“No matter how much I wanted all those things I needed money to buy, there was some devilish current pushing me off in another direction—towards anarchy and poverty and craziness. That maddening delusion that a man can lead a decent life without hiring himself out as a Judas Goat.”
-H.S.T., The Rum Diary
I did a reading last night at KGB Bar, as part of a series called “True Stories” (the theme of the specific reading was “Comedy Night”). Given this, I read a comedic piece. It went well, etc. etc. After the reading the event curators had me and my co-reader (Dave Hill) do a short q-and-a session. At first nobody seemed to get it, but then the audience warmed up and we had some fun. One person–a man in a fedora who I would later learn worked in pubic radio–ask why there were so few outlets for humor writing.
His question stumped me (and Dave). Certainly there is no shortage of comedy or comedic shows or sites that offer humorous videos. And there is The Onion, which is consistently brilliant. But short of McSweeney’s, The Morning News and Shouts & Murmurs, there are very few outlets for humor writing. The back pages of both GQ and Esquire do humor as well, but these are rarities nowadays.
There is no current equivalent to Spy, to Punch, to the National Lampoon. And I don’t know why.
Those who argue that print is dead (and that newspapers are obsolete) tend to base their prognostications on the futility of the ad-based business model. If you’re solely interested in making money, then, arguably, that makes sense. But such analysis misses the qualitative fact that journalism is about public service and stories that take time to report and column inches to be properly told.
This much-passed around NYT piece about the sadistic owner of a rogue eyeglass operation is the perfect example of the kind of long ball journalism that the web simply cannot support. Ironic, then, that it’s about an e-commerce operation, and that it has inspired a groundswell of post-publication adulation, nearly all of it via social networks.
In September 1960 George Frazier, the acerbic Jazz critic and cultural reporter, wrote a famous Esquire piece called “The Art Of Wearing Clothes.” The essay traces the history of dressing well, ending with a list of men who practiced the art gracefully (as might be expected many of names are WASPy scions from the worlds of commerce and public service).
It’s safe to say that Frazier would be aghast at the current state of sartorial affairs (he died in 1974). Another Man’s Poison, Charles Fountain’s 1984 biography of Frazier, contains the following quote:
What the hell ever happened to the sense of style of the campus, to undergraduates with taste?
Frazier also wrote the liner notes for Miles Davis’ Greatest Hits (1965). It was entitled “Warlord of the Weejuns.” Ostensibly about music, it also contains a stinging indictment of men’s fashion at the time (he was writing during the Kennedy/Mad Men era, a moment we now regard as unattainably stylish).
All I’m trying to say, really, is that most boutique customers should be lined up before a firing squad at dawn and that there should be a minute of silence to thank God for the existence of people like Miles Davis.
One of the more persistent delusions that litter my daily thoughts is the myth of enlightened solitude. Being that I am from Michigan, the physical representation of this ideal is the humble, isolated “cabin the woods.” In my mind this cabin would sit on a patch of wooded land that overlooked a large but relatively uninhabited freshwater inland lake, perhaps as far North as the Upper Peninsula. Quite possibly it would be an A-frame. And in this cabin I would think big thoughts, write great books and accomplish all the other things that I am not able to accomplish in the city (a convenient scapegoat, always).
What thinking man hasn’t dreamed of abandoning civilization for a life of deliberate living in the woods, among the brave minks and muskrats? Thoreau is the graceful archetype of this brand of living, of course, but these days the image such an endeavor connotes is that of the bearded manifesto writer or the gun hoarding white supremacist, holed up in the hills of Montana. Unfortunate that society equates any attempt at self-reliance with insanity and suspect motives.
Still, the dream persists. If nothing else it would be a safe place to lay low if there’s ever a Zombie outbreak.
I find it difficult to get any work done when the small room my wife and I use as a home office is in disarray. The clutter becomes a distraction, and I can spend hours straightening it up. I try to keep it neat but the room also functions as a catch-all for our apartment, which currently houses two adults, a toddler and a large sporting breed dog. Try as we might to be good citizens of the fragile earth, we consume objects. And those objects need a place. Often they end up on the floor of the home office. I’m not complaining, just making an observation about the nature of what we do to avoid actually doing work.
Here is the great John Cheever, talking about the creation of his first novel, The Wapshot Chronicle (1958):
I worked four days a week on The [Wapshot] Chronicle, with intense
happiness. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I had a course in
advanced composition at Barnard College. My weekends went roughly
like this. On Saturday mornings, I played touch football until the
noon whistle blew, when I drank Martinis for an hour or so with
friends. On Saturday afternoons, I played Baroque music on the piano
or recorder with an ensemble group. On Saturday nights, my wife and I
either entertained or were entertained by friends. Eight o’clock
Sunday morning found me at the Communion rail, and the Sunday passed
pleasantly, according to the season, in skiing, scrub hockey,
swimming, football, or backgammon. This sport was occasionally
interrupted by the fact that I drove the old Mack engine for the
volunteer fire department and also bred black Labrador retrievers. As
I approached the close of the novel, there were, in my workroom, eight
Labrador puppies, and on my desk the Barnard themes, the
fire-department correspondence, [and] The Wapshot Chronicle….
Cheever was born in 1912. The Wapshot Chronicle was published in 1958. So he’s speaking about the life of a writer in the mid-1950s, when he was in his mid-40s. By the sound of it he led a full, active and thoroughly enviable life. This was a time before everything became co-opted by the term “lifestyle,” and when being a sportsman implied a certain level of skill and well-roundedness, even if, in Cheever’s case, he was purposely trying to achieve a “mock-aristocratic respectability” (Updike’s words). Still and all, it’s hard to imagine living this way today, given the economics of book publishing.
“After my best friend jumped off the bridge, I knew that I was next. So—Paris.
With forty dollars and a one-way ticket.”