To Old Friends and New

It is hard for me to avoid feeling nostalgic on St. Patrick’s Day.  My interest in Ireland has only grown since I finished my semester abroad in Dublin, so much so that now I have trouble recalling how depressed I was during that time, although I know intellectually that I was miserable.  This sort of regret happens to me a lot.  Molly and I returned from Kaua’i two weeks ago and though we did almost everything we could on the island, since then I have read about the history of Hawaii obsessively and with the compulsion to return.  It also happens when I go see shows.  The first time I saw Titus Andronicus I was nowhere near as familiar with the band’s music as I would become in the ensuing year.  Same thing with the first time I saw Bruce Springsteen.  I used to listen to his greatest hits CD on my yellow discman while I walked to the bus stop on the corner of Wallace and Hertel every morning in high school, the sun rising over Shoshone, and every minute I enjoyed was tinged with a desire to relive the concert I had gone to when I was 13, but with my newly acquired encyclopedic knowledge of the lyrics to all the songs, and the parts where his voice cracks, and the notes to the guitar solos.  By the time the subway pulled into the Summer/Best station, “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” was just reaching the pretty keyboard part at 3:55.  “Did ya hear the cops finally busted Madam Marie / For telling fortunes better than they do?”

That’s how desire works.  You want something more once it has been and gone.  Nothing is more compelling than desire tinged with regret, a sort of icarian self-loathing.  “If only I had appreciated what was in front of me!”  “Hubris!”  You know how everyone says that smell is the sense that is tied strongest to memory?  My friend used to say that that was nonsense– that music has the greatest power to evoke a memory.  I agree.  The song above, “M’appari,” from Flotow’s Martha, reminds me so much of Ireland that it makes my hair stand up.  The aria is the subject of my favorite sequence from Joyce’s Ulysses, which was the whole reason I went to Ireland in the first place.  I thought about Leopold Bloom’s itinerary through Dublin as I wandered around at night, and though I never walked it, I did meet a drunk Swedish businessman in a bar who told me about his children before vomiting on the steps outside.  I recently found his business card while I was cleaning out my wallet, which should give you a good picture of what I choose to save.

Remembering things (I can’t believe it was five years ago already that I was there) is sometimes painful because we compare our memories to the way things are now, and one or the other comes up wanting.  I feel grateful this year, however.  This afternoon I will head to the high school where I teach English and I’ll get to talk to my Irish literature class about J.M. Synge.  An entire class on Irish literature.  And I get paid for it!  And the kids are smart and pleasant and bright.  I get to share with them the literature and music that I love.  I am a fortunate person.  We started the semester with Romanticism in Ireland, one of the richest periods in the country’s robust literary tradition.  The students have been especially interested in how Irish literature in the 19th century is essentially guided by a dominant, oppressive sense of nostalgia.  But you don’t have to dispute the existence of faeries and nymphs to see that the old Ireland the poets lament never really existed, at least not in the “Song of the Happy Shepherd” way.  I am excited to show them the “happy shepherd” of Patrick Kavanagh’s “The Great Hunger”:

Patrick Maguire, the old peasant, can neither be damned nor glorified:
The graveyard in which he will lie will be just a deep-drilled potato-field
Where the seed gets no chance to come through
To the fun of the sun.
The tongue in his mouth is the root of a yew.
Silence, silence. The story is done.
He stands in the doorway of his house
A ragged sculpture of the wind,
October creaks the rotted mattress,
The bedposts fall. No hope. No lust.
The hungry fiend
Screams the apocalypse of clay
In every corner of this land.

One of the great final stanzas.

I want to mention also that I finally got into graduate school.  In September I will enter the PhD program in English at SUNY Buffalo as a Presidential Fellow.  I did not want to say anything about this for a while, but now that I have signed and sent the papers I think it’s time.  I am sensitive to all of the people who applied to graduate school this year and years previous and who did not get in.  These four years since I graduated from Amherst have been the most humbling and, in many ways, the most difficult time of my life.  As I near the end of this weird, uncomfortable, purgatorial period, this is my record: Of the 28 applications I completed (10 MFAs, 12 PhDs in English, 6 PhDs in Comp. Lit.), with their 28 application fees and their 28 GRE score reports, etc. etc., I was accepted into a grand total of one (1) program.  (A statistic of note: including my undergraduate application, I have been rejected by Cornell an impressive four times.)  And I am proud of that.  Every step of the process felt like a racket and a lottery and I learned nothing of substance from my rejections except that I am rejectable (which was, to be sure, a valuable lesson the first 26 times, but come on– 27?).  To everyone I know who spent the latter half of the worst winter in thirty years getting impersonal thumbs down e-mailed to them, I feel for you and I support you and believe in you.  You should never take these admissions decisions as reflections on your personal worth or academic strength and curiosity.  I learned more from the fact that I was able to cobble together the beginnings of a career as a teacher and writer, with the invaluable help of my parents and Molly and my friends and professors, than I did from any “no.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about how much more this acceptance would have meant to me last year when I got laid off or the year before when my prospects felt especially dim.  The letter made me cry when I got it last month, even though I had finally found a job at a place that seemed to want me around.  How would I have reacted if I had received it three years ago while I sat in my room in my parents’ house petting my cat and looking through my pictures from Ireland?  But again, that is how desire works.

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A Dispatch from the Cold Front

After many months of unemployment, I was hired to teach English part-time at The Park School.  I am excited to start working there next week.  For one thing, I’ll be able to stop collecting unemployment.  For anyone who finds himself without a job, I would recommend applying for unemployment assistance– it feels like free money and it can be extremely useful.  The money I received allowed me to continue living the way I had been and it gave me some room to entertain the inevitable letters of rejection without falling into a state of despair.  I will say, however, that there is something vaguely bruising about the whole process.  For instance, I had to meet with a reemployment advisor on three occasions at nonnegotiable times (“What else do you have to do?  Work?”) to discuss my “skills.”  Also, every week for the last six months I had to enter online every “work search activity” I had done, at least one of which had to be a job application.  I was freelancing the entire time, but of the many articles I published, I was paid for only two of them.  Whenever you earn any money, you have to declare it to the Department of Labor, which I did, and which uncharacteristic honesty the Department rewarded by sending me a form that I had to fill out and mail to them within five days detailing why, exactly, I had not asked for all of my benefits for that week or else they would suspend my benefits entirely.

But I really do feel thankful.  The only thing that my unemployment cost me (besides countless hours I might have spent feeling happy that I instead spent feeling like a complete loser) was my car.  The new job will not pay me enough for me to be able to afford a new car, but the next academic year looks more promising.  If things go well at Park this semester, my position may be expanded, which is an exciting possibility.  I also submitted eight applications to graduate programs during this cycle: one MFA and seven PhD programs (some are in English departments, others are in comparative literature).  For those keeping track at home, I would not have been able to afford to apply to those programs ($75-$90 for each application, plus $25 for each GRE score report) without my unemployment assistance.  Hopefully one of those two irons in the fire will bear some sort of iron fruit.

I have been very fortunate in the meantime to be able to write for The Public, which has taken off spectacularly.  This past week, my review of Becoming Richard Pryor by Scott Saul was published.  The biography was certainly interesting, but I did not particularly like the review I wrote.  It is difficult to write about a biography, especially one that does not seem to want for anything.  Maybe it’s because I was up against a deadline, but when I sat down to write the review, I wanted to just say, “Richard Pryor was a funny asshole who had a painful life,” and leave it at that.

My review of Miranda July’s The First Bad Man will be in next week’s issue.  July’s publisher sent me an unsolicited review copy, which was a big surprise considering my review in Artvoice of her last book.  I do not like Miranda July’s work very much at all, and I have written about that a lot.  The publisher of her last book even requested that I send her the review once it was published, which I did.  So someone read this and either forgot to take my name off the reviewer list or decided that I should still write something about her new novel:

This is not to mention The Future, the film she struggled with writing. Have you seen it? I watched it in preparation for this review and it is not very good. The two main characters, Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater), look and act like caricatures out of Portlandia, with more matted hair between them than a bichon frise. But the biggest problem with The Future is its only barely questioned self-seriousness, as if the problems of these two boring, unkempt, mumbling balls of quirk are really a metaphor for the obstacles we all face. And we are asked to gasp at the sincere profundity of it all when she unplugs her computer, or when she tries and fails to do some weird stilted dance alone in her apartment, or when he reignites the passage of time by pushing out the frozen waves on the beach. (Whatever, just watch the movie.)

I struggled with the question of whether or not to review The First Bad Man.  I do not enjoy writing negative things about writers or their work.  I felt like I would be too biased against July (based on everything else she has done) to judge the book in a fair manner, and with so much great new literature in the world, why should I waste time being a jackass?  But the book has so far generated reviews that vary widely.  Michiko Kakutani at The New York Times had mixed feelings.  The A.V. Club, which I love and read every day, pronounced it “the first great novel of 2015.”  That could be because the book is great, or it could be because it was published on January 13th, which makes it one of the only novels of 2015.  The A.V. Club has extraordinary coverage of television shows, but I think its book reviews tend to be bizarrely weak.  The two most frustrating novels I read last year, Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (my review, their review) and David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (my review, their review), both got A grades and glowing reviews from Noah Cruickshank.  I wish I could write for AVC, but their FAQ says, kindly, “No. The A.V. Club does not accept outside submissions of any kind.”

So, we’ll see.  I used to hate it when people would say entire years had been bad, like, “Oh, 2009 was the worst.”  How could you say something like that?  Each day proliferates inconceivably with innumerable moments.  All of them were bad?  And yet, here I am, and I’ll say it: 2014 was not a very good year for me.  I lost my job, lost my car, worked my ass off for little to no pay, had my novel rejected three times, etc.  But things were never so bad.  And I got a job.  And I decided to start writing a new novel, which I finally started writing and which I enjoy writing.  I also found this incredible album of Irish music that I had been looking for for the last couple of years.

Also, I just finished reading Going Clear, and incredible book about Scientology by Lawrence Wright.  I woke up yesterday at 3AM and read it until the sun rose.  Then I ate some toast and had a cup of coffee.  It was divine.

Love On Top

I have applied to so many things–jobs, graduate schools, gated communities, exclusive banjo-centered cocktail parties–in the past three years that they are no longer distinct in my mind.  I have to focus hard on each e-mail I send to make sure it is addressed to the correct person and that I am not grafting the CV of one graduate professor onto the name of another.  I often forget the things I have applied to because there are so many and all of them seem equally unlikely to bear fruit.

One thing that is common to every application I have completed, every pitch I have sent, every inquiry and follow-up inquiry when the first inevitably goes unanswered: I have never felt like any of them has accurately represented me.  I am not upset about this–that is the nature of a job application.  The editorial board at a magazine does not particularly care about what sort of music I listen to.  That makes sense.  But as time has passed I have thought more and more about how difficult it is to show a prospective employer or professor whom I’ve never met and whose entire identity I have to judge based on a dated CV or a cursory search through the archives who I really am.  I don’t mean I want to show them “who I really am” even though that’s what I just wrote.  I mean relevant and useful aspects of my personality are often eclipsed in the process of applying for something.

For instance, based on my applications no one would know that I listen to music constantly.  It’s very hard to talk about what music means to you without sounding like an idiot.  People always say things like, “I love music.”  What does that mean?  But it is true.  I love music.  I am interested in it and I wish my job had something to do with music, or rather that I were skilled enough to be able to spend my professional life with music.  I tend to get obsessive when I like a certain song or artist.  I’ll listen to the same tracks on repeat over and over, trying to understand what it is about them that makes my hair stand on end.  That’s not an exaggeration.  Music can give me a visceral reaction: sweaty palms, colors behind my closed eyelids, a mild levity in the soles of my feet.

For a while I was obsessed with modulation.  This is when a song changes key.  In popular music, this usually sounds like the song suddenly going up a step.  My favorite recent example of this is Beyoncé’s “Love On Top,” which after the first verse becomes a series of escalating modulations (that correspond with outfit changes).

Modulation is also prominent in traditional music.  Irish reels, for instance, are based around the alternation between minor and major keys.  A great example is the song that is at the top of my previous post.  Or watch this video of Norman Blake.  Notice how it seems to go back and forth between sounding happy and sad?

I also got heavy into suspensions for a long time.  These are everywhere.  They are part of what makes music interesting to listen to.  But some songs focus on suspensions and resolutions more prominently.  Church music played on an organ tends to sustain massive dissonant chords for a long time just so it can resolve them at the end.

I think Mumford & Sons make some really cheesy music, but a couple of things make their songs interesting if you listen for them.  The first is the interesting texture of the banjo.  Critics make fun of this, but that instrument is what elevates their songs from generic pop music into the realm of something that sounds unique.  And Mumford & Sons love a suspension.  “Below My Feet” is predicated on the suspension.

I want to talk more about this but I am overcome with the feeling that I don’t know what I am talking about, so maybe now is a good time to stop writing.  Often when I read I wish novels or stories or articles had attendant playlists that would accompany different pages or chapters like the music in videogames.  That’s another thing– I love video game music.  In closing, I’ll leave you with Anamanaguchi’s “(T-T)b”, which has everything I like: suspensions, 8-bit textures, volume, a dramatic voiceover, and nonsense pseudophilosophy.  I wanted to discuss some articles I had published in the past two weeks (my review of Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster, the next few parts of my MOOC article, and my review of Yannick Murphy’s This Is the Water), but I am sick of self-promotion.

Stranger on Baile’s Strand

I am reading Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster to review it for a new local weekly newspaper.  Last spring, the former editor of Artvoice, Geoff Kelly, left the paper.  I had written book reviews, features, and interviews for Artvoice ever since Geoff first agreed to publish my work in the spring of 2012.  When Geoff left, though, I was happy to jump ship as well.  He is responsible for publishing the vast majority of my work and if he hadn’t taken a bit of a leap of faith with me, it would have taken much longer for me to get anything published elsewhere.  It’s sort of a snowball thing: it is hard to get anyone to publish anything of yours unless you have a substantial portfolio of published work, but it is hard to build that portfolio unless someone is willing to take a chance and give you space to show what you can do.  And Geoff did that for me.

He is starting a new paper, The Public.  It will be online next week at dailypublic.com.  The print edition will be a weekly, just like Artvoice was, and will be distributed for free all across Western New York.  I am beyond excited for the launch.  For my part, I will have book reviews and features in the print edition and a column online that I will write two or three times every week.  It’s going to be great– thousands of words on topics as diverse as this one thing I know nothing about and many other things I also know nothing about.

I have three reviews that will be published at The Rumpus starting I think in mid November.  The first is a review of This Is the Water by Yannick Murphy, which I did not like very much at all, then Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik Clark, which was entertaining and fun, and finally Man V. Nature by Diane Cook, which was a unique, original triumph that I have been recommending to everyone I know.

Back to Nora Webster, though.  It is a strange, sweet, soft-spoken novel.  It takes place in Ireland in a town called Enniscorthy, about 60 miles south of Dublin.  The characters all speak a believable sort of English, bereft of the distracting apostrophes and diphthongs that usually dominate attempts to write an Irish accent, but with certain turns of phrase that only Irish people use.  “Fair play to you,” for instance, or using the word “after” in a different way, as in, “Someone’s after smoking in the bar.”

Every page of the novel reminds me of the six months I spent in Dublin, a time that was so many things at once to me that even writing a sentence about it seems like an insurmountable task.  I started keeping a journal the day before I left for Ireland and I wrote in it obsessively while I was there, sometimes several times a day.  It was a way to stave off the immense loneliness that seemed to follow me around the city during that semester.  I would go to a pub around the corner called the Ginger Man almost every night, whenever I could, and I would sit and get quietly hammered alone in a corner.  This was actually much more enjoyable than it sounds now that I’ve written it.  It is not weird or obnoxious to show up to a pub in Ireland with a journal and a pen or a book.  Or maybe I did look weird but no one ever told me.  I don’t think that’s the case, though.  I made friends with a bartender named Michael Carey and we would go out drinking every couple of weeks.  He never told me I looked like an idiot, although he did not seem to like my massive Carhartt jacket, the only jacket I brought with me.  I wore it every day and on my last day in Dublin, he said, “Are you going to burn that terrible fucking jacket, then?”

It was an alienating, weird time.  Before I left, a professor of mine at Amherst College named Jack Cameron told me he lived in Ireland for a while and it was the most miserable period of his life, bar none.  That was not my experience, but it felt a bit like moving to New York City with very little money, a couple of friends, and an acute lack of awareness of certain large, important things that everyone else knew about.  Bank holidays, for instance: days chosen apparently at random on which nothing you want or need can be found or purchased and everyone in the city disappears.

The memorial on the Liffey to the Great Famine.

The memorial on the Liffey to the Great Famine.

Many of the assumptions I had about Ireland turned out to be correct.  People drink a lot and often, though alcohol is extremely expensive there, mostly as a result of taxes designed to curb the country’s epidemic alcoholism.  There is live Irish music all over the place all the time.  It is universally pentatonic, rousing, mournful.  Every weekend, we’d go to the Stag’s Head, a famous pub that has been open since 1894, to see the Blahgards play in the basement.  That was also the first place I went after arriving in Ireland.  An old friend of my parents’ named Frank Kendlin picked me up from the airport and we went to the Stag’s Head and had a couple of pints at 2PM– I hadn’t slept in more than a day and I was smoking a brand of disgusting Irish cigarettes.  I later learned that all cigarettes and all coffee taste terrible in Ireland.

Dublin is very proud of its literary history.  In America, we assume Ireland is stocked with poets in woollen Paddy caps wandering up and down the quays thoughtfully.  That is not the case, although people wear Paddy caps and Irish writing is woven into the fabric of life in Dublin.  Beautiful book shops everywhere, readings in cafes, talented writers all over the country.  People exist who knew Patrick Kavanagh when he was alive and who talk fondly about how much of an asshole he could be when he was drunk.

The statue of Patrick Kavanagh at the spot where he wrote the poem "Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin."

The statue of Patrick Kavanagh at the spot where he wrote the poem “Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin.”

So I have been thinking about Ireland lately.  I miss it a lot, but not in the way that one misses a time of great joy.  I miss it in a pulling, visceral way, as if I want to return to a place where I learned a great deal about myself.  Which I did.  Not discrete facts (e.g. “I enjoy potato farls”– I do), something larger and less definable.  Maybe I grew while I was there.  I didn’t sleep with a pillow for the first three weeks because I couldn’t figure out where to buy one.  When I did find a department store, I balked at the price of one.  I went to the Ginger Man and the bartender told me I was a lunatic for even considering not buying the pillow.  That sort of learning.

Black Stars

A fast, tumultuous several weeks.  I have been busy with a mess of un- or barely-paid assignments, but this, as the man sitting next to me at a bar last night said, is what cutting your teeth feels like.  And it’s not exactly unpleasant.  I spoke this morning with my friend Corey about all of this.  We lived together at Amherst and he has been teaching English in Korea for the last year.  In the three years since we graduated, we have both experienced the strange, destabilizing mixture of malaise and dissatisfaction, a lurking sensation that the other people you know seem to be doing quite well for themselves, but that you have somehow managed to screw it up and miss the opportunity to achieve the same heavily retweeted acceptances and awards and sundrenched brunches.  My friend Dave, who was also in our class at Amherst, told me that though he is employed in a position that is challenging and rewarding, and which is related to his career, he often feels unfulfilled, as if he is on a track that is doing more to obscure happiness in his life than to lead him to it.  Something about all of this makes me want to address the claim that this is vain somehow– that it is selfish to be preoccupied with your own lot in life and whether or not it meets your expectations.  I understand that.  Often this conversation leads to an obsession with feeling jilted or ripped off, as if someone promised you something and the world has not delivered on that promise and now you’d like to take it up with the manager.  But I also cannot pretend that there is not value in discussing an experience that I think many people across the social spectrum are enduring and will continue to endure.

I am applying again to graduate schools, a project that I face with conflicting feelings of dread and hope.  I have applied twice before; first in the fall of 2011 to eight MFA programs and then in the fall of 2012 to eight English PhD programs.  Neither year bore fruit.  This was demoralizing and frustrating, especially because the admissions committees that rejected my applications were never very forthcoming with their reasoning.  In the absence of a concrete explanation (e.g. “We found your score on the GRE silly and lame.”), I obsessed for a long time over why, exactly, I had not been allowed to reenter the arcane world in which people demand to read what you write.  I still don’t know the answer, though one faculty member who saw my application told me his committee did not like the fact that my writing sample had mentioned Dostoevsky, who of course only wrote in Russian and therefore apparently has no bearing on the work done in an English department.  But this year I am applying to SUNY Buffalo, which is so strong in psychoanalysis that I am amazed at the fact that I didn’t apply there two years ago.  These past three years have been full of truly impressive moments of ignorance and oversight like that.  For instance, it simply didn’t occur to me that I could file for unemployment insurance until three months after I was laid off.

My memory, too, has been getting weird.  I feel like I forget things often.  Corey mentioned the incredible wealth of detail in Karl Ove Knausgard’s My Struggle, a series of six autobiographical novels.  I wondered what I could remember about my youth, or about the last year, or about yesterday.  I forget events I said I’d attend, letters I said I’d write, creative impulses so strong that they made my hair stand on end.  I wonder what else has been preoccupying me.  I can tell you that I have had several dreams lately, the most recent of which concerned me teaching a class full of middle schoolers who all refused to stop smoking electronic cigarettes.  I went in the dream to the bathroom to gather my thoughts about why they were being so obstinate and when I looked in the mirror I saw that my hair was grey and I was wearing a bathrobe.

I am also not sure that I am actually forgetful.  I remember lots of things, I just only ever realize I have forgotten the things I have forgotten.  I don’t quietly give thanks for all of the things I have remembered because remembering things rarely has consequences as severe as forgetting things.  And anyway this is probably related to the dream (in which I have suddenly gotten old, and in which I have apparently forgotten that I, too, used an electronic cigarette for years) and its portrait of my anxieties about growing up, and to the feelings of isolation and exceptionality (i.e. “No one is experiencing this except me; everyone else is doing great all the time.”) that seem to accompany the years after graduation.

I finally found a part for a watch that I had been seeking for the last three years.  That was a satisfying feeling.  I searched for it on the internet, at yard sales, at flea markets, everywhere, for three straight years and last week, I stumbled upon an old post by a man in California who was selling this part.  I put it on my watch using the lid of a tin of Carmex, which just happened to be exactly the right circumference so that I could apply force equally on all sides at once.  This is the part.

IMG_6074

This Friday, the newest issue of Block Club comes out, which has in it my feature on the Canadian Rust Belt.  Buffalo is about as close to Canada as you can get without crossing the border (it would take me no longer than thirty minutes to walk from where I am right now to the Peace Bridge) and yet much of the conversation about the situation in Western New York and the Rust Belt omits any mention of Canada, which, it turns out, experiences the same sorts of things but deals with them quite differently.  The project was fun and interesting to research and I hope the essay is successful at conveying that.  Within the next two weeks, my review of Yannick Murphy’s tiring, frustrating novel This Is the Water will be up at The Rumpus and my investigation of the MOOC will be in the Massachusetts Review.  For now, though, I am reading Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik Clark in order to review it for The Rumpus.  I also just got a review copy of The Novel: A Biography by Michael Schmidt in the mail.  The thing weighs maybe six pounds.  I can’t wait.

Kaboom, Kaboom, Kaboom

My time subbing in the middle school is over as of two days ago.  Those seven days, like the two years I spent working in the upper school, were an overwhelming whirlwind.  I looked often at the other teachers and wondered how they could do this job, do it well, for weeks and weeks, for years, many of them for decades.  The exhaustion is quiet and cunning.  It first appears as an inability to turn the key in the ignition as you sit in your car in the school parking lot at 3:30PM.  Later, it manifests as a refusal to focus, dry mouth, and an acute impatience with the people and things that have the misfortune of being near you.  It is finally amnesia, right before bed and right after three glasses of wine, and then panicked somnolent visions of crises, running children, disappointed parents.  Decades.

I am collecting unemployment now, which has been both demoralizing and a pain in the ass.  I had to meet with a woman at the Department of Labor yesterday morning in order to continue receiving benefits.  When I sat down, she said, “So, Mr. Brown, for your list of skills I have ‘typing’ and ‘word processing.’  Anything else?”  I left frustrated and wanting to never enter that building again, which maybe will help me get a job more than anything else has so far.  But that is joke.  I haven’t been voluntarily unemployed.  This meeting just made me more aware of how involuntary the last four months have been.

The following song was in an episode of The Sopranos that I watched last night.  I think The Sopranos is the greatest television show ever made.  It paved the way for the post-soap era of longform TV drama that we enjoy now, with Mad Men, The Wire, etc.  This song, which, like every song used in the series, was chosen by the show’s creator David Chase, was on a mixtape my dad made when he was in college.  After my parents got divorced, my brothers and I spent a lot of time driving back and forth between houses in my dad’s car.  My dad would always play his tapes during those drives.

My review of David Mitchell’s puzzling, kind of annoying novel The Bone Clocks was in The Rumpus a couple of weeks ago.  The book could have been so good.  I have been craving a return to genre fiction, to something that is unafraid to talk about mysteries or spaceships or magic.  Maybe that is a reaction to unemployment.  But The Bone Clocks ended up lame in a taxing sort of way.  I felt like I had spent a lot of time reading the book and trying to remember everything about all of the characters and the reward was an ending that completely exploded the self-consistency of the immense web of bullshit that Mitchell had been weaving for 600 pages.  I also felt like my review was disappointing, like I was never quite able to say what I wanted to say the way I wanted to say it.  But it got picked up, and that is a victory.  The editor of The Rumpus also agreed to run my upcoming reviews of This Is the Water by Yannick Murphy, Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik Clark, and Man v. Nature by Diane Cook.  I am really excited about that.  All three should run in the coming two or three weeks.

And this morning, my review of Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s stunning debut novel Panic in a Suitcase was published in Artvoice.  This is a really incredible book.  It sort of reminds me of Jenni Fagan’s debut novel Panopticon, not because the books themselves are similar, but because they are both extraordinary debuts.  But Akhtiorskaya’s prose is exceptional.  Ten pages in I knew I had never read writing like this.  Polished, unique, masterful.  I am not sure if my review is very successful– it is difficult to write about something that speaks so well for itself.  My review would probably have been better if I had simply written, “Read this book.”  You should read it.  More soon.

Go(l)d

Hilariously, with the sort of timing that would be implausible in a story, the private school that laid me off in June contacted me at 3PM this past Sunday to ask if I could substitute for an English teacher in the middle school.  Unable to look a gift job in the mouth, I accepted, despite my girlfriend Molly’s lack of usable feet and my guilt at the prospect of being unable to care for her.  (She endured an almost comically brutal-sounding three hour session of anesthetized bone-breaking a week ago and since then has been mostly confined to the couch, with the exception of periodic teeth-shatteringly painful five square foot trips.)  I had spent all summer preparing myself for the reality that I would not be returning to work at this school, with its brilliant students and requisite idyllic green spaces, only to return on the first day of the year, freshly razor-burned, as if nothing had changed except my salary and my confidence.

I have next to no experience teaching middle schoolers, least of all fifth graders, who to the unfamiliar eye appear no different from dexterous, bespectacled toddlers.  Eighth graders are a unique blend of childish enthusiasm, acne, and an adolescent predilection for savagery and meanness.  It was sort of fun, mostly exhausting work.  I felt sad a lot for the younger students.  They are so earnest and sweet, so concerned with not dropping anything and with finding their little meandering ways around the unfamiliar campus, that I felt a bit like crying whenever I looked at any of them.  I have this thing about kids eating at cafeteria tables, too.  When I see a table of little kids eating lunch, each with his or her own preferences and private thoughts, thinking thankfully of whomever made them the meal, occasionally pushing too-large glasses back up their noses with tiny, applesauced index fingers, I want to lock myself in a room and weep shamelessly at how adorable they are.  I suppose it’s good I don’t work in a middle school full-time if simply opening my eyes is such a moving experience.

I left and voted for Zephyr Teachout, which I had looked forward to doing for weeks.  More on the Moreland Commission later, after she loses.

I was thinking earlier about the Apple Watch, which was announced today.  A friend asked me what I thought about it, given my interest in watches.  I can’t say I’m that amazed by it– not because it’s not a cool object, but because it isn’t really a watch.

There is a reason wearable technology has not really taken off, and there is a reason the Apple Watch will probably sell pretty well for a couple of months and then fade away.  Flashy technology, rounded edges, and reflective surfaces may be appropriate for cellphones, which are functional objects that we keep in our pockets, but once you tape the sexy cellphone to your wrist, it may suddenly seem out of place, like it doesn’t match or fit with what you’re wearing or how you’d like to look.  Not everyone wants to wear khakis or a sundress with a little gold square that looks like something out of I, Robot.

The functionality of the Apple Watch seems appropriate, with all of the anticipated GPS and heart monitor bullshit (should I ask how many of us, excepting the ill, were clamoring to be apprised constantly of our pulse rate?).  That will please everyone who wondered if Apple could duplicate an iPhone on a wristband (which the iPod nano already did).  But I have a nagging feeling that the only reason the Apple Watch is striking anyone as really cool and futuristic is because the idea that a watch could be a walkie-talkie etc. was implanted in the fantasies of the consuming public by James Bond movies made fifty years ago.

The price ($350) is a bit high.  A watch with a quartz movement (battery-powered) should need a new battery every four or five years.  A mechanical watch (powered by a spring that winds on its own or that the wearer winds manually) that is serviced every five or ten years will tell time indefinitely.  I own a pocket watch that is more than 100 years old that keeps near-perfect time (+/- five seconds a day).  The battery in the Apple Watch, on the other hand, if it is anything like the batteries in iPhones and iPods, will degrade by 50% in a year’s time.  Because Apple purposely builds all of its products so that a typical person, or even a person with a special set of tools, cannot really do any maintenance or repairs on his own, you will need to either sit idly by as your Apple Watch commits harakiri or pay a levitating neckbeard at a Genius Bar money to replace the battery for you.

People think about electronic devices very differently from the way they think about analog devices, which in turn are very different from nonfunctioning jewelry. The ageless, heirloom aspect of a watch, which is always somewhere in the owner’s mind for a watch of significant value (and often for cheap watches, too), is totally absent from something like a cellphone or the Apple Watch. You can see that Apple is aware of this: that is why they granted the plebes the option of buying the watch in stainless steel or 18 karat gold. That is an attempt to lend the totally replaceable, non-unique object an aura of preciousness, of value that is conspicuous and inarguable.

Consider the peculiar status that gold has in our world.  Money has a fluid, changing value: one day $350 may buy an Apple Watch and twenty years later it may be a reasonable tip for a nice meal for two.  Gold, however, guarantees that though the value of a given amount of money may fluctuate, it will always have a value.  The gold standard, even thought it was abolished decades ago, cements our financial system and all of its mercurial transactions in an unquestionably natural place, somewhere deep underground, as if the value of gold is irrefutable and God-given.  We no longer pay for things with gold because gold now stands outside the symbolic order.  It is a nodal object that grants value to the “meaningless pieces of paper” that we use to buy things.

Several years ago, in an impressively philosophical, insane maneuver, Glenn Beck advocated a return to the gold standard.  This is the most perfect realization of the fantasy that justifies the far-right conservatism we have in the United States.  Things, Beck would have us believe, have gotten completely out of control, the President is asleep at the wheel, and numbers are going up and down like crazy.  The only solution is to reinstall the all-powerful, God-given leader, the unquestionable source of authority and law, our hubristic deposition of whom precipitated our fall from grace.  We need to remind ourselves and the world of the One True Judge, who is omnipotent and unquestionable, our lack of faith in whom is a terrible, punishable sin.  This is the fantasy that gold really does contain intrinsic value that does not derive from its use value.  It is a religious fantasy, and it does not matter whether you spell it “God” or “Gold.”