Aug 312013


“I hate throwing up. You are totally alone when you throw up.”
–Alan Ball *


When I think “New York Intellectual,” I think “Susan Sontag.” Or I think of Woody Allen making fun of people like Susan Sontag. And then I think of a lot of other things which I won’t list here.

Sontag emerged from a literary scene at the University of Chicago and entered a literary scene in New York City. She was always part of a scene, wherever she was. Because she made the scene. That helps.

Sontag was published by the most prestigious literary press of her time. The rumor was that she slept with her publisher. She went both ways, which also helps. She battled cancer and eventually lost. She wrote about that. She wrote about photography.

She wrote essays and novels. But she wanted to be known for her novels. Everyone does, and I don’t know why. That’s changing, of course. Novels not being what they once were. Nothing being what it once was.

As far as I know, Sontag never wrote an analytical discourse on the TV show “Good Times.” Though I am sure she saw it. At least once.

She did this thing, quite radical, creative, and inventive, when her hair turned white. This might be the statement for which she is most famous. She dyed only some of her hair black, and left a long lock of white at the front.

I am sure Sontag would not want me focusing on her hair.
The thing is, I can focus on whatever I want.
I choose hair.

Hair is pretty disgusting, when you really think about it.
You can wash it, but is it every really clean?
And does it stay clean? Not for long.
You have to wash it again, and soon, if you care about clean.

Hair is dead, too. But it pretends to be alive.
Ever look at the hair on the floor of a barber shop?
It makes you want to throw up. That hair is done pretending.


* from his play, “Five Women Wearing A Dress,” c. 1993.
**video of Robert Motherwell’s painting Spanish Republic #57 by Khan Academy
***audio is from “Good Times:” aired on CBS from 1974 to 1979.

Jul 302013


“Agamemnon, aggression, Agnew (Spiro), agnosticism, agreement (grammar), agribusiness, air pollution, air quality index, Akron, Ohio.”

E.D. Hirsch, Jr.: Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, c. 1987

This is a sample from a book-length list some guy put together to help culturally illiterate people catch up with their more educated fellows. Of course, cultural ignorance is hard to define, and snobby to even contemplate. And it’s not something we’re likely to measure in ourselves, or bother to improve. Better strategy: hang out with people who like the same shit.

Isn’t it our prerogative, anyway, to curate our cultural influences? Walt likes Game of Thrones. Angie likes Desperate Housewives. Brianne likes Jim Lehrer. Agree to disagree and keep the ad money coming in for the networks.

But we’re often forced to shower in a culture stream that feels uncomfortable. The movie preview so scary and violent you pee your pants. At CVS you hear a played-to-death Phil Collins song, and it brings you to your knees in despair. Or maybe you get stuck with morning TV in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. Kelly Ripa and her friends are dressed up in inflatable sumo wrestling costumes. They are wrestling. (Technically, that’s Japanese culture.)

Quick culture quiz: Do you recognize the men in the image above?

What I know about the Beach Boys is that Brian Wilson went crazy; his breakdown ended The Beach Boys’ reign as pop music superstars. And I know that hipsters recognize Pet Sounds as a work of genius to rival some of the Beatles later albums.

Also, I saw Mike Love and other lesser Beach Boys play an Arabian Horse show at a Virginia coliseum in 1983. After the band played, the horses came out and ran around. The horses were for sale. Pretty expensive, too, as I recall.

As far as cultural literacy goes, the “sixties surf scene“ is pure and secure. A splash of vintage, a splash of pioneer. And the grainy film that captured it adds to the elusive vibe.

A taco shop in suburban NJ where I live has taken this surf culture as its brand/theme. There are longboards mounted on the wall. In the corner, a TV monitor screens vintage film footage: fifteen-foot waves, a crouch in the pipeline, tan girls in bikinis walking the shore in rapt admiration. Long straight blonde hair.

Walk outside though, and you’re still in a bedroom community outside of New York City, at least an hour’s drive from the beach. Even there, the waves are usually crappy. Lunch-breaking office workers in suits approach on the sidewalk . . . all they really want is a decent burrito.




*about the art: “Vegetables” by Joey Epstein and Tom Hachtman, photo by Ben Asen.
from The Beach Boys by Byron Preiss, Ballantine Books, 1979.


May 212013


Some things to consider about communal living . . .

How many people do you want around?
On what basis will you select them?
How will you support yourselves?
How will each person have privacy?
How will you deal with the government, with transient people, with runaways?
How will you educate your children?
How many dogs will you allow?


from Living on the Earth, by Alicia Bay Laurel. c. 1971.


I want fifteen people around. Five men, ten women including me.
I will select them based on their feet. If they have ugly feet, especially if they have warts or bunions, they are disqualified. Women with toes that are pretty enough to adorn with rings will certainly be admitted.
We will support ourselves by growing mayors and governors in the garden.
We will create privacy by sleeping in coffins.
We will teach government officials how to use Twitter and Vine.
We will listen to transient people until they bore us with their repetitive miseries.
We will give the runaways a place to live but only under the condition that they think, talk, and act like people with beautiful feet.
We will educate our children by giving them the benefit of the doubt.
We will allow dogs.


May 152013


this morn att two oClock we slung our packs / advanc’d towards the enemy about 3 milds from ware we lay / part of the militia & light hores that was on the wright engag’d the enemy / then our Division advanced towards the enemy / thay form’d in a Sollid Collom then fir’d a voley att us / thay being so much Superier to our Number we retreated / they begun a very heavy Cannading / kil’d a few of our Rijmt. then we form’d again under a fence ware the light horse advanced on us / we began a fire on them very heavy / then the footmen rushed on us / after firing a Number of rounds we was obliged to retreat. a Number of our men died with heat a retreating. a Number of troops form’d in the rear of us and sum artilira which cover’d our retreat. thay began a fire on the enemy, then thay (the British) retreat’d / Left the Ground with about a thousand kil’d & wounded. on our Side about two hunderd kil’d & wounded & died with heat / after We retreated we went back to the ground ware we left in the morning att English town ware we buried sum of our officers. here rec’d a ball in my left thy.

excerpt from the diary of Jeremiah Greenman, soldier (1758-1828)



He learnt that it’s real, real important to have money. More is better.
And to obey the people with authority.
What is authority? They are bigger than you, or they have guns. They might be wearing uniforms.

And when he got lost—it could happen, it happens all the time—if he got lost he should go up to someone in a uniform and ask for help. Of course, bus drivers wear uniforms. Prisoners wear uniforms. But when a boy is lost, he has to take his chances. Most of the time, he was told, you could trust a person in a uniform.

She learnt that pain is part of everyday life for a girl. In fact, why bother calling it pain, pain is a judgment word, a qualifier. Think of some new word for that spike of self-rejection that dissolves into a shrug. She was riding this feeling before she was old enough to pierce her ears.

She found that she could just reach out and hold someone’s hand. Just grab the hand of someone nearby and hold on to it. Always have a person near, a person with a hand. The hand is replaceable, interchangeable. Nothing magical about the person it’s attached to. The hand is the thing.

And if there’s no one around with a uniform, talk to an adult with small children. Adults with small children are usually parents. Parents are usually safe.


Nov 122012


“Ultimately, the criminal and the madman are pure objects and solitary subjects; their frantic subjectivity is carried to the point of solipsism at the moment when they are reduced for others to the state of a pure, manipulated thing, or a pure being-there without a future, prisoners who are dressed and undressed, who are spoon-fed. On the one hand are dream, autism, absence; on the other, the ant heap; on the one hand, shame and the impotent hatred that turns against itself and vainly defies the heavens, and on the other the opaque being of the pebble, the ‘human material.’ “
Jean-Paul Sartre, Saint Genet


Let’s not say the eighties were good or bad. Let’s take a spiritual attitude toward the music, the clothes, the art, the popular films and their dripping montages. Radical acceptance: it happened and it needed to happen and we accept it completely. We are pebbles. We love our hair.

Not only did I watch 9½ Weeks (1986) this weekend, I even PAID to watch it. Only $2.99, but still. I had to hit the fast-forward button a few times, to preserve my dignity. But mostly the movie held my interest, in spite of its generic S&M tropes and the poppy popcorn courtship in New York City (grittier and prettier then.)

“Elizabeth” is a bobby-socked, baggy-sweater-wearing, overgrown college co-ed in need of a spanking. (Beautiful Loser) “John” is a mysterious, possibly criminal, uber-rich Wall Street banker. (Sinning Winner) Oh, those sinning Wall Street winners are a dime a dozen now. And so are the beautiful losers, especially the ones with southern accents. They live in big houses with generators.

Radical acceptance: it’s not good or bad that John orders Elizabeth to crawl around on her hands and knees and pick up crumpled, one-hundred dollar bills. It’s not good or bad that he probably beats her with a belt. She doesn’t do it, after all. She refuses to crawl. Free choice under capitalism. Self-determination. Life is good.®

Oh, and let’s embrace the Hollywood portrayal of the Soho art world in the eighties at the height of its sophistication and flair, or so we thought. The glassed, storefront loft spaces look the same, twenty-five years later. Art appreciation and exchange still take place in high-ceilinged rooms with white walls and hardwood floors. Human beings pack themselves into parties with wine, crackers, and social debt. The spoonfed ant heap. SOLD.

Nov 082012


“It is yearning that makes the heart deep.”


Starting in first grade, my younger brother played little league baseball. His team was the Reds. I did not play little league baseball. It was not offered to girls, not optional, not done. I remember being very bored at the games, but I entertained myself by picking hardened chewing gum off the bottoms of the bleachers and attempting to soften it with various brands of soda. It was a magical world under there in the dust. I would also roam the fields with exciting, nameless girls, sisters of other players. We might have been happier playing in the game, but we didn’t know that, or really even care.

I have two friends from California, women who grew up in Los Angeles in the seventies. They both played little league baseball there, side-by-side with boys. They are proud of this and they should be. Neither one of these friends wears makeup on a day-to-day basis, if ever. They both have careers.

About ten years ago, I read about a female poet in a suburban newspaper. This poet was prolific, never lazy, always writing her poems and getting them published everywhere possible. She was rather well known for this reason. I got the distinct impression that the person who wrote the article, and the poetry-reading populace by extension, didn’t think the woman’s poems were very good. She had distinguished herself with the sheer volume of her output. According to the article, the poet’s boyfriend had a government job and he commuted into DC. The poet lived out in the wherever suburbs and did her thing. Her boyfriend paid the bills.

For some reason I always remember that detail about the commuting boyfriend, and the image of the lady poet in fuzzy socks curled up in her condo with a cat and a typewriter. It is stuck in my brain with the hardened gum on the bottom of the bleachers.

Go get ’em girls.
Do your best. Go out there, and cover your chest.



film clip is from That Hamilton Woman, 1941.

Nov 052012



 “I helped make Mexico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenue in. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers. . . . I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras “right” for American fruit companies in 1903. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints.”

Marine Corps Gen. Smedley D. Butler, from War is a Racket


A group of nine or ten men are sitting in a church-like setting, but it is not church. They are mostly African-American, mostly over forty. Each man is expected to read a passage aloud from a common book; they all have a copy. The year is 2012. The place is a smaller city on the East Coast. It’s Philadelphia.

A few of the gentlemen in the room cannot really read. This becomes apparent as they take turns with the book. When I say the men cannot read, I mean they cannot read unfamiliar words longer than two syllables. They cannot make it through a complex sentence without stumbling.

Sometimes, when one of these men reaches a roadblock in the text, he pauses and waits. Then someone else with better reading skills calls out the pronunciation. One helpful person, in particular, does not always wait long enough. He breaks with an unspoken consensus about the number of decoding attempts a reader is allowed to make before he is rescued.

Occasionally, almost as if to fend off a correction, the struggling reader will take a wild stab at a difficult word, throwing out an unrelated word with some of the same letters, or substituting a related word with a similar root.

Another choice is to just push on syllable-by-syllable, defying rescue. Maybe he will find his way phonetically and figure it out as he goes. It often ends up being a butcher job, but everyone else is following along in the book. No harm done. It’s a supportive group. There’s a lot of love. But it’s not English class, is it.

Why am I telling you this? Why is there a picture of the First Bank of the United States attached to this post? It happens to be in Philadelphia, as well. Why do we vote? Why do we read? Why do we bother?



Jul 112012

from Goodbye to All That by Harris Lewine, McGraw-Hill 1970. It's an ode to smokes.


Where do correct ideas come from? Do they drop from the skies? No. Are they innate in the mind? No. They come from social practice, and from it alone; they come from three kinds of social practice: the struggle for production, the class struggle, and scientific experiment. —Mao Tse Tung quoted in The New Wave, by James Monaco (Oxford University Press, c. 1976.)


starts as a callus, ends as a nail salon

starts as a ball and a stick, ends as a 23 million dollar contract with the Diamondbacks

starts as a push and a cry, ends as a c-section of test-tube triplets

starts as a bake sale, ends as an auction of Caribbean condo time

starts as a cow, ends as a cheez-it

doesn’t start doesn’t end


Jun 142012



position determines one’s feelings. And yet
to walk on top of a thing is not to prevail over it—
it is more the opposite, a disguised dependency,
by which the slave completes the master.” Louise Gluck
from the poem 'Earthworm' in the book 'A Village Life.' (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: New York, 2009.)


In which Barbara Ehrenreich goes undercover as a maid and writes an exposé of the horror of the working poor. She then returns to her real life.

I was jealous of J. when we were in our twenties because she had a “real” job and she used the money from her “real” job to pay someone else to clean her apartment. I did not have a real job and I did not have anyone cleaning my apartment. I did have a therapist, however, who saw me at the very bottom end of her sliding scale. $35 an hour.

I guess I had a “real” job, too, now that I think of it. But my job did not feel “real”, which is maybe why I gave piece of my small weekly salary to this therapist, who also read tarot cards. The same money could have gone toward housecleaning, though that probably did not occur to me at the time. I did like to feel jealous of J.

The therapist told me it was noble and moral for me to clean my own apartment. She also said that J was garnering bad karma by having someone else clean hers. We decided that there was something therapeutically Zen about cleaning up after myself.

Of course, my apartment was a real pigsty. Things improved vastly when my roommate moved out. She left three or four pieces of old chewing gum stuck to the floor. I still don’t understand that.

Where I live now, companies with working papers fill small station wagons with young women who lack the same. Many of these young women have long, straight black hair in ponytails.

Sometimes, when men live together, they don’t bother to clean the toilet bowls. The bathroom develops urinal overtones.

A house shall be as foul or as pure as ye can bear.
I made that up.

May 312012

“By enabling farmers to generate food surpluses, food production permitted farming societies to support full-time craft specialists who did not grow their own food and who developed technologies. Besides sustaining scribes and inventors, food production also enabled farmers to support politicians.”
Jared Diamond, from ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’ 'Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies' W.W. Norton, 1999.


This is the backyard of a spec home in _____?______.

Grass fed beef costs around $25 a pound and tastes like mud.
Corn-fed beef is fatty and tainted and very evil.
The cow on this grill was fed only _____?____.

The large urn by the pool holds the remains of the homeowner’s mother, father, and a beloved family pet, recently deceased. The pet was a two-year-old puppy named Barry. Barry was a crossbreed, one of the new hybrid options.
The name of his breed is pieced together from the breeds that were crossed to create him. The last syllable of Barry’s breed is “doodle.”
The first two syllables are _____?____.

Barry was hit by the Poland Springs delivery truck. There is no question here.

One of the stainless steel drawers exists exclusively for the warming up of hot dog and hamburger buns. No question here either.

At the party, one man is going to drink far too much. He will then go into a mild and mostly harmless blackout. When he wakes up the next morning with a vicious hangover, he will long to ask his wife if he said or did anything stupid. When he and she first dated, right after college, she would give him a full report and they would have a laugh about it. But the whole morning and afternoon go by and the man doesn’t mention it to his wife. In fact, they don’t speak at all.

At dinnertime, they decide to go out.
“Diner or pizza?” she asks.

Apr 222012



“After reading Howitt’s account of the Australian gold diggings one evening, I had in my mind’s eye, all night, the numerous valleys, with their streams, all cut up with foul pits, from ten to one hundred feet deep, and half a dozen feet across, as close as they can be dug, and partly filled with water—the locality to which men furiously rush to probe for their fortunes—uncertain where they shall break ground—not knowing but the gold is under their camp itself—sometimes digging one hundred and sixty feet before they strike the vein, or then missing it by a foot—turned into demons, and regardless of each other’s rights, in their thirst for riches—whole valleys, for thirty miles, suddenly honeycombed by the pits of the miners, so that even hundreds are drowned in them—standing in water, and covered in mud and clay, they work night and day, dying of exposure and disease. Having read this, and partly forgotten it, I was thinking, accidentally, of my own unsatisfactory life, doing as others do; and with that vision of the diggings still before me, I asked myself why I might not be washing some gold daily?”

Henry David Thoreau, Life Without Principle*Henry David Thoreau: “Life Without Principle.” (Not to be confused with “Life Without Principal.”) Taken from The American Transcendentalists, edited by Perry Miller, Johns Hopkins University Press: 1981. Transcendentalism. Such a yummy word. I never have felt like it delivers up to its promise.


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