<= 2002.02

2002.04 =>

[MARCH 2002.]

easter, 2002

We will not see peace in our lifetimes.


passion play

Everything at the House on the Rock looked like it belonged in a Terry Gilliam film—except that where Gilliam's films are often exasperating because you sense that he is just trying to be as random as possible, the House was genuinely frightening because you sense that its layout somehow made sense in Alex Jordan's mind. Every room was different but conformed to the same aesthetic of collection and collage, aiming for something that was not quite a museum or theme park but more a document to one man's fixations. These fixations include automated orchestras; red shag carpeting; Chinese art in general and Buddha heads in particular; creepy little dolls; leafless indoor trees; and an unhealthy amount of circus imagery. Past a certain point, upon entering an enormous high-ceilinged room where labyrinthine red-carpeted catwalks curve past one another, past mannequins dressed as medieval saints and a fake storefront selling fake jewelry and the world's largest cannon and an automated pipe organ hidden behind a series of baffles and some sort of gigantic whisky still complete with moonshine jars painted with the signs of the Zodiac, when you come to a prominently lit table displaying a collection of electric typewriters and hydraulic equipment, there is nothing to say but, "Yes. The electric typewriters and hydraulic equipment are here." The House forces you to approach it on its own terms.

Alex Jordan's father apparently built the original house as a jab at Frank Lloyd Wright. This is the only part of the complex where you could actually imagine someone living, though even here it's a bit of a stretch. The ceilings are low, the floor and walls meet at odd angles and are covered in shag carpeting, and metal Buddha heads stare at you from unlikely locations, including the back of the fireplace. Tiffany chandeliers are a big deal here, as are velvet couches and statues of saints. It's sort of a make-out pad from hell, where you would take your date if you wanted to seduce her by refuting Euclidean geometry. The Infinity Room, which projects a good hundred feet off the rock into space and stays up by some physical principle that I don't understand, is particularly unsettling.

Most of Jordan's life was devoted to making additions to the House. These giant rooms have been divided by the tour people into the categories of "Nostalgic" (meaning they vaguely conform to some historical theme) and "Eclectic" (meaning nobody knows what's going on). Some of the Nostalgic rooms could almost pass for museum exhibits: the "Heritage of the Sea" room, for instance, features a perfectly respectable collection of model ships and various relics from maritime history, all neatly preserved in glass cases. The problem is that you can't entirely focus on the miniature U.S.S. Wisconsin and the honorable discharge papers from the Navy and the specimens of clinometers and scrimshaw because the room is constructed around a 200-foot sculpture of a sea monster fighting a giant squid. The monster is partially blue whale and partially killer whale and partially something else entirely. A catwalk takes you up around it and into the "Transportation Room," where hot air balloons hang from the ceiling and bicycles line the railings and, for some obscure transportation-related reason, an old man sits on a suspended crescent moon. Then they serve you bratwurst for lunch (I made do with yogurt and a Danish) and it's on to the Eclectic rooms.

Automated music is a big deal throughout the House; I lost count of how many player pianos we saw. But the Eclectic rooms are the pinnacle of Jordan's fascination with the mechanical orchestra. There are four or five different scenes with violins, woodwinds, guitars, drums, and the occasional saxophone, all set into hellish-looking assemblages of pistons and levers that finger their stops and draw bows across their strings and so on. We were not always able to determine how much of the music was coming from the instruments and how much was taped. The drums were obviously being played, because you could see the mallets striking them, but the other instruments were so encased in machinery that it was hard to see what was happening. This part upset me somewhat, because I have strong sentimental feelings about musical instruments; this seemed like the place where bad guitars and violins would go when they died, to have a machine force "Bolero" or "The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy" from their bodies for all eternity. Occasionally human figures will enter the mix. The room that plays selections from "The Mikado" contains a series of Japanese-looking mannequins, including an angry character with Toshiro Mifune features who will furrow his eyebrows and glare at you while he beats his giant drum.

But for sheer excess, nothing beats the Carousel Room, featuring the world's largest merry-go-round, which has not a single horse. There are elephants and zebras and roosters and donkeys and lots of centaurs, some with demonic features and some with bare breasts and come-hither expressions, but the simple horse is too ordinary for this carousel. Instead, several dozen carousel horses have been mounted on the walls. The ceiling is strewn with hanging female mannequins who have been given togas and angel wings; each has precisely one breast exposed. I can only assume that the nipples were added and painted for this purpose, since I'm fairly sure that your average mannequin was nipple-less at the time of this room's construction. As for the non-carousel items in this room—the giant tree, the bear attacking the baby eagles—we had given up asking by this point. The Doll Room and Circus Room were beyond explanation as well, though it's worth noting that the dolls had two miniature carousels of their own (one featuring horses with Buddha heads). Many of the dolls, particularly the creepy wide-eyed ones trapped behind glass, called to mind the little girl in Interview with a Vampire.

We were in there for a good five hours and our final exit into the gift shop came as a deliverance, even if it was selling horrid items like a House on the Rock coloring book for children (narrated by an elf). At least we were back in commercial America. The drive back to Iowa City was another three hours, and my tape deck is broken, so we were stuck with whatever Motown and religious stations my car radio could pick up. Some people went to a poetry reading after we got home, but I was in no shape for discourse of any kind. I made spaghetti and ate some cookies that my mom had sent for Easter and belatedly realized that all of this had happened on Good Friday. This was my first trip to Wisconsin. Demons sprout everywhere.


sauk county

Today we are going to Wisconsin to see the House on the Rock. In the meantime, historian Mari adds to the Hartlepool monkey discussion:

this story made us all laugh when in york, partly because yorkies like to take the piss out of hartlepool folk, and partly because it got circulated as an 18th c. basis for some obscure measure of weight called a 'monkey'. i think it was supposed to have had something to do with how much the said "french" monkey weighed upon being hanged.


the plight of the family farm

I vaguely remember hearing about R.E.M.'s Peter Buck (allegedly) getting drunk on an airplane and assaulting a flight crew a year or so ago, back when the incident (allegedly) happened. But I hadn't realized the absurd extent of the (alleged) events until reading the BBC's report on the current trial.

The prosecution alleged Mr Buck had drunk about 15 glasses of wine during the flight and tried to get hold of more. It is said Mr Buck was so drunk he tried to insert a CD into a hostess trolley believing it to be a CD player. According to Mr Bate, Mr Buck then sidled up to a woman passenger and declared "I want to sit next to my wife", before being ordered to return to his own seat. The musician allegedly punched the wall of the aircraft with "considerable force". There was then a tussle between Mr Buck and two stewards involving a yoghurt and spoon, resulting in the yoghurt exploding over the three of them. As cabin crew tried to clean Mr Buck up, he turned a hostess trolley upside down, sending crockery and breakfast food everywhere.

Buck claims a sleeping pill fucked him up, and Bono has taken time out from saving the world to drop by as a character witness. This is just so odd, given the bookish and self-effacing nature of the band; it would be like hearing that Kazuo Ishiguro had trashed his hotel room.

Oh so meta: Which online personality test are you? (I got the James Bond Villain Test, which I could not take in its turn, as the link is broken.)

Also, my commercial alter ego has put up its shingle at metameat.com. Some kind of skateboard/snowboard store in Colorado, I guess? Maybe we could sue each other—that would be diverting.


napoleon's uncky o!

Steve P. was fortunate enough to spend his spring break in Bath, England, and he returns with the marvelous story of the Hartlepool Monkey. During the Napoleonic wars—so the legend goes—a merchant ship wrecked off the coast of northeast England and went down with all hands save the ship's monkey, an enterprising little fellow who managed to swim ashore. According to some versions of the legend, he was dressed in a full naval uniform. The good people of Hartlepool discovered him on the beach and, having never seen a Frenchman, assumed that he must be an example of the type. After all, he was short and hairy and spoke a strange, shrieking language. Being decent fishing folk, the Hartepudlians decided that even Napoleon's spy deserved a fair trial and conducted it right there on the beach. As one of many local songs relates:

They put him on a gridiron hot,
The Monkey then quite lively got,
He rowl'd his eyes tiv a' the lot,
For the Monkey agyen turned funky O!
Then a Fisherman up te Monkey goes,
Saying "Hang him at yence, an' end his woes,"
But the Monkey flew at him and bit off his nose,
An' that raised the poor man's Monkey O!

A makeshift scaffold was summarily erected, and the monkey was hung from the neck. One can take no chances during wartime.

Dan Cruickshank, respected BBC historian, claims that this is "a wonderful story, but sadly completely untrue." In his view it simply documents the fear among inhabitants of northeast England that Napoleon would invade, presumably in order to take control of Newcastle's coal supply. But tiny fishing towns don't much care what the BBC thinks, and today the most enthusiastic proponents of the legend are the Hartlepudlians themselves—even though the legend isn't exactly a testament to the town's collective intelligence. The local rugby team is called The Monkeyhangers, and of course there is monkeyhangers.com, whose proprietor exclaims: "But do I really believe that my ancestors hung the monkey? Need you ask? Of course I do!" The rest of the site is a marvelous document of small-town life. Its BBS contains something over a hundred messages on the subject of Brian quitting smoking, and another hundred on George installing new taps in his home:

So I went and got me reciprocatin` saw out of its case, fitted a brand new metal cuttin` blade in it, ....which promptly snapped into two equal halves `cos I turned the screw too `ard that `olds` it....`bugger, damn and blast` I ses and put another brand new metal cuttin` blade in, went back up into the kitchen and after a lot of mutterin`, cursin` and judderin`, managed to cut the two pipes that was stoppin` me from liftin` the sink out.........Great.........the only snag now was that I still couldn`t get the sink out `cos when I put in a new backsplash back in 1993 it overlapped the sink at the back by about a quarter of an inch and the only thing I could do now was try to take off the backsplash, which is pine, and hope it wouldn`t split and break in the process..............So it split and broke in the process. ....

As a coda, there is more news from the pandas at the National Zoo: no love just yet. It's tough, unrequited panda passion.



Paul/Alamut has been making lists of various sorts, and today he links a NYTimes article on new Gass essays, one of which deals with lists: "by filling blank sheets of paper with our wants, wishes, dislikes, past loves and the things that go bump in the night, we aspire to teach death a thing or two about the brilliant stuff of life." I suppose that motive lies behind even Book Magazine's list of the 100 best characters in fiction since 1900 (via Diablo G.), though this one verges on the silly. Is there any real difference—other than the obvious morphological one—between Gregor Samsa (#12) and Joseph K. (#83)? Should Big Brother (#59) even count? Why are so many of the characters furry, and how did the Cat in the Hat (#39) beat out Grendel (#57)?

Someone else will have to answer these questions. I am busy with my dysfunctions. The problem never lies in the present: the present is fine, generally, except that you are too often in a state of fear over some lonely, poverty-stricken future that never turns out as badly as you anticipate. Something must be done about this.


the new bloomusalem

Outside of society, they're waiting for me; and I am not employed by the likes of Velcro Corp. just yet. Let us take long drives through the frozen cornfields, and observe the birds, and listen to Schubert on the radio, and nap at all hours and drink coffee in the evening and toss wads of paper at one another, playfully, during class.



I heart
Arvo Pärt!

I think the umlaut causes that to not rhyme, but whatever. A couple weeks ago I heard "Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten" on the radio, and spent most of the piece trying to figure out whether I was hearing an orchestra or a synthesizer. It's the former, but I've never heard an orchestra produce that sort of texture before. So I grabbed Tabula Rasa off Amazon, and it is simple and so good and so sad. Now and again I wish I had tried to become a composer, or maybe an abstract painter. It is exhausting to have to represent things all the time.

From the comments box, a thoroughly revolting link: lab-grown fish chunks to feed astronauts.

For the experiment, Benjaminson and colleagues sliced up muscle from large goldfish and placed them in a vat of nutrient-rich liquid. Within a week, the fish nuggets had become 16 percent bigger.


After frying the chunks in a sauce of olive oil, garlic, lemon and pepper, the team presented their creation to fellow staffers at Touro College in New York.

"They said it looked like fish and smelled like fish, but they didn't go as far as tasting it," Benjaminson said in a statement.

Nik sends in important news from the consumer-electronics front: the Game Boy has altered our thumbs, and a gunman in Amsterdam takes hostages, then shoots himself out of anger over the quality of widescreen televisions.

In a statement faxed from the office tower to state-financed NOS television, the gunman said he was protesting the "arrogant manipulation by the vendors of wide screen television," and complained that consumers were being misled about the quality of the product. The four-page statement reproduced parts of six letters of complaint previously sent to a Dutch newspaper and the Consumer Board.

I was looking for a job, and then I found a job, and heaven knows I'm miserable now.


stop worrying & love the bomb

I have ideas for turning workshop into performance art. I could start using the phrase "subtle knife" more often, e.g., "I felt that this [character/style/metaphor/image/font/quotation mark/white space] was a subtle knife." Then I would not need to say anything for the remainder of class.

The Marlowes are home, therefore I am as well. It turns out that Nemo smelled terrible all week because a) he had been piddling in his cage, and b) I had not been brushing his teeth with the special beef-flavored toothpaste. If I ever have kids.

It kind of fucks with the whole east/west divide when you learn that Aristotle influenced the Muslim world as much as he did the Christian, and that Thomas Aquinas et al. actually received Aristotelian thought as filtered through people like Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Tarkan ibn Uzalagh al-Farabi.

God is the highest One of neo-Platonic philosophy and Aristotle's supreme First Cause. All attributes of Deity, including the power of creation, are identical with his essence, and that is why all analogies comprehensible to the human mind fall short of strict truth. The One thinks Itself—God contemplates Himself—and this eternal act of self-examining reflection instantaneously gives rise to an intellect which is also an archangel. This intellect-being, the first emanation (which is not an emanation in the same sense as subsequent emanations), has a dual nature which manifests on its own level as a material sphere and an active intelligence. This dual emanation gives rise to a second emanation, also a sphere and an intelligence, and the process continues until there are nine emanated spheres and intelligences. The spheres, beginning with the invisible all-encompassing field, include the spheres of the fixed stars, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury and the Moon. The lunar sphere is associated on the spiritual side with the Agent Intellect, which is also the Angel Gabriel. Gabriel first conveyed the Qur'anic revelation to Muhammad and presides over the realm of Platonic archetypes.

You can see shades of Dante in there, not to mention the Kabalah. Later on, he gets awful close to the early Buddhism of the Pali canon, except that the Buddha steered clear of directly mentioning the soul:

For al-Farabi, the only proper goal of any human being is the nurture and development of the rational power by use of the will. The wise individual will reach falsafa (philosophy), recognition and contemplation of the principles of Being. One who tarries in the confusing mental wasteland of becoming remains undeveloped as a rational soul. Though one may find the sensual life of the tellurian caravanserai pleasant and appealing, it contains the greatest danger: one in whom the rational intellect is not nurtured will not experience the immortality of the soul after death of the body. By becoming self-consciously immortal in life, the end of all true philosophy, one remains self-consciously immortal at death, which is the dropping away of the perishable vesture that embodied one's spiritual nature.

In trying to explain the concept of a grand unified theory, Stephen Hawking used the metaphor of a roulette wheel to explain how the four fundamental forces of physics (electromagnetism, gravity, strong and weak nuclear) could be seen as different manifestations of the same force at sufficiently high, Big Bang-like energies:

The Weinberg-Salam theory exhibits a property known as spontaneous symmetry breaking. This means that what appear to be a number of completely different particles at low energies are in fact found to be all the same type of particle, only in different states. At high energies all these particles behave similarly. The effect is rather like the behavior of a roulette ball on a roulette wheel. At high energies (when the wheel is spun quickly) the ball behaves in essentially only one way—it rolls round and round. But as the wheel slows, the energy of the ball decreases, and eventually the ball drops into one of the thirty-seven slots in the wheel. In other words, at low energies there are thirty-seven different states at which the ball can exist. If, for some reason, we could only observe the ball at low energies, we would then think that there were thirty-seven different types of ball!

It's a commonplace that physicists and mathematicians like their theories "beautiful" or "elegant"; it seems to me that, in general, what makes these theories beautiful is a process of simplification and identification like that described above. The wave and the particle are the same (quantum mechanics); matter and energy are the same (special relativity); space, time and gravity are the same (general relativity); all elementary particles of matter, and all elementary particles that carry force, are the same string at different vibrations (string theory). The Many move toward the irreducible One.

The study of comparative religion is not so different in my mind. At low levels, when the spiritual gets too bound in human affairs, you have crusades and inquisitions and all the usual horrors that atheist rationalists use as arguments against religion. I spent many years in that camp. Nobody ever bothered to tell me that at sufficiently rarefied levels of thought—high energies, to extend the physics metaphor—Aquinas and al-Farabi and Buddha start to sound remarkably similar. You know what Blake said:

Principle V. The Religions of all Nations are derived from each Nation's different reception of the Poetic Genius, which is every where call'd the Spirit of Prophecy.
Principle VI. The Jewish & Christian Testaments are An original derivation from the Poetic Genius. This is necessary from the confined nature of bodily sensation.
Principle VII. As all men are alike (tho' infinitely various), So all Religions , &, as all similars, have one source. The true Man is the source, he being the Poetic Genius.

The funny thing is that it was the study of math that started this train of thought a year and a half ago. Gödel, especially Gödel combined with Nietzsche, just about killed me; rationalism was full of big fat holes and I didn't know how to handle them. It was a fluke that some Buddhist writings fell into my lap around then: they found the same problems with deductive logic, but for some reason—probably because there was no paternal, tyrannical God to kill—they had no problem with falling back on faith and intuition. Nietzsche thought this was a weakness, but then he had to manufacture the whole elaborate & implausible scheme of the eternal return to make himself feel better about a Godless world, so whatever. I'm over him.

Coming to terms with all of this has felt a lot like admitting I'm gay, or something. Among a certain subset of left-wing intellectuals such as ourselves, "faith" is perhaps the one remaining dirty word. At this point I think it were best to let that taboo, like the others, fall away.


in the mouth a desert

As sea levels rise, Venice is the first to go. Everyone is welcome to squabble about causes, but this is really happening.

There's no question that the problem has worsened and the threat is real. Last year alone, high waters inundated St. Mark's Square, the city's main piazza and lowest point, more than 90 times. That compares to fewer than 60 occasions during the entire decade of the 1920s. Paintings by the Venetian master Canaletto, which show the waterline on buildings, indicate that the tides now lap the walls 80 centimeters, or 31 inches, higher than two centuries ago. Marble steps leading down to the canals, above water at the beginning of the 20th century, are now submerged except at low tide.

That could just be the beginning. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of experts considered the most authoritative scientific group monitoring the subject, warns that the world's oceans could rise this century by anything from a few centimeters to almost 90 centimeters, or 35 inches.

I have successfully mated the digital camera with Marlowe's computer. I'll get pictures organized and posted soon, though not all of them are good, as it has taken a while to figure the camera out and many of the photos were shot from the window of a moving car. Here are a picture from Iowa and a picture from Nevada:

And people wonder why I need to move west.


i could live in hope

We never get tired of the Nixon tapes around here. They're just too good.

"You know, it's a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob? What is the matter with them? I suppose it is because most of them are psychiatrists."


It takes the president a while to get to the point, which begins with his review of a popular TV sitcom he has just watched, apparently for the first time:

"Archie is sitting here with his hippie son-in-law, married to the screwball daughter. . . . The son-in-law apparently goes both ways."

Nixon seems to have concluded, against all evidence, that Meathead is bisexual. Possibly it is the length of his hair. Another character in the show, Nixon reports, is "obviously queer. He wears an ascot, and so forth."


"Dope? Do you think the Russians allow dope? Hell no. Not if they can catch it, they send them up. You see, homosexuality, dope, uh, immorality in general: These are the enemies of strong societies. That's why the Communists and the left-wingers are pushing it. They're trying to destroy us."

And okay yes I will post one of these. Just to keep track of directions I'm moving in, you know. Note that Zeno's Conscience is "of great interest to fans of Joyce and inveterate smokers alike."


the losing horse

Hello; I'm better. I have to stop watching the cable over here. It is narcotizing and it makes me feel terrible about myself.

The only hope for unemployable English majors from top-tier universities is that they can write columns about being unemployable English majors. She probably got, what, $40 or so for that?

This is true: the island nation of Mauritius governs a number of smaller islands, including Ile Ronde and Ile aux Serpents. Ile Ronde is not round and supports two species of snake, while Ile aux Serpents is round and snakeless. It's assumed that cartographers got confused somewhere along the way, but no one is sure.

At the same time, Saudi newspapers broke custom to criticize the religious police for letting 15 little girls die in a school blaze in Mecca. The police—the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice—stopped men who tried to rescue the girls or open the school gates, telling them "it is sinful to approach" the girls because they weren't wearing head scarves and abayas, the traditional robes, and there could be no exposure of "females to male strangers."

Oh, and Antarctica is coming apart.



1) Come in. Come in. Come in. Come in. Come in.

2) U.S. Navy television advertisement: "If someone wrote a book about your life, would anyone want to read it?"

3) James D. Watson writes a book, mostly about being unable to get laid; nobody wants to read it.

4) I may not graduate this semester, because I am an idiot. But even the PhD is devalued & glutting the marketplace, these days, so don't get me started on the MFA.

5) E: Everything oozes.
V: Look at the tree.
E: It's never the same pus from one second to the next.
V: The tree, look at the tree.

6) Monks, the All is aflame. What All is aflame? The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame. Consciousness at the eye is aflame. Contact at the eye is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye—experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain—that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses and despairs.

7) Spring will not come.




un chien d'iowa

The week before the equinox, it is neither winter nor spring in these parts. The snow is off the ground, but the trees are not yet convinced that it is worth their while to refoliate. The sun is out now and again, but the temperature stubbornly hovers in the low forties and the prairie wind cuts through everything.

Everyone is gone. The streets outside my house, usually parked bumper to bumper, are deserted. I don't know where all the undergrads went—beach locales, I suppose, if they could afford them, or else back to their small, agricultural hometowns. The workshop has mostly dispersed as well. I assume those few who remain are holed up writing, like me. In the last 48 hours I have had no contact with any living being other than Captain Nemo (Marlowe's dog). Our conversations are limited.

ME: Do you like this on the radio, Nemo? It's Debussy's string quartet in G minor.
NEMO: [wags tail]
ME: It's got a pretty strong key center, hasn't it? Must be one of his early works. None of those harmonically ambiguous diminished-seventh chords.
NEMO: [attempts to sniff my crotch]

This last-human-on-earth feeling is amplified by all the technology lying around this place. The Marlowe lifestyle includes cable TV, and for some reason every time I turn on the television Dexter's Laboratory is showing. Yesterday it was the episode where Dexter went to Amish camp, and after watching that it was impossible to take my novella at all seriously. Fortunately the Marlowe lifestyle also includes a CD changer, so I can pop in all four discs of Tristan und Isolde and get 2000% of my recommended daily Liebestod without leaving the chair. It is a comfy chair.

Nemo is desperate for affection today. I think he also suspects that I am the last human on earth. There is a lot of shit to shovel in this life, O Bhikkus, and the intellectual understanding that there is no self & no shit & no shovel does not always help.


at the biglove oversoul

I'm sort of living at the Marlowes' house this week, supervising their dog while they spend spring break in Arizona and New Mexico, the lucky sots. So far the dog is well behaved. He knows to have his bowel movements on a pad which has been spread near the door for that purpose. Steve's computer tells me that today is his birthday, so happy birthday from everyone at the 'meat, wherever you are.

I know you all want dirty secrets about the house, but they are not for free. I will say that Steve has set up his miniature hookah on top of his shrine to the Virgin Mother, and the two match.

NYTimes mag has a music issue this week. You want My Mingus, by Sue Graham Mingus ("If I was your daddy, I'd fix your teeth!"), and the track list on Beck's iPod (eclectic, duh).


gathering the bones together

You are very bad people!

[Recording Industry Association of America president Hilary] Rosen alternately sounded like the captain of the Titanic asking, "Iceberg? What iceberg?" and George Orwell's double-speaking Big Brother stubbornly insisting, "Black is white." She maintained that RIAA surveys prove that consumers do not object to the average CD price pushing the $20 mark, and that federal anti-trust laws are actually bad for consumers, since they are slowing the record companies down from banding together to institute technical "improvements" that will stop us from making duplicate copies of our own CDs.

By far Rosen's most absurd contention was that record companies create artists, not the other way around. "The artist's image is created by the money that the label puts into it," she said.


jojo left his home

The New York Times travel porn has completely fucked me up. Yesterday they were running a piece on a trip to the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona, using the type of prose that could make a meat-packing plant sound alluring:

The desert surprised us both. By chance, we arrived during a 30-year bloom. Along Interstate 10 we passed hillsides awash with Mexican poppies that, stirred by a soft breeze, seemed to flow toward us like molten gold... So we abandoned our grungy diner plans and picnicked instead surrounded by miles of sapphire-blue lupines, poppies, and the paler yellow bladderwort which, en masse, resembled powdered sunlight strewn across the range. No cars in earshot, no people in sight. Just a coyote loping through the poppies, its coat a little shabby against the golden glitter.

That paragraph made me go all mushy, and by the end of the article I was of no use to man or beast. The longer I spend away from Arizona, the more mythic it becomes.

In Brooklyn last week, Lauren asked me under what circumstances I would be willing to live in New York, and I couldn't come up with any scenario at all. I wouldn't live in New York unless I had money, and if I had money I would live in Tucson. I really really miss the place. I miss it so goddamn much that I may have to pack up and move there. Reno was a nice idea, but I'm not married to it.

I have been doing some math, and I have determined that if I were to go into business on my own tutoring high school students in academic subjects and standardized tests, I could support myself on about 16 hours of work per week. In a couple of days we will find out whether my sister got into the University of Arizona pharmacy program. This could work.


red alert!

Well, see what the White House has done. Now we can treat terrorism just like tornadoes, which I guess is soothing to a certain type of mind, but who comes up with these schemata?

The Washington Post has a Great American Vegetarian Debate. Honestly, I've never seen it in such stark terms, since self-righteousness of any sort always comes back to bite you in the ass, but I suppose it's different if you're vegan. And I'm fortunate to live in a nice liberal college town, even if it's also prime pig-farming country. Vu chews his way through carcasses and we all smile & coexist.

Denis Johnson, Robert Stone and Jim Shepard get psychoanalyzed. It's an interesting idea, but the analysts' responses are surprisingly crude and still mired in Freud. And I know Freud's influence is incalculable, and I do think he was right about a lot of things, but you'd think they could do better than describe the Hindenburg as a giant hydrogen-buoyed phallus. Or their take on Johnson's "Emergency":

The narrator has no name. People get lost. The orderly does not know how long he has been wiping the floor. A man walks in with a knife in his eye. People sleep on bunnies. These are dehumanized people. Bad things are done, and everyone pretends everything is all right. But there is hope through the little rabbits. Blood can be wiped away. Milk can be found for the little rabbits. Despite soul murder, there is resilience of spirit to overcome the demonic ecstasy of death.

Any of us could have come up with that as high school seniors—except maybe the phrases "soul murder" and "demonic ecstasy of death," which I've put on probation. It just goes to show that once you paraphrase art, you eviscerate it. Technical language is so crude: like using a bulldozer to study orchids, as they say.



V.S. Naipaul: "Banality irritates me. My life is short. I can't listen to banality. This thing about colonialism, this thing about gender oppression, the very word oppression wearies me. If writers talk about oppression, they don't do much writing. Fifty years have gone by. What colonialism are you talking about?"

Ruchir Joshi: "You're being obnoxious!"

Fortunately Vikram Seth was on hand to mediate. Meanwhile, Rushdie says:

However, another writer, the Nobel laureate VS Naipaul, speaking in India just a week before the violence erupted, denounced India's Muslims en masse and praised the nationalist movement.

The murderers of Godhra must indeed be denounced, and Mahasveta Devi in her letter demands "stern legal action" against them. But the VHP and its other related organisation, the equally sinister RSS (Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh, or Association of National Volunteers, from which both the BJP and the VHP take inspiration) are determined to destroy that secular democracy in which India takes such public pride and which it does so little to protect; and by supporting them, Naipaul makes himself a fellow traveller of fascism and disgraces the Nobel award.

Seriously, I need to go have a secular-socialist agrarian society, by myself, operating out of a trailer in the desert off the interstate. Sagebrush and blank billboards. Aren't they nice?


bad, wicked world

If I were czar, I would ban the word "experience" from appearing henceforth in any book review or blurb.

Here, this will depress you: how third-world protest movements have to sell themselves to the West. Because there are always so many, and no matter how good you are, you will never be good enough to help them all.



Caterina has been talking about hobbies as time-suckers and distractions from one's real work. I have wondered about this, considering how much time I spend tinkering with this site, messing around with the four-track, drawing (now), etc. But I am no longer so insistent about the work. The point is not to enslave yourself to the work—the point is to be a human being. I mean, books will probably result, because in my case being a human seems to involve generating text, but other priorities exist and a balance must be found. It would be horrible to take away Nabokov's chess problems and butterflies, and get nothing in return but another book or two. This is miserable work in many respects, and while the aesthetic rewards of a successful piece do provide compensation, those of us who practice it should not deny ourselves the opportunity to live. Really.

My nineteen-year-old self would be horrified to hear this, but then he was terribly serious and single-minded, both jaded and naïve, intoxicated with himself in the mornings and hating himself in the evenings, smoking far too much and absolutely determined to be a poet.

Nabokov wrote somewhere—this will be a misquote, because I can't find the passage:

There is no more pure love in the world than the love a young writer has for the old writer he will someday become. Toward his younger self the old writer feels, at best, a certain indulgent embarrassment.

Now—this is not connected, but now—I have this nightmare scenario where the United States attacks Iraq, and Iraq responds by lobbing missiles, probably laced with chemical or biological agents, at Tel Aviv. Israel counterattacks—in the worst version of this nightmare, it counterattacks with nukes—and suddenly there is a U.S.-Israeli war against Iraq, and at that point will the rest of the Muslim world stand by?

Hegel's language is sometimes apt. The horrors of the twentieth century came out of competing theses within Europe, and seem to have resolved at last into a synthesis where Germany makes our Cipro and even Russia is coming into the fold. (Bosnia was a brief, nasty coda.) Hegel would say that the horrors of the twenty-first century will come from this newly synthesized West battling it out with the rest of the world. Of course it's reductive. But if you take a very long view.


where the body rests

Weird weather. Last night at 2 a.m. it was 61 degrees; now it's 23 degrees and snowflakes are falling. The cold front mocks me.

So it turns out the universe isn't green after all; it's a pallid beige. Or maybe ecru. They're taking suggestions for a better name at the website. And here's a little piece on one of Arizona's new congressional districts, which is so large and sparsely populated that no one is sure how to campaign there. Open land. Lord, am I homesick.

The other thing I forgot to mention about the Richter exhibit is that they had the candle painting used by Sonic Youth for the cover of Daydream Nation, three or four feet across and occupying its own wall. It was one of those moments where you turn the corner and go, "Oh, there's that." And Kim Gordon's monologue at the start of "The Sprawl" is taken from Denis Johnson's The Stars at Noon. It's all coming together.



From Justin: a prog-rock album all about Henry VIII's wives.

From Jim Sidel: aboveground nuclear testing has sprayed iodine-131 everywhere, including Iowa.

As I continue with these sketches I am learning things, such as: the scanner runs into problems when you draw on the back of discarded income tax forms.



the indifferent beak

Weird, apparently Douglas from Lacunae was also at the gay bar. And the guy with the water bottles was Neil Gaiman: who knew? That's the closest to indie celebrity that I'm likely to get for a while.

See, visiting the museums has gotten me all interested in art again.


Maybe it's a fear of commitment.


the orgiastic future

I am home—a few pounds lighter and a couple of hundred dollars poorer, but the trip may nonetheless be judged a success. We experienced food and drinks and music and several social milieux that probably qualify as "scenes," and we are better people for it. "We" means your humble narrator, Joe and Jake from the SF area, and Lauren/Kidchamp, who will be posting her own travelogue shortly. She and I have decided to forgo reading one another's posts beforehand—to hell with overlap!—so ideally the combination of the two will give a Gospel of Luke/Gospel of John sort of effect. There's not much discernible Jesus in NYC, but there's a hell of a lot of everything else.

The reason I am a few pounds lighter is that despite the inordinate amount of time we spent discussing the types of food we needed to experience, the logistics of getting four people to agree on an eatery are sufficiently difficult that we didn't actually eat much. And when we did eat, I couldn't stomach a very large meal—though the food was uniformly excellent—because my digestive system is weird anyway and the sheer amount of urban stimulus gave me low-grade anxiety problems for much of the trip. Everything is so large and loud there. Times Square is a hellish twenty-first-century video game; those five-story scrolling stock quotes could eat a man alive. We would spend all day negotiating subways and billboards and taxis and pigeons and sidewalks and bars and street musicians and crosswalks and hipsters and car alarms and schizophrenics, so that by the time I finally lay down to sleep on a friend's friend's floor, it would all bubble back into my subconscious and manifest as episodes of terrified half-consciousness where I was trying to manipulate a subway map of Manhattan in my mind and would die if any junctions were lost.

Fortunately Manhattan is not so difficult to navigate in real life. Its layout is relentlessly Cartesian—x-ordinate, y-ordinate, blip—and Central Park is a good anchor. Jake also had a working knowledge of local geography; I was no help because I had visited NYC only once before, in the eighth grade, and spent most of the visit running a fever. (Dad: "Look, dinosaur skeletons!" Me: "I need to lie down.") From the air the island resembles nothing so much as a Lego city—the optical illusion is that it is actually taller than it is wide—and the rectilinearity continues at street level. This isn't San Francisco, where at least there are hills to remind you that rock strata and petrified vertebrates and the earth's roiling mantle lie beneath the concrete. Here the last vestiges of nature have long since been bulldozed away.

Some people thrive on this. Phil, who drinks an awful lot (as Stewart said) and counts himself lucky because he can actually see the sky from his apartment, seems to have been genetically engineered for NYC. On our first night there he took us to an electronica club with nine-dollar cocktails and began a lengthy disquisition on the merits of the Bombay Sapphire martini. In principle I agree with him, but I have recently become suspicious of worldly trappings and activities, and I ended up staying sober. This made for an odd perspective since, as Phil points out, every social activity in NYC is lubricated by some form of ethanol. As the evening progressed more hipsters began to arrive, crowding us into a complex of corner sofas, and Phil began to talk about the general New York Experience. "Every day when I leave my apartment," he said, "I'm still thrilled to be here. Eight million people—it's so vital!" Yes, I thought, but I was still harboring suspicions that four million of those people considered me beneath them socially and the other four million wished me bodily harm. I left the couches in search of a bathroom and passed throngs of people lit in dim blue, holding cocktails and cigarettes and amiably bouncing in time with the DJ equipment. Only one of the three bathrooms appeared to be in service, so I waited for a while beside a German man who was shouting into his cell phone, occasionally breaking into English—"What about your beautiful girl? What about your beautiful girl?"—and I came to imagine that nobody was coming out of the other two bathrooms because people were using them to take drugs, and it seemed that a rattle was coming from the handle of the door nearest me—probably it was only a DJ sound effect, but it sounded like the sort of rattle that would be made by a person dying of a heroin overdose and using his last moments of consciousness to fumble desperately with the latch. Eventually my turn came to use the functioning bathroom, and I peed.

Many of the establishments we visited in NYC were like this: very loud, and patronized by people of magazine-level attractiveness who outclassed us in seven different ways. (We also heard about, but did not visit, a bar called Kokie's, which apparently contains three kinds of people: those waiting in line to buy their cocaine in the back, those waiting in line to snort their cocaine in the bathroom, and those who, having snorted their cocaine, are singing karaoke. However, our source warned us that the cocaine is cut with baby laxatives and hence makes you flatulent.) But I should mention that despite drinking almost nothing—three drinks in five days—I did have several positive experiences in bars. At the White Horse Tavern on 11th and Hudson, where Dylan Thomas had the famous eighteen whiskies that finally killed him, I got to play "Just (You Do It To Yourself)" on the jukebox. Also worth mention is Enid's, situated next to Luke's (our generous host) apartment above a tattoo shop in a Polish neighborhood in Brooklyn. In the mornings they play the Cars and serve you granola and omelettes; in the evenings it's Grandmaster Flash and cheap beer. And evenings last until 4 a.m. around these parts.

There were Cultural Experiences, of course. We missed Urinetown—which all of the taxis were advertising, bizarrely—but the two-evening Magnetic Fields extravaganza filled our theatre RDA well enough. The 69 Love Songs were originally conceived less as an album than a musical revue, and the performance played up that aspect. The duets in particular had a Broadway quality, and Stephin Merritt closed the first evening by wandering the stage and vamping as he sang "Promises of Eternity" to a canned backing track. They relied little on percussion or synths in general—mostly it was piano, cello, and rhythm/lead guitar or banjo or ukulele or whatever. Mr. Daniel Handler aka Lemony Snicket was also on hand to play the accordion as needed. Most of the time he sat on a couch at the back of the stage with the unoccupied guest vocalists, and everyone read or knitted.

Overall there was little of a pop concert about the production, which I suppose is a natural consequence of the Lincoln Center venue. The acoustics were stellar, a printed program listed all 69 songs in the album order, and the vocals were miked well enough that you could actually understand them. People weren't afraid to laugh at the funny lines, particularly if they hadn't heard the songs before, which seemed to be the case for many. During intermission I wandered the lobby and listened to elderly well-dressed people, presumably season ticket holders, say things like "It's all very foreign to me—but it's good!"

After Saturday's show we located Lauren/Proleptic, who is affable and urbane in person as online, and found the after-party at the Eight of Clubs, a nearby gay bar with well-muscled shirtless bartenders and whimsical penis paintings. I sipped a Pure Pride Spring Water and listened to a fortysomething gentleman, who had attached himself to our group after conceiving a liking for Jake, tell stories about coming down from crystal meth at the Burning Man festival. "I was just dead. I was a dead person. And I was walking very slowly and very carefully, avoiding all of my friends because I didn't want any of them to see me and realize I was a corpse..."

Eventually the band showed up, further crowding the already packed room, and Lauren/K made a couple of attempts to talk to Stephin Merritt but I'm not sure how they went. I contented myself with eating one of the "Thin Mint" Girl Scout cookies that Lemony Snicket was handing out to everyone, and soon Chelsey appeared to introduce me to Claudia and a few friends.

"Oh, Paul," said Claudia (who has been out to Iowa before). "You're the one who everybody thinks is some kind of genius?"

"Er," I said. "Well." And then, "Congratulations on the show."

"Thank you," she said.

Then I met a man who had been Neil Gaiman's publicist for a number of years, and everyone was asking how we knew the band, and the explanations were so complicated and made us feel so peripheral that it seemed best to go back to Brooklyn and reorient. We ended up walking through thirty blocks of rain, which totally destroyed my souvenir program, and my hat was damp for the next two days, but this is what happens when you are unsure of your objectives in NYC.

Now I must speak of museums. How I did love the museums. We made a brief stop at the American Museum of Natural History, where we saw the wonderful Butterfly Conservatory on Chelsey's advice and were chased away from the dinosaurs at closing time, but mostly the museums were all about art. I could have spent a week just looking at paintings. There is something incredibly liberating in experiencing an art form that I have no ambition to practice. It's rather like the pleasure I used to get from reading many years ago, before I knew the first thing about literary craft—of course it's naïve, but from certain angles naïveté can scan as purity. Not to mention that I could fall in love with the earnest young art-history grad students who give walking tours of the exhibits. I have a weakness for people involved in non-literary branches of the arts. Like a few months ago I met a composer at a party, and she wasn't intrinsically that hot or anything, but hell, she was a composer. Unfortunately she moved to Vienna three days later.

We got maybe ten percent of the Met in, though I did see enough of my fellow Pauls (Cézanne, Klee) to keep me happy for the rest of the day. (Also this wondrous Degas of a woman with ibises, which I'd never heard of.) The current main attraction is a surrealism exhibit which seemed fairly hit-and-miss; I've largely lost patience with the sort of updated-Sade surrealist art that contorts sexual elements into new and brutal configurations. It's nasty, and it doesn't redeem that nastiness by telling me anything about humanity that rings true. Our bestial side exists, but sex is not the chamber of horrors that some would have us believe. More often it's just misdirected and a little sad. Still, between the horrid jumbled sex dolls and the wedges driven into vulvas there were some first-rate works. Topping the list are the lovely glass-fronted box assemblages of Joseph Cornell, and Francis Picabia did mechanism/sex studies in a way that was more intriguing than crass: Le Fiancé, for example. And Paroxysme de la Douleur did it for me even before I read its title. They also had Dalí's Metamorphosis of Narcissus, which poster decorated my dorm room for a number of years until I noticed the distant figure crawling over the mountains on the right. I couldn't handle that.

Most of the Whitney was closed for the upcoming biennial exhibition, but they did have several Alexander Calder mobiles and another Cornell assemblage on display. There was also an elegant little ink-on-paper Pollock, which I vastly preferred to the larger, multicolored canvases; in art that is so utterly non-objective, restraint is almost always a virtue to my eye. The Museum of Modern Art is inexplicably set up so that they can display only a small fraction of the permanent collection at any given time—so Starry Night and Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and a Matisse red room and a Jasper Johns flag and so on were all crowded into a little "highlights" gallery, along with Henri Rousseau's art-naïf The Sleeping Gypsy, which is just not good, my previous remarks on naïveté notwithstanding.

The bulk of the MOMA's space was taken up with the Gerhard Richter exhibit that was written up in the New Yorker and the New York Times magazine last week—and this, this was so good. Many of the paintings took the newspaper photograph as their aesthetic starting point: Richter would paint in monochrome, at photorealistic quality, and then use a variety of blurring and streaking techniques on the wet oils to confuse the matter. The effect was fascinating enough when he was just doing banal journalistic scenes, but it reached its apogee with the fifteen canvases of October 18, 1977, which I couldn't help but compare with Yeats's "Easter, 1916," intentional parallelism or no.

Richter's 15 black-and-white paintings commemorate the day two leaders of the radical German Baader-Meinhof group, disillusioned men and women in their 30s and early 40s whose loyalty to the dogma of the Red Army Faction had led them to commit numerous terrorist acts, were found dead in their prison cells. Gudrun Ensslin appeared to have hung herself. Andreas Baader had been fatally shot. Jan-Carl Raspe was near death from a bullet wound. Two other members of the group had died in prison earlier in the '70s: Holger Meins after a hunger strike; Ulrike Menihof, by hanging. On the Left, there was widespread suspicion the dead had been murdered. Photographs of the Baader-Meinhof members were ubiquitous in newspapers of the day; their images were as familiar to Germans as machine gun-toting Patty "Tania" Hearst was to Americans. Using photographs as models, Richter painted the dead with a subtle technique—a blurring of certain details and an elegiac use of gray—that calls into question the murkiness of historical "knowledge" and emphasizes the uneasy mixture of compassion and horror evoked by the group's fate.

There were any number of paintings in other styles, ranging from soft-focus studies of Richter's wife and child to ultra-abstract texture studies in gray paint, and it was remarkable how seldom Richter seemed to misstep throughout these variations. The only pieces I really couldn't admire were a few Day-Glo abstractions that were just too gaudy and too eighties. Overall, it seems that Richter can do just about anything he wants.

The top floor of the MOMA holds the Life of the City photography exhibit, and ordinarily I couldn't have done much with this. I have come to realize that photography is mostly lost on me as an art form, at least at this stage in my life—I prefer painting for the same reasons that I prefer literature to film and indie rock to electronica, and that's about the best explanation I can give. But in the last few months the MOMA has supplemented its usual art photos with the amateur project Here Is New York, which opened in a SoHo storefront a few weeks after the towers went down. It's really worth clicking through a few of these.

Many of the images are familiar by now: pedestrians covered in white ash, a tea set covered in white ash, fruit covered in white ash, poles and walls covered with "Missing" pictures, vigils, "Have you seen my daddy?" signs, angry and loving messages traced in dust, cranes by night, darkness by day, ruins at all hours, crushed taxicabs, firehouses, firefighters in the black jackets with their yellow stripes, headless mannequins, wreckage, funerals, people looking up on a sunny day, the World Trade Center on fire, the collapse of the towers, the dusty, silent narrow streets.

In the museum gallery it is utterly quiet. For the first time in a long time there are many strollers and wheelchairs in the gallery. It is not the usual museum crowd. The scene is more like a religious ceremony. This is the new New York, the mourning, bewildered city, that people are getting to know.

In general, the WTC aftermath did not impose itself heavily on my perception during our visit. I'm not familiar enough with the Manhattan skyline to notice the absence of the towers, and by now the "street vibe," to the extent that I was able to perceive it, didn't seem qualitatively different from that of any other city. There were smaller reminders. An ad campaign has begun in the subways with the slogan "NEW YORK NEEDS US STRONG": there are reproductions of residents' handwritten notes on how they are coping. "I visit my family." "I cook for my girlfriend." "I make sure to exercise." Less calculated, and really saddening, are the smaller ads for telephone support lines. "Can't sleep? Bad dreams? It helps to talk. We're here to listen. Call 1-800-LIFELINE."

We never made it downtown. Our only view of the Ground Zero area was at night, from the top of the Empire State Building. Other skyscrapers screen off the actual wreckage, but you can see the industrial light seeping upward from the gap, whiter and more sickly than the surrounding city glow, and the giant flag hung alongside. The Statue of Liberty is more distant, a tiny sliver of deep green rising from the water.

"Here's a thought experiment," Phil had said a day or two before. "Take a look at the tallest building you see and stack it on top of itself—multiply it by three, even. And imagine it coming down."

Sunday afternoon found us at a small Upper East Side bar called Hurricane Island. It was a neighborhood sort of place where most of the regulars seemed to know one another, and soon a well-dressed, sad-faced businessman in his forties drew me and Luke's roommate Matt into conversation. He had recently lost his Internet business. "I have a knack," he said, "for starting ventures that fail. What are you planning to do?"

"Be a writer," I said. "No money in it." (I have had to start adding this qualification, in order to preempt people who think I'm unaware of it.)

"Well now," said the businessman, "Tom Wolfe's made a bundle of money. We know Tom," he called to another man, "don't we?"

"Oh sure," said the other man, "plenty of money. He built that treehouse in his backyard for his kids."

"You should read his latest," the businessman told me, "Hooking Up."

"I've read parts of it."

"That book is great," he said, "because it's all about blowjobs."

I looked at my beer. "Hmm."

"There's this thing—" he said— "I don't know if it's a generational thing or what—I understand your generation is much more willing with oral sex because of AIDS and everything—but there is a problem in your generation with women who are perfectly willing to give it, but not receive it. That just seems sad to me. Tell me—I don't mean to be graphic, but do you two boys having any problem with giving oral sex to a girl?"

"Errm," I said, flustered, because I am from Iowa and everything. Matt made a similar noise.

He resumed his morose expression and looked at his cocktail. "I tell you," he said, "I have a son in college—who knows how I'm going to pay for that—he does what he does. But I also have a seventeen-year-old daughter. She goes out and says she has a great time, but I know what she does." He shook his head. "And it just seems so unfair for her."

At this point Matt took up the job of talking about girls, so I looked at my beer some more. "Sweet Caroline" was playing. Eventually the businessman asked what we were doing later.

"Probably going back to Brooklyn," I said. "That's where we're staying."

"Unless you get lucky and go to her place," he said.

"Yes. Sure."

"Wrong night for it here," he told me. "You want to go around 82nd and 3rd. Get you laid like that."

At this the vulture of despair, which had been peripherally circling for some time, landed squarely on my sternum. I made some response, but in truth I was sinking.

I am home now. Suddenly I feel much better disposed toward Iowa: the farms and country lanes and utter cluelessness of the place have become endearing and homelike, finally, just as I am about to leave. This is one of the few good things about a wandering existence. Over time more and more cities cease to be points on a map and unfold themselves to you, imprinting their geographies in your soul so that you will carry their landscapes inside you, in miniature, ever after. New York will never be one of those places for me, but it was good to see what I saw. Now I must start to write again. The sun is casting the shadows of trees over the snow. Their bare branches oscillate, just slightly, in the winter air.


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