Archive for February, 2012

When I was new to New York in the 1990s, I often trolled about Lower Manhattan looking for interesting encounters and odd adventures. I was a single person in my 20s, impetuous for the first time in my life and trying to overcome my shyness. I  knew only I wanted to be a writer, but I needed stuff to fill my head with. One night, I found myself at a rather loud clamorous bar on 9th Street called Solas, where the music was loud and the yawping patrons louder. It was a little too hip to be a sports bar, but also too loud a place to talk about things like, say, Samuel Beckett’s work.

I had learned a few things as a journalist, though, one of which is to look for incongruities in a picture. The incongruity in that splashy bar on that night was an old man in his 70s sitting in the corner watching the young people caper with the disinterest and mien (and even the glasses) of Jean-Paul Sartre. I did something I rarely do now–overcame my shyness and approached him, knowing somehow only that this must be a guy with a story.

Boy, did he have one. I’m not sure how we got to talking after I asked him what he was doing in a loud bar full of hardbodies, but eventually I got it out of him that he, as I, was interested in literature. Usually, a person must be skeptical when the old guy at the bar starts talking shortly thereafter about being on a first-name basis with the author of “Waiting for Godot,” and that he’s named his son Beckett after him as a favor. And yet after I talked more with this guy, I could no longer deny after a short time that I had not just stumbled upon an old guy interested in 20th century literature–but in fact had stumbled upon an honest-to-God 20th century literary figure. Sitting drinking at a bar by himself, ready for a conversation with an amiable dunce.

Barney Rosset, the man I found myself speaking to, was in fact the man who helmed Grove Press during the mid-century American literary Renaissance and brought literary greats like Beckett and Jean Genet to America using a cushion of family money and a famously lush caprice. He fought indecency laws by publishing “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” by D.H. Lawrence and “Tropic of Cancer” by Henry Miller for the first time in the U.S. with all their ebullient filthiness intact. Before there was a Larry Flynt or a 2 Live Crew, there was Rosset. He championed beat writers. And communists. And Malcolm X. The postmaster general tried to shut him down for “Lady Chatterly,” but an appeals court made the breakthrough announcement: sometimes smut can be redeeming.

That seems like a quaint notion today when South Park makes jokes about little boys licking each other’s balls. Look at that sentence again. If it sounds harsher in print than it does when you’re watching the actual show (where that actually happened), then maybe you have some idea of what Barney Rosset was up against. Ideas are scary.

So that I could hold up my end of the conversation with a guy who had seen everything, I remember talking a bit about a book I had set in Nicaragua (that’s a long story). Rosset was not only interested in my ideas, but he said he had a son that had gone down to witness the Sandinista era himself and was able to give me lots of color about the early hope and later disillusion of the young revolutionaries in their Marxist-Leninist government. (I didn’t know until later that Rosset, like a lot of radicals of his generation, was a former disillusioned communist). He was one of the only leftists I ever met who suggested genuine support for the anti-Sandinista UNO party at the end.

In his heyday, he not only published works by Jack Kerouac and Tom Stoppard and Malcolm X but even Che Guevara. For his trouble, his office was bombed in 1968 (when, luckily, nobody was in it). He later suffered a backlash from feminists in the late 60s and early 70s who said that the writings he championed mainly degraded women. And in 1985, he sold the Grove Press under a contractual obligation that he remain in charge. He was fired within a year. He spent time in court, settled, and seemed to dabble too much in too many ventures, bad radical films seemingly being a big one.

When I went home, I had to delve more deeply into the man I met. Though he didn’t tell me at the time, he’d been married, to Joan Mitchell–one of my favorite abstract expressionist painters (whose work I’d seen at the University of Texas at Austin in the James Michener collection). “Well shit!” I thought. I probably could have spent the whole evening talking about her alone, but I realize in retrospect that Barney Rosset collected a few wives along the way and perhaps wouldn’t have wanted to go there. But who knew. He was open about a lot of things, including the degradations of a close family member at Riker’s Island.

What struck me more than anything is that he seemed piqued about the literary projects I was working on … and hinted that I could perhaps send them to him at the Evergreen Review. As if! I knew then that even if my work was ready (it wasn’t) that it probably wasn’t radical enough for the tradition he was carrying on. What he brought was not only the seeds of sexual revolution but a freedom of sensual language in a world that is often depressingly literal. The intellect’s revenge on art, as Susan Sontag put it. Every writer I know owes some debt to that period, even if they don’t like all the work or think some of it is indulgent. Liberation is messy. It has no time for cuteness or the coyness that we’ve since come up with as an antidote to the Aquarian age of sexual Rousseauism. Even Camille Paglia, a supposed sexual radical, regularly craps on the seditionaries of this period for their back-to-nature naivete.

I personally felt ridiculous talking about my own work in the context Barney Rosset championed and shaped. But I marveled that this great man had not only encouraged me but showed me enough respect that we could have a two-way conversation. He had a great open mind even in his 70s and what I had to offer him, that night anyway, seemed important enough for him to listen to.

I never met him again, but kept up with him and his endeavors and told everyone I knew, “You know there’s an honest to God American literary legend walking around Lower Manhattan who sits in bars and occasionally has to remind people who he is.”

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My son Xander recently reached the age of 8 months. Every new month brings new milestones in child development, including new abilities, talents and comprehension. What are some of the things I can expect as the father of an 8 month old?

–* My son will start moving around on his belly more, creeping towards things or pushing himself backwards with his arms.

–*He will increasingly start to chew on softened foods.

–*He used to put the remote control in his mouth. Now he will throw it at my head.

–*He likes to take objects and bang them, twist them, throw them, squeeze them, drop them, notarize them, send them parcel post, sprinkle them with glitter, sew them to his eyebrow and dissolve them in aqueous acid.

–*He will now have a better sense of what objects do, whether it’s a comb for straightening his hair, a cup for drinking, or a horse’s head in a bed that sends a message to the Tattaglia family.

–*He will now exhibit separation anxiety when he leaves me or my wife, unless the person taking him is really hot.

–*My child’s depth perception is almost adult-like, which means he can likely see right through adults and their bullshit.

–*If he goes through bouts of persistent crying for no apparent reason, it could be that he’s simply taking after mommy.

–*Letters of the alphabet will make more sense to him, as will racist jokes.

–*He will be more able now to stand on his own–with the help of a chair, a table or an illegal prescription drug from a celebrity doctor.

–*Some studies suggest that babies already have a sense of empathy for other babies in distress at this stage of development. But since I am adult, I can expect him to have no empathy for me whatsoever when I’m trying to sleep and he’s got a wild hair up his butt to yell in a shrill monotone. Thanks for nothing, child empathy!

–*A baby needs stimulation from more activity at this phase, whether it’s a trip to the zoo, a walk in the park, a rock concert for babies, a rock concert by Phish, the Altamont Concert, a book club, a fight club, an anti-nuclear energy demonstration, a Tea Party event or a jailhouse interview with convicted murderer Charles Manson.

–*He will like it when I dance with him. Favorite dances include the hora and the box step, but not the macarena, which your baby will recognize as a passé and stupid step from the early 1990s.

–*For some reason, though, he will likely do the Freddy.

–*This is a time for him to explore his boundaries and discover his limits. As he gets older, he’ll be doing the former less, while he’ll be doing the latter for the rest of his life.

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Romney, Severely

In a recent speech, Mitt Romney referred to himself as “severely conservative,” an idiom strange to many ears. What other words most often  follow “severely” (according to a Google search)?

–*Severely anemic

–*Severely atypical mole

–*Severely abnormal mole

–*Severely autistic

–*Severely bloated

–*Severely bruised toe

–*Severely bruised knee

–*Severely burned tongue

–*Severely chapped lips

–*Severely constipated

–*Severely cracked heels

–*Severely dry skin

–*Severely damaged hair

–*Severely depressed

–*Severely emotionally disturbed

–*Severely enlarged liver

–*Severely endangered species

–*Severely fatigued

–*Severely greasy hair

–*Severely high blood pressure

–*Severely hydrotreated heavy naphthenic oil

–*Severely herniated disc

–*Severely hypokinetic

–*Severely itchy scalp

–*Severely itchy skin

–*Severely itchy vulva

–*Severely impacted wisdom teeth

–*Severely jammed thumb

–*Severely jammed toe

–*Severely jet lagged

–*Severely knotted hair

–*Severely knotted muscle

–*Severely keratinized or ulcerated leukoplakia

–*Severely bruised knee

–*Severely low blood pressure

–*Severely low iron

–*Severely lupine

–*Severely lonely

–*Severely mentally ill

–*Severely matted dog

–*Severely matted hair

–*Severely neglected children

–*Severely nearsighted

–*Severely neutropenic

–*Severely overweight

–*Severely obese

–*Severely oily skin

–*Severely painful hemorrhoids

–*Severely painful periods

–*Severely painful gas

–*Severely pulled back muscle

–*Severely retroverted uterus

–*Severely red eyes

–*Severely retarded

–*Severely swollen tonsils

–*Severely sprained ankle

–*Severely stuffy nose

–*Severely tired

–*Severely tilted uterus

–*Severely underweight

–*Severely undervalued stocks

–*Severely underpaid

–*Severely visually impaired

–*Severely violent criminals

–*Severely wounded

–*Severely wrinkled hands

–*Severely worn dentition

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Valentine’s Day Sentiments

What do our Valentine’s Day cards say?

–*You are my heart.

–*You are my soul.

–*You are my kidneys.

–*You are the person I have grown to love after I settled for you.

–*Love is like two souls joining. Especially in this community property state of Wisconsin.

–*Top ten reasons you are the only one for me, No. 7:  I don’t really need another public divorce, Love Ronald Perelman.

–*Like Philadelphia, I love you back, but unlike Philadelphia, I am not the meth capital of the U.S.

–*I’m sorry, I am giving the rose to Courtney.

–*I’m giving this Valentine’s Day card to you because my fifth grade teacher has ordered us to give cards to everybody else in the class, and thus I have fulfilled my legal obligation.

–*Valentine’s Day is not just a fake holiday invented by the greeting card industry. It’s also an extra reason for single people to feel awful.

–*I’m pretty sure that this Valentine’s Day card to you, my love, does not violate the restraining order, but if it does, please disregard.

–*Few people know what love really is. But I do. It’s part of the male posturing process among monkeys to dominate other males in order to propagate their DNA.

–*Monkey see, monkey do, roses are red and I love you.

–*Let’s drop the pretense. Let’s do it!

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–*Whitney Houston’s premature death casts a pall over the proceedings, and reminds us not only that a huge hunk of talent has left us, but that large amorphous, clumping chunks of mediocrity have not.

–*Pink, Kanye West, Jay-Z and Betty White are conspicuous by their absence.

–*Cross-genre power duets are  kind of like the All Star Game. Why would we want to watch  talented people perform badly just to titillate 13-year-olds?

–*Oh, yeah. This is the Grammys.

–*Suze Orman says variable annuities are a scam. Sorry, I changed the channel there.

–*Chris Brown makes mediocrity his bitch, slaps that mediocrity and rides it like the mediocre whore she is. You could say he rules the mediocrity.

–*Adele wins for best pop vocal for “Someone Like You.” You might remember that as the song that was great 10,000 listenings ago.

–*L.L. Cool J says a prayer for Whitney Houston and tries to turn the Grammys from a sad event into a celebration of music. Bruno Mars turns it back into a sad occasion.

–*How in the hell does Steve Van Zandt zip around the world to tour with the E. Street Band, shoot the show “Lilyhammer,” and still have time to serve humanitarian causes? I guess you really do have a lot of time on your hands if you refuse to play “Sun City.”

–*Student loan debt cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, says Suze Orman. … Sorry, I really wasn’t into that Kelly Clarkson duet with what’s his name.

–*L.L. Cool J is so cool he can ably and confidently lead us through this emotionally confusing moment, when celebration meets loss, in a way that merits comparison with the modernist verse of a William Butler Yeats or the comforting, avuncular, telegenic presence of James Garner on “Eight Simple Rules …”

–*The ceremony of innocence is drowned. If we are lucky, it will drown out that Maroon 5 song about Mick Jagger.

–*Never underwrite anything, says Suze.

–*The Grammys has become expansive enough to include new categories including “Best Grunge,” “Best Gansta Rap,” “Best New Artist Who Is Likely To Die in a Drug Related Incident” and “The Best Bad Music.”

–*We can feel comfortable that even though Bruce Springsteen’s songs are starting to sound the same, at least his energetic performances are still giving him good cardio burn.

–*It’s probably good that Jay-Z is not here, since his bodyguards tend to keep people away from places it’s appropriate for them to be, whether it’s parents trying to get into the Lenox Hill neonatal care unit or Adele trying to get to her Grammy.

–*The Beach Boys’ reunion happens under a cloud–Whitney Houston’s death and Maroon 5’s continued existence.

–*You can’t argue with Adele’s outrageous success. And yet it keeps arguing with you, even after it has made its point, feeling the need to follow you into every grocery store, every Starbucks, every bank and even into your home and onto your television. This sore winner will not stop trying to win the argument.

–*”Beach Boys’ Marooned.” “Maroon 5 Beached.” The possibilities are endless.

–*This just in: Brian Wilson and Keith Richards still alive.

–*Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, with their odd costumes, bizarre technical difficulties and strange agitprop, remind people of Madonna, but increasingly ought to remind people of Andy Kaufman.

–*We all seem to forget that Amy Winehouse died this year, too. Thanks, Whitney, for upstaging Amy when it was her time to shine as the prematurely dead substance abuser of the moment. Does Winehouse get no respect even in death?

–*Taylor Swift is so elegant she belongs in a perfume ad. No, really. She belongs only in a perfume ad.

–*Justin Vernon of Bon Iver thanks everybody who has won a Grammy and people who will never win a Grammy, his agents, his mom and dad and the people his have worked with … . Barbers who shave themselves, barbers who do not shave themselves. Musicians who have never won and who will never be considered for winning. … You know if he just thanked everybody who drew breath, he’d probably cut down on this acceptance speech … but no, according to Godel’s incompleteness theorem, there are still people he will likely not have thanked… did he mention he didn’t think he deserved to be there?

–*The best thing about the Grammys, as we listen to a variety of rap, country, rock, soul and jazz, is that we can all get together in a relaxed atmosphere and agree that we hate each other’s music.

–*Who will win “Artist of the Year”? If you really love music, you could easily turn off the TV before hearing the answer to this misleading, irrelevant question.

–*On an extended version of the Beatles’ Abbey Road suite, Paul McCartney leads a star-studded jam session, including Bruce Springsteen, Joe Walsh, Dave Grohl, and others of a small handful of people the music industry hasn’t been awful to.

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