Disruptive Juxtaposition

Friday, March 24, 2006

Bench press update

Who can bench press their own weight? Stifler! I mean, me. I can. Yes!

Only 200 lbs. to go. Look out, brother. I like the idea of making myself more like you this way.


Call me 14, but I still find Friendster to be a nice distracting black hole, time-wise. I find these online "digital-self" sites fascinating, even after their initial popularity settled out and they've become part of the culture - in part because selves aren't static, and maintaining a digital self that current to your actual living current self takes time. Same with this blog, sort of. If you're of a certain age and a certain disposition, you've got to come online and groom your digital presence the same way you brush teeth and comb hair in the AM. And you nose around to see how the grooming and looks and attitudes of the people you know and don't know seem lately. In that sense then, sites like these are like sitting on a park bench and watching the people stroll by.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Who is Cheddi Jagan?

Recently returned from a walk with the dog, in which she performed admirably when confronted by larger more imposing and smaller insignificant yappie dogs. Neither worried her. Like a regent, she lifted up her muzzle and strode along. But I got to thinking about the old "stop and smell the roses" bit, because Bailey like any dog with a working nose loves to make olfactory maps of her surroundings. Envision a dog's thought process the next time it's just smelling something: it can be pretty comical. The related notion of course would be that similar mental maps take shape whenever we stop walking around and use the five (or six? No, just kidding) senses we have.



for all the birthday wishes yesterday. Did you know that March 22nd birthdays include Reese Witherspoon, Bob Costas, William, Shatner - extra comma there on purpose - and Cheddi Jagan, chief minister and president of Guyana? It's all right here on Wikipedia's guide to March 22nd. There was a time when learning Billy Collins and I share a birthday would have made me faint dead away. That time has passed.



I haven't been religious officially in a while, but I feel religious more personally when I read Dostoyevsky. The Brothers Karamazov, that is. I imagine I approach it in a similar state of mind as those who are religious approach Sunday morning: with a quiet excitement and a sense of impending learning. Not only because the book is masterfully written from a craft and characterization POV, but also due to the sheer weight and depth of its moral analysis. This book is all about morality and how one might proceed with a moral life, but it never lectures or holds forth. It is perhaps the canniest summation of the contradictions in human behavior and psychology that I've yet had the pleasure to read. What's the last book that made you tear up? Has one ever?



Todd Rundgren, Something / Anything? It's hard to imagine how lo-fi twee pop bands like those of the Elephant 6 collective (especially Of Montreal) would sound if it hadn't been for 70s wunderdude Todd Rundgren. He's a crucial musical magpie. He's like a filter through which Tin Pan Alley ditties and every Beatles song ever had to pass. Todd Rundgren helped keep pop music informed about where it'd been and what it'd do next.

Isaac Hayes, Hot Buttered Soul.

Curtis Mayfield, Curtis. I dunno. I liked this album better when it was called What's Going On by Marvin Gaye.

Friday Night Lights Soundtrack. Friday Night Lights isn't an awesome film, but if you like football and have shied from movies about football because they're all the same, try FNL. Someone might try and strip me of poet-status if I say so, but the film achieves a lyrical quality at moments. Not in a "focus in on the trophy the team has to win before the film's over" sort of way, but in a quiet consideration of small words and things that's actually intelligent. The soundtrack helps out on this score: post-rock outfit Explosions in the Sky create shimmering guitar soundscapes that sound how Echo & the Bunnymen would sound if they were tired and very sad. But stripped of the film's context, the music is a tad barren. What lends scope and muted gravity in the film tends to bore coming out of your car's speakers. Even if you're speeding. Which I never do. SPEEDING IS WRONG!

Superchunk, Come Pick Me Up. Now here's a record you can really speed to! I think Here's to Shutting Up is superior - the songs are just better - but then there's a whole lot of Superchunk out there to be heard. If you like upbeat guitar pop indie rock at all, try chewing on some Superchunk.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Getting It

There’s been some investigation here in the DJ comment spaces as to the merits and demerits reference-heavy shows like Family Guy have earned by being such gleeful coked-up cultural magpies. You’ve got to be of a certain age and cultural experience in order to “get it.” How this all relates to art, poetry and novels esp., is that there’s a line the author has to (or not has to, but rather can) walk between making those references clear and accessible to as many readers as possible, a), and b) using those references in a canny, clever way. Because I will make a sub-assertion here and say that these references are of use to TV shows, novelists, and poets only insofar as they are used in unfamiliar, unexpected ways. That’s where the humor or the art comes from after all; that’s the accomplishment.

It occurred to me sometime yesterday that this issue of access is similar to an aspect of the world Infinite Jest creates. (Infinite Jest for those who don’t know is an unsummarizable tome of just top-notch contemporary fiction, with dozens of plotlines and 1,079 pages if you’ve got a 1st Edition hardcover like I do.) There’s a vocabulary to the text that you’re asked to use without understanding it. The Incandenza boys – and the Incandenza family’s one of the focal points through IJ – make reference to “the Moms”, and for awhile there at the beginning, we don’t know if that means there are 2 moms in a socially progressive household or what. We learn that the Moms is Avril Incandenza, of course, soon enough. But over and over the novel includes us via this method of making its characters use invented personal codes and vocabs; there’s a Group using its own Group language, and we’re included into their world by eventually getting the lingo down. “To have one’s face demapped” is metro Boston slang for dying. The male member is known as a “unit.” “To hear the squeak” is to be threatened, targeted, or actually assassinated by an agent by the A.F.R., a radical group of Quebecois separatists, all of whom are wheelchair-bound, are sneaky when assassinating, and have squeaky wheelchairs.

It’s distinctly post-postmodern for this reason: the Group using the term or the lingo represents an Other. But through continued assertion and development and explication, really, the reader and other characters too are able to vault over the differences that divide the Groups from each other and the reader from the writer. Shows like Family Guy are very funny, but it and shows like it are just on another scale altogether. The shows and their audience, big as it is, still only represents a small slice of the larger populace. It’s still just one Group. It lays out its jokes and references in a rapid-fire way and hopes for the best. And it’s really really funny if you’re in that Group. Because it’s just an animated TV show, it doesn’t have any interest in including those people who might not be getting it. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But say that Seth McFarlane wanted to make sure everyone was getting it: he’d have to do adjust his approach to such a degree that in no time he wouldn’t be doing a comedy at all. He’d be doing an animated late-20th, early-21st Century anthropology show about US popular culture. It makes me wonder what a post-postmodern comedy would look and feel like. I want to say Arrested Development but I’ll have to think about that.


It’s 1:42 PM on my birthday. I spent the hour from 12:15 PM to 1:15 looking at Jon’s scrapbook, looking through old boxes of cards and letters, trying to find a letter Jon had written me when I was in Oregon and he was in Chicago attending boot camp during his Navy stint. I always tend to use my birthday as a time to look at what I haven’t accomplished yet. Today this took the form of thinking of all the letters I could have written but didn’t. I wrote him back, I’m sure I did. But now I hear something in his signoff – “Feel free to write anytime” – that I didn’t before. I only have the one letter. He wrote it at 11:30 PM after having risen that morning at 3:30 AM. What strikes me when reading the letter is how simple and routine it is: this is what we eat, this is what we do, this is, that is, this is. He does come through when he wishes he could lift weights—no weightlifting during boot camp due to the chance for injury and a squandered human investment—and also when he wishes he could shave his head, which he’d been doing for years well before the Navy. On the whole it’s the kind of letter that you find at the beginning of a written correspondence. I don’t think it’s very dissimilar from the first few letters new pen pals exchange. There’s another self to everybody that comes into being on the page, and there’s another type of relationship that’s sketched into being when you begin a correspondence. I am saddened to think that that correspondence with my brother remained brief—that the complex core person he was wasn’t accessible to me We weren’t letter-writers – not to each other, anyway. We weren’t great placers of phone calls. We weren’t the type of brothers to stay up late with each other and have great times and get drunk and finally spill in all sincerity how much regard each has for the other. Logistics and geography are largely to blame for this. But so am I.

People surmise that when something like this happens, the unexpected will set you off into grief. I haven’t experienced that. Rather, whenever I have been set off it’s been either with a very conscious decision to confront something—in this case, I looked at the scrapbook—or else there will be a very clear connection between what I hear and what I experience next. Kristin Kate, for instance, recently lost her cat Justin. Once he beat his psychosomatic alopecia, meaning he liked to lick his fur clean off due to general anxiety—Justin turned into a fine and noble creature. This is your story, Kris, and I don’t want to tell more of it than I should. But when it came time to put him down, she was able to hold the cat in her arms as it happened. Hearing her tell this story nudged the exact same nerve that controls my Jon-response. It didn’t matter that it was a cat. It was a loss. It was a new absence. She said something I will never forget. Holding Justin when he went to sleep made her realize: “There was something huge making this cat alive.” It was there and then wasn’t. This indistinct, I dunno, aura that derives from the actual biorhythms of the cat’s breathing and vitals and all of the medical information, sure, but also there was an intersection I think with the knowledge we would have that the cat’s alive. The life of something or someone would then seem to be this center of an X in which one bar of the X is the fact of its living and the other bar is our awareness of that living.

But there was something unexpected that fed into this afternoon. There’s a small hill in our backyard where in good weather we all play badminton over a hot pink net. That’s one of the most recent memories I have of him. He’d made a show of psyching himself up, stutter-stepping in place and chanting a anthemic tune similar to the Mortal Kombat theme song, only very loud and over-the-top. He had a term for this process – getting “pumped up” or “going into overdrive.” Only when he really needed a point would he go into overdrive. “That’s it, alright.” And he’d go all into overdrive, throwing his racket in the air in complicated twirls and warping his expression like that of a WWF superstar with no patience left. Overdrive. Are you getting it?

Monday, March 20, 2006

The word "nerts"

Cinderella Man is worth your time. I saw it yesterday, and while director Ron Howard pulls pretty much every red herring trick possible to rachet up the tension, the film actually does rouse. There's a montage toward the beginning when Braddock (Russell Crowe) is out on the street hoofing it toward the docks, and the music's great: an old Tin Pan Alley ditty about how down everybody is, and how they should just pull up their bootstraps - but then the jaunty chorus asserts "Nerts!" as though to say, "Ah, g'wan, you're crazy." It's a neat song that simultaneously captures the "take heart" encouragement the country heard back then as well as a skeptical rejoinder to those encouragements. "Nerts" means basically "Yeah right" or "Buzz off" or "Make like a tree and get outta here."

To that end, check out some pop music from the early 20th century hosted here at the University of California at Santa Barbara's Cylinder and Digitization Preservation Project.



Last night's Family Guy reached new heights of self-referentiality and pop culture referenciality. (Someone check "referenciality" against a reputable dictionary.) Example: last night began with Osama bin Laden making a "Death to the West" videotape in a series of dusty tunnels "somewhere in Afghanistan." What happens is that the crony terrorists outside of the frame keep mugging and making bin Laden laugh; then, bin Laden gets into it and starts goofing around: putting on oversized neon green sunglasses, that sort of thing. He can't keep a straight face. This is a pretty clear parody of any Hollywood blooper reel, as well as home moviemaking in general. Mug for the camera etc. It goes on long enough that you begin to think that that's the joke: Ahaha, bin Laden's not scary, he's a goofball. Then it goes on longer, and just when you're beginning to think Seth McFarlane's just laughing at us, the gullible enraptured viewer, a tiny terrorist to the left whips off his mufti attire and hey, it's Stewie Griffin, the talking evil scientist baby who is the show's antihero! He begins taking out terrorists with all kinds of standard action movie moves. It becomes clear that this is a take-off of The Naked Gun, in which Lt. Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) of Police Squad infiltrates and takes out a gathering of Soviet, Middle Eastern, and vaguely Othered terrorist malcontents. THEN, bin Laden spies a scimitar and has at Stewie, who's dispatched the cronies by now. Stewie seizes on a rubber chicken (whatever) and has at bin Laden, and does so in a particular, manic ninja-flippy way that, when combined with the camera angles and the swordplay's choreography makes it very clear that now we're doing a Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones bit, in which Stewie's doing Yoda's Jedi flippy shit and bin Laden's Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). THEN Stewie wins, whatever, falls down the hillside and onto his Big Wheels tricycle and we're suddenly doing the Police Squad intro, in which our Point Of View is that of the Big Wheel as Stewie drives it through all manner of scenes: the Ben Hur chariot race, the Battle of Hoth scene from The Empire Strikes Back, in which Stewie / Luke's Snowspeeder dives in at an AT-AT, and then, and this is just tops, the intro scene to Doom, the first-person PC computer game that changed video games forever, etc. etc. And this is just the intro and the credits. The whole thing was just an orgy of Gen X and Gen Y references, one after another, and while Family Guy's long been the exemplar and high priest of postmodern pop-culture juxtapositions, is just the fastest gun in the West on this score, still, last night's intro topped anything it'd ever done before.

But it all made me think about accessibility issues. On an episode of The Simpsons recently, someone made a joke and Marge (maybe it was Mrs. Krabapple) laughed, saying "I get that reference." Family Guy makes me wonder about the possibility that there's a cultural endgame playing itself out here. It's great for those who get that reference, but otherwise I have to wonder how sustainable is this type of humor? What does it mean, if you haven't amassed the pop culture knowledge needed to decipher the jokes? The coolest video game geeks on the Internets over at Penny-Arcade talk about a new game called Viva Pinata; although the news capsule seems all ready to bash the game as another form of empty branding, the author comes down on the other side. Check it:

"I feel a pressure in my mind to call this a transparent, despicable, mercenary act, but my own childhood was fabulously enriched by shit like this. I don't want to make baseless assertions, but the odds are good that - as a person who visits Penny Arcade - you hold Optimus Prime in high regard. Optimus Prime was not spontaneously generated by the pure wish of a child. These supposedly 'valid' market expressions are differentiated from the grasping, sordid toys of modernity by our vast personal investments."

True. And I don't want to muddle my own discussion here by constructing a false dichotomy between a child-oriented video game and a subversive (arguably subversive) animated TV show broadcast on a major network. All the same, while I got the references and thrilled to them, I didn't feel the humor last. It was very fast-burning, my enjoyment of Family Guy. Maybe I was just not in the right emotional place to really enjoy the jokes and feel that comfort that laughing gives a person who needs a laugh (last night was tough). But I'm also increasingly sure that this kind of cultural production veers close to having nothing to say. Eventually the episode constructed a pretty coherent (for Family Guy) argument against censorship, complete with a fantastic Broadway-revue style recap of all the Family Guy bits that the FCC had shorn from previous episodes.

I suggest only that it's harder to make "vast personal investments" in things that are already themselves invested in and derived from the past. It's harder to feel relief from those forms of cultural production that don't offer much more than what we've seen before, just glossier and newly packaged. This is the basic postmodern condition that has been both a problem and a cause for celebration, depending on whom you query. I'm in the former camp. Last night I felt as though I'd finally had my fill of bread and circuses.


Recently acquired:

Kanye West, Late Registration.

Lewis Black, The End of the Universe.

Gorillaz, Demon Days.