Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Library at Southcenter Mall is a Cool Space That's Filled with Total Crap




"Oh, the weather outside is frightful!" proclaims the tinny voice inside the ceiling speakers at the Southcenter Mall. "Lies!" I think to myself. It's actually not too cold outside (compared to yesterday). And I'm trying to read a fucking library book, so I'd appreciate less deceitful muzak.

Yes, I am reading a library book. At the Southcenter mall. And this isn't just any library's "Guilty!" by Ann Coulter! The Witch's book! It was just sitting right there, and sometimes I like to hear the crap the other team is spewing (I inherited this off-putting curiosity from my father, whose idea of a good time is arguing out-loud with Laura Shlessinger).

Oh, there are other, less emotionally abusive books here, too. There are super-steamy black romance novels ("Drama 99FM," "Lies Lovers Tell") yawny Danielle Steele beach novels, Dr. Phil's simpleton screed on parenting that a Pyncheon? The newest Chabon? What are these doing here?

The exasperating organization of reading materials at the Southcenter library sometimes lend the diminutive space a certain ragtag charm. Over in the news section, the folksy, afro-centric "Seattle Medium" shares space with heavyweights like the New York Times, Le Monde and the International Herald Tribune. Below are entertainment magazines from Vietnam and a major Phillipine Newspaper.

But, more often than not, the reading materials on hand at this baffling "mall library" are vapid American brain-drainers thrown together without rhyme or reason. A full wall is devoted mainly to romance novels with just a few serious books by Proulx and Lethem. The teen section is all Sweet Valley High and Nintendo magazines.

The diversity of the people of Southcenter has been discussed very eloquently by Charles Mudede who captured how the mall's mind-blowingly diverse patronage alters the way one sees Seattle. Mudede wrote, "your sense of who you are, of what Seattle means, is instantly obliterated by the cacophony of consumers who are seemingly from every part of the world."

But the diversity at Southcenter does not extend to the reading choices at the Southcenter library. Don't get me wrong. I'm glad there's a no-pressure, state-sponsored readerly respite for folks who need a break from seizure-inducing, corporate-sponsored mall spaces. I think it's great. I just wish they stocked a messier, more challenging collection of American literature, rather than mindlessly throwing together the scrawlings of some of America's simplest minds with a few adept American novelists and calling it a "library."

Monday, November 23, 2009

"The Bad Girl's Club" is a Misogynist Carnival of Human Misery

Tonight I watched the trashiest trash on television. The name of this trash? "The Bad Girl's Club." This show was made for the sole purpose of inspiring you to yell at your television. That's all it made me do. Yell. The premise? A bunch of "bad girls" live in a mansion in Beverly Hills, go out, scream at each other, cry, pull each other's hair, choke each other, jump on limos, yell about "empowerment,"("I feel so empowered right now!" screamed one girl while standing on top of a limousine in high heels), fight chicks, then go home, go to sleep, wake up, talk about last night, and fight some more. Then they go out again. Then they get alcohol poisoning. There are no eliminations, no tests, no feigned plot. Just screaming and fighting and drinking and crying.

Like Maury, the show has been edited for your condemnation. Portia, a black woman from Missouri, yells and gets naked when she's angry, for no apparent reason. Amber, a sour blond girl, offers terrible, horrible advice like, "you are here for you. And the more you help others, the more you hurt yourself."

The "reality" of the show is not a given, but it's argued to us on camera every five seconds. "I'm just keepin' it real," was probably spoken something like a 1,000 times. "You don't like what you hear?! I'm just keepin' it real." "I'm gonna be keepin' it real in here, don't worry." "I know I need to continue to keep it real." "I didn't come here to make friends, I came here to keep it real," "I'm just bein' real." "Don't hate me, I'm bein' real witchu."

All the girls on the show are willing to trade five seconds of fame for a thousand years of shame. The shaudenfreude works until you start to wonder what's wrong with your own hard-wiring. Unlike "Intervention," there is no offer of redemption through counseling; these girls were chosen for the sole purpose of making us feel better about ourselves, and they're not going to leave the mansion until one of them goes crazy and stabs the rest of them with chopsticks and they're all carried out on gurneys.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Tyranny of Self-Help Books

I haven't read Barbara Ehrenrich's new missive "Bright-Sided" quite yet but her recent interview on Jon Stewart got me thinking about the disastrous implications of a nation bent on "positive thinking." It reminds me of conversations I've had with random strangers; conversations that somehow inevitably remind me that my thoughts are outside the realm of normal, productive thoughts. There's a subtlety to this way of talking to someone. And I don't even think that people are always aware that they're exerting an aggressive force on my thoughts. It can be as simple as telling me "well, maybe you might also want to think about your blessings," or when, after explaining to someone something that's just happened, getting the response, "oh, but don't you think that's good?" But how can something be "good" without making something else "bad"? I'm aware, at this point, that I most likely sound like a confused moral relativist obliquely trying to explain a general concept most folks on this earth find mildly annoying and nonetheless put up with, but I'm trying to get at the root of a problem so huge that it's actually making my writing life quite impossible.

I'm quite aware that the average blog is filled with the inevitable "writer's block" post where the author attempts to explain their lack of recent posts, or perhaps attempts to gloss it all over by saying something like "oh, I was just really busy," but I tend to believe (and you can shout at me about this later) that no writer is ever too busy to write, unless we're purposefully making ourselves busy (God, I sound like a self-help book already). And I'm convinced the reason I haven't been writing is because of some vague thought that some things out there are bad, and some things out there are good, and in order to write things that are good, you just have to be really, really aware of really huge creative missteps like being a huge cliche.

And while I agree with people who say that we think in cliches, and we act based on cliches and our lives are sometimes simply huge cliches ("You sound too much like an English major!" "You sound too gay!" "You're writing is just. so. JEWISH!") and that this is somehow HORRIBLY HORRIBLE BAD, I've been starting to think that cliches are frikkin' unavoidable, and it is simply total hooey to think otherwise. Cliches are ideas and thoughts that we sometimes have to expose and share (even in grandoise fashions) to get out of our systems. Writing in cliches might even be necessary. Much like there's no save-all self-help book that will tell us how to get rich through positive thinking, there's no imaginary guidebook to writing something great, and no soul who could say (without lying) that they know what art is best.

I am a huge cliche. You wanna know how? I'll tell you how. I'm a gay man and I'm Jewish and I'm middle class and so everything I create could somehow be labeled "gay Jewish middle class art" and that's somehow a cliche. I'm sure it is. I'm sure there is someone out there who could peg me. Maybe I'm even afraid of a moment like this (cue to :25). But it is really ridiculously silly to believe that there's some huge asshole out there who is ready and even has the energy to tell you you're a total cliche because of something you wrote. These people exist, sure. And I think the internet has made all of us far too aware of them. But they are not the ideal audience, not a typical audience and not the kind of people any of us should ever want in our heads.

I'm going to try to accomplish a big huge thing right now and say that one of the reasons online writing sucks is because I think we're writing to please those jerks. They're out there, sure. They're fucking everywhere. And they hate you for writing, hate your ideas, hate your tastes, and will gladly tell you how and why you're a huge cliche because of something you wrote on your blog. But you know what? Pandering to them is fucking ridiculous. When you pander to them, you end up with shitty copy you can't even defend. The race to call bullshit on things you're not even sure is bullshit, the race to come up with the most contrarian opinion, and the fear of ending up somewhere that's too earnest, too genuine, and too "divulgey" has made a lot of us total wimps.

I'm not saying everyone should be forcing themselves to reveal their innermost thoughts online if they're not comfortable with doing so. I'm not even sure if I'm saying that something like this is bad or good (here comes the tyranny of self-help books), but I think the race to label thoughts as cliche or not forces a lot of us into the shadows for fear that we're actually living someone else's life and parroting someone else's tastes. Things, in fact, are a lot more complicated than that.

Okay. I think I'm done yelling. I feel like I just wrote a manifesto for the vaguest art movement ever ("Write what you want to write and don't listen to the internet!") But you know what? If that's what you want to think, I'm not going to stop you. Perhaps the secret is to give up on your audience. So: fuck off. (I love you).

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"It's Not in the P-I"

My friend Neal has a fantastic review of the newsy play up on his blog. Give it a read here.

Ephemeral Art at the Henry Gift Shop

Today I visited the Henry to see the last night of the installation "I know, I know" by Jenny Zwick and Joe Park. When I arrived, neither of them were around- but their life size cut outs were. Their faces and bodies were projected on to wooden silhouettes and anchored on a boat marooned in the left corner of the Henry gift shop. Below the boat, a strobe light and wind-blown metallic strips simulated a stormy sea.

Jenny and Joe hadn't worked together before this installation. Their names were drawn out of a hat by Gift Shop curator Matthew Offenbacher and then they were given two weeks to come up with a piece to entice gallery-goers.

According to Regina Hackett, the two vendors who ran the Henry's gift shop went belly-up, providing the imputes for Offenbacher's whimsical gift shop project. Offenbacher hopes the exhibitions at the shop will "fall like dominoes: a cascading cavalcade of adventurous, collaborative, celebratory artistic energy."

I dinked around the space, touching the artist's installation drawings on the wall and eating Offenbacher's delicious (and spicy) chocolate cookies.

Jenny and Joe arrived and began to unpack their ukeleles and banjos. "What a beautiful ukele!" exclaimed Betsy Brock, the Henry's communications director. "Did you know that they sell combination ukele-banjos in Seattle?" Jenny said, before unearthing a tiny wind blown piano (called a "melodica").

Jenny Zwick began to strum the banjo and Betsy began to sing. Since the piece was an open installation, any visitor could come in and sing along. Most of the folks who wandered in looked confused - but pleased.

After singing the same song for almost half an hour, Betsy brought out ukelele-versions of songs by Radiohead, the Magnetic Fields and Rihanna. They were a hit.

"I have an urge to drum something" Offenbacher said emphatically. Unable to find a tambourine, he settled for hitting the sides of the marooned boat.

By the time I left the installation, the weather had turned from dreary to dark- but my mind was still somewhere tropical and Hawaiian.

The next artists to be paired up at the Henry are Claire Cowie, Sol Hashemi and Jason Hirata. Their installation launches November 20th. You should go.

Friday, November 13, 2009

"The Last American Virgin"

Last night I had the awful pleasure of watching one of the awfulest of all awful 80's movies with my friend Bettina. The movie was called "The Last American Virgin" (awful!) and you should think of it as the pervy godfather to American Pie, except even more gratuitously insulting towards women. I guess the film was supposed to make me feel wistful about my own adolescence but it just made me feel really shitty about the 1980's, which were obviously the Worst Time Ever to have a genuine human heart and a non-boner-related friendship with a girl.

The plot centered around three high school younguns on their quest to stick their boners in women. The boys hit on a Charo-esque older foreign woman, a bunch of young, giggly nymph classmates and a homeless prostitute. Throughout it all: crotch shots (so many!) and supremely creepy guy behavior.

Even though the film was pretending to be a fable about failed romance with chicks, it was actually a really long movie about "what not to do" to women. Like, "don't stop talking to a girl just because she's pregnant WITH YOUR CHILD!" and "don't 'do' an older lady just because you think it'll be 'funny.'"

As far as the directing goes, must we record every guffaw in emotional slo-mo? Can't we trust audiences enough to recognize a sad face? The 80's obviously didn't trust their child stars enough. This movie makes "The Suite Life of Zack and Cody" look like Sesame Street.

I hereby nominate "The Last American Virgin" for inclusion in this festival for terrible movies.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Profundity of 'America's Next Top Model'

This blog proves that the secrets to the universe can be found in watching the most crack head moments of ANTM on repeat. Seriously, though, this is a scary universe. Imagine what it would be like to be surrounded by people who were whipping out the craziest, most expressive faces so that their televisual identities didn't end up on the cutting room floor. Imagine if your face = your career. Think about your face right now. Is it doing something a little bit unattractive? Do you maybe look constipated when you're concentrating on something? Do you have an inner life that makes your face occasionally inaccessible? Boom! CUT! I think I would end up crouched in a corner crying, which would then, in a cruel twist of fate, end up in the show.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

U.S.E.! (or "All About the Time My Friend and I Crashed the World's Hippest Bar Mitzvah Party")

Last night I went to see U.S.E. at the Vera Project. I really, really liked U.S.E. when I was in high school, and I wanted to see if I'd still like 'em. Would their giddy back-up girls, roboman vocodor piano dude and general Bahamas crack house vibe still gel with me? Or would I feel as old and judgy as the crinkly curmudgeon grandpa in "Up"?

My friend and I started our evening at "The Sitting Room," which is a caramel cube of a space filled with warm theater folks drinking theatrically, and somewhere that's waayy off-limits to most Vera-goers. My friend and I talked about therapy, and careers, and friendship. It was a total "late twenties" kind of talk, and the Vera project felt like a weird place to go to afterward. I felt like I was about to crash someone else's Bar Mitzvah party.

Entering the Vera was like entering a secret club seized by hipster 'tweens. Together we pushed our way through the throngs of kids in the lobby (dressed like peacocks, sailors, robots and sticks of bacon) and entered Vera's main hall: a dark auditorium with large murals and booths to sit and eat. To our left: a trio of skinny Japanese 20-somethings wearing sequined shirts and signing posters. We'd missed the first act.

After a bit of time, U.S.E. flooded the stage with balloons and began dinking around with their equipment. The place was maybe an eighth full, but I didn't care about the lack of warm bodies. I was determined to be transported to some magical, tropical place.

It worked. I was transported, if only for a few minutes. The band played a series of songs from their new album (yawn) before finally giving in and whipping out the classics (yay!). I believe yes, it does suck to have to play the same song over and over again that you probably wrote one night, when you were 17, on a crazy acid trip, but, in the end, looking out at a sea of people shaking their butts and closing their eyes and twirling, because of something you're doing with your fingers and throats must make it all worthwhile.

Everyone was dancing, except for one overweight boy in front of us who looked perplexed by the whole affair. I wanted to grab him by his shoulders and yell at him. "I know you're having a bad time, but DON'T get into blogging, you hear?"

Near the end of the set, I grabbed my friend's hand and decided to be one of those annoying people who snakes their way to the front row. In no time at all, we were staring at a tapping, sequined shoe. It was awesome, and that was before the confetti strobe light storm.