.
Pages like these didn't so much make me want to lose myself a bit in a wild place (a real place) as thrust the preexisting need to the fore of my attention.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Remembering Babylon: COVERED IN BEES

A dust-jacket synopsis of David Malouf's Remembering Babylon (1993) would probably misrepresent the novel as a hoarse note in an exhausted refrain of Western literature: that of the settlers and the savage.

Scene: an isolated community of European homesteaders in Queensland, circa 1860. The settlement's toilsome and sweaty business as usual is disrupted by the arrival of Gemmy, a "white black:" in his former life as a cabin boy, Gemmy was pitched overboard, washed up on the Australian shore, and taken in by an aboriginal tribe. By the time he stumbles upon the settlers' village, he is well into adulthood and has lost his ability to speak coherent English from years of disuse. The villagers regard Gemmy with a mixture of disdain, paranoia, and wonder.

You've heard it before: a story of the commerce, conflict, lessons learned between European settlers and an indigenous representative of their host continent. But Remembering Babylon explodes through the rhytidome of this old theme, propelled by Malouf's talent for diagramming the obscurities and profundities of social relationships and the elan he brings to transcriptions of adolescent frisson (which we'll see presently). Moreover, the focus here isn't so much on the social relations and bad blood between the European and aboriginal contingents, but rather on the pristine Australian landscape and the varying modes of living in and/or with it.

In several respects, Remembering Babylon recalls Heart of Darkness—although the former is much less capital-P problematic and certainly more lowercase-P postmodern. Here the primeval "Absolute Dark" represents not brute savagery and the danger of regression, but the existence of (and opportunity for) an alternate mode of being. As Malouf's narrative lens flits across the village, the most significant and persistent characters tend to be the ones who are compelled to cross the boundary, as Mr. Kurtz did—although what they discover on the other side could not be further removed from The Horror, The Horror.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Semantic erratum: on 'feminism'

I ran out the door after finishing the previous post and belatedly remembered a conversation with a woman who professed that "feminism" is a word that no longer has any specific meaning, and "feminists" no longer refers to any one particular group advocating a common ideology. What somebody means when they espouse feminist ideas, or who they're saying they are when they identify as feminist, is dependent on how they position women's issues (and on which womens' issues—which issues, which women) within the schematic of intersectional identity politics.

Perhaps I don't have the right to opine on this (as a male), but the germ logic of feminism is that women are not second-class citizens and should not be treated as such. That's all I mean when I say "feminism."

This definition is only a starting point. "How should women be treated?" "What do women need?" "How should women behave?" The more rigorously these questions are examined, the more divergence there will be in the answers. But the original statement is uneffaceable and inarguable.

A rephrasing of the earlier point: a progressive movement that allows or encourages the equitable concept of feminism to be obfuscated by sectarian vindictiveness and dogmatism is not doing itself any favors.

Brief: note on the 'regressive left'

To anyone who might have been missing them (I can dream), I apologize for the lack of updates lately. I've been busy with a project that—well, it's a project. Maybe it will pan out, maybe it will die in the water. We'll see.

Quick note on a topic we've alighted on from time to time: the aggressive tribal zealotry of (some) social progressives. You know the broader movement has a snowballing PR problem when young, intelligent, otherwise liberal woman are complaining about feminism/feminists. I'm not going to name names (I've mentioned them here before), but two women I'm close to, both in their twenties, recently expressed their distaste for feminism/feminists and the rhetoric of the social justice conversation. (One was referring to activist cliques in West Philly; the other is just fed up with quote-unquote SJW harangues in online fora.)

Their complaints were of the same tenor. "They're shrill, they take everything to seriously, everything offends them. They don't want equal treatment, they want special treatment. They hate men, they treat men unfairly. They're just mean people, I'm tired of them." Etc., etc.

Question: is it Problematic for a man to tell a woman why feminism is a good thing?

Thursday, April 28, 2016

'the grandiose stimulation of the grandest illusion'

Sarah Sze, Night

Last week I read Philip Roth's prurient opus The Dying Animal (2001)—which I think I'll need to roll through a second time during the next month, and find someone with whom I can discuss the ambivalent exchange punctuating the novel. (Who's Kepesh talking to, what do we think he decides to do, does it matter, etc.)

Roth writes with the sharp precision of an acupuncturist, so here I have another paperback with the corner of every fifth page folded down. The deepest dog-ear isn't on the page introducing the tangential history of Thomas Morton and the scandalized Puritans of old New England, the incredible sequence where a bedridden, palsied stroke victim tries to undress the wife he's been cheating on for decades, or the page with the magnificent line: "Because only when you fuck is everything that you dislike in life and everything by which you are defeated in life purely, if momentarily, revenged." It's actually on the pages recounting the flair and festoon of the moments when December 31, 1999 clicked over into January 1, 2000. The inauguration of the new millennium. It's an exquisite reckoning of an event I remember and wrote about in The Zeroes—though with hardly a fraction of the incision and prescience Roth brings to it, which is why he's won a Pulitzer and I, uh, won't.
We watched the New Year coming in around the world, the mass hysteria of no significance that was the millennial New Year's Eve celebration. Brilliance flaring across the time zones, and none ignited by bin Laden. Light whirling over nighttime London more spectacular than anything since the splendors of colored smoke billowed up from the Blitz. And the Eiffel Tower shooting fire, a facsimile flame-throwing weapon such as Wernher von Braun might have designed for Hitler's annihilating arsenal——the historical missile of missiles, the rocket of rockets, the bomb of bombs, with ancient Paris the launching pad and the whole of humanity the target. All evening long, on networks everywhere, the mockery of the Armageddon that we'd been waiting in our backyard shelters since August 6, 1945. How could it not happen? Even on that very night, especially on that night, people anticipating the worst as though the evening were one long air-raid drill. The wait for the chain of horrendous Hiroshimas to link in synchronized destruction the abiding civilizations of the world. It's now or never. And it never came.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

[one reason] why I have no hope for the future

Bren Bataclan, 'Landfill'

(Meanwhile, a recent study suggests that sea levels will probably rise even higher than we thought—three feet—by 2100.)

So I have a job. It's not a great one. We've gone over this. At the risk of divulging too much about how I earn my paycheck and where, I'll say that one of my occasional responsibilities is to check on a few trash bins. If the bins are full, I am to remove the refuse-laden bags and put empty ones in place. The full bags are deposited into a large cart in a back room, and are eventually wheeled into the basement and unloaded into a couple of dumpsters by the loading dock. There are dumpsters for rubbish, single-stream recycling, and flattened cardboard.

The trash bins are clearly labeled. One says "TRASH" in adhesive white letters, stark against a hinged aluminum lid. The other lid bears the universal recycling symbol (♻). There is no ambiguity as to what kinds of materials are meant to be placed in which bin.

We Americans aren't exactly renowned for our scrupulousness with regards to consumption and waste minimization. This innit no third-world dictatorship. This is the land of the free, spacious skies, for amber waves of grain. I own a petrol-powered automobile and it's my Christian responsibility to drive it to any destination farther than two blocks away. I eat meat with every meal, beef five times a week. If the town wants to bulldoze another tract of woodland to make room for another Starbucks, Qdoba, and Target, I say wonderful, job creation, shorter lines at all the other Starbuckses. I won't be unplugging my clothes dryer, cutting back on hot showers, giving up air conditioning, or withdrawing my support for monocropped produce anytime soon. But I recycle! I recycle, god damn it, so don't tell me I'm not doing my part.

Recycling is the one no-brainer of personal ecological responsibility (particularly here in the northeast). More Americans recycle than vote. You'd think we'd be better at it.

Monday, April 4, 2016


For the first time in five years, Beyond Easy will not be celebrating National Poetry Month.

No, it's not that I don't like poetry anymore. I read The Writer's Almanac almost every morning; I'm stoked to get my hands on a copy of Herman Melville's Clarel (which is, incidentally, the longest poem in American literature); I consider the best thing I've read in a lit zine so far this year is Emily Schultz's poem "Everything of You Resembles a Human;" poetry collections are still some of my favorite material for bathroom reads. But I'm pretty much out of material to share. Most of my old favorites have been covered at this point. I'm no longer living above a library with a healthy and diverse poetry section. And I don't have the time or impetus lately to read stacks and stacks of journals and anthologies to cull and curate my favorite pieces. (I'm simultaneously writing/revising/finalizing/rewriting like three 10,000–20,000-word stories, and that's using quite a bit of my personal bandwidth.)

So yeah. That's that.

Oh—what the heck. Here's one for the road: a short piece (anthologized in The Best American Poetry 2013) by Tim Seibles, a poet born of Philadelphia, the city that's been lighting my cigarettes lately.


Sotto Voce: Othello, Unplugged
Tim Seibles (1955 – )

Iago, it was not Desdemona but myself

I loved too much. So many battles found me
unharmed, but the want of beauty struck

like a kind of death. My rank only served
to wound my head with bigger dreams.
Didn't I deserve better than the tricks

every season brings? All my years

had stumbled into shadow: my own
dark face, harder and harder to find

in this cold kingdom. You knew my soul
ached for a woman who could conduct
my blood——that I might be in love alive

with the sharp sublime flinting
her eyes. All mine! My heart nearly
doubled     until you made me doubt——

not so much Desdemona as my own
worthiness: if what I was couldn't make love

faithful     I thought better to be done with

her     than to know myself a smaller man.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

ignorance & infidels

Lately I get the sense that the term "ignorant people/ppl" is semiotically congruent with the medievalist appellation "Saracen." It has become a tribalist slur against an Other, an anonymous corporate entity somewhere out there that isn't like us, doesn't see things the way we do, and deserves nothing but our contempt.

When we accuse someone of ignorance, we're not stating that person is, to our regret, unaware of certain facts as a consequence of a lack of education of life experience. We're basically saying that person is an irredeemable heretic.

This is not to say that ignorance of the facts and of the world isn't a problem in any society. (Of course—in the the filter bubble paradigm, the question is: which facts, whose world?) And it's not to say it's not that the American body politic isn't embarrassing itself with the persistence of climate-change denialism or the horrifying viability Trump's candidacy. But the tendency of people—mostly on the left, from what I've seen—to use "ignorant" as shorthand for people with political beliefs at variance with their own has me worried.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Automation complacency: a cuneate facet

Raoul Hausmann, Mechanischer Kopf (Der Geist
Unserer Zeit)

Over the last couple of years I've followed Nick Carr's blog Rough Type fairly closely. Your appraisal of Carr's positions as those of either a thoughtful tech skeptic or an atavistic Luddite might well serve as a litmus test for digital nativism. (I prefer the former term, but then you'd probably file me under the latter.)

A recurring theme in Carr's writing is the overlooked or understated hazards of handing over an increasing volume of (formerly) human tasks to computers; this was the subject of his 2014 book, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. A year prior to its publication, he wrote a piece for The Atlantic ("All Can Be Lost: The Risk of Putting Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines") which expounds in some detail what he calls "automation complacency:"
Automation complacency occurs when a computer lulls us into a false sense of security. Confident that the machine will work flawlessly and handle any problem that crops up, we allow our attention to drift. We become disengaged from our work, and our awareness of what’s going on around us fades...

Examples of complacency ... have been well documented in high-risk situations——on flight decks and battlefields, in factory control rooms——but recent studies suggest that the problems can bedevil anyone working with a computer. Many radiologists today use analytical software to highlight suspicious areas on mammograms. Usually, the highlights aid in the discovery of disease. But they can also have the opposite effect. Biased by the software’s suggestions, radiologists may give cursory attention to the areas of an image that haven’t been highlighted, sometimes overlooking an early-stage tumor. Most of us have experienced complacency when at a computer. In using e-mail or word-processing software, we become less proficient proofreaders when we know that a spell-checker is at work....
In a classic 1983 article in the journal Automatica, Lisanne Bainbridge, an engineering psychologist at University College London, described a conundrum of computer automation. Because many system designers assume that human operators are “unreliable and inefficient,” at least when compared with a computer, they strive to give the operators as small a role as possible. People end up functioning as mere monitors, passive watchers of screens. That’s a job that humans, with our notoriously wandering minds, are especially bad at. Research on vigilance, dating back to studies of radar operators during World War II, shows that people have trouble maintaining their attention on a stable display of information for more than half an hour. “This means,” Bainbridge observed, “that it is humanly impossible to carry out the basic function of monitoring for unlikely abnormalities.” And because a person’s skills “deteriorate when they are not used,” even an experienced operator will eventually begin to act like an inexperienced one if restricted to just watching. The lack of awareness and the degradation of know-how raise the odds that when something goes wrong, the operator will react ineptly. The assumption that the human will be the weakest link in the system becomes self-fulfilling.
I often work a cash register. I'm not proud of it; I have a bachelor's in English and bills to pay.

Math was always my poorest subject in primary school; when I took my first retail job at the age of seventeen I was more than happy to entrust all arithmetical responsibility to the register. The operation proceeded splendidly until (for instance) I'd punch "20.00" into the CASH TENDERED field when handed a twenty-dollar bill for a $16.21 payment, only to be handed an additional $1.30 the customer had discovered in his jacket pocket.

"Uh," I'd say, eyes darting from the money in the customer's hand to the pocket calculator under the countertop to the line behind the customer to the computer screen (CHANGE TENDERED: $3.79) to my own hand in the open till to the customer's face. "Sorry. I already rang it in."

Then I'd turn a little red while I trusted the dude's word that I should just give him $5.09 and send him on his way.

At some point—maybe it was at the trendy supermarket in Maryland or the coffee shop in the Caribbean, who knows—I got in the habit of mentally calculating the difference between cost and cash and checking my result against the machine's (probably out of boredom, initially). These days I ring up every cash transaction as exact change and just do the arithmetic myself. It's faster. And if a customer surprises me with some extra coins and bills from their pocket, I can amend my arithmetic simply enough, while my coworkers who rely entirely on the software are often flabbergasted. Even though I've been in the same position myself, I can't help feeling a little embarrassed for them.

I don't wish for any of this to be read as a boast; being able to do basic addition/subtraction without a calculator isn't something I should (or do) take especial pride in. But I'm not saying any of my coworkers were/are stupid, either—they're just not in the habit of performing arithmetic on the fly, and are unprepared and confounded when the need arises.

But where learned helplessness is the norm, basic competence becomes a feat.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade

I mentioned a little while back I've been reading and very much enjoying Herman Melville's White-Jacket: or, The World in a Man-of-War (1850). Though I'm still a little ways from finishing it, I may eventually have to concur with early Melville critic/biographer Lewis Mumford's assessment of it as Melville's solidest and most fully-realized novel (aside from Moby-Dick, of course; but need that even be said?).

But White-Jacket isn't the Herman Melville Joint we'll be looking at today. I'd like to draw your attention instead to The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857), Melville's ninth and final novel, and one of the strangest and most baffling damn books I've ever read.

This little review is long overdue. It was a full year ago now, during a short visit to the mainland (I was living in St Thomas then) that I found and snatched up a paperback copy of The Confidence-Man from the shelf of a little Maryland bookstore. I got around to reading it in May, in the wake of The Breakup, during the weeks I slept on a friend's couch at night and toured dismal island apartments by day. There could be no better time, I reckoned, to hitch my intellect to an unfamiliar Herman Melville novel, to get myself back on a somewhat even keel amid the chain-smoking uncertainty and jarring emotional aftershocks of the situation.

It was not the best idea I've ever had. Picking up The Confidence-Man in hopes of gaining some clarity was liking groping around a dim room for a light switch and activating a smoke machine instead.