Saturday, June 14, 2008

Death and Celebrity

I remember once, when I was younger, overhearing a conversation my parents and their friends were having about where they all were when JFK was shot. It seemed, much like my generation can place their exact location when those planes hit the twin towers, that everyone could remember the tiniest details about that moment, when everything flared up around you, and you could even feel it under your skin, like you had come down with a sudden fever, and you were being pricked with a million tiny acupuncture needles at once. Everyone remembers JFK because he was our president, but not only was he our president, he was dashing and lively and young and came from a wealthy but tragic background.

At the same time, I’d bet that a number of us can remember where we were when Heath Ledger died. I remember I was in the office, refreshing the Gawker page to read it as it was updated because goddammit am I a loser, and a headline showed up “Actor Heath Ledger Found Dead” just as my friend Meg IMed me with the shocking news. I ran around my office disseminating the gossip like an old woman who just found out she’s about to be a grandmother. The media outlets were so frenzied it was as if God himself had given up, died and tumbled out of the sky. Heath Ledger actually lived across from my apartment, and he died there, so my neighborhood was swarmed with paparazzi and newspaper reporters desperate for the latest scoop. “Did Mary-kate Olsen really own this place?” a Washington Post reporter begged of me. “How did Heath look when you saw him last?” a New York Times guy wanted to know. It was all people could talk about for days, and I even got emotionally choked up after hearing the news.

So with Tim Russert’s untimely death yesterday, and of course, the inevitable backlash, I asked my Dad recently: did people get so upset about celebrity deaths when you were my age? He basically said that unless it was a megastar, no one really cared that much.

So why now? Why did I feel inexplainably sad yesterday after learning that someone I had never met had passed away? Empathy for his friends and relatives aside, you have to admit there is something more to it.

Rampant celebrity culture has swooped in and jumped down our throats like the little blue pill the big drug companies recommend we pop every morning with breakfast. Lindsay Lohan doesn’t take a piss without me - and everyone else - knowing about it. This builds an intense emotional connection to these people. We see them in movies, we know the intimate details of their personal lives, what their families are like, how they dress, their bad habits (but rarely their good ones), their home movies and favorite bands and the way they move their hands when embroiled in everyday conversation. We don’t know them, but we do, better than even some members of our family. And so one day, when they die - especially in an unexpected manner, we feel as if someone we've known has died, someone we have shared something with and grown to care about in a way that is unlike any other method of caring about people. And with media coverage online, the news surfaces almost instantaneously.

And I don’t know how I feel about it. I am complicit in the rumor mongering and the slandering and the Perez Hilton obsession, but does this diminish our ability to care about each other, about the people who are really in our lives? Or is it simply a vehicle to feel a more connectedness, to understand what being human is about, and then to conjure that through images and films of people who we can learn to care about, but never have to worry about them caring back.

-Jess

Friday, June 13, 2008

Tomato Nation


I usually love Cagle, the wonderful political-cartoons database. It's a great way to see others' perspectives on an issue--perspectives that don't involve trite, self-important diatribes that seem to be written over and over (yes, I know McCain has aligned himself with party politics, I don't need to hear it a twelfth time)--and the artwork is fascinating, too. It's interesting to see how one artist will depict something with humor and another will take a much darker approach; I'd link some examples, but I'd much rather you explore the site for yourself.

That said, this is not news. Okay, it's news, but it's not a debatable issue, nor is it an emotionally-charged tragedy or world-altering event. There is no possible way to make a political cartoon out of the tomato recall, unless you tie than into something else. It's not a political issue, it's a....scientific one--a disease-ridden, McDonald's-scandalizing, scientific case of salmonella. There are so many other issues to talk about, even under the dangerous-tomato umbrella; how this effects fast-food chains, say, or what this is going to do to the agricultural industry, if anything. But making a cartoon about how tomatoes are scary just seems lazy, like, it was 11:30 at night and dude had to come up with something, and HuffPo wasn't loading properly, so there you go. Tomatoes. Rotten tomatoes. Can somebody with drawing skills please make a The Happening Tomatometer cartoon? Cuz I think M. Night Shyamalan's filmmaking is a lot more disgusting than a bad fruit.

-Josh

The Comeback

So like, you know when something bad happens, and your body gets all pins and needles and you feel like there's a lobster in your throat and maybe also that someone is sitting on you? But it's that bad heaviness, not the good heaviness like "I want someone on top of me," but instead like GET THIS FUCKING THING AWAY FROM ME. I'm feeling that now. But I will triumph! I took the day off work because I am not in control of my emotions, but I will get in control, and also get a mani/pedi, and go write in Columbus Park, because Alec has inspired me to write The Next Great American Novel, and really there's nothing more cathartic. Plus, I thrive off of disaster, but I should probably shower, and stop chain smoking, and not drink 904432 cups of coffee. I will not sit here and wait for the atom bomb. If I am M.I.A. for a few days it is because I have holed myself up in Think Coffee or on the south side of Columbus Park with my laptop and six cans of Sugarfree Red Bull because I will turn this into something good if it kills me.

-Jess

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Alec Niedenthal is Ready to Take Back What's Ours

I first contacted Alec a week or so ago asking him to do an interview with me. After much back and forth, we finally settled on an e-mail interview. Alec is 17 years old and lives in Birmingham, AL and broke into the New York literary world with a rightfully angry letter penned to the editors at The New York Times. He is honestly one of the most refreshing thinkers I've spoken to in a long time. Below is the interview.

When did you first become interested in literature and writing?
I’ve always written. I started reading voraciously—bigger, denser stuff—just a couple of years ago.

What drove you to write a letter to The New York Times?
I’m not sure. I just read the review, and I was like, “This speaks to me. This moves me. How can I communicate the way this makes me feel?” Then it just sort of shot through me: letter to the Editor! It was written in a sort of deliriously queer state of mind, and I, all of a sudden, was overwhelmed with passion for what I felt needed to be said, and was compelled to write this letter, which has apparently caused so much stir. The aforementioned state of mind is to blame for my scattered malapropisms. I typically don’t do that.

How did it feel to have huge media organizations like Gawker and The Observer interested in you and your writing?
Freaking unbelievable, quite literally, and that is said with both a good and bad connotation. I was almost shocked into indifference. I never expected, or intended to get, that kind of response. My first reaction was, “I can’t do this. I’m not equipped for it,” but then I settled down and realized that what I had been endowed with was a tremendous amount of luck, and then I was impelled to take advantage of it, or else I would regret not doing so for the rest of my life, no matter how many naysayers there may be. I usually don’t have a lot of confidence when it comes to these types of things, but I guess I had to sort of reach into that secretive area where it was simmering and deracinate it. And that’s where I am now. I just had to steel myself against the harsh, trenchant anonymity of it all, and it was hard, no doubt. It’s still hard, really difficult and stressful and exciting--exhilarating, invigorating--but this entire awkward ordeal has been gorgeous in a way I can’t express with the implements of words.

How has this affected your every day life?
I’m stressed a lot more often now. The only repose I get from my own voice—because I’m constantly telling myself write write write write write WRITE WRITE—is at the gym. I’ve been going everyday now to help me expel great volumes of stress. My parents have been Googling me a lot and keeping me apprised of what they find, though I’d kind of rather they not, but it’s cute. They’ve been freaking out. And, obviously, I’ve been writing a lot. More than I’ve ever written.

I read that you’ve been propositioned by a few publishing houses – are there any deals in the works for you?
Um, well, there have been inquiries, yes, but before any deals are struck, I must produce a work. I’m working on that now. It should be finished by the end of August, and it’s going well. I usually hate what I write, but I hate this less than everything I’ve ever written; I actually kind of like it. It’s very different from what I usually write, but in a good way.

What do you think of the current young reining literary champs like Keith Gessen and Jonathan Safran Foer?
I think they could stand to be a bit more pissed off, Gessen in particular. I just read Gessen’s book and have mixed feelings on it. It seems more self-indulgent than intensely personal. Foer I do like, however. I think the whole cabal of n+1 kids needs to quit crying and start fighting; they can write—I mean, damn, they can write—but they’ve got to suppress their sadness and longing, if only for a moment, and begin to arm themselves, fight back. I’m planning on doing so myself, if I get a chance. I’m sort of sick of contemporary writers quoting historical and literary figures in order to express their thoughts, too.

What authors and published works do you most value and draw inspiration from?
My prose has a pretty bulky shade of early Vollmann in it, only far more straightforward, less diffuse. My sentence structure used to be very Pynchonesque (or Proustian, but less so), although not anymore; that turgidity can either be triumphant, or it can fall flat on its face, and I guess mine did the latter with a tepid shine. So right now I’m channeling a lot of Vollmann, DeLillo, William H. Gass, Bowles, and Calvino, maybe.

Did you realize that you would garner so much reactionary publicity from your letter?
No. I had no idea. I didn’t intend for any of this to happen, this outcry. I never even hoped it would because I couldn’t fathom it. But it did. It did.

What is your reaction to the dismissive claims that our generation can’t produce anything of quality because we are, as you say, grappling with “Facebook-and-Myspace-addled minds?”
I think—and I could be entirely wrong—that our techno-obsessed society, of which I am proudly a part, will only make our ideas even stronger, will only galvanize our words. The Internet and the whole of our modern technological obsessions engender so much hatred—well, such a mélange of different emotions and experiences, of love and outrage and apathy, all of this passion and drama unfurling indiscriminately, often anonymously every single freaking day, and you can’t help but witness some of it and absorb it, become freighted with it—that it cannot possibly bear to not encourage phenomenal, dazzling literature.

What kind of literature would you like to see emerge from the vein of the up-and-coming literary elite? Are there any important genres or topics you feel young writers absolutely need to address?
Literature that isn’t so obsessed with itself. I want for us to slough off all of the layers of involution that we’ve acquired from our literary heroes (Danielewski, Foer, etc. etc.) and get back to writing great stories again. There has to be an entire epic novel devoted to the hook-up culture. I don’t want to write it. I don’t feel as if I’m experienced enough to get through more than a few pages. But I will if someone wants to remedy my situation. Please.

Whenever I mention Updike or someone of the sort, people always say things like “Oh, suburban angst.” I read that you grew up in the suburbs - how do you think your upbringing has impacted your writing, if at all?
It’s definitely contributed to the angst I’ve been channeling. I’ve seen a lot of hate and injustice and terrible, horrible, vile things over the years that can never be forgotten, and have let them just sort of happen right in front of me. Maybe this is my shot at redemption. Hopefully. Who knows?

What’s your advice for young writers looking to break into the “incestuous” New York literary world spearheaded by the Times Book Review, etc?
I have no idea. I’ll tell you when/if I’m broken in. Get delusional. Get passionate. Get pissed off.

As told to Jessica Roy.

Hello, GoodBi

I've always argued that sexuality shouldn't be so pinned down, that it is more complicated than dividing desires into dichotomous camps to be labeled and never analyzed. In reality, it's not that simple. A new documentary that explores the relationship between women, their sexual desires and their sexuality seems to agree with me. It's called Bi the Way, and it's started discussions across the internetz, including over at Gawker, The New York Times and Salon.

The film seems to argue what us women have known for ages, but were perhaps too afraid to admit: sometimes, we like to kiss girls, and sometimes we can also get turned on by lesbian porn. With bisexuality becoming chic now (thanks Linlo and Samantha Ronson), I guess it was time to put these things onto a roll of film and send it out into the world. The studies found that women - despite sexuality - are turned on most by sensuality, which is most aptly portrayed in lesbian porn. What's more, women don't differentiate between gender the way that men do. There has always been more of a stigma against male/male relationships than with female/female. Perhaps men don't feel threatened by the lesbian dynamic and instead choose to use it to further their appreciation of the female form - okay, that's the overly PC way to put it. But according to these studies, biology matches up with society: men differentiate between gender during sex, while women don't.


-Jess

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

I Love Daria, and Other Thoughts


Just some things that have been on my mind lately:

1. I love Daria. Recently, I found a whole slew of episodes--most of which are of shockingly decent quality--on YouTube. (heh, "Dar1a." Take that, Viacom!) While the characters were for the most part obvious archetypes, I thought there were enough original characters and creative plot twists to give the show a certain accuracy. Though I can't say that I was--or am--anywhere nearly as cool or witty as Daria (or even Jane), I could identify with her occasional familial struggles and cynicism about high school, and life, in general. Watching these episodes almost makes me nostalgic for the days of hallway lockers and forty-minute lunches. Almost.

2. There are few feelings in life that compare to having just enough change to be able to buy the most expensive item in the vending machine. Not that you necessarily go for the two-dollar bag of chips, but it's nice to know you could. I imagine it's what rich people feel when purchasing a new yacht, only they're not wearing their brother's Bar Mitzvah t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants, nor would they be willing to sleep with a guy by the West Side Highway in exchange for three rolls of sushi and five hundred dollars in unmarked bills. I'm just saying, I'm hungry.

3. Okay, enough, Hollywood. John Cusack has decided to enter the political arena, for reasons probably as unclear as why he agreed to star in Must Love Dogs. What I love is how he says that his opinion "doesn't matter more than anyone else's," because if that were true then it wouldn't matter that Heidi Montag was voting for McCain, and the candidate himself wouldn't feel the need to remark on her endorsement. And no, not everyone is swayed by an actor's politics, and yes, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, as well as the right to share that opinion. But there's a difference between putting an ad on your Web site, for instance, and taking out thirty-second TV spots. Because when you think about it, it's ridiculousness that John fucking Cusack's opinion should matter at all, or that he should think so highly of his political consciousness (ooh, that McCain's just like Bush) that he feels some sense of duty to share his views with the entire nation.

4. I hate it when Stumble thinks my romantic hopelessness and crippling insecurity are funny.

5. So, why does NYU becomes the University of Bro-hio over the summer? Seriously, this happened last year, and once again I suddenly hear 3 Doors Down and smell Axe Body Spray in the halls of my formerly quiet yet liberal dormitory. I don't know why Penn State rejects and eternal prom queens think moving to the East Village is a good idea, because they're certainly not looking to expand their horizons. Maybe they want to take classes, but again, why do this here, where there are gay people and beer pong is a novelty? Okay, I know I sound totally elitist and douchebaggy and everything wrong with New York right now, but seriously, new neighbors? Keep it down. Don't make me hate your kind. No, I do not think that Dane Cook is funny, nor would I care to hear your thoughts on Major League Baseball that you half-assedly ripped off from Sports Illustrated and feel the need to express by shouting every thirty seconds and then agreeing for the twelfth time that Ken Griffey Jr. is underrated. I used to have dude's video game, so I appreciate his talents as well, but seriously? It's three in the morning. Take it outside, take it to the Village Pourhouse, just take it away from here.

6. But seriously, Griffey, congratulations. See? I like sports too. Sort of. Shut up.

-Josh

Celebabies!

Josh asked quite a thought-provoking question during our midafternoon cigarette break today. "What," he said, "will the babies of stars be like when they grow up?" "It's going to be madness," I responded, "and I will love and cherish every moment of it."

Then I got the idea to extrapolate what I believe babies of famous parents (ergo they have already achieved relative fame of their own simply by chance of owning the blood that flows through them) will be like when they grow up by comparing them to already existing celebrities. Genius, right?

Parents: Britney Spears and Kevin Federline
Baby: Sean Preston Federline
His parents basically invented white trash, so S.P. will have to carry that burden with him for the rest of his life. How will he do it? By chugging 40's of Hurricane while driving his overpriced SUV down the 101 and getting pulled over for cheap drug possession. Okay, sure, but what current "celebrity" will he turn out like?

Aaron Carter, of course! Arrested on drug charges and about to appear on the newest season of Celebrity Rehab, Carter is the archetype for grown up Sean Preston.
Parents: Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt
Baby: Shiloh Jolie-Pitt

Shiloh is what? 2 years old? And I'm already jealous of her. She has Pitt's toehead and Jolie's lips and she's basically going to grow up to be the most gorgeous person to ever walk the planet. She will become the leader of the free world simply by batting her eyelashes and tossing her golden mane. Though there's no one that can honestly compare to her...

Amanda Hearst. She's blonde and gorgeous with billionaire parents, and she stays pretty well out of the limelight. While she doesn't necessarily have the star power akin to Shiloh, they both share famous last names, and I think after growing up so much in the spotlight Shiloh will probably want to opt out of celebrity, a la the Olsens.

Parents: Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise
Baby: Suri Cruise

Suri Cruise was dealt a shitty hand when it comes to fathers (read: Tom Cruise is craaaazy!), but if she can escape the grip of Scientology, hopefully she can turn out pretty normal. Hopefully she'll also adopt Katie Holmes' graceful, subtle appearance. She also seems to be kind of a firecracker so...
She could end up being like Sofia Coppola. Brunette, serious, beautiful, with famous parents, who serves both as a creative genius and a muse.

Okay - so who else?

-Jess

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

n+1: And Then They All Denounced Nick Denton

The n+1 magazine and literary crowd are a lot like founder Keith Gessen himself: devilishly good looking and attempting tirelessly to reconcile between utter douchebaggery and an undeniable likability expressed through their carefully formed words. I couldn't liveblog the event because I looked weird enough as it was simply taking notes, but I wrote a lot of stuff down.

I'll give you the main threads running through my mind as I was taking notes, so hopefully you'll be able to understand the things I wrote. Honestly, there was a lot to take in. The room was packed and really stifling. I was one of the few people under 22, and one of the few non-hipsters. Who knew "all the sad young literary (wo)men" were all pale, fragile, vintage-wearing Agyness Deyn knockoffs? I guess I should've assumed that. Alone there, I felt wide-eyed, like I was just surveying New York for the first time.

Jezebel's Moe was cute in person. She drank Colt 45 from a paper bag and definitely lived up to my scattered-and-adderalled-brain vision of her. It was interesting how Moe was the only woman on the panel, but the audience was split pretty 50/50 between desperate young writers and their playthings. I hope all the women weren't just muses and put the pen to paper, too.

There were four key speakers, plus Gessen. The whole thing was set up kind of formally, with a podium where each speaker would orate from. The topic - most broadly put - centered around the internet and how it's changed humanity, writing, culture, everything. I could've told you that. The speakers - all but Moe - seemed also very bitter about the internet's encroachment on their personal selves, as each one of them bitched about being subjected to internet cruelty via anonymity. They were all obviously talking about Gawker. But besides that, the speakers brought up a lot of interesting things I hadn't previously considered.

Anyway, here are the things I wrote down:



  • Some girl in front of me saved all the other seats in my row and now when people swoop by searching for seats and realize they're taken, I look like an asshole who saved seats for my imaginary friends.

  • Moe is late. Very late. It's 6:58pm and the show starts at 7pm.

  • The woman sitting in front of me asked me to retie the strap of her dress. I blushed doing so. She probably thinks I'm a lesbian.

  • Quote from one of teh gayz sitting behind me: "Do you ever read Gawker?"

  • 7:15pm and they haven't started yet. I'm beginning to nod off.

  • Okay they're starting. First up - Mark Greif, an n+1 editor

  • So far all he's done is elaborate on metaphysical and pretentious ponderings concerning the tangibility of the internet vs. "real life." -- As the girl I met on the L train afterwards told me: "It was kind of... passe."

  • The idea that everything has been said/done before and is now online for everyone to see.

  • The idea of "shopping." Some things are not inherently commercial, but the internet makes EVERYTHING commercial, even intimacy i.e. online dating.

  • An organized blog is a literary form, while the comments generated by that blog are an oral form. The politeness and mores differ for each form, and therefore create friction between one another. Blogging, even if it is grammatically incorrect or snarky or irreverent, still adheres to a literary form, while commenting, even if it's not anonymous, takes on a more slack approach akin to typical day-to-day speech.

  • Even if you don't go on the internet, other people can say things about you, making you Googlable = "I don't possess myself."

  • Next up is Caleb Crain - author and New Yorker contributer

  • How is the internet changing literary style? Little fiction or poetry is put on the internet with the purpose of being read solely on the internet.

  • The internet as inhospitable to quietness.

  • Text on the internet is read in a jazzy way as if the internet is always welcoming you to a party. Writing on the internet is more popular when the reader wants to find a connectedness. There is an obsession with being part of a group and keeping others out. (Totally referencing Gawker here)

  • Blogs have no backstage area. In the internet, everything is in the front - audience sees you from all angles.

  • Moe - Drinking Colt 45 and reading from an email. At least she quotes Nick Denton as saying, "Is there anything redeeming about the n+1 crowd? Some girls seated near me made a face when Moe stated she never derived pleasure from deriding people and their egos. They didn't clap when she finished. I guess it's Gawker vs. Jezebel AND n+1 vs. Jezebel vs. Gawker. New media battles are confusing.

  • Blogging degenerating into overshare garners page views.

  • Ben Kunkel - Author of Indecision, co-founder of n+1

  • Internet divided into 4 topics: Pornography, politics, commentary and information. Exist with and contradict each other.

  • Porn: A cultural phenomenon but private and anonymous.

  • Utopian aspect of porn is the fantasy of imaginary world where shame is impossible. But shame is a symptom of the entire internet.

  • Politics: Politicians unfortunate enough to live in this era are subjected to the perils of celebrity without the perks. Heightened surveillance.

  • Politics as an area of public life where logic of celebrity operates easily.

  • Whereas porn wants things to be found out, politicians do not.

  • Commentary has anonymity, and the commenters can't be humiliated while there remains something humiliating about being the commented on. It brings the nasty things people say behind your back to the private realm.

  • An anonymous commenter suffers in their own way - perhaps reason for expressed rage. Celebrity cannot suffer the pain of facelessness.

  • Information - facilitates knowledge, like Wikipedia. Counterpart to villainy of commenters.

  • Porn Star: "I will tell you who I am and how I feel."

  • Politician: "I will tell you who I am but not how I feel."

  • Commenters: "I won't tell you who I am but I will tell you how I feel."

  • Information: "I won't tell you who I am or how I feel."

  • Online there is an acceptability of sex and fact, but in real life, these things are moralized.
Those are the basics. Sorry if this got boring/dorky, but I'm totally into this stuff.

-Jess
UPDATE: Apparently Sheila at Gawker had a similar reaction to last night's event.

n+1 Panel Discussion

I'm going to this n+1 panel discussion at The Kitchen in Chelsea tonight. It features some n+1 writers and Moe from Jezebel! They're going to cover topics of the internet, anonymity (Emily Gould is sure to crop up), pornography, etc. I'm going to bring my laptop and hope they'll let me liveblog it, but I'm not sure what the rules are at pretentious art spaces in Chelsea. See you there?

-Jess

Alice Walker Single-Handledly Ruined Motherhood, What Did You Ever Do?

Educated and entitled people continue to be pissed off at the families that provided them with education and the ability to be entitled. Take Rebecca Walker for example, daughter of second-wave feminist and world-renowned author Alice Walker, of "The Color Purple" fame. Rebecca has taken the time to air her dirty familial laundry in a Daily Mail article that claims her mother's feminist views and thirst for her own success kept them from developing a healthy relationship. Furthermore, Rebecca argues that her mother's negative views on motherhood - namely, that it keeps women from accomplishing things they might otherwise accomplish - threw a metaphorical wrench in their relationship, keeping Alice from getting to know her grandchild, and fueling Rebecca's matricidal tendencies.

Salon writer Phyllis Chesler asserts that the problem here lies with the fact that it is impossible for women to simultaneously maintain lucrative careers and be good mothers. I admit this is a delicate balance. One of the reasons I'm hesitant about having children - at least until I'm 30 - is because I want to make sure I accomplish a variety of things (i.e. getting my Doctorate or at least my Masters, traveling, getting published, etc.) before I settle down and pop out some babies. As I get older, I do yearn for the comfort that having a family brings, but I don't think Chesler's assertion is necessarily correct. I can name a number of women off the top of my head who have and continue to successfully toe the line between being career-driven and necessarily maternal. Hillary Clinton, for example. It's definitely no easy task, but it's not impossible, as Chesler writes.


Rebecca's claims have nothing to do with feminism, except that she and her mother happen to both call themselves feminists. Feminism has not robbed women of the ability or the desire to have children as Rebecca claims. If that were true, the population would be dwindling, not growing. Furthermore, the idea that it was Alice's feminism that doomed the relationship is laughable at best. There are other factors to consider here. Certainly Alice wasn't the best mother, but the idea that her ideologies are all at once wholly responsible for the demise of their mother-daughter relationship is pedestrian and lacks the acknowledgment of other problems mothers and daughters face as they each grow older.


-Jess

Repeat


I know I really need a cigarette when the counting starts. Not of sheep or the cars passing by on Joey Ramone Place, but of the mundane and otherwise forgettable. It's as though the nicotine has flipped a switch in my brain, and all of a sudden my OCD covers me like a wetsuit. If I'm reading and want to go back to reread a character's name or a sentence I particularly enjoyed, I can't just do it once but rather have to flip the pages over and over, three times, five times, until it feels right. If I get out of bed to go to the bathroom, I have to touch while I'm standing, a sort of shortcut that gives the illusion of having gotten out of the sheets twice--a preferred number--to just once. If I pause a song, I have to pause it again, and then that makes the whole section choppy so I rewind about twenty seconds to enjoy the verse once more. Then I pause again.


I can't remember living without obsessive-compulsive disorder. When I was a kid it was really bad; I'd lie awake for hours, anguished over the alignment of pens on my desk or the angle at which the wastebasket faced the wall. I knew these things were unimportant but still I fixed them, suffering both the jitters of the disease and the humiliation it provided. My mom would knock on the door, having heard my little feet scamper across the carpet, and ask if everything was okay. "Yes," I'd tell her between tears. "I'm fine."


My OCD just gave me another reason to see a psychologist. I think what I liked most about seeing Ken was how un-psychological our sessions were. They were more like discussions, the kind I might have with my mother or the sole English-speaking cafeteria worker in my elementary school; only at Ken’s office I could talk about whatever I wanted. The weather, his shoes, my compulsive counting, my irrational nightmares about Ronald McDonald; all topics received equal treatment, and we would often segue from one to the next without even the tiniest transition. “Well it’s supposed to rain this weekend, which will be good for the humidity,” he might say. “Yeah,” I’d reply. “So I think I need to go on medication.”


If it wasn’t the conversation that kept me coming back, then it was the games. At the end of each session we’d play a board game or he’d perform card tricks. I think these were supposed to teach me valuable life lessons or show me that things weren’t always what they seemed, but I appreciated them as fun relief after forty-five minutes of emotional roulette. I’d often ask about the games far in advance; strolling into his office, I might bring up that I didn’t feel like playing LIFE today, or that I wanted him to do the trick with the four kings again. He’d remind me that cards weren’t why we were here, but the way I saw it they were just another form of conversation, and I saw no reason to hide my enthusiasm for the topic. We had already spent five minutes on the San Jose Sharks. Why was Card Sharks any less legitimate?


I suppose it’s telling that I remember the games more than the actual therapy, but maybe the things we were talking about were simply too much for my fifth-grade mind to fully grasp. And talking to Ken was so easy; he was large who sported a gray mustache and pastel shirts, like a jolly St. Nick who’s trimmed his beard for summer vacation. Someone once told me that you can gauge a man’s respectability by the cleanliness of his shoes, and if this is true then Ken was the most dignified man I knew. His penny loafers and oxfords were always shined if not new, and you could tell they were the expensive kinds, not the cheap barely-leather imitations my mother would buy me at Payless. Yet he always complimented me on my footwear, on my dirty Reeboks and rubber flip-flops, as though they were Ferragamos. And I still don’t know if he really meant what he said or if he said that to everybody. I think, had I realized at the time that he probably praised each of his patients’ shoes, I would have been crushed.


The one thing I held back from Ken was my budding homosexuality. I don’t know why; perhaps I feared that he’d like me less, that’d he would be uncomfortable by my sexual openness. I actually thought that he’d fear me hitting on him; I could imagine him pulling my mom aside in the waiting room, whispering, “Mrs. Becker, I think Josh…likes me. That way.” My mother would cup her hands over her mouth, as though she were in a hospital and had just heard that no, the cancer wasn’t treatable.


“No, doctor, I’m sure that you’re mistaken—“


“I just, I see it in his eyes, ya know?” Apparently my subconscious played out with all the spark and romance of a John Mellencamp song.


I know—and knew then—that Ken was such a nice guy that he wouldn’t have minded if I were gay. And it wasn’t like I was the most secretive closet case; I had a lisp and liked listening to the soundtrack from My Best Friend’s Wedding. I’m sure Ken knew, but I was thankful he never asked me how I felt about boys. Now, of course, I wonder what would have happened had I confided this information; would I have come out sooner, with less dramatics? Would I have found a boyfriend during high school, having long since accepted myself? Did this somehow relate to my OCD?


My sessions with Ken helped me cope with the OCD, though they didn’t abolish it completely. I hear you can never rid yourself of the disease, just suppress it so much that it doesn’t both you anymore, but that sounds wrong to me, the exact opposite of what you should do. No alternative comes to mind, but still, “ignoring the problem until it goes away” is the sort of thing I do against other people’s advice, and it bothers me that such a cheap way out is the medically recommended method.


I did, however, suppress the fact that I had a psychologist. If any of my friends had found out, man—I’d be “the freak with the shrink” faster than the new girl from the special school had become “the retarded girl with glasses.” I suppose it was hypocritical, making fun of others while suffering mental illnesses myself, but in adolescence it’s best to fit in any way you can, even if it’s by pretending your mind is normal or wearing jeans a size larger than you’d like to. Besides, I never claimed to be virtuous.


I could at least take solace in being the only one from my school who saw Ken, or so I thought. It was one of my biggest fears to see one of my classmates in the waiting room. I felt as though the embarrassment would be worse for me than for the other person, that the social ramifications would hit me the hardest. I was already the queer—even at that young age, we all knew what “gay” was, and I’m sure half the school thought it was only a matter of time before I strutted into homeroom one day wearing leather chaps and a turquoise necklace—so being the crazy queer would undoubtedly ruin me.


So you can imagine my shock when one day, leaving Ken’s office, I saw a classmate of mine sitting in the waiting room. I recognized his posture as my own, as that of any kid who knows he’s involved in something way over his head. His legs were spread and his forearm rested on each kneecap, like a ballplayer returning to the bench after striking out. His head drooped, his eyes peeled on the gray carpet.


I thought I could sneak out of there without him noticing me. Sure, he’d recognize my mom; as a dedicated classroom helper and member of the Board of Education, she was one of those childhood celebrities to my fellow students, the kind of woman you often spot but rarely talk to. But if he asked me, I could always say she was there for her own therapy; Ken’s building also housed adult psychologists. But then Ken called out my name while saying goodbye, and I saw my classmate look up. I read both sympathy and schaedenfreud in his eyes; neither of us was popular, but we had drifted since first and second grade, and I now ran with a crowd that at least threw parties. I’d like to think we simply went our separate paths, the way you do with most childhood friends, but I’m sure he took my slight rise on the social ladder personally; now he had something to hold over my head.


“Hi,” I said, smiling. I tried to play it off like this wasn’t a big thing, like we weren’t in the waiting room of some crazy doctor, like we both didn’t have problems that, in the middle of the night and nobody else could hear, made us whisper promises of suicide. I figured that if I played it cool, so would he.


To my surprise, that’s just what happened. He returned my greeting and then I bolted out of there; I could see Ken’s curious reflection in the window, but the last thing I wanted was form him to acknowledge my familiarity with this other patient and…what? I could see him setting up a joint appointment; maybe he’d tell us to keep a dual journal. If there was one thing I owned with my OCD, it was the privacy in which I suffered, and I would not allow that to be prescribed away.


The next day in lunch, I saw Mike approach me while I waited in the pizza line. He came up to me with that look of shady recognition I’d later come to see on the faces of bouncers and drug dealers. He clamped his hand on my shoulder and moved his lips to within a few centimeters of my ear.


“Look, I know and you know what we both…have to do. I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.” I was disappointed that he had remembered the incident at all, thereby shattering my hopes that he had gotten into a car accident or developed a sudden, devastating tumor on the way home; I didn’t wish death upon him, just a small case of amnesia. And maybe a head bandage, to cover up an awful nest of curly hair.


“Okay,” I said, my lips barely opening. He then left as quickly as he’d arrived, and one of my friends who had witnessed the meeting asked me what had happened. “Oh…” I said. “It was nothing. I owe him some money but can’t pay him ‘til tomorrow.”


“Money for what?” He asked this as a sort of accusation, as opposed to sheer curiosity, as though it were already suspicious enough that I spoke to Mike at all.


“Uh…some old Game Boy game. He had it in his pocket while he was riding his bike, and he was riding past my house and I saw him because I was in the front yard, and he took it out to show me, and I dropped it in a puddle, so I have to get him a new one.” The ridiculousness of the lies I’ll come up with in the heat of the moment is amazing. I could have probably gotten away with owing him fifty cents for potato chips. Either way, it worked, and I prided myself of so deftly navigating a tricky social situation.


I’m no longer ashamed of my OCD; in fact, I kind of like telling people about it. I think it gives me a mysterious quality, a sort of edge that surely spices up an otherwise mundane get-together. I imagine my friends talking while I’m on my way. “Josh is coming,” they said. “Make sure all the drawers are closed, or he’ll really go off.” They might proceed to rearrange all the furniture in the apartment, solely to keep me from losing my shit when I walk through the door.


Actually, I’ve managed to keep those manifestations of the disorder to myself. Slowly but surely I trained myself to act normally in front of other people; if a shirt was sticking out from a drawer or the bathroom door was slightly ajar, I try to ignore it or move to another part of the room where the slight won’t be in my line of vision. It’s akin to craving a cigarette on an airplane; sure, you want your fingers to stop shaking, but you’ll only get yourself in trouble if you try anything too drastic. Sometimes, though, I’ll pretend to use the bathroom so that I may fix the door.


I think the heat makes my OCD worse as well, but I actually prefer unbearable weather. When the weather outside is extreme, I have an excuse to stay in: “Oh, it’s much too cold to walk outside,” or “Lunch sounds nice, but I just got the A/C working again and want to make sure it’s running smoothly.” When the weather is nice, I feel compelled to spend time outdoors and perform vague acts like frolicking and enjoying the sunshine. Worst of all, however, is the togetherness such nice weather implies; during a heat wave, I can feed my inner insanity in the comfort of my own privacy, but when it would be considered awkward and antisocial to stay indoors, I’m forced to curb my compulsions in the company of others.


It’s not that my OCD itself has diminished; rather, I think it’s simply imposed itself on my life in a broader sense. A misplaced fork doesn’t bother me so much, but a poorly received joke haunts me for days. My entire behavior must now conform to the rigid perfection my mind demands; I feel like I’m living a play, and every scene has already been choreographed, down to the turn of a hand and sip of a drink.


Take last night. I was at someone’s apartment, and a few of us had just smoked some weed. When I’m high, my social anxiety goes out the window in favor of the general awkwardness and disregard for social conventions that accompany a proper high. As we were walking home, my friend John made an offhand comment about what he perceived as my “social awkwardness.” I know he didn’t mean it as a damning criticism but rather a commentary on my behavior that evening, and objectively I couldn’t argue with him. But it bothered me, not so much what he said, but that I had acted in such a way that he felt the judgment appropriate at all.


“What do you mean, ‘awkwardness,’” I asked.


“Just, you know, you were a little awkward back there.”


“Yes, but awkward how? Did someone say something? Did I embarrass you?” My tone grew more annoyed with each question.


“Josh, I didn’t mean it like that. It was just, like, a joke.”


“No it wasn't. You don't say something like that and then not mean it. Why can't you just tell me how I was being awkward?"


I should have let the matter drop, but clearly I had behaved out of line; I’d messed up the scene. I wanted to know exactly what I’d done wrong, and until I did my mind wouldn’t rest. It was like craving a cigarette, only not knowing where you’d put your pack.


Later that night, my air conditioner’s constant rattling kept me awake, and John’s words kept me angry. How was I socially awkward? He’s the one with a stutter and a questionable fashion sense, and he’s the one who just got turned down by a girl he liked. Just as all the students like the dumbest kid in class because he keeps the curve low, so too did we all appreciate John, who lowered the bar a few centimeters for the rest of us. And then he, of all people, had accused me of being awkward. It was like Adam Sandler criticizing your acting.


Something had gone wrong; words had been misspoken, actions misinterpreted, and now the rest of the people in that apartment would surely remember me as “that really high kid who didn’t understand how the TV remote worked.” I knew I would never see most of them again, so the impression left was unimportant to me; rather, it was my OCD, my obsessive-compulsive desire to have everything go perfectly, that was making this a problem. Unlike the bathroom door or sock on the floor, however, there was no fixing my social faux pas. I was beyond anger at the situation or at Jonathan; I was mad at myself, for letting something so trivial bother me this way.


I went to the window, lit a cigarette, and stared at my neighbors’ windows across the street. One woman was watering plants; down the hall, a few people were dancing. Lights flickered on and off and the occasional noise drifted from the streets below, like steam. I wondered if anyone was looking at me, and I wondered what they thought if they were.


If they were looking, they would see a lanky, pale boy in boxers and a t-shirt from a friend’s Bar Mitzvah years ago. He is sitting in a chair pulled up to the window, smoking one cigarette after another. It looks like he’s been crying. And if they looked really closely, they would see the trembling fingers on his right hand tapping the microwave: one, two, three, pause, repeat.


-Josh

I'll Keep This Short, Because If You're Like Me, You Won't Read Past Paragraph 3


Salon linked me to an article in the Atlantic Montly called "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" The author purports that the ability to absorb information with the click of a mouse has seriously damaged our attention spans. Billout claims that he can barely get through a print or online article without beginning to skim by the 3rd paragraph. His article is four pages long. I stopped reading after the 5th paragraph.


Billout has a point. The most popular sites on the web are gossip blogs and news sources that keep their stories succinct and stray from prosaics. I find myself even skimming Perez Hilton. My ability to read a book has seriously dwindled. I used to be an avid reader, but now I get bored after 10 minutes of burying my nose in a book. I find myself obsessively clicking back and forth between Facebook, Gawker and my e-mail, even though I know there will be no updates, but the newfound need for constant online motion overrides the logical.


So here's a question: Which came first - short attention spans or the overprescription of ADHD medication, and is the internet partly to blame?


-Jess

Monday, June 9, 2008

Pale is Pretty

My roommate and I: Pale as the day we were born


Today as I was enjoying a cigarette break at work, a shirtless African American homeless man wandered over to me and wouldn't stop staring. Every other tooth was knocked out and one hung over the bottom of his cracked lip in a yellow triangle. There were rivulets of sweat etched into the lines in his forehead, and his fingernails were dirty and broken. He looked at me and said, "Your beauty comes out at night."

I took a drag and looked at him quizzically. He said it again: "Your beauty... comes out at night." I smiled, he kept staring and smiling, and then walked away. I took another drag. He came up behind me and startled me. He hovered so close I could smell his body, his chest matted with crinkly hairs, reeking of unfiltered tobacco smoke and putrid sweat. "White women," he said, "at night, when it's dark, your skin stands out. Your beauty comes out." I tilted my face so it was obscured by shadows made by the sun. "Oh. I glow in the dark?" "Yes," he said, "it's beautiful."

So there you have it, folks. Pale is the new tan.

-Jess

IDK, My BFF Dino?

Yes.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Coming Up: An Interview with Young Literary Ingenue Alec Niedenthal


After The New York Times published an "incendiary" letter written by the young up-and-coming Alabaman writer, Gawker did a post about him, and The Observer did an interview with him. Well, Mr. Niedenthal has also agreed to do an interview with me! No one can resist my charm... kidding. I'm just a Facebook stalker. We're going to do it over AIM and I'll have it up as soon as possible.

-Jess

Modern Love, Modern Disenchantment


The NY Times "Modern Love" column depresses me for two reasons. First off, while they're all enjoyable on a surface level, I haven't found any of the articles to be particularly well-written or insightful. I guess the fogies over at the Times are so out of touch with us whipper-snappers that anything that goes beyond explaining traditional love roles is somehow award-winning.

But it also depresses me because all of the columns so far have expressed a downright dissatisfaction and disillusionment with love. Is lovelessness the bread and butter of our generation? Perhaps we really have become so removed from one another that we are now content with a slew of meaningless hookups, because we have witnessed our parents' messy divorces and bitter remarriages, we have seen the mantle of love crack under the pressure of too many years lived too unhappily.

I've had my heart broken. I don't want to get into the details because they are painful and tender even now. My parents also got divorced when I was 14 so I know first hand what it's like to fall out of love with love. Cue a plethora of meaningless boyfriends and hookups, the Prince Charming fantasy all but discarded in the trash along with my virginity and my ability to find someone who didn't treat me like I existed solely for his sheer amusement. I know where these kids writing the "Modern Love" columns are coming from. This week's feature is about the horrors of dating - something that I purposely avoid engaging in because it's so painfully awkward. The meaningless questions, the prodding -- but the thing I hate most about dating is that intense self-awareness that you're forced to adopt. "Do I look okay tilting my head this way? Am I saying 'like' too many times? Am I coming off as an asshole?" Dating is a breeding ground for self-doubt, so I usually try to get to know people in a more comfortable environment - in class, mostly - so that the whole "first date" thing will seem casual and nonchalant.

But the reason this article troubles me is because I've grown to accept the fact that prior circumstances have left me rather disillusioned about love and relationships. I just thought that everyone else still believed in them. The idea that a lot of people from my generation share my discontent is rather horrifying for me. It's kind of like Americans' stance on the environment: "Everyone else will clean it up." I assumed that everyone else was waiting for their Knight in Shining Armor, holding down the fort for those of us who aren't believers, guiding us in by torchlight to some hallowed inner sanctum where they could finally convince me and my disenchanted counterparts that love isn't impossible.

Modern Love depresses me because I was so totally wrong.

-Jess