Play of the Day

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Kind and gentle readers, comrades, friends!

The play of this oddly warm Midwestern day is a little bar called Now That’s Class.

Don’t let the name fool you. NTC (as I have decided to refer to it throughout this post, and in my Cleveland life more generally–unless someone stops me) is a dive. It’s a good, old, punk-rock drinking hole that sometimes hosts the last of the truly misanthropic rockers on its two small stages.

The place is covered in vulgar and political graffiti (which is awesome, though I was sad to learn that the space, a former gay bar, once had life-sized paintings of naked men on its walls now lost to visitors). There’s a make-shift half-pipe in one of its two rooms that is very clearly loved  and well-used by the skater set. NTC also boasts a dilapidated back patio and a stream of rabble-rousing regulars who drink on the cheap and bring joy (or, my guess is, sometimes discomfort and possibly bodily injury) to patrons.

I showed up after a Browns game this Sunday for a beer and was wowed by the blaring Cleveland hip-hop and the welcoming if by-then meager crowd.* I was also wowed by the beer selection in the joint. And the devil-may-care aesthetics. This kind of place could not exist anywhere else quite like it does in Cleveland.

Here’s to punk-rockers, ne’er-do-wells, and ironically named dive bars. Here’s to Cleveland!

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*I suspect that the gathering in this local haunt would have been considerably larger had the Browns won the game. Football, as far as I can tell, is a religion here. And, as with many, the faith inspires intense devotion and sometimes, especially in Cleveland, a lot of suffering. Its epiphanic moments, however, appear to be worth the otherwise excruciating passion Clevelanders go through for their teams.


On leaving Los Angeles

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All urban centers are filled with dwellers and visitors just about to depart. It is, partly, the constant population flux that makes cities compelling to explore, to live in, to pass through. Los Angeles has its own very particular place in the global landscape as a city of flows. People come and breath the smoggy stuff of it in. They love it or hate it or nestle into an ambivalence about it. Then life interferes and sends them meandering elsewhere. They leave. Or, sometimes, they stay. Either way these movements change the city, and in turn, make it the sort of strange and compelling ecology that transforms those who move within it.

I am, alas, quickly nearing my departure from Los Angeles. There is very little conflict in my feeling about this city. I adore it. I swoon. I am drunk with love for Los Angeles. But leave it, I must.

I’m Cleveland bound, dear readers. And that may mean for you more exciting and exploratory posts. For me, it means an adventure and a mourning. I already feel the terrible weight of this loss. Los Angeles is the city of my coming of a certain age, the city that housed my least bearable sorrows and served as harbor for my most brilliant joys.

Los Angeles is a city that must be sick with the trite, the inadequate ways I and many (and better*) writers before me could list its gifts. Those who have named its faults (and there have been many**) did so with sometimes vicious and intentional, sometimes naive myopia. The city responded to both with equal indifference. She*** will treat me as she did them. If there is any feeling that might come for her in response to my departure, it will be, at most, a negligible sorrow.

Ohio calls. And many other places call many other Angelenos, and would-be Angelenos, and passers-through and by.  When those calls come, Los Angeles mocks them. Or at least she seems to for me. She glistens in the sun. She whispers about her mild winters and lets maps to her secret corners unfurl on the desk. She coyly offers a picture of just what a bitch she will be if you really do leave her. I am a sucker for her charms in just the way an itinerant urbanite would be. I’m sure that as soon as I really walk out the door I will be filled with regret that I did. I’ll pay for leaving.

But such are the manic loves offered by the lovers of cities, and such are the cities worthy of such ridiculous, impossible loves.

Los Angeles will be for me, perhaps always, the city that got away. In fact she might be such for most visitors, for most native-born, even for those still held in her particular, bizarre embrace. She is a city a heart can love until it breaks. Unknowable but familiar, she returns affection only partially. Sprawling, traffic-clogged, imperfect—magical.

I just may spend my life wanting desperately to return.

Take me back, someday, Los Angeles. Please.****

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*Reyner Banham was a lover of Los Angeles, more faithful than most. To name just one.

**Nathanael West did not, it seems, really love Los Angeles. He did not suffer from the myopia to which I refer but he wrote poor Todd Hackett and Homer Simpson into being so that they seem only able to view, if lustfully, the awful, the violent, the wretched phenomenon of the city as it was.

***I struggled with choosing the gender in my anthropomorphization of the city. I settled on this particular pronoun not because I in any way support the tropes that perform in our language what translates in our culture to the asymmetrical distribution of power by gender, but because the depth and breadth of my love for Los Angeles is the sort I have felt in my life far more often for women than for men. I trust you, dear visitors, to read it thusly.

****I recognize that this post takes itself and its prose too seriously. So be it. I am serious about loving Los Angeles.


Play of the last seven years

Um. So. Yeah. From this day forth, please refer to me as Dr. Itinerant Me.

That is all. For now. Allow me to recover from this milestone and the jobless abyss into which I now must wade. Posts, I promise, will follow.

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On ending things in cities

In the last weeks, time seemed multiplied by a feeling of no longer being there and of living Santa Barbara each day, with its fatal charm and its blandness, as the predestined site of an eternal return.          –Jean Baudrillard*

In Santa Barbara (where I have, over the past month or so, been holed up in one final push to finish my dissertation) my days are a numbered bunch. They’re not usually very kind to me either. The water along the coast is still just cold enough to make the first leap in a quick and numbing experience, though indeed refreshing. The 7-year-long trajectory of my life in and out of the city is inscribed in it and as I near the end, those markers seem unusually plump with nastiness. Cloying, unpleasant moments live on corners when I might rather see them rotting, buried in the trash heap of forgotten history. And of course, there is the morning marine layer, which makes it hard to wake at an early hour. Paradise, they say. But those who say that never really lived here. Paradise is always just for the tourists.

Many of what will likely be my last stretches of time here are spent laboring in the awkward, existentially obliterating task of begging and pleading with whatever dying muse might be left to tend to the poor, the jobless, the potentially obsolete humanities graduate student.

These sorts of things do not put one, shall we say, in the mood to celebrate a merry send-off.

But nostalgia is a real jerk. He sets traps. He lets you suffer in the present only to turn that suffering with just a little bit of time into longing and melancholy, albeit longing and melancholy tinged with a certain, desperate and (usually) false sort of pleasure. And cities, places of all sorts, are ripe sites for his dangerous play. I can see him circling now, even before the departure has taken place. He’s going to make me miss it.

Do not let any of this grimly insist that Santa Barbara is some kind of awful wasteland and that I’ll be a fool when I remember it fondly (though it can be, and I will be). I do so love the beaches, the mountains that push the city toward the water. The community of scholars with whom I’ve shared the city are a kind and glorious group. It’s just not a place to which I have ever wanted to belong.

In these last days I’m doing what I can to push away both the impending nostalgia as well as the less kind and generous voices in my head and just enjoy, in the present, the slices of Santa Barbara which still buoy a resident up and make the place inhabitable: Reading on the beach. The best restaurant in the whole of the central coast, Julienne. Handlebar Coffee. Citrus trees everywhere. And a quietness, a slowness that makes the banal tasks of life just a little bit easier.

Leaving a city is always a strange and complicated act. Like leaving a lover. Even when you know the whole thing should be over, has been over for a long time, you still ache in the send-off. Maybe because you know, in the end, despite everything, you’re going miss her.

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*America. Trans. Chris Turner. (New York: Verso, 1988) 72.


On "earthquake weather"

…”thus, in Alton Locke: ‘They rowed her in across the rolling foam–/the cruel crawling foam.’

The foam is not cruel, neither does it crawl. The state of mind which attributes to it these characteristics of a living creature is one in which the reason is unhinged by grief.”…*

In the late afternoon yesterday I stopped into Cafecito Organico for a shot of espresso with a sparkling water back.** The barista asked me if I was enjoying the weather. I said I was (one enjoys anything alternative to 75 and sunny as ‘weather’ in Los Angeles and the last two days have been hot, muggy and overcast. The heavy air is still and breathing it in takes effort. It feels like smoking). The barista replied, “me too. But, you know, this is earthquake weather.”

I did not know, in fact.

I conferred with my friend who, once also incredulous, told me that her husband had heard the same thing from a colleague: “earthquake weather.” Shortly after this colleague finished explaining the phenomenon (and I’ve checked with the source) an earthquake did, in fact, occur. The long joke for all those present for the event had something to do with being burned at the stake. But, apparently, such a thing as earthquake weather exists. And might, at least if colloquial knowledge could tell it, be a good way to know when the next big shake is coming.

Today no major seismic activity was registered. But there were shifts in the world, as there always must be. Some of them were mine alone.*** It felt very much as though the weather served as my warning for a few rough moments I had to work my way through. And, for this reason, it occurred to me that earthquake weather, like the other very Angeleno phenomenon known as the Santa Anas, might be this city’s particular sort of metaphysics, our own cult prophet: meteorological forecast as horoscope.

I am not the first to wonder about the very specific pathetic fallacy of Los Angeles. One might characterize a good chunk of the literature that has come out of this strange metropolis as devoted to exactly that aesthetic. L.A. noir, in particular, is full of dark and stormy nights personified, made alive to match the trouble brewing in a character or two.

The world we make of this city, perhaps because so many of us believe ourselves to be the center of it in one way or another, is one in which the wind and the rain, the heat, anything that shapes the light and temperature of the vast sprawl we call home, might be an omen of our own personal disasters or triumphs.

I like this about Los Angeles. It would be nice, though, if once in a while all the good weather that we don’t notice portended better things–if the vast majority of 75 and sunny days were communally read as an indication of nicer, kinder moments to come.

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*John Ruskin, Modern Painters Vol. III. 1901 (pg. 156).

**This is how espresso should always be served, by the way. And if you’re in Los Angeles and in need, Cafecito is indeed the place to have a good shot pulled.

***I would tell you all about it but, come on, this is the Internet. What kind of media scholar would I be if I really believed in privacy and ‘social’ media as unproblematically co-extant?+

+But don’t worry. I’m well. The rough moments were navigable and I escaped only slightly scathed.


Of reentry

Going home is a complicated affair. Especially if you’ve spent a few weeks roaming the Italian countryside, eating yourself silly, and watching your toes through the clear waters of the Adriatic float up to the horizon line and dip back down with each lulling wave.

Your life (if it is anything like mine, and probably even if it isn’t) sits waiting for you in just the shape you left it. There is work to be done, relationships to tend or mend or break, laundry to fold, coffee to be made, groceries to be bought. The mundanity of it can be oppressive, the obligations stifling.

I’ve never been very good at coming home.

When I was a child my family used to take a week or two each summer in San Diego.* Once, I remember, when I lay in my bed in Albuquerque upon the evening of our return I couldn’t stop crying, raging really, with a ferocity that shocked my parents. My state was induced by an intense, unmitigable longing to build another sand castle combined with the terrible fact that I could not do so, or at least not on the beach surrounded by my cousins with the Pacific waters creeping toward me.

That horrible longing is not what I feel now. But I do think the little kid I was knew something about the ephemerality of travel. She knew that when you are present in a place, particularly when you are happy, you let slip away the ongoing trajectory of the life you otherwise lead. This is why people do terrible and amazing things when they wander elsewhere. It is the explanation for the genre that is travel literature. You learn something about yourself, true, but you also let so much of yourself go.

It is difficult to return to a place when you are changed and the place is not. When you have let go of little pieces of the thing you thought yourself to be only to find that the you that is left still has to do the stupid laundry. And every time we return, we do so as new animals. We do so as creatures lighter than we were (though it might feel like a heaviness) when we left.

But what’s more, we know the place we left in order to return will begin to be lost. The minutia of living sticks around, the wild clarity of foreignness dissipates. Or it does for me, anyway.

It would be better, but more difficult, to recognize that the shifts in what and who we are, are constant. To believe that while travel may bring the flux of us into relief,  just leaving the house to engage the world also makes us new and new again. It would be better to let memory do its editorial work and know that traces are left none-the-less.

Of course, I do believe this. I just can never seem to remember it when I’m doing the laundry, or buying groceries, or making my morning cup of coffee, the image of my toes seen through clear sea waters still fresh but fading in my mind.

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*Yes. We were the sort of bourgeoisie family that did such things. It was what was done, as they say. Don’t complain about the incompatibility of my Marxism with my bourgeoisie upbringing or I’ll get real mad and point you to an earlier post.


Of the early Roman morning

Sometimes, as a traveler, this sort of thing just happens. You turn a corner and are staring at some astounding monument and it is more than it should be. It is so much, in fact, that you can’t shake the uncanny feeling that you have mistaken the guidebook description for the real thing–that something has gone terribly wrong and you have landed somehow in a postcard of the place you are trying to understand, trying to navigate, instead of being in that place, at a particular moment in time.

It was late, my first night in Rome, and after the best spaghetti vongole I have ever eaten and a bottle of white table wine I went wandering with my friend, who knows Rome and speaks Italian. He led me, in a round about way, to the piazza in front of the Pantheon.

When we rounded the corner off a narrow, cobble-stone side street and I saw it and the inexplicably vacant plaza in front of it, the nearly full moon above it, I thought I might not be able to breathe.

A place like that should be anticlimactic. It should be vacated of all its power and history by the heat of high season and throngs of tourists. Or this is, at least, what I believed it should be, what I was sure it would be. But it wasn’t.

The enormous Roman thing stood there, in the well-moonlit, warm night and was so close to the gift my 18-year-old self imagined European travel to give that I stumbled. I did not believe it. I could not fathom that the stuff of novels I’d been reading since I was an over-emotional, self-obsessed and deeply romantic teenager could possibly reveal itself as real to an increasingly jaded, well-traveled and critical 31-year-old me.

“Oh, Rome!” (I hear myself saying) “I’ll never forget it!” And I cringe. But there are moments, as it turns out, when cynicism just fails–when you can weep at beauty long after you’ve stopped believing in it outside of its social construction, long after you’ve given up the idea that it might save us savage creatures from surely but slowly and violently destroying ourselves. The Roman Empire was no paradise, nor is the odd, frenetic, present-day city that stands in our global memory as its remaining vestigial limb. But for a moment, though it was brief, I understood why someone might believe a place to be holy. Why we (the communal, universal, human ‘we’) would  long to stand in the shadows of our history and believe in greatness.

Now that the moment has passed I worry. I worry because what I think of is the Satyricon. I think of what ’empire’ meant once and what I believe it to mean now. I worry because I know too much and too little of history. And because while my 18-year-old self believed in History (Marxist teleology was my particular bent), my current self does not.

In the end I have decided just to be glad that the vestigial limb of my own emotional, historical and nostalgic former self is capable of flailing in the Roman night, wowed. It wasn’t like a postcard. It was me and my friend, in the very early morning, under a moon so big it seemed impossible. We were astounded, amazed, and happy that something in us was connected to something with such weight–this marble structure that bears history.

The academic in me is ashamed. The traveller, though, whom I think I may have more trust in, nods and is satisfied. Such contradictions are the very reason to wander.


Of your brain on transatlantic airtravel

Dearest readers of mine, yet again I am in transit!

I arrived in the fine city of Amsterdam on Wednesday morning. I passed just a few quick days in that gem in the crown of enthralling European cities before heading to Rotterdam (where I currently sit) for what has proven to be a very engaging event at the Piet Zwart Institute. On Tuesday, I’ll move on to Berlin. More will follow on these ventures, I promise. For now, though, because I am only just now recovering from my jet-lag, I wish to tell you that air travel really screws with your brain.

It is, in a word, insane that I awoke in sunny Los Angeles and, some 24 hours and change later, I snuggled into a hotel bed on an entirely different continent. That such materially and existentially challenging movement was made possible by a jet the size of a large house (and made of extremely heavy parts) which shuttles its delicate carriage through the air, actually flying, at inhuman speeds is proof enough of the schizophrenic nature of contemporary travel.

For this, and perhaps many other reasons, it isn’t surprising that air travel does weird things to people. I’m not going to list all of the varied phenomenological and ontological upheavals excavated in us creatures by such travel. This is a topic for a much more studied, extensive volume. Instead, let me just point to one curious and mesmerizing phenomena: in-flight entertainment.

In-flight movies pull at human heart-strings in ways cinema on the ground does not. Seriously. The worst possible movies can make you ache with appreciation for the universal human condition. Or quake in terrible fear at the coming apocalypse. Or whatever.

You don’t have to believe me alone (or the fact that I once cried watching the abomination known as Glitter on a plane). Just Google it. Reuters, CNN, even This American Life have commented on the bizarre way we emote, rocketing forward some thousands of feet above the earth, while we watch movies that rank among the worst products of the American culture industry.

There are any number of theories (as far as my minimal research into the matter has discovered) about why it is that we feel so deeply as we stare at a screen, crammed next to rows upon rows of strangers, while we’re traversing the planet at high altitudes. Because the format of the blog seems so often to be confessional (and because certainly this particular blog is) I will add my entirely subjective, experientially rooted theory into the proverbial hat as well: We cry or cackle or desire as we watch the well packaged, corporate-sponsored drivel on the screens before us in our tiny seats because such drastic spatial transitions highlight, in a way no other means of travel seems to be able to, the temporal. Anything that truly brings the temporal into focus must bring with it the ephemeral and we know that once we’ve alighted on the ephemeral we have, alas, begun to share a little bit of space with our own, inevitable (if eventual) dissolution, decay, death. Death is the absolute universal. Or so, at least, I am told. It is the thing which binds all creatures, one way or another, to each other. It is the un-narratable experience we all will, none-the-less, share. If in high-speed, above-the-planet transitionality we are aware (consciously or otherwise) of our very material mortality then all stories to which we can even vaguely relate sparkle with the common. Death links me, weirdly, to Mariah Carey. So in that moment, careening at a pace I cannot conceive toward Paris from Los Angeles, I buy it. I buy her plight. I long for her success. I weep, awed, that she could achieve such glory in the face of such adversity.

If this seems hyperbolic, so be it. I tend (oh readers, as if you don’t already know) toward grand gestures. But what, I ask, is grander than a metal capsule in the sky packed full of us headed off that we may live (and die)? And what greater gesture of our shared precarity could any among us make than to feel and feel deeply when a story about living in whatever possible way, stripped thought it may be of criticality, is offered to us?


Of the trouble with consumption and its pleasures

I am a Marxist living in contemporary Los Angeles. I also happen to be a Marxist with a taste for caviar and nice red wine, oysters and the general revelry that is always fomented by consumption (not ‘shopping’ so much as out-going–to dinner, to bars, to see movies with boats of overpriced popcorn in tow). I am also (like all humans) a social creature, and the spaces of consumption are all too frequently also the places we gather. If you too are a Marxist or a Post-Marxist or any kind of reasonable, left-wing social critic, you will have already formed a clear response as to why this is not a particularly new conflict, nor one which requires a long-winded defense of position. But you’re reading this so probably you aren’t any of those things, or not comfortably situated as such. So, here goes:

The fact of the total surrender to commerce as the site of both pleasure and resistance, to play and to purchase, is–to put it mildly–an engaging problem. Not just for me but for scholars and activists and those (perhaps fantastically) nostalgic for a public space that belongs, instead of a public space that belongs to. It is also the source of considerable anxiety for the average person. If the present political discourse in the U.S. doesn’t convince you of this, think of the places you long to be and think of what it will cost you, in hours of labor, to get there, to visit, to stay.

One is rarely sure how to ethically engage in the world if the dynamics of global capital find one vexed. The thing about such problems is that they are always simultaneously economic and political, global and local, personal and social. Or, at the very least, I am not the only one who has to think “oh how I long for that lounge chair on the far-off white, coastal sands,” while simultaneously thinking about said sands as exclusive, expensive, impossible, troubled…

There is something to be said for desire being, ultimately, the near-perfectly harnessed fuel of late-stage, global capitalism. The problem is, of course, that desire is also what frightens the shit out of those of us whose shared desire (among many and conflicting) is to believe that capitalism is, in fact, late-stage; that the small spaces of resistance left to us, even if they too are the spaces of consumption, are still charged with meaning and possibility. We are terrified that our desire, as it turns out, is just as functional to keep this weird, post-modern version of abstraction moving mechanically forward. And–even more than that–we, despite such fears, continue to feel like we have to believe in such possibility. Because otherwise, wouldn’t we just give in and invest?

I don’t claim to know with certainty, one way or the other, whether such spaces or those of us who inhabit them have revolutionary potential. Nor do I feel I should apologize for the very obvious fact that the system is the system we live in and that my own desires are conditioned and in many cases entirely manufactured by that system. It allows me to eat oysters and love commodities which I know are built, very specifically, to sell themselves to me. It even gives us Marxist critics a handful of bars and restaurants to meet in. But, if Marxism has any say in the world today, desire may well be also how capitalism builds within and against itself the very contradictions that will ultimately make it unsustainable. People love things. This is true. But they also, even when they’re not so good at it, love sharing things with each other. They are biologically predisposed, in fact, to love. Mirror neurons. Facial recognition. Gestural cognition. We are animals who desperately need other animals, who need shared environments. We are only always in an ecology. There is no vacuum, no subject sans milieu.

Is this an excuse for the pleasures afforded us meager subjects by commerce? By caviar and Pinot Noir? The short answer is yes. The long answer is no. Otherness and exclusion always, even if just a little bit, also always excludes and others us. Me. You. And all those somewhere, fictionally, in between and outside.

I’m not joking when I say I love love. It might be the last space that really does belong. But it can easily belong to too. So what of pleasure? One eats and drinks and is merry, I suppose. But it’s worth thinking about what such eating and drinking and merriment might be if it were, legitimately, a communal affair. Speculation, of the sort not quite done by capital, goes a long way. What did Marx do, after all, if not desperately imagine a future? His did not, alas, come into being. But if we’re not careful, our own imagined futures will become advertisements for Corona and private, polluted beaches. And, what’s more, beaches onto which we will never be able to wander.

There’s no opting out. So eat your oysters. But with that slithering sumptuous little creature, swallow down as well what kind of creature you are.*

P.S. The joke of the title image for this post should be clear enough: Capitalism can’t kill love. Even if it can often co-opt it.

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*I do not normally engage in such politically charged exposition on this blog. But I believe it. So, read and be warned or scoff, but know where I stand.


Of the joys and perils of karaoke

A friend of mine and I like to go to karaoke about once a month or so, if schedules and desires align. We usually go to the Smogcutter, a spectacular dive in Silverlake where Charles Bukowski is rumored to have whiled away many a drunken hour. Last night, however, we went for a slightly more upscale, scenester local–the Bigfood Lodge in Los Feliz.

I have a total of two tunes in my repertoire, and only two. This is due partially to the fact of my genetics. I cannot sing on key, ever. No one in my bloodline can and my guess is our heirs long into the future will be damned with this same curse. There is a salve for our inherited deficiency, however. Songs sung either in the ‘scream’ register, or those sung in falsetto can, on occasion, be the right fit for the likes of us. They must be very carefully selected, however. I have more than once grabbed the mic only to clear the room with a poorly calculated choice. Dylan is out. Don’t even try. Cash can be done, but only with immense finesse–that I happen to lack. No Bowie. And never, ever Journey.

I prefer a very specific era for my chosen gems of these two genres–the 80s. This allows for maximum camp and performative potential and minimum requirements for faithful rendering.

I hesitate, dear readers, to tell you what these two songs are, lest you ever have the pleasure of sharing an evening with me and a karaoke machine. I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise. But for the sake of participatory journalism and the culture of personal revelation via blog, I’ll do it anyway. Drum-roll please: Emotional Rescue by the Rolling Stones (Mick in falsetto is ridiculously good) and Life During Wartime by the Talking Heads (screamie genre here, at least when I perform it).

Last night the bar was low on Stones, so I went the Heads route. I would argue that, and I realize this is a biased judgement, I killed it. That crowd of hipsters may have hated my sweater and my boot-leg jeans, but they loved me as David Byrne. Dare I say that I warmed the cockles of their cold, aloof, hipster hearts? I do. I dare.

And that, oh comrades my comrades, is all that one can ask from a good Monday night on the mean streets of Los Angeles. Fame matters here, banal and bizarre though it often can be. My city is one whose primary industry is the production of vapid and vacuous reality television and blockbuster violence (and yes, some really wonderful stuff too, though in much smaller proportions). It is a place where people tweet their star sightings, where red carpets are always at the ready. At least on the karaoke stage, though, anyone can have their fifteen minutes. And then, unlike those pour souls followed by film crews, creep back out into the quiet night, anonymous but joyous just the same.