Archive for the ‘words’ Category

Election Season is Almost Over

Friday, October 19th, 2012

I felt free and chained at the same time- like one feels just before election, when all the crooks have been nominated and you are beseeched to vote for the right man. I felt like a hired man, like a jack-of-all-trades, like a hunter, like a rover, like a galley slave, like a pedagogue, like a worm and a louse. I was free, but my limbs were shackled. A democratic soul with a free meal ticket, but no power of locomotion, no voice.

—Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer – 1934

 

Ciudad Acuna

Monday, September 17th, 2012

 The latest from Jonny Wyall –

            Marisol moved out to her father’s avocado orchard the summer of her eighteenth year. She told her mother that it was a matter of establishing Californian residency so that she might be able to afford the likes of a prestigious state institution when in fact she had no mind to enroll anywhere at all. She only wanted to be with her beloved Umberto Colerto who was working full time on the same orchard.

            Now Umberto Colerto was three years Marisol’s senior, a fine avocado picker, a better wheel-man and, above all the sun-ripened fruit of a generation’s labor. He was a pocho, California via Texas via Coahuila. His parents were Mexicans and had been in and out of deportation bureaus – a humiliation Umberto would never have to know.

            “You’re an American, mijo.” Señora Colerto told her baby boy. “Someday that’ll be worth something.”

            And, of course Señora Colerto was right. Upon turning seventeen Umberto promptly dropped out of high school and picked up a job with Coca-Cola. By eighteen, he was promoted to delivery driver. He loved being on the road and the work paid well. His feet knew the gears of his transmission like his tongue knew the taste of the tamarind fruit. He was even friendly with the clerks he delivered to, clerks like Señor Longoria at the Diamond Shamrock.

            “Que onda, Umberto?”

            “Hey Mr. Longoria. Got some Cokes for you sir.”

            “Not for this diabetic.”

            “You have to get off the cookies, sir. Nothing better than a Coke, a little ice, maybe a lime.”

            “Sure, and you gotta get out of that uniform and chase some women, Umberto.”

            Umberto had stocked that Diamond Shamrock a hundred times before but surprises always seem to hide deep in the ledgers of repetition. He was on his way past the register with his second dolly-full of Cokes when he noticed that something pretty had been flushed out of the urban undergrowth and chose to alight by the fridges.

            Longoria had seen it too. “Suerte, compa,” he winked.

            Umberto approached with caution just as the thing reached for a Coke off the front row. He had to say something.

            “Excuse me, mam.”

            It pulled back immediately. Flight was imminent.

             “You don’t want one of those up front. Here, let me get you–”

            “Mam?”

            “Well, those are a little warm. I’ve got some cold–”

            “Doesn’t it make sense to assume the best in the strangers you meet?”

            “I was just assuming that you wouldn’t want a warm Coke, that’s all.”

            “Well… I don’t.”

           “Good, because you know mam, a warm Coke goes flatter quicker, the bubbles burn the tongue, it’s not nice.”

            “I’m a Ms, Ok?”

            “Looks like I’m amiss,” said Umberto. “But I can’t let you take a warm Coke. Here–”

          He reached to the back of the fridge then stopped. “You know what? I’ve got something better out in the truck.”

          Umberto motioned and the girl followed him out to the last chamber of the Coke truck. He lifted the door, and took out an old, worn bottle.

            “It’s a Mexican Coke. Some stuff’s better from Mexico.

            “Thanks.”

            “Sure.

            “Well sir–”

            “It’s Umberto. Umberto Colerto.”

            “Well Umberto, I’m out of gas.”

            “It was either that or you’ve got a sniffin’ problem.” He certainly rounded off his b’s like a pocho.

            “So… I–”

            “So go get your the little can filled up and I’ll give you a ride to your car.”

            “You don’t even know my name,” she said.

            “We’ll get there.”

            And get there they did. It started with 12 ounces of Mexican Coke and grew into a 12 month courtship. They danced the old dance – they drove around all weekend together with nowhere to go, then Monday night Umberto called and they talked about nothing and eventually all of the nothingness added up to a knotted pile of somethingness poised to clarify itself on the eve Marisol’s graduation.

            Marisol still hadn’t committed to a school. Anywhere she went would take her away from Umberto. Anywhere she didn’t go would become a door locked forever. She cried in Umberto’s arms.

            “I don’t know what to do.”

            Umberto cradled her like a baby. He needed a woman. Why: he couldn’t be sure. He felt close to his ancestors when he played the comforter. He closed his eyes and rocked his woman the same way his aunt had rocked him when his father had abandoned him in Texas.

            “I know it hurts baby,” she said. “Seven’s much too tender.”

            He thought about the trip to Lake Amistad. Tio Colerto drove just the two of them down to Del Rio. They had lunch at a cafeteria – ate chicken, drank ice tea – and when they finished Tio Colerto brought over a piece of cheese cake with two candles stuck in it.

            “Eleven’s a good age for a boy,” he said. “Still has heart.”

            They never made it up to Lake Amistad. Instead, after the meal, they crossed the border to Acuña. Umberto remembered how bad his mother’s house looked, one wall completely collapsed, rebar hanging out of the second story floor. A litter of street pups nursing in the corner, the after birth still wet on their tiny coats. The chicken in Umberto’s belly turned over.

              Señora Colerto and her whole flock of friends were all there cooing over how big the baby boy had gotten. They were fat women with stringy hair, mostly barefoot. They stunk of sweat and dog. Umberto’s mother cried – some for the years she’d missed, some for the whore she turned into.

          Umberto’s dad and uncle embraced later at the cafe. They spoke in hushed, colloquial Spanish about the details of the boy’s future. The waiter brought three Corona’s and a Coke; a special occasion indeed.

            The streets were dirt and full of trash. The people were often kind and happy but seeing those smiles amidst the squalor was unsettling and Umberto didn’t like the position it put him in.

“Acuña’s a shambles,” Umberto thought.

          The only chance anyone had was to leave; no one knew this better than Señor Colerto, twelve years banished. To return brought grief and regret. Grief over the good lives rotting away there. Regret for one’s own impotency in reformation. Señor Colerto worked for eight dollars a day in the maquiadoras, the American assembly factories set up around Acuña. They paid only six for those in need of factory housing.

            All of this Umberto kept from Marisol that he might console her. His past reminded him to distinguish true tribulation from an untimely hiccup in the twisting bowels of the first world. Marisol had never known national displacement nor did Umberto ever intend on showing her, at least not at first. But the moonlight began to have its way with his good sense and when Marisol was done crying they came together on the blue couch at her place.

            The next morning they walked down to the community pool: Umberto Marisol and her little brother Pudonte. Umberto paid everyone’s two dollars and they were in. Marisol swam off leaving Pudonte and Umberto alone on the pool chairs. Pudonte was a puny boy, the product of a working mother and an absentee-avocado-farming father. If greatness breeds greatness, one can only assume the reproductive tendencies of mediocrity.

            “See that kid over there,” Pudonte said.

            Umberto peered out from under the towel covering his face.

            “That kid, Daniel Rosenbaum. See him?”

            “What about him?”

            “That kid’s got it coming. Last week he squealed on our hook up.”

            Umberto sat up. “You’re pushing product already?”

          “Cherry magazines,” Pudonte clarified. “Epiphanio was selling them out of his locker. His dad’s got so many. Epi swipes ’em all the time.”

            The kid was splashing around and shrieking like an idiot.

            “But Rosenbaum got caught, see. He led the principal right back to Epi. They got some kind of school warrant, popped his locker open and found the whole stash.”

            “You gotta keep your friends close, P.” Umberto put the towel back on his face. “And the Rosenbaums of this world closer.”

            Umberto remembered why he dropped out of high school. He did feel a sort of fraternal allegiance to Pudonte even if he couldn’t show it. The times were good; the sun was shining, his girl was happy – but even through the towel Umberto could smell the faintest of scents, the turning of summer’s sweet freedoms into the urgencies of fall.

            If he wanted to foster this good thing he had out of its infancy he’d need his best wit. Now that there were more people on board the boat needed steering. No one had told him to savor his time wayfaring and in the wake of its passing he held tight to what he could remember of it. After all, those memories are the opiates that ease one into celibacy.

            Marisol swam up to the ledge of the pool. “Come on boys, let’s get wet,” She said.

            Pudonte jumped in with all his clothes on.

          The next day Umberto was out delivering to some of the peripheral convenience stores. It had been a fine day; of no particular note other than it would be Umberto’s last.  He turned off into a neighborhood and down shifted to a third gear idle. Coke had been good to him.

            There was a cross breeze blowing through his open windows. The mailboxes ticked past. Painted wood posts, beveled stone, brick – they were all miniatures of their corresponding estates, all meticulously modeled in the lot’s theme.  He slowed in approach to the white stone of #204. The Rosenbaums.

           A man pranced through the yard wearing flowing sleeves and a dumpy sun hat- Rosenbaum senior. He bent over and snipped a shoot off his pomegranates. Umberto headed for the cul-de-sac and turned his truck around squaring up to the house. “It’s a good way to go out,” he thought.

            Rosenbaum snipped off another shoot from his pomegranates and looked up just in time to see a Coke truck coming right at him. The engine backfired, Rosenbaum dove into the bushes, the Coke truck jumped the curb and razed the Rosenbaum’s mailbox. The crowd cheered. They come to the corrida to be entertained. Rosenbaum peeked over the bushes, his his face bleeding where he’d caught a shard, the Coke truck idled atop the razed edifice. Rosenbaum scrambled to get the tags. The crowd booed. They believed the truck showed great heart and should be spared.

          This was the Rosenbaum’s residence, but after the mailbox incident it was clear whose house this was. Umberto lowered his hat. The truck lurched into gear, rolled over the rubble and out into the free world.

            Of course Rosenbaum reported the incident. Umberto offered Coke no explanation and was fired. But the smugly satisfied look on Umberto’s face, the half-cocked smile through his chewing of a peanut butter cracker during the reprimand spoke to the liberation of his termination.

            Marisol was scared, what would come of this? Maybe she could work, put off college for awhile and move in to Umberto’s place with him…

            “No,” Umberto told her. “We’re not getting stuck here.”

            “But it’s nice–”

            “They don’t need us here, baby.”

            And with that Umberto packed up his truck – a sleeping bag, a pillow, and a cooler from which he procured an avocado. He tossed the avocado between his hands as if acquainting himself with it.

            “It’s what my dad used to pick,” Umberto said. “That’s how we made it for a while.” He put the avocado back in the cooler. “And that’s how you and I will make it too.”

            “Goodbye Umberto,” said Pudonte. They slapped hands then hugged.

          “Be a good boy, P.” Umberto told him. “Oh, hey, wait.” Umberto opened the door reached behind the seat and pulled out a fresh Cherry magazine. “This ought to get you guys back up and running.”

            “And for you,” Umberto turned to Marisol with an envelope that had her name on it. “I’ll see you in 3 months.”

           Marisol took the envelope and hugged Umberto. “That’s a long time” she said. “What if something changes?”

            “Somethings take a long time,” he said.

            “I could just come with you now,” she said.

            “I’m gonna have to get the work on my own terms.”

            “But what if my dad doesn’t hire you?”

            “Well then he’s gonna wish he did when I’m picking twice as fast as his guys but for somebody else.”

            Umberto started his truck and drove off.

           That night Marisol sat down at her desk and opened the envelope. Along with plane tickets to San Diego, there was a letter.

            “Dearest Marisol, there are some things you have to know about where we are going before you decide to leave where you are. Ciudad Acuña is at once the foulest, desperate places I know, yet it beckons.

            “There was love, I’ve been told, and even a little money on occasion but the times were mostly hard. My dad labored in the U.S. when he could get in. He’d be gone sometimes six months when the work was good. He was a picker, gentle with the fruit, efficient, strong-willed. My mother would wait months for him to come home. Then one day there’d be two tiny trucks on the horizon, one towing the other. I wasn’t even born yet but my cousin Rojillio would run out to the street yelling, “Tio, Tio!” hoping that hidden somewhere in those trucks was a new soccer ball. My dad would look up from tickling him and my mom would be standing there, nearly in tears. They would embrace and for a moment the family would be happy.

            “But the money never lasted long and the times would get hard again. There would be fighting, my dad would drink harder and harder until there was nothing left and he would have to leave again. Most of the men in Acuña operated like this.

            “There were a few restaurants, a small flea-market selling chucheria to the border traffic, a lavanderia, and even a club. These places could hardly provide a living wage to the few workers they did employ, most of whom were children. That’s all Acuña ever was – women and children. The women would chatter like little birds washing clothes, providing support for each other when a husband had been gone too long or when a boy had become old enough to leave for work in the U.S. There were many tears to be cried over such occasions.

            “My mom always kept a steady hustle, though. She collected Coke bottles, mended dresses and, though she’d never meant to, she even took some night calls when she had to. Together with my aunt they made it work for a while.

          “Then one day my dad came home with very little money. He’d overstayed his green card and it’d cost him everything he’d earned in deportation expenses. He was banished to his own country. He took to drink and became even more demanding of my Mom. He’d yell when she’d leave to work at night and by the time she’d get back he’d have passed out somewhere in the dark house. She’d step lightly, sometimes to discover a puddle of vomit here or a pool of urine there. My parents didn’t have a shower to wash themselves, no running water to clean the messes, no railings by which they could pull themselves out of the filth.

           “It wasn’t long after Dad got home for the last time that I was conceived. Biologically, it didn’t matter from whom I came; I was called Colerto.

            “I gave my Mom hope. She loved daydreaming of the places she’d take me, the things she’d teach me, (I could only be a boy, she was sure). But as my due date approached my Mom realized what a Mexican birth would mean for my future. Dad had been a good man and look what Acuña did to him. So Mom cried one lonely tear for her mate, a tear that rolled down her nose and dropped into her Topo Chico, then she got to work.

            “She decided to hire a coyote to take her across the border up to San Antonio. Everyone knew someone who knew a guy in Acuña and it wasn’t long until she’d talked her way into the acquaintance of a coyote called Beto, whom she agreed to pay $300 for the trip.

            “Beto had had some success with a few families in Acuña but perhaps it had been a thing of luck. He was reckless and forgetful. He twice missed the rendezvous while this Señora Colerto, whom he hardly knew and cared even less for, shivered on the banks of the Rio Bravo. She’d wait a few hours then slip back into the water and over to the Anglo side again.

            “I was kicking then, ready to pop out and get to it. Mom hushed me with a rub of her hand while the other combed out her smooth black hair. She set off for the river one last time.

            “It was a three mile walk south to the spot where the fence was snipped. She pulled back the rusted chain link, ducked through and then repositioned it so that it would stay unnoticed in case her sister ever needed the route. She waddled down to the banks, took off her sandals and tucked those into the trash bag she’d brought along for her dry things – her serape and some white pieces of sheet – just in case I came early. She tied off the bag, smeared mud on her face and arms, and waded across the Bravo.

            “It was 1:15 when Beto’s truck finally showed up. ‘Buenos noches, Señora.’ He said. He lifted his night-vision and produced a red pocket light with which he lit the way. ‘Vamos.’

             “He loaded us into a fake tool box buried in blankets and covered with a camper shell. He kept the truck blacked out, using his night-vision to navigate a system of ranch roads, stopping often to open and close galvanized gates.

            “Each time they stopped my mom would fear the worst. Then she’d hear a gate creak open, the cattle guard buzz under their tires and they’d be back on their way. Though she needed it, there was no sleep to be had in that box. She felt contractions coming on. I was ready.

            “She kicked open the little door she was hidden behind, did her best to spread a blanket. Green and red lights flashed on behind them. Beto sped up. My mom screamed. The contractions got stronger, longer. Beto lost control, spun off the road and slammed into a ditch. He took off. The back doors flung open and there stood two U.S. Agents, official witnesses to my American birth.”

            Marisol realized her place in the entitled generation. Even if she did get pregnant it would be nothing like what she’d just read. Things were easy for her and thusly she felt yoked with a weighty debt; how much and to whom was unclear. She read on.

           “My mom was arrested and we were deported as soon as my umbilical cord had been cut. My dad met us at the border. He stayed awake for a very long time after that. I was dealt an ace.

            “I spent the next seven years in Acuña. My dad was working again, this time for the hotels down in Playa del Carmen. The money wasn’t as good as it had been picking, but at least it was steady. My mom still washed clothes and worked around the city to make ends meet. When I asked her about those days she told me I had a cat that I loved very much and there’s even a picture of me holding it but I don’t remember loving any cat.

            “One day my dad told me to pack a bag. ‘We’re going to see your Tio in Tejas,’ he said.

            “My uncle’s place wasn’t much to look at but there was a lot of land to play on and there would be American schools and American standards. We stayed in Texas for a week until all the arrangements had been made between the men. Dad bent down and hugged me. ‘I’m going to rent us a few movies,’ He told me. Then he kissed me and drove off.

            “I cried a mighty cry when I found out he wasn’t coming back. But the tears dried on their own. ‘Crying won’t get it done,’ my uncle told me.

            “Ever since I moved to Texas I dreamed of going back to Acuña, raising my family, starting a business, hiring on a few hands. Everyone says America is the land of opportunity and, true enough, it still fosters the opportunistic, but sloth reigns. Those guys down there in Acuña need what we’ve got more than anyone here does.

            “Come to California with me, Marisol. From there we’ll set it all in motion.  Love, Umberto.” Marisol cherished the letter.

***

            It was the last day of picking for the week, and soon enough, the season. Eugene made his rounds through his orchard like he did every day. He started with the machine shed, checked the truck’s tires, made sure his guys swept the place out the night before. Everything was well arranged so he moved on to where the pickers were picking.

          The avocado crop was average that season, but the trees were still young and there was plenty of improvement Eugene could prune into those trees in the coming winter months. Young trees can’t be expected to bear with such austere solidarity with the single-minded dedication to production of older stock. There was still time.

           Most of Eugene’s pickers were of that older stock. They’d been around long enough to know what Eugene expected of them including, with reasonable allowance, the expectation that all pickers respond to English. The result was a lean business: five pickers, two barns, one truck. There was housing for the pickers and everyone ate breakfast and lunch together in the big house. In the end, Eugene was able to coax enough fruit out of his trees to keep bacon on the table.

           Umberto was the newest picker but, like the rest of the Colertos, he worked with passion. He learned the Californian clipping process fast, filled his fruit bags with fervor and struggled only when it came time to finish the tops of his trees with a picking pole. He took delicate pride in handling the avocados and even the other pickers noticed the sentiment. There was no greater variety than the Haas they harvested, nor a greater region in which to grow it.

           “Umberto come down here, I’ve got to talk to you.” It was Eugene. He’d nearly finished his rounds and come upon Umberto still working in his tree.

            “Yes sir, boss,” Umberto said. He swung down and followed Eugene to the truck. “Nice day, huh boss?”

             “Sit down, Umberto.” Eugene said.

             “Yes sir.” Umberto took a seat on the lowered tailgate.

             “Umberto I like you, you do good work around here.”  He spoke with unease.

             “Thanks boss.”

             “What I mean to say is, I don’t want to lose you to the off-season. I know how you guys are – you work, you move on. I understand that. These guys just load their entire lives into these tiny shit Nissan trucks, hook ’em together and I never see ’em again.”

              “Well it saves on gas that way, boss.”

            “I know it does,” Eugene said, almost sentimentally. “But you don’t have one of those little trucks, Umberto.”

             “No sir, I’ve got a full-size.”

             “Look, I know it’s only been a few months, but I can tell by the cut of your jib that you’re not like those other guys.”

            Umberto now knew where this was going and he took a deep breath, wished the clouds would open up and start raining, spare him from doing what diligence demanded.

             “I want you back next season, Umberto. That’s why I’m going to double your price. You’ll be picking twice your weight by then anyway and I think you’ve got a good way with the other guys.” Eugene was proud of himself, like he’d been rehearsing. “Well, how does that sound?”

             Umberto looked pale.

             “Well come on then, it’s twice what you could make at any other farm.” He reached into the sack he’d been carrying, procured two Diet Cokes, still cold, and handed one to Umberto.

             “Thanks boss,” Umberto said. “Listen, there’s something I gotta tell you.”

             “If it’s about that magazine that disappeared off the john–”

           “You know, somebody got your daughter pregnant.” He paused. “And what I’m trying to say here is I got your daughter pregnant.” Umberto was hit with a flood of emotion. All the passion he shared with Marisol suddenly stood trial. “We’ve been together for a year, since Texas boss, I swear. It just happened, you know.”

             “What happened?”

             “Well, we just got back from Sonic, you were out… so we took your bed–”

             “What I mean is… why couldn’t you guys tell me?”

             The two sat in silence a moment, both holding their Diet Cokes.

             “I came out here because of her, boss. To ask you for her hand. It’s what we both want.”

      “I’m gonna be a grandfather.”

          “That’s right.” Umberto smiled. The labor had disposed him to enjoying simpler things. “But I can’t come back next season, boss.” I’ve got to go back to Acuña. I have to take your daughter there and raise my family. I can’t come back next season… I’m sorry boss.”

             Eugene looked over his orchard. It was what he knew, it was his work. How could one man deny another his work? He twisted off the cap to his Diet Coke, raised it in a cheers and said, “To Acuña.”

              Umberto laughed. “To Ciudad Acuña, boss.”

            They both had a long drink and even though the picker would have never picked Diet, it still tasted good.

Nutritional Value, Addicts, and Berets

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky is, more or less, the collected transcripts of conversations held during the final leg of the Infinite Jest book tour in early March 1996. Though every thought explored during the two authors’ five-day road trip is compelling and worth your time, I’ve focused on the discussions that were about culture, art, and entertainment:

I guess what I’m talking about is entertainment versus art, where the main job of entertainment is to separate you from your cash somehow. I mean that’s really what it is… And I’m not… there’s nothin’ per se wrong with that. And the compensation for that is it delivers value for the cash. It gives you a certain kind of pleasure that I would argue is fairly passive. There’s not a whole lot of thought involved, the thought is often fantasy, like “I am this guy, I’m having this adventure.” And it’s a way to take a vacation from myself for a while. And that’s fine- I think sort of the same way candy is fine. (80)

So I think it’s got something to do with, that we’re just- we’re absolutely dying to give ourselves away to something. To run, to escape, somehow. And there’s some kinds of escape- in sort of Flannery O’Connorish way- that end up, in a twist, making you confront yourself even more. And then there are other kinds that say, “Give me seven dollars, and in return I will make you forget your name is David Wallace, that you have a pimple on your cheek, and that your gas bill is due.”

And that’s fine, in low doses. But there’s something about the machinery of our relationship to it that makes low doses… we don’t stop at low doses.

I’m not saying there’s something sinister or horrible or wrong with entertainment. I’m saying it’s- I’m saying it’s a continuum. And if the book’s [Infinite Jest] about anything, it’s question of why am I watching so much shit? It’s not about the shit; it’s about me. Why am I doing it? And what is so American about what I’m doing? (81)

And so TV is like candy in that it’s more pleasurable and easier than the real food. But it also doesn’t have any of the nourishment of real food. And the thing, what the book is supposed to be about is, What has happened to us, that I’m now willing- and I do this too-- that I’m willing to derive enormous amounts of my sense of community and awareness of other people, from television? But I’m not willing to undergo the stress and awkwardness and potential shit of dealing with real people. (85)

…And it’s (consuming junk-media) gonna get easier and easier, and more and more convenient, and more and more pleasurable, to be alone with images on a screen, given to us by people who do not love us but want our money. Which is all right. In low doses, right? But if that’s the basic main staple of your diet, you’re gonna die. In a meaningful way, you’re going to die. (86)

Later elaborates on the “death” caused by consuming only empty-calorie pop culture-

I’m not just talking about drug addicts dying in the street. I’m talking about the number of privileged, highly intelligent, motivated career-track people that I know, from my high school or college, who are, if you look into their eyes, empty and miserable. You know? And who don’t believe in politics, and don’t believe in religion. And believe that civic movements or political activism are either a farce or some way to get power for the people who are in control of it. Or who just… who don’t believe in anything. Who know fantastic reasons not to believe in stuff, and are terrific ironists and pokers of holes. And there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just, it doesn’t seem to me that there’s just a whole lot else. (160)

Three thoughts (paragraphs) and one question later…

But in a weird way, I think they’re… At some point, at some point I think, this generation’s gonna reach a level of pain, or a level of exhaustion with the standard… you know…. There’s the drug therapy, there’s the sex therapy, there’s the success therapy. You know, if I could just achieve X by age X, then something magical… Y’know? That we’re gonna find out, as all generations do, that it’s not like that. (161)

Is art worth not watching TV for?

Good- I think the good stuff is. But also, I mean art requires you to work. And we’re not equipped to work all the time. And there’s times when, for instance for me, commercial fiction or television is perfectly appropriate. Given the resources I’ve got and what I want to spend. The problem is, when I’m trying to derive all my spiritual and emotional and artistic calories from that stuff, it’s like living on a diet of candy. And I know I’m repeating that over and over. I can find very few analogies that work well. (174)

The paradox is that the popular stuff is training you not to do that work. It’s telling you, you don’t have to do the work. (202)

We sit around and bitch about how TV has ruined the audience for reading- when really all it’s done is given us the really precious gift of making our job harder. You know what I mean? And it seems to me like the harder it is to make a reader feel like it’s worthwhile to read your stuff, the better chance you’ve got of making real art. Because it’s only real art that does that.

You teach the reader that he’s way smarter than he thought he was. I think one of the insidious lessons about TV is the meta-lesson that you’re dumb. This is all you can do. This is easy, and you’re the sort of person who really just wants to sit in a chair and have it easy. When in fact there are parts of us, in a way, that are a lot more ambitious than that… But I think what we need is seriously engaged art, that can teach again that we’re smart. (71)

I have this- here’s this thing where it’s going to sound sappy to you. I have this unbelievably like five-year-old’s belief that art is just absolutely magic.
And that good art can do things that nothing else in the solar system can do. And that the good stuff will survive, and get read, and that in the great winnowing process, the shit will sink and the good stuff will rise. (91)

————————————————————————————————

After I’ve chopped the several conversations down to some of the key points, you can tell that Wallace feels that the majority of the media we consume is cheap and unhealthy. It’s nutrionless candy. He spoke similarly about this when writing about film, excerpted here.

It’s safe to assume that you’ve encountered people who, much like Wallace described, exclusively consume junk-media and may be “dead.”

But what about the other people? The people that present themselves as artists or writers and whose job it is to truly care and create “seriously engaged art”? In the introduction, Lipsky explains that, “As a student, David was put off by the campus-writer look- creamy eyes, sensitive politics. He called them ‘the beret guys. Boy, I remember, one reason I still don’t like to call myself a writer is that I don’t ever want to be mistaken for that type of person.'” (xx)

As a person, David did everything he could to restrain himself and not throw around any condemning labels. But as an author, David Foster Wallce penned the most beautifully harsh descriptions of people and society.

And even though Wallace would probably not appreciate being shouldered alongside with Bukowski, I happened to be jumping between Lipsky’s Although Of Course and Bukowski’s Portions from a Wine-Stained Notebook: Uncollected Stories and Essays, edited by David Stephen Calonne.

 

Bukowski clearly revelled in his lack of restraint and jumped at the chance to point fingers and throw punches. From Portions:

One time, in my madness, I happend to take a course in Creative Writing at L.A. City College. They were sissies, baby! Simpering, pretty, gutless wonders… They were lonely-hearts and they enjoyed being together; they enjoyed the tight little chatter; they enjoyed their angers and their stale dead unoriginal opinoins. The instructor sat on a hand-knitted rug in the center of the floor, his eyes gazed with stupidity and lifelessness… even when they argued with each other it was still some kind of truce between limited minds. (37)

As well as page 39’s  “Can you blame the schoolyard boys for saying that poets are sissies?”
And even prefaced by Calonne in the introdction:

Bukowski’s most intense ire was reserved for the elitist “University boys” who betrayed poetry by playing a safe, neat, clever, professional game of words devoid of inspiration, who tried to domesticate the sacred barbaric Muse: the disruptive, primal, archaic, violent, inchoate forces of the creative unconscious. (xiii)

The issue is this-- If the world is chock-full of either lazy consumers of empty-calorie media or sensitive bereted sissies, then what is the best way for “regular**” guys/people who are neither to forge on?

Both Wallace and Bukowski believed that withdrawing from the masses and focusing on what you can control- individual living and writing as the best means.

Wallace:

Give me twenty-four hours alone, and I can be really, really smart.
I’m not all that fast. And I’m really self-conscious. And I get confused easily. When I’m in a room by myself, alone, and have enough time, I can be really really smart. (218)

And one of the reasons why I think when I’m working really hard, that I’m not around people much, isn’t that I don’t have time. It’s just that, it’s more like a machine that you turn on and off. (17)

Because bein’ thirty-four, sitting alone in a room with a piece of paper is what’s real to me. This (points at table, tape, me) is nice, but this is not real. Y’know what I mean? (33)

What writers have is a license and also the freedom to sit- to sit, clench their fists, and make themselves aware of the stuff that we’re mostly aware of only on a certain level. And that if the writer does his job right, what he basically does is remind the reader of how smart the reader is. Is to wake the reader up to stuff that the reader’s been aware of all the time. And it’s not a question of the writer having more capacity than the average person. It’s that the writer is willing I think to cut off, cut himself off from certain stuff, and develop… and just, and think really hard. Which not everybody has the luxury to do. (41)

I’m not sure we’re [writers] any better, but we’re able to describe the attempt to track our wandering circles in a way that perhaps somebody else can identify with. I don’t think writers are any smarter than other people. I think they may be more compelling in their stupidity, or in their confusion. (214)

I think if you dedicate yourself to anything, um, one facet of that is that it makes you very very selfish. And that when you want to work, you’re going to work. And you end up using people. Wanting people around when you want them around, but then sending them away. And you just can’t afford to be that concerned about their feelings. And it’s a fairly serious problem in my life. Because, I mean, I would like to have children. But I also think that the sort of life that I live is a pretty selfish life. And it’s a pretty impulsive life. And you know, I know there’s writers I admire who have children. And I know there’s some way to do it. I worry about it. I don’t know that I want to say anything much more about it-- (293)

Buk:

It was best to get the sun on my neck and then dream and doze and try not to think of rent and food and America and responsibility. Whether I was genius or not did not so much concern me as the fact that I simply did not want a part of anything. The animal-drive and energy of my fellow man amazed me: that a man could change tires all day long or drive an ice cream truck or run for Congress or cut into a man’s guts in surgery or murder, this was all beyond me. I did not want to begin. I still don’t. Any day that I could cheat away from this system of living seemed a good victory for me. I drank wine and slept in the parks and starved. Suicide was my biggest weapon. (33)

Being a writer had nothing to do with being anything else. (94)

For some of us the game is certainly not easy for we know the mockery of most funerals and most lives and most ways. We are surrounded by the dead who are in positions of power because in order to obtain this power it is necessary for them to die. The dead are easy to find- they are all about us; the difficulty is finding the living. (41)

Though Wallace was the opposite of Bukowski by making it a point to connect with people and being as amiable and good-natured to everyone- the importance of solitude for both is still apparent.

Other than isolation, there doesn’t seem to be a solution to the problem of each person falling into either junk-media addicts and beret guys. But if you’re ever in a situation where you feel as though you’re surrounded by mind-emptied addicts or pretentious sissies, and you can feel all of your stored humanity draining from you, and your opinions of yourself, those around you and the world-at-large becomes increasingly bleak, this may help:

If you can think of times in your life that you’ve treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves. To treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend. Or a tiny child of ours that we absolutely loved more than life itself. And I think it’s probably possible to achieve that. I think part of the job we’re here for is to learn how to do it. I know that sounds a little pious.

And because if you think too hard for too long about about this subject, it’s really easy to misplace your sense of humor. Thankfully, King Missile is happy to pull you back to the concrete and locate it for you.

 

** Wallace:  “It’s true that I want very much- I treasure my regular-guyness. I’ve started to think it’s my biggest asset as a writer.” (42)

 

 

Randle Patrick McMurphy

Monday, January 2nd, 2012

Jack Nicholson as R.P. McMurphy or “Mac” in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

The film is remembered as a comedy about the inmate revolt led by McMurphy, and the fishing trip, the all-night orgy, and his defiance of Nurse Ratched (Louis Fletcher)- but in fact it is about McMurphy’s defeat. One can call it a moral victory and rejoice in the Chief’s escape, but that is small consolation for McMurphy.

The film is based on Ken Kesey’s 1962 best-selling novel, which Pauline Kael observed “contained the prophetic essence of the whole Vietnam period of revolutionary politics going psychedelic.” Toned down for the 1970s into a parable about society’s enforcement of conformism, it almost willfully overlooked the realities of mental illness in order to turn the patients into a group of cuddly characters ripe for McMurphy’s cheerleading. We discover that the Chief is not really mute, Billy need not stutter, and others need not be paralyzed by shyness or fear. They will be cured not by Nurse Ratched’s pills, Muzak, and discussion groups, but by McMurphy liberating them to be guys- to watch the World Series on TV, go fishing, play pickup basketball, get drunk, get laid. The message for these wretched inmates is: Be like Jack.

The movie’s simplistic approach to mental illness is not really a fault of the movie, because it has no interest in being about insanity. It is about a free spirit in a closed system. Nurse Ratched, who is so inflexible, so unseeing, so blindly sure she is right, represents momism at its radical extreme, and McMurphy is the Huck Finn who wants to break loose from her version of civilization…

…Nicholson’s performance is one of the high points in a long career of enviable rebels. Jack is a beloved American presence, a superb actor who even more crucially is a superb male sprite. The joke lurking beneath the surface of most of his performances is that he gets away with things because he knows how to, wants to, and has the nerve to. His characters stand for freedom, anarchy, self-gratification, and bucking the system, and often they also stand for generous friendship and a kind of careworn nobility. The key to the success of his work in About Schmidt is that he conceals these qualities- he becomes one of the patients, instead of the liberating McMurphy.

———– Roger Ebert, The Great Movies II

A Johnny Cash song that I recently came across that shares a similar beat with Nicholson’s performances, “What is Truth?”

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DFW Part V

Thursday, December 29th, 2011

I understand that these David Foster Wallace posts have been lengthy, but I’m doing this cliff-noting as a type of personal archiving as well as for those that are unable to get their hands on the actual text.

We have finally come to the conclusion of the essay A Supposedly Fun Thing That I’ll Never Do Again.

The earlier DFW posts concerning this essay can be found here (III) and here (IV).

Chapter 13

Tibor (his table’s server) advises and recommends, but without the hauteur that’s always made me hate the gastropedantic waiters in classy restaurants. Tibor is omnipresent without being unctuous or oppressive; he is kind and warm and fun.

Many pages later he is hilariously beaten at chess by a nine-year-old girl. He then rebounds by meeting with Winston, the ship’s ping-pong-pro (the 3P,) for a game of ping-pong.

Winston only moonlights as a 3P. His primary duty on the Nadir is serving as Official Cruise Deejay in Deck 8’s Scorpio Disco, where every night he stands behind an incredible array of equipment wearing hornrim sunglasses and working both the CD player and the strobes frantically till well after 0200h., which may account for a sluggish and slightly dazed quality to his A.M. Ping-Pong. He is 26 years old and, like much of Nadir’s Cruise and Guest Relations staff, is good-looking in the vaguely unreal way soap opera actors and models in Sears catalogues are good-looking. He has big brown Help-Me eyes and a black fade that’s styled into the exact shape of a nineteenth-century blacksmith’s anvil, and he plays Ping-Pong with his thick-skinned paddle’s head down in the chopsticky way of people who’ve received professional instruction.

Outside and aft, the Nadir’s engines’ throb is loud and always sounds weirdly lopsided. 3P Winston and I have both reached that level of almost Zen-like Ping-Pong mastery where the game kind of plays us- the lunges and pirouettes and smashes and recoveries are automatic outer instantiations of a kind of intuitive harmony between hand and eye and primal Urge to Kill- in a way that leaves our forebrains unoccupied and capable of idle chitchat as we play:

“Wicked hat. I want that hat. Boss hat.”

“Can’t have it.”

“Wicked motherfucking hat. Spiderman be dope.*”

“Sentimental value. Long story behind this hat.”

*DFW footnote: Winston also sometimes seemed to suffer from the verbal delusion that he was an urban black male; I have no idea what the story is on this or what conclusions to draw from it.

Insipidness notwithstanding, I’ve probably exchanged more total words with 3P Winston on this 7NC Luxury Cruise that I have with anybody else. As with good old Tibor, I don’t probe Winston in any serious journalistic way, although in this case it’s not so much because I fear getting the 3P in trouble as because (nothing against good old Winston personally) he’s not exactly the brightest bulb in the ship’s intellectual chandelier, if you get my drift. E.g. Winston’s favorite witticism when deejaying in the Scorpio Disco is to muff or spoonerize some simple expression and then laugh and slap himself in the head and go “Easy for me to say!” According to Mona, he’s also unpopular with the younger crowd at the Scorpio Disco because he always wants to play Top-40is homogenized rap instead of real vintage disco.*

*DFW footnote: The single most confounding thing about the young and hip cruisers on the Nadir is that they seem truly to love the exact cheesy disco that we who were young and hip in the late ’70s loathed and made fun of, boycotting Prom when Donna Summer’s “MacArthur Park” was chosen Official Prom Theme, etc.

It’s also not necessary to ask Winston much of anything at all, because he’s an incredible chatterbox when he’s losing. He’s been a student at the U. of South Florida for a rather mysterious seven years, and has taken this year off to “get fucking paid for a change for a while” on the Nadir… Winston says he’s had the chance to do some serious ocean-gazing and soul-searching during his off hours these last few months and has decided to return to U.S.F. in Fall ’95 and start college more or less all over, this time majoring not in Business Administration but in something he claims is called “Multimediated Production.”

“They have a department for that?”

“It’s this interdisciplinary thing. It’s going to be fucking phat, Homes. You know. CD-ROM and shit. Smart chips. Digital film and shit.”

I’m up 18-12. “Sport of the future.”

Winston agrees. “It’s where it’s all going to be at. The Highway. Interactive TV and shit. Virtual Reality.  Interactive Virtual Reality.”

“I can see it now,” I say. The game’s almost over. “The Cruise of the Future. The Home Cruise. The Caribbean Luxury Cruise you don’t have to leave home for. Strap on the old goggles and electrodes and off you go.”

“Word up.”

“No passports. No seasickness. No wind or sunburn or insipid Cruise staff. Total Virtual Motionless Stay-At-Home Simulated Pampering.”

“Word.”*

*Footnote: Interfacing with Winston could be kind of depressing in that the urge to make cruel sport of him was always irresistible and he never acted offended or even indicated he knew he was being made sport of, and you went away feeling like you’d just stolen coin from a blind man’s cup or something.

On Cruise Director Scott Peterson-

Scott Peterson is a deeply tan 39-year-old male with tall rigid hair, a constant high-watt smile, an escargot mustache, and a gleaming Rolex- basically the sort of guy who looks entirely at home in sockless white loafers and a mint-green knit shirt from Lacoste.

The very best way to describe Scott Peterson’s demeanor is that it looks like he’s constantly posing for a photograph nobody is taking.

———————-end.

David Foster Wallace tries hard to describe his experiences while withholding judgments. And though judgments are made, he redeems most of these coarse situations by applying the same level of severity on himself as he does others. On top of that, he balances any unpleasant reporting by making it a point to praise those he finds good-hearted and good-natured.

This essay examines so much about us. Culture, world perspectives, existentialism, community, and wealth/luxury/class are all given their due. And when paired with his essay on the 1993 Illinois State Fair (Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All), the observations on American Leisure only become that more three-dimensional.

Yet, the conclusions are fair and constant. Whether on a cruise, at a state fair, the mall, a ballgame, or simply walking the streets, you’ve experienced situations that led Wallace to label us as “the world’s only known species of bovine carnivore.”

Given those assignments and an examination of anyone’s day-to-day life, it’s an observation that is hard to argue against.

 

 

Punk.

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

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They called our music “Punk.” There are certain stylistic traits that are associated with that appellation: loud, crude, raw, angry. With all the movement’s rejection of the values of the giant media purveyors that thrive by cynically exploiting people’s vanity and sentimentality, maybe the thing that separates Punk from previous anti-establishment youth movements is that Punks were a little cynical themselves from the very beginning, or at least wary of understanding even their own self-serving impulses. What they valued most was honesty, but they recognized the complexity of that. The Punk scream was one of frustration as much as it was anger. This is why the real, pure thing tends to burn out and shut down: It doesn’t survive in captivity, which is also why you won’t find it in these five hundred words. You’ve got to do it yourself, you stupid monkey.

—-Conclusion of Richard Hell’s contribution to The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene 1974-1984

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DFW Part IV

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

This is a continuation of David Foster Wallace’s essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. The first part can be found here.

Earlier on this site, I featured the American artist Duane Hanson’s most famous interpretation of tourists and can be found here. Here are some other examples of his work that pair well with DFW’s writings on the subject matter.

Below, we’ll arrive at David Foster Wallace’s descriptions and see if there are any similarities.

From the broader, overall feel of the trip (described in an earlier post), he goes into more specifics, touching on particular passengers and crew. Excerpts pulled from different parts of the section featuring the passengers waiting to board the Nadir-

Chapter 5

Everyone’s clutching his numbered [boarding] card like the cards are identity papers at Checkpoint Charley. There’s an Ellis Island/pre-Auschwitz aspect to the massed and anxious waiting, but I’m uncomfortable trying to extend the analogy. A lot of the people waiting- Caribbeanish clothing notwithstanding- look Jewish to me, and I’m ashamed to catch myself thinking that I can determine Jewishness from people’s appearance.

DFW footnote: For me, public places on the U.S. East Coast are full of these nasty little moments of racist observation and then internal P.C. backlash.

Men after a certain age simply should not wear shorts, I’ve decided; their legs are hairless in a way that’s creepy; the skin seems denuded and practically crying out for hair, particularly on the calves. It’s just about the only body-area where you actually want more hair on older men.

The women all somehow give the impression of being on magazine diets.

And a major percentage of this overheard chitchat consists of passengers explaining to other passengers why they signed up for this 7NC Cruise. It’s like the universal subject of discussion in here, like chitchatting in the dayroom of a mental ward: “So, why are you here?” And the striking constant in all the answers is that not once does somebody say they’re going on this 7NC Luxury Cruise just to go on a 7NC Luxury Cruise. Nor does anybody refer to stuff about travel being broadening or a mad desire to parasail. Nobody even mentions being mesmerized by Celebrity’s fantasy-slash-promise of pampering in uterine stasis- in fact the word “pamper,” so ubiquitous in the Celebrity 7NC brochure, is not once in my hearing uttered. The word that gets used over and over in the explanatory small-talk is: relax. Everybody characterizes the upcoming week as either a long-put-off reward or as a last-ditch effort to salvage sanity and self from some inconceivable crockpot of pressure, or both.

DFW footnote:  I’m pretty sure I know what this syndrome is and how it’s related to the brochure’s seductive promise of total self-indulgence. What’s in play here, I think, is the subtle universal shame that accompanies self-indulgence, the need to explain to just about anybody why the self-indulgence isn’t in fact really self-indulgence. Like: I never go to get a massage just to get a massage, I go because this old sports-related back injury’s killing me and more or less forcing me to get a massage; or like: I never just “want” a cigarette, I always “need” a cigarette.

By the way, I have now empirically verified that I am the only ticketed adult here without some kind of camera equipment.

DFW is assigned a dining table. He remains nice and gentlemanly in describing the majority of his tablemates and “with the conspicuous exception of Mona, I liked my tablemates a lot…”

Mona is eighteen. Her grandparents have been taking her on a Luxury Cruise every spring since she was five. Mona always sleeps through both breakfast and lunch and spends all night at the Scorpio Disco and in the Mayfair Casino playing the slots. She’s 6’2” if she’s an inch. She’s going to Penn State next fall because the agreement was that she’d receive a 4-Wheel-Drive vehicle if she went someplace where there might be snow. She was unabashed in recounting this college-selection criterion. She was an incredibly demanding passenger and diner, but her complaints about slight aesthetic and gustatory imperfections at table lacked Trudy and Esther’s (two older ladies who are also tablemates) discernment and integrity and came off as simply churlish. Mona was also kind of strange-looking: a body like Brigitte Nielson or some centerfold on steroids, and above it, framed in resplendent and frizzles blond hair, the tiny delicate pale unhappy face of a kind of corrupt doll. Her grandparents, who retired every night right after supper, always made a small ceremony after dessert of handing Mona $100 to “go have some fun” with. The $100 bill was always in one of those ceremonial bank envelopes that has B. Franklin’s face staring out of a porthole-like window in the front, and written on the envelope in red Magic Marker was always “We Love You, Honey.” Mona never once said thank you for the money. She also rolled her eyes at just about everything her grandparents said, a habit that quickly drove me up the wall.

Intro to Chapter 9

Celebrity’s fiendish brochure does not lie or exaggerate, however, in the luxury department. I now confront the journalistic problem of not being sure how many examples I need to list in order to communicate the atmosphere of sybaritic and nearly insanity-producing pampering on board the m.v. Nadir.

After 8.5 pages of examples of “insanity-producing pampering,” the conclusion to Chapter 9

The feeling’s not all that dissimilar to the experience of being a guest in the home of somebody who does things like sneak in in the A.M. and make your guest bed up for you while you’re in the shower and fold your dirty clothes or even launder them without being asked to, or who empties your ashtray after each cigarette you smoke, etc. For a while, with a host like this, it seems great, and you feel cared about and prized and affirmed and worthwhile, etc. But then after a while you begin to intuit that the host isn’t acting out of regard or affection for you so much as simply going around obeying the imperatives of some personal neurosis having to do with domestic cleanliness and order… which means that, since the ultimate point and object of the cleaning isn’t you but rather cleanliness and order, it’s going to be a relief for her when you leave. Meaning her hygienic pampering of you is actually evidence that she doesn’t want you around. The Nadir doesn’t have the Scotchguarded carpet or plastic-wrapped furniture of a true anal-type host like this, but the psychic aura’s the same, and so’s the projected relief of getting out.

Chapter 12

Looking down from a great height at your countrymen waddling in expensive sandals into poverty-stricken ports is not one of the funner moments of a 7NC Luxury Cruise, however. There is something inescapably bovine about an American tourist in motion as part of a group. A certain placidity about them. Us, rather. In port we automatically become Peregrinator americanus, Die Lumpenamerikaner. The Ugly Ones. For me, boviscopophobia is an even stronger motive than semi-agoraphobia for staying on the ship when we’re in port. It’s in port that I feel most implicated, guilty by perceived association. I’ve barely been out of the U.S.A. before, and never as part of a high-income herd, and in port- even up here above it all on Deck 12, just watching- I’m newly and unpleasantly conscious of being an American, the same way I’m always suddenly conscious of being white every time I’m around a lot of nonwhite people. I cannot help imagining us as we appear to them, the impassive Jamaicans and Mexicans,* or especially to the non-Aryan preterite crew of the Nadir. All week I’ve found myself doing everything I can to distance myself in the crew’s eyes from the bovine herd I’m part of, to somehow unimplicate myself: I eschew cameras and sunglasses and pastel Caribbeanwear; I make a big deal of carrying my own cafeteria tray and am effusive in my thanks for the slightest service. Since so many of my shipmates shout, I make it a point of special pride to speak extra-quietly to crewmen whose English is poor.

*DFW footnote:  And in my head I go around and around about whether my fellow Nadirites suffer the same steep self-disgust. From a height, watching them, I usually imagine that the other passengers are oblivious to the impassively contemptuous gaze of the local merchants, service people, photo-op-with-lizard vendors, etc. I usually imagine that my fellow tourists are too bovinely self-absorbed to even notice how we’re looked at…

A few paragraphs further-

But of course all this ostensibly unimplicating behavior on my part is itself motivated by a self-conscious and somewhat condescending concern about how I appear to others that is (this concern) 100% upscale American. Part of the overall despair of this Luxury Cruise is that no matter what I do I cannot escape my own essential and newly unpleasant Americanness. This despair reaches its peak in port, at the rail, looking down at what I can’t help being one of. Whether up here or down there, I am an American tourist, and am thus ex officio large, fleshy, red, loud, coarse, condescending, self-absorbed, spoiled, appearance-conscious, ashamed, despairing, and greedy:  the world’s only known species of bovine carnivore.

Four paragraphs later-

Speaking of expression carnivores, Carnival Cruises Inc.’s good ships Ecstasy and Tropicale are both anchored all the way across the harbor. In port, Carnival Megaships tend to stay sort of at a distance from other cruise ships, and my sense is that the other ships think this just as well. The Carnival ships have masses of 20ish-looking people hanging off the rails and seem at this distance to throb slightly, like a hi-fi’s woofer. The rumors about Carnival 7NC’s are legion, one such rumor being that their Cruises are kind of like floating meat-market bars and that their ships bob with a conspicuous carnal squeakatasqueakata at night. There’s none of this kind of concupiscent behavior aboard the Nadir, I’m happy to say. By now I’ve become a kind of 7NC snob, and when a Carnival or Princess is mentioned in my presence I feel my face automatically assume Trudy and Esther’s of classy distaste.

Four paragraphs describing the ship, Dreamward, that has pulled alongside the Nadir. DFW explains what if the neighboring ship was in every way better than his current ship?

This saturnine line of thinking proceeds as the clouds overhead start to coalesce and the sky takes on its regular clothy P.M. weight. I am suffering here from a delusion, and I know it’s a delusion, this envy of another ship, and still it’s painful. It’s also representative of a psychological syndrome that I notice has gotten steadily worse as the Cruise wears on, a mental list of dissatisfactions and grievances that started picayune but has quickly become nearly despair-grade. I know that the syndrome’s cause is not simply the contempt bred of a week’s familiarity with the poor old Nadir, and that the source of all the dissatisfactions isn’t the Nadir at all but rather plain old humanly conscious me, or, more precisely, that ur-American part of me that craves and responds to pampering and passive pleasure: the Dissatisfied Infant part of me, the part that always and indiscriminately WANTS. Hence this syndrome by which, for example, just four days ago I experienced such embarrassment over the perceived self-indulgence of ordering even more gratis food from Cabin Service that I littered the bed with fake evidence of hard work and missed meals, whereas by last night I find myself looking at my watch in real annoyance after fifteen minutes and wondering where the fuck is that Cabin Service guy with the tray already.

DFW Part III

Saturday, December 17th, 2011

Travelling is one thing; tourism is a completely different. We are sold on the idea that American tourists are something like this:

But we’re all familiar with what tourists actually look like. In 1988, the sculptor Duane Hanson brought to life a more realistic vision in his piece with the self-explanatory title Tourists II:

A quick image search, or a jog through your own life experiences, will provide you with which depiction is more accurate.

What follows are excerpts from David Foster Wallace’s 97 paged perspective on tourism.

In the early Spring of 1995, Harper’s offered DFW an assignment covering a seven-night Caribbean cruise aboard the m.v. Zenith (which is owned by Celebrity Cruises Inc. and he cheekily decides to call the Nadir).

The essay was first published in Harper’s as “Shipping Out,” then became the title essay of the book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.

First of three series of excerpts from A Supposed Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again:

The meat from the introductory chapter-

I have learned that there are actually intensities of blue beyond very, very bright blue. I have eaten more and classier food than I’ve ever eaten, and eaten this food during a week when I’ve also learned the difference between “rolling” in heavy seas and “pitching” in heavy seas. I have heard a professional comedian tell folks, without irony, “But seriously.” I have seen fuchsia pantsuits and menstrual-pink sportcoats and maroon-and-purple warm-ups and white loafers worn without socks. I have seen professional blackjack dealers so lovely they make you want to run over to their table and spend every last nickel you’ve got playing blackjack. I have heard upscale adult U.S. citizens ask the Guest Relations Desk whether snorkeling necessitates getting wet, whether the skeetshooting will be held outside, whether the crew sleeps on board, and what time the Midnight Buffet is.

Conclusion of Chatper 2

The fact that contemporary adult Americans also tend to associate the word “pamper” with a certain other consumer product is not an accident, I don’t think, and the connotation is not lost on the mass-market Megalines and their advertisers. And there’s good reason for them to iterate the word, and stress it.

Chapter 3, the ocean as a metaphor of death, decay, void.
A few weeks before DFW boarded his ship, an adolescent male committed suicide on a Megaship and everyone chalked it up to a “romance gone bad.”

I think part of it was something else, something there’s no way a real news story could cover.

There is something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive and complex in its causes and simple in its effect:  on board the Nadir– especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased- I felt despair. The word’s overused and banalified now, despair, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. For me, it denotes a simple admixture- a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It’s maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it’s not these things, quite. It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.

DFW elaborates how he has ALWAYS associated the ocean with death. Fictional passages about being lost at sea terrified him and he knows shark-fatality facts by heart.

I don’t think it’s an accident that 7NC (Seven Night Caribbean) Luxury Cruises appeal mostly to older people. I don’t mean decrepitly old, but I mean like age- 50+ people, for whom their own mortality is something more than an abstraction. Most of the exposed bodies to be seen all over the daytime Nadir were in various stages of disintegration. And the ocean itself (which I found to be salty as hell, like sore-throat-soothing-gargle-grade salty, its spray so corrosive that one temple-hinge of my glasses is probably going to have to be replaced) turns out to be basically one enormous engine of decay. Seawater corrodes vessels with amazing speed- rusts them, exfoliates paint, strips varnish, dulls shine, coats ships’ hulls with barnacles and kelp-clumps and a vague ubiquitous nautical snot that seems like death incarnate. We saw some real horrors in port, local boats that looked dipped in a mixture of acid and shit, scabbed with rust and goo, ravaged by what they float in.

A few paragraphs later.

Here’s the thing. A vacation is a respite from unpleasantness, and since the consciousness of death and decay are unpleasant, it may seem weird that Americans’ ultimate fantasy vacation involves being plunked down in an enormous primordial engine of death and decay.

And sine DFW’s articles are prone to internalize something as trivial as looking over the ship’s planned activities…

I am now 33 years old, and it feels like much time has passed and is passing faster and faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun, and then I have to live with the forfeiture of all other options those choices foreclose. And I’m starting to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life’s sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time. It is dreadful. But since it’s my own choices that’ll lock me in, it seems unavoidable- if I want to be any kind of grownup, I have to make choices and regret foreclosures and try to live with them.

———-end.

This first series of excerpts did focus on big picture issues, rather than how constantly being around tourists and professionals in the tourism industry affected Wallace, but that is soon to come.

Read Rickstate’s first DFW post here. Second DFW post here.

What Hardly Matters… and tourists.

Sunday, November 27th, 2011

I let him write on. I was indifferent. Now that I couldn’t be in the war I almost wanted the war. Yet, at the same time, I was glad to be out of it. The Doctor finished writing. I felt I had fooled them. My objection to war was not that I had to kill somebody or be killed senselessly, that hardly mattered. What I objected to was to be denied the right to sit in a small room and starve and drink cheap wine and go crazy in my own way and at my own leisure.

I didn’t want to be awakened by some man with a bugle. I didn’t want to sleep in barracks with a bunch of healthy sex-mad football-loving overfed wise-cracking masturbating lovable frightened pink farting mother-struck modest basketball-playing American boys that I would have to be friendly with, that I would have to get drunk with on leave, that I would have to lay on my back with and listen to dozens of unfunny, obvious, dirty jokes. I didn’t want their itchy blankets or their itchy uniforms or their itchy humanity. I didn’t want to shit in the same place or piss in the same place or share the same whore. I didn’t want to see their toenails or read their letters from home. I didn’t want to watch their assholes bobbing in front of me in close formation, I didn’t want to make friends, I didn’t want to make enemies, I just didn’t want them or it or the thing. To kill or be killed hardly mattered.

—–From South of No North by Charles Bukowski

The above passage is from a short story where Bukowski’s alter-ego, Henry “Hank” Chinaski, had to go to the doctor to see if he was healthy enough to be drafted for war.

Later in the book, Chinaski is drug on a “vacation” to a tourist and shopping locale by the woman he’s seeing. His thoughts:

With their pink shirts and green shirts and blue shirts, and square white rotting bodies, and striped shorts, eyeless eyes and mouthless mouths, they walked along, very colorful, as if color might wake up death and turn it into life. They were a carnival of American decay on parade and they had no idea of the atrocity that they had inflicted upon themselves.

This book introduced me to Bukowski in May 2006. This past year has added personal weight to the above passages.

Also, my first Bukowski post can be found here.

DFW Part II – Film

Monday, November 21st, 2011

The first post on David Foster Wallace can be found here.

In 1995, David Foster Wallace was allowed onto David Lynch’s Lost Highway set for three days and hired by Premiere to write about his experience. But being the author that he is, DFW felt it necessary to provide background information on everything David Lynch had ever done up to that point. So what was supposed to be a nice and easy Sunday article turned into a 66-page thesis (damned thorough academics).

Nevertheless, the article is… perfect. Here are my excerpts.

While you read, enjoy some more Do Make Say Think.

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***Because Quentin Tarantino had recently (1995) become the indie-darling of Hollywood and DFW believes that Tarantino watered-down what Lynch had been doing for a decade, much of the article reads as a “Lynch is better than Tarantino for so many reasons because…”

Reservoir Dogs, for example, with its comically banal lunch-chatter, creepily otiose code names, and intrusive soundtrack of campy pop from decades past, is Lynch made commercial, i.e. faster, linear, and with what was idiosyncratically surreal now made fashionably (i.e. “hiply”) surreal.

DFW’s mid-90s assessment of cinema.

Movies are an authoritarian medium. They vulnerabilize you and then dominate you. Part of the magic of going to a movie is surrendering to it, letting it dominate you. The sitting in the dark, the looking up, the tranced distance from the screen, the being able to see the people on the screen without being seen by the people on the screen, the people on the screen being so much bigger than you, prettier than you, more compelling than you, etc. Film’s overwhelming power isn’t news. But different kinds of movies use this power in different ways. Art film is essentially teleological: it tries in various ways to “wake the audience up” or render us more “conscious.” (This kind of agenda can easily degenerate into pretentiousness and self-righteousness and condescending horsetwaddle, but the agenda itself is large-hearted and fine.) Commercial film doesn’t seem like it cares very much about an audience’s instruction or enlightenment. Commercial film’s goal is to “entertain,” which usually means enabling various fantasies that allow the movie-goer to pretend he’s somebody else and that life is somehow bigger and more coherent and more compelling and attractive and in general just more entertaining than a movie goer’s life really is. You could say that a commercial movie doesn’t try to wake people up but rather to make their sleep so comfortable and their dreams so pleasant that they will fork over money to experience it- this seduction, a fantasy-for-money transaction, is a commercial movie’s basic point. An art film’s point is usually more intellectual or aesthetic, and you usually have to do some interpretive work to get it, so that when you pay to see an art film you’re actually paying to do work (whereas the only work you have to do w/r/t most commercial films is whatever work you did to afford the price of the ticket).

Many pages later… and one song later.

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The difference between experiencing art that succeeds as communication and art that doesn’t is rather like the difference between being sexually intimate with a person and watching that person masturbate. In terms of literature, richly communicative Expressionsim is epitomized by Kafka, bad and onanistic Expressionism by the average Graduate Writing Program avant-garde story.

——————end of exceprt.

To really understand the rest of the 66-page Premiere article, also published in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, you’d have to watch Blue Velvet and other Lynch projects. But the above excerpts corner the industry and our society’s perception of the film industry far better than I could.