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Updated: 25 min 46 sec ago

New York City, August 21, 2017

Tue, 2017-08-22 17:38

★★★★★ The sun was shining through nothing more than a thin film of cloud. Sunlight strained the eyes; it warmed the ears; it raised sweat on the palms and made that sweat glisten. Just before the beginning of the appointed time, the cloud layer attenuated the light in a way that could be thought of as uncanny, if one were suggestible. A while later, when the crowded elevator let out onto the roof of the office building, a full cloud was covering the sun, but it passed on and through a pinhole in an index card it was possible to see the bite out of the disc. Up past the Flatiron, Madison Square was full, and people were accumulating on roofs all around, holding flashing objects to their eyes. A sooty dimness lay over the whole wide view of the city. More clouds closed over, then opened again. Now and then, as they came and went, it was possible to look at the flat white crescent of the sun through them, just as one might look at the entire round sun when the clouds were right, without danger. With sunglasses, that moment could be prolonged, though when the eyes were finally averted, a green crescent would float on them. The rooftop plantings were too sparse to be scattering abundant fishscale patterns in their shade, but careful inspection could turn up a few of them. Through borrowed cardboard protective glasses, the cutaway shape was precise and orange and it hung in a meaningless, featureless void as long as the glasses were up. Then there was the world again, about as dark as a real thunderstorm, no darker. The thick clouds departed and high peppery ones floated over the growing sun. People jammed the exit. After the majority was gone, there was still a huge chunk of the sun missing, and a few diehards with glasses were still staring at it.

Time To Start Reading Again

Tue, 2017-08-22 12:14

I know none of us wants to admit it, but fall is coming fast and pretty soon it won’t be acceptable to act like the big dummy you’ve been all summer. I don’t like it either, but for whatever reason nobody seems to think it’s as charming when you’re an idiot after Labor Day. Maybe you should read something so you can sound smart? It probably also wouldn’t hurt to crank up the old brain up a little bit anyway. I mean, maybe you don’t need to. Maybe you spent your whole summer reading nuclear reactor technical manuals. But I bet you mostly used the intellect God gave you to make important contributions to the ongoing online conversation about the elf incest show. It’s okay. Here are a few books I have enjoyed recently that I think you might also appreciate. Order now and come October you’ll sound like a genius for long enough to fool whoever around you is also pretending to be smart too.

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World by Laura Spinney: The now-requisite “how it changed the world” clause does this book a disservice; there are a few too many “possibly”s and “probably”s and “if you look hard”s for some kind of definitive statement. In any event it is unnecessary: The flu of 1918 killed between 50 and 100 million people depending on what estimate you use, of course it changed the world. Spinney’s book is intensely readable, and instead of a strictly chronological account she circles around history, epidemiology and culture to give a panoramic portrait of the previous century’s most deadly pandemic. We are probably due another one of these any day now, this is a great way to see what the future holds.

 

Rogues’ Gallery The Rise (and Occasional Fall) of Art Dealers, the Hidden Players in the History of Art by Philip Hook: This is an interesting way to look at art, and one that is easily accessible to the general reader who might not know a ton about the specific movements it covers. Each chapter focuses on individual or rival dealers, providing a little bit of a history lesson and a little bit of an art lesson, but mostly a lesson in the psychology of value. Hook may occasionally overstate his case for the dealers’ role in the development of each succeeding school of art, but it is an always fascinating glimpse at the money behind the scenes and the very real ways in which it did shape things.

 

Night Thoughts, by Wallace Shawn: If you aren’t familiar with Shawn’s prose this slim essay on who has what and why is a terrific introduction. Every seeming digression or repetition is really a marker laid down to be collected later on. This is a provocative piece that never makes you feel like you are being unnecessarily provoked, which means it is all the more effective.

 

 

 

Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities, by Bettany Hughes: A stunning series of short (many no more than four or five pages) chapters, Hughes’ 6000-year tour of Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul is the kind of history that rewards existing knowledge while functioning perfectly well for the reader who brings little in the way of previous experience of the ancient world to the book. The pages are dense with information yet the work is never overbearing; you finish every chapter feeling smarter and, even more importantly, newly curious.

 

Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, by Kapka Kassabova: This may very well be the best book I’ve read this decade. I don’t want to say too much about it but its publisher calls it “a scintillating, immersive travel narrative that is also a shadow history of the Cold War, a sideways look at the migration crisis troubling Europe, and a deep, witchy descent into interior and exterior geographies,” all of which is true but doesn’t quite capture the magic with which Kassabova keeps you in thrall throughout. Please read this book, I have a hard time imagining how anyone I’d want to know could be disappointed by it.

 

 

 

Top photo: Oleg Zaytsev

MDMD, "ᐚ"

Tue, 2017-08-22 09:54


I couldn’t believe it either, when they told me it was only Tuesday this morning. And yet here we are. Nothing happens at speed anymore. The days take forever. It goes on and on and on and just when you think the week is close to over you are reminded by people that no, it’s only just begun. If you are someone who is not exactly in love with life to start with, the idea that they’re going to drag it out even further just makes you more anxious about the time it takes you to get through it. And that time will apparently never end. I guess while we’re waiting we should listen to some music. Enjoy.

New York City to Maplewood, New Jersey, and Back, August 20, 2017

Mon, 2017-08-21 18:00

★★★★ The gamble on opening the window to the muggy night paid off with clean new air by morning. Light passed through the open top and windows of a yellow jeep in traffic. The breeze counterpunched the heat of the sun, holding its own even in disadvantageous open spaces. Only down in the subway were conditions irredeemable. Where the commuter train came up into New Jersey, the waterways through the heavy phragmites were solid glowing green with duckweed. Some triangular facet of a skyscraper on the West Side was catching the sun to call more attention to itself than it deserved. Insects buzzed and birds sang in the calm suburban streets. Grill smoke caught the rays of the lowering sun. An even, cloudless pink tint made its way slowly up from the horizon. From the returning train, the trees made a solid, wavy-topped wall, and then even that detail was lost in the darkness.

The Penny Paper Sex Scandal

Mon, 2017-08-21 13:30

In retrospect, assaulting his estranged wife’s alleged lover with a whip probably wasn’t the best way for star actor Edwin Forrest to enhance his image during his difficult and very public divorce. Magazine editor Nathaniel Parker Willis received a vicious thrashing when he had the bad fortune to encounter Edwin on Washington Parade Ground (now Washington Square Park) on June 16, 1850. Edwin threw Willis to the ground, placed his foot on his neck, and began beating him, yelling to bystanders, “Gentlemen, this is the seducer of my wife; do not interfere!” Ultimately, Edwin was in for a far worse pummeling at the hands of public opinion. His attack on Willis gave additional fuel to the newspaper editors who were busy turning this dispute into one of the United States’s first major celebrity scandals.

When Catherine Norton Sinclair married Edwin Forrest in 1837, he was arguably the most prominent actor in the American theatre. He embodied the spirit of the age of Andrew Jackson: his acting style was physically vigorous (to a fault, his critics said) and the characters he played were bold in spirit, evincing more emotional intensity than intellectual depth. In addition to the usual repertoire of Shakespearean characters, he also commissioned American authors to write plays with distinctly American roles for him, such as the title character in Metamora; or, the Last of the Wampanoags. Metamora was a Native American chief who functioned as the archetype of the doomed Native American—a noble savage fated to conveniently fade away before the rise of an Anglo nation. The play, which premiered around the same time as the events that would lead to the Trail of Tears, was a hit.

The support of the rapidly changing American media helped fuel Edwin’s rise. In the 1830s, “penny papers” began replacing cumbersome broadsheets, which had mainly concerned themselves with political and business news aimed at an elite readership. The new, cheaper, and more portable breed of papers served the growing ranks of literate, middle-class readers, publishing stories that emphasized sensation and salaciousness. The most notorious of them was the New York Herald, which vaulted to prominence with its breathless coverage of the sordid details of the murder of prostitute Helen Jewett, and whose editor, James Gordon Bennett, earned a reputation for ruthlessness and unscrupulousness. Edwin’s emergence as the nation’s first celebrity actor made him a sympathetic figure whom Bennett could promote to his readers – for the moment, at least.

Having achieved stardom in his homeland, Edwin set off to conquer Europe. While in London, he met and married Catherine, the intelligent and sophisticated teenage daughter of a family of performers. As Forrest’s biographer Richard Moody notes, their wedding banns were announced in the British papers in between the requisite black bands that solemnly acknowledged the recent death of King William IV, which a more superstitious couple might have taken for a bad omen.

The Forrests settled in New York, where Edwin’s star continued to rise. In the meantime, Catherine staked out her own place among the city’s literati, building a circle of acquaintances that included accomplished writers and intellectuals such as Willis, journalist and proto-socialist Parke Godwin, and the actor George Jamieson. Together, they discussed culture and books, such as George Sand’s Consuelo, in lively conversations that often lasted late into the night. Edwin, however, stayed away from Catherine’s circle of friends, a move that presaged trouble. By 1849, the Forrests’ marriage was falling apart. The point of no return came on January 18, when Edwin greeted Catherine’s return from a late-night gathering with a stunning verbal assault, which ended with him declaring that their marriage was over.

Catherine soon realized that Edwin had gone through her papers, where he’d found a letter from Jamieson, which addressed her as the title character of Consuelo. The letter sent Edwin into a jealous rage:

And now, sweetest Consuelo, our brief dream is over – and such a dream! Have we not known real bliss? Have we not realized what poets loved to set up as an ideal state, giving full license to their imagination, scarce believing in its reality? I have; and as I will not permit myself to doubt you, am certain you have.

It went on from there, ending in florid poetry that asked, “When next we meet,/ Will not all sadness then retreat,/ And yield unconquered time to bliss,/ And seal the triumph with a kiss?/ Say, Consuelo.” The poem brought Edwin back to an incident the previous year, when Jamieson had happened to be on tour in Cincinnati at the same time as the Forrests. Edwin had returned from an appointment to find “Mrs. Forrest standing between the knees of Mr. Jamieson, who was sitting on the sofa, with his hands upon her person.” Jamieson had just attended a lecture on phrenology with the Forrests and, when Edwin questioned him, he claimed to have “been pointing out [Catherine’s] phrenological developments.”

By the end of April, Catherine had moved out. They were unsure of their next move: should they get back together? Finalize the separation and make it official? Such questions would have to wait until the fallout from another, far deadlier, incident involving Edwin had settled.

Back in 1836, during the same European tour that introduced him to Catherine, Edwin’s performances attracted the disdain of theatre critic John Forster, a friend of William Charles Macready. Edwin thought Macready, the premier English actor of his time, was behind Forster’s criticism, which eventually led to him hissing at Macready’s interpretation of Hamlet in Edinburgh in 1845. That set off a running feud between the two actors’ supporters, which intensified when Macready came to the United States in 1848 and 1849.

According to Macready’s diary, audiences threw a “copper cent” and “rotten egg” at him in Boston and “the half of the raw carcase of a sheep” that someone managed to smuggle into a theatre in Cincinnati and launch onto the stage. By the time he reached New York, which was crawling with Forrest’s diehard partisans, Macready was in very real danger. He had to dodge a hail of objects onstage at the Astor Place Opera House on May 7: more copper cents and eggs, apples, lemons, “a peck of potatoes,” and even some of the venue’s chairs. By the next night, his assailants had been forced out of the opera house, but they gathered outside and sent volleys of rocks through the theatre’s windows. The city government called out the militia, who fired into the crowd and killed nearly two dozen people, an event that came to be known as the Astor Place Riot.

The riot also marked a turning point in Edwin’s career. Many in New York’s upper classes considered him at least partially responsible for the bloodshed. Edwin had never been able to escape the perception that he represented some of the worst impulses of Jacksonian America: not only did his brawny acting style compare unfavorably with Macready’s refinement, but his sometimes violent supporters raised the specter of mobs who might direct their rage against non-whites, foreigners, or out-of-touch urban elites.

As the fallout from the riot died down, Edwin and Catherine made halting attempts at reconciliation in the fall of 1849. But they came to nothing, and both sides hired lawyers. The two parties claimed to want to keep things civil, but when Edwin’s lawyers then accused Catherine of “criminal acts inconsistent with the dignity and purity of the marriage state.” Charles O’Conor, Catherine’s high-powered, politically connected lawyer, cried foul.

The rise of the penny papers meant that it was an especially bad time to be a celebrity couple going through a divorce. With Edwin’s reputation damaged by the Astor Place Riot and Catherine’s under suspicion because of her husband’s allegations against her, both Forrests soon found out how bad things could get when the popular press got a whiff of scandal. Bennett’s Herald got its hands on the Forrests’ personal correspondence and, in early April of 1850, the “Consuelo” letter appeared in newspapers nationwide, along with lots of other embarrassing material. The circle of Catherine’s alleged lovers widened to include Willis, Jamieson, and six other increasingly implausible suspects. Willis responded in the pages of the Herald, as well as in his own magazine, the Home Journal, casting doubt on Edwin’s character. Edwin had never much liked Willis anyways: the Journal focused on domestic, middle-class subjects such as fashion and women authors, hardly the sort of thing that a red-blooded American male should be wasting his time on.

Edwin’s assault upon a refined gentleman like Willis made him look uncouth and thuggish, and the press eagerly set about advancing this image. Catherine made an unsuccessful request to have him arrested because his unhinged behavior was beginning to make her fear for her personal safety. The night before Edwin assaulted Willis with a horsewhip, he’d encountered yet another of Catherine’s alleged lovers, Samuel Marsden Raymond, outside her residence. According to later court testimony, Edwin threatened Raymond, bellowing, “I have a terrible reckoning with you and some others; I have marked the damn scoundrels, and will have vengeance on every one of them. Damn you, you have been there to-night, (here a present participle was used) Mrs. Forrest.” Catherine’s lawyers introduced an affidavit stating that there was a very real danger that he might kidnap her in order to forcibly bring her to Pennsylvania, where he’d initially filed for divorce.

Catherine’s lawyers then filed for divorce in New York, alleging infidelity on Edwin’s part. Edwin upgraded his legal team, drawing on the services of John Van Buren, son of former president Martin Van Buren and, until recently, Attorney General for the state of New York. When the case finally reached court in December of 1851, the jury was asked to consider the question of whether either of the Forrests had committed adultery, which led to a series of embarrassing public testimonies, which papers like the Herald eagerly reported (and later collected together and sold in pamphlet form). However, the best that Van Buren and his team could establish was that Catherine had a number of male friends who liked to stay up late and drink a lot. Catherine’s lawyers also called Edwin’s sexual promiscuity into question, alleging that he frequented brothels and had been sleeping with the late actress Josephine Clifton even after his marriage.

Finally, on January 26, 1852, the jury announced a verdict: Edwin was guilty of adultery. His and Catherine’s supporters, now noticeably divided along class lines, either cheered or lamented the verdict accordingly. When Edwin played the Broadway Theatre on February 9, his fans roared their approval of him, unfurling a banner that read, “THIS IS THE PEOPLE’S VERDICT.” Catherine’s supporters were quieter, but in the long run their feelings may have counted for more: Edwin’s career never recovered, and he spent years dealing with the legal fallout. Ordered to give Catherine $3,000 in alimony, he ended up paying even more when he refused and lost his subsequent appeal. He died on December 12, 1872, still famous but with his finances and reputation considerably reduced. In the meantime, Edwin Booth, older brother of the infamous John Wilkes Booth, had usurped his place as the most popular actor in the country, in part because he had a more refined style of acting.

Short on funds because of Edwin’s stubbornness, Catherine turned to acting soon after the divorce. The attention that she’d received from the media during the split from her ex might have been unwelcome, but at least it lingered long enough to help get her acting career off to a successful start. She went on to act in and manage theatres in California, tour Australia and London, and retire just before the Civil War. She lived until 1891. Despite her accomplishments and her interesting personal life, she’s never received a fraction of the attention that Edwin has garnered from historians.

As for the penny press, its role in the Forrests’ divorce presaged bigger things to come. Even as Catherine and Edwin fought in the courts, savvy promoters like P.T. Barnum were using papers like the Herald to promote their touring acts, while the market for celebrity gossip kept growing. When Hollywood began minting movie stars in the twentieth century, there was already a thriving media complex, ready to serve up their triumphs and scandals for the public’s eager consumption.

In Retrospect, I Probably Should Not Have Voted for The Grand Wizard for President

Mon, 2017-08-21 13:00

When the Grand Wizard first announced his candidacy, I, like most people, thought it was a goof or perhaps an hilarious episode of “Impractical Jokers.” About a month later, though, I happened to catch him performing a minstrel show on “The 700 Club” and I was entranced. Could this be the vessel that delivered unto my income bracket sky-high tax cuts?

I began supporting the Grand Wizard in dozens of tweets, email forwards, and unprompted elevator conversations. As early as that first magical press conference, where he announced a plan to send all Muslims to the moon, I thought “This guy tells it like it is, and I like that.” Critics of my pro-Grand Wizard blog and the nonprofit journal I started, as well as my webseries, “The Wiz,” accused me of attempting to “look beneath the hood,” so to speak, “to understand the engine.” I hoped that was the case. I saw the decline in this country—how soft we’d become toward non-violent drug offenders, for instance—and I thought the Grand Wizard might bring about the real change neither establishment candidate could.

It is now clear that I maybe kinda whiffed it on this one.

I cannot stand by this disgraceful administration any longer, and I urge my fellow Americans to stop defending the Grand Wizard. Far from unifying us, he has actually turned out to be slightly more racist than the acceptable amount.

What, you may wonder, especially in the wake of all the racism, did I possibly see in the Grand Wizard? He was a change candidate with a tough, no-nonsense attitude toward open borders and prosperity for non-Whites. Although crude at times, and certainly unpolished, the Grand Wizard truly shined during the primaries. While all the other candidates could only talk about how insane it was to actually have to debate the imperial leader of the Ku Klux Klan, he never wavered in espousing a clear and distinct ideology and the promise of financial incentive for certain people. Some people considered it a dog whistle when he failed to denounce the enthusiastic support of Dylann Roof, but I was not among them.

From the very start of his run, one of the most serious charges against the Grand Wizard was that he panders to racists. Many of his supporters, myself included, managed to convince ourselves that his more outrageous comments—the “Martin Luther King was a terrorist” gaffe or his insistence on dipping army bullets in pig’s blood—were just classic “whoopsie-daisy” moments of “gotcha” journalism. I never thought the Grand Wizard hated Jews, rather I thought he’d help the Jews achieve their goals at a time when they could not, like a Shabbos Goy. Yes, some of the policy positions the Grand Wizard screamed at his rallies were poorly defined, but you always knew where you stood with him. You stood in the bleachers at Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays, chanting “Build that wall!” until your lungs itched.  But along the way, it’s become harder to convince myself of any of this, coincidentally around the same time it’s become less likely we will ever get those sweet-ass tax cuts.

In my role, as one of the few people in media who has been somewhat sympathetic to the Grand Wizard, I am often asked to comment on his surprise victory, or more recently on his controversial statements about segregation and The Great Purge. For months, despite increasing chaos, I have given the Grand Wizard the benefit of the doubt: “No, I don’t really think he is a racist,” I have told flabbergasted audiences. “Sure, he says some stupid things, but only to terrify vulnerable low-information voters into helping him enact his agenda.” Somehow, that message has been met with disgust and an occasional onslaught of rotten tomatoes like in Shakespeare times.

Some of my friends have called me a “hobgoblin” for supporting this president, and a “fecal-covered corn kernel.” Several folks have told me to drop dead. To my white friends who said I shouldn’t vote for him, I asked “Do you wear special gloves made out of money when you flush money down the toilet?” Alas, I did not listen to them. In fact, I actively not-listened by telling all those people to “get over it” and pleading with them to give the Grand Wizard a chance.

Well, we gave the Grand Wizard a chance. And then he surprised us all by shitting the bed on every single issue, every day, for seven consecutive months. Waiting for the Grand Wizard to pivot has truly proven to be but a folly.

It is now clear that we were deluding ourselves. Either he really does believe that civil rights are “civil wrongs,” as he constantly reminds us, or he’s just saying that as a means to nefarious ends. But either way, I’ve come to suspect that the Grand Wizard genuinely does not care for black people or Jews. Those of us who supported him were never so naïve as to expect he’d transform himself into a model of presidential decorum upon taking office. But our calculation was that a high percentage of the population feeling like their neighbors maybe hate them was an acceptable trade-off for a successful governing agenda. And also tax cuts. Delicious tax cuts. I want a boat so fucking bad, I bought a captain’s hat and everything.

Nothing disastrous has occurred on the foreign policy front—yet—just a precipitous decline in our global reputation, and a few close calls. The Grand Wizard faces extraordinary resistance from the media, the bureaucracy and he has inspired an intense level of private wincing within the Republican Party. But the administration has committed too many unforced errors to take its craven finger-pointing seriously. Frankly, it’s been a real clusterfuck—just as all his critics constantly begged me to consider, all the time, for the entire candidacy, its immediate aftermath, and every day since. By drowning them out with a rigid set of easily disprovable talking points, it appears I too may have committed a whoopsie-daisy. My bad, you guys.

I always hoped the racism we’ve been seeing lately would merely be baked into the Grand Wizard’s policies, not his unambiguous words and deeds. But most important of all, I never thought that racism would reflect poorly on me. I’m just grateful we live in a country of second chances where I can heroically distance myself from the Grand Wizard and be greeted with the media platform equivalent of a homecoming parade float. Furthermore, I’m excited to vote for whichever 2020 candidate is exactly the same but less embarrassing for me personally.

 

Image: frankieleon via Flickr

The Trump Train is the Only Thing More Useless and Crippled Than the MTA

Mon, 2017-08-21 12:00

“OK, OK. I voted for Trump. And now I know it was a huge mistake. What do I do?” —Mike America Great Again

We all make mistakes. I once paid money to see “Prometheus” in a movie theater. I willingly joined the Columbia Record and Tape Club. And, famously, I once traded all my baseball cards to my brother for all of his football cards. Sometimes in the heat of the moment we are forced with a terrible decision, in which clearly there are no winners. In the poem by Robert Frost “The Road Not Taken” it doesn’t matter which path the speaker takes, for both paths lead straight to Hell. Robert Frost was kind of a creep.

And I can certainly understand that some people did not want Hillary Clinton to become President of the United States. Let us just, frankly, imagine what the last 7 months would have been like if Clinton had been elected with this Congress. We’d already be on our second impeachment trial. Her approval ratings would probably be in the tank, too. Not because of the chaos, the nuclear brinksmanship or the pretty-much-overt racism. But because people didn’t like either of the candidates for President very much. And you’d have this loud-mouth loser Trump guy tweeting at her every day that the election was taken away from him. Maybe it was better that he won the Electoral College and will go on to be one of the worst Presidents we’ve ever had? So that people can no longer fantasize about what an “outsider” Presidency looks like. It looks like someone who shouldn’t be President, that’s what it looks like.

It’s tough to imagine that voting for Donald Trump was a moral choice for anyone except the true believers who think that the Clintons drop bodies like the Sopranos. And I’d be careful about spreading those rumors too far and wide or else Killary will get you, too. But I do understand that there are Republicans who truly believed that Trump would do Republican things. Cut taxes, shrink government, appoint Republican judges. Some people cast their vote for Trump simply to get someone like Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. Which will be bitterly, bitterly weird when Justice Gorsuch rules against Trump at some point in the inevitable United States v. Trump. But now that it’s clear that Trump may be the worst thing to ever happen to Republicans, that he may eat them from inside like one of those Non-Prometheus Alien movie aliens. Which I guess would be bad for them, although nothing all that bad ever seems to happen to Republicans for very long. They bounce back from certain doom all the time.

You could give some money to some place that currently needs it due to your vote for Donald Trump. Depending on your political stances try the Anti-Defamation League, The NAACP, The ACLU, the Wounded Warrior Project or Planned Parenthood. Money makes most problems go away and is the easiest way to drown your guilty emotions in soothing waves of goodness.

You could write a letter of apology to Abraham Lincoln that you let his Republican Party fall into the hands of such an obviously moronic grifter. Just address it to President Lincoln Lincoln, NE 66666, it’ll get there. The longer you wait to turn on this guy the worse it’s going to be for you. If you don’t cut bait with him over his fawning approval of Nazis and the KKK, what’s it going to take? Today he’s probably going to nuke the moon during the eclipse. We’re all going to moonless. No more eclipses! Via Presidential missile decree!

 

Jim Behrle lives in Jersey City, NJ.

 

Image: Adam Schwartz via Flickr

Seen in Montreal

Mon, 2017-08-21 11:00

Balako, "Nervous Inn" (Eric Duncan Remix)

Mon, 2017-08-21 09:23


Weren’t we just here? Wasn’t it moments ago that we were waking up to a new week, full of dread and barely able to drag ourselves to the starting line? Didn’t we just complain about how exhausted we were and wonder how much more we could take? I guess the good news is I can copy and paste this exact block of text over and over again until it finally all comes down, because we live in a world where it’s always like this now. Here’s some music. Enjoy.

New York City, August 17, 2017

Fri, 2017-08-18 15:27

★★★★ Clouds slowed the onset of daylight, but once the sun got clear it was dazzling to stand out in. The breezes were impeccable, though. The five-year-old ran down the sidewalk on the shady side of the avenue, kicking up his heels. Cool shadows were everywhere in the afternoon, and the breeze strengthened till it was muttering in the ears.

Final Destination

Fri, 2017-08-18 12:30

On the corner of Williamsburg’s 10th and Wythe, camera flashes strike the Delta Dating Wall, a chipper summer marketing campaign courtesy of strange bedfellows Delta and Tinder. Citing industry research that suggests world travelers are more likely to receive right swipes, Delta and Tinder have jointly sponsored a two-wall mural featuring nine scenes from Delta destinations around the world. The companies’ stated hope is that people will refurbish their Tinder profiles with photos taken in front of said scenes, appear well-traveled, then find themselves swimming in right swipes. 

I made my first pilgrimage to the Delta Dating Wall in June for its inaugural event. Professional photographers had been hired to take photos of people as they posed in front of painted backgrounds depicting Paris, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Pisa, London, Mexico City, Amsterdam, Moscow, and Zurich. Each vista was an anodyne idyll of its city’s most recognizable feature: the Eiffel Tower, Chichen Itzá, a crimson telephone booth. All but two were eerily bereft of other humans. The lawn across from the Eiffel Tower looked antiseptic without a single picnic; in the Amsterdam scene, a windmill was left to chaperone a field of tulips. In the two scenes that did contain people—Los Angeles (Randy’s Donuts) and Pisa (The Leaning Tower)—their bodies had been shrunken and blurred. Perhaps this feature was meant to allow the single person, in both senses of the phrase, to enjoy the spotlight without competition. But the emptiness made these traditionally animated locales look ghastly. The girl who was now smirking in front of the Leaning Tower, pretending to prop it up, seemed like a poltergeist.

“Until you take the trip, we’ll help you fake the trip,” the Wall proclaims in caffeinated script amidst enormous doodles by the illustrator Andrew Rae. The Wall itself is an exercise in ostentatious fakery. The scenes are so clearly fabricated; the bricks so clearly slathered in paint. If this is a joke about our ability to recognize artifice, are we supposed to be in on it? Could the resulting cocktail—travel FOMO spiked with relationship insecurity—really send people packing for exotic getaways, hoping to better themselves in the name of love?

I found Tiffany, 21, studying the take it-fake it slogan. Tiffany frowned. “I don’t really like that,” she said. “It’s clever, but obviously you’ll never look like the real thing. I don’t think people should capitalize on faking anything.” For some people I spoke to, profile pictures that appear too exotic are a turn-off. “If you’re in a picture with a bunch of tigers, then you’re just bragging,” said Richard, 31. A few people told me that the trouble isn’t with picking photos so much as it is deciding what to put in your bio. “Talking about yourself is hard on Tinder,” admitted Kelly, 28. “But I guess it’s hard talking about yourself in real life, too.”

On none of my visits to the Wall did I meet anyone who planned on using these photos for their profiles. The strongest endorsement was a giggly maybe. The weakest was more straightforward: “It’s just not really real.” A tourist visiting from London asked me to take a picture of her by the phone booth to send to her family as “proof” that she never left. Andy, 26, was disappointed to learn the Wall is a corporate sponsorship. “That makes it a lot less cool,” he says. “I liked it better when I thought it was just local art.”

“I’ve already been to half these places,” said Harpreet, 29, a management consultant. “I fly every other week for my job.” Last year he took 120 flights and accumulated over a million frequent flyer miles. He said he’d been on social media “from the beginning” and frequently shares photos of his travels on Facebook for his friends, who, he emphasized, enjoy his photos a great deal. Did he feel his loud social media presence was an accurate presentation of who he really was? “Ninety percent,” he said immediately. “I’m very blunt.”

“But if you’ve already got photos from all these places after visiting in person, then why are you here, taking photos that are fake?” I asked.

“It’s a great campaign,” he replied.

Harpreet stood in front of Cathedral of St. Peter the Blessed in Moscow and beamed. Then it was my turn to pose in front the storied onion domes. I wasn’t sure what sort of expression I was supposed to be making. There was too much going on, too many semantic and sociological contradictions that should not have surprised me, but did anyway: the fakery, that fakery is what people want, and that two major brands in unholy alliance have no compunction about giving it to them. On take two, I shuffled my face into an uneven grin that was meant to say a lot of things at once.

Each time I visited the Wall, I went by myself. Dating is like death, in that nobody can accompany you into the void. Successful interviews begin with some aspect of commonality, and I wanted to appear to identify with my subjects as a fellow single, Tinder-using person. My efforts proved more effective than I thought it would when a man I was interviewing tried to set me up with his friend.

“Unfortunately, I’m taken,” I said.

“No, you’re not,” he said, laughing. “I can tell by your face. No way you’re taken.”

He said he could prove it, and asked to see my phone. Feeling trapped, I showed him the front screen. It’s a photo of two of my friends in the woods, laughing. One of them is a girl with black hair, like me, and the other is a boy.

“Oh,” he said, squinting. “I guess you are.” I smiled wanly and directed the focus back to him and his friend. But my mind wouldn’t budge from his first instinct, which was correct. What in my face had he seen? What about my countenance had given away my own brand of fakery, far less picturesque than the Wall’s: the truth that I have never dated anyone, ever?

Writing in The New Inquiry, Eve Peyser and Alicia Eler liken the Tinder profile to a video game avatar. Bearing your name and modest resemblance, it skulks around a landscape that is addictive, fun, and goal-oriented. Success seems built-in: someone, somewhere, in theory, will swipe right, and it will be mutual. As in Neopets or Nintendogs, the dating avatar weakens without constant tending. Neglect the app and it will treat you accordingly, hiding your profile away until you’re ready to play once more.

When I created my Tinder profile, having lived this long without engaging in any sort of romantic relationship had come to seem like worse than a failing. It had become unbelievable, a fact so discordant with my friends’ experiences that I had begun to view it as a falsehood. One infuriated evening, I announced via text to a faraway friend that I must be cursed, another melodramatic victim of hamartia. And so my Tinder avatar had to seem realer than me. It had to prove to the Tinder community what I myself could not, and what seemed so crucial to my success on the app: that I was a normal person with a record of romantic intrigue and success.

The first profile picture I picked was of me in a short skirt, because girls in short skirts have dated. This I followed with a candid shot of me with my violin, because girls who play the violin have dated, and then a picture of myself laughing, because girls who laugh have dated. I had trouble picking a fourth photo, but I finally decided on a shot of myself leaning back in a chair and looking smug, because even girls who look smug have dated. I imagined the photographers of all these shots would be embarrassed to know I’d put their work to such desperate purposes, but common sense told me that selfies would look glib. My bio was a cheeky fragment from Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red in which the main character, a red monster named Geryon, quips that he is a “philosopher of sandwiches,” which seemed like something I could have said.

The result wasn’t bad. I’d pulled a Pygmalion and built a girl. She looked like me, and she sounded like me even though she only said one thing, like a talking doll you activate by pulling a string. When I saw that she had actually matched with people, and that those people had actually messaged me, I laughed. I had no idea what they were liking. Her face? Her body? Her apparent race—I am half Chinese, but most people think I look white—and class? Her school? Her clothes? Her snippy little bio? Was the person swiping just swiping right on everybody? Was the person not a person at all, but a bot masquerading as a waxen European model in town only for the weekend? Was the person swiping because my avatar seemed like a person capable of dating, because she had before?

The girl I built seems to play the game pretty well. She has also changed a lot as I’ve used the app, to the extent that remembering her first version isn’t easy. She shows more skin and has replaced the Anne Carson with original material. So long as I air her out once in awhile, she will work on my behalf. She wanders around the endless high school hallway that is Tinder, leaving kissy post-its on all the artistically inclined boys’ lockers with a brazenness I could never imagine mustering in real life. She’s managed to win me some real-life dates, at least one of which was worth smiling about. She doesn’t even need me! She does just fine on her own. Sometimes I even imagine her setting herself free.

I usually swipe in the early morning, when I’ve forgotten to sleep and the birds on my block are going off, always squawking too soon. I’ve started to swipe faster, and I’m missing a few. Oh, he was cute. But the app makes regret inefficient. In periods of discouragement, I begin to swipe so quickly that the faces blur into each other and become an infinite smear, like the faces are dough and my thumb is a rolling pin.

I went to the Wall three times, in part because I hoped to more intently observe what was happening in front of it: a bemused hand-holding couple staring skyward, an unflappable man who walked by as though the Wall were a mere wall, a woman imploring her child to hold still in front of the Eiffel Tower so “Mommy can get her shot.” What I was really looking for, and did not find, was someone who had come to the Wall in all seriousness, who genuinely believed that Delta and Tinder had a point.

Except the Wall is not serious at all. The Wall is fun because pretending is fun, and it’s fun to pretend together, so long as we are all in on the joke. This is not real, and this does not matter. I play the game best when I believe this. Sometimes I swipe for so long I think I could keep swiping forever. Right, left, left, right, left, left. I swipe left on Michael (25) and Arthur (23), but right on Alex (26). I feel like I’m swiping them off the face of the earth.

Somewhere, someone is doing the same with me. The Wall’s great irony is that, after all our anxiety about appearing well-traveled, our profiles in all their grand fakery will make their way around the world, better traveled than we could ever dream of being, and meanwhile we won’t have left the couch. Our faces will stop in each other’s hands. When you do, your thumb will graze the side of my face, one of so many faces you have already grazed this night. And I will be smiling as if to ask, where will you take me next?

Jennifer Gersten is from Queens, New York. She is an assistant managing editor at Guernica and a freelance writer pursuing a master’s in violin performance.

Trump Tower, Manhattan

Fri, 2017-08-18 11:00

Illustration: Forsyth Harmon

The tower is surrounded by garbage trucks. This is a fact. The metaphors, in being so cheap and egregiousness, are effectively dead at this point. Because for all the unconscionable things we could—and do—hate that man in his fucking gold-plated tower for, this lesser crime is among them: that, in being awful beyond compare, he’s essentially killed off metaphor and simile. Garbage, for example, is an epithet too good for him. You can make compost out of garbage, you can pick through it and recycle things. I can’t see anything redeemable here.

In front of the garbage trucks and the tower the police are wide-stanced with guns, facing us. They look like bad actors. The whole thing is a bad movie. “Is he in there?” someone asks. Yes. We hope so. There’s a roar of good energy and heads lift up to follow and find the source: a man and a woman, inside on one of the lower floors of the tower, holding up pink signs to the glass that say, “Hate has no home here.” We’re barricaded in on 56th and 5th and one friend, as regal a person as I know, texts from an also-barricaded block away to confess she just screamed “you’re a cunt” at a Trump supporter. She couldn’t help herself, she adds, and I know. Another friend, whose silvery blonde hair is newly buzzcut, baring her head, holds up a pizza box on which she’s sharpied “Eat Pizza Punch Nazis”; I look up at this exhortation and then down to the nape of her neck, which bears the word “Love” tattooed in large and elegant black cursive.

There is screaming, a fray and I feel the energy as a shock of heat before I turn and this is when I see you, or rather barely see you, because you’re crouched, and mobbed by middle-aged women striking you and yelling as you scuttle away. But in the scuffle I get a glimpse of your T-shirt, “Trump Pence 2020”. I haven’t hit a person in my adult life. I hope I never do. But I envy those middle aged women for how good it must feel, the discharge of fury as their fists find your young and hate-filled body. Maybe they think they really are beating the crap out of you—the crap of misogyny and racism and the rest. I wonder if you’re relishing these blows for presenting you with a vindication of your own hate, whether you’re feeling a peevish triumph. It could be that people thirst to receive violence as much as they do inflict it.

Police begin to announce their intent to arrest, their voices flattened and affectless over loudspeakers. Out where the crowd thins there’s a white-haired woman in her seventies raging at a policeman in the middle of the street. “Germany nineteen thirty nine!” and then she takes a long breath ragged with sobs and screams it again, louder, “GERMANY NINETEEN THIRTY NINE!” We stand and watch her, reluctant to leave, unable to stay.

One block further and there you are again in your too-tight Trump t shirt. This time, you’re breathless and babbling into the microphone of reporter who stands a good few paces from you, his face vacated of sympathy, arm held out long with the mic, a grim conduit for your ignorance and mania. I slow a bit, enough to hear you whine, “all of these losers” and I stare at you like there might be something in your face that will help me understand.

Because aren’t I doing this thing, writing these things, with some kind of empathic intention—to honor strangers with their due humanity? An intention which may be naive or delusional, but also seems to be a newly urgent moral duty. This, though, is what I understand as I pass and hear you say “all of these losers”: that you’re beyond my understanding. That just as I chose not to punch you in the face, I can also chose not to struggle to invest you with tenderness, to try and understand and redeem you. That seems as fruitless and misguided as punching. There is no moral equivalence between Nazis and those who oppose them, say the signs and the tweets, reminding us of these obvious truths that now, somehow, need restating. There is no moral equivalence, either, between those who defend Nazis and those who oppose them. You don’t deserve attention. You can stay a stranger.

Just before the subway we pass two improbably beautiful young men in tiny shorts kissing, oblivious, placards at their feet and hands in each other’s hair, and I stop and stare. I feel like a bored tourist in a museum who just turned a corner and came upon a breathtaking painting: I’m dumbfounded by a sense of deliverance, ravished. I remember George Saunders at the Trump rallies, staggering out of a ugly fray and coming upon a wedding in a mini-mall. He falls into the conditional tense at the sight. “Up will walk the bridesmaids, each leading, surprisingly, a dog on a leash, and each dog is wearing a tutu, and one, a puppy too small to be trusted in a procession, is being carried, in its tutu, in the arms of its bridesmaid. And this will somehow come as an unbelievable relief.”

Jared Kushner Takes His Daughter To The Park

Fri, 2017-08-18 11:00

[JARED, IVANKA and their children are vacationing. They left Washington after the neo-Nazi rally in Virginia. The New York Times reported that the family traveled to Croatia but later corrected that they were in fact in Vermont. They were always in Vermont. Escaping to Croatia this week would’ve been obscene, even for JARED and IVANKA.  

JARED and his DAUGHTER are at a playground up the dirt road from the bed and breakfast where they’re staying. He is pushing her on a swing. She is asking questions, because she is a smart and curious child.]

KUSHNER DAUGHTER: Why are we in Vermont, Dad?

[JARED does not respond.]

KUSHNER DAUGHTER: Is it because Grandpa and Steve Bannon are still friends?

[JARED does not respond.]

KUSHNER DAUGHTER: Why did Mom say he’s never going anywhere because he delivered the W?

[JARED does not respond.]

KUSHNER DAUGHTER: And then you said the voters delivered the W.

[JARED does not respond.]

KUSHNER DAUGHTER: It’s not like the letter W though, right?

[JARED does not respond.]

KUSHNER DAUGHTER: Mom says white people want to get back to talking about dog psychics.

[JARED does not respond.]

KUSHNER DAUGHTER: What’s a dog psychic?

[JARED does not respond.]

KUSHNER DAUGHTER: What’s white, Dad?

[JARED does not respond.]

KUSHNER DAUGHTER: What were you and Mom saying about many sides?

[JARED does not respond.]

KUSHNER DAUGHTER: A Mobius strip has one side.

[JARED does not respond.]

KUSHNER DAUGHTER: Stop signs have many sides, Dad

[JARED does not respond.]

KUSHNER DAUGHTER: A tetradecagon has fourteen sides.

[JARED does not respond.]

KUSHNER DAUGHTER: Did you know Vermont was the fourteenth state?

[JARED does not respond.]

KUSHNER DAUGHTER: Vermont was never one of the thirteen colonies.

[JARED does not respond.]

KUSHNER DAUGHTER: New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia.

[JARED does not respond.]

KUSHNER DAUGHTER: What happened in Virginia, Dad?

[JARED does not respond. KUSHNER DAUGHTER pumps her legs. She swings up, higher than last push, and reaches her feet into the sky, her toes pointed like a ballerina. She knows that if she closes her eyes, the moment she’s suspended in air will feel quicker. And so she keeps them open, fixed on the cloud that looks like a stop sign, as she descends back to earth.]

 

Image: halfrain via Flickr

Speak German, Motherfuckers

Fri, 2017-08-18 10:00

Here’s a funny rant in the Tagesspiegel by the charmingly crotchety Berliner Dominik Drutschmann, about an unnamed restaurant in the Neukölln district of Berlin where exactly zero members of the four waitstaff speak German. After rolling his cranky ass into the well-reviewed spot for his week’s sole moment of peace, he expects the standard official German server greeting: an angry, wordless glare, followed by Na, und?

He is instead assaulted by the “worst greeting of all time, in any language.” It is Hello, how are you? In English. “This here is the gentrification game, played in full, bonus levels and all,” he laments, after learning that not only does the restaurant not employ any German speakers, but it also has no written menu.

Is he, Drutschmann wonders, a “total reactionary” for wanting to have at least the option to order food in the native language of the city in which he was born?

Anyone who’s spent any time in Neukölln since about 2000 will not be surprised. This district was, until about the turn of the millennium, a sleepy, tourist-free enclave of working-class Germans and immigrants (including a sizeable Turkish and Arab population). But cheap rents (criminal to New York, London and San Francisco) have turned it into ExpatVania, population ninety billion under-the-table tour guides, podcasters, conceptual artists, and composers of “screenplays.”

U-BAHN means SUBWAY!!!!! Image: dguendel/Wikimedia Commons

Most of these people have lived in Berlin for years. Many have never learned to speak German. ‘Member Shit [Whatever] Says? Of course you do. Neukölln had its very own (and it was glorious):

What makes Drutschmann’s rant truly winning, though, is that he’s not a reactionary. Germans don’t readily identify their political affiliations, but if I had to guess I’d put him somewhere in the continuum between Social Democrat and Pirate. A Teutonic version of YOUR IN AMERICA RESPECT ARE LANGUAGE he ain’t.

“I find it great,” Drutschmann says, “that individuals new to the city or the country, who haven’t mastered the language yet, can get a job in, for example, a café.” This, he explains, “allows them to take part in life here, earn a little money, and feel like they belong.” But when, among all four waitstaff of a restaurant, kein Wort Deutsch resonates between them, “the supposed integration becomes its opposite: What helps one group of people be included turns into the boomerang that shuts the other group out.”

The cloistered enclave of Anglophone Berlin hipsters is, of course, nothing new. In fact, a restaurant with only English-speakers on staff it’s just the next step in the fulfillment of a particular sort of Berlin expatriate mythos: Christopher Isherwood; Iggy and Bowie; U2.

Oodles of great pre- and postwar work has come unto us thanks to the inspiration of the city’s unique rubble-chic aesthetic and terminal physical and existential growing pains.

And yet, to move to Berlin, the capital of Germany, on purpose, as a privileged twit out to Find Yourself or whatever, and then not make an effort to learn the language, not for lack of educational resources but because technically one doesn’t have to: That’s an unquantifiably rude gesture. It says: Oh, I’m a (comparatively) rich Anglophone Dickfuck and Everyone Speaks English, so I’m just going to live in my little gated community of expats and complain about how Germans are soooooo meeeeeean.

The reason that I am so obnoxious about this is that I am firsthand evidence that learning passable conversational German is not that hard. I am, myself, a privileged dipshit who was allergic to trying until about the age of 32, and I still managed to figure it out by my early twenties. I don’t, for example, have the iron constitution and quick-thinking resourcefulness it takes to be a good server—I wager anyone who does could learn passable transactional German with about 15 percent of the effort it takes to juggle five tables during the dinner rush. Here, Angiocentric wait staff of the German Hauptstadt, are just a few very easy ways to learn enough German that you will no longer scandalize Dominik Drutschmann by fake-asking how he is:

  1. Get a tandem. They are free, and it is an easy way to make friends if you are a misanthrope who fears other people (she said, with no personal experience of this).
  2. Enroll in a class. There are very cheap ones.
  3. Move in with a German family.
  4. Start sleeping with a German.
  5. Do Duolingo for five goddamned minutes so that you can at least learn how to say Na, und?
  6. Try EVEN A LITTLE.

Immigrants of every other language group in Germany who work in the service industry speak at least a little bit of multiple languages. The guy who runs the Döner stand, for example, speaks his native Turkish, probably some Arabic if he’s religious, and enough German and English to serve delicious falafel to natives and tourists all damn day.  That’s bare minimum. And on the occasions that non-English-speaking immigrants to Germany do have trouble assimilating, we never hear the goddamned end of it. Entire books have been written about this Finis Germania (and then redacted from the Spiegel bestseller list for being too racist, which then increased sales). And yet, for some reason I don’t think what these Volk are so pissed about is a restaurant full of Anglophones who MOVED TO GERMANY ON PURPOSE with no intention of learning German. I WONDER WHY THAT IS????????

Yeah yeah, I get it, languages are hard. I understand that Americans, at least, are brutal and defiant in our smug insistence that the world cater to our every whim, and learn to communicate in a language that primarily consists of irregular verbs and homophones with drastically different meanings.

But you know what? The English-speaking world (besides maybe Canada) isn’t exactly the proverbial shining city on the hill right now. This isn’t really the time to go traipsing around the globe revelling in our own ignorance. So please, hipster expatriates of Berlin. For the grannies who still live in your neighborhoods. For the Syrian immigrants who are busting their asses to learn the language of the country that took them in. For Dominik Drutschmann and his one day of relaxation. Bitte. Learn just a little bit of fucking German.

Aufgang, "Sonar" (Spitzer rmx)

Fri, 2017-08-18 09:54


I know you feel like things can’t get any worse than they did this week, but just remember that you felt the same way last week and look what happened. I have no words of wisdom or comfort with which you might better confront this reality. All there is now is music. Enjoy, for however briefly you are able.

Seen and Heard

Fri, 2017-08-18 09:00

New York City, August 16, 2017

Thu, 2017-08-17 18:13

★★★★ A woman in a bikini didn’t wait for the morning sun to reach the couches or lounges on her building’s roofdeck, but sat up in a straight chair on the side walkway where the rays were already shining. The light was clear and the air had dried. Thin clouds showed up to mitigate the sun at its height. People discussed the Greenmarket produce in German. The Hare Krishnas were setting up where the pamphleteer for the messianic Jews had been earlier. Something sounded like a disturbance but it was only a vendor hollering “Cold water one dollar” through the crowd at a crosswalk. People came up out of the subway shading their eyes. The late warm breeze stirred up the blood.

You Are Where You Eat

Thu, 2017-08-17 12:52

To chronicle every way in which Donald Trump sucks eggs as compared to Barack Obama is not productive; it’s mostly just enraging. His inferiority is felt at home and abroad, in workplaces, in prisons and in schools and in courts and in churches and in dining rooms and in kitchens. His disdain for fine and interesting dining is part of his overall disinterest in the world beyond his shiny but empty gold-and-marble mind. Every meal Obama ate out made America great again. Every meal Trump eats anywhere gives the Statue of Liberty indigestion. He hasn’t just let Obama’s cultural momentum slow down. He’s slammed on the brakes, thrown it in reverse and squealed to the sunset in retrograde.

There’s no chance in hell Trump will be dining at Estela, folks.

On The Men Who Use Lydia Davis To Ruin Women

Thu, 2017-08-17 12:10

There are certain things we may know, already, about the men who recommend women read Infinite Jest, or suggest Žižek’s work — have you heard of him? — in earnest. A couple summers ago, I was at a bookstore in Boston when I saw a sign affixed to one of the fiction shelves: “Please Ask at the Desk for Works by Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac.” I decided this must be a trap for that kind of man. I figured if someone ever did go to the desk, an alarm would sound, or a secret door might open up in the floor. Poof!

But what about the man who buys a woman The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis? I would like to know something about him.

It turns out there are at least a handful of men, just walking around the world, for whom this is the case. I met one of them a few years ago, when I started seeing a guy named Ben in the context of a summer fling that was mostly about books. Many authors had been involved, but the one who got top billing was Lydia Davis. He bought The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis as a gift for my birthday that summer, when we came across the book at our local Barnes and Noble. After things fizzled out (as these things often do), it was the only surviving relic of the whole romantic encounter, and therefore became a symbol. Of what, I didn’t know. Whenever I walked into a bookstore it was, inevitably, the first book that jumped out at me, mostly thanks to its bright coral-and-white coloring. For a while there, it was pretty crummy. But after enough time passed, it became just another book to me — one I loved! — though I still attached it to this person and our time together, and the fizzling out.

I might have gone on gradually forgetting I’d ever associated the book with anyone had it not been for my friend Angelica, who told me a few weeks ago that she had been seeing someone recently who initiated their relationship by lending her The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. She went on about how this man ended up disappointing her while some kind of very precise explosion happened in my brain.

What I’m saying is, I had to fucking wonder — was there a whole tribe of men out there who gave The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis to women to prove some kind of point?  Maybe to prove they’re sensitive, feminist or otherwise exceptional men, unconcerned with the Very Important Male Author. The word “soft boy,” for all of its ridiculousness, came to mind. And maybe it said something about the women too, who saw a sign that said “Please Ask at the Desk for Works by Lydia Davis” and then got swallowed into a trap door in the floor.

One woman, Maggie, who reached out to me, was particularly interested in learning whether her failed relationship with a Lydia Davis-loving man had been a reflection of her own poor choices. Had she been gullible? Naive?  

Now that I knew there was a community of us, a support group, I reassured her, no. She told me this:

“It felt telling that it was the only book by a female writer gifted, like he was trying hard to prove ‘feminist’ credentials. Much was made of the size and color of the book. And, yeah, we’d discuss the stories and he’d read them to me.”

Read them to her! No one story in particular, she said. But, like Angelica, the book had been an early gift.

A second woman, Eliza, had suffered the great loss of having Davis’ work being ruined for her forever — like when you eat something that makes you sick and can never eat it again.

Eliza said the “uniquely confusing” gift of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis “tainted” her relationship with Davis because “ultimately things went badly with the gifter.”

Meanwhile, Rosemary, now 25, received the book from someone she thinks had been trying to initiate something romantic. It was inappropriate given the circumstances: The man had been her 34-year-old coworker at a publishing house; she’d been a 19-year-old intern.

“It’s weird talking about this,” she said. “He would go out of his way to surprise me with things — books, a small souvenir when he came back from vacation … Not things he would do for his other coworkers or for other interns. He used to give me a lot of books — some from our publishing house, some he got from colleagues at other companies for me. Anything he thought I would enjoy reading. Lydia Davis was one of them.”

Rosemary said the book, along with the others he gave her, had made her feel “singled out” and therefore special.

It’s understandable that The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis would have this effect. Davis is one of the sharpest flash fiction writers there is, arguably the inventor of the form itself. To appreciate her sense of humor, you must understand why a story about a woman fucking an oboe is not just funny but also moving. Receiving the book made me feel like someone thought I was as swift and cool as Davis.

The story I always returned to was “Break It Down,” the titular story from Davis’ 1986 collection. It made me think — what would it be like if someone thought my “skin [was] just the edge of something else”? It’d be cheap to call any of Davis’ stories “romantic,” but if you receive them in the context of romance it becomes easy to read some of them that simply, just as every song is about love when you’re in it.

Something about Davis’ work might be destined for this kind of tossing and turning over what the hell it means when a man gives a woman her collected stories. At least one critic thought so.

“Davis’s parables are most successful when they examine the problems of communication between men and women, and the strategies each uses to interpret the other’s words and actions,” Kassia Boddy wrote in the Columbia Companion to the 21st Century Short Story, which came out in 2000.

Ben, who gave The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis to me, had his own theories.

“Personally, I find the act of reading itself is romantic,” he wrote to me when I told him I was writing this piece. “I think most avid readers do. Sharing a book with anybody is divulging a bit of yourself to them. Sharing a book with a partner is romance on romance, epistemic ménage à trois, a love triangle with paper cuts.”

Ben said he’d always thought The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis made for a good book to share because of the “scope and charm” of the works in it, as well as their brevity. Give someone a book like Anna Karenina, for example, and you risk figurative (and perhaps even literal) “unrequited love.”

At the end of it, though, I was the one who was left with the unrequited feelings. And all I have to show for it, still, is a small but hefty pink book.

So, as Davis should have written in “Break It Down,” I’m just thinking about it, how you can go in with $600, more like $1,000, and how you can come out with The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.

A Poem by Douglas Crase

Thu, 2017-08-17 11:51

The pays d’en haut Sublime

for Brian Walker

 

The fables were always upcountry but
The sublime
Understood in its practical sense as
This map of vista and refuge that slides into mind
Whenever you simply are looking
Has to be here: its precincts
So free of protection, freely desired,
And reached by that hard-driving warpath
Where each vote was personal, something you feel,
Cut time. The fashions
Are always downriver, not the sublime.
It lingers the unlicensed wealth
Due to any inhabitant, some,
Who could hurry its data into an ardent shape
As if life were a sensate
Cartography. So it would seem
In this land where the maps all lie flat
Until, trying one on,
You proceed via graphic new molt as your whole country
Walking—in whose indefensible habits
Let me come too, though the facts
Turn to fables themselves, strike back and run.

 

Douglas Crase has published of a book of poems, a biography, a commonplace book, and, most recently, a chapbook called The Astropastorals

The Poetry Section is edited by Mark Bibbins.