Monday, June 22, 2009

The Curse of Berlin

My cowboy-hatted compadre was making chit-chit with the cab driver. "Looks like the curse of Berlin!" she chirped, apropos of the rain pounding away at the cab's roof.

"Ach...there's no curse of Berlin!" clucked the driver in a reflexive PR maneouvre. "This is a great city! But every year it rains on Fete de la Musique. Every year!" he repeated.

It's true, the resilience of the party people in the face of scheisse Wetter is phenomenal. We sped through the suburban blankness of Koepenick to an undisclosed location. When we'd instructed the driver "Reichenzentrum" no address had been necessary -- the place had always seemed mysterious and elusive, not least because of the flying saucer, according to urban legend, harbored on its grounds. I felt as if we were bound for Berlin's very own Roswell.

We emerged to buckets of water accompanied by much Donner und Blitzen, taking refuge under a tent with some revelers, most of whom seemed cool except for some Oompa Loompa-skinned teenyboppers, presumably Lichtenburgers.

Finally, rattled by all the thunder,lightning and errant electrical gear, underdressed and shivering like the Dickens, we escaped our makeshift purgatory and made a B-Line for Reichenzentrum, through the brush a beckoning beacon of red and green flashing lights. Sadly, we were told access to the UFO wouldn't be possible for two more weeks. It's testament to the German sense of logic that on the day of a huge deluge, you couldn't actually go inside anywhere to warm up.

Between tents, cool-as-a-Teutonic-cucumber (or is that Guerke?) German boys lurched about on the wet beach. The Spree chugged along in the background, flanked by enough greenery to make me miss Seattle, and the ghosts of an old abandoned amusement park loomed, including a huge Riesenrad, or ferris wheel. An Orange sky speared by dingy smokestacks completed the picture.

There were "chillout areas" (the German verb is "chillen", a Dinglish word similar in conception to "uploaden") near the dock, i.e. soaked mattresses plunked here and there, and soggy paper lanterns dangling like sorry odes to Blanche du Bois. Mirrored disco balls, halved and quartered, were set in relief into the trees like toadstools.

Soaked to the skin, I hadn't been this wetly miserable since a belligerent queen lobbed several drinks at me at a Pet Shop Boys concert in Chicago. At least that venue had been heated.

Finally I decided to make Zitronensaft out of life's lemons, ordering a lime Jever, and warmed up the only way I knew how: trudging through the wet sand and joining the others in the zombie shuffle.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Revisiting Bruno

The American public has been teased by the Sacha Baron Cohen ambush machine for nigh on a year now. This month's premiere of the "fruits", ahem, of his labor, the new Bruno movie, fortuitously coincides with a high-water mark in advancements of gay rights in the states. To date, post-Prop 8, we have seen a number of states pushing for promulgation of gay marriage, five of them falling in quick succession like dominoes, as well as endorsement of the same issue by GOP leaders (however cynical their reasons). Yes, it seems that the Obama administration's method of tiptoeing around the issue has been inundated by the inevitable tide of social change, i.e. what is inexorably and morally correct (not that I believe in the inherent value of marriage, but it would be nice to know the option is there, and you're not being reminded every day of your life by the government and gloating "smug marrieds" that you are somehow less-than).

So now we're set to make the case that gays are really just the boys next door, trying to make ends meet, sustain a mortgage, a hedge fund, a happy home and 2.5 kids. But whither those fusty old stereotypes of yore: the interior decorator, the flamboyant queen, the hairdresser, the entertainer of society ladies, the Siegfrieds, the Roys, the Liberaces of the world? Cue Bruno. Cohen's character, developed over the last few years in a cod-Austrian cable tv show, aims at digging up these old archetypes in the service of his own particular brand of subversion, patented a few years ago in a documentary/talk show format with Ali G and Borat. With his own satirical scalpel, Cohen vivisects the prides and prejudices of the red-blooded American male, exposing US ideals of masculinity for the half-hearted sham charade that they are. The root of American society is inf(l)ected with the overzealous homophobia of said males, a real reflection of insecurity and fear. Not terribly manly, this homosexual panic is probably a conflation of fear of anal penetration and a concomitant fear that they might enjoy it. The corollary of this, with which I am sure Bruno would agree, would be Jean Genet's dictum that a man who fucks another man is double a man. Paradoxically, to give up that much power to another male would be anathema to any self-respecting American lad.

I haven't seen the film yet, but a friend sent me a link to an interesting article in the Irish Times:

The author makes the valid point that Bruno is trading in retrograde stereotypes at a pivotal time. A time in which we are making measurable progress in the courts, whereas homophobia is still thriving in the streets. Bruno, she says, presents a cartoonish portrayal of gay men as promiscuous, shallow buffoons in a way which has the effect of robbing the homosexual of dignity and any social progress s/he may have effected. (Ha! She should take a gander at Perez Hilton, Bruno's much more pernicious real-life counterpart. Scads more embarrassing.)

In reality I don't see this as problematic, mainly because anyone who is gay can tell you that the stereotype of the hedonistic homosexual does still exist, and probably always will. In my mind I see Bruno as something of a cut-up artist, employing an ancient trope in a new and subversive way, which turns the joke around and places it on the perpetrator of hate. OK, he may be playing anal sex jokes for laughs, allowing the more liberal members of the audience to give vent to their discomfort as well, but if you ask me his touch is light enough to show that sex is absurd and ridiculous (and inherently undignified), no matter what your orientation is. After all, queers certainly don't have a monopoly on perversion, or on anal sex/sodomy for that matter. Furthermore, in his crass shallowness and celebrity worship, Bruno seems to hold up a mirror to the culture.

I can certainly empathize with the author insofar as being aware of how one is perceived by the world. Self-consciousness, whether foisted on the queer by societal causes or not, is necessarily a birthright of all homosexuals, and also germane to the artificiality needed to create art, and to precipitate self-invention. One hand is always aware of what the other is doing. But sometimes a finger becomes gangrened, and needs to be cut off. Having always been somewhat naturally witty, there was a time in the past when I have been considered the life of the party. The danger is that there is a natural tendency for the homosexual, intelligent or not, to play up to this role, that of the court jester. Sadly, once I realized I was expected to take on the role of entertainer in every social situation, it was clear that the friendship was past its sell-by date. I mean, look what happened to poor Oscar Wilde: rewarded with two years' hard labor for his efforts. Perhaps it's harsh, but people had formed an intractable and untrue image of me, and I had had a hand in the friendship's demise, having enjoyed the attention all too much. You see, the truth is, just as Sacha Baron Cohen is a Cambridge-educated scholar, underneath the funny exterior, lay a very very serious lesbian feminist.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Life Imitating Art Imitating Life

It was a veritable hall of mirrors today as I scanned the headlines, doing a morning-coffee-sploshing double take at the top story: "Woman who Missed Flight 447 Dies In Car Accident". Nearly two weeks later. Yikes. The would-be passenger and her husband were reportedly spared the doomed flight by a dilly-dallying taxi driver. The poor thing bit it yesterday when an oncoming truck swerved into her lane on an Austrian highway, colliding head-on with the vehicle in which she was riding. Egads.

I shuddered as the plots of several fatalistic horror yarns of yore unspooled in my mind. Films like The Ring and Final Destination, in which protagonists are doomed to some kind of time-release mumbo-jumbo which they must thwart right quick to avert Death in whatever arbitrary form the script dictates he take. Unfortunately in real life, these things tend to come without warning. Fear the reaper, baby. No place is safe -- not even the domicile.

In Final Destination, the characters can't even seek refuge in their own kitchens and bathrooms -- they're crammed with Rube Goldberg-inspired deathtraps fashioned from household appliances, a bit of rope here , some lighter fluid there, an errant gas flame, an old record player, some electrical cord and a tub of water, e.g. Like a plane crash, these incidents are triggered by a catastrophic sequence of events, which could be set in motion at any minute (each time augured by the strains of a John Denver tune -- get it?) Each set piece is preceded by an almost excruciating sense of suspense at what gimmick the savvy, William-Castle-ish filmmakers will inflict on the audience next, which emotional levers they will pull as the fight-or-flight instinct kicks in. Unfortunately our protagonists aren't given a chance to put up much of one, as they are operating on "death's timetable", mere puppets in the cosmic scheme. And the old hooded one don't appreciate no cheatin' at life's poker game. It's a schematic approach that works in the filmmaker's favor (ka-ching!), but not the characters'.

Our heroes have "cheated" death by averting immolation with their colleagues when the flight for their class trip explodes shortly after takeoff. As the vessel prepares to roll down the runway, one of the students has a panic attack/premonition of the crash, which gets him ejected from the flight along with a few friends and a concerned faculty member. The plane then blows up in a huge conflagration, in front of their dazed and startled eyes, while the traumatized teach and teens are left to pick up the pieces. Unfortunately for them, having "cheated death" the first time, the audience need only sit back while, in one Grand Guignol tableau after the other, the survivors are dispensed of in a mechanical, baroquely gruesome fashion.

The first hour of the film is among most realistically depicted plane crashes I have seen. It uses the crash of real-life flight TWA 800, which exploded off the coast of New York in 1996, carrying a group of students (as in the film) on their senior trip to France, as a jumping off point for its convoluted plot machinations involving the invisible scythe-wielding menace. At the time FD came out, it was considered in somewhat poor taste, if not gripping entertainment, with an appealing teenybopper cast, including forgotten Canadian heartthrob Devon Sawa.

Small wonder the "coincidence" in the tale's real life counterpart in the Air France crash has gripped people so forcefully. In such cases, viewers must confront themes such as chance, fate, the luck of the draw, the road not taken. Whether or not we are really lucky, when we think we've dodged a bullet (especially when said bullet has your number on it, and comes to nab you seven days -- in the case of the video cassette in The Ring -- or a week and a half later). And indeed, the human propensity to seek causality where there is none is phenomenal. If nothing else it's a grim (no pun intended) reminder that old skull-face is coming for us all sooner or later, like it or not. In the surprisingly philosophical Final Destination, these elaborate deathtraps, fashioned out of run-of the-mill household objects -- represent the threats that surround us on a daily basis (and if I thought about it too much, I would be living in a bunker).

Though the fixation of the public on the stranger-than-fiction twist spawned from Air France flight 447 is understandable from a human interest perspective, the downside is that the religious wingnuts will seize on this as proof positive of god's will. Shortly after 9/11 I was working in social services, and one of our clients came in and rather dogmatically, without the slightest bit of irony, proceeded to inform me and everyone present that all the folks unlucky enough to have been in the WTC that day, from lackeys at JP Morgan to busboys at the Windows of the World, all of them got what they deserved, because it wasn't chance or bad luck or what have you, but divine intervention on a massive scale. Yes, the man proclaimed vociferously and with as much unchecked conviction as Bush the Conqueror would later display in his promulgation of unfettered power to send the military into misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, those people had a debt to pay, and on Sept 11, by god, it was their due date!

Jeez. All those people in the same building at the same time. Just going about their own business, living their lives, trying to bring home the bacon. Businesspeople, trying to make something of themselves, janitors swabbing the latrines before going home to their families, secretaries sharing a morning coffee with their bosses. Not to mention the firefighters who arrived on the scene, and the parish chaplain who was among the first to die. Forget the jihad, we've got sinners in the hands of a wrathful Judeo-Christian god, folks! All summoned on that sunny Tuesday to pay their debts. What a coinkindink. Just like flight 447.

See folks, this is why these religious whackjobs need to be expunged from consciousness -- preferably by knocking them unconscious. Sometimes I think their eschewing of logic -- and embrasure of that of the fuzziest kind -- would preclude them from engaging in any kind of rational dialogue. All those sinners aboard, they say, are in a "better place", or at least, the place they deserve to be. And what these fundy lunkheads are propagating is operating in the service of something not so different from the fantasy on which Final Destination is predicated. But one thing is "lost" in all this metaphysical rubbernecking, and that is that the victims were actual people with actual lives. Let's not forget that.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Deborah Harry, Deborah Harry

It's important to occasionally pay homage to the icons of our past, and not forget who inspired us in our younger days. What with Blondie on tour in 2009, what better time to pay tribute to that paragon of effortless cool and deadpan soignee, Deborah Harry? I ask you, where would modern day warblers like Robyn or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs be without her? (Forget that crystal addict tranny Fergie, whose trash burlesque was woefully upstaged by Harry at the MTV awards).

Ms. Harry was something of a shapeshifter and changed her style regularly, but, roots or no, always retained the essence of her Deborah-ness, which is why she has remained an icon. Indeed the musical stylings of her band Blondie were all over the map, but they managed to carve out a distinctive sound which is still instantly recognizable.

I shan't forget sitting in my parents' beat-up Toyota throbbing along to the rock/disco pulse of Atomic, thinking I'd died and gone to musical heaven (later Britpop band Sleeper would score their lone hit with their tinny Xerox version on the Trainspotting soundtrack). Of course, at the tender age of 7 I had scant concept of nuclear annihilation, or that the ditty would prefigure the Pyongyang nuclear standoff by a good three decades! Then there was the time I stood on a sand dune on a beach at our summer place on Lake Michigan, with the reggae lilt of The Tide is High on high, tautologically watching the actual tide roll in. Bliss.

A couple years back a friend of mine (Hi Jamie!) mentioned what big Blondie fan he was, then proceeded to declare that I reminded him in attitude of Debbie Harry! He couldn't explain it, any more than one could explain the ineffable cool of Miss Harry herself. I certainly have no idea what he meant, especially since I am a man, quite macho and dark-featured! Perhaps it is her special blend of humility and rock aggression, a simultaneous streetwise earthiness and vulnerability, with a bit of cheeky humor thrown in for good measure. Like Ms. Harry, I really didn't hit my stride career-wise until my thirties, and, like her, I am often told I look years younger than my actual age. It's really not for me to say. But it was an incredibly flattering thing for my friend to say.

In this rather antediluvian interview we find Ms. Harry in bubbly blond yet purposeful, almost business-like mode, maintaining her sangfroid while a clueless and homely interviewer dogs her with questions about her age!

For some reason they've been removing classic videos formerly available on Youtube (perhaps due to copyright issues), so the original Atomic video is unavailable, but they've kept the Xenomania remix, which isn't half bad (though it omits the incredible bass guitar solo at the bridge). They're the crack team of producers behind the Pet Shop Boys' new comeback album, as well as pop tarts Saint Etienne and Girls Aloud.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Bacon at the Met

Slate recently featured a slideshow essay highlighting the pivotal works of seminal 20th century painter Francis Bacon's oeuvre to mark his retrospective at the Met. I hope his mutely shrieking popes and groping, degraded figures, make it across the Atlantic, leaving their telltale "human snail trail" of slime (as Bacon famously described it*) in their wake.

The touchstone “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” caused a huge furor upon its exhibition in the 1940's. The work’s confrontational yet detached emotionalism moved me immediately upon seeing the work. The painting’s amalgamation of several intriguing themes was also a factor. These include crucifixion, dysmorphic human figures, nihilism and the modern notion of the grotesque.

Bacon opted to present his work as a triptych, a model used in many religious paintings. The viewer is presented with three discrete versions of what appears to be the same vaguely phallic, anthropomorphic figure, rendered in murky grays, whites and browns against a vermilion background. The creature in the left hand panel appears slumped over, bloodied and resigned. In the center panel the head seems to have been reduced or eradicated altogether, the neck tied in shroud-like white gauze (a tourniquet?), the only remaining features being a couple of slits at the end of the long appendage. The panel on the far right features an inverted head with a gaping mouth frozen in a silent scream reminiscent of Munch. Each humanoid figure is presented on a base: a table, a pedestal, a rug, from which the “limbs” of the figure spring organically, further dehumanizing the humanoid.

The technique of dehumanization and the notion of “human furniture” or decoration is also a by-product of Bacon’s background as an interior designer. His obsession with gaping mouths, triggered by a textbook he purchased on diseases of the mouth which haunted him perennially, is first manifested here. The horrific appearance of the figures prefigures later Bacon riffs on the theme of the Eumenides in the Oresteia of Aeschylus. The distancing technique of the triptych format is a Bacon paradox: an avowed atheist with a martyrdom complex, he used the crucifixion as a template upon which to hang, as it were, images of a godless world infused with a post-World War II sense of alienation and despair. He also hated “narrative” painting, wanting all the emotions of a particular work to hit the viewer at once. The triptych format helped break up the narrative, such as it is, so you really can’t tell what’s going on in the painting. This heightens the ambiguity of the piece. What does come through is a raw beauty and a depiction of the modern condition as a silent shriek of isolation, self-disgust and horror which has been compared to the literary works of the Existentialists.

*see Love in a Dark Time by Colm Tobin for further reading on the life and art of Francis Bacon

Friday, May 29, 2009

Death of a True Maverick

Yesterday a brief internet trawl yielded a shocking bit of information. One of my favorite writers, James Purdy, died in March in Englewood, NJ, after breaking his hip. He was 94.

I can't really speak about Purdy without plundering some of the quotes put forth by his contemporaries. "An authentic American genius," hailed Gore Vidal. He was notably championed by Dorothy Parker and Dame Edith Sitwell, who claimed that her life would never be the same after having read Purdy's debut collection of short stories, 63: Dream Palace.

His fiction was hard to classify, as the characters and dialogue often seemed to be beamed from outer space. Having lived for a time amongst jazz and opera musicians in Harlem in the early 20th century, Purdy was one of the first white authors to realistically portray black America. In fact,his ear for black cadences was so acute that many of his publishers and editors (and James Baldwin) thought upon first reading him that he was indeed African-American. Purdy's other two favorite themes were innocence corrupted and duplicity in small town America.

The language he utilized was a strange bag indeed, and has been a huge influence on my own style. Lurching from midwestern vernacular to bombastic apostrophe, often in the course of the same line, his characters sound like Biblical street prophets oraculating wildly. They seem to be motivated by vanity, poverty or revenge, however, underneath this they lie on either side of that Wildean catch 22: the problem of yearning for love, and the problem of getting it. In fact, if his novels are about anything, they are about how love can distort the human spirit.

The crown jewel of Purdy's oeuvre, the novel Eustace Chisholm and the Works, is set in depression-era Chicago, and features a cast of characters so destitute and emotionally impoverished that one can feel the desperation oozing off the pages. Fortunately the book is also witty and absurd, with a distinctive gallows humor which could only be ascribed to Purdy. But this doesn't preclude empathy. To elicit empathy for such unsympathetic characters is Purdy's tightrope walk. Furthermore it contains all the elements of a great novel: doomed, operatic characters, catty dialogue, sexually-repressed-and-sublimating-wildly military officers, Shakespearean and biblical allusions including overly symbolic scenes of foot-washing and crucifixion, and a gruesome late-term abortion which may have you reaching for the smelling salts. It all culminates in a scene of S&M martydom so extreme it should by rights redeem all the characters. But of course it doesn't. The sense of release, as pointed out in Purdy's New York Times obituary, is infinitesimal, though the book could definitely be seen as one long primal scream.

Chisolm set the stage for later works such as Cabot Wright Begins, a "rape epic" featuring a titular protagonist at the top of his game, conquering huge numbers of victims and cutting a swathe through Wall street and various American grotesques with ruthless abandon.

Purdy was also a poet and playwright. His first novel Malcolm was adopted unsuccessfully for the stage by Edward Albee. This apparently threw his publishing rights into a tailspin, and years of obscurity followed. Further works included, Narrow Rooms, which was banned in Germany and featured shenanigans in an Appalachian prison, and The Nephew, the tale of a woman who, while preparing a memory book about the life of the titular nephew, discovers that he isn't quite the all-American clean-cut soldier boy he's been hitherto cracked up to be.

You can hear an interview with Purdy, in which he also reads a fantastic poem, at the Don Swaim author interviews page.

Here is the link to the great man's New York Times obituary:

Monday, May 18, 2009

Towering Disco Inferno

A friend groused that I have been doing much social commentary and not giving updates as to what I've actually been doing. So I suppose I should insert some more episodic journal type of entries to please the masses. I've also toyed with the idea of changing the name of the blog, since it seems to have morphed into something not strictly about Berlin per se.

But I am here, and I am seeing things through a "Berlin lens", so there you go. Currently its a very fuzzy one, what with all the pollen from the lime trees covering everything like snow. It's quite magical and surreal. Yesterday I was noshing a burger at Burgermeister (go figure), a burger place under the UBahn tracks at Schlesiches Tor, and one of the fluffy little things flew into my throat. Aaack.

Last night my roommate Jan and I sallied out to GMX at Weekend Club. He had free passes, so Jan was Carrie and I was the "Plus One". The weekly fete is held every Sunday in the 12th and 16th floors of a skyscraper at Alexanderplatz. In fact, it's the same building where I did my teacher training for Arenalingua, so upon entering the building I had a slightly officious feeling. This feeling was soon assuaged by the huge murder of fags milling about the premises. The promoters commandeered the entire 2 floors for this night, the 12th pumping out R and B and the likes of Britney and Lady Gaga. The 16th floor is much darker and druggier, with really good melodic electro music. You could tell the DJ was a real connoisseur.

As Jan and I repaired to a place at the back of the bar, a mincing, grimacing queen came flouncing over, face twitching, and said something to Jan in German. He pointed at me and said "Huebscher Mann" and did the same to Jan and then drew his hands together, indicating that since we were both "hot", "aber natuerlich" we should be hooking up, which is a stupid conclusion in itself. He reminded me of the creepy old queen in the ship disembarkment scene in Death in Venice, the one who augurs Aschenbach's terrible demise, but this guy was younger than I and actually quite good-looking. Pity he was so strident and yodelling and mugging like Lindsey Kemp on a bender. He then pulled up our shirts and pointed out oh-so-cleverly that since I was hairy and Jan was smooth that we would make a perfect polar-opposite kind of couple.

We then decamped to the dancefloor, where I was accosted by what looked like a very slight 12-year old, who asked if I was a certain "Schauspieler". (This happens quite often, as I have been told I have a "theatrical" face). After I assured him I was not an actor, that I was really playing only myself, he declined to divulge the name of the actor in question (hopefully it wasn't Abe Vigoda or something). Anyway, he's quite a cute Aryan type, at University in Hamburg. We resolved to keep in contact, though I felt a bit like the cradle-robber. Although, May-December courtships are all the rage these days, what with Madonna and Jesus and all.

After a harrowing descent with 30 tweakers in a lift with a capacity of 20, we emerged into the damp warm air and sped away in Berd's smart car. Beats church any Sunday...

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Tortured Essay

Many years ago I read an interview with the singer Jim Foetus. In it he was forced to defend the writing of such song lyrics as "Every woman's place is on my face." He said, "I consider myself a feminist but I don't act like one." Now that's my kind of feminist, one with a firm grasp of irony . I believe the same could be said for Mary Gaitskill (though she doesn't show it so much here) Here is she is reading hypnotically, as per ushe, from one of her essays for a Harper's anniversary celebration, way back in the stone age, the early 90's.

Friday, May 15, 2009


I recently discovered the work of an author I never knew about before, Mary Gaitskill. She apparently made a big splash in the late '80's with her debut collection of sort stories, Bad Behavior. She has been far from prolific, but one of the short stories from BB was co-opted by Hollywood sometime in the early noughties as the film Secretary. She was a bit chilly about the film's translation to the screen, claiming they had filmed a "nice...Pretty Woman version" of her story. One of her main contentions was they tried to make it into a PC version of S and M, so that practitioners could feel good about themselves. Gaitskill found it a bit silly that at the end of the film the characters say, in effect, "Hey, we like fact, we like this so much, let's do it all the time. In fact, let's get married!" When in reality, Gaitskill said, anyone attempting to exert that much control over their erotic life would be too riddled with issues to sustain something rooted in reality over the long term.

This got me thinking (there I go sounding like an ersatz Carrie from Sex and the City again) about the social dynamics which play out in the S and M subculture, between both male/male couples and male/female couples. The bedroom (alley, toilet, etc) is sort of a mirror image of what occurs in the greater culture, to the extent that the power imbalances between men and women in the workplace, for example, as well as physical and psychological differences, play a role. With a heterosexual couple, these games many well not translate into a conjugal setting because of the power-dignity relationship already germane to male-female relationships in society. The male, in other words, usually has the upper hand, due to physical, financial and social hierarchal circumstances.

Because there is a level playing ground between men in society, however, I think gay male roles in the sexual subculture play out a little bit differently. Men are used to negotiating power differently, and are quite naturally competitive. There's less of a stigma attached to dominance and submission between consensual males, and in some cases less lingering traumatic aftereffects. For example, when I first saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib prison, I really wasn't all that disturbed, because the first thing that came into my mind was, wow, gay porn! The themes and motifs therein were to me very similar to what many gay men take for granted in their erotic lives. Of course, for an Islamic heterosexual man, with the consensual aspect removed, this would be the ultimate degradation, being magnified into full-blown emotional violence. But for a number of gay man, this kind of abuse of power and heinous transgression, within the context of sexual fantasy and the very fluid power structures contained therein, would be a powderkeg of eroticism.

Gaitskill also touches at one point on gay marriage, stating that she had once believed that assimilation and the disappearance of gay culture was a good thing, because it signalled the waning of a mentality of difference. She has now altered her original opinion by saying that she that maybe the outlaw culture was necessary for some people, to hang onto an outsider identity. I interpret this as an alignment of the "outsider" culture (also necessary to the creation of art, but that's another essay) with the type of behaviors she ascribes to her characters, not necessarily homosexual, but also sex workers, disenfranchised people and psychologically dislocated miscreants.

I would argue that because of their very flexibility with respect to the acting out of power structures in the bedroom, reflected in the level social playing field between men and compounded by the easy social mobility within the gay diaspora, that some gay men, unlike Gaitskill's characters in their original incarnations, would be better equipped to maintain such a master-slave relationship within a serious long-term committed partnership. While feminism has been unable to completely confound socially prescribed roles for women, contemporary definitions of masculinity allow a great versatility in male roles. As James Baldwin said, "This (American ideal of masculinity) has created cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white."

By extension one could add, "bottom and top", "master and slave", "dominant-submissive." I have good straight male friends in the US who do things like enforced strangulation, farting on each other, bondage and tickle torture, precisely because it's so degrading, in fact, free from religious proscription and feminine power differentials, it imparts a sort of dignity the more control the male has over his compadre, the more he is able to "punk" his counterpart. Look at "Jackass" for Christ sakes. It's only natural, then, that these roles be acted out not only in a social crucible, but on the playground that exists within a man-on-man union (and in every gay man's imagination). Who said "to love, honor and obey?"

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Minstrelsy of Victimhood

A few words about Elizabeth Edwards: what a cow. Really. Sure, she’s as terminal as a kiosk at Heathrow, but frankly it’s quite difficult to have empathy for the old gal and her one woman traveling pity party. She's giving victims everywhere a bad name. Have you ever seen someone in such denial? It was nigh-on unbearable how that gloating proxy for the American public, Oprah, rubbernecking her way into their creepily huge/empty basketball court (a metaphor for their barren marriage?), stood by while her husband submitted to one final humiliation in the klieg lights, their conjungal misery laid bare. Oh, the humanity. Ms. Edwards’ gambit reeks of desperation: a feeble attempt at character assassination, punishment of her husband for his transgression and validation of her relationship with a man who doesn’t deserve her love. All in one swell foop, and under the rubric of “getting the truth out there” and “inspiring others” with her struggle and "grace under pressure".

It is obvious Ms. Edwards is a smart woman making a stupid choice here, unlike her husband, who is obviously a man who has been making stupid choices since he could unzip his pants on the campaign trail. There will be a special place at the urinal of political ignominy for him, next to Larry Craig.

This Rielle Hunter – her name so assiduously avoided in the press at Edwards’ request -- is quite plainly trash. Just look at her – she reminds me of every full-of-it, perky peroxide bitch I ever worked with. Those roots! The lipstick! That hair rag! The quasi-spiritual jibberjabber! She looks like she queefs a lot. One can't imagine her delivering the ultimate bowel movement, the "it" that Ms. Edwards so gingerly dances around, the elephant in the room she clearly cannot face.

But Ms. Edwards’ victim game is backfiring, and putting this observer on the side of the other woman. Why? She has put out a self-serving and mendacious tome and commenced a degrading (think of the Children!) press junket, under the guise of concern for the welfare of the US. Where was her concern back when this mess began? When she declared to the audience that she had insisted Edwards run because of their shared “vision for this country” one was induced to gagging. Her mercenary motives are at the zenith of their transparency.

As far as getting at the root of the truth of her struggles, let’s face it: Ms. Edwards is still dissimulating, and is fooling no one. Although there is at the moment no direct proof that her husband has sired a love child with Hunter, or that her husband misappropriated campaign funds, the circumstantial evidence is mounting, no pun intended. Ms. Edwards’ walk-and-talk-show tour has squashed the turd underfoot, but the shit streaks remain indelibly caked on the heel.

The other fallacy she is propagating is that the affair was one-sided, that her husband was merely a fallen angel, a weak man whose knees buckled at the deployment of those three little words, echoing off the walls of a campaign hotel lobby: "You are so hot." How above-it-all she seems in her rarefied North Carolina air, but her words are an affront to Other Women and Single Mothers of Bastard Children everywhere. Sure her husband has absorbed some of the blame, but only in terms of her reaction to it. Her own martyrdom, compounded by illness and infidelity, has ensured that the legacy of their relationship, according to her own tortured and deluded logic, remains intact despite everything.

But the language she uses reveals the chinks in the armor of their much-ballyhooed relationship. When she snarkily speaks of “putting in the time” or “doing the work” – pointedly contrasted with the unnamed Miss Hunter’s “bargain basement” and cheap “hotel room” assignations -- little does Ms. Edwards know that she makes it sound like clocking in and out. This is all too common in today’s therapeutic palaver. Many self-righteous new age couples speak of their relationships in terms of a convoluted manifestation of a Puritan work ethic in order to justify mediocrity or settling for less-than. I knew one couple who justified their love by claiming that a relationship was like being trapped in an office building. You keep going and every once and a while you hit a wall, they insisted, which you then have to break down, in order to proceed to the next level. Then you keep going until you hit the next wall, which must also be broken down, and so on, ad infinitum. I guess the deeper your walls went, the more profound the relationship. I’m not sure if they ever hit the roof (would seem a bit difficult if they were ploughing horizontally through parallel walls -- you'd come out the side, more like) but I had never heard such Balderdash in my life. The only way they could rationalize being an unhappy "unit" was to make it sound like drywall installation or being trapped in some horrible existential labyrinth. If this is the model for modern marriage, better to simply play the whore. I’m not sure Ms. Hunter knows what role she is in, the Madonna or the Whore, but it’s glaringly apparent that she and the heir apparent are waiting in the wings for Ms. Edwards’ final act.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Spring Style

A sun-blanched grey formica tabletop with a faint 1950's style cross-hatch pattern, against which a sole sprig of lilac is silhouetted, sets the scene. The phenomenal acoustics of the Berlin streets allow every nuance of every conversation in every mother tongue to be heard individually or as a wall of sound, replete with the dreaded accordion player and children shrieking playfully auf Deutsch. The cafe's proprietress emerges with a custom made order of French toast, without syrup, fashioned from that morning's croissants. "Especially for you!" she chimes in musical second-language English. I tuck in to its rich eggy delights, not so bothered by the lack of syrup, normally ladled on with such abandon by those dicke Amerikaners. She beats a retreat to the rear of the cafe, fittingly dubbed "Schoenes Cafe", to her American partner and their son, who swings from Deutsch to English with preternatural ease.

There's a third language in which Berliners are fluent, and that's fashion on a budget. It may be a poor city, but (most) people have a way of looking impossibly glam in whatever they deign to turn themselves out in. (Clothes almost seem to be an afterthought, especially in summer, when nudity is default mode). It's a certain carriage perhaps, or the way mismatched items seem to work in a sort of clothing Gestalt. Zum Beispiel, the woman sitting chatting directly in front of me is wearing a puffy blue frock, jeans, bright yellow flats, glittery striped socks (they were called "disco socks" in my youth) topped off with a form-fitting white cardigan and creamy, buttery string paisley pashmina. Now that takes some goddamn guts. This potentially tragic ensemble is more than the sum of its -- when taken individually, admittedly goofy -- parts. But it's not about the look, it's all about the deconstruction, dahling.

Germans test the limits of fashion's versatility in so many ways. Take the simple scarf, for example. Not content to drape it around one's neck, the German turns the classic Schal into a craft of cloth Origami which would do fashion icon Little Edie of Grey Gardens fame proud. They create novel twists out of the scarves: bows, knots, curtains and head-kerchieves (sort of a Little Edie in reverse). I saw a woman just today who had fashioned hers lopsidedly into a makeshift tent to keep out the sun. So pragmatic. Who needs Sonnenbrille? The most shocking example of this phenom was when a woman walked down the street with a male companion wearing a thick wool knitted scarf wrapped completely around and obfuscating her face. Whether she had recently been disfigured or was simply a misanthropic eccentric remains a mystery.

The most exciting thing about Berlin fashion is the risk. And risk goes skipping hand in hand with what? The flaw. The appropriation of the well-placed flaw is an earmark of good fashion sense, humanizing the whole enterprise while at the same time putting an individual stamp on the product, a kind of self-branding. The best style moments occur when something is just slightly off. For example, a pair of silly boxer shorts riding up one's crack, revealing an ample amount of male backside cleavage while riding a bicycle, could be carried off in Berlin, provided the wearer was also wearing a suit.

By way of counterexample, when the flaw becomes near universal, and the personal tic removed, it is therefore neutralized. Such as the case with the ubiquitous low-riding pants now worn by every b-boy and his brother -- you know the ones, that look like they are constructed to support a diaper and it's contents (I've dubbed it the poop pouch or poop droop). I was riding the UBahn with a young male companion last summer, who was sporting such droopy trousers, without a belt, that they began, as he gripped the safety bar, to slide off of his skeletal frame. Still flying from from the previous evening's shenanigans, a kernel of telltale crystalline snot clinging to the outer rim of his right nostril, the lad kept yammering on obliviously, much to the entertainment of an elderly couple, who sat agog, eventually collapsing into gales of laughter, for about ten stops.

And so we must establish the rule that when the flaw becomes a) too common or b) the object of ridicule, or both, then it ceases to be stylish. See also: heads shaved into countless loops, swirls, curlicues and punctuation marks (more on hair care later). This is this antithesis of style, though it makes rather ham-handed overtures towards it. This is the exception to the rule of organic Euro-cool. Style never tries too hard. Like a temporary tattoo, these "hair statements" (and I include Verlaengurungen, or hair extensions in this) are gauche and timid at the same time.

Mainstream media takes the deployment of the flaw theory to another level. Take Deutschland Superstar, for example -- the German counterpart to American Idol. In spite of the campily glitzy garb, I have never seen so much bad lighting, orange makeup, flyaway hair and obvious Pickeln (zits). It is a triumph of the flaw conflated with trash/kitsch national sensibility.

Mental illness is also a heavily stylized imperfection, but again tics are highly individualized. Better that they take the form of a mild personal eccentricity (think of the mysterious Isabelle Adjani constantly covering one side of her face: a bout with Kaposi's sarcoma? Or is she just weirdly stylish/nuts in an actressy way?) When you see hundreds of people twitching along to their Ipods or talking apparently to themselves but actually using the Bluetooth, we realize there is scant difference superficially between the widespread embrace of technology and collective schizophrenia.

When diversity and a fashion attitude is once again flattened by the monoculture, we must turn once more to the body and grooming for the origination of style statements. Lack of effort, as outlined before, is of paramount importance in this case. Filth, or its illusion, is always stylish (see Robert Pattinson of the Twilight film). Unfortunately for US residents, an epidemic of manscaping has taken over that great nation, and you can hold the hair- and dirt-phobic Queer-eye-style metrosexuals accountable. Thankfully Berlin sits on the shadow side of the hair spectrum -- it's not how you groom it, it's how you grow it (twist it, curl it, braid it -- yes, I'm referring to body hair). One admirer of the fur tugged at my chest growth, importuning, "Es ist so kurz!" (it's too short!)

Regarding hair in the upper hemisphere, for both woman and men, virtually anything goes. For women, my favorite is the classic wedge cut or the German version of the chunky bang. There does seem to be a disproportionate number of whites of both genders wearing dreadlocks, sometimes with half the hair shaved off, and straight women with butch lesbian haircuts. One does see the odd giant Afro as well. Additionally, the ponytail never died here. The German version can be sleek, but still reeks of Robert Palmer video. (There is a high co-occurrence of the ponytail with attache cases.)

In another inversion of the American model, Berlin men are also notable for their lack of muscle. Tattoos are fine, as long as they rest on a chicken chest or a negligible lump of bicep. Any form of exertion, is again a no-go area, simply the opposite of modisch. No accomplishment should ever signify a modicum of effort, simply the wearer's (chicly indifferent) personality. But the rules here are finely nuanced. The first exception is if you are a member of the Schoeneberg muscle/leather scene. A fetish is always an excuse for something uncool, because we have no control over our proclivities. Enough said. Though in this case the funny little waddle caused by too much sportmachen is definitely uncool, especially in a country where a willowy elegance is prized even by men.

Going to the Fitness Center is definitely demode, but a finely toned frame as the result of "sportmachen", i.e. actual athletics, it's perfectly fine. This is the second exception. The Deutsche are an active people, and, like clockwork, never seem to stop moving, the gears always turning. Especially in the summer months, the parks are bulging with bikers, joggers and the like, and the Badminton halls are booked solid through August. Triumph of the Will and all that.

I mustn't forget the exception-within-the-exception of these rules of corporeal comportment. The Bauchfett, or beer belly. German men of all walks of life wear these protuberances proudly as their one mark of hedonistic indulgence, and it's one collective flaw that's quite endearing. You'll see the most scarecrow thin Kerl walk into a room, and nine times out of ten you look down and it's as if he's got a bun in the oven! I find this little mark of reprobate slobbery endearing.

These days I say I am anti-fashion, but still, a thing cannot exist without its opposite, and one often bleeds into the other, such as when non-conformity starts to resemble a conformist phenomenon (see again droopy pants, "artfully" shaven heads). I keep thinking of porno-hating radical feminists who end up looking not unlike their evangelical Christian nemeses.

I am attempting to rationalize this fashion dialectic -- all or nothing, all at the same time -- in light of my own lack of fashion savvy. The positive symbol also represents its negative. The appearance of effort, and the absence of it. Aesthetic follows form, or lack thereof. But I know my friends would see right through it, because they know I wear practically the same thing every day (this is a sure way to garner compliments, because when you do finally wear something new, it really pops!) . Fortunately I think they are looking at me as a person and nicht die Klamotten. And well, what's depressing me today is, they're seeing an American in aspect, if not fashion. And we're not exactly renowned for our innate sense of style, are we?. Something tells me a pair of gold Turnschue (trainers)would be an ill-advised investment. (It's called trying too hard!) But, I am here, and as long as I sit steeping in the atmosphere, watching the beautiful Leute going by with their Brot und Zeitungen, I can hope against hope that some of the soignee and Euro-hauteur will rub off on me...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Author Author

"That's not writing, that's typing!" -- Truman Capote in reference to the literary output of Jack Kerouac

Lately i've been checking out these author interviews from the 80's and 90's by New York radio host Don Swaim. The guy swings pendulously from obsequious to bold in his interview questions, but most of the authors seem to warm to his informal style. I recommend William Burroughs talking about addiction and the creative process, Patricia Highsmith waxing about Europe and her days at Yaddo, James Purdy and his peripatetic early life, Nathianel Branden talking about life with a vulpine Ayn Rand, to name but a few...

In Bloom

The spectacular Berlin spring has arrived, bringing with it all sorts of beautiful flora and noisy fauna. Not to mention all kinds of weird pheremones (and the Germans don't waste any time getting naked in hordes). To celebrate I got myself a bike, with which I promptly had a mishap. The lock was really cheap and I twisted the key too hard and it broke off in the lock. So I will probably have to call a locksmith, which are prohibitively expensive in Berlin...I borrowed my friend's wire cutter to try and cut the damn thing. I'll probably end up arrested for stealing my own bike, and tossed into a foreign prison just like poor Amanda Knox.

Saturday I went out with my roomate and his friends to Geburtstags Club (The Birthday Club). We went his friends' for a pre-funk. My brain was absolutely fried so I couldn't speak any German, especially over the extremely loud sound system -- they had one of those home entertainment systems complete with wall projection. And the same time there were disco lights and a fog machine (yes, a fog someone's flat) going full I thought there was a party, but no, it was just the four of us. Later we went to the club, stayed till about 5 (usually people are just getting started at this hour in Berlin). The music was great, the drag show mercifully short, about ten minutes. Seattle queens should take their cues from these was a bit surreal to see a fifty year old drag queen lip synching to teen sensation Lilly Allen, who is all of what, 17? It was all very decadent, replete with confetti-filled balloons, and brought back memories of the Weimar days...

Good news on the work front, our zine, Zusammen/Getrennt, is coming out in a couple weeks, finally! I am really excited about this project, the cover art and layout is fantastic, we've got work from local photographers and artists, fiction and interviews by myself, Mirabelle Jones, and British poet Paula Varjack. I'll publish the link to the website as soon as it's up...

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Oster Blasphemy

Like many expat neophytes, last year I learned the hard way: Germans take their holidays very seriously, and they use many of the Christian holidays as a pretext for time off. Ironically, in the United States, ostensibly the more religious of the two nations, most of these holidays have become quite secularized and hence are not really a big deal. Perhaps it's the Puritan work ethic at play.

At any rate, a holiday like Easter, in the US no more than a blip on the radar screen (we're off on Sundays anyway), here becomes a fully-fledged four day monstrosity for which one must plan to the letter. Everything is geschlossen (closed) for the duration, and if you haven't stocked up on food, condoms, tampons, books or whatever, you're absolutely fucked. And for god's sake, make arrangements with your dealer because chances are he too is holed up somewhere with his family on the Baltic Sea. For those expats staying in Berlin , good planning is of the essence. And cast around for Easter parties, otherwise it's going to be a nail-chewingly long weekend.

This year, I'll be attending an Easter Egg hunt (Ostereiersuche) followed by a queer Country and Western party, the pinnacle of which promises to be the Hunky Jesus Contest. Those dressed as Hunky Jesus pay kein Eintritt.

At first I thought this was a uniquely German merging of flesh and spirit, but a quick search revealed that the Hunky Jesus Contest was actually a tradition begun in San Francisco a few years back by the venerable Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence! I stumbled on this short article on the "American Conservative Daily" website, a sort of watchdog group for sinners. So much paranoia packed into such a short space!


Grant Swank* | March 25, 2008

Men gather in a park for the ‘Hunky Jesus’ competition sponsored by the blasphemous Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence।

Many of the males are hardly clothed. They wear crowns of thorns.

This is an ongoing homosexual agenda to play out the spirit of Antichrist, sometimes in the open as in Dolores Park and at other times in a San Francisco Catholic sanctuary।

In other years’ contests, there have appeared the “old-school Jesus,” “surfer Jesus,” and “zombie Jesus” per Sydney Morning Herald’s Daniel Emerson।

The homosexual group has been parading its anti-biblical stage show since 1979.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Party Monster

Well the social season is starting to pick up in Berlin, so we're all beginning to feel a little more positive, a little less "isoliert". I have already attended several functions, including a Salsa birthday party and, this Saturday, a costume party in which one was to dress as one's favorite UBahn station. I ended up going simply as the person who sells the homeless persons' newspaper, or Strassenfeger, on all the trains. Best costume award goes to the gal who dressed as Rosa Luxembourg Platz. Apparently Ms. Luxembourg was a radical communist/activist in some important position, and was eventually murdered and tossed into the canal. Our friend was trussed up as the dead Rosa, having been fished out of the canal after a few days' marination: green, bruised, scaly and, one can only assume, gamey as hell (thankfully she didn't go for complete olfactory verisimilitude).

The party was held by some friends of ours, a British couple (or as they say in Deutschland, eine Heterosexuelles Paarchen), one of whom is an architect, the other works for the BBC. They had a nice spread as usual, but I was especially struck by their selection of cheesy pineapple on a stick. One partygoer asserted that this snack was quite popular in German in the 1970s, but I will always remember it as the hors d'oeuvre of choice of the monstrous Beverley in the classic British satire Abigail's Party.

For those of you unfamiliar with the telefilm, the most hilarious scene takes place after all the guests have arrived and the drinks are beginning to take effect. Abigail, as portrayed by Alison Steadman is a manipulative monster, but she always fully and unapologetically herself. Sue, who is Abigail’s mother, is a timid upper-middle class woman, recently divorced. In this scene, Abigail repeatedly embarrasses and humiliates her (assisted by her drunken, nebbishy neighbor Angela) by forcing her in a crypto-fascist way, by abusing Sue’s genteel nature, to consume several gin-and-tonics, “cheesy pineapple-on-a-sticks” and cigarettes in quick succession. When the men are strong-armed by Abigail (who is simultaneously passive-aggressive and just plain aggressive) into going downstairs and checking on Abigail’s party to “make sure everything is alright down there,” Sue heads straight for the lavatory for an upchuck session. Abigail, when she calls after Sue to see if she is alright, is seen in a solitary shot, shaking her head duplicitously and disdainfully as she voraciously French-inhales her cigarette. “It’s a good thing the boys are away, Sue” she says. “’Cause, let’s face it, it’s embarrassing when you’re vomiting in front of the blokes, right, Ang?” Of course, when the blokes return, a sneaky Angela hastily informs them that Sue has been in the upchuck, under the pretense of sympathy for Sue.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Amanda Knox and Rhoda Penmark: Separated at Birth?

Being an erstwhile denizen of that gloomy, sleekly empty City by the Sound, Seattle -- the one that gave us Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks and Ted Bundy -- it's been with more than a passing interest that I have followed the arc of the Amanda Knox trial. The former University of Washington student, for those unfamiliar with the case, is in the dock for her alleged role in the brutal murder of her roomate, British student Meredith Kercher. There's been a lot of blather about Foxy Knoxy coming from a broken home, and her fraught relationship with her mother, but it could be that we simply have a Bad Seed on our hands. The internet as been rife with page after page of speculation about Knox's mental state, many ripped straight from the DSMIV. Her erratic behavior has certainly not helped her case, one which has been marred from the start by prevarication and confusion. There's circumstantial evidence aplenty in this case, but no smoking gun per se. The missing link here is a clear motive, so the "experts" are tearing their hair out by the roots trying to fill in the blanks. One commentator astutely pointed out that for all this palaver about sociopathy, psychopathy and narcissism, and crimes of passion, could it be that Amanda orchestrated the rape/murder simply because she didn't like her roommate?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Ode to Joy

I was chatting with a friend the other night over coffee, and she was telling of a misspent year in the big city. We were discussing something like pedagogical methods, and the story took a narrative turn into the long-ago year she had spent teaching there, and a concomitant descent into the nether regions of isolation and despair. After a lengthy chronicling of the events leading up to his mental dissolution and subsequent diagnosis of depression, she leaned back in his chair. "And that" she said with some release, "was the worst year of my life." If comedy is tragedy at the remove of history, then, even after almost ten years, she was still just at the point of being sanguine about fate's crimes. Still, in the cosmic scheme of things, it was only one year.

For me it would be hard to pick and choose a "worst year". Whenever I think, "oh this was the one", some gorgon rears its ugly head, attempting to take the crown, or the cake, and I'm editing my friend list once again. I daren't essay such an exercise, really. As a perfectionist it's so hard to come up with the best or worst of anything. Good or bad, you just want to get it right.

The problem is that we usually feel an amalgamation of emotions, which, like an adaptive gene gone out of control or the weather patterns in Seattle, is constantly mutating from moment to moment. Often we feel convoluted or qualified happiness, joy and sadness all at once. In his tragedies, Shakespeare had to have comic relief. But in real life, the joy and the sadness are almost always concurrent. We may feel a pinprick of joy within a sea of infinite melancholy. It's not just a dichotomy or dialectic, like those cartoonish thespian masks. The two often overlap, like a Venn diagram. This phenomenon makes it really difficult to quantify something as elusive as "my worst year" or "my best year". You have many competing years or epochs and they are still mutating even after they are over, through the muddy lens of nostalgia. But to extract the true meaning of events, good or bad, we musn't let our view become tinted by nostalgia, nor by the romanticization of negativity.

Additional complications ensue when we are faced with a man with a distinctly negativist taste. A bad thing can quite easily be good in his eyes. This can be true for anyone. A couple of nights after her disquisition, my friend began relating not a true story, but a description of a much-beloved place and time in her life. This delineation was infused with love as she described, as a young woman in her twenties, biking through the lush landscape of her favorite Medieval town in Germany. This turned out to be what she coincidentally described as "the best year of my life." Now the description was flavored with unmitigated joy. The longing to return to this state of mind, represented by the place, was palpable. It may or may not have been coloured by nostalgia, but in this case, there was nothing bad to transmute into goodness. This thing could only ripen with age.

When my friend was relating the low story, you cold sense the anxiety and fear, and it was plain to see that there was no desire to return to this state of mind, or this particular juncture in life. The simple statements of fact in each case achieved end results which were not dissimilar. But different filters were being employed to process disparate experiences. The satisfaction and catharsis conveyed in the telling of the negative story represents a distillation of an experience into something which makes sense in the larger context of a life's history, and is highlighted by a sense of relief that a life experience has been organized and put into a category. The loose tooth has been wiggled about, almost pleasurably, by the tongue until the pain at the root can no longer be withstood. It finally breaks free. The only residual may be a lingering sense of melancholy, a phantom remnant of the malingering tooth. The statement about the "best year of my life" and its delivery provides a peek into the mind's processing and remembrance of joy, and it's long term internalization. What is the end result? Ironically, joy is something that is felt physically, and pain is ultimately processed intellectually. But whither those infinitesimal moments of joy, and the yawning blue-black chasm of pain?

A talented artist friend and I used to put our heads together to address these issues. There were long nights, tears and cacophonous laughter. One particularly interminable evening, punctuated by chainsmoking and "processing" ad nauseum, we undertook to explain the numerous and seemingly bottomless problems and their attendant states of despondency which we had encountered. The conclusion at which we arrived was not a very original one: that the moments of joy were isolated and fleeting. Then came the follow-up question: why were those moments so few and far between? Was it because of some unseen failing on our part? If so, we were too blind at the time to see it, or to even ask it. It was simple fact, an unfairness of the Universe.

Perhaps we were luxuriating in our despair. Two tormented souls of an artistic temperament, feeding into each others neuroses and paranoia, one holding the voodoo doll while the other held the pin, plotting revenge against those who had wronged us, those who would seek to perpetuate our victimhood. The list of infractions was endless: I'd been drugged against my will, the Dutch mafia was out to get me, I'd been cruelly dumped and just turned 30. All of which were true, but the negativity seemed to infect everything around us, blowing even the smallest offenses out of proportion, and blurring reality. Someone even claimed that their landlord was really a reverend in a Satanic church, sacrificing chickens. Uh-oh. Someone had seen Rosemary's Baby one too many times. (As one of my students often says, "That's just stupid!") At one point we found ourselves plotting to break into someone's house and beat them up (for the record, this someone had given a friend of mine a black eye). Thank god that didn't come to fruition. Imagine if something had gone wrong. I'd lost my moral compass, and had taken up with the Manson Family.

It certainly seemed as if the gods were out to get us. It was a long, cruel winter, I was lonely, desperate and unemployed, existing -- certainly not living -- in the suburbs. A fringe figure. I had slipped through the cracks. My unemployment benefits, and time, was about to run out. The hourglass was inverted.

At one point I remember, after a day of fruitless job searching, trudging across the frozen tundra of a used car lot (at the time we lived in a converted video store between two such behemoths). Hangdog, I looked down at a frozen puddle in a pothole beneath my feet. There was a newspaper which I could see trapped beneath the ice, a local job-finding rag called "Employment Today". The headline beneath it read, I'm not kidding, "Your Prospects for a Satisfying Career". Struck through this headline, as sure as a Kodak-captured lightning bolt, was a crack shuddering through the puddle, as if a soothsayer had pointed at it, and the crack had suddenly appeared, none-too-subtly auguring my future. At the middle section of the paper said crack yielded to a shattered pane of ice. My destruction was complete.

Why were these moments of joy so few and far between, we again demanded? My friend even asked her mother, who responded with another question: "Why on earth would you ask such a question or even want to think about such a thing?" I remember as a child writing a letter to my grandmother. It was a completely organic epistle on my part, not a cry for help, but she took my mother aside and informed her with much feigned concern, "He's so negative." I couldn't have done it any differently. I was a sensitive boy with an active imagination. I'm just drawn that way. For a budding young negativist, it was a healthy means of expression. In the words of William Burroughs "What is negative for some people can be helpful for a writer." Not that one should seek out pain for its own sake, or the sake of one's art.

Still, my friend and I were dogged in our quest for answers, or at least in expanding the questions to reflect certain truths. The conclusion we came to was that the ratio of joyful moments to painful ones in the universe was shockingly great. The reason for this, we decided at the time, was that the moments of joy are finite, and the potential for pain is infinite. Was this the truth, or merely a reflection of our relentlessly pessimistic outlook?

Ultimately, however, our conclusion was false. There is a limit to pain. We die. We really have no control over the amount of pain in our lives, which I have shown here, is not really quantifiable. What we do have control over, I surmised, is our response to pain. Allen Ginsberg once said that the trick to getting through life (and an LSD trip) relatively unscathed was to not respond too much to any one stimuli, whether good or bad. On the contrary, the moments of joy are usually so unexpected and far from liberally sprinkled throughout our lives, that we should learn to focus on them, and to train our focus not away from the negative things, but to frame the bad experiences differently by, as my other friend did, intellectualizing them. Leave the joyful times to happily crystallize in the memory and remain pure. Whether the awful things remain purely awful seems to be a matter of lessons learned, and the filters we use. Art is one, and that includes storytelling.

Moments of happiness to me include a hearty laugh at a serendipitously funny moment, a witty riposte, a meal prepared with love, a favorite song heard by chance on the radio while driving on the expressway with friends, a stroke of fur from a beloved pet (I'll stop short of elegizing a plastic bag, blowing in the wind). No big revelations, but small moments to cherish, embers to be kindled and not forgotten in times of despair.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


Well, it's official: I've tried, tried to like films based on comic books. But the cold hard truth is, I simply find them boring. I've always found the metaphors to be a bit cliched and laboured, like the X Men's striving for queer symbolism. My suspension of disbelief is dangling by a frayed thread. I always find myself dozing off during the lengthy exposition and waking up during the denoument. I've just always been more of a fan of gritty realism. I'll take crisp, scintillating Albee-esque dialogue, Woody Allen-ish neurosis and Fassbinder-style irony over quasi-martial arts and re-heated Deepak Chopra quantum physics any day. But that's comparing apples and oranges. Unfortunately that tired old faux-Zen Oprah bromide applies here: "It is what it is."

The latest graphic novel to hit the screen is Alan Moore's Watchmen, and it's a doozie. I haven't read Moore's classic tomes, but he also created the original V for Vendetta, a film I caught a couple years back and, while admiring its radical philosophy, found the adaptation a bit bloodless, more a vehicle for a sinewy, in-her-element Natalie Portmouth than anything else.

Watchmen tries to be faithful to the source material, but at times you sense it's trying too hard. My friend Bernd had heard it was "dunkeler" and "ruhiger" than other similarly hyped films, so I braced myself for a slow, meditative exercise. Memo to Regisseur Zack Snyder: there's a difference between deliberate and flat boring.

The film begins in an alternate reality 1980's by sucker punching us with the one-two destruction of erstwhile rapist and all-around moral relativist superhero the Comedian. Yawn. We get it already. Comic book heroes, they're just like us! They ain't just black and white, folks! They're read all over (rimshot pur-leeeze).

And apparently they are paranoid as well. But as all of us mere mortals know, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. Rorschach Blot uncovers a vast right wing conspiracy against the remaining superheroes, enlisting his colleagues in the Clandestine Cape-and-tight Fetishists' Brigade to get to the bottom of things, and what do they find beneath the streets of Gotham (or rather, in their living room mirrors)? A big black gooey cistern of corruption, that's what. Quelle surprise.

Technically, the film is superb. The bravura opening credits sequence following Comedian's cliched demise is a mosaic of 20th century superheroes shenanigans, with guest appearances by the Kennedys, Andy Warhol, the Stonewall rioters, to name just a few -- it's DC comics welded with Forrest Gump, or Allen's long-forgotten technical masterpiece Zelig. The scenes on Mars were also great. I wanted the film to stay on Mars (according to friends who have read the book, the Mars scenes there are much more voluminous) and splinter off into a different story arc, never a good sign. There is also a scene in which a multitasking Big Blue manages to be in several places at once, including a threeway with his Missus and a replica of himself. I really wanted the film to split off into a porno involving only Big Blue and his replicants. On Mars. Also not a good sign.

Anyway, the whole thing culminates in a spectacular nuclear standoff which, thankfully, doesn't take the easy way out. But there's a hollow ring to all this pseudo-profundity, underscored by the pathos in Silk Screen's self-conscious relationship with her mother, and the Big Blue Penis' (voiced by Billy Crudup) pacifist take on old HAL from 2001.

The upshot is, it's been four days since I've seen the film, and, though I kind of enjoyed it at the time, none of it has stuck with me. There is a miasma where my memory should be. In short, it's not really moving, just an interminable series of maudlin moralizing, an how-to phantasmagorical primer on making the planet sustainable. The filmmakers want to tailor their bespoke heroes for these conflicted times, but, let's face it, America is post-hero, and the idea that some fey dude in a party mask, hair plugs, blue/silver tights and oversize clown shoes can save the world only by (spoiler alert!!!) nuking it for the greater good should by rights seem just a bit ludicrous to all but the most devoted slave, excuse me, fan boy. Maybe I'm just missing the point. But somebody please tell me, what is the point? I may be prejudiced, but I find no cold comfort in fantasy, and am not sure if I trust those who do!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Auf der Jagd: Snäppchen

From the upcoming issue of Zusammen/Getrennt magazine

In the multicultural Kiez of Karl Marx Str. in Berlin's Neukölln district there is a proliferation of culturally specific phenomena: Spielotheks (game emporiums), Friseure (hairdressers), Döner Imbiss, and last but not least, the ubiquitous Euro stores, (we'll call them collectively EinEuro for the sake of anonymity), the European counterparts of capitalist bastion Dollar General Stores in the U.S. These shops are a bargain hunter's paradise, depending on what you're bargaining for. Chock-a-block with sometimes-useless, sometimes-fascinating finds, a random audit yields items culled from an apparently Timothy Leary-devised scavenger hunt. Our correspondent penetrates the inner sanctum of this paean to capitalist consumption, which has spread from the shores of the US of A to the Deutsche Hauptstadt, in an interview with a customer service representative from one of the local outlets, with the aim of uncovering what, if anything, is arm aber filthy about this outfit.

Q: Is everything at EinEuro really one Euro?
A: About half of the items for purchase are more than that, actually. In order to make a profit they have to raise prices, it's simply unfeasible to keep everything at one Euro.

Q: Can you name three sexy items sold at EinEuro ?
A: (Instantly doubles over) Ha, well, sometimes we get in edible underwear...then, we have fluffy handcuffs...and...well, we always have underwear and condoms!

J: New condoms? Or used?

Q: That was easier then I thought it would be. Do you get a discount at the 1 euro store, and how many items for one euro can you get with the discount?
A: Well, we only get a discount on the more expensive products. Our discount is set at 20%, so it really wouldn't be worth it to take that off of a one euro product.

Q: Describe the average shopper at EinEuro.
A: Well, we do get people of all ages, mostly women with Kinderwagen (strollers) and Kopftuche (headscarves). The men who come in tend to buy only the One Euro items, whereas the women will get the more expensive items. They usually come in droves at the beginning and end of each month, after they get their paychecks.

Q: Do customers buy personal hygiene or cleaning products you could buy in another store, but are much cheaper at the one Euro store? Give a couple examples. Are there any products that you use at home?
A: The hygiene products are not much cheaper or more expensive than at normal stores. Some examples would be hand soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes and kitchen supplies. We also carry...what are these things called (grabs a small packet of something white, with German words on it)? Antibacterial hand wipes. We also carry of those things you can clean or dust your floor’s a Swiffer, but not a Swiffer, it's generic...

Q: Do you sell food, drinks or snacks at EinEuro?
A: We carry drei-Liter Flaschen of drinks, but they are always exactly 3001 ml bottles, because by law if it contains over 3000 ml of liquid, then there is no Pfand [bottle refund]. Just an example of the German bureaucracy.

Q: What’s the most bizarre item at EinEuro?
Definitely, definitely it would be an ashtray that was made of wood...I don't know, it looked like wood...but it was in the shape of a penis!

Q: OK, next...
A: Wait, there's another item I thought know those tissue box covers? We got in a whole load of Kleenex box covers, extremely kitschlich, with like Russian teddy bears all over them...the tackiest things...after only one day, we were sold out!

Q: What is, in your opinion, the best deal at EinEuro?
A: Probably the name brand items which we get in occasionally, Tchibo for example. The name brand clothing is a better deal because the products are of a higher quality. But shoppers shouldn't expect a high quality product in general at EinEuro.

Q: What is the sexiest thing (s) about working at EinEuro?
A: I flirted once with a guy, and I sometimes meet gays in there.

Q: Are there any products at EinEuro that are toxic?
A: I don't know the exact toxicity levels, but I think the products are often quite polluted, because they are very stinky! Like the fake Crocodiles, for example.

Q: What makes EinEuro better than the fifty cent store? Is there a rivalry between the two?
A: Is there a 50 cent store here in Berlin already? I didn´t know that.
Perhaps there is if there is one around here...we have enough rivalry between the one Euro stores!

Q: Finally, could you survive for a month if you were trapped in the store?
A: Perhaps, if you get along with only drinking, cause we hardly sell anything to eat. Sometimes some sweets.

Q: Do famous people ever shop there?
A: We haven't had any yet. Unless I didn't recognize them, but I would have.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Is Change Here?

The past few weeks I have been stuck in a sort of K-Hole of the soul. Inert. In suspended animation. Not really moving forward, too afraid to look over my shoulder. Wallowing in my own neuroses, the same ones I had resolved to magically eradicate come January 1. But as much as we like to think we’ve changed, some things resolutely remain the same. And instead of changing, we end up simply shifting gears.

It could be that I’m hoping for a sign that I’ve changed, and can then go ahead. I haven’t been able to write so much, and have been too enervated by the aforementioned malaise to seek out material. I have to believe that I have changed, but the pessimist in me says that change is really only incremental, that most of us are doomed to walk the stage, acting out with sound and fury this goddamned idiot’s tale, conforming only to the template God, along with a little nurturing in early childhood, gave us.

I realize how abstract this sounds, it is the very abstractness of the problem which has allowed it to pervade every aspect of my mood. I know it will pass, like the cumulonimbus clouds plaguing the sky, and kommt Fruhlung things will be different. But as adult I am quite resentful of the fact that I have to exercise like a dog in order to stabilize my mood just a little, and feel happy. As a child if you had told me that happiness is such a moment to moment thing and that I would actually have to pay to join a gym to feel good, I would have laughed, and would have felt vindicated in my prophecy that I wouldn’t live past my 35th birthday. It’s so reductive. I mean doesn’t it show just as much dependency as taking a pill? Life as serotonin reuptake factor. How boring. On one level, it seems as if you’re really in control. If you’re feeling low, just go for a jog or lift some weights. But to spend a lifetime at the mercy of one’s hormones seems a bit cruel. In the past, when I have felt depressed, and hit the gym for a shot of instant well-being, it seemed simply to ameliorate the problem, not to cure it. On the surface, I felt energized and in control. But on a deeper level, I knew exercise was just a palliative, because it was an edgy, angsty energy. I was covering up, not getting at the root of the problem.

Maybe it is necessary to take exercise in order to have the wherewithal to go ahead and deal with one’s problems in life. From what I understand therapy serves much the same function. Being in a stable long-term relationship provides a similar sense of well-being. Thank those blessed "love endorphins." (Are we really no more than the sum of our parts?) But modern life is so fractured and fractious that finding such a relationship is night-on impossible. The few people who have found such a union tend to carp about it endlessly, or be so saccharine in their smug complacency that they alienate all but their closest family members. Money and success, too, are slippery slopes. Just ask the Bernie Madoffs of the world (OK, I know I’m being naïve and simplistic, but hear me out).

So what is the recipe for happiness in these long winter months, for the lonely, the lost, the disenfranchised? Hope signified in a random smile from a stranger? The knowledge that we’re all stuck in this cistern together? Hedonistic chemical self-indulgence? Fucking the pain away? All of the above? Talk to you when I get off the treadmill…

Friday, February 27, 2009

Confessions of a Would-be Klepto

I stole easily and often in those months, and my compulsion knew no bounds. Fuelled by a deluded arrogance and a sense of entitlement underwritten by the unfairness of the niggardly wages at the retail chain, my sticky fingers cut a nightly swath through the aisles. This is slave labor, I thought in facile and voluptuous self-persuasion. Highway robbery. We're being taken advantage of. Some of my colleagues were also stealing - I was sure of it - on different levels, and one, a good friend, had even been caught trying to smuggle out a CD. Feeling a kinship with my fellow cogs-in-the-corporate-wheel, and underage sweatshop workers, my baroque rationalization was complete.

Of course, the truth, as per ushe, was a bit more complicated. I could have busted my ass, hustling my way into a better paying job, but frankly, didn't know how. Then there was the endless torment of being denied a raise -- as a supervisor working for minimum wage -- time after time for the most infinitesimal and pettiest of reasons. Was it my problem that the fools on my watch couldn't add or subtract -- that a VISA transaction was off by a fraction of a decimal?

Ironically, these were some of the best times of my life. Not because of the loot, but because of the camaraderie and humor fostered amongst my coworkers, bright and charismatic beings all. Many of us were young and sensitive, passionate, genuinely critical thinkers. We were forging our own styles through the form and content of books and music -- seductively shiny packaging our siren song. The older folks were mostly liberal and young at heart -- we were a de facto family of sorts. There was sometimes drama or high dudgeon, never malice. We would often work on holidays, and would have Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner in the workroom, with food and communal sharing of the pipe in the staff toilet (the secret to stemming the odor problem was to exhale into the commode as you were flushing, and supposedly the smoke would be sucked down). Everyone was there because they enjoyed the work -- they had to be. (That was before the rot set in.) It's funny, at one point we were having a staff meeting at the local pub across the street. The store manager, with ultra-serious affect, brought up a customer complaint. Someone knew someone else who thought that they had heard one of the employees at the front counter complain that the company CEO was a "cheap Jew." This was hilarious. Not because the remark, if it had been made, was in any way funny. But because it was patently impossible that anyone on our staff of educated, measured-in-their-comments folks would have ever said such a thing. It was purely a case of Chinese whispers.

Becoming more and more reckless in my adventures, I knew the jig would soon be up, but was in a state of denial. Arriving to work one day, I was greeted by a passel of security. They were there with evidence of my crimes and my walking papers. The confession was signed admitting certain things, but it was oh-so-carefully worded. Jail-time was perilously close, but ultimately avoided. Walking the plank, i.e. out of the store, there was a certain numbness mixed with pride and a prick of shame. I met a friend for lunch - mango burgers at the local diner. A year later, I was satisfied to hear through the grapevine that the patronizing security guard who had sealed my fate was hoist by his own petard -- sacked for being caught on camera in a nightly workroom jack-off session. A two-way mirror alone is no guarantee of protection. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Now, on one of my daily sallies to a venerable German book retailer, I watch as a male customer blithely scoops into his hand the contents of the bathroom attendant's tip jar. Mouth agape, I look around to see if anyone has cottoned to this fact. In true Berlin fashion, everyone is minding their own goddamn business. If they had seen it, I doubt anyone would have said anything, either. It's a bustling setting, too, gemuetlich, folks ensconced in leather chairs, tucked into novels or tucking into their kuechen. The bells of a snow-encrusted Kaiser Wilhelm church, right across the way, clang comfortingly.

Flanked on either side by the stacks of books I've been perusing, as I turn to go, I reach out to insert them into my bag, open-zippered like a hungry black maw. I stop myself in my tracks. Hovering in a giddy mental space of momentary uncertainty, I feel like a housewife about to pop her first valium. Then it's back to earth as I realize in a millisecond where my property ends and the store's begins. I zip up my bag, locking inside the strong gravity, the pull of kleptomania (never ever stronger than the possibility of imprisonment in a foreign country), and walk out briskly, relieved, welcoming the sobering winter air into my lungs.

Friday, February 20, 2009

From Wreck to Ruin

Lately the weather in Berlin has been a metaphor for life -- endless cycles of beautiful snow falling, rendering all cozy and gemutlich, quickly losing its charm, turning to grey slush and rain, freezing over again, a more temperate rain coming and washing the detritus of our lives into the gutter. In the end we all end up drugged and fucked on the permafrost, food for carrion birds...until then I'll just watch the sky drip from my Berlin window -- not quite rain, not quite snow, the cold still biting enough to tear into your balls should you forget to don underwear.

It's in this spirit which I have luxuriated the last week or so, sort of in a no-man's land, a purgatory of the soul. It didn't help that I ploughed through two timely novels in quick succession -- one about a couple of deluded sell-outs stuck in a sick marriage, the other dealing with the most grotesque gallery of losers you could ever hope to meet. I've met people like this in real life, but to get into their heads for a while can be quite corrosive. Not coincidentally, both novels riff heavily on Edward Albee's acid Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf -- the newer one, The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland, quite flagrantly. The other one, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, was actually published in 1961, a couple years before, but it does harbor many similarities to Albee's masterpiece of delusion and conjugal warfare (including an epiphany at a roadhouse). I do recommend both tomes for those in a reflective mood,but neither trumps Albee's classic.

CAUTION -- spoiler alert

Yates' book is certainly a product of its times, and the theme of suburbia as a graveyard of dreams, from our vantage point, is nothing new. But the characters are imbued, beneath the parlance of 50's Americana, with a universality which may make some readers wince. Can't anyone identify with the little lies people tell themselves to deal with unfulfilled hopes and expectations?

For instance, Shep is a clumsy ox and half of a couple who fulfill the generic role of "best friends" of the Wheelers. In the end, Shep realizes his love for April was illusory, as thin as the hopes which the Wheelers had pinned on their flight from an un-extraordinary life. Shep and his wife may have been consigned to a life in suburbia, and may have been tainted by the Wheelers' maelstrom of a marriage, but in the end, they are, in a sense, lucky in their doofusy suburban blissful ignorance.

Another surprising implication was that if April had actually gotten her abortion before the third trimester, she would have saved herself and perhaps realized her dreams. But Frank talks her out of it, representing the 50's mores of family values above all else. Something tells me that if they had made it to Paris, that goal would also have collapsed under the weight of their own character flaws. That's how much Yates is invested in these characterizations -- the plot is almost rendered irrelevant because every decision is pervaded by the immutable flaws that get the characters in this pickle. It gives everything a nice sense of historical inevitability which Albee would have appreciated.

Coupland's epistolary novel is also a tragicomedy set in suburbia -- well, not a tragedy really, because things start out shitty for these characters, are set against a brown background of shitty, and go from bad to worse to only slightly hopeful. The redeeming quality here of course is the laugh factor, which is high -- Coupland is walking a tightrope of gallows humor and tangible despair.

The action is rendered through various points of view, in old-fashioned letters, sent via snail mail and Fed Ex (which saves the style from total anachronism), handwritten notes, journal entries, and the manuscript of a novel by the protagonist, Roger, a broken forty-something working at a Staples office supply chain (the novel-within-the novel is transparently modelled on WAOVW, right down to the fact that its four main characters are two couples, one older, one younger, faculty at a prestigious university gathered together for dinner at the older couple's rambling campus home, a dinner which quicky degenerates into squabbling, truth-telling and the puncturing of delusions, such as the lie that the older couple have a young son).

Roger once held promise but after a series of personal disasters he becomes an alcoholic husk of his former self. He soon strikes up a correspondence based on mutual neediness and blackmail with Bethany, a fellow employee at Staples and embittered overweight goth girl par excellence. Others, soon become entangled in their web of correspondence, including Bethany's mother Dee-Dee and some fellow employees at Staples. (The whole book could be an amazing feat of product placement if only the characters weren't so embittered about their predicament -- in fact, it could be seen as a practical argument against office supply chain stores.) Will Roger keep his day job or succumb to his neuroses, his novel languishing in purgatory? Will Bethany's elopement to Europe with a handsome Office hack spell disaster? Or can she somehow redeem herself by heeding Roger's negative example? Hint: there is nothing remotely resembling redemption in this story. Like Revolutionary Road, the characters can barely keep head above water, hobbled by their own delusions and fear of mediocrity and beholden to a system over which they have scant control.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Invisible Cord

There is a passage in Edmund White's great biography of the French bard of prisons, Jean Genet, in which the scribe has a mid-life crisis of sorts, pivoting on a singular vision. The moment occurs when Genet is sitting across from another man on the Metro. He envisages a hitherto invisible cord which extends out from the man's spine and extends across the width of the car, connected to a similar cord of interwoven silky tendrils (or something) emanating from Genet. The implicit revelation: that all humanity was somehow connected. For Genet this was unutterably depressing, and represented a huge failure of imagination (on the part of the creator perhaps?), the conclusion being that if everyone is connected in this way, then everyone is interchangeable, and no one unique or special. For an artist one can surmise that such a vision would be a crushing blow, and it came tellingly at a point when Genet's most prolific years were behind him.

I thought of this sequence recently while pondering my ambivalence about that hydra-headed Internet phenom, Facebook. Could FB friends be grouped into subcategories? Granted there are scads of people who had betrayed me, and I never forget such things, the people who I always respected but somehow we lost touch, and people whom I loathed from the get-go who somehow seem to think that the remove of time and space somehow exculpates their crimes.

Then there are the ciphers, and they are at the crux of what I am getting at here. The ones who, perhaps by default or association, somehow, at some point, insinuated themselves into your life, and have come to indiscriminately stake their claim to FB immortality by accruing as many "friends" as humanly possible. You're somehow, by virtue of living in the Matrix, inextricably linked to these people.

I remember a few years ago I was in the first phases of dating someone, shortly after the luster had worn off and you begin to question. Although I was somewhat smitten, and the physical delights were sublime, there was also a kind of rot at the core of the relationship which revealed itself in these thoughts that all there is? Is that all there is to dating a gorgeous, sweet, ostensibly intelligent guy? And then I had my own vision which later recognized itself in the Genet anecdote: this really nice, moderately intelligent, middle class,earnest guy could be replaced by just about any such guy of his generation and elicit the same effect in me: a persistent blandness of aspect. Suffice it to say, being crushed under the weight of both our expectations (and his bipolar disorder) the "relationship" was an abject failure.

But back to the Facebook conundrum. I look at all these forgotten faces suddenly resurfacing on the crest of a wave of a fad, and I realize that the ones who stuck are the only ones I am interested in, and there is a reason why the others had been siphoned off, intentionally or not. If I really want to hear the opinionated, hollow ramblings of some domineering or insane mediocrity, I'm sure I could find some other empty vessel to fulfill the exact same function in my present tense, thank you very much. That much alone can be gleaned from 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon.