A Bar Called Kokie’s
Published on October 15, 2011 7:17 am.

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It wasn’t named for coke, the bartender said. That’s the funny thing. I mean, the place opened in the 50s and it sure wasn’t pushing coke back then.
The bartender was thick – thick torso, thick neck, thick skin, fingers like cannolis and that blunt LI accent, Brooklynese tempered by a generation in the suburbs. But he could tell a story.
They got this frog in Puerto Rico, he said. It’s called a coqui because of the sound it makes, ‘ko-kee, ko-kee, ko-kee.’ The guy who owned this place was Puerto Rican. Back then, it was some kind of social club. He used to have card games in here, strippers, that kind of thing. I mean he was half a wise guy anyway. One night he got stabbed in some card game. That was it for him. He was like, ‘I’m seventy years old. I don’t need this shit.’ So he gave the place to his nephew and that’s when it got started. One of the old doorman comes in here and we talk.
The Antique Lounge had opened a couple of months earlier. Its antique flourishes came courtesy of a restaurant catalogue – tin ceiling, exposed brick, classic moldings, and a fireplace. The furniture was so plush you could drown in it. Nothing was left from the long reign of Kokie’s.
I’m forty-three years old, the bartender said. I’m in it for the long haul. This place is my dream. I was born in the neighborhood. When I was four my parents moved out to Lynbrook but we stayed connected.
The bartender was also the owner. Blond salon streaks in his hair and his padded face made him look younger.
They had a great take here, he said. Twenty-thousand dollars for a four-day week. That’s not bad – even if you include the coke. Of course, you don’t know how many people were getting envelopes. I’m sure the police chief got his envelope. And the fire inspector. After 9/11 that all changed. The precinct got a new patrol chief, a woman who used to work narcotics. She said, ‘I’m not having this here.’ It’s hard enough to be a woman in that position anyway – and then have a coke bar under your nose. Right out in the open. I mean, if you’re gonna do that, at least be discrete. But no. They had the salsa band in here. The noise after hours. Still, they didn’t even get busted. That’s the funny thing. They lost their lease. They got some kind of three strikes thing in New York, I don’t know the legal particulars but the landlord was afraid they’d take away his building. So he didn’t renew the lease.
The owner bought me a drink. The way he talked, I figured that he’d been a Kokie’s customer himself and not just once.
The neighbors hated them more than anything, he said. When I took over they came in to check us out. When I told them what I was doing, they thanked me. You know, the Kokie’s crew thought they were being discrete. That’s the funny thing. With the booths in the back and leaning against the wall to put in your order. And the way they used to cut that stuff to shit. Why not have a decent product? But they really stepped on it. What went on with Kokies, I couldn’t have that. Most of my family is cops so…
We looked around the quiet lounge – five or six people on the couches and sofas, classic rock playing on the jukebox. We could have been in any of fifty NYC bars. ‘Antique’ was in.
We did all our own renovations. We soundproofed the ceiling. We put in our own hot water – the guy upstairs used to share it. And it’s working out. Couples like it in here. We got the couches. It’s romantic. Last week we had fifty dykes for a party. Not too many of them were those lipstick lesbians, I tell you. But nice people. Polite. That’s the kind of place I want. The guy who owns Rain came in here last week. You know what he told me?
Rain Lounge had opened the year before on Bedford and North 5th. The ‘urban’ vibe made it an anomaly even on a changing Northside – flash cars parked in front, gangster vines, hip hop thumping, meaty bouncers. The fact that both long-time locals and newcomers disdained the only neighborhood club that catered to African-Americans said something about our tolerance for ‘diversity.’
He told me, the bartender said, ‘I dread going to work. The fights. The girls passed out on E. The guns.’ I told him, ‘You don’t have to do it.’ But he said, ‘No.’ That’s the choice he made. But he probably takes in thirty-five hundred on a Friday night. Me, I’m doing good if I get that in a week. Then again, he’s probably paying eight grand a month for that corner. I pay twenty-five hundred. The authorities have it out for him too. I had the fire inspectors in here, the safety marshals. They told me, ‘We got the inspection list for Rain. We’re going to nail them for this and this and this.’ That’s not the crowd I want. I won’t play hip hop or techno. I’m in it for the long haul.
I went back to the Antique Lounge a few times after that, hoping to commune with the ghosts of Kokies but the bar had nothing for me. But the next winter, it had closed and Rain wasn’t too far behind. Kokie’s business model beat theirs by almost a half-century.

Patrick Bateman: White Negro
Published on August 23, 2011 1:45 am.

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The hipster’s immediate descendent, the hippy, became a figure of disdain, at least if you didn’t like patchouli and the Grateful Dead. Anyway the hippie seems to have very little to do with the hipster qualities outlined by Mailer in ‘The White Negro.’ You don’t really expect some granola-chomping tree-hugger to spontaneously kick the crap out of a store clerk. Bret Easton Ellis’ anti-hero in American Psycho, Patrick Bateman, embodies Mailer’s hipster better than any hippie kid, his evolution accelerated by three decades of market manipulations, the individual split between an empty social order and the indulgence of his most immediate desires – for Bateman sexual violence and murder. Ellis’ characters express their individuality through minute concern with gradations of style, and yet remain generally unrecognizable to each other (a running joke in the book). Bateman’s bloodlust is, in part, a reaction to the fact that there are others cooler than him.
Mailer focuses on the most romantic aspect of the hipster – the impulse to spontaneity and violence – and says very little about the elaborations of cool. Thus his hipster is lopsided, no Lester Young there. Mailer is onto something though with the idea of the hipster trying to make real his ‘infantile fantasy.’ What’s changed is the way in which the marketplace has nurtured the infantile fantasy. Nothing is more pleasing to people selling things than customers who can’t resist their most immediate impulse. The social revolutions of the 1960s fell short, but ‘expressing yourself’ by way of ‘lifestyle’ has conquered the world.
The origin of the contemporary hipster has everything to do with Reagan-era America. The manufacturing of a new national consensus in the 1980s left many out. Thrift no long figured into the construction of the American character – the most lasting legacy of the 1960s was comfort with debt – but flag-waving, conformity, and a return to traditional gender roles swept across the country. The corporate raider became a hero. On the outside: baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. On the inside: Patrick Bateman.

Entasis Goes New York! Works In Progress …
Published on July 9, 2011 6:02 am.

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Entasis Journal presents its first New York City reading with authors Steve Geng (Thick as Thieves), Beth Raymer (Lay the Favorite) and Robert Anasi (The Gloves, Golden Man). As their previous work features junkies, criminals, gamblers, strippers, boxers and cult leaders, portrayals of the low life are expected.

This happens on July 14th, 9 p.m. http://thewestcafe.com/ There’s a band playing at eight. Apparently there will be a theremin. If you don’t know what a theremin is, then that’s reason alone to go see this reading. But it’s nothing compared to the talent represented here. Be there. Say hey to Editor Anasi and give him an Entasis hello. I’ll let you decide what that is.

The Problem with Shakespeare
Published on July 9, 2011 5:52 am.

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I somehow managed to avoid Shakespeare both as a grad and undergrad – not intentionally to be sure, it’s just that whenever I wanted to take a Shakespeare class it was always themed along the lines of ‘Shakespeare’s Vegan Heroes’ or ‘(Dis)Gendered Conflict in the Late Comedies’ or ‘Shakespeare and Math.’ You get the picture. I read an article a while back in Slate claiming that Shakespeare’s language was too archaic to be easily approachable and that his status as our central literary figure was over. That he was the domain of scholars only. That too many words had changed meaning for anyone else to read him with pleasure. I’m trying to do my reading with only moderate appeal to literary sources.

So…here I am avoiding finishing a book review on grunge and I thought I’d begin with every litterateur’s eternal side project of reading all the plays with All’s Well That Ends Well. I’m starting there just because I have a paperback copy. It’s from Oxford Press and HEAVILY footnoted.

And you know what, I’m needing those footnotes. The relentless sexual punning, for example, would have been otherwise mostly lost on me. That said, All’s Well probably wasn’t the best play to start with. Obviously I’m not the ‘average’ reader but it’s hard to imagine even a smart college kid getting much traction on the play. Why they call it a ‘problem’ comedy I guess. It has some amusing characters but it doesn’t have the universal humor of Midsummer – that leads to its revival on every summer stage – or the Marx Brothers slapstick of The Comedy of Errors. It also doesn’t have the magnificent soliloquies and drama of the great tragedies. I’m halfway through act III and still struggling for full immersion. I guess the way I’m trying to look at, the way it makes the most sense to me, is to see it as Shakespeare asking himself – ‘What would the result be if a fairy tale love story happened in the ‘real’ world?’ Where the prince is a snobbish, callow prick and we can’t understand why the girl would want him in the first place.

Futures Past
Published on May 14, 2011 6:48 am.

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It’s a truism that science fiction is as much about the present as it is about any imaginary future. A Scanner Darkly tells the story of counterculture disintegration and paranoia better than any realist novel of the period. Still, I’m always jarred when I start reading an SF novel (they tried to call it ‘speculative fiction’ for a while to gussy it up – thank god that name didn’t stick) and I start to see a world I know refracted through it. Samuel Delany’s Dahlgren is one of those books.

Dahlgren is set in an American city disordered in time and space. Some force keeps phone calls and television broadcasts from entering or leaving his ‘Bellona’, which is covered in perpetual cloud. One night the clouds part to reveal two moons. The next day, a giant red sun rises, terrifying people until the cloud cover returns. Street signs and landmarks shift constantly and nobody remembers when the last time he slept. Buildings burn for weeks without collapsing and gangs roam the nighttime streets, the gang-members hidden within holographic projections of insects or mythological monsters. Residents rely on stores of canned food and bartering to survive. The newcomers to dying Bellona are young drifters and loners; Delany’s amnesiac protagonist is called Kid. One of his only memories is of having spent time in a mental hospital.

Delany puts Bellona in the Midwest but to me it feels like his hometown of New York in the late ’60s and early ’70s. It’s not just anywhere in New York though – not the mansions of West Side Drive or the glass mountains of the Wall Street, not the fetid, teeming blocks around Times Square. Delany writes about the margins – empty streets, abandoned buildings, feral teenagers, and ordinary civilians trying to ignore the disintegration. Images of Delany’s city rippled across the country, thrilling us in movie theaters and living rooms. It was the city of Taxi Driver, where Travis Bickle watched a liquor store owner shoot a robber and then helped him dump the body into the street. The center, in particular, did not hold. That was the city I came to in the 1990s, except decades had passed and the fires had burned out.

David Foster Wallace’s Cruise to Nowhere
Published on April 16, 2011 4:01 am.

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Kicking a dead writer isn’t a particularly classy way to go; after all, he can’t kick back. This isn’t egregious though (at least I hope it isn’t). When I read this particular essay by this particular dead writer, it – besides pissing me off and making me really sad – turned on all the lights, gave me a handle on my discomfort with a whole bunch of writers a little bit older than me and a lot more successful. The essay is called ‘Shipping Out: on the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise.’ David Foster Wallace wrote it.

In 1995 Harper’s Magazine sent David Foster Wallace on a ‘megaship’ luxury cruise. You have to appreciate the hook: young novelist with straight-razor wit encounters fat, ignorant Americans and starts carving blubber, hilarity sure to follow. It didn’t hurt Wallace that he’d done similar stories for Harpers’s before and was about to publish a chapbook called Infinite Jest. Harper’s was right about the humor but maybe they missed a couple of things.

The piece opens in a mock heroic voice: ‘I have seen a lot of really big white ships. I have seen schools of little fishes with fins that glow. […] I know the difference between straight bingo and Prize-O.’). It’s an invocatory ‘I’, a drumming cadence, witness’s statement to a jury turned to comic effect, as if to say that we live in a world without heroes, or at least that a mega cruise isn’t the place to find one – in case we didn’t know that already. It isn’t until page three though, that the strangeness kicks in, the moment when you realize that all is not sunny in the mega-cruise Caribbean. DFW mentions a kid, sixteen, who ‘did a half gainer’ off the upper deck on another megaship cruise. It wasn’t just adolescent angst that made the kid jump though. No, according to DFW it was something else, some malaise inherent in the cruise itself, something ‘no news story could cover.’ His experiences on the cruise lead DFW to believe that he has penetrated the darkness beyond the news.

So what is DFW’s insidious killer, the asp in his expense-account Eden? ‘Pampered to Death’ is the title of the section that highlights the upper deck leap and DFW claims that there is a horror at the center of the big white ships: ‘…the ultimate American fantasy vacation involves being plunked down in an enormous primordial stew of death and decay.’ (He’s talking about the ocean). The word DFW uses for this malaise is ‘despair’, despair at the fact of ‘absolutely nothing.’ Not only does DFW witness the despair, he experiences it. Eventually, jumping off the deck becomes as attractive to him as it was to the teenager.

Over ten thousand plus words, DFW chronicles those aspects of the cruise that drive him toward suicide. These include the fascist inclinations of the Greek captain, the sadism of the cruise magician, the stupidity of the passengers, and the suffering of the lower-ranking crew members. DFW aims for laughs in all this and he finds them: fellow passengers catch most of rounds. We learn that Americans are fat, that their menfolk like to play golf, that the bodies of the middle-aged are unlovely and should probably eschew bikinis and Speedos. Rarely do these the victims of DFW’s intellectual drive-bys rise to the level of the fully human. They exist only as lists of physical shortcomings, bad hobby choices, or fashion atrocities. For these other passengers on the 7NC Luxury Cruise, what DFW refers to as ‘hard play’ ‘activities, festivities, gaieties, song,’ keeps their fear of death at bay, renders them infantile with pleasure; DFW however, is the infant who will not be pleased, who squalls, who won’t fool himself and ‘hard play’ the game. Typically, DFW is proud that he didn’t bring a video camera. ‘I’m not like them!’ he wants us to know. As with much of the literary writing of his generation, DFW’s tone combines snark and sarcasm (let’s call it ‘snark-casm’.).

The distinguishing feature of DFW’s snarkcasm is how distant it is from his targets, so distant you could measure it in light years. He barely interacts with anyone on the cruise, and his putdowns remain broad and indistinct. In fact, his isolation on this cruise is the outstanding feature. We’re seven pages into the article before individual passengers are introduced (or culled for butchering). The only people DFW seems to get to know at all are his dining-room tablemates, of whom he writes: ‘I like all of my tablemates a lot…’ Mostly, it seems, because they laugh at his jokes – although the way they laugh terrifies DFW. One of the people he likes best is Trudy. ‘Trudy…looks – and I mean this in the nicest possible way – rather like Jackie Gleason in drag…’ DFW tells us that her laugh is so vulgar that it can cause heart attacks. It’s a good thing DFW likes her, or he might have been really mean (a typical DFW strategy is to write ‘I really like him/her but…’ as we’ll see later). The one tablemate he doesn’t like, eighteen year-old Mona, gets both barrels: she’s too tall, she has the face of a corrupt doll, she complains too much, she isn’t grateful for the money her parents give her, she lies about her birthday to get free cake, and she doesn’t know the difference between Mussolini and Maserati. Mona seems like a typical spoiled teen but she becomes DFW’s latrine. For DFW, Mona is the human embodiment of the emptiness at the heart of the big-ship experience, as empty as death.

In a very real way these ‘fellow’ passengers aren’t human to the forever distant Wallace. Even their personal tragedies are subjected to the same snarkcasm. The kid who committed suicide ‘did a half-gainer.’ People who are taking the cruise for relief from a death in the family have ‘finally buried’ someone. This inability to empathize is nearly autistic in its imponderability. You can make the argument that sardonic distance is DFW’s way of showing how middle-class American leisure has become an ‘air-conditioned nightmare’ that robs us of individuality and courage. Of course, this contempt tells us as much about Wallace as it does about his subjects. Wallace has an equally distant relationship with the ship’s crew. He hates and fears the bosses, and he has a puzzled admiration for the workers, with whom he can’t communicate. In each case, distance remains the defining feature of all his interactions. DFW claims to talk to people yet no other voice even registers, no personality, nothing except the crudest caricature.
To be fair, DFW doesn’t let himself off the hook: he’s a self-styled uber-nerd, the kid who used to ‘memorize shark-fatality data’, who can’t shoot skeet targets without endangering onlookers, who embroiders his text with the now-famous footnotes (for the book version of the essay, DFW added over a hundred new footnotes). Who spends a lot of time flushing his hi-tech toilet, then develops an irrational fear that it will ingest him…. There is self-satisfaction in this of course. Nietzsche wasn’t wrong to say: ‘Whoever despises himself still admires himself as one who despises.’ The crew, captain and passengers might think DFW is pathetic but he’s securely insecure in the knowledge that he sees through the charade of their lives. It’s cold comfort, and the tone reminds me of no one so much as that J.D. Salinger mannequin, Holden Caulfield, still railing against ‘phonies’.

DFW’s satire takes on greater precision when he doesn’t have to deal with human being: inanimate objects, while also threatening, are not quite as hellish as les autres and therefore can be examined more closely. DFW is especially witty on the cruise brochure and pages of text are devoted to his interaction wit his cabin, where he seems to spend the majority of his time. There is extensive complaint about the ubiquity of towels and how clean his room is kept. It’s meant to be funny, and it is, in a way, but you start asking yourself: ‘Can’t he find something more interesting to talk about?’

The focus and tone of DFW’s critique marks a major shift in literary journalism. Writers practicing the form in the generation before DFW had equally severe critiques of mainstream American society, but their critiques came from very different places. In typically grandiose fashion, Norman Mailer tried to channel an entire country through his voice, as in his book-length pieces on the presidential conventions of 1968 and the march on the Pentagon. Joan Didion never failed to reveal her fragile psychic state, but she attempted to link it to the disintegration of the mainstream consensus that had nurtured her (her articles appeared in places like the Saturday Evening Post!). Who then, is DFW writing ‘for’ as he writes ‘against’?

Although DFW took some ‘conservative’ positions, his audience is without a doubt liberal America, and a very particular segment of it at that. One defense I’ve heard of DFW’s contempt for the other passengers is that he’s castigating the rich. But it isn’t only the rich who go on those cruises. I know a cosmetologist in Fountain Valley who sells her ova to pay for luxury cruises (perhaps not the best use of her earning but still…). My far from wealthy parents took such a cruise to Alaska. For my mother, it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Since her feet and knees are ruined from standing as a nurse for forty years, it was impossible for her to do it any other way (I had firsthand experience of her infirmities when we tried to rough it on a trip to Newfoundland and she could barely hobble along in my wake). Those DFW pisses on are members of the only group that NPR liberalism allows to be despised: white mainstream Americans (in another Harper’s essay, DFW displays typical liberal guilt when he tries to correct a student for writing in ebonics, then realizes that no, he, the teacher, is actually the oppressor).

The main reason for DFW’s NPR-approved contempt is that these other people don’t get it, and seem perfectly content not getting it. They didn’t attend a small northeastern liberal arts college or an Ivy League school, and they, poor things, never learned what culture is. They haven’t been raised in the atmosphere of subtlety and nuance that cloaks a college campus, a particular kind of college campus, that is, one that swaddles the upper-middle classes, the rich, and those who possess what Pierre Bordieu refers to as: ‘cultural capital.’ For NPR liberals, stupidity is the only explanation as to why these hippopotami would vote for Bush, live in the suburbs, watch American Idol (in a non-ironic way). By about page ten page of the article I felt as trapped a DFW did. The adolescent self-regard is mind-numbing. It does in fact lead to despair, but despair for the hell that DFW inflicts on you. To experience the world as he does is suffocating.

The reason for the celebration of DFW has as much to do with how he came to represent a particular segment of Generation X – the Believer, McSweenys, This American Life segment, which has now become institutionalized in bohemian theme parks across the country. Along with writers like Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem, DFW became the mirror of a generation – a generation that really, really likes to look in the mirror, snickering all the while, but finding nothing else so pleasing to look at . I call them ‘soft ironists.’ ‘Irony’ because everything is fallen for them; ‘soft’ because it doesn’t really matter anyway. Enthusiasm, for anything, is suspect, although the ‘soft ironists’ descend into sentimental mythologizing, as in Lethem’s superhero book or in Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay. In most these cases it feels like you’re reading the effusions of very smart, extremely insecure children. DFW’s inability to interact with people who don’t have a subscription to the Utne Reader explains why he spends so much time in his cabin playing with the various mechanical utilities.

Like most members of this generation, Wallace is an expert bet-hedger. After brutalizing Frank Conroy’s throwaway prose on a insert he wrote for the cruise line, Wallace tells us in a footnote that Conroy is a really, great, guy, a great guy who understand that he’s a whore. If I was Conroy I’d find this passive-aggressive behavior more insulting than a simple dismissal. What is the great lesson from Conroy’s sell out? Apparently, even writers, even good writers, will take on less than virtuous gigs to make a little extra cash. Yet since DFW’s footnotes mention Conroy’s ‘serious’ work, Conroy is being assured that he’s not being thrown under the bus. After all, DFW tells us that Conroy has written one of the great memoirs of his era. This is what’s known in the business as ‘covering your ass.’ With this defense in place, DFW could run into Conroy at a writer’s conference and not be too uncomfortable.

In April of 1932, Hart Crane, drunk and depressed – for good reason, as he’d just gotten a beating for coming on to a male crew member – jumped off the deck of the S.S. Orizaba into the Caribbean after shouting, ‘Goodbye everybody.’ His body was never recovered. There is an appeal to death in the sea, the warm welcome and slipping away. A friend of mine who has a few suicide attempts under her belt said DFW’s death-wish was the most obvious thing in the world. ‘Well of course that’s why he went,’ she said. ‘You don’t go on a cruise like that to have your joy in life reaffirmed.’ While Harper’s saw it as a great opportunity for humor, DFW saw it as something else entirely. If anything redeems his work, it’s that frustrated sensitivity, always giving in to the snarkcasm, yet always unhappy with his lack of connection to the people he either lionizes or skewers. The footnote mania becomes a desperate attempt to create meaning that he can’t find in the actual experience, a cry for help: ‘Talk to me, before I add another footnote!’ But can you connect to people you either have complete contempt for, fear, or idealize? In this context, DFW resembles Salinger’s most tragic figure, Seymour Glass, whose Florida honeymoon ended in suicide. It may well be that the flipside of this contempt is despair.

It’s only in the last few paragraphs of the essay that DFW returns to the dead boy and to an empathy with him. For DFW, being on the cruise made him want ‘…to die in order to escape the unbearable sadness of knowing I’m small and weak and selfish and going, without doubt, to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.’ As too many biographers fail to understand, it’s dangerous to conflate writing with psychology. But given DFW’s unnecessary death (which I will refrain from calling a ‘half-gainer’), it’s hard not to read ‘Shipping Out’ as a suicide note written a decade in advance. The death he saw in the water may have been the one he was looking for.

Punk Rock Saved My Life
Published on March 23, 2011 10:04 am.

‘Punk rock changed our lives.’ – D. Boone

A couple of years before I went to high school an ad played in heavy rotation on the local rock radio station.
‘Hello America,’ said a woman with a British accent. ‘This is London calling.’ A track played behind her as she kept repeating the catch phrase and then the track took over a few seconds before the spot ended. The track had an attack that sounded like very few of the stadium rock anthems that filled the AOR airwaves in 1979. I hadn’t heard anyone like the vocalist, either. He had rasping delivery that made Bob Dylan sound like Perry Como and I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. I wanted that record though but it was my friend Ray who had the money, so he bought it. It was London Calling by The Clash. Some A&R men had decided that punk rock would be the next big thing in music (boy, were they wrong) and The Clash were going be the ones to break it. Well London Calling didn’t sell in America but me and Ray wore that record out. Even with the lyrics printed on the album sleeves every song was a cipher. Who was Jimmy Jazz? What were the guns of Brixton and the Clampdown? It didn’t make sense to us but the music did. It was fresh, it opened a way.

My coming to a (semi) adult consciousness took place in the Reagan years when I was on the wrong side of everything. Reagan America turned the world upside down. A song about the sufferings of a Vietnam vet in his indifferent homeland became the anthem of America triumphant. A film about a Vietnam vet hounded by law enforcement became the story of American resilience defeating the foreign menace. My brother watched Rambo a thousand times and hung an American flag and a cross over his bed. He was an Eagle Scout, then a ROTC frat boy, and then a soldier. I didn’t understand. Didn’t they watch the movie, didn’t they hear the lyrics to Born in the USA? The Official Preppy Handbook became a primer for dress and deportment to my high school peers. Irony had been chased out of the building. Money mattered again in America. The greatest athlete in the world, a man whose physical genius and ferocity on the basketball court left you gawking, was a bland simulacra off it, the perfect corporate shill. I was quick to sneer at this obsession with money but the preppies had connected to something deep in American culture, deeper than I could understand. Money made America’s heart beat, had given the country its biggest sexual charge since Ben Franklin started hopping around his printing press. After a brief interlude of hippie indulgence – and maybe the the wealthiest generation in history anywhere – money had risen again. Yet money meant almost nothing to me (to the dismay of friends who would have appreciated me paying for more of the beer). I was lost in my own country. Yet The Clash gave me something to hold on to, and friends who felt the same way as I did.

Entasis Hates Madmen, Part Deux
Published on March 2, 2011 8:17 am.

RA: Sir, the most interesting, to me, part of your discussion is the fascination of ‘hidden identities’. The threatened interior or the impossibility of there being an interior, a self. I just think Mad Men doesn’t as well as some of the others. Even Dollhouse, which I enjoy, yet realize that it’s half treacle.

‎| There are two dialogs here, one is about the show, one is about the critique. I love the show enough to not care what the critics say. I didn’t even read the critique. Like I said, I like the show and no critic, with a name or without, c…an sway me. Furthermore, I didn’t know I was pregnant, the first time, and I was skinny. Not unlike the (TV) fat Peggy. I think it is absolutely reasonable to believe she didn’t know. I will admit, there are some nutty things in MM. Some may not be reasonable, but, how often is TV reasonable, really?

RA: Very unlike Peggy, Ms. Jo. It isn’t the nuttiness, it’s the fact that it ploddingly serves a plot point. It’s Peyton Place without the hysteria. And we’re supposed to take this seriously, as in fact the show takes itself very seriously. If you’re going to use something like that, you have to embrace the foolishness of it, play with it. But we’re just clubbed with self-importance. And that, yes, is a middlebrow hallmark. Give me high or give me low!

JM: From what I understand, Peyton Place was life-changing awesome. But, we wouldn’t know that. LONG before our time.
P.S. Hysteria is overrated.

GM: The reason you find it impossible to believe that I was entertained is because you’re looking for causality and, unable to find it for reasons that are just as arbitrary as the reasons anyone prefers one flavor of ice cream over another or …one color more than another, you necessarily make a move that’s reductive, dismissive: “Well, I trust your judgment, so this must be about some emotional need that’s being met.” It’s similar to the move Mendelsohn makes in his review, but it is *this* move, specifically, that is problematic for me. “Well, he likes vanilla, but I can’t stand the blandness and ordinariness of vanilla, so clearly his preference for vanilla is due to his troubled childhood and the fact that any intense flavors associated with a creamy treat from his early life recalls the turmoil he suffered years ago.” Good grief. This post could go on and on — the idea that content determines audience is very suspect to me, because all dramas are rehashes anyway; also, that you assert Mad Men’s problem is that it takes itself too seriously seems amazing considering shows like “The Wire”, “Battlestar”, and “The Sopranos”, that made self-seriousness their entire rhetorical mode, justification, and raison d’être. In fact, I don’t even think we’re really arguing yet, because we’re not really talking about the same thing.
However, I’ll close this with the assertion that the business of finding how or why an audience is attracted to something seems like specious doings to me and is nearly always speculative. Only THAT someone finds something interesting — or in the case of Mad Men, that a little cable show has attracted as much interest and commentary as it has — is what’s most interesting. People I know and respect like “Jersey Shore”, a show that I find incomprehensible. But that so many are interested in the show says something that’s probably worth noticing. Anything else seems like “Blue is my favorite color!” “Really? Because my favorite color is orange! You must be in need of gentle comfort …”

RA: Well, at least we seem to clarified our argument to the extent of finding the specific issues that our disagreement hinges upon. The first major issue is of course, that I find ‘Mad Men’ not particularly well done, and you feel the opposite. Fair enough. But is it enough to simply leave it at that? Perhaps, if you believe that aesthetic disagreements are based on opinion, and that one opinion is just as valid as another. So if someone says ‘Rent’ is as great a dramatic work as ‘King Lear’, then well, the conversation ends there. Yet since I’ve spent much of my life trying to determine what makes certain works of art great, and others terrible, I would disagree with this perspective (or if I did agree, I might shoot myself in the temple). I was disappointed by ‘Mad Men’ when I saw it. I had trouble understanding why it was such a cultural phenom, but even more distressing was how wrapped up some of my quite intelligent friends were in it. Mendelsohn pointed to some of the shortcomings that I’d noticed in my viewing. Now, we can argue about his specific criticisms, and perhaps we should (since that gets to the important issue of ‘close reading’, the center, for me, of making useful aesthetic judgments). It’s funny that you bring up Battlestar and The Sopranos since both of them collapsed under the weight of their conceits eventually – just not as quickly as Madmen.
You go on to criticize Mendelsohn for trying to provide psychological reasons for the show’s popularity. But then you say that what makes a show like ‘Jersey Shore’ interesting is that it has ‘attracted so much interest and commentary’ even if you find it incomprehensible. But doesn’t that lead you to want to provide reasons for why it has attracted so much interest and commentary? And couldn’t those reasons include elements of the zeitgeist, psychology, etc?

Entasis Hates Mad Men (Pt. 1)
Published on February 18, 2011 8:22 am.

This article from the New York Review of Books started a civil war among the Entasis editors (and friends).

RA: Watched Season One. Bored by the end.

JG: As soon as we find out that DD is a whoreson, it’s already jumped the shark, and that was early in Season 1. And the whole deserter and switching identities? Worthy of one of Verdi’s middle-period operas. You have to overlook the copious style to see that there’s not much there there.

GM: Meh. I read the article and I disagree with it — as much as one can disagree with a personal preference. This article’s main analytical technique consists of describing some characteristic of the show in a highly reductive way and then sta…ting a version of, “to my mind, it doesn’t work.” Clearly, though, before he gets to the assertion that something’s not working, we’re meant implicitly to understand his driving objection, as sheep being driven by a haute-intellectual shepherd. Baa. Early in the article he describes other shows, like “Battlestar” and “The Wire” that are, to his mind, standouts. Okay. So? Yes, Dan, you’ve uncovered a key truth: different people like different things. And he correctly points out that the show’s large following says more about ourselves than it does about, say, the sixties. So, welcome to the entire justification for cultural criticism. Really? Is this fresh writing? Mr. Mendelsohn might try grokking the fact that his review tells us a lot about him as a reviewer — but very little about the show. His conclusion would be laughably cynical — we’re all watching the characters in the way children watch adults, so we can forgive our parents or something — but this summation of the show’s appeal is as offensive and shallow as he claims the show is. I call imitative fallacy and self-incrimination: go work out your issues with Daddy, Danny, and get back to us when you’re ready to actually write a review. While I’ll confess that I like “Mad Men” quite a bit, I’m open to reading legitimate criticism. But this piece isn’t really criticism; it’s merely passionate opinion with the NYRB masthead. Not, by the way, that I don’t understand your reaction, man. If you’re bored, you’re bored — not only do I not doubt it, I think I can understand reasons why that would be. But Mendelsohn’s idea of analysis has auto-stimulated lovestink all over it, I don’t care who he’s writing for.

RA: I usually agree with Greg’s ‘preferences’ which makes this disagreement particularly interesting. In general I like Mendelsohn’s pieces, btw. He ain’t Zizek but it’s probably a good thing that there’s only one. Mad Men certainly isn’t as aw…ful as Lost but besides the fantastic clothes and really good-looking people, I, like Mendelsohn, found little to hang onto as Season 1 unspooled. Draper does seem like a handsome emptiness, and his affairs unconvincing (although that Jewish chick is SMOKIN’), as is the crisis of his marriage (compare it to similar themes in a work of genius like ‘Revolutionary Road’). The portrayal of say, the Beatniks, seems caricatured, as do the office mores (and the political discussions are simplistic). Peggy’s pregnancy was a typical soap opera move, including her unawareness of it. Draper’s back story felt flimsy, and his brother’s suicide another bit of soap silliness, as was his mom the ho’. The guy from Angel was intriguing at first but it turned into another bit of stereotypical Oedipal razzle dazzle. It was a For Dummies historical drama. This is preference, yes, but I think, given world enough and time, that I could support many of these arguments with ammunition. One of the few times I found myself genuinely moved was, also like Mendelsohn, by the slide show. I found myself thinking about my the photos of my parents from the 70s and the adults they were and the unhappiness they were already bequeathing to me as caught fragments of their lives through doorways or at the top of the staircase. The alien mystery and wonder of it.

JG: I pretty much agree with your assessment, RA. I also thought the slide show was truly brilliant. The writing is ham-handed, the characters undeveloped. But there are wonderful things here and there, like that scene; also the scene where Joan is taken off the task that Mendelsohn mentions. I loved the exchange in the parking lot between Betty and Glen late in the first season. But on the whole I think the show is overrated, and, as I said above, positively Verdian in its plot twists.

GM: Posh. All you’re doing is agreeing with Mendelsohn’s points and not paying much attention to how he’s making them. Okay, so you found Peggy’s pregnancy unconvincing? Fine. I found it entertaining. Once again, the label “soap opera,” applied… because of similarities to well-known examples of that genre, is supposed to *mean* something, but *that* move — the idea that we should recoil at the mere application of a middlebrow term — is a signature shuffle on the poseur’s dance floor. If you don’t like the show, you don’t like it. I won’t try to convince you that you should. But if you intend to lend credence to Mendelsohn’s psychoanalysis of the Mad Men audience by painting it with soft, personally selected colors — “I, too, have thought of my parents” — then you’re giving a pass to a boneheaded arrogance that’s already stamped with higher culture: the NYRB logo. Please. “Pseudo-intellectual disdain is so very now!” Besides, nothing’s immune to this treatment. Mendelsohn admires “Battlestar?” Sorry, man. Much of what he says about Mad Men, I could easily state about Battlestar, and more. Ham-handed? Bad acting? Oversimplified politics? God, cover your eyes and pick any episode, and whenever Tricia Helfer walks onscreen in her red dress, reducing an entire show’s purported philosophical sophistication to an appraisal of how well Helfer’s purr goes with her chest, I’ll scream “nerdporn!” What Mendelsohn completely misses out on — because, as I said, he’s not interested in actual analysis, but only an easy paycheck — is that Mad Men IS Battlestar, for a crowd that can’t take space battles and the swords-and-sorcery worship of the latter show. Both shows take a run at politics, sex, women in red, flawed leaders, counterculture, war, and *especially* hidden identities, and both do it in gloriously overbaked ways disguised as dramatic sophistication. It might be interesting to get at why, as a culture, these themes are important. Or, we could be Mendelsohn’s Heroes, and summarily dismiss entire audiences with a wave of our pseudopsychological wand. Bah.

RA: Sir, I appreciate the vigor of your response but, well acquainted with the clarity of your thought and the distinction of your taste, I find it impossible to believe that you were in any way ‘entertained’ by Peggy’s pregnancy; or if you wer…e entertained, entertained in the way we are entertained by a comic telling us a joke we have heard a hundred times before. That is, we are pleased because the repetition tells us that the world we leave in remains unchanged, and there is always comfort in familiarity. In the case of Peggy, as with so many of the plot turns in the show, we have an incident carrying meaning in the most ham-fisted of fashions – progressive woman is dragged down by the iron laws of an unprogressive world – if only she hadn’t fucked! And we are supposed to follow along with the absolutely unbelievable idea that a sexually active woman in 1962 would, not only have no idea that she could get pregnant, but be able to carry a child to term in absolute oblivion. It didn’t work for me and I have a hard time believing it worked for you, but, given the respect I have for you, sir, I must take you at your word. Certainly, I have no problems with soap operas, or serials, if you wish to use a less-charged term (‘soap’ by the way is no middlebrow term, it’s lowbrow. Middlebrow is Mad Men, the lowbrow that doesn’t delight in its preposterous nature). Serials are the way in which the complexity of human life – the fact that it goes on – escape the confines of the movie or mini-series. What I do have a problem with is the celebration of soap opera standards as exemplars of high art – it’s the confusion that gets me (the divorcee who supports Kennedy is another train you can see a comin’ from a long way off). You cast stones at Battlestar Galactica nerds but I say, let the man with no sin cast the first stone. What made BG fascinating for the first few seasons – and yes it succumbed to the banal into seasons three and four – was how it upended conventions of the serial form. For example, making Starbuck a woman, or in the playing with the idea of what makes a villain. I may be parroting Mendehlson, but I do know that long before I read a word of his essay. I’d tuned out Mad Men, in the way I haven’t tuned out Buffy or the Wire. I want to believe. I just don’t want to be spoon fed. Sir, the most interesting, to me, part of your discussion is the fascination of ‘hidden identities’. The threatened interior or the impossibility of there being an interior, a self. I just think Mad Men doesn’t as well as some of the others. Even Dollhouse, which I enjoy, yet realize that it’s half treacle.

Death in Long Beach
Published on February 3, 2011 7:11 am.

Our first reading in Long Beach at Open. Good space, nice turnout, great readers – Susan Davis, Nathan Bishop, Leah Kaminski, Vanessa Garcia. We had a print edition of the journal to hand out. This editor read a short piece reflecting his current sense of nihilism toward that thing called love (semi-obscure jazz reference with an even more obscure reference to this Coltrane tune).
There are even photos.
We walked out exhilarated, ready to talk, to drink, and walked into a crime scene – yellow tape, a dozen squad cars, people on the corners gawking, a coiffed, supercilious news anchor smiling in front of a camera. The story came to us in fragments: a liquor-store clerk had been shot and killed in a robbery, no arrests, just the slow revolve of the red lights and the closed street.
Long Beach is a half hour up the freeway from Irvine, my ersatz home over the last two-and-a-half years. Irvine is pleasant; pleasant is a design spec, included in the brochure, its Irvine’s DNA. There are all kinds of pretty girls. People smile and apologize if they get in your way, even when it’s your fault. It has bike lanes. The green lawns complement the condo complexes with their beige walls and red tile roofs. You have to go up to the top of a hill to see the brown smudge of Long Beach and the outline of big factories and refineries. Long Beach is far enough away that you never have to deal with it if you don’t want to.
Walk on the narrow sidewalks in downtown Long Beach though and you realize you’re missing something, that something being most of human life. Around the world, most people don’t live in condos with jacuzzis and pools. They jostle on the narrow sidewalks, they see people who don’t look like them and who don’t talk like them, they take the chance that they might be in the liquor store at the wrong time. They live there, whether or not they want to.

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