DAY ONE, KIND OF
The first thing that occurs to me at the beginning of my cultural week is a question about criteria. What qualifies? If you read—or, as I did, listen to—Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, the whole of culture is going to hell in a handbasket, as mash-ups and the digital entrepôt rid us of professional reportage, musicianship, originality, and notions of humanity itself. He cites Facebook as an example of the degrading of our standards: What is a “friend” from now on? Punters of my generation—and probably most readers of The Paris Review will find this a curious thing to say, but my three-year-old son will likely see it as a word for the tally of standardized connections amassed through the mediation of a Web site.
DAY ONE, REALLY
Monday begins, technically, at 12:00 A.M. “Sunday night,” with an Alan Watts lecture on the subject of “Play and Sincerity.” I have long used Watts to put me to sleep, which implies that he is soporific. Not so; it’s that I find his voice comforting.
I also indulged in Zombieland, the unfeasibly entertaining comedy directed by Ruben Fleischer. Of the two ruling monster metaphors currently infecting the public mind (the other being vampirism, to which I have to confess I have contributed), I favor the flesh-eating variety, though that may simply be an indication that I have a Y chromosome.
While we are at it, I am afraid that I rate Justin Cronin’s vampire epic The Passage a “sell.” The word is that Ridley Scott is to direct the movie version, and this may be one case of a book that benefits from boiling down. I hope that Sir Ridley is in his best science-fiction mode and can bring some of the quotidian genius that he brought to Alien and Blade Runner.
My dad, who served in the Office of Strategic Services at the end of World War II, always said that the New York Times was the greatest intelligence resource in the world. When I got old enough to have developed a taste for a newspaper without (as he called it) funny papers, we had two subscriptions for the house, so that there would be no scuffling over favorite sections. (We also received the Post, for shits and giggles.)
I still swear by the Times, although I have come to the sad realization that it is capable of, and considered capable of, bias. This is the beginning of my cultural day: fetching the blue plastic Times news-condom and ripping it open. I should add at this point that I live in Los Angeles, where there is little need for protection from the elements; the blue wrapper from which the trefoil Times emerges serves a mostly ritual function. Or perhaps an aerodynamic one, as it is no doubt hurled from a fast-moving truck.
As we are still at breakfast, I should (still morning I am afraid) give a shout-out to the Andreja Premium by Quickmill, as reengineered by Chris’s Coffee Services of Albany. It’s the Aston Martin Vanquish of home espresso machines. Is food culture, too? Are liquids? One can be just as snobby about coffee as wine—as witnessed by the label on my Organic Ethiopian Sidama Shilcho:
Red currants, plum, and cranberry juice crowned with juniper and eucalyptus. The cup is plush and deep, almost mysterious as it cools and reveals more and more layers. The sweetness is marked by brown sugar and fig syrup while the acidity is meek and balanced, bringing a steady arching roundness. The finish tapers into cinnamon and molasses cookies.
OK, to give them credit, it does taste frickin’ good. The line of comedy that preys upon this sort of language is justly skewered as old news by David Nicholls in his novel One Day, which I am currently reading. Slangy, comfortable, and fluent, One Day does all sorts of things to your heart while chatting away pleasantly, like a doctor with very good bedside manner.
We don’t seem to do this sort of thing very well—novels with social import that are neither tortured nor torturous. One Day is, of course, being made into a film, in accordance with International Cultural Directive 848a (subsection 3), which requires that any halfway popular book be bought by a studio and put into the sticky paws of producers, screenwriters, and directors. I am a serial adapter myself, but if anything, I have learned that some books lend themselves to The Process (About a Boy is a good example within my experience) and some are simply impossible (cf. The Golden Compass).
I have the good fortune of a three-year-old son, whose education brings up all sorts of cultural questions. Did you know that there is a device called the Tag, which will read books for you? It looks like a grossly bloated robotic pen, and when you touch it to different areas of a chip-laced book (ordered separately of course) it heartily intones the words on the page, pausing with the unnerving patience of a robot for your child to tell you to flip the page. This was a gift (I hasten, stumble in my haste, to add) from well-meaning friends. It has now led to the purchase of numerous encoded volumes, since said three-year-old recently managed to break his arm in three places, requiring for the next six weeks that he pursue the reflective life.
I’m all for reading aloud myself, especially the good stuff, such as, for instance, Chris Monroe’s Monkey with a Toolbelt. But sometimes, apparently, nothing but the robot will do. This is the punishment for being a liberal-arts parent; you’d like to think that your child will groove out to kids’ versions of Radiohead (Kid A-B-C?), but he ends up preferring “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round.”
I am a terrible book slut, with several always on the go, generally lying about splayed in a manner that would horrify bibliophiles. Lately, however, I have been abusing my Amazon account and sucking books out of the air through my iPad’s Kindle app. Perhaps the oddest thing about eBooks (or iBooks or whatever) is how seamless the transition is between the paper (or “dead tree” as the Web 2.0 people would have it) version and the electronic version.
The iPad came into my life just as I finally found a house that can contain all of the books that I have been dragging with me from place to place for twenty years. I had recently set myself the task of arranging my library. But I realized two facts. One, they would all fit easily on my iPad (as I discovered when, for the price of ninety-nine cents, I downloaded the entirety of Mark Twain’s work, which the hard-drive swallowed without a burp). Two, I seem to buy books in order to make myself feel a certain way, whether or not I am going to fulfill my best intentions of actually reading the damn things. Claude Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, for instance, has been sitting in various boxes and shelves for two and a half decades, mouldering away ever since I bought it at Shakespeare & Co. in my gap year, when I was “working” there. (How are you, George Whitman, you piratical old bastard? Well, I hope.) I have to say there is something touching about this, as I recently (gently) cracked it open and am enjoying it greatly: Every book bought in a moment of inexplicable conceit (like Julia Kristeva’s latest scorcher, a recent folly) is an opportunity waiting patiently for my eyes.
So chalk that one up to Monday, along with the various others I have on the boil: Genius and Heroin by Michael Largo, an unflinching and remarkably pleasant volume on the demises of various artists; The Dervish House by Ian Mcdonald, an author who specializes in science fiction set outside of the milieu of the West; Life Inc. by Douglas Rushkoff (corporations bad!); The Religion by Tim Willocks, a historical novel about the siege of Malta; and Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle by Chris Hedges. (Mr. Hedges describes the ins and outs of the manufactured feuds of the WWE so entertainingly that it actually makes the wrestlers’ adventures seem downright Homeric.)
Jesus, I am still in Monday.
Work is the cutting room, where my editor Peter Lambert and I are working on The Gardener, a film about an undocumented Mexican gardener played by the extraordinary Mexican actor Demián Bichir. He is probably best known for his work on Weeds, but back home he is a big movie star.
Editing is obsessive/compulsive work, and I try my best to distract myself. Today it is a slowed-down version of an Olsen Twins song about pizza. Other distractions have been, in order, the double-rainbow guy, a dog dancing to merengué, and the unforgettable Antoine Dodson.
For these and other such sweetmeats, I have boingboing.net to thank. It’s a veritable souk of amusing trifles, terrifying verities, invaluable hyperlinks, rare aesthetic finds, and virulent copyright invective. If you take one thing from this bizarre ramble, do yourself a favor and paste it in your Web browser.
Back home my friend Rhashan Stone, a Brit actor and playwright, has arrived for a few days’ stay. We end up talking about science fiction. He’s not interested in sci-fi that draws analogies. No need for prepackaged Freudian analyses or Marxist dialectic; he’s looking for a sense of the uncanny. We cited John Carpenter’s The Thing as a great example, and compared notes as to which scenes creeped us out the most. For me, it was the autopsy that Wilford Brimley’s character conducts—now there was some fantastic production design and prop work. Rhashan liked the huskie whose head splits open like a flower and issues forth snake-like feelers. To each his own.
To bed, and Beethoven’s 7th piped straight from Munich, via the Wunder Radio app on my iPhone. What a time to be alive! I’m partial to Bayern 4 Klassik because the news announcers, with their cultivated German, remind me of my Dad speaking German (always to journalists or informers for his biographies on then-exotic and expensive long-distance lines) when I was a child.
I wake up remembering a cache of classical tapes given to me and my brother by my mom’s friend Orin O’Brien, lead bass for the New York Philharmonic. Orin was the first female member of the orchestra, and is probably now one of its longest tenured. The treasure trove of tapes played a big role in making classical music a part of my life; it was where I first heard Mozart’s piano concerto No. 19 and fell in love with it.
In The Dervish House, Ian Mcdonald writes about a “reputational” currency called kudos, which a little Googling on my part leads to the discovery that the word is actually Greek, κῦδος, meaning glory or renown. “Non-monopoly” currencies are beloved by boingboing.net—there one can find an interesting lecture by Bernard Lietaer, the currency expert who, among other things, helped engineer the Euro and who is a great supporter of regional currencies.
The argument goes, a far as I can understand it, that the currency systems we have in place today are a result of the state (and in older times, the monarchy) cracking down on local systems of exchange, because they could not guarantee revenues from taxation and they desired a stranglehold on financial activity within their demesnes. This makes for a rigidly structured economy that is only open to stopgap repairs to promote growth. While in a structurally more open currency system, growth can be spurred by local exchanges. The federal government still maintains the monopolistic right to issue currency—which is part of the reason I so delight in Burning Man, where currency is suspended once you get through the gates. All you can buy is ice, coffee, chai, electrolytes, and presumably contraband. What remains is what has incorrectly been called a barter economy and, at its best, a utopian bubble within which, freed from the workings of exchange, people actually manage to deal with each other in open-handed, generous, and surprising ways. My friend Lightning tells me that Chicken John (a controversial figure in Black Rock City, but to explain this would be to digress to even more tiresome degrees) has nominated the local currency “units of awesome.” Indeed, much of what my friends and campmates have been doing for the past few years is a profitless quest to blow people’s minds with too much kindness.
Googling “monopoly currency,” I find that I’m in the same company as John Birchers and the Cato Institute. Oh dear. It is a strange time, indeed, when the Tea Baggers can run on an antifascist platform.
The Dervish House also features a monetized “terrorism index,” and I’m reminded of Admiral Poindexter’s faith that such a stock market of calamitous thoughts would activate the Wisdom of Crowds. This is a chimera of the Web 2.0 people; Wikipedia is their killer app. To be sure, I use it often enough, though one must be careful to veer clear of depending on its authority in any case of disputed opinion. Me? I hold with Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, still a stonking read after 170 years:
Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.
Yes, I was able to access that quote with dispatch on the Net.
Chris Weitz is a producer, writer, actor, and director. He is currently at work on The Garderner, scheduled for release in 2011. Check back tomorrow for the second installment of Weitz’s culture diary.