Still Life with Action Figures

August 23, 2010 § 8 Comments

Or, To Be an Only Child

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Review: KFC Doubles Down, Betting on the Destruction of America

August 22, 2010 § 5 Comments

Kentucky Fried Chicken's breadless chicken &qu...

Image via Wikipedia

Writing is  therapy. This is a fact. No matter what kind of writer you’re dealing with, no matter whether they’re writing about a mystical netherworld or their own childhoods, vast novels or modest little pop culture reviews,  you can always count on one thing: they are, in one way or another, writing about what troubles them. They are writing about the things that gnaw away at their subconscious, lingering mercilessly in the back corners of their minds at all hours of the day.

For some, the only way to confront their demons is to write about them. And in that way, writing is no longer just a vocation, but a means of survival.

Not to seem overdramatic or anything, but today this feels very applicable. Today I’m writing about an experience I had several months back that, against all odds, continues to haunt me, continues to fill my mind at all hours of the night. Today I’m writing about something I would like to forget, but, well, I just fucking can‘t. Today I write about the KFC Double Down.

The question that first arises, obviously, is why. Why would I subject myself to this? Why would I actually open my wallet and pull out money that I’ve earned and exchange it for this, for something that from its’ inception defined the very worst of America? I guess the answer is curiosity. Sick, morbid curiosity. This drives many of our most profitable industries, so it might as well drive me straight to the unhallowed halls of KFC.

Let me say straight away, I was expecting something bad. I was expecting something that I would regret. But if you’re concerned about my critical objectivism, don’t be. Because the horrible reality of the Double Down proved far worse than anything I had imagined. I can say without reservation that this “sandwich” was one of the worst meals I have ever had, and it may just be the worst fast food option I’ve ever seen, a disgusting cacophony of unpleasant sensations that began with the traumatic first bite and continued long after I had finished the meal, my body’s interior waging war with the beast every bit as much as my taste buds had.

I still finished it because, well, I’m young and I’m dead broke and I’m at a place in my life where if I pay for food, goddamnit, I’m going to finish it. And, let’s not lie here, because I wanted to go all the way. I wanted to know the full experience, to understand exactly what this thing is, what it does to the human body. The Double Down is a product that has risen straight from the depths of Hell, and when you find yourself staring Lucifer square in the eyes, well, you don’t want to be the first to blink. I did not blink. I suffered the consequences. And now I’m ready to tell my story.

First, a few thoughts on how this sandwich came to be, at least from my vantage point. In the last few years, the fast food industry, like many other American business models, has been steadily veering away from the middle. Looking at all the major fast food outlets in this country, it seems like they have all gone one of two ways: either they try and pass their junk off as healthful (which KFC did attempt years back with the introduction of a grilled option, something that remains on their menu to this day, even though I’ve never heard of anyone ever ordering it), or they go in the opposite direction and make their food more extreme: more fat, more salt, more proud disregard for anything resembling nutrition. In the biz this is known as targeting ‘experienced eaters’, one of those politically correct, marketing buzzwords that, in this case, is subbing in for ‘Fat People.’ The Double Down, suffice to say, represents a definitive step in the extreme direction. It is KFC announcing exactly what it is, what it intends to be. But what this means, I’m sad to say, is that KFC represents something far darker than anyone could have guessed.

The first thing you notice about the Double Down is how small it is. The chicken breasts that sub in for bread in the sandwich were clearly pulled from A-Cup birds, and the whole thing is significantly more petite than most fast food sandwich options. But what the sandwich lacks in size, it makes up for in density. As small as it may seem, once I had finished my meal I felt deeply, uncomfortably full. It sat in my stomach like a wet rock for the rest of the afternoon. As I digested the Double Down, I couldn’t help but feel as though it was pulling my entire intestinal track down with it.

But wait, before we get into that, let’s talk about flavor.

The Double Down is, more than anything else, a study in salt. The chicken patties are both extremely salty, as is KFC’s custom. But take that and add two slices of salty bacon, a thick gob of extra-salty, mayo-based “Colonel’s Sauce”, and cheese. The cheese is the only aspect of the assemblage that isn’t overwhelmed by sodium , but that’s because this is one of those over-processed fast food cheeses that doesn’t taste like it come from this Earth, but rather like a chemical reconstruction of what cheese is supposed to be, the product of late, joyless nights in a cold and lonely laboratory.

There is nothing, I repeat, nothing pleasurable about the Double Down experience. The hours of discomfort that I suffered after finishing it were expected, to a degree. But I had gone in presuming that the actual act of consuming the sandwich would give me some degree of enjoyment. That’s how it’s supposed to go with junk food, right? I think about the other extreme foodstuffs that I’ve indulged in over the years- Burger King’s Spicy Tendercrisp, the Jack-in-the-Box Jumbo Jack, anything from Taco Bell – and however sick and regretful I felt in the respective aftermaths, I was at least happy while I was eating them. Good fast food is like that, a short-lived burst of tasty indulgence, hedonism in bite-size form. But the Double Down is not good fast food. It doesn’t earn its calories. It doesn’t earn the near-guaranteed late-afternoon stomach ache. It doesn’t earn anything simply because it doesn’t taste good. It is shoddily assembled and lazily designed, without even the most basic consideration for finding a proper balance of flavors. It is our nation at its absolute worst, wasteful and destructive and downright ugly. And as for the ‘experienced eaters’ that KFC is targeting with such gusto, if there is any justice in the marketplace (and, by extension, the world), they will reject this nauseating little number along with the rest of us. Quality has to still matter, even here, even now, even when two fried chicken patties sandwiching bacon and mayonnaise exists in reality and is not some feverish, dystopian daydream.

I will note that KFC has always done sides well. In particular, I’d take their potato wedges over just about any competing chain’s french fries. If I do venture back to a KFC for lunch, I may just get an assortment of sides. It’d be cheap, and could make up a pretty satisfying meal. But I won’t be going back there anytime soon. Not after the Double Down, not after this Frankenstein monster of a meal that tells me, beyond a doubt, that the KFC corporate brass believes if something is marketed aggressively, people will buy it, no matter how little care goes into insignificant things like presentation and taste, . That right there is an insult to their customers, and I won’t be anxious to return to a place that treats me and everyone else that walks through their doors with such blatant, dead-eyed contempt.

These Interests We’ve Fabricated Must be Given Face

June 1, 2010 § 4 Comments

My very dear friend Matt is visiting New York this week. It’s his first time here, and of course I want to show him a good time. As with anytime a friend visits from out of town, the past weekend was a combination of fun-filled activities (lots more than I would normally do), as well as a creeping, ever-present anxiety over whether or not he’s really having fun. But that’s just my own issues- I’ve known Matt for about as long as I’ve known anyone, so there’s a good deal comfort there. Plus he’s a super nice guy, so even if we were showing him a shit time he would never admit it.

That being said, I have found that, whilst vacationing, Matt has no shame in openly and flamboyantly embodying the role of a “Tourist.” In fact, he seems to think that there’s nothing shameful about it. He’s intent on doing a lot of very touristy things (Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, etc), trying to hit every major New York landmark in order to cross it off his list. He also has a very heavy hand with his camera, taking many, many pictures, often of very, very boring things. I can’t help but get a little irritated at Matt’s antics, and a bit self-conscious when I pose with him in front of, say, some park bench in Central Park. I can’t help but wonder what all the passerbys must think of me. Maybe this is because, even after living here less than a year, I’ve already had it drilled into my subconscious that tourists are the enemy. That honestly seems to be the only thing that every single person in NYC agrees upon. Tourists, going slower than everyone on the street, taking pictures of every bodega awning, overcrowding midtown, staring up as they walk, seeing New York as a bright and blaring carnival ride rather than the fascinating, layered city that it is. This isn’t the kind of thing that I’ve ever heard explicitly spoken by anyone here, but the feeling is always there, hanging in the air, released every few seconds by the sinister glares of every lifelong New Yorker as another tour bus passes by holding a group of fat Midwesterner’s who gawk and snap photos like they’re on safari.

Yet at the same time, New York is a very intense place, and there’s a pretty steep learning curve. It’s funny how easy it is for me to be judgemental and forget about all that, when just a few months ago I was having all the same issues. Living in this city just has a way of making you feel jaded. Another reason I’m not so sure that this is the best place for me to live right now, but that’s a subject for another day.

Back to Matt. Now, he has told me that by taking these pictures he’s ensuring that he’ll remember the details of his trip more clearly, and that in turn he’ll be able to relive it much more vividly. Matt, it should be noted, is an incredibly thorough documentarian of his own life. He has an immaculately maintained blog that chronicles just about his every waking moment (www.livejournal.com/users/simpsnsfan), and he recently started a podcast that allows him to record and archive the sort of loose conversations with friends that normally dissipate into nothingness upon their conclusion (www.therewillbespoilers.wordpress.com). The guy loves to chronicle his own life, so I shouldn’t be surprised that when he’s on vacation this propensity goes into hyperdrive. As you can probably tell by how often I update this blog, I am not at all the same way. More often than not, I find that writing about my day-to-day life is either boring or mentally vexing- if nothing is going wrong then there’s nothing interesting to write about, and if things are going badly for me, then writing explicitly about them almost always just makes me feel worse. It’s like deciding to take a bath in a tub of filthy water, rather than just letting it drain away. Writing can certainly be therapeutic for me (I doubt any self-serious writer will say otherwise), but I generally prefer filtering my own experience into a fictional context. That’s both more creatively fulfilling for me, and, paradoxically, it helps me understand my own issues in a way that simply writing them down never does. Of course, this approach has its own set of problems, as the passage of time that comes with longer writing projects tends to blur the lines of reality. I recently had a reading of a new play that is heavily based on my personal experiences since graduating college, and while listening to it, even I began to get confused about what was real and what was imagined. Fictional characters just have a way of taking on a life of their own, which in turn renders the real lives that they’re based on vague and uninteresting by comparison. The other night, when one of my roommates was telling a story about a crackhead that he saw biting into a big pineapple slice on the street, I truly believed that I had been there too. It was only later that I realized that I wasn’t there when this happened, wasn’t even in New York yet. I had just heard the story told so many times and had such a clear view of the events, I subconsciously inserted myself into the proceedings. Same sort of thing.

Still, Matt (who, away from a computer, has been diligently recording every moment of his New York trip in a handheld journal) tells me that being able to go back and read about every major event in his life over the last few years is a very enriching experience. I can’t help but wonder if I would feel the same way. I’ll admit that looking back over my life, particularly over the last year or so, I often find individual nights and memories difficult to differentiate. This is a bigger issue now than it was during school. Back in college I had both enough structure to my life and enough excitement to be able to easily frame most of my experiences. There were always clear external circumstances – a certain class, a show, a project – that I could remember and use
to contextualize everything else. But out here in the drab, muddy, days-and-weeks-of-quiet-desperate-monotony-bleeding-into-one-another-until-almost-a-year-has-passed-and-you-have-no-idea-what-the-hell-happened Real World, it becomes a lot more difficult to remember specifics. I’ve had plenty of great times in New York, I know I have, but while I clearly remember a handful of eventful days and nights, most of the past nine months feel less like clearly defined sequence of event and more like a shapeless dribble.

To state the obvious: If I spent more time taking pictures, or writing about my own life, then it would certainly be easier to go back and remember specifics. And part of me thinks that would be pretty damn nice. I’m positive that there are plenty of moments in my life that at the time felt very important and powerful when they occured, yet that I couldn’t recall today if you put a gun to my head. Of course, you could argue that if I don’t remember the events that must mean they weren’t all that important, that selective memory is itself the deciding factor, and that if something happens that truly is a defining experience your mind will choose to recall it. That kind of seems like bullshit to me, as I often feel like I have very little say in what I actually remember- there are countless little moments of joy from the past year that I’ve forgotten, yet I could tell you every detail of the nightmarish day at my last job where I spent over four hours trying to learn how to take apart and clean a frozen yogurt machine. There are lots of times where I’ve remembered things I wish I didn’t. This isn’t necessarily just bad memories, but anything that you’d rather not think about- when things end with a girl and I’m desperate to forget about her, of course my mind invariably goes back to all of our best moments together. Memory has a way of deceiving you.

But then, don’t photographs and the like do the exact same thing? Capture the very best moments of a given day/week/trip and, thus, allow you to easily romanticize and fetishize the entire thing? Or is that the whole point? Or is the point to capture life, as it is, without any of the cumbersome layers of manmade artifice that you find in every other form? Photographs may not lie explicitly, what they show you is actually there. But the ways that photos are able to play against and remold the reality of human experience, and the fact that they can do this while ostensibly showing you pure truth, to my mind that makes them as devious as all. Perhaps part of this comes from the impression I get that while people’s reactions to paintings and writing are always inextricably linked to the artist, photographs are defined far more by their subjects than by the person behind the camera. Looking at a photograph, it’s very easy to forget that there was even someone there at all, framing the shot, pushing the button, deciding what it is they want you to see.

These ramblings about Art are actually a pretty good seagueway, because I think they show the difference between me and Matt in nutshell. Matt is a writer (a good one too), and he writes screenplays as well as his personal narratives, but I get the feeling that he doesn’t really see the writing in his blog as art. At this point, he sees the chronicling as just a part of his life, one aspect that serves to enrich the rest (of course I could be completely wrong about this, and, as Matt is one of the very few frequent contributors to my comments page, I’m sure he’ll correct me if that’s the case). This isn’t a bad way to think about things at all, and it makes the act of writing seem very easy and unintimidating. But fact is, I’m just too pretentious for that. I’m still young, and I still want to be a professional artist, and that’s what drives me every day. I go through sprees where I take a lot of photographs, but that’s always when I’m playing around with different camera settings, lighting, angles, etc. The photograph itself, how it looks, that’s what’s important to me. The subject of the photo, the event from my life that’s being documented, that’s all secondary. In fact, when I’m taking a lot of pictures, I always feel like it alienates me from everyone else there. If there are people in my photos, they hopefully have no idea they’re getting their picture taken (smiley posed photos are one of my very least favorite things).

On the same accord, when I try to write anything, what matters to me is the quality of the writing, the storytelling. This is why I find personal experience stuff so difficult: I just don’t find my own life all that exciting, and I don’t find myself a particularly compelling protagonist. Why would I ever want to waste my time just writing about my boring old week when I could take whatever I’ve been feeling and filter it into a life that’s imagined, a life where I get to decide everything that happens? It just seems so much more likely that the latter will be compelling.

But then what do you do when the characters in your stories, the worlds inside your mind, begin to overwhelm the world around you? What do you do when reality itself loses all contextual meaning, and the only way you can frame your own life is by the events in your head? What then?

Doctor

May 13, 2010 § 2 Comments

Trying something a little different today: this a new short story. I’d like to start submitting it around to different lit magazines and contests and stuff, but I thought I’d post it here first. Read it if you like, leave comments, be honest. « Read the rest of this entry »

Tell Me You Need Me

March 24, 2010 § 7 Comments

For those who don’t know, my current day job (as it were) is working in marketing and PR for an upscale umbrella company. The website is www.davekny.com. It’s a good job. My boss is cool, and the vast majority of my time is spent writing promotional copy; at this point in my life, getting paid to write anything is a huge blessing. So I’m not complaining. But that being said, when you spend week after week writing minor variations of the same damn thing about the same damn umbrellas in order to be ignored by the same damn magazine editors, well, it does something to you.

Here is an example of a fairly standard piece of copy that I’ve written for this job:

It’s almost April, and that means April Showers. Now, are you ready to spend another rainy season with a cheap, flimsy umbrella that gets torn apart by a few gusts of wind, or is it time to invest in something a little different? Here at Davek New York, our line of upscale umbrellas are specially engineered for strength and durability.  Whereas the appeal of certain umbrellas is primarily aesthetic, we are in the business of manufacturing powerful, reliable tools, designed to combat extreme weather conditions and last through the years. Our umbrellas are so well-made, in fact, that we back them up with an Unconditional Lifetime Guarantee.

Our mission at Davek is to utterly redefine what an umbrella can be, transforming a seemingly disposable product into a beautiful, worthwhile accessory. If you have any upcoming stories about April showers, raingear, or springtime accessories, I believe our product would be a unique and exciting addition. For any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Thank you!

Boring, right? Well, here’s something I wrote today:

Look up. See the smoldering graying smoke stacks in the sky, see the darkness as it slowly engulfs the thin slits of blue light. There’s a storm coming, you see, another day another storm, that’s what they say isn’t it? Somewhere in some far-reached godforsaken corner of the earth they say something like that, savages, heathens, the dark souls who will embrace the apocalypse with open arms and breathe in the burning flames like oxygen. Those are the types who see the storm coming, those are the types who speak it into being.

On some days you wouldn’t mind a rainstorm. On some days, you’d be downright giddy over one. Sit in the cozy comforts of your home, hot chocolate, blankets, a book from your childhood. You’d listen to the melodic pitter-patter of the drops on window panes as you snuggle up and think pityingly on the poor souls below, drowning upright as they trudge through the endless walls of ice.

But today, such comforts are out of your grasp. Today you have things to do, places to be, scheduled events that simply cannot be ignored. Today you must be a functioning member of adult society, and in doing so, you must step outside and brave the storm. On days like today, an umbrella is truly your best friend, your greatest protector, the one thing that stands between you and all the dank, squishy un-pleasantries of a storm-drenched walk.

But your umbrella is cheap. You bought it while in line at the drug store, a last-minute acquisition, piled on top of toilet paper, and mouthwash and acne cream. Only ten bucks, you thought to yourself. What a deal! But now, with this flimsy, lime-green canopy as your only weapon against the elements, now you begin to regret such a rash decision. After all, you’ve walked the city streets after a thunderstorm before. You’ve seen the aftermath: mangled sunshade corpses, twisted and contorted beyond recognition, spread out along the sidewalks and streets, overflowing from trash cans, ragged fabric flailing in the wind. Passerby’s avert their eyes, zig-zag their steps, anything to avoid a direct confrontation with the fallen. Forget Normandy, forget Afghanistan, if you want to see the true, brutish hells of War, all you have to do is take a tour through New York City right after a rainfall.

Here at Davek Accessories, we make a different kind of umbrella. They are not disposable. They are not flimsy. Our umbrellas are engineered for strength and durability, and when you send one into a fight against the elements, it will prevail. We’re so confident in our umbrellas, in fact, that we back them up with an Unconditional Lifetime Guarantee. Our mission is to utterly redefine what an umbrella can be, to transform a throwaway item into a cherished accessory that will last through the years.

Go ahead, step outside. Embrace the storm. With a Davek Umbrella by your side, what do you have to fear?

What do we think? Should I show it to my boss?

I’m Trying to Reconstruct the Air and All That Brings

March 9, 2010 § 2 Comments

The story of my vacation. Sort of. In four parts.

THE AIRPORT

The airport is the closest thing we have to purgatory on Earth. Think about it. You are cleansed of all inessential possessions, stripped down to your barest self, and forced into a strange area that is wholly separate from your day-to-day reality. And then, once you’re there, all you do is wait around, wait to be taken somewhere new- maybe a better place than the one you just came from, maybe not. And on top of that, there’s the atmosphere of the airport itself: the drab florescent lights, the huge computer screens, the constant hum of indistinct noise. An airport is hardly the worst place to spend a few hours, but it’s also far from the best. It is, as any purgatory worth its salt ought to be, inoffensive and drab and completely and totally average. Every perk the airport offers (and there are many) is bound to have a jagged edge to it: there is food and drink readily available, yet it’s frequently lousy and always overpriced. There are vast seas of empty chairs, but they’re ugly and uncomfortable. There is the opportunity for precious solitude, yet you’re never actually alone. And, most important of all, any amount of peace and satisfaction that one can derive from time spent in an airport is almost entirely negated by the harsh, utilitarian purpose that is at hand: to get on your plane and get to your chosen destination, to do so in the shortest possible timeframe, and to arrive with all your worldly possessions intact. In other words, to get the hell out of this strange netherworld and return to your regularily scheduled life.That is the goal. The airport is an obstacle. This is how we perceive our world.

Airports are on my mind lately due to some recent experiences. Two weeks ago on a Thursday, New York City, the place I quietly and tentatively call home, was just starting to recover from a truly brutal snowstorm; the sidewalks were caked in ice, there were eight foot piles on every corner, and the heavens, having vomited a thick stream of white powder for the past three days, was still coughing up an occasional flurry. On this same day I was scheduled to fly out to Chicago, the first stop of a 10-day vacation. This vacation, it should be noted, had been planned for months and was meant to fulfill two self-imposed requirements: the all-important return to my old college campus (timed with the big Mee-Ow show) and a long-delayed trip home (my first since mid-July, as this year’s holiday season was spent selling overpriced gourmet doughnuts to ungrateful hipsters as the behest of a deeply abusive boss). Also, the whole thing was meant to be an escape from the daily hustle and bustle, a retreat to the new and the old, a cleansing of the mind. In case you can’t tell, I had been looking forward to this trip for a long time, and this was the whole problem. Anticipation is a very dangerous thing. It leaves you vulnerable.

THE BEST VACATION OF MY LIFE

The problem with anticipation is simple: it means you’re trying to ascribe a narrative to events in your life that haven’t happened yet.

We all create narratives of our lives. The famous first line of Joan Didion’s most famous essay is “we tell ourselves stories in order to live”*. That, I think, is where all of the other stuff that I can’t quite believe in – fate, destiny, religion– starts to makes sense to me; when you think of it all as just another form of storytelling. Life as we actually live it does not feature any kind of clear narrative arc: there aren’t clearly delineated heroes and villains, we don’t experience singular moments of revelation that send us on our fated journeys. Life is not like that at all, it’s more like a malformed blob of experience.  Filtering these abstract moments into something with a clean, comprehensible trajectory is, I think, the only way that any of us can make any sense of the world.

But this only works when you are crafting a story out of events that have already happened- rearranging a year, a relationship, one crazy night into a tidy little beginning, middle, and end. When you attempt to tell the story of what is going to happen it is, almost without exception, a bad idea. Sometimes I wish that I knew what was going to happen- if I knew that when I turned 45 I would be a best-selling novelist with my own talk show and a beautiful family, then I wouldn’t stress as much about where my life is going right now. But for now, that brand of storytelling just serves to needlessly complicate my life. This kind of shit happens to me all the time: rather than just relax and enjoy things as they come, I am constantly distracted by the dual narrative running through my mind, the story as I’ve already written it and the story that is evolving all around me. And they are never, ever, ever the same thing.

Still, it was difficult for me not to place a lot of importance on this trip. I wasn’t able to go home at all during the holidays, a misfortune that placed me in a party of one amongst my friends, and that put a real damper on my psyche for much of the winter (I was also either working at a heinously miserable job or unemployed during that period, so that didn’t help). These days I’m doing better: I have a decent-to-good job, the fog of winter is slowly lifting, but it was still the perfect time for this double-decker trip, this two-pronged rite-of-passage, the part of the story where the Hero (that’s me) rises from his battered state and sets forth on the path towards redemption.

Hell, I’d even considered this trip’s role in the more large-scale narrative of my life, labeling it as a sort of intermission during my first post-collegiate year. With a solid turning point, I can decisively shut the book on these first six months in New York, and, upon returning, relaxed and refreshed, jump forward into the more exciting second act. Obviously these labels are all artificial, and in actuality there’s nothing that really separates one day from another. But then, by thinking this way, maybe I’m convincing myself that a sudden and palpable change can occur. And since my entire life is filtered though my own perception of it, this sort of gratuitous self-mythologizing could actually be the best, healthiest thing I can do. Right? Right??

*I’m on a big Joan Didion kick right now, and I’m sure that I’m subconsciously trying to ape her style in this entry, though now that I admitted it I suppose the style homage has become a conscious choice, which in turn makes me very nervous about how I’m nowhere near as good a writer as her, so I should probably just stop talking about it right now and end this stupid footnote, which is a device that I’ve never been all that comfortable with anyway.

FATE, IN THE ROLE OF THE ASSHOLE

Let’s get back to last Thursday. My flight was cancelled, the snow was still falling, and I had a flash of the snowstorm continuing all weekend long, of my entire itinerary falling apart.  And there were certainly moments on that sad, smelly busride back to Harlem where I couldn’t help but think to myself WHY.

WHY did this record-setting snowstorm have to happen right now,and

WHY on top of that my phone had to stop working the fucking day before, and

WHY when everyone else I know is getting the day off from work and playing in the snow, I had to be the one poor sap to suffer these harsh consequences.

Needless to say, it was a rough ride. Lots of paranoia, lots of anger; about halfway through I really started to feel like there might be someone or something trying to get me out there out there, a dark creature hiding in the shadows of space and time, waiting for the chance to bum rush me. Of course, as soon as I got back to my apartment and took a few seconds to breath I realized, as I always do, that there is no point to that kind of thinking. It was just bad luck, that’s all, just an example of circumstance facing-off with my preconceived expectations and, as per usual, circumstance delivering a rock solid beatdown.

Here’s the thing, though. Right then, that turn of events seemed like bad news, but how could I know for sure? There have been innumerable instances in my life when something happened that seemed at the time to be completely and utterly 100% shitty, only to eat my thoughts a week or two later when, through a shifty sequence of cause and effect, the original event somehow ends up benefitting me. This could be something as simple as a lousy night at a bar leading me to write some killer stand up material, or it can be far more elaborate, with a legitimately great turn of luck befalling me as a clear (if indirect and scattered and complex) result of my previous misfortune.

This has happened to me many, many times. It has happened in my personal life, in my professional life, and I must admit, there have been times when I’ve sat back and marveled at how perfectly everything worked out. Times when I’ve admitted that I really have no idea how the world works, and times where the thought cross my mind that maybe there is more to this life than dumb chance, that the way all these pieces fit together was just too perfect and too ironic for it to be a total coincidence, that maybe, just maybe, there is someone or something out there that’s watching over me. Is that so hard to believe? And yes, indeed, the times that I’ve considered this have invariably left my smiling, feeling blessed and comforted and (most importantly) absolved of any and all responsibility in my own destiny. It must be nice to be devoutly religious- you would feel that blameless all the time. You aren’t writing your own story, it’s being written for you! I can definitely see the appeal.

The thing is, though, if I believe in this, then I sort of have to believe in the reverse. I have to believe that when things don’t go my way – either in a single moment or in a grand sequence of connected events – it’s not dumb luck but rather the hand of fate choosing to slap me across the face. And I never think like that, really- if the thought enters my mind that vast, conspiratorial forces are out to destroy me, as it briefly last Thursday morning during that cursed bus-ride from the airport, it only takes a few seconds for every logical and rational part of me to shut that down. We’re talking here about the exact same thing, yet in one instance I find it so much easier to believe than in the other. And I’m not even that optimistic, generally speaking.

THE ACTUAL TRIP

Whew. After all this talk, it seems like any description of the actual vacation is going to a major anticlimax, but let’s try it anyway.

I ended up catching a plane out on Friday morning and arrived in Evanston at 2 in the afternoon. And I have to say that the next day in the airport was one of the most pleasant travel experiences of my life. I do think this is mostly based on my own perception: as I said before, usually when traveling the only thing on your mind is the eventual destination. However, on Saturday I wasn’t even sure if I would get out of NYC at all, and thus, the airport became the whole thing. I didn’t wake up in the morning groggy and depressed, but I jumped out of bed, anxious to go, knowing full well that the sooner I arrived at the airport, the better a chance I would have at catching an earlier flight. I had a newfound singularity of purpose, and, as such, my experience at the airport was heightened in my own mind. And it was a success!

Basically, it’s all perception. Storytelling is a form of perception, but that’s only half of what I’m talking about. There are certain events we experience that are objectively good or bad, certainly; a wedding is good, a funeral is bad, etc. But the vast majority of our human experience is defined, I believe, by what is happening inside our minds. If I’m running late for an important appointment and I’m forced to sprint through the streets, I find the experience absolutely miserable. If I’m running at the gym after a stressful day, hip-hop music blasting in my ears, then the exact same physical actions adopt an entirely new meaning. I grimace spending money on overpriced drinks one night, but once I arrived in O’Hare last Saturday I was more than happy to spend the same amount on a cab to Evanston, the prospect of recapturing my lost weekend dancing through my mind. But then, if all those drinks I buy end up getting me laid, I’m far more likely to look back on that night as money well spent. But let’s not talk about what happens in the future affecting what happens in the present, we already covered that, sort of. At this point, I’m trying to just talk about life, moment-by-moment, ignoring those pesky issues of causation and storytelling (though of course I am actively storytelling as I write this, but let’s not get into that, I’m on the verge of a headache as it is).

I ended up arriving at old Ridge and Davis around 2:00 PM, feeling as I stepped out of that cab a wave of unadulterated joy – the trip was back on! The perfect narrative was salvaged! This would end up being the purest happiness I would feel during the whole visit. That isn’t to say that I didn’t have a good time in Evanston (I most definitely did), but with a two-day long visit reduced to a meager fifteen hours, the entire thing was so fast and frenetic it was impossible to ever really sit back and feel, well, anything. There was just this constant forward-driving momentum, going from this place to that, seeing this person then that person, actively trying to cram as much fun and nostalgia into every second of the visit. This was also, I remind, my first time back to Northwestern since I graduated, so the emotional/psychological stakes were already pretty high before the whole thing was forced into hyperdrive.

Here’s what I can piece together. From the moment I arrived until I left, I was constantly in a state of doing something, and I was almost always in a heightened emotional state. I also spent about half of the trip really, really drunk. Thus, the overall story of my visit is a little muddled. All I can really remember are moments. I remember the feeling I got walking down Church street, sitting on the storied blue couches in my old living room, walking into the Louis Room and being greeted with pumping music and dancing drunks and a cut-out of that big ol’ Mee-Ow cat staring down at me. A hundred tiny memories flooded back into my mind and then disappeared just as quickly. I remember hugging so many people I became desensitized to the experience, saying five words to someone whom I hadn’t seen for ten months and will probably never see again (the latter occurred countless times, particularly at the show). I remember watching the final Mee-Ow show of the year with a big, goofy grin on my face, feeling the energy of the room flowing all around me, before being yanked out of the whole experience with the sudden sharp realization that I may never, ever perform in front of this kind of audience again in my lifetime.

You can’t go home again. It’s a clichéd phrase, but, as is the case with almost every cliché, it’s true. What that phrasing doesn’t really show you is that you almost never comprehend what “home” is until it’s gone (but then, that’s a whole different cliché thrown into the mix). It was fun to be back at school, but the feeling that hit me more powerfully than anything else was that things just plain weren’t the same. Walking around Evanston, watching a show, partying at my old apartment, all these things that I’ve done a thousand times over the last four years just felt drastically, inexplicably different. And being there for the last Mee-Ow show of the year, seeing some of my closest friends undergo that familiar realization that the party is almost over, well, the whole trip was pretty bittersweet. Over the last six months there were more than a few times that I dreamed of going back to college, that I thought of my times there in a foggy romanticized light and wished to return. But this trip showed me, conclusively, beyond a doubt, that I can never return. That even when I do return, I’m not really back. And, you know, I was surprisingly okay with that.

But then I went home to California for a week and felt the exact same parental dynamics instantly resurface, saw old friends I hadn’t seen in almost a year and felt like it hadn’t been a week, and felt, oddly, unexpectedly, just a little bit like I was back home. Which is funny, because I remember having these same melancholy thoughts back during freshman year, when college was the big, scary thing, and I longed to return to an Oak Park that no longer existed.

You can never go home again. The problem with that statement, really, is how vague it is. What does home mean? What has it ever meant?

Maybe it just means people.

I Guess It Was Beautiful

February 9, 2010 § 4 Comments

For the past week, my life has more or less revolved around trips to the gym. This is not because I have undergone a radical personality shift and become a thick, veiny musclehead. It’s much more a case of external factors. You see, last October it was my birthday, and I received a very exciting and creative gift: a weeklong pass to Equinox, a very elite, fancy, expensive New York health clubs. Now, months later, I’ve finally gotten around to using it. With only a scant week to explore this bizarre Heaven on Earth, I made it my mission to go every day.

I can’t even count the differences between this gym and the local, 30-bucks-a-month, overheated one-room joint right up the street (my whole apartment patronizes this place, and it has a certain rough charm all it’s own, but even the happiest pauper dreams of a day as King). Just to compare: the neighborhood gym doesn’t have any free hand towels. Equinox has a mini-fridge of chilled, Eucalyptus-scented towels next to the treadmills, solely to refresh yourself directly after your run. Other Equinox perks include the most intense steam room I’e ever encountered, and two studios with all kinds of crazy classes (during my week I managed to take a class called “gentle healing yoga” that made me feel generally more tense, and something called Feldenkrais that involved lying flat on the ground for an hour and very slowly rotating my pelvis). It’s also spacious and well-ventilated, both of which I now consider a luxury in my gym-going life.

But really, the difference is something much deeper, a sort of gut feeling that’s difficult to translate. Walking around this grand club, feeling every bit like I own the whole damn place (as I’m sure every single other member feels, subconsciously or otherwise), it becomes an escape, a sort of concrete oasis. During this past week, an uber-honeymoon period if there ever was one,I never really felt like I was going to this gym to work out (an activity I normally despise). I was going there to be a member of the elite, to take an invigorating tour of my proudest possession and then relax with a long steam, basking in the thick, wet lap of luxury, dehydration and discomfort a footnote in the foreground.

The one uncouth thing about these week-long gym trials (and let me tell you, this is not my first) is that they always require a preliminary meeting with some membership person. During these meetings I have to act as though I am actively considering joining the gym. My actual plans, of course, are to never set foot in each place again, and to steal as many towels as I can in the process. When I pulled a similar con at the brightly-colored, granola-scented CRUNCH earlier this year, I had no real qualms lying through my teeth to the guy there, an aggressive fella with one of those smiles that look like it’s being held tight with a system of pulleys. But, in a piece of bitter irony, my Equinox advisor was a very charming. I felt bad lying to her, letting her show me around the gym when I knew that it was all in vain. Still, I did it.

It’s very easy to lie nowadays. Granted, I’ve never lived in any other time period (as far as I know), but this strikes me as a moment in history where casual lying has been fully embraced by the mainstream. Honestly, can you think of a time when lying was so accepted, so easy, and occupied such a moral gray area (rather than the more severe black area that lying finds itself in every now and then).

I think a big part of this is the sheer amount of control people are able to exert over their own image. Whether we like it or not (and trust me, I don’t like it), a great deal of social interaction nowadays happens online. And with the sheer prevalence of venues – Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, blogs, Myspace or Friendster for the coolest guys in the room – people are able to manipulate and mold their online entity to their liking, crafting an unreal, idealized version of themselves. It’s almost like everyone I know is constantly performing a live, improvisatory solo show about their day-to-day lives, as they live them. In case it’s not obvious, I don’t exclude myself from all this. I mean, for God’s sake, I’m at this very instant writing a blog (I don’t like that word) that I will present for public consumption on the internet (and, given the brand new location, I will likely advertise this re-launch all over my other online identities).

And of course, the unspoken truth in these public forums is just how easy it is to lie. As we move into the future, I believe firmly that it will become easier and easier for everyone on the planet to communicate and interact with one another, and I believe just as firmly that, as this happens, our capabilities as human beings to really know one another will slowly dissipate into thin air. Obviously this is a pretty vast, dystopian generalization, and there will always be certain people, close friends and family, that know each other deeply. But for the vast majority, those swarms of thumbnails smiling at me several times a day, do I really know any of them? By sitting there, reading these words, do you really know me?

But that’s just my little rant about social networking as the downfall of humanity. I do think that the issue of lying in the modern world is very muddled by any definition, and that there has been some sort of seismic shift in public perception. Or maybe it’s just the fact that I’m getting older. Back when I was in High School writing up my resume for college applications, I had it drilled into my head that if I exaggerated about a single thing, if I miswrote a single test score, the powerful nameless authorities would figure it out and make it their mission to destroy each and every one of my dreams. Then last summer, when I was once putting together my resume(s) for the job hunt, I can’t count the number of times I heard people talk about the process and say that “everybody lies.” I don’t have any blatant lies on my resume, but I certainly make one or two things I’ve done sound a bit more exciting or dynamic than they were. I’ve certainly called myself proficient in Microsoft Office applications that I barely understand. And I’ve certainly taken a moment to collect my thoughts during an interview, and then proceeded to lean forward in my chair and talk about a Great Life Experience that may or may not have ever happened. Does any of this surprise any of you?

Back when I was first moving out here I had an idea that if I couldn’t find a decent job I would create an almost entirely fictional resume filled with cooking experience, and then try and get a gig as a line cook at some restaurant. It would be a whole show: I wasn’t going to invent any kind of fake education (a theatre and writing degree seems as auspicious a start to a cooking career as any), but I would make up restaurant names, make up stories to tell at the interview, ask a friend if I could put him as a reference and tell him to pretend he’s a classically trained Executive Chef when they call. I considered this plan a couple of times (and if I lose my current job, who knows, maybe I’ll consider it again), but I never followed through. But what always stopped me was the lingering fear that my Food Network-trained slophouse cooking wouldn’t cut it in a real kitchen, and if I actually managed to get hired it would be an exhausting humiliation.  It was always fear that stopped me. The moral issue never even crossed my mind.

Lies also strike me as much more accepted. I can’t say by who, exactly, but it exists in a sort of generalized, mainstream, difficult-to-pin-down-but-definitely-real kind of way. Jobs like lawyers and politicians, the kind of illustrious careers that parents dream about for their kids, have been portrayed in entertainment and the media as deceitful and backstabbing so many times by now they’ve become worn clichés. A friend of mine who works for a surveying company recently told me that his entire job is about rewording and manipulating questions in order to find the results they want. The truth isn’t even an issue, it’s all about perception.

Thinking about myself, personally, it just strikes me as much too easy to lie about very significant things. One of the biggest events that has happened to me since I moved to New York was a production of my crazy serial killer play at a real, live NYC theater. But what’s to stop me from just telling someone that I had another production, in addition to that one? To take all the hard work and sweat that went into that show, and then multiply it in retrospect, free of charge? Audience members don’t come in to testify that they saw some show four months ago. When I visit home in a few weeks, I could easily tell people I meet that I’ve had several major productions in New York, that I do stand up comedy on the weekends at all the major clubs, that I have a new girlfriend from South America who’s a Yoga instructor. And hell, if I meet someone brand new, then all bets are off. Maybe I’m an investment banker. Maybe I’m going to med school at Columbia. Maybe my father was a close associate of John D. Rockefeller and I spend my days asleep and my nights at the hottest clubs in the city. And twenty years from now, looking back on this, how much will any of that matter? How many of the details will I even remember? It’d be very easy for me to lie about when I was six years old; I can barely remember any of it.

Again, this whole rant, it could all just be me. It could all be a feeble attempt to justify my own crumbling code of ethics (I’ve also been stealing alot lately, but it’s only ever books, so I consider that more a weird personality quirk than criminal activity).  But I dunno. I just feel like there’s something more at work.

The title of this entry, by the way, is a direct quote from a 65-year-old Dominican man whom I spoke with for awhile a couple weeks ago. We met on a Saturday night, something like 2 A.M., in a tiny, punk-rock themed dive bar in the East Village. It was a strange conversation; he was most definitely hitting on me, which I didn’t want to encourage, yet the guy was so interesting I also wanted to keep on talking with him. When he told me that he had lived in New York since the early sixties, I asked him what the city was like back then. I remember this question, because it was one of the few moments in our conversation where he took a pause and seemed to really consider what to say. “I guess it was beautiful,” he finally said, closing his eyes and thinking back to some granular moment in time that nobody else will ever know. Then, after a few seconds, he looked at me and smiled. “But who can remember?”