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Archive for April, 2011

My wife and I finally switched off our cable for good the other day. I could use this column to reflect on all the fun that I had with the now antiquated concept of cable TV–the place where I discovered music videos, Tony Soprano, meerkats, Wolf Blitzer’s beard, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s breasts, Suze Orman’s teeth and, back in the early days, practically non-stop viewing of the Kris Kristofferson’s film Convoy.

And yet I feel like what I’m saying goodbye to now ought not to be called cable but simply “The Kardashian Box.” The fundamental problem with cable is the illusion of choice: It was supposed to give us thousands of channels, and perhaps offer us a peek into different languages, religions, histories, cultures, entire libraries of film (old movies, new movies, lost movies and perhaps even the 90% of independent movies that don’t get distributors). That’s not even to mention the sports. Instead, cable has become a brand-building machine–an entablature of pretty faced caryatids with fake boobs who sell us and perfumes and young adult books and predatory lending scams and those death traps called “cars.” The Kardashian Box has organized into a few repeated themes–nostalgia (TV Land), masturbation (Cinemax), death drive (the CBS weekend cop shows, and I guess the increasingly aggressive nightly news programs, too) and fetish object (QVC and Snooki). Because the audience is hard to corral otherwise, my one-time favorite movie channels are now showing cheap reality TV and reruns to keep their overhead down and still showing more ads than broadcast TV. Why in the hell am I paying for this?

And there is probably no better time to get rid of cable than now, when America has seemingly become enthralled by the tax-revenue-consuming capers of a monarchy we rejected 235 years ago. “Could Kate Middleton be the new Diana?” ask the journalists as they run down the street chasing Prince William’s bride and miss the irony. If you have ever seen Bernardo Bertolucci’s film “The Spider’s Strategem,” perhaps you have a sick feeling like I do when Jane Seymour and her blinding dentition come onscreen with more Royal news. The Bertolucci movie was about a man who was trying to escape his family’s history and for his efforts found himself increasingly enmeshed in it. So, too, do I shudder at watching the press build up another couple of people they can later tear down. The viewers, of course, aren’t stupid. At this point, they likely know how the dirty game works. They’ve torn down Britney, Lindsay, Miley and Barney (OK, maybe not Barney). A lot of them have given it up this game and stopped watching. Others, however, still need the comfort of seeing the accident happen over and over. Fetish. Death drive. Deliverance. Stasis. Digestion. Bathroom break.

Perhaps nothing is as telling in the royal wedding phenomenon as the fascination with clothing, traditions,  supporting characters. The identity of the dressmaker is shrouded in secrecy until we find an appropriate moment to invade his or her privacy. We are schooled in the finer points of heraldry and learn the difference between a lozenge and an escutcheon, a party per pale and a party per saltire and other details of the bridal panoply. For good measure we invite the ghostly visitation of one departed player whose spectral, Pre-Raphaelite vacuousness haunts us as certainly as Hamlet’s father: Yes, SHE is back. We are asked if the couple’s first female child will be called Diana. We are shown split screen comparisons of old bride and new. A news story breaks that William will use his mother’s sapphire engagement ring. Kate’s Libelula dress is compared with Diana’s Emanuel dress. The old video is shown. … And then, as James Frazer predicted in The Golden Bough, the “Killing of the King” process begins anew as new bride supplants old in a form of psychological ritual murder (OK, sorry, just riffing there).

In a way, life has come full circle, because the Royals were reality TV before there was such a thing. Henry VIII’s exploits were fodder for townie gossip and scandal sheets long before we had a Kardashian Box. Both then and now, the viewers know the game and even may know the rules are contrived, just as they know Jersey Shore‘s Snooki is likely flirting with invisible cameramen. It’s just that the viewers don’t care. I once met a Lancashire woman who was something of a political firebrand and came to America to announce that U.S. citizens owe all Native Americans reparations. I felt hard-pressed to argue, but then in an unguarded moment, she admitted she had loved the royals and wanted to be Princess Di when she was younger. Who was I to be self-righteous at that moment and say, “Your monarchy lives off the fat of the poor and is an abomination to the Rights of Man, Republican idealism, human equality and basic morality. Also, they can’t dance.”

I, too, love reading English history and marvel as chips off the block of William the Conqueror globe trot and take gap years in Chile and need to do little else to stand as testament to the island’s storied past. It’s just that you can love Roman history without needing the Empire to come back. Still, forget the argument about whether the royals are important, whether they should be taxed, or whether their political function makes them easily replaceable with a rubber stamp from Staples. The more important question is: What is the emotional need they fulfill, even in Americans who are supposed to be decathected from such nonsense? Do men in Britain still feel an aching affection for routinzed charisma? Do women still secretly love the idea of being chattel princesses? Or is it more simple? I feel that if we looked into ourselves deeply enough, we’d discover that it’s the same reason we need cable (and pay so much for both): We are existentially sick. We no longer want to live in our bodies. We have checked out. Watching Kate Middleton wed in a story book tale allows us to project ourselves inside of her (take the meaning there however you want), and abscond from our own here and now and the responsibility to our reality. (FYI: Another way to abscond from reality is to believe in heaven.)

Being in our own here and now, after all, is too hard. We are most of us at the mercy of adrenal glands who do our thinking for us. Our bodies are tired from feeling things, freeing ourselves from them mentally is our constant burden. To be in your body all the time requires constant thought and maintenance. Exercising. Working. A debate. Running errands. Motorcross. Skydiving. Even blogging. To take ownership of your own being is a task many of us would readily shrink from. Some literary critics even contend that it’s the struggle where mythology originates–the contrived stories we tell each other and which we use to arrange reality are nothing more than shadows on the wall projected by our own conflicted glands. Thus the royals are are not just Williams and Harrys. They are also our Dicks.

I leave you with that thought as you enjoy the royal wedding. I hear that Sophie Cranston is a fab designer!

Where does that leave me? … Just bought a new Apple TV. So juicy … so delicious … here comes my descent into existential oblivion.

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I was working one afternoon in a coffee shop on the Upper East Side writing, when I found myself in a familiar Manhattan situation: I was forced to listen to an intimate conversation between the women next to me and learn things about them I shouldn’t know. It seems one of them was having trouble dating. Finding the right guy was hard for her, and yet she defined love not in expansive terms but overwhelmingly in the restrictive terms of things she did not want. She didn’t like momma’s boys, for one thing. The latest deal breaker was that a guy she was seeing had used the word “sketchy.”

Really? Is “sketchy” a dealbreaker? If you aren’t familiar with it, the word is in what we in Oklahoma call the goddamn dictionary and is defined as “iffy” or “questionable,” as in a questionable person. It’s first known use, according to Webster’s, was 1805.

I took umbrage, maybe because it’s a word I like. Its slang variants have given us fun phrases like, “He’s a bit of a sketch,” which are useful to me as a writer. But then I started to wonder (as he started to sound like Sarah Jessica Parker) have we become too judgmental? Then I realized (continuing to sound like Sarah Jessica Parker) people make quick and poor judgments because they want to judge first. For he who does it first, does it best, parrying all attacks and rejection. Yet as well all know, that’s mainly the obsession of people who have all their lives been judged. So I took another look at this woman, her crossed arms. Her mostly camouflaging outfit, her stern face and realized (this blog is turning into “Sex and the City” and lacks only the puns) oh, my God, this woman has been rejected more than a subprime home buyer. No, scratch that. In America even subprime homebuyers get homes. This woman must have been sub-sub-prime. Her FICO score could have been 376. Who else would reject a guy for using a harmless word like “sketchy”?

I, too, was rejected a bit in my youth, and wondered if I judge people, too.

The words of my friend Carol rang in my ears, “Eric, you’re too judgmental.”

She’s right! The other woman in the conversation had been sitting by herself a few moments before. She was a lot more cheerful than her friend, much perkier. And she was very excited to hear “Living on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi come. She started shaking her head to the music at the table and having herself a time, and I remember very clearly what I said to myself in my head: “I reject you.”

All of us cover up vulnerability in different ways. Some people are lucky enough not to have emotional vulnerability, and they go on to head up companies like Halliburton and Bank of America and Goldman Sachs and largely avoid jail time. But the rest of us create armor for our lack of confidence. We tell jokes. We hide behind a guitar. We only leave the house on days when the perspiration isn’t so bad. We create huge altars to the Virgin Mary or to Cure founder Robert Smith. We construct public personae that are increasingly elaborate and perhaps even estranged from who we are inside.

I once read a description of introverts and extroverts I quite liked. This was the way I’ll interpret it: An extrovert will get into a car engine and just start playing around to see what’s wrong with it. An introvert must make a map of the engine in his head before he touches anything. The extrovert will fumble around and might lummox up everything–but if not, he might get it done a lot more quickly. The introvert, meanwhile, might needs to constantly make notes and reassess the situation, and figure out what might be wrong in the extrovert’s thinking. That slows things down quite a bit. And it means making judgments. Sometimes these kinds of judgments can make you come off like a real asshole. But sometimes it can make you cautious enough to say, I need more information before I make a decision about a complicated matter.

I don’t know whether to put this woman in the cautious category or the asshole category. It could be that she doesn’t know who she is, and trying on boyfriends and discarding them is a way of getting to know herself. Is is possible to judge people and accept them at the same time? Can I accept the parts of Noam Chomsky’s political outlook I like and then vehemently judge the rest? Do I have to reject the philosophy of Ayn Rand or can we just be friends? Maybe the ultimate goal isn’t to be judgmental but simply selective. That way we can grow without becoming ingrown. Accept other people’s rejection of us as an opportunity to grow up. Maybe the sketch is us.

How’s that for a pun, Sarah Jessica Parker? I reject you.

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Another weird offering from ER Salo Deguierre. My first country song. Sort of.

It was inspired by some of the more interesting weirdness I was subjected to as a young person growing up in a certain southern-western-Midwestern state.

I have to apologize to those who are having trouble hearing my music. I get few responses on it, so I just assumed nobody was listening to my self-indulgent noodlings. But then somebody told me recently that part of the problem is my files are hard to open with this horrendous WordPress version of Quicktime. If that’s the case, I’m very sorry, dear Beauty is Imperfection reader, and I will try to figure out an alternative in the future. I’m a bit tech challenged, though, something I’ve discussed on a few posts here, and so far my efforts to embed something cooler like SoundCloud have been all for nought.

As usual, all sounds and music made by yours truly.

“Alice Ploughshare”
By ER Salo Deguierre

When I walked in the head I found you tweaking
Shivering with a mirror and a straw
I wrapped you up and covered you in blankets
Bloody as the day that you were born

When Interstate 41 turns to Interstate 32
That’s where every trucker’s dream becomes a nightmare
But I still love you
Alice Ploughshare
You were out there stealing my anhydrous
I could not shake you
With your vacant stare
Just the kind of love I always I needed

Did you see those contents under pressure?
When you mixed them up inside that tub?
Did the police hear the lab explosion?
When they were rousting you outside the club?

With your pupils dilated
You’re still stocking Sudafeds
Making cocktails with the cowboys in the drive-thru

But I won’t share you
Alice Ploughshare
Eighteen months of hard-time prison labor
Can I come see you?
You smell like burning hair
Only 30 minutes with no touching
They won’t possess you
Alice Ploughshare
Together we can draw blood from a stone.

Was this love a match we made in heaven?
Or simply one we made down in Ardmore?
Your teeth rotting out and mine just browning
Another year I can’t give up the Skoal.

Though your eyes were black and dead
Your teeth falling out your head
We had more happiness than any two folks had a right to

But chains don’t bind you
Alice Ploughshare
I saw you run away when you malinger
But then I chased you
Through carnivals and fairs
Heaven just a pipe between your fingers

And I won’t share you
Alice Ploughshare
Tweaking all the way to Texarkana
And I still love you
Alice Ploughshare
It never ever seemed you could stop talking

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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After watching pop star Pink release her song “Fucking Perfect,” rock legend Jimmy Page announced that Led Zeppelin will release the uncut original version of “Stairway to Heaven,” now known as “Stairway to Fucking Heaven.”

Pink’s song has been released in two versions, the “clean” version of “Perfect” and then the “Fucking Perfect” version that has gained much traction on YouTube and other video sites.

“There’s a lady who’s sure, all that glitters is gold, and she’s fucking buying the stairway to fucking heaven,” sings Robert Plant in his inimitable overblown tenor.

“When I heard Pink sing ‘Fuckin’ Perfect,’ I knew that we had reached a new level of emotional honesty,” said Page. “Pink knows that to be perfect alone is not enough. She had to ratchet up the emotional intensity and make the song even more fucking perfect, if you will. I knew when I heard her blistering truth that the original vision of ‘Stairway’ had to be released immediately.”

Pink, 75% of whose songs deal with self-esteem issues, said she wanted to release the “fucking” version of her “Fucking Perfect” song because it was important to address the in stark terms the utter helplessness that so many of her fans feel, a deep internal wrenching pain she believes is illuminated better by the timeless two-syllable expletive which means “to have sex” and has etymological origins in Germany.

“If there’s a bustle in your fucking hedge row, don’t be alarmed now,” sings Plant. “It’s just a fucking spring clean for the fucking May Queen.”

Literary critic Harold Bloom now records 24 uses of “fuck” in “Stairway to Heaven,” and wondered if it were necessary.

“You forget that the word ‘fuck,’ liberating as it might be, should water down the sentiment a bit. Unnecessary adjectives tend to sap the strength of your prose. I would admonish Pink and Page and Plant that sometimes less is more.”

Page and Plant disregarded Bloom’s criticism.

“Yes there are two paths you can fucking go by, but in the long run. There’s still fucking time to change the road you’re on,” sang Plant, baring his Dionysian hippie stance, unencumbered by petty bourgeois morality that would keep him from singing “fuck, fuck, fuck” as much as he pleased.

According to the Billboard Hot 100 chart, Pink’s song has made her millions of fucking dollars. She says that it appeals to those wounded members of her audience who feel that nobody is fucking listening to them and treating them like fucking children when they’re just trying to do the best they fucking can.

“I wanted to tell the girls of America who are feeling self-hatred, maybe even feeling suicidal, that this is about them. They are not just perfect, they are fucking perfect. And by that I mean, don’t doubt I’m serious just because I’m saying it over and over and over.”

The trend has influenced not only music, but publishing; a slew of book titles are expected to hit the shelves next year, including, “Chicken Soup for the Fucking Soul,” “I’m Fucking OK, You’re Fucking OK,” and “Our Bodies Our Fucking Selves.”

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I’ve been reading over Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget proposal here, and I’ve got to say, it’s a really great piece of work. I cannot imagine why it’s controversial. It’s a very sober-minded solution to most of America’s economic and budget problems. As we face a government shutdown amid partisan bickering over our budget, let’s see what Ryan’s plan has in store. A few items:

–*Ryan’s proposal will return government discretionary spending to below 2008 levels.

–*It will repeal and defund the health care law passed by Congress and unlocks free market mechanisms that put responsibility and choice back in the hands of the people who can afford to get sick.

–*Only American Idol contestants in the Top 8 will go on the national tour, down from the much less defensible top 10.

–*Every senior American will be given a voucher for a used wine cask to roll around in.

–*Americans born before 1957 will avoid any Medicare cuts and get to sleep with Pamela Anderson or somebody who looks like Pamela Anderson.

–*Prosperity. More money. Hooray!

–*Every German woman will have a husband.

–*There will be no increase on taxes for the wealthy, who know how to better deploy assets by buying items of better quality–real wood veneers and and good caviar–while the bottom 98% would certainly waste their tax savings on baloney sandwiches, hard tack and clabber

–*Americans will no longer have to pay for anything they have bought, even if they have broken it at Pier 1 imports.

–*Eat Irish babies

–*The helpless victims of the military industrial complex will have their rights restored after years of privation

–*Phrases like “Prosperity and freedom for all” will flash from omnipresent televisions in every office and gathering place to remind you constantly of the freedom offered you by laissez faire economic policy.

–*All Americans are promised a job working on a BP oil rig.

–*There will be no more corporate welfare, and unicorns will stop raping elves.

–*Your grandparents are promised free e-mails about penis enlargement and stuff from the Heritage Foundation, all of which is totally believable.

–*Ryan’s bill promises that there will not be another economic crisis due to U.S. government debt. Which should be reassuring to all those who believe that the 2008 economic crisis was due to government debt. In other words, the illiterate, the mentally infirm and Oklahoma.

–*Fiscal responsibility in the face of untenable spending will continue to be the hallmark of Republican policy until Republicans find another country they want to invade.

–*The new bill will make Americans responsible for their own financial problems if they use credit cards, have gas guzzling cars, suffer declining wages, sit in the bottom 98% of the wealth spectrum, bear children, or have stomachs and respiratory systems.

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I see some horrible person is getting some WordPress attention doing Top 10 lists. As you know, Beauty Is Imperfection reader, I’ve done a fair number of those in my time. I started to feel a little cheap relying on them instead of offering you some well-thought-out, well-crafted prose. Writing Top 10 lists to me is easier than drawing breath. But to see someone else get attention for it, while I sit over here in Transcendentalville howling alone in the wilderness, is too much.

So I offer my first one in ages. Top 10 reasons to do a top 10 list:

1) It’s a cultural meme that everybody understands, nay, one that makes them feel a sense of belonging to their social subgroup

2) It takes about 2 minutes, whereas a real editorial takes hours to craft.

3) It’s almost always possible to insert Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Snooki or Britney Spears into a Top 10 list somewhere, and when you’ve got them in your list, you can put them in your tags, and then it becomes part of Google search universe and makes your a site a destination on the superhighway rather than a gasoline outpost somewhere in Arizona.

4) Top 10 lists employ the sort of repetition and variation that’s key to comedy.

5) Top 10 lists employ the sort of repetition and variation that’s key to comedy, y’all

6) Every Top 10 list comes with a free kitten

7) Except this one

8 ) When people can absorb information from a well-understood social convention like this one, it is easier for them to assimilate information that is otherwise difficult to digest–for instance, if we had the Top 10 reasons why Barack Obama should have closed Guantanamo by now and why in failing to do so he’s let a lot of us down.

9) If you get really good at Top 10 lists, you will be compared unfavorably to David Letterman, but hey, at least you’re in the same neighborhood.

10) A snappy ending makes you feel warm all over: The monster at the end of this list was Grover all along!

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In the 1990s, I once attended a poetry reading by Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney in lower Manhattan. Both of them had already won their Nobel prizes in literature, and both had made indelible impressions on my young mind about the beauty of language, the possibilities of extended poetic works still being written in modern language, the hope for poetry in general.

Cost to see them both back to back: $5, a bit more than a Happy Meal. Can of waterproofing Scotchgard that year: about $8. The irony: priceless.

How could it be, I wondered, that two of the greatest living gifts to the English language cost less than the Verrazano Narrows bridge fare? (To Staten Island!) Something seemed horribly amiss. Sure, Walcott is a turgid, affectless speaker who does no justice to his own jaunty iambs when he speaks them out loud in his heavy basso profundo voice. But Heaney more than compensates. To hear him speak, “A rowan like a lipsticked girl” in his playful brogue with all his funny asides is a real hoot. Well worth $10 at least.

So when my wife mentioned last night to friends at dinner that the Jersey Shore‘s own Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi was speaking at Rutgers, I knew immediately that she would fetch more than any mere Nobel or Pulitzer prize winner. In fact, I could have written this OMG! story myself if I had just made a few phone calls. Supposedly Snooki, who likely doesn’t know who fought on whose side in World War I, is getting $32,000 to speak to kids who just finished their engineering and pharmaceutical science midterms. And as we know from efficient market theory, she is worth every penny, right?

Right?

Is it wrong to pay Snooki so much to speak to college students at a renowned university? Rutgers’ motto is, “Sun of righteousness, shine upon the West also.” Is it wrong to say, “Sun of righteousness, shine upon Snooki, also”? How about “Sun of righteousness, give the drummer some!”

As you know if you’re a regular Jersey Shore viewer, the morning sun shining on Snooki usually reveals only a full ashtray and a semen-stained cocktail dress. So what, exactly, will be illuminated on the Rutgers campus? Would Snooki, like Toni Morrison, both defend and attack the classical reading canon? Or would she just try to come up with variants on “Hold onto your dreams girls!” for an hour and a half? Would she recall that time JWoww peed behind the bar and use it as an allegorical statement on feminism and commodification? Would she remind people to stay in college and offer herself as a bad example? Would she remind us that Angelina is a back-stabbing whore and Rutgers students who even think of acting like Angelina better watch their step in her home town?

Would she talk to mostly business students about how to sell your brand and how powerful that brand can be if there’s a smell attached?

Really, what could Snooki tell Rutgers students that they don’t already know about drunk townies? Wasn’t it people like Snooki in high school who hastened a lot of us into college in the first place? Really, Rutgers, hasn’t she already done her job?

And that’s when it struck me:  It’s not the content of Snooki’s words that matter but Snooki herself. She has become a semion now. A walking representation of the post-industrial dream. With her proud provincialism, she leapfrogged over the moneyed swells and reminded them that all the money they are spending on college would have been better flushed down the toilet on one of the turnpike bathrooms as they made their way to the Shore, bitch.

You think I’m kidding, but consider that college tuition has been rising faster than everything–even stock appreciation–while salaries for most of us stall. The American dream of upward mobility still has a lot of power, but the perception of it and the reality of it are more at odds every year. When the people in the top 2% of income make 450 times more than those in the bottom 50%, when home ownership has become an unreachable aspiration in the new paradigm, and when retirement will likely be withheld longer as savings rates decline, you know for sure that the American dream seems ever more like a hustle, that it’s not guaranteed your children will be better off than you are, and that it’s time to look at moving to China or Brazil. (Look at the overseas currencies and you might get a sense of where your middle class is going.)

The idea that a good college education these days is going to deliver you the life that even your grandparents got is starting to seem pretty silly. Even law students are starting to think that the allure of their profession with its promise of high income is a scam. And of course, ask doctors how much they are making these days and if it’s what they expected.

It’s likely that the cast of Jersey Shore is smarter than we give them credit for. Supposedly, they are monetizing their celebrity with rich endorsement deals and making hay while the sun shines. But that is part of the sick, horrible lesson here: How many of us can reap wheat from personality? Is personality really going to be the next great American export, like cars, oil and IPods? How much of it do we have? When will it run out? How soon must I turn my son into a personality after he arrives if I am to start creating a nest egg? It seems like getting him to react to a sneeze on a YouTube video is the only way to fund his future. (Thirteen million views? Not too shabby!)

Snooki is coming to Rutgers, I surmise, to remind people of this very thing. “Study hard,” says Snooki, “But party harder.” May I suggest ending with “Pull my finger”?

She couldn’t be any worse than Derek Walcott.

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