Friday, June 24, 2011


Last week was a week free of McCarthyisms because I was upstate attending what was without a doubt the most simply elegant wedding I've ever seen. I was very grateful to be invited. It was hard coming back to the city after being with friends that I miss so much. It's the fourth Sunday of a month all of a sudden, time for another entry that's too long for a blog. I'm interrupting the series on moving to bring you an unrelated short story.

I had been thinking about quitting drinking. I had very recently taken up smoking cigarettes and thought perhaps I would tell all my friends, as I sipped San Pellegrino, that I had decided to swap one out for the other. I would explain to them, a filter between my lips and an empty paper in my hand, that I had just decided not to drink anymore. No further explanation. It’s what’s left unsaid wherein the romance lies. And then, in a motion almost magical, I would move my thumbs and say, “I think—” pause to glide my tongue along the glue and begin again, “I think for now anyway,” and place the finished cigarette coyly between my lips.

This maneuver would take some practice, and the trouble was that I wasn’t partial to cigarettes. It had been an addiction I had tried picking up, but to no avail. I would smoke when I felt like it, but usually didn’t. I had never really had any luck at developing chemical dependencies. One stiff drink with a bit of regularity was a luxury I enjoyed, but realistically, I could never convince even my apprehensive mother that I had a problem. I would smoke at the bar, or I would smoke two cigarettes in a row at a Parisian cafĂ© after a dinner of escargot and calves kidneys as I sipped a bit of coffee for dessert. But then, for the longest time, I wouldn’t.

The rolling is what really got me interested. I hoped to meet an affluent chain smoker. I would roll her cigarettes and learn how to do it like the fellow in the metro the other day who rolled one on a packed rush hour train between one stop and the next, almost as if he didn’t know he was doing it. As it was, I was concerned that I didn’t smoke enough to really learn to roll. But that was my chosen smoker’s identity. I would roll my own in Rizla quality papers. I hadn’t settled on a brand of tobacco just yet.

And so that afternoon, when I was sitting at that so-very-lovely Parisian restaurant all afternoon, I ordered a bottle of sparkling water and hoped I would be recognized as sophisticated, not cheap. I ordered a cup of coffee after dinner, and requested an ashtray (one of the first phrases I learned from my phrasebook). I spent the rest of the day feeling keen and quick witted, and I thought that surely this new lifestyle would provide me with the edge I needed to finally get that sharp intellect I had always wanted. I planned on going back to my room and reading Nietzsche. I would become a brilliant cigarette-smoking professor, living anywhere (well enough) east of Cleveland and north of Philadelphia, and wear sweaters to dinner parties and ask the hostess if perhaps she had any San Pellegrino and pretend to be a recovering alcoholic, looking down upon the Fredos of the world with their banana daiquiris. The best alcoholics I knew came in couples, a recovering alcoholic and a functional alcoholic, and whereas I wasn’t a functional anything, recovering would suit me nicely.

The trouble was Terry, as it had been before. Terry’s problems occurred on several levels but began with the fact that Terry was a genuinely nice person, eager to help and relatively happy. That last fact would irritate any decent human being, especially a 20-something who rolled his own cigarettes and scowled sometimes. Terry was a physically fit retired college counselor who had been born to first-generation immigrants in San Francisco’s Chinatown and spent his life in the Bay Area. He had a passion for traveling and was keeping a room in the Fondation Etat Unis where I was staying myself for a month. He stood at some 5 feet and wore thick glasses that made his eyes look like one of those crude caricatures, with dense black rims and silver paisley in long rectangular insets that ran along the stems. He smiled with all of his teeth and spoke very deliberately, each syllable enunciated with an opening mouth. He was one of the first people I met in Paris, and he had been eager to help.

The first thing that made me begin to suspect I didn’t like Terry, from the very beginning when I first met him a week before the onset of my tea-totaling intentions, was his method of giving directions. He privileged the words “right” and “left.” He would occasionally hold out one of his hands at arm’s length, bend his wrist, extend an index finger and point six inches across at chest level. It was never clear whether the direction he was pointing referred to something in real space, or if it was an abstraction relative to some landmark mentioned earlier in the monologue. Never mind that the Rou Jordan ran directly east and west. He would never, come what may, ever, ever suggest doing anything involving a cardinal direction. If you asked specifically he would pull his head back an inch, turn his upper body slightly as if facing in some specific direction, and say, “Yeah, this way,” pointing a little more emphatically, as if to clarify. At our first meeting, he gave me directions to an office where I could buy a month-long metro pass. I attempted to follow his directions and learned never to do so again.

I decided to give up on the metro pass and accidentally spent 10 euro on ten metro tickets sold by two slim adolescent Italian kids in Adidas pants who stood flapping the note I had given them against their lips as I walked away skeptically. Another five for five came from a kid at the Fondation who had successfully procured his metro pass and no longer had any use for the tickets. It seemed as though I could probably get along like that.

That evening, Terry found me and asked if I would like to go for coffee in the morning. He was punctual at 7:30 the next day as I stumbled about my room looking for a belt. The first thing he wanted to do was to take me to that missing office where I could purchase my metro pass. It turned out not to be so missing at all, just located west of the Fondation, not east. On the way there, I told him about the tickets I had bought and observed that whereas it was already the 6th of July, and I would almost certainly be gone on or before the 25th, and whereas I already had 15 tickets purchased at quite a bargain, it seemed like it would not be as sensible an investment as it had once appeared. But Terry turned his head in a way that said, “If that’s really how you feel,” and proceeded to tell me all about the virtues of the metro pass. Always eager to please and very eager to get on with coffee (and breakfast no less!), I agreed at least to check it out.

As much as I would have loved to learn a bit of French, having never studied any of it, my typical interactions with the locals always began with a period of time spent standing in the back of the room, swaying back and forth, reciting to myself again and again the single phrase I had managed to piece together out on the sidewalk with my phrase book. Occasionally I would start to move forward toward the counter, but if at that point another human being in the room happened to move or to stand still in a way that made me think they might move again someday, I would stop and go back to pacing and muttering. Once everyone in the room thought I was sufficiently disturbed, they would all stand completely still and watch to see what I would do. Then I would blurt out a string of vowels and mumbled consonants through my nose (my attempt to pass as a native speaker), to which the clerk would respond,

“What did you say?”

“Je swee desolet. Je parl a pen francais.”

“Never mind that. English is okay.”

But with Terry there I barely had time to look up a phrase before I was at the counter. In retrospect, the clerk wanted to encourage me to get something I did not know existed, a weekly pass. I could have renewed it each week, and considering the maximum duration of my stay, I would have ultimately spent less than I did on the monthly pass. Already troubled by the fact that the U.S. dollar wasn’t valuable enough to buy pity in the EU, I was upset when I realized my mistake about two minutes after having set down 61 euro for the monthly pass. When I expressed this to Terry, he revealed that he had the weekly pass, but had for some inexplicable reason encouraged me to get the monthly pass. I was a little angry with him then. We spent the remainder of the morning wandering from one tram to one bus (no doubt to impress upon me the priceless nature of my new pass) to one closed coffee shop after another. Terry told me we were looking for a real deal on coffee, but all that happened was that I began shaking from low blood sugar and blind rage, I still hadn’t had a cup of coffee, and I had just spent 61 euro on something that could have cost me 17. I determined not to spend time with Terry again.

Terry, however, had other plans. He would drop by my room and invite me to this or that and share his tips on how to save money while traveling. You could buy anything for only so much, and “a little salt and pepper, and its good for two meals!” I avoided him as best I could for the next few days, and in the meanwhile decided I should quit drinking. Considering the low cost of French wine in France, I was a little disappointed in myself, but my first day sans alcohol was progressing nicely. I thought my head seemed a little clearer, I had my copy of Nietzsche, my mechanical pencil, my filters, papers and tobacco—my evening was planned. Then Terry knocked on my door.

With little resistance I was committed to “evening coffee” at 9:00. I immediately regretted it, but resolved to make the most of the situation. We walked along and Terry pointed in various directions and talked about grocery stores where one could buy chicken wings for only so much, and with a little salt and pepper it would be good for two meals! He finally took me to McDonald’s for coffee. I was concerned because, being now off the wagon (or on the wagon if you’re one of those people who know the difference and would like to share your esoteric mastery of old adages), I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to fade away into a dehydrated glow that night, especially after riddling my system with a half-dozen cigarettes and a cup of espresso. Nevertheless, this particular McDonalds had a coffee vending machine and I had a Euro, so I got a cup of espresso. Terry, on the other hand, needed change for the machine, and I had just spent my last coin.

So he waited in line to get change, and I went and stood outside of the McDonalds, directly in front of the door. Five minutes later he came out,

“There you are! I couldn’t find you. Okay, I got the change. How do you get it with cream and sugar?” he enunciated every syllable.

“I don’t know, Terry. I drink mine black.”

“Oh. They don’t tell you anything.”

I went in with him, we looked at the machine, and I will admit it could not be solved. So it was back to the line for Terry. I went back to the sidewalk and stood directly outside the door, reading the covers of magazines, all of which seemed to have something to do with sex, but not in a vulgar way, just thoughtful articles about sex or about thoughts on sex. It must have been the anniversary of sex or something. One magazine featured an entire issue devoted to world religions and sex, or at least sex was involved, or perhaps it was only because that was the only French word I felt confident identifying (though certainly not pronouncing). I waited for a while and Terry emerged,

“There you are! You keep disappearing on me!”

I suppose that Terry must have started his search for his disappearing companion by looking under the tables, crouching down and craning his neck as the customers made obscene gestures at him. Perhaps he then wandered back to the kitchen and into the cooler followed by a shouting French McDonald’s manager. When cornered, he very likely squinted through his glasses and enunciated one syllable at a time,

“I’m looking for my friend. He keeps disappearing on me!”

At least he had his cream and sugar and, “it’s decent when you have cream and sugar.” We found a spot on a bench and sat drinking our coffee and chatting. I was glad to have finally achieved our initial goal. We talked about the Bay Area and about good deals on pieces of meat that, with salt and pepper, are good for two meals. He would stick two bony fingers in the air to emphasize the key term of his familiar mantra, smile with all of his teeth, and sip on his coffee.

And then I was covered in my own coffee. I suppose that if I live to be a hundred I will probably do that about three or four more times, maybe more as old-man condition sets in. There’s no explanation for it. Nothing startled me, nothing happened, I hadn’t stopped paying attention, I just spilled my coffee all over myself and the leather jacket I had bartered for at a flea market a few days before—88 euro down to 53! And exactly the color I had always wanted! Coffee was all over my pants and shirt, but most of all I was worried about the jacket. It had developed hideous streaks down the arm, and, knowing absolutely nothing whatsoever about leather, I thought maybe I had ruined it.

I’m superstitious. I would never admit to it, and you could hardly tell, but I do cut fruits and vegetables into odd numbers, and I do hope that God will pity my wretched condition and allow me to get the orange peal off in one piece so that I won’t have to spend the rest of my life alone (though it must be a mild superstition since I only sometimes throw away the orange when things start looking grim). When something bad happens for absolutely no reason whatsoever, I know what or whom to blame, and this Terry fellow was bad luck.

The only saving grace was that I had hardly sipped my coffee, and though this was the principle reason for my present condition, the hope was that with less caffeine in my system I would now be able to fall asleep. I simply wanted to go back to my room and try to salvage what I could of my clothes. My concern was spreading to my shirt and jeans, and I asked Terry if I could borrow some of his laundry detergent. He said yeah, he had some kind of tablet, who even knows where he bought it. And I said,

“Is it a powder? Because the machines here only take powder.”

“Well, I think, probably, you could grind it up . . .”

“Well does it work? Have you used the machines here?”

“No. I wash my clothes daily by hand. It’s so easy . . .and cheap!” he perked up on that last word, “And you can air dry it, which doesn’t take very long at all. And you can save a lot of money, because, you know, the washing machines here are so expensive.”

And I thought: this scrawny bundle of joy can’t even wash his clothes like a person. And I said, “I think maybe I should stop at this supermarket if it's still open and get some laundry detergent.”

So he said, “Okay.”

And fifteen steps later he said, “We should take the bus. It’s really fast.”

So we stood at the bus stop, fifty yards from the supermarket that apparently I was not longer going to visit, for three silent minutes. I started to read the signs at the stop, and I started to realize something.

“Terry, does this bus take us to the Fondation? Or are we just taking it to the tram stop?”

“Just to the tram.”

“Well, do you think maybe we should just walk? It’s kind of nice out, and it’s only, like, two blocks.”

“Okay. Yeah, it’s only about four blocks.”

“Yeah. Let’s just walk. Maybe I’ll stop in at this supermarket if it’s still open and get some laundry detergent.”

But when we got there, the security guard, sensing we were Americans, said in English,

“Excuse me, I’m sorry. It’s closing.”

I must have looked heart broken or sopping wet or both, because as Terry repeated the phrase, “You can use some of mine,” over and over and over and over and over again in the background, the security guard asked me what I needed.

“Just laundry detergent.”

“Okay.” And I was off, Terry hot on my heels. I immediately saw the detergent and pulled the smallest package I could find off the shelf,

“Is this laundry detergent?” I puzzled.

“I think so.”


So we got in line, paid and left. I began to suspect that Activateur was not laundry detergent.

In three minutes we had walked the three blocks to the tram, and one came along shortly thereafter. I lamented my jacket, telling Terry how I had just bought it. We made it back to the Fondation, and he continued talking about his deranged method of doing laundry, suggesting that for the leather perhaps “a little soap and water, and it’ll be good,” telling me how much money you could save even as he climbed into the elevator and disappeared.

When I got back to my room I stripped off my clothes and googled coffee stains. Mr. Breakfast provided me with four options. Stain remover (whatever Activateur was, it was not stain remover), white vinegar and cold water (I had balsamic, and I began to feel as if I was in a Mr. Bean sketch), baking soda (nope), and the yolk of an egg with a few drops of alcohol and warm water. I had six eggs from the market and warm water. I assumed that what was meant was rubbing alcohol, but I also knew that I had my duty-free Jim Beam in the closet. Thinking whiskey was probably slightly more fabric friendly than balsamic vinegar and certainly no worse than espresso, I decided to give it a shot. I scrubbed the mixture into my shirt and pants. They were covered in the gooey substance, and, having finally determined that, whatever it was, Activateur was definitely not laundry detergent, I washed them with a bar of soap in the sink. Even my white undershirt came out shining. It was amazing. As for the leather jacket, it looked as though nothing had ever happened. The streaks had apparently just been moisture, and when they dried, there was nothing more to be said.

I decided not to trouble that night with the cigarettes, I didn’t really know how to roll them anyway, so instead I celebrated with a shallow glass of bourbon and fell promptly asleep. When I woke up the next morning I pulled my pants in from where they were hanging in the window. They hadn’t taken very long to dry at all.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

not my idea of happiness

This is getting up late this week, and believe you me, there are a lot of excuses. I almost waited to revise it through the next week, but I decided that the blog is designed to prevent me from being able to polish things. Next weekend I'll be up north, so there won't be a new post until the 26th. If you missed getting up at 5:00 am this week and reading your McCarthyism with a bowl of plain oatmeal before your 10 mile run, you could just pretend I took this week off, save this one, and come back for your brand new post next weekend. Otherwise, please check back in two.

16th-century representations of Happiness typically feature her bearing symbols of health and wealth, as in Agnolo Bronzino’s painting from about 1567. Yet wealth and health, it would seem, are not always enough. In his 1970 State of the Union address, Richard Nixon turned from an extended meditation on law, order and authority to ask a question that might seem surprising against faded memories of the disgraced President. "In the next 10 years we shall increase our wealth by 50 percent," he said, "The profound question is: Does this mean we will be 50 percent richer in a real sense, 50 percent better off, 50 percent happier?" Here Nixon relates happiness to some kind of genuine wealth, not as dollars and cents but as a richness of living.

There seem to exist somewhat contradictory ideas about happiness, and in this entirely ahistorical assemblage of fragments I just want to call attention to some of them in a haphazard fashion. If in Nixon’s quotation happiness is related to a true richness, there is also a way in which happiness gets depicted as emptiness. Ned Flanders is arguably the happiest character on the Simpsons, and in part for good reasons: he takes good care of himself physically and respects his neighbors and family, so Homer’s hatred for the guy appears to be a depiction of a dark human tendency to despise goodness. At the same time, there are more than fleeting hints that Ned’s happiness is founded upon willful ignorance and that at a deeper level he suffers in ways that his happiness can only barely veil.

Happiness is not always considered to be so superficial. On the contrary, there exists a whole set of ideas about happiness as something genuine and as something that trite wealth can actually destroy. This way of thinking raises a number of problems that I can't entirely get into here; I tend to think that the irony of the Beatles’ performance of the Motown hit “Money (That’s What I Want)” is that the good listener is supposed to know that some things are more important than money and hear the song as ironic, when in fact the sentiments expressed seem unexpectedly earnest. Be that as it may, one of the main theses in Roseanne was that, even in the face of degrading conditions, the Conners find a true happiness that money cannot buy. In the clip presented in the video below, happiness is explicitly linked to two things, interpersonal connections and pleasure, and the wealthy Mrs. Wellman is excluded from both.

Yet if this kind of happiness holds any kind of truth, it is certainly only because it is a happiness that doesn't come easy. They say that it takes more calories to frown than to smile as if you should smile because it doesn't take as much effort, but one could ask if this fact might also explain why there are so many ponderous oafs plodding about with fleshy grins tucked beneath their ruddy noses. Smiling, they claim, makes you feel happy, but to put it another way you might say that madness begets madness. "Happiness," is supposed to be the right choice for everyone, a virtuous and transcendent detachment, if not a moral responsibility. There is, however, another way of coming at the same thing, as when they say that ignorance is bliss. Every day, goes the exhortation, you make a choice of whether or not to be happy, but is it an informed choice? Or better yet, how might happiness refer to something that excludes pleasure (how did Heaven come to be represented as sanitized and dull)? How does the overwrought incantation of one's own happiness substitute for the physical thrill of playing, or discovering something new, or getting close to someone? Only truly miserable people sincerely believe that life is too short, since after escaping the painful joys of a tumultuous life they suddenly find themselves caught rushing headlong toward a void. Getting down to the marrow does not always lead to happiness, but why should happiness be so precious?

Saturday, June 4, 2011

talking politics

Miss Manners, with the eloquence and keen insight I’ve come to expect from her column, got down to one of the basic reasons why the “politics rule” of social etiquette makes sense today: it is less that talking politics might hurt someone’s feelings than it is that “politics” has been reduced to a set of base, superficial and ultimately degrading assertions. Don’t talk about it around the dinner table unless you want to find out just how shallow, thoughtless and ignorant people can be. It would be nice to learn more about the history of this rule, its origins and the changing justifications for it, but for now I can just say that Miss Manners is as timely here as ever. When I set out to write this post I was discouraged because I kept coming across material that all of us, regardless of our political opinions, should be able to agree is trash. As someone who revels in the richness to be found in discarded objects, digging around this week led to some disappointing reminders that there are some objects that are truly stupid.

A few years ago, “the world’s smallest political quiz” made a brief appearance on facebook, and it was so transparent that performing a close reading of it was depressingly unsatisfying. The quiz is unabashedly designed to help you discover that you’re a libertarian, asking questions that you’re supposed to be able to answer already (don’t you know that we should end corporate welfare?!) without requiring you to think about some of the more complicated problems raised by any of the issues it cites. The quiz's logo features a mighty green arrow whisking you up to the pinnacle of political thought even as your open-mindedness expands to the outer corners of the chart, and at the end you receive a score for your level of achievement on the quiz. I got a 20% on personal issues and a 10% on economic issues simply by disagreeing with any bald assertion that I thought needed to be qualified before I would be able to give it even a “maybe." I might have been able to get a 0% if only I had more character. Considering that this was a multiple choice test with three choices for each question, statistically speaking I could have done better if I had just guessed randomly.

For sake of space, I'll have to talk about what this quiz suggests about libertarianism and what libertarianism has to do with this quiz in a different post. There is a preliminary point I want to make, one that might help readers to understand what I am doing as I assemble scattered materials for this blog. Perhaps one reason why “politics” seems so shallow today is that the term seems to be used to refer either to the relationships between various political platforms (like the Democrats or the Republicans), or, as suggested by this quiz, to the results one gets by adding up all the items in one’s grab bag of disconnected opinions. The message is that it doesn’t matter in the least how you arrived at your opinions; you’ve got ‘em, you’re sticking to ‘em, and now all you want to know is what to call yourself. If you believe that there should be no National ID card and that people should control their own retirement, you too could be an enlightened libertarian. If you’re indecisive, you’ll get stuck in the quagmire of centrism. And if you refuse outright to subscribe to vacuous assertions, you’re a statist who opposes diverse lifestyles and questions the importance of civil liberties.

What is completely missing in the quiz, what the quiz in fact denies, is politics as a process for proposing ways of organizing social spaces, of describing and shaping relationships between individuals and between each individual and his or her society. That would be a kind of politics that could only be understood in relation to basic ideas about the world and the ways it works, ideas that ought to be critiqued and tested even as they are used to challenge and inform political opinions and platforms. Every "principle" in this quiz can be reduced to a paranoid preoccupation with some indefinite "freedom" from "government," the entire thing depends upon a brute ignorance of any actual forms of social violence or oppression, and ultimately, the quiz doesn't propose any actual politics, any way of organizing social spaces, it only obstinately insists on the need to limit the role of government. It is not that politics are shallow, it is that politics in the sense implied by “the world’s smallest political quiz” demands that you be shallow.

Though I hope to avoid getting so explicit about it as I have here, every post on this blog is, in the alternative sense I’m proposing, political. One of my main goals is to pay attention to what is going on even in those things that seem most benign, especially in those things that seem most obvious, and to be less preoccupied with opinions and labels and more curious about how people arrive at their opinions and how labels change historically.

With that, I'll leave you in the capable hands of Monty Python. Their satirical take on leftist political factions sums up a lot of what I've said here and suggests a possible fate for any degraded and degrading so-called politics.