Thursday, January 27, 2011

Empire of Illusion

I was sitting in my living room/let's call it a home office just now when I heard someone on NPR talking about what's wrong with global corporate capitalism and being pushed on "But did you say Marx was right about some things???" all Fox News style. "Who on earth is this radical?" I wondered.

Answer: Chris Hedges, author of one of my favorite books, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. I'm reading his Empire of Illusion now. So far, it is not one of my favorite books, despite detailing a lot of things I'm concerned about -- the downfall of reason, failures in American education, etc. He makes a lot of undeniable points, but Barbara Ehrenreich made them better.

Monday, January 24, 2011

New York I love you, but you're bringing me down

No matter how big of a liberal you are, being constantly surrounded by people who are different from you in terms of language, accent, culture, background, life experience, clothing preferences, food preferences, weather preferences, volume of indoor speaking voice, you name it, can wear on you in ways you never expected.

No matter how much you hate cars, and I really hate them, carrying everything you might need in a day -- gym clothes, sneakers, lunch, files, book to read -- on your back or shoulder can make you feel like a pack mule after a while. A grumpy pack mule with a persistent ache.

No matter how much you are creeped out by an America that aspires to nothing higher than positive consumer experiences, gleaming floors, wide aisles and bright lights, you will get sick of buying your food in places where the floor is dirty, it smells weird, they have no squash you can recognize but are well stocked in these thingys that look like anteater snouts, and the brands and flavors of yogurt they carry vary by the day.

No matter how much of a "foodie" you thought you were, making tea with what looks like an old-fashioned shaving brush, coffee with a set of glass tubes and cocktails in barrels for aging is bullshit. And putting bacon in everything is really not that cute or clever after a while.

No matter how good of a sense of humor you have about things that are both gross and inevitable, you don't want the first thing you see when you emerge from underground to be someone's vomit frozen to the metal stairs.

Not everyone has these experiences, of course, particularly not the first. But if you come to New York neither wealthy nor idle, be prepared for a pretty serious grind. It conjures visions of the capital city of an on-the-rise third world country, a glittering playpen for the fortunate ringed by layers of crowded and dirty shantytowns for everyone else, complete with benevolent billionaire overlord. At least we have really excellent drinking water, I suppose.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Just Kids

Just Kids, Patti Smith's memoir of her relationship and creative partnership with the late Robert Mapplethorpe, may be the ultimate New York story. When Smith and Mapplethorpe met they were barely 20 years old, trying to make it as artists, so poor they couldn't afford food. They inspired and drove each other for decades and both achieved great success. Along the way, they performed for Bob Dylan (well, Smith did), found their way into Andy Warhol's social circle, witnessed the golden ages of CBGBs and the Chelsea Hotel, acquired wealthy patrons and saw the world. The world Smith describes is colored by celebrities and drugs but ultimately driven by a passion for art and a passion to succeed much more than a passion to know the right people. Art and rock music may sound glamorous, she seems to say, and maybe they were, but what you really need to do is to put in the time. Smith worked in New York for the better part of a decade, running cash registers and living hand to mouth, before her first album was released.

Smith wrote Just Kids to fulfill a promise she made to Mapplethorpe before he died, 20 years ago, of AIDS. It's a fitting book for me to be reading right now; I've been thinking a lot about my obligations to do something with my life, and to do the things people who couldn't be on Earth for long never had the chance to. Yesterday I found out that a kid I used to tutor died of cancer. He was in his early 20s. Salim was a refugee from Somalia, by way of Kenya and Tanzania. He was a sharp kid and a good person with an excellent attitude. While other teenagers on the West Side of Buffalo were out getting into trouble, being irresponsible and destroying things, he stayed home taking care of his younger brother and his nieces and nephews. And he never bitched about not getting to be a normal teenager. Salim did get to go to college for a couple of years, which is something he had wanted, but other than that, never had much of a chance to enjoy life. And now he's gone.

His story, and Smith's, and Mapplethorpe's, are all reminders that our time on Earth is limited and that we only get one chance to make it count. Smith approaches her subject with honor and reverence. She is also a wonderful writer. It's a compelling read.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Big Girls Don't Cry

Several years ago, when I reviewed restaurants for a local magazine in Buffalo, I went into a vegetarian-centric new place called Merge for the first time. The menu included black bean cakes, various derivations of the chickpea, crunchy grilled sandwiches, spicy soups, even fried pickles dunked in marinara sauce. "Wow," I thought. "Everything I ever want to order is on this menu."

Big Girls Don't Cry, Rebecca Traister's book about the 2008 election and the status of women in politics and society at large is that menu, in book form. Everything I want to read about, all the time, is there. Finishing it before she speaks at my favorite bookstore in a week and a half should not be a problem. I may finish it today.

Update: I finished the book, but did not make it to the reading. Flu had me down. But, I saw Traister read at the Brooklyn Book Festival this past summer and, as she lives in Brooklyn, I'm sure there will be other chances to see her again.