Arsenic And Old Cake

October 29, 2013

On October 28, 1922, a man named William Wrey Sterrett died at Bryn Mawr Hospital in Philadelphia. He seems to have been the quiet type in life; an accountant for Price Waterhouse, he lived an uneventful life with his wife, Martha Campbell Sterrett, in Devon, Pennsylvania. The couple had been married for eight years and had no children. Nor, apparently, did they have an extensive social life: the friends dredged up by newspaper reporters all had kind words to say about him but most of them centered around how unassuming he was. “A home type,” several friends told the Chester County Daily Local News. In an article printed on October 31, The Philadelphia Inquirer quoted more anonymous friends as having “nothing but praise for the dead accountant … while not a person of the kind that made idle boasts, he was always willing to enter into discussions of various sorts, and his advice was generally regarded as good.”

Apart from these modified raptures, the only other distinctive pieces of information about “the dead accountant” were that he and his wife had just bought a new house and that they also liked to go antiquing on the weekends. So far, so unremarkable — until Thursday, October 26, 1922. That afternoon, Mrs. Sterrett picked up the mail at the Devon post office and discovered that she had received a package “about the size of a pound candy box” (according to the October 29th Daily Local News), addressed with a typewritten label to Mrs. W.W. Sterrett. It had no return address but had been postmarked in Philadelphia. The postmistress, Mrs. (or Miss — the papers differ) Gillies, turned out to be happy to share Mrs. Sterrett’s reaction with newspaper reporters. Under the subheading “NERVOUS AT POST OFFICE,” we learn that Mrs. Sterrett, speaking in an “excited manner” speculated on the contents of the box and said that she would hurry home at once to see what it contained. However, “the box remained unopened until the arrival of Mr. Sterrett on a later train, and when the box was uncovered it was found to contain a piece of brown cake known as `devil’s food’ and it was covered with a pink icing. Mr. Sterrett partook freely of the cake, but Mrs. Sterrett, it is said, did not eat as much.” (Newspaper accounts of the cake would differ: according to The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer, both publishing on October 29th, the cake was golden and, as the NYT stated, “had the appearance of having been cut from a large wedding cake.” Later, the Inquirer occasionally referred to the cake as having been devil’s food. One thing was certain: the Sterretts had between them eaten every crumb of it).

“What’s In The Box?”


Disruption and Performance: The John Vanderslice Oregon Living Room Shows, June 2013

August 7, 2013

I don’t pretend to be a person who knows a lot about performance theory; I certainly don’t play one on the Internet. In fact, I know almost nothing about the field besides the few articles I taught, and poorly, in my prior incarnation as an instructor of interpersonal communication. However, I recently had the incredible opportunity to attend not one or two or even three, but FOUR glorious nights of living room concert shows given by the singular John Vanderslice, and I found myself thinking more and more about Goffman’s concepts of front-stage and backstage behavior, as well as about notions of public and private space. 

What constitutes a performance? What is a performance space? How is the distinction between performer and audience built up, maintained, destroyed? What are the benefits to these binary distinctions? How can the artificial or organic distinctions between performer and audience best be disrupted? What are the outcomes of doing so? What does it mean for a private individual to open up his or her home, salon-style, to strangers from the Internet? 

First, before I devolve into any longer digressions than those for which I’m already well known around here, let me explain that John Vanderslice has long been among my favorite musicians, ever since I went to a show at which he was opening for the Mountain Goats in 2004 (and, see here how I revert to the rhetoric of establishing what, for lack of a better term, can be referred to as “cred” – another performance?). Cellar Door had a lot of songs that seemed loosely based on films, and as someone who would shortly ruin her life with the pursuit of graduate degrees in film studies, I really liked the songs; moreover, he was an effusive, friendly human being, and everyone’s into that, except sociopaths. I was so impressed that I ultimately wrote him in for vice-president (of the United States of America) when I voted later that fall (I voted for John Darnielle for president). Un/fortunately, we get the democracy we deserve (Don’t worry. It was a Diebold machine and I lived in Florida, so my vote probably did not count anyway).*

 

Here is the first of several exhortations I shall make for you to check out his music, because I have great taste in media. Anyway, I’ve gone to many, many shows over the years, though due to circumstances in my life I hadn’t seen him play since about 2009. Thus, when I drove down to Salem for the first show, I was very excited. This proved to be a good strategy.

 

In addition to not being a scholar of performance theory, I’m also not a music writer – indeed, despite once having had a music-related book shortlisted for publication and ostensibly working on lyrics rights to move it forward with another publisher, I actually loathe most music writing. So I’m not going to try to engage in Music Writing Itself here. However, I will say that just like all of Vanderslice’s albums, 2013’s Dagger Beach really resonated with me in terms of not only its content, but in terms of its production, as it was self-released and funded through Kickstarter. I was proud to be a supporter – even if the record had sucked, which it emphatically did the opposite of, I was really excited to be part of something that subverted tradition, because that’s just what I’m all about.

 

Here, instead, are my impressions of each show and some thoughts about what the practice of living room shows, especially with this specific performer, do to disrupt people’s assumptions about performance. Here are also my thoughts about damn near whatever else pops into my head. Again, keep in mind I think some of the ideas I’m raising are probably pretty basic to those better-versed in performance theory, and quite possibly rather pretentious to those who are not.

SALEM, JUNE 13th, 2013: I had never been to a living room show before and didn’t really know what to expect, other than sheer awesomeness. Luckily, my expectations were exceeded most excellently. For one thing, the extremely gracious hosts had nearly unlimited cookies. For another, there were only about 20 people, and the “intimate” setting really set the tone for how subversive I think this whole living room show is.

           

I should mention here that as I was trying to convince a friend to go to these shows with me, I described my interest in Live Music Events™ as rooted in narrative. I always found something beautiful in the fact that a room full of hundreds, if not thousands or even tens of thousands, of strangers would unite for one prescribed event and then disperse. They would always share that short chapter in their lives. This is probably best exemplified by the afterlife of Heavy Metal Parking Lot.

 

The atmosphere was really more of a salon, as in the 18th century thing (Note: I have never, personally, been party to nor attended an 18th century salon; I’m still working on my time machine). Vanderslice offered not only a lot of great stories and “behind-the-music” type things,  While at a lot of the “club” shows I’ve gone to, performers have occasionally responded to catcalls from the audience, this seemed to be a fluid conversation. Rather than a hybrid dualism created by the heteroglossic audience acting as a mob calling out to the performer, on a physical pedestal of the stage (Something Vanderslice actually mentioned), here everyone seemed to be an individual.

At one point, Vanderslice received backup vocals from the adorable child of the hosts. She was pretty good. The entire evening was warm and beautiful; I personally hope that if there is an afterlife that is not a punishment, it is approximately or exactly like that. I could have stayed forever, but that would have been creepy.

 

PORTLAND THE FIRST (June 13th, 2013): The next day, I went to a house in Portland, where a much larger crowd attended (of almost 50! It was starting to feel like I was in college again and a “huge lecture class” was like, 25 people). Again, the show was distinctive for how fluid it felt, just like hanging out in, well, someone’s living room, instead of being a Live Music Event with discrete boundaries and definitions. (Here I must add that when I got there, it was like entering the world’s happiest AA meeting [and only AA meeting at which people were drinking beer, probably] because Vanderslice announced to the room, “Hey everybody. This is Miranda and she’s awesome” and everybody was like, “hiiii!”). Although the post-show dance party to synth music never really got started, it was a similarly inclusive and wonderful event.

PORTLAND THE SECOND (June 14th, 2013): This was the first show that I didn’t go to alone. This in and of itself was wildly exciting and rare to me. Here, the audience-performer dichotomy was disrupted by the singing along, the interactions between performer and audience (at one point, Vanderslice stopped and asked my friend what kind of camera he had) and the overall feeling of subversion. We learned of the extremely hilarious true story behind “Convict Lake,” a story improved even more by the fact that I was sitting behind another adorable child, who did not completely understand the narrative, particularly the parts about dropping acid.

 

MEDFORD (June 18th, 2013): When I told people I was going to Medford for a concert in a stranger’s living room, they acted as though I was maybe selling a kidney to a stranger or something. Granted, I am still new enough to Oregon and still bad enough at general planning to not have realized that Medford was actually further than Seattle would have been, but who cares? I was able to talk one of my best friends into going with me, so I went down to Eugene in the afternoon and she and I drove down to Medford that evening. Everyone in Portland described Medford in a way that I had begun to expect something like this, but let me put it on record again to say that Oregon is so unbelievably beautiful it’s sort of unfair to all those other states. 

 Anyway, this was the smallest of the four shows. It was also the only one in which the audience’s direct participation was invoked for an extra-performative event, specifically, the murder of Mike L. from the Guitar Center commercials, who reportedly lives an empty, vapid life defined by high-interest consumer debt, musical dilettantism, and the total absence of any meaningful personal relationships, other than superficial interactions with the underpaid retail workers whose lives he makes more miserable on a daily basis.

The incitement to Mike L’s murder, to which the audience was extremely receptive, will probably go down as one of the most important events at one of the most memorable John Vanderslice shows, as the audience rose up from their seats chanting “Kill! Kill!” Ruthlessly, Vanderslice exhorted the audience to go forth from Medford, drive to Los Angeles, and destroy Mike L., preferably “with fire.” The long-term consequences of this incitement remain to be seen, but it was observed any violence would clearly constitute euthanasia, as Mike L.’s life appears so empty and meaningless. Despite the fact that as recently as the week before, Vanderslice had said good things about Guitar Center, as they had sold him a cheap capo and some picks, it was clear by Medford that he was out for blood. Regardless, the show still managed to be warm, welcoming, and inclusive. 

 

I later heard from an informant that the same thing happened at one of the Seattle shows.

I am not sure exactly how to end this; I’m always terrible at ending conversations or monologues. I don’t know what the major take-away here is, I don’t know if this is really a good fit for this blog, and I’ve actually been writing this for more than 6 weeks now. So I guess I’ll just end it with:

I highly recommend this context for shows for the above reasons, and of course I recommend Vanderslice’s music. I think living room shows are about more than the commodification of experience, but instead represent a meaningful and important instance of opposition to the hegemony in an age in which media is increasingly fraught, contested, and corporate. By occurring in spaces that are by definition private, yet by welcoming everyone, and by blurring the rigid boundary between performance and “real life,” whatever that is, living room shows of this nature are a phenomenon in today’s modern music scene.

Stay transgressive, loyal readers!**             

  *In an extremely absurd turn of events, in January 2008, my face was briefly shown on The Daily Show as I explained this to John Oliver. Really.

**Fun fact: transgressive is not actually in the MS Word dictionary. TALK ABOUT PERFORMATIVITY GUYS

 


You Need to Read My Struggle: Volume 1 A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard

June 3, 2013

Book recommendation: My Struggle, Book One

Continuing with my intermittent attempts to blog about the best books I read this year, today I am recommending the first volume of the English-language edition of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s colossal work My Struggle. Yeah, you read that correctly. My struggle. It sounds worse in Norwegian: Min kamp.

Ouch. No, I assure you, the title is not what you’re thinking. 

What is there for me to write, though, other than “go read it?” I feel it might be somewhat within the spirit of the novel to torture you with a hundreds-or-thousands-words-long blog post first. Briefly, the book is the first of a six-volume series concerning Knausgaard’s first forty-odd years of life; the first volume, called A Death in the Family concerns both Knausgaard’s youth and the later death of his father.

But bear with me. Even as the popular media seems to regard with suspicion the institution of books that are difficult and devoid of sparkly vampire romance, I, at least, still strongly believe in the value of those nearly-intractable books that one must work at in order to understand.

And that’s why I think you should read My Struggle. The one-sentence summary, which is by necessity vapid, would describe this work as a six-volume attempt to describe, in almost excruciating detail, his own struggle: with his consciousness, mostly, though also with his family, self, society, etc. There is also an implicit struggle, that of the reader with the text and him or herself, which I’ll discuss later. 

The six-volume series, of which volume two came out in English in early May, has been compared to both Proust and Hitler, which is actually really impressive if you think about it. However, the similarities are obviously superficial. First, the title is, obviously, deliberately provocative and has otherwise nothing in common with Hitler’s prison memoir.  Second, while Proust’s and Knausgaard’s projects are about the – forgive me – struggle to depict the vagaries of consciousness, Knausgaard has little in common with Proust other than the fact that both are European writers whom very few would categorize as minimalists.  

Much has been made in the media of the “Faustian bargain” Knausgaard allegedly struck by depicting in unsparing detail his family. Reviewers, I have noticed, seem obsessed with either pigeonholing the book into the category of overly long, abstruse European books (and this is the only gee-shucks-it’s-long comment I’ll make: it is awfully hard to pigeonhole a 3500-page work into anything) or into the category of autobiography. I feel this reductive assessment does the book something of a disservice. Instead, I’ll do it a disservice all my own!

One of the strengths of Knausgaard’s writing, I believe, lies not on its sheer breadth or depth, but in how by amassing detail on this scale, Knausgaard seems to make his episodic narrative seem effortless. Superficially, it may seem as though the book is an overstuffed exercise in shameful excess, yet considering the authorial choices Knausgaard made regarding what to include – a cat stretching, his own extremely detailed tossing and turning – the book begins to feel almost cinematic. That is, not in the way so much recent fiction has  – by this I mean fiction evoking the cinema, if not cynically with a book deal in mind in terms of pacing, character descriptions, etc., but a fiction that takes its storytelling conventions from cinema more than from the tradition of the written word. But with Knausgaard, that which would otherwise seem a haphazard jungle of detail becomes part of an elegant and strategically-planned opus.

 Instead, My Struggle seems to evoke a dreamy aesthetic evocative of Rohmer or Fassbinder in its lingering, unforgiving gaze, an aesthetic with an inverted time-content curve. The book is far more Jeanne Dielman* than Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I enjoyed so much of My Struggle, but when I started thinking of it as a cinematic book in the style of “European” cinema, I felt something click. So much of the pleasure of the novel resides in being inside someone’s deeply uncomfortable mind and in looking until it becomes uncomfortable. This framework made me feel like I “got” what it was Knausgaard was trying to do.

Much has been made of the affinities the book shares with our culture of oversharing and reality television. We accept now with relatively little fuss the exhaustive celebrity pabulum that passes for news in this culture, and with only the slightest bit of derision do we welcome new trends in social networking and surveillance. Much of asserting one’s identity within a certain socio-cultural class these days seems to revolve around emphasizing one’s non-participation in these phenomena. One could then make an argument about taste politics here: what makes My Struggle interesting is its engagement – as a piece of “high-brow” literature – with the dynamic that functions as an engine of “low-brow” culture (i.e., reality television). In that sense, the title could refer to the struggle felt by the typical overeducated, socially conscious, insufferably liberal reader (i.e., myself). Here one could return to the NYTimes piece linked earlier, of which I’m not a fan (although that is a shambolic rant for another day). How can a reasonably aware, socially and politically conscious, pseudo-intellectual reader struggle with reconciling the basest human tendencies of voyeurism in an oversaturated media culture and attempting to – in a bowdlerization of this very blog’s tagline – nourish one’s mind with challenging literature?

Obviously, my solution to this struggle was to write a less elegantly-planned-but-similarly-overlong blog post. 

I think it could then be said that My Struggle transcends these taste cultures (which themselves might be cultures of social class) in a very subtly confrontational way, and for that reason, I consider it essential reading. But don’t take my words for it. 

Have you read My Struggle (Vol. 1)? If so, what did you think?

(For a full list of everything I’ve read this year, and to be social networking friends, see Goodreads).

* “Plot keywords: meat loaf.” I LOL-IRL’ed


Breaking news from Libya

February 11, 2011

As part of this blog’s continuing effort to document American civilization from the perspective of the career of Jennifer 8. Lee (that is the project, right, Dana?), I would like to note that Lee has not only a desktop-optimized website, jennifer8lee.com, but a mobile-optimized website (jenny8lee.com) and a personal URL shortener (j8.ly).

Clever people and their clever people parties.

– posted by Mike


My hobby

September 25, 2010

Source data.

Authorial usage of personal nouns and pronouns, such as “I have never read…” were not included. Months with blank data contained no direct references to the personal life of Mr. Hitchens. Months marked “0” contained zero words prior to the first verb, noun or pronoun referring to the personal life of Mr. Hitchens.

– posted by Mike


Drama Doll

September 30, 2009

If you’re a female under the age of about thirty-five, you probably know about American Girl dolls; they each come with their own historical setting, a six-book series, multiple outfits and accessories, and the sound of about fifty million small and not-so-small girls pleading with their parents to buy them one. I was one of them, once; my mother, who was extremely pleased to see a doll with brown hair and eyes, had planned to surprise me with Samantha for Christmas, but I found the catalogue and, steeped to the brim with Laura Ingalls Wilder stories, begged for Kirsten because she was a pioneer and wore a sunbonnet. I got her that Christmas, twenty-one years ago, and still have her, along with quite a few accessory sets – bought one at a time, twice a year (birthday and Christmas). She was by far the longest-lasting and best toy I can remember having.

Mattel bought out the company about ten years ago and in addition to expanding their stable of dolls they now have modern dolls and “best friend” dolls, some of them being pushed harder than others (poor Kirsten – since her best friend Marta dies of cholera in Book 1, I don’t think she’ll be getting a shroud-wrapped companion doll any time soon). I hadn’t thought much about them for a while, but that all changed last February when, two months to the day after my daughter was born, one of their catalogues arrived in the mail. Coincidence? I like to think so. Anyway, a quick review brought me up to date – the “Girl of the Year” was named Chrissa (um … OK) and had two friend dolls named Gwen and Sonali. All of them, of course, retailing for $95 apiece. I got another catalogue a few weeks ago, which introduced their new WWI-era Jewish doll. So imagine my surprise, when noodling around on the Huffington Post instead of doing something more productive (like, say, bouncing a rubber ball off my living room for three hours) there was a piece describing the “controversial new homeless doll.” Another doll? What the hell?

Read the rest of this entry »


Ten years on

July 6, 2009

What the world needs now is a unified field theory of post-irony in the work of Wes Anderson, Dave Eggers and John Darnielle.

It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.

– posted by Mike