everyone needs a sunday somedays

Nestled in the corner of a parking garage that leans over the Mass Pike, you’ll find Bukowski Tavern (one of two in the Boston area): gunslit windows, prosaic graffiti on the bathroom walls, and an extensive microbrew selection. If you drink every microbrew they carry – and the list is near five hundred – you get a glass of your own to hang above the bar with a number and an author’s name engraved on it. You pick the author. Other than that, and the name and the location, Bukowski shares all the elements of well-loved bars in American cities: narrow walls, dim lighting, low ceilings and a crew of regulars. It’s also one of two places in Boston where I’ll order a hot dog.

I had two hot dogs with fries before going to see Ted Leo at the Paradise on Saturday. I arrived in time to see the second act: The Obits out of Brooklyn. They have a solid, four-on-the-floor 70s/80s punk sound that I took to like a mule to crabgrass. All four of them look like they’re no younger than their early 40s, so they may have been 80s punks. Or at least they grew up on that sound and wanted to hearken back to their childhood. Either way, they loved what they were doing and I loved their sound. I bought their CD from the merch table.

the-obits

Standing in front of me – three rows back from the stage – were a couple in their 50s who looked like they’d just come from dinner at the Olive Garden. The woman had curly white hair and a cardigan of like hue; the man looked like he should be wearing a tradesman’s ring, or at least have an IBEW cap tucked in his back pocket. I wondered who they thought they were here to see when Ted plugged his guitar in and the older man went wild. His wife was clearly there as a favor to him, or else was the more laid back of the two. But the old man was bobbing back and forth, pumping his fist with the rest of us young punks. We ended up screaming the chorus of “Ballad of the Sin Eaters” at each other. He knew every song I knew, and I knew a lot.

My biggest fear – and the reason I blog so obsessively – is that I’ll get old and forget the antics of my youth. My biggest hope is that getting old won’t stop the antics. That there’ll be a bar with my name on a glass, and that there’ll still be a club with bands I want to see.

ted-leo

For the encore – the final song of the final stop on their tour – Ted Leo and the first act, the Screaming Females, covered “Since U Been Gone” at maximum volume. Thanks to them, now I got what I want.

I had visions; I was in them; I was looking into the mirror

Infinite Jest

Short Version: you really ought to read it.

Long Version: I’m having a hard time approaching Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s thousand-page paperweight. I put such a high premium on style that Wallace’s deliberate rejection of it tempts me to write the whole project off. And when you conflate voices in the way that Wallace does, you obscure the art behind it. The difference between a character onstage struggling for words and the actor struggling to remember his lines is a tough one. Similarly, when Wallace jumps from arch phrasing to the conversational (“And but so …”), I can’t tell whether that’s deliberate genius or just sloppy craft.

And yet.

Infinite Jest is one thousand pages long. While not every word in there is necessary, this doesn’t mean that any of them are wasted. Wallace stacks words on top of each other like impressionist brushstrokes, until you forget the nightmare of pastel blobs and see a compelling picture. The end result is what every novelist in the 20th century was aiming at: a real world encapsulated in a book. Wallace creates a world full of oddball characters, but they are odd in such real ways that you forget that they’re fictitious. Everything about the novel makes sense – which, considering it takes place in a not-too-distant future with HDTVs on every wall, movies distributed by mail and online network and a calendar of corporate sponsors, is no mean feat.1

Infinite Jest is a novel about Enfield, MA (a thinly fictionalized version of the town of Brighton). It’s a tale of two cities: the Enfield Tennis Academy, home of the teenaged tennis prodigy Hal Incandenza; and Ennet House, a halfway house for addicts with criminal backgrounds, home of big Don Gately. Hal and the rest of his family live under the constant shadow of his dead father, James Incandenza, director of cult films and contributing inventor to the process of annular fusion. Don wrestles not only with his own addiction, but his struggles to understand the methodology of AA and his duties (as resident staff) to keep the other addicts in line. Into this fragile world surfaces “The Entertainment” – a short film so lethally addictive that, once watching it, you cannot want anything other than to watch it again.

Infinite Jest is about the ways that people screw themselves up in the pursuit of happiness. The beginning half of the novel lays this theme out bluntly, like the conversations in the Book of Job: a U.S. intelligence agent (dressed as a woman) and a Canadian assassin (confined to a wheelchair) talk about their respective countries while the sun sets, and then rises again, over Tucson, AZ. The Canadian observes that in a country which rewards gratification as much as the U.S. does, “The Entertainment” cannot be stopped. The American makes the point that the austere life the Canadian leads has no point to it: what is the community to him, or he to the community? This same debate, about the addiction of pleasure vs. self-abnegating authority, plays out in every segment of the book: in the struggles of competitive high school tennis; in the bizarre euphemisms of AA; in depression that renders the inside of your head intolerable; in a boy rendered mute by the inward focus of his gaze.2

Infinite Jest is one of two novels that’s required reading if you want to understand the 90s, the other being Cryptonomicon. Cryptonomicon is the 90s looking forward: how the technologies of the future would be shaped by, and would help us overcome, the biases of the past. Infinite Jest is the 90s looking backward: how the quest for status and the pleasures of intoxicants never satisfied our search for meaning. Both books are long, full of irony and poignancy and long tangential asides. But they’re both essential reads. Even if you lived through the 90s.

_______________________
1 In fact, the novel seems so real that only two things struck me as implausible in the entire book: people who are so addicted to marijuana that it renders them unable to leave the house, and a Colt revolver with a safety on it.

2 Oh, and P.S., fuck you, David Foster Wallace, for writing so poignantly about what goes on in the head of a suicide and then killing yourself. Fuck you. You don’t get to do that. You don’t get to stand on the rooftop and utter your cry for help, wait until the trauma counselor’s up there on the ledge with you, talk with her until the news cycle’s forgotten you, and then jump anyway. That’s not allowed. Go fuck yourself, David Foster Wallace. Fuck you and I mean it.

I can’t go any further than this

As I round the corner to the Prudential Center food court I can hear them. It’s the nervous laughs first: either tentative stutters or loud caws at inside jokes. The lines for burgers, chicken teriyaki and pizza are twenty deep like the VIP room. Every body type we’re told to avoid can be found in here: fat, scrawny, acne-pitted, pony-tailed, neck-bearded and Coke-bottom-lensed. Many of them have T-shirts with dense paragraphs of text. Some of them are in costume. And they’ve all got that red plastic on a swinging lanyard.

It’s day one of PAX East, Penny Arcade’s first gaming convention held on the Atlantic coast. I’m not the best dressed person in here by a long shot but I’m more conservatively dressed than 80% of the crowd. And it is a crowd. Lines to see webcomic panelists or hear video game music snake down the halls of the Hynes Convention Center an hour before start time. Convention goers knot up like plaque around Magic: The Gathering displays, autograph tables and previews for next season’s console games (Red Dead Revolver is a big one). When they get tired, they sprawl without affect on beanbags strewn against the windows. There’s always something.

Tolerance is the virtue I struggle with the most. A mature person – and a mature society – transcends the primal alpha-male need to put down harmless people just because they Look Different. The mouth-breather with the gut spilling over his jeans and the “There are 10 kinds of people in this world …” T-shirt isn’t hurting me just by existing. I should be cool with that. And yet I can’t be. It’s the reason I always hesitate to identify myself as a gamer (tabletop or console): because he’s the stereotype. I can put the gamer hat on for a weekend and take it off for the working-day world. He can’t, or won’t; that guy could be at a funeral and you’d know he had a prot-specced pally waiting on a WoW server. He lacks the social awareness to see how little he blends in, and he doesn’t care. Which means there’s either something wrong with him or wrong with me. Whichever it is, gaming cons remind me of it from the time I walk in to the moment I leave.

I got to play Gears of War 2 and Left 4 Dead, though, which was awesome.

this home is more than bricks and mortar

I woke up tight on Thursday.

I’ve been reading some books on writing, which may not be the best idea. Reading about how to approach the writing process right after you’ve finished a first draft creates as much neurosis as progress. Oh, hell, THAT’S how much I should be cutting out? Plus, while King (On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft) and Lamott (Bird by Bird) have been inspirational, there are notable chunks of their advice that I find laughable. Which is a fine pedestal to sit on, the unpublished novelist looking down his nose at one of the most prolific, profitable and vivid writers of the last century, but that’s how I roll.

So while my new contacts bug me and the Red Line stops and starts due to delays at Charles/MGH and I fret over the logistical nightmares of the two different shows I’m planning in April, I’m reading the following by Anne Lamott:

You get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself, by being militantly on you own side. You need to trust yourself, especially on a first draft, where amid the anxiety and self-doubt, there should be a real sense of your imagination and you memories walking and woolgathering, tramping the hills, romping all over the place. Trust them. Don’t look at your feet to see if you’re doing it right. Just dance.

And as positive as that is, all I can think is oh, whatever, hippie.

The train emerges from the underground, crossing the Longfellow Bridge. It screeches to a halt midway across. I look up.

boston-skyline

I take this route to work every day. It’s always an interesting view, but it’s rarely striking. Something about the two bright tones, blue over white, caught me while we stopped. I closed the book on Lamott. Getting up out of my seat, I crossed to a window and snapped the picture you see above.

At the office, I mixed myself a cup of hot cocoa. This is an easy ritual: you pour seven ounces of skim milk into a mug. Heat it in the microwave for ninety seconds. Lift it out by the handle, not the mug; you curl two fingers around the ring and base it against your third finger. Set the mug on the counter, open a packet of cocoa mix and pour it in. Take three coffee stirrers and fan them so they form a sort of whisk. Mix the cocoa with a brisk, steady motion.

I let the cocoa cool while I got breakfast from downstairs: two eggs, two bacon. The eggs were about what I expect from cafeteria eggs: a little dry but otherwise filling. But the bacon was perfect. It crunched at the edges, releasing little jags of caramel, and the center melted with fat.

So: the Boston skyline, hot cocoa and bacon. Okay then.

slow down, little one; you can’t keep running away

I hadn’t planned to spend six hours drinking with Yelp people on Friday. I only knew one person there (the indubitable Emily G), so how long could I stay? You can’t approach any social engagement without a plan – at least not when you live in my head – and I had one. Stop in, have a beer, say hi, maybe make some introductions, and then retreat to the other side of the river where you actually know people.

Six hours, two beers and a shot of Jameson later, I caught the last train home.

Not the first time this has happened with Yelp people, either. To be fair, it happens in my other social circles too (friends, ImprovBoston people, jiu-jitsu students). But it always works this way with Yelp. Why is that?

Since I clearly can’t figure it out, I leave the answer to you:


  1. Since I don’t have any expectations for how the evening will turn out, I approach each event with an open mind.
  2. Yelp draws in people in similar straits: twenty- and early thirty-somethings who aren’t hanging with a crew that evening, and are therefore just as eager to make new friends as I am.
  3. We all drink a lot.
  4. Other (supply your own).
Show your work; partial credit will be awarded.

don’t wanna go down in the tube station at midnight

Elizabeth B., a friend of mine from high school, visited Boston to look at grad schools this past weekend. I showed her the best the city had to offer:


  • 90s Night at Common Ground
  • Tour of the college campuses she was applying to
  • The Cellar near Harvard Square
  • The mainstage show at ImprovBoston
She picked a good weekend to get out of Baltimore, as a sudden snowstorm blanketed the city. So she enjoyed Boston’s balmy 30-degree temperatures and wide, windswept streets.

I like showing Boston off to tourists, especially those from Baltimore. It reminds me of how awesome a city I live in. When my younger brother came to visit two years ago to see a Celtics game, he literally stared with a slack jaw at the Boston skyline. “I’m not used to seeing buildings this big,” he confessed.

My first night at Boston College – over a decade in the past, now – I walked to the Green Line terminus just outside the main campus. The pink glow of light pollution told me which way the city was: due east of my current position. I was young, healthy and unchaperoned for the first time in my life. I started walking, with some ill-formed notion that I might walk to downtown Boston and just soak up the fluorescence. I didn’t make the walk that night – young and poetical, I had no conception of what seven miles actually looked like – but I’ve since traveled every part of that route.

Last Thursday I bought lunch at a corner deli in the South End. I can see it from the window of my office, twenty stories above the Back Bay, but it’s still a fifteen minute walk to get there. The route cuts past the gleaming metal and marble offices of Copley, past the First Bank of Boston (established 1784), over the Massachusetts Turnpike, and into dense red brick rowhomes. I’ve lived in this city for a decade and the South End could be in a whole different state, for all that I know of it.

all of this makes me love you more

The older I get, the more I believe that the secret to staying young is finding excuses to party.

This Friday, I went to the Yelp Elite Event for January at Revolution Fitness, a gym within walking distance of my office. Revolution has done its best to combine the “basement gym” look with the “boutique gym” feel. The layout ranges from intimate studios for the de rigeur yoga and pilates classes to a row of fluorescent-lit weight racks in front of mirrors. And there’s a room off to the back with reinforced rubber walls and a mess of equipment that you can just play with. Like a 150-lb tire to flip end over end, or rings to hang on, or medicine balls that you can fling at the wall while screaming. You’re encouraged to experiment.

Saturday was the Snowflake Social, hosted in Arlington. Friends and locals threw a party to raise money for Haiti, dressing up in formal wear and dancing the night away. I posed for prom photos, slow-danced with several friends and drank at the Elks bar. We retired to a friend’s house afterward to have a few more drinks and chill out until the evening crept up on me.

As grown-ups, we look for reasons to put on nice attire and go out dancing: weddings, family affairs, holiday parties and school reunions. If we brought that same questing sense of experimentation to everything we did, how much quicker would it go, and with what energy? Crank up Shaimus and dance with your baby on your hip while you put away the laundry. Invite half a dozen friends over to write with you. Title the next work meeting that you’re responsible for “Awesome Fiscal Responsibility Fun Times 2010.” Smile at strangers. Adopt antiquarian politeness. Open your face to the world.

(This is more a reminder to myself than the rest of you, but let me know if it works)