A Week in Culture: Carlene Bauer, Writer
February 5, 2013 | by Carlene Baeur
Tonight I went to my first Spanish class at Idlewild on Nineteenth Street. 7:30 to 9 P.M.. When I signed up for this class in November, shortly after I came back from spending a few weeks in Barcelona, I was flush with the joy of recent travel, and intent on injecting some novelty, intellectual and otherwise, into my life. I had an idea that I might try to make it back to Spain at the end of this year, and if that happened, I'd like to be able to do more than buy a few peaches without tripping over my tongue, or wanting to revert to French, the only other foreign language I know. And if that never happened, I would at least be doing something to forestall dementia. But as the intervening weeks, growing colder and darker, put more and more distance between me and that trip—I dreamed that, didn’t I?—I started to wonder why I’d done such a thing. It seemed as unnecessary and out of character as signing up for ten colonics through Groupon. But when, after the fifteen of us had gathered in a circle in the back of the store, and the teacher welcomed us in Spanish, something in me quickened in response to hearing the language. Maybe it was just sound as souvenir, but some sleeping dog in me perked up. Something similar had happened back in Barcelona, while standing in the La Central bookstore, looking at all the books I wanted to read but could not, feeling a strange urgency to get the key that would unlock what lay between those covers, a strange feeling that this was a language I needed to know deeper. Very unlike me. The instructor at Idlewild said that it’s hard for New Yorkers to suffer a situation in which they may not get it right the first time. I am that kind of New Yorker. The other New Yorkers? They seemed lovely. Sitting there in wooden folding chairs arranged in a circle on a well-trafficked wooden floor, among a group of adults of all types and ages wearing various forms of office drag as they presented themselves willingly to a humbling process, I had some déjà vu. Years ago, a few blocks away on Sixteenth Street, when I was converting to Catholicism, I sat in a similar circle week after week. I took it as a sign that this class could only be a good thing, even if my Spanish eventually went the way of my Catholicism.
Had great lust for several of the books on display at Idlewild. Need to come earlier next time to do some birthday present shopping for a small child who knows some French and some Spanish. Wonder momentarily if small child, who loves to read, wouldn’t prefer some fantastic explosion of a party dress that she can wear to shreds.
Evening reading: Andrew Wilson’s Mad Girl’s Love Song, a biography of Sylvia Plath that focuses on her life leading up to Ted Hughes. I need to read another biography of Plath like I need a hole in the head, as they say, but I can never resist. In most iterations Plath tends to come off as beyond money worries and beyond needing friendship, so what this book has going for it, despite Wilson occasionally committing the biographer’s sin of letting his or her exasperation with his subject show, is that it foregrounds her class anxiety, and you get a much clearer, detailed picture of her relationships with her peers—especially with a streetwise, self-styled existentialist with whom she carried on an almost masochistic correspondence.
Started a book review for a magazine; got going while listening to Trouble’s show on WFMU. This is where I go to get a weekly dose of pop made by people who have lived in France, Brazil, and bedsits. You know, easy listening for liberal arts majors. I can’t really read Pitchfork anymore, but I do want to know about new music, and old music that’s new to me, and WFMU, along with Seattle’s KEXP and BBC 6, is how I get that information. Speaking of BBC 6, I highly recommend Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday program on BBC 6, because 1) you can tell he loves the medium of radio as much as he loves music, and 2) just listening to his Northern accent is music enough. When you’re a writer, you’re often rendered a shut-in, and my shut-in-itude, to borrow a term from my friend Emily, is made bearable by the radio. As is my day job. My day job, which I am off from this week, is also made bearable by having coworkers who watch Soul Train line-dance clips on YouTube to clear the mind between tasks.
Birthday drinks with friends, sister, and boyfriend. High Fidelity-style drinking banter ensues. My friend Eric proposes a psychological diagnostic: rank the hits off Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man according to personal preference, and let’s see what it says about you. Scrolling on his phone to review the songs, he is reminded that Joel wrote one for the record called “Christie Lee.” He groans a groan that is a theatrical but heartfelt mix of incredulity, derision, and man-to-man sympathy. My friend Lauren, who largely has no use for Billy Joel, says, “Keeping the Faith.” My boyfriend says the same, with “An Innocent Man” a close second. Lauren mocks him for his choice of runner-up: “That’s because you like musical theater.” My sister, who, like myself, also likes musical theater, but hates Glee, goes for the title track. My vote: “The Longest Time.” Lauren’s husband, Justin, who has absolutely no use for Billy Joel, recuses himself. More drinks are ordered, and we never make it to the psychological assessment part of this test.
Finished review while listening to Duane on WFMU. His show is informed by a love of both My Bloody Valentine and Prince. In between you will find soul, funk, really filthy European disco, and sixties psychedelia, among other things. You will be treated to, say, recordings of a recent Thanksgiving hosted by his sister with her friends from choir gathered around a piano to sing a gospel version of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” Today I am stunned by the unearthing of a Prince song called “Cold Coffee and Cocaine,” which appears to be an unreleased demo he recorded in 1983 while making Purple Rain. It’s Prince singing, or melodically mumbling, in a lower register than usual so as to sound more like a liver-damaged bluesman, and playing a ferocious, popping-like-popcorn piano boogie. The Internet tells me that this is his “Jamie Starr voice,” Jamie Starr being the pseudonym he used when writing songs for The Time. Duane apparently also DJs during Fashion Week, and if money were no object, I would throw a dance party and solicit his services.
While I’m writing, my sister e-mails to inform me that a Breeders show we were looking to attend, a show celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Last Splash, is sold out. I’m a little unsettled by the trend of bands playing albums to commemorate an anniversary and/or make a shitload of money. The base appeal to Gen X nostalgia makes me despondent. One doesn’t want to have to imagine one’s favorites opportunistically preying on that nostalgia, or stooping to crass commercialism. Or just hurting for money in the first place. And, uh, I don’t want to admit that my generation, like every generation before it, is probably now starting to look as ridiculous as we thought those hippies in those Freedom Rock commercials did. Ha ha, old people. But I tell myself that Kim Deal and her band is an exception. I find that being in the acute stages of adulthood has not stopped me from needing to witness guitar-based female badassery in person. Wild Flag is my Fifty Shades of Gray.
Go to bed early—birthday drinking, etc.—to read. Trying to decide between some birthday presents: 1) a very lovely hardback edition of Elizabeth Hardwick’s A View of My Own, with a pea-green and dove-gray cover that, if money were again no object, would wallpaper my fantasy study, 2) Robert Lowell’s Day by Day, with an equally handsome cover, and 3) Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, which has this tag line on the front of the seventies Bantam mass-market paperback: “Chapter 6 Might Change Your Life.” Instead hunt down Ellen Willis’s Beginning to See the Light, last year’s birthday gift from Lauren. The cover of which is best described as Academic Press Font Crime Scene. Recently read Alain de Botton’s How To Think More About Sex, and while rereading Willis’s 1979 essay “The Family: Love It or Leave It,” enjoyed imagining what she’d say about the streaks of smug pessimism undermining his book, which had me questioning my Anglophilia. Then briefly fantasize about Justin Bond doing a book report of the de Botton for his “Drunk News.”
Appointment in the city with an editor. After Spain, I have been wanting to read more Spanish-language fiction. Recently read Carmen Laforet’s Nada, which is a dark haunted attic of a novel set in post–Civil War Barcelona, and then, finally, after meaning to do so forever, have just started Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. It is my subway companion, and the thunderous hurtling of the train is the perfect accompaniment to the book’s hectic, shuttling sentences. I am having the terrible and embarrassing problem of instantly realizing a book’s genius, but also failing to find instant purchase in the narrative. I’m trusting that I will soon come to love this, though. Editor I meet with sees that I am carrying book, says 2666 had her under a spell that made her prefer its company to that of humans.
After appointment, watch finale of 30 Rock. I don’t have cable, so 30 Rock’s really been the only reason I’ve turned the television on for the last seven years. Although I’ve nearly missed this season entirely. Part of that was because, it seemed to me, the more Fey found herself in the position of red carpet bombshell, the more Liz Lemon became a gastrointestinally distressed cartoon of prudery. Which is to say, unfunny. Tina Fey, didn’t you know you were supposed to be everything to everyone? Final thought: Alec Baldwin is my Axl Rose.
This evening, through the magic of the Internet, my boyfriend and I watched the most recent episode of Downton Abbey. I have to say that this season has been a bit of a disappointment. Previously one could banish niggling thoughts like “Who cares that these rich people are about to lose their family seat to a middle-class lawyer?” and “Aside from a historically accurate case of Stockholm Syndrome, why should their help be so attached to them?” Because one had other, more pressing thoughts, like “When will Mary be ruined by her one night of passion?” and “Does Bates have a Bertha Rochester?” But the writers—just like George Eliot—were so attentive to their characters, and so good to them, even the minor ones, the show has never seemed too soapy or campy. Even as two housemaids and the ladies they waited on carried a dead Turkish rake out of a virgin's bedroom and back into his own to cover up the fact that he died while having his way with her. It’s rare that you see that kind of ludicrous incident tempered by well-rounded characterization and dialogue that works both when it’s slinging wit for wit’s sake and setting out expository confession along with the tea things. The show’s never seemed derivative, even when you could sense the influence of Eliot, Austen, Trollope, Bowen, etc.
Now that the plot is centering earnestly around the loss of the family fortune, which seems a strange, and, okay, stupid decision on the creators’ part, especially given the economy we’re all living in, those niggling questions are ravaging my enjoyment like World War I gangrene, and if Branson in his grief decided to blow the house to bits, or if Edith’s nascent newspaper career leads her to invite some Fleet Street type she’s unwisely besotted with to the house and he ends up skewering them all in a novel called something like Unprofitable Talents, I don’t know how sorry I’d feel. Right about now I’d prefer a spinoff centered on Daisy, who’s been putting me in mind of Mad Men’s Peggy: another vulnerable, ambitious kid whose status as a girl of slender means gives her a propensity toward lashing out at perceived injustices, often to the horror or bemusement of the men standing downwind. (With Mrs. Patmore as her Joan, if you’ll forgive the inexact parallels, though they are both quite buxom redheads.) Or a show that catches up with Gwen, the housemaid who took off for the brave new world of Work at the end of the first season. But I’ll keep watching, because this is the first time in my life that my father and I have both been captivated by the goings on of a bunch of English people in period costume, and that’s as satisfying, if not more, than what’s happening on screen.