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.


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.



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.”

The Relatively Affordable Watch: Part the First

I wanted share a watch I came across today that is relatively cheap, well-made, and attractive.  These are the basic qualities I look for in watches.  I have never bought a watch for myself that cost more than $100, which if you are at all familiar with watch pricing you know is a difficult feat.  Nice watches are luxury items whose prices are, after a certain point, inordinately high.  I have written on the complex status of the value of watches in an article titled, “The Veblen Good and the Veblen Bad,” in CASE Magazine.

If you look hard enough, though, and you know what to look for, wonderful watches can be found and purchased quite cheaply.  This is what I like to do on the weekends: I troll flea markets and estate sales for “broken” watches, most of which either need a battery (if they have quartz [battery powered] movements) or a cleaning, buy them for, say, $5, and then make them work again.  If they are truly irreparable, I take them apart and save the parts for other watches that may need fixing in the future.  What I’m trying to say is that my room is filled with garbage.

I recently bought, for $70, a vintage Swiss watch made by Favre-Leuba, a relatively unknown watchmaker that was founded in 1737.  The watch is called a Sea Chief and it has a bright red dial.  It is mechanical, which means it must be wound, and it has a combination of Roman and Arabic numerals on its face.  The seller also threw in three NATO straps and a leather band.


My Favre-Leuba Sea Chief

The watch I wanted to show you is called a Timex T2P381 Flyback Chronograph.  A chronograph is a timepiece that can measure time elapsed– that is, you press a button and it starts timing; press another button and it stops; press that second button again and it resets to zero.  A flyback chronograph allows the user to reset the timer with the single press of a button: press the button to start timing, press the second button to reset the timer to zero and start counting again.  Here is a video showing how it works.  (Videos made by watch companies are always really melodramatic like that for some reason.)

Timex T2P381 Flyback Chronograph

Timex T2P381 Flyback Chronograph $120

IWC Big Pilot's Watch TOP GUN Miramar $12,700

IWC Big Pilot’s Watch TOP GUN Miramar








The Timex T2P381 looks more expensive than it is.  It shares some design elements with the IWC Big Pilot Miramar, a massively expensive watch with an automatic mechanical movement, date complication, sapphire crystal, and chronograph.  Both watches have flat dials with numerals that are painted on.  Both have gunmetal grey stainless steel cases.  The Timex also has a tachymeter on the inner bezel, which is used in conjunction with the chronograph to measure rate of speed.

Discussing the differences in quality between a cheap Timex and an IWC Big Pilot would be pointless– the former is one of the cheapest brands of watches in the world and the latter one of the most expensive, famous, and well-made.  But they kind of look similar, and that is good enough for me.  I would never, not in a million years, spend $12,700 on a wristwatch.  I would, however, spend $120 on a watch as a birthday present or something for someone, and the Timex T2P381 is a great option at the price point.  More soon.