An American Childhood

I am firmly under the spell of Annie Dillard’s magical way with words. This is a focused autobiographical look at her childhood growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, a privileged daughter with two younger sisters, grandparents firmly entrenched in Pittsburgh high society and wealthy enough that her father could quit his job to float down the Ohio River for a few months and then figure things out. Dillard reads a ton of books, begs for a microscope for Christmas, nurtures the budding scientist/botanist/naturalist that she later becomes, and also offers a look at someone raised with Church as purely a social event and debutante expectations.

“I began reading books, reading books to delirium.”
“In fact, it was a plain truth that most books fell apart halfway through. They fell apart as their protagonist quit, without any apparent reluctance, like idiots diving voluntarily into buckets, the most interesting part of their lives, and entered upon decades of unrelieved tedium. I was forewarned, and would not so bobble my adult life; when things got dull, I would go to sea.”

The chapter on her mother was particularly delightful, an intelligent energetic woman with a penchant for word play and mischievous tricks. She planned for weeks for an eye surgery by saying right before she went under, “Will I be able to play the piano?” to which she expected the doctor to say “Yes my dear brave woman, you will be able to play the piano after this operation,” to which she was going to reply “Oh good, I’ve always wanted to play the piano.” She regarded the instructions on bureaucratic forms as straight lines, “Do you advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force or violence?” After some thought she wrote, “Force.”

One Sunday afternoon Mother wandered through our kitchen, where Father was making a sandwich and listening to the ball game. The Pirates were playing the New York Giants at Forbes Field. In those days, the Giants had a utility infielder named Wane Terwilliger. Just as Mother passed through, the radio announcer cried–with undue drama–“Terwilliger bunts one!”
“Terwilliger bunts one?” Mother cried back, stopping short. She turned. “Is that English?”
“The player’s name is Terwilliger,” Father said. “He bunted.”
“That’s marvelous,” Mother said. ” ‘Terwilliger bunts one.’ No wonder you listen to baseball. ‘Terwilliger bunts one.’ ”
For the next seven or eight years, Mother made this surprising string of syllables her own. Testing a microphone, she repeated, “Terwilliger bunts one”; testing a pen or a typewriter, she wrote it. IF, as happened surprisingly often in the course of various improvised gags, she pretended to whisper something else in my ear, she actually whispered, “Terwilliger bunts one.” Whenever someone used a French phrase, or a Latin one, she answered solemnly, “Terwilliger bunts one.” If Mother had had, like Andrew Carnegie, the opportunity to cook up a motto for a coat of arms, hers would have read simply and tellingly, “Terwilliger bunts one.” (Carnegie’s was “Death to Privilege.”)

The Old Man And Me

Elaine Dundy does it again– a wonderfully weird and compelling story, much like her Dud Avocado. An American woman in England on a mission to ensnare the wealthy old widower, C.D. McKee. She gives her name out as Honey Flood, the name of her college roommate, because she wants to cover her tracks, since she’s deliberately set out to either marry or kill the man who married the woman who took her father’s fortune. Brilliant writing throughout. How is this not a movie? She bounces reluctantly on the springs of the Rolls Royce he considers buying, as she watches how he’s spending her fortune. They suffer through a country weekend where she unsuccessfully insults the hosts and guests but they turn it into clever witticisms on her part. She steals medicine from C.D. (Seedy)’s cabinet to spike his coffee with to cause a heart attack, unsuccessfully. Snark and sarcasm and wit flows through the pages:

These waiters were hand-picked for pleurisy, old age, deafness, and a variety of speech defects. They were flushed of skin, gnarled of hand, and batty of mind. The dishes that jumped onto the floor from their palsied hands were never referred to again, as it were, but just lay there for the rest of the evening to be ground under foot by passers-by.

Meaning a Life: An Autobiography

Maggie Nelson does a good job summing up this autobiography of Mary Oppen in The Argonauts, how fully Oppen vanishes into the couple she is for fifty-seven years with George Oppen, the poet and trust-fund kid of the 1920s-30s. It’s hard to whip up admiration for the free-wheeling couple as they spend their way across the U.S., hitchhiking and taking free food from strangers in order to make Oppen’s inheritance last longer. They land in France and buy a horse and buggy to wander the countryside. Mary briefly touches on her own work with sketching and painting, and also is brief about George’s writing. They galumph around the world, or at least California to NYC to Paris to Mexico, befriending poets and artists and writers in their wake, puffed up on their self-importance of creating new art.

Best parts were her childhood reminiscences of Seattle and San Francisco in the 1920s, along with description of life in a small Oregon town where her family “loses class” as soon as her father dies. Overall, a mostly skippable tale of privilege woefully unaware of its own inconsistencies and luck.

The Wretched of the Screen

Last week I decided to remind myself why I went freelance in the first place and shrugged off a mountain of work in order to head to the East Bay to hear Hito Steyerl speak at Berkeley. The freedom to be able to shape my days around things I was interested in, instead of “butts in seats” priority of showing up to a cubicle for a required eight hour day. While I previously had a tepid appreciation for video art, Steyerl was fantastic and the talk piqued my interest in her philosophy, writing, and art. Her Berkeley talk touched on several ideas she’s brought up in her work: How not to be seen, Factory of the Sun, is the museum a battlefield, duty free art (where pieces are bought and sold in a tax-free zone and shuffled between cubicles in a building in Geneva). Several of her lectures are on YouTube, including a New School talk in 2013 (she’s in the first 17 minutes… I love her sympathy with the striking video projector “I support the right of technological equipment to break down and strike. I sympathize with this Comrade” & her riffing on the “parallel montage” of the dudes trying to help fix the video issue) and the MOCA talk she did a day before I saw her.

The book is a collection of essays Steyerl wrote for e-flux journal, heavily footnoted and interspersed with intriguing graphical elements. From these essays I swept up crumbs from Steyerl’s massive brain, having to familiarize myself with several people, things, concepts I’d never encountered before, like Chris Marker, Third Cinema, The Invisible Committee (whose The Coming Insurrection I had read but forgotten), etc.

She dives into the concept of the poor image, the pirated video, the many-copied jpg that progressively loses quality, praising and questioning the effect of freeing previously highly inaccessible film projects. You can create your own film retrospective of Chris Marker’s films if you so desire, “blurred AVI files of half-forgotten masterpieces are exchanged on semi-secret P2P platforms. Clandestine cellphone videos smuggled out of museums are broadcast on YouTube…[the poor image] by losing its visual substance recovers some of its political punch…By drifting away from the vaults of cinema, it is propelled onto new and ephemeral screens stitched together by the desires of dispersed spectators.” Dziga Vertov’s dream of visual bonds linking workers of the world has come true… “if mostly under the rule of a global information capitalism whose audiences are linked almost in a physical sense by mutual excitement, affective attunement, and anxiety.”

Another essay “Is the Museum a Factory?” includes a discussion of Harun Farocki’s installation collecting different cinematic versions of Workers Leaving the Factory, from Lumiere’s original silent version to contemporary surveillance footage (Farocki’s essay here and actual video here). How interesting that the first films ever made show workers leaving the factory. “At the beginning of cinema, workers leave the industrial workplace. The invention of cinema thus symbolically marks the start of the exodus of workers from industrial modes of production.” Farocki’s collection shows workers RUNNING from the building, on their way to some other (better) place. Steyerl then explores the failure of museums to create conversation, how they create cacophony instead, “installations blare simultaneously while nobody listens. To make matters worse, the time-based mode of many cinematic installations works precludes a truly shared discourse around them; if works are too long, spectators will simply desert them. What would be seen as an act of betrayal in a cinema–leaving the projection while it lasts–becomes standard behavior in any spatial installation situation… In circulating through the space, spectators are actively montaging, zapping, combining fragments–effectively co-curating the show.”

In “Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy,” Steyerl eviscerates the connection of art and capitalism:

Contemporary art is a brand name without a brand, ready to be slapped onto almost anything, a quick face-lift touting the new creative imperative for places in need of an extreme makeover, the suspense of gambling combined with the stern pleasures of upper-class boarding school education, a licensed playground for a world confused and collapsed by dizzying deregulation. If contemporary art is the answer, the question is, how can capitalism be made more beautiful?

But contemporary art is not only about beauty. It is also about function. What is the function of art within disaster capitalism? Contemporary art feeds on the crumbs of a massive and widespread redistribution of the wealth from the poor to the rich, conducted by means of an ongoing class struggle from above. It lends primordial accumulation a whiff of post-conceptual razzmatazz.

She goes on to describe the art field as a “space of wild contradiction and phenomenal exploitation. It is a place of power mongering, speculation, financial engineering, and massive and crooked manipulation. But it is also a site of commonality, movement, energy, and desire. In its best iterations it is a terrific cosmopolitan arena populated by mobile strike workers, itinerant salesmen of self, tech whiz kids, budget tricksters, supersonic translators, PhD interns, and other digital vagrants and day laborers… Peopled with charming scumbags, bully-kings, almost-beauty-queens. It’s HDMI, CMYK, LGBT. Pretentious, flirtatious, mesmerizing.”

“Art as Occupation” considers the morphing of language– labor is now called occupation, as if we must be kept busy and that the work is the reward, not requiring money. “Instead of being seen as a means of earning, it is seen as a way of spending time and resources. It clearly accents the passage from an economy based on production to an economy fueled by waste, from time progressing to time spent or even idled away…” In this essay, Steyerl also touches on something I’ve been wrestling with, how much of our own lives are “endless self-performance”?

Among my favorites was also “The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation” where Steyerl explores the phenomenon of people now trying to avoid being photographed, shying away from the camera, plotting routes around cities that aren’t monitored step-by-step with CCTV surveillance. She discusses the concept of image spam, another thing I’ve been blithely ignorant of (thank you spam traps!), where people put their message into an image in an effort to get it past filters. For the most part, these billions of images are caught, trapped, and discarded like scum.

For a certain time already I have noted that many people have started actively avoiding photographic or moving-image representations, surreptitiously taking their distance from the lenses of camera. Whether it’s camera-free zones in gated communities or elitist techno clubs, someone declining interviews, Greek anarchists smashing cameras, or looters destroying LCD TVs, people have started to actively, and passively, refuse constantly being monitored, recorded, identified, photographed, scanned, and taped. Within a fully immersive media landscape, pictorial representation–which was seen as a prerogative and a political privilege for a long time– feels more like a threat…

And why wouldn’t the people be vanishing, given the countless acts of aggression and invasion performed against them in mainstream media, but also in reality? Who could actually withstand such an onslaught without the desire to escape this visual territory of threat and constant exposure?
Additionally, social media and cellphone cameras have created a zone of mutual mass surveillance, which adds to the ubiquitous urban networks of control, such as CCTV, cellphone GPS tracking and face-recognition software. On top of institutional surveillance, people are now also routinely surveilling each other by taking countless pictures and publishing them in almost real time…

Warhol’s prediction that everybody would be world-famous for fifteen minutes had become true a long time ago. Now many people want the contrary: to be invisible, if only for fifteen minutes. Even fifteen seconds would be great. We entered an era of mass paparazzi, of the peak-o-sphere and exhibitionist voyeurism. The flare of photographic flashlights turns people into victims, celebrities, or both. As we register at cash tills, ATMs, and other checkpoints–as our cellphones reveal our slightest movements and our snapshots are tagged with GPS coordinates–we end up not exactly amused to death but represented to pieces.

The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History

Don Oberdorfer has figured out how to attain job security as an author- write about North and South Korea, and to continue releasing an updated version of this book every few years. I read the second edition, pub’d in 2001, and it looks like Oberdorfer tapped out for the third edition, getting Robert Carlin to add three more chapters and released in 2013. I’ll probably try to track down that edition to get up to speed on Kim Jong Un so that I’m as comfortable with the current leader of the DPRK as I am with my old pals Kim Il Sung (The Great Leader, the original gangster) and Kim Jong Il (Dear Leader, the coddled military son of Il Sung).

I faced a crisis reading this book as I realized page after page that there were no women in the history, Oberdorfer wiping them out of the picture completely as the patriarchy is wont to do. We occasionally have a leader’s wife tossed into the mix, and one incredibly sexist interview Oberdorfer has with a convicted spy:

Although I had interviewed many defectors in the course of decades of reporting, this interview was uniquely unnerving. I found Miss Kim to be very beautiful, elegant, demure, and calm, tastefully dressed. I did not know then that she had been trained in North Korea to run ten miles in a single stretch, to bench-press 150 pounds, to shoot a silenced pistol with great accuracy, and to deliver karate chops that would swiftly ill. It was chilling to connect this attractive and intelligent young woman to the murder of 115 innocent people traveling home to their families.

The man knew she was a spy and yet during his interview he didn’t realize she had been trained to kill? It boggles the mind how inept and clueless and largely unaware of their blind spots [white male] authors can be.

Another bizarre quote I stumbled across in the 400+ page book was his obsession with the garlic smell of South Koreans: “In the 1970s the South had the look and feel of a rawboned, gutsy frontier country with garlic on its breath, where its cities gave rise to a hundred pungent odors and even the newsprint had a peculiar musky smell. By 1991… nearly all white-collar workers now brushed their teeth after each meal, causing the pervasive garlic smell to nearly disappear from the capital’s elevators and subway cars.” Garlic-eaters, my god. I wonder what Oberdorfer smelled like to the Koreans he was hanging around.

The book details tensions, strategies, politics, war games, etc. from the 1970s through 2000 (and up to 2013 with the 3rd edition… and I’m sure there will be more to come). Obviously Korea split into two post-Korean War, but the roots go further back, the peninsula being a much-invaded and warred over spot for the prior 900 years, and even up to WW2 when the U.S. divided Korea with the U.S.S.R., reportedly by a Secretary of State who had to ask someone where the heck Korea even was on a map. Russia and Japan had discussed dividing Korea into spheres of influence at the 38th parallel back in the early 1900s, and the U.S. was completely oblivious of this fact when they carved out the area south of the 38th parallel as U.S. occupied while the U.S.S.R. got north of that line.

I hadn’t realized the crucial support that the U.S.S.R. had provided to North Korea, sending weapons, fuel, and food out of goodwill to a Communist ally (and training them in their nuclear facilities). When the Soviet Union began to crumble in the 1990s, things spun out of control quickly for the North, being now required to pay hard cash for the items they simply put on credit (and never paid the bill for) earlier. The Soviet Union also reached out to South Korea, recognizing it diplomatically in exchange for much needed cash ($3 billion). This caused the North to lose face, which is culturally worse then death.
Out of this chaos, Pyongyang realized its greatest bargaining chip for recognition, security and economic assistance from the U.S.: its threat of nuclear weapons. Which is why I started reading this book in the first place, since it’s a continuing theme decades later. I got the recommendation for this book from Kathy Moon’s interview on Washington Journal, when a viewer asked for a suggestion of a book to read to get up to speed on the crisis.

Adrienne Rich

A disappointing “biography” of Adrienne Rich, which was more like a textbook for gay history, with little insert blurbs explaining Stonewall Riots, The Lavender Scare, etc. Maybe part of the problem was that Rich was still alive when Sickel wrote this? She essentially took material from Rich’s prose, interviews conducted with other journalists, and mashed it up into a pseudo-bio. Contained no insider information about what I’m trying to discover about Rich, the backstory to sharing the 1974 National Book Award with Audre Lorde and Alice Walker for Diving into the Wreck.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

One year ago, a woman I had just met was insistently whispering into my ear as an unrelated lecture got underway, “I swear, it’s changed my life.” This was the first I’d heard about Marie Kondo’s tidying up book, and it wasn’t the last. Sweeping over the NYTimes bestseller list like wildfire, it appears that a majority of the women in America are Kondo-Krazy. Just last week I eavesdropped the faint glimmer of telltale advice from the book, “I’d already done my books, but the clothes were the hard part. I’m not even a hoarder!”

I didn’t want to read this book, feeling myself fairly well-versed in the art of decluttering and keeping things orderly in my space. Just ask my realtor, who a few years ago was astounded when I went from 3 BR, 2 BA house to a single-room studio by dispassionately jettisoning the majority of my possessions over a three week period. And yet, as I read this book for a work assignment, I got caught up in the swirl of advice, throwing out seven useless and expired spices from my spice rack in between chapters. I’m willing to give her advice a real attempt, although I doubt I’ll come near the dozens of trash bags her clients filled with discarded stuff.

My first beef with the book is that the translator is hidden away, only tagged on one page that you must dig out. If it weren’t for the efforts of Cathy Hirano to translate from the original Japanese into English, we wouldn’t be losing our shit over this book in the U.S. My second beef (which is a lot for a multi-decade vegetarian) is the bald-face bragging Kondo does at the beginning about how much she’s changed her clients lives and how in demand she is, “There is currently a three-month waiting list [to become clients]… Tickets for one of my public talks sold out overnight.” Third, she names her method a dumbass version of her own name, the KonMari Method–very Trump Tower with a twist.

But on to the good stuff. What’s her secret? “To summarize, the secret of success is to tidy in one shot, as quickly and completely as possible, and to start by discarding.” The best sequence for discarding is: clothes, books, papers, miscellaneous, then mementos.
It’s actually a sign of an incredibly sick society that we need books like this. We accumulate and accumulate and stuff our bounty into our plentiful closets and drawers and attics and garages. Sometimes we’re so stressed about decluttering that we go out shopping (according to Kondo… this is nothing I’ve ever experienced). So when Kondo enters the scene, there’s a lot to be discarded. Embarrassingly large numbers of garbage bags filled with items to be thrown away. (Not to get all hippy, but there is no “away” to throw away to.) Never fear, Kondo is on the case and offers words of wisdom for those people living with their families: “Don’t let your family see what’s here.” Basically, sneak the twenty garbage bags of clutter to the curb and hope they don’t notice. Kondo claims that if the parents see how much their child is discarding, they’ll try to rescue items out of guilt, which puts more of a burden on the parents.

Kondo admits to being a tidying up Nazi with her family, sneaking things into the garbage and waiting to see if they notice. She finally decides that this is too much, she’s being too arrogant. “If I could, I’d go back and give myself a good smack and make sure that I didn’t even consider such a ridiculous campaign. Getting rid of other people’s things without permission demonstrates a sad lack of common sense.” She later spirals into a weird confession that she got into tidying because of a complex she had about her mother, because she was the middle child. Hello, editor?

Revolutionary tip #1: fold and store stuff vertically, don’t stack it. Open your drawer and be able to see the edge of every item in it, because they’re all stacked vertically like a drawer filled with books spine up.

Revolutionary tip #2: arrange your closet so your clothes rise to the right. In other words, long and heavy clothing to the left, tending upward to the light and short stuff. Oh, but first, you’ve emptied out your dresser and closet onto the floor and touched every piece of clothing to make sure that it still brings you joy, right? That is critical step 1.

Kondo also recommends speaking to your clothes, telling them thank you for keeping me warm, or see ya later alligator when the season changes. “This kind of ‘communication’ helps your clothes stay vibrant and keeps your relationship with them alive longer.” I don’t know about anyone else, but I have no relationship with my clothes except are you in ok shape/condition to wear right now or not.
Probably my least favorite tip is on getting rid of books, mostly because I’ve already gone from 3 bookshelves down to 1, so I already know the joy of only being surrounded by books I love. To further winnow this down (she only keeps 30 on hand at one time) would be painful to me at this point. If I move to a nomadic state of living in a van, I’ll probably pare down to 30, but for now I love my tall, heavy bookshelf purchased at a going-out-of-business sale from Borders Books (RIP) in downtown SF.

Further evidence of Kondo-kraziness is her schizophrenic Mr. Rogers routine upon coming home at night: “First I unlock the door and announce to the house, ‘I’m home!’ Picking up the pair of shoes I wore yesterday and left out in the entranceway, I say, ‘Thank you very much for your hard work,’ and put them away in the shoe cupboard. Then I take off the shoes I wore today and place them neatly in the entranceway. Heading to the kitchen, I put the kettle on and go to my bedroom. There I lay my handbag gently on the soft sheepskin rug and take off my outdoor clothes. I put my jacket and dress on a hanger, say, ‘Good job!’ and hang them temporarily from the closet doorknob… I put my wristwatch in a pink antique case and say, ‘Thanks for all you did for me today.'”

Some two-bit philosophy from Kondo, “The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”