Uncomfortable Truths

The best, most vibrant comedy mines the depth of uncomfortable truths. I first discovered Louis CK’s standup a few years ago, and the bit that got me was about what an asshole his four year-old daughter was.

CK taught me not only that my frustrations with parenting were common, but also that because of the fact that they could be tapped for great art, they were that ambiguous stuff that makes life, you know, life. Any respectable parent feels terrible when negative thoughts cross their mind about their children. But any honest parent will admit having them. That’s why I both cringe and kind of get it when Louis CK quips “I love that kid to pieces. But I wish she was never born.” Of course he doesn’t think that all of the time… but there are moments when thoughts of which we’re not proud creep uncomfortably into our minds. It’s part of the human condition; why not talk about it? Better yet, why not joke about it?

Adam Mansbach’s book “Go the F-ck to Sleep” taps into that same feeling by playfully articulating the redundant, exhausting, and endlessly unproductive processes that parenting requires. Deploying verboten language when discussing something so truly precious as our kids provides necessary release from the quotidian torture all parents endure. Bill Cosby’s bits about parenting, which led to his sitcom in the 1980s, were funny in an observational and performative way. But Cosby’s routines are ultimately less satisfying because they construct family life as chaotic yet still under control, parents as harried but ultimately capable and on top of things even though kids say the darndest things. Now that I’m a seasoned parent, Cosby’s stuff feels less true. Balancing parenting, work, bills, marriage, life, and still maintaining some inner-direction requires persisting and progressing despite constantly not being on top of things. Most of this is because parenting is so demanding. Being able to hold in my head both unconditional love for my children and the honest acceptance that they make my life worse even as they make it better required a maturation process I didn’t realize I’d have to go through when I first held my daughter.

Watching the evolution of CK’s career over the past few years suggests the moment where it’s therapeutic to vulgarly talk about your children is but a stage. As he told Emily Nussbaum of New York Magazine:

The mistake so many parents make, he tells me, is to go into mourning for the life they’ve lost. “All those early bits I did calling my kid an asshole came out of not knowing how to handle it. You distill those feelings in stand-up.” But as his children get older, he says, he’s become more confident about his role—something he wants to incorporate into the show. “They’re amazing now. It’s nice to be with them. It’s delightful. And you know, it also doesn’t last very long.”

I’ve started to see that kind of light in my future with my kids, even though the 2 year-old is a fledgling maniac and the 7 year-old is simply learning to be difficult in new ways. One particularly long trip home from an exhausting birthday party in Brooklyn a couple months ago sticks out. They were both worn down, over-sugared and tired, and either could have lapsed into assholicity quite easily. Our small car could have been turned for 90 minutes into a hurtling torture chamber. But instead the kids were quite pleasant, singing to each other and entertaining us, dozing off sweetly before we got home. The moment was a window into a future where we will be able to spend more time just being people together. We’ll often enjoy each others’ company, and have the ability to occupy ourselves when we don’t.

Of course, when we got home, both kids woke up, and took another hour to get the fuck back to sleep.

I Love David Simon, But…

David Simon can’t seem to open his mouth without revealing what a prick he is, and how proud he is of his eminent prickitude. Let’s stipulate that he’s made brilliant television, and to a certain extent I agree with the words of Steve Brier: “I abide arrogance in people who have something to be arrogant about.” I proselytize about The Wire to no end, and I’ll follow his career and devour everything he does.

But he’s got two obnoxious beefs that run through his work that I’d like to highlight: he hates New York and he has disdain for people who watch television. Of course these statements are overdrawn, but only because Simon overdrew them first himself. Here’s a clip from a talk he gave a couple of years ago at Eugene Lang College at the New School:

There is no city more vain about its position in popular culture, more indifferent to other realities, more self-absorbed than New York City…. You guys think you know urban America, you don’t know shit anymore.

Granted this is a rant and certain allowances must be made for imprecise language, but it’s still surprising to see someone who has done some of the most humanistic work in contemporary culture speak of a city as though it itself has the uniquely human qualities of vanity, indifference, and self-absorption, and then to proceed to correlate the development of these qualities with the extent of crime and suffering currently in the city. If he were to argue that New Yorkers were exceedingly provincial, I’d agree with him. If he were to argue that the national media is New York-centric, and that this is because of all the money that flows through Manhattan, and that this reality informs stories that do and do not get funded and told, he’d get no argument from me. But that’s not what he’s arguing in the clip above, or in this excerpt from an interview he did with Alan Sepinwall comparing New Yorkers’ reaction in the aftermath of 9/11 to the perspective of New Orleanians after Katrina:

Although who isn’t self-absorbed when their town has a near-death experience? Were New Yorkers not talking about 9/11 for years afterwards? Was it not a subject of intense discussion and self-awareness? Did New Yorkers not sound to outsiders self-absorbed and preachy when they spoke of 9/11? The sense of entitlement that New Yorkers feel and that they’re not willing to grant to someone else who’s had a life-changing experience is really remarkable. But that’s the nature of empathy: it only goes so far.

Simon starts this bit off sympathetic to those whose city has been through trauma, but can’t help himself from throwing a dig in against “New Yorkers” and their “sense of entitlement.” Fact is, the vast majority of New Yorkers I know who were here on 9/11 wanted immediately to find ways to both remember what happened on that day and get on with the normalcy of their lives. Thought it’s an unscientific claim, I’d bet that as much of all that “never forget” stuff came from outside the city as from the city’s citizens; New York has no singular claim on 9/11 fetishism. Simon seems to be arguing that New York’s location at the center of American economic and cultural power not only crowd out other stories but also delegitimize to a certain extent the stories and voices that do come out of the city. This perspective flattens and ignores the extent to which human and social conflict propels this city forward just like it does any other city, and it does absolutely nothing to help bring stories from other locales to light (perhaps besides fuel Simon’s considerable intellectual fire).

Simon’s beef about New York in Treme flows in-part from his sense that New Orleans didn’t get the national love that New York did after Katrina, and this argument filters into the perspectives of Creighton “Fuck You You Fucking Fucks” Bernettte and Davis “This Can’t Happen in New York” McAlary as well as the intense parochialism exhibited by many of the characters on the show. It also leads to groan-inducing expository lines like the one delivered by Annie’s friend in Episode 9 of Treme when Annie leaves Sonny, her boyfriend and musical partner: “Fucking is fucking, but music? That’s personal.” In New Orleans, such a perspective is to be celebrated because the music, food and culture are wonderful and bohemian and largely uncapitalized, the city’s people have been shat upon for generations by government and corporations, and not many people outside the city “get it.” In New Orleans, other rules prevail. In New York, if you’re a New Orleans-bred trumpeter like Delmond Lambreaux, you seem like a turkey paralyzed by an Oedipal complex if you explore music beyond that which is at your roots.

Simon is even more disdainful of television watchers than he is of New Yorkers. He begins his interview with Alan Sepinwall, who has been among the best chroniclers of both The Wire and Treme, by insulting him. Sepinwall asked Simon what he was hoping to accomplish with the flashback scene that occurs in the season finale of Treme, and Simon snaps “it’s kind of self-evident, isn’t it?” before defending the choice from a critique that the interviewer doesn’t level. Simon adds:

So it’s kind of frustrating, for people trying to blog the show each week like yourself, people trying to comment on it or to anticipate the storyline, to debate the filmmaker’s choices. But it’s a no-win situation. We wouldn’t want to have people not discussing the show, but at the same time, you can’t take the discussion seriously until everyone gets to the end. At the end, people can reflect on what they’ve seen, and whether it added up…. I’ve come to realize that the only commentary I can take seriously are people who react to what’s on screen and how that reflects on the reality they know. That’s the only biofeedback that matters to me.. All the feedback of, “I wish the show would be this, I wish the show would be more of this, I wish this character had less to do, I wish this character had more to do,” that’s of no use. It’s of no use because we’ve already finished production, but on a more philosophical level, it’s of no use. Choices have been made based on the last half hour of film. Every season of ‘The Wire’ built to the last half hour, to the endings. This is my seventh time of having the initial reaction to our storylines be, “I don’t understand where they’re going. Why do they have this? This doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t like this character.” If you go back and watch the first episode of any season of “The Wire,” or the first episode of “Treme” or “Generation Kill,” knowing the ending, the choices will be entirely reasonable as a first chapter of something that is novelistic. If you experience it only as something that’s an episodic entity unto itself, I can’t answer that, because I don’t really think about that. I’m not irate about it, I just can’t take it seriously.

So, this is effectively a rant against the consideration as episodes of blocks of television that are constructed and presented as unique entities once a week, with beginning and ending credits, and an assertion that you really can’t say much of value about the arc of a season or a series or a character until you first see all that the “filmmakers” have to say. That’s just idiotic, and flies directly in the face of Simon’s own claims that the art he produces will not allow fundamental human truths to be distorted by the restrictions of form.

Simon acknowledges in the interview that there is space for criticism and discussion of his work, yet he repeatedly detours any question Sepinwall asks about arc and plot and characters and choices that might lead to some reflection and introspection about human nature into rants about how most viewers and critics are brainwashed by tv so deeply that we don’t really know how to watch a show like this:

I don’t mind if a character is selfish or insecure. I just don’t need all my characters to be winning. And in the same way that people often miscalculate or fail to acknowledge the equivocation between high-stakes and plot itself, I think people generally mistake their dislike of a character as poor acting.

Simon has, over the years, become ever more certain that he knows The Truth and that there’s a pretty good chance that you and I do not. Much like Creighton Bernette, who we see once in the classroom and learn immediately that he is a pretty crappy teacher, Simon is much more interested in polemic than in dialogue. His polemics are smart, interesting, entertaining and often right-on. But they’re also becoming gradually more obnoxious in how they proclaim Simon’s single perspective and urinate upon all others. This approach informed some of the fifth season of The Wire, which centered around a fairly simplistic and nostalgic rant about the demise of newspapers. And it’s present periodically in Treme, a show I love, but one whose perspective is represented by a title that doesn’t sport an accent mark even though it’s sometimes spelled with one.  If you don’t know how to pronounce Treme and aren’t sufficiently motivated to get it right, what you think doesn’t really matter.

“You’ve Got to Be A Real Fat Man…”

Sometime last month Jeff Swain asked on Twitter “what makes something funny?” I replied with one of the foundational statements of my world view, from Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors: “If it bends, it’s funny. If it breaks, it’s not funny.”

This exchange came to mind when I was listening to Elvis Mitchell’s interview with one of my favorite actors, Michael Caine, which included the following snippet:


(You’ve gotta base everything on truth and reality. Even comedy has gotta be real.  You know,  you’ve gotta be a real fat man, and the people gotta know the banana skin’s there, and you’ve gotta fall over properly.)

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Besides being a fantastic turn of phrase elegantly spun, there’s a fundamental truth here not only about comedy and acting but also about many types of communicative endeavors, including blogging. My nemesis Jim Groom wrote a bang-up post today about the concept of personal branding and the inflated role it seems to have in the work of those at the intersection of technology and education.  My hero CogDog chimed in with a dismissal of the phrase for elevating “the attention itself as the goal.” CogDog notes that there is something there though, something that comes in the “wake” of the ship that’s good work built up and out the right way over time.  Call it intellectual capital, call it a reputation, call it a professional persona, whatever.  Calling it a “brand” though suggests it’s the end in and of itself.  Whatever it is should be organic, earned, and reciprocated, not cultivated, nurtured, and proclaimed. D’Arcy Norman’s reaction to someone noting he had “built his brand” was right-on.

This is on my mind because I’m just starting off trying to do this stuff at a regular clip and I want to try to stay focused on the reasons that I think I’m doing it.  I’m writing because I like to write to engage with my ideas and other folks’ and I haven’t been doing enough of that on my own terms recently. I’m writing because I have a couple of bigger projects that I want to get to and I feel I need to write regularly to prepare.

But I’m writing also to test some of my theories about the roles of openness and honesty in the formation of knowledge. What I love most about the blogs of the guys I cite above is that they very much use their spaces to think through ideas in process. Jim is especially not afraid of being extremely wrong, and I only hope that if I can keep this space alive for even a short while I’ll have a sliver of the same courage. If you base “everything on truth and reality,” and if when you fall you fall over properly, it seems to me that whether or not you have a “brand” becomes irrelevant. Your work’ll be right there.

Creative Commons License photo credit: crazyoctopus

City of Refuge and Treme

Last night’s sixth episode of Treme was written by Tom Piazza, extending David Simon’s habit of bringing local voices to bear on local stories, and also of hiring writers (like George Pelecanos) who’ve mastered the art of embedding in a story the deep and persistent internal conflicts that make us human. I’m taking an educated guess that large parts of Creighton Bernette’s character are based upon Piazza’s experience writing about New Orleans after Katrina.  In 2005, he published Why New Orleans Matters, which offers a defense of the city based in its culture and history that anticipates the simmering anger that flows through Bernette’s YouTube rants.  Piazza’s 2008 novel City of Refuge is one of the more captivating books I’ve read in the past few years, and anyone digging the combination of tough questions and local flavor dripping from episodes of Treme should check it out. It tells the story of two very different families dispersed by the flood and their efforts to reconnect with their lives, their pasts, New Orleans, and their futures. While a bit on the sentimental side, and less powerful than the true stories captured by Spike Lee’s masterful documentary When the Levees Broke and Douglas Brinkley’s The Great Deluge, it’s a worthy companion to all the thinking about life and culture that Treme is spurring us to do.

Update: here’s more from nola.com on Piazza’s role on the series.

Performing Diasporas: Identities in Motion

Several units at Baruch College, including the Schwartz Institute, are planning an initiative for the next two academic years: Performing Diasporas: Identities in Motion. The broad goal of the project is to raise the profile of the Baruch Performing Arts Center while more deeply integrating the performing arts into the curriculum and the life of the College. We are finalists for a Creative Campus Grant, a competition funded by the Doris Duke Foundation, and organized by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. The project will proceed even if we don’t get the grant (winners will be announced in August), although the programming will be more robust with the additional resources.

Performing Diasporas is centered around artists-in-residence — in 2010-2011, Maya Lilly; in 2011-2012, Randy Weston; and, both years, Mahayana Landowne — each of whom’s work engages questions of group and individual identity formation. These artists will perform throughout their residencies, and also lead and participate in workshops. Much of the programming, however, will be directed at incoming students. The first year experience for the next two years will revolve in large part around exploration of the project theme: the Freshman Text will be about diasporic identity, the artists-in-residence will perform at August’s Convocation, and significant components of Freshman Seminar and the curricula of selected Learning Communities will be devoted to the theme.

As part of the Steering Committee planning this project, I’m especially excited by a few particulars. Too often the administrative labor of higher education falls into silos whose work is narrowly focused and lacks programmatic coordination with other initiatives at the College. This project is structured to counter that impulse by drawing several partners into a collaborative effort to inject consideration of both the arts and the themes of identity and diaspora into the curriculum. Obviously, this will most directly impact our first year students. But it’s also good for everyone at the College for the various moving administrative parts to find synergies. The project will raise the profile of BPAC, inject the first year experience with a variety of new ideas, and dovetails nicely with Dean Jeff Peck’s Global Studies Initiative.

The project also will also help lead Blogs@Baruch into its next phase. Last Fall, we began supporting Freshman Seminar. 1200 first year students wrote more than 6500 blog posts to 60 weblogs, all of which were aggregated ultimately into a single space. FRO Blogging was a success, if solely because we were able to pull it off with little time to plan. Feedback from last Fall’s students and the Peer Mentors who led the seminars suggested the desire for more creative leeway and fewer required blog posts (students were expected to author at least six reflections on enrichment workshops they attended over the course of the term). The feedback also showed appreciation for the social component of the project; students used their blogging to get to know each other and to form community, something that’s always a challenge at a commuter campus like Baruch.

We’ve redesigned FRO Blogging to incorporate this feedback and to intersect with the goals of Performing Diasporas. There will be three specific components to FRO Blogging in Fall 2010:

  • Students will be required to write blog posts at the beginning and end of the semester reflecting on their adjustment to college and, in the middle of the semester, will post monologues about their own backgrounds that they develop with their Peer Mentors (who will receive training). Selected monologues will be shaped and then performed by professional actors at an end-of-the-semester event: “Baruch’s Voices.” In Spring 2011, students who are interested in performing their own monologues will workshop them and then perform at a series of Coffee Houses.
  • Each seminar will be asked to develop its blog over the course of the Fall semester. We will push this process along by crafting prompts that are distributed weekly and that encourage students to reflect upon and share their own stories. Peer Mentors will guide the process, with assistance, and students will be nudged, but not required. At the end of the semester, the most fully developed sites will be recognized with an award. This is an experiment in voluntary buy-in, and we realize that student investment of effort will be uneven. Yet, the constraints of a non-credit course make this approach necessary, and the goal is less to have students develop polished public spaces than to get their feet wet thinking critically about how to present artistic and intellectual material on the open web.
  • Finally, I’m excited to note that we’ll be rolling out BuddyPress this Fall, which will add a social networking layer to Blogs@Baruch, and afford students additional opportunities to connect with and get to know one another.

Ultimately, what I like most about this project is that it treats our students as creators and makers of knowledge, not merely as consumers. Baruch students are among the most interesting students in the world, and yet few of them seem to realize this (in fact, that’s one of the things that makes them interesting). Performing Diasporas, because it will draw our students inside productive processes and creates multiple opportunities for them to see and share the art in their own lives, is going to be something special to watch.