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…