Archive for October, 2007

Not So Tiny Anymore

October 31, 2007


Some of you will recall Tiny, the kitten my co-worker, Sarah, saw on the sidewalk last winter. He was about a month old and screaming his head off. Afraid of scaring it off, and knowing that I have a knack for catching stray cats and getting them homes (usually mine), she called me up and demanded that I give up my lunch break to help her out. I reluctantly came to the address she mentioned, yanked the little monster up from off of the can of tuna I had brought, and took him to my place for some food and rehydration.

Sarah later gave him to a friend who ended up not being able to give Tiny the attention he needed. It turns out my neighbor’s cat passed away. I broached the idea of her taking Tiny in. After some thought and some photos, she caved.

Here he is now, less than a year old and not so Tiny anymore. His new name is Eddie.

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What Is Going On Here?

October 31, 2007

For Halloween I submit the penultimate paragraph of the “Fall of the House of Usher,” by Edgar Allen Poe. I was once laughed at by an entire seminar of snotty Americanists as well as their professor for suggesting that in this passage Maddie Usher was dying while giving still-birth to a corpse. Presumably this would have been her and spermless brother Roderick’s child. It’s a well established reading that there’s incest in the story, but is there a partial birth? At the time, I took resistance to my reading as evidence that many people who study “American Literature” can’t actually read. By now I’m less locked into a view on the subject. Tell me what you people think Poe is up to here.

As if in the superhuman energy of his utterance there had been found the potency of a spell—the huge antique panels to which the speaker pointed threw slowly back, upon the instant, their ponderous and ebony jaws. It was the work of the rushing gust—but then without those doors there did stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher. There was blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame. For a moment she remained trembling and reeling to and fro upon the threshold—then, with a low, moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated.

Topsy Turvy the Motherfucker

October 29, 2007

I’ve been getting the sense that my new job was in jeopardy. The boss has trust issues with new (and, apparently, old) employees, and is therefore reluctant to hand things off to me. Day in and day out, I’ve had little to do but surf the web. Eventually it was going to come to this delicate moment where things were either “working out” or “not working out,” and I sensed it was weighing towards the latter.

At lunch I took a walk with one of my co-workers (who has appeared before on this blog as “the Office Psycho”) and gave him my analysis of our employer and of the situation. He complimented my ability to read people and said that he agreed with the “not working out” estimation. He urged me to intervene; to make it seem like it was my boss’ fault for not opening the lines of communication. He asked if I’d noticed any errors in accounting or book-keeping. As a matter of fact, I’d encountered several. In his immortal words I need to “turn it around on him.”

“Topsy turvy the motherfucker?”

“Exactly.”

Which is precisely what I did once I got back into the office. I pulled my boss aside and asked for five minutes. I told him that our company’s accounting has been haphazard and it can’t continue on like this. I explained the nature of the mistakes and the lengths I’d have to go to correct them. “There are also numerous problems with this filing system.” He told me that this is exactly why he had hired me. “Certainly, but unless we meet regularly, I can’t update you on what I’ve corrected and what still needs to be fixed, or where I need your input.” This talk shook him. “I’m glad you’re saying these things to me,” he breathed. “I know I’ve just left you in here with nothing to do, bored.” “Yes, and I don’t mind that some times but I want to take this office off your hands, and while I don’t mind downtime, I’m not a huge fan of the internet.”

He started smiling and conversing with me, “training” me with as many new tasks as he could think of, and I added that I want to concentrate on the tasks that help him out. I explained that I want to create “systems and processes” (a favorite expression of the social retard ).

I believe it worked. I highly recommend the strategy of topsy turvy.

What I Didn’t Love About Siri Hustvedt’s Novel

October 24, 2007


What I Loved is largely based on real life events. Katie Roiphe pens a kill-joy article blasting The New York Observer’s Joe Haden for tracking the correspondences between the novel and events in the author’s life. Roiphe boringly concludes her diatribe by instructing us that

Novels should be read and loved and hated for what they are, not for what they are “thinly veiling.” Let those who want to read tabloids read tabloids. And let writers worry about their own personal lives.

I won’t quibble with Roiphe’s issues with Haden’s ad hominem interpretation of the novel. More importantly, the key word in Roiphe’s school marm lecture is “hated.” What I Loved, based on real life events or not, is a terrible novel. I will say, however, that it’s ironic that Roiphe would take issue with a gossipy reading of a novel when it was so clearly written by Ms. Husvedt in order to spread gossip about her husband’s — Paul Auster — ex-wife, Lydia Davis. Davis is an author in her own right, thinly veiled in the novel as Lucille Alcott. Hustvedt hates her guts.

Almost every other character is a thinly veiled Hustvedt. This includes Violet, her clearest avatar, and extends to the narrator, Leo Hertzberg, as well as his seizure prone wife, Erica. “Visual artist,” Bill Weschler, who is meant to be Paul Auster, is so clearly a slave to the influence of Violet that we might as well add him to the list as well.

As a narrator, Leo is completely absurd. A German-Jewish refugee as a child, he grew up into a mild-mannered art historian who bonds with Bill Weschler over his unrecognized art. A New Yorker for most of his life, the camps are Leo’s true spiritual home, where he spends a great deal of his mental life visiting relatives he has not met but who died at the hands of the Nazis. He also spends pages of the novel sitting up at night watching other characters breathe as they sleep, a reliable indicator of his deepness and alienation. Sometimes, when the others sleep and he bores with watching them breathe, Leo pulls out photographs of these relatives he never met and mootly imagines what these people would have been like had they lived.

Leo forces the reader to endure meandering abstracts on book projects he envisions writing, such as one dedicated to Goya. Not only that, but he rambles on for pages about Erica and Violet’s book projects. Leo’s primary object of meditation is Bill’s art which becomes the nexus for Violet’s obsessions. Occasionally, Bill’s art integrates insights he obtains from Erica and Leo, however, their work becomes so overdetermined by Violet that you’d almost begin to imagine that these characters represent the same person!

At first Bill is a painter, but upon meeting Violet, a graduate student at Columbia University where she, like everyone else, is writing a dissertation on Charcot, Women and Hysteria, he branches out into installation art and bases his new work on Violet’s unedited dissertation. Don’t worry if you don’t know much about Charcot’s female patients or hysteria; Leo basically includes Violet’s dissertation for the reader. Hustvedt’s analyses of these fictional installation pieces, which themselves are based on a fictional dissertation, are utterly excruciating. One wonders if it ever occurred to her that spending pages obsessing over the details of imaginary art pieces might be a bad idea, especially if the art itself sounds so obnoxious.

In August, Erica and I were invited to look at three of the finished hysteria pieces on the Bowerey… Erica found a door in the first box and opened it. Drawing close to her, I peeked into a small room, harshly lit by a miniature ceiling lamp that shone on an old black-and-white photograph that had been pasted to the far wall. It showed a woman’s head and torso from behind. The word SATAN had been written in large letters on the skin between her shoulder blades. In front of the photo was the image of another woman kneeling on the ground. She had been painted on heavy canvas and then cut out. For her exposed back and arms, Bill had used pearly, idealized flesh tones reminiscent of Titian. The nightgown she had pulled over her shoulders was the palest of blues. The third figure in the room was a man, a small wax sculpture. He stood over the cutout woman with a pointer, like the ones used in geography classes, and seemed to be tracing something onto her skin–a crude landscape of a tree, a house, and a cloud.

Erica withdrew her head and said to Violet, “Dermagraphism.”

“Yes, they wrote on them,” Bill said to me. “The doctors traced their bodies with a blunt instrument and the words or pictures would appear in their skin. Then they took photographs of the writing.”

In case you were wondering how many pages it would take Leo to “unearth the association” between the “Dermagraphism” in Bill’s Violet-flavored hysteria art with the numbers tattooed on concentration camp victims, it takes 14. After this revelation, Leo wakes up to observe Erica sleep and breathe.

For a good portion of those 14 pages, we readers are treated to another analysis of one of Bill’s hilariously awful installation pieces, this time involving cutouts of Hansel and Gretel, show-casing their childhood thinness and adolescent weight gain (uncoincidentally, Violet is now writing about the cultural history of eating disorders. Guess what? Eating disorders have something to do with caving to societal pressure).

I can only imagine that the moral of these descriptions is that one can create shitty art even without an MFA. Sadly, the unfortunate exposition probably has more to do with Hustvedt’s narcissism, which itself has a theoretical component. One of the great themes of the novel is that the artist is both the subject and object of his own work. Moreover, the subjective viewer is made into an object by an art object. This is not so much a “theme” as it is the explanation given to every work of art described in the novel. It’s what every artist and critic in the novel says about the art discussed therein. It’s the basis for Leo’s description of Bill’s art, Goya’s art, etc. It’s also Violet’s thesis regarding hysteria as well as her thesis regarding eating disorders. It’s the same as Leo’s thesis regarding Lucille’s poems and pretty much the basis for Erica’s work on Henry James.

The blatant obviousness of this could yield a fantastic critique of the contemporary art and academic worlds — about how little the cognoscenti actually know — if it weren’t clear that the author is deeply invested in this insight. Hustvedt has in fact inserted herself into not only the character of Violet but also into the narrator, Leo, so that every time Leo encounters Violet he describes how his gaze lingered on her neckline. Luckily for Leo, Violet constantly wears low-cut negligees in his presence. Even though Hustvedt is trapped as both her own subject and object, her narcissism at least allows this dialectical prison to be a gilded one.

“Descartes was wrong,” announces Violet at Leo. “It isn’t: I think therefore I am. It’s: I am because you are. That’s Hegel–well, the short version.” If that weren’t painful enough, this moment of philosophical epiphany telegraphs Leo’s renewed sexual interest in his wife upon witnessing a colleague fucking a student.

I might take Leo’s impotence more seriously if Hustvedt could accurately capture a man’s narrative voice. Seeing Bill carry Violet over the threshold causes Leo to muse, “I felt my masculinity pale a little beside vigorous Uncle Bill’s.” That night he sits up and watches Erica breathe some more. Again. For one, no man would phrase such a statement in the first person like that. It might have been a more convincing passage if written in a free and indirect style. Unfortunately, Hustvedt is a big fan of power exposition. Not only do we get the endless academic abstracts presented by Leo, but the characters themselves power exposit. Take for example Violet’s explanation of what she does all day in Bill’s studio, dressed in his clothes, now that Bill himself has died (passive aggressively out of disappointment in his rogue of a son):

Violet’s eyes narrowed. “I read,” she said in a fierce voice. “First I put on Bill’s work clothes and then I read. I read all day. I read from nine in the morning until six at night. I read and read and read until I can’t see the page anymore.”

Which also, apparently, describes Hustvedt’s writing method.

The final third of the novel deals with Bill’s son, Mark Weschler (or Auster’s son, however you’ll have it), his delinquency and drug addiction. Mark falls in with a Marilyn Manson type performance artist named Teddy Giles. Both Teddy and Mark lead Leo on a cross-country hunt so that Leo can take Mark home to Violet. It also provides Leo an opportunity to emotionally climax when he confronts Mark about his complicity in permitting Teddy to desecrate Bill’s art (specifically, a painting of Mark from when he was a baby).

“That painting was better than you are, Mark. It was more real, more alive, more powerful than you have ever been or will ever be. You are the thing that’s ugly, not that painting. You’re ugly and empty and cold. You’re something your father would hate.” I was breathing loudly through my nose. My rage overwhelmed. I made an effort to gain control of it.

At this point, there are numerous things Mark could say in response to that inane, Modernist, tirade that would utterly redeem him in my eyes. He says none of those things. Instead he states the obvious. “Uncle Leo,” Mark simpered, “that’s mean.” And with that I totally lose sympathy for each and everyone of these idiots. This answer further enrages Leo, whose back spasms. Teddy shows up to jabber about acupuncture and chiropractors, causing readers to rightly wonder why we’re not out getting massages instead of reading this tripe. Teddy leads Leo to the hotel room he shares with Mark, and just when you think something truly perverse is going to happen, Hustvedt disappoints us again by only having Teddy rough Leo up a little to “put some color” in his cheeks. The decision to make Leo a survivor of the German-Jewish exile from the Nazis suddenly makes sense, as it becomes clear that skinny, emo, Teddy can only seem “dangerous” to someone well into his seventies.

I sought out this book for the inherent literary gossip, thinking I’d found a spiritual sister to Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick. No such luck, but I do recommend reading it. There’s so much more to mock, I urge you pick this up and find some of these little gems on your own because I haven’t even scratched the surface.

‘Dumbledore’ is Gay

October 22, 2007

Magnificent Bastards,

I’ve been asked to opine on this.

When the last Harry Potter book came out, I happened to find myself at Borders. As I stood on line, I watched one customer monopolizing two clerks at the check-out counter. The three of them were discussing the newly released Harry Potter. I waited patiently until one of the clerks turned to me and asked, “are you a Harry Potter fan?”

“I think Harry Potter is horse shit.”

They stared at me, and then turned back to their conversation. Two clerks to one person. I normally don’t like to complain about customer service since that’s the kind of thing my mother does, however, this was nuts. After painfully enduring having to watch them emote about some ludicrous character dying in the book, I asked “is one of you going to ring me up?”

“I’ll be with you in a moment, sir” answered one of them as they continued their conversation. It took them another several minutes to finish chit-chatting before either clerk would charge me for my purchase.

So, when my friends email me and my co-workers buttonhole me because “you are interested in literature,” asking what do I think about Dumbledore being gay, I apologize for having to break it to you that

a) The Harry Potter oeuvre is not literature by any stretch of the word
b) I don’t give a fuck if some wizard is a fellow homosexual. Either way, he’s gay.

Sigh, Kitsch is always in the process of escaping into rationality.” — Hermann Broch

Flu-ish

October 22, 2007

Dear Magnificent Readers,

I haven’t abandoned you. I simply have the flu and feel like crap. I’m also working on grad school re-applications. This personal statement is vexing, as I have no interest in baring my personal life to strangers and would simply prefer to discuss my work.

In the meantime, I’ve been spending as much time in bed sleeping. When not sleeping, I have been reading an absurd novel by Siri Hustvedt, What I Loved. It’s a real train-wreck of a book and mocking it has been keeping my spirits up.

I’m at work, though, as I don’t believe in taking sick days. Sick days interfere with the mechanism that drives my life, i.e. inertia.

This morning I continued my ongoing struggle with the CTA. I ran towards my bus, flagging it down so it would stay at the stop, but upon noticing that the bus was full, I refused to board it. This led to an altercation between the driver and I. She felt that since she had waited, I should board. I felt that I am not paying $2.00 to stand. I would wait for another bus with a seat. We couldn’t see eye to eye and bickered at one another until the combined heckling of the passengers forced her to drive off.

I can’t tell if I’m getting better as it’s impossible to tell how feverish I am by holding my hand to my forehead, and I don’t own a thermometer. It’s not the kind of thing I’d go out of my way to purchase.

More soon, when I’m less punch-drunk.

Jesus, Wet Blanket

October 18, 2007

The commute home last night was excruciating. The El stopped for fifteen minutes, and when I finally made it to the bus it stopped in the middle of Lakeshore Drive for half an hour. The people next to me were Eaters. One had a meatball sub from Subway, and the other a bag of shit from McDonalds. I was on the verge of saying something to the couple when I saw them communicating through sign language. I realized that at least one of them was deaf, which halted my impulse to try to communicate my horror at how slowly the man was consuming that meatball sub. I really wanted to say something and was pissed that I couldn’t. I then wanted to tell them that deafness was no excuse for disgustingness. Upon scarfing down her McDonald’s, the girl eventually pulled out a psychology textbook, as if to mock my reaction to them.

When the driver finally flagged down an alternate bus for us to board, I found the same seat and sat down comfortably, knowing the Eaters were elsewhere and had completed their meal. Unfortunately, I was joined by two amateur theologians who chose to turn the rest of the bus ride into an impromptu Bible Study.

They were discussing the importance of baptism. The younger of the pair explained to his elder, “Baptism isn’t just about being anointed as one of Christ’s own, the pouring of water over you is mandated. It’s physical.” At this point, I began rooting around my backpack for my ipod so that I could drown these guys out. When I remembered that the battery was dead, I cursed myself for forgetting to recharge it. I tried calling several of my so-called friends and family. To those of you who didn’t pick up in my moment of need or were “on my way to dinner with some friends and can’t talk,” all I can say to you now is fuck you. With no more distractions left to me, I knew there was only one way to end this torture.

“…It’s like going to police academy. You can go and graduate, but unless you get that badge you’re not a policeman. You’ve gone through the whole training, but you need the name of a policeman bestowed on you. That’s what it’s like to have the water poured on you. It’s the visible sign that you’re a follower of Christ, like the badge is the visible sign that you’ve become a policeman.”

As he explained, my mind raced until it found a point where I could interrupt. “Yeah, but eventually you dry off,” I said.

“What?”

“When you’re baptised, right? You do eventually have to dry off.”

“But you still have Christ’s name. You see…”

He went on to explain the whole comparison to me once again.

“Yes,” I interrupted. “I get it. It’s a clever analogy. But it’s a false one. After all, you people are eventually given a blanket or something to dry off, right?”

He nodded, following along. “Well, that means you don’t walk around wet all the time, whereas a cop always has to have his badge in order for me to recognize he’s a policeman.”

“But it’s still the visible sign that you’ve changed.”

“Sure, until you dry off. I guess you could carry around the wet blanket that dried you off, but even that’s going to dry up or get moldy eventually. Sooner or later you Catholics or Christians, or whichever, aren’t going to have a a symbol like the cop’s badge.”

This basically ended the conversation as my thoughtful interlocuter pulled out his Bible from underneath his copy of Sports Illustrated to consult the relevant passages. A girl nearby smiled and mouthed out “thank you.”

As the amateur theologians got up to leave, the younger one turned to me and said, “I guess it’s more like a high school diploma.”

“What?”

“Being baptised. It’s liked getting your high school diploma. You don’t have to carry that around. Is that a better analogy?”

“Yeah, I’d run with that one.”

The Intimacy of Disgust

October 14, 2007

Every day people sit on the bus and eat in front of me. It’s one of the more nauseating things I can see during the course of a day. Someone needs to do an ethnography of people who would eat on the CTA. The people who put their Popeyes or McDonald’s bags on the floor of the bus as they get settled and pull out the part of the meal they want to start on. There was the morning when the woman sitting at a 90 degree angle to me, directly in front of me, ate a whole bag of cheddar popcorn. At 7AM! Her fingers were turning orange. The popcorn kept falling down her shirt and onto the floor. If it landed in a crevice of her clothes, she’d eat it. The bus kept swaying back and forth and as she was inches away and directly in front of me, I had no choice but to look at her. With every mouthful, I came closer and closer to hurling. I was visibly wincing. Just when I thought it was over, she ties up the bag and pulls out a Hershey’s Oreo Cookie bar, made mostly of white chocolate! She took one large bite out of it after another. By the time she stopped, I was choking back the vomit.

Am I food phobic? I think not, though I cannot stand the odor of liver or bananas (I can eat bananas so long as I don’t have to smell them for long), or eggs. Am I germ phobic? Not at all. Perhaps it has to do with proximity. I don’t like strangers next to me, and if they are next to me and eating I need cleanliness to be regulated by serving staff and clean silverware. Yes, silverware is important to me, and by that I don’t mean the silver poles on the bus or the train that people hold on to with their cheddar dusted fingers as they try to keep their balance. I know that some people don’t like to eat in public, which is a class thing. I used to test one of my professors by offering her a mint from my tin of Altoids. It is possible that she was similarly disgusted by the phenomenon of the “unwrapped mint” as I am by someone who puts a bag from McDonald’s on the floor of the bus, but then again, I can’t recall ever having seen her eat in public. Someone needs to write an anthropology of disgust.

Press ‘0’ for the Attendant

October 11, 2007

If anything cemented my decision to ditch the last job it was an incident with H three weeks back. One of our board presidents is a financial control freak who had interfered with the sale of a unit at a historic building downtown (the vice-president of the same association refers to her as “that fucking ball-busting harpie,” though I, personally, found her to be a sociable and pleasant ball-buster). This go around she was eager for the sale to go through so that the association could recoup some money, and if it failed she was clearly looking for a scapegoat. Luckily, the attorney proved an easier scapegoat than myself since, over the years, I have learned to use email to cover my ass scrupulously.

That afternoon, H shouted at me to come into his office with the attorney’s phone number so that we could have a conference call and browbeat her. I asked him, “does she know we’re calling? do you have an appointment?” “No! If I had an appointment, I wouldn’t be asking you for her number.” I already knew where this was going to go, because, of course, the attorney would be in court.

H dialed her number. It rings we get her voice-mail. H presses ‘0’ for the attendant. He tells the attendant that Kerry isn’t there and that he wants to speak with her. The attendant transfers us. H shouts, “You fucking ID…” but she’s already off the phone. We listen to the message again. He presses ‘0’, we get the attendant. He demands she page Kerry. That’s against company policy, and we get transferred again. As H is cursing at her, Kerry’s message is already playing again. I shake my head just watching him. This is exactly what he does, but I can’t believe it’s happening before my eyes and I’m trapped in his fucking office having to watch it. I rolled my eyes at the girl who sits outside his office where I used to sit. She, in turn, reached for a bottle of Tylenol and impressively dry-swallowed three capsules. H and I get the attendant again and he asks if Kerry has a secretary. Of course we get the secretary’s voice-mail. H presses ‘0’ again and demands to speak to the person in the office NEXT to Kerry’s. Of course we get that person’s voice-mail.

Finally he gives up and starts up a conversation with me about the board president. “You know there’s something wrong in the head with her, right?” “Really, H? For some reason my sense of scale when it comes to mentally ill behavior is off these days.” “Well, she is! She queered the last deal and now she’s looking for a scapegoat.” I, of course, noticed his word choice but decided I didn’t want a fight. We chit chat for a few more minutes and then this smirk appears on his face. “It occurs to me that I used a euphemism a few minutes ago that may have offended you.” I didn’t take the bait. “I didn’t notice. What was it you said?” [note: with normal people, euphemisms are neutral and not actual provocations, but H would use “queer” as a euphemism]. “If I repeated the euphemism it would definitely be offensive and inappropriate.” “Don’t worry about me. I’m pretty unflappable.” At that point I couldn’t look at his fucking smirk any longer without smashing his smug face, so I just got up to go back to my desk as I lied and explained, “I don’t really think there’s anything you could say that would offend me.”

I think what actually offended me was his puerile attempt to offend me. I don’t care about word-choice. I’m no language purist. But it was obvious he was trying to get under my skin, and the childishness of it was the last straw on this camel’s back.

Lessing wins 2007 Nobel for literature

October 11, 2007

The Golden Notebook must be much more interesting in the Swedish translation. Or, the Swedes totally love ‘mah man done me wrong‘ tales. I certainly have a few of those. Give me a Nobel Prize.