Monday, April 28, 2008

Picture Monday: Top Secret Attack Band in Prospect Park

IMG_0185, originally uploaded by Brooklyn Bridge.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A great day in Brooklyn

New House Passover reunion 2008

When I first arrived in New York, I sublet a room the size of a twin bed in a fifth-floor walkup tenement flat just south of Washington Square Park. I hated it, could touch both walls with my fingers at once, but like much else in my life at the time, I was too complacent to do anything about it. In my seven years living there, I grew convinced through observation that if you split MacDougal Street down the middle, there would be rings and rings of the same kind of tacky decadence going back two hundred years. When Edgar Allen Poe did his time on West 3rd St., he must have been slumming, pounding his head against his garret wall at all of the drunks and out-of-towners, clogging up the sidewalk and going: “Wither thou a good plate of spaghetti?” Dylan and the Beats were easier to picture, cheap bastards trawling MacDougal Street for a fast drunk in tack city.

Finally, I let myself be kicked out of that apartment and landed in the least likely place: a collective house in Brooklyn. A commune. And there was subsumed in the topsy-turvy feeling of sharing intimacies you would not share with a lover, four falling down floors of a crumbling brownstone, six grown-ups, one child, no locks, poor boundaries. We played this game of trying to recognize the footsteps of people coming down the stairs. I ran. They told me I always ran.

Even accepting the sacrifices that were required to live in that place, when we were forced to wear heavy coats while playing poker huddled around the kitchen table in the dead of winter, plumes of hot breath visible in the air, there was this tangible sense of something meaningful that assuaged the solitary self that I left behind me.

I remember one night early on during my stay there, Mars orbiting close, all of us clamored to the roof. Among five other bodies strewn across the expanse of black pitch and looking for the red planet, closer now than it had ever been in 60,000 years, I was floating down to earth, finally coming to rest.

I've moved on but every year go back for Passover, a messy/delicious improvised celebration with this family that I found there, these people who have become my family.

How is this house different from all other houses? I don't know how to put it into words exactly. You'd have to see it for yourself.

When I smile, people apologize.

Found this in my files, an abbreviated take on the MMPI I found on the interwebs, and it is a classic. Whoever wrote it, you are a genius.

Please indicate TRUE or FALSE next to each of the following statements:
1. [ True False] When I was younger, I used to tease vegetables.
2. [ True False] Sometimes I am unable to prevent clean thoughts from entering my mind.
3. [ True False] The sight of blood no longer excites me.
4. [ True False] I think beavers work too hard.
5. [ True False] It is important to wash your hands before washing your hands.
6. [ True False] Recently I have been getting shorter.
7. [ True False] When I walk quickly, I can feel my legs moving.
8. [ True False] When I was a child, I was an imaginary playmate.
9. [ True False] I believe I smell as good as most people.
10. [ True False] As a child, I used to wet the ceiling.
11. [ True False] When I grow up I want to be a child.
12. [ True False] Sometimes I feel that things are real.
13. [ True False] I have many enemies who secretly love me.
14. [ True False] I think I would like the work of a robot.
15. [ True False] As a youngster, I was suspended from school for attending.
16. [ True False] It makes me furious to see an innocent man escape the chair.
17. [ True False] I think I would like the work of a hummingbird.
18. [ True False] My tongue has been depressed.
19. [ True False] It makes me angry to have people bury me.
20. [ True False] People tell me one thing one day and out the other.
21. [ True False] I am easily awakened by the firing of cannons.
22. [ True False] I can wear my shirts as pants.
23. [ True False] I feel as much like I did yesterday as I do today.
24. [ True False] I always lick the fronts of postage stamps.
25. [ True False] When I smile, people apologize.
26. [ True False] It is hard for me to say the right thing when I find myself in a room full of mice.
27. [ True False] I never liked room temperature.
28. [ True False] I line my pockets with hot cheese.
29. [ True False] I can smell my nose hairs.
30. [ True False] My dog is someone else's best friend.
31. [ True False] Walls impede my progress.
32. [ True False] My toes are numbered.
33. [ True False] My best friend is a social worker.
34. [ True False] No napkin is sanitary enough for me.
35. [ True False] I've lost all sensation in my shirt.
36. [ True False] It takes a lot of argument to convince most people that they are lying.
37. [ True False] I try to steal other people's thoughts and ideas when they are not looking.
38. [ True False] I was not very strict with my parents.
39. [ True False] My sex life is satisfactory, except when I am with another person.
40. [ True False] I get nervous when I handle $100,000 bills.
41. [ True False] Most of the time I don't like to read newspaper articles about nuclear accidents nearby.
42. [ True False] I often dream of Kate Smith.
43. [ True False] I like to put chameleons on plaid cloth.
44. [ True False] I am liked by most people unless they know me.
45. [ True False] I believe I am following others.
46. [ True False] I don't like any of my loved ones.
47. [ True False] I salivate at the sight of mittens.
48. [ True False] I'd rather go to work than sit outside.
49. [ True False] As an infant, I had very few hobbies.
50. [ True False] Some people look at me.
51. [ True False] I often use the word "feh".
52. [ True False] Sometimes I steal objects like medicine balls and aviaries.
53. [ True False] I become homicidal when people try to reason with me.
54. [ True False] I never seem to finish whatever I

Monday, April 21, 2008

Sketch comedy: who do you love?

"Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer" featuring Phil Hartman

Yesterday, I was talking to someone about our differing tastes in sketch comedy. I was really influenced from a very early age by Saturday Night Live of the late 80’s-early 90s Carvey-Myers-Lovitz-Farley-Sandler era (Wayne 's World, Church Lady, living in a van down by the river, etc.), and I also really loved the random absurdity of MTV’s the State.

"Porcupine Racetrack" by the State

He ix-nays my formative influences by being a rabid fan of Mr. Show, though he shares my ambivalence about the Kids in the Hall. Also, we agree that dorks have drowned out the contribution that Monty Python has made to the canon. I’m just like, whether you like Mad TV, Chapelle’s Show, SNL or UCB, can’t we all just get along? So I was glad to see that Nerve has posted their list of the 50 greatest sketches of all time. Many of these skew towards the ‘70s, but it makes for a great look-back at the defining moments in comedy history.

Picture Monday: It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Why men love birches

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

--From Birches by Robert Frost

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Review Thursday: Into the Wild, book and film

You're either the type of person who comes alive in the presence of others, or else you need to get away from people in order really feel yourself. I mention this because I think your identification with one role or the other will probably determine much of they way you feel about Into the Wild, either the Jon Krakauer book or the Sean Penn film.

Watching the DVD the other day reminded me how engrossing I found this story when I first read the book. The hero of the nonfiction story, Christopher McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp, really calls into question the prevailing attitude that solitude inevitably means loneliness. Conjuring an archetype honed by everyone from Henry David Thoreau to cranky naturalist and Desert Solitaire author Edward Abbey, the Krakauer book grapples deeply with a forbidding yet fascinating topic: being alone.

What would it feel like to just check out of society? Burn all your money? Spend day upon day by yourself, out in the wild? I don’t know many people who could embrace such deep solitude, so, by virtue of that accomplishment alone, I’m fascinated by McCandless.

At the same time, I know that the book and movie are both guilty of romanticizing this character. They want him to be one-of-a-kind, when certainly there are things about McCandless that are of a kind: there’s something about the guy that suggests the sort of self-righteous, fanatical hippie that probably everyone knew in college (exhibit A: when he gives himself the dopey moniker Alexander Supertramp). The hubris of a young twentysomething man--also, of a kind. The Penn film, particularly, lets McCandless of the hook for not having developed the skills to survive in the Alaskan wilderness.

Still, I was surprised how much the film was able to evoke fundamentally internal states. In both the book and the film, there is something really haunting about McCandless’s demise, when it’s certain that McCandless wasn’t feeling the life-affirming joy of self-reliance, but instead desolation…and loneliness.

How easy it is to slip between solitude and loneliness is certainly a worthy subject, and one that the book is able to cover much better than the film. But both portray a fascinating story that I think is worthy of consideration.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"Everyone is unusual in their own way": an interview with the creator of functionally ill

Laura-Marie Taylor has been a friend of mine since we met when we were teenaged aspiring writers at the California State Summer School for the Arts. Geography separated us then; she was from the Central Coast and I from SoCal, but we still managed to visit with each other from time to time throughout high school and college, and now that we are separated by 3000 miles, the internet has brought us together once again. It's online that I discovered Laura-Marie's blog, Dangerous Compassions, and also one of her zines, functionally ill: adventures with mental health, that offers a personal view of mental illness, its treatment, and implications in one person's daily life.

What struck me when I first started reading functionally ill was how much my ideas about mental illness were formed by books and movies that portray sufferers in dramatic extremes: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Girl Interrupted, Prozac Nation, etc. functionally ill really got me to thinking about the reality, that there are millions of people are living with mental illness, holding jobs, going to the grocery store, etc. We just don't get to see accounts of the day-to-day experience. I found functionally ill's treatment of the subject really fascinating, and I wanted to open up a conversation with its creator about what inspired her. So what follows is our interview, conducted over email last week.

AJM: Can you talk about whether you've thought at all about where your zine fits into the pantheon of mental illness literature? Maybe you could also talk a little about what inspired you to start the zine in the first place.

LMT: I don't consider functionally ill as having a place in the mental illness literature pantheon, but I do see it as having a place in the zine world. Years ago I read a zine by Megan Gendell called Clark 8 which is an account of a stay at the mental hospital: articulate, sharp, intimate. I will always be grateful to Megan for showing me what's possible in mental illness writing. There's a whole genre of mental illness zines, mostly about depression, anxiety, and self injury. I'm happy to find myself within this genre and believe I have something to give.

As for what inspired me to start the zine in the first place, I wrote issues one and two with an intense need to communicate my truth. Another reason was to shed light on a shady topic. Friends wanted to know what my voices say, for example, and I was happy to provide that information. I've been creating zines for a long time, and it's natural now. Also, I write functionally ill for my mom. She readseach issue multiple times. I feel safer knowing that other people understand my life. I'm expanding the community of people who care about me. And I've received the most moving feedback from other mentally ill people and their family members.

AJM: Another idea in your zine that really intrigues me is the idea of "identifying" as a mentally ill person in the way that someone might identify as gay. You write about how the ability to take up such a mantle is something of a relief, because it allows a person to stop having to pass for somebody else's idea of "normal," whatever that might mean. The other way of looking at such an identification is, of course, political. The Icarus Project, for instance, critiques the concept of mental illness as a dysfunction rather than a different way of being in the world. How do you feel about such constructs?

LMT: I struggle with these constructs. Ideally, everyone should be out about everything. So many people are suffering in closets of isolation. Telling the truth about our lives is a step toward authentic experience. Also, a good example helps other people feel okay about telling their truths. We discover that everyone is unusual in their own way, and life becomes more refreshing.

I remember after I wrote issue one of functionally ill and gave it to friends. A week later, my friend Paul said, "So, you're crazy."

I said, "Yeah."

"Me too," he said. "Everyone's crazy."

Later he and I had another conversation about it. I asked him, "Do you hear voices too?"

He said, "No. I wish I did. That would be cool."

In my life, it's mostly fine to hear voices: they're just chatty. They're not a big deal. But some days it's really a burden, the days the voices get screamy in particular. It's scary to have something going on in my head that's disturbing and I can't make it stop.

I told Paul that we all draw the line somewhere, and I would say someone's actually mentally ill when she's dangerous, to others or to herself.

"You don't seem dangerous to me," Paul said. And I don't seem dangerous to most people. Does everyone have a secret life? I've spent my whole life refining my wellness performance. Some days I do a better job than others.

I guess everyone has performances. But I never gave Paul issues two or three.

AJM: Many of the history's greatest artists and writers, like Van Gogh and Emily Dickinson, have been "diagnosed" as being mentally ill. What do you think about the role mental illness plays in artistic creation—a means of insight or a hindrance? And how do you think medication might interact with the thought and creativity required to create writing or art?

LMT: Sometimes I want to go off all my medications and be crazy because my best art has been created during extreme emotional states. Also, when I'm manic, I write with an incredible urgency. I feel compelled to stay up all night writing: issue two of functionally ill was written during a manic episode.

Mental illness is a hindrance to making art in that it causes artists to kill themselves. If I could get away with it, I would live without medication, but I don't want to die. When I made the decision to try mainstream methods, it was a last resort, and medication is part of that package.

As for what role mental illness plays in artistic creations, that's a fascinating question. I don't think it's a coincidence. It must have to do with extremes. My favorite bipolar hero is my favorite novelist Virginia Woolf. I actually don't know a lot about her life besides a few basic facts—a little about her relationship with her husband and her death. I want to be like her in all the good ways and not be like her in all the bad ways.

Check out past, current and future issues of functionally ill. For more information write to: robotmad at gmail dot com.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Picture Monday: Baltimore

"And you pointed your headlamp towards the horizon
We were the one thing in the galaxy God didn't have his eye on
900 cc's of raw whining power
No outstanding warrants for my arrest
The pirate's life for me..."

-The Mountain Goats

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Review Thursday: Lush Life by Richard Price

I confess: I’m a huge Richard Price fan from way back in the Clockers and Freedomland days. I stuck with him through the slim and somewhat unsatisfying Samaritan, and it was with excitement and trepidation that I discovered that he’d tackled a scene much more familiar to me than the Jersey projects that form the environment of most of his novels: the gentrifying Lower East Side.

“In New York, 30 is the new 50,” I heard Price say in a radio interview, and his novel piles the humiliation onto one of its key protagonists, Eric, who works at a sort of Schiller’s doppelganger in the Lower East Side. Eric has glimmers of talent, but in his mid-thirties is confronting the fact that he may not have enough to make it in the big city. When he’s on hand for the shooting of a fellow employee, his life is turned upside down when the cops suspect him of the crime, which readers know early on was the work of a couple of nervous projects kids.

Pick up Clockers and Freedomland, and you’ll basically find yourself clearing your schedule in order to finish the doorstoppers. Written in highly literate and yet suspenseful prose, the dramatic setup in both books are humdingers: Freedomland goes inside an explosive Susan Smith-like child murder and Clockers takes you inside a crack dealing subculture through a gripping Cain and Abel story that contains an electrifying twist.

Lush Life, on the other hand, has no such fundamentally gripping archetypical struggle at its core. The murder is kind of, for lack of a better word, underwhelming, and what’s more, you know who did it early on. From the point of view of Matty, the lead detective on the case, “Most murderers, when he finally caught up to them, pretty much never met his expectations. For the most part, they were a stupid and fantastically self-centered lot…Survivors, on the other hand…always appeared to him as larger than life.” The passage struck me as odd, because for much of the book, Price seems to sympathize more with the murderers than the defeated Eric.

I admired Price’s quest to depict colliding worlds on the Lower East Side: the worlds of the projects, the hipsters, the cops, and the Chinese, but I thought the panorama was more compelling than the meat of the story. Without a strong story hook, everything’s world got kind of equalized, and in that case, it’s easier to see the hipster interlopers with a kind of contempt. What’s happening with Eric, the survivor, and the victim’s family don’t seems as compelling when there’s no larger dramatic question to solve.

Lush Life has Price’s usual crackling prose, his top-notch dialogue, but in the second half, the book really feels inert. I finished it and enjoyed many parts of it, but can only recommend it with reservations.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Highway 1: An Appreciation

A love for small-scale character-drive auterist masterpieces was not born in me at NYU film school. That happened much earlier, thanks to my late father, who introduced me to Raging Bull at age ten (whoa) and later, Clint Eastwood's directorial debut, Play Misty For Me.

Amazingly enough, American independent film wasn't born in a convenience store in New Jersey, or even in Austin, TX. No, way back in 1971, Clint and co. scrapped together the financing for this 16mm production which made incredible use of location photography in Carmel-by-the-Sea, including passages of the famous Highway 1. Still worth a spot on your Netflix queue, Play Misty for Me is a suspenseful precursor to Fatal Attraction with Clint as a late-night DJ stalked by an obsessed fan.

Yesterday, I was helping a friend plan her first roadtrip in California. Anyone who's done it know that there are three options connecting north and south: the superfast, superhighway 5, the slower but more scenic 101, and the mind-numbingly beautiful coastal Highway 1.

I got to thinking about all my experiences on that legendary highway, especially in that mythical land between Big Sur and Monterey. I've done it a few times, once with my high school best friend Sean, who white-knuckled it over the frighteningly steep cliffs which are total car-commercial territory. I've done it more recently, when flooding in California shut down the perilous passage for weeks because of the threat of mudslides. I thought about Clint and also the final scene of Harold and Maude, where Harold veers over to the 1 in his tricked out hearse.

I'd love to end up in Big Sur someday as a bohemian old lady, wearing lots of white linen and tending to a garden filled with fragrant herbs and driftwood sculptures, having coffee with lumberjacks and novelists down at the corner store. For my friend's trip, I told her definitely to hit the funkadelic Deetjens Big Sur Inn. And have a meal at Nepenthe, which is this crazy restaurant that looms 800 feet over the Pacific Ocean. If you're a romantic who loves the solitude of the open road (even if you bring someone else along!), Highway 1 is a trip you must take before you die.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Things to do in Philly when you're English

My English coworker Tom asked me the other day what's so great about Philadelphia. Well, the sixth borough of New York has got a lot going for it. Throw down twenty bucks in Chinatown, and within a couple of hours, here are all the wonderful things you can experience:

1. The Philadelphia Art Museum. Yes, it's something of a rite of passage to bound up those steps, Rocky-like, and triumphantly gaze over the whole of the city of brotherly love.

2. The Mutter Museum. A total heebie-jeebie fest, this Victorian medical museum houses body parts in formaldehyde, skeletons, and other disturbing remnants of medicine before doctors, like, knew anything about disease.

3. Hoagies. Back when I was a student at Simon's Rock, there was a weekly institution at the dining hall called "Hoagie Day." The blend of cold-cuts, shredded iceberg lettuce, oil and vinegar, and fluffy bread ensured that this was my favorite day of the week. Well, every day is hoagie day in Philly. All the focus on cheesesteaks may unfairly overshadow this deserving Philly invention. The go-to spot is Sarcone's.

4. Cheesesteaks. You go to the corner where Geno's and Pat's duke it out to see the rivalry for yourself. But don't try to start an argument about which cheesesteak is best in Philly. That's like trying to prove the existence of God.

5. Reading Terminal Market. Have you noticed how many of these reasons are about food? That's because Philly has insanely concentrated areas of foodie delights, including Reading Terminal Market and the Italian Market, so if you are still hungry after all those cheesesteaks and hoagies, you can hook up with some gourmet provisions.

6. The BYOB restaurant phenomenon. I don't really understand this, but I guess Philly has worse blue laws than NYC. So you can tote your own bottle to a schmancy restaurant like Matyson. The boon of broke gourmands everywhere.

7. Cheap real estate and cheap beer. Need I say more?

I was so enchanted by Philly on my last visit that I was inspired to begin a novel about a 30ish ne'er-do-well chef named Charlie Pepper, who takes his English girlfriend to Philly over Christmas to break up with her. You can see more about my irrational love for Philadelphia by checking out that first chapter here.

For the time being, though, Philadelphians, I salute you.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Picture Monday: Sometimes, you've just got to say...

Another pic from the Flux Factory opening on Friday night, but useful in so many situations.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

A journey to the intersection of art and life to say farewell to the Flux

This is the story of one Englishman, one Argentinean, and one Californian’s adventure into the fringes of the Queens art scene. It all started when my coworker Tom was invited to an opening at a show called “Everything Must Go” last night at the Flux Factory.

In case you’ve never heard of this teeming experimental laboratory, Flux Factory is a live/work commune for artists in Long Island City that’s about to be demolished. At one time, I wanted to create a photo book about collective living spaces, and Flux Factory was one of the places I researched by stopping by occasionally, once for a class on bookmaking, and also for an installation piece where they had novelists living in pods in the main loft space churning out a complete manuscript in a month.

Every time I’ve been to Flux, I’ve felt like I was intruding on the living room of people far cooler and artsier than I. This visit was no exception—after we’d woven our way past car dealerships and Taiwanese megachurches to arrive at the space right on time, Tom and I found ourselves the first non-residents present. Everyone else seemed to be artists engaged in final tweaks of their installations.

The charms of the show were slow to reveal themselves—I think in part because we were initially timid to begin exploring a space where there was little delineation between public and private space. Everything Must Go is definitely one place where art is everywhere from the giant soup pot of jellybeans on the kitchen table to a loft-bed laden with homemade pies, but more on that later.

But once people started to arrive, including Tom's Argentinean friend Manolo, and the booze started to flow, Flux Factory revealed delightful secrets in hidden corners and some truly innovative uses of space.

Above is a picture of Tom adding to the wall of art. His contribution? A Fish n' Chips sign, of course!

One of my favorite installations is pictured at left. The giant cut-out figures conjured childhood and were a little bit scary at the same time. The best part was the sound, though. A sound artist had rigged up a xylophone and some other percussive instruments to play weird, whimsical music.

“This is the best experience of New York I’ve had since I got here,” Tom raved. A native of the UK, Tom has been living and working in Stockholm for the past five years before joining the British Tourist Board New York office on a temporary assignment. He’s grown very fond of the relaxed, laid-back atmosphere of the Swedish capital. “So it’s the like the Brooklyn of Europe?” I asked him. “No, more like the Berlin of Sweden,” he replied. On the other hand, Manolo insists that Buenos Aires is filled with examples of Flux Factory-like places.

Several of our favorite experience not represented here:
  • The pie and milkshake installation: one of the artists had transformed her living space into a salon of delectable desserts. For a nickel, she would make you a custom milkshake, but even better, you could climb up to her loft bed and enjoy a slice of pie! Not something you see in New York everyday, kids! Tom’s inner Homer Simpson gave this installation a blue ribbon.
  • The slide. Remember to sign the release!
  • The rooftop shack built by Tom’s friend Michaela
  • The strange percussive rattling of Manolo’s truck on our way back to the city over the Queensboro Bridge.

You can experience the swan song of the Flux Factory’s current incarnation in Long Island City during the month of April. There will be a closing party that will probably surpass this opening on Saturday, April 26. Check their website for more details.

Go for the pies, stay for the intersection of art and life.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Stuff blog readers like

In honor of the six-figure book deal that two-month old Stuff White People Like recently earned, a look-back on those far-flung subjects that have often gained inexplicable traction amongst the blog-reading public. And so, without further ado, I'd like to pay tribute to:

Stuff blog readers like

1. Grammatically challenged quadrupeds: I can has laughing.

2. Highbrow voyeurism:
Looking at all these truths that are at core of people’s innermost souls is almost like being close to them.

3. Girl power: Who care about the erosion of reproductive rights when there's another cracked out photo of Amy Winehouse to carp about?

4. News they can use to make the day less crushingly boring: pink writing OMG Paris Britney Gllyllenho

5. Cinderella stories with pasties: Former stripper with brain of box-office gold who you can still imagine, like, stripping.

6. Lowbrow voyeurism: The highlights of motherhood, without all the shit.

What have I left out? Suggestions welcome.