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Archive for December 2008

gas station microtragedy / possession, repossession, dispossession

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When I’m around my father, I end up landing in sicker and stupider regions of the television map than I’m used to. He has poor taste, and flips channels quite a lot. Network drama to NHL hockey to, yes, pro wrestling and “ultimate fighting” and the like. There’s now a show – a fake reality show – that deals exclusively with the repossession of peoples’ vehicles. Cars, SUVs, construction equipment, motor cycles, boats, the whole gamut.

I’m not sure whether it matters or not that the show isn’t really a reality show. It’s purportedly a series of “recreations” of actual repossessions, according to a disclaimer that runs at the front of the show. I’m sure that most viewers distractedly take it as real. If that is the case, I’m further sure that this show is as sick and sad but also complex as other programs in the genre. What is the appeal? Schadenfreude, sure, but more than that perhaps. The crime-and-punishment based reality shows have always been a complicated compost of affectual registers. This is for another post.

But one of the interesting things about this show that I was watching is the fact that almost every time the repossession company pulls up (of course, in this case, with cameramen in tow) and the actor playing the owner of the vehicle to be towed away suddenly realizes what is happening and confronts the repossessors, the owner makes a great show of not believing that this is happening. There must be some mistake, I’ve paid my bills, I could show you, yes, but the cancelled checks are at my work, I’m calling the cops – you’re stealing my car! Now, half the time it is meant to be clear that the deliquent owners are lying – these are the less interesting cases. The more interesting cases are those where the scene is written and acted as though, despite the fact that they said to be four, six, twelve months behind on their payments, the actors in question play the scene as if they really do believe that they aren’t. Despite the fact that they obviously on some level know that they are broke, that this day was soon to arrive, at the moment when the tow-truck is pulling their car away, they are clearly one-hundred percent convinced that the note is paid in full, that a huge mistake has been made, and that everything is as it should be – save for the fact that a heavily tattooed thug is driving away with their vehicle. It’s hard to describe how we know this as we watch the show – some particular mixture of anger and confusion, some reality effect that can’t be faked in the grain of the voice – but know it we do. This arc is the primary dramatic arrangement of the show – the rational if swarthy agents of collection are confronted time and again by deluded, nearly hallucinatory, exemplars of the American consumer, absolutely baffled by the fact that the other shoe has just dropped, the bill has finally come due, that it’s too late to ask for an extension and that they now will have to find another way of getting to the office park in the exurbs tomorrow for work.

Operation Repo is a realist show. It’s presuppositions about the way people are and how they act are meant to be our presuppositions about the way people are and how they act….

Today I stopped at a gas station next door to my hotel for water and cigs, and overheard something fascinating while waiting to pay for my stuff. A middle-aged white guy was standing at the counter, taking quite a long time with his transaction. The customer in question looked middle-class, maybe verging on upper middle-class. Decently attired, probably out of the, um, Kohls collection but still. The way that it works at gas stations in the US (almost all self-serve by now) is that you either dip your credit card at the pump or you pay cash in advance inside the station itself. But this guy was inside, having the clerk run and rerun his credit card. It hadn’t worked at the pump, and wasn’t working inside either. He had the clerk run it again to preauthorize only $5 this time instead of $20 as before – still refused. But it became clear, from the conversation, that this is something that he had done yesterday, the day before – something that he’s been doing everyday at the same gas station. He said, “Yeah I can’t understand what it is – this credit card is good. It’s just convenient for me to get gas here. I live around the block. I can’t understand why it isn’t working. Do you have a number for the company to call or something? Man, I just don’t get it.” The exchange with the clerk was polite, perhaps exceedingly so if the story was what he wanted it to be. He had the clerk run the card again, for $5 again. Refused. He took the number of the credit card company and promised to go home and call and get it all sorted out. He did not, as might be expected, present another card so that he could at least get some gas while he was here. Neither did he pay in cash. He left without filling his car. An unfinished sentence streamed through my mind: but if he’s back here, three days in a row, obviously he’s not getting gas elsewhere, it is not the case that the card is working at other gas stations, so… All polite, all everyday and normal. But it’s clear that this is a life that’s quietly come unstrung. He is not stealing, he was not playing a confidence game on anyone other than himself.

One wonders how much gas he has left in his tank, how much longer he will be able to make it to the station for his daily his of self-deceiving self-distraction. I’ll have to call the company, just as soon as I get home. I wonder why….

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December 31, 2008 at 5:53 am

her name here

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Fascinating interview with helen dewitt at if:book. HD gets into the mechanics of publishing, self-publishing, blogging and writing books, her personal history, and other interesting stuff.

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December 30, 2008 at 6:12 am

Posted in dewitt, novel

questions without answers: memphis

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What is the relative smallness of the Pyramid when seen from an airplane window a symbol of?

What is “baggage claim” a symbol of?

What is a decorated Christmas tree, when erected in a rental car airport office, a symbol of?

What is the rental car and its smell a symbol of?

What is grass that turns light khaki in the winter a symbol of?

What are apartment complexes for elderly baptists a symbol of?

What are aging grandmothers a symbol of?

What are in-laws a symbol of?

What is the fact that it is easier to engage with a dreary world when I constantly snap pictures of it with the camera mounted on my phone a symbol of?

What is the nervous way the white teenagers eye the black teenagers at the mall a symbol of?

What are Christmas presents, when purchased after Christmas, a symbol of?

What are camouflage jackets, when worn by women who are mothers of young children, a symbol of?

What is the fact that, just like London, the primary indigenous fast food in Memphis is fried chicken and french fries, served in a little cardboard box, a symbol of?

What is the woman sitting in the Barnes and Noble cafe at 10:30 PM reading a book about husbands and infidelity a symbol of?

What are the teenage girls who hang around Barnes and Noble’s cafe on Saturday night a symbol of?

What is the solitary displaced academic who reads Bleak House at the Barnes and Noble cafe until it closes a symbol of?

What is Bleak House a symbol of?

What is the $3.99 fee at Barnes and Noble to use the internet a symbol of?

What is the paid use of the internet at Barnes and Noble a symbol of?

What are blog comments a symbol of?

What is the Barnes and Noble cafe in general a symbol of?

What are photoessays a symbol of?

What are Germans visiting Memphis a symbol of?

What is the “country,” where we are going tomorrow, a symbol of?

What is Walmart a symbol of?

What is “they’ve been troubleshooting it for the last two hours, and they should have the wireless internet running again by tomorrow morning” a symbol of?

What are hotel lobbies a symbol of?

Beyond Christ and the two bad men, one less bad than the other, what are the illuminated crosses that hang over the eastern suburbs of the city at night a symbol of?

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December 29, 2008 at 3:15 am

pausing for pinter, under palms and with laptop open but no access

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Just purchased and read in a sitting Harold Pinter’s Betrayal of 1978. It was the only play in stock here at Barnes and Noble; I do not imagine that there’s been a rush this morning and I’m only getting what’s left.

The play moves backward as it progresses, beginning in 1977 and moving backwards to 1968. There are only three characters. Emma and Jerry, who have had or are having (as we move backwards) an affair and Emma’s husband Robert, who is or was Jerry’s best friend.


At the next table, a young man and young woman are talking about the credit reporting firm Equifax and how to contact them, whether they have a webpage and whether the webpage lists a contact number. I want to tell them how you go about contacting them, as it is difficult but I have done it. You get about fifteen seconds on the phone with an operator before they hang up on you. But sometimes, as in my case, they sort out the problem if the problem is sortable.

I do not know whether their problem is sortable or not. Probably not.


I wish Barnes and Noble had some more Pinter for my to buy and read today. I could do with one of the volumes in the four-volume set of his plays.


Earlier today, I read this article about Pinter and his life and loves in the Daily Mail. It delves into the background behind Betrayal in particular.


Apparently, you need permission, you need to contact Judy Daish Associates Ltd., 2 St. Charles Place, London W10 6EG England before you attempt to act out Pinter’s work. You may well need to pay what they call in the business a royalty, whether your troupe is best described as “First-class professional,” “stock,” or “amateur.”

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December 26, 2008 at 8:06 pm

Posted in distraction

scientific (self) management

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Somebody just sent me a link to an interesting website, where this among other things has been posted:

Begley is particularly astute on the bizarre organization of Kafka’s writing day. At the Assicurazioni Generali, Kafka despaired of his twelve-hour shifts that left no time for writing; two years later, promoted to the position of chief clerk at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, he was now on the one-shift system, 8:30 AM until 2:30 PM. And then what? Lunch until 3:30, then sleep until 7:30, then exercises, then a family dinner. After which he started work around 11 PM (as Begley points out, the letter- and diary-writing took up at least an hour a day, and more usually two), and then “depending on my strength, inclination, and luck, until one, two, or three o’clock, once even till six in the morning.” Then “every imaginable effort to go to sleep,” as he fitfully rested before leaving to go to the office once more. This routine left him permanently on the verge of collapse. Yet

when Felice wrote to him…arguing that a more rational organization of his day might be possible, he bristled…. “The present way is the only possible one; if I can’t bear it, so much the worse; but I will bear it somehow.”

It was [Max] Brod’s opinion that Kafka’s parents should gift him a lump sum “so that he could leave the office, go off to some cheap little place on the Riviera to create those works that God, using Franz’s brain, wishes the world to have.” Begley, leaving God out of it, politely disagrees, finding Brod’s wish

probably misguided. Kafka’s failure to make even an attempt to break out of the twin prisons of the Institute and his room at the family apartment may have been nothing less than the choice of the way of life that paradoxically best suited him.

The truth was that he wasted time! The writer’s equivalent of the dater’s revelation: He’s just not that into you. “Having the Institute and the conditions at his parents’ apartment to blame for the long fallow periods when he couldn’t write gave Kafka cover: it enabled him to preserve some of his self-esteem.”

(Zadie Smith, The New York Review of Books, July 17, 2008 (reviewing The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head: Franz Kafka: A Biographical Essay by Louis Begley.)

Hmmm… Yep. Zadie Smith’s had a good year in the reviews, hasn’t she? Anyway, just for my own / the record, I’ll record how my usual day works.

Wake between 8 – 9 AM, ready myself for work, skipping breakfast usually. Prepare a large thermos of coffee to take with. Check blogs while coffee brews.

Bus and train to work, arriving at approximately 10-11 AM. Of late, I’ve been reading things that I want to read during this period. Other times, it’s the paper. At bad times, it’s music.

Email, teaching, advising activities somewhere mixed in here. If not, preparation for teaching or advising. Frequent breaks for cigarettes outside, phone calls, more email. Sometimes I remember to fetch myself a sandwich, fanta, and treat to eat at my desk. At some point I generally buy the Guardian and another pack of cigarettes.

If I am lucky and good, I leave at 3-3:30 PM to write at my shitty Starbucks on Tottenham Court Road. If I am not lucky, I am teaching or meeting with students. If I am not good, I am still puttering around the internet, pretending to work.

Between 5-6 I generally leave for home. Read free papers on the way.

From 6 or so until 10 PM is dinner / kid / television related time. Oh, and I read the stack of not-free papers I’ve acquired during the day during this period as well.

From 10 pm till 2 AM, again, it depends if I am being good or bad. Good means I read solidly (almost never happens); bad means I fuck about with the internet. I used to pretend to write during this period, but generally that meant drinking beer and feeling very writerly while I do it.

Hmm… This is a bit depressing, no? How should it go?

7:30 wake
9:00 reach work, write for two hours if possible
11:00 teaching activities
4:00 reading / writing
6:00 leave for home, family activities
10:00 reading / teaching prep activities if nec.
1:30 to bed

OK. That sounds like a NY Resolution to me. The reading / writing balance would be adjustable – I’m actually more worried about my failure to read than my failure to write in some ways, so it’s best to slant it this way to start.

(Oh and before anyone jumps on me – I’m already only describing here the rare manageable day in which I’m not tied up with teaching / meetings of one sort or another from 10 – 6, or when various childcare issues don’t interrupt etc etc…)

(A faster route toward, erk, efficient time-management would be to abandon the infinitely wasteful practice of incessant cigarette smoking… But that’s a bridge a bit too far at the moment… Can only cut off one semi-debilitating chemical “enhancement” at a time…. But perhaps, down the road, who knows…)

But anyway, all this is to ignore the point that Begley makes and Smith echoes. How long have I nurtured this fantasy that if I were just able to tweak the schedule, marshal my energies, evenly and appropriate distribute my efforts, everything would become easy. How simple it is to ignore the hangups and tics and secret anxieties that underwrite all the timewasting and inefficiency! How would I possibly cope with myself if I were, once and for all, work again as I believe I ought to work?

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December 26, 2008 at 4:39 am

Posted in distraction, me

xmas amnesty

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So I have a friend who organizes her reading when she can such that she reads everything by one author before moving on to the next. I never do this, or only very rarely, but it seems like a good idea for a variety of reasons. So I made myself a pledge that if I were to receive any books for Xmas, I’d do this with the first author I opened.

Oh shit. First and only book received today was Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon.

  • The Crime at Lock 14 (1931) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-118728-X)
  • The Yellow Dog (1931) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-118734-4)
  • The Madman of Bergerac (1932) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-118726-3)
  • The Bar on the Seine (1932) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-102588-3)
  • Tropic Moon (1933) (New York Review Books Classics, ISBN 1-59017-111-X)
  • The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (1938) (New York Review Books Classics, ISBN 1-59017-149-7)
  • The Strangers in the House (1940) (New York Review Books Classics, ISBN 1-59017-194-2)
  • The Hotel Majestic (1942) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-118731-X)
  • Inspector Cadaver (1943) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-118725-5)
  • Monsieur Monde Vanishes (1945) (New York Review Books Classics, ISBN 1-59017-096-2)
  • Three Bedrooms in Manhattan (1945) (New York Review Books Classics, ISBN 1-59017-044-X)
  • Dirty Snow (1948) (New York Review Books Classics, ISBN 1-59017-043-1)
  • My Friend Maigret (1949) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-102586-7)
  • The Friend of Madame Maigret (1950) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-118740-9)
  • Maigret’s Memoirs (1951) (English translation 1963, A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book, ISBN 0-15-155148-0)
  • The Man on the Boulevard (1953) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-102590-5)
  • Red Lights (1955) (New York Review Books Classics, ISBN 1-59017-193-4)
  • A Man’s Head (1955) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-102589-1)
  • Maigret has Scruples (1958) (Harcourt Inc., ISBN 0-15-655160-8)
  • The Little Man from Archangel (1957) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-118771-9)
  • None of Maigret’s Business (1958) (translated by Richard Brain from Maigrets’ Amuse, published for the Crime Club by Dougbleday & Company Inc, Garden City, New York, Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 58-7367)
  • The Widower (1959) (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, published 1982, ISBN 0-15-196644-3)
  • Maigret in Court (1960) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-118729-8)
  • Maigret and the Idle Burglar (1961) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-118772-7)
  • Maigret and the Ghost (1964) (Penguin Classics UK, ISBN 0-14-118727-1)
  • Maigret and the Bum (1963) (Harcourt Inc., ISBN 0-15-602839-5)
  • Maigret’s Boyhood Friend (1968) (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., translation Eileen Ellenbogen, 1970)
  • The Bottom of the Bottle (1977) (Hamilton, USA ISBN-10: 0241896819 ISBN-13: 9780241896815) *The Bottom of the Bottle was originally published by Signet New York in 1954.

And those are just the ones easily obtainable in English. “His oeuvre includes nearly 200 novels, over 150 novellas, several autobiographical works, numerous articles, and scores of pulp novels written under more than two dozen pseudonyms.”

I think I’ll call a do-over on this one. Though there’s a way that the sort of person who wrote 60-80 pp (wtf???) per day is exactly the sort of person I need to be spending some time with, yes.

Anyway, merry Xmas, y’all… Seriously – keep your eyes open for the Memphis shit to come. Gonna be something special. In addition to Dirty Snow, received an impossibly fancy camera so…. (I asked my wife if we could go to Graceland again while we’re there. She said no, but I’m working on it. It’s amazing how bringing and using photographic apparati changes your priorities and attention span and tolerance for shitty kitsch!)

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December 25, 2008 at 8:02 pm

Posted in me

the eve of something

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Well, I think it’s safe to report back that the Xmastide atmosphere back home is rather bleak. Really bleak. Parents’ friends come around and the discussion centers on kids out of work, kids of friends out of work, friends out of work, foreclosures, and the like. And there’s a guy who is constantly down in the common room watching tv, which is a bit strange, but the story is apparently that he who made his living, if that’s the way to put it, as a real estate flipper, but he’s flipped his last flip. Owns a penthouse and and other apartment on a lower floor, but the latter is in foreclosure, and he can’t make his cable bill and so he spends his days watching free tv downstairs. Right now I’m in the realm of the cushion (as in, “yeah, he’s been out of work for eighteen months, and figures he only has a three year cushion, so he’s starting to get really panicked”) but later this week I’ll be writing you (if there’s ‘net) from a rather different demographic context. My dad and I have moderately intense arguments about the auto industry bailout, and there are little placardy signs when you exit the shopping area parking lots urging you to call a certain number for a “Full area real estate guide / bank foreclosure map.”

Crumble crumble. It’s not fair, I know, to express vague, anticipatory anxiety when there are so many who have unvague, non-anctipatory things to worry about, but I have a wafting, complex feeling that there are or are about to be reasons for me to worry. It may be that I’m catching something from the discusive circle that I’m currently wrapped up in, or it may be something more external and perhaps real. I think it bothers me – and makes me fear the worst is so totally yet to come – when “competent” columnists and business writers start to call a bottom and/or predict improvement at the end of 2009 or beginning of 2010. It’s suddenly become a popular line of prognostication in the press. And it’s a worrying one on a few different levels.

Posts to come on driving, reading lists, subvocal/subconscious critico-theoretical vocabularies, the Mississippi River, Barnes and Noble, and the beach. Maybe. Posts to come on something, definitely.

Whatever. I need to relax. Zeitgeist-sensitive, am I and have always been. I mean in the bad way, or at least both ways.

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December 24, 2008 at 5:30 am

Posted in crisis, me