Thursday, September 30, 2010


I ought to state a couple things regarding the American Psycho analysis:

- Reading the book is something of a slog. Excess is the point, but it's still excess, and my sense when reading it was that it could have been much shorter and lost none of the point it was trying to make. I appreciate it more in retrospect than in the actual reading.
- I don't think the whiny Chicago professor is a serial killer in waiting, only that he exhibits a breathtaking lack of awareness of how good he has it and a Randian insistence that he doesn't owe the world anything for his success. Satire is exaggeration, and American Psycho accordingly takes this attitude of gross entitlement to arresting extremes.

Mad in America

I've been meaning to do an entry for Banned Books Week, and Jim Fallows has inadvertently helped me out.

A couple weeks ago a remarkably unself-aware Chicago professor posted a rant about taxes going up on he and his wife's combined over-$250,000 annual wages:

Like most working Americans, insurance, doctors’ bills, utilities, two cars, daycare, groceries, gasoline, cell phones, and cable TV (no movie channels) round out our monthly expenses. We also have someone who cuts our grass, cleans our house, and watches our new baby so we can both work outside the home....

The professor doesn't say how much he actually makes, but Brad Delong helpfully did the math, putting it in the ballpark of $455,000, which is more than can be said of a full 99% of Americans.

In response to the professor's bathos, Fallows posted an excerpt of Tom Wolfe's Mauve Gloves and Madmen, which can also be found at Wolfe's website (feel free to skim):

--him and this apartment, which cost him $75,000 in 1972; $20,000 cash, which came out of the $25,000 he got as a paperback advance for his fourth book, Under Uncle's Thumb, and $536.36 a mouth in bank-loan payments (on the $55,000 he borrowed) ever since, plus another $390 a month in so-called maintenance, which has steadily increased until it is now $460 a month . . . and although the already knows the answer, the round number, he begins punching the figures into the calculator . . . 536.36 plus . . . 460 . . . times 12 . . . and the calculator keys go chuck chuck chuck chuck and the curious little orange numbers, broken up like stencil figures, go trucking across the black path of the display panel at the top of the machine, giving a little orange shudder every time he hits the plus button, until there it is, stretching out seven digits long--11956.32--$12,000 a year! One thousand dollars a month--this is what he spends on his apartment alone!--and by May he will have to come up with another $6,000 so he can rent the house on Martha's Vineyard again chuck chuck chuck chuck and by September another $6,750--$3,750 to send his daughter, Amy, to Dalton and $3,000 to send his son, Jonathan, to Collegiate (on those marvelous frog-and-cricket evenings up on the Vineyard he and Bill and Julie and Scott and Henry and Herman and Leon and Shelly and the rest, all Media & Lit. people from New York, have discussed why they send their children to private schools, and they have pretty well decided that it is the educational turmoil in the New York public schools that is the problem--the kids just wouldn't be educated--plus some considerations of their children's personal safety--but---needless to say!--it has nothing to do with the matter of . . . well, race) and he punches that in . . . 6750 . . . chuck chuck chuck chuck . . . and hits the plus button . . . an orange shimmer . . . and beautiful! there's the figure--the three items, the apartment in town, the summer place, and the children's schooling--$24,706,32--almost $25,000 a year in fixed costs, just for a starter! For lodging and schooling! Nothing else included! A grim nut!

This was enough to get me thinking about American Psycho, a prime subject for Banned Books Week.

American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis, follows the exploits of Wall Street investor Patrick Bateman, who spends his free time working out, sport fucking, and prodigiously spending his money on expensive dinners and material possessions. Over time he develops a habit of brutally murdering people, mostly young, beautiful women. This latter aspect garnered considerable notoriety; the book was condemned for its depictions of violence against women and removed from many a book store (and the New York Times bestseller list!), and Ellis himself received death threats over it. When the book was assigned to us in my American History class (don't ask why), the professor permitted us to skim through and skip over passages.

Admittedly, the book's critics did not need to look very hard to find something to condemn:
His eye, burst open, hangs out of its socket and runs down his face and he keeps blinking which causes what's left of it inside the wound to pour out like red, veiny egg yolk. I grab his head with one hand and push it back and then with my thumb and forefinger hold the other eye open and bring the knife up and push the tip of it into the socket, first breaking its protective film so the socket fills with blood, then slitting the eyeball open sideways, and he finally starts screaming once I slit his nose in two, lightly spraying me and the dog with blood, Gizmo blinking to get the blood out of his eyes. I quickly wipe the blade clean across the bum' face, breaking open the muscle above his cheek. Still kneeling, I throw a quarter in his face, which is slick and shiny with blood, both sockets hollowed out and filled with gore, what's left of his eyes literally oozing over his screaming lips in thick, webby strands. Calmly I whisper, "There's a quarter. Go buy some gum, you crazy fucking nigger."

But what, the reader asks with rising indignation and dwindling patience, does this have to do with Tom Wolfe and the cruddy professor? The answer can be found in another horrifying American Psycho sample:

A hurricane halogen lamp is p[laced in each corner of the living room. Thin white venetian blinds cover all eight floor-to-ceiling windows. A glass-top coffee table with oak legs by Turchin sits in front of the sofa, with Steuben glass animals placed strategically around expensive crystall ashtrays from Fortunoff, though I don't smoke. Next to the Wurlitzer jukebox is a black ebony Baldwin concert grand piano. A polished white oak floor runs throughout the apartment.

Awful, isn't it? Even worse:

I've been a big Genesis fan ever since the release of their 1980 album, Duke. Before that I didn't really understand any of their work, though on their last album of the 1970s, the concept-laden And Then There Were Three (a reference toa band member Peter Gabriel, who left the group to start a lame solo career, I did enjoy the lovely "Follow You, Follow Me."

There are passages like this, on the most soul-crushing of pop-cultural, brand name minutiae, that go on for pages at a time. And just like with the ultraviolence, and just like with the Wolfe excerpt, and just like with the Chicago professor's whining, the only sensible response as a reader is for one's eyes to glaze over and to want to throw the (Mac)book against the wall in disgust.

For American Psycho is a satire, you see. The hatred and revulsion it provokes in its harshest critics is entirely intentional. We are supposed to find the brutality appalling, but--admittedly, perhaps very crudely put--it is to be seen as the outgrowth of a shallow mindset that prizes money and material goods over other human beings, which here are shown to be either monstrously hollow Wall Street wolves or their lower-class, and sometimes very literal, prey. Witness the mindset of but one character, established at the beginning of the book.

"I'm resourceful.... I'm creative, I'm young, unscrupulous, highly motivated, highly skilled. In essence what I'm saying is that society cannot afford to lose me. I'm an asset.... I mean the fact remains that no one gives a shit about their work, everybody hates their job, I hate my job, you've told me you hate yours. What do I do? Go back to Los Angeles? Not an alternative. I didn't tranfer from UCLA to Stanford to put up with this. I mean am I alone in thinking we're not making enough money?.... I have a co-op here. I have a place in the Hamptons, for Christ sakes.

The book takes place during the Reagan administration, that Golden Age of Limited Government. Now that we have an anti-colonialist white-hating Kenyan Muslim Socialist Fascist Antichrist Hitler in power, the problem isn't that the rich are making too little money, but that the government is taking too much of it away:

The rhetoric in Washington about taxes is about millionaires and the super rich, but the relevant dividing line between millionaires and the middle class is pegged at family income of $250,000. (I’m not a math professor, but last time I checked $250,000 is less than $1 million.) That makes me super rich and subject to a big tax hike if the president has his way.

I’m the president’s neighbor in Chicago, but we’ve never met. I wish we could, because I would introduce him to my family and our lifestyle, one he believes is capable of financing the vast expansion of government he is planning. A quick look at our family budget, which I will happily share with the White House, will show him that like many Americans, we are just getting by despite seeming to be rich. We aren’t....

I pay about $15,000 in property taxes, about half of which goes to fund public education in Chicago. Since I care [about] the education of my three children, this means I also have to pay to send them to private school. My wife has school loans of nearly $250,000 and I do too, although becoming a lawyer is significantly cheaper. We try to invest in our retirement by putting some money in the stock market, something that these days sounds like a patriotic act.

Our debt is exploding thanks to two unfunded, open-ended wars, a trillion dollar Medicare expansion, and an across-the-board tax cut. States are broke, we are dismantling the safety net and gutting school funding, and the upper crust of American society is worried that their taxes will go up to the levels of the nightmare 90s. Bret Easton Ellis saw even back then the borderline sociopathic narcissism and contempt for the lower classes latent in the powerful. The passive-aggressive attitude the rich have towards those who are actually struggling--manifested by this absurd notion of solidarity with their plight-- is different only in degree, not in kind, from Patrick Bateman's murderous indifference if not hostility to nearly everybody around him. (The ambiguous ending offers little respite: depending on how one reads it, the murders are either fantasies of a diseased mind, or actually happened but are of no concern to Bateman's friends to whom he confesses.)

The grotesqueries of American Psycho, far from being pornographic--that is, explicit and with no artistic merit--are instead very much serving a purpose. The mind-numbing, gruesome excess is entirely the point. Even when they are richer than 99% of the rest of the country, the rich still need more; they're only just getting by. And that's truly crazy.

Gott Fag? 2

There's been a lively discussion at Ta-Nehisi Coates' place on gay mannerisms and speculating on whether Andrew Shirvell, who has blogged obsessively (and now exclusively; it's no longer publicly accessible.) about the gay student body president of his alma mater Chris Armstrong, is a closet case. Responses range from discomfort at stereotyping to "Well, duh." Generally there is concern that his clearly unhealthy obsession could turn dangerous.

For my part I see Shirvell, like all these cases, to be scorned and pitied, for it is obvious he is in deep denial about himself. It's in the eyes. They are constantly shifting and rarely looking at the camera straight on (so to speak). They betray a great strain and effort to maintain the facade, to continue in a futile attempt to prove not just to others but himself most of all, that he is not actually who he really is. (I say who and not what, for it is personhood and identity that are at stake here.)

Further evidence is the blog itself, with pictures of Armstrong scrawled on (using MS Paint, by the looks of it) with "Resign" and swastikas. This behavior is but a denial and perversion of the same impulse that makes the wistful write his beloved's name surrounded by hearts. When those channels of emotion are closed off and the object of affection becomes something the observer can never have or be, this is the sad and sorry result.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


The Andrew Breitbart strain of Tea Party conservatism is a lesson in projection. Exhibit A: a man who willfully takes a black woman telling her story of triumphing over her own racism and manipulates it into a declaration of proud racism in order to "prove" how racist she--and the NAACP, and Barack Obama--is.

Exhibit B:

James O'Keefe, the young conservative activist who secretly recorded meetings with ACORN and was convicted in May of entering Sen. Mary Landrieu's office under false pretenses, allegedly tried to "punk" CNN reporter Abbie Boudreau by luring her on to a boat and seducing her....

...There's also a script O'Keefe was supposed to read on camera before meeting with Boudreau.

"I've decided to have a little fun," reads the script. "Instead of giving her a serious interview, I'm going to punk CNN. Abbie has been trying to seduce me to use me, in order to spin a lie about me. So, I'm going to seduce her, on camera, to use her for a video. This bubble-headed-bleach-blonde who comes on at five will get a taste of her own medicine, she'll get seduced on camera and you'll get to see the awkwardness and the aftermath."

If you squint really hard--and avoid the proliferation of porn star anchorwomen on FOX News, another instance of projection--you can kind of make out the vague, fuzzy point he's trying to get at: 'she thinks we're crazy! Well, we'll act crazy, and then show it was an act, proving CNN's confirmation bias!' It's a distant cousin behind the logic of the brilliant Sokal Hoax. Another case of conservative ressentiment, perhaps, but there's a point to be had.

Except that's not the point he's making at all.

The whole scheme of seducing a CNN anchorwoman is premised on her unprofessionalism. But for a journalist, as O'Keefe would style himself, seducing a subject in order to humiliate them is operating on a sub-Borat level of ethics.

And then there are the means by which he meant to seduce her [formatting mine]:

Equipment needed

a. Video

1. hidden cams on the boat
2. tripod and overt recorder near the bed, an obvious sex tape machine

b. Props

1. condom jar
2. dildos
3. Music

a. Alicia keys
b. 80s romance songs, things that are typically James
c. avoid Marvin Gaye as too cliche

4. lube
5. ceiling mirror
6. posters and paintings of naked women
7. playboys and pornographic magazines
8. candles
9. Viagra and stamina pills
10. fuzzy handcuffs
11. blindfold

That O'Keefe and his crew actually thought a woman would find decorating a room with porn and sexual paraphernalia (Viagra???) sexually enticing shows how seriously warped their own perspective is. Methinks they've spent too much time at The Forum.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Keep Walking and Carry On

In the Name of the Father is a time capsule, perhaps more than most films. Coming out as it did out following the worst of the violence between the Irish Republican Army and the English crown (this is simplifying things, but bear with me), and documenting a particularly gross abuse of power by the English, it was in its time a product of a society coming to grips with its own fallibility and capacity for injustice. Today such highfalutin notions seem almost quaint. At least, that’s how John Yoo would see it.

First, some context: Gerry Conlon (a young Daniel Day-Lewis) is a petty Belfast thief who happens to be in London with his friend Paul when the Guilford Pub is bombed by the IRA, killing five. Gerry and Paul and two other friends, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act passed in the wake of the bombing, are rounded up and tortured and into confessing. Along the way much of Gerry’s family gets swept up, including his father, Giuseppe, with whom he spends several years in prison before Giuseppe dies. Gerry continues his father’s work toward his freedom and eventually attains it.

The most discomfiting sequence in the movie is Gerry’s… interrogation, during which he is slapped, beaten, and questioned so many times even the audience starts to question if he’s telling the truth. Paul is brought in and tells him he should “clear his conscience.” Eventually Gerry is told the police will kill his father if he doesn’t “confess,” and so he acquiesces. And of course, when this is brought up in court, it becomes a matter of the lowly thief’s word versus that of the upstanding police. They are all found guilty, but in an act of ‘mercy’ the judge declares that instead of having Gerry executed for treason against the crown, he will only be convicted for terrorism and sentenced to 15 years.

It’s all drearily relevant stuff, such that even while I was watching it I knew it would give Dick Cheney a raging boner. Yet the sad truth is that, as criminal as the treatment of the Guilford Four is, Cheney would barely consider it foreplay. The physical abuse doesn’t begin to match the mannered sadism of waterboarding, naked hooding, induced hypothermia, exploited phobias, stress positions, and sleep deprivation that the authoritarian Right has gone from lamenting to rationalizing to gleefully advocating in only eight years. An audience of twenty years ago might have been shocked to hear of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, that it allows police to detain a suspect for a whole seven days without charging him. Yet outrage at such a perversion of justice today, when the executive branch is claiming the power to assassinate Americans at its own discretion, is like watching an eleven year-old being told the little rubber bunny in his hand is actually a sex toy—but without letting him know it belongs to his parents. He does not know how deep does rabbit hole goes.

This is the truly toxic effect of the national security discourse of the past decade, the corrosion of decency, even among those who are actually concerned about old-fashioned notions of civil liberties and personal autonomy. Gerry’s attorney, Gareth Peirce, is given many speeches, especially towards the end, where she can rail against the injustice of a system that can take fifteen years away from innocent people to satisfy a public that was “baying for blood.” ‘That’s all well and good,’ I thought to myself, ‘but that’s not how it works out in real life.’ And yet, in the broad strokes, at least, it is. (I didn’t know anything about the movie or its story going into it) By some freak chance—in the movie it’s an uninitiated guard’s mistakenly giving out secret evidence—the Guilford Four were able to have their day in court and be freed.

But what are we, in the second decade of this prematurely nasty century, to take away from this? Even the ostensibly happy ending comes with caveats: though the innocent were freed after fifteen years, no one was ever punished for the gross malfeasance at work in the halls of justice. And these victims were Irish, just across the sea from England, and in America so integrated they they’re hardly thought of as a minority anymore. The English, too, at least had the decency to imprison them in their own country.

The United States today has captured and kidnapped citizens from China, Afghanistan, Germany, and more besides. It has sent them to black sites across the globe to be tortured with no charge leveled against them, denied the right to a proper legal defense, and released or not released on arbitrary grounds. Barack Obama, who was elected on promises to return the nation to the rule of law, has allowed the architects of this policy to continue serving as professors and judges and guerilla politicos for the ‘freedom’ crowd, and is now seeking the ability to monitor all electronic communications under the auspices of national security. History will eventually damn the Bush and Obama administrations for all this, if the moral arc of the universe our president so often invokes is of any indication. Yet that assumes we haven’t by then completely submitted to our baser angels, taken Peggy Noonan's advice and "kept walking." For now, we are left with Gerry Conlon’s words as spoken by Daniel Day-Lewis to Emma Thompson’s Gareth Peirce:

“You see, I don’t understand your language. Justice, mercy, clemency. I literally don’t understand what those words mean.”

These days, who does?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Odious Among Us

Stinkbugs are swarming this season, and scientists are not sure what to do about it yet, calling for more research:

The department is spending $800,000 this fiscal year on stink bug research, double last year’s budget, Mr. Hackett said. But he estimated that seven more full-time researchers were needed, at a cost of about $3.5 million a year for salaries and research expenses.

How long until John McCain fires of some bitchy anti-science tweet or soundbite? I'll save him the trouble of writing it:

$3.5 mil a year for stinkbug research? Something smells.

It must be quite liberating to be able to say anything when you know nothing.

Where and Back Again?

More potentially bad news about the supposedly upcoming The Hobbit movie, involving Peter Jackson and the Screen Actors Guild and if Jackson doesn't play ball then why not just relocate from the Edenic New Zealand to post-Soviet eastern Europe.

I didn't grow up on a diet of Tolkien, but I very much enjoyed the Lord of the Rings films, and the books, after Fellowship came out. Part of the reason they worked so well is that, being made essentially back-to-back, they were conceived and executed in essentially the same creative headspace: unlike, say, the Matrix sequels or (especially) the Star Wars prequel trilogy, the LOTR filmmakers weren't burdened with recapturing lightning in a bottle and (over)reacting to their own success. There's a little of this, particularly in how their approach to Gollum changed over the course of three films, but on the whole the films are remarkably consistent in quality and tone, and they deservedly made an arseload of cash.

The Hobbit, ever since it was announced, has had to deal with the problem of trying to reconjure the serendipity of Jackson's trilogy. Having Guilermo del Toro at the helm was an inspired choice of defusing it, since his vision is so very much his own. But now he's gone and Jackson's back in but still going to use his designs, which is like going on a date with your ex-boyfriend's brother and insisting he adopt your ex's mannerisms and fashion sense, and these latest developments just sound like more trouble.

Just let the franchise sail off to the Gray Havens. It's not worth hanging around for Rosie and becoming mayor of Hobbiton.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Coming Soon(er or Later)

Work on that wedding-inspired bit of poesie I mentioned is going to take a little longer than a single day. This poetry thing is more difficult than I expected, and if I'm going to risk looking even more a pretentious ass then usual, I might as well make the effort worth it.... I can't sit on it for too long, though; within the week is probably a good estimate.

Gott Fag?

Yes, hypocrisy on the gay question really needs to stop. Not everybody who objects to homosexuality on religious grounds is a closet queen, of course not, but these moral oralists are barely convincing to their own congregations (I think the only reason we haven't heard about Rick Santorum's man-on-dog escapades is that he lost his re-election bid, but give it time). Christopher Hitchens summed it up well in his memoir:

Whenever I hear some bigmouth in Washington or the Christian heartland banging on about the evils of sodomy or whatever, I mentally enter his name in my notebook and contentedly set my watch. Sooner rather than later, he will be discovered down on his weary and well-worn old knees in some dreary motel or latrine, with an expired Visa card, having tried to pay well over the odds to be peed upon by some Apache transvestite.

This happens with depressing regularity, yet outside of the bland and clumsy "hypocrite" we don't have a word or term to describe this subset of sleaze. I propose 'Gott Fag,' a portmanteau of a well-known advertising campaign, a derogatory slur, and the German word for God (normally pronounced like 'goat,' but that need not matter for our purposes), in whose name these horny homos hate. The next time you hear of a Catholic priest, a Larry Craig, a Ted Haggard, a Mark Foley, a Ken Mehlman, an Eddie Long... bloviating on how much he really wants to stick it to the gays and not the other way around, one need only ask oneself:

Gott Fag?

The question answers itself.

Coming Soon

Apologies for not having posted anything yesterday. I spent the day at work and the afternoon and evening at a wedding, which prompted me to pen a few free form verses about the occasion. I hope to finish them and have the poem up today.

In the meantime, here is How the Empire Strikes Back Should Have Ended:

Thursday, September 23, 2010

There Will Be Smut


So declares the marquis display of The Forum, a dingy, turd-colored single-floored structure resting at the fringe of twenty blocks of Philadelphia high-rise skyline. It makes a curious welcome to the City of Brotherly Love, but what a welcome it is. Forget the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall; this is history. With the one-two punch of urban renewal—most famously the Disneyfication of Times Square—and the migration of pornography to the truly solitary frontiers of the internet, I had thought the smut theaters of 1970s vintage to have been long ago deposited into history’s trashiest dustbin. And yet here one was, in 2010, no awareness of anachronism. It was like finding a dodo, an extremely horny dodo, which still expects to propagate its lonesome seed. I decided it must be observed.

Notice what the 'R' in 'FORUM' is doing to the 'U'...

It’s Tuesday, 10:40 in the morning. I’ve put this off for three days now, and with only one day remaining I shan’t further delay. I walk up to the box office, which bears a sticker that reads, “ABSOLUTELY MUST BE 18” and is manned by a middle-aged black man.

“What times are shows?” I ask.

“You jus pay.”


“Shows run all day. You jus pay an go in. Seven dollas.” I pay up and walk through a single turnstile into an anteroom, wherein one may enter the theater proper. There is a sign on the center door: “No Sexual Activity Permitted on These Premises. Offenders Will Be Asked to Leave.”

Next to this (deep)throat-clearing is a notice about the property’s official capacity: 238 persons. Even in the red light districts’s 70s heyday it’s hard to imagine such an establishment drawing so many people at a time. I suspect the logic at work is an inversion of airlines overbooking planes. In the one, the airlines overbook a flight with the expectation of cancellations, in order to get as many fliers as possible. In this case, the audience is over-seated in order to be as relatively empty as can be and afford the theater's patrons some public privacy while they engage in “No Sexual Activity.”

The chamber I enter is dark but for the sex projected at the front, and frightfully loud, a cacophony of female moans and cries assaulting me from all sides. I am the only person there, perhaps not surprising for such an early time, but still sort of remarkable, almost trivially philosophical: if a porno plays in the theater and no one’s there to see it… But no matter. I step forward into the aisle and into the first row I come to on my right and sit down near the wall. Immediately I stand up. The seat is old and ragged, with a spring protruding through the cushion. I feel the seat to my left, and it’s the same. To its left: the same. The seat two over is less a shambles, and so I relocate there and set my bag on the ground. Moments later I put it on one of the seats, having read about mice on the Forum’s floor.

The projection is easily too large for the screen being used, putting at least a third of the entire picture onto the back walls. On this particular picture is a manic copulation of three: a naked, well-built thirty-something German man with a short-buzzed head and some wiry chest hair, of impressive endowment and much less impressive acting. For the purposes of this write-up he will be referred to by the name Herr Dick, as well as the English translation Mister Thick. His partners are a blond and brunette who are both more or less in a state of undress, with fishnet nylons under a sordid inference of a red skirt. In keeping with the spirit of objectification pervading the movie, the women will receive no names.

A generous definition of pornography is 'a work exclusively designed to titillate, with no otherwise redeeming artistic quality.' Since I’m not the kind of person who could get off on the material under discussion, I thought it more interesting, and fun, to approach the piece before me as one might approach an example of experimental filmmaking. Avant garde artwork is often attacked as pornographic, so why can’t that equation be reversed?

With that reading in mind, the film—let’s just call it Das Butt--being a fantasy, posits a deliberate inversion of everyday reality. In the real world people actually have lives to live out and goals they are trying to fulfill. Moments of sexual intimacy are at best oases among the day’s obligations, and often are short-lived and infrequent. Also, people and events tend to operate with some semblance of internal consistency and motivation and logic. Most narrative cinema operates under these assumptions, and even certain subgenres of porn—especially movie take-offs like Pirates and Womb Raider—do so also, if not as well.

In the Weltanschaung of Das Butt, however, the universe is in a chaotic state of arrested arousal that seems to last an eternity. There is no story so much as a situation, or rather a series of situations, the first being Herr Dick’s dominion over these two hapless vixens, with the blonde occasionally allying with him to aid in the brunette’s degradation. (Perhaps No EXXXit would be a better title.) The sex is varied, but without any discernable reason, pacing, flow; things just happen:

- The brunette is being pegged from behind while the blond spits on her.
- Then they both get down on their knees and Mr. Thick slaps their asses.
- Then the brunette is fellating Mr. Thick and drooling and the blond is catching it.

“It comes from her mouth and lands on your face,” Herr Dick observes. He sounds like he’s stoned.

Occasionally the proceedings become downright baroque. At one point Mr. Thick humps the brunette’s mouth so hard she coughs up some fluid, dark amber-colored and runny.

“What is that?” he asks, hardly seeming to care.

“That’s the Gatorade I drank earlier.”

“I love these maids.”

Without provocation Herr Dick becomes fixated on the ladies’ shoes. “Oh my God,” he mutters, kissing their heels and feet. “Oh my God. Oh my god. That’s what I want.” Later on he calls the brunette “my little dog,” a term of endearment, I’m sure.

Throughout all of this her eyes are glassy and glazed, as if she has entered some kind of Zen trance and is actually at the moment far away. I hope this is the case, for she takes it worse than either of the other two: slapped, spat on, donkey-punched(!). In a particularly tasteless moment the blond plugs her nose during another oral sex session while ordering Mr. Thick to “shove it in her fucking mouth.” The instances of fellatio are perhaps the most discomfiting, due to the brown-haired subject’s trademark gurgling, as if she were trying to keep pace with the flowing concentrations of a beer bong, filled with directed erection.

But then things take an arty turn when Herr Dick begins to chant, “You’re just another slave… Another slave… Another slave… Another slave… Another slave,” as the picture fades out. There is the sound of a heartbeat, a fade-in, and the brunette wakes up in bed. She gets up and smokes a cigarette. The German approaches her, as if nothing had happened.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, with the all conviction of a forced confession.

“I had a dream,” She says quietly, which is porno shorthand for scared and shaken. “I was in a prison, and there were these men all over, and they were trying to touch me and fuck me.” Cue the fade-in to some dank concrete bathroom where the brunette is chained to the wall and then released by some blond female guard, probably the same as before, so she can pleasure various men in handcuffs and sky-blue and white-striped pajamas. The situation smacks of a Kafkaesque authoritarian nightmare scenario mingled with Beckettian nonsequitor:

“Are you a good girl?”

“I think so, yes.”

“I hope you’re thirsty.” And so it all begins again. Spit finger wank fuck suck. Ditto with the blond guard. In a passive-aggressive bid for tastefulness and affection, the film depicts the brunette occasionally showing some defiance and resistance--because we’re supposed to care for her, you see--before she goes and gobbles another man’s choke bird. She even enacts some tawdry revenge on the blond. “Put your face in that fucking toilet,” she says, doing exactly that before squatting over her. “Is that what you like? Huh? Being treated like some piece of fucking meat?”

Before despair at this burlesque feminism can fully overtake me, the real world intrudes: the entrance door opens, and the nearing-noon shine is blinding. Then it’s dark again, and now some twenty minutes since I arrived—twenty? It has to be more than that. Time has no meaning in this place—I am joined for the first time by another theatergoer. He’s a pasty old man of wide carriage, shorts and short sleeves, and wispy, medium-length white hair flowing behind him as he saunters down the aisle and settles into a seat four rows from the front.

Not long after, the door opens and shuts again, and another elderly white man comes in, skinny, wearing a black ballcap and carrying a tote bag, also black. He sees me, and probably my pen and notebook, and decides it prudent to sit down in the row of seats opposite my own. He puffs a cigarette before setting it on the floor and stamping it out. In comes yet another patron, a large middle-aged black. He hangs back near the exit with his arms crossed.

The movie goes on, and on, and on, and one of the women—they’re more or less interchangeable—is being butt-gutted most aggressively, during which her wails achieve a kind operatic vibrato—aaahAAHaaahAAHaaahAAH—in time with the anterior thrusting. The man in the opposite aisle begins methodically rubbing his chest with his left hand, an action he will repeat often. The black in the back opens a newspaper.

The prison segment ends, for no reason but that at some point it must, and then we’re looking at a blond, perhaps the same one from earlier.

Offscreen, Herr Dick speaks to her: “Where is he?”

She answers, “I was choking him—“ we quick flash to black-and-white footage of her choking of a bald-shaved brown man, “and I stomped on his dick with my heel.”We get a flash of that too. So begins another alternate continuity, with events following the predictable trajectory.

One of the first times I ever got high I got really energized, but after an hour or so I started to freak out, terrified that I might never return to a normal state. I’m beginning to feel that way about Das Butt, where sex that should be, even if only on some base level, exhilarating, has become simply exhausting. The performers (to call them actors would be to disparage the occupation of a great many of my friends) would seem to feel that way, at certain points in all their fucking and sucking, slurping and jerking, seeming to relinquish all agency in their characters. Their movements settle into a rapid-fire back and forth in and out consistency of movement that makes it seem like I’m no longer watching human beings, but rather animatronic dummies belonging to some perverted theme park display.

It’s during one of these robotic sexual see-sawings that the man up front shows some activity. Between halting breaths he animatedly and barely audibly snorts, almost like stifled laughter. The black man with the newspaper actually does laugh, quite heartily, when the woman onscreen climbs onto her partner and starts yelling at him, essentially for not sufficiently abusing her. The man rubbing his shirt has since stood up and leaned against the back wall, but he’s still rubbing his shirt.

I had come into this theater, ages ago, thinking I would stay for and document one show. That was when I was still operating under the Aristotelian expectations of storytelling, that there would be some climax, some catharsis, to close things out. But the whole damn movie is climax with no end in sight, and it is now noon. Convinced that nothing is ever going to change, I leave.

The world I rejoin bears little resemblance to that on the screen and in the theater: no darkness, but sparkling sunlight; instead of a constant stream of orgasmic crying, the urban ambiance of Philadelphia. The men walking down the sidewalk to my right are not having frantic sex with nubile twenty year-olds, but are fully dressed in business attire and carrying on a conversation. Perhaps they are asking one another what kind of sick young man would waste his time in an adult movie theater.

The Republicans' Pledge to America

The table of contents is most appropriate:

In all seriousness, opposing the other party is one thing, but you're not even doing yourself a favor by believing things (the stimulus did not work at all, TARP was a failure) that are not true.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


I spent much of the day traveling and otherwise working on a piece about the adult film theater that I spent some time in. I'm hoping that narrowing the messy, sordid details into a focused piece won't take more than a day.

Also, I realized that if I'm going to take this blogging thing seriously, I'm going to need to overhaul the visuals of what is right now a pretty bland offering. I've added a blog roll and some post gadgets, and hopefully will soon have some spiffy pictures to make the whole package more attractive.

As you were.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

The weather was quite impeccable today, as it has been almost my entire trip. With all the walking I've done these past two weeks, I'm better tanned than I ever was this summer.

Not everything I hoped to do panned out, but walking a big city is its own reward. I went up into the northeast quadrant of Central City to visit a house that Edgar Allan Poe briefly lived in, but for some reason they're only open three or four days a week. Then down to Chinatown I went to see the lovely Friendship Gate, and then back to 22nd St. to the Mütter Museum, a collection of weird and somewhat horrific medical oddities. Most gloriously last of all was a free performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra outside of the magnificent City Hall, in which they played one of my favorite pieces, Tchaikovsky's "Marche Slave." I don't think this trip could have ended much better.

Oh yes, and I spent over an hour in a porn theater. The details of that lurid excursion are soon to come.

Notes and Observations:

- People do come into porn theaters at 11 AM.
- I really hope the parents of all those miscarriages and dead Siamese twins now (re?)posing in the Mütter Museum were spared the knowledge that their unfortunate offspring would be preserved and leered at for generations after death.

Quote of the day:

"Ellen Jones was murdered with an axe in 1863."
- the first sentence in a placard explaining the shattered skull of Ellen Jones.

All in all, it's been a pretty phenomenal trip. I took in a variety of sites and museums, got a feel for two great American cities, and even made a friend or two along the way. I'm debating whether to even bother posting any photos here once I get back, since I'm pretty sure most of my limited readership will see them on Facebook anyway. But thanks to all--you know who you are--who followed along, apologies for being so damned general once I got to DC, and keep coming back for what I assure you will be substantial writings in the days to come.

Buyer's Remorse, Anyone?

Twenty-seven percent of gay Americans voted for McCain in 2008. McCain today led the filibuster that killed debate on the provision to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

I'm sure he's just trying to keep them out of harm's way.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Not Another Manic Monday

I checked out the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall today, but not terribly much else in the way of tourism. After being on break for a week-and-a-half, I think I'm starting to feel some sight-seeing fatigue, so I don't really feel bad about not seeing anything today. I've got lots of food for thought that hopefully will generate some good writing once I'm settled back in (that is, before I uproot myself for an actual move) and a regular time in which to do it.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Tried to Grip Myself, but Myself Keeps Slipping

And yet again I am remiss in getting anything written down about the day's events and am too tired to go into much detail. So here's a quick step-by-step.

1. Got up early, was tired and moved slow. Got started late.

2. Once downtown, but unlimited use public transit day passes for the next three days. The only time I used one today (thereby making it useless now) I would have been better served just walking. Unless one needs to quickly get all the way across town, it's easier and cheaper just to walk Philadelphia.

3. For that reason I walked to the Philadelphia Art Museum. There was a big marathon underway, and one of the major traffic arteries was closed, thereby making the next best lane so crowded it was demonstrably quicker to walk than take the bus.

4. In front of the museum, as part of the marathon, there was a stage set up with live music. "Hearing Shot Through the Heart" and "Living on a Prayer" back to back, I concluded it had to be Bon Jovi, because no one else in their right mind would play two back-to-back Bon Jovi songs. Turns out it was Slippery When Wet, a Bon Jovi tribute group.

5. I ascended the Philadelphia Art Museum's steps, but unlike many others I did not turn and raise my fists to the sky in celebration when I got to the top, like Sylvester Stallone. I am different.

6. I spent some three hours in the museum, looking at European and some American art from 1850 to the present day. I never knew Marcel Duchamp was a proper artist before he started signing urinals.

7. With time left over once I was done, I stopped at the Rodin museum. I think Rodin is my favorite sculptor, because of the dynamism in his figures, and the museum--second only to Paris in its Rodinian completeness--is a treasure.

8. I wandered around a bit after that, and ended up going to one of Philadelphia's gay bars, Woody's. While I was there a guy across the table dropped his pants to show us his new ring. Another man pulled out his sticker in front of me at Nelly's in DC. I'm told this doesn't normally happen. Maybe I bring it out in people.

9. My bartender was an overbearing, walking erection who--because I am, in his words, "reserved," and because I mentioned something about Utah--kept calling me his Mormon.

10. I made a friend, who had to leave but I may see tomorrow evening, and then made a couple more, who showed me around the Gayborhood. One of them offered to stay at his place. In retrospect this might have been a good idea.

11. I started making my way home shortly after 10:30, got a little turned around, and got to the train station at 16th St. at 11:00 and found that the train line I needed to get home that I thought would be in service until midnight, had in fact stopped and would not resume until the next morning.

12. I had to call a cab to take me home. I didn't know the address, and he couldn't find the train station that was too blocks away from it, and so we wasted about $10 I'm sure, just wandering around the nearby neighborhoods until my gracious host met me at a nearby street and took me back.

No quotes today. Only the observation that none of my trips would be complete without some kind of insane traveling SNAFU, and that I'll probably fare better when I actually live in one of these places.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

About the Benjamins

Just a quick recap: I didn't actually do much in Philadelphia besides explore, mostly in the historical district. I visited Franklin Court (the site of Benjamin Franklin's old property, long ago razed by his grandchildren), Christ Church, Old City Hall, and Second Bank of the United States. I actually think, outside of the continued existence of the buildings themselves, these will be the least interesting places I'll visit. That in itself dgserves a complete write-up and discussion, which isn't going to happen, at least not until I get settled into something resembling a normal schedule.

Notes and other potential topics of discussion:

- There is a (straight) porn theater on the west end of the city, and I am going to patronize it and document my experience. That much I can promise.

- I came across some "9/11 WAS AN INSIDE JOB" bumper stickers slapped onto some lamp posts and ripped most of them down. Boiled my blood, it did.

- Philadelphia has lot of very interesting architecture, more than DC, which was something of a backwater until the beginning of the 20th century.

- Benjamin Franklin's old residence, like Shakespeare's Birthplace, was basically wiped clean; the former was torn down, the latter--if it even IS Shakespeare's birthplace--was stripped and even partially remodeled. Yet the two are markedly different in their approach. Franklin Court uses some white-painted metal beams to form the frame of what would have been the house, and the different rooms are merely indicated. Shakespeare's Birthplace tries to "recreate" an Elizabethan household to mostly embarrassing results. And, Franklin gets a much more detailed museum.

- In front of the Philadelphia Convention Center were representatives of some truly batshit crazy black supremacist Jewish(?!?) group, the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge, whose attire of bright red and green fabrics with rindstone-studded leather makes them look like ninjas. It turns out they're pretty nasty folks, but based on what I saw I wondered if they were some kind of performance art, like what conservatives wonder about Fred Phelps. Check out the quotes of the day at the bottom to see why.

I know that tomorrow I'm going to the Philadelphia Art Museum. Everything beyond that is more or less improvisation.

Quotes of the day, courtesy of the crazy black supremacists:

"Why do they [white people] want to send the Mexkcans back? Because they want the black man back in the fields!"

"That transvestite, Lady Gaga. That's a man is who he is."

(on gays:) "They get it from Greece and Rome and those two faggots, Romulus and Remus!"

"God is without Valentine's Day. And Mother's Day? The white man won't tell me when to give a gift to my mother!"

Going Fourth

Yesterday (now two days ago, at least to those on the East Coast) was not as absolutely balls-out great as the day before, but that’s hardly a fair standard. On its own it was one of the best days I’ve had since my trip started.

Due to the very late previous night I didn’t get up until around 8:30, and wasn’t mobile until almost two hours after that. I had a few stops on my itinerary, but no set plan, which was just as well: I got off on the first Metro stop, U Street/African-American Civil War Monument/Cardoza, to get a look at said monument. I found it, after going the wrong way, with the directions from some helpful residents. Inscribed with the names of the 209,145 black (UNION) soldiers who served, it’s a very touching spot.

I decided to detour to the African American Civil War Museum, which was relocated in the Thurgood Marshall Center and unfortunately took up only one small room. Next, lunch at Busboys and Poets, a restaurant, with a bar and book store and performance space, that’s devoted—naively, if worthily—to social justice and peace. Then the National Building Museum, and a revisiting of the Edvard Munch exhibition at the National Art Museum. After it closed five I was informed by the security that the National Portrait Gallery was open until seven, and off I went. I left my little hippie bag in a locker there when they closed, and I would not have gotten it back had I not spotted a guard taking a cigarette break. A fine night at Nellie’s, a gay sports bar not far from where I was staying rounded off a pretty great trip.

I’ll put up a post about yesterday/today, the beginning of the final leg of my trip, Philadelphia. But not very long. It’s quite late.

Notes and Observations:

- I don’t know if it was due to lack of resources or just that it’s in a temporary location (probably both), but the presentation of some very interesting items (newspaper clippings, illustrations, a grisly photo of slave’s whipped and scarred back ) in the African American Civil War Museum leaves a lot to be desired. Everything was so crammed together it was hard to focus or get any context. This has to do, I think, with how presentation affects evaluation of the information presented, which I had never thought much about before in terms of museums (usually just scholarship applications).

- Edvard Munch really had a problem with women. That said, Towards the Forest is one of the most indescribably beautiful and bleak works I’ve ever come across (though I’ll admit I haven’t seen much of Munch’s ouvre, which is supposed to be overwhelmingly depressing), and The Lonely Ones is also quite compelling.

- To understand the tyranny of “realism” in Western painting, one need only visit the National Portrait Gallery. After a pretty interesting collection of contemporary public figures, done in very eclectic styles, one is bombarded with portraits from colonial times onward, with so many that one’s mind just shuts them out after awhile.

Quote of the days:

“We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
- Thomas Jefferson

Friday, September 17, 2010

Risen on the Third Day

Unlike the previous day, which was characterized by nearly everything I planned spinning off into comic misadventure, yesterday went smashingly. I spent several hours touring the various memorials on the National Mall, beginning with Jefferson and ending with Vietnam, with Einstein at the National Academy of Sciences providing a nice coda.

That took up my whole morning and early afternoon, so I went back to my friend's apartment to recuperate. I got my luggage (and did a happy dance, such were the joys of changing into an entirely fresh wardrobe), delivered by Delta to the front desk the previous afternoon. The door man asked for and made a copy of my driver's license, for liability purposes. It's probably a good thing I'm leaving tomorrow.

The monuments on their own would have made the day great. But going to Deborah Fallows' book reading at Politics and Prose and seeing The Atlantic writers Jim Fallows (her husband, you know), Jeffrey Goldberg, and Michael Kinsley pushed me into the stratosphere. I just hope I didn't come off a complete boob when I introduced myself to them. Jack Shafer, whom Goldberg was talking to when I approached and who left at the same time I did, said I didn't, so I'll take his word on it.

Drinks and dancing at Cobalt/30 Degrees was just the Oreo in the milkshake after that.

Notes and Observations

- The Jefferson memorial is terrific view, but I wonder if its out of the way location keeps it from being seen as often as the others.

- I entered the FDR memorial from the wrong side and so experienced it in reverse chronology. I didn't realize this until the beginnings of a tour materialized when I was almost finished.

- The Lincoln Memorial, with its giant-sized reproductions of the Second Inaugural and Gettysburg Address, is very moving. The "Four score and seven years ago" opening is ubiquitous yet not widely understood for why that is so, which is a shame. Lincoln's rhetoric is deceptively simple and the moral thrust of his cause make these words some of the most powerful ever spoken. Try reading them aloud and thinking on their implications without getting a catch in your throat.

- Lincoln actually had a dog named Fido.

- I never knew the meanings of Chinese words, due to the limited number of sounds in the language, were dependent on tone. I wondered how this would affect expression of emotion and intent, especially with sarcasm. Deborah Fallows wasn't sure, but thought that a lot of it lay in the phrasing, dependent as Chinese is on well-worn turns of phrase (such as 'well-worn turns of phrase!').

- After walking about 25 blocks to get back to the apartment after dancing, I have to conclude that talk of DC's horrible crime rate is horribly exaggerated (or more accuratly, greatly diminished from the rotten 70s during which Hunter S. Thompson
wrote some very unflattering things about the city
). All I had to do was ask a cop stationed outside the bar where to go, and I was able to avoid any of the bad spots. I mean, at least the crime is contained.

- Sometimes, it's just better to walk. I'd spent enough money yesterday and wasn't keen on a cab, and so I walked 1.93 miles back to the apartment. It took about 40 minutes, but that's really about the same time as the late night Metro would have gotten me.

I'm terribly bummed that this is my last day here. Philadelphia's got a lot to live up to. In the meantime, I'm going to revisit the National Art Museum's Edvard Munch exhibit, and try to make stops at the Building Museum and the National Portrait Gallery.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Day 2 Day

Most of what I set out to do today (namely, the National Mall memorial circuit) failed to happen, for complex reasons that will hopefully make for a good post somewhere down the line when I'm not so strapped for time. Essentially there was a lot of running around town to take care of loose ends that I should have tied off earlier, some of which ended up tying me up. It was finely topped, though. The Capital building made for one of the best scenic sketches I've ever done (I'm terrible with perspective and straight edges and building detail, but this one ended up being recognizable and neat) and a very nice dinner with some old friends of my parents who work in government. And, I should have access to my luggage tomorrow.

Notes and Observations:

- I'm usually not one for big one-or-two color canvases in art, but the Phillips Collection's Rothko room, with one such painting on every wall, is strangely hypnotizing, especially in the low light.
- There is absolutely no easy way to get to the Mall memorials short of taking a cab or bus. Walking is one thing, but christ is it a long way from any Metro stops.
- Football belts will not set off metal detectors.
- Prowling about the Dirksen Senate building's hallways in street clothes--the hall, with (fools?) gold(-plated) drinking fountains and silent but for the clop clop clop of the occasional shoe heel belonging to the impeccably dressed--was an exercise in discomfort.
- After finishing dinner and leaving the restaurant, which serves Hill staff and congressmen, I guessed that I was the only male wearing shorts in the whole establishment.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Day by Day

It's late and I don't have time to write an organized, detailed post, so I think I'll just try to summarize my day and give any interesting observations I have to offer.

I left early this morning for Capital Hill and arrived around 8:45. I didn't have to be in Walt Minnick's office for my Capital tour until 10, and (most fortuitously) the Library of Congress was already open then, so I spent a little over an hour there, buzzed over for my Capital tour, got some lunch once that was done, and then made my Supreme Court date. After that I took the Metro across town to Dupont Circle to check my friend's mail in hopes that Delta Air had delivered my baggage. They hadn't, so I took the Metro all the way back to my friend's Columbia Heights apartment, where I was keeping the luggage code to use when calling Delta, and then went back to Dupont for dinner and drinks with College of Idaho alumni. A few of us went drinking afterward, and I only got back a little while ago.

Notes and Observations:

- There exists a certain relativity of dress codes. Where I come from, you can get away with looking like you just rolled out of bed, and if anything the sharp-dressed man would be suspect. As near as I can tell, here it's exactly the opposite. At least that's how it felt, wearing (from yesterday; I have no luggage, recall) a Laphroaig T-shirt, shorts that are four sizes too large, and a football belt to hold them up--especially during the four or five times I had to take the belt off for going through a metal detector.
- I really, really don't like guided tours. I wanted to stop and sketch so many things in the Capital, but I always felt self-conscious about my guide, who later was in a rush to get to his next assignment.
- The Capital makes a point of having two statues from every state, but they're poorly distributed. The old Senate chamber (I think that's what it is), is packed with statuary, far too much, some of which could go to the upper level of the main visitors center area.
- Of course South Carolina would pick John Calhoun as one of its two representative statues.
- On the way into the Senate chambers, my guide told me that Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell passed us by. I'm not entirely glad I missed him.
- When we sat in on the Senate chambers, Mary Landrieu was giving a very impassioned speech on the small businesses bill (she kept referring to 1099) that had made it's way through, and hammered Republicans for their intransigence. She did this before a mostly empty Senate, which seemed to have more teenaged staffers than senators on hand.
- I grabbed lunch at the Capital Hill Grocery just a few blocks away. Two things of interest: 1) Naked fruit juices are just as expensive here ($3.99) as they are in Idaho, which is awfully surprising, and 2) behind the cashier I saw a shelf space labeled with something like Elmer's Glue and instead had a couple of Dianetics (Scientology) CD-ROMs sitting there. I won't speculate as to their significance.
- The Supreme Court talk one can sign up for through one's congressman is probably not worth it. I got to go into the room where Supreme Court cases are actually heard, but the lecturer was bland and boring, and it really wasn't worth the half an hour one is forced to remain there, even if it was free.
- Supreme Court Justice Wiley B. Rutledge seems like an extremely interesting figure and gets the quote of the day:

"Of what use is the law if it does not meet human needs?"

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Eagle Has Landed

Two flights, one cab ride, and an Amtrak train ride later, and I am now in DC for the next few days. Delta sent my bag to Connecticut, which is sort of amazing considering it was only supposed to sit in the plane during a layover in Detroit. They must have been working extra hard today.

Posting will probably be light for awhile. I'll be out and about most of the day. I've got tours of the Capital and the Supreme Court lined up for tomorrow, and I'm going to try to fit in a visit to the Library of Congress too.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Good god. I can't believe I devoted 1200+ words to Twilight and Mormonism.

On Photos

Unfortunately I left the USB connector for my camera at home, and so I won't be able to post any of my trip photos while I'm gone. FYI.

The Twilight Zone

I wanted to loathe The Official Twilight Convention ©™. Everything I have ever read about the books and movies—by most accounts a collection of slackly constructed, dead-eyed romantic longings without dramatic incident or tension—together with their baffling popularity suggests a further slide in the decline of Western Civilization. The chance to witness a gathering of this benighted franchise’s readership in the throes of celebrating it, then, seemed a fine opportunity to document said cultural atrophy. And yet it felt mean to hate on an event so stunningly ill-attended.

(I should add before proceeding that I have not read or watched any of the Twilight books or movies, for the same reasons I was only recently exposed to the scribblings of Dan Brown. While arguing from a position of ignorance is almost always to be frowned upon, I should hope those who have had the misfortune of slogging through one or another of the Twilight saga’s installments would defend me in my (obviously unfounded) assertion that Twilight is bad enough to present an exceptional exception.)

The proceedings of the Official Twilight Convention ©™ started somewhere around 11 AM. I was late in getting started and without a ride downtown, so I put on my running shoes and set out around 11:45. In a little under an hour-and-a-half I made the 17 blocks west, 12 blocks north, 3-4 mile walk, arriving around 1:15 PM.

A word on expectations: I was wondering if how packed the convention center would be, whether I would be able to get in. When I hear the words “Official Twilight Convention ©™,” I think booth after booth after booth, dressed down with moody black and gray backdrops bearing Kristen Stewart’s vacant stare, gazing into the romantically-malnourished souls of hundreds of Hot Topic-shopping attendees, young and often teen-aged girls whose excited chatter creates a background noise broken only by shrieks of hysteria whenever one of the series’ principals makes everyone there more beautiful by their presence.

And all that was there, but on video.

Being projected onto a large screen in the Sheraton hotel’s convention room , was a 2007 Twilight convention interview in which leads Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, and Taylor Lautner had to field such questions as “Which movie [of two, I note] is your favorite?” with their every other sentence being interrupted by rapturous, presumably female, screaming. Stewart and Lautner (who is a beauty, I’ll admit, but nothing worth losing one’s mind over) made do as much as they could, but Pattinson seemed distinctly annoyed with the whole thing, at one point being unable to think of a favorite trait of his character, Edward.

I reiterate, this was all on video that surely must be floating around the internet somewhere. Yet the fans present seemed to be eating it up, all thirty-five of them, plainly dressed except for a little girl with a black cape, clustered in the reserved front three rows of some 150 seats, laughing at things like a story about Pattinson looking like a large teletubby during the shooting of a CGI scene. I later found the vendors sitting at their kiosks with nothing to do, and ditto the guy manning a gimmicky photography booth.

This was unreal: that the total number of fans in attendance was less than my graduating high school class was almost as baffling as Twilight’s having become popular in the first place. Had the absent majority already gotten their fill on Friday and Saturday and sat this one out? Had the advertising department fallen down on the job? Or was the Twilight juggernaut in reality a Potemkin fad invented and embellished by shrewd marketing? I know not the answer, but I can be fairly certain this caught some of the involved parties by surprise. The MCs noted the “intimacy” of the crowd, and the woman from whom I bought a ticket (which included an “officially autographed” photo of…someone) remarked to one of her friends while I was paying, “Yay, I have a customer!”

I got some satisfaction in seeing the Twilight beast humbled, but felt a twang of sympathy for the ladies and occasional lad who, at least for now, did not have the vague comfort of being a part of a mass phenomenon. Myself, I felt a little vulnerable for similar reasons, sticking visibly out instead of disappearing into an aggregate crowd. But the other attendees didn’t seem to mind me, or their own underwhelming numbers.

Shortly after the video finished the second Q&A guest of the day was introduced, Chaske Spencer, who plays one of the second-tier (so designated because I, the uninitiated, have never heard of him) character known only as Sam. Dark-haired and olive-skinned, clad in a green V-neck tee and jeans and carrying a can of Mug root beer, he walked onstage and, instead of sitting on the fold-out chair provided, sat on the edge of the stage, due to the crowd’s previously stated intimacy. The MC mentioned the other guests had done this too, suggesting that the previous days had had a depressed turnout as well.

I was expecting the same inanity that saturated the just-finished video interview, and occasionally there were turkeys like “If you could take three items on a desert island, what would they be?” (which was asked of the next guest as well). But there were occasionally some questions of substance, with intriguing answers. Hailing from Montana and (Lewiston) Idaho, Spencer is of Sioux, Nez Perce, Cherokee, Creek, Dutch and French heritage. The book he most recently read was Jon Krakauer’s Pat Tillman tome: “He was an interesting, mysterious person,” Spencer said, and “what they did to him after he died, lying to his family, was unacceptable.” He is also a photographer, had once wanted to be a war photographer, and would want to live in Berlin for its architecture, its artists, and the fact that David Bowie recorded a trilogy of albums there with Brian Eno.

Perhaps his most surprising comment, especially given the setting, was that he was really excited about his next movie, Shouting Secrets, because he gets to, you know, act. “I love it when I actually get to work. I love Twilight, but it’s really just take off my shirt, beefcake stuff.”

The last thing I ever expected from attending The Official Twilight Convention ©™ was to empathize with one of the people responsible for foisting it on the world, yet Chaske Spencer came off positively alright, someone with whom I would actually want to hang out and bullshit. He was obviously having a good time fielding questions, but it’s clear he has no illusions about it all being just another acting gig, which are hard enough to land to begin with.

The next guest, the unfortunately named Booboo Stewart, didn’t come off nearly so well. He had the look and affect of a clueless teenager, because he was, being only 16 years old and soon to get his first car. This made me feel tremendously old, and I was losing interest in everything that was going on, except for a bubbly older woman covered in Twilight memorabilia named Donna; she must have been one of the handlers for The Official Twilight Convention©™, for Stewart got to play harmonica and dance. Occasionally she made such interjections as “What the fur?” and “I feel sheepish. I feel baaad…” She was more interesting than Stewart, in any case.

That was enough for me. I’m on vacation, and two hours is more than enough time to spend at The Official Twilight Convention ©™. I left feeling more sad than anything. Many of Twilight’s participants seem to be aware that the series is microwaved junk food, but are content to ride its pop tsunami for all it’s worth. The fans’ devotion is genuine, if terribly misguided. They really do deserve better. Yet the sparse attendance of the event (which may have precipitated the markdown in ticket prices from thirty dollars to ten) is perhaps a telling sign of, pardon the pun, a breaking dawn of prevailing good taste that may yet put the Twilight saga in its coffin for good.

Bad Faith

My opinion of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has always been ambivalent at best. On the one hand, their social and family organization is admirable, and Mormons themselves are often very nice people.

Then there’s everything else.

Mormon aesthetics, for instance, a source of niggling irritation. Their statues are impressive, their temples objectively pleasing to the eye, especially when surrounded by ugly modern glass and concrete structures. But their churches have a McDonalds-like uniformity, their religious artwork is kitschy and uninspired, and Mark Twain was never more astute than in his observation of the Book of Mormon’s prose as “chloroform in print.” And even, perhaps especially, the LDS Church’s most opulent structures tend ultimately to unsettle, as if the architects and sculptures were trying much too hard to impress.

Yes, there are worse offenses, like the church’s bogus theology and rank politicking, but I was downtown looking for sites of historical and cultural significance. If I could put all the bullshit of the church itself aside, I thought, I might be able to enjoy myself and learn something. Or at least see something interesting. So I decided to see what Temple Square had to offer.

I first looked at the Handcart Pioneer Monument, commemorating those who made the journey from Illinois west pulling their own carts because they could not afford oxen. It depicts a man, humbly dressed, dragging his burden, while his wife looks on to the child riding in back. I’m a sucker for bronze cast sculpture work and wish more sterling individuals were commemorated in that fashion, so a work like this appealed to me. I sketched it, briefly and simply, and felt like I was again in New York or London, where statuary of this sort is abundant. The feeling would not last long.

Not far away, on the temple’s western flank, was a curved slab engraved with descriptions of the church’s principles on law and government. While I stood in front of it, pad and pen in hand, considering whether I ought attempt to sketch the temple, two girls that were about my age approached. Sister Perez was a smiling Guatemalan, a little short and with wavy black hair, while Sister McGill to her left was more my height, with straight, parted brown hair and a mischievous brow. They asked me about myself, told me some factoids about the temple (“Did you know it took forty years to build? It was the first building started and the last of them finished.”), and asked some lead-in questions.

“Do you know why we have the temples?” Sister McGill asked me. I gave a somewhat stammering answer about sealing the husband and wife upon marriage. The Sisters were impressed.

This led into a discussion (which we continued in the pews of the Assembly, the Mormons’ original worship space with a grand piano and pipe organ up front) on faith in God, the nature of belief, that sort of thing. There were many digressions, on human nature, faith as (false) comfort, the meaning of life, how can I trust only my fallible senses, my upbringing.

The questions were at first innocuous, if trivial: “What did you used to pray about?” This is like asking me what brand was my favorite toothbrush. But I tried to remember something specific. ‘God is great, God is good, and we thank him for our food, Amen.’
“So they were rote,” the Sisters said with some understanding. I added that we prayed for our health and that others might get over their own adversities. “That’s good of you,” Sister Perez remarked.

Gradually the line of inquiry became more pointed: “If God existed, would he want you to believe in him?” I told them I thought such a question to be navel gazing of the how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin variety, but trying to be generous, I said I’d want a god who rewarded even the nonbelievers, so long as they were intellectually honest and had questioned their ideas.

The Sisters were not impressed.

We often circled back around the question of why we choose to believe or not believe, and I said—and I do think this—that I don’t think people actually choose whether they believe or they don’t. It’s a matter of temperament. One can’t “choose” to find an abstract argument convincing, it simply is or it isn’t. They didn’t believe this (didn’t choose to believe this?), which is a pretty fundamental disagreement, and so we tended to talk past one another, and I pointed that out.

They finally suggested I read a chapter of the Book of Mormon. I politely declined.

“It’s just one page.”

Thus began their endgame. They—mostly Sister McGill, really—asked me how I could really say I didn’t believe, when I wasn’t willing to. I mentioned temperament again, and she threw it back in my face.

“ That is not true. You and I both have similar temperaments [a fair enough observation; I should have said ‘predilection’]. You are charismatic, and you—”

I had to laugh at that.

“No, you are. You think things through before you say something, and you respect intelligence, you are meritocratic. And so am I, and yet we came to different conclusions. I know, I have felt God’s presence in my heart, and all the answers to any of the questions I have had I have found this book,” she pointed to her Book of Mormon with a laminated binding, “and I am positive you would too. But you need to approach it with openness and a willingness to see it, and to explore it in a faith-encouraging environment.”

Sorry, but no thanks.

There followed an awkward silence, as if someone had just farted at the dinner table.

“Well, this was a really interesting discussion,” said Sister Perez, and that was that. They left through the Assembly side exit, I back through the entrance. That was enough of Temple Square for me.

Immediately after leaving I felt bad: well, aren’t yyou being close-minded? What would one little chapter hurt? Come on, man, don’t be such a jerk. This continued for a few minutes more, until I actually thought about what had just happened. And then I got angry.

I am all for discussion between believers and non-believers; I in fact had another long talk with one, a Christian relative of mine, later that evening. Such discussions are always carried out in good faith, discussion for its own sake and nothing more. The Sisters came under such a guise, being friendly and listening to me talk about myself, but with the mercenary intent of bullying me into “considering” the church, which would doubtless be followed by exploring and then joining, under the pretext of open-mindedness, never mind that I had already done my share of reading and soul-searching before settling on my atheism. They were plainclothes salesfolk, hawkers in doves’ guise. They were an infomercial posing as an NPR interview.

Really, I should have known better. I was in Temple bloody Square, Ground Zero of Mormondom. But anytime I’ve ever encountered their Elder minions, always at my front door and upfront about their intentions, I’ve politely said no thanks and been done with it. I’m pretty cynical about people generally, but I am willing to give individuals the benefit of the doubt. I simply didn’t expect these nice ladies to exploit that good will and turn it back on itself, to emotionally blackmail me by making me feel bad for parrying their dagger smiles. I understand now a little bit of what a battered housewife must feel when her husband says she shouldn’t have made him hit her.

When our discussion was still a procession of architectural factoids Sister McGill had told me, with some pride, that the pillars in the Assembly are not actually marble, but pinewood that’s been painted to look like it. Likewise the pews have been painted, individually, to look like oak. Within this admission, rare in its candor, lies a potent metaphor for every reservation I had about the Mormon church: their technically impressive but often tacky artwork, the manufactured grandeur of their buildings, the Book of Mormon’s faux King James English, the emissaries’ training in the dark arts of aggressive cheer. All of it is just so much posture and pretense, a Renaissance whitewash of Medieval intents, the deceitful seed of a theocratic, money-digging charlatan prick.

I had forgotten to bring my camera downtown with me, and so I did not get any photos of the Square. I had thought I would return tomorrow to snap some, but frankly I don’t want to deal with anymore false friendliness, and I would feel like some unwilling shill for them besides. Normally, denying the Mormons a place in the visual documentation of my trip would be all the personal revenge I could have. But this is no ordinary weekend: today is the final day of The Official Twilight Convention ©. I can take faint comfort knowing that I will spend my time with the religious devotees of mediocre vampire fiction instead of with the vampiric devotees of a mediocre religious fiction.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Creeper of the Night

As luck would have it, the Official Twilight Convention (they're really uptight about being mistaken for Twicon) is having a three-day stop this weekend in Salt Lake City, with $10 daily tickets.

I'm going to attend today or tomorrow out of morbid curiosity, and hopefully get a dispatch up soon after. Until then, sate yourself on the Official Convention's Official Website.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The "Ick" Factor

Piggy-backing off that last post, let us also note which same-sex conduct is legally protected by the Obama administration....

...and which is not.

Law and Order

One of Sullivan's readers, on the Obama administration's defense of DOMA and DADT:

I think you are being a little more than disingenuous when you claim that the Obama administration is to the right of some conservatives with respect to DADT and marriage equality. Like a law or not, it is the duty and constitutional obligations of the executive branch to defend every law. While I disagree with DADT and believe DOMA to be unconstitutional, I still want the executive branch to litigate to uphold the legality of these laws. Once you set a precedent that an administration should not defend laws with which it disagrees, it will start to work against you. What would happen if a Republican administration decided not to defend challenges to EPA regulations or not to defend challenges to the constitutionality of health care reform? (Whether to appeal is a different matter.) You can fault the Obama administration of many things, but not for doing its constitutional duty.

What if Republican administrations decided to stop enforcing regulations of important industries? What would happen if a Republican administration decided not to uphold legally binding international laws against torture to which it is a signatory? What if subsequent administrations gave those lawbreakers near-total legal immunity?

Thank goodness we don't live in such an awful world.

Here I Go Again

I am currently at the Boise airport, about to begin a trip to Salt Lake City, DC, and Philadelphia to visit family and friends and scope out places to live. And give my inner tourist a workout. I'll be checking out various historical sites and museums as is my wont, and though posting may be a little all over the place, I'll try to post some travelogues as time permits.

Accordingly, I think I may have left my cell phone charger back at the hotel last night. I'll find out in a couple hours when I get my luggage back.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Infinite Jest

Christopher Hitchens is an interesting person. A banal statement, perhaps, but in being so, all but indisputable. And Hitchens is much disputed. Over the last decade he has been called a drunk, an intellectual titan, a defender of rational thinking, a war-monger, and more besides. Most lately, he and his esophageal cancer have been, rather stupidly, held up as an example of God’s punishment for his atheism, even as he presented himself as hardly worth the godless universe’s attention. With such a lively (deathly?) variety in opinion, the agreeable proposition that the man is ‘interesting’—which I emphatically do not intend as a weasel word for ‘bad’—is a good starting point for discussing his memoir, glibly titled Hitch-22. For while it will probably not change anyone’s opinion of him—there are no apologies here—it will doubtless deepen one’s understanding. Even if one thinks Hitchens a flatulating asshole, one has to marvel at the depths of this Anus mirabilis.

One of Hitchens’ many wonders is his worldliness. The memoir proper begins with Hitchens’ first memory, of his three year-old self on a boat to Malta with his parents. He would before long spend much of his childhood in England but away from home at boarding-school. This distance was useful preparation for his career as a globe-spanning journalist and sometime socialist agitator, which he eventually undertook with breathtaking speed. By the time he was my age of a quarter century, Hitchens had witnessed first-hand the then-new Cuban government’s reaction to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; been testily questioned by English soldiers in the streets of occupied Ireland; and was soon to experience the aftermath of the end of fascist rule in Portugal. Nor were his travels merely geographical. A precocious child, he had absorbed War and Peace when twelve years old, and was “smuggling into the chapel” the works of Bertrand Russell by fifteen. His Oxford social circle spanned the intellectual and literary world, encompassing the likes of Kingsley Amis, Isaiah Berlin, and Noam Chomsky, and W.H. Auden, whose funeral he attended. One would expect a man who enlists Hamlet and “Old Man River” to describe the feelings of depression to be widely influenced, but Hitchens is positively panoramic.

But that is, as said, expected. Perhaps less so is his personal warmth. Gregariousness is not the first characteristic the layperson settles on when describing Christopher Hitchens, and he later on in the book expresses surprise that he, quite unintentionally, creates “the impression that [he is] so angry and maybe unhappy.” Yet the greatest feature of this memoir is its insight into this hitherto unglimpsed facet of its author’s persona, and in this it wastes no time, devoting the very first chapter to his loving if reserved relationship with his mother. Yvonne, as he refers to her, taught him to appreciate cosmopolitanism and high culture. She was to him, “the cream in the coffee, the gin in the Campari, the offer of wine or champagne instead of beer, the laugh in the face of bores and purse-mouths and skinflints, the insurance against bigots and prudes.”

His relationship with his father, a British navy man to whom Hitchens refers as The Commander, is decidedly cooler, mostly due to them having next to nothing in common, especially politically. Yet if there was little affection between them, there was certainly a respect for the old man’s honor and stoicism, and a reciprocal pride for the son’s notoriety. Somewhat curiously, Hitchens’ brother Peter, with he feuded publically for several years, appears in these pages only occasionally, and his own wife and son are mentioned even less so.

Yet the effect of these figures’ absence is more than mitigated by the presence of several others who make us see Hitchens in a role few of us proles, pardon the term, have ever really thought to see him as: friend. A full four chapters, which comprise about a fifth of the book’s length, are devoted explicitly to particular individuals—James Fenton, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Edward Said—whom Hitchens has befriended, with other notables like Gore Vidal and Susan Sontag making appearances throughout.

Of all these people, it is clear he holds Amis in the very highest regard. One can discern this affection not in anything said about him in particular, though it verges on gushing, but merely by his enduring presence; whether ribbing the lush Hitchens for doling out drinking advice or publicly expressing solidarity with America following 9/11, Amis is a constant throughout. The book’s index shows only Iraq and its various subcategories are mentioned more often. Amis’ recent surprise appearance in an at-home interview with Jeffrey Goldberg about Hitchens’ cancer treatment, only serves to cement the quote that opens Amis’ respective chapter, that their relationship is “a love whose month is ever May.”

Perhaps the most interesting of Hitchens’ observations on friendship comes toward the close of the chapter on Edward Said, his friendship with whom came to an end over America’s moral standing and the Iraq War. He relates a story of a dinner party, with Martin Amis, naturally, in which Saul Bellow was quite unfairly slandering Said:

“[E]ven though I know [Martin] wanted me to stay off anything controversial, I couldn’t allow him to see me sitting there complicitly while an absent friend was being defamed….I certainly didn’t concur with Edward on everything, but I was damned if I would hear him abused without saying a word…. It used to be a slight hallmark of being English or British that one didn’t make a big thing out of patriotic allegiance, and was indeed brimful of sarcastic and critical remarks about the old country, but would pull oneself together and say a word or two if it was attacked or criticized in any nasty or stupid manner by anybody else. It’s family, in other words, and friends are family to me.”

Hitchens’ most famous friend he has ever defended is, of course, Salman Rushdie, who received a death sentence from another country’s leader for the crime of writing a book. Here, perhaps even more than in the chapter on Iraq which follows Rushdie’s, does one see the animating impulse behind his still frustratingly unflagging support for war in the Infernal Crescent and the Iranian theocracy-turned-junta. The particulars of Hitchens’ grievances on that front, and their righteousness or wrong-headedness, are much too large a topic for an already overlong book review. It is enough to note Hitchens’ expressed distaste for identity politics embodied in the slogan, “The personal is political.” This might seem hypocrisy for one who writes early on that, “The separation between personal and public is not so great.” Yet this is to get it exactly backwards. The Rushdie affair was the opening volley in Hitchens’ crusade against militant Islam, aggressive shots fired by a murderous cultural chauvinist in the direction of a dearly beloved friend. Thus for Hitchens was the political made personal.

This is not to excuse Hitchens’ poor form on Iraq and the broader subject of winning Muslim hearts and minds—if violence and misogyny are intrinsic to Islam and its adherents, why bother with the bloody Middle East democratic experiment at all?—but to understand it, perhaps more than Hitchens himself. There are two unintentionally, almost deceivingly, revealing moments described in Hitch-22, both enormous personal crises: Yvonne’s suicide and the revelation that Mark Jennings Daily, a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq, enlisted based on Hitchens’ writings. His accounts of both incidents, while letting show a certain rawness, still display an almost maddening composure, with fulminations against Greek dictatorship and comparisons to Yeats popping up in moments of grueling inner turmoil. It is as if Hitchens, who elsewhere (a Proust questionnaire, of all things) acknowledges “insecurity” as his most marked characteristic, is nonetheless afraid of his emotions, messy and painful and inchoate, and falls back on abstraction and erudition as a filter to keep them at some remove.

Very few people see themselves as they really are, or at least as others see them. This makes reading a memoir, and Hitch-22 is no exception, like watching someone design and view himself in a fun house mirror, through two-way glass. What Hitchens says about himself, says a lot about him. His “Hitch-22” is therefore not, as he thinks, a juggling of confrontations with absolutists and relativists, but his own unresolved interior struggles between the intellectual and the emotional, writ large in intellectually justified but tactically disastrous attacks on totalitarian Islam on its own absolutist terms. That all of this can still be so at odds with the contradictory opinions others hold about him, is most interesting indeed.