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americans in limbo

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Most Americans – me included before I moved here – have a difficult time reading British “class” through accent and its other accoutrements. Sure, there’s My Fair Lady cockneyism on the one side and chinless Royal Familyism on the other, we can detect that, but between lies just a fast undifferentiated middle. Which of course not how British people hear it, not in the least, as they sniff each other out with the subtle discernment of dogs testing each others’ asses.

But on the other hand: Americans are completely indiscernable to Brits as well. They can’t detect the subtle differences of speech and gesture that mark the well-born or earned-through from the other sorts, and all the complicating and obsfucating play that goes on in between. But whereas Americans default to “rich and polished” when they hear Brits, I think Americans are assigned a lower and more ambiguous place in the eyes of my hosts here. The best analogy I can come up with for where we are placed is the way that Dante handles the virtuous non-Christians in Inferno. Greek philosophers and the like aren’t mixed into the bottom, not quite, but they don’t quite merit the middle berthing either.

They are placed in Limbo, for lack of anywhere else to settle them – technically in the game but ultimately not really.

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October 10, 2013 at 11:01 am

neo-liberalism as american martyrdom

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Meme-expansion alert:

There’s long been a line of argument against the USA adopting a “socialized” medical system that goes something like this. “Sure, Canada and the Europeans have their cheap and equal systems. But the only way they can have those systems is because they freeload on the back of us, the unequal Americans. For instance, because we don’t have a single-payer system that forces the prices of newly developed prescription drugs down, the pharmaceutical companies have real incentives to develop new drugs. The NHSes of the world then purchase those drugs at a cut rate while Americans pay the true cost of their development.”

In other words, according to this line of thinking, Americans are actually the self-less martyrs of the medical world, paying ridiculous sums for treatment so that Brits and Canadians and Scandinavians can ride free. Were we to develop a single-payer system, the pharmaceutical industry would simply stop trying so hard to develop life-changing and life-saving drugs.

I’ve just found evidence in Ross Douthat’s column today in the New York Times that this meme is expanding its borders, moving from medical services to the global economy as a whole. Here’s the relevant passage:

The European model of social democracy has its virtues, but it has always depended on the wealth created by American laissez-faire. As a recent economic paper entitled “Can’t We All Be More Like Scandinavians?” points out, it’s easier for smaller countries to afford a more “cuddly” form of capitalism if big countries like the United States are driving global economic growth. And the price of a permanently larger government — in growth lost, private-sector jobs left uncreated, breakthroughs forgone — is much higher for a country of our size and influence than it is for a Sweden or a France.

Beyond the truthfulness and accuracy of the claims – which I’m sure is a mixed and complex matter – I am taken with what a strange argument it is when it comes, as Douthat is implicitly doing here, to using it to try to influence policy decisions / voting choices. Basically, it suggests that Americans, living inside a rapacious economic and political system fuelled by greed and inequality, are in effect trapped in a perverse and permanent mode of self-sacrifice, forced to accept their unhappy system so that (or almost “so that”) others might live better lives.

It’s neo-liberalism rebranded as a form of martyrdom, a bounded match of “survival of the fittest” that serves the corpses of the victims as free barbecue to the bystanders at the end of the game. Or, from another angle, it is the most passive-aggressive version of “combined and uneven development” imaginable. Strange.

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November 4, 2012 at 12:51 pm

“in california, one has only a first name”

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I’m sure most of you are already familiar with this, but thought I’d pass along my favourite paragraph from Marjorie Perloff’s indignant response to Mary Beard in the LRB just after 9/11.

I have been a subscriber to LRB since the journal’s inception some twenty-five years ago. But I hereby cancel my subscription and shall urge my Stanford students and colleagues to boycott the journal. Let me end, however, on an upbeat note that speaks to Beard’s ‘of course’. The man who takes care of our garden in Pacific Palisades, Ruben Vargas, was here the other day. A Latino who came to California from Mexico not all that long ago, Vargas has a daughter who is a freshman at UCLA. Some of us like to think that such upward mobility is what makes the US unique. I asked Ruben what he thought of the attack. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘at least now we’re all in it together.’ I responded: ‘But Ruben, many of my friends think it’s all America’s fault.’ He smiled and said: ‘Excuse me, Marjorie’ – yes, in California, one has only a first name – ‘but isn’t that a minuscule part of the population?’ Of course!

LOLZ. God bless America, a land where we hardly ever beat our gardeners for addressing us by the first name! You can find both the Beard and the whole Perloff here. What is interesting to me now, looking back at this piece after so many years, is the way that Perloff, in constructing her trumping concluding paragraph, so perfectly takes up the Clintonian * trope that goes something like “I met an ordinary woman in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she shared her story with me, I hugged her, and I felt her pain.” You know, the old argumentum ex I know ordinary folks, this sort of thing (wish I had time to find a better example). These are sorts of performative utterances: they signify by being said or being able to be said as much as by what they actually say. It’s funny that Perloff, in the heights of anger, decided to construct her argument according to this extremely liberal “I might not be of the people, but I’ve met some of them… especially those in my employ” structure.

Anyway, was quite a moment. If I recall correctly, both Beard and Perloff had visiting appointments at Princeton in 2002 – people were anxious / excited at the prospect of seeing them take it off the letters pages and onto the quad.

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September 11, 2012 at 4:02 pm

Posted in america

shakespeare on broadway

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Herman Melville to Evert Duyckinck:

I would to God Shakespeare had lived later, & promenaded in Broadway. Not that I might have had the pleasure of leaving my card for him at the Astor, or made merry with him over a bowl of fine Duyckinck punch; but that the muzzle which all men wore on their souls in the Elizabethan day, might not have intercepted Shakespeare’s full articulations. For I hold it a verity, that even Shakespeare was not a frank man to the universe. And, indeed, who in this intolerant Universe is, or can be? But the Declaration of Independence makes a difference.

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May 26, 2011 at 4:44 pm

Posted in america

meek’s cutoff

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Saw Meek’s Cutoff the other night – absolutely brilliant. Not sure how to put any of this without giving the game away, but it’s an incredibly artful piece and one that is in large part about what we can and can’t read / hear / comprehend / understand though it’s right there in front of our eyes / ears / heads. It’s a complicated film that fucks with the audience in all sorts of ways. (I’m usually ready for this sort of thing, as a modernist by trade, but I was actually complaining about the sound being too low in the cinema until the person I was with clue me in to the fact that it was probably intentional that we couldn’t hear what the characters were saying through large chunks of the film…)

And it’s a film that that vividly – and incredibly patiently – resists the probing, teleological impulse genetically resident in the Western genre that it’s subverting. Plus it plays all of this out in a way that makes the “American story” into at once a sort of impossible “back into the garden” narrative that’s biblically damned to fail and a haunting performance of the situation that I’ve always believed makes up the lion’s share of the American political unconscious. (Let’s put it this way: this is a settler and Indians story in which, well, there aren’t many Indians but the landscape is strewn with evidence that they once were here…. Just as the landscape is now, still…)

You should see it if you get a chance. Reminded me a lot of Lars Von Trier’s stuff, actually. Weird trees and all…

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May 18, 2011 at 10:38 am

Posted in america, movies

they suck your blood

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For anyone still unaware of how bad things can be and generally are in the US with health care, SEK nails it here.

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May 5, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Posted in america

words and politics

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From Krugman’s column today:

But something else struck me as I looked at Republican arguments against the board, which hinge on the notion that what we really need to do, as the House budget proposal put it, is to “make government health care programs more responsive to consumer choice.”

Here’s my question: How did it become normal, or for that matter even acceptable, to refer to medical patients as “consumers”? The relationship between patient and doctor used to be considered something special, almost sacred. Now politicians and supposed reformers talk about the act of receiving care as if it were no different from a commercial transaction, like buying a car — and their only complaint is that it isn’t commercial enough.

Sounds like the work of Luntz to me… (Actually, here’s a summary of his 2009 memo on health care). See how this works? You preemptively and subtly rework the terms of the debate simply by changing the words that are used.

Both the facilitating situation and ultimate effect of this sort of rhetorical gamesmanship can be found in another article from the NYT today on a new national poll:

[S]lightly more Americans approve than disapprove of a proposal by Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin to change Medicare from a program that pays doctors and hospitals directly for treating older people to one in which the government helps such patients pay for private plans, though that support derived more from Republicans and independents. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll that found 65 percent opposed Mr. Ryan’s plan, suggesting results can vary based on how the question is asked.

Twice as many respondents said they would prefer cuts in spending on federal programs that benefit people like them as said they would favor a rise in taxes to pay for such programs.

Yet more than 6 in 10 of those surveyed said they believed Medicare was worth the costs. And when asked specifically about Medicare, respondents said they would rather see higher taxes than see a reduction in its available medical services if they had to choose between the two.

Arggh! Replace Medicare with vouchers, because it costs to much, but Medicare is also worth the costs. Cut spending on programs like Medicare rather than raising taxes, but also raise them to keep Medicare…. Obviously there’s, as always in America, sharp ideological polarization at play, but at least some – or actually probably a large percentage of respondents, when you think about it – who are answering questions in diametrically contradictory ways….

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April 22, 2011 at 10:00 am

brick ‘n mortar ‘n toilets

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Sign in the window of a recently closed Borders bookstore somewhere in America:

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April 4, 2011 at 9:58 am

Posted in america

“imported from detroit”: superbowl ads

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I know this sort of thing has been done before… But what a conceptually tangled if viscerally stirring ad spin here. The usual American car marketing jingoism gets translated into a half-coherent riff about uneven internal development and productivist aesthetics. Check out, for instance, the strange pseudo-Ruskinism mixed with rust belt exoticism in “Because when it comes to luxury, it’s as much about where it’s from as who it’s for.” As well as, of course, the tag line of the ad as a whole, “Imported from Detroit.”

Most of the other ads from last night are banal crap. * But in ones like Chrysler’s, complete with the somnolent semi-logic of lines like the above, it is interesting to see what they dream that we are or could be dreaming.

On the other hand, quite funny that Chrysler is increasingly owned by Fiat, and so a more accurate ad would be about the politics and finance of one post-industrial city buying another via the mediation of the US government….

* All that I’ve found that was even mildly interesting is the Audi spot that seemed to position itself as the car of choice for slightly less twittish upperclass twits. And I suppose there’s something to be said about the Motorola ad, itself a winking sendup of Apple’s very famous 1984-themed ad that aired in 1984.

Of course there is an interesting difference between the two versions. If the stakes of corporate conflict translated into consumer choice once was registered in terms of the political thematics of Orwell’s novel (the subversion of IBM as the subversion of the totalitarian state), now buying a MotoPad vs. an iPad is allegorized through the minor key romantic plot of the novel. And even in doing so, diminished stakes again: instead of a righteous fuck in the woods, the best we can hope for is a Youtube video goofily edited into an electronic Valentine’s Day Card which leads this Julia not to drop her overalls but merely to take out her earbuds.

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February 7, 2011 at 9:21 am

what novels are for (according to conservative columnists)

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Slightly unfair to throw one columnist’s words from 2011 up against another’s from 1988. But this is, it seems to me, interesting to think about. Ross Douthat today in the NYT:

But chances are that Loughner’s motives will prove as irreducibly complex as those of most of his predecessors in assassination. Violence in American politics tends to bubble up from a world that’s far stranger than any Glenn Beck monologue — a murky landscape where worldviews get cobbled together from a host of baroque conspiracy theories, and where the line between ideological extremism and mental illness gets blurry fast.

This is the world that gave us Oswald and Bremer. More recently, it’s given us figures like James W. von Brunn, the neo-Nazi who opened fire at the Holocaust Museum in 2009, and James Lee, who took hostages at the Discovery Channel last summer to express his displeasure over population growth. These are figures better analyzed by novelists than pundits: as Walter Kirn put it Saturday, they’re “self-anointed knights templar of the collective shadow realm, not secular political actors in extremis.”

George Will in 1988 on Don DeLillo’s Libra, via here, and its presentation of Lee Harvey Oswald:

DeLillo says he is just filling in “some of the blank spaces in the known record.” But there is no blank space large enough to accommodate, and not a particle of evidence for, DeLillo’s lunatic conspiracy theory. In the book’s weaselly afterword, he says he has made “no attempt to furnish factual answers.” But in a New York Times interview he says, “I purposely chose the most obvious theory because I wanted to do justice to historical likelihood.”

History, says a DeLillo character, is “the sum total of all the things they aren’t telling us.” Of course. “They.” That antecedentless pronoun hants the fevered imaginations of paranoiacs. For conspiracy addicts like DeLillo, the utter absence of evidence, after 25 years of search, proves not that there was no conspiracy but that the conspiracy was diabolically clever.

It is well to be reminded by books like this of the virulence of the loathing some intellectuals feel for American society, and of the frivolous thinking that fuels it.

Of course, neither of them are wrong about what novels generally and reflexively do when it comes to ethical questions. Contextualization and the relativism that comes of it, speculation to fill in the holes in the story where the assignment of goodness or evilness might otherwise fill the blank – all very much a part of the game, and you basically have to derange the form a bit in order to do otherwise with them.

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January 10, 2011 at 6:26 pm

Posted in america, novel, Politics

recession chic: own-brand politics

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Interestingly zeitgeisty subsumption of recession chic Walmartistic marketing * into politics, this “No Labels” campaign. Even more interesting that it seems to be either a product or an opportunistic ally of MSNBC, the no-name name of television news. While the members of this movement, as I understand it, are involved for a variety of reasons, if it’s primarily a vehicle established to support a presidential run by Michael Bloomberg in 2012, then here “store brand” = “post-ideological plutocracy.” Obviously ‘post-ideological’ needs to be in scare quotes, but that’s the idea, and really just a consolidation of a long-held (and eighty-percent perverse) American instinct about the relationship between politics and money.

* Part of Walmart’s very very tacit come-on is that such is its buying power that it could force name-brand companies to make or bake items for its store brand simply in order also to have access to its shelves for stuff under their own labels. Somehow this seems similar to what these “No Name” people are up to.

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December 21, 2010 at 6:44 am

Posted in ads, america, Politics

a portrait of the president as a mechanized middle manager

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David Bromwich’s brilliant breakdown of the Obama presidency in the current issue of the LRB makes for depressing reading… Obama comes across in a way that makes perfect sense but which I’d never quite gotten before, or at least gotten this fully. If the Bush administration’s dominant rhetorical strain was the dark-magical realism of Orwellian double-think, Obama’s linguistic mainline is the pablum parlance of the powerpoint infected boardroom. Here’s Bromwich on Obama vis a vis Afghanistan:

If, some years hence, one were to measure when the hope for ending the wars ran out, a critical exhibit would be the ‘final orders’ Obama asked all the participants in his Afghanistan review of 2009 to approve. The text, printed by Woodward, is a strangely lawyer-like set of agreed-on directives, at once imperative and vague. The point of a contract is that it is binding: if it is not followed, there are legal grounds of redress. These final orders are a mimic contract: a list of notions expressing a ‘commitment’ to a consensus that was never wholehearted. Yet Obama thought mere verbal formulae could strengthen the agreement he had forged between Petraeus, McChrystal and Mullen, who wanted a full-scale counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, and Eikenberry, Lute, Brennan and Biden, who wanted no more troops to be sent. The words are mechanised and managerial: ‘US troops in early 2010 in order to degrade the Taliban and set the conditions for accelerated transition’; ‘leveraging the potential for local security forces’; ‘working with Karzai when we can, working around him when we must’; ‘implementing a post-election compact’; ‘a prioritised comprehensive approach’; ‘begin transferring lead security responsibility’; ‘effective sub-national governance’. All here is in the highest degree uncertain, obscure, and hedged about by bureaucratic evasion and metaphor. None of the terms has the slightest real precision. Yet Obama agonised over the details of this phraseology; a whole metaphysic of war and peace hung on the difference between ‘degrade’ and ‘disrupt’; the word ‘transfer’ took on the authority of a reprieve signed by a governor.

My favorite line of all of Bromwich, though, is this one: “His eloquence finds its natural key not in explanations but in statements of purpose.” We’re supposed to hear, I’m quite sure, the academic undertone in the final phrase in that sentence. Perhaps more than anything else it’s this walking, talking CV-type status that explains more than anything else the appeal that he held for young Americans during the election. They recognized in his bullet-pointed hopes and dreams themselves in their college interviews and grad school applications, and were just as willing as admissions boards often are to reward a polished plan and sterling presentation of self with a place in the program….

 

 

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November 15, 2010 at 11:40 am

Posted in america, obama

north carolina: the blind date

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America does, however, brim with raw material. Not so much material raw material or even the processed stuff anymore, but the story stuff that they we endlessly generate. Hard to work on one’s own when surrounded by such stuff. Barnes and Noble right now, and mistaken for “Ethan” while waiting in the coffee line. “Ethan” turns out to be her blind date, some sort of eHarmony generated pick. But no, “Ethan,” I’m not.

She looks softly disappointed when he actually shows. But as it turns out the Harmony that’s been e’ed is the fact that they are both into “spirituality.” Hard to discern exactly what brand – as my American readers know, but perhaps not the Brits, we’re not talking Xtianity here. Or rather, we’re talking about what happens to Xtianity when god gets sublimated (what a thing to sublimate, huh?) into amorphous mojo or golden sunbeams or whatever, normative ethics into conventional methods of “self-actualization,” and so on.

Can’t help but listen. She picked the table next to mine as if she wanted to, as if she wanted me to listen. Perhaps she knows that I’m a spiritualist too of a very particular, and particularly self-annoying and not all that redemptive sort. Sometimes I wish I had some sort of press badge that entitled me to record stuff like this. “Would you mind if I just left this tape deck to run here on your table. Here, let me move your soy latte. Yes, here’s my pass from the International Union of Barnes and Noble Flaneurs.”

She is discussing a “presentation on vibes” that she just attended, and the “tarot group” that she was at last night. He is dying here – he’s faking the new age-ness that seems to have been requisite for this meet. He has nothing to say save for the list of schools that he attended, the boring job that he does doing “video work,” and the fact that he’s not really interested (or so he says) in watching the finals of the World Cup this afternoon.

Though he’d like to be a therapist, as he majored in psychology, he’s still “assessing his situation” he guesses. She attempts to circle the conversation back to some place. He plunges deep and backward, to a summer spent in France during high school, the friends that he left behind there. She is ia lawyer, with a prosperous job – just lonely here having moved at the wrong time.

Education, employment (over / under), travel, where one chooses to live in the nearly identical sprawl sprouts around here, the other places – themselves basically identical to this one, with only slight variations in weather and political climate – where one lived before and might well live again. You can see the structural void that amorphous esoteric “spirituality” fits in, the roles that it serves in these negotiations – those both with oneself and with others.

So the tale of the tape: under-narrativization on his part vs. over-narrativization on hers. The coffee machine rumbles at key points as if to underscore, behind all of this, something indeterminate. She checks the time on her phone, “can’t be late for my thing,” and then they start the final push toward failure and separation: the discussion of the virtues and faults of various mobile phone companies, AT&T vs. Verizon….

UPDATE: I am clearly being cruised by a guy sitting a few tables over, cattycorner. I look up from the laptop, his eyes lift to meet mine. Over and again, automatically. The coffeehouses of Barnes and Noble are clearly one of the most interesting and interestingly emblematic places in America. I’ve long thought about writing something about them – one of those publisher friendly books (bet I can think of just the publisher, at least if they did anything other than publish out of print classics in third-choice translation!) where, in the midst of personal crisis and looking to get back to my (suburban, part-autodidactical) intellectual and social roots I rent a car and spend an evening typing / reading / talking at each and every in-store coffee outlet in America. It’s a place that one goes when one wants more than what’s otherwise around place like this, but where one is unlikely to find much more than lattes and computer magazines and the company of the more interesting variety of lonely types, the lonely types just like you…. Ah, but it’s a bit too Alain de Botton to pass my rigorous muster, isn’t it?

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July 11, 2010 at 5:06 pm

sunday post on tuesday: more north carolina

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He can hardly wait to get up to his room to watch his movie! There are movies that you can watch on the computer, and sometimes the car chimes with a ring that’s so beautifully engineered as to make him wonder why he ever developed doubts in the future.

He overhears, woman to woman: “Big news! I got my first paying customer this week!” The other claps. “Fifteen hours work. Fifteen hours work for one-thousand dollars! I picked out her entire wardrobe, right down to the underwear and accessories. She’s so busy, with the business, that she says she just doesn’t have time. And so my first paying customer!” The other asks a question about her sweater and she replies, “Yeah, Anne Taylor.”

He is not sure that he has any use any longer for the New York Times email updates. Over the years, he has subscribed to them and unsubscribed from them only to subscribe again. They are an index of a certain mood, and as such are unbearable once that mood has slipped away.

A woman sits at the next table listening to a tutorial on her new iPhone. He listens too, percolating in anger.

An older guy says “red wine for me” and his younger wife says “make it a big one.”

Crossing the street, he hears a scream, really a yell. He thinks, first, “The surplus of our industries shouts at passing buses from street corners” and then, as he crosses another street, “Our industry’s surplus shouts at buses from our corners” and then, much later, “The future like the past. Sometimes moreso, sometimes less so.”

He can’t understand what his daughter says on the phone. Most of his side of the conversation revolves around asking her to repeat what she just said.

Later, reading Bookforum in the backseat of the car until he gets woozy, his mother asks “What do you call a PhD in physiotherapy?” He responds “a PhD in physiotherapy.” Later he is asked several times if he has ever been to this particular chain restaurant. Each time, unfailingly, he responds in the affirmative.

They seem happy enough, the people playing golf.

On the TV, someone says “One thousand of these are being offered exclusively to the viewers of this network.”

A life lived with only the most casual relationships. The people who serve you various drinks, the people who sell you various items, some of them on a daily basis. The people who work on airplanes and who work in airline terminals. The people on the phone. This life somehow balanced awkwardly, verging even on imminent collapse, with the increasing mandate to “up-sell.” He is offered credit cards and membership cards and other special offers and opportunities to make donations to local charities. His drinks go from small to medium and then to large, though he refuses the option of a shot of flavor, hazelnut maybe.

Mid-range relationships: Doctors and therapists. Long-distance friends. The colleagues he doesn’t really talk to. Parents.

His father says “Boston really blew it signing this guy” and then “You know I don’t know half the players on either Boston or Tampa Bay” and then “Oh, Longoria got picked off.” He tears another page out of Bookforum.

He handles, earlier, an iPad in the Apple Store. Just as one tipped off as to a catastrophic terrorist attack would ready in his mind the phrase like a Hollywood movie! he has readied It looks and feels like the future! Though he’s had the opportunity to handle one before, he has put it off as long as possible – put it off until today. He nearly purchases one just to have something to think about for awhile – like an irresponsible person in a personal crisis would purchase a pet. He pictures himself, his future, laying in bed reading ebooks and watching movies and then realizes that his future feels less metal and glass and ebooks and more cigarette butts and paper cups and humidity both inside and out.

His father says, “The course was designed by Arnold Palmer. That’s why it doesn’t have any fairways near the greens. Arnold Palmer believed, at least at one point, that you should be able to make the green in one.”

He notices that the road in has been built on a berm and then he sees the tiny stream. He pictures first a flat and flooded road and then the building of the berm with fill.

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July 7, 2010 at 4:45 am

expatriangst

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Every once in awhile, a flash of it: Time to go the fuck home. Semi-random times it comes, tonight on the stupid bus from Finsbury Park. For the familiar groceries and pizza, for the Yankees game on at an appropriate hour, for the New York Times not disguised and shortened as the International Herald Tribune. But mostly, honestly, it’s for people that I understand implicitly.

Someone was joking today about having no Gaydar. I said, yeah, that’s because you’re British, but what I really wanted to say is Imagine feeling that way all the time and not just about sexuality. I am an intuitive, empathetic guy, but that all goes wrong when stationed in a seductively similar place like London.

There’s always the job-list in September, especially if my book gets taken up by the Prestigious Press. Mid-June. We’ll see. I might not say, but you’ll be able to tell.

There’s always a post like this, which will truly have to be deleted when I go post-pseudonymous.

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May 5, 2010 at 7:21 pm

Posted in america

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