Sunday, August 13, 2017


Or, "How to Actually Do Anything, Part Two."

So in our last post we saw how "mid-way upon my life's journey" -- or quarter-way, I suppose -- I found myself completely lacking in anything remotely resembling a technical skill, or any useful art. Until, that is, I realized that I was capable of acquiring some elementary Spanish through evening study. This, as I said earlier, seemed to open up boundless new fields of possibility, but it also filled me with a secret guilt. If it was, after all, so easy, why had I not done this before with countless other fields of human endeavor? What excuse did I have for having spent so much time in perfecting the art of the useless -- that thing I earlier defined: expert generalism, or literary knowledge -- the medium of the "public intellectual" -- which seems always to take over wherever other arts and sciences -- even philosophy -- abandon their last and most remote claims to practicality?

Saturday, August 12, 2017

How to Actually Do Anything: Part One

It's a funny thing, but every eight years or so, thus far in my improbably letter-perfect Eriksonian life journey, I have fallen victim to a mania for self-reinvention. And the weirdest part of all is that these episodes, when they come about, are usually not sparked by failure, but by success. My 8th grade belief that I was suddenly, against all the odds, going to become "cool"... my sudden conviction in my third year of college -- really just a very slightly matured version of the first -- that I was going to become after all a "normal adult" (I didn't realize yet that that's not a thing), with a high-salary job and a house and family in the burbs ("I... choose... a mortal life," I would generally repeat to myself in the ethereal voice of Liv Tyler's Arwen when I was spinning out this fantasy -- signifying in the very act, I suppose, its inherent implausibility). Each of these, I say, was preceded by an epoch of relative achievement.

I notice something else too: that these periodic attempts on my part to kick the goad of innate dorkiness have grown progressively more feeble; and that this last, most recent attempt --the one I wish to describe in this series of posts -- has proven perhaps the most short-lived and outwardly indiscernible of all. But the point I want to make here is, again, that these efforts to shed my boring old familiar self, like a snake sloughing off skin, are never made because I have despaired of achieving that self, or of reaching the perfected state of whatever it is, but because of its very fulfillment and consummation.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

K Dramas

When my sister first developed her obsession with K-pop (ahem, Korean popular music, for the uninitiated), she attempted various lines of attack to get me to share in the same fixation. And she wasn't off-base to try. The numerous and heavy-looking defenses of seriousness that I place around myself, when left to my own devices, have all fallen before to the most implausible pop cultural adversaries -- even when I knew at the moment of transgression that it would take me years afterward to purge myself of the dishonor; even when I knew I would have to submit to a stern regimen of Edwardian fiction and entries from the Criterion Collection to wash out the crime; even when it was Desperate Housewives. (As V.S. Pritchett describes his childhood love of the "Greyfriars" school stories (so memorably and sociologically dissected by Orwell), "I knew this reading was sin and I counteracted it by reading a short life of the poet Wordsworth.") But this time, my sister's incursions did not seem to avail, at least for a long while. It's not that the k-pop music videos she showed me bothered or offended me in any way. I was fine to have them exist out there for others to enjoy. I just didn't see that they needed to have anything to do with me.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Goy Troubles

I have a friend who doesn't like Amy Tan at all. Not even one bit. Which doesn't particularly affect my life-- I've never read a word of Amy Tan and don't particularly have an opinion one way or the other. But nevertheless, when he told me this, I felt the inward tremor of guilt and self-doubt. Because my friend is Chinese-American, and when he told me exactly why he doesn't like Amy Tan, I realized that -- as indifferent as I may be to her novels -- there is a vast corpus of material that I do like -- nay, adore -- that could theoretically be held up for the same type of criticism. I refer to the audio archives of This American Life. If this is seeming like a stretch to you so far, well, bear in mind that I have a particularly acute -- well-developed, shall we say -- ability to invent reasons for guilt and self-doubt. Also, keep reading. Maybe this will start to make more sense (though probably not much).

Monday, July 24, 2017

Turist (2014): A Review

I can't stop thinking about Ruben Östlund's Turist (released in some parts of the world as Force Majeure), that long, strained, strange, and glorious 2014 Swedish movie about a marriage on the slow melt during a week-long French ski vacation. Rarely have I just straightforwardly loved a movie as much as I did this, on first viewing. There's nothing I even particularly want to mock in order to start this review off in style, as I usually feel compelled to do even with films I liked (I guess so as to hedge my bets). I can't do it with this one. Pretty much every frame in this thing was well chosen. The movie is painful and devastatingly funny, with the pain perfectly abetting the humor and vice versa.

Saturday, July 8, 2017


The recent-ish news that Amazon is acquiring Whole Foods seems as good a prompt as any for us to pose over again the old, old question -- the same one that Pippin asked on the battlements of the citadel, with face innocently upturned: "Is there any hope, Gandalf?" That is, is there any chance that the little Shires of the world will survive the onslaught of the great Molochs and Mordors of the retail conglomerates? To which the latter replied -- unhelpful as always -- "there never was much hope." We may be able to do little better. None of which is to shed too many tears over the lost innocence of Whole Foods, by the way, which is hardly Bag End, but one is certainly justified in worrying that if even they are being bought out by Amazon, what hope can there be left for Mom and Pop?

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Hamilton and Dr. Johnson: A July 4 Special

My 11th grade history teacher -- a key mentor figure for me in high school and later -- was, among other things, a prolific aspiring dramatist, and among his many creations was a play of some considerable length about, of all people, Alexander Hamilton. Who? The proposal was clearly far too far ahead of its time to be appreciated by the slack-jawed philistines, like me, of our Florida town. Alexander Hamilton? We said. The guy from the Treasury? None of us could have foreseen that this minor and oft-maligned footnote in our history textbook would come roaring into his own as a pop culture idol, of all things, in 2015-2016, of all times!

To the extent I knew or thought anything at all about Alexander Hamilton before all this, it was to assume, due to some unexamined and indirect hangover of Beard and Parrington, that he was the root of all evil in American life. Beyond that I just thought he was another dull and insipid schoolbook figure. It was only my teacher -- and, apparently, Lin-Manuel Miranda -- who had the good sense to see past all that -- to appreciate that here, at least in the hands of Ron Chernow, was the stuff of real drama -- the amorous blackmail; the intellectual ménage à trois with the two sisters. My teacher may have missed the hip hop ingredient, but otherwise, he saw something coming that we all missed. When I started to hear, two years ago, that there was something sensational happening on Broadway called Hamilton, I had a moment of pause. You mean, Alexander Hamilton? For an instant, I thought that perhaps my mentor's opus had made it all the way to the big leagues.