Last week I wrote an essay about Tom Petty and his influence on me. Read it here.
In the summer of 1991 my brother and I were runners at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. We'd often eat lunch on the steps of a plaza across the street from the Merc, sitting along Wacker Driver in a long line of other runners, clerks, and traders.
One day, a man passed us talking on his phone. It was a car phone, but in his hand. It was the first one I had ever seen outside of a TV show about drug dealers and the cops who hunt them. The two of us, 16 and 17, shook our heads in shock--and disgust. "No one is that busy," my brother said.
I wonder what the other guys sitting along Wacker thought. Young as we were, it had to be a remarkable site to more than just us. Maybe a few on those plaza steps envied the man and his on-the-go style and coveted a mobile phone of their own. My guess, though, is that even right there outside one of the hubs of modern capitalism, most agreed no one was that busy.
Over the next decade signs of a changing world piled up. There was the time in 1996 when a woman's cell-phone went off in my Modern American Lit class at Marquette University. Our professor-- as mild-mannered a guy to ever teach a humanities course--icily told her to turn it off. Now. The rest of the class was about as appalled.
There are a pair of comic-relief scenes in Manchester-by-the Sea that concisely encapsulate my problems with the movie. 16-year old Patrick, whose father recently died, practices with his band, Stentorian, in the garage or basement of one of Patrick’s two girlfriends’ houses. The band sucks, and that is supposed to be True and Funny. In the first scenelet Patrick and his mates reprimand the drummer for playing too slow. In the second, they reprimand him for—hold on, you’ll never guess—playing too fast. Nothing else happens in either scene.
These two paired bits add little to Patrick’s character beyond 1) reminding us he is just a teenager and 2) showing us one of the things that binds him to his titular town. The latter is important because his uncle Lee may move him out of it.
Unfortunately, the terribleness of the band makes Patrick less interesting, not more, and makes this particular bond to his hometown flimsy. I’m not asking for Jack Nicholson suddenly playing a busted piano like a virtuoso minutes after clocking out of the oil-rig in Five Easy Pieces, but some nuance or passion or depth of character would have been nice. If I am supposed to spend over two hours giving a shit about a guy, please make him interesting. Beyond the death of his father, the boy possesses little to excite our sympathies. I mean, he’s one of those dudes juggling two girlfriends once. Nuts to him.
"Don’t Let Facebook Make You Miserable," the New York Times ordered me this weekend. Facebook can do no such thing since I bravely deleted my account in 2013. Even still, I have a patrician disdain for social media, so was hoping to enjoy some schadenfreude over the world I left behind and its many mindless prisoners. Alas…
The premise of Seth Stephens-Davidowitz's article is simple: we don't live lives that are quite as exciting as we portray them on social media. The problem is he turns every piece of data into evidence of this phenomenon. Here are three examples that serve, for him, as proof of our hypocrisy:
1. "In the real world, The National Enquirer, a weekly, sells nearly three times as many copies as The Atlantic, a monthly, every year. On Facebook, The Atlantic is 45 times more popular."
2. "Americans spend about six times as much of their time cleaning dishes as they do golfing. But there are roughly twice as many tweets reporting golfing as there are tweets reporting doing the dishes."
3. "Owners of luxury cars like BMWs and Mercedeses are about two and a half times as likely to announce their affiliation on Facebook as are owners of ordinary makes and models."
Try to find the flaws those stats. In the meantime, I will relate that Stephens-Davidowitz "actually spent the past five years" unearthing them. Now, let's bitch about the above and explore why they do not support his brief.
I’m 174 pages into Martin Amis’s “The Rachel Papers.” It’s been a breezy slog so far, and I have 50 pages left. At one minute and thirty-nine seconds per page (I timed myself on the el this morning), that is one hour, twenty-two minutes and thirty seconds to go.
Is it worth it? My wife just got me a great book on how to make pizza and I need to bone up on the science of crusts. Plus there is writing like this here blog post that I want to do more of; it’s in my blood, man. Then there’s being a good father and husband and well-informed citizen and all the prayer and study that goes with semi-pro Catholicism. Plus there’s fitness and over-all self-improvement beyond just reading. All that takes time. Do I really have 1:22:30 to spend on this book that I am not exactly enjoying?
Recently I wanted to listen to something that did not have any lyrics and was not classical music. Pop music was out since pop, in all its varieties, is devoted to the lyric, and especially to the lyricist or singer. Aside from a few half-century old, two-minute tone poems about surfing or a few drum solos buried deep on the B-sides of Led Zeppelin albums, pop is chit-chat. I love you, I don’t like this town, I am an excellent rapper who mainly raps about how other rappers are rather bad at rapping, etc.
So I thunk to myself, “There’s gotta be some folk guy who shuts up and plays.” I googled "best folk guitarist" and discovered John Fahey. It was exactly what I needed:
Last night I smoked six wings and four legs. The unnamed animal in that sentence was a chicken. If I had a photo I could have posted it beside this paragraph and you would have known it was a chicken (or, rather, chickens) that filled my belly and my wife’s and my friend Marty’s bellys. You also would have admired the uncommonly red skin and finely mottled dry rub. You may have said, “Where’d you get it?” as if I must have had to purchase what is clearly the work of an expert. I would have been able to respond, “I made it MYSELF, dog,” as a sort of culinary muscle-flex to the cheering crowd.
“Food porn” is too coarse a term for the photo that does not exist. It would have been food erotica. Humanists would have held up pictures of the wings and legs while making life-vows during their DIY marriage ceremonies. “This is what you are to me,” they would say over the Unity Bush. Grandmothers would cry tears out of their mouths. That’s called salivating, ma’am, and wait till you see the spread at the reception.
On Sunday, February 24, 2013, my friend Sonari and I sat in a bar outside Dallas, Texas, each staring at a phone and barely speaking to the other. The specificity sounds portentous but it was just a random Sunday, easy to look up because it was that year's Oscars night. A decent crowd had shown up to watch the ceremony. We neither paid attention to the TVs nor, as I said, to each other. We'd just driven 450 miles from Memphis with a long mid-day stop in Little Rock. Google Maps says the drive takes about six and a half hours, but I recall it taking three times that. It was a fine time, not complaining, but it was 10:00 at night and we had not had dinner yet. I recall feeling completely exhausted.
Day started with 8:00 mass because we are solid Catholics both, true to The Game and all that. The priest had an interactive homily about the baggage we carry and asked members of the congregation to hold onto some clothes of his he would not be taking on his vacation in Rome. He walked from pew to pew handing stuff out. I can't remember the point-- divesting oneself of the unnecessary?-- but it was lively and nice. We stopped outside Graceland, but did not go inside to genuflect. We stopped in Little Rock to have lunch, walk along the river, and visit--our third temple of the day-- the extraordinarily horrible Clinton Library. Just awful. The rest of the day was spent driving. So was the previous--Chicago to Memphis. There we had ribs and checked out Beale Street and went to bed late. After Dallas we'd drive to Austin, pick up our friend Anton, spend the night there, and drive to San Antonio in the morning. After a brief cameo at the Alamo, I'd split for Chicago via jet airplane and Anton would accompany Sonari the rest of the way to Los Angeles via electric car. Anton and I were just there to hang, someone to talk with and at on the long drive across the continent. Analog company in a digital time.
So here we were, two garrulous friends, totally spent, checking emails, headlines, weather, whatever--everything but each other. I looked around and noticed that the bar was full of people talking to each other as they watched the Oscars. No one was on a phone but the two of us.
"Sonari, we're being those people."
"What people?" he asked without looking up.
The line between cliché and colloquial expression is fine. Consider, for example, the idea that there is “a line” between two categories and that the thickness of it is“fine.” Cliché to thee, adage to me.
Or what if I say, “Friendo, this here toilet’s flushing mechanism just hit a home run.” Have I uttered a tired cliché or used an expression that, like my accent, tells the listener that I am an American? I choose the latter interpretation. It’s not that I am fond of stock phrases. I am just a generous soul who would prefer to think that the speakers and writers I encounter are displaying hallmarks of their culture, not foreign objects clogging their mental pipes. Lack of eloquence is not crime, and stock phrases “are there for the taking” so people who don’t know how to say something clever “can get through the day.”
So the merely inelegant does not invite the sting of my mace, nor the heat of my blade. Nay, my wrath is reserved for the lazy cliché, the phrase too graceless to be colloquial, too devious to be polite, and too faddish to mean anything but that the person has not thought about what he is saying. Or worse, what he is writing.
I have compiled a brief list of internet-era clichés that we need to put onto a raft in the middle of the ocean, along with the collected works of Aerosmith and Starbuck’s Coffee’s roasting methods. After a small ceremony we will give the raft a shove, and then never look upon their like again:
A few weeks ago a brilliant essay showed up in my twitter feed. It was by a dude named Ben Schwartz, and titled, "Satirized for Your Consumption." I liked it a lot. It made me think with my mind. His thesis is, "We live in an age of satirical excess. If economists were to diagnose it, they might well call it a comedy bubble... And as often happens with bubbles, it burst."
As I said, (see preceding paragraph) I thought it was brilliant, but like all smart pieces of criticism that make a brother think, I did not agree with all of it. I sharply disagree with this part. Long quote follows, but worth the read:
A few years ago I met a guy in a bar--a friend of a friend--who was loud and confident and obnoxious and, at the moment, hanging out with his father-in-law. Within a few minutes of our meeting he made a joke about how his wife liked to give oral sex.* Everyone laughed, including his father-in-law, because MAN! That guy will say anything.
I politely forced a smile since I had not yet mastered an expression of patrician disapproval. Plus I wanted to be nice. I mean, I had just met him. Maybe his next sentence was gonna be about how he met his beloved on a Doctor's Without Borders mission and that the physical act of love was a small bit of solace in this broken world. It wasn't, though. Just more off-color jokes and swears and non-insult insults because we're all friends here, right assholes? He wasn't my type.
I'm not a prude. I have probably said grosser things than you have ever thought, and I have said them onstage before Republican strangers in rural areas. Back when I was an improviser, I often had to point this out to other performers when we debated the subtle art of when to go blue onstage. My belief is embedded in that sentence--that it is a subtle art. Not thinking that every moment was right for a sperm joke usually earned me the rep of "team prude."
One of my teammates once told me that swearing and sex jokes were integral to his style. "I bring thunder," he said, and italicized thunder with his voice and fist. He sort of gathered his fingers into one as he uttered the syllables. I thought he played to the childish in the audience, and did not so much surprise people with his language as shock them. Unfunny people, then, confuse this moment of shock with the surprise that is so central to comedy. His shock winds up derailing the show with inorganic choices. The rest of us must then mop up, shall we say, all that spilled sperm. (I remember this conversation because it was a particularly bitter argument amongst the whole team, and I was really only in a support role on the less-is-more side.)
The ironic thing about shock is that after a very short while it fades. It winds up appealing only to bullies and loudmouths, neither of whom are funny and neither of whom could possibly be surprised or shocked after much of it. They just like it because it's a taboo being said out loud. But for the rest of an audience, it's not a great choice. Dice Clay, the bawdy nursery rhyme man who now seems as remote as a character in one, became like piano-key tie patterns and couches made out of the back-seats of cars--something that makes us think of the 1980s, but that did not make it out. You can do blue material well, of course. But there has to be a strong emotional element to it and a logic that fits the rest of the piece, like with my fantastic joke about mopping up sperm in the paragraph above.
I thought of this since that friend-of-a-friend is in the paper today. Figuratively speaking-- his business is featured in an article on a website, and I thought, "Hey, that's the guy who told his father-in-law about his daughter's sexual preferences." I wondered what he is up to. My guess is that he is still a total nut, saying all the things the rest of us Sallies wouldn't dare to. I bet he tells people about his wife's boning habits and swears around kids and jabs at his friends. Shock is about that predictable.
*It's all in the language, of course. If he had said it exactly like that, "My wife likes to give oral sex," then it would have been funny.
The night after my daughter was born, I had an urge to call my brother with a warning. An order, really.
Find a baby, I’d hiss into the phone. Change its diaper. Do it again and again and again. Do it until you are good at it.
And then, I would hang up. If my brother was smart, he’d walk to the nearest maternity ward and get started.
Before that day, I’d never changed a diaper. I had no experience as a baby sitter. Even when merely holding a baby, I was incompetent. I’d sort of hug them at chest level like I might hold a greased duffel bag full of sand. My wife, Angela, with seventeen nieces and nephews, was an old pro. I figured I’d watch her for a few years and by the time I got the knack, my daughter would be driving herself to the store for diapers.
A C-section nixed that plan. Angela now had orders to stay in bed, and you know, take it easy. “Just take these here pills and groove,” the doctor said. “Let your husband do all the diaper changing for the first few days.
It’s all in the transitions. That’s where you feel it. The fast tempo is even faster after a slow one. The triumphant anthem is more powerful when paired with a lamentation--and it’s also more fleeting. “Watch Me Jumpstart” by Guided by Voices is a good song, but it’s a great one when you play the song before it on Alien Lanes. It’s “Evil Speakers,” one of Robert Pollard’s toss-offs, lots of nonsense lyrics with a cliche tossed in. (“Without wings, I’ve begun to fly.”) It’s not terrible. It's OK, I guess. But as a jangly set-up for the driving, guttural guitar that kicks in the moment it ends and “Watch Me Jumpstart” begins? Man, it’s essential. It’s the pedestal for the bust of Beethoven glaring at you. You don’t notice it but you need it. Without the pedestal, poor old pissed-off Beethoven is sideways on the floor, glaring at lint.
The kids, man, The goddam kids. Listening to singles. Wouldn’t know a good transition if it split their Dres in half. Probably just listening to Vines, anyway, all six seconds if that, the visual more important than the aural. Fuckin’ kids. Only know Beck as the guy who got dissed by Kanye, not as the guy who faded from “Loser” to “Pay No Mind.” That latter track starts with the statement that this was song two on the album and the order, sped-up or heliumed-up in high-pitch, to: “Burn the album!.” Not as in “copy,” but as in “set on fire.” Or better yet, they don’t know Beck as the guy who faded from the manic, eclectic, raw creativity of the Mellow Gold album to the actually-mellow One Foot in the Grave acoustic album, a mini-masterpiece that showed whoever cared to listen that hell yeah, this guy knows his roots. But it’s not just the kids. No one knows that album.
The first time I ever met Jason Chin, who died yesterday at 46, was in late winter, 1999. I was 24, a student at the iO Theater where he was the at various times the official or the de facto artistic director. I had shown up to watch a Pat Shay Dancers and Deep Schwa show. (Now that I think of it, he was coach of both storied teams). Jason was the house manager that night, and though I knew him, he did not know me. I had forgotten my student ID, which would get me in for free. I waved him down and explained my situation: level one student, down on his luck, missing ID, trying to impress this girl here, etc., etc. I asked if I could be let in, like, just this once. He stared at me for a good ten seconds, shook his head, and said, “No.” And then he walked away.
I would later give him shit for this. He had no memory of it and said that it did not sound like something he’d do. I agreed, but the fact that he did do it amused me. Because Jason was the kind of guy who, 99.9% of the time, would have waved me and all of my friends in. He was warm and generous and friendly, and he loved students. Still, I like thinking of him as that first impression I had: Jason R. Chin, the merciless, take-no-shit Ice Man with a cold, cold stare.
My friend and I disagree about disco in two ways: one a basic matter of taste; and one controversial. I dislike it; he likes it. That’s trouble enough for a pleasant conversation. But the second part of the argument is where it gets interesting. Or, if not interesting, tedious and divisive. He thinks that the bulk of the backlash goes beyond taste and is directly attributable to homophobia. I counter that no, it sucks.
This little entry is in response to Renee Graham’s Boston Globe article, which my bullshit “friend” emailed to me yesterday, titled “Why does rock and roll hate disco?” You may remember that I titled this entry (see above) “Because it sucks.” Get it?
Heh heh heh. I am sticking with the sophomoric title not because I think I am so funny or even because that’s what I think about disco. I am keeping it because I think it is an apt response to the way Graham frames the article: why have so many disco musicians been excluded from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Answer: Because it, the hall, sucks.
Dennis O'Toole is a all-set cobra jet creepin' through the nighttime. He lives in Chicago.
If you need to reach me, dial:
denotoole AT SYMBOL gmail PERIOD CHARACTER co LETTER M.