Against Everything: Essays

I have a theory that Greif founded n+1 because no one else would publish his writing. This collection is a group of essays he first put forth in that publication, launched in 2004. The only solid essay of the book was the first one he published, Against Exercise, in 2004. Maybe he worked hard at polishing it, and then once n+1 launched, his attention was diverted to managing the magazine instead of honing his writing. Besides tearing apart our culture of exercise, he touches on our food obsession, sexualizing children, Octomom & Bernie Madoff taking the brunt of anger during the financial crisis (woman & Jew, the usual targets instead of those who actually inflicted damage). There’s an embarrassing section wherein he muses about music, from Radiohead to Tribe Called Quest, cataloging his attempt to learn to rap as a Jew from Boston. Add in an overly boring section on reality TV, a dash of the trailer park near Walden Pond, a nip of police and Zuccotti Park, and you’ve got the book of essays.

In Against Exercise he calls out that what used to be private is now on display, gym rats obsessing about their numbers and enslaved by the routine. Another observation is that jogging is “a direct invasion of public space…. One thing that can be said for a gym is that an implied contract links everyone who works out in its mirrored and pungent hangar. All consent to undertake separate exertions and hide any mutual regard, as in a well-ordered masturbatorium. The gym is in this sense more polite than the narrow riverside, street, or nature path, wherever runners take over shared places for themselves. With his speed and narcissistic intensity the runner corrupts the space of walking, thinking, talking, and everyday contact. He jostles the idler out of his reverie. He races between pedestrians in conversation. The runner can oppose sociability and solitude by publicly sweating on them.

A later essay, The Concept of Experience, takes aim at readers and writers: “Truly dissatisfied persons, maybe more than anybody else, take a large proportion of their experience from books… Serious reading often starts from a deep frustration with living. Keeping a journal is a sure sign of the attempt to preserve experience by desperate measures.”

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies

This started out strong but whimpered out. It’s the story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman who was instrumental in codebreaking during the two great 20th century wars. Elizebeth met her husband William on a private estate, both paid researchers for millionaire George Fabyan, Elizebeth paid to prove that a code embedded in Shakespeare shows his works were written by Bacon. The pair marry and end up becoming the best codebreakers in the U.S., working side by side. Of course, only William was recognized and promoted to high rank… at least until his mental breakdown. Elizebeth carried on, supporting him and the children and running her own codebreaking crew out of the Coast Guard during Prohibition, then being swept into the Navy during WW2. She caught some Nazis and all of the credit was slurped up by J.Edgar Hoover. I did appreciate that the author devoted a lot of space to showing how the codes worked and including examples. The petering-out of my interest was caused by his constant wide-eyed amazement that such an amazing woman could be swept under the rug of history until he came along to shine a light on her archives.

The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream

It is refreshing and almost soothing to see that the same issues we’re grappling with now have been around for a while. This book came out 30 years ago in 1988 and the voices sound like they’ve been interviewed today—grappling with greed, capitalism, racism, neo-nazis, ultra-religious nuts, worrying about nuclear war and quality of life declining for future generations. Somehow this takes a bit of the sting out of the slap we were dealt in 2016 with the election of McDonald Tr*mp—this stuff has been simmering for a long time, we were just in our progressive bubble and refused to see it. The only real difference is that unions were a lot more prevalent back then. Now, they’re an anomaly. And more people were actively protesting nukes.

Per his usual style, Terkel interviews hundreds of folks and lets their words do the talking. Art Spiegelman kvetches about art students not knowing anything about the 1960s (“They had never heard of underground comics. Nobody in the class had ever heard of Robert Crumb. This is not the general public we’re talking about. These people are aspiring to be cartoonists…”) and he had to explain protests against the Vietnam War to his class. Another teacher discusses how censorship has morphed into people withdrawing books they don’t like from the library, “often one that is feminist in theme”, paying the fine and the book is never replaced.

I particularly liked Isabelle Kuprin’s interview: “I’m a copywriter for an ad agency. It involves being a total asshole. I do it for the money, it’s easy and horrible. I do nothing good for society. I mean, I help people sell cheese. The talent is being able to sit in meetings and listen to people talk about an adjective for four hours.”

Douglas Roth is also a hero– a pastor in a small Pennsylvania town that was ravaged by steel mills closing, he led an effort to get the bank to reinvest in the town. One of their tactics was to send people with $10 to ask for that in pennies and to drop some of them, get in line, pick them up, ask for nickels, cause chaos. Another was a fish action: taking out safety deposit boxes and filling them with frozen fish. “By Monday, they were beginning to raise their own odor. Boy it was really something! They had to drill out the boxes. They drilled into one lady’s jewels and somebody else’s heroin.”

Another hero: Jean Gump, mother of 12, jailed for a demonstration at a nuclear silo. As part of her interview, she reveals the ridiculousness of the government, telling the story about an inmate who lay in the yard and got a sunburn then an incident report was written up for “destruction of government property” because she destroyed her own skin.

Entertainment age: TV!

Echoes of current day ring out in this: “There’s this constant need to be entertained. Every kid has his little Walkman radio, playing tapes… There’s this constant need to be distracted. I think this is a rejection of thought.”

TV is blamed frequently. “Now you don’t talk to anybody ’cause you got your head stuck in that TV.” Also: “Television is fucking up the country completely, making us more violent and more druggy. The Sistine Chapel ceiling of American creativity is the thirty-second television commercial. That’s where America’s genius is concentrated. What are they telling us to do? Consume, look after number one, pamper yourself.”

“Television could be a very great thing for politics. It could create the revival of the stump. Instead, it actually destroys analysis, debate, reason, and substitutes advertising. One-liners. Two-liners take up too much time.”

Racism

Reagan’s election on race: “Reagan made it very accepted to be a white bigot. It’s the most fashionable thing. Now they say: America is white… When I was comin’ up, it was embarrassing to be considered a racist or bigot. Now I think people take pride in it.”

Football controversy

Another similarity to current times: in 1987 there was a football players’ strike. “What really disturbed me was the attitude of the fans. How easily they were manipulated into support-not of the players, whom they come to see and love to watch-but of the owners, who never played a game in their lives… It was amazing to hear million-dollar sportscasters criticize half-million dollar ballplayers: ‘They make too much money.'”

Somewhat related: “People are really not interested in politics. They’ve got too many other interests. You find people know so much about football.If they knew the same amount about the stock market, they’d be millionaires. Trivialities have overwhelmed us.”

Politics

While we’re on the subject of politics: “The scandals, open or secret, are happening so regularly, it’s as if one is constantly irritated by a blow on the shins to a point where he’s no longer sensitive. What the Reagan administration has discovered is that that which becomes commonplace is no longer a scandal. The violations have been unprecedented in their repetitiousness. People have lost their sense of outrage.”

Religion

“Unfortunately, America has got religion in a way that it hasn’t had before… Shrewd political people have recognized the potential of grabbing hold of the religions constituency… Their basic appeal is to people who feel left out. Marginalized people, who have an emotional hunger. W.H. Auden has a line about the wild prayers of longings… In a world that’s in chaos, fundamentalist religion provides you with a well ordered world, an architectonic world. It helps you get through. These programs have a lot of appeal to people without a sense of history… It’s fast food. It’s just there, it’s bland, it’s inoffensive, it fills you up for a while. And it helps. Sadly. You’re given answers. You’re not presented with problems. The idea is not to reflect, because that’s disturbing.” — Roy Larson, Methodist minister, Chicago

On the opposite end, Dennis McGrath, fundamentalist Christian in Brooklyn: “Most problems in public schools come from our throwing out prayer. Where’s the authority? It comes from God. Armageddon will come, of course. It’s part of God’s plan. Why stop it? I see no reason to stop it.”

Sexism in Technology Sector

Nancy Miles is a 23-year-old engineer who graduated from Cornell in 1985. “The attrition rate is enormous, people leaving engineering, especially women. There’s a lot against us…. During the interviews, the company would ask if you could get a security clearance. Wow, I’m gonna be working at a place where the government has to know about me, know what I do, know my politics. How much of myself am I willing to give up to work in Silicon Valley?”

Black women will save us

A flight attendant whose pilot-husband regularly crosses her strike line complains about the lack of support the women have gotten in general. Except: “You know who have been doing the most fighting and sticking together in our union? Black women. Here in Chicago, black flight attendants have been our strongest core. They have been able to handle the negatives of being out on strike for six months a lot better than their white counterparts.”

Robots are here + age discrimination

“An ironic touch has been added during these past 10 years. Our life-cycle has lengthened in every decade, yet we are seeing early retirement more and more frequently… That’s the au courant phrase these days: early retirement. In some cases, it’s a euphemism for being fired. It may be a case of wanting a younger person. Or they may just do away with the job. The job is robotized or faded out. The job is eliminated. Of course, for people this age it is difficult to find work again.” – Maggie Kuhn, of the Gray Panthers, a national org militantly concerned with the rights of the elderly.

Inequality

Anthony Bouza is the police chief of Minneapolis: “As for the country, I honestly believe we are observing a decline of the republic. There’s a major shift in American values, between the haves and the have-nots, the rich and the poor. We are screwing the poor people.” This is also a guy whose wife has been arrested 5 times for protesting nuclear bomb-making plants in town.

Dumb rich people

Terkel interviews a socialite, Sugar Rautbord, who has incredibly idiotic things to say, including about her visit to the White House where she’s briefed on Grenada and thinks there is still a war there. Terkel corrects her, saying that the U.S. won the war there already. “Well, whatever. We live in a democracy, so everyone has a right to an opinion.” At the end of the interview, she says it’s important for her and her ladies to run around with their Tiffany cups out looking for donations to their pet causes. Terkel: “Tiffany what?” Sugar: “Cups out. Panhandling, you know.”

Here is New York

E.B. White’s 1948 love letter to NYC is just as readable 70 years later. It begins, “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” He calls what the city gives its citizens “a dose of supplementary vitamin—the sense of belonging to something unique, cosmopolitan, mighty, and unparalleled.”

The three types of NYers are natives, commuters, and people who migrate there to live; of those, White calls the migrants the greatest, the cause of all the art and literature and energy of the city. He dismisses the commuters as a pack of locusts descending each day and not experiencing anything except the bus schedule and the closest place to get lunch from work.

NYC’s neighborhoods give much of its charm, and each small two or three block neighborhood is somewhat self-contained. No matter where you live, you’ll find within a block or two “a grocery store, a barbershop, a newsstand and shoeshine shack, an ice-coal-and-wood cellar (where you write your order on a pad outside as you walk by), a dry cleaner, a laundry, a delicatessen (beer and sandwiches delivered at any hour to your door), a flower shop, an undertaker’s parlor, a movie house, a radio-repair shop, a stationer, a haberdasher, a tailor, a drugstore, a garage, a tearoom, a saloon, a hardware store, a liquor store, a shoe-repair shop.”

This part struck me; remember, this is from 70 year ago:

New York has changed in tempo and in temper during the years I have known it. There is greater tension, increased irritability. You encounter it in many places, in many faces. The normal frustrations of modern life are here multiplied and amplified — a single run of a cross-town bus contains, for the driver, enough frustration and annoyance to carry him over the edge of sanity: the truck that blocks the only opening, the coin that slips to the floor, the question asked at the wrong moment. There is greater tension and there is greater speed. Taxis roll faster than they rolled ten years ago — and they were rolling fast then. Hackmen used to drive with nerve; now they sometimes seem to drive with desperation, toward the ultimate tip. On the West Side Highway, approaching the city, the motorist is swept along in a trance — a sort of fever of inescapable motion, goaded from behind, hemmed in on either side, a mere chip in a millrace.

Finally, it’s inevitable to recall 9/11 when he speaks of one change that no one talks about: “The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.”

The Ethics of Sightseeing

I keep thinking about Dean MacCannell’s The Tourist so decided to see if he’d written anything else recently. This seems to be his latest book, but I hope he’s hard at work on something that layers in how the necessity of creating content for social media sites, that incessant hungry beast that demands jealousy-producing photos, has cranked tourism into overdrive.

This 2011 book has the same pitfalls of The Tourist, the muddy writing whilst pontificating in a scholarly voice. Tragically, it’s a disaster of a book with only a few redeeming qualities, outlined below. Much blather, poor planning, and overcompensating for his lack of a cohesive theory by stuffing our eyes with Lacan and Stendhal references. I hate to be a stickler, but his “slip is showing” (e.g. lack of any kind of structure) when he doesn’t bother to mark where Part 2 begins, then just slaps a lame “Part 3” heading atop a random chapter, before settling into proper single page announcement treatment of Part 4 (like Part 1).

He rails against “Staged Authenticity” that has overwhelmed all of life, how it’s not just for tourism anymore. He briefly touches on our blithe acceptance of the surveillance state, gladly handing over privacy to reap the rewards of being internet famous or going viral, “desire for fame and recognition trumping (or Trumping) all other desires.” He asks what happens when everything that was once a “societal secondary adjustment (gangster lifestyles, lost weekends, profit skimming, exercise addiction, extramarital affairs, resume inflation, test cheating, dope dealing, dope taking, food fetishism…) what happens when everything that was once a secondary adjustment becomes merely another suburban lifestyle choice?”

Mocking our forced casual fashion, “we comfortably inhabit the space of staged authenticity and dress accordingly, that is, like tourists… The same expensive exercise outfits can be worn in public by suburban women and young inner city [kids].” You can’t tell who’s important anymore by what they drive, either. Limos signify nothing, everyone wants a huge SUV. “You could be going nowhere or anywhere. Other than having money and a willingness to waste it, the purchase signifies positive nothingness; a large investment in maintaining zero specific identity, no purpose, and no direction.”

Later, he’s eviscerating the ever-present command: Enjoy! “Pleasure itself has become a new moral imperative. Today, we are all supposed to be having fun… Everyone’s life should resemble a beer commercial… In postmodernity, if you are not having fun, or appearing to be having fun, it means you have done something wrong. Someone who just ekes out a living, always doing the right thing but never getting anywhere or going anywhere must now carry the burden of guilt for having failed to ‘Enjoy!'”

One of his claims is that tourists are so overwhelmed in the presence of the Sight that they’ve come to See, they clam up, unable to speak, anxious that they don’t get it or might forget it. “The main protection tourists have devised against anxiety-provoking exigencies is manic picture taking and repetition of information about the attraction.”

The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power

Knowing when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em also applies to pages in a book. After a 300+ page slog through this 900 page behemoth, I’m cutting my losses and moving on to explore for intellectual oil elsewhere.

History, I’d forgotten, is overwhelmingly the story of men, and that point came across in this Bechdel-test failing tome. There’s nary a woman in the pages, except as a whisper in the wind, a remembered comment attributed to her wit, or a nameless faceless member of a harem. Still, I persisted. I wanted to know more about this black gold that humans have pried from the earth with such desperation, the fuel that keeps my city clogged with roaring impatient engines, the insidious father of plastic.

The early story of oil was fairly interesting, which is why I gritted my teeth and kept diving once more unto the breach. From early days, people recognized the unique properties of the black goo seeping out of the earth, using it to seal roofs or boats, pave roads, keep fire going, or even as a health ointment. The earliest discovery in the U.S. was in Pennsylvania, which is where Rockefeller and Standard Oil come into the picture. As everyone got “oil fever”, Rockefeller actually got concerned when his favorite German baker traded his bakery for a low-quality oil refinery and bought him out so he would return to baking. Standard Oil brought about the new era of corporations, gobbling up competitors and becoming a vertically integrated entity (manufacture, refining, transportation, distribution, marketing). Amazingly, the U.S. was in a progressive moment that busted the trust and shattered Standard into smaller pieces. This was actually beneficial because several of the young guns were able to take over as head honchos and innovate faster.

In Russia, the Rothschilds loaned money to small producers who were competing with the Nobel family. European newspapers erroneously reported the death of Alfred Nobel and when he read his own obituary summing him up as a weapons maker and dynamite king, Nobel rewrote his will to establish the Nobel Peace Prize.

Oil was discovered in Texas around the turn of the 20th century, and scenes from the 1849 California gold rush were repeated again—shacks, saloons, gambling houses all springing up overnight. This reminded me of something I read about the gold rush where people paid for others to wait in line for their mail when the mail boat came in. In Texas: “At the barbershops, folks stood in line an hour to pay a quarter for the privilege of bathing in a filthy tub. People did not want to waste time when there was oil business to be done, so spaces near the head of the long line went for as much as one dollar. Some people made forty or fifty dollars a day, standing in line and selling their spaces to those who didn’t have time to wait.”

More similarities to today were in the description of the Czar of Russia, “the font of ineptitude… highly vulnerable to flattery, a dangerous characteristic in an autocrat… contemptuous of all the non-Russian minorities in his multinational empire and sanctioned the repression that, in turn, made them into rebels.” Ah history, how thou doth repeat thyself.

Here’s a lovely tidbit from Beaumont, Texas—prostitutes were arrested and displayed on the balcony of a hotel. “Each woman’s fine was announced and the man who paid it could keep her for twenty-four hours.”

More on the misogynist front, when King Ibn Saud’s Arabian land was secured for oil rights, the huge payment of gold came from London. “Care had been taken that all the coins bore the likeness of a male English monarch, not Queen Victoria, which, it was feared, would have devalued them in the male-dominated society of Saudi Arabia.”

The author settles into his armchair and eagerly goes into the tedious weeds of the world wars. I understand that this accelerated the importance of oil, but my god those sections were mind-numbingly dull. War is just not that interesting. At this point, I was looking down the barrel of another 500 pages and dodging his extraneous exclamation points at every turn. I gave up, I give up.

How did this win the Pulitzer?

Bauhaus: Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago

This is the heaviest book I’ve ever lugged home from the library, a whopping 12 pounds. I was tipped off to it after untangling leads from the Rauschenberg hole I fell into, mostly curious about Josef Albers. Indeed, his lecture “Creative Education” was my whole reason for ordering up this back-breaking work (p 142-143).

The 600+ pages are a must-read for any art nerds who want to get their hands on primary source materials about the history of the Bauhaus, from its origins in Weimar through its move to Dessau, to its destruction in Berlin thanks to the Nazis and finally its resurgence in Chicago. There’s a whole section of pre-history docs that show the slow buildup to the movement out of the ashes of the Arts & Crafts school.

Walter Gropius’s recommendation for founding a school of this sort, from 1916:

Whereas in the old days the entire body of man’s products was manufactured exclusively by hand, today only a rapidly disappearing small portion of the world’s goods is produced without the aid of machines. The natural desire to increase the efficiency of labor by introducing mechanical devices is growing continuously. The threatening danger of superficiality, which is growing as a consequence of this, can be opposed by the artist, who holds the responsibility for the formation and further development of form in the world, only by sensibly coming to terms with the most powerful means of modern formal design, the machine of all types, from the simplest to the most complicated, and by pressing it into his service, instead of avoiding it as a result of his failure to recognize the natural course of events. This realization will, of necessity, lead to a close partnership between the businessman and the technician on the one hand, and the artist on the other.

In the entire field of trade and industry there has arisen a demand for beauty of external form as well as for technical and economic perfection. Apparently, material improvement of products does not by itself suffice to achieve victories in international competitions. A thing that is technically excellent in all respects must be impregnated with an intellectual idea—with form—in order to secure preference among the large quantity of products of the same kind. Firms employing manual workers and small traders have, because of their very nature, never lost touch with art entirely; to influence them artistically no longer satisfies modern demands. Today, the entire industry is also confronted with the challenge of applying its mind seriously to artistic problems. The manufacturer must see to it that he adds to the noble qualities of handmade products the advantages of mechanical production… Only then will the original idea of industry—a substitute for handwork by mechanical means—find its complete realization.

A small section of colored plates was at the beginning, including this Herbert Bayer  (“Chromatic into Two Centers”), 1967.

A Christmas Carol

It has been a year of Dickens, apparently. This is my 6th Dickens book consumed this year, appropriately timed for the holidays. Gorgeous edition from the Morgan Library which included digital photographs of each page of the manuscript side-by-side with the transcribed text.

Dickens is in top form in this quickly rendered story, churned out in six weeks for the 1843 Christmas season and to help pay the bills that were crowding in. Scrooge is the main attraction, a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!… self-contained and solitary as an oyster.” Marvelous character! He says if he could get his wish, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” As he tries to withstand the onslaught of Spirits, he claims that anything could upset his senses, such fragile things they are. “A little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more gravy than grave about you, whatever you are!”

Two Years Before the Mast

I’m not sure how I managed to avoid reading Richard Henry Dana’s classic work chronicling his two years at sea, but Melville tipped me off to it again recently (Dana recites the 39th chapter of Job to keep himself entertained during his watch on board). Dana’s voyage began in 1834 out of Boston on a ship bound for California to collect hides. Once they get to San Diego, Dana is tasked with curing the cattle hides on shore and becomes familiar with the other beach denizens, learning piecemeal Hawaiian and mastering Spanish. He finagles his way onto a different ship when he learns that his original ship was going to stick around the California coast for an extra year or two, and Dana was concerned about missing too much of his “real” life (he took a few year sabbatical from Harvard studies to go oceaning).

It’s an interesting work—priceless descriptions of early California pre-Gold Rush, detailed information about the running of a ship from a worker’s perspective—but nothing nearly as astonishing as Melville’s blend of tale and poetry. I was struck by one possible coincidence/influence—did Bartleby’s “I prefer not to” originate out of Dana’s Indians who were asked to help and shook their heads saying “no quiero” ?? (Chapter XIV)

Dana’s treatment of the natives is as racist and ridiculous as you’d expect. He calls their language “the most brutish and inhuman language, without any exception, that I ever heard or that could well be conceived of. It is a complete slabber. The words fall off of the ends of their tongues, and a continual slabbering sound is made in the cheeks, outside of the teeth. It cannot have been the language of Montezuma and the independent Mexicans.”

I learned that sailors call tea “water bewitched,” which I love. And his use of “holyday” made me realize that this is where “holiday” derives from.

Great quote about California that I wish were still true: “Revolutions are matters of constant occurrence in California. They are got up by men who are at the foot of the ladder and in desperate circumstances…” Also prescient is his comment about the Bay Area (circa 1935): “If California ever becomes a prosperous country, this bay will be the centre of its prosperity. The abundance of wood and water, the extreme fertility of its shores, the excellence of its climate, which is as near to being perfect as any in the world, and its facilities for navigation, affording the best anchoring-grounds in the whole western coast of America, all fit it for a place of great importance.”

Oliver Twist

Gruel, gruel world! This is Dickens’s second novel, a more gruesome and tattered look at poverty and crime in early 19th century London, peppered with bits of witticism but mostly just grim. There’s even a murder! Poor Nancy gets offed by Sikes when he suspects her of having told people of his crimes. But the main story is the eponymous Oliver Twist, an orphan raised by the state with starvation rations, farmed out to a coffin-maker as an apprentice where he runs away from more ill-treatment. Walking the 70 miles to London, he arrives fairly bedraggled and falls in with the wrong crowd. Artful Dodger, as Jack Dawkins is known, feeds him and takes him to his boss, Fagin the Jew, who leads a ring of petty thieves, stealing pocket handkerchiefs and watches and anything else of resale value. We know Oliver is different, somehow angelic in the middle of all these bad ‘uns. Of course it turns out that his parents were rather well-to-do, and he ends up with a pretty inheritance along with a parcel of happy and kind friends.

The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld: A Memoir

This is a terrible book.

It takes a certain combination of factors to get me to “rage-read” a book and this memoir overflowed with those elements. I really wanted to like it—it’s billed as a tale that weaves surfing in NYC with Moby-Dick. What could go wrong?

Justin is blindingly ignorant of his own privilege, for one thing. He chooses to go to grad school in literature because you get the summers off. His constant braying about being “poor” rings so falsely, but I didn’t start to rage read until he brags about his wealthy friend Kyle Grodin who withdrew a huge stack of money from an ATM and tossed them around like confetti, “like being inside one of those state-lottery globes where it snows money.”

Bragging is—at least— a consistent theme through the book. Attending a Unitarian church service (after whining that you can’t admit to going to church without people looking at you like you’re an alien), he looks around the room at the gray-haired congregation and realizes that the minister’s sermon around Green Day lyrics is probably going over their heads. “It’s a safe bet that I’m the only one in the room with remotely punk rock roots: the only one with multiple tattoos, or who’s seen Fugazi live from the front row of a Wyoming cowboy bar, or who’s skated Burnside solo on a rainy Christmas Eve.”

Remember how he’s poor? Yet when he goes to a donation-based therapist, it’s “a foreign concept for someone who’s spent thousands of dollars in therapy.” Get ready to start feeling really uncomfortable, because this man is a coddled wreck. He goes to this counselor to get advice about a woman who broke up with him 6 months ago. This is where we’re treated (vomit) to a description of this ex-girlfriend, “She was and is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever known: sea-green eyes and impossibly long lashes, olive complexion, and aquiline nose and thick dark hair.” Surprise, surprise, she doesn’t want to get back together with him. He goes into shock (I’m not making this up) and somewhat loses his mind: “I thought about calling Nicole [the woman who rejected him], or 911, or the psychic hotline, or every woman in the phone book until someone came to help me.” What the actual fuck? He thinks all women exist solely to talk him out of his funk.

This might be a good time to mention that in the first 30 pages of this mess, he tries to work an “I’m bisexual” vibe in when he visits this dude, Asa. Justin’s dropping Queequeg hints all over the place—they’re hard to miss. “He reaches over and places his hand on my shoulder, squeezes. ‘I’m glad you’re here, man,’ he says. Our eyes meet for a moment, then I glance at the open window, through which I can see his bed and stack of surfboards, and part of me wants to lean back over and kiss him… I realize that I sort of want to spend the night over at Asa’s… Instead of kissing him, I make him promise to take me surfing.” I have no problem with bisexuality, but my god he is such a terrible writer. And the bi-claim goes stale quickly when it’s only women who get reduced to terms of physical appearance from now on, like the “good-looking city women who are out for the weekend” or Lisa Mae who is “totally beautiful.”

I had to take a break mid-way through to recover from eye-roll strain. “Dawn stays out in the ocean for another half hour, while Teagan and I nap and flirt on the beach. It’s late afternoon by the time we make it back to Brooklyn. I shower and put on a T-shirt and jeans and cowboy boots. Before heading out I do a quick double take in the mirror, a little surprised how surfing has transformed my upper body.” He is so in love with himself, and it comes through in every whine and annoying comment.

Remember Nicole? She’s not the only ex-girlfriend in this story. A more recent breakup is Karissa, whose acne is described in disgusting detail when she comes to visit him pre-breakup. But now he’s mooning over her and “Then it hits me—what feels like an epiphany: I want to be with Karissa.” When he calls her in Portland, he finds out that she’s happily dating someone else. “Feeling panicked and desperate, I tell her how I’ve dated some people too, but that I realize now how special what we had was…”

I guess this is as good a place as any to mention that this idiot goes to “men’s meetings” as a way to deal with his “addiction” to relationships. I’ll just let that sit here.

At one of these men’s meetings (try not to giggle imagining these terrible get-togethers), a man mentions that he’s dealing with his ex working in the same office with him. Justin gets a jolt of anxiety listening to his story, thinking “what if Karissa’s new boyfriend has a bigger dick than me?” I think I actually hooted with laughter here.

Throughout this sad tale of a Colorado spoiled brat who moves to NYC and surfs at Rockaway while going to men’s meetings and agonizing over whether to quit his job or not, he tries to weave in more personal details along with the terrible pastiche of Melville trivia. This is how we learn about his grandmother who loved spending time at the beach in California, playing her ukulele. “It’s a little sad that Mariana stayed in Missouri, her creative connection to the ocean relegated to an old-fashioned bathtub…” Even sadder is that she had children that in turn had you, my friend. His uncle got kicked out of Scientology, if that gives you any indication of the type of genius that runs in this family.

Justin dons his professor cap to teach us about “dark romanticism” vs the romance novels that he’s editing for his day job. Adopt a nasally tone as you read this in your head: “As a genre, romance traces back to masters of the novel like Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë. I have nothing but respect for both writers; I’d read and loved Jane Eyre. And a century later, their brand of spooky romance is back in vogue, and I think it’s sort of cool.” Sort of cool. Right. And let’s just skip over Samuel Richardson and Walter Scott, shall we? Back at work, Justin is editing romance novels and in BIG TROUBLE because he’s also an addict, remember? He’s in a 12-step program dealing with co-dependence and it makes him squirmy to read hot and heavy text all day. “Even worse, there’s a new emphasis on Latina romance, stuff that gets really steamy, and that reminds me, page after agonizing page, of Karissa.” (Page after agonizing page? I feel your pain.) When he brings up this pathetic complaint to his group, his “new Puerto Rican friend Carlos” tells him to wake up: “So you have to edit some romance novels, so what? Is reading a book going to kill you?” Carlos is the only sane person in this memoir. Justin ignores their advice not to quit his job, because, white male privilege.

My favorite part of the book is when Justin gets carjacked in Denver. As he drives to his stepsister’s house, he muses about how much tougher his Brooklyn hood is: “I laugh inwardly at what she considers rough… it has no graffiti tags, rats, broken beer bottles, used condoms, or female junkies shooting smack in broad daylight.” Female junkies? Thanks for clarifying. Anyway, his rental car gets stolen along with his laptop and backpack, and this gives him carte blanche to start whining about PTSD. And when he’s back at the beach in NYC, “I notice my heart punching in my chest when a couple thugs blasting 50 Cent in a lowered Nissan circle around the parking lot.”

He gets some anti-depressants and thinks he’ll end up at Bellevue. “The evening after my Ambien reaction, I call my mother and tell her what happened. Clearly distressed, she asks if I’ve considered hurting myself. [INSERT DRAMATIC PAUSE] I tell her the truth.” Please do us all a favor and off yourself already.

Meanwhile, he’s been offered a job in Portland and cannot get off his ass to move there. After accepting the job, he lags for another few months before moving. During that time, there’s a break-in at the office and computers and monitors are stolen. “I know it’s because the organization is a captainless ship, in chaos without me.” Ow, ow, ow, my eye roll strained again.

He hears some voices (not making this up) that tell him to move to Porland. He asks the voices what to do about Karissa, who lives there. “At this there is laughter; a voice explains that I’m not to worry, that I’ll meet a girl who does yoga and surfs.” OMG this guy.

Call Me Ishmael: A Study of Melville

Charles Olson can ostensibly get away with this flimsy 1947 opinion piece on Melville because he’s a poet. Something wasn’t quite right about the whole thing, and after finishing it, cursory research on Olson reveals that he was a known misogynist, “sexist, chauvinist and macho.” That’s what comes across most jarringly in Olson’s essay, this hatred of women, calling Melville’s marriage a “white marriage” in the same breath as talking about the tragedy of his two sons (“white marriage” = not consummated, e.g. acting as a beard, but if children result is it divine intervention?)

Of more interest is when he can occasionally float above this rotted attitude and stick to the facts, dissecting the precise influence of King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, etc. on Melville. But anyone looking for a thoughtful and considered deep dive on Moby or even Melville’s life should chuck this into the garbage bin where it belongs.

Herman Melville: Representative selections, with introduction, bibliography

Following some threads that I uncovered while reading Moby-Dick, I was led to Willard Thorp’s 1938 book that encompasses snippets from Melville’s work along with a 100+ page introduction by Thorp. I skipped over the pieces of M’s novels since I plan to read them in their entirety and gobbled up the letters, criticism, and poetry.

The reprints of his literary criticism include M’s thoughts on Browne’s Etchings of a Whaling Cruise (1847) and a near-love-letter to Hawthorne’s Mosses from an old Manse, fairly oozing with adoration. This last was written on the eve of the two men meeting for the first time, and apparently Hawthorne was reading M as well, saying “I have read Melville’s works with a progressive appreciation of the author. No writer ever put the reality before his reader more unflinchingly than he does in ‘Redburn,’ and ‘White Jacket’ ‘Mardi’ is a rich book, with depths here and there that compel a man to swim for his life. It is so good that one scarcely pardons the writer for not having brooded long over it, so as to make it a great deal better.” (Hawthorne to Duyckinck, August 1850).

The selections of letters are too sparse for my liking, but the ones that were included were a gem. In his 1861 letter back home to his wife, he talks about meeting President Lincoln in Washington: “A steady stream of two-&-twos wound thro’ the apartments shaking hands with ‘Old Abe’ and immediately passing on. This continued without cessation for an hour & a half. Of course I was one of the shakers. Old Abe is much better looking that [sic] I expected & younger looking. He shook hands like a good fellow—working hard at it like a man sawing wood at so much per cord.”

M’s letters to Hawthorne once they become fast friends are a whirlwind. “There is the grand truth about Nathaniel Hawthorne. He says No! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes, lie; and all men who say no, —why, they are in the happy condition of judicious, unencumbered travellers in Europe; they cross the frontiers into Eternity with nothing but a carpet-bag,—that is to say, the Ego.” (March 1851)

The whole June 1851 letter is amazing, M writing in the heat of battle as he finishes up Moby. Some choice parts:

“In a week or so, I go to New York, to bury myself in a third-story room, and work and slave on my “Whale” while it is driving through the press. That is the only way I can finish it now, – I am so pulled hither and thither by circumstances. The calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose, – that, I fear, can seldom be mine. Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar. My dear Sir, a presentiment is on me, – I shall at last be worn out and perish, like an old nutmeg-grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg. What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, –it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches.”

“If ever, my dear Hawthorne, in the eternal times that are to come, you and I shall sit down in Paradise, in some little shady corner by ourselves; and if we shall by any means be able to smuggle a basket of champagne there (I won’t believe in a Temperance Heaven), and if we shall then cross our celestial legs in the celestial grass that is forever tropical, and strike our glasses and our heads together, till both musically ring in concert, –then, O my dear fellow-mortal, how shall we pleasantly discourse of all the things manifold which now so distress us, –when all the earth shall be but a reminiscence, yea, its final dissolution an antiquity. ”

“Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.”

“My development has been all within a few years past. I am like one of those seeds taken out of the Egyptian Pyramids, which, after being three thousand years a seed and nothing but a seed, being planted in English soil, it developed itself, grew to greenness, and then fell to mould. So I. Until I was twenty-five, I had no development at all. From my twenty-fifth year I date my life.”

“P.S. You must not fail to admire my discretion in paying the postage on this letter.”

 

A Song for Lost Angels

I love reading the Wednesday SF Chronicle for one reason—the column by Kevin Fisher-Paulson. His tales from the outer, outer Excelsior detail being married to his partner Brian, raising two sons whose mothers were addicted to drugs while they were in the womb, navigating life as a gay white dad raising black sons in a weird world; oh and he works at the sheriff’s department while his husband is a professional dancer. He’s a great storyteller in those Wednesday columns, and through them I found out that he had written a book about their first attempt to adopt. In the early 2000’s, they fostered triplets whose mother abandoned them while they were in the ICU after birth; she was a diagnosed schizophrenic who seemed to have no desire to raise the children when they met with her in obligatory visits, but her mother, the triplets’ grandmother, was eager to get paid by the state to care for the babies. The Fisher-Paulsons took amazing care of these fragile creatures for a year while the state and birth grandmother machinated on how to obtain custody. A homophobic social worker started lying about their behavior and eventually the babies were taken away. There is a bittersweet ended in that the couple goes on to successfully adopt their current sons, and news filters back that the triplets were taken from their mother after abuse charges surfaced.

Moby-Dick

How to go about capturing the umpteenth reading of this classic work? My copy is pockmarked with post-it notes of things to remember. This was the first time I read the book with the extremely helpful 1952 Hendricks House edition’s hundreds of pages of notes (which also is filling up with my post-it notes, reviewed here). I sip at a chapter of M-D, dive into the Hendricks notes, cross-reference with online notations, look up delicious words in the dictionary, and scribble the good ones into a notebook where I’m collecting words. It’s taking me awhile to swim through, but as always it is a delight. Fart jokes, Shakespeare/Milton/Goethe/Carlyle/Montaigne influences, Biblical stories, alliterative gold. The book is a wonder. You hop from Hamlet to Macbeth to King Lear to Job and back again. The hero of the book swims into view only in the final 3 chapters—masterful!

Chapter 1: Loomings. Nothing comes close to the perfection of this opening chapter. Ishmael finds himself growing grim about the mouth, bringing up the rear of every funeral he meets, wanting to knock people’s hats off, so he goes to sea. Also nestled in this chapter is the timeless reference to a “Grand Contested Election for Presidency of the United States” and a bloody battle in Afghanistan.

Chapter 2: The Carpet-Bag. Ishmael is on his way. Stuck in New Bedford until the next ferry to Nantucket, he looks for a cheap hotel. Melville makes me weak at the knees: “Yet Dives himself, he too lives like a Czar in an ice palace made of frozen sighs, and being a president of a temperance society, he only drinks the tepid tears of orphans.” And don’t miss the fart joke: “For as in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim)”—e.g. don’t eat beans.

Chapter 3: The Spouter-Inn. Enter Queequeg, Ishmael’s sleeping companion and soon bosom buddy. Here we find M-D‘s first aphorism: “Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

I can’t continue to go chapter by chapter else I write the longest entry ever, but I also want to call out the beautiful explanation of Jonah’s Biblical story in Chapter 9: The Sermon. If church were always so lyrical, I might be tempted to attend.

Alliteration

Something that strikes the ear repeatedly is Melville’s masterful use of alliteration. These are some of my favorites, by no means an exhaustive list:

Huge hills and mountains of casks on casks were piled upon her wharves, and side by side the world-wandering whale ships lay silent and safely moored at last; while from others came a sound of carpenters and coopers, with blended noises of fires and forges to melt the pitch… (Ch 13)

On Ahab: “There was an infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable wilfulness, in the fixed and fearless, forward dedication of that glance.” (Ch 28, when Ahab first arrives on the scene)

Having impulsively, it is probable, and perhaps somewhat prematurely revealed the prime but private purpose of the Pequod’s voyage, Ahab was now entirely conscious that, in so doing, he had indirectly laid himself open to the unanswerable charge of usurpation; (Ch 46)

It was while gliding through these latter waters that one serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude: on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. (Ch 51)

As morning mowers, who side by side slowly and seethingly advance their scythes through the long wet grass of marshy meads; even so these monsters swam, making a strange, grassy, cutting sound; and leaving behind them endless swaths of blue upon the yellow sea. (Ch 58)

Mingling their mumblings with his own mastications, thousands on thousands of sharks, swarming round the dead leviathan, smackingly feasted on its fatness. (Ch 64)

So suddenly seen in the blue plain of the sea, and relieved against the still bluer margin of the sky, the spray that he raised, for the moment, intolerably glittered and glared like a glacier; and stood there gradually fading and fading away from its first sparkling intensity, to the dim mistiness of an advancing shower in a vale. (Ch 134)

Rhyme, humor, or playing with words:

Go it, Pip! Bang it, bell-boy! Rig it, dig it stig it, quig it, bell-boy! Make fire-flies; break the jinglers! (Ch 40)

The more I consider this mighty tail, the more do I deplore my inability to express it. (Ch 86)

Ch 15, while eating chowder, wondering what the effect is on the head (e.g. chowder-headed people)

… this same cash would soon cashier Ahab. (Ch 46)

The whole scene in Ch 91 where Stubb speaks disrespectfully to the French captain through an interpreter. “You may as well tell him now that – that – in fact, tell him I’ve diddled him…”

Top-heavy was the ship as a dinnerless student with all Aristotle in his head. (Ch 110)

Oh! jolly is the gale, And a joker is the whale, A’ flourishin’ his tail, – Such a funny, sporty, gamy, jesty, joky, hoky-poky lad, is the Ocean, oh! The scud all a flyin’, That’s his flip only foamin’; When he stirs in the spicin’, – Such a funny, sporty, gamy, jesty, joky, hoky-poky lad, is the Ocean, oh! Thunder splits the ships, But he only smacks his lips, A tastin’ of this flip, – Such a funny, sporty, gamy, jesty, joky, hoky-poky lad, is the Ocean, oh! (Ch 119)

Melancholy:

A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that. (Ch 16)

For nowadays, the whale-fishery furnishes an asylum for many romantic, melancholy, and absent-minded young men, disgusted with the carking cares of earth, and seeking sentiment in tar and blubber. (Ch 35)

Defiant:

And, as for me, if, by any possibility, there be any as yet undiscovered prime thing in me; if I shall ever deserve any real repute in that small but high hushed world which I might not be unreasonably ambitious of; if hereafter I shall do anything that, upon the whole, a man might rather have done than to have left undone; if, at my death, my executors, or more properly my creditors, find any precious MSS. in my desk, then here I prospectively ascribe all the honor and the glory to whaling; for a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard. (Ch 24)

Self-referential (or on writing)

For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught – nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience! (Ch 32)

But I have swam through libraries and sailed through oceans; I have had to do with whales with these visible hands; I am in earnest; and I will try. (Ch 32)

So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory. (Ch 45)

Now then, thought I, unconsciously rolling up the sleeves of my frock, here goes a cool, collected dive at death and destruction, and the devil fetch the hindmost. (Ch 49)

Seldom have I known any profound being that had anything to say to this world, unless forced to stammer out something by way of getting a living. (Ch 85)

One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their out-reaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs. Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. (Ch 104)

Words to love:

portentous, ponderous, fain, arrant, toper, obstreperous, farrago, bosky, withal, tarry, stalwart, inexorable, nonce, wights, celerity, stultify, brindled, palavering, apotheosis, puissant, pallid, expatiate, flummery, solecism, legerdemain, howdah, windrow, cozening, scaramouch, freshet, vicissitude, ineffable, recondite, expatiate, chriography, stolidity, effulgences