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Be Less Stupid
Updated: 2 min 51 sec ago

That is a Horrible System

4 hours 34 min ago

Image: Timothy Krause via Flickr

Sunday morning at 11 AM: I park my car at the corner of Bedford and Gates on a Tuesday street parking spot. I check the signs. I’m good. I go about my day.

Monday at 7:15 PM: Arrive back at the spot where my car was parked to move it for street cleaning. My car’s not there. What is there are a bunch of cones and a new sidewalk. Ok, seems like the car got towed. Who towed the car?

7:20 PM: Get home and search the NYC towed car database for my plates. No dice.

7:25 PM: Call my local precinct, the 88. The 88 tells me they can’t find my car. The 88 tells me they’re not my local precinct. Call the 79, they say, that’s your precinct.

7:30 PM: Call the 79. The 79 wants to know what color is the car? What make? What year? 2010, I think, I say. Were you parked in front of a driveway? No, I say. The 79 says a bunch of cars got towed off Franklin, but not Bedford.

Do I want to report it stolen, they ask. It’s probably not stolen, they say, but there’s a chance it is stolen.

Is there any drawback to me reporting it stolen if it’s not stolen, I ask.

No, not really, except if it’s not stolen and you find it and you start driving it around and you forget to tell us that it wasn’t stolen and we pull you over, we can arrest you for driving your own stolen car. But it’s probably not stolen, they say. Someone else could have towed it.

Wait, someone else could have towed it? Who? Anyone can just have anyone else’s car towed anytime they want?

Well, if you were parked in front of a driveway.

I wasn’t parked in front of a driveway, I say. I was parked in front of a bodega.

Well, did you try asking the people at the bodega?

No, I say. Should I have?

Yeah, try that and then call back in a few hours. Sometimes there’s a lag in the system. Could be a day or two.

A day or two!?

7:45 PM: I walk back to where the car was parked and into the nearby bodega and talk to the bodega guy. I feel like Olivia Benson in L&O SVU asking about a suspect but I am only asking about my stupid car. The bodega guy says, yeah, they towed cars. Yeah, it was Con Ed. There were signs. Didn’t you see the signs!?

There were no signs when I parked 30 hours earlier. I go outside and poke around the cones surrounding the fresh, wet cement on the sidewalk. Inside one of the cones is a crumpled up sign that says: TOW AWAY ZONE / NO PARKING MONDAY / ROAD REPAIR / NYC DOT.

Ah hah! Mystery solved! Not Con Ed…DOT! Witnesses are unreliable, says my inner Olivia Benson. Never trust them.

7:50 PM: Go home and Google “towed by NYC DOT.” Get the number of the Brooklyn auto impound, which is in the Navy Yard and open til ten. Call them.

Ima put you on hold and when I come back have your plate number ready, says the lady when she picks up.

[HOLD]

Lady comes back and I give her my plate. We don’t have your car here, she says.

It was towed by DOT, I say.

Call 311 and get the number for DOT, she says.

8:00 PM: Call 311 and explain the situation. 311 says, I can’t find a record of your car being towed. I say, yeah, I know, there’s no record.

Do you want me to report it stolen, she asks. Well, there’s a sign I found and a new sidewalk, so I’m guessing it was towed. I can put you through to 911 and you can report it stolen, she says again. But I’m pretty sure it wasn’t stolen, I say.

Would it be in the system if it was DOT, I ask. Yeah, DOT is a city agency, she says, so yeah. Could it have been someone else who towed it, I ask. Well, where was it towed from, she asks. Bedford and Quincy, I say.

Heroic 311 operator then goes into the system to look up the FUCKING PERMIT NUMBER for who did the work and she finds the number and then she looks up the number and the number leads back to…

CON ED.

Should have trusted Bodega guy.

Do you want me to put you through to Con Ed, she asks. Someone will be there now.

Sure, I say. Sure.

[HOLD]

8:15 PM: So now I’m on hold with Con Ed. This whole time I’ve been trying to go to the gym so I just fucking go to the gym and get on the elliptical and wait on hold with Con Ed. 8 minutes into my workout I get off hold and a guy picks up and asks me what’s going on so I tell him the whole thing.

So you’re basically just like, “dude, where’s my car?” right now.

I’m exactly like, “dude, where’s my car?” right now.

Ok, this is a weird one, he says. Can I put you on hold?

Sure.

[HOLD]

He comes back from hold and he says, I’ve got some bad news. The bad news is a construction crew towed your car but they went home at 5 so I can’t reach them.

Where did they tow it, I ask.

Oh, well when the construction crew tows it, they usually just leave it in a 3 block radius. But they’re all gone right now. So if you want you can just walk around clicking your…

Wait a minute, I say. You’re telling me they just move it somewhere else and there’s no way to know where except that it’s in a three block radius.

Yep, that’s what they do.

And so if I call back tomorrow during business hours, you’ll call the crew and they’ll be able to tell me where they put it.

Well, actually, I’ll call the crew and they’ll call the tow services they used and then hopefully the tow service will remember where they put it.

Wait, I say, you’re telling me they don’t write it down!?

Well, it’s kind of up to their memories, he says.

That is a horrible system, I say.

Yeah, he says, kind of laughing. People rip the signs down, he says.

I try to figure out how people ripping the signs down justifies this horrible system for a moment, but I can’t figure it out.

But can you at least confirm that it was Con Ed that did the work, I ask.

No, he says.

Even if I tell you where I was parked?

Can I put you on hold?

Sure.

[HOLD]

He comes back from hold and he says, I don’t really know Brooklyn too well but I don’t see Bedford Avenue. I see Putnam? Hancock?

Yeah, I mean those are streets that are nearby but they’re not the street where I parked my car.

Yeah, sorry I can’t be more help, he says.

No, no, thank you, I say. I learned something new tonight. Something very new and very weird.

9:10 PM: For the third time this evening, I walk back to where the car was parked, pressing the lock button that honks the horn as I walk. I walk two paces past the bodega and hear the faint sound of my car which is LITERALLY PARKED AROUND THE CORNER IN A MONDAY SPOT. The car has a parking ticket. Otherwise, it is fine.

Roughly Month Later: I attempt to appeal the ticket by sending this piece in full through the official online hearing text field on NYC.gov.

Roughly Two Months Later: I receive word from the city that I do not have enough evidence to contest the ticket. Here is what they say:

“Respondent testifies the vehicle was relocated by Con Ed, but no documentation establishing that this vehicle was relocated. Respondent’s claim that the cited vehicle was relocated is not supported or persuasive. There is no persuasive testimony or evidence to support the defense. This summons is sustained.”

My claim of the cited vehicle being relocated is not supported or persuasive and there is no persuasive testimony, I say, quietly, alone to myself and the email informing me of my lack of persuasive testimony.

I pay the city $45 and move on with my life, knowing that I have now learned at least one invaluable life lesson for my troubles and my hard-earned cash:

Always trust the bodega guy.

 

Gina Pensiero is a writer and strategist living and working in NYC. She’s also in a band called soft center.

Amtrak Approaching Penn Station, Manhattan

4 hours 36 min ago

Illustration: Forsyth Harmon

A special kind of decorousness outside train bathrooms. All eyes to the ground humility, arms folded forbearance, untoothed smile acknowledgements. The train was five or so minutes from NYC and, stricken with the imminence of our destination, everyone wanted to pee. Now there were three of us in line, trying to maintain balance and dignity and avoid eye contact as we were barrelled back to the city—sons and daughters full of pie and family.

You, the incoming fourth in line, were a young guy with round spectacles and a nice, oblong, Where’s Waldo-ish face. You took your place behind me with the obligatory quick sheepish smile that says, thanks, and yep, here we all are, human, with our bodily functions, ha. And then you and I and the rest of us in this bathroom line watched but pretended not to watch a young boy battling through the sliding doors. Eight or nine years old, full of the willfulness and self-consciousness specific to that age, he did not look up at any of us as he went to try the bathroom door. When the locked handle failed him he glanced up at me and I confirmed it was occupied, that there was a line, with as much sympathy as I could. My memories of that age are almost exclusively embarrassment in the company of adults—smiling, indulgent adults, calling attention to one’s mistakes. And then, he positioned himself behind me, but ahead of you. I faltered—who wants to be a line tyrant to a kid? But then again, the laws of the bathroom line, the justice of the bathroom line, dictated you were next! It was a tiny yet perturbing quandary and I glanced at you in a flickering sort of way, but then the bathroom door was opening and it was my turn and everyone knows you don’t dally when the door opens. When I emerged, the boy was right there, small and determined and ready to shoot in and take my place and I glanced at you as he did.

What I replayed all the way back to my seat, monkeying myself arm to arm along the headrests through the swaying train, was how very many things your quarter-second-of-a-smile said. I don’t mind and let him go ahead! and also,  don’t worry that you didn’t let him go ahead of you, it’s ok, you’re not a bad person. And that this voluble smile offered itself as a scrap of talisman, something to hold while enduring public transit in the coming weeks. Among giant swivelling backpacks to the face and between the bellies of the men pressing up against your butt on the morning L train, and behind those who pause at the top of subway stairs at rush hour to send a slow text and while on the train is delayed due to train traffic ahead and stewing in the question generated therein of why it is that the only music played out loud on a phone is bad music and then hating that teenager for making you hate yourself for feeling like a peevish old person, among all this, your brief smile and its generosity could be a reminder of, and means to grace.

Force Diagram

4 hours 39 min ago

Sonoko, "Aoi Tori (Dai Go Maku)"

4 hours 42 min ago


I don’t know anything about this act and my Japanese is, uh, limited, so if she’s saying something offensive please accept my apologies in advance. I mean, I don’t think she is, but you never know these days. Anyway, learn more here and please do enjoy.

New York City, December 13, 2017

Thu, 2017-12-14 22:48

★★★ A mastiff was wearing a suspiciously human-cut Nordic sweater. The air had been harsh and frosty even inside the lobby; outside it was a little painful to breathe. Only a dry salt crust remained where the playground snow had been. There was no way to wear as many clothes inside the apartment as it was necessary to wear outdoors. The sparse and mobile early morning clouds became a lid of gray, and then that in turn blew away, leaving the afternoon completely clear. Brilliant highlights flared at the tops of buildings—far away from the deep and heavy shadows in the streets. It was hard to separate the effects of the air from the dry cough developing down in the chest.

Other Books You Should Read If You Liked 'Meow Meow'

Thu, 2017-12-14 14:45

Today, the Awl short story “Meow Meow” took over the internet, with everyone discussing author Mu or Yan’s cringingly relatable depiction of human-centrism, and praising its revealing exploration of how people think they’re the most important things in the universe, as if anything they do except open a can of food makes a difference. If you liked “Meow Meow,” here are some other books to read, compiled by Awl cat pals.

 

 

 

meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meowmeow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow — Daisy

Garfield at Large, by Jim Davis

 

 

meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow — Tabby

Garfield Gains Weight, by Jim Davis

 

 

meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow — Crusty

Garfield Bigger Than Life, by Jim Davis

 

 

 

meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meowmeow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow — Sugar

Garfield Weighs In, by Jim Davis

 

 

 

meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meowmeow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow — Patches

Garfield Takes the Cake, by Jim Davis

 

 

 

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Garfield Eats His Heart Out, by Jim Davis

 

 

 

meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow (L’Être et le néant : Essai d’ontologie phénoménologique) meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow: miaou miaou miaou — Serge

Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, by Jean-Paul Sartre

 

 

 

meow meow meow — Nork

Garfield Sits Around the House, by Jim Davis

Nazi Christmas ornaments, Wain's famous cats, and dog-shaped whistles

Thu, 2017-12-14 13:51

Lot 1: O, Tannenbaum

Images © Alexander Historical Auctions

 ’Tis the season for tinsel and garlands and swastikas. You don’t mind, do you? It’s history! Heritage! Don’t be a snowflake.

Just in the jolly old St. Nick of time for last-minute holiday shopping, several antique glass SS Christmas tree ornaments are headed to auction in Maryland on December 19. Bid on a singular hand-painted cherry red globe featuring a black swastika brilliantly set against a silver background for about $150-200. If you have more tree to cover and a fatter wallet, a full set of seven silver glass SS-themed balls complete with 10” tree-topper—“obviously intended for those SS members and their families who celebrated the Christian family,” according to the auctioneer—is also on offer, at $800-1,000.

But that’s not all. Other tree-trimming trinkets include a Hitler bust ornament (for that uncle in Mississippi, maybe?) and a heart-shaped swastika ornament (for the domestic partner who will commit suicide with you in an underground bunker one day). Fröhliche Weihnachten!

Lot 2: Meow-Meow Pretty Fabric Meow

More awesome than odd, a handful of Louis Wain’s anthropomorphic animal artworks will go to auction in Cirencester, England, on December 15. Wain (1860-1939) is a fascinating character—prolific magazine and book illustrator, president of London’s National Cat Club, and patient at Bethlem psychiatric hospital (aka Bedlam). He focused on cats, in particular, from comic and satirical depictions, to abstract, psychedelic felines.

Courtesy of Dominic Winter Auctioneers

The example pictured here is Wain’s signed pen and ink drawing of a kitty showing off some new fabric she purr-chased. In pencil, the artist has inscribed at the top: “What do you think of my latest bargain? 5 3/4 a yard!”

This bit of cuteness overload will cost between $4,000-5,000; not as good as kitty’s bargain, mayhap, but it’s a hell of a conversation starter.

 

Lot 3: Literal Dog Whistles

Courtesy of Christie’s

Someone somewhere collects dog-head whistles. Here’s the proof: a collection of nine nineteenth-century English porcelain whistles in the shape of canine heads going to auction in London on December 15. They derive from the “Astor Collection From Tillypronie, Aberdeenshire,” i.e., a Scottish “sporting estate” built by the son of Queen Victoria’s doctor, Sir James Clark, and later owned by the Astor family. Many royals and politicians have hunted and gathered there, and if grouse shooting is your bag, this is an auction to watch. Most of the available items are animal-themed; you can scoop up the dog whistles for about $400.

 

 

Rebecca Rego Barry is the author of Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places.

 

 

Mu Or Yan On The Cat's Perception Of Human Self-Deception

Thu, 2017-12-14 13:50

Your story in today’s Awl, “Meow Meow,” is both an inscrutable feline narrative and, I think, a kind of commentary on how humans have to place themselves at the center of the action in every tale. Where did the idea for the story come from?

meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow, meow meow meow “meow meow,” meow meow meow meow

It’s interesting that the story takes such a different tone when it is looked at from the cat’s point of view. What do you think that says about the limited scope of bipedal reportage?

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Some people have pointed out that when Margot recounts the story she suggests that Robert’s cats might not have existed at all. He might have just made them up–

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Yes, of course, that brings up an excellent point about erasure.

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So you categorically reject the suggestion that “Meow Meow” might simply be something Robert wrote to convey the impression that he really is a cat owner.

meow meow meow

I guess we’ll just have to leave people guessing then.

meow meow meow meow meow meow

The reaction to “Meow Meow” was swift and, it’s fair to say, divided. I’m sure you’ve noticed how responses on social media have broken down along traditional lines. There’s even a Twitter account that aggregates dismissive and confusing comments dogs are posting in response to the story called “Dogs React To Meow Meow.” Anything you want to say to the dogs out there to clear things up?

meow meow

Fair enough. Okay, I have to ask: Are you Mu or Yan?

meow meow meow, meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow

Fascinating. Thank you very much.

meow

Alex Balk is The Awl’s editor for animal fiction and the host of its marsupial personal narrative Podcast.

Germans: Are They Talking About Us Again?

Thu, 2017-12-14 12:59

There’s little more satisfying than eavesdropping on a conversation between two people speaking a language who think that nobody around them can understand—and being able to understand them. It’s especially fun when these people start talking about you, like in that classic David Sedaris essay where some loud American tourists start discussing Sedaris’s body odor in English on the Paris Metro.

That’s essentially how the entire country of Germany operates when they talk about us—loud, open mockery. Because let’s face it: Aside from constant inquiries as to whether there is a single German word that encapsulates an entire subtweet—and despite the fact that more Americans claim German ancestry than any other single nationality or ethnicity—most of those 50 million or so alleged German-Americans don’t speak German (unless you count “Schnitzelbank”), even though English is basically German that got lazy and dropped its endings. (I’m always suggesting university German departments use that as their major’s motto, but nobody’s taken me up on it yet, because university German departments hate great ideas.)

Anyway, the joke’s on the leaders of the barely-still-free world, because I read the German news all the time, and I’m here to tell you that they are definitely talking about us, and it’s definitely not good. Here’s a small sampling of the latest Klatch (CLOTSCH).

 

ROY MOORE (DIE ZEIT)

Screengrab: DIE ZEIT

It’s funny now because the guy lost (thank you again, black voters of Alabama), but Germans were patently unimpressed with the Sexmonster who came within 20,000 votes of becoming the junior Senator from Alabama. Here’s the Dec. 13 front page of Die Zeit, with the headline “America: Far From Redemption.” Tell me about it. “Roy Moore, a racist accused of sexual assault by multiple women, lost, and many in the US are celebrating. But it’s much too soon for euphoria.”

Zeit commentator Rieke Havertz points out that we “barely managed not to elect someone who was likely the worst and most unfit candidate of all time,” and, further, that “America is its own enemy.  Whites against minorities; rich against poor; gun-lovers [Waffenliebhaber, VOFF-un-LEEB-hob-ur] against gun-opponents; anti-abortion against pro-choice; the list goes on and on.”

 

TRUMP V. GILLIBRAND (DER SPIEGEL)

Screengrab: DER SPIEGEL

German-speakers are masters of the entendre—the last two words of Kafka’s story “The Judgment,” allegedly about traffic on a bridge, literally translate to “endless intercourse”—and our chief executive is no master of the subtle, so our Teutonic friends were somewhat schockiert to see the sitting president of the United States essentially accuse a Senator from New York of wanting to blow him. (Fun fact, or I guess lack-of-fun fact in this context: the German for “blow me” is blas mir einen, literally “blow me one”). Anyway, Der Spiegel concludes its coverage with: “Trump characterizes the [renewed sexual assault allegations] as Democratic maneuvers. After unsuccessfully attempting to prove a connection between his team and Moscow, they’ve turned to ‘false accusations and made-up stories’ about his attacks on women.” Ugh, because of the way that Germans describe reported speech, this paragraph makes it seem like Trump’s connections to Russia are false, and I know that’s not what the Germans mean, but I still resent them for it.

 

MISSION TO MARS (DIE TAGESZEITUNG)

Sidebar: Germans fucking LOVED Mars Attacks. Screengrab: DIE TAGESZEITUNG

Did you know that Trump wants to send manned spacecraft back to the Moon, and also to Mars? I only found out about this from the German media, which has seized on this latest presidential flight of fancy as Mr. Show blow-up-the-moon style evidence of our president’s particular unfitness to serve. I know that the moon-and-mars thing allegedly made the news here, too, but it was buried so far underneath all the other steaming piles of fresh torment that I didn’t even notice it. Anyway, according to Ingo Arzt in the Tageszeitung:

In the unwritten handbooks of all US presidents it says: When you’re drowning in scandals, bomb something or tell stories about the moon. And in the also-unwritten universal handbook of the art of world domination: Create symbols of your power, on which the people will gaze in awe. Capitalists build towers; Pharaohs pyramids; Popes cathedrals. But heads of state occupy the highest view possible: the stars.

 

EVERYTHING IS AWESOME (BILD)

Fuck you, BILD. Screengrab: BILD

Lest you think that all of Germany is united in pre-emptive Trumpenfreude, fear not. Germany has its own shitty right-wing tabloid press, and said shitty right-wing tabloid press, a.k.a. its most-read publication. I’m talking of course about BILD, and this recent unfortunate thing (which is behind BILD’s absurd paywall) about why it’s going “great for Trump right now,” despite the “criticism, mockery and derision.” I did my journalistic duty and bought a tax-deductible (FOR NOW) BILD subscription just so I could translate this for you; you’re welcome but also I’m sorry:

And even as president, he seems to remain the Teflon Don: the man who sticks to nothing. To the horror of his opponents, the 45th Commander-in-Chief of the United States sits firmly back in the saddle. And now, suddenly, it looks as if that’s where the New Yorker will stay, at least until January 2021.

Granted, even this somewhat laudatory analysis admits that the relatively strong US economy is probably Barack Obama’s doing, and it ends with a burn on Trump Tweeting out his 45 percent approval rating.

So, yes—as always, the Germans are talking about us, and as always they are scraping their sandpaper-dry wits all over our wind-chapped visages. It will be interesting to see if this continues after the New Year, or dies down when coalition talks collapse yet again, and their own status as de facto leaders of the free world becomes uncertain. Remember, Mutti—when in doubt, bomb something or go to the Moon.

The Fucked Generation

Thu, 2017-12-14 12:29

The result is that millennials of color are even more exposed to disaster than their peers. Many white millennials have an iceberg of accumulated wealth from their parents and grandparents that they can draw on for help with tuition, rent or a place to stay during an unpaid internship. According to the Institute on Assets and Social Policy, white Americans are five times more likely to receive an inheritance than black Americans—which can be enough to make a down payment on a house or pay off student loans. By contrast, 67 percent of black families and 71 percent of Latino families don’t have enough money saved to cover three months of living expenses.

And so, instead of receiving help from their families, millennials of color are more likely to be called on to provide it. Any extra income from a new job or a raise tends to get swallowed by bills or debts that many white millennials had help with. Four years after graduation, black college graduates have, on average, nearly twice as much student debt as their white counterparts and are three times more likely to be behind on payments. This financial undertow is captured in one staggering statistic: Every extra dollar of income earned by a middle-class white family generates $5.19 in new wealth. For black families, it’s 69 cents.

—Don’t let the 8-bit scrolly business fool you; just let it into your heart. This is so very well done.

A Poem by Michael D. Snediker

Thu, 2017-12-14 11:26

The Golden Bowl / Felix Gonzalez-Torres

 

There was no other
consideration except

I wanted to make
art work that could

disappear that never
existed and it was a

metaphor for when
Ross was dying it

was a metaphor that
I would abandon

this work before
the work abandoned

me I would destroy
it before it destroyed

this was my little
amount of power

from the very beg-
ginning it was not

even there I made
something that does

not exist I control
the pain.

 

 

Michael D. Snediker is the author of The New York Editions, The Apartment of Tragic Appliances, and Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions, as well as two two chapbooks, Nervous Pastoral and Bourdon. He’s an Associate Professor of American Literature and Poetics at the University of Houston.

The Poetry Section is edited by Mark Bibbins.

Meow Meow

Thu, 2017-12-14 09:35

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Anenon, "Tongue"

Thu, 2017-12-14 08:53


Music, here it is. May it meet with your approval.

New York City, December 12, 2017

Wed, 2017-12-13 18:58

★★ The first of the rain had passed, and the morning was damp and, for the moment, mild. Pigeons fluffed up and pressed close to the wall as the day darkened toward the next rain. Puffy coats were out against where the day was going. The ground got dry and then wet again. Bright, glossy leaves lay with their curl still intact.

Back On My Bullshit* (*Extremely Pleasant Dvořák Symphonies)

Wed, 2017-12-13 12:33

By Anoniem (Foto in Antonín Dvořák museum) – PD old, Public Domain, Link

When I writing this column over a year ago, I began with my favorite symphony of all time, Antonín Dvořák’s From The New World. I have tried my best during that time not to write about Dvořák too often, though I couldn’t help but laugh when a handful of his Slavonic Dances showed up on my Spotify Top Songs of 2017 playlist (sandwiched between Liability and New Rules lmao). This past week, I saw the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform his Symphony No. 5, and I realized there wasn’t a chance in hell I wouldn’t write about it.

You see, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 5 (Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, 1993) is exceedingly pleasant. Written almost twenty years before From The New World, there are hints of the same triumphant spirit and intrinsically joyful melodies in this earlier work. At the time, this symphony was considered the composer’s first (his first four were not published until after he died) which would have made From The New World his unofficial fifth. I mean, that doesn’t matter. It’s just an interesting fact! The ninth is still better but this one is wonderful nonetheless.

Dvořák kicks the piece off with a small fanfare played by the woodwinds. The symphony announces itself politely, situates you in its reality, before a rush of strings ushers in its core melody at the 46-second mark. It’s hard not to feel wholesome listening to this. It’s an undeniably cheerful piece. There’s conflict, sure, but nothing that feels insurmountable in the context of the piece. Though it will make me sound like a huge nerd, I couldn’t help but smile my way through this first movement in particular. One time, I had a roommate in a living situation that I did not choose who used to, any time he’d see me leave to go out, say, “what are you gonna go do, some nerd shit?” To which I was like, “…. yes, that’s my whole deal.”

The Andante con moto is not too tragic, but it is, no doubt, wistful, if not also a little romantic. The strings are rich and poised. It’s a poem, really: formed and formal in its writing but expressive nonetheless. Dvořák gives the cellos plenty to do, and for that, I’m grateful. Especially at the 6:27 mark—with fluttery support from none other than the flutes—the cello refrain is so lush and full. Its Scherzo begins not unlike the opening movement with a little fanfare on the woodwinds backed by the cellos. But once it hits the :53 second mark, it’s off and dancing. This is the type of third movement that can be expected from Dvořák: light, fanciful, drawing on traditional Czech music. It would have felt very at home in the midst of his Slavonic Dances. I’ll even tolerate the very charming use of triangle.

The Finale – Allegro molto begins with a fair bit of conflict, because it’s true, you can’t feel entirely wholesome throughout a forty-minute piece of music. Once the tumult dies down, however, I’m once again overjoyed at the cello melody at the :39 second mark. There’s just such a pleasant balance between all of the instruments in this symphony. Dvořák is wonderful at allowing every section to have their moment. The symphony exists in service of the instruments here. I would love to have a normal, even neutral reaction to a Dvořák symphony, but it’s simply impossible for me. As the piece grew toward the end, it filled me with a distinct joy. I knew the melody, I could hum it, even, and feeling it build to something bigger than itself was so triumphant. And though it’s a little hard to hear distinctly in this recording, please believe me when I say this piece allows its timpanist to go the fuck off. It absorbs you completely, and when it ends, you instantly miss it.

The Peculiar Sadness of Animated Alcoholics

Wed, 2017-12-13 12:00

Screenshot: Netflix

In 2015, writer Jenny Jaffe coined the term “sadcom” to refer to an emerging genre of television show. Less dire than black comedies but far bleaker than the unmixed type, these shows—among them titles like “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “Louie”—know that humor cuts deeper and hits harder when it’s undergirded by sadness. So they center on anti-heroes, men (they are nearly always men) who see the world for exactly what it is: fucked-up, out of our control, and ultimately pointless. The universe is a joke and our petty selves are the punchline. The best we can do is know that, and try to get some laughs out of it when and where we can.

Sadcoms are rarely cited in the emerging canon of the Golden Age of Television, but they share a certain aesthetic with modern hour-long prestige drama: a messy emotional realism that, when it tips too far, conflates smart with sad, and complicated with interesting. There’s a palpable disdain for sentiment, that old-fashioned notion that viewers might want to watch shows about people they can easily like, or relate to.

But where prestige drama is Serious Television for Serious Adults, sadcoms are Shows For Adults Who Like, Don’t Take Themselves That Seriously, God, which is perhaps why some of the most prominent shows in the genre are cartoons. The childishness of the medium lends the viewer a hip, self-aware distance from being perceived as self-serious while also making the content of the shows themselves seem all the more sharply transgressive. It’s refreshing to watch something that isn’t relentlessly sexy and stylish. It feels smart to engage with creators who are willing to experiment with forms that don’t “look smart,” and aren’t often taken seriously.

High-low may be a tired trope in fashion, but in media it still feels relatively radical. And sadcoms by definition draw their power from the friction of contrast: aside from being comedies about sad people, they are also by turns cynical and earnest, with the cynicism serving as something like an excuse for the earnestness: working to make it feel earned.

The sadcom, Jaffe writes, is ultimately “deeply optimistic,” but access to that optimism comes only when you’ve suffered for it. Hope isn’t valid unless it’s being espoused by someone who is keenly aware of the stupid, shitty, petty pointlessness of life. How do cartoon shows make sure we know they’re for grown ups? How do they signal to us that their anti-heroes are keenly aware of the stupid, shitty, petty pointlessness of life? Well, more often than not, they give him a drinking problem.

Sterling Archer from the FX show “Archer” would probably tell you that he drinks because it looks good on him: that a glass of bourbon is just as much a part of his spy uniform as the black turtlenecks he wears on undercover missions. (He would not mention his mother’s alcoholism, or the emotional abuse she inflicted on him throughout his childhood.)

Bojack of Netflix’s “Bojack Horsman” has no such illusions: he drinks because he’s a self-proclaimed stupid piece of shit, because he’s depressed, because things are bad now, but what if he stopped and they still didn’t improve? Better not to find out, better to be a self-defeating fuck up, better to stick with what you know and hope you stay toxic enough to keep anyone from getting close enough to see your hideous inadequacy, that it wasn’t ever the drinking, really: you were just unlovable all along.

(Also, his mother emotionally abused him as a child.)

It’s Rick Sanchez, of “Rick and Morty,” who drinks because he’s a genius. “”I’m not the nicest guy in the universe, because I’m the smartest. And being nice is something stupid people do to hedge their bets,” Rick declares in the final episode of season two. Intelligence is Rick’s excuse for pretty much everything: he’s seen too much and he knows too much. He can do too much, and no one can stop him, and he’s bored and miserable. So he drinks! Why wouldn’t he? What would be the goddamn point of not having a drinking problem.

Screenshot: Adult Swim

The show is just as exhaustingly smart as Rick is (and it’s very, very hard not to read Rick as a stand-in for one of his creators, Dan Harmon, who is famously a hard drinker, wildly intelligent, and extraordinarily difficult to work for and with) and so of course it can’t let those assertions pass without comment: “Rick, the only connection between your unquestionable intelligence and the sickness destroying your family is that everyone in your family, you included, use intelligence to justify sickness,” a therapist tells him deep into the third season.

She talks about the difference between Rick’s work as a scientist and creator, and the maintenance that things like therapy and recovery require: the willingness to do boring, unsexy tasks over and over and over again. It’s a (sorry) sobering moment. And it’s immediately undercut when, in the car after the session, Rick and his daughter, Beth, make plans to get drunk together while the children they were ostensibly at therapy to treat sit, wide-eyed and miserable, in the back seat. “I— I liked her,” one of Rick’s grandchildren, Morty, offers.

“So what are you thinking? Like, Smokey’s Tavern?” Rick asks Beth.

Cut to credits.

“Rick and Morty” pays lip service to the idea that intelligence, depression and addiction aren’t inextricably linked, but the unrelenting cruelty of the show itself suggests that it doesn’t particularly believe that message. Watching it can sometimes feel like a test of endurance: Harmon and his co-creator, Justin Roiland teaming up with their writers’ room to see just how far they can push their viewers.

So far, the consensus seems to be: give us all you’ve got, perhaps because same way that the self-flagellating cycle of alcoholism feels good because it feels bad—because it feels, to the alcoholic, like exactly what she deserves—we feel like the suffering of watching these shows is somehow noble, and pure.

Image: FX

Our willingness to believe that sadness in an intelligent affliction actually helps elide the fact that addiction is a perfect, classic sitcom trope: because addiction is a cycle, and the point of the sitcom is that nothing will ever change. The same cast of characters will have essentially the same conversations about different situations, perhaps in different settings. Archie Bunker will be racist; Rachel Green will want to go shopping; Rick Sanchez will be an asshole to his grandchildren and everyone else, too.

Sadcoms’ insistence on unsettling familiar narrative patterns—particularly “Rick and Morty” and “Archer”’s status as genre parodies, which makes dismantling tropes their job—feels like vital, interesting work. But watch too many episodes in a row and you realize that unsettling is interesting and useful, but it is also not all there is. These shows say a lot of negative things about how we and our stories and addictions function, but, because they’re also sitcoms, they do it over, and over, and over again. They are destructive, but not necessarily radical, in that they fail to imagine what might be built by the space they’ve cleared in that destruction.

It’s nice to be “deeply optimistic,” but optimism is an idea, and addiction is a practice, and these shows spend much more time on the mechanics of addiction than those of recovery and its attendant tender hopefulness. There’s value in that representation and its reality—most of us spend a lot of time in the mire of our fuck-ups before we start moving towards recovery, and even then, the path is rarely a straight one. But it can also make their gestures at optimism feel cheap, because we know that they’re never going to actually center themselves on what living fully in that optimism would look like.

Screenshot: FX

It’s also particularly troubling because the ways these shows handle sadness is so deeply gendered. “Archer,” “Bojack” and “Rick and Morty” are centered on men and their feelings—but they can only do this by making those feelings not only mostly negative, but also then serving as source of shame, misery and, ultimately, violence, whether externally focused or self-inflicted. It’s okay to be sensitive, but only if you’re damaged by previous pain (in both Archer and Bojack’s cases, inflicted by an unfeeling woman). It’s okay to be hurt, but only if you use that hurt to hurt yourself or someone else.

In all of these cases, alcoholism implies emotional pain, but also hides it. We are meant to understand that these characters drink because they’re unhappy, but the fact of their drinking takes center stage, and saves them from having to discuss or deal with the unhappiness that drives it. That’s the mechanism of drinking in real addicts’ lives, of course, or one of them, anyway, but in fiction it serves an additional cultural function by reinforcing the notion that men’s emotional lives can only ever be witnessed as a series of symptoms.

So we diagnose sadness without witnessing it. We see him take a sip and we know it means numb and why would he want numb if he wasn’t in pain. We see cruelty and assume that he’s only acting out cruelty that was visited on him. We learn to read the signs. It makes you wonder: where is the art that’s willing to drill down to the crude stuff, the awful dumb unspeakable territory of male feeling itself?  Is there a way to speak about sadness, but also maintenance, and recovery, and hope, and work, without first surrounding them in darkness, and roughing them up with grit?

The marriage of sitcom sameness with cynical storytelling feels particularly apt for this specific cultural moment, in which depression is both increasingly visible as a debilitating mental illness and also circulated as a kind of relatability currency in the form of memes. Depression is often co-morbid with addiction, and viewers have made various psychiatric diagnoses of Archer, Bojack, and Rick.

Our sicknesses—including addiction—have started making space for themselves in the public sphere, but that doesn’t mean we know how to talk about them earnestly yet. Much like Archer, Bojack, and Rick, we recognize the value of sincerity but cringe when asked to engage in it ourselves. What even is sincerity? We start asking. Isn’t sincerity just as cheap an emotional ploy as cynicism, if the sincerity wasn’t smart to begin with? Being alive is messy, often unsatisfying. Aspirational art can be uplifting, but it can also be frustrating: that’s not how it works!!!!! We want to yell at the screen.

The danger in explicitly non-aspirational art is, ironically, exactly the same: the world is not always kind, but neither is it always as unrelentingly cruel as these shows sometimes suggest. Especially in a cultural moment that presents non-fictional news that defies the possibility of exaggeration or parody, it’s easy to start wondering: why am I putting myself through this?

But that question has value, too, as long as it resonates beyond the lives of the fictional alcoholics we watch on screen, and out into our own. Sometimes we need to bear witness to the stagnancy of addiction and depression cycled through at relatively high speed—23 minutes an episode, ten or fifteen episodes a year, or however many you binge on in bed with a hangover of your own—in order to see our own slower declines more clearly.

There’s value in witnessing your least attractive qualities, your scariest sicknesses, projected onto a culturally validated screen, but the point of representation is never the representation itself: it’s what we do with it once we have it. And cartoon alcoholics have a very difficult job put to them, because they aren’t meant to inspire us to be like them. They’re meant to mirror that we already are like these characters; the disgust they inspire is only useful if it moves to change ourselves, or at least, occasionally, the channel.

Needs

Wed, 2017-12-13 11:18

August Artier, "Hina"

Wed, 2017-12-13 10:00


This is something to listen to. I hope it pleases you.

New York City, December 11, 2017

Tue, 2017-12-12 18:41

★★★ A crunching and sloshing sound filled the schoolyard as little feet made their way over wet and broken ice. A stroller skidded through it without its wheels turning. The wonderment was gone, save for the flash of a curtain of meltwater coming off a scaffold in the sun, lovely from the other side of the street. The cold was still strong enough to work its way into the office and, slowly, right on through a dense sweater.

Dilbert: A Reckoning

Tue, 2017-12-12 11:57

Without irony: I deeply love Dilbert.

From ages 8 to 12, the funny pages were both my primary hobby and major career aspiration, and Dilbert was a top-tier favorite, thanks to my dad’s own sizable collection. The strip debuted in the early nineties as a revolutionary new catharsis right when my dad’s own career switched from blue-collar to white. It may sound implausible that a 10-year-old would enjoy the byzantine dysfunctions of a group of pudgy, poorly drawn engineers—the funny pages are rarely for kids. Even the kid-only universe of Peanuts is, in adult retrospect, mostly about the psychological cruelties of childhood. By contrast, Dilbert had characters like a talking rat named Ratbert and a talking dinosaur named Bob, who administered atomic wedgies around the office.

Dilbert did not take breaks on Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day or Christmas, when the rest of the comics can briefly rest from the nyucks for a heart-warming hug as a cartoon family. There is no setting in Dilbert where this can happen. There is the bare office, and Dilbert’s empty bachelor pad with Dogbert (glasses-wearing talking dog with business acumen). That’s about it.

Dilbert was the unknowable adult job that Dad in Calvin and Hobbes—or Jon Arbuckle in Garfield, or my own dadwent to every day. And at that job, the world only got dimmer, flatter. You got to leave, eventually, but you always had to come back. Dilbert taught a saving grace, though: You could laugh. You could look at the stupid, crappy, mean day (G-Rated—it is the funnies) the world just threw at you, and you could laugh. Is this not valuable? For real?

If you frequent Twitter, which I absolutely cannot recommend that you do, you already know that things have gone terribly awry. Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, is a proud racist. Or, he earnestly, zealously supports Donald Trump, and if that isn’t being a proud racist, I don’t have a goddamn clue what the difference is anymore.

Even without enduring a single one of Adams’s daily, sermon-length Periscopes about politics, a browse of his social media—again, I cannot recommend enough that you do not do this—quickly provides evidence that all is not well. Adams responds to haters by taking his shirt off and posting a picture of his abs, a move ripped from the Alex Jones playbook. Adams earnestly believes that Twitter is “shadowbanning” his account to suppress his political message, even though hundreds of MAGA-hatted doofs smash the heart button on every one of his thousands of smarmy thought-farts. Adams is eager to tell you about his new girlfriend, Kristina Basham. Adams is more than twice Basham’s age. Adams uses Basham as an alternate version of his abs: that is, a devastating counter-punch to any hater who doubts that he is truly winning in life.

It’s hard to know if and when Adams is joking online because his own attempts at humor are so tortured and obtuse. He will plop on a Pope’s hat because, uh, there are issues of ethics in politics? In true past-its-prime-comic-strip style, he will use the same bland joke on his Instagram not once, but twice within a month. His attempt at telling a pun on video falls so limply that it cannot even earn a dad-joke groan.

This is an absolutely piss-poor showing from somebody who is a multi-millionaire humorist. I believe Adams is attempting, in good faith, to tell good jokes, and the format and structure of good jokes feel familiar to him. And here, I speculate: Adams is in fact unable to summon either the warm creative whimsy or the sharp satirical bite that lies at the unspoken philosophical center of every successful joke. His sense of humor appears to be broken. He appears completely unable to detect irony. This has major implications on today’s actual Dilbert and the rest of Adams’s worldview.

The ability to detect irony is increasingly necessary for being alive in America. If you have not by now recognized on your own that the world has been careening through a too-salty first draft of The Onion, there is no helping you. Irony is especially important with Dilbert because the antagonist of Dilbert, at least for the first few decades, was the Pointy-Haired Boss. And there is no other person in the entire public consciousness who is more like the Pointy-Haired Boss than Donald Trump.

Many times, Trump is belligerent where the Pointy-Haired Boss is merely daft, but the basic thrust of both characters is the same: they understand nothing about any situation but proudly bulldoze their way through every room they enter. They have no friends, but having no friends is not really a problem because they don’t even want friends. They are incapable of thinking about anything other than themselves. And yet they are also incapable of introspection or self-improvement. (Again, not a big problem: they’re not interested.) Everything they touch crumbles to dust but still (and this was the central thesis of Dilbert) the world is for some reason still cruddily bent into a dumb shape that unfailingly supports them anyway. There is, yes, the funny hair.

The Pointy-Haired Boss has also been undergoing a makeover over the decades-long arc of Dilbert, becoming an increasingly sympathetic character. The Dilbert reader of, say, 1997 would find it sacrilege to learn that, in 2017, there are comic strips where the Pointy-Haired Boss is the discerning voice of reason and it is his employees who are difficult, selfish, stupid:

In the early nineties, when we were first introduced to him—before the hair was even all that pointy—the boss was clearly old, rotund, jowls flapping:

As the nineties progressed, the hair got pointier and the jowls went away. The boss grew younger, but he also grew exceptionally wider, his upper body nearly a circle:

What a surprise then, that two decades later, the Pointy-Haired Boss hasn’t been trapped in the timeless, preserving amber of every other comic strip character, in Dilbert or otherwise. These days the Pointy-Haired Boss is actually younger and trimmer than he has ever been in the strip’s history:

In making the Pointy-Haired Boss look progressively better, Adams’s comic strip now shares the same distorted vision of authority as the aesthetically disastrous far-right cartoons of Ben Garrison. (Garrison’s oeuvre has been helpfully annotated by Rich Kyanka of Something Awful.) Plenty of Garrison’s output shows Trump nailing a “victory” in a scene littered with blubbering liberal punching bags du jour. One of the hundred bizarre things about Garrison’s cartoons is that Trump is depicted about four decades younger than he currently is, plus also about 300% buffer than he ever was. Garrison’s Trump has hair that is robust and flowing; his waistline is trim and taut; his muscles are sculpted and shapely:

The only way that Trump’s real-life physique can be accurately classified is: grandfatherly couch potato. That’s a fact, and it’s also a very unimportant one. Garrison’s insistence that Trump is a well-toned hunk only emphasizes the recent realization that the deep-right is no longer simply disagreeing with the rest of the country about a set of facts: they are living in an entirely different, self-generated thought universe. Could it be that Garrison is not consciously muscling-up his Trump at all? Is this very literally the Trump body that Garrison “sees”?

Unless you consciously, coldly know that the Trump presidency helps you stay powerfully ahead in the world—tax breaks or whatever the fuck—the only way to believe that his presidency is a good thing is to see the world with constantly distorted vision. Somewhere along the way, Scott Adams became incapable of seeing the world clearly. He cannot see that he has made the antagonist of his cartoon the protagonist. He cannot see that some of the reasons that he thought Trump would be a good president—i.e., could become a thorough expert on any geopolitical subject after an hour-long briefing—are some of the exact same barbs that he launched at management culture in the legacy-building peak of his satire. He cannot see the irony in suddenly yoking his reputation to a man whose signature move—before, during, and probably after his presidency—is abusing and then firing his own employees.

Adams has just released his fifth non-cartoon book, called Win Bigly. The existence of this book is infuriating at every level you can think of. In the last two-plus miserable years since Trump came down that fucking escalator and kicked off this whole shitshow, the only accusation that he is not completely goddamn guilty of is that he was never saying the nonsense word “bigly,” but actually saying the phrase “big league.”

The book’s subtitle is Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter. This gets at the core of Adams’s professed admiration for Trump: that Trump is an incredibly skilled communicator who is constantly using effective persuasion techniques that his audience isn’t even conscious of. Adams is at least consistent here: his many blog posts about Trump in no way resemble the horrifying race-baiting articles your uncle is sharing on Facebook. Instead, the writing has the dense-but-hollow vocabulary of a Scientology tract, clinically explaining why Trump’s latest self-induced failure was in fact a lib-owning Win. This mindset is to the great detriment of today’s Dilbert, the worst-ever era of the cartoon, which has settled into the miserable routine of having characters trade logic-based barbs for three panels—a rhythm that carries the suggestion of a joke without actually creating a joke at all.  

At one level, Adams’s theories about Trump the Persuader are inarguable. Against steep odds, Trump really did fucking talk his way into the Presidency. But the sheer emptiness of this accomplishment should be apparent to anybody who can, well, detect irony: Trump sure did persuade a lot of people, but he’s only persuaded them to do things that are violently against their own self-interests. His powers of persuasion have even backfired on himself, the ultimate irony. His entire campaign was waged as revenge against the elite social circles that Trump, the eternal petulant high schooler, had previously ensured he was kicked out of. But in winning, Trump and his immovable personality only cemented a destiny where he would be excluded and made fun of more often and more deeply than ever before. Those of us with the empathetic parts of our brain still working have already made a word for the technique of trying to underhandedly persuade others: Machiavellian. Historically, not a compliment.

I would like to believe that, somewhere just off-camera from the modern, depressing world of Dilbert, the character Dilbert is still quietly trying to plow through his work, to somehow manage the best he can despite the avalanche of dysfunction around him. The newfangled Adams worldview only feels like a second Pointy-Haired Boss: intrusive, yes, but nothing that Dilbert hasn’t dealt with before. I imagine the Dilbert of today still kicking around the settings where we saw him more often in the nineties, before the strip became exclusively set in the office: on failed dates, chatting with his wildly knowledgeable garbageman, going on quiet walks in the woods with Dogbert.

It is a testament to Adams’s skill, the consistency and creativity in his years and years of daily work, that I still feel like Dilbert is, in a way, alive. It also makes me feel like the Trump-loving Adams is in some way not the “real” Adams, although I don’t even know what I mean by that. For so long, Adams was so compassionately attuned to the absurdities and infinite micro-tragedies of being just a quiet adult guy thrust into the world.

A small but real silver lining to the last few years is that there are very few good artistic works made by extremely conservative people, period. Every once in awhile a company or executive will reveal themselves as completely backward-thinking—what’s up Bulleit Bourbon and ULine Shipping Supplies—and it’s pretty easy, if not actually kind of fun, to sidestep what they have for sale. Rarely, though, have we had to get our hearts broken by learning that an admired artist, who made work that really did capture, heighten, celebrate the human condition, is pro-Trump. Dilbert is an exception. It is a compelling work of art made by a member of the alt-right. There’s no reconciling or skirting around this fact. It’s just uncomfortable.