Proud to be UnAmerican

I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.
--President Barack Obama's speech at the DNC on July 27, 2004.

A few months ago I posted a weeks-long rant on Facebook using my "status update." Part of it was boredom with the Facebook “status update," part of it was playfulness, part of it was just an ongoing experiment in “meaning." Parts might be pretentious, parts might be sanctimonious, parts might be nonsensical, and parts might have multiple interpretations, insinuations, innuendos, and double-entendres. (I know I pushed the limits of good taste many times, but hey, I consider barbaric imperialism in poor taste and if a few off-color comments help me purge the wheat of my friends-list of some thin-skinned chaff then you can bet I'll overdo it--just to be sure. Glass parking lot, betches.)

In any case, some of you asked what the whole thing was about, and I prolly mumbled stuff about context and non-sequiturs and jarring juxtapositions and the ongoing emergence of ephemeral meaning and subverting the signified and yes, no, I don't know, just wait 'til I'm done and then I'll gather them all together and you can take them like lumps of Silly Putty and mold your own malleable meanings of them. Well, today supposedly marks a new dawn in the US and here they are, my present to you, please take them.

But first, a note on their genesis:

It all started at Naan N Curry, after my Switchback reading at the Cantina SF. Sarah Palin's stupid remarks had prompted a backlash, at last!, to eight years of love-it-or-leave-it-ism. Both me and animikwaan had read different newspaper articles that day about the meaning of being American, or patriotic, or anti-American, whatehaveyou. Hers, by Jeff Chang in the San Francisco Chronicle, discussed the change in race-based legal restrictions on US citizenship over time and ends with the observation (which, having studied the topic for years, I must agree with) that immigrants embrace and embody “American ideals"with the fervor of religious converts: they actively choose that which most of us are passively born into, so theirs is a tested, galvanized faith in comparison to our “well I just do it that way 'cause my daddy and my daddy's daddy did it that way." Mine, by I'd Rather Not Say in the New York Times talked about how cool the rest of the world will think America is for electing a black man. Both animikwaan and agreed that, for all its faults, the US of A is pretty alright in a lot of ways.

I'd taken the next morning off from work to take my bike out for a spin, and as I headed up Highway 1 past Stinson Beach towards Pt. Reyes Station, I was still ruminating on the previous night's discussion while thinking about the Grateful Dead. (What? I can't think of Marin County without thinking of the Grateful Dead, it's just automatic!) So then I was like, “Man, these fools who call Obama and San Francisco and New York unamerican are the same idiots who would have called the Grateful Dead unamerican and that's just stupid, I mean, they are Americana defined. And what about napalm? (The Grateful Dead thought led to a cognitive association with Vietnam, thus napalm...I suppose.) I bet those same people would disavow napalm just as soon as they'd wash their hands of the Dead. But what do they make of these redwood trees? These redwood trees they're so happy to chop down, these impediments to progress, these sage beings whose seeds first broke through the ground to taste sunlight over 2,500 years ago, before the 'word made flesh' was even a twinkle in his daddy's eye..."And then I just ran with it and didn't stop until election day, long after even I had grown tired of the exercise.

In any case, America and Americana—the mythology, the folklore, the promise, the hypocrisy--have been a couple of my primary interests for a long time. Thing is, I really bought all that propaganda they feed you in school...and I still do. I'm not one to go for American exceptionalism—despite what you hear on Fox News, there are a lot of places in the world where things are as good, if not better, than we have them here. (For instance, many Americans like to bash Pakistan for being backwards and oppressive to women, but they had a female chief-executive twenty years ago. And before we get too self-congratulatory, let's face it, the election of Nelson Mandela as South Africa's president in 1994 was a way bigger deal than Obama.)

I'll leave you with two quotes by quintessentially American authors who worked during another time when the words “America"and “American"were being refined and redefined, when our young nation was asserting its own cultural identity, distinct from its European roots.

The widow rung a bell for supper, and you had to come to time. When you got to the table you couldn't go right to eating, but you had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals, though there warn't really anything the matter with them—that is, nothing only everything was cooked by itself. In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better.

--Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

and

I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall
assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

[...]
In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barley-corn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.


--Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

I cite Whitman because those lines of his have long served as one of my most basic artistic credos—when I praise or criticize “America," I include myself in that praise or criticism.

Things have changed in the past few days and months. I could not have made many of these statements a year ago without fear of a visit from men in black suits. I still go to sleep sometimes wondering if a SWAT team is going to kick down my door, put a mask over my head, and whisk me away to a cold, damp cell where I'll eat cockroaches between the torture sessions, and I still hesitate to make a statement like “Harbeer is unamerican as uncritical
support of the Israeli right wing
."

So here it is. I'm tempted to footnote a few of the more obscure allusions but this preface has gone on for long enough. Feel free to ask me if you have a question about a specific line. I think my favorite is “Harbeer is unamerican as a drag queen with a broken heel.”

Yes. They hate us for our freedom—religious zealots of every stripe. Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke and gawd bless America (which is a hemisphere, not just a country.)

10/24

11:32am
Harbeer is headed out on a ride. Vroom vroom!

3:46pm
Harbeer is as unamerican as setting the cruise control to 9 mph over the speed limit, the Grateful Dead, and napalm.

3:48pm
Harbeer is as unamerican as bugs on the windshield.

4:02pm
Harbeer is unamerican as a needle in a haystack.

4:05pm
Harbeer is unamerican as bloody Marys for breakfast.

4:10pm
Harbeer is unamerican as your mom.

4:14pm
Harbeer is unamerican as spotted owls, herds of buffalo, and redwood trees that are older than Jesus.

4:35pm
Harbeer is unamerican as potable tap water (with flouride!)

4:39pm
Harbeer is unamerican as pie in the sky when you die.

4:55pm
Harbeer is unamerican as Canada Dry ginger ale.

5:18pm
Harbeer is unamerican as your maxxed out credit card.

5:33pm
Harbeer is unamerican as bicycles, carpools, and public transportation.

5:51pm
Harbeer is unamerican as the corn on Donald Rumsfeld's pinky toe.

7:53pm
Harbeer is unamerican as the girl from Ipanema.
[Note: I was thinking about anti-immigrant sentiment when I made this and the next statement. “Illegal aliens" can be worthy of songs and sitcoms, in some cases, but why not others?]

9:16pm
Harbeer is unamerican as My Favorite Martian.

9:49pm
Harbeer is unamerican as Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition and the siege of Falluja.

10:05pm
Harbeer is proud to be unamerican.


10/25

2:36pm
Harbeer is unamerican as humble pie.


10/26

12:48pm
Harbeer is unamerican as boxcutters boxcutters boxcutters.
[Note: I was channeling Ginsberg's "boxcars boxcars boxcars” and thinking of my days as a puppeteer after 9/11, when I, a man who looks Arabic to some, often found myself heading to the hardware store to replace misplaced boxcutters and the uneasy feeling I always had a the store.]

4:16pm
Harbeer is unamerican as crack cocaine, selective seratonin reuptake inhibitors, and individually wrapped slices of pasteurized process cheese food.


10/27

2:05am
Harbeer is unamerican as brunch and siestas and a joyride in a hotwired car whilst blaring "Cat Scratch Fever."

12:07pm
Harbeer is unamerican as mommy's little helper with a side of ranch.

3:18pm
Harbeer is unamerican as tofurkey...or turducken...or whichever one of those is more unamerican than the other.

9:36pm
Harbeer is unamerican as cereal killers for breakfast.


10/28

1:26am
Harbeer is unamerican as Jim Crow and Joe Camel.
[Note: this was me playing with the Joe the Plumber” meme.]

1:17pm
Harbeer is unamerican as putting those 22'' platinum spinners on layaway and peanut butter and caviar on toasted Wonder Bread with fresh Tang.

3:32pm
Harbeer is unamerican as ripping your pants right in the ass when you're wearing pink underwear, wah!!!

4:32pm
Harbeer is unamerican as PacManistan, happy endings, and no interest 'til 2012.

5:06pm
Harbeer is unamerican as flavored lube, third party candidates, and science.

5:50pm
Harbeer is unamerican as cheating on your taxes and stealing office supplies from work.

6:25pm
Harbeer is unamerican as chop suey, nachos, and chicken tikka masala.
[Note: These are all faux-authentic ethnic dishes...not that there's anything wrong with that. Syncretism.]

9:55pm
Harbeer is unamerican as that-not-so-fresh feeling.


10/29

11:40am
Harbeer is unamerican as playing hooky, necking at inspiration point, and laying a wreath for Johnny at Dead Man's Curve.

12:17pm
Harbeer is unamerican as a drag queen with a broken heel, the bubble gum stuck to the bottom of your school desk, and prices that end in $x.99.

4:26pm
Harbeer is unamerican as the Fatal Blue Screen of death and Windows crashing one week before your thesis is due, yay! (Mac users may gloat starting...now.)

4:32pm
Harbeer is unamerican as beating a dead horse with Rex Kwan Do. Harbeer is renouncing his unamericanness and going as Uncle Sam for Halloween.


10/30

12:19pm
Harbeer is unamerican as elastic waistbands, pleated jeans, puffy-paint unicorn t-shirts, the electoral college, and quitting while you're ahead.

4:08pm
Harbeer is unamerican as stripes with polka dots and depleted uranium munitions.

5:48pm
Harbeer
is unamerican as singing Billy Joel whilst riding your motorcycle in the rain--how crazy is that?

6:13pm
Harbeer is unamerican as the ozone layer and those pesky phytoplankton turrists.

10:57pm
Harbeer is unamerican as George Washington's cherry trees, an atheist in a foxhole, this one and even "that one.”


10/31

12:47pm
Harbeer is unamerican as pagan holidays, uncut cocks, fake tits, and taking yourself too seriously. Happy Halloween, betches. Trick AND treat.

3:40pm
Harbeer is unamerican as double coupons, shame for breast-feeding in public, and jacking up supermarket prices so you can offer a "discount" for your data-mining purposes.

6:40pm
Harbeer is unamerican as twittering and doing laundry whilst revising the great american novel and awaiting the medical cannabis delivery man.

6:58pm
Harbeer is unamerican as hopscotch and double-dutch and open fire hydrants in the summertime.


11/1

5:44pm
Harbeer is unamerican as narcissism, or solipsism, even, as facebook, as irony, as earnesticity.


11/2

1:21am
Harbeer is unamerican as jeebus.

12:57pm
Harbeer bin ein Berliner.


11/3

12:13am
Harbeer is flavor-dipt and rolled in unamerican sprinkles.

11:17am
Harbeer is unamerican as gas, grass and ass, as well as Little Boy and Fat Man.

12:53pm
Harbeer is unamerican as uncleared samples and the Fair Use doctrine.

1:02pm
Harbeer is unamerican as bootstraps bootstraps bootstraps and the myth of the self-made man.

1:58pm
Harbeer is unamerican as Manifest Destiny, End of Continent Sadness, native American genocide, slavery and the middle passage, and the trope of the angry young man.

2:57pm
Harbeer is unamerican as Liquid Plummr, flying the Confederate flag at the statehouse, Elvis whistling Dixie, Clearasil, and a golf course in the desert.

5:57pm
Harbeer is unamerican as the majority of Americans who see through the voting sham.


11/4

10:48am
Harbeer is unamerican as none of the above.

12:28pm
Harbeer is unamerican as ”I voted!” stickers in three laguages--two of them communist languages--with a white star on a RED field???

12:32pm
Harbeer is unamerican as selling your soul to the devil and painting the White House black.

1:36pm
Harbeer is unamerican as whoopie cushions and fake doody and election hysteria.

7:52pm
Harbeer is unamerican as having (a full draft of) your thesis due in 24 hours when the whole world is celebrating history, wah!

9:52pm
Harbeer is unamerican as boring riffs of experiMENTAL “poetry” that go on way to long and prompt his friends to change their FB settings to ignore his uncouth tirade.

A Question of Characters

After a week of a hurricane imposed news-blackout, I've been gorging myself on analysis regarding the current financial meltdown.  It all started when I picked up an abandoned copy of USA TODAY at the airport gate on Friday.  It was open to the front page of the "Money" section, and though I'd normally toss aside the bs fluff paper that is USA TODAY, the lead headline caught my eye, "U.S. BENDS THE RULES OF FREE MARKETS:  Nation isn't practicing what it preached to other countries." 

WTF?  USA TODAY was sounding like a downright socialist rag, comparing the US to Mexico, Russia, Thailand and Argentina, upon whom the US (through the IMF and World Bank) had hypocritically imposed harsh structural adjustment policies in the past fifteen years.  Then I recalled a cell phone conversation I'd overheard from a man standing near the bathroom entrance a few minutes earlier.

"What is happening to this country?" he asked the person on the other end.  "Have you seen the WALL STREET JOURNAL?"

The tv mounted overhead was tuned in to CNN where Wolf Blitzer was getting pundits' reactions to a WSJ editorial that had called John McCain "un-presidential" for saying that the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission should be fired. 

Like I said, I'd spent the past week walking from friend's house to friend's house, drinking and bbq-ing and playing games and kissing and sweating and waiting for the power to come back.  It was an intensely local existence.  All we really wanted or needed to know was Is Galveston still there?, When will the power come back?, and Where can I get ice/recharge my phone? 

Last I'd heard, McCain was feigning outrage over Obama's questioning whether pigs can really fly, but this was sounding like some real drama.  Since my plane hadn't even started boarding yet, I took the opportunity to go pick up a more reputable paper, THE FINANCIAL TIMES.

It was shocking.  First of all, the terms they were using seemed so dramatically over-the-top, as if this were some kind of real catastrophe and not just the smoke and mirrors of exposing themselves to be...smoke and mirrors.  The opponents of regulation and public oversight, those Free Market Fundamentalists were finally having to admit that their "science" is built on a foundation just as shaky and unproven as the most closed-minded religious dogma.

"American capitalism has an in-built reverence for market price signals," writes Gillian Tett, (emphasis mine).

A couple of choice phrases from the lead cover story from Friday's FT:  "terrifying events of the past week...teetering on the brink of disaster..."  Are they serious?  The fearmongering didn't stop there, here's some from page three:  "risk...failing...fear...damage market confidence...taking action...crisis...desperate...desire for systemwide approach...structural approach to toxic assets..." And on page thirteen there's a huge article with the headline, "After the crash:  why global capitalism needs global rules."

Meanwhile, the London Times is lamenting the tough decisions rich housewives will have to make in the coming weeks: 

 

Who can they let go from the staff? Most would rather do without the nanny than without the cleaner. With any luck the cleaner likes children anyway and will help out in a pinch. If there is a cook, she goes before the nanny. The cleaner also knows how to roast a chicken and wash up. Forget the garden altogether - expect to see a lot of weeds as the crisis worsens - although the unemployed may take some comfort in doing the gardening themselves. Shopping ... they have been meaning to cut down on shopping for years. Haircuts, though, they can't do without.

 

and Condoleeza Rice is somehow telling Russia that THEY, and not WE, are "authoritarian at home, 'paranoid and aggressive' abroad, and on a 'one-way path' to international isolation."  Huh?  Really?  I mean, she might be right about the Ruskies, but you could say the same things about our fine country, no?  And how does she plan on doing anything about Russia when we're broke and already at war with half the world?  Frickin neocons sound more and more like Scrappy Doo every day.

"Lemme at 'em!  Lemme at 'em!"

This is the first financial meltdown I've been old enough to (start to) comprehend, so I'm not sure what to make of it.  Is it the end of the world as we know it?  Or is it just a short reprieve before we get back to business as usual?  Or is it a New World Order all over again, this time with the rise of "the east?"

Now...there is a point to all this.  See, my novel is set in Houston in 1999.  Enron is on top of the world.  More roads are being built to accommodate more SUVs commuting to-and-from the exurbs.  The Seattle WTO shut-down has not happened yet.

I aimed for it to be a satire, after The Great Gatsby, about our gilded age.  The moment before the fall (9/11.)  A comment on the greed unleashed by deregulation and fed by vapid materialistic soulless appetites.

But a few months ago, as gas prices went through the roof and the mortgage crisis really began to hit real families, doubt began creeping in.  It was becoming clear that the house of cards I had set my sites on was collapsing on its own weight, and my "satire" is not only arriving about five years too late, it could be read as something like pointing and laughing and saying "I told you so!"  At best, it would be like kicking a dead horse.   At worst, it would be adding insult to the injuries being suffered by my desired audience.

Meanwhile, the fictionalized film version of The Battle in Seattle arrived in theaters this week, complete with its counter-protest attempt to "set the record straight," and the perennial post-Seattle hand-wringing on the tactics of protest, not to mention questions about its timely pertinence:
 

 

We hardly need a movie to convince us that corporate greed is killing the world, not this week at least.


All this is forcing me to question whether I'm miring my story in the timely (whose timeliness may have passed) at the expense of the timeless.  Ideally, I'd like for all my work to combine elements of both timeliness and timelessness, but should I take it out of 1999?  Should I tone down, or consciously remove, the snide critiques which have become painfully obvious to everybody (with the exception of the London Times writer I linked to above, of course)? 

I don't know.  But I do know that I'm running out of time.  And I have to remind myself that I'm a story-teller, first.  My characters are my primary responsibility.  Readers?  Audience?  They are just figments of my arrogant imagination. 

But my characters...I can't just dream these people up and then leave them floundering about the ether (unless somebody buys me a ticket to London so I can watch a new production of a play that's a major influence on my work).  I owe it to my characters (and to my student loans) to get this thing done, however I do it.

So, I remind myself that in the three years between the time that John Steinbeck began researching what would become The Grapes of Wrath and its publication in 1939, the Great Depression had begun to end.  Steinbeck's criticism had come too late...and yet it still seems so pertinent today...I remind myself and I roll up my shirtsleeves and I get to work.

It is solid, real, sympathetic characters who make audiences care about the timely and carry them across the timeless ages.  Characters, not ideology.

  • Current Music
    Stereolab - Chemical Chords

Still We Ride

It was kind of sad for me to ride around Justin Herman Plaza yesterday, after all my friends flaked  [not counting the ones who've fled the Bay Area], looking for buddies to ride with on Critical Mass.  There was a day when I couldn't turn my head in one direction without hearing voices call out my name from every corner.  Alas.  Time stands still for no one, and it wasn't long before the ride started and I ran into old and new friends alike--I'd just been being impatient, as it turned out.

Big Chris was still out there, keeping it real by handing out flyers about how SF is falling behind cities like NYC, Amsterdam and Berlin in terms of assuring bike safety, and put a name on idea I've always supported--"stop roll." [Note:  I ride a bicycle, a motorcycle, and my feet, and I feel that bicycles' right-of-way should supersede all others on account of bikes require the most effort to get going again after a full stop.]

Sunny was reppin' for Mark Sanchez and Jen Angel rolled up behind me right before we hit the endless hill in the Presidio.  The funniest exchange I had was with one of Sparki's new room mates though.  This was still back on Justin Herman when I was feeling kind of left out and then he and I spotted one another and the conversation went something like this:

Him:  Hey, aren't you...?

Me:  Yeah!  And you're Scott's new room mate.

Him:  Right.  Didn't we just become friends on facebook?

Me:  Mmhm.  What's your name again?

Him:  Jamie.  And yours is...?

Ah yes, the virtual social fabric we weave...Anyway, thanks for riding with me Jaime!

The joke is on who?

Last week I finally succumbed to the hype and went to see The Dark Night.  (Hey, I was sick, it was playing one block from my house, and I had a pretty girl in tow--how could I say no?)  It sucked!

Disclaimer:  I have been a movie snob ever since the dawn of time, or at least since Yolim got a drivers license and a job at the River Oaks.  (Back in the day, employees could put three friends and family members on some kind of VIP list, so I could always get into the local Landmark Theaters for free WITH a plus one.)

Well, in the past (let's say two) years I've tried to open my mind to more of the dreckish Hollywood output.  I'm going to blame Sparki (and even Yolim) for that.  In fact, I think it was Yo who IRONICALLY kind of opened my mind to the possibility of "good dreck" when I reluctantly agreed to go see The Matrix with him at the dollar theater at Sharpstown Mall--but only at the dollar theater and only if he paid my way.  WHOA, The Matrix was bad ass and I realized maybe it was time to tone down my snobbishness.

Wrong.

I like narratives (whether they be books or movies) for characters.  Most of this dreck I speak of is heavy on plot rather than character.  The Dark Knight has neither.  How many of you have seen it?  Did you honestly give a shit about one single character in that 2.5 hour movie?  Did you sit on the edge of your seat wondering "What happens next?  How will Batman get himself out of THIS bind?"

My money is on "no."  It didn't have characters, it had caricatures (no surprise), and it didn't have a plot, it had an emotionally manipulative score playing in the background the whole time.

WHY IS THIS MOVIE SO POPULAR???

But that's not even what I find most disappointing about the film--it's its [note Herb's awesome grammatical dexterity] negative depiction of my favorite mythological character:  The Trixter.  For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, take a look at the page I just linked to--it's got links to a ton of material on the trixter, the wise fool, the coyote.

The Joker is a lame American pop-culture manifestation of that force which sets everything in motion, and his dumb-ass, simple dialog about the nature of chaos is...oh, fuck it.  It's been a week and I don't really care that much anymore, but it's time that we as American artists reclaimed this noble fool from the simpletons in Hollywoodland.

Grrr.

[Edit:  Ok, the film did have some bad ass vehicles in it--the motorcycle, the Batmobile, the Lamborghini--yum.]

Greetings From Bury Park by Sarfraz Manzoor

So I just started reading this book yesterday (Thanks for the recommendation Preeti.) and then my mom called this morning to tell me my dad was crying again because I refuse to get married and have kids, which provided me the perfect opportunity to read these passages to her:

Once a month I would make the three-and-a-half hour train journey back to Luton to see the family but only out of a sense of obligation.  I was barely on speaking terms with my father and most of my conversations with my mother were about how I hardly talked to my father.
[...]
I defined myself in opposition to my father.  All that he believed, the values he upheld, the ambitions he cherished I rejected as embarassing and outdated.  When he said he was Pakistani, I declared I was British; he was Muslim, I was confused; he believed in family, I championed the individual; he worshipped money, I claimed it meant nothing.  I convinced myself that we were so different, the notion that I might have inherited anything from him apalled me.  The sooner I could shed my past the better.  When I was younger I didn't want to know who my father was because I believed my father had nothing to do with me.  How wrong can a son be?
 
My own father used to be a mail man and I remember sitting in my room on stormy days and praying for his safety (and that of my sisters and me, because he was the only buffer between our mean mean mother and our tender bones.)  He used to work a lot of overtime from what I recall, too.

So, the last time I went home I interviewed my parents about their work experiences--how bad the racism they experienced was and that kind of stuff.  My dad said he only ever had one problem with one coworker--a white guy who felt like he'd deserved the promotion that my father got.  They had some sort of scuffle one day when they were drinking at the bar the mailmen sometimes frequented after work.

A bar?  I couldn't believe it.  I didn't know my father ever went to bars!  "Why pay five dollars for the drink you can have at home for one?" is his attitude.  So, all that time when I was at home praying for his safety, for the mean attack dogs on his route to leave him be, for him to find shelter from lightning and flash floods, at least some of that time he was col' kickin' it at the mailman watering hole!  But learning that made me happy, for reasons demonstrated by this last quote from Greetings:
 
Unlike some other Pakistani men my father was not frittering his wages.  His only vice was smoking...I am pleased my father smoked; glad that there were some things he did purely for pleasure and only for himself.

So, like Manzoor, I, too, am happy that my father had some private pleasures.

Oh, ok, just one more.  This is a memoir about loving Bruce Springsteen as much as it's about growing up Anglo-Paki, so:

At college I discovered Bruce Springsteen.  In his music I found a new way to understand my relationship with my father.  In "Independence Day" Springsteen sings in the character of a son speaking to his father.  Springsteen's father had been a bus driver and he never approved of his son's rock and roll.  Springsteen described his father as taciturn and unemotional.  I identified.  "Independence Day" is the story of a son trying to tell his father that he is now his own man and that the old rules don't apply any more.  When Springsteen sings it he doesn't sing with anger, he is not taking any pleasure when he tells his dad that "they ain't gonna do to me what I watched them do to you."  What most impressed me was the empathy that Springsteen had for his father...That was what made the song so important; it opened my mind to the pain that my father was feeling and it made me think of what he might have been feeling.

Six word memoir

First Michael tagged me, then Anita.  I better get this done before I run out of tagees!


It really was better than Cats.


The six word memoir rules are:

write your own six word memoir.
post it on your blog and include a visual illustration if you’d like.
link to the person that tagged you in your post.
tag five more blogs with links.
leave a comment on the tagged blogs with an invitation to play!

I tag Matthue, Linnea, Pete, Vivek, Cate, and Nina.  Let's play!

pretentious & sanctimonious

This (backdated) blog entry is dedicated to Michael Adair-Kriz who, by tagging me on his blog, has forced me to update and update well. (And since it's backdated, I won't discuss the wonderful spring break week-long bed-in I just had with Tish or the motorcycle rides and awesome shows and hikes along the beach to where a stream plunges 500 feet over a bluff and into the ocean.)

Yesterday, in lit class, once again I came off as "that political guy." We were discussing Nobody Nothing Never by Juan Jose Saer, and, well, there's a pretty glaring omission from that novel which is set in rural Argentina during Argentina's Dirty War-- that omission being the torture and disappearance of up to 30,000 people.

Now, to his credit, Saer wrote a book that has much more to do with metaphysical notions of time and space than war, and he has every right to write or not write about any topic he chooses. I have no problem with that. And, certainly, this is very much a book that mostly deals with metaphysical notions of time and space--except it also tangentially mentions (here and there, maybe a total of four pages out of a 220 page novel) that there are indeed torture and disappearances of "revolutionaries" (and alleged, i.e. innocent, "revolutionaries") going on. It's just that nobody's talking about it and the newspapers aren't covering it. (Instead, the newspapers and townsfolk are busy discussing and obsessing over a spate of 11 horse murders, even as they admit, after a period of weeks, that they have arrested, imprisoned, and tortured a falsely accused man.)

So, in my reading, because Saer did choose to include those few details which undeniably set his metaphysical treatise in a particular time and particular place where a particularly brutal and oppressive campaign was under way, then it really calls attention to that "omission." It's not an omission at all.

I could go on here, like how at least eight pages are devoted to a character's reading/paraphrasing of de Sade's Philosophy in the Bedroom, a device which allows Saer to explore similarities between depictions of torture and pornography, to address why he has chosen to omit graphic renditions of torture.  Like Coetzee in Waiting For the Barbarians, he recognizes the potential for a "perverse" sort of erotic pleasure arising from writing or reading detailed scenes of a person exerting the utmost power over the body of another person, thereby placing the author in a somewhat complicit position.  Meh, I'm not explaining myself very well. Let me pull a few quotes from that Coetzee article I just linked to (fans of The Battle of Algiers will find mention of it if they read the whole, short Coetzee article):

The torture room thus becomes like the bedchamber of the pornographer's fantasy where, insulated from moral or physical restraint, one human being is free to exercise his imagination to the limits in the performance of vileness upon the body of another.
[...]
For the writer the deeper problem is not to allow himself to be impaled on the dilemma proposed by the state, namely, either to ignore its obscenities or else to produce representations of them. The true challenge is how not to play the game by the rules of the state, how to establish one's own authority, how to imagine torture and death on one's own terms.


But I digress. This post is not about my reading of Nobody Nothing Never (a reading which is corroborated by a bit of knowledge about the "sequel" to it, in which the two main characters from NNN are disappeared.) No, this post is about...<drumroll>...me.

I don't know why, but I continue being amazed by my classmates who (all?) believe that art and literature exist in some rarefied vacuum, floating somewhere above the piss and shit and blood and cum and vomit of the world we live in. In their quest for bollocks about "the universal human experience," they don't even think to view Saer's novel within a historical context., let alone examine their own race/class/gender/sexually priviliged or marginalized place in the world.  This in a class of seven people, of which I am the only straight male and the other six students are women (one in her 70s and two identify as lesbians).  Not exactly the most privileged members of society with an abundance of books describing their experience as "universal."  (The teacher, for the record, is an awesome, politically astute gay man who is totally sensitive to race/class/gender/history/etc.)

They remind me of the students in Arun P. Mukherjee's article "Ideology in the Classroom," wherein she discusses her students' readings of "The Perfume Sea" by Margaret Laurence.

"Their papers," writes Mukherjee, "gave me an understanding of how their education had allowed them to neutralize the subversive meanings implicit in a piece of good literature."

I'm not going to get into the specifics of Mukherjee's and her students' readings of "The Perfume Sea," but she does note her students' tendency to:
efface the differences between British bureaucrats and British traders, between colonizing whites and colonized blacks, between rich blacks and poor blacks. [This tendency] enabled them to believe that all human beings faced dilemmas similar to the ones faced by the two main characters in the story...Their analysis, I realized, was in the time-honored tradition of that variety of criticism which presents literary works as 'universal.'
So, back to Saer, this novel which is ostensibly "about" some horse murders and primarily "about" metaphysics and tangentially "about" the Dirty War becomes devoid of any political significance in this "universalist" reading. We see moments of time frozen, as when a ball kicked into the air floats, suspended, for pages while it is examined and reexamined from multiple angles. We see water gushing out of a spigot and then the drops freezie in midair as their shadows and bits of light refracted through them are examined in close detail. But we don't ever, not for the slightest moment (as readers), consider how the falsely accused man being tortured experiences time.

Wow, that was a really long set-up for what was supposed to be a joke.

So, after class I went out for dinner with Kian (who is not in that class), and complained to him about exactly what I've just complained to you about.  As we stood there waiting for our table, I turned to him and asked, "Do you think I'm pretentious and sanctimonious?"

Before he even had a chance to answer, I looked at him and added,  "The fact that I used the second word pretty much proves the first, doesn't it?"

"Don't answer that," I laughed.

This has turned into a very long post and I haven't even gotten around to writing about my first experience practice-teaching. I'll just say this, for now--I went in there intending to play some Jimmy Cliff [lyrics] and Peter Tosh [lyrics] (because they were on the syllabus, along with a critical essay on the oral tradition) and the professor I TA for wound up insisting that I play Dead Prez [lyrics].

That's right. I went in to meet her before class to go over my plans one last time and told her I planned on maybe making the lesson a little more relevant (or familiar, at least) to the students by making mention of a contemporary rap group who address some of the themes from the readings (and who even allude, explicitly, to Peter Tosh in that song). Well, just mentioning Dead Prez wasn't enough for her, especially when she found out I had my computer in my bag and the song on my computer.

"What kind of computer do you have?" she asked, thinking of the A/V setup in the classroom. "Do you have a Mac? No? We could still hook up your pc. Why don't you email it to yourself so we can download it onto the classroom computer?" Etc. I'm not exaggerating one bit--she insisted I take my computer out right then and there, in her office before we even headed over to the other building where the classroom was, and email it to myself immediately.

And that's how I played Dead Prez in the classroom the very first time I taught. (Overall, I think I did a pretty bad job teaching, but I guess that's common. My friends Jenn and Kerry have taken/are taking a "Teaching Creative Writing" class in which they practice-teach and they both had the same experience I did--trying to fit too much material into too little time.)

Wow, this has gone on for a long time and I really need to get to work on my own fiction, which is due in about 15 hours, but I have to close by saying that ALL art is political art and IF YOU ARE NOT EXPLICITLY OR IMPLICITLY CHALLENGING THE STATUS QUO, then you are (at least implicitly) supporting the status quo.
  • Current Music
    Tom Waits - Swordfishtrombones

Happy Leap Day!

First of all, hats off to the Billboard Liberation Front for another fine action.

Four years ago I'd been in Houston for about three months and hated my life. I had left San Francisco just after Halloween to kick dope and apply to graduate school. The Shins' Chutes Too Narrow had come out recently and was in heavy rotation.

"Go back to your home town / Get your feet on the ground / and stop floating around..."

and

"You want to jump and dance / but you sat on your hands / and missed your only chance..."

My grad school applications were in and I did not want to get too settled because I did not intend to stick around long. I meant to head out to wherever-I-would-start-grad-school-in-the-fall by summertime. I didn't want to bother making friends I'd soon abandon, but geeking out on IM and email and talking to my friends in NYC and SF was getting old--I was lonely.

That's the context in which I got an email from my friend Carvell. His band was playing as part of the Clamor Magazine music festival in Oakland. Not only that, the Clamor Music Festival was nationwide, in like 38 cities or something. So I checked Clamor's website and indeed, there was a show in Houston, at a place called the Mausoleum. Not only that, a band I'd been into some years prior, a band I'd gone to see at the Knitting Factory back in the day in NYC, the Free Radicals, were playing.  Plus, it was a benefit for Houston Indymedia, so I figured I could plug into the local anarchist scene, make some friends, who knew, maybe even get laid.

That turned out to be the night I first met many people who would turn out to be some of my favorite bad ass hellraisers.  Talk about not wanting to make friends I'd soon abandon--the cute nerdy girl who worked the door would turn out to be my longest-term lover to date.  And I picked up a flyer for a Leap Day Reclaim the Streets the next day.

"It's your extra day," it read.  "What are you going to do with it?"

I had been planning on going to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, that's what, but I thought I'd be able to do both.  It was a rainy Sunday, I think.  The party was going to be outdoors, but despite the rain, I wasn't going to miss it.

I got to the church where the meeting was supposed to be and nobody was there.  Turned out I'd come an hour early, and now I wasn't so sure that I was going to be able to make it in time for the party after the meeting.  So I ditched the meeting, and that turned out to be the right decision because it led me to the people who actually made me want to clean up. 

I drove up to a traffic island in the Montrose.  Some punks had strung Christmas lights (powered by a car battery) on a tree, and they were digging up soil in the rain.  Planting flowers and melons--guerilla gardening.  I met Travis that night--we started off by talking film.  Jose and Rolando were there, as was Tish and Kayte and Sparki.  Not sure who else.

That's what I did on my last Leap Day.  Today I'm going to work, then meeting my advisor, then Critical MassXtra Action Marching Band is playing later.  Who knows...?
  • Current Music
    White Stripes - Icky Thump

t&a

Tomorrow is the first day of classes, which means it's my first day teaching assistanting. (There is no good verb for that.)

Everyone's been axxing if I'm nervous. I'm really not, but I think it's because I don't really understand the challenges that lie ahead. (Ignorance is bliss...) Doot doot doot. La la la. It's like being the teacher's pet, right? Comes natural to me. Nothing to worry about.

Except...

In other news, I went to see Juno tonight. It was a good, solid, well-made movie, I suppose, but I don't see what all the hype is about. (Is it just me or is everybody talking about how great this movie is?) The girl who plays Juno and Justin Bateman were great, really awesome, and so were all the other characters. The soundtrack by the Moldy Peaches was fantastic. I cried. But was it a "must see?" Not for me. For one thing, the writers were trying WAY too hard on the hip dialog.

The reason I tell you this is not to take issue with the hype surrounding Juno, though, but to lambast the stoned moran who enthusiastically shouted "yes" and "peace is good" through the preview for what looks like an awful movie about the similarities between shalom and salaam. (It's no West Bank Story, I'll tell you that much.)

Stupid moran. Consider yourself lambasted.
  • Current Music
    The Magnetic Fields - Distortion

Get Stoopid

Today I had some Hyphy Juice for some pick me up** and to indulge my new hobby--collecting cans/posters/promotional materials for local energy drinks. It all started when I noticed a poster for Hunid Racks in my San Francisco neighborhood. That's right, my 'hood has it's own damn energy drink--how you like me now? Naturally, my only option was to take the poster, find a store that sold the stuff, and build an altar in my apartment. So I was back in Houston a couple weeks ago when I spotted a poster for something called "Drank - The Anti-Energy Drink." Yup, my hometown's got it's own answer to the energy drink phenomenon, too, and it's ANTI-energy. The store was sold out so I convinced the man to let me take the poster. A few days later I finally found a store that had it in stock. It's a strange purple brew containing rose hips, melatonin, and valerian root. The poster bears a warning: "This beverage may be extremely relaxing and calming and may cause one to lean." No shit--I am not making this up.

Meanwhile, I'm running out of room in my apartment for these altars.  Maybe I'll rotate them.

**There is an abandoned Amtrak station in that video.  I went to a renegade circus there once.  What a space!  (No, really, it was beautiful.)
  • Current Music
    silence